I'm currently looking for paid writing gigs, so if you might want anything written shoot me a message (craighats at hotmail dot com).
In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
If there's any sort of (reasonable) inquiry you'd like me to address, please don't hesitate to be in touch.
Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
Before going any further into this site-wide discussion, let's take a moment to reaffirm exactly what it is that we're talking about here.
Violence, ostensibly the topic at hand, like it or not, is absolutely everywhere, in some form or another, woven deep within the fabric of most any culture you'd care to name. Sometimes its shadow is forcibly and oppressively cast over us (here in the USA, for instance, mere days ago debris-loaded bombs were set off amidst the spectators at the Boston marathon), but most any time the word "violence" crops up on the likes of a video game site a specific brand of violence is on tap, one which we all too willingly gulp down into ourselves. “Artificial” violence, “imitation” violence, spun liberally from whole cloth, and deliberately, painstakingly tweaked to force-feed the maximum degree of gut-wrenching adrenaline without "directly" harming anyone.
Even more to the point, though, discussions of violence in our little corner of the digital realm, and frequently a considerable distance beyond it, almost exclusively focus upon one particular recipient of said violence. “The establishment”, or whatever you’d care to label it, volleys precious few complaints at the fact that R-rated movies tend to draw the highest degree of praise from critics, that news stories are routinely assigned priority based on the ever-profitable principle of "it bleeds, it leads", or, yes, that M-rated video games almost inevitably receive the lion’s share of both coverage and sales figures across the board. The presence, prevalence, and veritable worship of violence within society at large is seldom what gets anyone talking. When it comes to how many murders, real or fictional, that the average joe witnesses on a daily basis, most average joes couldn't care less, and even the not-so-average ones seem content to yawn in disinterest.
As the (not always evenly-applied) refrain goes, it’s not anyone’s business to determine what grown-ups do with their time.
Bottom line: if someone is talking about violence, it's almost always got something to do with its exposure to children, and children only. Our immature offspring - our most valuable investment and our present’s only link to our future - are the ones who truly matter whenever the topic comes up.
Or so it might seem, until you're on the far side of a Gamestop sales counter.
In case you’re not already aware, yes, I work part-time one or two nights a week at a Gamestop across the parking lot from my full-time job (please forward all “you are an unthinking pawn of the evil empire” emails to the usual address). As a regular old cash register grunt I don’t deal very much with the “technical” side of the business, and thus spend most of my working time face to face with walk-in customers. Notwithstanding the notable perk of having similar-minded employees around to discuss video games with (and yes, at this particular store they are indeed “real” gamers), by and large it’s vanilla retail work, much like any other.
One recurring thing about this job, however, has stuck with me.
Again, in case you weren’t already aware, Gamestop has a rather strict policy on the books when it comes to enforcement of the ESRB’s content ratings: if you are not “obviously” 17 years of age or higher and cannot verify your age with a photo ID, you simply will not be allowed to purchase an M-rated game in-store. If you’re a frequent under-age customer who insists that your folks have given you permission to pick up game XYZ, just like they did two weeks ago for ABC, that won’t cut it. If your mom calls in on her cell phone to say “okay”, or pulls the car up outside the door and waves approval through the open window, no dice. If any customer is going to buy a Mature title “by the book”, he or she is going to have to physically stroll up to the counter, listen to the cashier rattle off the list of objectionable content found on the box, and give an affirmative response in person.
Moreover, no employee can ever say that he “forgot” to go through the required routine, as a warning pops up on the register’s screen every time an M game’s barcode is scanned, not to mention that security cameras are always watching; beyond that, if I ever decided to, eh, let it go just this once and management got wind of it, I would be instantly fired, no questions asked. If any of my superiors happened to be anywhere in the vicinity at the time and didn’t stop me (or were merely labeled as having not trained me well enough), they’d be right out there on the street with me (with a few choice words to share, I’m sure).
Offhand I don’t know what the policies of competing video game stores or other entertainment retailers might be, but say what you will about Gamestop (and yes, there is plenty to say) they have a pretty thorough means in place of ensuring that no child will get ahold of an M-rated video game from their store without the explicit consent of a parent. If nothing else, the company wants no part of the scathing criticism constantly heaped upon the video game industry by advocacy groups, politicians, and those very same parents, whose willingness to open their wallets is a big part of what keeps them in business. The latter’s will, when you get right down to it, is always the deciding factor, and it’s an especially important decision to make, because unlike even a youngster escorted by a guardian into one of those R-rated movies, a child and a video game will almost certainly end up left completely alone and unsupervised with each other in short order.
At this point I ought to note that I’ve only been a Gamestop employee for a relatively short time compared to my colleagues, but even with my limited experience I often wonder exactly when so many parents’ much-ballyhooed oversight of their offspring devolved into such a shockingly cheap commodity.
You’ve all heard the stories from somebody else you know who works at a store like mine: the clueless/negligent/shouldn’t-have-been-allowed-to-breed parent who doesn’t so much as blink whilst forking out for the latest Grand Theft Auto as a birthday present for their soon-to-be six-year-old. There will always be people like this, of course, though we always hold out the hope that at least some of them are guilty only of occasional questionable choices made out of ignorance, as opposed to across-the-board, willfully negligent parenting. The more hours I log in behind that counter, however, the more “oh, I’m just helpless” eye rolls I see, the more “he’s already played it at a friend’s house” I hear, the more unchallenged, bratty outbursts I witness, the more “Go play at the demo unit for awhile while I go shopping” I eavesdrop upon (one of my fellow employees has branded Gamestop “The Child Abandonment Capital of the World”) and the more I find myself regurgitating the following conversation at the tail end of yet another uneasy transaction:
“Ma’am, in case you’re ever curious about exactly what a game has in it…you’ve seen the little age rating box on the cover, right?”
“And you’ve seen that under it there’s a quick blurb describing the basic sort of content that’s in the game, right?”
“Well, right near there you can see this website listed, esrb.org: that’s the website of the board that rates these things. If you go there and type in the name of a game you want more info on, a page will come up for it, and you’ll also see a more detailed write-up on specific things you’ll see in the game.”
“And failing that, there’s at least one official website or YouTube video up for just about any game you can name these days, so just Googling around will probably help to some degree. Basically, the information IS out there if you’re willing to look for it.”
“Great, thanks again!”
How many of them ever follow up on my advice, I’ll never know.
Now, to be fair, as a bachelor with no children I’m more than willing to concur that raising a kid right is nowhere as easy as it looks from a safe distance. I can still remember the plethora of dirty tricks that I myself used as a kid to get what I wanted out of my long-suffering parents, and as a former substitute teacher I’m all too jaded a witness to how a youngster’s time away from his or her parents can so effectively undermine anything and everything the latter have worked so hard to instill. Moreover, even as a longtime gamer who regularly keeps up with industry news, staring down those walls upon walls of cover art can still be intimidating, a reminder of how many titles I’d still have trouble explaining to a customer; I can only imagine how vast and unfriendly a wasteland it must embody to some poor grandmother or uncle trying to track down a vaguely-worded request (“well, he said it has a car in it…does that help?”).
Then, of course, comes the game industry itself, which, despite its considerable efforts to get on good terms with concerned parents, still isn’t nearly as adept as when it comes to its favorite pastime: shooting itself in the foot. Let’s check back in on Gamestop, which is loath to patch up a considerable semi-loophole in its own “zero-tolerance” M-rating policy; while the store doesn’t allow minors to pick up Mature games, it happily invites them to put down the five bucks necessary to reserve one that isn’t out yet. Sure, the store still requires an adult’s presence to claim the title once it comes out, and he or she is free to cancel the order on the spot, but this situation is still a more difficult one for parents to stand firm in the face of (“It’s MY money! I was looking forward to this! I already told all my friends I’d play it with them online!”), as opposed to the standard-issue “Can I get this?” out of the blue. And this is to speak nothing of the publishers’ increasingly shameless advertising departments, which regularly flout the PR department’s insistence that nobody would EVER try to lure the kiddies towards anything inappropriate.
