Charlie Knight's first successful game was an arena shooter called Bullet Candy. It made some money, attracted praise and propelled Charlie onto his next project, another shooter but more ambitious. This was five years ago.
“It was completely mouse controlled with a simple gesture system that worked by clicking the mouse and waving your hand about,” he tells me. “The actual gesture bit worked pretty well, but the game became too much for me to handle in the end."
The ambition proved to be the game's undoing. “I'd been programming a system whereby the game would learn how you played and which special attacks you preferred and would counteract by creating situations which forced you to use different powers or strategies. The problem was it grew ever more complex with every addition and, after two years, had grown into something that was out of control, that I'd never finish well.”
So what did he do? “I dropped it and wrote Space Phallus.”
I'm not sure I was ever good at shoot 'em ups. I’d always run aground somewhere, hit a personal skill ceiling and realise it was time to move onto a different game. Space Invaders with its fixed attack pattern was easy to learn and master, but I still have the memory of never surviving beyond the first few waves of Jeff Minter's Gridrunner. This is why I hesitate firing up Space Giraffe. This is why I get nervous and shaky around shooters.
But hermitgames' Leave Home and Oueo Factory's Debrysis rekindled my shooting reflex. Shooters are a strange hybrid of casual and hardcore, easy to dive into but demanding devotion, endurance and, perhaps, a little love to conquer. In particular, they satisfy a certain need to feel like a real hardcore gamer even if you are starved of time.
So going back to last summer, Charlie's Games was offering two shooters - the undersea vertical shoot 'em up Irukandji and arena shooter Bullet Candy Perfect - for $1 plus donation. A large enough donation would put you on the pre-order list for his next game, Scoregasm.
I bought in.
Nature In Neon
Charlie wrote Irukandji as an experiment. Taking inspiration from the iOS games, he wanted to know if he could develop a game and start selling it in just two weeks.
“The game took thirteen days from starting the project to making its first sale,” Charlie explains. “I think the experiment worked well as I’ve sold a fair few copies. Plus I think it looks nice, and it’s fairly good fun. The downside is that some parts of it aren’t quite as refined as they might be.”
Populated with neon starfish, jellyfish and seahorses, the game has a striking alien-undersea look, and possesses a curious languid feel.
But I struggled with it and have never managed to finish a single wave.
One issue is the controls, which require different buttons to direct fire to the left or right – unfortunately, my fingers are now trained for twin-stick shooters. The other issue was the bullet hell crab boss. I’m not so much of a fan of bullet hell – a far too vivid echo of the coin-guzzling arcades' twitch-or-die gameplay - but it's possible I'm just not experienced enough.
I ask Charlie whether it was intentionally hardcore: “I don't really set out to make any of my games 'hardcore' as I want people to be able to play what they've bought. But the gameplay preceding the crab doesn't really require any precision movement at all. That jump between whizzing around shooting wildly and having to dodge a close knit pattern of bullets is quite jarring.”
Charlie is already working on a sequel to Irukandji.
Bullet Candy Perfect is a complete reworking of Charlie’s original Bullet Candy.
The beauty of the game is not immediately apparent but while Irukandji is the better looker, it was Bullet Candy Perfect I wanted to spend the night with. It grows on you with every wave: enemies that flood the screen with sparks; the satisfaction of grabbing an invulnerability powerup and pummelling everything in your path; the spinners' bullets that spread across the playfield like a wave of hot, viscous magma. I fired it up again this week after a fallow year just to refresh my memory and, despite my intention to play only a couple of waves, I played all the way until the end - completing it for the first time.
It still seduces.
It’s not all peaches and cream. Sometimes I came away from a death thinking the game had forced it upon me, that it was unavoidable. There's also the ‘suicide’ option which is difficult to wrap your head around; with the right button press, you can terminate two lives and preserve both powerups and the current score multiplier. I could never will myself to give up lives like this, always hoping against hope that I would survive a cliff hanger moment.
Suicide has been the most problematic feature of the game. “I think the main thing that's wrong with it is that it feels counterintuitive to purposely kill yourself,” says Charlie. “The other issue is that it's not as necessary on the easiest difficulty as it is on the harder ones, so you don't really get to learn how to use it until you develop some skill in not using it, if that makes sense. I've had numerous emails from people about this over the last five years, some asking what it's for, and some telling me about the AHA! moment when it clicked.”
He adds, “I think Bullet Candy is probably the most Marmite game I've done.”
Bullet Candy Perfect, even with niggles, is good fun. At times, it strongly evokes Robotron, the great grandma of arena shooters.
Charlie, though, wanted to make a proper followup to Bullet Candy, as Bullet Candy Perfect was just a visual upgrade. After other projects hadn’t worked out, he turned his hand to an arena shooter that was originally dubbed Bullet Candy 2. Unlike his previous unnamed two-year project that got replaced with Space Phallus, it would actually be released. Today.
Let's look at Scoregasm, a game Charlie has been working on for two years.
I ask Charlie if the Charlie Knight of five years ago, the one that wrote Bullet Candy, would have enjoyed Scoregasm. He says, “I think he'd very much enjoy it, yes. To be honest I think it's probably what he would have liked Bullet Candy to be.”
And that’s what you need to know. This is Bullet Candy on steroids. No, hang on. This is Bullet Candy on steroids that are on steroids. Two years of evolution, experimentation and polishing have delivered a gaming experience of incredible refinement.
A good analogue is Shatter, which takes Breakout and makes everything more fun and throws some innovation into the mix. That’s what Scoregasm is to Bullet Candy. Every wave in Scoregasm is unique, not just a recombination of enemies you’ve previously seen. Waves are also laid out on a map, so you can pick and choose where you want to play rather than being forced to play from the first wave every time. And the game is only difficult if you choose to make it so - you can play for score, switch the game to expert mode or work through the often ludicrous parallel-universe challenge versions of each wave.
By the way, I’m in the game - an automatic sales boost for any developer, I imagine:
From the camera whooshing across the arena as a wave opens to the final frenzy if you've attained the combo target - these pieces of Scoregasm's theatre fit together perfectly. Whilst there are all sorts of gameplay tweaks that enrich the game, it is the close-range attack that stands as the most important component of Scoregasm, changing everything about how you play.
The close-range attack is an explosive blast which takes out everything, including bullets, within a small radius of your ship. It cannot be used ad infinitum as it has a power level, which recharges as you shoot down enemies (waiting also works but it's a great deal slower). This attack turns much of the game into a cycle of close-range attacks followed by retreats and firing from afar. It’s like breathing – in, out, in, out – until the wave is over. It is enormously fun.
I must add that Scoregasm feels very British. Its game-beating rewards are biscuits and the main theme is… cheeky, quietly pointing out that the game is just a laugh and not to be taken entirely seriously.
It is sublime.
Before Charlie Knight was a full-time indie developer, he was a professional gardener. With Scoregasm finally released, I ask if he misses gardening.
“Not especially," he says. "Sometimes I think I do, but probably it's more to do with the memory of a steady income than the actual work itself.”
But he adds: “Well, that and the fresh air.”