As trite as it may sound, I can’t help but think of the 90s when I look at today’s indie gaming scene. I’m not saying this because of how frequently indie developers harken back to that era, and I’m certainly not saying it because of some rose-tinted nostalgia on my part. Like the modern indie space, mainstream games in the 90s were a space for experimenting. Medium-sized developers roamed the landscape, each with their own voice and their own vision on how to make games. Some, like Konami, Capcom, Square, and Enix, would grow into the monoliths they are today. Others, like Quintet, Produce, and Quest, would fade into historical obscurity.
Yet no company better represents the spirit of the time than Treasure, and no game better represents the company than Silhouette Mirage. Like so many of their other titles, Silhouette Mirage is interested first and foremost in being a toy. You get this one clear-cut mechanic, a bevy of novel scenarios in which to use it, and a toyish art style to tie everything together. No waste, no unnecessary features. It’s because of that clarity that the game ends up as strong an experience as it is.
Unfortunately, that strength isn’t immediately apparent. Not that you’d think that, judging by the premise. It seems innocuous enough: the heroic protagonist Shyna Nera Shyna must restore order to a post-apocalyptic world split between the red Silhouettes and the blue Mirages. (Shyna can switch between them at will, depending on which direction she’s facing.) Sadly, the game is all too eager to use that premise to spout grating anime cliches. And the art style isn’t much better. At its best, Silhouette Mirage looks like a Klasky Csupo nightmare*. Character designs sport only bright primary colors; their bodies are constructed with lots of easy to read shapes; their body parts each move independently of each other. Shyna herself is particularly bad. Her dead eyes occupy 70% of her skull at any given time, and her face is a collection of all the wrong shapes.
In spite of these problems, though, I still maintain that the art contributes so very much to the game’s ethos. In fact, I’m not even sure if what I’ve described are problems. If you step back and look past the ugly veneer, it becomes clear that the characters are meant to be toys. Thus it’s easy to forgive them for not looking human; they were never meant to. However, I think there’s more going on with the art than a fascination with toys. The presentation does everything in its power to invite the player’s interaction.
Moreover, it does so not to test the player’s skill, but because that interaction has an inherent worth. That doesn’t mean that Silhouette Mirage has no place for skill; just that it isn’t the focal point of the game. The focus is instead on play and performance, as the game’s many artistic choices demonstrate. The toy motif is obvious enough. It paints the world as a toybox for the player to play with. Yet working alongside that motif is a slight tinge of the theatrical. While it wasn’t always present, I could never shake the feeling that I was playing on a stage. My enemies were my fellow actors, and the levels were sets that would act on me in various ways. Slight as it may be, this is still a smart contribution on the game’s part. It’s that sense of the theatrical that lends the game zany action it’s searching for.
To be fair, though, a lot of that also derives from the game’s experiments with 2D and 3D. Treasure had been experimenting with that since Dynamite Headdy, but with the level of technology available on the Saturn, Silhouette Mirage is equipped to explore those motifs in ways its predecessor never could. Despite the side scroller look, a lot of the game’s action happens on the peripheries. Enemies can jump in from the front of the screen, and several battles force your attention to what’s happening far away from you.
On the one hand, it’s easy to see the world as a stage if characters are constantly leaping on and off it. And on the other hand, by piercing the typical bounds of 2D space, the game directly invites the player into the experience. They’re forced to observe not only what’s going on in their field of action, but also everything beyond it. This has to include the player who observes everything from beyond the 2D plane. I also can’t help but appreciate these artistic choices from a historical perspective. Amid all the pressure to move out of 2D and into 3D, Treasures rebels with a title that refuses such easy classification.
Even the gameplay reflects that rebellious character, and it all begins, oddly enough, with well defined mechanics. Following the art’s lead, the game’s design feels very toy like. Take the Silhouette/Mirage mechanic, for example. Shyna turns a different color depending on which direction she’s facing, limiting her abilities (EG she can only get rid of enemies opposite her color). (This is one of those things that’s easier to understand than it is to explain.) It’s a simple mechanic, one that carries a novelty to it. It’s almost like the game’s directly asking the player to play around with all these bits and baubles and create their own fun.
And it’s not just this one mechanic that feels that way; I notice this design philosophy everywhere I look. I see it when Shyna grabs another character playfully knocks him senseless. I also see it in the stage design, which refuses to use the same idea twice. One stage sees you fighting somebody atop a swerving vehicle, and the next sees you messing around with a slot machine. It’s another obvious tinge of novelty, but not for its own sake. By varying the stages as frequently as it does, the game constantly asks you to find new ways to play about. All of this feeds really well into the expressive spirit I found in Silhouette Mirage.
At the same time, Silhouette Mirage works remarkably well as a video game. By that, I mean it’s good at demanding skilled play from the player. Some of that comes down to tight game design, another strength on Treasure’s part. Their games have always shown deliberate pacing, enemy placement, etc., and this one is no different. Perhaps more than that, the game can balance skill and play because it implements them in the same places at the same time. I just can’t stop thinking about how much potential for skill the game locks away in its playful mechanics. As fun as it is to switch colors on the fly, doing so also forces a kind of spatial awareness out of you, one that the scenarios frequently capitalize on. It’s a very careful balance that Silhouette Mirage is able to pull off…mostly. I have to admit that the balance isn’t always perfect. Between the fast pace and the lack of health refills between stages, this is a very punishing game.
Still, I can’t help but appreciate the accomplishments Silhouette Mirage does make. I shouldn’t be surprised that a title looking at dualities would appear so chaotic. Yet it’s a purposeful kind of chaos, with a distinct vision driving it. Everything you do in the game is a performance, and everything the game does is an effort to involve you in that performance. While I wouldn’t call this Treasure’s magnum opus (that honor goes to Ikaruga), Silhouette Mirage represents every trait that makes Treasure’s games what they are.
*The game has good reason to look this ugly, but that’s another topic altogether, and I don’t want to distract from this piece.