Homages to 'Bomberman', 'Left 4 Dead' and 'NBA Jam' rekindle long-lost magic
Splody is a Bomberman game for PC. Four candy-coated chibis dart around a calamitous labyrinth. Bombs explode in perpendicular flares, power-ups sprout from the engulfed tiles, and you win by outlasting everyone else. It releases today on Steam for $7. If you're a longterm fan from way back when the series started in 1983 – and looking to scratch this very specific kind of itch – the only other modern alternative is Super Bomberman R, which was a launch title for the Nintendo Switch. That game retails for $50. And you need a Switch.
"A group of us were playing some of [the 1997 PC game] Atomic Bomberman, which is a great game, but it had some stability issues," says Jimb Esser, the creator of Splody at developer Dashing Strike Games. "I thought, 'I could make a game like this in a weekend,' so we did!"
Game design is a notorious for liberally borrowing successful ideas from elsewhere. New mechanics and ideas are immediately seized upon, embezzled and repurposed by other, hungry outfits. This is how the business works. Perhaps wary of legal issues when the stakes are so high, the blockbuster game companies – the big billion dollar publishers – are almost never candid about their poaching. But they all do it. Microsoft brazenly drafted 1080p Mii-knockoffs and called them "Avatars," Sony strapped an LED bulb to a Wiimote and called it a "Move," EA rebooted Medal of Honor so it could be more like Call of Duty. It's almost as if acknowledging inspiration is invalidating. One of the most bewildering examples was the introduction of Heroes of the Storm in 2014. Blizzard took ludicrous, painstaking care to never call the game a MOBA. No, instead Heroes was a "Hero Brawler." Any comparisons to League of Legends – the most played game in the world – were somehow entirely coincidental.
That's what makes the indie game scene so refreshing. It's full of good ideas, and with much lower stakes and a sense of community the designers have a bluntness about where those ideas came from. Splody is a Bomberman game. If it was published by Blizzard, it might've been dubbed a "lateral detonation strategy game."
"I think with indie developers there's more of a spirit of honesty and openness," says Esser. "Independent games are more made by individuals, with their own love of previous games, and we're not afraid to talk about what games we like and dislike, unlike a big company which usually avoids that kind of opinion in public."
One of the most prominent titles at the recent PAX East gaming show in Boston was Earthfall – a co-op survival shooter set against an intergalactic apocalypse in the Pacific Northwest. I quickly found myself cornered in a municipal shed blasting endless assault rifle rounds into a swarming army of aliens. My partners were isolated and pinned down by a particularly gruesome beast. I was running out of ammo. It was overwhelming, it was thrilling, and it immediately reminded me of the much-loved Left 4 Dead. There are still people playing those first two Left 4 Dead games to this day, but like Half-Life and Portal, the series is currently swirling in Valve's impenetrable vortex of no-comment. At a certain point, the upstart independent studio Holospark got tired of waiting.
"I love Left 4 Dead. I don't want to take anything away from what Valve has done. They created a new genre, it's just… it's been eight years! There's so much more we can do," says Russell Williams, CEO of Holospark. "I'm the target player for Earthfall. I loved Left 4 Dead and I just kept wanting more."
For years, it was nearly impossible for an independent company to muster the funds for a fleshed-out, Unreal Engine-powered shooter like Earthfall. Instead, fans were forced to wait on the heartbreaking whims of a giant company. But that's not the case anymore. Game development has been liberated – the Unreal engine, which used to cost thousands is now free to use in exchange for a percentage of profits – and a small group of Left 4 Dead worshippers can build a cool adaptation without worrying about investor hand-wringing. "We're interested in taking [Left 4 Dead's] mechanics into the future," says Williams. "I'll give you a trivial example. Left 4 Dead didn't have aim-down-sights. It's not the biggest deal in the world, but we were able to rebuild the mechanics with a modern sensibility."
You could argue that Holospark swooping in on Left 4 Dead's design is cheap, but that misses the point. Williams tells me that a huge part of his inspiration comes from the Left 4 Dead mod scene – where amateur programmers consistently iterated on Valve's design free of charge. In a lot of ways, it's easy to see Earthfall as a natural progression of that organic, unsatiated fandom. Perhaps it'd be different if they were clinging to the coattails of an in-vogue cash-cow like Assassin's Creed or Minecraft, but there hasn't been a new official Left 4 Dead map since Cold Stream in 2012. At this point, Holospark's work feels less like theft and more like a public service.
This all represents an interesting new wrinkle in the indie game landscape. Traditionally, you turned to underground designers for forward-thinking mechanics and less-commercial design. But now, it's also a sector where you can find rehashes of great stuff that's been missing from the industry for too long. Nobody is buying Splody for a novel new experience, but the promise of a modern, accessible, multiplayer Bomberman-style game? With full online capabilities? That's pretty tempting. It's this direct-to-consumer, corporate-skirting marketing ploy that delivers a ton of value, while also dipping into some perhaps murky legal territory. Jimb Esser says he isn't too worried about getting into trouble, but he's done his best to scrub his product of any obvious references. "We have to be very careful to not infringe on any other IP, and there's a thin line between those since any game of this kind often has the look of a grid of blocks with explosions shooting between them," he says. "On the other hand, until I'm successful enough to be worth suing, I certainly have no serious worries."
But outside of any copyright controversies, at the very least a more candid video game development community is a force for good. Indie game maker Andy Hull was a programmer on the award-winning open source platform game Spelunky in 2008. At PAX East he unveiled his new project – Dunk Lords – for the first time. It's a two-on-two basketball game with a weapons system and a smashmouth brawling mechanic. Comparison to NBA Jam are obvious, but that classic series hasn't been seen since EA's 2011 NBA Jam: On Fire Edition for PS3 and Xbox 360. Instead, Hull built an uncertified, over-the-top love letter to Jam and with all sincerity describes it as a calling.
"At PAX, people would straight up tell me 'oh man, I'm so glad someone is doing something like this,' I even had some people say 'I always thought about making a game like this or playing a game like this,'" says Hull. "I feel like this game has already existed in a lot of people's minds. I don't think I've come up with this amazing idea, I think basically, I'm tapping into a natural desire."
Dunk Lords is pure chaos – it's a vision of basketball where a solid clothesline is far more important than your three point finesse – but that's because Hull understands how people play NBA Jam. We want to deck our friends, and laugh, and maybe score some points. His game is indelible, it reads our minds. When you play Dunk Lords, or Splody, or Earthfall, you feel understood. The ceiling on these games might not be tremendously high, but it's real nice to be sold something you already love. In 2017 superfans are recasting their favorite games in their own image, and we may never go hungry again.