It's not often that an independent game so powerful, stylish, complete and fun as Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet comes to the Xbox Live Arcade.
It's all the more impressive given that this side-scrolling shooter, reminiscent of Metroid or Castlevania, was produced by primarily just two people, Michel Gagné and Joe Olson of Shadow Planet Productions.
The two recently spoke with the Manifesto about the triumphs and travails of developing independent games. The artistic bent for the game came from Gagné, who worked on the films The Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones. In 2006, Olson, who had an established background in game development, persuaded Gagné to work with him on a new style of video game. Olson and his team would work on the platform and coding, and Gagné would put together the art style and direction of the two-dimensional game that harks back to side-scrollers of yesteryear.
The two said they worked well together, but development proceeded slowly for the first couple of years because they both held day jobs and could work on Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet only on nights and weekends. The game was entirely self-financed by the pair for the first four years of development. To pay for it, they would work a few months on the game, then take a few more off to pursue more lucrative financial ventures.
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This went on until, the pair said, Microsoft, the Xbox 360 manufacturer, signed the game in 2010 as an exclusive first-party title on the Xbox Live Arcade.
The final year of development went by furiously as the team finalized everything and launched last August.
The game is set on an alien world that has been taken over by a silhouetted parasite. A player takes on the role of a tiny spaceship capable of various actions that are discovered throughout the game.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is its ability to adapt itself to almost any playing style. Players may take the Rambo approach and mainly use the gun attachment, or take the exploration route and use the ship's scanner on objects to learn specific weaknesses and secrets.
Once a player gets adjusted to the excellent physics, handling of the character and what can best be described as the complex simplicity of the game, one of its most impressive aspects is its art direction.
"The game was telling us what it needed," Gagné said. "We used concepts from nature." Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was created "more organically and done as a work of art."
But the art isn't entirely what makes the game so memorable. It's that rare blending of style and function, as the game plays as well as it looks.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet has been nominated for eight end-of-year awards from major outlets, including IGN, G4's X-Play and the Spike Video Game Awards. They all saw what you'll see when you download it: It's a masterpiece.