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Tag Archives: Game Design

 

 

 

Shamble.

 

 

Pop music is two things: Urgency and Moments.

Pop songs try to deliver their messages as direct as possible and try to make them stick.

The deeper the songs can drill into you, the more important the message becomes.

The louder it becomes.

Pop songs are all about mechanics. They are all about how to attack the heart of the listener.

They are strategic and tactical and hard.

 

 

The Ronettes‘ ‘Be My Baby’ is one of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century.

The song embodies the genre and mirrors it to no end.

There is a sincere urgency in Veronica Bennett’s voice, there is a genuine pleading.

The instruments become time, caressing Bennett through each second.

Everything sticks and the song cascades moments.

The song grows so big that it becomes a world of its own.

 

 

Azealia Banks‘ ‘212’ follows the same methodology as ‘Be My Baby’.

Not only is there a frenetic urgency in the song, but it is always shifting, always creating newer, bigger moments.

Where ‘Be My Baby’ overwhelms with force of sound and honesty, ‘212’ floods the listener with intricacy and aggression.

The mirroring is more complex here.

Most would argue that ‘212’ isn’t pop, that it’s some kind of alternative genre mash-up.

But it adheres to the fundamentals of pop more so than anything else.

When I first heard ‘212’, I had to replay it multiple times to begin to understand everything that was happening.

There is no waste in it, everything has a purpose in its world and because of that honing it feels important.

‘212’ feels confident and fun and violent.

 

 

Bruce Springsteen‘s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ has a lot of momentum.

Not only are Springsteen’s lyrics expressing the urgency of heartbreak, but the whole song is honest and transformative.

It is a pop song searching for better, stickier moments.

It is a song that understands its importance.

It never gets loud, its changes are subtle, but it is driven with a sense of purpose.

‘Dancing in the Dark’ sits in contrast to ‘212’ and ‘Be My Baby’: There is no overwhelming, global force to it.

The song resonates because it stays simple and earnest.

The song itself becomes the moment, it doesn’t try to be the world.

 

 

‘Pretty in Pink’ is similar in concept to ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

The song does away with momentum and world-building entirely.

It chases moments with a somber tone and that’s where the urgency lies.

While ‘Dancing in the Dark’ was about acknowledging darkness and trying to change it, ‘Pretty in Pink’ embraces it.

It uses a darker tone to drive urgency.

It cuts down deeper than ‘Dancing in the Dark’ vocally, while the music remains upbeat.

Bands like The Psychadelic Furs would end up informing an aesthetic that would bloom with groups like Interpol and The National: Pop beats echoing darkness.

 

 

Tiffany‘s rendition of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ is my favorite pop song.

The song never does anything outside of the immediate moment. It layers and repeats.

It’s both cyclical and unpredictable.

It is desperate and joyful. Bright and Curious.

It has a lot of physicality to it: The drums stick like in ‘Be My Baby’ and Tiffany’s voice expands and soars.

It shares some of the momentum of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and it shares some of its focus on the remembering of moments.

‘I think We’re Alone Now’ has the honesty of youth and the urgency of milliseconds.

 

Break.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song.

It is constructed both on and in the moment.

Every moment in an action game needs to express something and make whatever it is seem like the most important thing in that time and place.

Running/jumping in Mario. Shooting in Doom. Locking missiles in Ace Combat. Combos in Street Fighter.

A good action game needs to understand what it is trying to say.

It needs to understand what it is trying to do: Is it trying to build a world like ‘Be My Baby’ or ‘212’? Or is it trying to be small and deep like ‘Dancing in the Dark’ or ‘Pretty in Pink’?

It needs to understand what makes it compelling.

Good pop songs tend to rapidly shift focus in moments without losing sight of the end, without losing sight of their urgency.

When an action game loses its urgency, it becomes slow and plodding.

For instance, when Castlevania made the shift to 3D with Legacy of Darkness in 1999.

The main series has stagnated since.

 

 

God Hand is considered by many to be a pinnacle of 3D action games.

God Hand is the equivalent of ‘I think We’re Alone Now’: It has a lot of physicality.

It is dense and cyclical, but it allows for a huge amount of intricate creativity.

It also never takes itself too seriously, but never loses sight of the immediate.

To grow in God Hand, the player needs a strange kind of patience, the kind normally reserved for fighting games.

And like ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, it is a product of its time.

It could’ve only happened when and where it did.

 

 

Metal Slug 7 is a very smooth game.

