It's not just the look and gameplay of Geometry Wars, Bizarre Creations' series of Live Arcade shooters, that hark back to gaming's earliest days. Its creator Stephen Cakebread is a games programmer from the old school, making games the old-fashioned way.
Cakebread, a senior coder at Bizarre, didn't create Geometry Wars out of a particular love of 2D shooters or a nostalgia for times past. He wrote it as an experimental test project because it was easy to code, and because he could. He conjured its looks out of raw mathematics because he didn't have any artists available to draw it. He didn't design it so much as refine it through play: a steady process of collaboration and iteration with his colleagues, playing it after hours around the office.
In these ways, Geometry Wars and Cakebread are the direct descendants of the very first computer game, Spacewar - another top-down, vector-graphic shoot-em-up - and its programmer Steve "Slug" Russell. Those are the exact same processes by which Russell and his fellow MIT hackers stumbled upon a new form of entertainment, almost by accident, on the DEC PDP-1 computer back in late 1961 and early 1962.
We caught up with Cakebread at Nottingham's GameCity festival a couple of weeks ago to talk through Geometry Wars' genesis and development through a prototype test program, a Project Gotham easter egg, a Live Arcade version (Retro Evolved), the recent sequel, and Kuju's Galaxies spin-off. He was joined by games manager Craig Howard, who was brought in to form a casual games team at Bizarre, and who worked closely on Galaxies and Retro Evolved 2.
Eurogamer: How did the first version of Geometry Wars come about?
Stephen Cakebread: The very first version was just kind of a test application. Basically we were on the Xbox1 and we were working in on prototype hardware, and we had these prototype joypads that were incredibly expensive, but rubbish. We didn't know why we weren't getting the right analogue [input] out of it, so we wrote a test app just to play around with the analogue sticks. Then at the end of [Project Gotham Racing] I had some free time, and started writing a game, and Geometry Wars kind of grew out of that.
Eurogamer: Was it a kind of game that you'd always wanted to do?
Stephen Cakebread: It's something I suppose I'd been writing for years before that, in college and so on, space shooters, top-down 2D things. There's nothing I particularly love about them - it's just they're easy to write [laughs].
Eurogamer: So shmups aren't a particular passion for you?
Stephen Cakebread: No, no, not at all. I just like games. Except for tennis games.
Eurogamer: And then Geometry Wars appeared in PGR2, as an arcade machine in the garage.
Stephen Cakebread: That was just an Easter egg. Even that one got a better reception than we ever anticipated it would; we thought maybe we'll get a mention at the bottom of a review somewhere, but surprisingly people seemed to love it, which started us thinking about where we could take this thing and what else we could do with Geometry Wars.
Eurogamer: Coincidentally, it appeared round about the same time as PomPom's Mutant Storm, another revival of the twin-stick shooter.
Stephen Cakebread: I saw that one just when we were starting work on Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved for Live Arcade. Interestingly, we worked out that they must have started working on Mutant Storm about the same time as I started working on Geometry Wars. I was wondering, maybe there was something in the press which sparked that interest in both people at the same time...
The game that Mutant Storm was was the game I had in my mind when I set out to make Retro Evolved 1. It was only when I saw Mutant Storm that I thought right, better make something different.
Eurogamer: So did you initially imagine having more of a level structure to the game?
Stephen Cakebread: In the original Gotham one and the prototype I didn't, because making levels takes time. So I never looked into it. When I started doing the Live Arcade one, I was like ooh, I've had proper time allocated to work on this so I'll do a level structure. It was then that I saw that you already had this level-based game. They'd probably have ended up very similar.
Eurogamer: Another crucial element of the game is its look - was that born out of necessity? I mean, did you have any artists?
Stephen Cakebread: Certainly for the PGR2 version and before that, I didn't have any artists working with me. Because it was an easter egg, I had a week to put it in, and all the artists were super-busy making cities and stuff like that, so it had to be the line stuff. I'm absolutely rubbish at drawing. I think that was good for the game anyway. There hadn't been many vector graphics shooters around at that point, and it was almost fresh.