Bitsummit 2023 in review: Japan's biggest indie games festival
Bitsummit has come and gone once again, and although it happened earlier this year (July versus August), it was still as fun as ever. This year, in its 11th iteration, the indie game festival's title was “Let’s Go!!” – which seems to be a happy invitation as Japan’s borders are open once again, as well as looking forward to the amazing indies that are coming up soon.
It was exciting to see the ever-present Bitsummit stage, where the live shows and streamed events happened, as well as the familiar Nintendo and Sony areas! Even more exciting yet was seeing familiar faces from last year in more prestigious settings (as opposed to the individual tables from last year), such as Cuisineer in the Marvelous tables and Paper Trail in the Sony booth.
But Bitsummit isn’t just about the established devs with their indie darlings, or small indie devs showing off their latest piece. It’s also a space showing the potential of future developers. One such example is in the Bitsummit Game Jam area, with the theme "For the future." There, we played PastLine — a jam game featuring a small robot that used a camera to arm itself. Players take photos of weapons and the robot obtains replicas of the photographed items. Zooming in created smaller versions of the item while zooming out resulted in larger versions. As it was a jam project (games developed from scratch within a very limited time frame), it needed more polish to be sure, but it was a fun concept.
Another fun area was the make.ctrl.Japan 6 corner. Make.crtl.Japan is an event that showcases games using alternative controllers — the games featured were not set to be publicized, but just demonstrated the fun ways that games could be played. This year, we were able to try Jet Cola, where you’re given a Coke-shaped bottle to shake vigorously. The controller was synced to a game wirelessly, where it showed an upside-down cola bottle that would soon launch with the force of the pressure built up by the player shaking the bottle. The higher you go, the higher your score was. It was a workout to be sure!
Another was Gekisou! Coinland! (Gekisou meaning “flat-out run” or “driving at full speed”). In this one, the controller was the coin-insert mechanism of an arcade machine. Inserting a coin into the slot made the character (who is endlessly running forward) jump, and collecting coins in the game caused more coins to eject in reality for the player to use.
Finally, there were a lot of indie devs on the floor. Each of them showed a playable demo that one could try and see the games in action. As much as we would have loved to play every demo on the floor, it would have been near impossible to — there were just so many, and some booths were quite popular. But we were able to play a few, and we’re excited to share our thoughts on some of them.
We were also able to interview two titles for which Bitsummit was their first in-person event, if not their first public announcement of the game! We’ll be featuring those two in separate articles, along with a dev interview, so please keep your eyes peeled!
Green and I played a couple of demos, and here are our thoughts.
Rincs’ Demo Plays
Developer: Team Woll
Website (There’s an English option right under the title.)
A toast always lands butter-side down. A cat always lands on its feet. If you put the two together back-to-back? You get the gravity-defying Cato. Cato is a 2D puzzle platformer game where the goal is to go through the underground gauntlet, controlling the cat and the toast in order to get out of the underground that Cat and Toast both fell into.
The game’s controls were solid and responsive and, as far as the demo goes, I found the puzzle difficulty curve going up in a nice and gentle slope — save for the very last puzzle where I eventually got gently kicked out due to the time limit being 15 minutes per player. The puzzles were fun, and the game introduces new mechanics to keep the puzzle gameplay fresh. Graphics were on-point, and I honestly can’t wait for the game’s release!
WITCHSPRING R Developer: KIWIWALKS
This game was somewhat reminiscent of the Atelier games, but you’re the young witch Pieberry, a pie-loving witch that has never gone outside of The Black Forest. Having discovered how to take powers from the gods, the entire world is now out to hunt witches. The demo gameplay consisted of various elements: item collecting, turn-based fights, small-scale exploration and stat-raising minigames. Looking more into the game, R seems to be the sixth in a long line of WitchSpring games.
This demo would have likely drawn those who have already played the previous games in the series, but it didn’t win my curiosity. The pace of the demo was quite slow. It was possibly the actual first chapter of the game — it certainly felt like it, more so than a demo. A few gameplay elements felt like unnecessary bloat, such as having to go into a minigame interface (not a challenging one) to collect one item. I was only doing this for a brief period, but after about the fourth item collection I couldn’t help but think how tedious it was.
The battles seemed somewhat interesting, but having fought about six or so of them, it did eventually feel repetitive. I wish that I was given access to some more powerful spells just to show the potential of what the battles would be like in the future. The stat-raising minigames seemed fun, but after the “build your regimen” screen where you plan about five or so training minigames, I quickly learned while playing the first minigame that you could only make two errors for the entire regimen before it all ended. I failed, and so never really got to see any more than the first rhythm-game like minigame. Then it was back to the grind of battling more enemies, without ever seeing any new features.
Clearly, this is a game that has its fair share of fans. But as a newcomer, it certainly felt lacking (or that I was missing something). Unfortunately, I think I’ll give this one a pass.
Developer: Witch Beam
From the same development team that created Unpacking, Tempopo is a puzzle game about cute plants, magic, and music! You as the player control cute little plants in a magical garden that’s becoming overgrown. Your lovely little pink bulb buddies move forward automatically, and it is your job to either direct them using arrows placed on the ground or change their form via power-ups placed on their path. There is a limited amount of these moves per level, which adds to the challenge.
