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'The bug isn't good enough'

Eugene Jarvis is talking a mile a minute, standing on the show floor at the PlayStation Experience in the unnatural and on-brand blue light within Anaheim’s Convention Centre while overlooking his first foray into arcade shooters in well over 20 years, Housemarque’s Nex Machina. He’s already been talking for 30 minutes before I remember to hit the record button on my dictaphone, our animated chat about Donald Cammell’s twisted sci-fi horror film Demon Seed while Jarvis waxed lyrical over the film’s shape-shifting robo-cock lost to the ether.

It’s probably for the best, all told, though it goes some way to illustrate some of the schlock that gives Jarvis’ games their heart, and that have lent them an enduring appeal. He’s the godfather of a certain strand of video game that lives on to this day, a recognised pioneer who’s not quite the medium’s Hitchcock or Welles. Instead, he’s something more exciting than that; a Stuart Gordon or John Carpenter, a purveyor of joyful violence that’s perfectly intoxicating. Ask anyone who’s ever got drunk on the chaos of Jarvis classics such as Defender, Robotron 2084 or Smash TV and they’ll testify as much.

Ask Housemarque, for one, the Finnish developer that’s carved a niche making games clearly in thrall to those same classics, from the slick Defender cover version that is Resogun to the twin-stick pleasures of Super Stardust and Dead Nation. Nex Machina, which Housemarque are taking lead on while Jarvis consults, is a marriage forged in heaven.

“I was at the DICE convention and I got this pioneer award thing,” recalls Jarvis. “We were just sitting at the bar and the Housemarque guys – Mikael and Harry – they got some kind of award for Resogun. We were just hanging out at the bar, I said hey that’s cool I think that’s an amazing game and they were like ‘Eugene Jarvis!’.”


Jarvis and Housemarque’s Mikael Haveri

A little dutch courage – or courage from whatever it is they serve in a Las Vegas bar at four in the morning – inspired Housemarque to approach Jarvis with a proposition. Why don’t they make a game together? Jarvis doesn’t seem like the kind to turn down an offer that’s so full of enthusiasm, so he agreed and, on returning home, picked up a PlayStation 4 so he could familiarise himself with Housemarque’s work.

“I was really impressed! They kept some faith, they had a real respect to the original concept and tried to take it into the future. You can’t just ape something – you have to bring something new to the table. So often people stick too close to the classic game, it doesn’t move far enough, it’s like it has no appeal to me. I’ll just play the classic game! Sometimes there’s also a tendency to throw everything out and take it way too far and you’ve lost whatever magic was there. There was a magic to the original side-scroller format – you have to retain that and take it 30 years into the future.”

With Defender having been modernised so well by Housemarque with Resogun, they decided to look elsewhere in Jarvis’ oeuvre. And why not Robotron 2084? “To me, it’s the ultimate classical game would be Robotron,” says Jarvis of his own game, and you can forgive him for forgoing any modesty. It is really, really good, after all, and has spawned countless imitators. “And so many of them have failed.”

Where, then, was Robotron’s secret sauce? “The beauty of Robotron was the complete information. You go boom into the play field – there’s the enemies, there’s the playroom, it’s all there. If you get too clever with the camera angles it gets too ambiguous, you’re unsure of your collisions, you have incomplete information and you don’t know what’s behind you. You really have to, inevitably, go to a god’s eye view. The successful games that have been inspired by that twin-stick thing, they do some sort of god’s eye view. What you want is to still capture the gameplay of 2D, but with the presentation, effects and excitement of 3D. You get the best of both worlds, and I really think with Nex Machina we’ve done that.”

What I love about the little I’ve played of Nex Machina – and what I’ve felt has always been slightly absent from Housemarque’s other games – is the sense of chaos that Jarvis’ other games revelled in, the sheer anarchy that gave them their character. “There was a huge amount of random numbers in those designs,” says Jarvis of Robotron. “Within ranges – you’d have to find a range that was humanly relatable, you know. If the thing moves at 10 to the 19th, it’s not going to be something you’re going to relate to – you’re going to be dead in one picosecond!

“With ranges of random numbers, and some of the non-linear ranges, as humans we’re always looking for reasons and why it works, so we have this tendency to look at a random thing and assign causality to it. It’s amazing – all of a sudden it’s like ‘oh my god, they’re pissed’ – you assign this causality to random events, but it becomes this really rich thing. You’re spinning a story, and it’s like a computer generated plot. Everyone sees this depth and basically it’s just a load of dice rolls.”

“A lot of [the character] was in the bugs. There was this enemy called the Enforcer, and if they threw a zero that would trigger complete aberrant behaviour where they’d drift into a corner and start lobbing fastball sparks at you. It created these different moods. You’d create these moods – it’s interesting how you create them by layering different things. Are they sluggish are they fast, are they mad? There are particular shots, are they fast or slow. They’re on random different time periods, and it’s like these random personalities. You have no idea what’s going to happen, but you see the tendencies, like this is going to turn out bad. You think you can control something…”