When you think about it, Nier‘s message is one that runs counter to what many other video games propose. As Becky Davnall elaborates on here, mainstream conceptions of realism (materialism/naturalism, as she terms it) in games go hand in hand with our ability to affect change in and exert power over the worlds presented to us. This is why, for example, the same space that prizes hyper-realistic blockbuster games like Half-Life 2 will also shun more reflective games like Dear Esther: because while both games present very similar types of realism (they run on the same engine, after all), only the former allows the player to actually do anything with it.
Note: Because this blog ended up far longer than I’d initially anticipated, I’ve chosen to split it into two parts.
Upon starting Nier, we’re greeted with a litany of premises that would be instantly familiar to avid game enthusiasts, both when the game was initially released and playing it today. The camera slowly lingers on a world struck by some apocalyptic event, although what that event was isn’t immediately clear. Time continues to advance, but the human world appears frozen in time. Snow falls upon buildings that somehow look both pristine and destroyed, almost like a graveyard that hasn’t been tended to in ages. The lack of human characters in these early scenes further contributes to the desolation we feel while also adding an air of somber loneliness to the mix.
Generally speaking, it’s not often that licensed video games are seen as deserving critical scrutiny in their own right. Why should they be? If they’re not already the object of nostalgic fervor, then it’s easy to dismiss them as the failed products of much larger forces like merchandising and transmedia strategies which are themselves worthy of serious critical analysis. And at first glance, SD Gundam: Operation U.C. seems to fit that bill. Released on the WonderSwan Color in late 2002 (right around the time Gundam SEED first started airing), the Gundam franchise had already seen nine television series, eighteen movies, countless games, OVAs, and every other form of merchandising. This isn’t even considering the bevy of fan produced material since the series’ 1979 inception. In light of all this information (along with the first half of the game’s title being SD Gundam), Operation U.C. looks more like a minor embodiment of the success the Gundam franchise had garnered by this point than it does an artistic endeavor in its own right.
Like many of the games I write about on this blog, Ai Senshi Nicol doesn’t neatly map to conventional ideas of what a good or bad video game is. What’s more, the game’s failure to slot into either of those categories is more the result of a mismanaged execution on those conventions than it is a purposeful break from them. While this would normally be cause for celebration, I remain hesitant in Ai Senshi Nicol’s case. The game isn’t Decap Attack; it’s not an anarchic mishmash of elements that flagrantly break the rules of good game design. Ai Senshi Nicol wants to follow those rules, and to that end, it exhibits a certain level of polish. Characters tend to be round and non-threatening; music is composed of easily understood melodies; and play is relatively skill-based, focusing on things like pattern recognition and acquisition of power.
Were I to judge the game only as a series of systems for the player to navigate, I’d likely describe it as a conservative yet competent addition to Konami’s long line of shooting games. But this strikes as a somewhat narrow view. Expanding that view, I find a game that tries to parody contemporary action movie conventions, is equipped to do just that, but for whatever reason, never quite accomplishes its goal. Where there should be harmony between the energetic crossfire you’re expected to navigate and the levels’ humorous nature, there’s instead a weak conflict that the game isn’t entirely able to resolve. And because of how strongly Ai Senshi Nicol pursues aesthetic refinement, it’s not in a position to embrace these blemishes, either. All it can do is uncomfortably hang in that space we call “average”, unable and unwilling to claim ownership of itself.
When I first started playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I ascribed all the problems I kept finding to “design by textbook syndrome.” By that, I mean the game is so focused on replicating the principles you’d learn about in a game design course right down to the letter that it never considers what it’s actually going to do with them. Hence you end up with a game that looks technically impressive, yet ultimately has very little to say. As accurate as these assumptions were, I eventually realized that they don’t sufficiently explain the thought processes the game does operate on, accidentally or not. After all, if Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse can somehow execute good game design principles without being a good game, shouldn’t that make us wonder what we think good game design means in the first place? Once I took these points into consideration, I arrived at a satisfying answer to what it was about the game that I didn’t like. Peel away all the flash and spectacle, and you find a game that not only trains us to participate in capitalist systems, but also to enjoy our participation in them.
The early Phantasy Star series had a complicated history when it came to their non-numbered games. When Sega deemed a Phantasy Star project important enough to become part of the main story, they were capable of making thoughtful games with readily identifiable voices and a deep thematic base. Move to the peripheries of the Phantasy Star canon, however, and this guarantee becomes much spottier. Sometimes, you get games like Text Adventures, which meaningfully complement the source material while putting forth their own views on the world. But you’re equally likely to get something like Phantasy Star Adventure, a game that rehashes very basic sci-fi fantasy conventions because it has nothing to say with them.
And as is the case with Phantasy Star Gaiden (the last game in the Complete Collection), you end up with generic games that stumble into sufficiently deep thematic material completely by accident. On the surface, the game appears to eschew the dark futuristic trappings of its peers in favor of something grand and heroic; more like Dragon Quest. Yet’s it precisely because of how adamantly the game clings to these traditions that it’s able to create an experience that’s out of line with what those traditions might suggest. Despite Gaiden’s fantasy trappings, the world it presents us with is bleak, mundane, and almost entirely lacking in heroism.
When Ray Tracers was initially released, critics were less than excited with what the game had to offer. Jeff Gerstmann, writing for GameSpot, said of it, “While Ray Tracers is a pretty neat game, it’s way too easy and far too short to purchase. Rent this one, finish it, and forget it ever existed.” I’m inclined to believe other reviews at the time read similarly. Yet given how mainstream game criticism at the time treated games as products to be tested and reported on rather than as artistic statements to be interpreted and evaluated, I’m reluctant to accept whatever conclusions critics at the time came to.
To be perfectly honest, it’s been years since I’ve even touched an F-Zero game, so in reviewing Maximum Velocity, I find myself at a loss to provide meaningful context. In fact, it’s entirely possible the game is merely iterating on themes and concepts that players would have been familiar with by this point in the series’ history. But this hasn’t been a problem for me. My experiences with Maximum Velocity provided a breath of fresh air, not only because this was the first F-Zero game I’d played in years, but also the downright inspiring vision of the future the game has to offer. Unfortunately, it’s not a vision the game’s entirely able to commit to. Its emphasis on inter-racer conflict presents an alternate perspective on the future: one that runs counter to the otherwise optimistic tone, and one that Maximum Velocity never entirely overcomes.
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.
Something I’ve found myself interested in recently (recently meaning “since I started writing this article”) is the variety of ways one can approach difficulty in games. For one, there’s the many ways difficulty can manifest in a game. Even in a single video game, the multitude of ways you’re expected to interact with the world around you translate into a multitude of difficulties a developer can modify at any given time (EG Silent Hill scaling combat and puzzle difficulties separately). However, what’s captured my interest more is the variety of purposes difficulty can serve players. Even something specific like masocore games demonstrates that variety.