Super Ox Wars is released!

Super Ox Wars icon

It’s that time again!

Another game finished. Super Ox Wars is now available at the App Store!

Click this link to go to Super Ox Wars.

As you probably know sometimes during the Minotaur Project series I like to visit genres that Llamasoft has never tackled before in all the years we’ve been doing games (GoatUp was an example of that being Llamasoft’s first ever attempt at a platform game). So this time I thought it might be nice to tackle a vertically-scrolling shooter, being a popular genre that I’ve never touched before.

My first exposure to vert scrollers was encountering Xevious whilst on holiday many years ago in France. Me and my mates would sometimes escape the heat of the hot summer days by retreating to a nice little arcade full of coinops and pinballs and there they had a Xevious machine into which many a 10 franc coin got lobbed.

Probably my favourite example of the genre was encountered on a different holiday, to the Greek island of Thassos, a few years later. In a beach restaurant there lurked an approachable yet challenging vertically scrolling shooter called Star Force.

Star Force

This was a somewhat faster paced game than Xevious and featured a small white ship zipping over a tiled surface. Squadrons of enemies would fly down in distinctive formations, larger structures waited to be destroyed on the surface below. Levels were punctuated by larger end-level bosses (which were pretty minimal as bosses go, being just a Greek letter in a square flanked by a couple of turrets) and the difficulty level was just right: challenging without being overwhelming, and with plenty of good long levels to get stuck into. It was a fun blaster, and its basic design informed a lot of other games that came out on various systems. Over the years I’ve enjoyed dipping into these, games like “Astro Warrior” on the Sega Master System:

Astro Warrior

- a game which displays its Star Force inspiration rather obviously, but which is in fact a much simpler game, having only three levels (although the end level bosses are a bit more complex and aggressive than those of Star Force); and on the Atari ST the little-known gem “Plutos”:


which, despite having a small play area in only a part of the screen, was a rather fun reworking of Star Force which allowed two-player simultaneous gameplay.

Star Force went on to inspire namy more games, some of them semi-official sequels like the Star Soldier series on the PC Engine, which also saw a fair bit of my attention during the time of that excellent system.

In latter years the vert scroller continued to evolve, in particular into the Japanese style now known as “bullet hell”. These games tend to have shorter levels but feature an absolute crapton of enemies and in particular the spectacular geometrical sprays of bullets which give the style its name.

The original Star Force had a much simpler graphical style than the later bullet hell shooters (which often feature some really lovely Japanese spritework and backdrops). And so, in keeping with the spirit of the Minotaur Project games, I thought it’d be nice to pay homage to the old master and do a vert scroller very much in the style of the original Star Force.

Super Ox Wars stage 1

Here we are right at the start of Alpha-Area (stage 1). Turrets and targets are scattered on the tile plane below while enemy ships fly in patterns above.

The main part of the game’s design draws its cues directly from Star Force, with crap on the ground to shoot and crap in the air to shoot, much of which shoots back at you.

I needed some kind of theme for the game, and also something to add a bit of a wrinkle to the gameplay, so I turned it into a very mild variation of what is known as a “polarity shooter”, a subgenre of vert-scrollers. In a polarity shooter there are two key colours that can apply to enemies and player alike, and different things happen according to which colour you and the targets are.

A more fierce example of the polarity shooter is “Ikaruga”. Enemies and shots can be either black or white, and you can flip your ship between the two states. Bullets of your own polarity can be absorbed with impunity (and in fact add to your weaponry). Enemies shot with opposite polarity bullets sustain more damage, and choosing to be the right colour at the right time contributes to a chain bonus mechanic.

Now Ikaruga is a fantastic game but it’s really, really difficult, so much so that although I love it I don’t actually find it terribly relaxing to play. It’s one of those games where your sphincter is in an almost constant state of pucker and it’s almost a relief when you get killed because it’s just so tense while you’re playing. I like my games to be a bit more of a romp than that, so for Super Ox Wars I decided to have a simplified version of the polarity thing. Only your ship and weaponry is affected by it and there isn’t any “wrong” polarity that’ll cause you to die if you’re the wrong colour. The polarity affects the gameplay in a more subtle way that I’ll explain as I go along.

But first I have to explain how it became “Super Ox Wars” and how that fits into the design, and to do that we have to take a digression into Amazonian tribal folklore.

