When I first saw screenshots of American Battle Dome, I thought it to be a minor Warlords variant whose own history begins and ends with its release. Researching and playing the game proved otherwise. Far from being a stand-alone title, the game is just one instance of a larger brand of Battle Dome toys. And rather than use an 80s arcade game as the foundation for its own design, American Battle Dome is better described as a competitive pinball game. Four players share the same table and simultaneously compete for the highest score. The exact method varies from table to table, but generally it always involves launching a flurry of balls across the table in the hopes that it hits a score-giving object (monsters, UFOs, fairies, etc.).
In other words, American Battle Dome is just one instance of the larger game of pinball. This imposes certain limitations on how we can approach the game critically. Any commentary we render can only apply to the game insofar as it applies to the larger family of games it belongs to. Yet if pinball limits our ability to comment on American Battle Dome, then the latter expands our understanding of the former by creating opportunities that might not exist otherwise. After all, video games can easily do things that would be very difficult for physical pinball to replicate, something this game is quick to take advantage of. American Battle Dome is replete with imaginative expansions on how pinball works, and although it wasn’t the game’s intention, those expansions illuminate several histories/aspects of pinball as a whole.
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.
There are certain operating assumptions that writers and enthusiasts alike make when discussing games based on licensed properties. Most can be summed up through the following formula: the game’s identity initially comes to us through an abstract ideal that exists outside what the game actually does. In the situation we’re describing, that ideal is usually either the brand the game is based on or some idea of what games in general should be. From here, it’s simply a matter of how well a given game adheres to this standard. Unfortunately contradictions become inevitable and we’re already primed to see the game as a mere simulacrum of some higher quality original. Hence the negative reputation licensed games have garnered.
There is a grain of truth in this line of reasoning. Many of these games made that discourse relevant to themselves: because they were made for mass market consumption, they had to fit a certain model of what a game/tie-in product should be, regardless of whether the source material would support it.
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.