I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually encounter a game like RUN=DIM: Return to Earth. As a writer, my ethos has always been to promote stronger critical engagement with games, and my approach to this has always been to look at games that people routinely overlook and/or dismiss. What alternate histories do they point to? How do they conceptualize games? What new possibilities do either of these things allow us to realize? These are the questions I hope to answer through my writing. Of course, there is a problem with my method: my focus on older games overlaps with a focus on commercially sold games, and time and again, games in the consumer space have proven themselves not only artisticallydead, but also opposed to any sort of wider artistic or historical engagement. My response to this has been to resist the consumerist mentality embedded in games like this to find the value they may not realize they ever had.
RUN=DIM inadvertently challenges this. To provide a brief summary of the game, it’s a Wonderswan shooter based on the anime of the same name. Despite these origins, it may be better described as a Korean video game than as a Japanese one (at least judging by the credits). However, nationality is less important to understanding RUN=DIM than the fact of its being a consumer product. The game is remarkably honest on this point, but that honesty serves to deflect the question of what substance, if any, the game actually has. This is because RUN=DIM has no substance to speak of. What it instead offers is a sort of brazen nihilism: “I am nothing. I speak to nothing and what you do with me means nothing; play me anyway.”
I’m not sure what basis, if any, the following words will have in the historical/artistic reality of video games. What I describe may be an illusion; the result of seeing the medium grow up alongside and eventually surpass a specific audience. Anyway, as I reflect on how children of the 90s became teenagers in the early to mid 2000s, I notice a similar adolescence in the most popular blockbuster games of the time. During adolescence one finally becomes cognizant of their place in the world. Unable to abandon that awareness, one starts to desire control, which is seen as synonymous with adulthood. And because adulthood and childhood are treated antonymously, one comes to believe that true maturity can only be obtained through a direct negation of childhood. Jak II, Shadow the Hedgehog, Bomberman Act Zero, to a lesser extent Super Mario Strikers – the inconsistent quality both between and within these games speaks to the awkward growing pains this misunderstanding of adulthood results in.
Rayman 3 HD (or more accurately Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc, the game Rayman 3 HD is based on) would no doubt slot neatly alongside these other games. Its errors may not be unique, but they nonetheless provide a valuable window into this contemporary trend. Between Murphy’s incessant fourth wall breaking humor, the protagonist’s brief bouts of edginess, and the bevy of features the game introduces, it quickly becomes clear that the game longs for the legitimacy it believes maturity will confer upon it. Yet this frantic search proves to be the game’s undoing. If Ghost Chaser Densei is best described as two games with two tones that happen to occupy the same body, then Rayman 3 is a single game manically chasing after any tone it can find.
Ghost Chaser Densei is two games at once, but it only needs to be one. As cryptic as that sounds, it’s honestly the best way I could think of to summarize this little known beat-em-up from little known developer Winkysoft. Trying to treat it as one unified game will inevitably result in it collapsing into the two aspects I’m going to describe. The two barely interact with each other as both try as best they can to peacefully exist on their own. Whether or not that’s a sufficient strategy is as difficult to sort out as any other thoughts I could render on this game.
In playing Mitsume ga Tooru, I didn’t intend to write a response to what I’d written last week. Swords & Soldiers II draws heavily from trends in the 2015 indie space, like tower defense and classic game design. Mitsume ga Tooru, besides existing alongside the classic games Swords & Soldiers II draws inspiration from, is a Natsume adaptation of an obscure Osamu Tezuka manga, and it only lightly draws from contemporary design trends. Any overlap between these two games would have to be slight, at best.
Anything I could write about Swords & Soldiers II would ultimately be redundant – or at least that’s the feeling I have before writing about the game. Most if not all of the critical observations I arrived at have precedent in things I’ve previously written: Runbow, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, Retro City Rampage, etc. In some ways, this will benefit whatever I have to say about Swords & Soldiers II. With my working premises established elsewhere, I can more strongly focus on this game’s unique accomplishments and failures. Yet this begs the question of how many (if any) of those accomplishments and failures are unique, and what, if anything, each contributes to our understanding of video games.
By comparison, identifying why Swords & Soldiers II overlaps so heavily with its contemporaries/predecessors is a much easier task. Like each of the games I’d listed (except Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo), Swords & Soldiers II is an indie game from a small development team (Ronimo Games, in this case). And like those other games, this one follows best design practices and the games most obviously exemplify them with an almost religious zeal, believing both to be guarantors of aesthetic accomplishment.
