"There's more excitement than there was last year," one writer told me as we walked away from the Miyako Messe convention center following the first day of BitSummit, Japan's indie-focused game show.
I wasn't at last year's show, but it's hard to disagree. With its new configuration ringing the booths and tables around a central stage, the first day of BitSummit felt packed in part because there wasn't a ton of standing room. But it wasn't all an illusion stemming from the new setup. There were more foreign journalists than ever covering the event, and it was hard not to notice the huge influx of attendees once the event was opened to attendees.
True, the show occupied only one exhibition hall in the modestly sized convention center, the other, larger hall being used for what appeared to be a thrift sale. But that just means that the show has room to grow.
In the meantime, the exhibition has been bolstered by the Indie Megabooth — a common sight at events these days — bringing with it a handful of western indies, including Videoball and Gunsport: Cyberpunk Volleyball, the latter of which involves knocking a ball back and forth with energy shots from guns wielded by punks straight out of the 1980s. It's a fun little 2v2 multiplayer game, its odd aesthetic being typical of the indie scene these days .
Thus far I've enjoyed the variety of games on display, from tiny hobbyist projects to larger, more impressive efforts from former Square Enix developers, mixed with the usual array of VR projects and novelty efforts. There's a game that simulates the effects of being drunk, and there's a VR game that seems to be explicitly designed to make you puke ("You might feel a little nauseous," the developers says as the camera spins at horrifying speeds and whatever poor victim they've managed to entice looks ready to faint). The games on display have not been hugely different from those that have appeared elsewhere, but the homegrown projects do tap a bit more into the Japanese gaming tradition, with strategy RPGs being especially prevalent.
With the second day still to come, there are a lot more games that I'd like to try, including the intriguing Muse: Together is the New Alone, an adventure game with a distinctly Earthbound aesthetic that was announced during the show. In the meantime, here are a couple highlights.
Amid a raft of mobile games, Brave Yamada (勇者ヤマダくん) stood out for its quirky, distinctly Japanese sense of humor and lumpen hero — the middle-aged game developer Yamada.
As the demo begins, Yamada is behind on his latest game, prompting his boss — a terrifying demonic figure with a gigantic head — to visit and chew him out. Annoyed by the intrusion, Yamada puts his boss into his game as the villain, with himself as the knight in shining armor.
The actual gameplay is one part RPG and one part puzzle game, the goal being to chart an efficient course for Yamada to reach an area's end goal. Along the way, Yamada fights enemies automatically, and when they fall, he continues onward. The trick is covering every inch of space in a given stage, since remaining tiles will turn into fireballs that will burn Yamada when he reaches the exit.
Matters become tricky almost immediately. Yamada has access to items that can heal him and grant certain abilities, but their cooldown timers demand that they be used efficiently. Meanwhile, enemies will hit Yamada as he passes, or even freeze him, which requires him to activate a shield that can reflect oncoming spells. It's a tricky balancing act, but also fast-paced and easy to understand, and it's augmented by a hilarious soundtrack in which a chorus alternately sings Yamada's praises and warns against danger.
Brave Yamada is being developed by Onion Games, which is comprised of developers who have worked on Super Mario RPG and Lollipop Chainsaw, among other games. Their other title is Million Onion Hotel, which looks similarly wild but has yet to see the light of day in either Japan or the U.S. Hopefully both of them will eventually make their way to the American App Store store, as their bonkers sense of humor and distinct pixel art would make for a breath of fresh air amid a sea of faceless free-to-play strategy games.
Perhaps the most baffling game at BitSummit is Back in 1995, a tribute to the peculiar period bridging the classic 8 and 16-bit period and the more modern games that began to appear in the mid-2000s.
Back in 1995 goes out of its way to break the Unity Engine, reducing all of its fancy bells and whistles to shaky textures and low framerate action. It might be the only game this year to include clipping on purpose. If it were a films, it would be one of those intentionally low-fi movies meant to hearken back to the days of '70s grindhouse cinema.
One influence cited by the game's creator, Takaaki Ichijo, is Silent Hill, which was of course a horror staple on the original PlayStation. But as I later mentioned to someone else, Back in 1995's intentionally awkward 3D graphics also remind me of Alone in the Dark, one of the earliest polygonal games on the PC. It's worth noting that the the latter was released in 1992, putting it some three years before Back in 1995's eponymous date.
The thing with Back in 1995 is that I don't recall many games being that basic on the PlayStation, even during launch. Certainly, Tekken looked a lot better in 1995 than this game. In a way, it's the anti-Shovel Knight, exaggerating its visual style to align with our memories of how bad 32-bit games looked.
The problem with going in that direction is that knocking down elements like framerate can directly impact playability, making the actual game that much more difficult to enjoy. The truth is that Back in 1995 is a bit of a slog, which means that when the initial novelty wears off, you're that much more likely to put it down and never pick it up. Having said that, there is a certain charm to revisiting one of the most awkward periods in gaming history. It's a little like going back and looking at blurry Polaroid from when you were a teenager, braces and all. It's ugly and more than a little embarrassing, but it's also a period worth remembering.
Kat will return tomorrow with more highlights and observations from the second day of BitSummit. Stay tuned.