It is meticulous and aggressive. It has the most-designed difficulty curve of any Metal Slug game.

Its intricacy lies in how the games stunning art feeds into the action.

While that is a staple of any Metal Slug, MS7 is the most holistic of the series.

Its message is pure like ‘Be My Baby’, but it has the clean production of ‘212’.

It requires an extreme amount of focus and the friction of its world is perfect for a 2D action game.

The way the bullets flow out of the heavy machine gun. The little bit of lag when firing the rocket launcher.

These details make the game feel bigger, they give the game more momentum and presence.

Metal Slug 7 succeeds because it achieves a balance between aesthetics and mechanics not many games do today.

 

 

Videoball is what made me care about games in a genuine way again.

While still unreleased, I had the opportunity to play it at PAX East 2014.

With its minimalist style, it’s difficult to understand just how thorough Videoball is.

It has very satisfying friction in terms of both movement and shooting.

Winning your first dogfight in Videoball ranks up there with other action game moments like pulling off your first complicated combo in a fighting game.

Every moment in Videoball will either make you feel elated or exasperated at your own skill.

It is a factory of moments.

Videoball shares the ‘Pretty in Pink’ aesthetic.

It is a small, focused game with bright colors that hide a darker, more aggressive undertone.

Like the pop beats/dark vocals duality, Videoball disguises its seriousness with a light-hearted facade.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song: Confident. Harmonious. Adaptable. Focused. Urgent.

No creative endeavors stand alone in this world and one of the problems with the world of games is that it is highly insulated.

This current state is to no one’s benefit, least of all to the players.

It’s this strange insulation from other cultural worlds that allows for mobs like ‘GamerGate’ to form.

In order for games to develop and grow, the thick walls of this community need to be torn down.

We need to stop treating games as objects in-and-of-themselves and look at them as cultural products that are a part of a wider culture of expression.

I believe games deserve that much at least.

For all that games have done for us, we have done too little for them.

 

 

 

 

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Corner.

 

 

When I first tried to play The Last of Us, my PS3 couldn’t handle it.

I had the 2nd generation fat model and it couldn’t play newer games without blasting the internal fan.

It happened every time I put in Gran Turismo 6 as well.

I was frustrated not only because I couldn’t play the games I had, but this was near the release of Dark Souls II.

I was concerned the fan noise was going to destroy the ambiance the Souls series is known for.

I got rid of it and upgraded to the PS3 Slim.

Dark Souls II released and TLoU: Remastered was announced shortly after for the PS4 at a lower price.

Dark Souls II was a passable game overall, but by far the worst Souls game to date.

My excitement died and I passed my time waiting for The Last of Us: Remastered playing Guilty Gear.

When TLoU:R released, the difference was significant.

While the resolution stayed the same, it now ran at 60 fps instead of 30 and had a striking fidelity.

It was crisp and responsive. It felt different.

After having spent a few months analyzing everything that went wrong with Dark Souls II, The Last of Us was something I needed.

There were things about it that made me uncomfortable: Every person of color in the game is the target of some massive trauma, sometimes at the hands of the main character.

But TLoU was a narrative success.

The story was tight and engaging. The environments were dense.

The greatest success of The Last of Us is that the world both feels abandoned and lived in.

The cities and towns are painted and tragic.

Everywhere you look, there is something to look at: dripping water, a cracked brick, crawling vines, abandoned barriers, collapsed skylines.

The world is full and broken.

The Last of Us is Midgar Revisited.

Everything fits together in a complete, fluid way.

The world transitions into itself: stairs lead to halls leading to rooms with open windows and fire escapes and ledges and streets with more stairs.

If Destiny‘s success is its unique lens of verticality and space, The Last of Us succeeds in layering and texture:

In thickness and density.

 

Rotation.

 

A few weeks ago I applied to join the Bloodborne alpha.

I had no expectation of being accepted, but I felt compelled to try in order to know if this was going to be another disaster.

I completed both Demon’s and Dark Souls, owned DSII (for which I was invited to the beta), and purchased every iteration of Armored Core on the PSP/PS3.

I thought my credentials were solid enough with From Software that I had a better chance than others.

And they accepted me.

And Bloodborne is stunning.

While the lens through which the alpha takes place is limited, there is enough to understand what the game is.

It is not a Souls game.

It borrows elements from the series, but it is its own game mechanically and thematically.

The combat is much more fluid and responsive than any of the Souls games.

Bloodborne emphasizes movement and situational awareness. The combat is thorough and dynamic.

