Like many of the games I write about on this blog, Ai Senshi Nicol doesn’t neatly map to conventional ideas of what a good or bad video game is. What’s more, the game’s failure to slot into either of those categories is more the result of a mismanaged execution on those conventions than it is a purposeful break from them. While this would normally be cause for celebration, I remain hesitant in Ai Senshi Nicol’s case. The game isn’t Decap Attack; it’s not an anarchic mishmash of elements that flagrantly break the rules of good game design. Ai Senshi Nicol wants to follow those rules, and to that end, it exhibits a certain level of polish. Characters tend to be round and non-threatening; music is composed of easily understood melodies; and play is relatively skill-based, focusing on things like pattern recognition and acquisition of power.
Were I to judge the game only as a series of systems for the player to navigate, I’d likely describe it as a conservative yet competent addition to Konami’s long line of shooting games. But this strikes as a somewhat narrow view. Expanding that view, I find a game that tries to parody contemporary action movie conventions, is equipped to do just that, but for whatever reason, never quite accomplishes its goal. Where there should be harmony between the energetic crossfire you’re expected to navigate and the levels’ humorous nature, there’s instead a weak conflict that the game isn’t entirely able to resolve. And because of how strongly Ai Senshi Nicol pursues aesthetic refinement, it’s not in a position to embrace these blemishes, either. All it can do is uncomfortably hang in that space we call “average”, unable and unwilling to claim ownership of itself.
Despite its reputation as a genre brimming with high school anime romance, visual novels didn’t originate with romance stories. Those only became popular in the mid 90s or early 00s, when dating sims began exerting a real influence on the genre. Before that, players knew them as a reliable source of murder mystery stories. So many of them focused on murder cares, and so many of them included that exact phrase in their titles, that Capcom released a game of their own lampooning the trend. This shows that while the market for early visual novels was saturated with many similar games, developers at the time were willing to push at the boundaries not only of visual novels, but also the narrow field of murder mystery visual novels.
Is there any modern equivalent of the maze game? The nearest equivalents I can think of, like Bit.Trip Runner and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, are too different from the genre to be called proper maze games. So we can safely say that outside ports and maybe a few reimaginings, the genre that birthed games like Pac Man, Burgertime, and Clu Clu Land has remained dead in the ground for years. It’s not hard to see why. Either developers thought there was no more headway to be made with these games and proceeded to abandon them; or players lost interest with them as more complex titles started to appear on the market.
However, just because either side effectively gave up on maze games doesn’t mean the genre ran out of things to offer its audience. In fact, Yuu Maze demonstrates just how much further these games could have gone, and it was made as late as 1988. Not in gameplay terms, mind you; Yuu Maze still sees you navigating a series of halls, avoiding swarms of enemies, and collecting every last trinket on the map. It’s the tone that separates this game from others. Far from replicating the innocent fun its peers were known for, Yuu Maze comes across as a despondent slog of an experience.