Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy is a nondescript action game developed by SNK. The game was released for the Neo Geo in mid 1994, just as the system and the company responsible for it were hitting their strides. Normally I’d begin something like this by explaining the critical significance of the game in question, but with Top Hunter, the bare historical facts are all I have to work with. The game is a product of trends that can be better (more clearly and more thoroughly) explained through much more well known games. And narrowing our focus to just Top Hunter, we see that what the game occupies an unsatisfying middle ground between not doing any one thing particularly well but not doing anything poorly enough that we can learn from its mistakes. All I’m left to say about the game is that it exists.
Human Entertainment isn’t a name a lot of people know, although they’d certainly be familiar with their creative output. Taking a brief glance at all the games they made reveals a spotty record: they were fond of experimental diorama games (SOS, the Twilight Syndrome games, and most notably of all Clock Tower), but just as many of their games never stray far from their clearly announced genre expectations. In addition, the quality of any given Human Entertainment work is just as various as the kinds of games they worked in.
It should go without saying that Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari-Arm falls into the latter of those two categories. The game shares a lot of important motifs with the Silpheeds and Rendering Ranger R2s and Ranger Xs and Spriggan Powereds of the day: all action-oriented shooters (often modeled after or explicitly based on some popular mech anime) boasting what game technology at the time was capable of. Where Android Assault distinguishes itself is in the sheer emptiness of its own experience. It embodies emptiness; communicates nothing but it. At the surface, the game searches for a direction it will never find, and beneath the surface, it makes itself a non-being through which the player might forget their own emptiness.
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.
Video games about the past (like Fire Emblem: Awakening and Final Fantasy IX) must always have an ambivalent relationship with that past. We like to envision these games as love letters: as passionate yet somehow impartial reflections on what made their predecessors great and unique. Such a limiting view fails to understand these games as the autonomous works they hope to honor. Their very existence is a statement, telling us what’s worth remembering about a set of games and what specific aspects were and weren’t important in forming those games’ identity. What’s more, that statement can exceed a simple recitation of love. Sonic Generations, for instance, combines old and new Sonic to show what the two can learn from each other.
But the game I want to talk about today is Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millennium. Originally released toward the end of 1993, Phantasy Star IV sought to wrap up a story that had spanned seven games in six years. And to that end, the game compiles as many nods and allusions to those games as it possibly can. Yet to look at this game only as a celebration of its past would be constricting and perhaps a little ahistorical. Instead, it’s better to look at the game as a reflection on the past. It reveres its predecessors’ accomplishments, yet brings its own humanistic focus to the table to advance those accomplishments in its own way.
Before I go any further,it would be wise to stop and consider what kind of past the game envisions. As easy as it would be to catalogue all the minor references Phantasy Star IV makes to previous games (like the shortcake or the utterly worthless nod to Phantasy Star III), I’m not sure how valuable that exercise would be. Phantasy Star’s strengths never resided with its constituent parts or even how it played with generic convention, but with the stories it told through them. A keen political awareness, and willful characters who reject an oppressive status quo to set the world right.
Looking at Phantasy Star IV through that lens, we see that while it doesn’t completely fit that mold, the game operates on a clear enough understanding of the series to justify breaking away from it. The story begins with bounty hunters Chaz Ashley and Alys Brangwin recruiting comrades in their fight against the evil wizard Zio. They slowly find themselves enveloped in a larger conflict, one that eventually culminates in a fight to save the slowly dying world of Motavia. Judging the game solely by that description, it’s hard to tease out a political dimension similar to its predecessors. The closest I could find were the game’s thoughts on science and religion, but Phantasy Star IV looks at them more along philosophical lines than political ones.
More specifically, the game looks at these topics along much welcome Nietzschean lines of thought. Each beat in the story feels like a carefully orchestrated movement through his major ideas, whether that’s the insufficiency of value systems (science, religion) in one moment or the detached, every changing nature of life in the next. It’s a comprehensive and well realized reading of those ideas, but what makes this such a smart pairing is the reverence the two hold for the the individual. On the one hand, Nietzsche’s love of the individual fits snugly with themes the series had been developing for years; it’s easy to imagine Alis Landale, Rolf, and now Chaz Ashley as Übermenschen asserting their own ideals on the world.
And on the other hand, introducing Nietzschean thought allows Phantasy Star IV to advance past its legacy, realizing a fascination with character that previous games didn’t. That’s not to say heroes like Alis and Rolf were poorly developed characters; just that the writing envisions them as tools above all else. Compelling tools, yes, but still tools whom we don’t understand well outside their narrative roles. For example, what kind of relationship did Alis have with her brother Nero? The kind where his death sets her quest to overtake the violent dictator Lassic. And while Phantasy Star II begins on Rolf describing a recurring nightmare of his, that detail (and the personal focus that comes with it) vanishes as the game moves into larger conspiracies.
