Before I discuss Gomola Speed, I want to revisit a point I explored last week. I have no intention of outright negating what I previously said, but I wish to elaborate on and perhaps qualify it. To summarize, I suggested that we view digital worlds as having a definite existence despite clear and abundant evidence to the contrary because the popular discourse around games has trained us to conceptualize worlds this way.
Training is certainly one of the reasons for this, but another equally valid reason is that we’ve no choice but to approach games in this manner. For as much as we talk about games as being made of rules or code or some other abstract material, we ultimately experience games in a very physical sense. Games are primarily a matter of being, not doing; of relating to virtual bodies as if they were our own and worlds as if we were directly inhabiting them; of feeling things that defy easy quantification but that we immediately recognize through sense experience. Every other aspect of a game is merely a means toward crafting that end. Such is the argument put forth by critics like Brendan Keogh and others applying phenomenology to the field of game studies.
Several months ago, I remember briefly discussing with some people the nature of play and the role it fulfills in video game culture. Despite it being central to our common understanding of games, the term remains undefined. What activities count as play? Does play reside within the space the game sets aside for its players, or within the player’s perception of it? Who do we refer to when we talk about a player? For now, it’s this last question I’m especially interested in, largely because of the common implicit answer many readers would supply it. In spite of whatever ambiguities may surround the term “play”, many of our discussions of play assume these two things: play is something a player does, and the player is almost always the person holding the controller. (For simplicity’s sake, these are the players I’ll refer to as “players” throughout the rest of the article.)
Rollergames is a more confusing, more ambiguous game than it initially lets on. That confusion doesn’t stem from its rendition of beat em up tropes through a roller derby lens. If anything, that’s the easiest part of the game to understand. What’s more difficult to understand is what the game hopes to achieve through that combination. Everything the game does situates itself in this fuzzy space between reality and fantasy, performance and competition, borrowing what it needs from each to realize its unexpectedly appropriate vision. Although the game blends these categories for some other purpose beyond aesthetic pleasure or celebration of the things it remixes (although these are certainly part of what it does), the effects of these creative decisions defy simple judgment.
When it comes to games, my specialty is reviewing older, more obscure games. I’d describe these games as forgotten, but most of them never had a chance to enter the public memory in the first place. Sometimes, this exposes me to games that challenge contemporary understandings of games or that don’t neatly fit into it. Just as often, though, I play a game and it feels immediately familiar even if I’d never played it before.
Enter Moai-Kun, Konami’s puzzle game based on their eponymous sort-of mascot. This might have been the first time I’d played this specific iteration, but the broader game behind Moai-Kun is something I have quite a bit of experience with. Sutte Hakkun, Power Lode Runner, Mole Mania, and to a lesser extent, Adventures of Lolo all belong to this same family of character-driven action games that Moai-Kun is a member of. Needless to say, Moai-Kun is a welcome addition to the family. It brings the same simplistic charm its siblings are known for while still doing just enough on its own to distinguish itself from them every so slightly.
On its face, you wouldn’t think there’s anything notable about Aoi Blink. First impressions would leave you thinking it’s just a platformer based on a somewhat obscure Osamu Tezuka animation. Playing the game would only affirm those thoughts, as it doesn’t offer a challenging experience in any sense of the word. Then again, it was never meant to. What makes Aoi Blink so distinctive among its contemporaries is the fairy tale nostalgia that defines it. In every aspect of its design – its visuals, its layouts, its framing narrative – you’ll find a soothing, easing quality to help you forget your worries for a short amount of time.
Note: For consistency’s sake, I’ll be using the characters’ Japanese names throughout this review.
For everything I liked about Phantasy Star II, I have to admit that characterization wasn’t its strong suit. Only a few of the characters were fleshed out enough to be considered individuals. The rest serve as props for the narrative to use in service of its ideas. Granted, this doesn’t detract from the quality of the story Phantasy Star II wants to tell, but you get the sense that Sega wanted to correct it, anyway. In enter Phantasy Star II Text Adventures, a compilation of side-stories focusing on the heroes of Phantasy Star II. While it was ostensibly made to expand our understanding of the characters, the game’s more notable achievements are expanding on world and mood. Despite the uneven quality from story to story, there’s a meticulous understanding of the Phantasy Star II ethos and how to render it within this new space. What we’re presented with is a dismal world that’s unafraid of uncovering the firmly entrenched problems that plague Motavian society.
The more I think about Valkyrie no Densetsu, the more I realize how little I’m interested in the game itself. That doesn’t mean I disliked the time I spent with the game. In all honesty, I thought it was a very average game: competently built, but very bare and inoffensive with its design. I want to move past surface reactions like that, though, which is why I found myself more engaged analyzing the game than I did playing it. What about the game’s design caused me to feel so mellow about playing it? How does the game’s historical context inform its design? And what happens when the effects of the game’s design meet the context the game was designed in? While these questions don’t change what the game is, their answers reveal more purpose behind the game’s construction than simply playing it ever would.
Given how prevalent cross-platform titles are today, it’s easy to forget just how important individual platforms used to be. Not for their technical specifications, mind you, but because of how each platform asked the player to engage them. They appeared in different environments, appealed to different audiences, and occupied different parts of our lives. So it’s only natural that video games designed for different platforms would reflect these unique circumstances. Games for portable systems, for instance, focused on straightforward systems and small play sessions because they expected the player to engage the game in very short bursts. Meanwhile, PC games appealed to a more technically inclined audience with complex systems that demanded more of the player.
Even within these categories, there remains a degree of fluidity. Or at least that’s the logic Hammerin’ Harry is working on. It’s clear that this early 90s platformer is operating in the arcade tradition, which is why it’s so remarkable to see how the game break from that tradition. For all the game does to capture the feel of arcade games, it refuses to see them as games of skill. In fact, it challenges that notion: rather than look at these games as being about difficulty, Hammerin’ Harry asks that we look at arcade games for novelty above all else. What appears to be a minor change in focus has broad consequences for how the game plays out.
I realize how cliche the next clause is going to sound, but I miss the side scrolling shooters of old. I’m well aware of how little things have changed. The Contras and Terminators of yesterday became the Battlefields and Expendables of today. Yet this doesn’t mean that no change has occurred. Although modern shooters preserve the quick reflex action, they’re still very different creatures than what came before them. At their best, older shooters feel like a haunted house exhibit: a quick ride where all manner of things pop out at you and give you a rush of adrenaline. I doubt that modern shooters, with their focus on hyper-realism, can completely capture that feeling.