Much like last year, I braved the torturous summer climate of Kyoto to cover Japan’s leading indie game convention, BitSummit, in search of the hottest Japanese indie games of 2015. Seriously guys, why not come on down to Kobe next year? It’s easier to navigate, and you won’t be drenched in sweat by the time you reach the front doors.
It’s very clear that the organizers have learned a lot over the last two conventions they held. BitSummit 2014 had an air of professionalism about it, but ultimately boiled down to a grouping of kiosks with indie developers showing off their wears. This year felt like the real deal! A genuine gaming convention boiled down into a single room. Large banners soared everywhere in the dimly lit room, large booths sported branding you could recognize, popular musical artists performed live shows.
Unity set up a nice place to sit and play games on Japanese tatami mats, just like an old 80s Japanese apartment in the Famicom days.
Speakers from all different kinds of backgrounds showed up to give speeches like Mighty No. 9 director Keiji Inafune and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night director Koji Igarashi, fresh off his recent Kickstarter success. Microsoft showed up, Oculus sent a speaker. Heck, even Sony Worldwide Boss Shuhei Yoshida turned up as a guest! You know … just taking some pictures. Whatevs.
Let’s not forget that everyone else showed up as well. There were a lot more guests attending BitSummit 2015 than last year, and the press covered the show in record numbers. With all the exposure and the gaming community starting to take it seriously, BitSummit had to evolve rather quickly in terms of presentation and content. BitSummit 2015 hosted at least twice as many games as last year, and I found it difficult to cover everything in my afternoon of touring.
What I did get to play further shined a light on the blooming Japanese indie scene and opened up the Western indie hits for Japan.
I didn’t get to play them all, but I at least watched other people go hands on with them. These are the best I noticed at the show. For a full list of games, you can check out BitSummit’s official website.
Brave Yamada-kun — Onion Games
Onion Games had one of the biggest games of the show last year with Million Onion Hotel, which still hasn’t been released for iOS. When I asked them about it, they said they were working hard to finish it. Even without releasing its title though, Onion Games had one of the most popular booths at BitSummit 2015 with a huge crowd constantly gathered around to play its latest game, Brave Yamada-kun.
Brave Yamada-kun stars a chubby, middle-aged game developer by the name of Yamada who is behind on his latest project. Hope you’re a fan of The Legend of Zelda’s Tingle, because it is clear Onion Games is with this character. Outrage from his demon boss prompts Yamada to program his superior in the game as a final boss and himself as the lovable, obviously Dragon Quest-inspired hero out to end his existence.
The game is an RPG/puzzle hybrid, like all the best RPGs on mobile platforms, which tasks the gamer to find the most efficient way to traverse a maze in its entirety, battling monsters along the way. Covering each tile in the maze is incredibly important as each uncovered tile will result in damage at the end of a map.
Of course, it’s not just the gameplay that is the star here. Brave Yamada-kun runs in the tradition of weird Japanese humor and a love of nostalgia for the NES and SNES days. The pixel presentation is top notch, perfect for a game of its referential intentions. Let’s hope this one get finished and localized. It will be released for both iOS and Android.
Back in 1995 — Throw the Warped Code Out
I think Throw the Warped Code Out might need to work on its studio name a bit, but it definitely has a solid vision for its game Back in 1995. With the 8-bit and 16-bit generations now extensively covered on the indie scene, that can only mean traditional blocky and ugly polygons are the next area to be whipped for all their nostalgic worth. Minecraft has shown the world that ugly 3D can be used in phenomenal ways, and that isn’t stopping indie developers from finding their own ways to manipulate them.
Simply put, Back in 1995 is a throwback to the survival horror and mystery games on the original PlayStation. One look at the trailer, and you’ll immediately get a rush of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Alone in the Dark, Parasite Eve, and the rest of the ilk those revolutionary games spawned. Back in 1995 is unapologetic in its loyalty to these games, featuring some severely blocky characters, a rough framerate, clunky combat, and, of course, terrible camera controls.
It’s definitely not a game Unity would want to use to advertise its capabilities, that’s for sure.
We’ve come a long way since then, so it’s safe to say that you might not have a lot of fun playing Back in 1995 if you weren’t around back in 1995. Those of us who survived through these early years of bad 3D polygons might have trouble “having fun” as well, but this game is more about transporting you back to a time and place, a true nostalgic gem if there ever was one. Worth a look if you are a 30-something gamer.
LA-MULANA 2 — NIGORO
Of course, LA-MULANA 2 showed up at BitSummit 2015. NIGORO always shows up at these indie events. The Nara based studio is well respected on the indie front thanks to the first LA-MULANA, and its reputation as perfectionists have put LA-MULANA 2 on the slow burn to release. It’s been a year and a half now since it wrapped up a successful run on Kickstarter, and frequent updates show that it is making slow yet steady progress to completion
Still, designer Takumi Naramura and his staff of producers turned up with a popular booth, and they showed off a new boss battle that ended up being quite a time consuming affair. Getting a chance to play was a little difficult, but watching others get whipped by LA-MULANA 2’s expected level of difficulty proved that the team hasn’t lost one bit of its edge.
You just gotta love LA-MULANA. Be sure to check out the first game on Steam or PS Vita before this highly anticipated sequel gets released.
