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.
I feel like emotional resolution in games is a critically under-explored topic. By this, I’m referring to the specific kind of resolution you see in Persona 4, where characters are forced to confront deep emotional issues, overcome them, and grow as an individual. I can understand why this topic may be ignored – only a small set of games center social interaction as something with inherent value, and the main character is bettering other people’s lives through their actions – but there are a number of questions such a scenario raises. On what terms does the emotional resolution take place? What does that process look like (is it the same for all people or does it vary from person to person)? What should the result look like? Whose perspective is centered in all of this? These aren’t questions we should be ignoring.
Stella Glow shows us some of the problems that arise by turning a blind eye to these issues. Quietly released for the 3DS last year, Stella Glow is a fairly conservative game from Atlus. It’s a mathematically precise combination of popular anime motifs. More specifically, it borrows the previously described emotional resolution of Persona and Madoka Magica‘s emotionally turbulent young witches. Unfortunately, Atlus’ calculated effort backfires horribly. Despite centering female characters in the story, the game pays no attention to its own gender politics nor how its story (plot, themes, characters) fit into them. While it may approach the topic with good intentions, the results are dismal: female characters end up objectified, stripped of their autonomy and reduced to stereotypes.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how we (the video game community at large) think about our own past. Because any time we do so, we represent that history through the known hits that we’ve cherry picked to a certain degree. I’m certain you’re familiar with them already: Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, etc. Thinking about the history of video games solely through examples like this paints a very neat, very optimistic picture where aesthetic refinement becomes the status quo. Rough games and sort-of-successes are hidden from view. The only games represented in this history are those that advanced the medium in some important and noticeable way, implying that the only experiments worth paying attention to are those which were immediately vindicated as critical or commercial successes.
Over the past five months or so that I’ve played the game, Fire Emblem Fates has proven quite the journey. Even though all three games in this pseudo-trilogy are made up largely of the same parts, each one leaves their own distinctive mark. Birthright, for example, while structurally sound, was nonetheless uneasy about challenging or otherwise experimenting with anything it presented and suffered for it. Then Conquest picked up the mantle, doing more to challenge its story while preserving a lot of its predecessor’s idealism. The result was a richer, far more grounded counterpart to the Hoshidan campaign.
So where does that leave Revelation? Somewhere in between. This may not sound that surprising for a game that expects you to have completed both of the previous Fates (and is impossible to play unless you already own one of them), but it’s honestly the best way I can describe Revelation. For everything the game does to forge its own path, it achieves that by remixing various bits and pieces from the last two games. Unfortunately, such an awkward approach doesn’t work, at least not as well as it could have. Any chances Revelation had to realize its full potential are noticeably reduced by creative decisions that either distract from or drag down the story’s thematic thrust. Some of that potential shines through, but it also casts a long shadow of what the game could have been.
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.