The Elements of Gameplay

In my previous article, I dissected the meaning behind several essentially identical terms used to judge games, terms that I hate.  I condensed them under the label of “soul,” and argued that if a game actually had a soul, it would be its gameplay.  I realized that just labeling the real important part of a game as gameplay could sound kind of like the copout I accused the term soul of being.  What exactly is gameplay, anyway?  Well, I’ve actually given that quite a bit of thought, and pinpointed five clearly defined (if often subjective in terms of quality) parts of a game that combine to form that seemingly sacred concept of gameplay.  I’ll be going over each one, so let’s start putting together this Megazord known as gameplay!

Control

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Let’s start with something simple, but vital to every game, arguably the primary thing that defines something as a video game.  Control is one of those things where it being good means you never think about it.  You’re not thinking about the controls when you’re steering an airborne Mario past obstacles or circle strafing demons as Doomguy, but if those games had bad controls you sure as hell would be.  Control is the link between the game and the player, good control adds more to immersion than all the graphical touches and flavor text in the world.  Bad control, on the other hand, will haunt a game no matter how much it excels at the other elements of gameplay.  Control sets the tone for a game: some of the other elements have to be designed entirely around the controls.  One game’s perfect control could ruin a different game, and that could easily go both ways.  Control is the vehicle that the other elements of gameplay ride in, and if it crashes, the entire game goes up in smoke.

Content

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You’re playing a modern retail game that does everything perfectly.  You’re completely absorbed by the gameplay, the first two hours made you fall in love and you can’t wait to see what’s next… CREDITS!?  I think we’ve all felt the painful sucker punch of an unexpected credits sequence.  No matter how a good a game is, er, was, if your $60 purchase ends after two hours it’s probably going to lower your opinion of the experience.  Content is probably the most objective element of gameplay: the amount of levels, missions, secrets, etc. in a game can’t be changed by someone’s opinion.  The objective nature of both what content is and how much an individual game has makes this a simple but important factor when it comes to gameplay.  While content doesn’t really affect the core gameplay experience directly, the truth is quantity does matter to some extent, and I think how long you get to enjoy a game is pretty important.  I mean, what are you going to do after you finish a game, just start it over again?  Wait, maybe you will…

Replay

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I debated on whether to combine this element with the above.  It was tricky because while content and replay serve a nearly identical function, the abundance of one often leads to the lack of the other.  These two elements are the only ones on the list that can almost totally replace each other.  Replay value is the other side of content’s coin.  Content is how much you get out of a game before the credits roll, replay value is whether you want to go back and play the game again after that happens.  The line can blur at times, what does going back to earlier levels for a better rank, with the option to do it before or after you beat the game, count as?  What about looking for secrets needed to unlock the real final level/ending after you saw the first ending?  How the hell do you define when a multiplayer game is being replayed?  Replay can also have a purer form, however.  A truly great game will be fun to play again and again even if you’ve seen everything in it.  If you feel compelled to go back to a completed game again and again over the years, it has truly achieved great replay value.  Replay value is what makes a game immortal, how can it not be part of a game’s soul?

Challenge

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If Content and Replay can make up for each other, Challenge completely inverts that and must fight with itself to reach the correct balance.  A game being too easy makes it boring and pointless.  A game being too hard makes it frustrating and stressful.  To have great gameplay, a game has to use the spice known as difficulty and the sweetener known as mercy in just the right amounts, creating just the right amount of Challenge.  Checkpoints should be placed thoughtfully, difficulty spikes and breathers have to show up at the right times, puzzles have to take effort to solve without throwing the player into a pit of despair that only looking up the solution can rescue them from.  The game must somehow appeal to players of different skill and experience levels in the same package.  A game’s difficulty level may not be the most subjective quality about it, but whether it’s the RIGHT difficulty level is going to cause fistfights.  This is where Challenge versus cheapness comes into play, and games should make sure they only rely on challenge, no matter how many people online define cheapness as “any challenge above my personal skill level.”  If you thread the needle just right, however, you’ll contribute something to gameplay that adds a dimension to the experience which other artistic mediums can’t compare with.

Design

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And now we arrive at what I personally consider to be the most important part of gameplay.  I was originally going to call this element Level Design, but in addition to preferring that every element was one word, there are a few genres where that name wouldn’t fit.  Level design is mostly a cosmetic feature in genres like fighting games or Tetris-style puzzle games, after all.  In the end, there are a lot of terms you could use for this element depending on the genre.  Level design, fighting engine, competitive balance, course layout, it goes on.  At its core, this element is a game’s unique and personal layout, the thing that makes an individual game that specific individual game.  You could mess with the other elements in a game and it would be a variant or fragment of the same game, but Design makes it a new game. All of the other elements are intimately connected with design in every aspect.  The most subjective element when it comes to quality by far, Design is truly the core of the soul, the thing that defines the individual.  Whether it’s designing the level, placing enemies, balancing combat, thinking up puzzles, or deciding how far to go with realism, Design is the most important part of gameplay and by extension the most important part of game.

By Your Powers Combined

So there we have it, the five parts of a game that I believe make up that ideal known as gameplay.  Whether you want to think in terms of Power Rangers/Captain Planet/Avatar/My Little Pony or whatever, they have been assembled and Gameplay, the soul of a game, has been formed.  So, if you ever want to argue with someone bashing your favorite game for lacking “soul,” you can use gameplay as a counterargument, and you can use these elements to define gameplay.  Maybe I’ll write something about the anti-elements at some point, but for now I’ve said all I want to.  See you next time, and remember that gameplay puts the soul in console, wait, gameplay is the only consoulation for… no, don’t be con-souled about the soul of… never mind, just go.

 

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!

 

First Impressions

These past few months, I’ve been working on a couple more retrospective articles not unlike the one I wrote for The Legend of Zelda back when Breath of the Wild launched last month. In addition to writing a far larger than average article, I’m also left researching various things, simply to jog my memory for games I haven’t played in quite some time, so I’ve had little time to write much else aside from a post on my side blog and another list in what’s quickly become my April Fools tradition. The one upshot to all of this is that I was running low on topics to write about outside of said retrospectives and in the process of writing them, I’ve had time to think of new topics to write on. In fact, the topic for this very article was inspired by a trend I noticed while writing one of the retrospectives.

Effectively, I was researching the fan reception of one of the games I was writing for – a game that I specifically remembered being considered the worst of its series – and found that, unsurprisingly, the game had its own set of fervent defenders. Some of the people defending the game in question made the argument that it was, in fact, the first game in the series that was truly the low point of the series and that most people gave it a pass simply because it was the first game in the entire franchise – and therefore, was owed a great measure of respect, as the series itself wouldn’t exist without it. Obviously, the argument raged on after that, but I must admit the statement gave me pause. I’d felt this way about the originators of various other classic series: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, MegaMan …the list goes on. Yet somehow, an obscure flame war on some internet forum actually made me reflect upon it. Many fans of video game series do generally afford the first games of the franchise in question a greater extent of leniency than all other games in the series.

I mean, the reasoning is understandable. Being the first release in a series means that not only have the basic gameplay mechanics not been completely established, as the games that start series generally end up being far more experimental in nature, simply because they were often developed as stand-alone titles in the first place. As such, it’s dishonest to compare them to their sequels: after all, most sequels tend to build on whatever framework the original had. You know the old metaphor, “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants”? Same basic principle here – the clear majority of video game sequels wouldn’t be able to reach their level of quality without learning from both the mistakes and successes of earlier titles.