So yes, shielding your children’s eyes and ears from things you’d rather they not see or hear (or play) is a downright Herculean task, and can almost never be accomplished to the extent you’d hoped, especially when buttressed with the temptation of something that can grant you a bit of much-needed quiet time as the magic of the TV screen does its job. I get this, and would never criticize any parent for raising a less-than-perfect kid (if that were the criteria, after all, my own folks would rate the very sternest of talking-tos), especially when it comes to the topic of video games, a medium whose unique and powerful allure I know all too well from a very young age. I probably also ought to note that I am about as far across the spectrum as you can get from the “just let the market do whatever it wants, and if it makes money then nobody has any right to criticize it” laissez-faire mindset, which places any and all blame for a product’s ill effects (and before anyone asks, no, I don’t believe that video games inherently make people kill people in real life) squarely upon the consumer; sorry, but you can’t call a perennially overburdened, undercompensated public and a castrated-with-a-rusty-spoon regulatory structure a fair match for nigh-limitless and anonymous corporate dollars spent exclusively in the name of infiltration, influence and obfuscation.
In the face of all this I have naught but the utmost respect for those parents who are still willing to put their foot down and declare that they, not their child, is the one who, after considering all sides of a problem, has the final say in decisions made within their family. It’s not just me, either; I recall one recent incident during which my Assistant Manager uttered the phrase “You can use adult toys as weapons” in response to a parent’s innocent query, and all of us in the store watched with all-too-rare satisfaction as the proverbial hammer was brought down (that said, I, like the afore-linked Herr Sterling, always find it odd how sexual content invariably seems to raise a much bigger red flag with parents than violence, but that’s another issue). And yes, I understand that not every kid’s tolerance for “adult” content is the same, and that some room for leniency is most always needed. Most of all, I completely understand that raising your kid is, when push comes to shove, your business, not mine.
That all being said, every copy of Saint’s Row that I watch waltz out the door in the clutches of an elementary or middle schooler - and there are many - still wears on me, and makes me feel like I am indeed the one showing the most interest in the child in front of me.
Every time I have “The ESRB.org Conversation”, I wonder, despite all of the outrage, all of the bellyaching, all of the impeccably-dramatized concern for their kids’ moral welfare, how many parents, tired and stressed after a long day, are so much as willing to forego an episode or two of American Idol (or heck, just DVR it!) in favor of doing a bit of old-fashioned research into their kid’s hobbies and interests – or, heaven forbid, actually talking to them about it openly and face-to-face.
Every mordant chuckle, accompanied by a sarcastic(?) comment of “All the good stuff, huh?” uttered by an accompanying adult in response to my required reading of a game’s mature content, makes me wonder where in heaven’s name the gatekeepers of our children’s young lives have gone to. Granted, I’m citing material based largely off of my own limited experience here, but considering that, to wit, an old back issue of Game Informer published a reader letter lamenting the exact same problem a full ten years ago suggests to me that the evident disconnect between the usual rhetoric (“I’d do anything to make sure my child grows up in a safe, nurturing environment”) and the usual action (“Oh, I know it’s awful, but at this point I’ve just given up”) reaches a good long ways, both backwards and forwards, beyond my evening shift.
As far as the causes of and/or solutions to the situation go, those are issues that I’m quite frankly ill-equipped to address. I will readily submit for your approval, however, that before anything at all can be done in this area we as a society need to honestly reassess what manner of ingredients we’re trying to stir into something swallowable. We gamers constantly hear what pervasive and corruptive threats violent video games are to our children, are harangued with lawsuits and legislation in the name of protecting them from that very threat, and proceed to waste our breaths for months and years on end, debating whether or not the charges contain any merit on their faces. All the while we manage to all but completely ignore the biggest, loudest, smelliest elephant in the room: for all the bluster about how diabolically awful violent video games are, on an individual, personal level very few parents seem willing to take much meaningful action to keep them out of their living rooms.
Something is missing here, or has been outright stolen away from under our noses; until we stop pretending that the problem with the gate is that it’s locked too tightly, as opposed to swinging freely upon rusty hinges, heaven only knows what might pass through it.
Hello everyone, or at least everyone who still remembers me. It’s certainly been awhile since I last had the time or inclination to submit a proper blog post here, hasn’t it? Granted, what you’re reading now still isn’t one, really, but it IS something that I’m finding it tougher and tougher not to spout about a bit. I guess you could sort of call it rant, but a “positive” one, if such a thing exists. Anyway, here’s the story, such as it is:
Like a lot of long-time gamers, whenever a new calendar makes its way to the wall some part of me starts wondering “will this finally be the year?” You may well have done the same, if only in passing, mulling over the previous twelve months’ worth of unsavory developments, botched releases, PR disasters, anti-consumer espionage, and outright incompetence, and thinking to yourself, “Maybe this is when I’ll finally just stop buying new games and stick to playing my old ones.”
And shortly thereafter, if you’re like me, your first new purchase of the year ends up being a new DVD rack to keep all your upcoming pre-orders in.
You might recall that I did something like this around two years ago (man, it really has been awhile); since then, naturally, my utterly shameful backlog has only metastasized into an even blacker, more noxious blight upon humanity, and is poised to get worse still in 2013. How does this keep happening amidst a gaming climate so constantly awash in negativity, and thus seemingly less and less inclined to bother catering to a niche customer like myself?
It’s a question for the ages, certainly (well, maybe not), but before delving any further into it, here’s a brief-ish overview of how things are looking to play out in my increasingly-overgrown neck of the gaming woods over this coming year. Feel free to compare notes with your friends, and see who manages to get farthest in before throwing up their hands in utter disgust!
Compared to the last time around things have, if nothing else, ramped up a bit more gradually; for one thing I’m currently holding off on the generally well-received Ni No Kuni, which despite its charms still doesn’t seem to have bucked Level-5’s ally AI legacy issues…eh, maybe when the price comes down. On the flipside, though my previous brushes with Namco’s “Tales” series didn’t leave much of an impression on me, a cohort finally convinced me to give fellow PS3 JRPG Tales of Graces f (which, in case you haven’t heard, can now be downloaded from the PSN if you can’t find a physical copy) a try, and against all odds I enjoyed the bugger quite a bit; enough, in fact, to persuade me to plunk down for Tales of Xillia, due out this summer. So, that’s at least one more to add to the list, assuming I resist the urge to go back and give Vesperia another shot in the meantime.
Not too long after the aforementioned episode two more JRPGs came down the pike/in the mail: first there was Tecmo-Koei’s rather disappointingly quiet release of Atelier Ayesha (advisory: there be some rage in them comments), though it should consider itself lucky, as the company’s concurrent PSN upload of Atelier Totori Plus wasn’t even formally announced. Then came NISA’s localization of the increasingly-bonkers Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, whose LE came in a “time capsule”, better known to regular humans as a “lunchbox”. Oh, and there’s an app for it too.
Oh, and then there’s that…other company that makes JRPGs, sometimes, that I’ve forgotten to touch on…I think they have one or two projects of interest in the works someplace. Maybe even three.. That being what it is, since I don’t have the time or patience for strategy titles that I used to, at least I can state with confidence that The Guided Fate Paradox and Disgaea D2 hold no interest for me. None at all. I think…
Now, of course, is the time that I suddenly and inconveniently remember surrendering to temptation and bringing home both a 3DS XL and a Vita over the previous few months.
Even this rather momentous event, however, pales in comparison to the recent revelation that the next numbered Megami series installment, Shin Megami Tensei IV, will also be nipping at its heels later in the summer; the third “main” SMT game, subtitled Nocturne in the USA, is one of my all-time favorites, so you know very well that I’ve already plunked down the (fifty!) pre-order dollars for this one.
So yeah, the RPG-ish realm looks a bit packed of late; surely there can’t be quite so much going on in terms of finger-twitching action games, can there? Heck, Dragon’s Crown and Muramasa have already been referenced, and Sly 4 is already out (and, yes, on my shelf), so what else looms on the horizon, exactly? Sure, Sony has been making a bit of a push in this area, as I am looking forward to Puppeteer in September, and am keeping an eye on Tearaway, whenever Media Molecule get around to that. Ah, and Pandora’s Tower, aka “oh, right, there was a third Project Rainfall game, wasn’t there?” is ushering the Wii out soon too (see you on the other side, Earth Seeker and Captain Rainbow), whilst Donkey Kong Country Returns is hoping to grace the 3DS with a bit of a boost.
Naturally, Nintendo could use the help after losing the exclusivity of the lovely-looking Rayman Legends (which, yes, I will also be buying in some form, having enjoyed Origins thoroughly), though the announcements of an Epic Yarn-esque Yoshi game, a prettied-up Zelda: Wind Waker and a new Mario + Luigi portable saga ought to get the nostalgia flowing pretty capably even without it. On a separate wavelength altogether, I’m having a tougher and tougher time ignoring Remember Me, if only for the fleeting flashes of Mirror’s Edge that it throws our way from time to time. What a tease!
