There’s probably a cognitive bias at work behind this sentiment, but a lot of the time when I look back on older video games, I’m reminded of how little the culture around them has changed. Take Lenar Co. and their 1986 release Bird Week. Judging by their body of work (a paltry six releases across ten years), it’s likely the team got their start as part of the hobbyist boom that hit Japan in the 70s and 80s. In other words, they share a lot in common with the indie boom video games went through around 2008. Their works never strayed too far from commercial video game genres, but they were never content to stay completely within those bounds, either. Lenar would introduce a new mechanic that changed the focus of play, or inflect existing ones differently, all in an effort to see just how far they could stretch these familiar concepts. Bird Week, as the team’s first project, best exemplifies this approach. It shows us how easily the concepts we take for granted in games can be inflected to mean something different, but also how liable such inflections are to lapse back into their original meanings.
Before I even started playing Lost Word of Jenny, the game was a series of mysteries that refused to resolve themselves. It had been sitting in my computer for the better part of two years before I realized it was there, so I’m still uncertain as to how I came across this game or why it captured my interest. The experiences to follow didn’t help, either. What I encountered were a series of explanations and contexts refusing one another, the refusal itself providing no justification for its being there. Perhaps that why unlike so many other games I write about, I can’t read anything of value into Jenny’s refusal to become a cohesive whole. This isn’t the same as Battle Golfer Yui, where the semblance of internal cohesion gives me something to work with, laugh at, and presumably arrive at a deeper understanding of. With Jenny, I’m stuck with my initial confusion about what the game even is.
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.
Musashi no Ken serves as the perfect contrast to last week’s Runbow. Both are minor games that represent dominant design trends of their respective eras. Runbow, like a lot of modern indie games, ostensibly sought to emulate classical games from the 80s and 90s, but its preoccupation with techniques and game enthusiast sensibilities about what makes a game good resulted in a mess of a game.
The irony of this is that those older games became classics in part because they were unconcerned with appealing to that specific demographic. They clung tightly to the same principles Runbow used, to be sure, but even today, their expressive power remains strong. They were able to communicate a lot with very little, and even if they stuck to the same set of moods in practice (heroism, campy fun, etc.), they would convey those moods in a subtle but effective fashion. should go without saying that Musashi no Ken isn’t all that different from its peers. If Runbow represents the worst case scenario for by-the-book game design, then Musashi no Ken at least demonstrates how to put that kind of game design to good use.
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.
Most retro game enthusiasts who play Saiyuuki World will quickly realize the game is just Wonder Boy in Monster Land dressed up in Journey to the West references and motifs. On its own, this fact isn’t likely to arouse much interest. Much like Dragon Ball before it, Saiyuuki World is more interested in using those motifs to lend the game a distinctive character than it is in perfectly translating the original Journey to the West into video game form or even letting its motifs inform the plot in any meaningful way. Still, the game’s existence and the history behind it both point to a much larger trend that does around interest.
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.
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.
Like so many of the games I review, Nightshade stands out to me as a definite product of its era. On the one hand, Beam Software’s 1992 title is clearly riding the wave of adventure games that felt like cheap pulp fiction when they were taking themselves seriously and lighthearted children’s comics when they weren’t. (In fact, it’s somehow able to embody both of them at the same time.) And on the other hand, it’s referencing both the influx of grim & gritty superheroes and the comic books made to parody said superheroes. In addition to being a smart combination, this is also a very well realized one on the game’s part. With it, Nightshade is able to undermine the most prevalent trends in the comic book world while simultaneously holding onto its affection for them.
How is it that game developers consistently release their best material toward the end of a console’s life cycle? “Experience” isn’t a satisfactory explanation, since in addition to pushing technical limits, these games tend to be more experimental than anything preceding them. Conker’s Bad Fur Day deconstructed the mascot platformer genre, and Panzer Dragoon Saga gave a rail shooter all the breadth of an RPG. And then there’s Metal Slader Glory, one of the more ambitious titles to appear on the NES. I have to admit that what Metal Slader Glory does isn’t completely outside what other games at the time were doing. It changes enough, though, and there’s a lot we can learn about the game by looking at those differences.