Of course, that leads to the major question at hand: do we overcompensate when it comes to discussing these first games? It does seem entirely possible that when looking back at the games themselves, especially in the case of longer-running series, we’ll often forgive bizarre design choices, stiffer controls, blander level design and other short-comings, simply because they were the originators of their respective franchises. Of course, this is particularly evident in series where there is a designated black sheep – a later game in the franchise that is despised by the fanbase in general, no matter how many lone wolves claim that they actually liked it, either due to contrarianism or genuine love for the game in question.

The weird thing about this is that this level of protectionism only seems to apply to the first game in the franchise, as opposed to earlier games in general. It’s as if, by the time the second game rolls around, every aspect had better be perfected or else the game itself is considered garbage. Take the second Ace Attorney, for example – despite the fact that we only received the enhanced port of the first game, people judged the second game far more harshly. As such, people would ignore the improvements Justice for All made compared to its predecessor’s gameplay, such as increased complexity, a higher difficulty level and the addition of the “Psyche Lock” mechanic.  Instead, most player reactions concentrated on the game’s flaws, particularly some story elements that were not considered on-par with those of the first Ace Attorney. You’ve also got to consider many cases where the second game was a complete departure from the first game’s base concept, though this will often yield softer criticism than incomplete refinements of existing formulas. Yet, in other forms of media that gravitate towards a more serialized approach, missteps in the process of development are generally more easily forgiven. Why then are video games so different?

Is the reason for this standard practice merely consideration for the game’s age and relative simplicity compared to its follow-ups or is there more to it? Could nostalgia play a role? The fact is that while there is a case for nostalgia being attributed to some cases of blatant protection – Legend of Zelda, Virtua Fighter and Metroid all come quickly to mind – this isn’t particularly a rule of the case. I mean, I honestly doubt that many people attribute any lasting nostalgia to games like the original Tekken or Bomberman, but even new fans of a series avoid scrutinizing these early iterations harshly. On the other hand, there are cases where there are objectively worse games later on in the series, which kind of muddies discussion about the first game’s flaws – it’s kind of difficult to pick apart a game if one of its successors is obviously flawed in ways even the original managed to avoid.

This phenomenon is particularly strange when you consider video game genres and sub-genres in general. While the first game in a beloved series will often be given a pass for their various shortcomings, the same is not always true for games that originated entire genres. For example, Pac-Land could be said to be one of, if not the, earliest attempts at creating a side-scrolling platformer, but doesn’t receive nearly as much love as the original Super Mario Bros., which popularized the genre in general. The same can be said for Karate Champ with regards to the fighting game genre: it’s generally viewed as a curiosity as opposed to hailed as a legitimate game, despite creating many of the conventions the genre enjoys to this day. Likewise, I’ve heard few discussions of the history of RPGs mention the Atari 2600’s Dragonstomper, perhaps the earliest example of the genre appearing on home consoles. Most discussions favor discussing Dragon Quest, or worst case scenario, the original Final Fantasy. This would seem to imply that age is not the only factor that causes people to be protective of the first games in these series, likely because these games are so obscure, they aren’t really under attack either. Still, it feels a bit hypocritical that if earlier games are considered important, these trailblazers aren’t afforded the same privilege.

While writing this article, I also considered if there were any major examples of series originators that missed out on these protections. I racked my brain, trying to think of multiple examples, but in the end, I could only think of one: the original Street Fighter. For the longest time, most people’s knowledge of the series started at “Street Fighter II” and for some reason, no one ever seemed to question what had happened to Street Fighter “One”. I’m not sure what people thought – maybe they figured that the “two” was referencing that there were two fighters in a match? I’m not entirely sure. Basically, back in the 90s, if someone mentioned “Street Fighter”, you knew they were talking about SF2, period. Of course, I had limited knowledge of the original Street Fighter game – but that came in the form of a port that managed to be worse than the original in every respect. These days, however, knowledge of the original 1987 arcade game is a lot more common, albeit tinged with copious amounts of vitriol. I’d probably argue that it’s almost a comedy of errors that Capcom still celebrates the franchise’s anniversaries on the original Street Fighter’s release date. Nonetheless, perhaps it’s the fact that it isn’t afforded any respect that made Street Fighter stick out in my mind: at best, I’ve seen people request characters that are forever tied to the game reappear in later titles as fully playable characters, as they are considered concepts too good to be left as unplayable characters in a game no one likes.

Maybe the true reason for handling the first game in a series so gently is less due to hostility towards follow-ups, but simply done with the purpose – subconsciously or otherwise – of making sure that these games don’t end up like the original Street Fighter. In the end, these games definitely hold an important place in the history of not only the franchises they started, but in the case of some particularly old series, video game history itself. I guess when you take that concrete level of importance into account, it’s easy to see how an attempt at treating these gaming giants with well-earned respect can quickly go overboard – nostalgia filter or no. Likewise, bashing a game simply because the ones that followed it improved on the formula isn’t particularly fair. However, by that very same token, holding a sequel accountable for “not doing enough” to improve on its precursor by criticizing it excessively doesn’t strike me as the proper response either. In the end, I guess it’s just better to keep a firmer grasp on context in general when documenting a series’ evolution, regardless of medium.

Of Axioms and Idioms: The “Bayonetta May Cry” Syndrome

I have this tendency to start new series on the Retronaissance blog seemingly at random, only to let them die. I think my main problem is that I come up with a topic that I would absolutely love to revisit on multiple occasions, I come up with one topic to serve as a pilot article for the prospective series and then when it comes right down to it, I’m either unable to think of a good follow-up or a severely limited number of viable subjects for future pieces. Here’s hoping this one ends up surviving.

Welcome to the first article in a new series, “Of Axioms and Idioms”. These articles will essentially act as a soapbox for various “rules of thumb” I appear to have. Odd quirky choices that have affected my personal taste in video games and specific trends I’ve pinpointed. These aren’t going to be simple revelations – so don’t expect articles on why I love arcade-style games over their simulation counterparts, why I love fighting games or why I detest most turn-based RPGS – more along the lines of specific aspects that transcend genres, companies and generations.

The topic of this first article is simple, yet more than likely incoherent: a certain phenomenon I generally refer to as the “Bayonetta May Cry” syndrome. Essentially, playing later games in a franchise/genre, has a certain tendency to paint earlier iterations in such a negative light, that I’m completely unable to enjoy them. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a prejudice I wholeheartedly acknowledge. Of course, on the surface it probably seems obvious: I’ve never heard of a case of a video game sequel not attempting to surpass its original.

“Bayonetta May Cry” seems like an odd way to phrase it, but I mainly identify it as such due to the events that led me to fully realize and articulate exactly what was going on. I was playing the original Devil May Cry on the PS2 for the first time. Unfortunately, by that point, I had already played through the original Bayonetta on Xbox 360 and it had painted a very vivid picture of what to expect of “character action games”, a sub-genre which DMC trailblazed. Unfortunately, DMC1 did not live up to the hype and as such, I never ended up finishing the game. I may want to do so at some point, but only on my terms – perhaps if Capcom decides to port that shiny HD collection to PC?

