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.
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.
When it comes to games, my specialty is reviewing older, more obscure games. I’d describe these games as forgotten, but most of them never had a chance to enter the public memory in the first place. Sometimes, this exposes me to games that challenge contemporary understandings of games or that don’t neatly fit into it. Just as often, though, I play a game and it feels immediately familiar even if I’d never played it before.
Enter Moai-Kun, Konami’s puzzle game based on their eponymous sort-of mascot. This might have been the first time I’d played this specific iteration, but the broader game behind Moai-Kun is something I have quite a bit of experience with. Sutte Hakkun, Power Lode Runner, Mole Mania, and to a lesser extent, Adventures of Lolo all belong to this same family of character-driven action games that Moai-Kun is a member of. Needless to say, Moai-Kun is a welcome addition to the family. It brings the same simplistic charm its siblings are known for while still doing just enough on its own to distinguish itself from them every so slightly.
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.
I find it surprising that Konami had to be the company to make a shooter like TwinBee. The genre has always valued skill and the steady process of gathering power above all else, and Konami’s games reflected that better than anybody else. Yet here’s a game whose most prominent feature (bouncing bells to change what weapons you get) encourages a balance between that kind of serious-minded work and a simplistic fun that eschews it altogether. What’s more, that formula proved popular enough to spawn not only a franchise, but also an entire sub-genre of shooters.
The Firemen is a good game. I know how weird it sounds to be so upfront about that, but it needs to be said. Technically speaking, Human Entertainment’s late SNES title is a good game. Unfortunately, that game is in a precarious relationship with its own scenario. The Firemen doesn’t know how to work its theming with gameplay, resulting in some really outlandish moments. While it’s still possible to enjoy the game in spite of those moments, it’s hard to deny the impact they have on the experience.