Our game begins with the words “L’Arc in Ciel” printed against a grainy film backdrop. We then quickly jump to objects that are much more modern by contrast: kawaii anime heads and a mix of hip phrases in an angular bubble font. The rest of the introduction proceeds like that: a chaotic mix of various pop media styles, each of them juxtaposed and remixed to the point that they’ve lost all meaning. All of this is supposed to connote youthful rebellion and an “I’m above caring about things that are beneath me” attitude, but the effect doesn’t completely come through. It can’t. Media remixing like this was a staple of the 1990s (others having done it better), and so was the idea of imbuing a product with a rebellious attitude. Considering how Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc: Tomarunner vs L’Arc-en-Ciel was released in 2000, people had a decade’s worth of time to adjust to those concepts and see the game for what it is: a carefully calculated marketing ploy.
I feel this tension perfectly encapsulates what Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc: Tomarunner vs L’Arc-en-Ciel is. It’s an anti-joke in game form. True, it may not carry things as far as, say, Takeshi’s Challenge, but the game is clearly mocking conventional ideas of what a good game is. At the same time, though, it’s also comfortably part of the system it seemingly rebukes. Although I can’t dismiss the results of the game’s efforts, I feel it necessary to acknowledge the many ways in which the game’s circumstances limit what it’s capable of achieving.
To give a more solid idea of what Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc is, it’s basically an addendum to the earlier released Gekisou TomaRunner, which was itself a kart racer. Both games proudly adorn themselves in all the hallmarks of the genre: items you can use to secure a lead, a trick that allows you to gain an advantage at the starting line, cartoony courses and racers to choose from, etc. On the surface, there are only two significant deviations from that formula. First, instead of piloting any sort of vehicle around the tracks, your character runs those tracks on their own two legs. Second, the play is contextualized as being part of a game show or a stage performance. In other words, Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc chooses to present itself as entertainment rather than as sport/pastime.
I’ll admit the game sounds conservative so far. Everything it’s done already has counterparts in contemporary games, like Sonic R and Mega Man Battle & Chase. Yet unlike those other games, Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc does as much as it can to position itself as the rebellious cousin of the kart racer family, and at least initially, there’s a great deal of credibility to the game’s claim. Consider the previously mentioned running mechanic and the physicality that ensues from it. If other games acknowledge that physicality, they only do so by vaguely hinting at it. An item may hit you and deliver a palpable impact, but the impact itself is incidental to the item’s function: namely, to put whoever was hit by it at a disadvantage and to grant its user just as much of an advantage.
In this game, though, the impact is absolutely inseparable from the larger experience. This isn’t just because of what it enables, either, but because that impact is so immediate, so obvious that it’s impossible to ignore. Maintaining a competitive speed/rounding a course’s many corners requires that you stick out your character’s hand in the right direction and at the right time to interact with a given part of the environment. Moreover, what that interaction does is clear in a tangible sense. You can feel the force of your strike reverberate through a gym mat as you hit it to boost around a corner. Likewise, grabbing a pole to do the same results in a smooth curving motion that appears effortless without dampening the game’s frenetic energy.
From here, the floodgates open. Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc’s play has none of the soft, clean qualities one might unconsciously associate with the kart racing genre. Play is rough, dirty, absolutely chaotic. Not only are you overwhelmed with visual cues at all times, but also ludic cues. Half my time in the game was spent frantically flailing my limbs about in the hope that my character would either grab onto something or slap his rival in the face. It was a flurried mashing of buttons that eventually lost all meaning. I was aware that there was a method to the madness and that the game was asking for skill on my part, but I preferred the structureless approach to that. It felt more in line with the spirit of the game. In addition, the physical nature of my actions gives characters a tangible presence, leading to a greater degree of personification on the game’s part. It’s a sort of Looney Tunes approach to acting: presence and charisma through slapstick antics.
This mindless chaos isn’t valuable just for its own sake. It’s a tool the game uses to move itself away from the idea of games as fun and toward the idea of them as entertaining. With the former, there’s still an expectation of fairness, IE the notion that we have control over what happens because the rules we agree to follow allow us a realistic chance at success. The latter case makes no such promises. In fact, Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc is eager to embrace the belief that something can be entertaining because it’s unfair. All the key mechanics are geared with that in mind. You can slap your opponent at the start of a race to get an early advantage, or hop over them with your arms (pushing them back in the process) if the opportunity presents itself. If games like Mario Kart find their counterpart in the (modern) Olympics, then Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc is the Spartan interpretation of that: cheating is permitted so long as you don’t get caught or have the power to get away with it if you do.
