Announced last week as coming to Switch in the first week of February, Knights and Bikes is a beautiful-looking co-op puzzle adventure set in Britain in the ’80s. Developed by indie outfit Foam Sword, it follows Nessa & Demelza as they bike around exploring the beaches, forests and ruins of their home, the fictional island of Penfurzy. Naturally, they get into all sorts of scapes in this Goonies-esque adventure that released on PS4 and PC last year but seems tailor made for Nintendo’s Switch.
Built by veterans of Sony development studio Media Molecule following a successful Kickstarter, the devs have games such as LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway and Ratchet and Clank on their CVs. We caught up with Foam Sword’s founders – artist Rex Crowle and programmer Moo Yu – to discuss development of Knights and Bikes, the enduring appeal of the 1980s, and the strange and unexpected perils of switching the cancel/confirm buttons for Switch.
Nintendo Life: For people who maybe missed the PS4/PC release last year, tell us about the game and its premise.
Rex: Knights And Bikes is an action-adventure for 1 or 2 players (co-op) where you play as a couple of kids exploring an English island in the 1980s looking for a legendary lost treasure. There’s lots of exploration, puzzle solving and combat all wrapped in a classic coming-of-age story.
Gameplay wise you’ll be having conversations with residents of the island, exploring the main world on your bikes and diving into levels with an armload of frisbees, water-balloons and other improvised weaponry to deal with an ancient curse that’s trying to stop your treasure-hunt.
And along the way, you’ll be collecting loot so you can upgrade and customise your bikes, taking part in some bonus competitive mini-games, and caring for your pet goose Captain Honkers!
The game’s island setting seems very specifically British and you’ve said before how you were influenced by childhood experience and films like The Goonies. What other influences were on your mind during development and what do you think it is about that style of ‘80s coming-of-age story which continues to resonate nearly four decades on?
Rex: Aside from personal experiences and those 1980s movies, the biggest gaming influences on the game were Secret of Mana and also Earthbound. Secret of Mana because of co-op play and Earthbound for its bittersweet story of growing-up and its blend of everyday life with a more fantastical adventure.
while we were a bit worried about overlap [with Stranger Things] initially, it’s actually helped introduce more players to a time before the internet
It’s an interesting question why the 1980s continues to hold appeal to modern audiences. Initially it seemed to be that loose writing rule of setting things 30 years before the present (lots of 1980s movies are set in the 1950s). It’s long enough in the past that it’s “special” but not so long ago that it becomes hard to understand. The 1980s feel like a time when lots of today’s everyday experiences really started to take off in an earlier form: walkie-talkies so you could “call” your friends, Walkmans so you could listen to music on the go (or without your parents screaming at you!) and a general increase in communication and pop consumerism.
But time keeps moving forward and the appeal of the 1980s still seems to continue. While we were developing the game a thing called “Stranger Things” came along which definitely reignited extra interest in the 1980s setting, now introducing it to viewers that didn’t ever experience that era the first time around. And while we were a bit worried about overlap initially, it’s actually helped introduce more players to a time before the internet, when you rode around on your bike and got mixed up in all kinds of adventures.
With Foam Sword being formed of Media Molecule vets – were there any specific lessons learned from previous games that influenced Knights and Bikes’ development?
Moo: One moment during LittleBigPlanet development that always stuck with me was the first time I was able to successfully build something collaboratively with the in-game level editor. I was just messing around with the designers without any real plan, just jamming along, but unlike other attempts when the tools fell apart before we could manage anything, we really got into a groove together and made a fire breathing dragon. I think the idea of having space to explore and play around with friends with drastically different abilities was something that really stuck with me and I really wanted to capture in Knights and Bikes.
The other concept that I remembered was the high drama when the other players are putting their fate into the hands of one player and the great sense of satisfaction when you are able to carry your friends, but also the hilarity that often ensues in failure. I think those kinds of dynamics between players are so important to me as a core of playing games.
The art style looks fantastic. Was the look of the game nailed down from the very beginning or did it evolve throughout development?
it was a conscious decision with this project not to go “hyper 1980s” in the way it looked (and it all becoming a self-parody of neon and chrome)
Rex: The idea behind it was there from the start, but getting just the right execution took a little bit longer. It was mostly driven by the need to keep the process of making it as simple as possible so that the most amount of time could be spent on a wide set of environments and situations and not so much on complicated development processes. So we knew it was going to be almost all 2D paintings in a 3D world, as that would give players the kind of environment they could really explore but with more of a picture book painterly style to it.
The actual style of painting tries to make it look like you are seeing the world through the eyes of the kids in the game. It’s painted with the kind of materials they might use if they were trying to describe the adventures they are having. Art materials like paint, chalk and pastels. And having that style meant that we could then make the scenery warp and change depending on the kids imaginations. A lot of the games story is about how much they are imagining. They’ve been raised on a diet of cartoons and comics, so when they happen upon an old tale of a legendary treasure, it’s their imaginations that become unleashed and really turn a rundown seaside resort into a grand adventure.
