The future of Japanese video games was at BitSummit 2015

It was with a cruel twist that beloved Nintendo president Satoru Iwata died on what has become the one of the brightest weekends in the Japanese gaming calendar. BitSummit 2015 was over by the time Nintendo made its tragic announcement, and countless developers and attendees would have been leaving Kyoto with a pretty positive impression of the future of Japanese games.

Now in its third year, BitSummit is solidified as an essential event for anyone in the region interested in indie games — a growing number, despite the Japanese indie scene getting off to a slow start. The show was bigger than ever in 2015, with a much-improved layout where games were arranged around a circular stage. The stage hosted talks from industry luminaries like Shuhei Yoshida, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and Koji Igarashi, and this year it was easy to pay attention to them while checking out the games on show.

Which is, of course, the most important thing about BitSummit — the games on the floor. Here are the best we saw.

Vane

vane

It’s hard to talk about Vane without discussing its provenance. Tokyo indie studio Friend and Foe was formed by people that were working on The Last Guardian, the third game from director Fumito Ueda that spent years in development hell before Sony resurrected it at E3 last month. And on the face of Vane’s BitSummit showing, Friend and Foe has learned a few things from Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus; the new game takes place in a dreamy, minimalist world that you learn about through exploration and puzzle-solving.

But there’s enough on show to suggest that Vane could escape its own shadow. The mysterious lead character can turn into a crow, for instance, which mixes things up considerably. And the gorgeous art style, which won Vane the BitSummit Visual Excellence award, is already a head-turner at this early stage. The indoor environments combine flat-shaded polygons with some subtle lighting techniques, resulting in a game that really looks like no other.

Back in 1995

back in 1995

Do you yearn for the days of horror games with snail-paced combat, tank-style controls, and low-polygon characters? Or at least have some degree of pained nostalgia? Well, does Takaaki Ichijo ever have the game for you. His Back in 1995 is a throwback to a time when clunky survival horror games like Resident Evil could shock the gaming world and sell millions of copies all at once. In a neat touch, the game is actually set in 1995, lending an extra air of authenticity to the janky proceedings.

Back in 1995 is not, it has to be said, a great deal of fun to actually play in its present state. But it’s more performance art than video game, a work made with attention to detail and genuine love from its creator. In its obsessive recreation of an era most players would prefer to forget, it’s a little like a video game equivalent of a Tarantino throwback movie. The difference is that even Death Proof is easier to get through.

Videoball

videoball

Action Button Entertainment's Videoball isn’t a Japanese game, but I’m including it here because it was the most fun I had on the BitSummit show floor. It’s a four-player virtual sport with simple rules and retro-futuristic pastel presentation, and it’s a total blast. As with last year’s Sportsfriends collection, it captures why sports games are perfect for same-room competition while casting aside all the trappings of real-life sports.

Like current PS4 talk-of-the-town Rocket League, Videoball involves piloting your ship / car / character into balls to score goals. Unlike Rocket League, Videoball’s top-down 2D perspective, one-button control scheme, and ultra-clean, legible visuals make it a much more immediate and strategic experience, even if you’re picking up the game for the first time. I played a few raucous rounds with three Japanese strangers, and by the end I felt like my teammate and I would be comrades for life. (He got up at the end, said "thank you," and walked away, but that’s not the point.)

Videoball is due out this summer on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, and it will probably be worth holding a house party for.

Drunk Room

drunk room

Drunk Room is a room-escape game that’s already out on iOS and Android in Japan, but was lent a new level of absurdity in its VR-powered BitSummit showing. The premise: you wake up on your wedding day to a trashed apartment, with beer cans stacked everywhere, graffiti on the wall, and important items locked in cabinets.

The base game is pretty unremarkable for what it is, but the Oculus Rift elevates it to hilarity. VR is still new enough technology to make me feel a little light-headed every time I try it, which Drunk Room manages to turn to its advantage. The simple, blocky visuals, with their Katamari Damacy color palette, only add to the surreal vibe as you frantically try to piece together your night and save your impending marriage.

Muse: Together is the New Alone

muse together is the new alone

Although it wasn’t playable on the show floor, Muse: Together is the New Alone still managed to be one of the more intriguing games at BitSummit. It’s directed by Baiyon, the musician and visual artist who collaborated with Q-Games on the excellent PS3 indie hit PixelJunk Eden, and it has a striking visual style that blends vivid watercolor paintings with EarthBound-esque minimalist pixel art. The game is described as a "nostalgic adventure" and is set to see release on PlayStation 4 and Vita, though there’s no date yet.

