Saturday May 20 9:40 AM
I emerge from the Kyoto subway and it is already unseasonably hot, despite the early hour. The mercury is well on its way towards a high temperature of 31.7 degrees Celsius (89 F, the hottest May 20th here in four decades). I grab a bottle of jasmine tea at a convenience store for my fifteen minute march in the Japanese sun to Miyako Messe, the site of this year’s BitSummit indie game exposition.
This year’s BitSummit is its fifth annual; the first was a press-and-developer-only event held on one day in 2013 that hosted fewer than 200 people. The next year, the show evolved into a three-day festival open to the public in Miyako Messe. BitSummit now hosts international indies thanks to a partnership with Indie Megabooth, and multiple indie shows have been born or matured in BitSummit’s wake. Is there still enough room in the spotlight for Japanese indie creators at BitSummit? I quicken my pace in anticipation and in hopes of getting indoors as soon as possible.
I arrive at Miyako Messe just minutes before the show officially opens. Back in 2014, BitSummit felt spacious in its new site, with lots of small tables and a stage on the far left side of the room, but things have changed. Even with the general public lined up outside, BitSummit feels packed with exhibitors, their wares lined up in every direction.
The closest booth to the front door belongs to Nintendo, who has nothing but indie titles running on Switch. There are also promotional posters placed around the room for the Switch, which amuses me as every Japanese retailer I’ve seen has been sold out since launch.
I take a complete loop around the room while the BitSummit opening ceremony takes place on a stage against the far wall opposite the entrance. Despite it’s relative small size there’s a Catch-22 of attending BitSummit: you can play the games or follow the action on stage, but not both. I opt for staying mobile while VIP after VIP walks onto the stage, but I make sure to applaud for each name as I go. No need to be rude.
The first game I sit down with is Momodora V, an upcoming sequel of sorts to the Momodora series of indie platformers. It’s a working title, as the fourth had no number at all when it came out on PC and PlayStation 4. This new game makes the jump from 2D to 3D but at this early stage it still retains a cartoonish look, retro sounds, and big text boxes. Fans online are already bemoaning the switch from pixels to polygons but for a prototype, the game already feels and looks pretty good. I have an interview appointment later today with the developers so I move on, satisfied with the taste so far.
Every year at BitSummit I delight in finding weird games that are impossible to sell or distribute thanks to a specific play-style or presentation. This year, my first find is called People Panic and it’s projected onto the floor. Players surround the display and dangle papercraft UFOs on fishing rods over a digital city below. The goal is simple: hover your saucer over the people roaming the streets to abduct them. It’s cooperative, not competitive: the high score is based on all players’ total captives, with no acknowledgement of any one player’s achievements.
Yoshihiro So of Coconoe explained that the games his company makes are not for sale. Instead, he and his team from Okayama create games like People Panic for public events and shopping centers in order to promote the company.
Attending multiple indie shows means repeat viewings are inevitable, but I spot a game called Agartha which I’m certain I’ve seen before but also certain I’ve never played it. The director confirms that he and one programmer have been working on it for three years. Agartha is part action, part puzzler. The goal is to reach the exit of the level while traversing a dynamic environment where the elements are as hazardous as the enemies.
Mixing elements are a big part of the game, as ice will freeze water solid, fire will produce steam, cooling magma will render it inert, and so on. Choosing the right character (the version I saw had eight) is kind of a crap shoot, as some lack essential abilities to clear certain stages. No doubt all these variables have contributed to the long development cycle, but the director hopes to complete Agartha before 2017 ends.
I spy a familiar game in an unfamiliar place: ShCoCoooCoCo, a title I saw in 2014 that uses a lotion bottle as a controller. It’s now part of a mobile unit that the developer is wearing on his head while walking around the show floor. There’s a note on the box informing players that they are being filmed as they play. No one seems to mind, they’re too busy laughing at the premise of a lotion bottle shooter. I ask the dev, Takahiro Miyazawa, if he has a booth this year and he points to the other side of the room. He always brings something with a unique controller or interface so I’ll have to catch up with him later.
