Recognized as Best Game of the Show at EVA 2017 and chosen as one of the finalists for the Indie Prize at Casual Connect USA 2018, Shadow Brawlers recently made its way to the Indie MEGABOOTH at GDC 2019.
Different Forms of Fighting
Developed by Team Güazú and published by Inca Games, Shadow Brawlers is a colorful and stylish fighter. At Indie MEGABOOTH, four people were able to compete against each other in a classic battle mode while they sat on beanbags. In thief mode, one player became the eponymous thief, while the others became guards that had to target the outlaw together. The game automatically switched the thief role with each round.
“At one point [we] had like eight game modes,” said Martín “Rojo” McGil, artist-designer and co-founder of Güazú. He explained that after brainstorming many ideas the team had begun to “prototype a lot of game modes.”
A some point on the project McGil said he and the rest of Güazú realized that most of the modes weren’t entirely finished or solid enough to release. This led to their decision to cut the modes that would take more time to finish, and those that were too similar to each other. McGil shared that the team wanted four polished game modes instead of possibly eight mediocre ones.
Güazú is based in Argentina, which is “one of the next emerging markets” according to Elizabeth Olson, the marketing director at the also Argentina-based Inca Games.
McGil said that game development started as a hobby. The action game Samurai Bamboo on itch.io was an early effort. Looking at it, Samurai Bamboo and its aesthetics feel like it could be seen as a precursor to Shadow Brawlers.
According to McGil, the group really came together when they did a year of freelance work for Cartoon Network Latin America. They worked together making web and mobile games for Teen Titans Go! and The Powerpuff Girls. “[It] made us stronger as a team, the three of us,” McGil said.
Shadow Brawlers was later born when McGil and Lojo participated in Ludum Dare 35, where the theme was “shapeshifting.” McGil shared that they thought color was a kind of shape, so that was used.
Casting Long Shadows
McGil added that they were also influenced by a Samurai Jack episode where the eponymous samurai camouflaged with light to fight a ninja that blended in with the dark. He said that they always wanted to make a game like that.
This led to him and Lojo creating the first prototype of Shadow Brawlers in just black and white. “It was very rough,” McGil admitted.
When Castez joined the new project, McGil said “the game changed a lot for the better.”
According to McGil, more color was added to make Shadow Brawlers more distinct from other games like Chambara, a title he only learned about after first developing the new fighter.
Taking the similarity in stride, McGil observed that everyone can end up with the same sort of influences. (According to Engadget, Samurai Jack was also one of the inspirations behind Chambara.)
Despite this, McGil said the team kept going because they wanted to make their own fighting game.
“I have to mention Rakugaki Showtime on PS1,” McGil added while continuing to discuss influences on Shadow Brawlers. McGil said the Japan-exclusive title had a lot of elements that made it a fun party fighting game, something the team wanted for their own fighter.
He also said TowerFall was another source of inspiration. “It’s super simple and super well done,” McGil said. “We really admire that game.”
One Hit Win
Deciding to just go for it, I make my character rush ahead into the dark and strike during the demo of Shadow Brawlers. Going on the offense pays off, as I immediately cut someone down. My rough strategy of just attacking repeatedly until I struck a hidden opponent had actually worked.
Before the demo, Olson had pointed out that leaving the remains of a target behind can reveal your own position.
It wasn’t an issue for me in this case. My character was already exposed since I’d failed to press the button to blend in with the surroundings. I may have also neglected to run alongside a background that could’ve camouflaged them.
Still, having the additional options for strategy, or my own personal convenience, was nice. With the press of a button, my character could change color and pop out from a background that previously hid them. This had the pleasant side-effect of enabling me to find them again if I lost track of where they went. It was pretty easy to lose sight of both your competition and your own character during gameplay.
There are other ways to track your character besides using the color switch control. McGil said you can get used to the timing of your character’s jump to figure out where they are. He was pleased with the slipperiness of character visibility during combat.
“That feels amazing, like a real ninja fight,” McGil said. “You’re hiding and suddenly you appear and destroy your enemy.”
In The Blink of an Eye
The fights in Shadow Brawler can go quick, especially since it takes only one hit to take down an opponent. Besides the replayability value, it feels fitting that ninjas can swiftly make single strikes to eliminate their targets.
McGil added that you have a few decisions to make against your competition. As such it’s important to start reading your opponent right away to figure out the best strategy.
“I’m proud of the fighting system because I feel it’s really solid,” McGil said. “You have to think to beat your opponent. Besides that, you have to be quick.”
The combat system extends to what initially appears to be a simple score countdown after every quick bout. When I realized my character could still move while the scores were being listed, I immediately tried my luck and attacked one of my competitors. My strike landed, they went down, and soon we were all fighting again even as the last bout was still being scored.
“You never stop moving and fighting in the game,” McGil said, explaining why the team let people continue to play during the score screen.
Hints of a Multiverse Roster
While Shadow Brawlers has undeniable affinity for ninjas, McGil said the team wanted more variety in character design.
“Think of them more like mage, sorcerer,” McGil said. “Didn’t want to make only ninjas.”
McGil expanded on this, describing the roster of playable characters as interdimensional beings, like demons, witches, and even the more traditional ninjas.
— Rojo 🔜 in bed for a week (@MartinMcGil) February 27, 2019
He said that fighters warping between different levels are actually warping between different timelines, like steampunk and cyberpunk eras. McGil added that some characters are linked to certain levels, such as the steampunk level and the steampunk character.
“We made what we wanted with the characters,” McGil said. He also explained that they created a varied roster to increase the chance of having a relatable character for everyone. McGil believed in giving players the choice to choose their favorite characters and feel ownership over them, and later affection for them too.
Shadow Brawlers is currently in early access on Steam. The game’s page goes into more detail, saying that part of the goal is to get more player feedback from people “in order to improve the quality of gameplay.”