‘Knights and Bikes’ Is a New Game Aimed at the Hearts of Eighties Kids
Inspired by 'The Goonies' and 'Secret of Mana', the first game from new studio Foam Sword is one you need to know about.
Most of the time, I hear about a game and I'm like, yeah, I'll maybe play that if you actually take the effort to put it in front of me, and even then probably not until next year. Some of the time, I hear about a game and I actively make an effort to play it, to get under its surface systems, to understand what makes it tick. They're not so common, those games, but there's still enough of them for us to make a top 20 releases of any given year, with titles to spare.
And then, very rarely, a game comes along that I know next to nothing about until it's suddenly all over Twitter, being shared by big-name game-makers, where it looks amazing, and its simple, elevator-pitch-style messaging flicks all of my switches. Then, then, I'm straight on the phone: what is this thing you're making, how has it happened, and when can I have it?
In case it wasn't obvious, Knights and Bikes falls into this latter category of forthcoming release. As soon as I saw its entrancing visuals and Kickstarter topline of "a co-op adventure game about childhood inspired by The Goonies and EarthBound," I had to get onto its makers, Foam Sword, for the bottom line on the game behind its from-out-of-nowhere reveal.
'Knights and Bikes', Kickstarter launch trailer
Knights and Bikes is ostensibly an action RPG played from a (not directly) top-down perspective. It stars a pair of main protagonists, Nessa and Demelza, who set out to save the strange Cornish island of Penfurzy from reality developers and/or an array of fantastical monsters that may well be serving as metaphors for real-life problems. One of the girls' companions is the pickled severed head of a fallen knight. Another is a goose. Its key ingredients, to quote directly from its Kickstarter page, are "SNES-era action RPG", hand-drawn 3D world", "1980s island setting" and "excitable adventurous kids... on bikes".
The game is the brainchild of two key partners: Rex Crowle, previously creative lead on Tearaway, and Moo Yu, gameplay programmer on Ratchet & Clank. They've each also made smaller games, and they worked together on Media Molecule's multi-award-winning LittleBigPlanet, albeit before they realised the potential for a collaborative project. I called Moo to have him explain a whole lot more about what's already shaping up to be a special adventure.
VICE: Right, Moo, when did Rex and yourself come up with Knights & Bikes? As it's the sort of title where the world, the characters and the gameplay look as if they've had a fair amount of time to come together.
Moo Yu: We met at Media Molecule, working on LittleBigPlanet, and I'd been a fan of his artwork before then, back when I lived in the States (Moo is currently in London). I didn't know who the artist was, back then, and to begin with we didn't work too closely together, but I quickly came to have an appreciation of what he does, and his abilities. When I left Molecule, I was making a little iPhone game, and he helped me with the artwork. That game never came to fruition, but that was when we started working a little more closely. We then made a Facebook game together, Monstrosity, about raising monsters from table-sized things to being able to destroy Paris. That was a lot of fun. He did some icon art for another iPhone game I did. We kept in touch after that, and remained friends.
Knights and Bikes has been brewing for, I'd say, two years, in a very passive way. It was one of these things that first came about when we were out for a couple of pints, and Rex mentioned the idea. You usually see these ideas go nowhere, but this one grabbed me immediately, and I began working on it during nights and weekends, asking Rex what he thought of ideas I had as I went along. Every now and then he'd sketch some stuff up. We didn't dedicate any real time to it, but we were always passing ideas back and forth. One time, he scanned in a sketchbook page, and I cut out what images I could and made them into sprites, and made a little prototype where you commanded these little characters on bikes – it was always important to have a gang of kids on bikes. That was made in Unity, I shared it with him, and because he also had Unity, he started putting new assets in. So we've never really dedicated all that much time to it, until recently, but we've been talking about it a lot over the past couple of years.
So what was Rex's original pitch? Is that where the Goonies parallel was born?
