The indie scene in the Western world has become such a force that AAA development has had trouble keeping up with the pricing and creativity that flows from from its brightest stars. Starting with the one-man masterpiece, Cave Story, the indie scene has blossomed into multi-million sellers like Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy, FEZ, and of course, Minecraft.
However, something still seems missing from all of these wonderful new games. Where is Japan?
The founding country of our modern day console system, and even founding country of the indie game scene, has since vanished from relevancy, with only a few standout minor titles to its name: Cave Story, La Mulana. You can count the major Japanese indie hits on a single hand.
That’s where BitSummit comes in. Frustrated by the language barrier, quality control, and Japan’s stigma of amateur development holding back the country’s native indie scene, Japanese indie developers and Western press carry this small Kyoto convention into its second year with much more successful results than its first.
Guest speakers from Mega Man co-creator Keiji Inafune, La Mulana developers NIGORO, Kickstarter’s Luke Crane, and Yamada Keiji, the Governor of Kyoto, helped bring a new level of prominence to the convention and indie game scene that can only expand from here.
I attended BitSummit 2014 and walked away more than excited about Japan finally reaching out to the world, and I even walked away more excited about the future of Japanese video games in general. I left with a sense that this is where Japan can really thrive if it catches on, not with the corporate AAA development atmosphere of Western studios, but with small passion projects which adhere to the classics these developers grew up with.
Here are a few of my favorites. Keep in mind that the convention gave priority to Japanese indie developers, but games from all over the world showed up. Already established games like Rogue Legacy, Shovel Knight, and The Behemoth’s library were there for the Japanese audience who hadn’t had a chance to play them yet. I’ll focus more on projects you might not have heard of yet.
Azure Striker: Gunvolt – Inti Creates
The breakout star of the convention. I already wrote up a small piece on the latest from Inti Creates and Mega Man co-creator Keiji Inafune, but it bears mention again. Azure Striker: Gunvolt is pure Inafune with smart and lightning fast combat, excellent platforming, and great pixel art which plays to all of Inti Creates’ strengths.
Mighty No. 9 might be the headline grabber, but it will have to watch out. If Azure Striker: Gunvolt has its way, it might just become Inafune’s next biggest thing. Either way, it’s great to see him finally return to form, free from the interference of publishers. He’s found a nice home on the indie market.
La Mulana 2 – NIGORO
NIGORO is the rockstar of the Japanese indie movement thanks to its La Mulana series. Now that the sequel has been fully funded through Kickstarter, the curry loving company can get to work on doing a follow up to its popular hit.
The demo at BitSummit is already available to Kickstarter backers, but even though I am an excited backer, it was my first time playing. Fans of La Mulana know that when you jump into the game for five minutes for the first time, you can’t expect to make too much progress. Of course, I got nowhere, but stood up excited for more.
La Mulana 2 has all the tricky platforming, tough enemies, and challenging puzzles that made the original a standout hit. Expect great things once NIGORO turns out its next gem.
Block Legend is a two-man puzzle game for iOS and Android, and it proved to be very popular with the convention crowd, meaning I had to wait a while to play it. While waiting, I had a chance to chat with programmer Alvin Phu and he mentioned how lucky he was because the game was launching the very same day that BitSummit began.
I played the demo, thanked Phu for his time and a chance to play his game, and bought the game on the spot. $1.99 is all it costs for this charming little puzzle RPG. It’s a booming genre these days with hits like 10000000 and Puzzle Quest already gaining traction, but Block Legend sets itself apart by tossing in a charming aesthetic which throws back to Dragon Quest and the early days of the JRPG.
It also packs a ton of content with monsters, equipment, items, and worlds to unlock, all of which is done through good, old fashioned grinding. No microtransactions or anything. I’m glad the game was released during my time at BitSummit, because it gave me something to do on my train ride home.
Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae – Zenith Blue
Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae already has a bit of a following in the States thanks to an official crowdfunded translation from Playism and a successful Steam Greenlight run. I picked it up through an Indie Royale Bundle a few months back, and was stoked to see that developer Zenith Blue had updated his game with new costumes and content.
If you have a soft spot for hack ‘n slashers like Devil May Cry, then the $15 you drop of Mitsurigi Kamui Hikae won’t be poorly spent. It takes everything that makes the Japanese genre so special and boils down into a nice tight package. No excessive backdrops to zoom out on, no confusing platforming segments or complicated puzzles getting in the way. This is just straight up, non-stop action that punishes you into mastering every last intricate corner of its combat system.
