This is what you need to know about Alex Neuse and his three-man-development shop, Gaijin Games, a sort of FUBU for serious gamers: They draw inspiration from retro classics such as Pong, they mess around with different control schemes, they like their games hard as hell, and they’re pros at creating that rare ‘in the zone’ feeling.
Bit.Trip Core, the second in the planned six-game Bit.Trip sextilogy, is the 100th WiiWare release, and that’s no accident. Nintendo’s happy to support more games that appeal to the hardcore crowd — heck, ‘core’ is even in the title.
Neuse’s explanation is a little different. “I think Nintendo wants the Wiiware service to be this place for experimental or more creatively-free games, and as a developer, I see that as well. The way that Nintendo handles the service is very developer-friendly, so that I can make a game with my crew that we want to make, and Nintendo lets us.”
While the first in the series, Bit.Trip Beat, drew its inspiration from Pong, Core’s muse is more obscure: Cosmic Ark on the Atari 2600. Core abandons Beat’s Wiimote tilt controls in favor of a traditional d-pad and one button set-up, and rather than explain the gameplay, I’m going to defer to the video in this case:
Neuse is a passionate gamer and game designer with plenty to say, so we’re going to turn him loose on a few key subjects….
HOW TO PLAY CORE
Alex Neuse: These games to me are like an experiment in focus, and also the lack thereof. I do the best at Core when no one’s talking to me, I’m not talking to anyone, I’m just looking at that thing [indicates the '+' sign in the middle of the screen], and my spatial awareness takes over. It’s like I see these things moving up there, and you get into it, the music starts pumping and you can just ride that and have a good time.
Once you start trying to focus on every little beat, the amount of time it takes your brain to process each one just totally tweaks you out. Which, to me, I find very exhilarating. This game is pretty hard in that it kind of bends your mind.
AN: The story is told in the background art and through the music and through the cut-scenes, just like it was in Beat. I don’t expect players to pick up on that in their first time with the game, because you’re not watching the background when you play.
There’s a whole other level behind the cut-scenes…if you choose to just listen to the music there are emotions in the music that are also telling the story. My goal is to, over time, as people play these games, have them start to realize that there’s a little more there. They can start to interpret the games as they want, and it’s up to them what they think about it.
AN: My philosophy on difficulty hasn’t really changed a whole lot [since Beat]. I find Core to be less difficult, but then I’m so close to the thing it’s hard to maintain perspective. I’ve had some friends come in and say Core’s more difficult than Beat, and I’ve also had other friends say it’s way easier. I think there are different parts of the brain that are used in each game.
Some people have a lot of trouble with fine motor tuning like this [rotates Wiimote] in Beat, but they don’t have as much trouble with the digital input. I think that difficulty in terms of controls is going to be very user-specific.
However, difficulty in terms of designing a game that requires a certain amount of skill at the controls, I’m a firm believer that games should be challenging. So I want to continue to deliver a challenge, but I also want to deliver an experience that’s endearing or interesting even if you yourself lack the skills to complete the experience. Because I don’t think that every game should be able to be beaten by everyone.
I can sit down and play Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox and I can beat it, and I can have a friend watch me who can’t beat it, and they can still have a good time. The original Metal Gear Solid, for whatever reason, I could not beat it. So I watched a friend beat it, and I loved it. I was like, oh my God, that game is amazing! To this day, I have still not beaten the original Metal Gear Solid.
My philosophy on difficulty is that every game designer should make their game as difficult or as easy as they feel is appropriate and that they want. At the end of the day you are making a vision that you see, and people can like it or they can dislike it, and that’s up to them, and it’s all fine.
HOW THE SERIES WILL EVOLVE
AN: What you can expect is a continued change in the control scheme from one game to the next to the next, and you might see some motion controls coming back eventually.
Like I said before, not everyone is good at this, not everyone is good at that, so maybe there are some other control schemes that people can pick up on and really like. And just because you like one game in the Bit.Trip series doesn’t mean you need to like all of them. You could be like, “Hey I really like game #4. I don’t need the others.” Or, “I like ‘em all because they’re all really different,” or whatever. But we’re definitely going to be changing it up from game to game.
Moving forward, I don’t want to give too much away, but you run the risk of seeing very frantic collection-type games, and maybe even side-scrolling sort of adventures. And maybe some other stuff I won’t mention. But we’re going to keep the idea of retro inspiration intact. I hope that none of the games feel like a rip-off of a game, [as if Beat were] a Pong clone, I don’t really think it feels like a clone, but definitely it feels inspired. And we’re hoping to carry that inspiration along.
BONUS ROUND: BIT.TRIP BEAT
THE EVOLUTION OF BEAT’S CONTROLS
AN: I’m a big fan of spinner-based games, and the death of the spinner controller is lamented by me. It’s horrible. You could have made so many awesome, awesome games using the spinner controller. So I really wanted to support a spinner controller but none existed.
We were prototyping the controls for Beat, and we had it on the d-pad and we had it on the analog stick and it was just crusty, we had it on the bumpers or triggers or whatever. I was thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got to figure out this Wii thing.’ Do we do a pointer? It just didn’t seem appropriate. So then I got the idea, I wonder if this will work [holds Wiimote horizontally and tilts it along the horizontal axis], and we weren’t really sure if it would. And then we implemented it and it was, holy crap, it works. And it works well! So we were like, OK, Wii, let’s go.
I don’t know who said it, there’s a fantastic quote, a Japanese videogame developer was comparing Western games to Japanese games, and he said Western developers work from the TV out, and Japanese developers work from the controller in. And that to me just felt so awesome. Once we did the prototype with this I was like, hey, we’re Gaijin Games, the reason we’re Gaijin Games is because we’re aspiring to make games of a quality that the Japanese standard has historically set…let’s work from the controller in. And we did, and I think it’s the right choice, because I think Beat plays very well.
ON RALPH BAER (INVENTOR OF THE ODYSSEY, THE FIRST LIGHT GUN, AND SIMON) PLAYING BEAT
AN: He liked it. He said he was very impressed with it. I ended up getting his contact info and exchanging an email or two. He was super nice, and he said it’s amazing to see what people are doing with games these days — he doesn’t play a lot of videogames, apparently. I think he had a good time. From what I hear he wasn’t super good at it, but that’s fine, and he enjoyed it.
One of the dudes who had him at his office was joking, “Oh, you’ve got to get royalties off these guys,” off of us, for doing this game, and then we joked about ripping off Simon for our next game. He went off, “Oh my God that would be so cool, you could do this and this and this…” and it was really cool to see this guy still has a passion for it.
And if you’ll notice in the pictures, he likes the inverted axis. I play like this, where up is up and down is down, and he likes the flight sim way. All you have to do is flip the controller.
I remember in our focus group, they were like, “You need an option for inverting the axis, because I can’t play like this.” And I was like [flips the controller].