During the early 90s, Japanese game developer Naxat Soft started running an annual competition they called the Summer Carnival. It was a response to Hudson Soft’s longer-running Hudson Caravan event, but the premise behind both was the same: the company would organize regional competitions around a particular game, and players would have all summer to practice their skills before competing for the title of national champion. Both events have long since faded into obscurity – the Summer Carnival only lasted a few years (until 1993, to be specific) and the Caravan somehow held out until 2006 – but the games that were designed for these events still remain.
What does that mean for those games? What remains of the game long after the event it was made for has ceased to exist? Is it little more than a historical relic, or can it exceed the circumstances of its own creation? These aren’t idle questions. Not only does Summer Carnival ‘92: Recca (the game I played to understand more about these events) confront its potential irrelevance as soon as you load up the game, but the game itself was rereleased on Virtual Console twenty years after its heyday. What did they see in the game that they thought would still be relevant all that time later? I can’t say. What I can say is that Recca can’t escape its historical legacy. That legacy casts such a large shadow over the game, informs so much of its design, that trying to approach the game through an ahistorical lens would be impossible. However, this doesn’t have to Recca’s detriment. If this game is anything to go by, then the competitive events of the late 80s and early 90s birthed a unique conceptualization of games that led to an equally unique way to engage with those games.
It would help to reiterate how events like the Caravan and Summer Carnival were structured. First of all, the games people played at these events weren’t pre-existing titles; they were games made specifically with this event in mind. Following from that, the competitors’ first exposure to the game wasn’t at the competition itself; it was at the beginning of the summer. And at least until Hudson Soft shifted their own competition toward the multiplayer-oriented Bomberman games, these were single player challenges that players would throw themselves at again and again over that entire summer. Sure, they may have played with a small group of friends who were also practicing for the competition, but the games themselves weren’t designed with multiple players in mind.
How publishers made them available to players is testament to that: these games weren’t released in arcades where people could easily compete against one another, they were released on home consoles where children could seclude themselves in their homes and sustain long periods of practice. Given how connected these games are with the events they were specifically made for, this was to be expected. If Recca is anything to go by, these were demanding, challenging games that absolutely required intensive engagement if one hoped to become better at playing them. What group of people would have had more time to devote to that kind of engagement than school children? And when are school children more able to use that time than during summer vacation?
Despite the brief amount of time I spent with Recca, I like to imagine that my experience with the game mirrored that of the Japanese school children who dedicated an entire summer to mastering this game; at least a little bit. Mechanically speaking, Recca proudly identifies itself as a shooter. It utilizes all the conventions of the genre, from collecting/using a wide variety of increasingly powerful weapons to shooting away at waves of enemy fighters, but neither one is an end in its own right. Getting the highest score is the ultimate goal, and to that end, I often found myself darting about the screen to get in the position I needed to be in. (This is especially true when it comes to collecting the score-increasing medals the enemies dropped.) Play became this highly elaborate, technical dance. I was frequently reminding myself to be hyperaware, always vigilant of my surroundings. I was quick to shift my attention every which way in a constant struggle to maintain what little control I had over a chaotic situation.
Was I challenging myself? Was this a form of self-competition? Under certain circumstances and after a certain amount of time, these interpretations become plausible. Yet at least in the beginning, the game is a competition against the developer to complete whatever scenarios they’ve laid out for you. I realize one could say this about any video game, but I believe Recca accentuates that idea and draws it to the surface to lend the experience an inherently competitive feeling. It’s like chess or Go in that the focus is entirely on learning a fixed set of mechanics, and to that end, the developers made sure the scenarios would be exacting and incredibly technical in nature. There are clear patterns behind how bullets move toward you or the arrangements enemies fly toward you in, but you’re never given a lot of time in which to decipher that pattern. Recca isn’t like other contemporary shooters, which had some ability to dynamically respond to the player’s actions. The player must recognize these patterns immediately, and any kind of improvisation is precluded. Recca assumes a fluency in the language of shooters and refuses to compromise with those who either don’t have it or can’t learn it.
