Video game writing (my own not exempted) has a habit of either misjudging or misrepresenting the relationship between video games and whatever container is used to explain them – brand, genre, etc. We know that the relationship is there. In fact, we’ve little choice but to acknowledge its presence, given both its staggering ubiquity and how firmly entrenched it is in the world of commercial video games. Yet the language through which we discuss that relationship remains very limited. We often reduce it to the game’s mimesis of some nebulously defined concept (usually whatever the game was marketed as), as though the container alone holds supremacy; as though the game is merely an instance of that container, or some other passive object. In doing so, we risk overlooking how the container is constituted through the game, and thus the active role a game plays in interpreting and modifying the containers thought to exist outside them.
This isn’t to say that all these interpretations are revolutionary, or that they can’t converge on mimesis anyway. That being said, neither of these statements preclude a game from actively reasoning through whatever material it’s presented. It’s this active reasoning that makes Lupin III: Densetsu no Hihou wo Oe a compelling game to examine if not an exciting one to experience firsthand. Playing through the game, one learns to appreciate its keen understanding of the source material and its ability to translate that understanding into practice. Unfortunately, Densetsu no Hihou chafes at applying that understanding to the strict generic limitations that being a mainstream commercial video game imposes on it. These limitations ultimately prove to be the game’s undoing.
What makes this situation especially strange is that Lupin III, being as clean a fit for video games as it is, shouldn’t impose the limitations that Densetsu no Hihou struggles under. Looking at the franchise in strictly narrative terms, Lupin III has never made even the slightest attempt to hide its status as pure genre work. It’s a proud mix of heist stories and James Bond, modifying neither and embracing both. It’s stories are tightly plotted along these lines; its characters are less characters and more reliable, highly idealized archetypes who can drive the plot exactly where it needs to be.
Yet these are exactly what make Lupin III as compelling as it is. At its heart, the franchise is first and foremost a series of heist stories. The root of their appeal lies in the suspense created from not knowing whether or not a given heist will be successful. This appeal implies several prior conditions that a given story must fulfill. The audience must be invested in the outcome the protagonists hope to achieve. The story must be capable of creating tension that makes the action exciting to watch if not difficult to predict.
In this light, Lupin III’s tight narrative construction makes significantly more sense. The main cast is charismatic and morally upstanding not because these traits are interesting in themselves, but because they give the audience reason to cheer Lupin on as he puts his plans into motion. Likewise, the characters are all so heavily idealized because that idealization results in strong-willed characters capable of achieving whatever they set their sights on; thus creating tension when those wills are pitted against one another. Eventually, the method by which Lupin III achieves all of this (IE genre) fades away as the strength of its craft becomes its defining force. If this sounds like an overly mechanical way to understand narrative, it may help to think of this as a framework rather than a strict template; a framework amenable enough to a wide variety of stories, interpretations, themes, etc. This would explain why the franchise has proven so attractive to Japanese writers/artists, from Hayao Miyazaki to Sayo Yamamoto.
This much, at least, Densetsu no Hihou appears to understand. It’s not a particularly shocking revelation: in its slavish devotion to recreating the 1977 television series it’s based on, Densetsu no Hihou staunchly refuses any interpretation that doesn’t account for the Lupin brand. Such is abundantly clear the moment one starts the game: what greets the player is as close a reconstruction of the show’s opening as technical limitations and possibly age restrictions would allow. The narrative to follow only further reinforces the game’s relationship with Lupin III. Sometimes-rival, sometimes-love-interest Fujiko Mine has been captured by a new group of criminals, leading Lupin first to rescue her but later to team up with Fujiko to steal the treasure that group was originally after. Lupin’s slow transformation from a selfish (if still charming) rogue pursuing his own desires to a hero willing to oppose obvious evil, the climax that pits scientific/militarist greed against the Romantic imagination which Lupin now symbolizes, the tightly plotted characters – all would feel at home in an episode of the original show.
For as dry as recollecting it may be, Densetsu no Hihou’s resemblance to its source material makes the task of interpreting the game an easy one. And to its credit, the game understands that source well enough to recreate the aesthetic flair that makes Lupin III so distinctive. Between the striking composition and the eponymous hero’s sly gait; between the quick cuts and the ever-intense music; between all of this, Densetsu no Hihou not only exhibits all the same control over narrative as the TV show it’s based on, but also demonstrates a sharp eye for crafting whatever mood a given situation may call for. From our perspective, the game has talents that can’t be reduced to its relationship with Lupin III. Yet as far as the game itself is concerned, this level of success is only possible insofar as it can mirror the thing it’s based on.
In theory the same should hold true for Densetsu no Hihou as a game. Lupin himself is a very playful character; the situations he casts himself into impose clear rules and obstacles and many other elements traditionally associated with games; and Lupin III, being as strictly planned through literary genre as it is, should be an appropriate match for something as strictly planned through commercial game genres as Densetsu no Hihou. Yet the more closely one examines the task at hand, the more apparent it becomes that such a task requires a more nuanced approach. To provide a short summary of the dilemma Densetsu no Hihou faces, the game now finds itself in a position where strict adherence to outside material can no longer suffice. It must actively interpret that material according to the needs of the present situation, which itself requires that the game consciously recognize itself as performing that interpretation.
