Exploding with colour and bursting with action, Assault Android Cactus is a twin-stick shooter you just can’t keep your eyes off of. The frenetic bullet-hell action that it brings to the table has garnered it quite a bit of attention for both the game itself, as well as well as its three-person development team. Comprised of Artist Tim Dawson, BAFTA award-winning Composer Jeff Van Dyck and Designer Sanatana Mishra – Witch Beam are looking to put their stamp on a much explored genre.
However it is rare that anything worth-while comes without a great deal of risk, something that the Brisbane-based trio understand explicitly. Poised to release Assault Android Cactus later this year, I caught up with Sanatana Mishra to talk about Assault Android Cactus, as well as to ask about how the current culture at PlayStation affects them as developers.
Brian Sharon: You’re currently in the process of developing the twin-stick shooter Assault Android Cactus. What is unique about your game in comparison others in the genre?
Sanatana Mishra: Assault Android Cactus is a character driven twin stick shoot ‘em up with a focus on intense action and slick controls, we’ve got dynamic level elements (Is Levolution trademarked by EA yet?) like moving platforms, switching lights, and levels that completely rebuild themselves block by block.
We’re also bringing our favorite elements of twin stick shooters and arcade shmups together with giant bosses that unleash a variety of bullet hell attacks while you whittle down their segmented health bars.
Assault Android Cactus may be a shooter, but it’s clear that you have a very distinct vision for the characters and universe. Could you elaborate a bit on the set-up of the game?
SM: You’re right that these elements are important to us, the characters in particular are a huge part of the game as each one has their own play style due to their unique primary and secondary weapons, and individual dialogue with the games bosses.
The storyline follows our title character, Junior Constable Cactus, who is responding to a distress call from the Genki Star space freighter, upon arriving at the freighter it’s immediately apparent that something has gone very wrong as the robot workers and defense systems have turned hostile against the crew! She smashes in to the ship, discovers three other trapped androids, and formulates a plan to find the ships core and set things right. As you progress through the game and talk with each of the 5 boss characters more story is revealed and additional Androids are freed and become playable.
It has been noted that you’ve left quite respectable positions at places like Sega to pursue independent development. What was it about Tim’s prototype that sparked your imaginations?
SM: If I had to nail it down to one thing it would have to be the feel of the action, something that’s incredibly difficult to get across without actually putting the game in a person’s hands. A lot of things have changed since the first time Tim showed me his prototype, but it’s still the same core of awesome controls and super smooth action, hopefully people feel the same way I do when they get their hands on it.
Assault Android Cactus is projected to release on a multitude of distinct gaming platforms. Why do you think that the game is universally enjoyable?
SM: It’s a persistent visceral connected experience! Haha no. I’m hoping it’s universally enjoyable, I know from my own experience I like playing on the keyboard & mouse while hunting for a high score to push me up the leaderboards, and I like sitting in front of a massive TV with three friends screaming “GET THE BATTERY!”. It’s still early days for the Vita version but I think I’m going to really enjoy turning it on and quickly grabbing a new S+ rank while I’m on the bus.
Hopefully the experience of playing Assault Android Cactus works well as long as the controls are right and the visual experience is very understandable, when it’s out you’ll have to let us know if that’s true! Actually I suspect my most played version will be on Vita once they are all out, that’s where I can sneak a few levels in before bed.
Dynamic and scalable difficulty seems to be core to the experience of the game. Why is it important to you to offer an accessible, but also challenging experience?
SM: Being accessible is definitely important to us but I think the dynamic difficulty scaling in Cactus is more of a side aspect of our game systems than the goal, we really just want to push players towards to a fast and frantic play style that’s at the core of what makes Cactus a fun experience.
If you’re cruising around the map with golden wings and two firepower drones shooting hundreds of robots then we’ve achieved our goal, but that’s not something you can do in the first 10 seconds so our health & battery systems are there to help you get to grips with things, and then later on those same systems have their roles are reversed and start applying pressure instead.
Also included in the game is local co-op. What do you feel the more intimate approach to multiplayer brings to the game as opposed to online?
SM: While it’s true that I think the multiplayer aspects of Cactus are at their best when the room is full of players the main reason for not supporting online play is simply because it’s out of our capabilities. I’d love to have it in there as a way for players to enjoy the game and it’s something we’ll definitely look at in the future.
“We’ve always wanted to bring Cactus to the Vita, even before we knew if it was possible.”
Though you’re obviously going for something original, what are some of the gaming influences that helped shape your vision for the Assault Android Cactus?
SM: We’ve definitely been influenced by our love for classic Sega and the late 90s arcade era where every game had vibrant colours and a bright blue sky! In terms of gameplay think Robotron 2084, Smash TV, Radiant Silvergun, Super Stardust HD and Cave’s awesome ‘shmups’ have all had a big impact on us.
At its core Cactus is an arena based shmup, but we’ve tried hard avoid feeling like any one game that inspired us because it’s important to bring something new to the experience, that’s why you see so many dynamic elements and a mix of more traditional bullet hell and twin stick shooter gameplay.
The powerful game creation tool Unity has just entered into a partnership with Sony for PlayStation Vita support. Being Unity developers, what does this type of access mean to you and the community?
SM: Since we are a team of three with one person handling both programming and art himself I think it’s fair to say there would be no Cactus for Vita without this partnership. Unity is a great engine and a big part of that is how easy it makes multi-platform development. Being able to access all of the Vita’s unique features straight through our existing project should help us get the game out faster and to a higher standard of quality than would have otherwise been possible.
In the West a sort of indie-revolution has come over the industry in recent years. What has the Australian response been to this cultural-shift?
SM: In some ways Australia was ahead of this revolution, although it was not always by choice. Our ‘major’ studios all collapsed and shut down over the last 5-6 years, including Team Bondi, Sega, Krome, Pandemic and THQ. Out of those ashes we’ve seen a huge number of independent studios pop up and new supporting grants from the government as well. The landscape is shifting in Australia just as it is in the rest of the world.
Sony has made a visible effort to extend themselves and the PlayStation-brand to indie developers. Given that self-publishing is important to you, what has your experience been like working with Sony?
SM: Overwhelmingly positive. Since this is our first time developing an indie game we really had no idea what to expect from Sony, but they have gone out of their way to help us bring Assault Android Cactus to Playstation; they even helped us with exposure by featuring Cactus on stage at Gamescom and on the Playstation blog. I feel bad for naming just one person when so many have helped us, but I have to say thank you to Shahid Ahmad for all his help!
PlayStation Vita will be the only place where Assault Android Cactus will be available on the go. How does your game translate to a portable platform?
SM: In my own biased opinion it translates wonderfully! Our campaign levels are designed around short bursts of gameplay lasting a few minutes, and the controls map perfectly to the Vita with its dual analogue sticks.
We’ve always wanted to bring Cactus to the Vita, even before we knew if it was possible. In the early days of development we would carry our personal Vitas to local developer events and show videos of Cactus on them, people would pick up the Vita and try to play because it looked so natural.
The title of your game may be straight forward, but what significance does Witch Beam hold?
SM: This is going to sound pretty dumb coming from one of the founders of the team, but it’s not actually something with special significance for me. One of our beliefs is that if a team member is genuinely passionate about something we let them run with it. In this case Tim Dawson really wanted this name, and had used it in the past, so Jeff and I were happy to let him have it. You’ll have to ask him about its significance!