Speaking of teases, the fighting game sector has gone somewhat quiet of late, at least compared to the past few announcement-packed years; that said, Mortal Kombat fans do have Injustice: Gods Among Us right at their doorstep, and though I’m not personally much for the NetherRealm brand of brawling, I would be forced to acquire the game if Komrade Kielbasa ever joined the kast (imagine the beautiful, beautiful trolling he could incite! If nothing else, Divekick could use a tag partner).
Tekken vs. Street Fighter, meanwhile, is still a good ways off, as is Blazblue: Chrono Phantasma and whatever Guilty Gear-related project Arc System is hacking away at, but of course the most noteworthy pugilistic news of recent months has been the runaway success of the Skullgirls IndieGoGo campaign, which garnered enough support to add several new characters to the game’s modest roster (not to mention use of the game’s engine by the guys who were doing the My Little Pony fan fighter). Of the most personal concern to me, oddly enough, is the seemingly-neverending limbo of Phantom Breaker, which to the best of my knowledge was never officially cancelled, though we do at least have beat-em-up spinoff Battle Grounds on XBLA to help ease the pain a bit.
At this point in the pseudo-article, brace yourselves, you knew it was coming: BM always has to say something about those silly 2D arcade-style shooters that only he plays, even though nobody actually makes them anymore (he totally just pulls all those supposedly new releases out of his backside; just smile and nod until he wanders off). Well, it’s high time for me to yank out a few more, so breathe deep; for starters, in February there was the region-freeGinga Force, from the makers of Eschatos, which maintains the genre’s famously demanding challenge level whilst inserting a few concessions for newcomers, such as a weapon shop (everything’s unlocked with in-game currency, don’t worry!) and the gradual granting of extra lives in stages you’re having trouble with.
You might have also heard of the recently-released Cave Shooting Collection, which packs together every X360 shmup published by the illustrious arcade developer Cave (note: the two licensed releases published by 5pb are not included) alongside a load of replay DVDs, a pair of artbooks (which, while we’re on the topic, are likely to give my wallet its own set of issues this coming year), and even a soundtrack collection if you get an early copy; if you’re just now thinking of importing a Japanese 360 to see what these games are all about this is an excellent way to catch up.
The biggest news out of Cave, though, is none other than DoDonPachi Sai-DaiOuJou, their final 360 masterpiece, which has been getting rave reviews in the arcades (and features art by The Ar Tonelico Guy, for an extra layer of nerdiness); there are not one, but two Limited Editions to lust after, so you know this one’s gonna be pretty darn big if you’re a bullet hell fan.
That said, Cave isn’t the only one out for the hearts (and coins) of the shooting faithful, though most of the “official” home-front action remains on the XBox 360; Moss, makers of the most recent Raiden games, are sending out the Gothic-themed Caladrius (this time featuring artwork from The Devil Survivor Guy) in short order, and the tiny Triangle Service (perhaps best known for Trizeal) is coming out of nowhere with a two-game collection rather cumbersomely known as Shooting Love 10th Anniversary: XIIZeal and DeltaZeal. If you’ve never heard of either game there’s a(n additional) reason for this: they’re actually renamed versions of XIIStag, originally published by Taito, and the even more obscure G-Stream 2020, which was first put out by the now-defunct Oriental Soft and never saw a home port.
Over on the PS3 end of things rumor has it that the rather cutesy ground-based shooter Mamoru-kun is Cursed! might be following Under Defeat to our side of the Pacific, and on XBLA indie games you ought to check out the recently-released Cave tribute Chronoblast if you haven’t already. Finally, the Dreamcast faithful can look forward to not one, not two, not three, but FOUR homebrew shootersm coming soon: it’s STILL thinking, people!
Just in case the outlook isn’t overwhelming enough, I’ve found some of my other trademark resistances slowly crumbling of late. To wit, I’m one of those people who has always had VERY mixed feelings concerning digital distribution: as much as I applaud the relative freedom it grants to small developers who could never land a physical publishing deal, not to mention the potential (though largely unrealized, at least on the consumer end) cost savings on materials and environmental concerns, its prominent place within the campaign to transform games from products to services (given and taken away at the seller’s sole discretion, paid for or not) always leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth.
Notwithstanding, despite not being much of a PC gamer I’ve begun to see what all the people raving about Steam sales are frothing about; lately a sizeable portion of the deals on Playstation Plus in particular have been hard to resist (between the ten bucks back and three months extra I got just for surrendering and picking it up earlier this year, not to mention the half or more off I’ve gotten on several titles since, it’s just about paid for itself already, and I’ve got more than a year of it left). If the overall marketplace keeps this up, it’s gonna be mighty hard for me not to plunk down for Guacamelee! or Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse somewhere down the line, let alone the next Humble Bundle.
So, if you’ve managed to read this far in you should have a pretty good idea of what my year in gaming (and spending) is going to look like (notwithstanding whatever else might get announced in the coming months), and it’s more than a bit nuts, especially for someone whose existence most of the industry barely acknowledges. On the surface it hardly makes sense, even, but methinks one last game I’ve felt compelled to reserve recently rather succinctly sums up why it’s all happening just the same. Which game could it be, you ask?
Let’s back up a minute. I am, for whatever it’s worth, a straight male. This is a game, among other things, about being a girl and quite possibly getting cozy with one or more dudes. In short, no, I am not the target market. But yes, I AM buying the daylights out of it. Why?
Because, dear reader, it stands proud as perhaps the most utterly insane release of the year.
Let’s break this thing down, piece by piece.
- Sweet Fuse is, as previously noted, an “otome” game, a largely action-free visual novel aimed at a female audience.
- Not only do you play as a girl, but she is the fictional niece of the real-life Keiji Inafune, creator of Mega Man and several other Capcom classics.
- The plot involves Inafune-san opening up an amusement park (well, why not?) and inviting you to visit: unfortunately, it’s taken over by a not-at-all-predictable villain named Count Hogstein, and you’ve got to read a bunch of text, make a bunch of decisions and solve a bunch of puzzles to get out in one piece.
- Along the way, you encounter a herd of eligible guys, all of whom you’ll have a chance to romance, should you so choose; part of the process is the “sweet fuse” mechanic of the title, which allows you to either be patient with a given fella when he does something stupid or completely blow your stack at him.
- This game is being localized for release in the United States.
- On the PSP.
- As a physical UMD.
- In late 2013.
If all of this doesn’t make Aksys the most bat-guano bonkers publisher on the face of the Earth, I don’t know what does (y’know, since having previously brought over an “otoge” which allowed you to date historical Japanese samurai was totally run-of-the-mill. Not to mention using an Idea Factory title to troll Atlus).
And you know what? In an era where strong reviews and millions in sales are still not good enough, dammit, I’m more than willing to take a step or two outside of my comfort zone and throw them, and anyone else willing to take at least some measure of risk in this age of caution, to go just a bit against the grain, a few bucks of support, even if they’re not aiming their efforts specifically at me. Sure, as Herr Sterling has said it’s true that “innovation” alone doesn’t make a game good, but the sorts of games I like to keep my eye on are, I hope, more than a “see what sticks to the wall” brand of product.
These are, to my eye, entries into “passé” genres (who pays more than a buck for an arcade game?), often featuring “foreign” aesthetics (Too cartoony! Not enough blood!) and “unapproachable” mechanics (No regenerating health?!), games which will never make its creators millionaires or spawn much in the way of imitators, but are made, meticulously, for a specific audience, and are not ashamed of that fact. Not every game can or should be like them, but the mere act of being them, in a world out to mercilessly smother them from existence is, in my opinion, itself worthy of a bit of praise and acknowledgement. Moreover, I’m not inclined to wait for someone else to stand up and give it to them.
These games and their creators are why, in the face of a million bald space marines, quick time events, unskippable cutscenes, freemium pay models, always-online DRM, day one DLC, tacked-on multiplayer, invasive social aspects, unfixed bugs, shoddy ports, anonymous slurs, brand elitists, painful E3 presentations, corporate asshats, and everything else that’s screaming in my ear for me to finally cut myself off and for Pete’s sake get to that god-awful backlog, I’m still keeping my gaze fixed firmly upon the industry and slipping a handful of my dwindling dollars into its crumbling, oft-forgotten corners. There aren’t a whole lot like me, I’m sure, but we are indeed here, and we are paying attention. And (very) occasionally blogging.
