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.
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.
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.
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.