Cactus is, it appears, unstoppable. He's a craftsman, and a living testament that it only takes a short time to design a game. In the indie game community, the 22-year-old Swede is looked upon as the gold standard of agility and style, with many being periodically infected with a disease known as "Cactus Envy". Now is an interesting time to review his work in that light, since a wave of content creation engines will allow less multi-talented designers to be cured of their Cactus Envy, and make similarly idiosyncratic games on similar time-scales.
A good portion of Catcus's ludography consists of shmups. Shmups, being one of the oldest genres, have seen a massive retro-revival over recent years, with luminaries like Kenta Cho and Hikoza Ohkubo reinventing it with freeware. Cactus plays in their league, turning mechanical twists into wholly stylized conceptual jaunts. Burn The Trash takes a mechanic twist of letting you douse bullets while buring the "trash" they emanate from, while making the shmupping a sort of carbon-intensive recycling activity. Minubeat focuses the experience around a one-minute "dance". The two Ad Nauseum games, not featured in this download, ignore the usual bullet dogding for an all-out, finger-paint-esque smear that just keeps going, ad nauseam. Clean Asia plays with a melee mechanic, making it a dash-em-up, and has you cleaning various Asian countries by collecting debris to throw or power-up your weaponry. The Design has you controlling two points simultaneously in a tangling geometrical waltz, while Fuck Space takes a cruder grain, self-consciously generic, complete with enemies that look like Freeza's skull. The most notable probably is Seizure Dome, which you could describe as Robotron meets Sumo meets Space Giraffe. In these works, Cactus is unafraid to work withing genre constraints in order to deliver something innovative, yet there's a sense over this progression that these are all experiments adding up to a transcendence of the genre.
Soderstrom's most interesting work lies in his experiments with adventure game tropes and spatial exploration, which one gets a sense are not completely unrelated to his shmup work. Stuff like Shotgun Ninja lies on the more popcorn side of the spectrum, content to flout aesthetics (an intentionally nonsense plot, a minimalist, pixelated grid of tiles and 4x8 sprites) while focusing on tight controls which flow with the environment. In the middle you have the Mondo games and Psychosomnium, which play in illogicality, replete with warped characters confessing their most dangerous sins. This trend toward a psychological manse of reconciliation, where the spatial level designs act as metaphor for the characters' own issues (see Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) is most honest in God Came To The Cave.
Jason Roher once told me that he cried while playing God Came To The Cave, but only because of its aesthetics, not something that the gameplay evoked. The game is marginally interactive, you fly around, hit a few switches, and find some objects; yet as we've explored here before, you don't get effect simply on aesthetics alone, the mechanics, no matter how shallow, are always levering the theme in these successful instances. The movement dynamic is dreamy, pushing you into repetitive triangles as you bounce off the monochromatic walls of the cave between life and death. The music is MIDI-fied melancholy, the brief flits of text are sweet in their context. And then the title makes you think, "if god came to the cave, then who am I?" or something like that.
Looking over the cream of three years of work out of the proverbial parent's basement, games made on scales between a month and a day, you can see a definite maturation process, yet insulated from the danger of taking one's work too seriously. His upcoming major project, Brain-Damaged Toon Underworld looks to incorporate the zany mania of Psychosomnium with the sincere, unreal drama of God Came To The Cave. It's as if his entire collected works are just one game, re-designing itself, like a snake coiling through its skins to the upward bounds of cosmos.
What Cactus can teach us about game design is: if it only really takes a day to design a game, then why not make games all the time, become a master, and be able to hit more regularly? Why not rapidly explore the space of rule-sets that you are interested, and find a soul there? Then, once you've found that soul, make something more ambitious, using that rare jewel as the diamond foundation.