With the PC proving to be a fertile ground for indie developers, the platform is also proving to be immensely popular amongst shmup evangelists. To this extent, we’ve seen big-hitters such as Blue Revolver, ZeroRanger, and Crimzon Clover be released for the platform, as well as rather more obscure titles such as Super XYX and Missile Dancer. September 2020 will also see the arrival of Crisis Wing and Ginga Force.

As part of this wave of PC-bound indie shmups, the upcoming Mechanical Star Astra has also been carving out quite a name for itself. And with so many gamers anticipating its release, I thought it best to find out a little bit more about the title, and to also speak to its creator (Bosshog) on what his goals are for the project. Enjoy!

First off, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, where are you from, and what made you decide in wanting to become a games developer?

Hello! I’m Boghog, a 27 year old indie developer who lives in Latvia. I’ve always been interested in some types of game design (level editors were always my jam) but was too intimidated by programming to commit fully. What got me to give it a whirl is seeing a friend of mine work on his game. He helped me get started, and after I got over the initial learning curve, gamedev hooked me. It can be very tough and frustrating but the satisfaction you get from seeing your games in action makes it worth it!

You previously released the run and gun platform shooter – Redpulse. Aside from this game, what’s your background in game development, and what tips would you give to aspiring game developers?

I’ve been casually dabbling in game development on my own for years, making small unreleased prototypes and learning the ropes. I’m still very much a beginner & outsider that’s getting the hang of things.

Some advice based on my own experiences – don’t let a lack of confidence hold you back from trying things out, they’re probably simpler than they seem! Put yourself out there, get involved in communities! Game developers are quite friendly and helpful. You might meet cool people, stumble upon new opportunities, learn a lot about development and get some much needed support & exposure. Don’t neglect advertising, it’s an important skill set you have to learn if you want to be an independent developer.

You’ve opted to make Mechanical Star Astra in GameMaker. What influenced your decision in wanting to work with this particular game engine as opposed to something else – like Unity? What advantages and disadvantages have there been to using GameMaker? At the same time, what other software are you using – for asset creation purposes etc?

GMS gives me pretty much all the tools I need, and I’m very familiar with it, so I never felt the need to switch to a different engine for 2D games. It comes with a lot of nice built-in parameters, the fixed timestep system is great for shmups because it makes implementing replays, intentional slowdown and fast forwarding easy, surfaces allow for easy TATE mode and gadgets, and the forgiving syntax lets me do things quicker. My biggest complaint – the script system – has recently been revamped and is now far more convenient. Now, 3D game development is a different story, GMS is rather barebones and does not make it convenient. So if I decide to work on a 3D game in the future, I doubt I’ll be sticking with GMS.

I use Aseprite for pixel art and FL Studio for sound effects and music. @CHARLENEMAXIMUM uses GraphicsGale for the pixel art.

How long has Mechanical Star Astra been in development for? What made you decide in wanting to make it as a vertical shooter, as opposed to it being a horizontal shooter, or both (like Salamander)? At the same time, what was the inspiration for the project, and what do you want to achieve with the finished product?

The game’s been in development for 9 months so far. The vertical screen orientation is a result of personal preference, I’ve always felt that it made reading and dodging dense patterns feel more natural. And it just looks cooler, seeing the sides of tanks, ships and mechs doesn’t quite do it for me.

CAVE games, Psyvariar, Rayforce, Border Down, Gunbird 2, Mars Matrix and Star Soldier were big influences, but I took things from all over the place. Racing games and precision platformers helped me understand the value of lower commitment score-attack modes that most shmups lack. 2D beat ’em ups inspired a lot of my decisions for co-op. Shmup co-op lacks player interaction, so I thought it would be fun to bring over the idea of friendly fire from beat ’em ups, but adapt it to fit shmup gameplay. Shinji Mikami’s games and design philosophy in general are very inspiring to me. Their heavy use of invincibility frames and the layered learning curves in particular. They always have some neat tricks that change and open up the general gameplay a lot.