Downwell — @mopppin
If there was one game I wanted to buy on the spot after playing this year, it was @mopppin’s Downwell. This excellent little roguelike plays like a dream: Perfect controls, perfect action, perfect motivation to dust off after a loss and try again. That black and white gorgeous graphic style doesn’t do it any harm either. Devolver Digital knew what it was doing when it scooped this game up from under its label.
Many have described it as Cave Story meets a roguelike, and I can kind of dig that description. You play as a child who dives into a well, and you have eight bullets that can be fired with each jump. Bullets can be used to kill enemies or used to slow the decent of a jump. You’ll be needing both since Downwell features a barrage of enemies and a break neck pace that will guarantee you miss something along the way. Clearing a stage means getting a choice of three random skills boosts.
Rinse and repeat until your character dies, and you try again. Downwell adds secret caves into the formula as well, areas that can only be discovered with certain tools, giving it that genuine sense of a metroidvania. Roguelike meets metroidvania in a pixel presentation, all the encompassing themes of the indie scene rolled into this excellent little title.
PICO PARK — TECOPARK
A bit of a surprise gem at the show. TECOPARK had some trouble untangling the wired Famicom controllers powering his 2-10 player co-op game PICO PARK, but once he recruited enough people into our game, he plopped himself right down in front of his television and let the crowd figure out how to play the game on their own.
It’s a simple premise. You control one of ten little creatures, and the only action you can do is jump. From there, you must traverse levels and find ways to bring keys to their locked doors. Puzzles provide zero hints for their solutions, and TECOPARK’s “Engrish” descriptions described only an ultimate goal with little advice on how to get there. Surprisingly, it worked! Me and the other seven guys laughed, cheered, sobbed in defeat, and just had an all around splendid time playing PICO PARK.
Definitely one to play in a crowd of the right people, but a surprise highlight of the show. Plenty around the net have praised it for being so minimalist and entertaining.
Drop City — Game Bhudda Group
I had a bit of a go with the Oculus Rift again at BitSummit 2015, only this time, rather than drive zombies around in taxis, I was diving through a flooded New York looking for treasure. Drop City uses a unique 3D rendering system to create game levels called the Shimada System, and it does a great job of simulating underwater feel with a simple control scheme. Just look in a direction, and push A to go forward. Simple enough.
Of course, you have to turn completely around to travel back the direction you came, something my balance could not handle. I nearly fell over plaything this, and luckily, my wife was able to catch me. I wasn’t so interested in looking for the treasure though, but rather just exploring. I would rather use this tech to play a game like Endless Ocean, or one of those random Japanese scuba diving games, and just explore the ocean.
My wife, who does not play games nor has ever experienced virtual reality before, found three treasures. Good for her!
I’m still not convinced on the long-term standing of virtual reality. Gamers looked a little silly playing in front of us, and we both left Drop City’s demo with queasy stomachs. That’s hardly the fault of Game Bhudda Group, who has created something new of note for the Oculus Rift.
A few more shout outs
Dot Matrix Hero — Dot Warrior Game’s Block Legend still has a permanent place on my smartphone from when I picked it up during BitSummit 2014, and Alvin Phu showed up this year to show off his next project, Dot Matrix Hero. The game is a cross between Game Dev Story and a roguelike RPG with twin-stick combat. Players control a game developer who battles the bugs inside of his game while dreaming, a running theme this year apparently.
Dot Matrix Hero was still in an early form with only a few enemies to fight and one level to choose from, but Phu explained he is aiming for a deeper RPG system and more weapons before development wraps up. Good luck!
Daruma Soul — Tengu Boys’ Daruma Soul was a cute little find at the show. It’s a promising vertical shooter with touch controls and a great sense of style. It was the first game I played all day since I gravitated towards the stuffed Daruma, one of my favorite Japanese folkore characters. They’re so cute.
Solid shooter. Maybe a little too chaotic, but it’s worth checking out. I think my fingers were a little too big for the best response though.
Capsule Force — Klobit, teamed up with Iron Galaxy, is publishing this slick little multiplayer fighting game inspired by Super Smash Bros. and 80s and 90s animé. I sadly didn’t get a chance to go hands on, but I enjoyed watching others have a good time playing it. Definitely one that I will try if it pops up at Tokyo Game Show this year.
Dungeons and Darkness — Sticking with the throwback to the old PlayStation days, Dungeons and Darkness takes some hints from the King’s Field games, the same ones used to inspire Dark Souls. This first person action game was just really creepy, and yet still a bit of fun to control. The dated 3D polygons really added to the experience.
Bad Smell Queue — Because who doesn’t love a game about farts? This little action game puts you in the roll of a squirrel with a constantly building gas gauge. When that guage hits, it lets you wreck all kinds of havoc on your enemies … by farting on them. Kill all enemies, defeat the boss, get the key, choose your path through the game’s levels. Solid little action game with a cute sense of style.
A Healer Only Lives Twice — We’ll close out with Pon Pon Games’ snazzy looking PS Vita RPG, A Healer Only Lives Twice. The premise is simple. You control a knight and a priest, and the duo battle deep into a monster filled dungeon. As the knight, it is your job to keep your healer protected. Otherwise, he will die and your health can’t be replenished. Pretty simple RPG, but I love the cute graphics. It reminds me of that new World of Final Fantasy game.