If you’ve read this blog for a while now, then you’ll know just how much I contextualize the games I play. However, part of me thinks I should relent on that a little. I’m either not giving these games enough room to breathe or I’m tying them down in such a way that it becomes incredibly difficult to appreciate them on their own. Besides, my mind says, some of my best writing for this blog was free of contextualization: Jet Set Radio and Rhythm Tengoku, for example. But then I remember all the good writing I’ve put out that bathes in its context: Narcissu: Side 2nd and Yuu Maze. So far from being a stifling approach to games, contextualization may be one of my more valuable tools for exploring games. In fact, some games would be harder to appreciate without it. As you’ve probably guessed, this applies to Tail ‘Gator, the obscure Game Boy game I’ve chosen to cover this week. Without context, the game wouldn’t leave me much to talk about. But with it, I can see the game as a subtle yet extensive contrast to the Bubble Bobble formula.
Of course, it would help to go over what exactly the Bubble Bobble formula is. It’s something that I’ve detailed before, but to mention it again here, games that model themselves after Bubble Bobble generally promote a theatrical form of play. In these games, watching is just as engaging as doing. They aren’t as interested in your ability to complete challenges as they are in their own ability to render captivating performances. They abound with energy: things are bouncing off each other all the time, whizzing over here and zooming over there to compose whatever strange pattern the level designer had in mind when they were creating this level. Overly loud? Not at all. In fact, it’s just what these games need to suck you in, to invite one more actor into their cheerfully aggressive production. And at first glance, Tail ‘Gator appears to fit that mold nicely: it’s your job to pilot a small gator through a series of levels, swiping your tail at whatever monsters stand between you and your treasure. Outside the occasional fight against larger boss monster, this is all the game has you do.
But if Bubble Bobble uses the format with a circus-y mindset, then Tail ‘Gator uses it to emphasize something more toylike in nature. I know it sounds like I’m splitting hairs, but this minor change of emphasis translates into noticeable differences between the two games. For example, Tail ‘Gator aestheticizes the act of collecting in a way that Bubble Bobble doesn’t. That’s not to say it lacked an aesthetic quality before; just that the aesthetic quality was different. Because fruit only grows from the (admittedly very abstracted) corpses of the various monsters you’d bubbled, you were literally collecting the fruit of your labor. Yet the collecting itself isn’t important Bubble Bobble, or at least not as important as the moment of tranquility that can be gained from it. It’s something that waits for you after the chaos that ensues during play; a brief respite in which to unwind before jumping into the next round.
Tail ‘Gator, on the other hand, puts very clear effort into making collection an activity unto itself. Part of that effort goes toward convincing you that each level is a quest unto itself. Yes, your goal is to collect treasure chests, but the game goes much deeper than that. The tight environmental design means that spotting a treasure chest doesn’t take that much effort, but actually reaching it can be another matter. You often have to follow winding paths and brave all sorts of dangers just for the chance to come face to face with one of these chests. All of this creates a very specific arc; one of elation and discovery. However, it could also suggest you’re only chasing these treasures for extrinsic rewards like the accumulation of wealth.
And it probably would if Tail ‘Gator didn’t temper things with its toylike imagery. For one, the treasures you collect are almost always power-ups: items you use not to increase a score, but to act on the world around you. Yet even before you open the chest, the game’s decision to randomize its contents does away with extrinsic reward. How would you even pursue such rewards? You have no way of knowing (let alone controlling) what each chest grants you. Instead, emphasis falls on the act of opening the chest itself. Every flick of the lid brings with it something you can’t predict. It feels fresh and exciting, like opening blind bags or opening a birthday present. Maybe even like opening a chest in The Legend of Zelda, albeit for very different reasons.
This idea of constant discovery through leisure activities like toys is something Tail ‘Gator carries into other areas of its design, movement being one of the bigger ones. Again, this is where the game breaks from Bubble Bobble. That game took theatrical performance as its goal, and sought to realize that through action. Most of those actions involved bubbles: bouncing on them, trapping enemies in them, popping them, etc. But Tail ‘Gator isn’t interested in action, or even performance. Rather, its goal is to find new ways to move you throughout the world. Not just any ways, either, but exciting ways; fantastical ways; ways that would be hard to replicate outside a digital space. In the game’s eyes, toys, with their focus novelty, are the most convenient way to achieve that goal. And to be honest, it’s hard not to agree. Doesn’t a ghost leg look like it would be fun to move through? And aren’t the sorting algorithms the game uses between levels just as enticing?
Equally intriguing are the ways the game invokes, for lack of a better word, game-y imagery to reinforce its own status as a toy. They’re obvious the moment you see them: bosses who launch out projectiles like they’re from R-Type; an emphasis on quick dodging and well timed attacks. That may sound challenging, but in light of how easy the game is to complete, I wouldn’t say the game pursues challenge for its own right. As was the case before, Tail ‘Gator wants to use these bullet patterns and other game conventions to create captivating ways of moving throughout the level. It may not be much, but you’ll be swaying and swerving and dancing all about in these boss encounters. Curiously, all that action is enough to conjure up a flow state, which I know has been discredited for a while, but works better than you’d expect. Not only does flow color the experience as leisurely, but it also brings the world to life by giving it a sense of activity and energy.
Speaking of which, Tail ‘Gator’s focus on movement exerts a subtle influence on how it presents its own world. Rather than employ a theatrical abstraction that emphasizes on catchy visual designs (like Bubble Bobble), the game’s attraction toward toys and movement means its world relies on organic construction. Gone are almost all pretenses that what you’re seeing is a stage production. There may be some theatrical motifs here and there, like the clouds in the background resembling musical notes, but the game wants you to impart a physical immediacy to whatever you’re experiencing. It wants you to swim in the water that slowly pulls you down, to feel the jet streams whisk you up, and above all else, to believe that these sensations are are actually happening to you. That may sound like a contradiction in light of how impossible most of these environments are, but I see it as two sides of the same coin: immediacy makes your actions feel tangible, and impossibility makes them feel that much more magical for doing them. Whatever the case may be, Tail ‘Gator’s world affords no place for the kind of abstraction its peers utilize.
But maybe I’m considering the wrong peers. Going back to the toy motif, Tail ‘Gator would be in great company, as it was and continues to be a very popular motif in video games. Looking at Tail ‘Gator, it’s not hard to see why that motif has endured for so long. The game demonstrates a clear understanding of what makes makes toys so fun to mess around with, and does everything in its power to recreate that enjoyment. Existing at an intersection between play and discovery, each moment invites you in and asks you to take in whatever silly gimmick the game’s prepared for you this time. A simple arrangement, yes, but one that lends the game an undeniable charm.