I want a game that’ll be a go-to choice for beginner shmup recommendations due to a wide variety of different gameplay modes, and a very strong core arcade mode that’ll give hardcore fans a lot to chew on in terms of challenge and scoring depth. And I want to give players who want to get good at bite sized shmup challenges a place to go!

Still very much a work-in-progress, but here’s the first boss from Mechanical Star Astra.

Mechanical Star Astra is being developed by two people – yourself and Lyn-Marie Charlene Excelsia (@CHARLENEMAXIMUM). How did this collaboration come about, and who else is involved? How are you collaborating amongst yourselves – especially during Covid-19 restrictions? Who comes up with the ideas, and how do you organise and implement these as part of a cost-effective workflow whilst ensuring that the direction, scope, and scale of the project remains in check?

It happened quite randomly – Charlene posted a collab offer in the gamedev channel of the shmups discord (https://discord.me/shmups), I saw it, messaged her and we teamed up.

Since we live in different parts of the world, we organized things online from the beginning, using discord and google. When starting out, I already had a working level and a whole bunch of art assets (it was a solo project like Redpulse at first). Charlene used what I made as a basis and built on it. The workflow developed naturally from there on out. I’m in charge of programming, gameplay design and making a bunch of temp assets. Charlene handles the art, world-building and turns my rough unfinished designs into cool-looking, cohesive art. Since we’re a 2 person team the roles aren’t set in stone and we’re constantly giving each other ideas.

We’re more or less on the same wavelength when it comes to shmup design, and kinda let the game shape itself over time only going off a very general plan. So the development thus far had a very nice, relaxing feel to it. The nature of the genre does a good job at keeping the scope in check – you can only go so crazy with a 5 stage long arcade mode. A lot of the crazier ideas have been relegated to extra modes and missions, which we’ll get to after the main meat of the game is done. We’re also planning on releasing several demos, so that’s bound to keep us grounded. But with game development you never know!

I’m the sort of gamer who mainly plays shmups in order to see everything and get to the very end, and generally appreciates them for their graphics, bosses, soundtrack, and level design. At the same time however, there are those who mainly play shmups for their scoring system (where they get to chain enemies) and for survival (where they get to complete the game using 1CC).

Given that shmups attract different sets of players with their own unique game-playing style, what strategies are you implementing so as to placate these different sets of players? More to the point however, how does Mechanical Star Astra tie in with your own shmup playing sensibilities?

On the most basic level, our goal is to make a game that looks stylish and feels satisfying to play. The player should feel like a badass with overwhelming firepower. They should be excited at the prospect of taking cool looking, screen filling bosses apart piece-by-piece. They should smile when they see big, juicy explosions and debris flying everywhere. It should be a game that captures the juvenile fun of action games, that kinda stuff appeals to everyone regardless of their playstyle.

Speaking more technically, I think there are more-or-less 3 main playstyles – credit feeding (using continues when you die, especially in games with unlimited credits which revive you on the spot), survival (playing for a 1CC rather than score) and scoring.

In my view, credit feeding is a symptom of the repeated failure on the part of the developers to adapt to the home console environment & offer a compelling experience to casual players. It benefits nobody – hardcore players largely ignore it, casual players get a very short and unsatisfying game and seldom see reasons to stick around. I think even if you’re a more casual player, you still want a challenge, some tension and goals when playing shmups, and credit feeding as a play-style doesn’t offer that on its own.

My goal is to try and offer an alternative in the form of short, bite-sized missions inspired by Trackmania, N++, Super Meat Boy, and other games in that vein. The missions will be short and varied, offering different goals based on what kind of rank the player wants to get. If I recall correctly, some mobile games like Bullet Hell Monday also used this approach, though the meta level up systems always put me off.

Besides that, the main arcade mode will have a route balanced for beginners or people who just want to shoot their way through the game. Continues will be in the game in some form in case the players just want to play through the whole game without interruptions, or use it as practice, but they will either be buried in the options menu, or send you back to a checkpoint.

When it comes to scoring, my goal is to nudge the player towards working on their scores even if their initial goal is just to clear the game, by making it intuitive and giving survival-related reasons to improve.