The surprising part is that in time, I found my play strategies mirroring those of the average competitor. My play sessions broke down into intense, repeated play of short segments as I tried to learn the intricacies of Recca’s design. (What stands out in my mind was the bomb charging feature: how I learned when the best opportunity to use it was, where the best area to place it was, and then relearning these tactics for each new boss.) In this light, I don’t think it makes sense to describe Recca as an experience or even as an event. Instead it’s an object of study: a set of rules, objects, and relationships a person pours themselves over so they can devise the most effective strategy for achieving a particular goal. And in that regard, Recca remains relevant not only as an important precursor to bullet hell shooters, but also as a valuable tool for understanding them.
Yet players aren’t the only people who might find value in these competition games. To offer an alternate perspective on the matter, events like the Hudson Caravan and the Summer Carnival were as much an exhibition of game developer expertise as much as they were a call to action on the players’ part. By this point in video game history, the techniques and inner workings of the average shooter were well understood by both players and developers. What these events offered were a way to tinker with that understanding, whether it be by stretching techniques to their limits or remixing them in ways that had never before been considered. The Alesete games were indirectly born from this scene, for instance. From this point of view, it was the games that dictated what kind of audience was going to play them, not the other way around. This would explain why these games assumed their players possess a fluency in shooter language: because the people making them were themselves fluent in that language, and because an audience fluent in these conventions would be more amenable to developers flexing their creative muscle than an audience that wasn’t would have been.
Returning the conversation to Recca, all this manifests in the game on a technical level. I mean this both in the technological sense of what the Famicom was capable of drawing on the screen, and in the design/genre-oriented sense of how generic convention was being used at the time. In fact, it sometimes feels as though Recca was specifically made to stretch both to their absolute limit. The system visibly strains under the weight that’s been thrust upon its shoulders. Its knees buckle as backdrops sway and ripple like rivers and enemies pour in from all sides non-stop. Given these circumstances, it’s easy to think the player might falter, too. Enemies may approach you in patterns that any shooter enthusiast would recognize, but those patterns are packed so tightly together that recognition becomes meaningless. You’re better off relying on twitch and muscle memory instead of trying to reason out what you’re experiencing.
This isn’t to say the game is just a display of technical prowess, though. In fact, there’s a very poetic quality to the way Recca uses the tools at its disposal. Imagery is never understood on a literal level, but only insofar as that imagery can clearly convey a particular mood. To illustrate that point, the action on screen is more reminiscent of processes in nature than it is of military conflicts or anything to do with space exploration. It’s why I described the backdrops as rippling like rivers: because moving down them feels more like floating down a river than anything else. You go only where the flow allows you to go, and the rapidity of the screen’s undulations roughly match the emotional intensity of a given scene.
Likewise, some of the fights can feel like brutal Darwinian struggles against a highly skilled predator. The causes are various, and I’ll admit they’re fairly common among games like Recca: highly difficult situations, ease of personification, unbalanced power relationships, and an emphasis on movement and control of a very limited space. Whatever the cause, the effect is clear when put into action. Stage 2, for example, is regularly punctuated with fights against snake-like monsters who dart across the screen and wrap their bodies around you as they try to catch their prey. And the final conflict of the game flips this logic on its head by pitting you against yourself. By being more like you than any other creature in the game (it moves like you, it can do anything you can), it can easily mirror whatever strategies you’ve developed to survive in this world and rob them of their intended purpose (ensuring your own survival).
I want to return to an earlier point I made: specifically, the one about Recca being a set of rules, objects, and relationships the player has to study. If that definition of the game holds true, then the original circumstances under which the game was made don’t matter as much as they might otherwise. It would mean that games aren’t created when artists and designers assemble the pieces together, but when players begin interacting with those rules and relationships. In other words, games are created insofar as they’re experienced, allowing them to be reborn time and again in completely different contexts and to exceed the circumstances of their own creation. It’s why I can (and tend to) play games long after they’ve faded into obscurity, and why people can still enjoy a game jam game long after the jam itself has disbanded.