Striking at the Soul

Over the years I’ve come across many terms that I hate seeing applied to games.  Soul.  Magic.  Heart.  Charm.  Spark.  So it looks like it’s time to do another list, all of these terms deserve to be categorically addressed so I can explain exactly why they are not valid ways to judge games.  Let’s get right to it: time for the intimidating task of dissecting five different concepts in one article.  Let’s get started!

Magic

What it means:  Magic, when applied to games, is a catch-all term for an indescribable feeling you get from a game.  Something you can’t describe, but you just KNOW it when you see it.  Something that supercedes any part of a game you can actually give a supportable opinion on.  Magic is different from the other terms because, because…

Wait…

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All of them are the same freaking thing! 

Yep, the list was a fake-out.  These (and probably many more) terms are all functionally identical, and it’s that concept that I want to argue against, in all of its guises.  There are two main things that the various terms (I’m just going to use soul for the rest of this article) are actually describing, and neither are good reasons for judging a game.  Let’s get to the real dissection!

Aesthetics

You know how some people judge games on their technical or budget merits?  How many polygons there are, how much wide open empty space the draw distance can show at once, how expensive the voice actors were?  Well people who care about a game’s soul would never do that.  Why?  Because it’s not petty ENOUGH!  It’s the little things that make a game great: little touches in the background, the exact right amount of comedic quirk in the dialogue, whether it’s a sequel or not.  Judging a game by the graphics as a whole makes you shallow, but judging it by dissecting minor details of the graphics makes you deep.  Maybe an 8-bit art style could have potentially passed your metric for the game having enough “soul” in its look, but you’re still judging a game for how it looks, and no euphemism is going to change that.

 

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This is what letting games be judged by soul gets us.

 

Why would anyone believe in this double standard?  I’m not convinced that many genuinely do.  The fact is, saying a game is bad because of its graphics is going to make a lot of people disregard your opinion, which in my magical and soulful special spark of an opinion is justified.  As someone who still regularly plays games from earlier console generations, defends Nintendo for focusing on gameplay over writing and story in many of their series, and gets very annoyed by being told my systems of choice are inferior to the “master race” because the graphics aren’t as good, I obviously don’t approve of judging games by their graphics.  So I don’t like it when people ostensibly on my side do the exact same thing but insist that it’s actually about “soul.”  If you care about aesthetics to the point where a game not meeting your expectations in them can ruin the experience for you, I’ll have a much easier time agreeing to disagree if you don’t use vague and frustrating terms to hide it.  But maybe it isn’t really the artistic merit that the game is really being judged on, quite often it’s really…

Nostalgia

Yep, it’s come to this, the big N.  No, not Nintendo… well, a lot of the time they are the ones this is being used against, but that’s not the point.  It’s not a coincidence that sequels and recent games are so much more likely to be derided for having an insufficient quantity of soul.  Nostalgia is a powerful force.  I’m not going to claim to be immune to it: in fact I’m hyper-sensitive to it and develop it much faster than most people (I’m listening to a song that brings back memories of 2014 as I type this sentence).  I’ve certainly replayed many games that in no way merit ever being touched again because they gave me nostalgia, I’m still looking for my floppy disc of Dino: Lost in Bedrock just because it’s a different version than the one you can find online.

 

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This has great nostalgia for me, do I have claws for claiming cat puns and terrible controls are soulful?

 

So having nostalgia is fine, enjoying things just because of nostalgia is fine.  But you have to be aware of what you’re doing, and more important, don’t judge new games on how much they appeal to your nostalgia!  If you want to pick up a game because it’s pandering to your nostalgia just right, go for it, but don’t judge newer games as a whole because they don’t accomplish the impossible task of giving you the same nostalgic feeling a game you played in elementary school does.  It is not the game lacking soul that makes it feel less magical than the 20-year-old previous installment did, it’s the fact that you were 20 years younger back then.  Not understanding your nostalgia cravings is just going to lead to disappointment and despair, and bashing every new game in a franchise because of that makes you annoying, okay? So stop it.

