Our scene opens to an island calmly floating amongst the waves. Although we may not be consciously aware of it happening, the image invokes within our minds the idea of a tropical paradise. It is at once a setting completely isolated from the modern world (and all that world might entail), but also one that it is intricately tied up with that same world by virtue of negating it. What attracts us to such an idyllic setting isn’t merely the idea of a harmonious natural order that has a place for everything and harms none within it. It’s the idea that this tropical (this added specificity is key) setting can offer us refuge from all the arduous labor that life regularly demands from us. It’s these expectations that float about our mind we we begin Nangoku Shounen Papuwa-Kun.
It’s also these expectations that the game is so quick to flagrantly violate. Immediately following the island’s introduction is an assault on the senses: the usn haphazardly spraying its light in countless directions; an intense melody of drums and an instrument I struggle to identify pounding your ears; a succession of absurd images too rapid to acclimate one’s self to.
An admittedly extreme example, but I find this sort of contrast best exemplifies the Papuwa-Kun experience. For as much as the game wants to present play as purely a vehicle for its non-sequitur humor, that simplicity belies a lot of what gives the game its substance. Not only does it overlook Papuwa-Kun’s ideas about the natural world, but it also overlooks the very strong connections between those themes and the game’s use of generic platformer tradition. As interesting as it already is, the game could prove more robust if it were to admit how strong its understanding of that tradition was to have made these connections. However, its failure to do so puts a limit on what Papuwa-Kun can accomplish, introducing tensions the game is never fully able to reconcile.
One might respond that it wouldn’t be appropriate to analyze the game along the lines we’ve set up for it. Even if we weren’t obligated to approach Papuwa-Kun on the terms it asks from us, its sense of humor forms such a core part of its identity that we would be forced to accept those terms regardless. Truth be told, it’s a reasonable argument to put forth. Between the music’s bombast (courtesy of eccentric instrumentalization) and the calculated sense of humor informing the character designs – fish on legs, leek-wielding ducks, a light panoply of Japanese artifacts – the game’s ethos is so forceful as to be difficult to ignore.
And to the game’s credit, approaching it like this reveals some legitimate aesthetic accomplishments the game can boast about: strong artistic direction, the aforementioned moments of calculated silliness, and a design that allows both of these aspects to flourish. However, there is a caveat to Papuwa-Kun’s approach; one that I bring attention to not to undermine its accomplishments, but to highlight the conditions under which those accomplishments must necessarily exist. For as abstract and silly as the game wants to be, that abstract silliness must ultimately be grounded in something more tangible to be understood as such.
Papuwa-Kun, acknowledging this problem but wishing for a path that will least interfere with its own project, opts to ground its proceedings in the typical story of a heroic adventure. As island resident Shintaro (oddly enough), it’s our job to hunt down a mysterious statue corrupting the island’s citizens before the antagonist can claim it for themselves. It’s a very Campbellian affair, which is to say the story very strictly conforms to the themes and motifs one might associate with it: the brief implication of Shintaro leaving nature to enter society, the greed that tears apart a formerly peaceful populace, a villain whose contrasts serve to highlight Shintaro’s own heroism. All of this is to be expected. To Papuwa-Kun, narrative is merely a vehicle by which it can deliver its jokes. The less work it puts into constructing that vehicle, the better.
We see a pattern emerge: while it would be possible to analyze Papuwa-Kun on its own terms, those terms are built partly to deflect analysis that goes beyond the game’s narrow focus. They would risk falling short of delivering us to the game’s fullest substance. Far more conducive in this regard is the relationship the game envisions between man and the natural world. As esoteric as it sounds, this theme defines Papuwa-Kun more fully than any other aspect of its design. The shadows it casts are long and touch places one might not immediately expect them to touch.
As an example, let’s consider the narrative premise in fuller detail. As we start the game, a text crawl provides us a glimpse into the daily life on this island that now serves as the text’s backdrop. We begin with a child who, lacking any parents, lives a solitary life in the island’s jungle. Such a life doesn’t bring out his animalistic nature or rob him of childhood innocence, but serves to bolster that very innocence. Indeed, nature figures very positively for Papuwa-Kun. Not as a motherly figure who nurtures this child – the lack of anthropomorphization precludes this. Instead, the child’s being able to live on his own at all harkens back to our earlier description of nature as a harmonious system. By protecting the child and providing for all his basic needs, the natural world allows him to explore his own nature unfettered, revealing, if not an inherent goodness, then at least an innocence to his childhood condition.
Whether or not it’s willing to admit it, Papuwa-Kun is reluctant about refuting this characterization. Even when conflict enters the story, the game takse subtle measures to distance that conflict from nature. The statue may have been found in the ocean, but the ocean itself isn’t responsible for delivering this corrupting force to the islands. It’s the vicissitudes of fate that interrupt this idyllic life.