Zenith Blue also showed off his new game, SkyLens, a much smaller production that plays more like a Mega Man X game. It was ok, but I wouldn’t expect it to gain the same following as Mitsurigi Kamui Hikae, the best indie game of its kind that Japan has to offer.
Shipponeko and the Disappearing Fried Shrimp – NekoGames
I played this little oddball with a grin fixated across my face the entire time. Shipponeko and the Disappearing Fried Shrimp is the latest from indie director Yoshi Ishii, creator of the Hoshi Saga, and it is a fun little platformer in which you control a cat, crudely animated with black and white paper cutouts.
The adorable feline wakes up from beneath a blanketed coffee table and heads off in search of food. On his journey, he must battle other cats who impeded his progress and take down obstacles using black fur-balls which erupt from his tail. There’s not much much to it, but the art style and approach is just so drop dead charming that it has to be played, even by people who are not cat-lovers.
Modern Zombie Taxi Driver – Vitei
Crazy Taxi fans will get a kick out of this latest game from Vitei, a studio founded by Star Fox programmer Giles Goddard. Modern Zombie Taxi Driver takes everything you love about the Dreamcast classic, picking up angry cab fares and bursting through the cities obstacles to get them to their location on time, and crams it into the Oculus Rift. The only difference is that your customers are the undead.
This was my first time using the new VR headset, and it worked like a jewel. I strapped my headset on and looked about at the city around me, zombies roamed the land and got into my cab, demanding to be driven to remedial places like the swimming pool or the barber shop. Everything you destroy gives you money, so the depth can be found in maximizing damage while still making good time.
Even more fascinating is the interaction. The cab is controlled by a controller in the game, and your brain really does a freak out when you see two hands holding a controller, and neither of them are moving with what your brain is ordering them to do. It’s so weird, but it really works.
Pavillion – Visontrick Media
Another two man project, Pavillion is destined for the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita in the coming months. The game hypes itself as a “fourth-person experience” as you are not controlling the character on screen, but rather a yellow orb embodies “you” within the game. Your job is to float around ancient ruins helping a lost man find his way out, turning off and on lights and manipulating other obstacles to guide his path.
The build had a few bugs, but with a little tinkering, it played perfectly. The hand drawn character animations and environments are the main selling point, but VisionTrick’s designers mentioned that there was plenty more secret areas, Easter Eggs, and multiple paths to uncover in the final build.
So Many Me – ORiGO Games
So Many Me is an international project with people from all over the world aiding in its development. ORiGO games is based in Thailand and brought the game along with them. While it sadly failed on the Kickstarter front, its adorable aesthetic proved to be very popular with the Japanese ladies at the convention, leaving lots of dudes grumbling while waiting to have a turn.
Despite being cute, So Many Me is a brutal platformer with physics based puzzles and infinite ways to manipulate the transformation powers of the main character. Google Chrome has some browser based levels available for free, but play them while they last because they will be pulled once the official announcement for PS Vita is made.
One Way Heroics
This one already has a big following too thanks to a release on Steam.
One Way Heroics is randomly generated RPG that escapes the confining dungeon of the roguelike genre and expands into an enormous world. I wanted to play so much more at the convention, but I reluctantly gave up my seat knowing I could play it for just $3.49 when I got home.
Wait! There’s More!
So there were plenty of amazing new games to check out, here are just a few more that I wanted to mention.
- Mirror Moon EP – Santa Ragione (website) An abstract puzzle game regarding a characters relation to the moon
- TorgueL – FullPowerSideAttack (pay what you want at Playism) Popular physics based puzzle game heading to PS Vita.
- EF-12 – Quad Arrow (pay what you want at Playism) Building your own fighting game has never been easier
- The Girl and the Robot – Flying Carpet Games (website) Successful Kickstarter adventure game with beautiful artstyle
- Fallendom – PlanitedDepsoit (website) Fun Randomly Generated Action Adventure game
- Ambition of the Daikoon – Hexadrive (website) Mobile Strategy Game
- Nova 111– Funkatronic Labs (website) Turn-based exploration game from former Pixeljunk devs
- Million Onion Hotel – Onion Games (trailer) Crowd favorite which I missed, puzzle game with outlandish aesthetic
My time at BitSummit 2014 was awesome, and there are a whole slew of games I’m now looking forward to.