In trying to track down Miyazawa’s booth I instead stumble onto an eight-person multiplayer game with two monitors. The game turns out to be a cabinet-free version of Killer Queen, the custom “arcade strategy game” from the US. Co-creator Nikita Mikros tells me he was invited just to speak at BitSummit but he wanted to bring the game along with him for people to experience.
Killer Queen supports up to ten players and is a complex game with multiple victory conditions, so it’s up to the BitSummit volunteer Japanese/English interpreters to explain the rules to the showgoers. Mikros says this is the first time the game has ever been shown in Japan.
“It’s a very social game and it kind of forces you to play with strangers so I was a little bit worried that might not go over well with the Japanese but so far it’s been going pretty good,” he says. The game is only available in English but Mikros says he would love to bring the full-size version to Japan someday, citing the game’s success in bars. “It goes really well with alcohol.”
I sit down with the creator of the Momodora games, Rdein, and discover firsthand that he is not Japanese but Brazilian. He says that this new game will probably end up shedding the Momodora name entirely once it leaves the prototype phase.
“We are learning 3D right now,” he says, “everything up until this point is just prototyping, learning, struggling. The next step is to make it an actual game.” Despite the dimensional shift, Rdein feels that not much has changed with this new project. “I’m calling it a Metroidvania in 3D because that’s the best comparison I can make,” he says, while also citing the mansion from the original Resident Evil and Dark Souls as examples of the game world he wants to create.
Regarding the online reaction to the 3D approach, Rdein wants to quell the notion that this new title means an end to 2D Momodora games. “Since it’s just a prototype, it’s going to be something else so I don’t think they have to worry too much. It’s not going to be a Momodora game in the end.” He also believes this new game, whatever it ends up being called, is two or three years away from being finished.
After a quick curry lunch I manage to track down Takahiro Miyazawa’s booth where two unusual controllers await. The first features a twin set of long joysticks with an ignition key in the center, as the game requires players to operate a virtual steam shovel to remove a single pea from atop a shumai dumpling. It’s as hard as it sounds, as an on-screen counter proclaims a success rate of just 18%. I ask the game’s creator, Wataru Nakano, how many of those successful runs were played by him but he says “only two.” He also explains that the game was first released for smartphones three years ago following a 24-hour game jam, but his friend Miyazawa convinced him to make a version with a physical controller (which Miyazawa helped build).
Meanwhile, Miyazawa is showing a new game called Dice River. It looks like a rhythm game with cubes approaching a line as music plays, but there’s no real timing to it. Also, the controller is a giant die that you turn to put the correct face on top before the prompt hits the line. Miyazawa tells me he thinks of a control scheme first then makes the game second, so with Dice River the initial concept was “something you could hold in any direction.”
I spot Miyazawa’s ShCoCoooCoCo mobile display on the floor so I ask him what prompted its creation. The answer is simple: with the steam shovel and dice games taking up his entire table, he had no room to show a third game so he had to make it portable. Practical as always.
A few tables away I discover Japanese developer Inti Creates has a booth showcasing two upcoming Switch releases that are very Mega Man-esque, which is unsurprising, given that Inti has made many Mega Man games over the years.
The first and more interesting game to me is Mighty Gunvolt Burst, a sequel to an 8-bit spinoff of the original Gunvolt which I played more than the actual Gunvolt game. It was cute and more in line with what I wanted. Burst is a new title that’s still made to look old, albeit not as old as Mighty Gunvolt did. If Mighty Gunvolt looked like a lost NES game, Mighty Gunvolt Burst is its SNES sequel that wants to be cool instead of cute and I’m OK with that. Burst has a lot of new customization options and a “combo” system that rewards you for destroying enemies up close rather than from a distance, but the game is still just as fun if you ignore all that and shoot every enemy at the earliest opportunity.
Inti is also bundling the first Gunvolt game and its sequel together and releasing them on Switch this summer. That will be three Inti Creates games on Switch in the system’s first five months — more than a lot of larger publishers will have.
My eyes are drawn to four small busts surrounding a bowl of water with my favorite game name of the show: God Breath You. It’s quite complicated: one player wears a VR helmet and is adrift on a virtual boat. By shouting commands, they communicate where they want to go to other players who “breathe” by squeezing air pumps in the gods’ heads, turning a (physical) sailboat as well as its VR counterpart.
