As benign as Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo appears at first glance, my experience with it was marked by discomfort. This wasn’t a physical discomfort or even a feeling I could easily articulate. Rather, it was a vague sort of cognitive dissonance. Even as the game hit every mark of what traditionally makes a good video game, its transparently manipulative attitude toward the player kept those marks from meaning anything in my eyes. At the same time, the lack of a clear goal behind the game’s manipulation also made me hesitate to outright dismiss the game like I would any other. The tension never quite resolved itself. In the end, all I could really do was question whether the signs of what a good video game is/does are goals that games should even strive for in the first place.
Blackthorne (or at least this particular incarnation of it) leads an interesting dual existence. As a historical object, the game is a product of Blizzard’s pre-Blizzard days, when the company was still experimenting with any trend they could to find their own voice. They dabbled in comical puzzle games with The Lost Vikings, tried their hand at miniature car racing with Rock’n Roll Racing, and explored contemporary comic book trends with Blackthorne.
But among these games, Blackthorne was special. It really was the first place where you could see Blizzard’s voice beginning to form; not just because the –craft games were still a ways off but also because this was the first game under the Blizzard Entertainment label (the other two games were made under Silicon & Synapse). The GBA version (which I played for this) adds another wrinkle to the story, being part of a series of GBA re-releases of Blizzard’s early games. It acts as both a reflection on how far the company has come and a valuable act of preservation as that same company looks toward the future and bigger and better things.
Before you even start playing the game, Steel Empire begins on a paradox. Its story postures at condemning imperialistic conquest, but by choosing the name Steel Empire, the game centers empire above whatever harm it claims that empire brings about. The further I pushed into the game, the more I saw similar tensions pop up left and right. The narration tells us how humanity fears for its destruction, but the accompanying imagery communicates hope and happiness. Likewise, the game is willing to adorn itself in steampunk details if that means the player will look back on this era through a nostalgic lens, but it’s not quite as willing to engage with the darker implications that era in history suggests. Because the game can’t resolve these tensions or even completely hide them, it falls back on spectacle and impressive technique, hoping either one might distract from its underlying problems.
To be perfectly honest, it’s been years since I’ve even touched an F-Zero game, so in reviewing Maximum Velocity, I find myself at a loss to provide meaningful context. In fact, it’s entirely possible the game is merely iterating on themes and concepts that players would have been familiar with by this point in the series’ history. But this hasn’t been a problem for me. My experiences with Maximum Velocity provided a breath of fresh air, not only because this was the first F-Zero game I’d played in years, but also the downright inspiring vision of the future the game has to offer. Unfortunately, it’s not a vision the game’s entirely able to commit to. Its emphasis on inter-racer conflict presents an alternate perspective on the future: one that runs counter to the otherwise optimistic tone, and one that Maximum Velocity never entirely overcomes.
Sometimes while writing video game reviews, I find myself wondering if I’m looking at a game too heavily as a cultural artifact. As valuable as such analysis may be, it risks pushing aside that game’s unique qualities in favor of whatever forces I think the game represents. In other words, I risk failing to describe what the game actually is. But with something like Iridion 3D it becomes difficult not to discuss the game’s status as a cultural artifact. No matter how much I try to separate the game’s context from its composition, that context is so overpowering, so manifest in every facet of the game’s design, that evaluating the game without it becomes impossible.
Ever since last week’s Jet Set Radio blog, I’ve found myself thinking about some of the questions that game raises. Questions like, “How is music a liberating force?” and “How does music help us realize some aspect of ourselves we’d otherwise be ignorant to?” These may be tangential to what the game does, but I still think they’re worth consideration. Fortunately, Rhythm Tengoku recently afforded me an opportunity to explore those questions in greater depth. Unfortunately, the game’s only able to broach such topics by getting them wrong. As much as it wants you to believe its inspirational messages about achieving your true potential, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, Rhythm Tengoku represents not the realization of the self, but the suppression and pacification of it.
I don’t know how helpful the following words will be, but I feel the need to say them, anyway: we need to look at games as unified wholes. Not just when analyzing them, but when creating them, too. No single part of a game exists in isolation. It both affects and is affected by every other part of the game surrounding it. We can see what this means for a game by looking at one that fails to realize this: Lady Sia. On first glance, it looks like an unremarkable platformer, but that’s only because it is. Despite its relative simplicity, pieces of the game feel like they were thrown randomly together with no thought given as to how they’ll relate to one another. This results in an experience that lacks purpose, direction, or even any discernible character.
When talking about games, I often hear either narrative or mechanics held up as the end-all, be-all of a good video game. Like a game only needs strong mechanics or a strong narrative for it to be good. However, my time with Advance Guardian Heroes serves as a good argument against such notions. It’s a beat-em-up whose combat mechanics show a surprising amount of depth. Unfortunately, because the game’s scenarios don’t require that you actually use any of that depth, it’s all for naught. The game just succumbs to the same problems that other beat-em-ups before it have suffered. In other words, it’s a repetitive, bloated slog of an experience.