Heaven only knows what the future holds, of course: maybe next year, if the DS and Vita are crushed underfoot by the likes of the iPad, if the Wii U never finds its footing, if the PS4 is above all a Facebook/Youtube pseudopod and the Durango further chains us to the whims of our ISPs and their servers, I’ll finally bid the industry a fond farewell and retreat to video games as I want to experience them, ignorant of any and all protest the current gatekeepers care to disseminate. Sometime between now and then, however, I’ll be strolling out of that booby-trapped fun park with a hunky new squeeze on one arm and Uncle Keiji on the other.
WARNING: If you object to the idea of a fighting game-related post written by someone unable to cite active frames, stun values, tiers and combo strings from memory at a moment’s notice, stop reading now to save yourself (and others around you) a few gray hairs. You have been warned.
So yeah, as the above implies I’m not exactly a legendary presence (if any at all, really) within the fighting game community, but that doesn’t stop me from harboring a good deal of affection for the genre: much akin to the scrolling shooters I go to great lengths to import even if my best scores are invariably pathetic, fighters, to me, serve as a sort of symbol for gaming as I most fondly know it, and a niche I like to support with my business when I can, even if I’m not skilled enough to experience them at a “high level”.
Something about any game that can be mastered on so many different fronts and thus taken incredibly seriously (sometimes a bit too seriously) by its players, and yet be, on its face, so patently ridiculous, never fails to charm me. As amazing as it is to observe tourney-caliber participants in action, it’s tough to completely forget that you’re watching a green dude charge his body with electricity to zap a guy who can stretch his rubbery arms halfway across the screen…not to mention that a tiny, well-placed bump to the shins can serve as the final nudge into a lights-out KO, or that a piece of blank space can swat a blocking opponent in the back of the head if placed JUST right during a jump kick. And that’s before you even juggle giant robots 50 feet in the air and rip spinal cords out of undead ninjas. Fighting games, in short, are some of the most finely-tuned pieces of nonsense that humanity has ever created, and for that alone I can’t feel anything but happiness about their existence.
Of course, like anyone else I have my personal biases, blissfully uninformed as they may be: I adore certain character designs even as I sneer at their fellow combatants, praise the story elements of one series while dismissing them as unnecessary, eye-rolling distractions in another. Exhibit A would be my usual preference of two-dimensional fighters to three-dimensional ones: in blunt terms, not only am I superficially prejudiced in favor of stylish spritework and fluid animations over the upgraded skin pore texture rendering engine slathered over the latest pair of sweaty polygonal pectorals, but I have an even harder time wrapping my mind around the latter, which is no mean feat considering how complicated 2D fighters can get.
Judging hitboxes and whatnot in 3D is a bit of extra work in and of itself, but then there are the movelists…oh man, those movelists go on absolutely forever, and the slightest variation in how, when and where you press a single button can completely alter every relevant property of even a basic attack (“wait, is Back + LK the overhead, or does that only work from the side, at throw range…does LK [delay] LK become the chargeable knockdown pounce when you’ve shifted to Mantis stance, or is that LP [delay] LK while prone?”). For someone like me who lacks the time, inclination, and raw talent to even best the CPU opponents on “Normal” difficulty much of the time, Virtua Fighter makes Guilty Gear look accessible…and yes, I know that you’re not supposed to use every single move every single match, but it’s still a lot to sort out, at least for the likes of me. To those of you who do it and do it well, I salute you without hesitation.
Anyway, it’s not like anyone else really needs to care about any of this: it’s just one gamer’s very limited perspective at work. That being said, over the past couple of weeks things have gotten a lot more interesting for me in the fighting game circuit, and it’s driving me absolutely nuts.
Here’s the setup: over the next few months, the two (arguably) biggest fighting game releases coming to Western consoles are Persona 4: Arena and Tekken Tag Tournament 2. If you haven’t been keeping up, the former is a brand new, sprite-based 2D fighter based upon a sorta-offbeat RPG series, while the latter is the latest in an established series of expansive 3D brawlers. My gaming backlog (like my income) being nothing short of embarrassing, I’m limiting myself to picking up only one of the two, at least at launch. So, question for you: based on what you’ve read here so far (and even moreso if you’ve ventured elsewhere within this blog), which game do you think I’ve been leaning towards?
Yeah, I’m afraid that this is one of those “if you picked the obvious answer, you’re going to be totally surprised at how wrong you are and suddenly question everything you thought you knew” situations. And if you’re feeling confused, try to imagine the knots it’s got me tied up in…heck, you figure I’d be used to questioning everything I am as a gamer by now.
For anyone still willing to listen, though, here’s my best shot at putting into words why I’m finding myself, against all odds, drawn more towards Tekken than Persona this time around.
Let’s start with the presumed front-runner, Persona 4 Arena, which is being published by Atlus, a longtime specialist in the localization of Japanese curiosities and a personal favorite company of mine, though ever since the surprise success of Demon’s Souls they seem to have developed a growing and deeply unfortunate taste for angrybrown mediocrity (sorry, but medieval-styled angrybrown is still angrybrown). Anyway, that’s certainly not a problem here, as Arena looks like a million brilliantly-colorful bucks, thanks to the 2D expertise of Guilty Gear developer Arc System Works.
On the flipside, this association, from this vantage point at least, is the mother of all double-edged swords. Since Street Fighter IV kicked off the so-called “fighting renaissance” four years ago, there has been a lot of chatter and criticism concerning fighting game companies’ infamous penchant for nickel-and-diming their fans via an endless series of tweaks, updates, and enhancements to an existing product that rarely offer very much bang for the buck. Capcom, especially since the on-disc DLC fiasco of Street Fighter X Tekken came to light, has borne the brunt of the community’s ire; as the company that more or less pioneered this dubious practice back in the 90’s it’s hard to argue that they don’t deserve at least a good deal of the bad press they’ve gotten.
Amidst all the bellyaching, however, another egregious offender has managed to escape largely unnoticed (no, not SNK, though admittedly the same principle might apply to them, to a lesser degree): if you think that Super Street Fighter IV or Arcade Edition were superfluous, take a gander at the painfully piecemeal roster updates and such that Arc’s Blazblue series has received in roughly the same amount of time. Yes, I know that Arc isn’t as big or resource-rich an outfit as Capcom, and that producing new spritework is a whole different beast than new polygon-based models, but in terms of how eager either entity is to clutch at every last “bonus dollar” they can coax out of their loyal patrons, what’s good (or bad) for the goose is good (if not worse) for the gander. At this juncture no “serious” DLC has been announced for Arena (Eyeglasses? Really?), but I very much doubt that fans of the breakout Persona 3 won’t end up staring Minato or Junpei in the face on the PSN (or a physical “Tartarus Edition”) somewhere down the road, especially considering Arena’s somewhat modest out-of-the-box roll call.
Then, of course, there's Atlus' own recent headline-grabbing actions...and yes, I'm talking about THAT. I don't intend to go on at length about it as there's been plenty of more qualified opinions aired already, and I can certainly understand (and to a degree sympathize with) Atlus' stated reasons for taking the unprecedented step of region-locking a PS3 game, but no matter the circumstances the whole thing still leaves a lingering, bitter taste in my mouth.
Even if this particular decision doesn't affect me directly (I own a US PS3; problem solved, right?), you may recall my earlier mention of having had to import, mostly for the 360, on numerous occasions: I thus know firsthand what an enormous additional pain in the neck importing can be when there's a region lock to bypass, and don’t wish it any more on my fellow gamers across the ocean than upon myself. Yes, a company's regional offices all need to make enough money to keep doing their thing, but you'd figure that of all people Atlus could have found a better solution to this dilemma...after all, back when they wanted the US Faithful to stop importing Demon's Souls from Japan, they whipped up a special edition to help convince them to buy locally. Those heady days have passed us by, it seems.
Okay, that's enough negativity: let's move on to the surprising ways in which Tekken Tag 2 has managed to steal away my attention. At the top of this list, interestingly enough, is Tekken series producer Katsuhiro Harada. As much as I enjoy the antics of his goofy (and overworked) Capcom counterpart, Yoshinori Ono (though of course it's best for everyone when both are involved), I find myself particularly intrigued by a lot of what Harada has been saying of late. To whit, he's supposedly been fighting his bosses on the issue of charging for extra characters, stages, and moves: of course, there's no real way to know just how genuine these claims are, but considering what a notoriously poor reputation “Scamco-Bandai” has built for itself during the DLC era I'm tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, just for openly bringing up such an uncomfortable company issue. Time will likely tell if he's just been blowing smoke, but I find myself unusually hopeful.