Likewise, the game’s play style often creates new avenues by which Papuwa-Kun might express these ideas – not that it was intended to do so. Summarizing the game’s basic intricacies is a fairly easy task. On a purely ludic level, Papuwa-Kun is about the pursuit of a single well defined goal – a goal so well defined and communicated to the player so plainly as to eliminate any possibility of ambiguity. We see that clarity in the world map, which not only provides a coherent model by which to organize level, but also grounds that model in the linear progress toward that goal. And we see that clarity in the levels themselves. Despite the wide variety of events that can happen within a given level, there’s a firm degree of consistency regarding both the ultimate goal within that level and one’s methods of achieving it. Each level is a straight procession from start to finish; from left to right. They’re essentially obstacle courses in which you jump past hazards, beat up enemies, push the occasional block, and collect items that will facilitate these actions.
In other words, if we were to judge Papuwa-Kun purely on its design, we’d have no choice but to regard it as a deeply conservative game. So strict is Papuwa-Kun’s adherence to the Mario model of video game/platformer design that the game never allows itself to wander too far from that model’s precepts. Unlike so many other games, which interpret that model as an end in itself and abandon their individuality in pursuit of that ideal, this conservatism somehow guarantees the game a minimum amount of quality. It’s what allows the game to preserve those parts of the model that arguably work, meaning its consistent ruleset means movement, actions, the physics behind them etc. feel immediately intuitive.
Again, the game doesn’t particularly care about these achievements. Its interest lies strictly in humor and the conditions that will facilitate it. Anything that doesn’t support this vision, the game argues, must be tossed to the wayside – including design philosophies that validate the player through difficult challenges. It’s this idea especially that I wish to highlight. In spite of however Papuwa-Kun might frame itself, it always remains a game about man’s relationship with the natural world. The design it opts for, then, in addition to facilitating comedic moments, invites the player to participate in the same fantasy they read about upon starting the game. Open spaces and sparse use of ludic elements within them, while unable to completely eliminate possible threats, significantly minimize their importance and instill a certain calm in the world. The art style further specifies this calm: with its emphasis on soft shapes and natural greens, blues, browns, etc., Papuwa-Kun dispels any ambiguity as to what allows for this tranquility.
Most interesting of all is Shinator’s relationship with some of the island’s animals. We know that the villain Shintaro fights is villainous in part because he abuses his underlings in his own selfish pursuit of absolute power. By contrast, Papuwa-Kun presents the mutually beneficial cooperation between Shintaro and some of the island’s animals as a main feature of play. At certain points in a level, Shintaro will find himself either unable to advance or only able to do so by inflicting severe harm upon himself. Fortunately, one of his animal friends will offer to help him across. So long as he shows them the proper respect and doesn’t hurt them, they’re more than happy to lend him their help.
Considering the evidence given to us, we can’t say that Shintaro has trained them to do his bidding or that he’s coercing them into aiding him. In fact, there’s no hint of inequality anywhere in their relationship. Although motivations can range from straightforward to comical, every ally he encounters offers their services to him willingly. Where technological forces, with their promises of a false individuation, are ultimately portrayed as destructive, the natural world, in asking us to come together for the greater good, offers a more substantial form of fulfillment.
But then what are we to make of the antagonistic relationship with the island’s other animals? Most if not all of them obliviously wander the island neutral to Shintaro’s existence, yet Papuwa-Kun encourages antagonistic relationships with them regardless. I don’t mean this in the sense that eliminating them is necessary to progress. Although this is true under certain conditions, it’s often easy to ignore them. I instead refer to the game’s levelling system where Shintaro becomes more powerful with every monster he kills. Contradicting the ideas introduced by the friend system, the levelling system suggests that Shintaro can only gain at the direct expense of others.
Papuwa-Kun tries to justify this by explaining the monsters he fights as an outside threat against the island. However, this only creates further problems for the game without solving those it set out to. At best, these monsters he destroys aren’t so much a threat as they are a minor disruption to the regular order (at least from a ludic perspective). Even if they did pose a more substantial threat, this act of drawing a line between us and them deprives the game’s fantasy of the universalism that previously served as its core appeal. What does this leave us with? Particularism? Darwinism? A lapse into rugged individualism?
The game doesn’t have an answer. In fact, it doesn’t care to provide one. This is what I was referring to when I said Papuwa-Kun is unable to overcome its own limits. I didn’t mean this in the sense that the game must absolutely be tonally inconsistent, or that it ceases to function altogether. It still has its humor, and one can still approach the game as a serviceable platformer. Yet the fact remains that Papuwa-Kun’s somewhat narrow focus is incapable of grasping the potential it could otherwise act upon. It doesn’t embrace camaraderie as an aesthetic as thoroughly as Kirby, and it isn’t as poised to handle (basic forms of) moral complexity as EVO: The Search for Eden. If anything, Papuwa-Kun serves as a reminder of how narrow the pursuit of genre as an end in itself can be, even if Papuwa-Kun never engages in such a pursuit itself.