Strange Telephone

strange telephone

While indie developers in the West often cut their teeth on retro platformers and text adventures, a lot of Japanese designers are starting with room-escape games as a simple way to get a story out there. And Magniflop’s Strange Telephone has a neat spin on the concept, mixing pixel-art with J-horror and rendering the game as a 2D sidescroller.

The result, at least in its BitSummit showing, is a little linear and easy. It could be hard for Strange Telephone’s 2D puzzles to match the complexity of first-person room-escape games, although some light action elements may add variety in the long run. Still, if it all comes together Strange Telephone looks like a good example of a Japanese indie game that executes on a solid, simple idea with style — something we could do with more of. It’ll be out this year on PC, iOS, and Android.

A Walk in a Wooden Schoolhouse

The pragmatically titled 木造校舎を歩く (A Walk in a Wooden Schoolhouse) is a short virtual reality experience that comes in two flavors. Both are set in the same old school, but where one version is bathed in golden sunlight and underscored by cheerful music, the other is cast in gloom and home to some serious paranormal activity.

The over-saturation of Japanese schoolgirls in horror movies should have diluted their impact as a vector for scares, but when one appeared in the dark classroom’s mirror, my very physical reaction nearly jerked the game developer’s laptop clean off its display table. Nearby, a 10-yen piece slid across a Kokkuri-san board — Japan’s answer to ouija boards — seemingly of its own accord.

Built by two hobbyist game designers in their spare time and less a game than a vignette, A Walk in a Wooden Schoolhouse nonetheless manages to quickly cultivate a sense of foreboding, thanks in part to the economy of scares — the short demonstration only showed the "monster" for a minute — and to the Oculus Rift I had strapped to my face. Even standing in the middle of a crowd of people, the VR headset amplified the frights — where normally I’d have been able to look away, pause the action, or simply take a breather during scary sections, the Rift made hiding my eyes behind my hands impossible.

Torquel

torquel

Minimalist puzzle game Torquel needs only to be seen to be understood, but I’ll try using words. You control a square. From the square sprout four rectangular "legs," each color-coded to match the buttons on a PS4 controller. Press X and a strut will shoot from below; Triangle, and one will extend from above. Torque is about using these legs, plus the powers of momentum, physics, and sheer bloody-mindedness, to propel your square to each stage’s exit.

It’s a neat, satisfying mechanic, but where Torquel really succeeds is in the way it occasionally rewards moments of brute force alongside precision and finesse. After 10 attempts at a particularly fiendish stage, with a line of interested players forming behind me for their own session, I started slapping buttons at random. Somehow in my frustration I managed to slingshot myself past the spike traps and lethal lava that had killed me on my previous attempts, the game’s physics engine finally taking pity on me for my misunderstanding of fundamental forces. I landed unceremoniously next to the goal like an apologetic canonball and rolled on to the next level. It was much harder.

Forget Me Not: My Organic Garden

Hidden underneath Forget Me Not: My Organic Garden’s anime-ish aesthetic is a dark heart. And a kidney, and a colon, and a stomach, and something that was maybe a spleen. The player harvests the eponymous organ from a strange garden, using water to make human body parts grow on trees, and plucking them off to earn points. For a game about yanking great globs of viscera as fast as possible, Forget Me Not looks surprisingly clean and clear, making it easy for players to work out when the body parts are ready for harvest by giving them a twinkling effect.

More points are earned the faster you work, but Forget Me Not is about resource management as much as it is frantic clicking — your watering can can only be used on a few plants at a time, and shiny bugs, birds, and frogs will come to suck the lifeblood from your otherworldly garden. Once successfully collected, the organs go out front for sale at a strange store, a second side of the game that tracks a relationship between the staff, but doesn’t openly explain why a shop is selling jar after jar of human innards.

Developer Cavy House also showed off This Starry Midnight We Make, which uses Japanese esoteric cosmology as a basis for a slow-paced semi-puzzle game. Where Forget Me Not’s garden has players growing lungs and livers, This Starry Midnight We Make entices players to put points of light in a "basin" of constellations. Yoshino, director, programmer, and artist at Cavy House, said that the intention was for players to explore the game — which launched on Steam in May — to understand how to play it.

