Graceful Explosion Machine could be Nintendo Switch's 1st Canadian-made hit

The indie team at Vertex Pop banks on the nostalgia for arcade games like Defender in crafting a new shooter for the Nintendo Switch.

Toronto-based studio Vertex Pop takes inspiration from old school arcade games

Graceful Explosion Machine is a new 2D shooter game for the Nintendo Switch. (Vertex Pop)

After about a month in stores, Nintendo's newest gaming console — Switch — appears to be doing well. It's been selling well around the world, and the Japanese company is ramping up production to meet demand.

Other than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, however, its launch library is bereft of blockbuster games from popular series and franchises.

Instead, since its debut, the system has made a splash with smaller, quirkier games from independent developers.

Graceful Explosion Machine, out today, is the latest such game to appear on the Switch — and it's the first by a Canadian independent team designed with the new console in mind.

Retro arcade inspired

In Graceful Explosion Machine (GEM) you control a spaceship taking on waves of hostile aliens and other assorted enemies with a variety of sci-fi weapons.

The two-dimensional, side-scrolling art style will bring back memories of dusty arcade cabinets from the 1980s, when shooting games like Defender and Zaxxon were all the rage.

Mobeen Fikree, head of Vertex Pop games, took inspiration from classic arcade games when making Graceful Explosion Machine. (Mobeen Fikree)

The game's lead designer, Mobeen Fikree, a University of Waterloo graduate and founder of Vertex Pop, admits that he isn't quite old enough to remember the heyday of the arcade gaming culture he finds so fascinating. But that hasn't stopped him from trying to harness what he loves about the games of that era.

"What I love about arcade games is their immediacy. You would put your quarter in, and you would start playing immediately. I really loved that," said Fikree.

It's clear from the start that GEM channels that spirit. There's no story, no prelude and no long-winded character monologues. As a player, you get to choose a level and start blasting enemies within seconds of loading the game.

But with dozens of levels and additional challenge modes, GEM also has the depth and ability to be replayed, making it conducive to longer gaming sessions. It's particularly well-suited to Switch, which can be played both on a television like a traditional home console, or taken on the go like a portable system.

New games for new consoles

Developing a game for Switch wasn't easy. When Fikree first started, the console technically didn't exist. Vertex Pop and Nintendo had been in talks with each other before Switch was publicly announced in October, but it wasn't until after the public reveal that GEM was confirmed to be coming out for the platform.

Fikree and his team didn't have any pre-existing games to test in order to learn more about how the Switch's unique hardware quirks could be used.

"That's the exciting and scary part of working on a new platform — nobody's worked on this before, so you're figuring things out," said Fikree. "So it was really cool, and terrifying. But Nintendo were there with us every step of the way, and it made things a lot easier."

The best example of this is the system's HD Rumble function — an advanced version of vibration mode that has been used in video game controllers for years. In GEM, the Switch's left and right JoyCon controllers vibrate in sync with the action on the screen. Causing havoc near the left side of the screen will make the left controller vibrate more than the right side and vice versa.

It's a subtle effect, but it combines with the thrumming, jazzy electronic soundtrack by Robby Duguay and art by Gabby DaRienzo to craft an appropriately "graceful" esthetic.

As your ship glides through the levels, it appears as though it's swimming rather than flying. Enemies burst with diamond-shaped explosions alongside muted crackles and pops.

The ship you pilot in Graceful Explosion Machine looks like it's swimming through the game. (Vertex Pop)

When things get too hectic and your ship takes a hit, everything crashes to a halt for a jarring split-second. Enemy bullets hit your ship with a percussive thwack. The screen flashes red, and the JoyCons shudder in sync with the chaos on the screen. It's a lot of shaking you don't get with other dedicated gaming handheld consoles, since neither the PlayStation Vita nor the Nintendo 3DS have rumble functionality. Try playing it with a pair of good headphones for maximum effect.

Inspiring future for Switch games

While Fikree is understandably excited for his game to launch, he's almost more excited to see what other developers create for Switch in the future — knowing they might take inspiration from his game, as well as others like Zelda, to chart their course.

"Games that come out in six months are going to be looking at Graceful Explosion Machine and going, 'Hey, how did they do that? Should we do things similarly?' There's a certain amount of pressure knowing that the stuff we do is going to set the tone for the console."


Jonathan Ore


Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.