You might be aware that I have this soft-spot for indie games. Don’t get me wrong, I love the AAA stuff, but there’s just so much soul and love to be found in indie titles. This is why I’m dubbing rAge 2013 my “indie rAge”.
The folks from Learn3D.co.za and MakeGamesSA have teamed up with NAG’s home_coded initiative to put together an amazing indie stand at this year’s rAge. All of the games on display are playable, and all of them have been developed locally. These are all proudly South Africa games right here, and they’re stunning. Some of them you might have seen on Steam Greenlight or mentioned on other online news outlets, but I’m willing to bet you didn’t realise that they’re South African games.
To kick off my local indie pilgrimage I sat down for a one-on-one chat with indie developer Julian Pritchard from retroFuture. Together with fellow indie dev Michael de Jager (the game’s creator), and freelance composer Nick Williams, they’re making a game called zX – Hyperblast. It’s delicious.
zX – Hyperblast isn’t a shmup as far as Julian is concerned. It’s more like an adventure shooter, but it has roots in the shmup category and the retro titles that catapulted the genre to popularity. You could argue that that popularity has dwindled somewhat, but that’s one of the glorious aspects of indie games: they’re the custodians of waning genres.
“Retro games are amazing,” Julian exclaims at the start of our chat. “Games that zX really looks up to is stuff like Mars Matrix. Also, you know, more mainstream games like Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga.”
Still, zX – Hyperblast turns certain shmup conventions on their heads. For instance, it’s better if you actually fly into enemy projectiles instead of dodging them. Your little space ship is equipped with a set of melee claws that double as projectile reflectors. If you time it right, and timing is part of the fairly vicious learning curve, you can absorb enemy projectiles and spit them back. If you manage to kill the enemy with its own projectiles, then you’ll get some power-up stars. Accumulate enough power-up stars and you’re weapons will morph and become more powerful until you unlock the eponymous Hyperblaster.
This overturning of a shmup convention is something Julian is particularly proud of: “With zX, I think [what I’m most proud of] is that we’ve taken a very tight genre, one with in-depth quirks on how to play them, and we’ve kind of subverted it. If you play a shmup these days you really expect to dodge all the bullets, but with zX you need to fly into the bullets. So it’s really different and I’m really proud of that; it’s something unusual and it’s something from the past that not everyone has seen.”
Your ship has three weapon types that you can switch on the fly: a rapid fire projectile, a burst-ricochet projectile and a homing projectile. Part of the utterly glorious visual appeal of zX is how those three projectiles change in appearance and spread patterns as you upgrade your firepower. It’s mesmerising.
The game has been put together in Game Maker and there are a number of things that Julian wants to implement before it releases. “I still have to reconfigure it to actually have custom inputs so that people can input their own keys and not have to deal with my layout,” Julian admits. That being said, I played the game on a controller with a layout he’d mapped and I found it entirely comfortable.
“I also have to improve the path finding because enemies will sometimes just wonder off into the terrain thinking they can get through it when they really can’t. So it’s just little tweaks that I need to tighten up to make it feel like a more coherent game.”
Personally, I think he’s being modest. I could have quite happily spent the rest of the day playing zX – Hyperblast. The game is already very polished and very, very addictive. It’s difficult, but once it clicks the whole offering becomes very compelling.
So when can we expect the final build? Julian is hoping for the end of this year; judging by what I’ve played, that’s quite possible. “We’re striving for before the end of the year. We want to have it done and out there. If we can have it on Steam by that time I will dance Gangnam Style down the streets of Johannesburg!”