Super Bomberman R may have been the first multiplayer game designed around Switch's ability to allow for spur-of-the-moment competitive matches, but it clearly was just the beginning of what promises to be an entire category of creations unto itself: Games in the spirit of arcade classics and Wii party software, ready for multiple people to play anywhere, anytime.
One particularly promising production, Mekuru by developer Over Fence that is being published by Nintendo, enjoyed a place of prominence at BitSummit this year. And rightly so. It's a simple little head-to-head game for up to four players at a time, with the perfect balance that every great party game demands. It boasts intuitive design, a need for skill and strategy, and just enough chaotic modifiers to keep things unpredictable and interesting.
Mekuru takes place on a single screen of action broken into dozens of smaller square panels. Each player has their own designated color, and by leaping onto a panel, they'll flip that panel and some of those surrounding it to convert it to their color. The mechanics for claiming panels offer a lot of interesting subtleties to contend with. Flipping a panel causes your color to radiate out from the panel you land on, converting contiguous tiles of the same color in four directions until they encounter panels of a different color. An opponent standing on a panel that flips to your color is knocked off the screen and returned to their corner, dropping all their power-ups where they've fallen. The radiant lines can be either a cardinal T or diagonal X, depending on the angle at which you leap onto a new tile. When you run on panels of your own color, you move twice as quickly as on opponent's tiles. Some power-ups are actually power-downs and will hit you with various unfavorable effects.
And then there are the stage-level modifiers. One stage type I demoed features a rippling effect that causes the ground to buckle in an undulating wave; if you happen to be standing on a tile as it hits the wave's crest, your character will be momentarily stunned. Another level features a sort of amplifier or cannon in the center; if the cannon is caught in a line of flipping tiles, it will cause every tile along several rows to flip to that new color in whichever direction the cannon is facing. The cannon rotates 90º every few seconds, making for an insane, constantly shifting playfield.
Mekuru reminds me of a lot of games without feeling derivative of any of them. At first glance, it definitely has a Bomberman vibe to it: Fast-paced, frantic, four-player action on a small grid filled with hazards and power-ups, and a central mechanic that resembles the row-and-column-filling explosions of Bomberman's detonations. But the color-flipping element is more like Q*Bert — or, more accurately, like a multiplayer version of ADK and SNK's cult Game Boy action-puzzler Dexterity. Yet the game's designer, Senri Tsunokawa, doesn't reference any of these games when discussing her creation, which means it's the best kind of familiar: A game that resonates with other works not out of any derivative lack of creativity but rather because it touches on similar concepts in pursuit of something new and fresh.
And Mekuru certainly feels new and fresh — fittingly, given its creator's young age. I spoke to Tsunokawa at BitSummit to learn more about the origins of her project and what Over Fence has in mind for for the long term with their Switch debut.
USgamer: What was the inspiration for Mekuru? How long has it been in development?
Senri Tsunokawa: There was one game that directly inspired us, but I'm not sure it's OK to mention its name... it was a game [title redacted by request] released overseas a while ago, and it was the big inspiration for us. As for the length of time it's been in development, we started in October 2017, so it's been about seven months.
USG: Was the game conceived from the beginning for Switch?
ST: We didn't have a specific platform in mind at first, but we decided once we saw the Switch hardware that we would rearrange the original idea we had for Switch.
USG: When did you see the hardware? Can you fill out the timeline on the game's concept and development?
ST: In June of 2016, we as a company decided to develop a title for Switch. So we began looking around the company to see who had good ideas for Switch. My idea, Mekuru, was the best one and we decided to make that our Switch title.
USG: You mentioned your direct inspiration, but to me the game feels a lot like Bomberman. Did you look to other multiplayer games like that for pointers?
ST: I personally love Splatoon, so that would definitely be one of the multiplayer games I drew inspiration from.
USG: What is it about Splatoon you like so much?
ST: In Splatoon, you have the unranked battles where you fight to claim the largest area. That is a type of gameplay where you playing on a team and you're fighting against other people, but anyone can contribute. I really like the way it's not such direct competition. The "turn over as many pieces as possible" element of Mekuru was taken from that.
USG: I can see that, definitely. But in Mekuru, it's four people competing, every man for himself...
ST: With this game, everyone fights individually, and they're fighting for each other. But if you've got, for example, the red player has more tiles than anyone else, all the other players will band together to gang up on red and take their tiles. So in that sense, that is a fun mechanic, and it's similar in that sense to Splatoon.
USG: So temporary alliances that come together and break apart quickly.
USG: I played Mekuru with the Switch core on the desk and everyone playing on Joy Cons. Are there other ways to play, like ad hoc with everyone using their own Switch?
ST: In future updates, we plan to add a mode where you can play local battles with each person using their own individual Switches. We're also planning to add an online mode where you can compete with your friends, called Friend Match. So there are several modes we're planning for future updates.
USG: Do you have a target release date for the game?
ST: Right now the only thing we can say for an overseas release is "this summer."
USG: How many different maps will be included in the initial release? I saw the wave map and the cannon map — what else can we expect?
ST: There will be two more maps added with the wave mechanic. We have others in the works that we're not ready to talk about yet. But there'll be several updates.
USG: How many updates will that be? What kind of life do you expect for this game?
ST: We don't have a specific idea of when we'll end support yet.
USG: Will the updates be paid or free?
ST: All of the updates we have planned already will be free for users.
USG: Have you considered adding a single-player campaign mode?
ST: As of right now, for the updates we have planned, we don't have any single-player modes in the works. Mekuru is a game best played next to your best friends. It's a game we want played together!