Gone is the dreamy, slow, dissociative quality of Souls interaction.

Bloodborne is more grounded.

The basic enemies remain difficult and have the potential to kill.

And From has maintained the asymmetrical multiplayer they pioneered in Demon’s Souls.

Bloodborne also marks the return of Hidetaka Miyazaki as Director.

After directing both Demon’s and Dark Souls, From removed him from the series and made him President of the company.

This led to Dark Souls II being made without his direction, ensuring the mess that From ended up releasing.

Miyazaki’s hand is so obvious in the design of Bloodborne that it makes Dark Souls II seem even worse.

Like The Last of Us, Bloodborne is a dense game.

It takes place in an enormous, sprawling gothic city (Yharnam) cloaked in a final darkness.

The city is in the midst of a plague that turns citizens into beasts.

Bloodborne, so far, seems like the most nihilistic game Miyazaki has made.

The city is full of death, hatred, anger, lament, emptiness.

Everywhere you turn there are ornate coffins, abandoned carriages, black chasms, tortured monstrosities.

Enemies scream, blaming the player character for their situation. Their voices full of rage and sorrow.

But Bloodborne, so far, seems like the best game Miyazaki has made.

One of the flaws Dark Souls II suffered from was a lack of compelling momentum.

It never makes the player ask or wonder.

There was nothing curious about the game’s world or construction. Everything was obvious and direct.

In Bloodborne, that is never the case.

 

Cascade.

 

Entry – 

 

The city is dark, but everything glistens.

I can see the blood on my clothes. I look up at the sky.

Why is that moon so bright? How did this place fall so far?

I walk toward a large coffin propped up in an alley.

I wonder why it’s chained shut.

 

Entry – 

 

I walk past some crates.

A man in the throes of this illness lunges at me.

He screams that it’s all my fault. He sounds sad and angry and terrified.

I kill him with my scythe.

I pull out my torch and stare at his body to decipher his features.

I wonder what it is he blames me for.

 

Entry

 

Standing on the stairs, I see civilians carrying torches.

It seems they are on some sort of patrol.

I follow them. I cross an abandoned carriage.

A man hiding in the shadows, he rises, and shoots me in the back.

I cut him down and climb the stairs he was sitting on.

I turn left at the top.

There is a half-beast corpse: crucified and burning in the dark.

 

Entry –

 

I walk down a side-path until I hit a locked gate.

A bell rings nearby.

I hear a loud groaning.

Something is trapped, slamming against a door.

I jump into the main road. I see the door shaking on my right.

I see another (larger) burning, crucified body on my left:

This one more beast than man.

 

Entry – 

 

I find a path into a graveyard.

All the trees are barren.

I wonder what season it is.

The moaning is louder now.

Something feels wrong here. I look at the ground.

The shadows are moving, flowing.

I look at the trees and there is stillness.

I trace the moonlight back. I look up at the sky.

There is an enormous spider-like abomination sitting on a tower, looming.

Tentacles from its mouth moving, flowing.

I stare at its hundred dead eyes in shock.

I wonder if this thing was once human as well.

 

Entry – 

 

I find the source of the groaning, the slamming.

A very large figure. He turns around to confront me.

I burn him down with Molotovs.

There is silence.

I wonder why he was trapped here.

I wonder why he was so large.

I walk to the back of the terrace.

I look down into the black abyss.

I look up at the nightmare in the moonlight.

And I know that this place is terrifying…

 

And that this place is beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Construct.

 

 

“We are more free than ever before to look around in all directions; nowhere, do we perceive any limits. We have the advantage of feeling an immense space around us – but also an immense void.” – Nietzsche

 

I look up at the orange sky. I stare at the vapor trails of passing planes. I remember Destiny.

Games are barren. They wrap space around emptiness and call it ‘World.’

Mario is desolate: Why is the Kingdom so empty? Where did everyone go? Whose footsteps wrap around the mountains?

Where were they going? And why did they leave?

Games suggest so much more than they are, but the space always cracks and no amount of environmental density can cover the silent, screaming vacuum behind their blind walls.

There are those that celebrate this wasteland: the Souls series, but their understanding never lasts.

Art emerges from the medium and implies texture and flesh. Warmth and dirt. But this is never translatable.

The system loses the context and renders an approximation of an open heart: trash tumbling in the light of a cold wind.

A problem of translation of place.

In Dark Souls, the player enters a painting: The Painted World of Ariamis. The painting hangs in a large cathedral in the middle of the domain of dead Gods.