For the score you recruited Daniel Pemberton who has worked on a host of projects for TV, film and games. In light of how personal the story and setting is, was that collaboration much different to previous projects? Did you give him specific direction or ideas, or just let him do his thing?
Rex: I’ve worked with Daniel on projects for nearly 20 years so we have a close friendship and lots of trust as we know each others way of working so well. Mostly his composing is done “to picture” so I’ll usually play a segment of the game over and over again (but live, not a recording, so he can see all kinds of different ways it might play out) and we’ll chat about what emotions we want to stir in the audience, and he’ll start playing something over it. And before long, a whole piece will be built up around those initial phrases on the keyboard.
Although it was a conscious decision with this project not to go “hyper 1980s” in the way it looked (and it all becoming a self-parody of neon and chrome) I was surprised that he didn’t want to go very synthesizer-y with the main theme on our Kickstarter video. But it was totally the right approach to have something a bit more timeless and classical. After all, lots of the great movies from that time period had orchestral soundtracks and adopting a similar approach allowed for a much wider emotional range.
It turns out that players (especially testers) mash the confirm button all the time.
Having established that high-bar there was also plenty of room to mess around and create some very different atmospheres. I really wanted the game to open with a punk track, something loud and raw, that would sound like kids were playing the track themselves, and set up that this was very much their story that they are telling you. And that track became “I Want To Ride My Bike” which you can hear on some of our trailers too, and totally captured that energy and excitement of riding your bike way too fast into an imaginary battle with broomstick lance and your friend riding alongside.
Daniel is very in demand these days composing for films like [Into The] Spiderverse and the new Birds of Prey movie, so it was so nice for him to still find a bit of time for us!
As a co-op game, Knights & Bikes seems perfect for Switch. What were the biggest challenges of developing this version?
Moo: This is going to sound a bit weird, but one of the biggest challenges came about from switching the confirm and cancel buttons in the menus. For the other versions of Knights and Bikes, confirm is the bottom face button and cancel is on the right. For Switch, the menu standard is the opposite, which shouldn’t be a big problem. However, we started getting a bunch of new errors with the game that I had never seen before on PS4 or PC. It turns out that players (especially testers) mash the confirm button all the time. And when the confirm button was the basic ability button, it didn’t cause any major problems since most abilities are just a one-off without any side effect. However, when the confirm button is also the button that does things like high-fives as well as petting and feeding geese, it caused these interactions to trigger at the weirdest times, especially right before cutscenes or in the middle of cutscenes, which could cause all kinds of problems. So, in the end, swapping those buttons around opened our eyes to a category of bugs that we hadn’t seen before and encouraged me to do much more testing just mashing random buttons at all times.
Are there any changes or additions to the Switch version of the game from other platforms?
Moo: Our goal was to deliver the same experience as players had on the other platforms. We didn’t want to ship a reduced or simplified game so it was always a matter of finding technical ways to ensure we didn’t need to change the design or assets of the game. I would say, however, that even without having to make any major changes, playing the game on Switch does feel really special in a different way. Firstly, having the game in your hands, ready to jump in and out at any point just feels a bit magical. Being able to play for 10 or even 15 minutes on a tube journey was great. But then there is the ability to peel off a controller and shift into co-op. You don’t need to buy extra controllers or even bring extras with you. At any point, you can bounce between single player and local co-op and it really does make it so much easier to play with a friend or to get some help from a friend when you need it most.
Knights and Bikes was a Kickstarter hit, and plenty of devs have turned to that and other crowdfunding platforms – with varying degrees of success. How did you find the crowdfunding experience? Would you do it again? From the outside it seems like a real double-edged sword.
Moo: I found the whole Kickstarter experience to be wonderful. Our backers were extremely supportive the whole way, infinitely patient, and just a joy to spend time with. Not only were the backers great, but the framework of Kickstarter was really great for the project as well. One habit that having the campaign put us into was delivering a monthly update every single month on the first of the month. This was a huge morale boost throughout the project both to remind ourselves how much we had accomplished in the month, but also to hear back from our five thousand backers that they were happy and still getting even more and more excited to play the final result.
Finally, are there any games from other devs you’ve been enjoying recently, on Switch or elsewhere?
Rex: I generally play on my Switch while sat on an exercise-bike. It’s what kept me alive while waiting for builds to compile or uploads to complete during the making Knights And Bikes! So I like games that feel like they match the speed of movement on the exercise bike, or aren’t too intense as I’m playing while pedalling. I’ve been replaying Skyrim recently on it and cycling my way around the Old Kingdom (I never fast-travel or use horses because that spoils my ride). Mario Vs Rabbids is probably my overall favourite game on the system although Consider It! has been entertaining me recently.
Our thanks to Rex and Moo for their time. Knights and Bikes is out on 6th Feb and is up for pre-order now for $19.99 / £19.79 / 21,99€ on the Switch eShop, with a 10% pre-order discount, too. Let us know below what you think or if you’ve played the game elsewhere.