By now, the influence American action movies have had on (early) Japanese video games is both well documented and widely understood. There are logical explanations for why these two spheres would come into contact with each other: action movies’ focus on spectacle leaves very little that needs translating/altering, making them easy to market to international audiences. I’ve also heard arguments that phrase this pairing as an inevitability: the simplest form a video game can take is essentially one or more players in conflict and projectiles to eliminate that player from play. (Or so the argument goes. This doesn’t explain why so many early video games were sports-based, and many others were even simpler than this.) Combine that with technological progressivism and follow-the-leader design philosophies, and action movies almost seem like a perfect fit for the industry.
Still, I can’t help but feel like these arguments leave something to be desired. They leave no room for an individual developer’s autonomy, which the games themselves suggest is a very significant factor. That pairing wasn’t accidental, but the product of a very real and very genuine love for American action movies. These games often have an air of absurdity to them, but they’re never critical of their source material. In fact, they celebrate the over-the-top spectacle that fuels action movies. Games like Bloody Wolf, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Bionic Commando and most of Konami’s output in the 80s and 90s are fun specifically because they have fun with themselves.
During the early 90s, Japanese game developer Naxat Soft started running an annual competition they called the Summer Carnival. It was a response to Hudson Soft’s longer-running Hudson Caravan event, but the premise behind both was the same: the company would organize regional competitions around a particular game, and players would have all summer to practice their skills before competing for the title of national champion. Both events have long since faded into obscurity – the Summer Carnival only lasted a few years (until 1993, to be specific) and the Caravan somehow held out until 2006 – but the games that were designed for these events still remain.
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.
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.
- The admiration for the individualistic will, coupled with warnings of the danger a techno-autocracy poses.
- The strong thematic through-line and the context that helps to ground it.
- The bold ways these games are willing to experiment with their form in order to better represent these ideas.
Even side projects like the Text Adventures have earned my respect. Unfortunately, exceptions are inevitable with long-running series like these, and as you’ve probably already predicted, Phantasy Star Adventure is that very exception. I would call the game yet another experiment in Phantasy Star’s illustrious history, but that would overlook a lot of the game’s core flaws: namely, their unwillingness to experiment. Despite following in the Text Adventures’ heels, Adventure makes no effort to capitalize on those gains or to represent any of the previously listed strong points. Instead, the game retreats into the safety of generic convention, unwilling to question or challenge or impress.
If there’s anything more disheartening than playing a bad game, it’s playing a game with the potential to be a good one. Bad games are straightforward; they are what they are. But a game with unfulfilled potential conjures up feelings of sadness and frustration. It hints at a greatness that could have been, but for one reason or another, that greatness forever lies just outside of its reach. All of this is what comes to mind when I think of Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy. The second entry in Konami’s well-known series of wacky shooters, Non-Sense Fantasy has a fantastic understanding of silly absurdist humor, and it comes so very, very close to realizing it. Unfortunately, its reliance on classic Konami shooter design philosophies prevents it from lampooning shooter convention where it matters the most. So while the rest of the game has no problem presenting itself as the ridiculous spectacle it wants to be, the gameplay sticks out like a huge pimple on an otherwise blemish-free face.
When I first started writing this piece, I approached it thinking the Bubble Bobble sub-genre (meaning any game that presents itself and plays like the classic 1986 arcade game) was a diverse and well-explored one. But I soon found out that most, if not all of the games in that sub-genre trace their lineage back to Taito. Bubble Bobble, Parasol Stars, Rainbow Island, Bubble Symphony; Taito made them all. In fact, Wikipedia even has a chart to summarize this phenomenon. The only Bubble Bobble-esque game Taito didn’t have a hand in creating was the game I chose to review: Pop’n Magic, Telenet’s contribution to the sub-genre. This would explain its greater willingness to experiment with the formula, along with the uneven success of those experiments.
For all the criticism I’ve read concerning how we define and categorize games, I still our current genre definitions are useful to have. Not because they’re particularly good definitions (that’s a separate issue altogether), but because the industry has behaved as though that’s already the case. It’s that belief that an FPS or an action game has to have these specific features to qualify as such that developers have created such heavily codified bodies of work. These have proved to be important starting points for less experienced developers who not only wish to understand how these devices function, but also to tinker around with their own ideas.
What happens when you lack a clear understanding of genre? You end up with something like Xardion. Although the game knows what an action game should look like, it barely has an understanding of why they’re supposed to look like that. So it lacks the genre’s most compelling traits, leaving us with a hollow reproduction of action game tropes.
Sometimes, I like to see what games a company made prior to hitting it big. It’s a fun exercise, trying to tease out what their design philosophies were before they started following a standard template that’s harder to tease out. Game Freak serves as a good example. The company originally started off as a fan magazine, reviewing anything the Japanese gaming scene of the 1980s could offer. After a few years of doing this, the staff realized they had the knowledge to make games just as good as the ones they reviewed. And so Game Freak was born.
That story might not seem important, but it contains important hints as to how Game Freak designed their games, including Magical Taruruuto-Kun. An unlikely candidate, I know. This obscure Genesis title might look like just another licensed game, but there’s more to it than that. As you’d expect from a developer that found its start reviewing game, Magical Taruruuto-Kun shows a wide influence. The game borrows liberally from many other platformers, from Mario to Monster World to Castlevania. Yet it still bears the Game Freak seal. It doesn’t blindly copy these games, hoping to gain what they already have. Instead, it breaks from the action aesthetic they’re known for to pursue something warmer and more whimsical.