What would eventually become Housemarque’s twin-stick shooter Nex Machina began thanks to happenstance: The developers ran into Eugene Jarvis, known for old-school classics like Smash TV and Robotron 2084, at the 2014 DICE Awards. Housemarque was fresh off the success of its shooter Resogun, and Jarvis was receiving a Pioneer Award for the influential style of frantic arcade action he introduced.
“It all started at a cocktail bar,” Jarvis tells me with a chuckle. “Which is not a good place to start things off.” According to Mikael Haveri, Housemarque’s head of publishing, the company had never collaborated with someone outside the studio like this before, so they had to figure things out as they went. But Nex Machina was ultimately a success, garnering a great deal of critical acclaim since its June release on PS4 and PC.
Housemarque was excited to have the chance to make a twin-stick shooter with the man who practically invented the game type. “It’s like being a fanboy,” Haveri says. ”If Shigeru Miyamoto came up to us, we would try our best probably to do something that he’s known for and impress him in a genre that he started.”
Jarvis didn't directly oversee the making of Nex Machina. “I was more like a guru,” he concedes. He met with the Housemarque team on their home turf of Finland, where they came up with the game’s story while sitting in saunas and jumping in the ice waters. (They also brainstormed in more typical settings.)
The scenario Jarvis hit upon was a future in which the robots rise up against their human overlords. Once the automation gets advanced enough, the automatons will start to wonder why they’re bothering to do stuff for humans at all. “If they’re truly smart,” Jarvis says, “they’ll figure that out sooner or later.” Then the humans will be forced to use weaponry to defeat their creations.
"We’re voluntarily installing eavesdropping mechanisms in our houses. We’re surrendering our privacy for all these wonderful conveniences."
In the world of Nex Machina, humans have essentially become like slugs, according to Jarvis. It's a scathing commentary on a culture of always-on connected devices by the arcade maestro. “We’re kind of giving up our physicality,” he says. “We’re becoming very passive, consuming entities. That’s the kind of dystopian future we’re embracing.”
“We’re putting cameras in our house and speakers in our house with Alexa and the new Google Home crap and Apple’s new speaker that you talk to,” Jarvis adds. “We’re voluntarily installing eavesdropping mechanisms in our houses. Our phones can be tracked everywhere. We’re surrendering our privacy for all these wonderful conveniences.”
“It’s cool. It’s kind of liberating, but at the same time… who’s going to pull the plug when you don’t have arms anymore?”
The look and feel Housemarque's artists crafted to complement this fiction is an homage to the 1980s lineage of Jarvis' arcade era classics — a retrofuturist twist on cyberpunk that they dubbed "cablepunk."
Housemarque's Harry Krueger on the "cablepunk" aesthetic of Nex Machina
The dystopian scenario Jarvis envisioned undergirds the frenetic gameplay designed by Housemarque, which is similar to the classic blast-the-endless-waves-of-baddies pioneered by Robotron 2084. “We wanted to follow something that we started with Super Stardust and kind of continued with a twist with Resogun,” Haveri said. “The simplicity of arcade games where you don’t have too many peripheral things to do."
"Compared to his oeuvre, Jarvis considers Nex Machina to be closest to Smash TV, or perhaps Total Carnage."
Jarvis works in Chicago, which is 7 time zones and 4,400 miles away from Finland. Haveri says that the distance made face-to-face meetings meetings with Jarvis difficult, but also made them even more exciting. “It was a lot like we were saving up those cool things that we came up with to show to him whenever we had the chance,” he gushes.
Compared to his oeuvre, Jarvis considers Nex Machina to be closest to Smash TV, or perhaps Total Carnage. But there are obviously significant differences, with one being the increased bullet hell aspect with projectiles blanketing the screen — a Housemarque specialty. “Because there’s so many individual targets, it’s kind of probabilistic,” Jarvis said.
Players of Nex Machina have to always be calculating, sometimes without even thinking. There’s a flow-like state that the best players enter where strategies just come into existence without conscious thought — and conscious thought could actually get players into trouble. “You alleviate the threat by actually moving toward the threat to neutralize them,” Jarvis said. “And that’s kind of a counterintuitive thing, being more aggressive and not defensive.”
Housemarque was making a game with Jarvis, but the studio was also making a game for Jarvis. “The whole process, we’re trying to prove ourselves somewhat to Eugene,” Haveri said. “Even to the final phases, it felt a bit like, ‘Oh, I wonder if Eugene will like this,’ or, ‘I wonder if he would have done it differently.’ It was still there at the back of the mind along the way. I’m sure that had a huge impact on how it turned out.”