Before the game proper even begins, Splatoon greets you with an image of a young person’s room. The small details adoring this room – part trendy, part comfortable, but mostly mundane – should be familiar to many of the game’s young players: a squid-themed iPhone; a desk with a laptop on it, maybe with a can of soda off to the side; posters and stickers from popular music or fashion brands adorning the walls; shelves with various books and collectibles populating their surfaces.
From what little I can find about this game, Battle Golfer Yui is frequently presented as a kusoge. You know, the sort of clunky, just-plain-bad video game that’s better enjoyed being made fun of than it is being played; the sort of game that only learn about through a retsupurae video or in some other context that asks you to accept it as not good and then proceed from there. Trusted in the wrong hands, the label can end up either being spiteful, since we’re laughing at the expense of what could have been a genuine effort on the developers’ part; conservative, since it interprets anything operating outside the video game community’s standards as failing those standards and thus worthy of derision; or even both.
With Battle Golfer Yui, though, I don’t get the sense that any of this will ever be a problem. In fact, it’s one of those few games that embraces its role as a kusoge. It’s an over the top performance of media conventions with little to nothing to ground them in. Its premise and characters don’t make any sense; the story bombards you with plot developments so quickly that you have even less of an understanding of the situation than you did before; and the game isn’t above robbing itself of whatever dramatic weight it has. The opponent AI will often choose a ridiculous option that will only hurt its standing, and the final matches against the story’s villains – the best of the best – see them flubbing every shot they make! In short, Battle Golfer Yui flips the script on you, laughing at your futile attempts to take it seriously.
For many video games, it’s possible (albeit to varying degrees of difficulty) for a critic to separate whatever legacy a game has accrued from discussion of their personal experience with that game or their analysis of the nuances and implications of what it expresses. ICO, I feel, is the rare exception to that rule. It’s impossible to ignore this game’s legacy. As one of the first commercial video games that writers hailed as art, any commentary made of the game is going to intersect with this narrative, consciously or not. So rather than ignore this, it would be best to put off any analysis of ICO for now and explore the idea of “video games as art.” This way, we’ll better understand both the idea itself and its relationship with ICO.
The first thing you’re likely to notice about Socket’s title screen is probably going to be the background. A mosaic of warped clocks Salvador Dali style, it’s clear that the artists are communicating a basic time travel motif. However, anything beyond this fact refuses to make itself known. We can’t know how time travel will inform the game to follow because those facts aren’t apparent and the game refuses to offer any kind of explanation. Instead, it continues bombarding us with symbols that refuse to connect: a duck, an electrical outlet, the title itself (Time Dominator 1st in Japan), etc. What we end up with is a chaotic soup of imagery, one that disorients us and frustrates any attempt to make sense of all this noise.
When you’re in a long distance relationship with another person, how do you maintain that relationship? How can you be sure the other person feels what you think they feel for you? Can their words be enough, or will they always leave something to be desired? And who exactly do you have a relationship with? Does the other person only exist as an idea in your mind, or are they something more than that? Would things be any different if the two of you met face to face? Perhaps most important of all, does any of this even matter?
Blackthorne (or at least this particular incarnation of it) leads an interesting dual existence. As a historical object, the game is a product of Blizzard’s pre-Blizzard days, when the company was still experimenting with any trend they could to find their own voice. They dabbled in comical puzzle games with The Lost Vikings, tried their hand at miniature car racing with Rock’n Roll Racing, and explored contemporary comic book trends with Blackthorne.
But among these games, Blackthorne was special. It really was the first place where you could see Blizzard’s voice beginning to form; not just because the –craft games were still a ways off but also because this was the first game under the Blizzard Entertainment label (the other two games were made under Silicon & Synapse). The GBA version (which I played for this) adds another wrinkle to the story, being part of a series of GBA re-releases of Blizzard’s early games. It acts as both a reflection on how far the company has come and a valuable act of preservation as that same company looks toward the future and bigger and better things.
Mario Kart 8 is best described as one huge discrepancy. I know what the game’s appeal is supposed to be (or at least I can guess based on its marketing, its brand, the fan discourse surrounding it, etc.), but I don’t see any of that reflected in the game itself. What I see is a soulless shell of a game; something ready to lop off even the slightest hint of personality that it might better fit the mold of a theoretically perfect game. Moreover, it asks something very similar from its players, telling them that they can find the perfection they seek by abandoning themselves to the digital experience. The fact that Mario Kart 8 was able to pass as an obviously good game for a lot of people says more about the culture that video games have created than it says about this specific game’s merits and faults.
Running in video games is a concept that’s dense with meaning. There’s the idea of running away from something, wherein your assailant controls and limits your world by binding you to a troubling situation. But outside horror games where the point is to evoke that specific mood, this isn’t a motif games are all that interested in emphasizing. A far more common depiction is running as a liberating force. Here, it’s presented both as a claim of ownership over one’s self and an act of power against a world that might encroach on that self. It’s saying to the world, “I refuse to accept whatever limits you’re trying to place on me.” Hence its popularity in a number of games, like endless runners, the Bit.Trip games, Mirror’s Edge, Sega’s movement-oriented games, Runbow, etc.
I’m not going to discuss why freedom and running are so tied together, why games invoke both so often, or even whether that logic makes sense as applied to video games. These topics are all worth digging into, but that would be beyond the scope of what I can achieve here. Rather, I want to discuss how these ideas manifest in one particular game: Buffers Evolution, a small WonderSwan game released early in the system’s life. On the surface, its mechanically focused, fun-for-fun’s-sake approach to game design appears to prefigure the rise of indie games in the late 2000s. However, I’m not comfortable reducing the game to that level. What I see in Buffers is a deeply personal interpretation of running; one that enables people to challenge the world they inhabit and to find value in themselves, even if only a little bit.
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.
Taking a casual glance at the media landscape, it’s clear that remixing plays a significant role in modern culture. A lot of entertainment today either remixes earlier pieces of pop culture, like vaporwave or YouTube Poops, or presents itself as material for the audience to remix at their leisure, like anime. Even the way we communicate online directly lifts from the media we consume to give it new meaning, whether that’s through GIFs, reaction videos, or anything in between.
However, if these examples are anything to go by, remixing (or at least its prevalence) is a rather new phenomenon, historically speaking. True, mass media has inundated daily life since at least the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the advent of the computer in the 1990s that the average person had the tools they’d need to create remixes of their own. Obviously, it wouldn’t be until some time after this that remixing would become what it is today. So how is it a game like Silpheed feels right at home alongside modern remixes even though it has nothing to do with them? Despite coming out in 1993, just as the building blocks for modern remix culture were being put in place, Silpheed somehow manages to prefigure where that culture would go completely by accident.