I won’t deny that Phantasy Star IV views its characters as narrative tools, as well. In fact, most of the characters are best understood as allusions to previous Phantasy Star heroes. However, the game clearly wants to see them as more than that. That’s why it leans more heavily into a manga style of presentation that brings the characters’ emotions to the surface, and why the writing devotes so much space to their personal details. We get a clearer sense of what defines these characters as people and what they value in life, whether that’s the pseudo-filial relationship Chaz shares with Alys or Kyra’s admiration for Lutz and his legacy. Granted, part of why the game reveals these details to us is because they lend the story a stronger feeling of drama. Some of the story’s most powerful moments deeply challenge the characters on an emotional level, and its personal approach lends their quest a certain level of purpose that other games would definitely envy.
However, a much more important reason for that new approach is a genuine interesting in representing these characters as people. The first step to that end is to represent them as active agents. A difficult task, given that fictional characters begin life as objects their writers might do with as they please. Yet the key to overcoming that challenge is to represent them as active agents; to provide us with the convincing illusion of their autonomy. This is exactly what happens with Phantasy Star IV. Never once did I get the feeling the characters were following a script, even when the game readily provides them with a script. No matter how much they resemble some character from a past game, you don’t see the characters sacrifice themselves to that role. They negotiate it; contemplate it; even transcend it. To provide just a few examples:
- As much as Rune resembles his ancestor Lutz, he’s ambivalent about carrying on his legacy. For most of the story, he finds himself caught between accepting the responsibility that legacy entails and disavowing it so he can follow his own path in life.
- Chaz struggles to find his own value in life (indeed, his own unique identity) after Alys’ death, and initially casts off the role of the hero because he doesn’t want to be a cosmic pawn like Zio. It takes Rune’s guidance to help him find his own value as a hero.
- Nei’s death in Phantasy Star II marks a loss of innocence and illustrates the dark consequences of a future that’s overly reliant on technology. By averting her ancestor’s fate, Rika is able to form a more optimistic outlook on life.
Writing the characters this way is a convenient tactic for the game. Not only does this allow the game to move past and wrap up every thematic issue previous games had explored, but it also allows the characters to lead more meaningful lives.
Which is why I found myself as disappointed with the battles as I was. Despite how closely they can mirror the story’s careful characterization, they bundle along with it a clumsy grasp for meaning. It’s called the Macro system: by chaining characters’ attacks together in a certain way, they combine to form flashier, more powerful attacks. Think of it like the double and triple techs from Chrono Trigger, although Phantasy Star IV did it first.
Anyway, while the Macros are meant to present the characters as something more than a lucky collection of otherwise-unrelated individuals, the story ensures that’s all they’ll ever be. Characters shuffle in and out of the party at such a reliable pace that outside a core group of three or four characters, the game has trouble fostering a true sense of camaraderie between them. This kind of narrative works wonders toward creating a world of uncertainty and constant flux, but it doesn’t do the Macro system any favors. Because you can never rely on anybody to be in your party for too long (certainly not long enough that you’ll want to painstakingly search for whatever Macros they can perform), Phantasy Star IV effectively trains you to see the characters as nothing more than a ragtag bunch of individuals. Worse still is how some of the monsters you fight get more opportunities to work as a team than you ever will.
This doesn’t mean that battles are completely lacking in value. In fact, some of the more plot-important fights are effusive with character, whether that’s the frantic tension that defines the Dark Force fights, the ominous futility one feels when confronting Zio, or just how shaken up the characters are once they lose Alys. Yet it’s important to remember how ancillary Macros are to delivering that mood. In fact, the one time the game allows you to explore the system to its fullest potential feels utterly contrived from a narrative perspective. Why have all your previous allies returned to your side in this final moment? One could say it’s because they felt the gravity of the situation and decided they couldn’t watch from the sidelines anymore. Yet in light of the fact that some of them went off to lead lives of their own (so long ago that they couldn’t have learned what exactly is at stake), it’s more likely they were dragged into the conflict for the sake of gameplay. So the best case scenario for Macros is that they’re squandered potential: while the game can work wonders with them, its best moments lay entirely outside them. And the worst case scenario is that they contradict other parts of the game, denying the personal bonds the narrative works hard to establish.
