At first glance, Youkai Yashiki appears to be a game lacking in significance; a game that conforms so heavily to well understood trends and modifies them so little that one struggles to learn what makes this game in particular worthy of study. Examining the game further only risks reinforcing this impression. A minor release from a company with only a tangential interest in video games, the most notable fact one may find when reading about Youkai Yashiki is that it was originally an MSX game which later received a Famicom Disk System (courtesy of Irem) with a visual overhaul and an extra level. Such paltry information would seem to confirm the game’s status as a minor endeavor made to be forgotten after its brief time in a crowded spotlight.
Playing Youkai Yashiki, however, one comes away with a different understanding of the game. It may not contradict our previous understanding, but it does expand on that understanding significantly. Far from being bound to the era it emerged into, Youkai Yashiki is a game caught between both video games’ recent past and their immediate present – and all the philosophies associated with either. Its inability to properly reconcile the two eras proves more fruitful than one might expect, as the result points to all sorts of histories and developments we might otherwise ignore. Any influence these developments exert on the play experience is questionable, but they remain an interesting point of study nonetheless.
Asmik-Kun is many things; all of them simple. He’s a child, a creature, a cipher through which the player accesses the game. Most of all, he’s a character defined entirely through his animal desires. Whatever he looks upon, he interprets through the lens of his childlike naivete. Assuming his mind hasn’t wandered toward the crayon doodles one would find in the margins of a notebook, his fixation on eating transforms the landscape into a delicious meal: fried egg sunsets, tomato clouds, salmon bushes, etc.
What’s especially interesting is how play makes the player complicit in this transformation, as a significant feature of play is turning monsters into eggs that you then collect. In theory, there is a larger motivation for this – something about waking the Dragon God – but it’s implied the joy of performing the act itself takes greater precedence. In the end, Asmik-Kun remains a flat, very basic character.
In playing Mitsume ga Tooru, I didn’t intend to write a response to what I’d written last week. Swords & Soldiers II draws heavily from trends in the 2015 indie space, like tower defense and classic game design. Mitsume ga Tooru, besides existing alongside the classic games Swords & Soldiers II draws inspiration from, is a Natsume adaptation of an obscure Osamu Tezuka manga, and it only lightly draws from contemporary design trends. Any overlap between these two games would have to be slight, at best.
As far as I know, Threads of Fate is a game that’s known for many different things at once. It’s known for its two parallel stories united by a desire to obtain a powerful MacGuffin; for the humorous execution of those stories; for its fusion of platforming and role-playing sensibilities; and for its distinct, highly expressive visuals, which may have been a reaction against the Dreamcast to show what the PlayStation was capable of.
Having played Threads of Fate for myself, I’m not in a position to deny any of these approaches to the game, Although some are definitely worth considering, they’re not what sticks out to me, or at least not what immediately sticks out to me regarding this game. No, what catches my attention are the various connections this game shares with Square’s previous work. In fact, they stick out so strongly for me that I would characterize the game as one made by and for the people behind its very production, albeit not to the exclusion of anybody else.
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.
The first thing you’re likely to notice about Socket’s title screen is probably going to be the background. A mosaic of warped clocks Salvador Dali style, it’s clear that the artists are communicating a basic time travel motif. However, anything beyond this fact refuses to make itself known. We can’t know how time travel will inform the game to follow because those facts aren’t apparent and the game refuses to offer any kind of explanation. Instead, it continues bombarding us with symbols that refuse to connect: a duck, an electrical outlet, the title itself (Time Dominator 1st in Japan), etc. What we end up with is a chaotic soup of imagery, one that disorients us and frustrates any attempt to make sense of all this noise.
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.
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.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how we (the video game community at large) think about our own past. Because any time we do so, we represent that history through the known hits that we’ve cherry picked to a certain degree. I’m certain you’re familiar with them already: Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, etc. Thinking about the history of video games solely through examples like this paints a very neat, very optimistic picture where aesthetic refinement becomes the status quo. Rough games and sort-of-successes are hidden from view. The only games represented in this history are those that advanced the medium in some important and noticeable way, implying that the only experiments worth paying attention to are those which were immediately vindicated as critical or commercial successes.
The first thing most people learn when they find out about Tonic Trouble is its production history: Ubisoft wanted to find out how Rayman-style gameplay would work if given a third dimension, so they made this game as a sort of safe experiment. That way, they could prepare themselves for a real 3D Rayman game without potentially tarnishing the series’ reputation. It’s not a hard angle to read into the game (the protagonist already bears a striking resemblance to Rayman), but just introducing the game like this is enough to make a part of me feel guilty. Not only have I devalued the game by tying it to this other, largely irrelevant title, but by framing Tonic Trouble as Ubisoft’s experiment for Rayman 2, I suggest that the game has no inherent value of its own.