As we watch the attract mode play out before us, we see our ninja hero face off against a horde of gunmen on a speeding train. Try as they might, his enemies can never touch him. They have him cornered, but try as they might, his enemies can never touch him. His movements are deliberate; he weaves himself between their bullets with grace and ease. What we’re shown is a man of raw power impeccable control, and an implicit promise that both are available to us should we decide to step in his shoes.
What we see next undermines that promise. Our actors (literal actors now) are no longer the symbols of power and control they once seemed to us. They’re pathetic, almost comical. The ninja’s once formidable opponents can only take a few steps before their bodies collapse and die with no apparent cause. Are these the same opponents that gave him so much trouble before? What prowess can our protagonist have if the greatest threat he faces can be toppled so easily? Why would the game subvert its own image by introducing these tensions it refuses to resolve?
Asmik-Kun is many things; all of them simple. He’s a child, a creature, a cipher through which the player accesses the game. Most of all, he’s a character defined entirely through his animal desires. Whatever he looks upon, he interprets through the lens of his childlike naivete. Assuming his mind hasn’t wandered toward the crayon doodles one would find in the margins of a notebook, his fixation on eating transforms the landscape into a delicious meal: fried egg sunsets, tomato clouds, salmon bushes, etc.
What’s especially interesting is how play makes the player complicit in this transformation, as a significant feature of play is turning monsters into eggs that you then collect. In theory, there is a larger motivation for this – something about waking the Dragon God – but it’s implied the joy of performing the act itself takes greater precedence. In the end, Asmik-Kun remains a flat, very basic character.
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.
Before I get into the matter of discussing Griffin specifically, I want to acknowledge that the ideas I’m going to discuss here are ones I’ve already discussed to death. In fact, I had my writing on SD Gundam and Steel Empire on my mind (for reasons I hope will soon become clear) while I was taking notes on Griffin. If pressed for reasons why I return to these ideas so frequently, I’d say it’s because they’ve been so incredibly common in games for decades, especially games with military shooting and a heavy emphasis on shooting. But to apply this to Griffin more specifically, there isn’t much else to discuss about the game. A minor shooter released early in the Game Gear’s life, the game is bland, conventional, conservative, etc. It’s an empty signifier; something that makes more sense as a collection of techniques and popular trends than it does as an expression of somebody’s thoughts on the world.
Yet it’s for those very reasons the game is worth looking at in the first place. It may be easier to pick apart contemporary trends in the game industry when the game you’re analyzing is small enough that it follows those trends to the letter, rather than large enough to dictate what direction those trends go in. And by definition, conventional games will play right into the status quo (whatever that may be). This is especially the case with a game as empty as Griffin. Stuck halfway between admiring its own combat and calmly accepting its existence, it never occurs to the game to question its own premises or to think outside them, and the game languishes for it.
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.
Note: For consistency’s sake, I’ll be using the characters’ Japanese names throughout this review.
For everything I liked about Phantasy Star II, I have to admit that characterization wasn’t its strong suit. Only a few of the characters were fleshed out enough to be considered individuals. The rest serve as props for the narrative to use in service of its ideas. Granted, this doesn’t detract from the quality of the story Phantasy Star II wants to tell, but you get the sense that Sega wanted to correct it, anyway. In enter Phantasy Star II Text Adventures, a compilation of side-stories focusing on the heroes of Phantasy Star II. While it was ostensibly made to expand our understanding of the characters, the game’s more notable achievements are expanding on world and mood. Despite the uneven quality from story to story, there’s a meticulous understanding of the Phantasy Star II ethos and how to render it within this new space. What we’re presented with is a dismal world that’s unafraid of uncovering the firmly entrenched problems that plague Motavian society.
If you’ve read this blog for a while now, then you’ll know just how much I contextualize the games I play. However, part of me thinks I should relent on that a little. I’m either not giving these games enough room to breathe or I’m tying them down in such a way that it becomes incredibly difficult to appreciate them on their own. Besides, my mind says, some of my best writing for this blog was free of contextualization: Jet Set Radio and Rhythm Tengoku, for example. But then I remember all the good writing I’ve put out that bathes in its context: Narcissu: Side 2nd and Yuu Maze. So far from being a stifling approach to games, contextualization may be one of my more valuable tools for exploring games. In fact, some games would be harder to appreciate without it. As you’ve probably guessed, this applies to Tail ‘Gator, the obscure Game Boy game I’ve chosen to cover this week. Without context, the game wouldn’t leave me much to talk about. But with it, I can see the game as a subtle yet extensive contrast to the Bubble Bobble formula.
How is it that game developers consistently release their best material toward the end of a console’s life cycle? “Experience” isn’t a satisfactory explanation, since in addition to pushing technical limits, these games tend to be more experimental than anything preceding them. Conker’s Bad Fur Day deconstructed the mascot platformer genre, and Panzer Dragoon Saga gave a rail shooter all the breadth of an RPG. And then there’s Metal Slader Glory, one of the more ambitious titles to appear on the NES. I have to admit that what Metal Slader Glory does isn’t completely outside what other games at the time were doing. It changes enough, though, and there’s a lot we can learn about the game by looking at those differences.
Through no fault of its own, Phantasy Star III has always been the black sheep of the Phantasy Star series. Its predecessor set a very high bar, one that the many drastic changes to series tradition prevent it from passing. The game eschews all the cool sci-fi elements that give the series its identity and replaces them with a generic fantasy RPG facade. What’s more, the game doesn’t even feel finished. Its worlds are barren, and minor plot foibles frequently gnaw away at the story. No wonder fans were less receptive to Phantasy Star III.
I’m not going to deny all of these problems. However, I still want to give the game credit, because it’s not as though it’s completely lacking in value. In fact, I see it as a conscious rebellion against Phantasy Star tradition. It makes the gameplay more meaningful than it’s ever been and tempers its predecessors’ positive outlooks with something more grounded. Is the break complete? Of course not. Yet I still find myself intrigued by what the game does.