If you've been wondering where the great twin-stick shoot-em-ups have gone, you can be reassured to know you're not alone. Not because Witch Beam can offer you solidarity in your views, but because the Australian indie studio is trying to change all that with Assault Android Cactus, coming to Steam, PS4, Wii U, and Vita. After sinking hours into the game's Steam Early Access build, I'd say Witch Beam is onto something very promising.
"What we wanted to do [with Assault Android Cactus] was make a really good twin-stick shooter in an arcade style because we don't think there's been one in half a decade or something," Witch Beam's Sanatana Mishra told me. "The last one that was really great for me was Super Stardust HD. And I think, since then, we really need more."
Assault Android Cactus represents more than a (hopefully) really good twin-stick shooter to Witch Beam. It's a game the studio's three members felt they couldn't make when they were working together at Sega Studios Australia. There they put three years of their lives into London 2012: The Official Video Game, a game Mishra isn't proud of: "It wasn't very good."
He and his co-founders wanted to put their time into making games they really wanted to make, and so Witch Beam and Assault Android Cactus came about. While settling on a shoot-em-up was perhaps a little circumstantial, since it was a game the studio could make using their savings and without outsourcing, it's clearly a genre that appeals to Mishra. When I asked him about the game's inspirations, he quickly rattled off the Dodonpachi series, Deathsmiles, and old-school "arena" games like Robotron 2084. It's the battery mechanic that helps to set Assault Android Cactus apart. The battery can be thought of as the main health bar, automatically depleting as time wears on. When it's all out of juice, it's game over and you have to restart the level. Thankfully, you can replenish it by picking up the limited number of battery packs dropped by enemies across each level.
It's cleverer than that, though. Taking damage also depletes the battery, so you can't go wild and hope for the best. At the same time, you've only got so long to be cautious. Also, the battery packs are designed to drop at specific points across the level's timeline - it seemed to me by specific enemies - so you're often pushing the battery bar to the absolute limits as you wait for the next pack to drop, hoping you can somehow a) stay clear of enemy fire and b) find the damn thing.
It gives each level a tiered feeling, weird as it sounds - a Bit.Trip Beat-like sense of scraping through one stanza of frenziness before dealing with the next. It also has that same Bit.Trip Beat sense of feeling you can do a bit better, get a bit further each time. Assault Android Cactus' levels are not as stretched out, mind, but they look to be similarly sadistic.
As for multiplayer, it's a local-only, up-to-four-way affair, and it's frantic. Mishra described it as more like a "party game" compared to the tighter, harder single-player - the difficulty definitely felt reduced to me. The party game atmosphere comes from neglecting to go with sturdier enemies, the multiplayer instead upping their number to OMG-where-has-the-screen-gone levels. It's certainly chaotic, perhaps a little too chaotic, but that might be the nature of the beast.
A more unique and particularly cool aspect was the dynamism of certain levels. There was strong enough variability across the Early Access build's enclosed, arena-like levels, but the coolest ones were those that actually transmogrified throughout the play. Walls, pillars, gaps, and jets of fire switched in and out, ensuring I stayed on the tippiest of my toes. As the name suggests, there's a quirkiness about Assault Android Cactus, maybe a sense that it knows it can and should stand out.
One thing not suggested by the name is the game's range of platforms.
"I had a live interview yesterday," Mishra said, "And someone asked me, on-camera, 'Is it going to be coming to any platforms other than Android?' - after they'd played on a high-end PC with Xbox controllers for an hour."
For the record, that someone wasn't me. Also for the record, Mishra told me an Xbox 360 version is a possibility after Microsoft's recent self-publishing announcements. As it stands, Assault Android Cactus is gunning its way onto Steam for Windows PC around late November, early December, priced at $15. Other versions, including PS4, Vita, Wii U (featuring off-TV play as well as Wiimote and nunchuk support), Mac, and Linux, are scheduled for early 2014. An Android version is not happening.
Update: The game Mishra and co were working on at Sega Studios Australia was London 2012: The Official Video Game rather than Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympics. We've amended the post accordingly.