I want to begin this by expanding on thoughts I first developed in writing about System Shock 2. Here I argued that the nature/technology dichotomy driving the game’s narrative gestures toward a transcendence of the self made necessary because that self has been revealed as weak and conceptually unstable. In truth, this one dichotomy is part of a much larger network of binaries meant to explain how humanity relates to its own existence. Nature/technology, self/other, body/world – not only do these binaries make existence understandable by breaking it down into distinct and stable categories, but they also justify any attempt to control that existence. With one side presented as inert matter to be worked on and the other (usually us) as making it useful by supplying it with activity, the first term becomes incapable of rejecting the second. Control becomes inevitable and any problem it might have posed becomes easy to dismiss.
I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually encounter a game like RUN=DIM: Return to Earth. As a writer, my ethos has always been to promote stronger critical engagement with games, and my approach to this has always been to look at games that people routinely overlook and/or dismiss. What alternate histories do they point to? How do they conceptualize games? What new possibilities do either of these things allow us to realize? These are the questions I hope to answer through my writing. Of course, there is a problem with my method: my focus on older games overlaps with a focus on commercially sold games, and time and again, games in the consumer space have proven themselves not only artistically dead, but also opposed to any sort of wider artistic or historical engagement. My response to this has been to resist the consumerist mentality embedded in games like this to find the value they may not realize they ever had.
RUN=DIM inadvertently challenges this. To provide a brief summary of the game, it’s a Wonderswan shooter based on the anime of the same name. Despite these origins, it may be better described as a Korean video game than as a Japanese one (at least judging by the credits). However, nationality is less important to understanding RUN=DIM than the fact of its being a consumer product. The game is remarkably honest on this point, but that honesty serves to deflect the question of what substance, if any, the game actually has. This is because RUN=DIM has no substance to speak of. What it instead offers is a sort of brazen nihilism: “I am nothing. I speak to nothing and what you do with me means nothing; play me anyway.”
Gley Lancer begins on a scene far out in space, with two warring factions primed to face one another in combat. We don’t know who the combatants are or what their stakes in the battle are, and frankly, they’re not important to our understanding of the events at hand. The sturdy military march, the admiration for high level military tactics and machinery (both abstracted away from real situations) – these direct our attention toward action and plot. On this level we see a miscalculation on the heroes’ part result in the enemy abducting a commander with his entire ship. Upon hearing of this, the commander’s daughter (and protagonist of the game) Ensign Lucia Cabrock acts against military authority by commandeering a top secret military weapon to save her father.
Human Entertainment isn’t a name a lot of people know, although they’d certainly be familiar with their creative output. Taking a brief glance at all the games they made reveals a spotty record: they were fond of experimental diorama games (SOS, the Twilight Syndrome games, and most notably of all Clock Tower), but just as many of their games never stray far from their clearly announced genre expectations. In addition, the quality of any given Human Entertainment work is just as various as the kinds of games they worked in.
It should go without saying that Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari-Arm falls into the latter of those two categories. The game shares a lot of important motifs with the Silpheeds and Rendering Ranger R2s and Ranger Xs and Spriggan Powereds of the day: all action-oriented shooters (often modeled after or explicitly based on some popular mech anime) boasting what game technology at the time was capable of. Where Android Assault distinguishes itself is in the sheer emptiness of its own experience. It embodies emptiness; communicates nothing but it. At the surface, the game searches for a direction it will never find, and beneath the surface, it makes itself a non-being through which the player might forget their own emptiness.
Before I get into the matter of discussing Griffin specifically, I want to acknowledge that the ideas I’m going to discuss here are ones I’ve already discussed to death. In fact, I had my writing on SD Gundam and Steel Empire on my mind (for reasons I hope will soon become clear) while I was taking notes on Griffin. If pressed for reasons why I return to these ideas so frequently, I’d say it’s because they’ve been so incredibly common in games for decades, especially games with military shooting and a heavy emphasis on shooting. But to apply this to Griffin more specifically, there isn’t much else to discuss about the game. A minor shooter released early in the Game Gear’s life, the game is bland, conventional, conservative, etc. It’s an empty signifier; something that makes more sense as a collection of techniques and popular trends than it does as an expression of somebody’s thoughts on the world.
Yet it’s for those very reasons the game is worth looking at in the first place. It may be easier to pick apart contemporary trends in the game industry when the game you’re analyzing is small enough that it follows those trends to the letter, rather than large enough to dictate what direction those trends go in. And by definition, conventional games will play right into the status quo (whatever that may be). This is especially the case with a game as empty as Griffin. Stuck halfway between admiring its own combat and calmly accepting its existence, it never occurs to the game to question its own premises or to think outside them, and the game languishes for it.
As far as shooters go Accele Brid is about as average as they come. Were you to judge the game on its mechanical composition, you’d probably liken it to a hit song: predictable, straightforward, noticeably engineered, not particularly impressive or ambitious, but at the very least competent enough to hold your attention for a short bit. Yet games are more than just the rules they make you follow. Even in games that seemingly center around the activities you’re asked to perform (a lot of action games and some RPGs fall under this banner), other factors like theme and aesthetic are there dictating what relationship you have with the game and whatever actions/mindsets emerge as a result of that relationship. In cases like Accele Brid, for example, that relationship can come to define your entire experience with the game. Its novel use of dynamic pseudo-3D backdrops is the source of its greatest ambitions and its greatest follies.
Sometimes while writing video game reviews, I find myself wondering if I’m looking at a game too heavily as a cultural artifact. As valuable as such analysis may be, it risks pushing aside that game’s unique qualities in favor of whatever forces I think the game represents. In other words, I risk failing to describe what the game actually is. But with something like Iridion 3D it becomes difficult not to discuss the game’s status as a cultural artifact. No matter how much I try to separate the game’s context from its composition, that context is so overpowering, so manifest in every facet of the game’s design, that evaluating the game without it becomes impossible.
Despite 90s nostalgia becoming a cliche in the past few years (especially where video games are concerned), it’s worth remembering why so many people look back on those years so fondly. Back then, most of the video game genres we know today were still young and malleable enough that developers were willing to test the boundaries. It’s these experimental games, with their distinctive identities, that we often remember today. Or don’t, as is the case with Pop’n Tanks. (I have no clue what relation this game has to other Pop’n titles.)
I realize how cliche the next clause is going to sound, but I miss the side scrolling shooters of old. I’m well aware of how little things have changed. The Contras and Terminators of yesterday became the Battlefields and Expendables of today. Yet this doesn’t mean that no change has occurred. Although modern shooters preserve the quick reflex action, they’re still very different creatures than what came before them. At their best, older shooters feel like a haunted house exhibit: a quick ride where all manner of things pop out at you and give you a rush of adrenaline. I doubt that modern shooters, with their focus on hyper-realism, can completely capture that feeling.
The Firemen is a good game. I know how weird it sounds to be so upfront about that, but it needs to be said. Technically speaking, Human Entertainment’s late SNES title is a good game. Unfortunately, that game is in a precarious relationship with its own scenario. The Firemen doesn’t know how to work its theming with gameplay, resulting in some really outlandish moments. While it’s still possible to enjoy the game in spite of those moments, it’s hard to deny the impact they have on the experience.