By now, the influence American action movies have had on (early) Japanese video games is both well documented and widely understood. There are logical explanations for why these two spheres would come into contact with each other: action movies’ focus on spectacle leaves very little that needs translating/altering, making them easy to market to international audiences. I’ve also heard arguments that phrase this pairing as an inevitability: the simplest form a video game can take is essentially one or more players in conflict and projectiles to eliminate that player from play. (Or so the argument goes. This doesn’t explain why so many early video games were sports-based, and many others were even simpler than this.) Combine that with technological progressivism and follow-the-leader design philosophies, and action movies almost seem like a perfect fit for the industry.
Still, I can’t help but feel like these arguments leave something to be desired. They leave no room for an individual developer’s autonomy, which the games themselves suggest is a very significant factor. That pairing wasn’t accidental, but the product of a very real and very genuine love for American action movies. These games often have an air of absurdity to them, but they’re never critical of their source material. In fact, they celebrate the over-the-top spectacle that fuels action movies. Games like Bloody Wolf, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Bionic Commando and most of Konami’s output in the 80s and 90s are fun specifically because they have fun with themselves.
Experimental games in the commercial space have put themselves in a strange position for a number of years. They may promote themselves as questioning the assumptions we take for granted or exploring a subject matter that games typically don’t explore, but because these games force themselves into formats we typically associate with games, there’s always a limit on what they’re capable of accomplishing. It’s a respectability thing, I suspect; fearing that nobody will take what you’re doing seriously unless it can be openly recognized as a game. Sometimes that works out, like with Little Inferno’s scathing commentary on the futility capitalist consumption. Other times, you get 1979 Revolution: Black Friday awkwardly trying to fit its interpretation of the Iranian Revolution into a Telltale-esque format.
Unfortunately, OneShot fits into the latter of these two categories. Originally released as an RPGMaker 2003 game a couple of years ago, OneShot follows a young girl named Niko on her quest to restore light to a dying world. It confronts the possibility that this world is already beyond saving and then asks how we might continue to lead our lives in the face of its perhaps-unavoidable descent into ruin. This game is by no means the first to probe into questions like these, but the answers it provides are infused with enough warmth, hope and humanity that the world feels as though it has meaning even if Niko doesn’t succeed in her quest. Or at least it would if OneShot were presented in any other way. However, the game’s unconscious desire for legitimacy as a game drags it down in ways it can’t hope to recover from.
Our game begins with the words “L’Arc in Ciel” printed against a grainy film backdrop. We then quickly jump to objects that are much more modern by contrast: kawaii anime heads and a mix of hip phrases in an angular bubble font. The rest of the introduction proceeds like that: a chaotic mix of various pop media styles, each of them juxtaposed and remixed to the point that they’ve lost all meaning. All of this is supposed to connote youthful rebellion and an “I’m above caring about things that are beneath me” attitude, but the effect doesn’t completely come through. It can’t. Media remixing like this was a staple of the 1990s (others having done it better), and so was the idea of imbuing a product with a rebellious attitude. Considering how Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc: Tomarunner vs L’Arc-en-Ciel was released in 2000, people had a decade’s worth of time to adjust to those concepts and see the game for what it is: a carefully calculated marketing ploy.
Musashi no Ken serves as the perfect contrast to last week’s Runbow. Both are minor games that represent dominant design trends of their respective eras. Runbow, like a lot of modern indie games, ostensibly sought to emulate classical games from the 80s and 90s, but its preoccupation with techniques and game enthusiast sensibilities about what makes a game good resulted in a mess of a game.
The irony of this is that those older games became classics in part because they were unconcerned with appealing to that specific demographic. They clung tightly to the same principles Runbow used, to be sure, but even today, their expressive power remains strong. They were able to communicate a lot with very little, and even if they stuck to the same set of moods in practice (heroism, campy fun, etc.), they would convey those moods in a subtle but effective fashion. should go without saying that Musashi no Ken isn’t all that different from its peers. If Runbow represents the worst case scenario for by-the-book game design, then Musashi no Ken at least demonstrates how to put that kind of game design to good use.