So what would it be?

So if games actually did have souls, what would the soul be?  What is the core of a game, the element that really makes it special?  If you took away all the extras and aesthetics, what would be left to define the pure essence of a game?  How long am I going to insult your intelligence by building this up when it’s blatantly obvious that I’m going to say the answer is gameplay?

 

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The gameplay in this is more soul than you’d find in any pixel art walking simulator.

 

Yes, if we were to say games actually have a soul, it would clearly be gameplay.  In addition to being the most important part of a game, gameplay ultimately leads to the things that are wrongfully called the soul of a game.  A game being good in the first place will be a major contribution to how much nostalgia it eventually produces, right?  And the positive associations a game gives you thanks to its gameplay are what lead to the little aesthetic touches and quirks that people mistake for soul.  If Bubsy was a platforming masterpiece, I firmly believe Bubsy’s annoying puns would be iconic and loved in a somewhat ironic way like the dialogue in Star Fox 64 and Resident Evil 4.

So that’s my rant for the day.  Week, months, whatever I procrastinated it to.  I hope I’ve made some points about what a game should and shouldn’t be judged by, or at least gotten people to find better terms for what they use to judge games.  A thought occurred to me as I was writing this, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that I was using gameplay as just as much of a vague catch-all in this article as the terms I railed against.  Going into detail about what I consider gameplay, though, would take up an entire article of its own… so that’s what I’m going to give it.  Stay tuned!

 

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But Is It Art? – Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind

I’ll be honest with you: the concept for this article came to me awhile back, when I challenged KI to beat Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the NES. The game is notoriously bad, largely due to the fact that the only reason most people know about it due to the Angry Video Game Nerd’s videos on it. Still, while watching him play it, eventually the game began to almost make sense to me. This led me to speculate: if this game had been released in a different time, at a different price point, would it have been considered as bad as it is? The game’s mechanics, attempting to reach the end of each level as Dr. Jekyll and trying to regain your sanity when the stress (damage) of being Jekyll turns you into the more aggressive Mr. Hyde. For its time, the game was certainly bad, but the concept struck me as sound, much more interesting than many art games we see today.

So what is the point of this article? Simply put, I’m going to be reexamining games that are generally considered to be horrible under an artistic lens. Are these games actually terrible or was the thin veneer of bad gameplay simply hiding a much broader message? After all, most art is considered inexplicable to the mainstream and a majority of games today that are classified as art are simply pretentious, all subverting the traditional form of video games in similar ways. Even more interesting, there are those out there that consider video games to be an art form all its own. From that stance, would even those games generally considered bad be art?

Today’s topic is Bubsy, specifically the first game in the series – Bubsy in: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind. Bubsy is somewhat infamous on the internet, generally considered the worst of the Sonic imitators that flooded the market during the early-to-mid 1990s. There were worse knockoffs: Awesome Possum springs to mind. Bubsy’s claim to infamy, however, was the fact that he had more games than any other terrible knockoff of its time. Worst of all, Bubsy’s last game – Bubsy 3D in: “Furbitten Planet” – is generally considered one of the worst video games of all-time.

The early Bubsy games are generally considered poorly-made knockoffs of Sonic the Hedgehog. When I look at them, however, I think they’re a little too poorly-made in some respects. Perhaps this is just madness brought on by playing Bubsy via the Steam re-release Bubsy Two-Fur, but some of the design choices in the original game just seemed too purposefully misguided to attribute to sheer incompetence. This has led me to consider the possibility that Bubsy wasn’t simply intended to be just another competitor in the imitation “anthropomorphic animal mascot platformer” race to the bottom. Could Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind instead be a shallow stealth parody of Sonic the Hedgehog?

