If there’s anything more disheartening than playing a bad game, it’s playing a game with the potential to be a good one. Bad games are straightforward; they are what they are. But a game with unfulfilled potential conjures up feelings of sadness and frustration. It hints at a greatness that could have been, but for one reason or another, that greatness forever lies just outside of its reach. All of this is what comes to mind when I think of Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy. The second entry in Konami’s well-known series of wacky shooters, Non-Sense Fantasy has a fantastic understanding of silly absurdist humor, and it comes so very, very close to realizing it. Unfortunately, its reliance on classic Konami shooter design philosophies prevents it from lampooning shooter convention where it matters the most. So while the rest of the game has no problem presenting itself as the ridiculous spectacle it wants to be, the gameplay sticks out like a huge pimple on an otherwise blemish-free face.
In fact, it’s because that face is free of any other blemishes that the gameplay sticks out as much as it does. Nonsense humor always was the Parodius series’ speciality, and looking at Non-Sense Fantasy, it’s easy to see why. The game asks that you navigate an assortment of ridiculous scenarios one after the other: you’ll take down enemy ships with vague statements like “ALL LIGHT NOW!” and “WHERE IS MY WALLET?”, try to survive a festival dancer’s slow dance, and disturb an octopus as it’s washing its non-existent hair. Yet as absurd as these situations are, I don’t think absurdity alone captures the Parodius character. To do that, we also have to consider performance. There’s a theatrical aura to the game, as if it knows that it’s performing for an audience. “So why not put on a good show?”, it asks itself. And that’s exactly what it does: it abounds with enthusiasm, and it lets its creative energy violently explode in all directions. This energy is especially palpable in its passionate performance of songs like Hungarian Dance #5, Sabre Dance, and the works of Tchaikovsky. Hell, that’s why the game embraces absurdist logic in the first place: because why let convention get in the way of the creative process when absurdity can offer so much more? Seeing the results in action, it’s hard not to feel pulled in by the gravity of Non-Sense Fantasy’s performance.
That said, the gameplay is enough to keep me at a distance. You may think that an odd thing for me to say, given how inoffensive Non-Sense Fantasy’s design appears on that front. Like any other shooter, you pilot a spaceship (or in my case, a penguin) through the void of space, shooting down enemy craft and collecting power ups that make said shooting easier. However, part of me wants to interrogate that reasoning a little more. When I push aside these conventions and ask why it is that people play shooters at all, I see a genre that relies on the aestheticization of power. The flow in most shooters (including Non-Sense Fantasy) points to exactly that: you usually start your adventure as a weak little nothing. Your most powerful weapon at this point can only fire piddling little dots at the enemy, and your ship has to lurch across the screen to get anything done. But this is only the beginning, though. Stick around long enough and prove your worth to the game, and soon, you’ll reach that satisfying climax where nothing can threaten your sense of control. Your lightning-fast ship can dodge anything the enemy throws at you, and all the options and ornate weaponry adorning your ship blanket the screen in a curtain of death that nothing can escape. Yet most satisfying out of all this is the suggestion that you’ve earned these rewards by the sweat of your brow.
Non-Sense Fantasy’s problem is that it affirms this framework despite its irrelevance to what the game is doing. Little about the power ups suggests a Parodius-esque theatricality; there’s nothing campy or funny about what they are, how they move, how they interact with enemies, etc. Instead, the game uses them to emphasize the same feelings of power and dominance that its contemporaries were known for. That much is clear when we look at what Parodius borrows from said contemporaries: its Gradius power up system, in which you cycle through power ups over time instead of collecting them immediately, delays gratification by telling you to kill an increasingly large number of enemies (proving your worth) before you’re allowed to wreak havoc on the rest. Whatever the case may be, this set-up doesn’t lend itself well to the game’s wacky tone.
You might think the scenarios, like animal pirates and dance dodging and octopus showers, would be enough to carry the game, but that’s only looking at the surface. With the core of the game the way it is, Non-Sense Fantasy finds itself limited in how much humor it can deliver. At best, the focus on accumulating power distracts us from the game’s jokes, and at worst, it stifles those jokes by blowing them to cosmic dust before we have any real time to appreciate them. I remember that exact situation playing itself out when I found a boss who reworked a classic Gradius boss so it would look like a pinball machine, and then proceeded to destroy it three seconds later. The most generous thing I can say about the game so far is that it recontextualizes genre convention when it should be playing around with it.
That’s not to say that Non-Sense Fantasy is a poorly designed game. After all, designing shooters was Konami’s specialty. They were the masters of exercising control over action while still presenting a chaotic facade, and this outing is no different. From the beginning, you’re thrust into a steady streamline of action. You have little time to rest; as soon as you’ve eliminated one enemy, another has just come on screen to fill its place. Sure, the pace starts out slow. All you get in the beginning is a manageable handful of enemies spitting bullets at you. But over time, the action crescendoes until it reaches the climax. Bullets are whizzing all over the place, and you only have a small window of time to weave in and out of them if you want to claim victory as your own. As exciting as this can all be, it doesn’t lend itself well to the kind of parody that Non-Sense Fantasy hopes to invoke.
The strangest part of all this is that the game clearly does know how to reconcile shooter conventions with its comedic mood. I’m referring to the bell system (which I may have brought up before in my Pop’n Twinbee: Rainbow Bell Adventures review). The most immediate effect of this system is that it makes collecting power ups a fun activity in its own right. Rather than destroy enemies to grow more powerful, you bounce the bell across the screen to change its color and then collect it once you’ve gotten the color you want. This feels more in line with what Non-Sense Fantasy wants to do. And on another level, the bell power ups are understood not for their utility, but for their comedic value. When you use the power up that lets you shout nonsense phrases to defeat enemies, you’re paying less attention to how these phrases cut a large swath through enemy forces and more attention to the phrases themselves.
Meanwhile, seeing your ship balloon into something larger just frustrates any understanding you had of the game before. The large ship takes away your ability to shoot, but it still lets you destroy anything you see by bumping into them. Seeing this, you’re left in a confused and conflicted state. Should I be happy this happened? Or should I be angry? Should I just be content with what the game’s given me? You don’t know. This strange new power violates so many rules about shooter design while simultaneously fulfilling them that it’s hard to figure out how you should feel about it. And just before you arrive at an answer, your ship shrinks and the game returns to normal. Why moments like this form such a small part of Non-Sense Fantasy (at least in comparison to its other parts), I do not know.