But the games’ true hallmark is their talent for repackaging familiar genres in new and stimulating forms. With its slowly unfurling plantlife and fascinatingly minimalist sound, Eden is no conventional platformer; in Racers, meanwhile, races in which the objective is simply to cross the finish line first are the exception rather than the norm. Shooter and Shooter 2’s wonderfully tactile, fluid, gloopy liquids distance them from any other twin-stick shooter you’ll play. There are elements of nostalgia, certainly, a particular retro-chic flavour, but they’re deceptive – these are 2D games that are ineluctably products of the 21st century. Their self-effacing nature isn’t something you find often in games so aggressively innovative.
Q-Games is currently readying a new entries in the series – PixelJunk Lifelike, a fascinating blend of communal rhythm-action, music creation and visualiser, and has just released PixelJunk Sidescroller, a playful twist on the Shooter formula that recasts it as a scrolling shooter in the R-Type mould – to the extent that PixelJunk games never base themselves on any one mould. Sidescroller retains the ship from Shooter as well as some of its gameplay quirks, such as dunking yourself into water to recover health, but the puzzle-exploration structure is gone, replaced by colourful and, at the moment, extremely challenging obstacle courses of nimble, darting enemies, magma-spewers, streams of bullets, dangerous machinery and criss-crossing lasers. Lifelike, meanwhile, is one of PlayStation Move’s most interesting up-and-comers, a rhythm game that you control with your hands. Using the face buttons to switch between different elements of the track – bassline, effects, etc – you alter and shape the music with your movements. Holding the Move controller in front of you, you probe for the sounds you want, throwing in one-shot effects with a sweep of the arm. It’s like painting with an invisible palette of sound, spread across an easel placed in the space between yourself and the screen, and it’s an experience far closer to music creation than beat-matching.
Lifelike continues a Q-Games musical tradition rather than starting one. Every game since Racers has used bespoke music, often from local artists. Monsters’ soundtrack was composed by a husband-and-wife pair of Kyoto artists called Autograph, whom Tominaga and Cuthbert came across at a local gig. “The problem in Japan is the huge label organisations,” says Cuthbert. “If you sign up anybody on a regular label – not an indie – there’s no way you can afford them. So you try and get bands who are independent, especially for our size of game, as there’s not that much money to throw around [Autograph] did very well out of Monsters – it sold a lot and they get a kind of royalty from the deal, so they’re happy. It was a really good collaboration with them, I thought.”
Eden, too, was originally a game based entirely on the music and artwork of another local artist, Baiyon, whose work also powers Lifelike.
“I had heard through the grapevine that there was an artisty kind of guy who was interested in meeting me because he wanted to make games, which I ignored for about a year,” Cuthbert laughs. “Then I met him by accident at a party, and he wouldn’t get away from me, so I listened to what he had to say… He was quite good, so we thought: ‘Let’s make the third title in the series based on whatever this guy can come up with’.”
What he came up with, in the end, was more an extremely pretty visualiser than a game; it took about eight months of work to turn his concept of growing plants into something playable. But it resulted in one of the most unusual games that Q has ever done, and indeed one of the most unusual and visually intense platformers of recent years. It’s something that could only come out of a studio with an adventurously creative nature. “There’s so much creativity in every person that it’s sometimes quite difficult to channel it all in the same direction,” says Cuthbert. “But that’s what makes it more interesting as a company.”