I think that EarthBound and Secret of Mana were the first touchstones we discussed – and just like I've never played through all of EarthBound, I don't think he's played all of Secret of Mana. But these are important games to us, from our childhoods, and we wanted to sort of find a game that melds those influences as it passed from one brain to the other. So I've brought things to Knights and Bikes that are based on my experiences of playing Secret of Mana on the SNES. I played through it with my friends, and I want that to be the optimal way to play Knights and Bikes – you with a friend, playing together. I think we're very aware that not everyone will be able to play it in that way, so we're making sure that the single-player experience is just as rewarding as going through it collaboratively. But I think there's really something extra about going through a game together, having to coordinate what you're doing. You end up in arguments, but it's an amazing thing to do with best friends. I used to play Secret of Mana with my best friends, like, once a year until I moved to the UK. It's just one of those games that has so many memories for me, from throughout the ages. It's a shame that there's no network version of it, so I could play through it again with them now.
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Oh, man, I would love Mana on a modern, net-enabled machine. Chrono Trigger is so good on the DS, I wish that Mana was on it, too. Anyway, the setting of Knights and Bikes is interesting to me. I'm from the south of England, and I've holidayed in Cornwall plenty of times, and I have family there. There's something about its history that allows mythology to creep into factual accounts, isn't there? Like Tintagel being the site of King Arthur's birth. What drew you to set the game there?
Well, Rex lives down there, and he grew up on a farm down there before he moved to London to be an artist and make video games. So I think a lot of the decision is drawing from his childhood. But also there's this idea of it being a place where there's enough mystery for you not to know what's real and what isn't, and you blur the two together to make this fantastical world – and that's something we really wanted in the game. One of the great, and slightly horrible, things about childhood is that you just don't know "the rules", so anything is possible – but it's also scary, because you don't know how the world really works. So we're trying to play on both sides of that same coin.
And that ties into The Goonies, where you've got this gang of kids, and bad things are happening to the parents, but they're not really sure how to process that. So off they go on this wild adventure that could basically get them all killed. We see in the game's trailer this eviction notice, so clearly our heroines are doing what they are to rectify this state of disorder in their lives... right?
Absolutely, and it's interesting, I think, that when you're a kid, losing your home is a big deal, but you don't see the even bigger picture. You've never been through something that extreme. So on the one hand you don't worry enough; and on the other, you can worry too much and your imagination goes wild. I think we want to address these very real-life problems, and present them through the innocence of children. This is an opportunity for us to use that lens to make things a lot more playful than they otherwise might be.
We're not really pushing any particular message. This should be an enjoyable experience, first. And if it touches on some serious issues along the way, then that's nice and it adds depth to it, and will make it stick with you longer. But if the message is too apparent, it can actually be hard to take it in, because you can feel it being pushed at you. Then you're always fighting it. We just want you to enjoy the game, and have a lot of thoughts go through your head as you're playing it.
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The game's Kickstarter's doing pretty well. You're well over a third of the way to your $100,000 target after 48 hours. How does that feel?
It's amazing how generous people are being. We're big Kickstarter backers ourselves, so we understand the psychology, but when you're on the receiving side of over a thousand pledges, it's incredible and kind of overwhelming. On top of that, the reaction on Twitter has been unbelievable. So many of our heroes have got behind this.
So, one of my favourite games of all time is Beyond Good & Evil, and that game's designer, Michel Ancel, left a comment on our Kickstarter page saying that he's behind us. That's such a surreal moment – I had to post a comment asking if it was the real Michel Ancel. My brain still can't really process it.
And finally, you've said the game's made in Unity. To my perhaps naïve brain, that means that it's easier to port from PC and Mac, your launch platforms, to console. Is it fair enough to say that I'll be able to play it on my PS4, sometime?
Yeah, I think so, and that's one of the reasons why we chose it, to keep our options open. I think it's something we're thinking about, seriously – we're both experienced in making console games, and we've developed the game for use with a controller. So we've started conversations with the platform holders, but we need to get those discussions across the line. I wouldn't be surprised to see it on consoles, one day. We're weighing up the pros and cons of the various options right now, and working out how much bandwidth we have to play with. If we can only do one console port, we need to work out which one the best is. So we're looking into that.
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