By now, I’m certain that the points I’m going to make in the following 2000 or so words are points that I’ve harped on in previous places. In fact, I distinctly remember (and when gathering material, caught myself in the act of) discussing these points in relation to Shantae, Retro City Rampage, and Eufloria. So they’re definitely recurring elements in the culture that indie game developers have cultivated for themselves since about 2009. Yet even at this juncture, I still find these points worth discussing. In addition to emulating and building on aesthetic/design sensibilities from the 1990s, many games in the indie space aim for refinement above all else, as if they can achieve some Platonic ideal of the perfect video game. But if the end results of their efforts consistently feel hollow and meaningless, I’m left wondering what good game design is supposed to be.
Before I get into the matter of discussing Griffin specifically, I want to acknowledge that the ideas I’m going to discuss here are ones I’ve already discussed to death. In fact, I had my writing on SD Gundam and Steel Empire on my mind (for reasons I hope will soon become clear) while I was taking notes on Griffin. If pressed for reasons why I return to these ideas so frequently, I’d say it’s because they’ve been so incredibly common in games for decades, especially games with military shooting and a heavy emphasis on shooting. But to apply this to Griffin more specifically, there isn’t much else to discuss about the game. A minor shooter released early in the Game Gear’s life, the game is bland, conventional, conservative, etc. It’s an empty signifier; something that makes more sense as a collection of techniques and popular trends than it does as an expression of somebody’s thoughts on the world.
Yet it’s for those very reasons the game is worth looking at in the first place. It may be easier to pick apart contemporary trends in the game industry when the game you’re analyzing is small enough that it follows those trends to the letter, rather than large enough to dictate what direction those trends go in. And by definition, conventional games will play right into the status quo (whatever that may be). This is especially the case with a game as empty as Griffin. Stuck halfway between admiring its own combat and calmly accepting its existence, it never occurs to the game to question its own premises or to think outside them, and the game languishes for it.
During the early 90s, Japanese game developer Naxat Soft started running an annual competition they called the Summer Carnival. It was a response to Hudson Soft’s longer-running Hudson Caravan event, but the premise behind both was the same: the company would organize regional competitions around a particular game, and players would have all summer to practice their skills before competing for the title of national champion. Both events have long since faded into obscurity – the Summer Carnival only lasted a few years (until 1993, to be specific) and the Caravan somehow held out until 2006 – but the games that were designed for these events still remain.
I’ve always been fascinated by how games writers and players talk about nostalgia. To be more specific, I’ve been fascinated with the unspoken assumptions and limits regarding how people discuss nostalgia. It’s a topic I could write at length about, but to choose just one facet, there’s what games try to accomplish through nostalgia. It’s almost never just a call back for its own sake. Nostalgia is a powerful and flexible tool developers can use to relate to the present through what the past has to offer. Read Only Memories and (especially) VA-11 Hall-A, for instance, are creative endeavors: they invoke nostalgia to explore alternatives to the world we currently live in.
Retro City Rampage, on the other hand, is far more insular in its use of nostalgia. It has absolutely zero interest in exploring alternatives or evaluating what value, if any, the objects of its nostalgia have in today’s world. If anything, the game shuts down inquiry like this by shrouding players in a veil of ignorance. It overwhelms them with action and spectacle, and then asks them to affirm whatever value it’s already read into its own past. Far from being creative, Retro City Rampage is a meaningless celebration of destruction for its own sake.
Before you even start playing the game, Steel Empire begins on a paradox. Its story postures at condemning imperialistic conquest, but by choosing the name Steel Empire, the game centers empire above whatever harm it claims that empire brings about. The further I pushed into the game, the more I saw similar tensions pop up left and right. The narration tells us how humanity fears for its destruction, but the accompanying imagery communicates hope and happiness. Likewise, the game is willing to adorn itself in steampunk details if that means the player will look back on this era through a nostalgic lens, but it’s not quite as willing to engage with the darker implications that era in history suggests. Because the game can’t resolve these tensions or even completely hide them, it falls back on spectacle and impressive technique, hoping either one might distract from its underlying problems.
Most retro game enthusiasts who play Saiyuuki World will quickly realize the game is just Wonder Boy in Monster Land dressed up in Journey to the West references and motifs. On its own, this fact isn’t likely to arouse much interest. Much like Dragon Ball before it, Saiyuuki World is more interested in using those motifs to lend the game a distinctive character than it is in perfectly translating the original Journey to the West into video game form or even letting its motifs inform the plot in any meaningful way. Still, the game’s existence and the history behind it both point to a much larger trend that does around interest.