Harada's most controversial recent statements, however, were aimed at none other than the fans: there's been a lot of back-and-forth as to whether or not his complaints about the fighting game community (certain sectors of it, at least) have much merit, or even whether he has any “right” to make them in the first place, but for the record I find myself coming down largely on his side of the argument. I'm not a programmer or designer and thus can't speak from experience, but at times even I, notwithstanding my own well-voiced stable of impossible digital wishes (Pocket Fighter 2!!), can only gape in awe at the painfully entitled attitudes of some of my fellow gamers and mutter to myself “this can't be for real.” While nobody likes to get told off by clueless industry figures, in this particular case I think, for the most part, that what Harada came out and said was long overdue, and hope that some of his detractors were genuinely listening: I certainly was.
Moving past the real-life personalities and into the game itself, I must also (re-)admit that I'm a total sucker for the radiantly silly (well, sillier) approach that Tag 2 is taking: granted, any title which presents the possibility of pitting a cyborg lady with an exploding head versus a boxing velociraptor is a bit tough to keep a straight face around by default, but the more proudly Tekken acknowledges this the more likely I am to give it a good-natured whirl. From over-the-top item moves to the totally ridiculous swimsuit costume pre-order bonus (even here I’m forced to offer Namco a golf clap, as for once all characters, not just the ladies, are subjected to impractical attire just for the heck of it: Harada recently confirmed that even True Ogre will be joining the beach party. Your move, Tecmo!), Tekken is letting the larger gaming world know that stone-faced tourney players (some of whom have convinced me that the Satsui no Hadou is for real) are not its only intended audience. This is exactly the message that more such series need to send, via means other than dumbing down the fighting mechanics…though sometimes I wonder if a less-serious veneer actually ticks off the “true fans” more than a “nerfed” ruleset (better to lose a tourney than use a “gay” character). I wonder what Snoop’s take on the situation might be.
So yeah, while I certainly have a number of caveats when it comes to possibly plunking down my cash for Tag 2, and Atlus is still doing quite a few things right with Persona Arena, the more I think about the situation the more I find myself eager to get Kuma onto that tire swing.
You might have noticed that I’ve ventured very little into how the two games actually play (though I guess that this is as good a time as any to express my misgivings about Arena’s one-button combos), but seeing as most fighting games are largely “symbolic” purchases for me in the first place, those concerns, oddly enough, come across in my mind as secondary (this is the point at which the hardcore types who ignored my opening warning proceed to hit-confirm their Raging Comment hyper combos – I am not responsible for any damaged/melted/atomized keyboards and/or custom joysticks that may result).
The big question for me, instead, is as follows: Which of these series, and/or their parent companies, is currently moving itself in a positive direction?
From this admittedly blinkered perspective the answer strikes me as clear, if also depressing in a way, considering how many of my dollars Atlus has received in the past (and, in all likelihood, will continue to receive in the future, if perhaps not so frequently); on the other hand, considering that my only “regular” Namco purchases for some time have been occasional Katamari offerings, maybe this is a rare chance for Pac-Man and myself to make nice.
Honestly, though, I’m rather loath to attempt to think that far ahead; the present mess is more than enough to wrack my brain all on its own. Though the clock is rapidly ticking down, I haven’t yet made my final decision as to where I’ll be going to get kicked repeatedly in the face, largely because I’m not sure I’m even considering the right criteria: is it some kind of gaming sin to even view a purchase through the same prism as I’m viewing it? Have I inadvertently reduced myself to a puppet of the marketing department, instead of the opposite? It kind of feels like it sometimes…it almost makes me wonder if the hard-nosed fighting fans have been right all along, that if I’m not going to pour out my heart and soul into a well-crafted fighter then I might as well not waste my time on it in the first place.
Not that it matters now: the bell has rung, and about all I can do from here on out is roll with the punches.
It would appear that my fellow c-bloggers are currently writing about video game-related collaborations and crossovers that they wish would happen. Interesting.
Most of the community’s focus, at least so far, has been on theoretical team-ups that, practically speaking, are incredibly unlikely to occur, but would inspire nothing short of delirium within certain specific segments of the fanbase if they did. An understandable trend, as imagining the impossible is kind of the point behind the assignment.
But guess what folks?
Over in my neck of the woods it’s already happening; has been, steadily, for several years now, in fact.
Sound like I’m yanking your chain? Read on: it’s absolutely true! All of it!...
…except for one TINY little problem.
It’s not exactly a household name for non-niche gamers, but weirdos like me tend to be at least somewhat familiar with a Japanese publisher/developer known as Idea Factory. Founded in the mid-to-late 90’s, the company’s comfort zone has always resided primarily within the RPG and strategy realms, but a couple of years ago the outfit decided to forge a brand new specialty for itself: collaborations.
And not just ANY collaborations, mind you: borderline-impossible ones.
LOADS of them.
So, greenhorn, you were impressed when Capcom managed to engineer a handful of joint productions with SNK and Namco? Sure, it allowed you to finally act out that Blanka/Kim Kap Hwan fan fiction you'd slaved over (minus the subtle ambience and philosophical undertones, of course), but you’re forgetting one important thing: some people, strange as it may sound, might have actually HEARD of Street Fighter and Fatal Fury. Moreover, the two series, gameplay-wise, at least superficially resemble each other. A crossover between the two had at least an iota of potential to turn something that might be mistaken for a profit – the entire notion actually made a certain type of sense.
Shh!...do you hear that? It’s the scornful laughter of Idea Factory, off in the distance, at Capcom’s pitifully tiny cojones.
Want to do a REAL collaboration, it mocks? Okay then: try putting the likes of Growlanser, Gungrave, and Code of the Samurai all together into one game…oh, and then top it all off with Shadow Hearts, just to keep things interesting. By the way, that’s all BEFORE you add a generous sampling of your own original characters and series into the mix.
Go ahead, we’ll wait.
…what’s that? Giving up already? *tsk tsk tsk*…
So, let’s recap for a moment…we, a company with a mere fraction of the history or industry-wide pull that an establishment like Capcom commands, managed to get Atlus (the Persona guys), RED Entertainment (Sakura Wars), and Aruze (the company that bought out those losers at SNK) to work with us, all at the same time…and did we mention that this was one of our very earliest shots at collaboration?
In case this fact wasn’t clear enough, no, Chaos Wars wasn’t exactly Infinity Ward and DICE putting out Call of Battle (with the Field of Duty map pack to follow), in terms of either buzz or market impact: that said, for fans of the obscure and semi-obscure series brought together therein by Idea Factory, this was a minor moon shot of sorts (especially seeing as the bugger actually ended up being localized, albeit terribly, in the USA, despite the fact that many of its individual portions never had been). Out here on the fringes we spend inordinate amounts of our time fervently praying that a given company’s last game sold enough copies to keep things afloat; the notion that somebody out there had enough faith in such offbeat brands – or was just plain crazy, either possibility worked for us – to combine them gave us hope that there might be (*gasp*) an adequately-marketable future for the stuff we liked to play.
As it turns out, our aspirations to this particular end were not misplaced in the least: Chaos Wars was just the beginning of Idea Factory’sFrankenstein-esque antics within the niche gaming world.
Consider Trinity Universe, which brought together Nippon Ichi fan favorites Etna, Flonne and Prinny from the Disgaea SRPG series, and threw them into cahoots with Violet and Pamela from Gust’s alchemy-centric “Atelier” line of role-playing games – the funny part is, this was actually a step down from their previous project, Cross Edge, in terms of sheer scope and ridiculousness. Not only were NIS and Gust on board for that one too, but so were none other than (*double gasp!*) Namco-Bandai, which owns the publishing right to the Gust-developed Ar Tonelico, and, yes, Capcom themselves, who lent five characters from the long-dormant Darkstalkers to the festivities.
Of course, even the above utterly pales in comparison to the likes of Hyperdimension Neptunia – not only did Idea Factory manage to knead in a particularly heavy dose of Sega (the main character is basically an anime girl version of a never-produced Sega system…who can summon Alex Kidd and Shinobi in battle), but the entire premise of the game is a spoof of the current-gen “console wars”, and features truckloads of winks at and references to the three “active” console makers and their innumerable products.
That’s not to say, of course, that there are no “official” guest stars to be found: not only are anthropomorphized takes on Gust, Nippon Ichi, and Idea Factory itself (under the nom de guerre of “IF”) present as playable characters, but so are RED and the visual novel-centric 5pb, via downloadable content. The recently-localized sequel, which shifts its focus to portable systems/girls, brings everyone back and invites Falcom (Ys, Legend of Heroes) and Cave (DoDonPachi, Mushihime-sama) over to play too. And they can wield The Power of Inafune…after being sent on their merry way by former Hudson Soft spokesperson Takahashi Meijin.