A few years ago an idle ox-related Google search led me to a fascinating essay about a little-known cultural event in Brazil called the Amazonian Ox-Dance Festival. (You can read the whole essay here).

Basically, on a small island in the Amazon river, in a town called Parintins, once a year (next weekend, in fact, it being the end of June) two rival teams of dancers meet and compete in a themed dance festival – the “Boi-Bumbá” – in which a tale is told of the death and resurrection of a precious ox.

The ox is the central motif of the tale, and also the identity of each dance team. “Boi Caprichoso” is represented by a black ox with a blue star on his forehead;

Boi Caprichoso

and “Boi Garantido” by a white ox with a red heart on his forehead.

Boi Garantido

(I herd you like Boi Garantido so I put a Boi Garantido on your Boi Garantido)

Over the years both the story and the scale of the festival have evolved. Whereas the original tale of the ox had its origins in stories brought from Europe and Africa, it has now been elaborated to include stories and celebrations of the “caboclo” culture of the people of Parintins, displaying their pride in their multicultural origins and in the unique place in which they live through amazingly elaborate dance routines featuring astonishingly complex and beautiful props, animated characters, costumes and scenery. Each dance troupe is 3,000 people strong.

The tale of the ox ties it all together, and the performance climaxes in a sequence where the beloved ox (the Touro Amado), who was killed by a farmhand desperate to get some meat for his pregnant wife, is resurrected by the tribal shaman, much to everybody’s delight; dancing and partying ensues.

The thing is that this festival is absolutely huge – eclipsed in size only by the infinitely more famous Festival of Rio. Even within Brazil it’s not that well known and you’d be hard pressed to find anybody in Europe who’s even heard of it.

The festival lasts for three days and takes place at the last weekend in June. More than 70,000 people converge on a specially-built arena in Parintins called the “Bumbodromo”, to watch the festivities. Fleets of red and blue boats travel 24 hours down the river from Manaus – Parintins itself not being connected by road – bringing supporters of the rival oxen to the party.

“Bovine matters” are taken very seriously by the supporters, and Parintins itself is divided into areas of red and blue, Garantido and Caprichoso. Wearing the wrong coloured t-shirt in the wrong area is considered very rude. Supporters of one ox don’t even speak the name of the other, referring to them only as “o contrario”.

(And Parintins is the only place in the world you can get a blue can of Coke. Loyalty to one’s ox is taken so seriously that no Caprichoso fan could possibly be seen drinking from a red can of Coke – so Coke actually sell blue cans of cola there).

Fascinated by this tale of possibly the most ox-centric town on the face of the planet, and this massive festival that hardly anybody has ever heard of, I looked up “Caprichoso” on Youtube and the first thing I found was this:

Which gives some idea of the scale of it.

Since then I’ve become quite a fan of the boi-bumbá myself, following the fortunes of boi Caprichoso. Well it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than football in my opinion ;) . I had originally planned that after finishing Space Giraffe we would book up a trip to actually go and see the festival live – it must be an absolutely fantastic experience to see it all live. Unfortunately our reward for finishing Space Giraffe ended up being financial destitution instead of any kind of commensurate remuneration, and these days where you basically have to keep working flat out and are expected to sell your games for pennies I can’t imagine that I’ll ever get to actually go there. But still I love the Festival, and I like to listen to the music and follow the fortunes of Caprichoso every June.

Anyway – back to my shooter, needing a theme and some kind of polarity gameplay; my thoughts turned to Caprichoso and Garantido, and so the game became Super Ox Wars with the two oxen as the main theme.

The silly story told (in what I hope is typical arcade-ese) in the attract mode tells of the planet “Parint” where the people revere two oxen, and how each ox represents particular characteristics. Parint was invaded by the Marcabians (blame L. Ron Hubbard for that) and now, as ever, it’s down to you, the last pilot, to take off and strike against the invaders, just like in all shooters; but drawing on the powers of the two oxen to repel the invaders. The polarity comes in due to the fact that you can assume the polarity of each ox by shooting and collecting items of their respective colour on the planet surface.

Entering beta-area

Here we are entering the second stage “BETA-AREA”. Notice that the ship is shooting blue stars (and is in fact tinted a bit blue) – this means you are currently in Caprichoso polarity. Look underneath the scores and you’ll see two oxen, one red and one blue, pushing against each other. This indicator shows how deeply you are invested in whatever polarity you’re in. Here the blue ox has pushed the red one back over to the right, indicating that you’re currently fairly well invested in Caprichoso mode.

