Like many of the games I write about on this blog, Ai Senshi Nicol doesn’t neatly map to conventional ideas of what a good or bad video game is. What’s more, the game’s failure to slot into either of those categories is more the result of a mismanaged execution on those conventions than it is a purposeful break from them. While this would normally be cause for celebration, I remain hesitant in Ai Senshi Nicol’s case. The game isn’t Decap Attack; it’s not an anarchic mishmash of elements that flagrantly break the rules of good game design. Ai Senshi Nicol wants to follow those rules, and to that end, it exhibits a certain level of polish. Characters tend to be round and non-threatening; music is composed of easily understood melodies; and play is relatively skill-based, focusing on things like pattern recognition and acquisition of power.
Were I to judge the game only as a series of systems for the player to navigate, I’d likely describe it as a conservative yet competent addition to Konami’s long line of shooting games. But this strikes as a somewhat narrow view. Expanding that view, I find a game that tries to parody contemporary action movie conventions, is equipped to do just that, but for whatever reason, never quite accomplishes its goal. Where there should be harmony between the energetic crossfire you’re expected to navigate and the levels’ humorous nature, there’s instead a weak conflict that the game isn’t entirely able to resolve. And because of how strongly Ai Senshi Nicol pursues aesthetic refinement, it’s not in a position to embrace these blemishes, either. All it can do is uncomfortably hang in that space we call “average”, unable and unwilling to claim ownership of itself.
What makes all this especially surprising is the remarkable level of control Konami displays when they approach Ai Senshi Nicol as a game. The premise is simple: observing the action from a bird’s eye view, you pilot the titular Nicol through a variety of aliens worlds, helping him find hidden treasures and shoot alien creatures with his trusty pellet gun until he rescues his girlfriend. Because shooting constitutes the majority of the actions you’ll take throughout the game, you can expect to scour these levels in search of things that will make him more powerful. And because this particular shooter comes from Konami, you can expect the iconic Konami brand of planned chaos: weaving in between dense, off-kilter waves of projectiles as you try to exchange shots with the villain du jour. Neither of you will allow the other stable ground for long, so at their pitch, battles become these messy, uncertain affairs where any form of stability (a safe patch of land or a pattern you’d just figured out) vanishes as soon as it presents itself.
Some of the reasons this happens are predictable. Limiting the action on a screen-by-screen basis, for example, allows the level designs to hide as many devious little secrets in your surroundings as they please. And because your gun only fires a very short distance, you’re often forced into very close proximity to your enemies; close enough that they have no trouble retaliating. But for every straightforward answer like these, you get another whose counterintuitive nature feels appropriate for this kind of game. Consider the slow clip the game proceeds at. Rather than promoting a relaxed mood (one where you can advance at your own pace), the opposite happens. WIth only a scant few seconds to get in a couple of shots before barrage of bullets whizzes past you, the tension’s now higher than it was at any previous point.
Whatever the case may be, it should be clear what sort of encounters await Nicol on his journey: demanding, chaotic melees. Fights that both invoke the familiar language of conventional shooters and do everything in their power to frustrate them. Fights that can be equal parts stressful and exciting. This isn’t because the fights are particularly dangerous, mind you. The somewhat slow pace helps rein in any real sense of danger. Rather, Ai Senshi Nicol feels you’re more like watching an action movie: the elaborate performances do such a great job bombarding you with spectacle that you forget they’re the product of deliberate human action.
Or at least it plays like you’re watching an action movie. So far, I’ve only really examined the game’s systems in isolation from the rest of it. Although it’s a convenient way of looking at the game, it’s not the most accurate way to look at it. Such a perspective would leave out the plucky sci-fi pulp narrative that contextualizes your actions, and the failed attempts at humor through that narrative. Now this failure isn’t for a lack of trying. If anything, Ai Senshi Nicol seems aware of where it should look if it wants to translate the B movie feeling into video game form. The narrative premise (young boy gives chase to aliens who kidnapped his love interest for unexplained reasons) would feel right at home in 1950s cinema. Likewise, the environments borrow liberally from the world of contemporary action movies, whether they be dense jungle areas (interspersed with open deserts) from Rambo, ancient temples a la Indiana Jones, or as mundane as an alien spacecraft.
Yet borrowing alone won’t suffice. True, films and other pop culture artifacts from the 80s (the same artifacts Ai Senshi Nicol was working from) borrowed things from the 1950s, but it wasn’t the fact that they were borrowing that made them what they were. It was the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that was paired with these references. Even in the 1980s, audiences would have been very familiar with all the techniques that movies resorted to, so trying to incorporate it into a story and pass it off as natural wouldn’t have resonated with viewers. Subtly referencing those techniques as artificial, though, would. It’s a sort of wink to the audience, as if to say, “We know none of this is real. We’re not even going to pretend, so let’s just acknowledge how goofy and ridiculous these events are so we can have some innocent fun.” (Shooters worked on a similar logic, not just because of how strongly they mirrored popular cinema, but also because of their unique brand of exaggerated humor.)
It’s the sort of logic that Ai Senshi Nicol seems aware of, but applies very unevenly. Sometimes, this works to the game’s benefit. Its refusal to link its disparate environments into anything resembling a cohesive whole lends your adventures through them a degree of absurdity. And no doubt the ending fits this same model. It almost feels like the writers are rehearsing a script in melodramatic fashion: the ending text makes schmaltzy, over the top proclamations of love, destiny and other such high ideals that a game of this kind could never hope to represent during the actual play experience.
But then why are the enemies I fight not rubber-mask aliens or something similarly outlandish, but mundane creatures like snakes and lobsters? (Appealing to a contrast between exotic locales and everyday threats doesn’t make sense because they still code as threats.) And why are my frenzied actions underscored by soft visuals and relatively calming music? These strike me as the sorts of creative decisions a designer makes when, on some level, they’ve lost sight of the central premise their game is supposedly based on. With that premise no longer able to guide the game, it finds itself crowded with various pieces that evoke a wide variety of moods, some of which risk contradicting Nicol’s central premise. In the end, though, none of those moods come out on top. They fracture your experience with the game. You may be able to enjoy one facet of the game (as I did with the shooting), but you’re effectively shut off from any holistic appreciation of the game.
In the end, I think Ai Senshi Nicol could learn a few lessons from Alien Syndrome. Both pursue similar goals, but where the former aims to represent a plurality of action movie genres, the latter restricts its focus to one. As a result, Alien Syndrome’s moods (mostly horror and action) are not only conveyed more clearly, but supplement each other in a way Nicol’s moods aren’t able to. The game makes sense as a whole; the very problem that Ai Senshi Nicol struggles with. I’m reluctant to say that narrowing the range of source material would cure all the game’s woes; I still think that in the right hands, a pastiche of action movie conventions could work wonders. In this specific instance, though, Konami’s struggles bringing that idea to fruition have left their mark.