“Our earliest thoughts on it were, ‘Let’s make a Goonies RPG!’” says Rex Crowle, of studio Foam Sword Games.
It’s fair to say that as a jumping off point, that’s a winner. After working at Lionhead Studios on Black & White and Fable, Crowle worked with Media Molecule on LittleBigPlanet, before joining full-time as lead creator of Tearaway. Now he and fellow Media Molecule developer Moo Yu have formed Foam Sword and are bringing Knights and Bikes to the world.
Or rather, they’re bringing you to the world of Knights and Bikes. Set in the 1980s, the game’s two young heroes, Nessa and Demelza, will take to their BMX bikes to explore; they’ll engage in battle with enemies; and they’ll attempt to uncover the mysteries of Penfurzy – replete with medieval legends, chivalric knights, and tourist trap gift shops. If you have been to Cornwall, you’ll see that Penfurzy is a pitch-perfect love letter to creamy hills, rain-drizzled caravan sites, and of course, pasties. But for a game with such a niche setting, it carries with it a broad appeal. Crowle emphasised Richard Donner’s 1985 classic, The Goonies, and said, “It’s important to have a cultural touchstone.”
Even for those that don’t have that way in, I’m not sure that you wouldn’t just fall for the game for its looks. Everything moves. That’s one of the first things you notice as you start to explore. It’s a 2D game that makes use of layering to charming effect.
“This is real to them, and that’s the important thing.”— Moo Yu, Foam Sword Games
Birds chirrup, nested high up in trees that leap at you in the foreground; even standing still, Demelza’s frizzy orange hair has a squiggly life of its own; and every scene is packed with tiny details like garden gnomes that change when they are off-screen – you’ll think you’re going mad as the little guys ditch their hats or pop back up wearing glasses. The art is all hand-drawn by Crowle himself: “we’ve got a really simple art pipeline where essentially you just paint the stuff, put it straight into the game, and there it is.”
The game really comes to life when it’s played in co-op: Nessa is able to lob water balloons onto the floor to create puddles which Demelza can stomp into with her wellies, causing a makeshift area-of-effect attack – useful for defeating flaming foes! Exploration takes place on bike and on foot, turning up all sorts of treasures and trinkets – bottle-caps and junk mostly, but in the minds of the two children: priceless.
Knights and Bikes also speaks to a rich video game lineage. Moo Yu tells me, “We had Goonies as a reference, and then game-wise we went for Earthbound and Secret of Mana.” It’s a potent mix of referential nostalgia that colours the game with a layer of imagination. The notion that what’s happening could all be in the impressionable heads of the two heroes suggests a shade of magic realism.
Yu sees it as a way children deal with a world they aren’t yet equipped to understand. “When you’re in that stage you do rely on a lot of things, and ways of thinking about things. There’s definitely this idea of ‘could it be in their heads?'”
Yu adds that at the same time, they were keen to dissolve this notion in Knights and Bikes. “This is real to them, and that’s the important thing.”
Aside from questioning what you see, it also adds cute comedy to the game. At one point, Yu and I come across a locked door; Demelza thinks the door is hungry and the way to open it is to feed it crisps; these ‘crisps’ happen to be in a ‘crisp cupboard’ (junction box) and when pried open, it does indeed spring the door’s mechanism – Demelza’s imagination is appeased and then we are on our way.
Sifting through and wearing garments of rose-tint is a dicey game to play. There is a slew of games out there with little more than a garnishing of synth, or a neon colour-palette looking to cash in on the near-mythic ‘80s. The line between homage and rip-off is a fine one, and Knights and Bikes deftly treads it.
Oh, and those titular bikes? You can joust on them.