On its face, you wouldn’t think there’s anything notable about Aoi Blink. First impressions would leave you thinking it’s just a platformer based on a somewhat obscure Osamu Tezuka animation. Playing the game would only affirm those thoughts, as it doesn’t offer a challenging experience in any sense of the word. Then again, it was never meant to. What makes Aoi Blink so distinctive among its contemporaries is the fairy tale nostalgia that defines it. In every aspect of its design – its visuals, its layouts, its framing narrative – you’ll find a soothing, easing quality to help you forget your worries for a short amount of time.
Not that this is what the game initially looks like. Aoi Blink is a rather basic platformer in the vein of Super Mario World, although in truth, the game predates it by at least a year. The action follows a group of four or five (it’s not entirely clear how many; only three of them appear on screen at any given time) Old West-style gangsters as they journey the world in search of adventure. Mechanically speaking, there isn’t much difference between each of the characters. They don’t have any unique abilities, and without any way to switch around your party line-up, your partners don’t add much beyond extra firepower. From a broader narrative perspective, though, their antics help situate the journey in the romantic tradition of cowboy myth. Just looking at these characters, it’s clear that they’re the ragtag group of criminals who travel from town to town in style. Everything about them oozes personality, from their snappy outfits to the nonchalant way they flick projectiles from their wrists. Their presence infuses Aoi Blink with a simplistic yet nonetheless alluring sense of nostalgia, much like the soft Tezuka cartoon it’s based on. The litany of other similarly romantic storytelling devices (the pastoral atmosphere, the evil emperor to defeat) only strengthen that feeling.
What Aoi Blink offers its players, then, is a form of escapism, but one that avoids the problems we typically associate with that term. The reason why the game is able to avoid them comes down to how strongly it divorces itself from any political or cultural concerns. Despite its reliance on familiar cowboy conventions, the world the game depicts isn’t representative of anything specific from that era, but the more general set of tropes/moods we’ve come to associate with it. Aoi Blink sees you navigating copious amounts of deserts, ruins, circuses, small towns, etc., but never anything more specific than that. For example, the trio of protagonists never engage in a bank heist or a train robbery or anything like that. So at least in that regard, the game can avoid the sorts of pitfalls we’ve come to expect from video game escapism: affirming political agendas while erasing the very act of having done so.
Then again, even being near those kinds of pitfalls would be antithetical to what Aoi Blink hopes to achieve. The game is more interested in establishing mood than anything else, so that’s what it pursues. Its spaces function as a brief respite from the world’s worries; a place in which we might put our mind at ease. Aoi Blink wants to return us to those halcyon days when the world was simpler; when heroic ideals were a very real part of our lives, and the world wasn’t fraught with the ambiguity that defines it today. Of course, that kind of past is definitely imaginary, but I don’t think the game would deny this. Besides, there’s something admirable in the game’s decision to pursue that goal.
The level of ludic simplicity in the game only further helps it in pursuing this goal. Now that may not sound like much in the beginning, especially since explaining how the game works makes it sound more complex than it actually is. Putting aside the triumvirate character system, the most notable feature to discuss is the game’s progression. The world itself is broken up into several towns, each of which is further broken up into a handful of levels. You can expect the standard litany of platformer-y actions in those levels – taking down enemies, hopping from perch to perch, unearthing various secrets – but your ultimate objective is to find the red key that lets you access the boss at the end of each town. You get the key, you face the boss, you beat him atop your eponymous blue steed, and then you move onto the next town to repeat the process anew.
What these descriptions don’t convey, though, is how much Aoi Blink evacuates from itself in the name of simplicity. Indeed, Aoi Blink can be downright minimalist if viewed from the right angle. Unlike the Mario games it draws inspiration from, this game contains almost no power-ups, and those that are in the game exert such an invisible influence over the experience as to lose their importance. Yet Aoi Blink goes much further than that. It evacuates actors and objects until you’re only dealing with a few of them at any given time. (I should emphasize that the game doesn’t carry this so far that its levels feel like a ghost town.) The game also takes a similar approach when it comes to difficulty. Rarely will you have to worry about a tricky set of platforms to navigate or an impenetrable wall of enemies to push through. And as far as I can tell, you’re given all the time you need to complete whatever challenges the game puts before you.
The obvious result of these decisions is a less stressful, more relaxed play experience. Digging a little deeper, however, I find that they also foster a more immediate and direct connection with the world than might have otherwise been possible. Because I don’t have to worry about negotiating whatever semi-arbitrary challenges the designers concocted for me, my focus now lies on the world and the moods the game creates through it. Even toward the end of the game, when the action is theoretically building up, the challenge remains somewhat light and the game’s mood retains its clarity. It should go without saying how neatly this approach to game design fits with the pastoral nostalgia Aoi Blink already runs on.
In all likelihood, the praise I’ve heaped on Aoi Blink probably stems from features that weren’t intentional on the developer’s’ part. The game doesn’t stress any particular motifs that strongly, and it follows contemporary trends strongly enough that it could’ve just as easily been conceived as a basic tie-in for a lucrative property. Yet I’m not inclined to dismiss the game like that. Whether by accident or design, Aoi Blink understands the sort of rustic charm fantasies like this are often meant to evoke. The game is empowering in its own unique way. It presents us an uncomplicated world not that we might affirm our own power over it, but to deliver us from the very stress that makes us desire that power in the first place; all through the power of fairy tales.