There are some other examples that come to mind. Obviously, I played Street Fighter II long before the original (or at least, a real version of the original) – but that’s so common, it’s not worth mentioning. Tekken 1 and 2, on the other hand, seems a lot more interesting. While I did encounter Tekken 1 first (in an arcade on vacation), Tekken 2 was the first game in the series I played. The evolution that went on between these two games is amazing – the graphics, the gameplay, everything but the roster had changed immensely. Likewise, you’ve got the Capcom vs. SNK duology: the first game was alright, but playing the second game first: with its extended roster, the expanded number of fighting styles and the complete overhaul of the ratio system, CvS2 surpassed the original in every way.

Aside from Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, perhaps the best example of this feeling happened with Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series. While I did technically start The Sacred Stones first, playing Awakening on the 3DS pretty much confirmed that I would never be looking back on it. The best part about this one is that I can even track my opinions of it. At first, I thought Sacred Stones was alright, a bit slow compared to other strategy-RPGs I had played at that point, but not bad. After playing Awakening, however, I decided there was no looking back: too much had improved and I was completely looking forward. The ability to pair up units alone confirmed that I would never go back to the GBA title and made me glad that I hadn’t paid a single cent for it – after all, I had received it as a 3DS Ambassador bonus.

Of course, it’s all contextual: I’m a lot more forgiving when it comes to retro games – or at least, what I consider to be retro games. Anything before the 5th generation (Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation) are generally safe, as well as the Dreamcast due to its short lifespan. The rest of the 6th generation – the PlayStation 2, the GameCube and the original Xbox – are more of a blind spot for me. I understand that they’ve been gone for roughly a decade now, but it feels like they were the beginning of what the current generations of consoles built themselves upon, a clear break from the earlier generations. It doesn’t help that that was the generation where I essentially felt out of mainline video games, preferring to stick to portables and classic retro for the time being.

I’m certain this bias has pretty much always existed in the back of my head. It’s part of the reason I’ve always liked playing series “in release order” as opposed to doing what most people suggest and start with the latest game in the series before working backwards. I’m completely convinced that playing later games earlier will ruin the earlier games in a franchise for me, though there have been some cases where this has not come to pass. For example, I played the TurboGrafx-16 version of Ys Books I & II after Ys I & II Chronicles+ on Steam. I enjoyed the TG-16 version a lot, despite Chronicles+ being a longer game, with more responsive controls and superior graphics. There were some things I’d argue that Books I & II did better than the later release – best example would be the fact that the leveling system was balanced to account for both games.

Still, I worry that game mechanics and features that I grow to rely on and expect in later entries in a long-running series may end up spoiling me. More importantly, I’m worried that it may color my outlook on the earlier games, because I’ll be unable to realize whether I hate it because it lacks features I’ve come to expect or if the game is legitimately bad. Of course, that’s something that anyone who focuses on retro games would have to worry about, whether there is nostalgia for the subject matter or if it’s an unfamiliar release. It’s important to keep this kind of thing in mind.

Of course, the truth is it’s for the best that I’ve realized this bias of mine. It helps me to compensate when playing older games. This came into play this past year, when I finally decided to livestream Final Fantasy 7 – one of the three games I’d consider the most beloved (if not overrated) of its generation, alongside the original Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time. When playing the game, I promised not to compare it to more modern turn-based RPGs I liked: games like Undertale, Evolution Worlds and the first two Paper Mario games. I decided to compare it to its predecessors – Earthbound, Super Mario RPG – as well as a contemporary game: Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, originally released a few months before FF7 was in Japan. It didn’t help matters (I still ended up hating FF7), but at least I avoided the pitfall of judging the game against modern games that should have surpassed it.

Of the odd preferences and quirky opinions I could possibly discuss in this series, this one would have to be one of the more negative ones. Comparing older games to later iterations in their series or genre is clearly unfair, but the problem would have to be that it’s common. When you consider that there are younger gamers enjoying the medium, some that weren’t even alive during the 5th and 6th generations, it’s completely understandable: few people my age like watching films from before they were born, so why should kids today be forced to appreciate games that are clunkier and less refined than those that are available to them on a wider and more regular basis? The one upshot to that is that by acknowledging it, I can avoid unfairly judging older games by forcing them to live up to unfair standards and hopefully this will allow me to judge them more fairly, even in retrospect. Maybe one day, I’ll even go back to playing the original Devil May Cry.

Made To Be Broken

A few months back, I wrote a piece about how both my feelings of nostalgia and general malaise towards more recent generations have cropped into how I view the medium of video games as they move forward: that is, negatively. Needless to say, there are just certain trends that are making me feel burnt out and I somehow long for what I remember as gaming’s “Wild West” era. While I was conceiving the piece, I was persuaded to split it in half and the previous article dealt with the more loose and open nature of the console market in general, focusing on just how many companies tried to break into the video game market in an effort to revolutionize it, but ended up as “also-ran” footnotes in the ever-lengthening history of video games.

This time around, I’ll be focusing more on oddities within the games of this time period themselves – games that would clearly be indies if they were made today. Though for the most part, I’ll be focusing on various cultural shifts that happened during this time period, many of which have had reverberations that affect the medium to this day. Perhaps if some of these events hadn’t happened, video games as a whole would look completely different. Shifts that may very well have only happened due to the sheer fluidity of the format at the time they occurred, things that may have even been impossible if they happened today.

One of the reasons I decided to write these articles in the first place was due to a story I had read online that just amazed me. It involved the cult classic D, an avant-garde full-motion video adventure game released in 1995 on the 3DO, Sega Saturn, PlayStation and PC – the latter has recently been re-released on Good Old Games. The game’s creator, the late Kenji Eno related a story to 1UP about the game’s development. He actually added the game’s story late in the game’s development and it involved cannibalism, a taboo subject in many parts of the world. In order to assure that the game was released uncensored, Eno submitted the game for approval late, sending a copy without the story segments. He then switched that copy with the full game, sending it to be printed out. I am just awed by this story: if anything like this were to happen today, the game would have likely have been recalled and every original copy would have likely have been destroyed.

Indeed, the entire landscape of the video game market changed back in 1993. Due to the controversial video game releases of Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, both in their full unaltered state on various Sega platforms, there was a congressional hearing over whether or not video games with “controversial content” should have been completely banned. That’s right, the United States Congress threatened to ban video games with violent or sexual content, not unlike Germany or Australia’s wide array of video game regulation. In the end, a compromise was made: the video game industry decided to self-regulate content and educate parents on the type of content the products they were selling contained, in order to allow them to make informed purchases of material they deemed appropriate for their children. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was founded the following year in 1994. It was later joined by Japan’s Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) in 2002 and Pan European Game Information (PEGI) in 2003. In the end, this was probably a net positive overall, but what I find ironic about this was that Sega was putting ratings on their games before the ESRB was even established.

Night Trap and D were both what were referred to as “full-motion video” (commonly abbreviated as “FMV”) games, utilizing the then-cutting edge ability of CD-based consoles to create an entire video game experience using video clips. Typically, these games utilized live-action footage, thus creating “graphics” that trump even modern video games in terms of realism. Of course, this would generally come at the cost of complex gameplay experiences: gameplay was rarely more complex than the quick-time events we’ve seen in video games for generations. Of course, we’ve recently seen a resurgence in the genre, via indie developers. Though this time around, it would seem that the games made in the revival are less about providing graphical fidelity and more about creating “art” – scare quotes intended.

