Before I get into the matter of discussing Griffin specifically, I want to acknowledge that the ideas I’m going to discuss here are ones I’ve already discussed to death. In fact, I had my writing on SD Gundam and Steel Empire on my mind (for reasons I hope will soon become clear) while I was taking notes on Griffin. If pressed for reasons why I return to these ideas so frequently, I’d say it’s because they’ve been so incredibly common in games for decades, especially games with military shooting and a heavy emphasis on shooting. But to apply this to Griffin more specifically, there isn’t much else to discuss about the game. A minor shooter released early in the Game Gear’s life, the game is bland, conventional, conservative, etc. It’s an empty signifier; something that makes more sense as a collection of techniques and popular trends than it does as an expression of somebody’s thoughts on the world.
Yet it’s for those very reasons the game is worth looking at in the first place. It may be easier to pick apart contemporary trends in the game industry when the game you’re analyzing is small enough that it follows those trends to the letter, rather than large enough to dictate what direction those trends go in. And by definition, conventional games will play right into the status quo (whatever that may be). This is especially the case with a game as empty as Griffin. Stuck halfway between admiring its own combat and calmly accepting its existence, it never occurs to the game to question its own premises or to think outside them, and the game languishes for it.
As mentioned previously, Griffin is a staunchly traditional video game. It has all the hallmarks of a classic shooter and not much else to its name. You press forward through battlefields, shooting down enemies either with a standard gun or your limited supply of special weapons (in this case, a carpet bombing). You collect power-ups that make that standard gun more powerful. You navigate tightly packed waves of projectiles, etc. The only immediate difference between this and other contemporary games would be that you control a free-roaming tank that doesn’t automatically progress forward. I’d hardly call this a unique feature, though; Granada beat Griffin to the punch by at least a year and put that feature to better use.
Non-unique though it may be, I still think the arrangement and choice of ludic elements in Griffin is worth looking into. Like so many other games alongside this one, you’re encouraged to identify with the craft you pilot. It moves as you do, and no other object on the screen responds in much the same way. However, the game’s perspective betrays one’s desire to directly identify with that tank. Rather than employing a first person perspective and putting you right there on the ground (like Battlezone does), you’re instead forced to observe the action from a third person perspective. To be more specific, you command the action from above, with all the information and perspective a seasoned tactician would have. At first glance it looks like these two forces are in conflict with each other: the controls speak to an intention of situating the player directly in the action, while the perspective speaks to one of safely insulating the player from that action. But given how many other games (IE the vast majority of side scrolling shooters) make use of a similar set-up, and how Battlezone was made to work on the Atari 2600’s hardware, this ends up being an unsatisfying answer.
In addition, it’s very much possible for these two concepts to exist in equilibrium with each other. To demonstrate this, let’s consider the evolution of the public perception of war. These changes came about during the 19th century, and they were spurred on not by any specific war, but by the technology people used to access the world around them. Newspapers, TV, radio, the Internet; like Griffin, these new media made the events of a given war immediate to its audience while they were (at least in theory) protected from the effects of that war. Meanwhile, the machinery with which war was being waged wasn’t as fraught with ambiguity. Technology like the gun, the tank, the airplane, the ICBM, the drone strike, etc. all made killing easier by putting distance (physical and psychological) between the soldier and their target.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean that these developments led to a valorization of war. Both the Vietnam War and the two World Wars (just to name a few examples) led to a severe disillusionment with the effectiveness and value of prolonged military conflicts. At the same time, though, people began to think of war a bit differently. No longer was it a material force that threatened to directly impact people’s lives. Now it became a political idea; something that affects other people in some far off corner of the globe. This may have enabled certain approaches to the topic, like criticizing it from a place of safety or enjoying it on an aesthetic level, but there was always the assumption that you wouldn’t have to be the one that deals with the reality of the situation in your own life.
Returning the discussion to Griffin, I see this abstraction of war as one of the most influential forces acting on the game. That’s not to say there aren’t other forces alongside it. In some cases, it appears the game really does go out of its way to depict these conflicts in a positive light. The ending screen tries to escalate your emotions by asking if “you can hear the sound of gunfire at the front line.” And before that point, the game’s decision to motivate you with portraits of an attractive anime girl between levels hearkens back to the pin-up girls of World War II while prefiguring media properties like Kantai Collection. (The World War II point is especially relevant in the third stage, when you start controlling a naval bomber in oversea fights, for some reason.) Despite how things may seem, I wouldn’t say the game celebrates the use of military power, as none of these features are emphasized strongly enough for that reading to make sense.
Abstraction, meanwhile, is something Griffin readily embraces. I never once remember the game giving me any context for my actions. I never found out who the enemy was, who I was, why we were fighting each other, the state of affairs prior to my entering the fray, etc. The closest it ever comes to elaborating on its proceedings is in the environmental design: the frequent patches of dirt on the field, each one scarred by tank tracks, bombed out craters, and possibly buried wreckage (it’s not easy to tell), all suggest that I’ve been dropped directly into a long-running battle and not much else.
Putting this aside, all Griffin was willing to give me was the fact that a war is occurring and that I am participating in it. Given this lack of information and its refusal to inflect the action one way or the other, I struggle to read this as anything other than the game portraying war as a mundane reality people are forced to accept. That would explain why play feels so business-like above all else. There’s no relishing in the acquisition of power (you can power up your tank, but you don’t feel more powerful for doing it); none of Recca’s elaborate choreography to be found here. All Griffin offers is a procession of basic tasks for the player to complete.
But the more I thought about it, the more I felt this was an excuse on the game’s part; one that it uses to indulge in what it thinks is innocent play. Griffin’s ideas begin and end with rules/mechanics for the player to navigate, after all, so anything that doesn’t fall within those bounds must exist to justify the core of the experience. Hence the game’s resignation to war: the actions you take only serve to instigate conflict, and each level ends by forcing you into a combat situation, so the game defends it all by declaring these conflicts an inevitability.
Or, to put it another way: Griffin uses that inevitability to explain its decision not to pursue anything beyond typical shooter aesthetics. For most of the games I’ve referenced throughout this review, the visuals, mechanics, composition, music etc. are just a surface layer those games use to access some other, much deeper goal. For SD Gundam, that goal is a retelling of the Gundam storyline in video game form. For Steel Empire, it’s realizing the beauty of a steampunk aesthetic, and for Recca, it’s an attempt to see how flexible the genre’s form can be when taken to extremes. But there is no extra layer for Griffin. The things the game wants to access are all at the surface. Anything beyond that is a reflection of the game’s lack of imagination rather than its thought out expression.