A lot of the behaviors required for scoring help you stay alive. Getting close to enemies not only gives you more points but lets you kill them quicker and gives you more energy to spend on special attacks. Special weapon use gives you a lot of golden cubes for points, but it also helps you do damage and clears the screen/makes you invincible. Getting a lot of golden cubes lets you get more special medals, picking up which makes you invincible for a brief period of time. I want to make it so that as you get better scores, the game opens up and gives you more tools to work with instead of restricting you. On top of all that, hitting score goals within stages will give you back health, and unlock harder variations of stages.

What would you regard as being your favourite shmup developer and why? At the same time, what are your favourite three retro shmups, and favourite three modern shmups – ie games that you believe deserve “classic” status and which you’d wholeheartedly recommend to other shmup fans?

Predictable answer, but my favorite developer has got to be CAVE. They consistently put out very high quality shmups, and their library is varied enough that any kind of player will find something to enjoy. You have the traditional danmaku games like Dodonpachi, the Toaplan inspired Donpachi and Dangun Feveron, Shinobu Yagawa’s games, terrain-based horizontal scrollers like Deathsmiles and even crazy, one of a kind experiments like Guwange! I can keep coming back to their library and always find new things to appreciate, whether it’s games I overlooked, or some strange but fun arrange modes. The other big draw for me is how damn good the games feel to play – the movement, shot sprites, scoring items, explosions, everything just feels right and has a high amount of visual polish.

Favorite shmups:
RayForce: Taito at their best, great all around. Still the go-to example for building believable, tangible environments in vertical shmups.
Gun.Smoke (Arcade): Fantastic game with unique bloodthirsty enemies that react to your movement, are unpredictable as hell and will take advantage of your inability to shoot behind you.
Gun Frontier: Another very influential Taito game, known for inspiring Battle Garegga and did a lot of the things it’s famous for before it was cool.

Favorite modern-ish shmups :
Psyvariar Delta: My favorite shmup of all time, Revision in particular. It may look unremarkable at a glance but the gameplay itself is incredible. Forget dodging bullets, here you’re aggressively chasing them down!
Dragon Blaze: Characters that feel very different to play, satisfying melee dragon shot mechanic, a decent variety of special attacks that all have their uses, densely packed levels that don’t waste a second, insanely fast bullets, hard as hell. Psikyo at their best.
Muchi Muchi Pork: One of those games where you can’t help but play for score just because of how damn satisfying it is. And unlike most other games designed by Yagawa, here you get to keep all those extra lives you earn!

Favorite “modern” (2010>) shmups :
– Crimzon Clover World Ignition: Unbelievably detailed and well polished love letter to CAVE. Shout out to the fantastic Time Attack mode that shouldn’t be overlooked!
ALLTYNEX Second: Awesome shmup with a pretty robust moveset and methodical gameplay, less about dodging and more about smart use of your tools.
Strania The Stella Machina: A great example of a terrain based vertical scroller, also in my opinion the best looking 3D shmup ever made.

Even though Dragon Blaze and Tengai are lauded amongst Psikyo fans, I’m personally more of a fan of the company’s military shmup series – with Strikers 1945 III being a particular highlight. Hopefully there’ll be more details of the upcoming Strikers 2020 sequel being released soon…

Finally… When do you think Mechanical Star Astra will be released? What platforms will the game be released on? Are there any plans for future DLC? And what other projects do you have in the pipeline?

It’s a bit early to say, an optimistic estimate would be late 2021, but we will periodically release demos, starting from this very October! Right now we’re focusing solely on PC, but as we get further into development we’ll definitely look into console releases, it would be cool to have it on as many platforms as possible. Hopefully the world’s still intact by then.

DLC depends on how well the game does – it would be cool to release some arrange modes or mission packs down the line.

I’m fully focused on Mechanical Star Astra myself, but everyone should check out @CHARLENEMAXIMUM’s other project, The Joylancer, which is going to be getting a huge update soon. It has the same over-the-top stylish arcade action spirit!

Thank you so very much!

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