Daruma Souls

Daruma Soul takes Japan’s delightfully grumpy looking Daruma dolls and turns them into health indicators for a frantic vertical shoot-’em-up. You’ll need them, too. You play as a dumpy little ninja, sprinting through haunted forests and along pixelated highways, chucking an endless stream of shurikens at wave after wave of enemies. For enemies that can’t be killed by spinning metal disc — mustachioed tanks carrying sheets of steel, or blank-faced box men with helicopter heads that manage to work their way behind you — a flick of your iPhone’s screen will turn your ninja into a lethal wrecking ball.

The touchscreen controls make Daruma Soul feel responsive and precise, making it easy to duck in and out of danger as waves of bullets, rockets, and other projectiles fill the screen. It’s a shame you have to cover a portion of it with your thumb — Daruma Soul is relentlessly characterful and obscenely detailed, blessed with standout pixel art and the kind of buttery smooth animations that are required for such a fast-paced shooter. The iOS game is the work of Tengu Boys, a duo of developers who call Tokyo home. Unlike a lot of the Japanese developers at Bitsummit, for whom indie games are still a side-project, the boys of Tengu have quit their regular jobs to work full-time on the game. "It’s slowly becoming easier to become an indie developer in Japan," Tengu Boys’ Guuten told me, saying that he hopes to remain independent after Daruma Soul’s release this fall.

Airship Q

airship-q

Where the Tengu Boys were bullish on the everyday realities of life for indies in Japan, the creators of side-scrolling Minecraft-a-like Airship Q were a little more unsure. Kengo Nakajima, Airship Q’s lead programmer and designer, tells me he thinks it’ll be a few years before indies will be able to consistently support themselves in Japan. His game is one of the most polished on the show floor — a block-bashing PlayStation Vita platformer that plays like fellow indie hit Terraria — but Nakajima says he still has to hold down another job, working at Square Enix’s cloud gaming-focused offshoot, Shinra Technologies.

The sandbox Airship Q first appealed for money on Japanese crowdfunding site Makuake, before scoring a $680,000 investment from Cygames. The result fuses the kind of mechanics laid down by Minecraft — destroy a block, pick it up, craft things so you can destroy better blocks — with role-playing elements. Players quickly get their hands on their titular airship, and can add various armaments, components, and cabins onto it, building a free-floating vessel ready for a war in the sky.

While the game launched in Japan last September, it’s yet to see a release in Europe or North America. The connections to Minecraft and Terraria are obvious, but Nakajima arguably has a claim to be one of this new block-busting genre’s creators — in 2004, he coded Gumonji, a semi-simulation that looked like a proto-Minecraft interbred with online world Second Life.

Move or Die

move-or-die

Move or Die feels like a spiritual successor to Nintendo’s party game classic Wario Ware, developed just down the road from Bitsummit itself. The game, built by Romanian developer Those Awesome Guys, offers repeat bursts of short, sharp, and silly action, in which players are given a short countdown and a quick instruction on what to do — pass the bomb; wear the hat, jump on their heads.

I joined a group of three strangers already into their first match. We were split by native language and general unfamiliarity, with the game and each other, but two minutes into the experience, we were all audibly groaning or broadly grinning as we traded victories back and forth. Rules are quickly understood and the controls are — a few months from launch — already perfect, offering just the right amount of precision so that your failure feels like it comes at the hands of more skillful opponents. The game's developer is adding an online mode, but as with recent four-player classics like Towerfall, Move or Die will be best enjoyed with three friends crowded around the same PC screen.

A Healer Only Lives Twice

a healer only lives twice

You’re not the hero in A Healer Only Lives Twice. At least, you’re not the guy with the sword, killing cutesy monsters in a dark dungeon. You’re the guy standing just behind him, offering healing potions and spells to keep him alive as goblins, ghouls, and other blobby monsters take it in turns to strike at various parts of his body. Available on PS Vita and Windows, AHOLT starts slow, giving you ample time to repair your charge’s broken arms and busted-open head before the enemies overwhelm, but it’s not long before huge waves of enemies threaten to kill your friend in a few swipes.

To keep my pal healthy, I had to help him out with a few of the tougher monsters. You can’t control your warrior directly, but you can tell him to target specific columns of enemies. I whittled down one goblin who was standing in front of a power-up first, a red bauble that, once collected, let me cast a spell that cleared the board of enemies. At other times, AHOLT demands careful management and forethought. I wasted precious seconds trying to work out if I had the mana to repair my friend’s leg before it snapped — by the time I’d decided, he’d been overwhelmed by the forces of the dark.

The best of Verge Video