"There's a bunch of ghetto hip-hop frogs out there, apparently," Olivier Thijssen, Ronimo Games co-founder tells me. "We thought it was an original idea, then we looked it up and ... it wasn't." Ronimo's Jasper Koning chimes in, saying that any direct inspiration for the '80s pastiche of Awesomenauts was "mostly subconscious," though keen-eyed observers will certainly spot hints of Galaxy Rangers and Bucky O'Hare. "When we started out, we wanted to do something like Earthworm Jim," says Thijssen, "that was our main inspiration in the beginning." As development continued, the retro atmosphere began to reveal itself. "It wasn't a conscious decision at first, but it became that later."
But simply playing on a generation's nostalgia isn't enough to carry a game (Matt Hazard says hello), and thankfully Awesomenauts delivers something unique yet familiar: a console-friendly, 2D multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) experience.
The decision to create a MOBA for consoles, and to make it 2D, was a matter of passion and circumstance. When development first began in 2009, Thijssen says the Ronimo team was playing a lot of DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) and, since the studio was working on the downloadable title Swords and Soldiers, it had 2D tech on hand. "It made sense for us to try and bring that [MOBA] gameplay to console, and since we love 2D stuff and we had 2D tech, it made a lot of sense to do it like this," says Thijssen, "and luckily no one else thought of the same thing."
Make no mistake, Awesomenauts is definitely a MOBA title. It may not have the dizzying array of options seen in a game like League of Legends, but for people who don't have the dedication to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of abilities and items, Awesomenauts' pared down approach may come as a blessing. The basic structure remains the same: each team must work together with its A.I. minions to take down the opposing team's defensive turrets and destroy the drill core at the center of its base.
Every character has a basic attack and two special abilities, all of which can be upgraded with items purchased during matches. Each character has a couple dozen possible upgrade options, with the more advanced options requiring persistently earned experience to unlock. You configure your selected character with a handful of these options before the match begins -- creating your 'build' as it were. Once the match starts, you have enough Solar (i.e. money) to grab one or two abilities. What you choose to buy is up to you. Just like any MOBA, half the fun is in finding a favorite character and then discovering the perfect build strategy.
Koning's favorite (and mine) is Leon, a stealthy, reptilian assassin. His trademark ability turns him invisible while simultaneously deploying a decoy clone. Koning configures Leon for maximum burst damage, equipping him with an exploding stealth clone. Combined with the bonus damage Leon deals out when attacking from stealth, it makes for a devastating one-two punch. I joke that he must not be very popular in the office. "It's totally not true," he says. "Everybody hates everybody when we're play testing," he adds, laughing. "Somewhat strangely, you lose all your social capabilities when you start playing MOBA games."
Thijssen, meanwhile, has been playing Sheriff Lonestar, whom he refers to simply as "cowboy." Thjijssen skips Lonestar's special abilities altogether, instead investing solely in his basic attack. "It's a lot of fun because most of the guys in the office just expect you to use skills to do your main damage, and they don't anticipate you just walking up to them and doing lots of damage by just shooting." Having fallen victim to this exact build myself, I can attest to its effectiveness.
That's only two of practically endless combinations. Personally, I prefer stacking Leon with attack speed, extra backstab damage and a health-stealing tongue attack. Discovering viable strategies (and how to defend against them), will be a main draw for Awesomenauts.
People will eventually settle into the same patterns though, so it's important for Ronimo to keep things fresh. Thijssen says that the downloadable content strategy for Awesomenauts centers on new characters. "Adding more characters adds more replayability, we found, than adding more maps." Ronimo doesn't plan on adding more maps "unless a lot of people start asking for it, and [then] we'll consider it." He elaborates that the value a new map adds to the experience doesn't compare with the amount of work required to create one.
Beyond the console releases, Ronimo is working to bring Awesomenauts to PC. The ubiquitous platform makes frequent updates very simple -- something of a necessity for a competitive title -- whereas cost and lengthy certification processes can get in the way of timely updates on console.
The studio is talking with the Awesomenauts console publisher DTP, as a proper PC port will require financial support. Koning notes that it would require rebuilding the game's backend, not to mention reworking its control scheme (something the team is actively experimenting with already). "We could just port the current version and release the characters as DLC, I guess," says Koning, "but if we want to go to PC, we want to do it full on. Like League of Legends where you have lots of stuff to unlock, to make it a full MOBA in that sense."
Even without the copious items and stat boosts we've come to expect, Awesomenauts certainly feels like a 'full' MOBA already. Based on the time I've spent with it, Awesomenauts is definitely one to watch out for when it launches on XBLA and PSN this May.
Oh, and that toy I remembered that looked like Froggy G? I did eventually find out what it was. Try and tell me there isn't a resemblance.