Let’s take a look at Exhibit A: both Sonic and Bubsy run at incredibly fast speeds. In Sonic’s case, it’s pretty obvious. At this point, there is a not at all insignificant faction of the Sonic fandom that consider anything but mindless high-speed exercises in holding right to win to be a bastardization of the series’ concept (It actually makes me wonder if they played the original games in the first place). Nevertheless, high speed action played a significant role in Sonic’s development and in differentiating him from Mario. For Bubsy, however, the fast speed was more of a detriment to the overall concept. Bubsy’s controls were slippery, the camera moved at a much slower rate and the level design was actually more evocative of the Mario games. In the end, running at fast speeds in Bubsy would pretty much kill anyone without a purrfect memory of the stage layout and clawsome reflexes.

That brings me to my next point, Exhibit B. Anyone who’s ever actually played Bubsy will tell you that he typifies the one-hit wonder mechanic in video games. Bubsy is extremely furagile, considering he can be killed by cheese wheels, eggs and falling from great heights (in a platformer, no less!). To make matters worse, the yarn balls (Bubsy’s take on collectables) are entirely useless, to the extent where they don’t even give you extra lives when you collect enough of them (despite what the game’s manual tells you). Think about it though, if you took away Sonic’s rings, he’d also be a one-hit wonder. I can recall a particularly traumatic segment in the first Sonic game I ever owned – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Game Gear – where I was flung into a boss battle with no rings and a child’s mind, believing that the only way to beat a boss would be to hit it and not, you know, just wait for the boss fight to finish itself while dodging bombs.

Of course, there’s more to this parody theory than mere gameplay mechanics. Even Bubsy’s attitude seems fairly familiar to anyone even remotely familiar with Sonic’s peripheral media, especially the cartoons from the 1990s: every other sentence out of Sonic’s earliest animated incarnations (all provided by Jaleel White, better known as Steve Urkel) was some watered-down kid-friendly take on the “attitude” that was prevalent in the mid ‘90s. Bubsy mainly kept his wisecracks to assorted puns and generally invoked a more Looney Tunes-inspired attitude. Meanwhile, the actual Sonic the Hedgehog, the one in the video games, also embodied the same rude ‘tude that was so prevalent at this point in time. The difference is in the way Sonic presents his attitude – through snarky pantomimes and gestures, non-verbally depicting his displeasure with being forced to stand still. In other words, if Bubsy was meant to emulate Looney Tunes characters, then Sonic was paying homage to cartoons of the silent era, Felix the Cat specifically springs to mind.

My last bit of evidence is tenuous at best, but it’s still interesting in retrospect. Both the original Bubsy and Sonic have similar stage breakdowns. Each themed area (classified as a “zone” in Sonic jargon) has 3 levels (“acts”) with a boss fight at the end of the third level/act. Another interesting similarity is that the final level in both games is generally considered its own area – though Final Zone borrows a lot of its aesthetic from the preceding Scrap Brain Zone and consists of a short corridor and the game’s final showdown with Dr. Robotnik.

Of course, most people would probably say that I’m just looking too deep into connections that really aren’t there. That I’m attempting to salvage a game that is generally considered abominable when in reality, it’s just mediocre at best. Obviously, even if Bubsy were poorly constructed on purpose, that’s really no excuse for such a thing. Another think that must be taken into account is that the post-revival video game market was still fairly young by the time Bubsy first hit video screens. Is it really reasonable to conceive that someone could come up with something as avant-garde as a parody of a recent mega-hit in a day and age where every video game had to sell at a minimum of $50?

Regardless, I feel like Bubsy’s status as a terrible game is generally overstated. Aside from Bubsy 3D (which is definitely an abomination), Bubsy’s games were more mediocre than anything. Spotty controls, bizarre level design and most prominently, an annoying purrotagonist may be strikes against the game, but it’s not necessarily unique to gaming’s most despised bobcat. All the same, looking at maligned games from a different perspective was fun – perhaps there will be a sequel to this article down the line.

What do you think? Is Bubsy actually the smartest video game parody of the 16-bit era or am I off my rocker? Feel free to sound off in the comments.