Of course, the existence of FMV games as a genre brings up another point. This may just be a matter of my own perception, but it seemed like there was a time when popular titles would lead into entirely new genres. I remember watching the “first-person shooter” genre blossom from the more derogatory “Doom clones”. Street Fighter II, while not the first fighting game, cemented various aspects of the 2D fighting game genre. These days, it seems like we never surpass the “clone” phase of this evolution: the closest we’ve gotten is the deluge of “crafting” games in the wake of Minecraft, but this generally just leads to games in existing genres adopting its unique elements.

Likewise, another thing I’d consider to be better in “the good ol’ days” would be the limitations put upon developers. In generations past, developers were generally only limited by whatever hardware they were developing for. This would generally lead to clever solutions to problems: arcade games would be entirely overhauled if they weren’t suitable for consoles, various perspective cheats would be used to create amazing graphical tricks and sometimes even entirely new hardware could be added to offset whatever limitations the systems in question had. Meanwhile, in the modern era, developers seem to have the exact opposite problem – an amazing amount of power to work with, but generally held back by the far more mundane problem of a lack of resources. Strict deadlines, a lack of manpower or finances: these are the major bottlenecks that plague today’s developers. In an era where it seems like we’re getting less and less for the same amount, it’s just sad to consider that we’re effectively being cheated out of the best possible games of this generation for such bland reasons.

In the end, perhaps the reason that video games as a medium feels far less elastic and much more deeply rooted in various traditions is due to the simple fact that they have a history now. Much like how early motion pictures were far more inventive than modern films, video games have gone through their own set of growing pains and settled on various frameworks. While adhesion to whatever institutions that have taken root in the industry are obviously not mandatory, they’ve effectively become a groove that the industry as a whole have settled into, effectively creating the landscape we know today.

Dark Horse Ensemble

I’m going to be completely honest here: lately, I’ve been feeling a little burnt out in some ways when it comes to modern gaming. Not enough to drop the habit entirely, as I did during the sixth generation, but the feelings of nostalgia I felt back then have bubbled back up to the surface, albeit for different reasons. Instead of the simple statement that “games back in the old games were, like, a billion times better!” (ah, the simplicity of adolescence!), these feelings are a bit more introspective. Instead, what I long for were the paradigm shifts of yore: when every electronics company tried to break into the video game console market, when big-name companies would actually publish the weird experimental games you only see as indies nowadays, back when computer games and video games were completely different things. Back when, at least from my perspective, video games were in their “wild west” period: an era where a plucky Hanafuda card company could break into the scene and take over the entire video game market, only to be toppled down the line by the company that brought us Betamax.

Originally, I was going to write a single article to attempt to flush out my nostalgia into something worthwhile. However, just due to how nebulous everything I’m talking about is and the fact that the original concept could only come across as a bitter rant from a nostalgic millennial, I was advised to split it into two articles instead. This time, we’ll be focusing on the hardware side of things – stay tuned for the software side of things sometime soon.

Since the sixth generation, the first-party gaming companies have been, shall we say, set in stone: Nintendo, which emerged all the way back during the third generation of gaming; Sony, which burst onto the scene during the fifth in an act of unbridled revenge on the former; and wacky PC company Microsoft sliding into the sixth generation, effectively taking over for the departing Sega. In previous generations, however, there were several pretenders to the throne – even back when people would have you believe there were even less choices. Now this article won’t be, by any means, comprehensive: instead, owing to the nostalgic origin of this piece, I’ll be writing about the systems I can remember most vividly.

First, let’s start with something a bit less obscure: the Sega Master System. Released in North America in 1986, the Master System was Sega’s first console released outside of Japan – it was known as the Mark III in its country of origin, being preceded by both the SG-1000 and the SG-1000 II, technically making it Sega’s third console overall. Now obviously, the Master System didn’t do such a great job breaking into the American market (as evidenced by the fact that what most people referred to as a “Sega” was generally the Genesis/MegaDrive), it did manage to break into a very profitable niche both in Europe and Latin America, especially Brazil. Regardless, the system sold well enough worldwide for Sega to continue tinkering with console hardware, before releasing their magnum opus: the aforementioned Genesis. While I personally had no experience with the Master System itself, it still manages to hold a special place in my heart: after all, the first video game system I ever owned was Sega’s Game Gear, which was effectively a portable (and significantly more popular) Master System.

Speaking of the Game Gear, here’s a fun fact: it wasn’t even the first handheld console to serve up games in color. Predating Sega’s slimmest handheld by two years in North America, The Atari Lynx was not only the first Atari system to be named after a wildcat, it was also surprisingly long-lived, being sold all the way into 1995. Cheaper and more power efficient than the Game Gear that would push it into obscurity, the Lynx’s Achilles’ heel was critical: it had an absolutely miniscule library of games, only managing to hit 75 official releases by the time the console was discontinued. That means that for its entire lifespan (from 1989 to 1995), the Lynx averaged roughly 12 and a half games a year. The main game I remember from the console was, bafflingly, a port of Ninja Gaiden III from the NES, though it had a respectable amount of ports, such as Robotron 2084, Ms. Pac-Man, Hard Drivin’, Pit Fighter, Double Dragon and bafflingly, the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden.

Another interesting factoid generally lost on most of us was the fact that the Sega Genesis was released in North America in August 1989, thus officially starting the fourth generation of video games for the Western hemisphere. Of course, many people would think that the Genesis would have to wait until the Super Nintendo was released in 1991 for some real competition, but you’d be wrong. The ultimate in also-rans, the TurboGrafx-16, released by Turbo Technologies Inc. (or TTI, for short), was released the same year as the Genesis in North America, but actually predated it in Japan: the MegaDrive was released in 1988, while the NEC’s PC-Engine (the TurboGrafx’s Japanese counterpart) was released the previous year. NEC’s little wonder console would also manage to beat Sega to many other milestones as well. The most notable of these would have to be the TurboGrafx-CD, released in North America in 1989, an add-on unit akin to the Sega CD. There was also 1992’s TurboDuo, which combined the CD into the base unit and beefed up the system specs as well. In addition, TTI (a joint venture of NEC and primary developer Hudson Soft) released the Super System Card by mail order, which upgraded existing TurboGrafx-CDs to the same specs as the TurboDuo.

Of course, perhaps the most amazing thing about the TurboGrafx-16 was its mascot: not platformer mascot Bonk (or PC Genjin, as he was known in Japan), I’m talking about Johnny Turbo. Truly a product of the halcyon age of the ‘90s, Johnny Turbo was the totally rad alter ego of computer expert Johnathan Brandstetter who fought against the evil alien overlords over at “FEKA” who were spreading lies about how the TurboDuo wasn’t the first CD-based game system on the market. Needless to say, the TurboGrafx-16 was generally considered a loser outside of its country of origin, mainly due to the fact that the base system was weaker than the Sega Genesis (which from our perspective, came out first) and that many of the best games the system had to offer were strictly Japan-only releases, leaving us with less recognizable games and some truly abysmal Western-developed releases. The ironic thing about this was that, in Japan, the MegaDrive was actually the third most popular system of its generation, effectively being trounced by the PC-Engine and its countless off-shoots.

However, perhaps the most incredible thing to come out of the TurboGrafx experiment was the TurboExpress. Released a whopping 4 years before Sega’s own portable Genesis the Nomad, the TurboExpress was a fully functional portable TurboGrafx-16 that could play all of the TG-16’s games. It also had a TV tuner, which allowed owners to transform the TurboExpress into a portable TV, much like the Game Gear had and even offered a link cable to allow for two-player play. In fact, a few TurboGrafx-16 games even had unique multiplayer modes for the TurboExpress.