The painted world was more tangible than the game’s reality. It distilled the lingering misery, focused it.

Warmth made of glass.

I look up at the orange sky. I stare at the vapor trails of passing planes. I wonder about the people. I wonder about their fear.

Games are barren. They wrap space around emptiness and call it ‘World.’

And what of the actual World?

It is also wrapped in an incomprehensible emptiness.

Is all our art and culture just a means to focus our anxieties of the void? To manufacture space and meaning?

To focus our misery?

The world as an engine of art and anxiety.

I played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare one year after being stuck in a war zone.

The ‘attack helicopter’ killstreak gave me nightmares.

Games are somewhere between our subjective real and waking dream.

They have an influence of vision, they manufacture questions of perception and alter the gaze.

I lay down on the grass. I watch the light drip through the shaking silhouette of leaves. I think of Crysis.

The bigger a game tries to pretend to be, the less interesting it is.

The bigger a game tries to be, the more brittle the walls and the vacuum becomes intolerable and loud.

Open-world games try to keep their promise. Worlds where the player can mold their own narrative: An assumed simulation of living.

But this world itself is not open, none of us can go where we want.

We are stuck with our anxieties, our hate, our love, our need.

We are rooted and our imagination is crumbling.

What made FFVII so successful is that it understood the minute scale on which a world operates. It understood the sequence of place and the fragility of people.

And similar to Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, every character was colored by the tragedy of existing in that world.

Square never captured that feeling again. No one has.

In college, I would experiment with noise. I listened to a lot of Merzbow, Bomb 20, and MITB.

Other genres of music, when pushed to their natural ends, often failed to capture the absurd notion of creating meaning in a life of constant fear and a notion of the inevitable end of all things.

Eazy-E almost got it.

He wrangled his own understanding out of the bowels of cosmic indifference and died.

 

Bearing.

 

“Why do you like games so much?”

We were sitting at a Mediterranean cafe downtown. The light was dim. There was a lot of noise.

It was raining outside. We were drinking mint tea.

I looked at her.

I shrug.

I didn’t have a good answer. I still don’t.

And I don’t think anyone does.

I barrel through the darkness. I listen to Chipzel. I feel remorse.

Her music emerges from the ancient dead. It isn’t about reminiscing, it’s about digging through potential.

Games are barren. They wrap their creators’ hands in dust and bone and call it love.

An existential war between iterations of conflict and empty memorial: This is the current state of things.

“Why do you like games so much?”

Maybe because I like the promise of their parts: Games as reverse-Gestalt objects.

The parts are more than the whole.

Engines of art, music, philosophy, narratives, experience. Everything that emerges from that space is more exhilarating than the space itself.

Factories.

I sit on a hill. I stare through the heart of the city. I watch the sunset. I listen.

How many times has the world cracked open to bear itself to the distant, dying stars?

How many times have we accepted the mess we are and the mess we are in?

Are games attractive because they give us a controlled space to act? But the finality is there and the player is actively driving that world to its own end.

No matter where we go, we devour worlds and drink space.

Always running from ourselves and into each other.

I was watching G4. It was a live broadcast of E3. They asked for viewer feedback about a game with ‘choice.’

They aired the response of a stereotype.

An obese, white male discussing how he always makes the ‘moral’ choices. That mattered to him.

He wanted to be the classic hero.

I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for how much pain he must be in to imagine that his choices and his feedback mattered.

The greatest fraud: That the worlds of games care about what we think or feel.

It’s all fish eyes and limbs. Gasping and clawing. Remembrance and money.

 

Dancing.

 

We made MMOs because we couldn’t handle the end.

We decided we needed persistence. We needed more time in the wasteland between dream and abyss.

A wasteland with no virtual end: A depraved mimicry of our reflections.

I look up at the sun. I remember the canvas, the page, the brick, breathing, waking.

Games are barren. They are made and call themselves ‘World.’

And we run into them with a love and expectation that is always broken.

Why do you like games so much?

I stayed up all night and read ‘I, The Divine‘ once.

A novel written by a man from the perspective of a Lebanese woman trying to write her life story.

A novel of first chapters.

Where do our lives begin?

I walked to the lake at 4 am. I sat by the shore.

It was snowing. I lit a cigar.

I stared into the black.

And I accepted in that moment, there was no one to embrace.

And I accepted, once and for all, that I have no answers.

 

I am become boredom, the cancer of worlds.

 

“…It can only persist…as long as it’s possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.” – Noam Chomsky

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artillery.

