Anything I could write about Swords & Soldiers II would ultimately be redundant – or at least that’s the feeling I have before writing about the game. Most if not all of the critical observations I arrived at have precedent in things I’ve previously written: Runbow, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, Retro City Rampage, etc. In some ways, this will benefit whatever I have to say about Swords & Soldiers II. With my working premises established elsewhere, I can more strongly focus on this game’s unique accomplishments and failures. Yet this begs the question of how many (if any) of those accomplishments and failures are unique, and what, if anything, each contributes to our understanding of video games.
By comparison, identifying why Swords & Soldiers II overlaps so heavily with its contemporaries/predecessors is a much easier task. Like each of the games I’d listed (except Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo), Swords & Soldiers II is an indie game from a small development team (Ronimo Games, in this case). And like those other games, this one follows best design practices and the games most obviously exemplify them with an almost religious zeal, believing both to be guarantors of aesthetic accomplishment.
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.
By now, I’m certain that the points I’m going to make in the following 2000 or so words are points that I’ve harped on in previous places. In fact, I distinctly remember (and when gathering material, caught myself in the act of) discussing these points in relation to Shantae, Retro City Rampage, and Eufloria. So they’re definitely recurring elements in the culture that indie game developers have cultivated for themselves since about 2009. Yet even at this juncture, I still find these points worth discussing. In addition to emulating and building on aesthetic/design sensibilities from the 1990s, many games in the indie space aim for refinement above all else, as if they can achieve some Platonic ideal of the perfect video game. But if the end results of their efforts consistently feel hollow and meaningless, I’m left wondering what good game design is supposed to be.