As benign as Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo appears at first glance, my experience with it was marked by discomfort. This wasn’t a physical discomfort or even a feeling I could easily articulate. Rather, it was a vague sort of cognitive dissonance. Even as the game hit every mark of what traditionally makes a good video game, its transparently manipulative attitude toward the player kept those marks from meaning anything in my eyes. At the same time, the lack of a clear goal behind the game’s manipulation also made me hesitate to outright dismiss the game like I would any other. The tension never quite resolved itself. In the end, all I could really do was question whether the signs of what a good video game is/does are goals that games should even strive for in the first place.
There are certain operating assumptions that writers and enthusiasts alike make when discussing games based on licensed properties. Most can be summed up through the following formula: the game’s identity initially comes to us through an abstract ideal that exists outside what the game actually does. In the situation we’re describing, that ideal is usually either the brand the game is based on or some idea of what games in general should be. From here, it’s simply a matter of how well a given game adheres to this standard. Unfortunately contradictions become inevitable and we’re already primed to see the game as a mere simulacrum of some higher quality original. Hence the negative reputation licensed games have garnered.
There is a grain of truth in this line of reasoning. Many of these games made that discourse relevant to themselves: because they were made for mass market consumption, they had to fit a certain model of what a game/tie-in product should be, regardless of whether the source material would support it.
One of death metal’s most distinctive traits is its thorough acceptance of death. In fact, it’s the genre’s aesthetic backbone. Metal refuses to compromise on the topic of death or make it more palatable via metaphor. It’s raw, blunt, and confrontational on the matter. At times, a given metal work may celebrate death, finding an aesthetic joy in all its morbid details. However, the bare minimum for the genre is simply an acknowledgement that death exists in the world and no further attempt to mask that truth.
This approach is especially relevant to understanding Shadow Man. That isn’t to say it’s the only approach worth considering. Released in 1999 for every major platform, the game exists at the intersection of several contemporary trends: the various approaches to exploration 3D games (Soul Reaver, shooters, platformers) were exploring at the time; the grimdark masculinist fantasies that dominated the comic book scene; and a pastiche of various pop culture (action movie) icons for good measure. As important as this information is to understanding Shadow Man, facts like these cannot establish a character for the game. Moreover, we should be careful not to reduce the game’s character to these facts.
It’s a very easy thing to say that games are little more than distractions from much larger problems. In the face of an Other that’s too large, too abstract, too disinterested to care about any one individual, these compact virtual Others become tempting substitutes. Of course, this stance is incredibly reductive – there are so many possible relationships a game can create between itself and its player – but for certain games (particularly some in the blockbuster space), this line of thinking points us to some sort of truth, albeit accidentally. In one sense, yes, these games can distract us from larger problems by purporting to solve them in a realm where our capabilities are expanded.
But in another equally important sense, games also lessen the abstract existential threat we read in the Other. In fact, we might describe games as performances for a virtual Other where we affirm our worth by submitting to and fulfilling its demands (much like we do for the non-virtual Other). The performance is inherently unstable; unsatisfied with with our original success, we demand yet more (rigorous) chances to prove our worth until we’ve completely exhausted the game of such opportunities. For a time, at least, those brief moments of success will have to do.
Why do I highlight all of this? Because Kaze no Klonoa: Moonlight Museum highlights a very valuable alternative. Granted, many games highlight alternatives already, usually through language outside that typically used in conventional game design. But Moonlight Museum firmly situates itself in that very language: one plays the game by completing challenges with a limited, well-defined toolset. The only difference is the ends toward which that language is used. It’s the Lieve Oma model of player/game relationships: unconditional acceptance over continually proving one’s worth, and play as a reprieve from rather than a solution to problems in one’s life.
Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy is a nondescript action game developed by SNK. The game was released for the Neo Geo in mid 1994, just as the system and the company responsible for it were hitting their strides. Normally I’d begin something like this by explaining the critical significance of the game in question, but with Top Hunter, the bare historical facts are all I have to work with. The game is a product of trends that can be better (more clearly and more thoroughly) explained through much more well known games. And narrowing our focus to just Top Hunter, we see that what the game occupies an unsatisfying middle ground between not doing any one thing particularly well but not doing anything poorly enough that we can learn from its mistakes. All I’m left to say about the game is that it exists.