 

 

When I started playing fighting games seriously, there were things people would tell me.

There were things I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand the difference between a link system and a chain combo system.

I didn’t understand what DP meant.

I didn’t understand what spacing was.

Someone would always insist that spacing in a fighting game, especially Street Fighter, was important.

It was an ethereal concept to me: What does that mean? What do I do with it?

Because I was usually the most inexperienced person in whatever FGC (Fighting Game Community) I was a part of, I focused on more obvious points.

I practiced combos in training modes. I worked on my blocking technique. I tried to pry open different fighting games’ design philosophies.

I couldn’t understand spacing, so I avoided it. I convinced myself I would get to it later.

It wasn’t obvious.

Capcom keeps their systems hidden. This is part of what led to Capcom’s ascension in the United States over SNK.

Capcom leaves guidance and discovery up to the community. They depend on the FGC to figure things out.

Because of it’s difficulty, Street Fighter mastery is considered one of the pinnacles of success in the FG genre.

SNK, though, enforces the subtle. SNK transforms the subtle into a lesson.

I believe this is why SNK has found success everywhere else in the world.

SNK fighters are lessons.

Every SNK fighting game has a shakiness to it.

From Fatal Fury to The Last Blade to King of Fighters, SNK games tend to either be mechanically broken or make viable only a handful of characters.

But SNK does something that Capcom does not: Force the player to pay attention.

Starting with Fatal Fury 2, SNK implemented an at-will two-plane system, the first of its kind in the genre. This allowed players to jump between the foreground/background of a stage.

With a two-plane system, the player had to be aware of which plane their opponent was on, the best way to move to that plane, and to avoid level hazards.

The Last Blade series had a deflect button. If the player pressed the deflect button just as an opponent attacked, the attack would be parried, leaving them open for a counterattack.

This forces the player to watch their opponent carefully, to read frames carefully. The Last Blade drills players’ focus faster than any other fighter I’ve seen.

Capcom tried to do something similar in Street Fighter III with the introduction of the parry mechanic: The player taps forward when an opponent’s attack connects and the attack is neutralized with no damage taken.

The parry mechanic along with a flood of other innovations led to SFIII becoming one of the most highly regarded fighting games ever made.

But because SFIII was tailored with immense precision, it garnered vast critical approval, but nowhere near the financial success of its predecessor.

When SFIII: Third Strike came around, the game was dead in the United States.

Even the ‘Daigo Parry‘ couldn’t save it.

Capcom tried to out-SNK SNK.

By building a solid, tactical, mechanically coherent fighting game with polish and little brokenness, Capcom suffered.

People didn’t expect that from them. They just wanted another SFII.

It would take Capcom 10 years before they would release another game in the Street Fighter franchise and Street Fighter IV was an exercise in back-tracking.

(Here is the best review of SFIII: Third Strike you will read).

 

Clack.

 

At the same time Capcom released their most complex and technical iteration of Street Fighter, SNK put out its last iteration of the Fatal Fury series: Garou: Mark of the Wolves.

Garou and 3S are often considered companion games.

Both are beautiful. Both innovate on their established franchises. Both are technical.

Garou pushed the limits of what was capable on SNK’s Neo Geo system.

Even though Neo Geo was incapable of semi-transparency and 3D effects, SNK was able to simulate them using complex 2D techniques.

Like SFIII, Garou was a reset.

SNK even altered the signature look of Terry Bogard, the series mascot.

They also eliminated the two-plane system Fatal Fury had introduced and become known for.

With Garou, SNK pruned away all the excess a decade of half-finished ideas left them with.

Fighting games are usually loud. They scream. They affirm their place in the arcades.

In the mid-90’s, you couldn’t walk into an arcade anywhere in the world without being pummeled with SFII audio.

Garou is a quiet game.

Garou is serene.

The introduction shows nothing but Geese Howard‘s death and a small montage of Terry Bogard raising Geese’s son, Rock Howard.

Garou’s music is comprised of low-key, modern jazz and dance tracks. The music keeps the atmosphere light and reinforces the game’s growth.

No loud guitar music. No pop music with nonsense lyrics.

Keeping with this minimal style, SNK also paired back the roster of playable characters from the previous iteration by almost half.

Garou only has 14 characters.

There is a sense of intimacy in Garou’s world. There is a sense that the characters and places are all familiar to each other.

Because of the limited roster, each character has personality. Each character feels important.

The game does a profound job relating both characters and players to places in the world.

Garou’s greatest innovation is the stage introductions.

