Strafe Is A Loving Reinterpretation Of Nineties FPS Games

Devolver had a great E3. I’ve already written about Absolver, which was an unexpected delight, but there’s more to tell. Let’s sidestep into the world of Strafe [official site], a game which was unlikely to surprise me, having been a known quantity for a good while. It’s a first-person shooter with a retro feel and some roguelite qualities. I knew what kind of game to expect but I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love with it quite so quickly.

Strafe is a beautiful game. The surface is retro – within its developer’s own fiction, it’s the greatest game of 1996 – but every element has been finely tuned rather than simply replicated. Levels are randomised but strongly themed, but in what I saw and played the pool of ‘blocks’ that makes up a level has been designed with care, so that there’s a sense of cohesion rather than a confusion of corridors and rooms. You can choose from one of three guns at the beginning of each playthrough but the shotgun feels so good that I can’t imagine not grabbing it immediately.

There are other weapons but they come with limited ammo and are disposable. Fire off every round/rocket and then ditch them, switching back to your main piece, which can be upgraded provided you find the necessary locations. There are several items within the environment that you can interact with, from explosive barrels that can be picked up and lobbd to workbenches that provide health, armour and more at a price.

Mostly, you’ll be trying to find the exit and killing everything that stands, crawls or slithers. Enemies come in various shapes and sizes, and they all bleed. Some of them bleed acid because that’s what aliens do. All of the lovely particle effect spatter has a purpose – it stains and runs down walls, drips from the ceiling and pools on the floor.

“It’s a guidance system. We don’t want you to spend all of your time looking at a map so the blood tells you where you’ve been,” lead designer Thom Glunt explains. It’s a gory version of the breadcrumb trail and watching the blood drip and dribble doesn’t seem even faintly morbid as I blast my way through the first area the enemies are caught halfway between cartoon creatures and lo-fi abstraction, and the gore is both signpost and technological pleasantry rather than a horrorshow.

The use of the spurting and splattering blood as a functional element of the game rather than a cosmetic detail is telling. This is a game that initially might seem slight or even brazenly dumb, but it’s full of devilish details. That acid blood burns, for instance, but you might be able to wash it away if you applied another liquid to the surface it spilled across. There’s a great deal more interaction than initially appears to be the case and the way that the visual design assists and occasionally tricks the player is careful and considered.

In the second area (there are three/four levels per themed area), an organic planet surface that has its own enemies and structural concerns, there are beacons planted in the ground leading you toward the exit. You’re likely to head off the beaten track though, searching for powerups and supplies to spend on health and armour, so the beacons have a simple visual trick to point you back in the right direction: if you see the green side, you’re pointed the right way, if you see red, you’re looking at the back of the beacon. Simplicity itself but such a necessary part of the design, ensuring that you’re never left nudging walls and skirting around chasms looking for a way forward.

In its own way, Strafe is just as much about urgent forward motion as new-DOOM. It’s been in development for a long time and Glunt jokingly curses that new-DOOM not only beat them to the digital shelves, but turned out so damn well. We’re talking in a motorhome parked on Devolver Digital’s E3 turf, a parking lot across the road from the convention centre where beers and street food are the order of the day.

Glunt and his two colleagues have installed a smoke machine beneath the table where the game has been set up and the release spurts of vapour (“it’s not actually a vape”, he says hastily) around the interior to create an intentionally tacky, dopey vibe that’s topped off nicely by the Strafe-branded shades the devs are wearing – for indoor use only, naturally.

This is Glunt’s first game, his previous career having been in the world of music and commercial videos. That shows in the live action shorts made to advertise the game and I’m happy to report that some of the humour carries across into Strafe itself, in the form of an FMV tutorial that has one line that made an undignified rattle of laughter-snorts tumble out of me. I won’t spoil it but I will say that it’s the sincerity of the delivery that sells it – Strafe isn’t parodying nineties gaming in the broad way that something like Kung Fury tackled eighties films; it’s 1996 FMV made by people who have watched a lot of FMV from the mid-nineties and tried to nail their own version rather than mocking what existed with a vague swipe.

The love of nineties FPS games is evident as well, as is a deep knowledge of their workings. Glunt can debate the qualities and flaws of just about any game whose influence you can see in Strafe, from Doom and Quake to Spelunky and Enter the Gungeon. And that’s one of the reasons that new-DOOM’s release and the recent resurrection of oldschool FPS games isn’t really a problem at all, and Glunt knows that. If anything, the revival of elements of nineties shooters prepares the ground nicely.

Doom, Quake and all the rest mean many things to many people, and 2016 DOOM takes a couple of aspects associated with the original and runs with them. It runs hard and it runs well. Strafe is borrowing other elements, mainly from Quake and even the interactivity of the Build engine games, and it’s running in a similar direction but on an entirely different course, with its brief playthroughs and randomised levels.

It’s shaping up beautifully and of all the games I played at E3, it’s the one that I wish I could spend the weekend playing right now. Short, smart and tough, it’s a fine interpretation of a period in PC gaming that many of us remember fondly, but it has enough tricks of its own to feel elegant and modern, despite its grungy graphics.

