Ghost Chaser Densei is two games at once, but it only needs to be one. As cryptic as that sounds, it’s honestly the best way I could think of to summarize this little known beat-em-up from little known developer Winkysoft. Trying to treat it as one unified game will inevitably result in it collapsing into the two aspects I’m going to describe. The two barely interact with each other as both try as best they can to peacefully exist on their own. Whether or not that’s a sufficient strategy is as difficult to sort out as any other thoughts I could render on this game.
That being said, for as much parsing as the effects of these two identities requires, both of them on their own are easy to understand upfront. The first identity I want to discuss relates to the video game genre that’s easiest to read into Ghost Chaser Densei. Put more directly, the game is a fairly average beat-em-up. Between its specifically planned encounters, its various trinkets scattered along the ground for you to grab, and its emphasis on messy close-quarters combat, Ghost Chaser Densei would sit comfortably alongside contemporaries like Nekketsu Oyako and Kouryuu no Mimi.
I feel that the discourse around games like this mistakenly focuses on their mechanics of play in isolation, usually to paint the genre as homogenous. This ignores the variety of tone in these games and how that tone often comes to define play: fantasy heroics for Golden Axe and Altered Beast, adventure for Guardian Heroes, humor for Pu-Li-Ru-La, and a violent intolerance to crime for Final Fight and Streets of Rage (moreso the latter than the former). Returning to Ghost Chaser Densei, we find that it opts for a camp wrestling vibe. Its characters are so comedic and so over-the-top exaggerated that it’s hard to take them seriously. In fact, they’re more performances of character than characters in their own right. Their flashy techniques often further contribute to the camp vibe.
The game’s strength lies in its recognizing a formal connection between beat-em-ups and wrestling and the humor that connection produces. This isn’t to say that beat em ups were lacking in humor until Ghost Chaser Densei’s release; I can name (and in this very blog have named) several obvious counter-examples to that claim. Nor am I claiming that the game is perfect in realizing its vision. In fact, the game is riddled with problems in that regard. Lacking the tools that give other camp games their flare – Cho Aniki/Parodius’ Dada-ist senses of humor, Platinum Games’ elaborate choreography – the action comes across as clumsy and uneven. Each character’s inertia jeopardizes any control the game might have over individual encounters.
What this game does that is worth noting is expand our ideas of what can facilitate humor in this field to include material that isn’t strictly fantastical. Where a game like Final Fight might establish a weak pretense of seriousness, Ghost Chaser Densei encourages us to unwind, enjoy ourselves and not take what the game is showing us so seriously. The game’s ending provides a particularly good example: it gives up any pretense of crime fighting so that the main character can literally wrestle the ultimate antagonist.
This is at the end, though. What one sees upon starting the game is markedly different from anything I’ve thus far described. What there’s to greet you on the other side of the company credits is a text crawl summarizing the story from atop a blue wireframe horizon. The year is 2079. A Panopticon-esque computer system has come to rule over Total Control Central Nation, the ambiguously named setting for our story. Ghost Chaser Densei can only regard this development with suspicion, and an ominous musical track that fills us with the same. Whatever benefits this technologically advanced future might have conferred unto us are nowhere to be found. If anything, that future has only cast us into the extremes of dictatorial control and rampant crime, leaving us in the middle to fend for ourselves.
What first stood out to me in this introduction (as somebody observing it in 2017) is how much the game’s cyberpunk symbols have shifted in meaning since the game’s original release. Ghost Chaser Densei is a product of contemporary Japanese cyberpunk, and for our purposes, this strain of cyberpunk is relatively straightforward. Standing at the intersection of several historical trends – the end of the Cold War, the shadow of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the rapid technological advancement bridging the two – Japanese cyberpunk worries that the world will inevitably return to whatever forms of oppression it had previously cast off, and it sees technology as central to that revival. This is why, for example, Shin Megami Tensei II juxtaposes the Center’s theocratic dictatorship alongside its extensive surveillance, its control of news media, etc.
By contrast, modern Western interpretations of cyberpunk tend to be harder to pin down. For one, they’re less a look into the future and more a parallel vision of the present. Second (and this is what makes this version of cyberpunk difficult to understand), technological advancement and the promises it makes to use are no longer mistrusted but celebrated. Cyberpunk works have come to relish the very symbols that older works once expected its audience to regard with dread. Maybe this is because with the present itself interpreted as an oppressive nightmare, one imagines the future as an escape into something better; even as one consciously acknowledges the present forbidding any future, even as one is aware of the contradictions involved in using a future rooted in the present to escape that very present.
Whatever the case, the effect remains the same. Symbols lose whatever meaning they once had as they’re turned into raw material to be reworked anew. Some games are aware of the task at hand and are thus able to use these reworked symbols to render meaningful commentary on the present (or at least try to render that commentary). VA-11 Hall-A comes to mind.
Ghost Chaser Densei, sadly, is not one of those games. True, it is aware of the implications its cyberpunk trappings pose. The Total Control Central Nation it depicts is one where technological advancements provide the ground for underground criminal organizations to dominate public life, and where what little people would wander the streets would be awash in empty lights/iconography. The problem is that Ghost Chaser Densei doesn’t have enough interest to engage these topics. Its interest lies in action and the conditions necessary to facilitate that. The game is only willing to pursue the future aesthetic as far as it needs to to accomplish its goal. This would explain why the city feels more like a disconnected series of locales with nobody to populate them than it does an actual place: the world itself was never meant to provide the motivation to play because that was the action’s role.
Yet based on what we’ve discussed before, the action isn’t quite up to the task of providing that motivation. What we’re left with is a disjointed play experience the game isn’t prepared to address, let alone mitigate. And what of Ghost Chaser Densei’s criminal element? It presents the main characters (and by extension the player) as forces for good who fight against crime, but its fascination with action sabotages any such presentation. After all, crime itself ceases to be purely bad when it allows for compelling scenarios where the player gets to feel the excitement of stopping a crime in progress. Why would anyone want to put an end to a system that provides opportunities to feel this excitement time and again? Better for one to allow these crimes to continue happening so one can continue solving them (continue feeling the thrill of solving them). All the while one presents themselves as the only solution, avoiding whatever moral dilemmas the previously described cycle entails.
It would be naive to say that Ghost Chaser Densei argues any of this in earnest. It wants to depict the city’s criminals in an antagonistic light, and it recognizes the world itself as the cause for their coming into being. It’s just that the game wishes to make its case while still imagining itself as entertainment for entertainment’s sake. While possible in theory, in practice the game’s indifference toward its thematic material amounts to a bad faith which prevents it from criticizing those things it recognizes as worth criticizing.
Even after everything’s said and done, I’m still not sure what to think about the game. All the tensions I’ve described remain as they were before I touched them; they refuse to resolve into something easier to understand – even something as straightforward as failure. Perhaps demanding that Ghost Chaser Densei stand on its own is asking too much from the game. Maybe it’s enough that it lay the groundwork for games to follow it, whether that’s through its successes or its failures. This may not change the experience of playing the game, but it does recharacterize the game as a whole in a more optimistic light. Ghost Chaser Densei holds promise, even it isn’t the game to act on that promise.