Oh, and did I forget to mention that Compile Heart, the Idea Factory subsidiary that directly developed Neptunia (and appears as yet another playable heroine), is formed partially of former staffers from dearly-departed Guardian Legend and Puyo-Puyo developer Compile? And that they’re working on another Neptunia sequel as we speak? And that Idea Factory is ALSO currently collaborating with Sting, developer of unique strategy hybrids Yggdra Union and Knights in the Nightmare?
Most of these names might not mean a heckuva lot to a majority of you, but rest assured: for a certain class of gamer, Nerd Heaven looks a lot like this. To put it bluntly, things are absolutely awesome in our quaint little neighborhood – our fellow connoisseurs of interactive digital entertainment can only hope that one day they may share in some similar manner of collaborative glory.
…yup, simply awesome.
…except, that is, for that one LITTLE problem I mentioned earlier.
...namely, the fact that most of these collaborations really aren’t all that great.
You see, in its native Japan Idea Factory is sometimes nicknamed “Idea F*ck”, a blunt reference to how many of its ideas end up going bad. And we’re not talking in terms of, say, graphical fidelity, which certainly isn’t the company’s strong suit but can be overlooked relatively easily by fans: we’re drilling straight to the core here. In a nutshell, IF is infamous for repeatedly attempting to whitewash major gameplay deficiencies with heaps of its aforementioned otaku appeal: yawning imbalances, jagged pacing, perplexing design choices, ludicrous overcomplication (for an idea of what you’re in for, check out this recounting of the skill system in Record of Agarest War), you name it and it’s probably brought at least one of Idea Factory’s titles crashing down. Both players and critics have panned release after release – for the record, while I personally wouldn’t have been QUITE as down on Neptunia as DToid was, there’s little in that review I can argue with on a point-by-point basis.
Yet somehow, amidst all of this, Idea Factory remains almost unbelievably prolific, cranking out game after game, and winning ally after ally for its joint projects (including an execrable tourney fighter, though to be fair they didn’t develop that one in-house) – what in the world is it that keeps them in business, in the face of so much subpar output?
Desperate nerds like myself, that’s what.
We’re either so taken with the idea of seeing our favorite characters all together in one place (in this way, we’re not much better than the eight-year-olds who beg their parents for a lousy license-based property just because a cartoon animal they like is on the box), or so eager to FINALLY see such a brazenly nerdy concept done right, that we continue to give the company second, third, and fourth chances to redeem themselves, insisting inwardly that once they see just enough of our vital support they’ll FINALLY have enough drive and resources to truly do our geeky exuberance justice. So we continue to put up with the gouge-worthy DLC and cheeky fan service (headed, perhaps inevitably, in ever-more-shameless directions), always in anticipation of that crowning moment when our loyal patience is at last rewarded in full.
By and large we’re still waiting, though this isn’t to say that there’s absolutely nothing to be hopeful about: despite their not-insubstantial flaws, Trinity Universe was a nice step up from Cross Edge, as was mk2 over the first Hyperdimension Neptunia. The potential for Idea Factory to refine its source material into a truly knockout crossover game is certainly there, though it’s yet to accomplish a heckuva lot more for fervent supporters than dragging them along until the other shoe drops with a resounding "clunk": will this clumsy, painful-to-watch dance ever change its tempo? Nobody knows, but for those out there snickering at “those ever-so-malleable losers” like myself, be forewarned, as there are portents here of what may well await more visible sectors of gaming in the not-too-distant future…or what may well have already landed in your posh backyard, even if you haven’t noticed.
Undoubtedly, a major part of the reason that IF has managed to amass so many alliances among niche developers is a matter of simple necessity: trapped in thrall to insular and picky fanbases, a number of these outfits have surmised that cooperating, instead of competing, with each other is an all but unavoidable path if they want to keep themselves open for business. Heck, look at Capcom and Namco, standard-bearers of the once-flagging fighting game…who once did this and are now doing this (oh, and were you aware that Guilty Gear developer Arc System Works is currently paired up with Atlus itself?). Though your Triple-A favorites may appear immune to such trends as of now, in such a high-stakes, rags-to-riches business as this one the next Rugrats Go Wild (or motion-controlled mini-game collection, for that matter) is never far off for a once-proud developer fallen on harder times.
On this side of the proverbial tracks, the future is now: our favored game makers are already huddling together in anticipation of the gathering storm. On the one hand, this sets the stage for some truly amazing collaborations that never could have come to pass otherwise…on the other, a well-set stage isn’t worth much if there aren’t any entertaining acts being performed on them, or if the performers themselves aren’t up to snuff. At this point the question is posed to the viewer: do you walk out of the theater right this second, or hang around in hopes that the upcoming show is the one you’ve been waiting for (the buzz has been great, after all)? What about after the next one? Or the one after that? You might roll your eyes at some of the out-crowd for having kept our butts obediently in our seats for so long, but trust me, once you find yourself in a similar position with a franchise you’ve loved for years the answer won’t come to you nearly so easily as you thought it would.
Thus, to all of you out there dreaming of the video game collaboration that will change everything, by all means keep dreaming – and keep on supporting the games you enjoy – in hopes that something special eventually comes out the other side. That said, don’t sigh “if only…” too loudly: someone out there is listening, and one day might just be crazy enough to give you almost exactly what you wish for.
As you’ve probably seen by now, a sequel to 2010’s Disney tribute/platformer Epic Mickey has been announced – not too surprisingly, a good amount of gamer chatter has bubbled forth in response, including quite a bit of early coverage right here on DToid. Most of the focus has been on the “homebound” console edition, subtitled The Power of Two, but there also exist rumblings of a portable iteration: right on cue, a handful of sites have gotten wind of an upcoming Nintendo Power issue which confirms that a 3DS version, Power of Illusion, will be hitting shelves around the same time as its big brother.
Feel free to check the link and have a look for yourself.
…you missed it, didn’t you?
…THERE! See it? Right there:
Dreamrift, the studio formed by Henry Hatsworth alumni that brought us Monster Tale, is listed as Power of Illusion's developer in an online preview of the cover story.
…oh man. There IS some good left in this world.
In case you didn’t already know, I’m a big fan of these guys: Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, in particular, stands as not only a personal favorite DS game and all-time platformer pick right alongside the likes of Super Mario World, but one of the few absolute goods that EA has ever seen fit to bestow upon gamers (I’m still convinced that the spillover good will from Hatsworth is what made Mirror’s Edge happen). Charming, creative and supremely fine-tuned, Hatsworth is both a mash note to the hard-boiled olden days of pixel-perfect character-based action gaming and a look ahead at ways to shake things up and keep the hallowed genre fresh for less-adapted audiences (one fellow c-blogger recently revisited the game here; also feel free to check out older writeups like this one). The studio’s first post-EA effort, the sorta-Metroidvania Monster Tale, didn’t rock my world in quite the same fashion but is still very much worth playing.
The thing is, ever since Monster Tale hit shelves, there has been virtual radio silence: though reviews for the former were positive, the developer had openly acknowledged the risk they were taking by putting out a brand-new IP on an aging system, and I feared that this admirable devotion to doing their own thing might have caught up to them in the worst way. While the afore-linked interview had quoted Dreamrift’s co-founder as saying the group had a 3DS project in the pipeline, I was still worried, especially considering what’s been happening to some of my other favorite developers lately.
Thankfully, it seems that Dreamrift is still alive and well: while I definitely would have preferred another original game for their 3DS announcement, I can’t complain too much about a licensed project keeping things afloat (WayForward could definitely use the competition, if nothing else). Will Power of Illusion be good? Like you I have no idea, but certainly hope so – heck, I don’t have a 3DS myself, but I’m half-tempted to pick up a copy just to show a little support (much as I’m doing with Gravity Rush for the Vita, another system I lack, at least so far). In any event, for the moment I’m just glad to see that at least one of my favored companies, and a standard-bearer for gaming as I most fondly know and remember it, hasn’t faded away along with the rest – if any guys from Dreamrift ever end up reading this by some odd twist of fate, best of luck and I’m pulling for you!
P.S. – Yes, the title does say “shortblog” and the author is listed as “BulletMagnet”. Do not attempt to adjust your monitor.