Once you’ve accepted that premise, it’s not long before the game itself becomes a player and secures some kind of advantage against you. In fact, it may make more sense to think of Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc as an anti-game: something that clearly models itself to match popular conceptions of what a game is, but which confounds the player’s ability to discern what the point of playing the game is. It forces you to throw out whatever justifications you may have concocted for your experience – enjoyment, productivity, self-betterment – and to confront the perhaps uncomfortable truth that this is all an utter waste of time.
This is where the game really starts to play with genre and form. The impromptu chicken races provide a good example: unlike other races, the goal here is to tag your opponent with a bomb and make sure they can’t do the same to you. But considering the short circular design of the track you’re on, you soon find run up against the paradox that making yourself less vulnerable actually makes you more vulnerable. The best strategy ends up being an anticlimactic refusal to play the game at all.
However, I feel that the Hell mini-games provide a clearer illustration of the game’s mischief in action. They’re supposedly there to punish players who fail at the game badly enough, but it never got to that point for me. Instead, I played through all of them under the mistaken assumption that Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc comprised these games exclusively (since they were the first menu option; perhaps another instance of the game’s chicanery). Operating under this assumption, I found the game analogous to party games, but quickly found the innocent mischief one would normally associate with those games replaced with sharp, bitter mockery. The mini-games constantly root against your own success. One of them asks that you raise flags according to commands (a la Shy Guy Says), but the game exploits the fact that in Japanese, a negative command (“Don’t raise this flag”) can sound very similar to a positive one (“Raise that flag”). In fact, it often mixes both commands up at will.
Later mini-games barely stray from this trend. Although they focus on skill mastery like many other games, their blatantly repetitive design results in them feeling more mundane than empowering. Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc is like a cruel joke. It follows every rule and flouts every expectation, seeing how far it can stretch both itself and its player before one of them gives up.
Or at least that’s the conclusion I would like to take away from this. Yet for as much as I’d like to, I must remember that this is a commercial product, and that brings up a number of important questions. How much is rebellion possible when it takes place within a dominant system? To what extent, if any, can rebellion against that system be meaningful not only when one benefits from it, but requires it to rebel in the first place? This doesn’t mean we should dismiss what the game does achieve; that’s still worth looking into. However, there’s an undeniable limit on how far the game can go with its ideas. After all, to what extent is something cheating when it’s programmed into the game as a feature?
More broadly speaking, Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc exhibits every hallmark of Japanese pop culture yet does very little to question said hallmarks. Kawaii, pop idols, anime tropes (and to a lesser extent the aforementioned kart racer/party game genres) – all the game does is lace them with a somewhat rebellious attitude and mask its uncritical acceptance of their dominant role in capitalist pop culture.
That neutered desire for revolution becomes especially clear when you consider what Tomarunner vs L’Arc-en-Ciel even means. Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc was never an original game, but a slightly updated version of the original Gekisou TomaRunner (released in 1999). The difference? Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc was made to promote Japanese punk band L’Arc-en-Ciel, and its design was changed to reflect that. Members of the band were added as playable characters, the band’s songs became unlockable extras, and a concert mechanic was added where performing well in a race results in larger audiences attending your concert at the end. So the more you learn about the game, the more you begin to realize just how little its original rebellious attitude matters. Its interest in tearing down idols only goes so far, and when that energy is finally exhausted, the game’s telos becomes clear: listen to this music, buy these songs, come to our shows, keep spending your money and participating in this culture.
The crux of all this is what you consider the boundaries of a game to be. If you see a game as being nothing more than the contents of its disc (or cartridge, or card, or collection of data), then it’s easy to accept the idea that Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc youthful posturing holds weight. Yet basic scrutiny will show just how unsustainable an isolationist stance like that really is. I don’t think a game stops at its contents. It also includes (among other things) ideas like the circumstances of its creation, the manner in which it presents itself to the world, and all the complicated concepts tied up in both of those. Had Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc’s developers considered topics like these while creating their game, it’s possible the end result’s character would have meant something. Then again, this is assuming those developers were interested in turning over said topics in the first place.