Eugene Jarvis, along with Larry DeMar, is the co-creator of arcade classics Defender and
Robotron: 2084. He also designed Smash TV – a spiritual successor to Robotron – with Mark Turmell, and is responsible for the Cruis’n racing series, which he has recently updated with a new cabinet – Cruis’n Blast – created by Raw Thrills, the arcade-game company he co-founded in 2001. You’ve turned down a number of developers who’ve approached you to work with them on projects – why was Nex Machina different? I think there are some wonderful game mechanics in some of the classics, and to revisit those titles now and then can be fun. But it’s really tough, because you have a game that works so well in 2D, and there’s always this huge risk when you try to bring that into 3D. It’s like 3D chess – as wonderful as it is in 2D, when you bring in another dimension, your brain explodes. But
Robotron is the game that I did which I think probably has the most staying power. There’s a simplicity to the game but also incredible depth. We revisited it in Smash TV years ago, and it’s been over 30 years since the original, so I thought maybe it was time. I just thought, ‘ Why not? Let’s give it a shot,’ you know? Plus I was really excited about Resogun. It’s a really fun game, and I loved the particle effects – which was something I got really excited about years ago on Defender. But in
Resogun it was, like, to the tenth power! Nex Machina certainly dials up that aspect. Yeah. Listen, I remember when I first saw
Minecraft, I thought, ‘How can people get excited about this old, crappy technology?’ We’ve been trying to get rid of these big pixels and voxels for the past 40 years. My entire career was dedicated to getting rid of this shit and having smooth, organic shapes, and now all of a sudden it’s cool again. My 15-year-old kid is like, ‘This is the coolest shit,’ and I’m like, ‘Dude. That was cool in 1982.’ But the coolest thing about what Housemarque has done with their voxel technology is that it can morph back and forth between a smooth, shaded mesh and a voxel, interpolating between two different objects. You get the best of both worlds. Not everything is Minecraft block stuff – you also have these very ornate and smooth-shaded, incredible enemies. Then when you blow them up they go into this voxel state and scatter. There’s got to be thousands of voxels onscreen flying everywhere. Are you surprised at the continued appetite for games built on the ideas that you and your peers laid out three decades ago? I mean, it’s obviously a good ego stroke, you know. But back in that day we were kind of the formation of the industry. We were dealing with the most basic stuff and creating some basic genres – now there are hundreds of them. If I hadn’t been there, somebody else would’ve done it. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, because there are just way too many smart people out in the world. I think we can get a little high on our own egos by thinking that we’re indispensable, which is not true at all.
Over the years we’ve had some great
Robotron- type games. The whole dual-stick thing was pretty obvious, but it was amazing how many years it took to become the standard. I remember making Robotron in 1982 and being like, ‘Who would make a game without [dual sticks]?’ And then for the next ten or 15 years we had basically the Nintendo NES controller. And I was like, ‘Wow, don’t you guys know you can put two joysticks together?’ I guess they were right, though, because Mario was a much bigger game [laughs]. How does it feel to be working on a console game again after spending such a long time focused squarely on the arcade scene? In some ways it’s extremely humbling. The arcade world is a fun one, but it’s a small world these days – a niche market. We have a tremendous amount of fun, and we can create these really cool, huge games and play around with things like putting 4,000 LEDs – or 100,000, whatever! – on a cabinet. And we can create these huge experiences where you walk into an arcade and go, ‘Oh my god, look at that thing!’ That’s really cool, but then you get into the world of PlayStation and it’s a very hardcore audience. These are players that live and breathe games. They’re playing games 22/7, with two hours of sleep and just this crazy passion. They’re fanatics.
It reminds me of back in the day when the arcade was king and we had people that just lived in there. That was their whole life – the arcades would be open all night, until 6am, and people would just play through the night. I don’t know when they slept. You can see that same hardcore audience on PS4 – crazy people having just so much fun and getting so into the games. And you’re talking very long experiences – hours and days, maybe months or years, as opposed to a few minutes in an arcade. But that hasn’t stopped you planning to create a cabinet version of Nex Machina? I think we can get some made. Analogue sticks aren’t common today, but I think we can take some of the flight-stick technology and adapt it. I always love physical cabinets – being able to grab hold of the cabinet and shake it, like going up to your best frenemy and grabbing them by the neck. It’s this real physical anger and emotion – you can just dig in more. It’s kind of like you against the machine. I love that feeling of grabbing a big joystick. And one in each hand is just so balanced.
I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it, but some day I would love to have ten players at once, on a 30-foot screen – which is probably not too far off – and have this mega experience, live in meatspace. Ten people in the same room very physically playing with joysticks as opposed to WASD keys. When I look at esports, I have a hard time getting super-excited about watching someone playing around with their keyboard. We’re just lacking physicality there; we’re just becoming brains. But we’re people – we should be out there physically going after stuff.