Next up, we come to what was perhaps the biggest loser of any of the consoles I’ll be talking about in this article: the 3DO. Conceived by EA founder Trip Hawkins and developed by the aptly named 3DO company, the 3DO wasn’t so much a console as it was a series of specifications. Panasonic manufactured the first units back in 1993, but both Sanyo and GoldStar (later LG) would begin producing their own models in 1994. In essence, it was effectively the predecessor to Valve’s current model for its Steam Machines. The 3DO was a technological powerhouse back when it was initially released in 1993. Unfortunately, it was also launched at a whopping $699. Likewise, the game’s library generally consisted of some fairly unwieldy PC ports though there were a few gems on it. My main memory of the 3DO was playing Super Street Fighter II Turbo on it at a short-lived game shop near my house and I was literally blown away: my young mind was so impressed because while the Genesis and SNES couldn’t handle Super Turbo, this behemoth could! Unfortunately, developers never really adapted to the hardware and by the time both the PS1 and Saturn came out, the 3DO’s impressive technology had aged like an internet meme. It just couldn’t compete and bowed out entirely in 1996. 3DO did plan a successor, dubbed the M2, but eventually bowed out of the market and sold the concept to Panasonic who eventually abandoned their planned concept. The technology lived on in ATMs and coffee vending machines and Konami would also license its use to build an arcade board in the late 1990s.

Speaking of expensive powerhouses, what list would be complete without the NeoGeo Advanced Entertainment System. Now, while I’m sure most gamers are at least marginally aware of the NeoGeo Multi Video System, a proprietary arcade board built by SNK, substantially less should be familiar with its home console variant. Released in 1990 at a whopping $649.99, The NeoGeo AES was quite literally worth the price of admission, as it had the exact same specs and library as the MVS. Think about that, you could literally play arcade-perfect versions of arcade games from the comfort of your home at a mere $200 and without the hassle of trying to stash multiple arcade machines in your garage or basement. Of course, while the AES didn’t enjoy mainstream success, it did have a dedicated fanbase and an extremely long lifespan, with the last title being released in 2004. Then there’s the NeoGeo CD, released in 1994 at a much more reasonable $399, with games costing $50 apiece. Unfortunately, the NGCD was marred by extremely long load times, though the Japan-exclusive NeoGeo CDZ doubled its disc-read speed and its last game was released in 1999. The NeoGeo CD did have its fair share of exclusive titles however, the most well-known being Samurai Shodown RPG, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Last but not least, I’ll be talking about the also-ran that’s the closest to my heart. The one system on this list, I not only own, but owned while it was still alive and kicking. Despite relative success in the arcade and enthusiast gaming markets, SNK decided to branch out even further – into the handheld market. The Neo Geo Pocket was originally only released in Japan as a black-and-white handheld, but its successor, the Neo Geo Pocket Color saw a much wider release, including North America. A simple system to say the least, the NGPC was unique in many ways. It had the best selection of fighting games on a handheld EVER (yes, I’d say it’s even better than the Vita in that respect), but it also managed to push SNK out of their arcade-style comfort zone, allowing them to develop more refined gameplay experiences: classic turn-based RPGs like Card Fighters’ Clash and Biomotor Unitron, the turn-based strategy game Faselei!, the action RPG Dark Arms: Beast Busters 1999 and even third party support from Sega in the form of Sonic Pocket Adventure. Alas, when SNK closed down for the first time in 2000, the NGPC fell by the wayside, leaving several titles in limbo, including a revival of Ikari Warriors, a third game in the King of Fighters R series, NFL Blitz, Magician Lord and perhaps most heart-breaking of all to me, Windjammers. As an aside, ever since SNK announced that they’re looking through old IPs to revive in the near future, I’m personally hoping they consider giving another shot to ladies-only fighting game Gals’ Fighter, an NGPC original.

In the end, talking about these old failures scratched that nostalgic itch ever so lightly, which is kind of ironic. Back when they existed, I generally considered the majority of them as pathetic imitators attempting to encroach on the territory of “real video games”, but when I think back on them, they were just a part of what made the environment so exciting back then. After all, no one thought Sony was going to become a powerhouse during the fifth generation and everyone expected Microsoft to drop out after the initial Xbox’s lack of success, only for the 360 to best the PS3 for the majority of its lifespan. Lately though, the closest we’ve seen to these competitors of old have been Valve’s line of Steam Machines and the Ouya, the crowd-funded failure of an Android console. More depressing still, this was even more action than we saw in the previous two generations. For the reasons I’ve stated, I’m actually somewhat excited to see what happens with Fuze Entertainment’s Tomahawk F1, which was released in China back in June. I’ll be honest, I agree with the general consensus that it looks a bit lame, and yet, that’s the reason I’m excited for it. I’m getting the warm fuzzies of nostalgia for this thing because it almost looks like the modern-day equivalent of the Atari Jaguar. Of course, who knows? It could surprise us.

But Is It Art? – Street Fighter: The Movie (Arcade)

I’ve wanted to do another one of these articles for quite some time now. In fact, I really wanted to do another one right after finishing up the first one about Bubsy. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t think of any topics that I both considered interesting and had enough knowledge about. However, not too long ago, a friend of mine suggested I do a new one, as he was a fan of the first and challenged me to rack my brain for inspiration for a suitable topic. Somehow, challenging me to continue this series gave me the inspiration for a new topic in record time.

If you haven’t read the title of the article, the topic of this entry in the “But Is It Art?” series is Street Fighter: The Movie: …The Game. Specifically, the version released in arcades circa June 1995. Now this game (which from here on out, I’ll abbreviate as “SFTM”) is the pinnacle of willfully forgotten Street Fighter games: it lacks the historical significance of the original Street Fighter from 1987; there is no real (albeit misguided) demand for character original to this iteration to make reappearances in future titles, quite unlike the Street Fighter EX series (developed by ARIKA) and there’s definitely no call for the game to be re-released, due to the game having the infamous reputation of being the worst Street Fighter game of all-time – even when taking into account the hyperbole slung at the most recent Street Fighter V.

Yet, I still beg the question: is it art? Where most stream monsters see an abomination cobbled together by the hands of a worthless “baka gaijin” company from the 1990s, I see what may very well be the most brilliant movie-to-video game adaptation of all time! Consider this, SFTM’s arcade version was generally considered a poor conversion of the classic Street Fighter 2, but who among you would not claim the exact same of its source material: the ill-received, ironic cult classic that was 1994’s Street Fighter movie. Can one consider a game that truly embodies the essence of the film it was commissioned to represent really be considered a failure? As I argued that Bubsy was a parody of the original Sonic the Hedgehog before, I now argue that Incredible Technologies made the greatest video game adaption of a major motion picture in the history of both mediums.

First off, let’s look at Exhibit A: the mindset behind the movie’s creation itself. Steven E. de Souza, the movie’s director actually wanted to actively downplay the “supernatural” elements of the games in his film adaptation, citing that adherence to the source material was what made the Super Mario Bros. movie a critical flop. Considering the fact that the movie that provided the basis from this game decided to actively avoid elements from the source material, wouldn’t it be more accurate to equally avoid those elements when converting the inaccurate movie into its own video game? Indeed, the game would only be considered defective if you were looking at it as a straight replication of the Street Fighter II games –this was strictly not the case: the game was a tie-in for the movie, which took its own creative liberties.