From this site

34 Comments

  1. haldolium says:

    Following this for quite some time now, looks very promising and fun.

    You can also download an early version from last year at itch.io:
    link to pixeltitans.itch.io

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      We must have skipped that part of the bible in Sunday School.

      • Jalan says:

        I was going to remark on how we were told not to respond to these bot comments but dammit if this response isn’t funny.

    • SlimShanks says:

      Umm, excuse me Spambot, I’m Joseph and I never said that.
      Also, to Delrue: Ba-dum-tish

    • haldolium says:

      It’s not a spambot comment, it’s the actual link to their early prototype…

      • Jalan says:

        There was a bot reply to your comment that now appears to have been cleaved from the reply thread, making it seem like we’re all referring to your comment instead of the garbage botspam that was a reply to your own.

        • haldolium says:

          Aah, thanks.

          And here I was wondering where in my post I told people to quit their jobs and start working from home, making 90.000 $ per day.

  2. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    Like Mr Glunt himself says, I feel really bad for them that DOOM just came out. For me the (single-player) experience I had playing DOOM was more fun than I’ve had playing any FPS since TimeSplitters.

    • Jalan says:

      If anything, Doom’s single-player not being a complete pile of cacoturds may help Strafe. If Strafe is priced somewhat lower compared to the “bigger” publisher backed Doom then that’s also a win for Strafe as well, since people ready to re-embrace their neglected FPS inner fan can while away with Strafe and then dole out the bigger chunks of change when they want to take a bite out of Doom.

  3. Scripten says:

    The enemy up at the top there looks like a moderately irritated weresloth.

    • bigblack says:

      I think he is a dead ringer for your alien buddy from OUT OF THIS WORLD and HEART OF THE ALIEN.

  4. J.C. says:

    Will there be a boxed version!? :-D

    • Jay Load says:

      What about a DVD release? The last game I bought came on 6 CDs!

  5. 321 says:

    “The love of nineties FPS games is evident as well, as is a deep knowledge of their workings. ”

    Hahahahaha. The game makers seem to have just as much “deep understanding” as Adam Smith. Classic FPS’s aren’t about how much blood is on the walls. This coupled with “procedural generated” shows they understand jack shit about what they’re claiming to admire. God damn embarassing and lame.

    • Jay Load says:

      Swing and a miss.

      Those will be the “modern” elements Adam mentioned. What’s 90s about that game is the movement, the enemies, the level-design, etc.

      • 321 says:

        “What’s 90s about that game is the movement, the enemies, the level-design, etc.”

        Yeah, except that none of that is. This is just bullshit and cretin developers that try to cash out on poor work. Everything about the classic games was hand crafted and tweaked millions of times to perfection. The would make a level, place enemies, ammo, health packs, weapons. Then they would play every scene a thousand times and make changes accordingly until it FELT great to play. Until the flow was great. Every aspect of those games were calibrated and manualy tweaked so it created perfection. Movement, levels, encounters, challenge, enemies.

        This complete bullshit that is Strife has preciselly none of this. Its the same modern procedural generated piece of shit which is complete opposite of old school fps. How the flying fuck do you make a random genrated barren, sterile gameworld when level designers back in the day were rockstarts that had their names on the credit scene right next to the programer? And game journos are expected to at least understand just a little bit of this and not artificially inflate some shit game in an article like this.

        • gaspyconana@gmail.com says:

          You have no idea what you’re talking about. I know the devs and you’re 100% wrong. You’d enjoy the crap out of the game if you could pull that weird purist stick out of your butthole for two seconds.

          • SomeDuder says:

            Some of us ENJOY having a stick there.

            But I DO want this game, no matter how pure the stick is.

          • Catweasel says:

            Would you mind clarifying on how he’s wrong? I share a lot of his concerns and having actual things to point to as counterexamples would be nice, cause I can see this game being fun.

        • skeletortoise says:

          I can tell you like being ‘that guy’ enough that this is wasted breath, but come on. Adam makes numerous references to the fact that this is more reinterpretation and homage than revival, starting right with the damn title. He addresses your one specific concern (the rest just being cult like fervor), procedurally generated levels, fairly early on. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but completely closing your mind to something before trying it because it’s not a carbon copy of what inspired it is just dumb. And above all else, screw your insinuation that somehow people who spend years working on a game that’s specifically a call back to those games from the 90s might have absolutely no knowledge or appreciation for what made them great.

          • 321 says:

            “Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but completely closing your mind to something before trying it because it’s not a carbon copy of what inspired it is just dumb. ”

            There’s no maybe. It wont work, thats a 100% certainty because the developers of this particular game are going in the opposite direction of the funamentals of classic fps design. This is a common problem that these type of games have in the public perception, that they’re dumb or simplistic. That you have randomly thrown enemies in there and you just shoot them until your finger is numb. In reality, like i said, every little pixel is handcrafted and managed so every little thing yu do in the game has a certain flow and feel. And the level design is god tier in Doom or Quake or Duke 3d or Unreal. They are as much a character in the game as your avatar is. You have to work them put, to “solve” every level so you can get out. All of them have a vast number of enemy variety as well. Procedural generated and the idea that you just throw large number of enemies at random like these devs are doing their game shows they understand nothing at all about classic fps games. Very few people do, as evidence by the comments here.

