Silpheed

Taking a casual glance at the media landscape, it’s clear that remixing plays a significant role in modern culture. A lot of entertainment today either remixes earlier pieces of pop culture, like vaporwave or YouTube Poops, or presents itself as material for the audience to remix at their leisure, like anime. Even the way we communicate online directly lifts from the media we consume to give it new meaning, whether that’s through GIFs, reaction videos, or anything in between.

However, if these examples are anything to go by, remixing (or at least its prevalence) is a rather new phenomenon, historically speaking. True, mass media has inundated daily life since at least the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the advent of the computer in the 1990s that the average person had the tools they’d need to create remixes of their own. Obviously, it wouldn’t be until some time after this that remixing would become what it is today. So how is it a game like Silpheed feels right at home alongside modern remixes even though it has nothing to do with them? Despite coming out in 1993, just as the building blocks for modern remix culture were being put in place, Silpheed somehow manages to prefigure where that culture would go completely by accident.

SILPHEED001I describe the process as accidental because it’s hard to imagine the game’s creators approaching the project with that intent in mind. To provide a brief overview, Silpheed is a Sega CD shooter with modest design sensibilities but ambitious technical features. Polygonal 3D, full motion video, voice acting, and all sorts of other features only available on the Sega CD. These features are meant to push the technological envelope and show how the Sega CD can create more convincing worlds than any other system, but the odd thing is the exact opposite happens because of them. Playing the game felt surreal and divorced from the experience of being there. Part of that’s because your ship moves so fast it feels almost weightless; another part is the slight angle that ship moves along; yet another part is how the camera sweeps and jerks about even as your ship remains still.. Combine all those features, and it almost feels like you’re skating atop a video projection of the environment rather than actually being there.

It’s an aesthetic the rest of Silpheed builds upon through many of its other creative decisions. The mountains in stage 10 provide an excellent example. Where the rest of the visuals emphasize the smooth polished surfaces of machines, the mountains’ choppy movements and rough texture betray the illusion that they’re actually mountains. They feel more like a painting of a photo of some mountains, calling out to an original that doesn’t exist. More generally speaking, this one example speaks to a level of abstraction the game uses that’s absolutely vital to the practice of remixing. After all, remixing in its most basic form is just altering a work in such a way that it’s stripped of its original meaning. This can happen in a lot of ways – chopping up the work, putting it in a new context, emphasizing aspects the original ignored – but the result is usually the same.

In Silpheed’s case, it’s impossible to say the game openly remixes specific sources. It is possible, however, to say that it borrows widely from the popular entertainment of the day – arcade shooters and 80s mech anime like Macross. In addition, the way the game borrows from these sources is aggressively anti-political. I don’t mean it’s anti-political in the YouTube Poop sense, where the remix revels in its own nihilistic trolling.

SILPHEED049If anything, Silpheed goes one step further: it refuses to make any statement beyond the fact that it’s remixing, strips its sources bare of their original meaning, and picks from them more for their aesthetic quality than for anything else. The story provides a decent example of that: colony planets have assembled a fleet to fight against terrorists who hijacked the Earth’s computer systems. A story like that would feel right at home alongside the 80s mech anime Silpheed undoubtedly uses as its source, but this game’s rendition of it lacks the enthusiasm those anime were known for. In addition, it’s completely superfluous to understanding what’s going on. If the game accesses the themes and moods associated with those shows, it does so indirectly, like it arrived there on its own rather than through the material it works with. Similarly, Silpheed may replicate a lot of shooter structures, but it doesn’t exactly fit with its peers. I never felt like shooting enemies or racking up a high score were all that important to playing the game.

I can only describe the end result of the game’s efforts as a dance club version of the top down shooter. Everything the game presents eschews the reality it’s meant to communicate, becoming little more than a spectacular light show. It’s like the game has created this space solely to celebrate its own creative potential. Every aspect of the experience, from the music to the visuals to the way the game is played, is imbued with an overpowering energy. So overpowering is that energy that you begin to lose yourself in the celebration, focusing only on the immediate sensations and rhythms the game provides.

Your allies’ messages become samples to fit the music’s beat as rhythm overtakes content. Levels lose whatever grounding they had in reality as they move further and further toward symbolic abstraction. (This reaches a climax in the penultimate level, when you enter a room that can only be described as a dance club populated entirely with cubes.) A chaotic flurry of bullets floods the screen. You abandon any attempt to trying to understand the action in front of you and fall back on intuition.

SILPHEED052Having read this, some of you may think the pieces line up too nicely for Silpheed to be as I’ve described it. In fact, I can anticipate some of the counter-arguments you will raise. Where other remixes are very much open about their sources (their meaning relying on you knowing what’s being remixed), Silpheed denies us whatever source material it may be working with. More importantly, couldn’t everything I’ve described thus far apply equally well to many other shooters out there, especially bullet hell shooters? The abstract imagery, the high energy dance music, the intense play style born in the space between them – all three have become mainstays of shooters over the past few decades. On this point I would agree with you.

However, I don’t see this as any reason to discount what Silpheed does. Rather, I see it as an opportunity to better understand the place shooters have created for themselves in the world. Indirectly or not, the game helps us appreciate the overlap between shooters (arcades) and the aesthetics of dance, or how these games were primed to prefigure musical developments in the 2010s. Most interesting of all (at least to me), Silpheed shows us how games can gain newfound relevance years after they were first released. If this sort of recontextualization isn’t the spirit of remixing itself, then it’s at least strongly tied up with it.

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