Recently, I’ve been thinking about how we (the video game community at large) think about our own past. Because any time we do so, we represent that history through the known hits that we’ve cherry picked to a certain degree. I’m certain you’re familiar with them already: Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, etc. Thinking about the history of video games solely through examples like this paints a very neat, very optimistic picture where aesthetic refinement becomes the status quo. Rough games and sort-of-successes are hidden from view. The only games represented in this history are those that advanced the medium in some important and noticeable way, implying that the only experiments worth paying attention to are those which were immediately vindicated as critical or commercial successes.
Despite being around for a while, this way of looking at old video games strikes me as an oddly modern approach to the topic. It leaves me with two important implications, neither of which are pretty. Either we’re subconsciously projecting some of our present way of looking at games back into the past, in which case we’re not so much engaging with the past as we are using it to reinforce our current mindset; or we’re locating the origins of these trends far into the past and imbuing them with a certain amount of intractability in the process.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can put aside these monoliths for a bit and turn our attention toward the games that feel between the gaps, either because they were forgotten to history or because they were never given a chance in the first place. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of the games you’ll find this way aren’t going to be pretty – you’ll get a rough looking oddities here, some product of a long-forgotten trend there, etc. – but it’s for that reason these games are worth looking at in the first place. They’re disruptive; they throw into question any preconceived notions we might have had before and then force us to take an active role in creating new notions. Familiar genres become unfamiliar. History becomes muddier. It’s basically a significant challenge to the aesthetic perfection we take for granted.
To provide one such challenge, let’s consider Decap Attack. The game was first conceived in Japan as a tie-in product to the Magical Hat anime (the game being called Magical Hat no Buttobi Tabo! Daibouken), something the original product reflects. It was soft, inoffensive, and a clean fit with the cartoon it was based on.
None of what I’ve just said applies to the American version. Because the publisher couldn’t get the licensing rights to Magical Hat (and because anime wasn’t yet popular enough outside Japan to justify pursuing those rights), the game was reskinned to match the gross-out fad that was popular at the time. The result is oddly appropriate for what they were pursuing: a bungling, mangled mess of a game whose parts don’t quite fit together and which constantly makes it difficult for you to find any enjoyment out of the experience. Difficult, but not impossible. In fact, it’s for these very reasons that Decap Attack is so enjoyable. Through its haphazard construction, Decap Attack manages to deliver both a chaotic world that abounds with absurdity and an experience that’s overflowing with personality.
But like I said, the game doesn’t make understanding any of this easy. No doubt the first thing you’ll notice is its heavy invocation of gross-out humor, whose history I have to discuss for a little bit before I can talk about the game. Gross-out humor got it start sometime in the 1980s, when toys like Garbage Pail Kids gave a vulgar twist to the Cabbage Patch Kids. Part of the aesthetic was a feeling of youthful rebellion against the family-friendly products that had dominated popular media until that point. Another part was just rebranding girly properties in such a way that they were now acceptable for boys to play with.
However, what draws my attention the most is how the aesthetic contends to be more appealing and truer to life than the cute things it overturns. Gone is the Cabbage Patch Kids refinement that hides undesirable qualities from our sight so that we’re left with the perfect representation of cuteness. In fact, those very same undesirable qualities are now drawn up to the surface and depicted in such high detail that ignoring them becomes impossible. We’re forced to confront not only the presence of snot and vomit and etc., but also the very physical and immediate feeling of all this viscera that makes us want to avoid it in the first place. Is this done purely for shock value? Undoubtedly. Yet it’s also a needed reminder that there’s to the world than what we find appealing about it.
Considering Decap Attack’s origins as a cute anime game from Japan, it must have seemed natural to Sega to turn that logic on its head and infuse the game with all this ugly viscera. And to the publisher’s credit, they seem to understand at least some of how that art style works. Your journey across several underworld-like realms as Chuck D. Head (a mummy who attacks his foes by throwing his guts at them) has you facing off against all manner of squat and ugly enemies. Each one of them is drenched in shadow, and their proportions are consistently ballooned to an uncomfortable degree.
Yet the enemies only tell us half the story. Unlike so many other gross-out games, Decap Attack goes so far in its execution as to deny us any possibility of aesthetic enjoyment. Sometimes it’s because the art carries its own ideas too far (or simply bungles the execution of them). I could point to the excessively grungey composition as an example, but World 5 and its child’s-puke-pink color palette serve just as well. Coincidentally, the world immediately after it showcases an equally worrying problem. Here the game’s licensed origins bubble up to the surface and clash with its new identity: the ice level theming wants to be calming even when the gross mood won’t allow it. Neither wins out in the end; all we’re left with is an equal mix of both.
The music exhibits similar issues. You’d think the Genesis’ sound chip would be a perfect fit for what Decap Attack is trying to do, but the developers never seem to have realized that. This isn’t like Warsong, a game that embraced its limitations and used them to produce high tension, high energy tracks. Nor is it like Shining Force, which at least found some freedom from those limitations in its quest for a measured fantasy score. In fact, Decap Attack never figures out what it wants to do with its music, so it settles on the kind of simplistic melodies you’d find in a Saturday morning cartoon.