As both a video gamer and a onetime student of the visual arts, I’ve never felt uncomfortable shining an occasional spotlight on the more “superficial” aspects of my favored pastime, snorts of “graphics whore” from certain unenlightened corners notwithstanding: scoff if you must, but once the “video” part has been unceremoniously nixed from the equation you’re no longer talking about the same medium that I am. I also like to keep in mind that not a single sprite, model, backdrop, or texture on that screen got there by itself: some real-life human being out there made it, spent time and effort designing and implementing it, and is in the end just as legitimate a contributor to the end product as the dialogue writer or control programmer or level layout constructor. Why, I ask, shouldn’t their share of the output be just as deserving of genuine, passionate attention and discussion as the rest, especially when it manages to distinguish itself to some degree? After all, if one person points out a flower in bloom and the other immediately starts spouting off about photosynthesis, nomenclature and biomes, one of these two, even if everything he says is factually correct, would be largely missing the point.
Of course, such rugged philosophical terrain is notoriously difficult to traverse (let alone map), thanks to everyone’s personal definitions of “artistic vision” and/or “artistic merit” differing (as well they should) to no end: for the sake of simplicity I tend to split the gaming community’s thoughts on the subject into two very rough (and frequently intermingled) “schools”. The first is what I call the “Technical” interpretation, wherein a game’s graphical quality is judged primarily in regard to how successfully its artists take advantage of the technology at their disposal, most often in pursuit of lifelike realism: I’d place most of today’s so-called “Triple-A” titles, like Uncharted and Gears of War, among many others, into this category. The visual achievements on display here are difficult to dispute from a purely “academic” standpoint, but since most competitors seek the same end goal (life-like imagery), it can sometimes be difficult to tell them apart at a glance, especially when they also happen to concern themselves with similar themes (modern military warfare, for instance).
Then there’s the second viewpoint, which I like to label the “Intuitive”. It’s both less attached to a single artistic “angle” and less reliant on the sheer “horsepower” of machines and their programmers, lending a central focus instead to the far less predictable whims of the draftsmen and doodlers dwelling within the earlier, looser stages of the creative process: as such, it’s even more difficult to judge objectively than its sibling. The best meager “definition” I can affix to an “Intuitively” appealing presentation is a visual style which is somehow almost impossible, even without prolonged study, to mistake for any other, to the point that it’s very frequently cited as a key component of a game’s overarching “identity”. Of course, there will never be anything remotely resembling a gamer-wide consensus on what “qualifies” or doesn’t, but at the same time every last one of us can say with the utmost confidence that we know an “Intuitive” masterpiece when we see it. In case you couldn’t tell, while I don’t consider this side of the equation innately “superior” to the other, it is the one I especially love indulging in, both alone and with fellow gamers.
However, I digress; whether or not you happen to see eye to eye with me on any of this is irrelevant…less so, in fact, with each passing second.
2011 has come and gone, and, from where I’m standing, has changed everything.
Though it has amassed some extraordinarily passionate fans over the years, the “Intuitive” approach to gamers’ prying eyes has always played second fiddle to the “Technical” one – not without reason, as publishers and developers alike are under constant pressure to appeal to the largest (paying) audience possible, and taking a graphical route too open to interpretation and vulnerable to personal taste is almost certain to alienate a sizable portion of both consumers and reviewers from the word “go”, rendering the likelihood of a profitable return a coin toss at best. This reality manifests itself most everywhere you care to look: the Mario and Kirby series, for example, have consistently sown success for years, which is precisely why visual departures from the norm like the crayon-textured Yoshi’s Island and the craft store-chic Epic Yarn (to say nothing of the endearingly angular likes of Psychonauts or the hand-claymated Skullmonkeys) only pop up from their ranks on rare occasions.
In like manner, the bold, jarring visual styles lent to ambitious, sprawling adventure pieces like Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Okami have frequently been reassigned to lower-budget portable projects after their initial (and financially disappointing) high-end debuts…and they’re the lucky ones. The storybook aesthetics of Little King’s Story and Valkyria Chronicles always seem to have trouble meeting even modest expectations in the face of Starcraft and Command and Conquer. The very quirkiest, most-beloved Mother entry is destined for obscurity next to anything with the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest logo on it. Killer 7 scraped together a single game: Kane and Lynch has two, so far. Even attempts to let uninitiated audiences down slowly by straddling the “Technical/Intuitive” line, a la Mirror’s Edge, routinely fail to make inroads…let’s not even get into Folklore.
“Intuitive” projects are not singularly doomed to failure, of course: the borderline-goofy minimalist veneers of Katamari Damacy and Minecraft have managed to carve out surprisingly robust niches for themselves, and fighting gamers were recently given the enviable choice between the heavy, inky Street Fighter IV, the anime-SFX-infused Blazblue, and the old-school spritework of King of Fighters. While we’re on the subject, Skullgirls’ gonzo “cheesecake with a dollop of macabre on top” take on things is currently waiting in the wings; the blossoming indie scene, not surprisingly, has been making countless artistic contributions of its own, from Limbo to Journey to Bastion to Sword and Sworcery EP to the Lotte Reiniger-esqueOutland. An unbiased observer of the industry’s current state might very well come away with the impression that the “Intuitive” style is, at long last, making some real headway into the mainstream consciousness, and that even bigger, bolder, and higher-profile forays await just over the horizon.
Like you said, BM, 2011 changed everything, right?
Indeed it did. Unfortunately, what I see spread out before Intuitive gamers today is not an era of growth and expansion, but of heretofore-unseen retreat and regression, uncomfortable silences, the dead and dying carted off en masse, the planned victory parade “postponed” again and again and again.
Mind you, I took more than my fair share of trips to the local video game store this past year, but each time I left the house I could feel both my excitement and my nervousness spike, as if I had to beat the proverbial vultures to the door; I couldn’t shake the sense that, despite the undeniable slew of exciting releases that awaited me, I was somehow bearing witness to a hopeless, losing battle, and that the tide was about to turn decisively for the worse once and for all. A veritable army of my favorite developers, bless their hearts, were mounting not a glorious march to victory for my beloved Intuitive style, but the digital equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade – a brave but ill-conceived offensive maneuver which would end up costing them, and their supporters, very dearly in the end. As the year draws to a close it would appear that many of my fears in this area have come to pass with a terrible vengeance.
Three, in particular; you may have even heard of them.
If you were like me at the time, when you first glimpsed a screenshot or two of Rez you probably wondered what the heck was going on amidst all the seemingly random lines and lights: once you actually got your hands on the game, however, you were somewhat taken aback (perhaps even disappointed) at how simple and traditional it was in terms of core gameplay concept. This was no accident: brought to bear by Tetsuya Mizuguchi (of Lumines and Space Channel 5 fame) and drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Wassily Kandinsky and Underworld, Rez was primarily conceived not as a revolution in terms of mechanics but as a tentative video game foray into synaesthesia (further evidenced by its infamous “Trance Vibrator” peripheral). While developer United Game Artists was quietly dissolved a few years later, they’d gained enough notoriety to ensure that Rez, in time, would earn itself not only a re-release in HD on the 360 but admission into a Smithsonian art exhibition.
Now, take the combined pedigree of everything mentioned up above, transfer the assets to a new Mizuguchi-headed company, advance the technology by a decade, deepen the mechanics (including a bona fide rhythm component, which ties players even more directly into the audiovisual experience), and then back it all up with the marketing muscle of publisher Ubisoft and a high-profile Gamestop “Epic Rewards” contest, not to mention bonus hype as the first “killer app” for the selling-like-hotcakes Kinect peripheral, a load of E3 awards, and positive critical reception upon release. The result? Child of Eden, which first popped up in our neck of the woods this past June: its bold, often abstract visual approach, as the record shows, hit at exactly the right time. Finally accomplishing what Rez never could, Child of Eden elicited mass acceptance from eager gamers of all sorts, who rewarded it with impressive sales numbers. The industry at large was finally forced to sit up and take note.
To be fair, the optimists among us might venture, perhaps we should approach this from a different angle: maybe, instead of being too bold, Child of Eden wasn’t bold enough. As a “spiritual sequel” to an existing title, albeit a visually distinctive one, the odds were against it doing something truly unexpected and reaching its full potential – maybe a completely new idea was what the doctor ordered. Enter Takeyasu Sawaki, a Capcom alumnus whose previous design credits include the stylish Devil May Cry and Okami, and pair him up with producer Masato Kimura, whose industry expertise reaches all the way back to some of the SNES’s biggest hits – then, in an unprecedented move, undo the chains and let them run totally free. Come this past August, the fruit of their labors, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, at last descended to Earth.
