As a game critic, I’m generally more interested in failures than I am in successes. This doesn’t mean I seek out games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions, whose failures derive from a thorough dishonesty about what they are; or Lucky Me, Lucky You, where the cause is a lack of self-awareness (not to mention the language it uses). What I look for are the games that strive for some sort of goal but fall well short of achieving it, because it’s in that falling short that they’re most expressive of their own identity. The mistakes these games make are proof that they’re the result of real human effort and not simply the output of a mathematical formula engineered to produce conventionally good games.
Moreover, they provide us a means of pushing back against the standards that lead us into such formulas. True, the game itself may never realize this, but its foibles show how easily those standards break down; how open they are to being questioned. They lay the groundwork for alternative aesthetics that designers can elaborate upon.
As far as shooters go Accele Brid is about as average as they come. Were you to judge the game on its mechanical composition, you’d probably liken it to a hit song: predictable, straightforward, noticeably engineered, not particularly impressive or ambitious, but at the very least competent enough to hold your attention for a short bit. Yet games are more than just the rules they make you follow. Even in games that seemingly center around the activities you’re asked to perform (a lot of action games and some RPGs fall under this banner), other factors like theme and aesthetic are there dictating what relationship you have with the game and whatever actions/mindsets emerge as a result of that relationship. In cases like Accele Brid, for example, that relationship can come to define your entire experience with the game. Its novel use of dynamic pseudo-3D backdrops is the source of its greatest ambitions and its greatest follies.
If I were to ask you how video games and education relate to one another, you’d probably respond with edutainment games (games made specifically to educate) or video games that just so happen to teach their players something new about the world (Assassin’s Creed and history, Xenosaga and philosophy, etc.). Few of you would respond with what games have to say about educational systems in general, and it’s easy to understand why: that kind of direct subject matter doesn’t easily translate into an interesting game. Yet it’s not completely unexplored territory. In fact, an abundance of games already comment on education, from Persona’s optimism to Yuuyami Doori Tankentai’s pessimism.
And then you have games that are completely in the middle, like Kingyo Chuuihou! Tobidase! Game Gakuen. From the outset, it’s obvious that this unheard of Jaleco party game wants to portray an idealistic vision of school life, but all throughout, that vision finds itself at odds with the game’s own design. While that design holds a lot of potential to deliver incisive critiques of educational systems, that potential’s never allowed to flower. What we’re left with is a conflicted, unsatisfying game.
If there’s anything more disheartening than playing a bad game, it’s playing a game with the potential to be a good one. Bad games are straightforward; they are what they are. But a game with unfulfilled potential conjures up feelings of sadness and frustration. It hints at a greatness that could have been, but for one reason or another, that greatness forever lies just outside of its reach. All of this is what comes to mind when I think of Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy. The second entry in Konami’s well-known series of wacky shooters, Non-Sense Fantasy has a fantastic understanding of silly absurdist humor, and it comes so very, very close to realizing it. Unfortunately, its reliance on classic Konami shooter design philosophies prevents it from lampooning shooter convention where it matters the most. So while the rest of the game has no problem presenting itself as the ridiculous spectacle it wants to be, the gameplay sticks out like a huge pimple on an otherwise blemish-free face.
As the small handful of you who regularly read these blogs should know by now, I’ve developed a fascination with realistic games. I don’t mean the kind of AAA realism that renders heroic fantasies through a hyperrealistic lens, but the kind of realism that sees everyday life as valuable in its own right. Yet this realism alone isn’t enough to win me over. The most interesting games don’t just accept their realism and call it a day (how shallow an experience would that be?), but push further to make some meaningful commentary through it. Ihatovo Monogatari caught my interest because of what it had to say about the warmth of community life, just as Yuuyami Doori Tankentai explored the crushing isolation one feels when they’re denied that warmth.
This would explain why Gokinjo Boukentai feels so lacking: because while it may share that fascination with the real, it lacks any structure to give that fascination meaning. So despite whatever charm its world may hold, that lack of any meaningful structure gives the game no choice but to confuse simplicity for relatable childhood charm.
I find it surprising that Konami had to be the company to make a shooter like TwinBee. The genre has always valued skill and the steady process of gathering power above all else, and Konami’s games reflected that better than anybody else. Yet here’s a game whose most prominent feature (bouncing bells to change what weapons you get) encourages a balance between that kind of serious-minded work and a simplistic fun that eschews it altogether. What’s more, that formula proved popular enough to spawn not only a franchise, but also an entire sub-genre of shooters.
For all the criticism I’ve read concerning how we define and categorize games, I still our current genre definitions are useful to have. Not because they’re particularly good definitions (that’s a separate issue altogether), but because the industry has behaved as though that’s already the case. It’s that belief that an FPS or an action game has to have these specific features to qualify as such that developers have created such heavily codified bodies of work. These have proved to be important starting points for less experienced developers who not only wish to understand how these devices function, but also to tinker around with their own ideas.
What happens when you lack a clear understanding of genre? You end up with something like Xardion. Although the game knows what an action game should look like, it barely has an understanding of why they’re supposed to look like that. So it lacks the genre’s most compelling traits, leaving us with a hollow reproduction of action game tropes.
Several months ago, I reviewed an odd little game called The Firemen. By no means is it a bad game, but its overabundance of silly moments make it hard to take the firefighting premise seriously. Fortunately, that’s a problem that Jaleco’s The Ignition Factor doesn’t encounter. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing it has going for it. Despite taking a more realistic look at firefighting than its predecessor, the game fails to use that realism to meaningful effect. It doesn’t challenge you with difficult questions, or craft compelling game scenarios, or even take a real stance on its subject matter. The Ignition Factor is content merely to exist.
Video games could use more smaller experience. I don’t mean that they need shorter games, although that wouldn’t hurt. And I don’t mean that they need more indie developers working on smaller projects; that scene is handling itself fine as it is. Rather, I wouldn’t mind seeing more games that concentrate on the minutiae of ordinary life. There’s value to be had in that. There are stories worth telling, and ideas worth exploring that games with a larger scope might not be able to handle.
These are the thoughts that come to mind as I write about Ihatovo Monogatari, the obscure SNES retelling of Kenji Miyazawa’s stories. (Miyazawa himself even makes a guest appearance toward the end of the game.) Ihatovo is by no means a big game. It’s basically nine loosely collected tales joined together by the hero’s search to complete a set of seven notebooks. Yet this loose set-up is precisely what allows the game to work its magic. Ihatovo hones in on the warm and sentimental feeling of life in a tightly knight community. Every fiber of its being is focused on drawing you into that community, explaining why it’s able to do so so well.
Recently, I’ve been feeling that some of my writing has edged too far into cynicism. While I stand by everything I write, I think that my pieces on games like Valis, Rockman & Forte, and Holy Diver iterate the same points without really adding anything to the conversation. Call it bad luck, call it a personal problem, or call it something else. I just want it to change.