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Demiurge Studios made its name performing contract work for other game developers, including porting BioWare’s acclaimed Mass Effect to Windows. Now, the studio is preparing to release their first major original title, Shoot Many Robots, a sidescrolling run-and-gun with outsize weapons, relentless combat and a surprisingly rich historical context.

The game is something of a love letter to the Metal Slug franchise, though studio director Al Reed says he would like to see Shoot Many Robots transform the shoot-em-up genre in the same way Halo used automatic healing and simplified controls to make first person shooters more accessible. Their main concession? Unlike in many classics, one bullet no longer kills you.

“Our number one influence was absolutely Metal Slug,” Reed told Tech.li. “But those games are built to suck quartersthey had a fairly short, hour or hour-and-a-half long game, and they were punishingly difficult. We wanted to make a game that was a run-and-gun for people who found that gameplay frustrating.”

Four players cooperate to destroy hordes of robots, as the title suggests. But with an eye toward the games that inspired it, Demiurge tried to maintain a strong sense of visual narrative amid the killing. Early waves of enemies look rusty and disused, some growing vines, with a progression toward smarter, deadlier models that are buffed to a shine.

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The artistic direction–with full-3D characters and destructible set pieces rendered in the style of hand-drawn sprites over lush, hand-painted parallax backdrops–is clearly influenced by titles from the golden age of sidescrolling run-and-guns, including Contra, Gunstar Heroes and, of course, Metal Slug. It’s also drawn comparisons to Borderlands, in terms of the feel and upgrade system, and Reed noted the Diablo franchise as another reference point.

The game, which has been a work in progress for some five years, does have role-playing elements, with some slain robots dropping blueprints for weapons that can be assembled with “nuts,” the in-game currency. Customization and experimentation are at the core of the game experience, Reed says, with over 200 available items–many of them whimsical, like fishnet stockings that increase running speed.

Another frenetic gameplay feature Reed highlighted is punching bullets back at enemies–a trope that recollects 1992′s cutesy, Japanese shoot-em-up Pocky & Rocky, though Reed said he wasn’t aware of that game having influenced the design process. They’ve also focused on replay value, implementing harder difficulty levels that “remix” the gameplay experience in addition to introducing new challenges.

Demiurge developed the game engine, Seoul, in-house.

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It’s been reported that Shoot Many Robots is Demiurge’s first original title, but Reed says that’s not quite accurate. In the very early days of the studio, they released a handful of what would now be called indie games and mods, like Clone Bandits.

“It’s been in our blood forever, but this is certainly the most important release for the studio to date,” Reed said.

But it is the first project they’ve designed from the ground up to be released in years, and that introduces some pressure, especially in a genre that’s been sparsely populated in the last decade. Reed shrugs off those concerns, though: Nothing released in 2012, he says, is going to replace Metal Slug for die-hard fans–Demiurge just hopes the inevitable detractors have some fun with it.

“Gamers who love run-and-guns are going to like Shoot Many Robots,” he said. “It might not be their favorite if they’re spent thousands of dollars in quarters on Metal Slug or if they’ve bought a Neo Geo, but that’s a very niche market. We think that the mechanics–running and shooting shit–have a much broader potential than has been realized so far.”

Shoot Many Robots will be released for Windows, Playstation and Xbox in March.

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