Exhibit B is a little more esoteric, but hopefully all will be revealed by the end of this paragraph. During the production of the Street Fighter movie, Capcom put an extreme emphasis on nabbing famous action star Jean-Claude Van Damme to play the leading role of William F. Guile, to the extent where they used a majority of the film’s budget signing both him and Raúl Juliá. The majority of the film’s cast reprised their roles in the game, with the exception of Juliá, who was replaced by a stuntman due to his ailing health. Why do I bring this up? Simple, it is almost common knowledge at this point that the original plan for Mortal Kombat was to create a licensed video game based on van Damme’s 1992 film Universal Soldier. Midway counter-pitched a game focused on Van Damme himself instead, taking inspiration from his 1988 film Bloodsport. As we all know, those plans fell through, but Van Damme provided the inspiration for the character Johnny Cage. Considering the fact that at least in the West, Mortal Kombat was Street Fighter’s chief rival at the time, bragging about the fact that Capcom had succeeded where Midway had failed seems like an entirely plausible theory – though ironically, van Damme only managed to record four hours of motion capture for the game, the rest of the digital captures were provided by one of Van Damme’s stuntmen: Mark Stefanich.

Finally, there’s Exhibit C: the fact that the movie itself was a Western production, it would only make sense for the video game adaptation itself to take on some Western design philosophies, in order to better match the tone and style of the film itself. Unfortunately for the game itself, at this point, the majority of 2D fighting games were simply terrible clones of the Mortal Kombat series, many so bad I have a sinking suspicion they were intended more as parodies than copycats. Even Mortal Kombat’s chief Western rival, Killer Instinct, aped elements of the game including blood and dynamic finishing moves. In fact, Incredible Technologies, the game’s developer, was no strange to Mortal Kombat clones, having made two of their own: 1992’s Time Killers and 1994’s Blood Storm – which is likely the reason why Capcom recruited them to make their own digitized live-action fighting game (even though both games actually used sprites).

As an aside, I just find it kind of interesting that many people consider the home console game – which was an entirely different game from the arcade version, which never received a home port – to be the superior game, though both are generally disliked. The home version was just a dolled-up recycling of the engine for the classic Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Granted, the home version of SFTM did add some new elements, actually being the first time in a Street Fighter game where you could use “EX” special moves (referred to as “Super Special Moves” in-game), predating even Street Fighter III 2nd Impact. Likewise, the roster was changed to better resemble Super Turbo as well: Sawada was kept, as he was a replacement for Fei Long, but the four palette-swapped Bison Troopers were removed from the game and replaced with Blanka and Dee Jay. Interestingly enough, there was an unused ending for Blanka in the arcade version, implying that he may have at one point been considered as a playable character. Even more bizarre was the absence of both Dhalsim and T. Hawk from both versions, despite appearing in the movie itself. Regardless, though the home version is considered the superior version of the game, my preferences lie with the arcade version, because all-in-all, no matter how bad the game itself may have been, the conversion made for home consoles was just an inferior version of a game that was eventually made available for both of the consoles SFTM appeared on – via the first Street Fighter Collection, a two-disc set that included Super Street Fighter II, Super Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha 2 Gold.

Of course, the argument that could be made against this theory is pretty obvious: Incredible Technologies doesn’t exactly have the best track record, though they would eventually enjoy reasonable success with the Golden Tee series. Likewise, while you’re unlikely to find Time Killers and Blood Storm on anyone’s top 10 worst fighting games of all-time list, the memorable aspects of these two games were their gimmicks, not great gameplay. Considering the fact that Capcom worked with such abominable companies as Acclaim, U.S. Gold and my mortal enemy, Hi-Tech Expressions, it’s entirely possible that this was just a cynical cash grab at the hands of Capcom to try to win over fans of their chief fighting game rival for the least amount of money possible. Fun fact: Incredible Technologies also co-developed Ducktales: The Quest for Gold on various computer systems (not to be confused with Capcom’s NES and Game Boy titles). That was actually the only Ducktales game I ever played growing up. Maybe I’ll revive Repressious Memories and do an episode on it someday.

In the end, whether or not it was art, despite all the horrible things people have said about this game, it did some interesting things. Alongside the original Street Fighter Alpha (which came out the same month), it was one of the first Street Fighter games to expand on the Super Combo concept, allowing characters the chance to perform more than one. It gave some classic Street Fighter characters some brand new moves, most notably Guile’s Handcuffs, a reference to the infamous glitch from the original version of Street Fighter II. It was even unique to see a Capcom-published fighting game ape the concept of SNK’s desperation moves – special attacks only available to fighters when they lost a certain amount of health – though in this case, they were more like standard special moves than the super combo-esque moves more common in SNK’s version. There were also counter throws, the ability to interrupt blocks to perform special moves (not unlike an Alpha Counter) and SFTM Arcade even had the distinctive honor of being the first Capcom game to incorporate a “Tag Team” mode, predating X-Men vs. Street Fighter by over a year. Granted, this game’s Tag Mode was more like the 2-on-2 mode in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3: not allowing to switch characters on the fly, rather the second character would take the first’s place when they were defeated and the round would continue until both of one player’s characters were defeated.

Granted, I probably don’t have the best opinions with regards to the Street Fighter series in general. I don’t consider the first game to be an unplayable abomination, simply because my first experience with it was with a PC port so terrible, it made the original arcade version look like a gaming masterpiece. While most people fight over whether Super Turbo and Third Strike is the best game in the series, I personally tended to prefer the Alpha sub-series. So maybe considering Street Fighter: The Movie: The Arcade Game to be something of a work of art is just another one of those offbeat opinions I have.

What do you think? Was SFTM a brilliant commentary on its own flawed source material or a truly cynical fighting game built by committee to appeal to Capcom’s own pessimistic viewpoint of Mortal Kombat fans? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section.

Top 10 Games I Want Ported FROM PC

In the past, I’ll admit, I’ve had a tendency to write articles that were simply thinly-veiled attempts at port-begging – one of the perceived cardinal sins of PC gamers in general. Eventually, I decided to branch out into asking that old and nearly-forgotten games be re-released on modern platforms, partially out of the revelation that begging for games on a single platform was completely self-serving, but equally important was the fact that I was just running low on material in general: hopefully that problem won’t end up rectifying itself.

Regardless, after those articles began to dry up, I considered multiple ways to keep the concept alive. While I’m happy with what I ended up deciding on, there were some other concepts I managed to kick around: one of them a simple enough concept – a complete reversal on the original idea, done up as an April Fools’ parody of one of those PC ports articles, done completely tongue-in-cheek, focusing on the idea that it was, in fact, the console gamers that were being deprived of games. As time went on, I began to feel that the joke article simultaneously came off as too bitter in tone and was far too interesting of an article to relegate to joke status. So while I still decided to release the article on April 1st, it’s now a legitimate article, detailing 10 games I feel console gamers should be allowed to play.

The rules for this article is somewhat different than the usual. This time, we’re looking at relatively recent PC games (let’s say, games that were released from 2006 – a decade ago, near the beginning of the seventh-generation of video game consoles) that have not appeared on consoles at the time this article was written. To make things a little more interesting, I’m also going to opine on which platforms the game would be best suited.
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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.

