By now, the influence American action movies have had on (early) Japanese video games is both well documented and widely understood. There are logical explanations for why these two spheres would come into contact with each other: action movies’ focus on spectacle leaves very little that needs translating/altering, making them easy to market to international audiences. I’ve also heard arguments that phrase this pairing as an inevitability: the simplest form a video game can take is essentially one or more players in conflict and projectiles to eliminate that player from play. (Or so the argument goes. This doesn’t explain why so many early video games were sports-based, and many others were even simpler than this.) Combine that with technological progressivism and follow-the-leader design philosophies, and action movies almost seem like a perfect fit for the industry.
Still, I can’t help but feel like these arguments leave something to be desired. They leave no room for an individual developer’s autonomy, which the games themselves suggest is a very significant factor. That pairing wasn’t accidental, but the product of a very real and very genuine love for American action movies. These games often have an air of absurdity to them, but they’re never critical of their source material. In fact, they celebrate the over-the-top spectacle that fuels action movies. Games like Bloody Wolf, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Bionic Commando and most of Konami’s output in the 80s and 90s are fun specifically because they have fun with themselves.
When Ray Tracers was initially released, critics were less than excited with what the game had to offer. Jeff Gerstmann, writing for GameSpot, said of it, “While Ray Tracers is a pretty neat game, it’s way too easy and far too short to purchase. Rent this one, finish it, and forget it ever existed.” I’m inclined to believe other reviews at the time read similarly. Yet given how mainstream game criticism at the time treated games as products to be tested and reported on rather than as artistic statements to be interpreted and evaluated, I’m reluctant to accept whatever conclusions critics at the time came to.
Sonic R wasn’t Sonic’s first foray into the racing genre. However, it might as well have been, given how little people remember of the Sonic Drift games on Game Gear. Besides, where those games were essentially vanilla racing games with Sonic characters dropped in, Sonic R tries to bring the Sonic series’ platforming sensibilities to the world of racing games. Unfortunately, this is why the game fails. The two genres only ever pull away at each other, as neither one figures out how to accommodate the other. What should be an elegant mix of two game types is instead a clumsy mess of a game.