Chu Chu Rocket is an uncomfortable game to cover; or at least it is for me. I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s thematically uncomfortable, and I don’t mean to suggest the game is too out of my depth to render meaningful commentary on. Quite the opposite, in fact. Despite touching on ideas I’ve already talked about at length – from Bubble Symphony to Hani on the Road, from Shantae to Runbow – the surprisingly frank nature of Chu Chu Rocket’s design renders those ideas bare in a way I’m not used to.
Yet if that directness puts me off guard, then it also poses an advantage as far as critiquing the game is concerned. Returning to the four games I’ve connected Chu Chu Rocket with, I may speak of them as though they occupy fundamentally different classes of games, but the truth is the similarities between them are greater than I’d previously acknowledged. Chu Chu Rocket directs us toward this truth: the quirks in its design demonstrate how thin the line that divides them really is. The game also directs us toward the meaningful distinction between those categories, as it’s this distinction the game’s success or failure (mostly its failure) hinges on.
Video games and youth have always had a peculiar relationship. I’m not referring to youth markets being the primary demographic for video games for decades, although that’s certainly related to what I want to discuss. Rather, I’m referring to a specific ethos of positivity, edginess, and youthful rebellion that video games so often rely on. One needn’t look far to find examples, as plenty of high profile releases base themselves around this attitude: Sonic the Hedgehog, Jet Grind Radio, Persona 5, etc. The image of youths rising up to overthrow authority has proven so appealing that those who once enjoyed it have gone on to recreate it in their own projects, if games like Freedom Planet and to a lesser extent VA-11 Hall-A offer any indication.
There’s a famous Wittgenstein quote that says, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” His point wasn’t that people should remain quiet on matters they’re unqualified to speak about, but that silence can be its own form of expression. Silence can paint a picture in vivid detail in ways that speech isn’t equipped for. To illustrate this point, let’s consider a negative example: the 2013 remake (more a light re-imagining than a strict remake) of Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse.
Broadly speaking, the original game tended to leave things unstated because it didn’t have the tools to speak at length about them. It was an approach that worked well for what the designers had in mind. The remake, on the other hand, has those tools at its disposal and is determined to make its voice heard. The problem is that this Castle of Illusion doesn’t know how it should express that voice but feels compelled to express it anyway. It overspeaks; it overexplains; it fills previously quiet moments with activity. What you end up with is a game that, while technically sound, leaves too little to the imagination while adding little to our understanding of the experience.
Sakura Taisen 3. It’s the third game in a series about Captain Ichiro Ogami splitting his time between socializing with an all-female theater troupe and fighting alongside those same women in giant mechs, and the first of these games made for the Dreamcast. Guess which one of them shines more strongly? Every feature and every design choice that went into this game was made to show off what the Dreamcast was capable of doing. However, I’m not so sure that always plays out in the game’s favor. The battles come out of this just fine, but the story falls short of where it needs to be. Sakura Taisen 3 succeeds at demonstrating what the Dreamcast can do, but outside that, it’s a much more uneven experience.