As I previously discussed when writing about RUN=DIM: Return to Earth, the economic and cultural realities of video game development place a limit on my goal of promoting greater critical engagement with the games we play. It’s rare to encounter a game that truly approaches that limit; even if the game itself isn’t open to that kind of engagement, players can often find the tools they need within the game to bring it about regardless. Yet rare doesn’t mean impossible. There still exist those infrequent moments when a game, embracing its status as a consumable object to be used for whatever it’s worth and forever tossed aside after, clears away all personal expression in the name of the player’s enjoyment. Because “enjoyment” is a more complicated and fraught concept than the game is willing to acknowledge, it often seals its own doom through those very efforts.
Needless to say, Flying Hero: Bugyuru no Daibouken belongs to this category of games. Information on the game is scarce. Excluding basic information like who created this game and when, we’ve only the game object itself to examine. Looking at the game at this level suggests it reduces itself to others’ expectations of what it should be to a greater extent than RUN=DIM. Not bound by a specific set of standards like its later peer, Flying Hero frees itself to conform to a more general set of standards. The game is quick in committing itself to that task, and while it succeeds, one wonders what the game accomplishes by it.
Our scene opens to an island calmly floating amongst the waves. Although we may not be consciously aware of it happening, the image invokes within our minds the idea of a tropical paradise. It is at once a setting completely isolated from the modern world (and all that world might entail), but also one that it is intricately tied up with that same world by virtue of negating it. What attracts us to such an idyllic setting isn’t merely the idea of a harmonious natural order that has a place for everything and harms none within it. It’s the idea that this tropical (this added specificity is key) setting can offer us refuge from all the arduous labor that life regularly demands from us. It’s these expectations that float about our mind we we begin Nangoku Shounen Papuwa-Kun.
It’s also these expectations that the game is so quick to flagrantly violate. Immediately following the island’s introduction is an assault on the senses: the usn haphazardly spraying its light in countless directions; an intense melody of drums and an instrument I struggle to identify pounding your ears; a succession of absurd images too rapid to acclimate one’s self to.
Video game writing (my own not exempted) has a habit of either misjudging or misrepresenting the relationship between video games and whatever container is used to explain them – brand, genre, etc. We know that the relationship is there. In fact, we’ve little choice but to acknowledge its presence, given both its staggering ubiquity and how firmly entrenched it is in the world of commercial video games. Yet the language through which we discuss that relationship remains very limited. We often reduce it to the game’s mimesis of some nebulously defined concept (usually whatever the game was marketed as), as though the container alone holds supremacy; as though the game is merely an instance of that container, or some other passive object. In doing so, we risk overlooking how the container is constituted through the game, and thus the active role a game plays in interpreting and modifying the containers thought to exist outside them.
This isn’t to say that all these interpretations are revolutionary, or that they can’t converge on mimesis anyway. That being said, neither of these statements preclude a game from actively reasoning through whatever material it’s presented. It’s this active reasoning that makes Lupin III: Densetsu no Hihou wo Oe a compelling game to examine if not an exciting one to experience firsthand. Playing through the game, one learns to appreciate its keen understanding of the source material and its ability to translate that understanding into practice. Unfortunately, Densetsu no Hihou chafes at applying that understanding to the strict generic limitations that being a mainstream commercial video game imposes on it. These limitations ultimately prove to be the game’s undoing.
When I first saw screenshots of American Battle Dome, I thought it to be a minor Warlords variant whose own history begins and ends with its release. Researching and playing the game proved otherwise. Far from being a stand-alone title, the game is just one instance of a larger brand of Battle Dome toys. And rather than use an 80s arcade game as the foundation for its own design, American Battle Dome is better described as a competitive pinball game. Four players share the same table and simultaneously compete for the highest score. The exact method varies from table to table, but generally it always involves launching a flurry of balls across the table in the hopes that it hits a score-giving object (monsters, UFOs, fairies, etc.).
