Slam Bolt Scrappers Preview: An Instant WinnerS

I ended my tour of PAX East 2010 with two games vying for the title of Stephen's Favorite New Game At The Show. This was one of them.

Slam Bolt Scrappers is, among other things, a new take on Tetris-engineered combat. Build a tower out of the blocks you rotate and drop. Use the tower to destroy other stuff. The "stuff" at PAX East, where the game's single-screen two vs. two multiplayer mode was shown, was the other team's tower.

Eitan Glinert, whose business card indicates that he is the Dark Overlord and Unicorn Slayer at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Fire Hose Games, told me that what I and other PAX attendees played at the show is the sixth iteration of an idea that his team has been building and scrapping for a year. "It was always going to be about building and fighting," he told me. But some of the game designs Fire Hose had were bad, so bad "we were really unsure what our future was going to be."

The fifth version of the game featured super-heroes fixing a dam that kept breaking. It wasn't that great.

This sixth take, however, is a winner.

Slam Bolt Scrappers Preview: An Instant WinnerS

This is how it worked at PAX East: Using Xbox 360 controllers, a friend and I controlled two hat-wearing flying heroes. We were responsible for building a tower on the left side of the screen. To obtain building blocks — all shaped like Tetris pieces — we had to punch flying enemies. A destroyed enemy would leave a building piece floating in the air. We could fly over it to have it trail one of our characters and even gather a few more before dropping any. At any time, though, we could drop pieces on our side of the screen, rotating them if need be and creating a stack. The blocks in this demo version were blue, red or purple. We wanted to create squares of color: clusters of 2x2 red maybe, or, better, 4x4 purple.

We were building our tower so we could destroy the tower being built by the other players. Each perfect square of color we created with our dropped blocks turned into a solidly-colored weapon. Red squares fired enemy-seeking missiles. Purple squares became mighty laser cannons. Blue squares became shield generators. The bigger the square of color we created, the more powerful the weapon. So a 2X2 red generated a small missile battery. A 4x4 clump of red was a beast. A 7X7, the most powerful in the game, is something I'll dream of.

The weapons fire (or protect) automatically. As my friend and I coordinated our block-dropping to create squares of red and purple power, our arsenal's lasers and missiles seared their way across the TV. Our fusillade fractured blocks in the other players' tower even as those players tried to build big blue-square shield generators. Eventually, our offense broke through to a yellow-outlined block. Destroying it gave us the victory.

Slam Bolt Scrappers Preview: An Instant WinnerS

The game was easy to pick up, confusing in its first round but exciting and enjoyable to command on an immediate second try. By the second attempt — another victory — I was even comfortable snatching the mid-screen block-remover item, which let me transport some badly-placed blocks from our stack and put them in a better spot.

This sixth version of Slam Bolt scrappers already has the slickness of graphics and responsiveness of controls you would expect from an experienced studio, something that is likely due to the six-person team's professional chops. One Fire Hose developer was the lead programmer of Guitar Hero II, Glinert told me. Another is a Pixar veteran.

Fire Hose is planning a more complex final game than what I experienced at PAX East. The multiplayer battle mode is just one piece, with a co-op campaign also taking shape. Glinert cites the construction of World of Goo and the adventuring and character-leveling of Castle Crashers as inspirations for the modes. The campaign would have some side-scrolling elements, some boss battles pitting a player-made tower against a towering enemy. Fire Hose is still figuring out the hows and whys of the experience-earning systems that will improve players' characters during the adventure. They are also planning more colored block types, including one with Braid-inspired time-warping effects.

Slam Bolt Scrappers Preview: An Instant WinnerS

Slam Bolt Scrappers has no home yet. Gilnert said he wants the game to be a digital download and is talking with the big console manufacturers to strike up a deal. He feels the game needs another year of development. PAX East was supposed to be the big debut, helpful for this getting-people-excited-about-an-indie-game-from-a-company-they-never-heard-of phase.

I found Slam Bolt Scrappers' gameplay to be terrific. At worst, it was the second-best game I played at PAX East. It could be the best. I'm torn. I'll discuss my other contender in a later post.