As a game critic, I’m generally more interested in failures than I am in successes. This doesn’t mean I seek out games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions, whose failures derive from a thorough dishonesty about what they are; or Lucky Me, Lucky You, where the cause is a lack of self-awareness (not to mention the language it uses). What I look for are the games that strive for some sort of goal but fall well short of achieving it, because it’s in that falling short that they’re most expressive of their own identity. The mistakes these games make are proof that they’re the result of real human effort and not simply the output of a mathematical formula engineered to produce conventionally good games.
Moreover, they provide us a means of pushing back against the standards that lead us into such formulas. True, the game itself may never realize this, but its foibles show how easily those standards break down; how open they are to being questioned. They lay the groundwork for alternative aesthetics that designers can elaborate upon.
Kouryuu no Mimi is one such example of a conspicuous failure. As a beat-em-up, its design never once thinks to question the accepted wisdom of the era. Gameplay and narrative are neatly separated from one another, the visuals aim for both a feeling of there-ness and a certain level of authenticity in regard to the source material, and any deviations from the initial plan try their best not to threaten its original integrity. Yet while the game understands the surface mechanics of the beat-em-up just fine, the essence of the genre consistently eludes its grasp. So far from capturing the serious tone it had hoped to portray, Kouryuu no Mimi ends up being a farce, where absurdity and a consistent violation of logic take the place of dramatics.
Take the admiration of power, for example. From what I can tell, the 1993 manga the game is based on is a shounen story best described as “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure with subtle hints of Dragon Ball Z.” The mix itself isn’t all that important. What really matters is how much Kouyruu no Mimi values power as its own end. Its story has no room for weak individuals, whom it regards not at all at best, with contempt at worst, and a general suspicion at all other times. By contrast, the game displays a greater interest in the larger than life figures who do possess power. It heaps praise upon those figures and the strength they wield. It uses language like make-up to hide whatever blemishes might tarnish that beauty (ways that power may be abused, for example), depriving us of any means of criticizing the story from within its own bounds.
The backstory (the first bit of narrative we see after turning the game on) confirms as much. We’re told of a powerful artifact known as the Golden Dragon’s Ear and the Chinese emperor who harnessed that power to change the world according to his own wishes. Although his wishes amount to acting outside the governmental powers granted to him to create what sounds like a militarist regime, the language used to describe his actions is quick to avoid those nasty implications. He “reforms the country” in order to “build an empire devoid of weakness.” His integrity isn’t in question. Indeed, conflict first enters the story in the form of Yang Guifei, a woman whose beauty distracts the emperor from his duties and brings his empire to ruin.
The message is clear: power is virtue, and relationships with others (especially romantic relationships with women) will only weaken you in your quest to realize that virtue. It’s a message that also continues into the present story: not only is our attention focused on the power struggles of an elite few, but the romance between Natsume Kirouemon (Kirou) and Mina Kanako is the most frequent source of conflict throughout the story.
Ironically, the one aspect of Kouryuu no Mimi that isn’t prepared to reflect this message is the gameplay. I know how unintuitive this sounds. You’d think beat-em-ups would be the perfect method of reifying masculinity and raw strength, given their status as a procession of inevitable conflicts that can only be resolved through violence. Kouyruu no Mimi’s strict adherence to the genre’s precepts should result in even more clarity than that. However, there’s one important difference we have to keep in mind: rather than set the fights in an open arena (like many of its contemporaries) or even on multiple parallel planes (a la Guardian Heroes), the game instead limits the action to a single flat plane. The benefit of a system like this is it justifies not answering the question of why the hero doesn’t try to avoid these conflicts. After all, any means of doing so has been rendered even more impossible within the game than it might have otherwise been.
However, this simplification also leaves the fights wanting for structure. They’re not even fights anymore as much as they’re chaotic bouts where everything mixes together into a sloppy mess and combatants clumsily bounce punches off one another without rhyme or reason. Under these circumstances, Kouryuu no Mimi has no place for the honor/nobility it wants to put on display. What we see in these fights is neither power nor control, but the absence of both.