In other words, American Battle Dome is just one instance of the larger game of pinball. This imposes certain limitations on how we can approach the game critically. Any commentary we render can only apply to the game insofar as it applies to the larger family of games it belongs to. Yet if pinball limits our ability to comment on American Battle Dome, then the latter expands our understanding of the former by creating opportunities that might not exist otherwise. After all, video games can easily do things that would be very difficult for physical pinball to replicate, something this game is quick to take advantage of. American Battle Dome is replete with imaginative expansions on how pinball works, and although it wasn’t the game’s intention, those expansions illuminate several histories/aspects of pinball as a whole.
Ghost Chaser Densei is two games at once, but it only needs to be one. As cryptic as that sounds, it’s honestly the best way I could think of to summarize this little known beat-em-up from little known developer Winkysoft. Trying to treat it as one unified game will inevitably result in it collapsing into the two aspects I’m going to describe. The two barely interact with each other as both try as best they can to peacefully exist on their own. Whether or not that’s a sufficient strategy is as difficult to sort out as any other thoughts I could render on this game.
There are certain operating assumptions that writers and enthusiasts alike make when discussing games based on licensed properties. Most can be summed up through the following formula: the game’s identity initially comes to us through an abstract ideal that exists outside what the game actually does. In the situation we’re describing, that ideal is usually either the brand the game is based on or some idea of what games in general should be. From here, it’s simply a matter of how well a given game adheres to this standard. Unfortunately contradictions become inevitable and we’re already primed to see the game as a mere simulacrum of some higher quality original. Hence the negative reputation licensed games have garnered.
There is a grain of truth in this line of reasoning. Many of these games made that discourse relevant to themselves: because they were made for mass market consumption, they had to fit a certain model of what a game/tie-in product should be, regardless of whether the source material would support it.
As a game critic, I’m generally more interested in failures than I am in successes. This doesn’t mean I seek out games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions, whose failures derive from a thorough dishonesty about what they are; or Lucky Me, Lucky You, where the cause is a lack of self-awareness (not to mention the language it uses). What I look for are the games that strive for some sort of goal but fall well short of achieving it, because it’s in that falling short that they’re most expressive of their own identity. The mistakes these games make are proof that they’re the result of real human effort and not simply the output of a mathematical formula engineered to produce conventionally good games.
Moreover, they provide us a means of pushing back against the standards that lead us into such formulas. True, the game itself may never realize this, but its foibles show how easily those standards break down; how open they are to being questioned. They lay the groundwork for alternative aesthetics that designers can elaborate upon.
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.
If I were to ask you how video games and education relate to one another, you’d probably respond with edutainment games (games made specifically to educate) or video games that just so happen to teach their players something new about the world (Assassin’s Creed and history, Xenosaga and philosophy, etc.). Few of you would respond with what games have to say about educational systems in general, and it’s easy to understand why: that kind of direct subject matter doesn’t easily translate into an interesting game. Yet it’s not completely unexplored territory. In fact, an abundance of games already comment on education, from Persona’s optimism to Yuuyami Doori Tankentai’s pessimism.
And then you have games that are completely in the middle, like Kingyo Chuuihou! Tobidase! Game Gakuen. From the outset, it’s obvious that this unheard of Jaleco party game wants to portray an idealistic vision of school life, but all throughout, that vision finds itself at odds with the game’s own design. While that design holds a lot of potential to deliver incisive critiques of educational systems, that potential’s never allowed to flower. What we’re left with is a conflicted, unsatisfying game.
If there’s anything more disheartening than playing a bad game, it’s playing a game with the potential to be a good one. Bad games are straightforward; they are what they are. But a game with unfulfilled potential conjures up feelings of sadness and frustration. It hints at a greatness that could have been, but for one reason or another, that greatness forever lies just outside of its reach. All of this is what comes to mind when I think of Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy. The second entry in Konami’s well-known series of wacky shooters, Non-Sense Fantasy has a fantastic understanding of silly absurdist humor, and it comes so very, very close to realizing it. Unfortunately, its reliance on classic Konami shooter design philosophies prevents it from lampooning shooter convention where it matters the most. So while the rest of the game has no problem presenting itself as the ridiculous spectacle it wants to be, the gameplay sticks out like a huge pimple on an otherwise blemish-free face.