As one progresses through the game’s levels an astounding selection of vibrant art styles rear their heads, each one more memorable than the last: stained-glass silhouettes, stark blacks speckled with only faint glimmers of light and movement, flowing watercolor pastiches, sunnily surreal cartoon playscapes, and myriad others that simply defy description (Sawaki has stated that even things he saw in his personal dreams served as influences throughout development, though he still wishes he could have implemented more variety), all of it translated onscreen with dazzling graphical panache (by the much-maligned Gamebryo engine, no less). Combat, the central focus play-wise, utilizes only a handful of button inputs, relying more on timing and crowd control strategies, hitting all the right marks for the “easy to learn, tough to master” bullet point on the back of the box; a smattering of side-scrolling platform segments serve as a different but equally-inviting canvas upon which to show off the creators’ collective vision.
Spot-weld the whole thing onto an out-of-left-field story loosely based on a non-canonical Biblical work and you’ve got a product difficult for anyone remotely “gaming-friendly” to ignore outright: in Japan, in fact, El Shaddai actually whipped up enough pre-release froth to inspire not only figurines but its own branded designer jeans, and even a full-fledged internet meme. Publisher Ignition was so encouraged by this early success that it was already throwing around additional ideas for the brand before the game ever saw daylight; even in the West, where the push to market wasn’t nearly so bottom-up in nature, critics were generally impressed, and even the less-enthralled ones couldn’t help but praise El Shaddai as a breath of fresh air amidst an increasingly murky sea of angrybrown.
So how’d it do?...well, you can feel free to look around for exact sales figures if you like, though it might be enough to know that the most recent of issue of Game Informer (for whatever it’s worth) referred to El Shaddai as a “notorious poor seller” right alongside Shadows of the Damned, and that its asking price has plummeted even faster than Child of Eden’s has. Oh, and Ignition has also shuttered its US dev branch, no longer develops games internally, and is staring down a buyout by Disney.
Hmm…ah, that’s right, we’ve been forgetting something important all this time, silly us. Japanese game development is in stark decline, everyone knows that - thus, Sawaki’s determination to “embrace Japanese conventions” with El Shaddai was probably an unavoidable dead end from the outset. Now is the West’s time to shine, and wouldn’t you know it, longtime (and non-Japanese, just to clarify!) industry figure Michel Ancel steps up to the plate with none other than a brand new entry in the Rayman series, which, conveniently enough, first distinguished itself back in the 90’s largely thanks to memorably kooky art direction, and has managed to remain, against all odds, a viable license to this day (though of late its “Rabbids” spinoffs have been getting most of the attention). Could there be a more perfect setup for a dramatic eleventh-hour Intuitive turnaround?
Origins, which just graced shelves a mere month or two ago, rescues Rayman and company from the minigame-compilation wasteland and plops them back precisely where they belong: 2-D side-scrolling platform worlds stuffed to the gills with inspired, colorful nonsense. First conceived as a series of small-scale baby-step projects limited to digital distribution channels, as development went on and the potent possibilities behind the newly-minted “UbiArt” toolset (which allowed the game’s artists to more easily realize their visual concepts onscreen in playable form) manifested themselves in earnest, Ubisoft’s head honchos, still smarting from the fiscal wounds left by Child of Eden’s underperformance, eventually became convinced that going the full-fledged physical release route was once again warranted (just to be safe, though, they decided to give out some free stuff to encourage pre-orders).
Reviewers wholeheartedly agreed with this chosen path, and were almost without exception smitten with the game’s come-hither combination of, once again, simple pick-up-and-play controls (though later areas and challenges can challenge even grizzled old-schoolers), four-player simultaneous co-op, and gorgeous hi-res artwork. “Meet the New Crazy”, invited the ad campaign, and it wasn’t kidding – where else, within the span of a single level, can one emerge through a watermelon-rind gateway onto a city-sized glacier populated by chattering silverware and ice-skating lizard butlers, then swing through a hellish mariachi-accompanied adobe kitchen via lava-bathing chili peppers and bouncy sausages (not a euphemism!), and finish the whole mess off with a disco-ukulele flourish (that is, if you’ve scored highly enough)?
Nowhere, I think it’s pretty safe to say – and, based on the sales figures observed so far, we probably won’t be privy to such antics again. If you’ve still got the stomach to keep track, this game’s post-launch price drop, despite depressingly stiff competition, stands as the most rapid of the three (and yes, the decision to launch at the same time as the latest Call of Duty probably didn’t help, but seeing as Child of Eden was utterly trounced by the critically-pannedDuke Nukem Forever I’m willing to call into question just how much of a difference it really would have made). In case you needed one last kick in the teeth, Ancel has apparently determined to use said sales as a way out the next time anybody asks how Beyond Good and Evil 2 is coming along.
Three well-realized, visually striking games, all seemingly custom-tailored for long-overdue mass-audience integration. Three well-established visionary development heads at the helm. Three relatively modest budgets backed by three well-heeled ad campaigns. Three sets of glowing professional praise to finally spirit them above and beyond the high hopes that had been laid upon their shoulders.
Three icy, unambiguous rejections by the gaming populace at large. Three crippling, stinging failures.
In retrospect, one really can almost envision the makers of these three titles, half-exhausted by ever-louder demands to go big or go home, finally getting together and deciding that, within the confines of a six-month span, they would mount one last-ditch, all-or-nothing charge to arms in the name of the Intuitive art style – an even nerdier (if such a thing is possible) take on the climax of the Battle of the Hornburg from The Two Towers. If you’ll recall that famous scene, however, Tolkien’s desperate riders luck out, saved by the timely arrival of a powerful ally: unfortunately, I very much doubt that such an event is in the cards for Intuitive gamers, especially as recession-wary publishers grow ever more dismissive of any proposal that might not be a completely “sure thing” - something Intuitive titles, by definition, can never be.
With outside-the-box studios like Clover and Blue Tongue being eaten up alive and smaller, less risk-averse publishers like Atlus and Nippon Ichi faring little better (the recent acquisition of Atelier studio Gust by Koei Tecmo, entailing a new focus on social games, hit me particularly hard…and feel free to cue Team Ico, while we’re at it), I’m not holding my breath for that resplendent white horse to suddenly appear over the hill. The best the movement has to give, in terms of both quality and market-readiness, has already been given, and it was not nearly enough to succeed.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not afraid that the Intuitive approach is in danger of disappearing altogether: there will always be someone out there willing to invoke and nurture the outwardly “unsafe”. I DO predict, however, that fewer and fewer of these erstwhile gardeners will be able to bring their creations to life anywhere beyond the bounds of the indie or freeware realms: the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores and major digital retailers alike are destined to calcify into an even more focus-grouped, homogenous mass than they already are, and any gamers who remain determined to hunt down the few succulently Intuitive morsels still floating around out there will be forced to resort to ever more obscure (and in some cases shady) channels. Those unwilling or unable to take up residence in gaming’s back alleys will simply be left out in the cold.
2011 truly has changed everything…everything, that is, except me, and what I continue to look for and value in a video game.
To be fair, a few spots of interest do remain on the commercial horizon today: Vanillaware, creators of the painterly Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, have already gotten their next two titles, Grand Knights History and Dragon’s Crown, picked up for localization, and a couple of portable offerings in the pipeline (Gravity Daze and Sumioni for the Vita, in particular) certainly have an Intuitive spirit about them. Will any of these succeed? I don’t know. Will they get as much support from above as their 2011 predecessors did? I very much doubt it. After such a disastrous series of high-profile burns, I don’t consider it outlandish to suggest that gamers won’t witness many more full-tilt charges at their ranks by teams that dare to buck visual trends – I anticipate a nigh-permanent return to extremely low print runs (if physical copies are in the cards at all), increasingly limited and obscure distribution channels, and a snowball’s chance of any real market penetration. The magnificent, hard-charging horses we marveled at this past year are being put out to pasture in favor of high walls and half-filled water balloons to occasionally lob over their edges.
It’s sad to think that this may well be the only recourse that both creators and consumers of Intuitive games can lean upon in this day and age –. I, for my part, can only tell you what my intuition tells me. It is good and right, I say, to admire the fearless Intuitive cavalry of 2011, to praise the flourishes of brilliant imagination that they’ve shared with us; amidst all the shimmering sabers and blaring trumpets, however, it behooves us all to remember that something important, something irreplaceable, has been trampled unceremoniously underfoot.
The gaming landscape has forever changed, but my resolution going forward, for better or worse, remains the same as every year before.
To offer, whenever I can, a small, earnest token of appreciation and support to those still acting in the behalf of gamers like myself…and to place fresh flowers in memory of the growing multitude no longer with us.