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Intellectual Properties that Deserve Better Games: Akira

We all know the drill: intellectual properties typically make the jump to video games only as the geek-beseeching arm of a vast marketing strategy, cross-promoting some other product on the verge of release. Usually, it’s a movie. And such games, tossed onto shelves after ridiculously rushed development cycles, have earned a reputation among gamers. To wit: they blow.

Some intellectual properties deserve better than this, though. Whether they’re culturally significant, aesthetically unique, or just stoke my personal nerd druthers, some properties deserve more than the dregs. Here’s one such property, imo.

(Note: This post started life as a list, but this entry metastasized into…this. The rest of the entries will probably make an appearance later, but for now, I hope you really like Akira, or someone dorking out over it at unreasonable length.)


Our man Tetsuo, the King of the High Five.

Akira may be an unpleasant blurt of a movie, and the comic may have sprawling plot holes big enough to drive a 60 foot tall mound of mutating techno-scrot through, but undeniably, Akira would make a tremendous video game. The movie alone features a wealth of memorable action sequences that an army of fabulously well-adjusted outdoorsy go-getters like myself would surrender a testicle (or ovary) for a chance to experience as a well-made, current generation game. If said game was based on the manga? You’d have enough content for the game, the DLC, the sequel, and the Obsidian quickie release (HIYO!).

But for all this potential, and for such a landmark moment in anime, science fiction, and unrelenting bad vibes, Akira has had a pitiful track record when it comes to video games. How pitiful, you ask? The Domino’s Noid has a game that’s both more fun and a better use of its source material than anything based on one of the greatest cyberpunk epics of all time. Those who know what the hell a Noid is, let that sink in a moment (mostly so we can lock eyes and gape at how fucking old we are).

In lieu of a game befitting its iconic stature and seismic influence, we’ve had a trio of shitty cash-ins that other shitty cash-ins won’t even invite to their monthly support group (Shovel-Aware: it’s not about being the better game, it’s about being the better you!). A few of these titles can hardly be considered “games” at all, more like maddening strings of terrible design decisions wadded into a mass of Akira-shaped kluge that repeatedly begs for death in a disjointed visual language we all mistook for level design.

Akira ‘88

The very first crack at the franchise was in 1988, six months after the release of the film. It was a text adventure for the NES. And not a text-heavy point and click, mind you, something Shadowgate-esque would’ve been disappointing given the kinetic style of the film, but that wouldn’t have precluded it from being good. What we got, though. Damn. Basically, it’s a scene for scene retelling of the movie that occasionally asks for your two cents, as in “Should Kaneda: Run, Look, Ask, Grab, Hide?” Answer correctly, and you’re treated to the next frame of the monolithic MS Paint slideshow that qualifies as progress (or the game’s savage mockery thereof). Outside of moving the cursor over your options, there’s no player input, just walls of text and eight whole bits of still life. It marks the least possible amount of work a game developer can do and still produce something that may be mistaken for a game (but will more likely be mistaken for a very troubled eighth grader’s Power Point presentation).

Akira ‘94

It was another six years before anyone touched the franchise, and by then the movie had been licensed to Western game developers. One of these games, developed by THQ, died on the table for apocryphal reasons. The other, from British developer Black Pearl Software, was Akira ’94 for the Amiga.
On the plus side, it’s not an interactive picture book. They went with a side-scrolling platformer to take advantage of the movie’s many great action setpieces, per what everyone wanted in the first place. On the downside, everything else. Despite showing up six years late to the party, Akira ’94 plays like a slapped together Quaalude nightmare version of everything you’d want an Akira game to be -- bike chases! Hover carts! Drugged-out Tetsuo! That swank rechargeable laser cannon! Only now it’s all horrendously ugly, and the controls are busted, and it sounds like a sine wave being run through a cheese grater, and it’s on the Amiga, and it’s sssoooo fffuucckkiiinngg sssslllooowww. This is a game with a first level so notoriously bad, I’ve never even heard of someone beating it short of cheating their way past it. Not because it’s hard -- because it’s tedious. The frenetic bike chase from the beginning of the movie, featuring the greatest two-wheeled phallic symbol of our time, has been reduced to an arduous chore where you memorize the location of each fuel canister, speed boost, and ramp, because if you miss a single one, guess what you get to do again? If you answered “NOT relive the visceral thrill of the film,” expect your high five in the mail, because you are tragically, maddeningly, horrifically correct.