VR games often make me sick, as do real boats, so I am pleased to suffer no ill effects from playing God Breath You. That doesn’t mean it’s fun though, as the VR player can do nothing but shout and hope the other players blow the ship the right way. It requires communication and cooperation in a way that few VR games do, which was exactly its intent according to Hiroyoshi Murata, an engineer on the four-person dev team that made the game.
“VR games can only be played by one person and we thought that made the people around them feel kind of lonely,” Murata says, so they wanted to make something that could be enjoyed by a group of players at the same time. I don’t know how “enjoyable” God Breath You is, but it is definitely best experienced with as many friends as possible.
I’m a sucker for cute characters and wordplay so I must play a game starring a tiny ghost called Opake (Obake being Japanese for “ghost/monster”). There’s no combat or platforming, all little Opake can do is hide from bigger, scarier ghosts who appear in the street. The ghosts seem to appear at random and the hiding places are finite, so survival seems to be luck-based. After reaching a store, I get to help a girl go shopping by picking out food for her. It’s super cute but Opake moves very slowly and the girl keeps making me walk across the store to get more food.
Misaki Saino tells me that Opake is her first game as a designer. She plans to add more abilities to make it more fun to play, but admits that the game won’t be ready until next year at the earliest. She’s already selling merchandise featuring her adorable ghost character though.
I spot a dev team wearing labcoats showing a splitscreen multiplayer game on a giant TV with cartoonish scientists shooting mummies. The game is called Research & Destroy and it is a co-op turn-based strategy game, a unique blend of genres. Each player controls a squad of three scientists with different equipment and weapons, but all players fight together against supernatural enemies. It’s a game full of bright colors and charm which more videogames (especially shooters) could use. Game Design Director Chris Willacy tells me that the game’s aesthetics are inspired by cartoon shows like Real Ghostbusters, Dexter’s Lab and Scooby Doo.
“We all really loved X-Com but we really wanted to play it cooperatively,” Willacy says about his inspiration. He and his team Implausible Industries live in Tokyo and this is their first independent prototype which they’re developing on the side while spending their days working for clients. Given more funding and time, he believes they could make it into a full game.
I sit down to play a spooky game with minimal graphics called Light It. The premise of the game is that the only way to see its monster is to shine a flashlight on it.
However, the button that controls the flashlight on the controller is broken, so I have don’t get a chance to play. Masato Kobayashi, the game’s sole creator, apologizes for the mishap. He says his game is already on Steam but he’s yet to get much feedback from players so he brought it to BitSummit.
In the Indie Megabooth corner I see Framed 2, the sequel to an excellent mobile game where you manipulate comic panels to complete a story. After seeing one couple stymied by a puzzle for an eternity, I swoop in and solve it immediately, only to be stuck on the next puzzle.
The second I get up, the next lady to play Framed 2 solves the puzzle I couldn’t.
I see another Indie Megabooth game that I’ve been waiting to try: Asura, a game developed in India loosely based on Indian mythology, which launched on Steam just weeks ago. It’s an isometric action game where the levels, the bosses, and your skill tree are randomly generated. Developer Zain Fahadh tells me he wants players to have different experiences each time they play, but unlike other games with randomness I found the difficulty merciful and I beat the boss in one try.
As the lights come on and Auld Lang Syne plays on stage (the Japanese way of telling people to leave), I get in a few words with Yoshiro Kimura. A veteran developer, Kimura created Onion Games and has been at every BitSummit with a new project – until this year, as he is showing my favorite game from BitSummit 2014, called Million Onion Hotel. After encountering some serious bugs, Kimura says they had to remake the game “from zero” so he wanted to show it again in the hopes that it will be finished this year.
“Three years ago I decided I should sell this as a paid game,” Kimura says, “but three years later I understand that the market has changed.” He is now unsure how much he can safely charge for his game.
Speaking of change, I ask him how he feels BitSummit has changed over time. “The quality of the games is getting higher and higher,” he says, welcoming the influx of international indie titles. “I want to compare to other games from around the world because I want to sell [Million Onion Hotel] to the world. I want to know, can I fight with the world market or not?”
“I want to show this to the world very very soon.”