I’d even go so far as to declare the game’s habit of undermining its own seriousness as the most consistent aspect of its design. Sometimes that manifests in minor ways, like the Golden Dragon Ear’s use in combat being far too mundane to reflect much of its supposed power (a specialized healing item and not much else). Of course, the other actors on stage provide a much more obvious example. They’re what make Kouryuu no Mimi feel like a stage production run amok. None of them care that much for the script they’re forced to enact, so rather than go along with it, they act in a way that goes completely against the script. Characters will walk onto screen not according to any stage plan, but whenever it pleases them. Others will roll past you or drop into the fight from the ceiling, completely oblivious and uninterested in the drama their comical entrances have violated. One late level even sees characters regularly walk through your fights as though they’re an ordinary occurrence.
Not even Kirou, the one character the player controls and who is most strongly invested in giving a serious performance, is immune to these effects. Rather than emphasize the straightforward acquisition of power, Kirou’s story is the same bildungsroman your typical Jojo character would follow: our young hero is forced into a hostile world before he’s ready to face it. Numerous perils along his journey test his character, but in the end, our hero proves himself to be a strong and virtuous individual. The focus of these stories is almost always on the main character’s ability to meet whatever standards society expects of him. It’s not his place to challenge the values he’s given or even to passively accept them, but to actively and unconsciously embrace them, thus affirming their worth to the audience. In light of this, the conservative, almost fairy tale-esque nature of these stories becomes much easier to understand.
Yet once again, we find that Kouryuu no Mimi’s choice of mechanical design hampers its ability to convey these ideas. Ludically speaking, this bildungsroman motif fails to hold water because at all times, I’m aware that what I’m participating in are challenges, IE leisure activities.The first consequence of that awareness is that any stakes I had in the story’s conflict may not hold as much weight as they used to. How can they when I think that conflict is something to be engaged in for entertainment purposes only? Cutting right to the heart of the matter, framing these activities as leisurely (which the game achieves by transparently clinging to genre conventions) is close to saying they facilitate disengaging from the world rather than preparing one’s self for it. That message has its value, but here, it makes Kirou’s actions feel ludicrous.
If this interpretation feels too metatextual, then consider how manga and video games represent fights differently. The former privileges definitive encounters against individuals because these encounters test our hero on a psychological level and allow them to grow. Video games (or at least certain genres of video games) need different tools to imply that growth because they favor lots of small encounters over a long period of time.
Although Kouryuu no Mimi has just such a tool (cutscenes), it doesn’t quite know how to use it. On the rare occasion our hero hesitates to take action, it’s safe outside the bounds of where his action would be necessary. Whenever it is necessary, Kirou comes across as prepared and all too eager to fight. Moreover, we should remember how these fights fail to facilitate the protagonist’s growth. His encounters are too brief, too devoid of context for him to have a meaningful relationship with the characters he fights over the course of the story. His character is left nowhere to go. From beginning to end, Kirou remains a static character who engages in senseless conflict and fails to grow from it.
Although I would like to say the game’s frustration toward all this is palpable, I don’t know where I’d be able to locate those frustrations. What is the game besides this assemblage of conflicting elements? Still, this much is clear: the various elements of Kouryuu no Mimi’s design produce a series of tensions, and the whole’s inability to resolve those tensions results in its being a farce. I’ll admit this is a mean-spirited sort of enjoyment, since what we’re laughing at is the game’s ignorance toward failures it might have been able to prevent. At the same time, though, I see this kind of performance as humanizing a subject that might otherwise have been lacking in it. Were the game to succeed in its original goal of translating a conservative shounen story into video game form, any expression (and hence desire) on the game’s part would have been occluded by the formula it’s forced itself to abide by. But in light of its inability to sate that desire, the fact that the game could desire anything in the first place is made all the clearer.