Maybe this kind of failure is just another part of the game’s legacy. I seem to remember criticizing Phantasy Star III along similar lines. As strange as this is going to sound, that reassures the optimist in me, since it suggests that Phantasy Star IV’s problems aren’t insurmountable. That doesn’t mean we should overlook (read: deny) the problems that hold it back; just that we should make ourselves away of what we want out of the game and how these issues affect it. So while my own enjoyment of Phantasy Star IV can’t completely escape the problems I have with it, the well realized characters and relatively exhaustive story still lend the game considerable worth.
What do we mean when we say that a game is designed well? Too often, that question leads us to look at a game’s design as though it were some machine operating of its own accord. In a situation like that, the role of the critic is just to observe how the gears turn and how rapidly the pistons oscillate. Unfortunately, such an approach ignores the most vital part of the system: the player. Without somebody acting within a game’s design, the machine fails to move. Or, to reverse that statement: by inserting the player back into the machine, we can ask more honest questions about what kind of engagement a particular game fosters.
That is, if it fosters engagement at all. I can think of several games whose design reflects considerable thought and planning on the developer’s part, yet somehow offers no place for the player. This was certainly my experience with the Game Boy version of Adventures of Lolo. When I consider it as an object of study, the game has a lot to offer me. Yet as an actual experience that I’m expected to navigate, Lolo feels empty and shallow, like there’s nothing beneath what the game shows me.
The irony in that last sentence is that the part of the game that resonated with me the most actually was on the surface: its art style. As tempting as it may be to dismiss such an appreciation as superficial, there’s a level of planning to the art that prevents me from doing so. The sharp angular design, fascination with novel shapes, and strong use of color (yes, on the original Game Boy) leave the game hovering somewhere between the bold pop art of the 1950s and attention grabbing commercials from around the same time. So on one level, the art style reflects a certain level of honest on Lolo’s part: it wants to present itself as a toy, and thus chooses an art style that will best connote that.
What catches my attention, though, is what this art says about its own creation. Looking at the final result, it’s clear how much the artists enjoyed themselves as they worked on the game. They wanted to challenge themselves, so time and again, we see them striving to craft visuals that defy simple readings. And from those visuals radiates a confidence that challenges the player viewing the art as much as it did the artists who created it. Lolo won’t accept a player who passively appreciates what’s been given to them; it wants a player who can get involved with the art and lose themselves in their own enjoyment. Paradoxically, Lolo’s cartoony sensibility also lends itself the sort of carefree attitude that a Nintendo puzzle game would thrive on. Whatever the case may be, the process behind creating the art leads to a strong influence on how the player later receives it.
Unfortunately, that same approach is also responsible for the game’s pervading feeling of emptiness. And I specifically mean “game.” What protects the visuals from that emptiness is the fact that I appreciate the game’s art in fundamentally the same way as the artists did: as a viewer. True, the artist can correct their work if something doesn’t look right, but they’re still using the same tools and methods to evaluate their art as the people they’re making it for. Video games, on the other hand, don’t allow their creators that kind of luxury. No creator can be both player and designer simultaneously, because no designer can play their levels as they design them. They have to approach their craft from a different perspective, which means they risk leaving the player out of the process. In other words, the designers could render their intricate efforts meaningless by forgetting how the player is going to fit into them.
Returning to Adventures of Lolo, you get the sense that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say it’s poorly designed; the game’s design stands as one of its better virtues. It’s a “push blocks and solve puzzles to advance” kind of puzzle game in the vein of Mole Mania or (parts of) The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. If pressed to name a distinguishing trait for Lolo, I would quickly point to the purposeful ethos behind each puzzle. There are layers and levels of nuance embedded in enough of the puzzles that I can’t help but admire their design. Yet when I ask what I, the player, am meant to do with all that nuance, my admiration fades away. All I can do with these layers is use them to follow a set of instructions to complete a predetermined sequence. So it shouldn’t be that surprising to hear that playing Lolo feels mundane, rote, and mechanistic; like the player is just a cog in the game’s machine instead of an equal participant. Lolo’s willingness to supply a computer player when the human one exhausts their willpower certainly doesn’t help the game’s case.
What makes Adventures of Lolo feel so blasé? A number of things, excessively simple rules being one of them. Straightforward rules may make the game more enticing to the casual player Lolo is trying to court, but they also ensure that few puzzles will be truly complex enough that the player can enjoy “figuring them out.” (A difficult balance, I know, but one that a variety of other games manage just fine.) Still more of the game’s problems lie with how you relate to the environment. To put it bluntly, it’s a business relationship: your actions have no character beyond their immediate function. They lack both the transformative effect on the world that most Metal Gear Solid games allow and the rubbery cartoon quality that jumping in and out of holes in Mole Mania has. All they can ever be are tools, meaning that all you can ever see in the game are problems waiting to be solved. This in itself does not condemn the game to mediocrity. In light of its other failings, though, this means the game is effectively training you to look away from any redeeming qualities that lay outside the immediate task at hand.