 

Under Reconstruction: Ys V -Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I have something of an obsession with remakes. The only real problem I have is that most of the time, I feel like they’re being wasted. It’s the same with movies: most of the stuff getting remade is already perfectly fine. It just seems like a waste in many cases, in some cases, the remake even turns out worse than the original (Wander of the Dragons, anyone?). Isn’t the point of remakes to improve on the source material? Why remake a perfectly good game when there’s so much trash out there just begging for a second chance?

Welcome to the first entry in a new series: Under Reconstruction. Similar to some of the other series I’ve written on here, this is going to be a proposal series, taking a look at weak games in various franchises (with at least a cult following) and determine the best way to rehabilitate them into something worthy of their respective series. …or at least cut down on how terrible it is.

Today’s topic is the fifth game in the Ys franchise: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin for the Super Famicom. This topic hits me a little more personally than usual, as I spent the better part of this year doing a marathon run-through of 5 games in the series, concluding with Ys V. Now Ys V wasn’t the only clunker I played through: the SFC version of Ys IV (Mask of the Sun) was also fairly mediocre, but it has two competent companion titles (The Dawn of Ys on PC-Engine CD and Memories of Celceta on PlayStation Vita) to pick up the slack. Ys V only has a remake on the PS2 handled by Taito, one that fixes some of the original game’s issues, while creating entirely new ones in the process.

Ys V is generally considered the black sheep of the Ys franchise, but apparently originally that title was held by the third game in the series. Wanderers from Ys was a deviation from the traditional top-down perspective commonly associated with the early Ys games, opting for a side-scrolling system that led to some unfavorable comparisons to Zelda II. However, this all changed when the game was remade as The Oath in Felghana, generally considered one of the best games in the entire franchise. There’s also been something of a pattern in the Ys series’ releases as of late: Ys Seven was followed by the aforementioned Memories of Celceta, which was a reimagining of Ys IV. When the eighth game in the Ys franchise (recently reconfirmed by Falcom, to my relief) was first announced, fans of the series began to speculate that a similar remake or reimagining for Ys V would be on the horizon.

Gameplay

Ys V was a significant departure from earlier games in the franchise. What separated Ys from most action-RPGs of its era was its combat system: instead of using a button to attack, the player would simply bump into enemies off-center to deal damage to the enemies. Bumping dead center would either lead to traded hits or just damage to the player, depending on which game you were playing. However, both original versions of Ys IV revealed some significant shortcomings with the Ys series’ trademark. In Mask of the Sun on the Super Famicom, poor collision detection, stiff movement and precise hitboxes forced all but the most skilled players to grind in order to compensate for the game’s shortcomings. The PC-Engine CD’s Dawn of Ys, on the other hand, veered in the opposite direction. The addition of diagonal movement broke the traditional engine wide open, making killing enemies far easier than in previous games.

In order to compensate for this, Ys V elected to use a more traditional attack system. Unfortunately, this did not come without issues. Compared to the earlier top-down games in the series, combat felt sluggish, especially during boss fights. This was only compounded by the addition of a jump button, which was awkward as it sent Adol forward a set distance every time. This came into play with some awkward isometric platforming (not unlike that of Super Mario RPG) and worse yet, boss fights that required you to jump and slash to land hits, leaving little to no time to dodge. Even more bafflingly was the decision to give different swords completely different attack styles. Some swords slashed, allowing for a wider range, while others did more of a poke, which allowed for better range, but only facing forward. Regardless, it’s somewhat jarring to totally have to switch up your tactics simply based around what weapon you’re using…and since Ys V generally follows the same item progression as other games in the series, it’s pretty much unavoidable.

For as bad as Ys V was, it definitely had a net positive impact on the series overall. The following game in the franchise (Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim) refined on the gameplay mechanics introduced in Ys V and would eventually lead to the release of two games that are generally considered among the best of the entire franchise: the aforementioned Oath in Felghana and Ys Origin. So while Ys V was filled with its own hiccups, it was an experiment that would eventually bear fruit and help perpetuate the Ys series until they eventually made the jump to 3D on the PSP.

Having said that, I’d probably use either Oath in Felghana or Origin as a base when it comes to developing this new game’s gameplay, just as an homage to the fact that this game was the progenitor of those games. There’s also the fact that the system used in Ys Seven, Memories of Celceta and apparently the upcoming Lacrimosa of Dana are all party-based: Ys V really lacks an assortment of characters that are battle-ready and I’d rather not shoehorn in a bunch of OCs to compensate for that. It would also be a nice change of pace for fans of the earlier games in the series.

Aside from that, most of my advice for the game’s base gameplay mechanics are pretty simple: “make it better” isn’t a constructive suggestion after all. First and foremost, ditch the separation between experience for physical attacks and magic: all that really did was provide me with less incentive to use magic (more on that later). To pay tribute to the original Ys V, I’d like to see two separate physical attack buttons to reference the “slash” and “poke” methods of attack I mentioned earlier: balanced so that slash is faster and provides more peripheral range, while poke deals more damage and has further reach. Finally, I’d fix the jumping mechanics. It looks like later games fixed that issue, but I figured that it was still worth mentioning regardless.

Magic

Now onto the weakest part of the original’s gameplay: the magic system. The magic system in the older games in the series was simple: equip some kind of relic (wand, ring, whatever) and you’d either get access the magic’s effect at the cost of some magic points. Simple stuff. Not so with Kefin: things became a lot more complicated. Basically, you have various elements of 6 types which are hidden throughout the game’s setting. You take these elements you find to various alchemists, who are able to craft items known as “Fluxstones” from specific combinations of three elements. Each Fluxstone can be equipped to any weapon (all 5 of them) and used at a cost of specific MP. Did I mention that you also have to charge the spells by holding one of the shoulder buttons before you can actually use them? Needless to say, the magic system in this game was a mess.

I’d say I could have come up with a better magic system in my sleep, but that would only be half-true: I just sort of outlined this one as I was drifting off to sleep one night. First things first, ditch the fluxstones. Crafting specific spells permanently without the knowledge of what they can do is stupid, period. Instead, we limit the number of elements found in the game themselves, 18 elements – 6 of each type found in the original game: fire, water, earth, wind, light and dark. Likewise, each weapon would have a set number of element slots, ranging from 1 to 3 depending on the strength of the weapon. As such, magic would be limited to a single button with the charge times dropped, much like the earlier games in the franchise.

As for the magic attacks themselves, they’d be pretty simple with three levels of attacks based on how many elements are equipped to Adol’s weapon at a time. Level 1 [a single element] would provide an “elemental slash” attack that would use a minimal amount of MP. Fire, Water, Wind and Earth would each act according to a “rock, paper, scissors” style of buffed damage on elemental enemies of specific types, while using an element on an enemy of the same type would heal it (like in the original Ys V). Likewise, dark and light would have their own system, where opposing types do double damage and same types only do half damage.

