Rollergames is a more confusing, more ambiguous game than it initially lets on. That confusion doesn’t stem from its rendition of beat em up tropes through a roller derby lens. If anything, that’s the easiest part of the game to understand. What’s more difficult to understand is what the game hopes to achieve through that combination. Everything the game does situates itself in this fuzzy space between reality and fantasy, performance and competition, borrowing what it needs from each to realize its unexpectedly appropriate vision. Although the game blends these categories for some other purpose beyond aesthetic pleasure or celebration of the things it remixes (although these are certainly part of what it does), the effects of these creative decisions defy simple judgment.
As a game critic, I’m generally more interested in failures than I am in successes. This doesn’t mean I seek out games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions, whose failures derive from a thorough dishonesty about what they are; or Lucky Me, Lucky You, where the cause is a lack of self-awareness (not to mention the language it uses). What I look for are the games that strive for some sort of goal but fall well short of achieving it, because it’s in that falling short that they’re most expressive of their own identity. The mistakes these games make are proof that they’re the result of real human effort and not simply the output of a mathematical formula engineered to produce conventionally good games.
Moreover, they provide us a means of pushing back against the standards that lead us into such formulas. True, the game itself may never realize this, but its foibles show how easily those standards break down; how open they are to being questioned. They lay the groundwork for alternative aesthetics that designers can elaborate upon.
There’s nothing wrong with a game that conforms to generic tradition. After all, not every single game needs to be experimental. However, games do need to understand how they use those traditions if they want to craft a holistic experience. Otherwise, parts don’t quite fit and the game starts to suffer. You end up with the visual novel that should have been an action game, or the beat-em-up that could work so much better with just the right twists.
I bring this up because that’s exactly the case with Taito’s Pu-Li-Ru-La Arcade Gears. By all means, this game should be every bit the bouncy, delightful experience it presents itself as. Unfortunately, the gameplay can’t match that level of glee. It conforms too slavishly to beat-em-up conventions, adapting nothing to the game’s cartoony premise. That doesn’t mean that Pu-Li-Ru-La is a bad game, but it does mean the game amounts to less than it could be.