At this point, it would be remiss not to mention all the trends that are present while playing the game. It’s a fairly standard platformer: you spend most of your time jumping from precarious ledge to precarious ledge (sometimes with an enemy in between) until you cross a finish line and start the process anew in another level. Although Mario is an immediate source of inspiration for Decap Attack’s idea of platforming, what captures my interest more is how the game anticipates the movement-oriented ethos of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s hard not to notice as you wander through the levels. The blocks you bounce off and the occasional pole you launch yourself from all connote the same sort of reckless abandon and sacrifice of control that would later make Sonic so famous.
So why didn’t Decap Attack get that credit? Because unlike Sonic, the game wasn’t built with that ethos in mind. Movement is somewhat of a factor; Chuck’s over-eagerness to move translates into an unwieldy momentum that doesn’t lend itself well to zipping through the levels. However, the lack of any real planning behind the levels plays a much larger role than Chuck’s strange ways of moving. Nowhere in Decap Attack’s decrepit world will you find the loops or speedways or other architectural features meant to accentuate the physical sensation of movement. If anything, the levels demand that you move through their spaces at a measured pace; a complete antithesis to the zany antics that a few of their elements suggest.
I qualify this sentence with “if anything” because to be perfectly honest, I don’t see any real planning in these level layouts. Or at least I don’t see that planning from the get-go. Later levels conform more closely to generic convention as the game becomes more comfortable in its rotting skin, but the majority of the environments feel like a random mishmash of elements without any direction behind them. Why do I so frequently take this winding zigzag path through the world? What purpose do these falling blocks or that pole serve in the grand scheme of things? Decap Attack isn’t interested in answering those questions.
Then again, it doesn’t need to answer those questions. In fact, the game shines at its brightest when you stop analyzing it through the trends it happens to be situated near and accept it as the broken, weird little mess that it is. No longer is its lack of a discernible direction to its detriment. Now it’s absolutely integral to the game’s gross-out motifs, carrying them to their logical conclusion both by frustrating any teleology we might expect out of the game and by creating a world that’s completely indifferent to the player’s presence. These semi-labyrinthine hallways don’t care about you in the slightest. They don’t cater to you with an arduous challenge or exciting features to play around with. They are instead content to frustrate you with their indifference. And the enemies you encounter are even less interested in you than that. Completely oblivious to your presence, they’re happy to follow whatever routine defines them, regardless of your presence. Penguins skate this way and that; snails move according to some mechanical rhythm; and jellyfish gravitate toward you like they’re doing so out of obligation. At best, this is a world that’s apathetic to your existence, and at worst, that world is utterly hostile to it.
Every third level, those feelings become abundantly clear. You see, unlike the other 66% of the game and its “just run straight to the end” requirements, these levels layer an additional set of conditions onto the experience of completing a level. I’m not talking about beating a boss; that’s present, but the bosses tend to be easy enough that they’re not worth worrying about. What caught my attention was Chuck collecting his missing pieces. There’s a story here about Chuck collecting his missing body parts and stopping the evil Max D. from using his underworld army to conquer the world, but in practice it just means Chuck can’t leave the level without finding that missing part of himself.
His search is an act of resistance, one that his world isn’t ready to tolerate. Should you reach the goal without having acquired that necessary item, you’ll be sent back to sift through the garbage, hitting every statue in the vain hope that one of them contains the thing that will make Chuck whole again. Of course, it’s always a gamble; that statue could just as easily contain a ghost ready to pop out and harm him with a reminder of his deathly state. Add on top of this a system that respawns enemies (but not environmental objects like collapsible platforms) once they’re off the screen, and you have a downright Sisyphean experience of a game: uncertain, chaotic, devoid of control and largely dependent on blind luck.
Of course, it’s those very same elements that make Decap Attack such a satisfying experience in the first place. In it eyes, a world that maligns the player’s presence doesn’t necessarily translate into a dismal existence within that world. Instead, the chaos and lack of meaning translate into a very fluid experience, one that’s based on the novelty and sheer fun of whatever activity you happen to be engaged in at that time. It’s a very go with the flow sort of situation, and while I’ll admit that this could be perceived as shallow, it’s not as though the game’s telling you to shut your brain off and to stop engaging with the world around you. This is its way of engaging with the world. More than that, even; it’s why the game, in spite of all its macabre imagery, abounds with life and personality.
Let’s return to Chuck again: despite his Pinocchio-esque journey for embodiment, he’s just as willing to throw away the tools he needs to accomplish that goal if doing so means he can enjoy himself a little. He can collect a skull to place where his head should be, but the only thing he can do with it is toss it at his enemies as an attack. Did he lose the skull? Then he’ll settle on using his guts instead. No matter the attack, though, he always throws pieces of himself at an enemy with a smile on his face – or at least what counts for a face at any given time. If he’s not bothered by it, why should we be?
In that regard, Decap Attack is the ultimate realization of the gross-out fantasy of yesteryear, and perhaps the realization of my earlier points about putting aside the known classics. Neither one shows us a perfect world or even an ideal world. The flaws and blemishes are just too prominent in both (whether by design or accident) for that to be the case. However, I’m hesitant to describe them as flaws per se because that would imply that the games they affect are worse off for it. In some cases – cases like Decap Attack – the opposite holds true. Sure, they make the game rough around the edges and difficult to handle, but like I’ve been saying, there’s value to be had in the gaps that roughness creates. It captures a sort of wonder, a sort of energy that more polished experiences would probably have trouble duplicating.