The more items of one ox’s colour you collect, the more deeply you are “in” that polarity. Picking up items of the opposite polarity quickly moves the balance back towards the other side.

Caprichoso turrets in beta-area

Here we are coming to a part of BETA-AREA where there are 4 Caprichoso-shaped ground turrets. These will fire at you more if you are in Garantido polarity (as here; notice that the ship is firing red hearts).

So what’s the reason to take any notice of the polarity at all? Well, you needn’t if you don’t want to; it’s perfectly OK to just play the game as a normal shooter, flying along merrily shooting the crap out of everything that comes along and picking up every collectible. You can have fun that way but you won’t get the most points or get the most out of the ship’s weaponry.

Caprichoso'd up.

The more you collect items of one colour, the more strong you become in that polarity, and the more likely you are to find extra lives and pickups in the shape of the symbol of that polarity (blue stars and red hearts respectively). Gathering these pickups grants firepower powerups in a specific style for each polarity – here the ship is in Caprichoso polarity and towing four stars, each of which is itself firing, yielding the satisfying bullet stream you can see here.

Garantido-flavoured shockwave

These heart-shaped shockwaves come from picking up spinning heart coins whilst in Garantido polarity.

Garantido bullet streams.

And here towing red hearts while in Garantido polarity yields onion-like layers of bullets that flow in a cardioid trajectory around your ship.

Each polarity also has an intrinsic property which strengthens the more deeply invested you become (and much more so if you are also towing hearts or stars) – a Caprichoso-oriented ship repels enemy shots, and a Garantido-oriented ship can push enemy shots away with its own shots.

All this may sound a bit complicated but what it basically boils down to is “stick with one colour for a while, and score/firepower/protection blessings will accrue to you”. Which colour becomes your favourite is down to your own personal preference :) .

Powerups of both kinds are handy.

Each level contains numerous items of both colours, making it relatively easy to build up a chosen polarity, or collect towards a change if desired. If your ship is destroyed it will return just barely in its previous polarity.

Notice also that there are actually three scores! Everything you shoot with your blue stars gets added to the Caprichoso score, and everything you shoot with the red hearts gets added to the Garantido score. Certain items such as the bonus tiles add to their polarity score according to their own colour instead of that of your bullets, but these are generally small point values. Basically if you’re blue you’ll score blue and if you’re red you’ll score red.

Again, this isn’t anything you need necessarily concern yourself with if you don’t want to. You still have an overall score for your game, which is the total of your Caprichoso and Garantido scores.

So why bother with having separate polarity scores at all? Firstly to encourage you to explore different ways of playing the levels – if you’ve aced a level in one polarity, try playing through with the other. Your overall hiscore on a level is the sum of both best polarity scores, so by doing so you can improve your Restart Best standings for a given level.

Secondly it’s a bit of fun and allows for separate leaderboards for fans of each polarity as well as the overall leaderboard for combined score. There are some achievements given for being “loyal” to one particular polarity over the other.

Which is kinda in keeping with the theme of the two rival oxen :) .


Memories of Plutos!

So that’s it then – a nice vert scrolling shooter themed around two rival oxen and those pesky Marcabians. I hope you’ll enjoy it! It has the usual Llamasoft features – Universal app, excellent controls, iCade compatible (there’s provision in the iCade controls to play it “old style” by rattling the FIRE buttons for that authentic oldschool feel. Albeit with the option to switch in the autofire if your hand gets tired). We’ve switched over to pure Game Center now (there was a lot of overhead of stuff we never used in Openfeint, good though it was; all I ever really needed was leaderboards and achievements, and it seems to make sense to just get those from GC, since it’s right there baked into iOS).

Here’s a couple of videos showing the game in motion.

Here it is being played on iCade (and note that although as many have noted the background music *is* excellent, it’s not a part of the game. I’m guessing that would be a major problem as it *is* Xevious music. However if you really like it it’s simple enough to do what I did, download the music and play the track on the iPod app in repeat while playing Super Ox Wars).

And here it is being played with my dirty great finger just to show it’s perfectly playable that way. It’s nice too on the iPhone.

Right then, that’s it for now. I’ll report back once the app’s on sale, soon hopefully :) .

hang on!

hang on how’d we get into Hover Bovver land??

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