Akira Psycho Ball

It was another eight years before another game would arrive, and with it came incontrovertible proof that whoever owns the rights to Akira has probably never seen it. I was flipping through the 2001 E3 coverage in whatever extinct magazine I was subscribed to at the time, and there, in a small blurb in the margins, was an announcement that a new Akira game was coming to the PS2. “Holy shit!” Young Zugzwang exclaimed. In a paroxysm of nerd-glee -- visions of open-world psychic mayhem and freeway motorcycle battles dancing through my head like so many blood-drenched sugar plums -- I read on. Developed by Bandai! Out first quarter next year! Made to coincide with the remastered DVD release! A pinball simulator! “…” I then said, and for those a little rusty on their punctuation, an ellipsis should not make an audible noise. I read that blurb probably a dozen times trying to wrench from it some sort of explanation, or hint, or veiled apology. Nothing against pinball, mind you. It’s an innocuous waste of a quarter if you’re down at the malt shop, getting an egg cream with your best gal, waiting for your fucking time machine to warm up. But how do you look at a beloved high-octane action epic, crammed with material enough for six games (That’s right. Suck it, Tron), and come to the conclusion that pinball would be the best way to make it relevant to today’s audiences? How does that happen? Was there a gas leak in the boardroom that day? Did the lolling albatross of senility swoop down and wrap its lustrous, pee-scented wings around someone too important to fire? Or are most Japanese entertainment ventures deep in the drooping pockets of Big Ballbearing? You want answers? Forget it, Jake. It’s Pachinkotown.

So that’s the three Akira games so far. I want you to take a look at this poster by artist Tyler Stout.

Note how much awesome-per-square-inch we’re dealing with here. We got tanks, explosions, gasmask-clad sturm troopen, a crying blue child, a biker with an empty universal no on his t-shirt -- as if to say he ain’t even believe in no ghost! -- and of course, front row center, the Milton Berle of dick-by-proxy motocycles. Take it all in. Look at how much space this franchise handily covers in a thick glaze of hellyeah. Three games based on this goddamn movie, and all of them somehow missed everything that’s exploding out of everywhere on this poster.

The Bastard Offspring
On the bright side, there have been some terrific games. not based on Akira, but clearly influenced by it. Here are a few of the more obvious consolation prizes that come to mind:

The recently mentioned Second Sight and Psi-Ops are both distinctly Western interpretations of The Vengeful Psychic Rampage. Second Sight leaned towards stealth mechanics, though, with your powers acting more as a slight edge to level the playing field against the most imposing army of Wallace and Gromit-looking badasses the game’s adorable art direction could muster. Psi-Ops, on the other hand, was a meat-and-potatoes third-person shooter spotlighting a physics engine designed purely for sadism. “Enemies missing a head will not yield mental energy” its Wikipedia page helpfully states, and that should tell you everything you need to know about Psi-Ops in a nutshell.

There was Galerians, an unsettling, arduous, but weirdly intriguing series that owed a lot to Akira, in its own archly-90s way. Between the pre-rendered backgrounds, load screens between each door, and CGI cutscenes animated so stiffly that everyone looks like they’re in a Dire Straits music video, the experience is downright retro.
Centered around (extremely fashion conscious) teenage guinea pigs in a (extremely fashion conscious) secret hospital, players had to imbibe various types of drugs to access latent psychic powers. Taking too much, though, caused you to “short”, rendering you a shuffling telekinetic bomb until either you popped one of the incredibly scarce chill pills, or your brain decided to blow the popsicle stand that was inconveniently also your head. Mechanically, this amped up the usual survival-horror preoccupation with conservation to tedious new heights, since every shot was both a valuable offensive resource and a considerable health risk, and caused situations where you’d spend huge chunks of the game (especially the sequel) running away from the doofiest of bad guys because you simply could not spare the resources to kill them. The line between monstrous difficulty and flat out bad design was constantly being traipsed across in this series, but it warrants a playthrough for the adventurous dumpster diver.

Then of course there’s Psychonauts, which carried the torch for horribly misshapen psychic children proudly into the new millennium. It also warrants praise for being the only game of the four I’ve just mentioned that doesn’t use amnesia as a central plot device. We, know, developers, that amnesia conveniently sidesteps the whole in media res dilemma that nearly every game narrative has to address, but Jesus Christ, if I have to play as one more character that wakes up on an operating table and the first words out of their mouth are “Where am I…Who am I?!” I am going to beat my console to pieces with a Shakespeare anthology, screaming about other mediums having this shit down before Western civilization figured out how to wipe its ass properly. But Psychonauts is terrific, a warm, funny charmer with memorable characters, a great plot that makes you eager to see whose brain you’re raiding next, and level design ranging from the dang clever to the mutha-fuckin’ sublime. While it’s not a perfect game (the actual gameplay is just okay, feeling more like a serviceable conduit by which you explore the game’s better ideas), it is a unique little snowflake.

None of these games fill the Akira-shaped hole in fan's libraries, though. These titles are all rightfully doing their own thing, but offer just tantalizing suggestions of what could be.

The impossible dream may become nightmarish reality soon enough, though. An American adaptation of Akira is currently working its way through the lower intestine of the Hollywood bilge machine, with the setting being rejiggered to “Neo-Manhattan” and all the Japanese juvenile delinquents now twenty-something white boys. Needless to say, if the brain trust behind that idea has any say in the inevitable tie-in game, I’ll have to make this blog even longer to accommodate its place of shame. *sigh*
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About Zugzwangone of us since 7:48 PM on 05.09.2011

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