Chase H.Q. II

By now, the influence American action movies have had on (early) Japanese video games is both well documented and widely understood. There are logical explanations for why these two spheres would come into contact with each other: action movies’ focus on spectacle leaves very little that needs translating/altering, making them easy to market to international audiences. I’ve also heard arguments that phrase this pairing as an inevitability: the simplest form a video game can take is essentially one or more players in conflict and projectiles to eliminate that player from play. (Or so the argument goes. This doesn’t explain why so many early video games were sports-based, and many others were even simpler than this.) Combine that with technological progressivism and follow-the-leader design philosophies, and action movies almost seem like a perfect fit for the industry.

Still, I can’t help but feel like these arguments leave something to be desired. They leave no room for an individual developer’s autonomy, which the games themselves suggest is a very significant factor. That pairing wasn’t accidental, but the product of a very real and very genuine love for American action movies. These games often have an air of absurdity to them, but they’re never critical of their source material. In fact, they celebrate the over-the-top spectacle that fuels action movies. Games like Bloody Wolf, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Bionic Commando and most of Konami’s output in the 80s and 90s are fun specifically because they have fun with themselves.

70376-chase-h-q-ii-genesis-screenshot-optionsThat’s the best way I can think of describing Chase H.Q. II. By the standards of the time (and by today’s standards, too), this would make the game rather conservative. I won’t deny that. The only notable difference I can point to is its choice of inspiration: trucker/car-based movies and buddy cop films over the typical repertoire. Still, Chase H.Q. II strongly executes on its conservative principles and helps to show some of this meta-genre’s greatest strengths: both the distinct adoration for its source material and the careful eye that’s necessary to translate that material into video game form.

The premise is about what you’d expect: after being alerted to a particularly dangerous criminal driving the streets, two police officers (Tony Gibson and Raymond Broady) speed through the city to apprehend that criminal and bring him to justice. It’s the sort of premise that’s vague enough and flexible enough to create a wide variety of interesting scenarios, and at least at first glance, that flexibility looks very easy to abuse. Consider the moral dichotomy it sets up. The police are inherently good, as they are the upholders of law and order. The visual motifs only reinforce that idea: a police officer’s badge, stars and stripes (albeit in a slightly different color scheme). Because the criminals are placed opposite the police, they stand to threaten that order, even when both parties behave equally recklessly. In theory, this would empower the police to exercise their powers not to uphold the law or protect the peace, but to protect whatever their interests happen to be.

In practice, though, these end up being non-issues. Chase H.Q. II never expresses all that much interest in the realities of being a cop or any other reality tied to it. The game is honest about what its real interests are: using these themes as a pretext for crafting compelling play. That may sound like a flimsy pretext until you realize just how much the game actively distances itself from those realities.

chase-hq-ii-u-002Any hints of a wider social context to your actions are abstracted away and never all that developed in the first place. Your first dispatch mentions a criminal fleeing to the suburbs, but this comment is never contextualized or elaborated upon. Similarly, while you can crash into other vehicles (despite the game highly encouraging you to avoid them), the resulting crash brings zero harm to either the car or its drive, whose presence has been erased from the world. It’s as though all the action takes place in a completely different realm of existence. I’ll admit this can be its own problem, but in the game’s defense, it never makes any claims to representing reality; only to mimicking the sorts of movies the developers like.

More to the point, Chase H.Q. II never shows any interest in those parts of being a cop that lend themselves to abuse, IE violence and exerting power over others. Its only interest is in action, spectacle, and all the sensations tied up in that. The game’s design reflects as much. It’s a driving game from the same school of thought that led to games like Pole Position, Rad Racer, Outrun, Kat’s Run, and maybe Road Rash.  (It may make more sense to think of a technique connecting these games instead of a school of thought, given how games like Space Harrier and Super Thunder Blade look superficially similar.)

Games with “Run” in the title aside, these sorts of driving games don’t express much interest in creating a sense of place. True, you’ll change locations the further you drive, but the point these games develop is movement, not place. Your tires squealing as you turn a tight corner; your engine’s roar slowly becoming a high pitched whine as you hit higher speeds and put your car under greater and greater stress; the exaggerated sense of speed to compensate for the lack of distinguishing features in the environment; all of these features help a game communicate the raw thrill of driving.

chase-hq-ii-u-007They’re the sorts of things that lend themselves well to Chase H.Q. II’s project, so it would only make sense for the game to develop on them accordingly. Sometimes, the change in context does all the heavy lifting. Centering play around catching a criminal elevates the raw thrill of driving to something more intense and urgent. This is largely because the new narrative arc of chasing after a criminal focuses that thrill. But what happens when you finally catch up? This is where Chase H.Q. II has to modify the previously mentioned formula. It introduces a sort of climax that other games lack: the act of catching the criminal. Explained mechanically, this consists of ramming your vehicle against theirs and causing enough damage to force their car to a stop.

However, a basic explanation like that belies a lot of the system’s nuances and how those nuances interact with the wider game experience. In addition to having play value they also have narrative value. Ramming into a renegade vehicle isn’t just a tactic you use to complete the level. It makes the chase confrontational in a way it might not otherwise be. The back and forth of ramming creates mounting tension and lends the action an immediate physical tangibility. (Admittedly, it can also feel like a contrivance, since hitting your target decreases your speed and artificially prolongs the chase.) The fire billowing from the other car toward the end only further heightens the tension. Seeing it puts you in a strange sort of limbo where you realize the criminal is on their last legs but still capable of eluding your grasp. The time for action has to be now.

After writing about this game and sorting out my thoughts regarding it, I’ve come to realize it represents two opposite poles of video game design. On one side, we have fantasy escapism: an unwillingness to deal with problems your premise references tangentially. Ignoring those problems is easy to justify on an individual level, but becomes much more worrisome when it becomes commonplace among games. On the other side, we have a tight adherence to design trends. I’ve strongly criticized these practices in previous writing (see: Runbow, Shantae, etc.), but in Chase H.Q. II’s case, the game has a strong enough idea of what it wants and how to get it that any problems I’ve written about in the past don’t apply here. What you make of the game depends on what you may of the industry that created it, or at least what you make of certain aspects of that industry. I feel like that’s fitting for a game as conventional as this.

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