            “And above all else, screw your insinuation that somehow people who spend years working on a game that’s specifically a call back to those games from the 90s might have absolutely no knowledge or appreciation for what made them great.”

            I’m sorry i dont pat them on the back for a good effort. Im not their father. I’l give them a thumbs up for actual results, not for trying. Like i said, procedural generated design closed any chance of this game being good.

          • skeletortoise says:

            “There’s no maybe. It wont work, thats a 100% certainty because the developers of this particular game are going in the opposite direction of the funamentals of classic fps design. This is a common problem that these type of games have in the public perception, that they’re dumb or simplistic. That you have randomly thrown enemies in there and you just shoot them until your finger is numb. In reality, like i said, every little pixel is handcrafted and managed so every little thing yu do in the game has a certain flow and feel. And the level design is god tier in Doom or Quake or Duke 3d or Unreal. They are as much a character in the game as your avatar is. You have to work them put, to “solve” every level so you can get out. All of them have a vast number of enemy variety as well. Procedural generated and the idea that you just throw large number of enemies at random like these devs are doing their game shows they understand nothing at all about classic fps games. Very few people do, as evidence by the comments here.”

            I won’t argue that procedurally generated levels have had variable results and FPSes in particular are less suited to success, but a lack of successes so far doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I’m no expert, but it’s not a matter of checking procedurally generated in your game development settings; they design a specific system and, whether good or bad, it will most likely be quite different from any one used in other games. And yes, I know you’re quite confident that procedural generation is fundamentally incapable of producing anything comparable to the gloriously hand crafted shooters of the past, but your metrics are absurd. They’re not trying to make new Doom or new Quake, instead they’re making something entirely new. Regardless of how much of its DNA can be traced back to that era, it will be something fundamentally different. A new experience which someone, I think it’s a safe bet it won’t be you, might even enjoy better than the games that inspired it. It is possible to tap into something without trying to replicate it.

            “I’m sorry i dont pat them on the back for a good effort. Im not their father. I’l give them a thumbs up for actual results, not for trying. Like i said, procedural generated design closed any chance of this game being good.”

            So you are willing to praise them for good results but at the same time have completely ruled out the possibility of such results existing? Cool.

            By the way, your concerns are perfectly valid, but you’re delusional if you think this game was developed out of ignorance of those concerns instead of in spite of them. Making a game out to be garbage without ever having touched it and long before its released because of one aspect of its design is dumb. Period.

          • Kinsky says:

            To be fair, level design is one of the pivotal elements of the 90s shooter formula. So when you say you’re making a “the greatest game of 1996” with procedurally generated levels, it’s a bit like making a Baldur’s Gate style RPG with procedurally generated dialogue. Will it work? Possibly, in its own right, but there’s about a zero percent chance of it dredging up more than fleeting moments of that particular magic exhibited by its source material.

          • klops says:

            If the punchline is the thing that bothers you, I can assure that there were games with procedurally generated levels in 1996 as well.

        • Alice O'Connor says:

          Most ’90s FPSs aren’t nearly as good or honed as you’re remembering.

          • 321 says:

            Are you sure about that? I’m not remembering them, i’m playing them to this day. Which ones do you think don’t stand the test of time? I’m obviously talking about the top tier games, not the junk clones of those days. Doom, Duke, Quakes, Blood, Jedi Knight, Shadow Warrior, Hexen, Marathon, System Shock. They’re all at the top, then and now.

          • Kinsky says:

            Hear, hear! I replay just about all the Doom/Build engine games annually. Brutal Doom puts pretty much every modern shooter to shame, especially Doom 4. It’s a shame the genre got buried by Call of Duty 4, things were going in an interesting direction around the early 2000s with games like Painkiller, FEAR, and Doom 3.

  6. Kollega says:

    I’m not sure why, but those screenshots remind me far more of Ratchet: Deadlocked than of Quake III: Arena or the original Half-Life. It’s probably the uprezzed textures, the just-a-bit-too-hi-poly models, and the coloring scheme.

    Not that it’s bad, mind you. A revival of the mid-2000s platformers with guns would be just as welcome as the revival of the mid-1990s twitch shooters.

  7. Catweasel says:

    A procedurally generated series of arena rooms is kind of the opposite of crafted 90s level design.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Indeed.

      Also, 1996 was the year both Duke Nukem 3D and Quake came out, so no, this would never be the best FPS of 1996, even with its future graphics.

    • April March says:

      Maybe, but since I’m crap at videogames the only way I could beat 90’s shooter was by completely memorizing the level. I’d rather play through the first level over and over, dying every time, if it was a different level each time over having to memorize a level.

      Though I still play 90’s shooters, and I’m still rubbish.

    • Polmansol says:

      My thoughts exactly.

  8. Louis Mayall says:

    Thom Glunt is an amazing name. Sounds like a Potter baddie

  9. klops says:

    I wasn’t that thrilled about the Kickstarter but this is starting to look FUN.