Sometimes while writing video game reviews, I find myself wondering if I’m looking at a game too heavily as a cultural artifact. As valuable as such analysis may be, it risks pushing aside that game’s unique qualities in favor of whatever forces I think the game represents. In other words, I risk failing to describe what the game actually is. But with something like Iridion 3D it becomes difficult not to discuss the game’s status as a cultural artifact. No matter how much I try to separate the game’s context from its composition, that context is so overpowering, so manifest in every facet of the game’s design, that evaluating the game without it becomes impossible.
In fact, Iridion goes further. Outside the context it’s constructed for itself, the game doesn’t have any meaningful identity to speak of. Both its successes and flaws (those worth talking about, at least) failed to leave an impression on me as I played through the game. So while Iridion certainly accomplishes the task it’s constructed itself for, this alone is no guarantee that the game itself amounts to a success.
You may be wondering what that task is, but looking at the game in action, it becomes abundantly clear what Iridion is trying to accomplish. These large, sprawling 3D tunnels challenge our assumptions about what the Game Boy Advance is capable of. Floating around these areas, exploring their boundaries, you realize that such an impressive visual feat is the result not of the sprite-based chicanery that defined similar games before it, but of clever technological wizardry that pushes the system to its limits. Were we to evaluate Iridion along these lines, then it would be a success. Previous systems would indeed have difficulty capturing the level of detail that Iridion does. Still, I find myself left with several questions. Why does the game consider this goal worth pursuing? What does it hope to gain by achieving that goal? And most importantly, how did Shin’en Multimedia’s decision to release this as a game instead of as a tech demo (which was an available option) inform the rest of the game’s design?
To answer these questions, we should consider the lifespan of the average video game console. After all, Iridion 3D was released relatively early in the Game Boy Advance’s life cycle in 2001. However, this also means it was released toward the end of the Game Boy Color’s, too. This system was enjoying a situation that the nascent GBA could only dream of: many people already owned a GBC; those who didn’t could buy one at a lower price; and because most developers had been working with the system for years, the system not only had a robust library of games for players to enjoy, but those developers also encountered less difficulty realizing whatever ambitions they had. The GBA had few, if any, of these advantages. How was it to justify its existence over its predecessor? The same way so many other new consoles before it justified theirs: by flouting their technological capabilities over the competition. In fact, one could boil a lot of video game history down to this narrative of technological progression; designing systems and games to demonstrate one’s superiority over the previous generation.
It’s a narrative that Iridion 3D fits neatly into. First to consider is the game’s genre: a forward facing rail shooter. At least where 2D games are concerned, this has always been video game developers’ preferred method of showing off what the newest system is capable of. The genre connotes that which 2D systems (theoretically) struggle to do: forward movement into the screen. Never mind the fact that systems like the Game Gear and the Atari 2600 were able to construct relatively convincing illusions of forward momentum. So long as they’ve left the impression of technological mastery, these games have done their job. Going off my previous description of Iridion 3D’s endless tunnels, it’s safe to say this game has done its job, too. Yet it goes a little further. Before you even play the game (before you even buy it!), Iridion 3D proudly announces this aspect of itself to the world, as if this one mission matters more to it than anything else possibly could.
Perhaps that’s why I’m left wondering if any of this is enough to construct an identity around. As much as I want to avoid dismissing a game as generic (it’s too easy an answer), I’m genuinely struggling to think of anything Iridion does well outside demonstrating the GBA’s technological prowess. Even the aesthetics tied up with that goal aren’t as developed as they should be. To elaborate: because games have, for the longest time, been interpreted as things that players act upon, that narrative of technological progression has always been connected to granting the player more and more power over the game experience. Each generation has promised a greater degree of freedom/power than the last. Mario’s multi-screen levels gave way to Sonic’s speed gave way to three-dimensional worlds gave way to open world sandboxes gave way to an emphasis on realism etc.
At first glance, it would appear that Iridion slots neatly into this framework. You have these large, deep spaces to play around in and a litany of weapons to upgrade so you can feel yourself becoming stronger. (I talk about the latter in more detail here.) Yet neither one holds up as well as the game wants them to. Although the endless tunnels and skylines you barrel across do a fantastic job of communicating scale, they leave something to be desired when it comes to meaningful movement in them. The power-ups find themselves in a similar predicament: lacking the robust options of something like Parodius, Iridion’s power-ups don’t emphasize raw power all that much. In fact, they don’t emphasize anything at all. Part of me suspects the feature was included because the developers felt obligated to include it; because that’s what shooters do. This is indicative of Iridion’s larger struggle to find something meaningful outside its one goal. The game can’t even follow the example set by Panzer Dragoon and Star Fox 64 and escape its generic constraints while still demonstrating its system’s potential. Instead, Iridion limits itself to a sci-fi military story where the lone hero takes to his ship to fight an abstract technological other. It serves the game’s immediate needs, but does very little else.
The best thing I can say about Iridion is how well it works as a form of interpretive dance. I don’t mean that as a cop-out or to be condescending to the game, either; I really want to express just how much more alluring the game becomes one viewed from this angle. What were once repetitive movements that defined the game’s dogfights transform into something more rhythmic, a sort of rehearsed performance that sucks you into the moment. Resisting that pull is difficult; everywhere you look, the game’s encouraging you to join in the action. The enemy ships aren’t something you’re meant to shoot out of the sky. They’re an impetus to move; to dance about the screen, creating all sorts of novel patterns with your movement. And the pumping techno beats seem so obvious in hindsight. The spectacle reaches its satisfying crescendo once you hit the bosses – those beautiful abstract monsters, whose raw firepower and gargantuan forms compel you into some of the more grueling tangos the game has to offer.
Still, this reading of Iridion has some important gaps I need to discuss. If movement is the cornerstone upon which the game’s expressive attributes are built (and enemies are what provide the impetus to move), then what purpose do the power-ups and shooting serve? The answer isn’t immediately clear; my bullets don’t create any interesting visual patterns, either on their own or in relation to anything else, and they don’t help me engage the music (like Rez or Otocky). Presumably, though, this problem could be ignored. More worrying is to what extent, if any, the game’s structures purposefully invoke this dance ethos. I again find myself without obvious answers. At times, the movements can feel too rehearsed. Here’s a predictable wave; here’s another predictable wave; here are several of those waves laid out in a blunt, artificial fashion. Yet at other times, the opposite holds true: the screen is just a chaotic mess of bullets and ships I’m expected to whiz by. Whatever feelings I have after braving this maelstrom of junk feel entirely accidental to what the game does, and I’m left wondering how much of the game’s quality I can attribute to efforts the game makes and how much I can attribute to my own experience with it.
Ultimately, Iridion 3D’s problem is that its particular existence is by no means as necessary as it thinks it is. If the game’s goal was to flout the latest system’s technological abilities, then it could have achieved that goal as a tech demo that people in the industry could see at an event like E3. But by choosing to release Iridion as a commercial game, Shin’en Multimedia sends a certain message. They give people access to the game long after its initial release, and in doing so, tell those people that the game serves a higher purpose than whatever it fulfilled in the immediate present. What that purpose is, I’m not entirely sure.