Cryptark [official site] is a side-on shmup that pits a mech with a gun for a head against derelict spaceships filled with monstrous drones made out of bone and steel. It’s all for a good cause: earning cash to fund more space pirate adventures. It also looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s left early access and is out now.
While a shmup full of hideous cyborgs and decaying, procedurally-generated space hulks sounds very much like my thing, it’s the striking art that immediately caught my attention. Alientrap’s creative director, Jesse McGibney, has shared an imgur album that shows how its distinct style was developed.
But what’s with all this cool 3D looking jazz you ask? I’ve always believed in pushing 2D game art forward using modern technology and techniques, rather than trying to recreate retro art styles. What if the 3D revolution didn't happen in the 1990s? What might 2D games look like nowadays?
We used a technology called Normal mapping, which is common in 3D games to make things look more detailed than the models really are, but not used that often for 2D sprites. There’s ways to automate the process a bit, but we found out that there weren't really any shortcuts. We basically had to hand paint each and every piece of art multiple times. Once, for the base detail, then from 4 different lighting directions. Doing it manually was a LOT of work, but it gave the best results. The crazy rainbow colour is all the lighting combined into a normal map that the game can use to figure out how the ingame lighting works.
The result is a game that’s entirely 2D, despite appearances.
Way back in 2015, Marsh took the Early Access version for a spin and came away pretty impressed.
As it is, Cryptark is one of the most confident entries to Early Access I’ve seen – a few bugs aside, this is robust, generously featured and unusually convincing in its design. In fact, I might well be tempted to use Cryptark as a case study of how to take a simple, hoary old game conceit, like the shmup, and have it transcend into something richly strategic, by ensuring the player has interesting things to consider at every strata of interaction.