Level 2 [2 elements of the same type] would cast an elemental projectile, like the fireball from the old Ys games, and cost a moderate amount of MP. For example:

  • Fire casts the aforementioned fireball from earlier games, possibly with an added “burn” mechanic to slowly drain health from the enemies it hits
  • Water casts the ice ball (from Dawn of Ys), freezing enemies on impact
  • Earth could generate a seismic wave, which would deal massive damage on grounded enemies, but have no effect on flying enemies
  • Wind could cause a short-range projectile attack
  • Light could cause a weak homing attack that tracks the closest enemy
  • Dark could cause a chain lightning attack that could hit multiple enemies in proximity, but have the lowest range

Finally, Level 3 [all 3 elements of the same type] would cast a “magic attack”, either causing a powerful long-range attack or grant Adol some kind of special effect at a high MP cost. Here are the examples I came up with:

  • Fire – lava geyser
  • Water – tidal wave
  • Earth – earthquake
  • Wind – tornadoes
  • Light – a temporary boost for Adol’s attack and defense stats until his MP depletes
  • Dark – Adol would be invulnerable until his MP depletes (Shield Magic from Ys II and The Dawn of Ys)

Adol would also be able to combine different elements to create hybrid versions of the Level 1 and 2 attacks. Having all different elements would create a hybrid slash, which could cover the weaknesses of individual elements. Having 2 of one type of element and a third would create a hybrid projectile – one with the main traits of the dominant elemental projectile, but some added bonuses from the additional element: for example, water + water + light would create a homing ice ball and dark + dark + fire would add burn damage to the chain lightning attack.

Story

Conversely, Ys V’s story wasn’t particularly bad. At worst, I’d probably describe it as sparse. To the extent where by the end of the game, the storyline finally kicked into high gear and I started enjoying it, but by that point it was too late. There’s no simple answer that will automatically fix the story’s issues from the original, but I do have a few suggestions. For those of you who haven’t guessed it, this section is going to be filled with spoilers – so if you haven’t play Kefin and still intend to, stop reading now.

First off, I’d expand on the following characters:  Dorman, Rizze, her lieutenants (Karion, Baruk and especially Abyss [who didn’t even get a boss fight]) and the Ibur Gang (especially Terra, considering she ends up showing up in the sequel). Jabir should also be established earlier on in the game, he felt tacked on in the final product, pretty much literally appearing out of nowhere. Even if you just keep his identity secret and allow him to do monologues off-screen, that would be better than what he got in the Super Famicom version. Speaking of the Super Famicom version, keep Stoker and Foresta in the game. They were interesting and I still don’t understand why they were omitted from the PS2 version.

Next up, and this is crucial: bring in Dogi. Dogi is pretty much a key element in any Ys game that stars my favorite red-haired swordsman and Kefin was definitely poorer for having lost Dogi. In fact, Dogi was originally intended to be in Ys V, but was omitted due to time constraints. He actually ended up appearing in the PS2 remake. This would also have the added benefit of expanding on Effie’s character, as she was originally intended to be Dogi’s love interest in the game. When Dogi was dropped, Effie’s role was significantly downplayed – scaled back to simply saving Adol from his latest shipwreck and nursing him back to health.

This one also falls under gameplay, but it really applies to both: I’d keep the elements that Adol can equip to his sword separate from the elemental crystals used to revive Kefin. On that note, I’d also give each individual element its own purpose: the first element would be hidden in a specific chest in its corresponding dungeon and act as a boss key (boss doors would only be able to be opened by an elemental slash corresponding to the dungeon’s element) and the second would be a reward for beating the dungeon boss (along with the crystal). The third, however, would be a good excuse to expand on Kefin itself though. At one point in the game, Adol literally just has to hit various switches to move onto the next area. Instead, I’d purpose an additional 6 dungeons in Kefin with the expressed purpose of giving Adol complete mastery (the third element) of each element in order to continue on with his quest. It would have the added benefit of adding to Kefin’s importance in the overall storyline. On that note, I’d also expand on the final dungeon of the game, maybe hide all of the Isios items in there as opposed to just having them by the switches.

Regarding the villains, I’d like to see some specific changes made. First off, I’d like to see some expansion on Dorman, specifically regarding his motivations. Originally, Dorman was conceived as a descendant of royalty from one of Kefin’s rival kingdoms, destroyed during Kefin’s prime. I’m not exactly fond of that origin, so I don’t mind that it was discarded. Still, explaining his reasons would be a nice expansion on them. By that note, I’d like some changes to be made to the final boss. I’d like to see Jabir demoted to penultimate boss and the final boss position taken up by Rizze herself. Considering she was the main villain during the second half of the game and got hijacked by Jabir at the last second, she deserves it. Even if we end up with the clichéd “I was of the Kefin Royal Family. But now I’m even more, I’m a goddess!” shtick, it’s better than Jabir appearing literally out of nowhere and Rizze basically just being useless at the end.

The last thing I’d like to add is somewhat selfish, but I feel like it’s necessary given its omission from the original version. I’d like to hear some more mentions of the older Ys games, especially IV. The lack of references to earlier games just felt a bit odd. Maybe it could be explained by the new locale, but hell, even The Dawn of Ys threw in a reference to Wanderers from Ys and that technically took place AFTER Ys IV. Hell, what would be really cool would be if there were references to all four versions of Ys IV as rumors surrounding the mysterious red-haired swordsman.

Setting

At first, I was going to say something about how lazy the name “Afroca” for the Ys universe’s counterpart to Africa was. Then I found out that the continent where the earlier games in the Ys series took place was called “Eresia”. Three guesses what continent that was supposed to represent. Needless to say, I dropped my objection. On the other hand, it is the setting of Ys V itself I’d like to see somewhat modified, to see it draw more inspiration from its real-world counterpart, as opposed to just being “generic Squaresoft RPG land”. Keep Xandria as-is, perhaps change it into a Eresian colony and port town. Likewise, I’d keep the town of Felte as-is, I liked its Middle Eastern motif. Kokiriko Village and the Zeibe Ruins took on something of a Mesoamerican design with its pyramids, I’d prefer it to take on more of an Egyptian or Nubian look.

Graphics

Unlike most of my articles, I actually have a particular graphical style in mind for a remake of Ys V. 3D graphics seem more likely than 2D, especially since that’s the direction Falcom has been heading these days, but in this case, I’d prefer a more old-school “super deformed” for the characters, much like the Ys games of old. The Super Famicom version of the game went for a slightly more realistic character design, which I feel was a disservice to the game itself. Ideally they’d go for a 2.5D look like some of their earlier games: mixing 3D worlds with 2D character sprites, but in this case, I’d be more than open to a full 3D recreation of the games of old. I’ve seen it work with such games as A Link Between Worlds and Bravely Default, so imagining it for a Kefin remake seems perfectly valid in my eyes.

Music

I’ve heard some people say that Ys V had one of the weakest soundtracks in the franchise. I’m inclined to agree. That’s not to say it’s a horrible soundtrack by any means, just that compared to the other games in the franchise, it’s not particularly memorable. Having said that, I’d keep the majority of the soundtrack for a remake. Some of my personal favorites include Field of Gale, Thieves of Brotherhood, Break Into Territory, Crimson Ruins, Bad Species, Wilderness and Turning Death Spiral. In fact, if I really had any major issue with the music itself, it would be that the instrumentation leaves the music sounding like a generic SNES RPG, with a soundfont torn straight out of a Squaresoft game. The solution to this is pretty simple: let Falcom’s in-house JDK Sound Team take a crack at rearranging some of the original soundtrack and add in some new tunes as well.

Wow, this ended up a lot longer than I would have ever expected. This whole concept just sort of emerged from my utter frustration with playing Ys V and originally manifested as a small checklist of things to look out for if Falcom were ever to do a remake. I probably won’t end up with anything quite this long in any future entries of Under Reconstruction. What did you think of the article? Do you agree that Ys V should be remade or do you think that the Super Famicom and PS2 versions are good enough? Do you disagree with any of the changes I made? Feel free to sound off in the comments section, I’d love to hear some feedback.