Chu Chu Rocket is an uncomfortable game to cover; or at least it is for me. I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s thematically uncomfortable, and I don’t mean to suggest the game is too out of my depth to render meaningful commentary on. Quite the opposite, in fact. Despite touching on ideas I’ve already talked about at length – from Bubble Symphony to Hani on the Road, from Shantae to Runbow – the surprisingly frank nature of Chu Chu Rocket’s design renders those ideas bare in a way I’m not used to.
Yet if that directness puts me off guard, then it also poses an advantage as far as critiquing the game is concerned. Returning to the four games I’ve connected Chu Chu Rocket with, I may speak of them as though they occupy fundamentally different classes of games, but the truth is the similarities between them are greater than I’d previously acknowledged. Chu Chu Rocket directs us toward this truth: the quirks in its design demonstrate how thin the line that divides them really is. The game also directs us toward the meaningful distinction between those categories, as it’s this distinction the game’s success or failure (mostly its failure) hinges on.
Video games and youth have always had a peculiar relationship. I’m not referring to youth markets being the primary demographic for video games for decades, although that’s certainly related to what I want to discuss. Rather, I’m referring to a specific ethos of positivity, edginess, and youthful rebellion that video games so often rely on. One needn’t look far to find examples, as plenty of high profile releases base themselves around this attitude: Sonic the Hedgehog, Jet Grind Radio, Persona 5, etc. The image of youths rising up to overthrow authority has proven so appealing that those who once enjoyed it have gone on to recreate it in their own projects, if games like Freedom Planet and to a lesser extent VA-11 Hall-A offer any indication.
By now, the relationship between reality and fantasy in blockbuster video games – their presentation as both a perfect simulation of reality and a perfect escape from it – is so obvious to everyone it might as well be a cliche. Yet in spite of how prevalent knowledge of this relationship is, the relationship itself is still worth exploring. Not only are games still transparently pursuing it, but they’re regularly successful in doing so. It seems that as capable and as willing as we are to critique this mode of presentation, we’re not quite at the point of acting on those critiques.
It’s in this light that Shenmue, despite being released nearly twenty years ago, still has something to offer. This game came into being just as that relationship between reality and fantasy was starting to take form, and its stance on this new development isn’t easy to summarize. On the one hand, it finds a lot there to admire, if the sentimental depiction of the world is anything to go by. But if the overarching story is anything to by, then the game is also aware of the dangers a pursuit of fantasy can bring if left unattended.
Sakura Taisen 3. It’s the third game in a series about Captain Ichiro Ogami splitting his time between socializing with an all-female theater troupe and fighting alongside those same women in giant mechs, and the first of these games made for the Dreamcast. Guess which one of them shines more strongly? Every feature and every design choice that went into this game was made to show off what the Dreamcast was capable of doing. However, I’m not so sure that always plays out in the game’s favor. The battles come out of this just fine, but the story falls short of where it needs to be. Sakura Taisen 3 succeeds at demonstrating what the Dreamcast can do, but outside that, it’s a much more uneven experience.