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First Impressions: Sound Shapes

By / Posted on 11 January 2012

Sound ShapesWe were fortunate enough to attend a Sony Playstation showcase shortly before the holidays and get some hands-on time with a number of upcoming Playstation 3 and Vita titles. It was our first time really experiencing the upcoming portable gaming powerhouse and were curious how all those impressive tech specs would feel in our hands. A solid showing of launch-window games were on display and while we were happy to see new entries in the Super Stardust and Katamari series along with new experiments like Escape Plan and Reality Fighters, the one Vita title we were most excited about is also the one we couldn’t stop talking about all night after playing: Queasy Games’ Sound Shapes.

Queasy Games, for those unfamiliar, is the one-man game studio known as Jonathan Mak whose 2007 game Everyday Shooter proved both that digital distribution on home consoles could generate strong buzz (as one of the early successes of the Playstation Network service) and that “indie” games could stand side-by-side with AAA big studio efforts without need for qualitative terms. Everyday Shooter was designed entirely by Mak, with a bit of assistance on music by I Am Robot and Proud’s Shaw-Han Liem, and played out as a quirky twin-stick shooter with a procedurally-generated progressive rock soundtrack that produced guitar riffs as players destroyed enemies. Mak has described Everyday Shooter as “an album of musical abstract shmups” and 1UP described the game as “an engaging shooter for the art-house crowd, and a creative change of pace for the hardcore-shooter crowd.”

Sound Shapes

For his next game, Mak has brought in the help of a few other programmers and artists — mostly friends, neighbors and colleagues — including Cory Schmitz and Jason Degroot, along with the return of Shaw-Han Liem. Sound Shapes is a “launch-window” title for the PS Vita and, while the game could very easily transition itself to the PC or console, it definitely seem most at-home and comfortable on the Vita. On a superficial level, Sound Shapes is another platformer. You begin on the left-hand side of the screen and roll and jump your way to the right-hand side of the screen, avoiding obstacles and hazards (which are all conveniently the color red. Don’t touch red things, okay?). The player is basically a ball with suction-cups — jump onto a vertical wall and simply roll up the wall, jump onto the underside of a platform and roll along the underside of the platform — which makes traversing the increasingly dangerous landscapes a bit more manageable and fun. As for those increasingly dangerous parts of the landscapes? Well…

The two-stage demo we were treated to started simply enough, with stationary “bad red things” to jump over or avoid, then slowly moving patrol units, not unlike the goombas of Super Mario Bros. It wasn’t long, though, before there were enemies that we needed to bounce off of to get to higher platforms, wall-crawling enemies we needed to latch onto the shells of and ride to the next safe platform, and enemies that spit some sort of red laser-lava, and it was with these enemies and obstacles that the true mastery of Sound Shapes became instantly apparent. Every enemy in Sound Shapes is another voice in the song of the stage, and as such, the sound design is absolutely essential for playing through the game properly (headphones are strongly recommended). Projectiles are fired on the beat, enemies move with the rhythm, and the collectible baubles picked up across the stage add to the drumbeat across the entire stage. Getting into the groove is damn near essential for succeeding in this game, and it’s absolutely mandatory for designing stages.

Sound Shapes

Oh, did we mention that you could design stages? Yes, continuing in Sony’s seemingly mandatory ethos of “Play. Create. Share,” Sound Shapes boasts an intuitive level editor that equates game design to a sixteen-step sequencer, child’s play for anyone who has ever experimented with electronic music interfaces. At one point during our time playing the introductory world we asked Degroot — who was on-hand for the demo — why a particular enemy was in a stage, several platforms beneath the player in a pool of what appeared to be lava, a location where it was clearly certain death to bother jumping down to him. Jason looked at the stage confused and responded “you know, I don’t know… that doesn’t make much sense, does itWAITAMINUTE, it’s the bass line! That enemy is there to be the bass line in the song!” In fairness, we were wearing the headphones and he wasn’t, so it makes perfect sense that he wouldn’t realize it right away, but that demonstrates just how inextricably intertwined the game design and sound design of Sound Shapes are: you couldn’t possibly have one without the other.

Though our session with Sound Shapes was shorter than we would’ve liked (we did play the entire demo and there were a lot of other games to see in a very short amount of time), the game felt incredibly smooth and clearly takes use of just enough of the Vita’s new features to be noteworthy without forcing every bell and whistle. The touch screen is implemented nicely in the level editor (as seen in the video above) and in the slick geometric menus that look like an interactive Bauhaus poster (the design school, not the goth band), the improved wireless functionality is used for sharing levels with friends, the higher resolution screen makes the clean graphics pop with vivid color and incredible detail, and the rest of the game is just buttons like any other gamepad. No need for crazy motion control, augmented reality, twin analog sticks, or multi-touch gestures, just solid game design. Many of the other Vita games we saw were nice enough looking but failed to capture our imagination. As it stands right now, after a somewhat lackluster hardware launch in Japan last month, Sound Shapes is the one and only reason we’re even considering purchasing a Vita when they hit American stores next month.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.