Sunday May 21st, 10:25 AM
I begin day two by playing a retro-Castlevania-like called Brave Earth: Prologue which certainly looks the part, with multiple characters and paths, subweapons, challenging platforming, and irritating birds. Michael O’Reilly tells me he’s been working on this project, originally intended to be a free fan game, for seven years. He is open about the Castlevania influence, reckoning that since there will be no more official Castlevania games, he might as well release his take on it because “people want this and there’s no way to get it now.”
“Everyone wants the backflip from Rondo of Blood,” O’Reilly says of player feedback at BitSummit, showing that the fans drawn to his game want it to be even more Castlevania-like than it already is.
Next to Nintendo’s booth is Kyoto-based Q-Games, a BitSummit supporter since year one. This year they are bringing an old title on smartphones as PixelJunk Eden Obscura, although it’s not a port of the 2008 PlayStation 3 release.
“The game has been created completely from scratch,” Marie-Aurore Morfoisse says, adding “everything has been done from the beginning” save for the basic concept of jumping around and collecting pollen. The controls have been remixed for touch screens, and Obscura uses the smartphone’s cameras to read colors and images that affect the in-game world (though there’s not much to see when playing in a dark room). Running out of time is no longer a “game over” but a “well done!” screen because everything you do is recorded and there are rewards for collecting in-game materials. It’s a small change, just two words, but it does feel different.
“Whenever I talk to somebody who attends BitSummit for the first time my question to them is ‘what do you think?’ and the result is almost always a case of their expectations were totally obliterated by the reality” says BitSummit Creative Director James Mielke. “What they see when they get here is it’s a much more open, casual, friendly, relaxed event where you don’t feel like you don’t feel like you’re being rushed from station to station.”
We chat in the lobby of Miyako Messe and he is very pleased with how the show has developed in five years. “I think we’ve really hit a quality and quantity mark that we’re really starting to find our identity,” he says. “We never expected it to be even this big.”
One thing he’d like to bring back to BitSummit is musical guests. “We had so much music at BitSummit II and every year it gradually dwindled,” he says. “I think we can probably bump that up a little bit and get back to the fact that games are about visuals and music.”
I sit down for lunch with Seigai Kou of FlyHigh Works and Chris of Circle Entertainment, two members of a “small but happy group” of indie creators who are spread across different cities in China and Japan. With a number of 3DS eShop titles to their name(s), I was eager to speak to them and figure out how exactly they fit together. The group already has one title on Switch, a fast-paced Zelda-like action game called Kamiko.
“I decided to make a simple game near Switch launch,” says Kou, “Skipmore [based in Osaka] is our partner, our friend, and I know he is good at making such a game.” He says that Skipmore creates the “world” of the game and he offers suggestion and input during development. “Basically, he makes the games and It’s my job to complain,” Kou says with a smile. By collaborating with each other, the group is able to localize their games and publish them in various markets. They tell me they’re still working on games for the 3DS eShop (in multiple regions) while also looking at bringing more titles to the region-free Switch.
I decide it’s time to press my luck and try a VR game called Boomerang Attack made by college students at Kyoto Computer Gakuin. There’s not much body or head movement to it, thank goodness, just a virtual table with an infinite number of boomerangs laid out. With a controller in each hand I can pick up and throw as many boomerangs as I can grab, though the game also wants me to catch them, which is trickier than it sounds. The actual game of popping random balloons for points isn’t as fun as the core act of handling the boomerangs which I find delightful – and not at all nauseating.
“Players tell us that at first they thought the game looked dull, but once they play it everyone says they had fun,” says Kazuto Suzuki who designed the boomerang’s movements. He and four other students, all in their senior year, made Boomerang Attack in about three months. Now that it’s finished, they say they plan to move on to new projects.
Back on the Indie Megabooth side I see what may be the most eye-catching game at BitSummit: Bootleg Systems, made by a Canadian indie studio called Neonable (I tell Gabriel De Roy, the studio founder, that his game and studio should trade names). Bootleg Systems is a sci-fi puzzle platformer first-person shooter where your “Clone Gun” can copy items found in the environment and then fire them as projectiles. Benches, plants, air conditioners, steel beams, they’re all potential ammunition as you fight robots in a neon-lit future with a synthwave soundtrack that suits the aesthetic perfectly.