To expound on this further, I want to return to what I said earlier about strong-willed characters in heist stories. These characters captivate us not just because they create narrative suspense, but also because it is only by pitting these characters against each other, forcing them to extremes they might not otherwise reach, that those characters can ever truly realize themselves. Lupin would never be a master-class thief without Zenigata hot on his heels, and Zenigata wouldn’t be a renowned cop without somebody like Lupin to challenge him. As far as games are concerned, this fact provides an obvious allure to players who, through the trying crucibles they face within the game, might realize a potential they didn’t know they had. Of course, this requires circumstances that can eke said potential from those players, which raises the question of how a game might create those circumstances.
It’s a question that games have encountered many times before and after Densetsu no Hihou, meaning there are several different answers to it. From what I can tell, randomness plays a vital role in all of these answers. The idea is most likely to make the talents at the protagonist’s disposal both necessary and obvious, and to help dismiss the idea that their success is a meaningless inevitability. Sly Cooper, for example, emphasizes its eponymous hero’s suave intelligence by centering most of the play around his planning against whatever randomness may pop up. Other games personify that randomness in the form of another player, either directly in the case of Bonanza Bros. and Spy vs. Spy, both as a means of eliciting slapstick humor; or indirectly, as is the case with Payday’s AI director and the grim violence it demands of its players. In both instances, the player realizes their full potential by directly confronting and overcoming the randomness they encounter.
The strategy Densetsu no Hihou opts for is expected but nonetheless disheartening to see. It’s a Mario game at its core: the player guides Lupin from one end of the stage (in this case sections (not floors, mind you) of a building) to the other, avoiding whatever obstacles the enemy has put between him and his goal. There are some differences – the non-linear progression through a given stage, the use of a specialized and consistent toolkit in overcoming obstacles (flash bangs, explosives, salve, a gun, a James Bond-style grappling hook wrist-watch, etc.) – but none are enough to fully obscure Densetsu no Hihou’s origins.
This game is a very typical one when one takes the time to examine it. The performances that define it amount to work; a series of obstacles that exist only for the player to overcome them. Although this is presented as play, the fact that “play” is synonymous with any activities one performs with the game (regardless of whether or not they’d be considered playful) renders it an empty term when used in this context. Such activities are hardly what a character as whimsical and improvisational as Lupin III calls for.
However, I’m less worried about the mismatch between the two media as I am of what this particular mismatch means. Densetsu no Hihou trains its players to see the game as a series of tasks to be completed; tasks made with the player’s completing them in mind. This limits the extent to which the game can resist the player’s efforts to complete it. After all, if it resists too much, then it defeats the purpose of its own design. Unfortunately, in training players to approach the game this way, Densetsu no Hihou trains them to see themselves as cooperating with the game toward a common goal rather than in opposition to one another. This, in turn, deprives the game of any route toward our aforementioned heist dynamic, leading to play falling well short of its intended goal.
Densetsu no Hihou anticipates and makes some attempt to ameliorate this problem. Theoretically the environments the player navigates are the party actively resisting that player’s actions. This makes a certain amount of sense, considering how environmentally oriented play is for Densetsu no Hihou. In practice, however, the game struggles to present the environment as a party at all, let alone an active one. The villains who supposedly personify it are too distant from the plot to have the connection the game wants from them, and later plot developments render the point moot anyway. The environment itself is unable to compensate, given how impersonal a setting like an office building tends to be.
The world, having been abstracted thus, becomes an inert thing for Lupin and the player to work. It cannot resist their efforts, but neither can it confirm those efforts as such. It can’t even confirm threatening circumstances as actually posing a threat. One can always sit back, casually observe the danger ahead of them, and act according to the limited but guaranteed effective options given to them. Uneven difficulty only furthers aggravate issues. One level is effectively nothing more than a few rooms worth of walking, and a later one only asks that the player be somewhat careful in falling to the bottom. It’s not at all surprising that the action is as dull and lacking in drama as it is; the game lacks any means of providing that drama.
What does any of this mean for the story Densetsu no Hihou hopes to tell? Remember that the game refutes any understanding that doesn’t account for Lupin III. Play follows the same trend: its rules are less interesting in their own right than the narrative meaning those rules communicate. We return, then, to our earlier question: what meaning does the game communicate? What is Lupin if his entirety is constituted through my actions? Based on our prior descriptions, we’re forced to regard him as a man who need not rely on his talents because circumstances never require them. To him alone the world is given. Confident in this fact from the start, he needn’t confirm its veracity. The Romantic charm that makes him such a charismatic character is nowhere to be found. Lupin’s character falls flat, possibly through no fault of his own.
In the end, Densetsu no Hihou could stand to learn a lesson from its own source. As I’ve detailed in the past, a consistent failure in games is the belief that the container is enough to give a game substance. All this misunderstanding accomplishes is the creation of a vague idea of the container; one composed of but divorced from everything it contains. At the same time, though, these containers prove incredibly valuable to those games that make an effort to relate themselves to how they understand a given container. It’s a similar process to the heist character motif: approaching the subject in this amount of depth challenges a game to reach its own limits, and it’s at these limits that the game becomes all it can be. Densetsu no Hihou fails to grasp this point, and it suffers for it. The ease with which the game could have avoided this fate makes that suffering both tragic and frustrating.