Still, there’s some value in considering potential redeeming qualities the game may have. Perhaps the game’s allure lies in the rhythm and flow to your actions. I know that’s a troublesome argument, and it may not solve all the problems the game faces, but it solves enough to be worth considering. For one, flow can draw out Lolo’s latent focus on skill and give it a stronger meaning. My actions may be the same, yet instead of contextualizing them as some robotic program, I instead approach them like I would playing an instrument: rehearsed, but with some semblance of personal expression. That may be why the game’s flow-heavy moments feel like they come so close to open emotional engagement. The frantic action they expect from you – the mad dash from one step to the other as you race your way to the end of the level – colors the experience with feeling that was previously absent.
The downside to all this is that introducing flow into the game puts Lolo in a precarious position, one that I’m not sure it can maintain. First, comparing the game to playing an instrument presupposes that you know the movements in advance, which would jeopardize Lolo’s status as a puzzle game (a genre that withholds those movements from the player and asks them to figure them out). So either the analogy is flawed or the game is aesthetically conflicted. But putting that aside for a moment, Lolo is expecting a lot of its players if it’s asking them to reason out their actions as they perform them. Challenge in games is fine, although in Lolo’s case, this specific kind of challenge would contradict the “fun and enjoyment for their own sake” tone the rest of the game works so hard to establish. Again we find the game aesthetically conflicted. In any case, Lolo doesn’t lean into flow enough that I’d feel comfortable crediting the game for it.
Ultimately, Adventures of Lolo is a game that can’t decide on its own identity. As knowledgeable as it is about the structure of Lolo games (keep in mind three Lolo games preceded this one), there’s nothing left when you rip away those structures. Maybe this is an indication that HAL exhausted all their ideas for where to take the franchise; maybe it’s an indication that the ludic thread tying all these games together was never that durable in the first place. Whatever the case may be, Lolo’s hollow execution on puzzle game patterns leaves me wanting something more substantial.
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.
If any video game genre is prone to sweeping generalizations, it has to be beat-em-ups. For years, writers have been all too eager to lump these games together and to overstate their similarities. You move right and beat people up; that’s all a beat-em-up can ever offer. Except it isn’t. Sure, a lot of beat-em-ups play conservatively, but the genre has proven far more diverse and experimental than many are willing to give it credit for. For every conventional game like Final Fight, you also have a deceptively conventional one like Streets of Rage 2, or even something like Panzer Bandit.
And then there’s Nekketsu Oyako. Somehow, this obscure title manages to fit all three molds simultaneously. Looking past the “move right and beat people up” aspect of it, it’s clear that the game is at least trying to experiment with the genre. Unfortunately, it doesn’t try hard enough. It’s this incomplete break from generic conventions that ultimately leaves the game at odds with its own design.
The Firemen is a good game. I know how weird it sounds to be so upfront about that, but it needs to be said. Technically speaking, Human Entertainment’s late SNES title is a good game. Unfortunately, that game is in a precarious relationship with its own scenario. The Firemen doesn’t know how to work its theming with gameplay, resulting in some really outlandish moments. While it’s still possible to enjoy the game in spite of those moments, it’s hard to deny the impact they have on the experience.
As much as it might surprise you to hear, I’m not the kind of person who likes hating on games. I find the act stale and tiresome; I really want to find a game that manages to enthrall me. Unfortunately, games like Panic! don’t make that easy. Slotting this game into any genre is difficult, but to summarize, it’s a series of funny skits joined only by button presses. As basic a game as that might sound, the irony is that the game tries to make this mechanic work for both humor and game purposes when it clearly works for neither. Today, it might serve as a warning for careful design: fail to put thought and attention into your design, and this is what awaits you.
Monster World IV is an intriguing game. It bills itself as a 2D platformer, except it doesn’t use the genre’s tropes for the same action-y purposes that its contemporaries did. Rather than going for constant engagement, the game shoots for the exact opposite. Somehow, that plan works. Monster World IV holds the potential to be one of the more relaxing experiences in video games, and to be fair, it reaches that potential quite a bit. Unfortunately, simple enemy AI just as often keeps the game from fully realizing said potential. That doesn’t mean the game is bad; just that it can never quite live up to its own ambitions.