“Many people have the preconception that Japanese players do not play many first-person shooter games,” De Roy says of his time at BitSummit, “It doesn’t seem like that’s the case…The big majority of the players who have come to play the game were already really experienced first-person shooter players.” A demo for Bootleg Systems is already on Steam and De Roy says he hopes to release it on PC and consoles next year.
I run into Matt Conn near the BitSummit stage as he watches developers participate in a tournament. Conn founded GaymerX and has attended multiple events in Japan (and abroad), so I ask how BitSummit compares to other gaming gatherings.
“I’ve never really felt unwelcome [at BitSummit],” Conn says, “When I do interviews with press, even when we talk about our game having LGBT stuff, for the most part they’re very respectful and they’re curious to learn more. At [Tokyo Game Show] we had a couple interviewers who heard that and they were like ‘Uhhh’ and they walked away.”
The game in question, 2064: Read Only Memories, is expected to launch in Japanese later this year as Conn and his team work on porting the game to other platforms.
After watching a few battles of the tournament onstage, I go to Nintendo’s booth to try Battle Sports Mekuru, the Bomberman-esque multiplayer game that they’re playing. Nintendo is showing on a extra-large-screen TV with a couch and drawing a lot of spectators, even with the developer tournament in progress.
Currently only available in Japan on Switch, Battle Sports Mekuru is a four-player romp where characters jump and pound the ground to color squares on the board in their favor. The shockwaves can also knock opponents off the board and reveal power-ups. With lots of stage effects and unexpected lead changes, it’s a lot of fun because it’s so easy to pick up, even though I finish in last place.
My last booth of the show is for another genre curiosity: Sweep It, a turn-based puzzle-platformer with a rewind feature to correct mistakes. You plan your actions through the stage step-by-step, erasing and editing your commands as needed to reach the end. You play as a janitor and your primary weapon is a broom. Nobutaka Ichiki, the sole developer, tells me the game had an unusual inspiration.
“I was playing Ice Climber and I thought, what if I could turn back time?” Ichiki says, noting that game’s notoriously tricky jumps and bottomless pits. He’s been working on Sweep It for almost two years, learning programming as he goes, and he hopes to complete it this year for a 2018 smartphone release.
BitSummit wraps up with an extended awards sequence with lots of impromptu comments that required on-the-fly translation. A few of the winners are games I got to play: People Panic wins the Innovative Outlaw Award, Light It wins Excellent in Sound Design, Sweep It wins Excellence in Game Design, Asura wins the International Award, and Research & Destroy wins the Popular Selection Award.
The biggest surprise comes with the top prize called the Vermillion Gate Award. At previous BitSummits this prize has gone to a developer in Japan, but in 2017 the winner is Earth Atlantis, an underwater shooter made in Thailand which is expected to debut on the Nintendo Switch this year.
It’s clear that as BitSummit grows, more developers from outside Japan are going to want to participate, so it would be foolish to deny them entry or awards that they might merit. If the future of BitSummit is a hybrid Japanese/Pan-Asian/whoever makes the trip celebration of indie games, I still believe the best games will be honored as such and get they attention they deserve (several awards were chosen by Japanese media partners who did not restrict themselves to domestic developers). And each indie event like BitSummit inspires more game makers to take the plunge and try to strike out on their own as well as organizers in other territories who decide to start their own shows to highlight local talent. Nearby Busan, South Korea will hold its third BIC Fest this September, a show created in response to BitSummit’s success which BitSummit has acknowledged in turn by giving them booth space to promoting the show as well as Korean indie games.
Do I miss the 2013/2014 BitSummit that felt like a secret only I was privy to? A little bit, if I’m being honest, for its DIY booths and occasional hand-drawn game assets. But I cannot deny all the good the new, bigger, wider-reaching BitSummit achieves for indie game creators everywhere.
Daniel Feit is a freelance writer living in Osaka, Japan whose work has appeared in WIRED, 1UP, USGamer and many other online publications. Follow him on Twitter @feitclub for musings on videogames, his life abroad, and pizza.