The first thing I have to say is that this game is ABSOLUTELY adorable, and the music that plays is quite a lovely jam to bop your head to, with instruments adding in as you collect the singing flowers (the main aim of the game)! The puzzle difficulty in the demo increased gradually, and the game added new mechanics as you went along. It was easy to restart your tries, and watch as your cute little guys hopped along the screen.
Although this game has no set release date, I am quite excited as I do enjoy a cute and cozy puzzle platformer myself!
Developer: Shared Memory
With this being the first planned release from Videogame Dunkey’s publishing company Bigmode, I definitely had heard a bit about this game before going to Bitsummit and was excited to try the game out in person. You play as a small, blob-shaped creature, and there is no text or dialogue to explain what is going on or what is the goal. You are simply put in this lush pixel art game and left to your own devices. The game controls solidly. I think that one difficulty I had was simply that, despite the absolutely beautiful graphics, sometimes it can get a little confusing as to what is what. It will be very easy to miss passageways and switches just because there are no super clear indicators at times. My progress was somewhat halted, and it was by sheer luck that I stumbled upon a path I needed to go through to advance. After this, I was more keenly observing the background and corners of the map.
The other thing I had a small problem with was the fireworks. Later on in the demo you are able to pick up and toss fireworks. These fireworks seem to grow from the ground, and all you need to do is place the character in front of the flower so the sprites are overlapping, and the “pick up the item” icon appears over the character’s head. The problem was that if you are one pixel off, or if you happened to button mash a little, you can easily toss the item you just picked up. I found myself accidentally tossing the fireworks as I tried to walk and pick up as I went along. With a limit of three uses per firework, plenty were wasted along the way. Some button pressing discipline is definitely necessary.
That said, I enjoyed my time with the demo and I’m still looking forward to playing the game!
Green’s Demo Plays:
Developer: Cassel Games
Ratopia is a tile-based city builder. The player takes the role of an exiled rat monarch who is trying to start a new city. Through both directly controlling the monarch and issuing orders to control the ‘ratizens’ they rule over, the player can create their own society. This was a game that let me see down the rabbit hole right away. Hours, days, and weeks of my future cried out in terror as I thought about just how much time I could spend building and perfecting a city in the gridded environment.
Usually a city builder has the player acting as an outside force, a god who guides the NPCs through invisible suggestions. As such, having a direct avatar to control in the game created a unique dynamic. The controls aren’t what one might call buttery smooth, however this isn’t the most damning criticism one could give this type of game. As more and more of the city becomes automated, the direct controls become less and less important. The game promises to be a fun and charming experience to those who like sandbox and city management games.
For the sake of being open and honest, I am friendly with the dev of this one. More accurately, he’s buddies with my wife (Rincs).
Renaine is a 2D platformer with a combat system that is more reflective of beat-em-up games than others in the usual platforming space. The player character can perform combos, launch enemies, and move themselves with a number of attacks. This makes dealing with enemies a much more dynamic affair from the stomping or single attacks that is typical in the genre.
While the system isn’t the deepest, it still allows for rather satisfying encounters. Beyond the combat, the controls are smooth and fluid. I look forward to being able to try more of the game in the future.
Developer: Nautilus Games/Ysbryd Games
Due to a time limit with the demo, my understanding of the game’s scope is limited. That said, Everdeep Aurora looks to be a large, open exploration game where players venture down into the earth by means of a handheld drill. The art of the game is rather cute, and its adherence to a limited palette gives it a distinct style. Unfortunately, this was all obscured by the controls.
While straightforward in which button does what, the controls are quite stiff. This makes exploration, the core concept of the game, a bit of a chore. Even tasks as simple as hopping onto a block in order to traverse up a crafted staircase can cause issues. The drill that the player uses to dig through the earth additionally has a fuel mechanic that needs to be managed. If one gets stuck, it is possible to reset their position with the help of an NPC friend — however, having to micro-manage resources while dealing with the already tedious controls was less than ideal.
A Rincs’ note:
On Day 3 of Bitsummit, I took two friends to play this demo as well. Both of them mentioned the clunky controls. I hope that this gets addressed before the game’s release!
We also cooperatively played a game by the Rusty Lake devs called Underground Blossom. It is a point-and-click puzzle game, and if you’ve played some of the other games by Rusty Lake, this plays similarly. The theme for this one seemed to be that we are following the growth of a young child. Each escape room area is a metro station, and we see the mother and child through three stations in the demo, with the child growing up as we move from station to station. The last scene ends with a deer-skulled man standing ominously next to the girl as we exit the station and the demo. Definitely something to look forward to for those puzzle room enthusiasts.
Aside from the puzzles, there were definitely more games that we wished we were able to play but were unable to for one reason or another: titles such as Calme, Cassette Boy, and Chrono Sword just to name a few. There were tons of titles in the exhibit hall, and no matter what your preferred genre is, there was something there for you.
As Bitsummit draws to a close, we’re left looking forward to the games we were teased with, as well as discussing some new game discoveries. We wish all the devs success, and we hope to see you all again on the next Bitsummit.