Before each fight, the stages are presented in short, animated clips.

There is no music. There is only ambient sound from the stage itself.

They are so well-done, so elegant, so subtle: They could be meditation objects.

Garou is a cohesive game.

All the aesthetic innovations are matched by the mechanical.

It introduces the ‘Tactical Offensive Position’ (T.O.P.). TOP is a customizable comeback mechanic.

After selecting a character, the game asks the player to choose a portion of the character’s lifebar (roughly one-third).

The player can choose the beginning, middle, or end.

During the fight, if that portion of the character’s lifebar is reached, they will begin flashing, indicating that TOP has engaged.

TOP grants the player access to a move that isn’t normally available, some health regeneration, and increased damage output.

TOP is a proto-X-Factor over a decade before Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

SNK also introduced a ‘Just Defend’ mechanic similar to the SFIII parry. If the player blocks just before an attack connects, they recover more quickly from block.

All of Garou’s mechanical developments lead to an encouragement of offense.

Many of SNK’s fighting franchises are defensive and tactical.

Garou is a massive divergence from SNK’s traditional formula.

Lifebars disintegrate as fast as they did in SFII and the game’s offense functions on how well a player can use their normal attacks.

With its speed and small levels, Garou reinforces the importance of spacing.

It is a perfect exercise in learning what spacing is.

There is nowhere to run and attacking without thinking is easily punished here.

Garou wants the player to be offensive, but not stupid.

It wants the player to not only think about what attack to use, but about the potential space of that attack.

With Street Fighter III, Capcom sought to slow the game down. They wanted players to take their time and think. They wanted each hit to count.

Defensive players flourished in SFIII’s space.

Garou taught players how to attack. It was the antibody to a generation of SFII button-mashing.

It is by no means a perfect game, but an important one.

It is a game I would encourage anybody to play.

Garou is important as a whole work.

It reinforces FG basics in a soft, clear, beautiful way.

Brandon Sheffield once referred to Garou as being ‘holistic’.

And it is.

This is a game designed with clarity.

This is a game that balances light and seriousness with grace and perspective.

The gaming world has never been as toxic or as melodramatic as it is today.

 

And Garou’s softness, humor, and expectation are both reaffirming and cleansing, 15 years on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At.

 

 

I joined Twitter in 2010.

I had been unemployed for almost a year since graduation and was eating through the endless time on my hands by looking for work, writing, and reading.

The year before, I developed a larger appreciation for Japanese culture.

For Japanese history, art, literature: Expanding beyond the world of games and anime.

In 2009, Jake Adelstein released his memoir: Tokyo Vice.

It told the story of Jake’s life in Japan as an investigative journalist and the only American to be admitted to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club.

Having turned down the opportunity to work in Japan, I was able to experience Tokyo through his work.

After finishing Tokyo Vice, I spent days finding a way to get in touch with Jake.

Due to the sensitive nature of his work, he had made himself difficult to find.

Scouring the internet was fruitless, so I settled on the only public face he had: Twitter.

I explicitly joined Twitter to tell him how much I enjoyed his book.

I was absorbed by it.

After a few exchanges with Jake, I had no idea what to do with this network.

When I moved to Rochester, I stopped writing.

When I started working, social networks didn’t mean much to me.

Through SRK, I found the Rochester FGC and because of that, after a three year absence, I was pulled back into maintaining an internet presence.

I reopened Twitter in 2013 and saw how much it had changed.

The sheer amount of content Twitter was producing, the amount of access it was allowing.

I understood it better now.

I had been listening to the Insert Credit Podcast since its inception, having been a follower of the original site.

I always felt Tim Rogers understood games and language on an intrinsic level.

I always felt he understood what was necessary to express and understand.

After hearing him plug his Twitter account on numerous podcast episodes, I went on to find him.

I thanked him for his excellent writing. He thanked me back.

I was still buying games from Gamestop and stopped by one day to purchase Muramasa Rebirth.

A child was digging through the used game bin and found a knockoff, CoD-style, console FPS.

As I handed the money to the cashier, I overhear the child pleading with his father:

“I want to get this game because I want to be in the army when I grow up!”

I laughed. I remember dropping lines like that to convince my parents of whatever games caught my eye.

At home, I related the story to Tim.

He wrote back: I could have just downloaded Kokuga for the 3DS and I would never have had to leave my house.

I looked up Kokuga.

I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this game.

 

Seal.

 

Kokuga had been released for a year by the time I downloaded it.

As I have often stated: I have a deep, profound love of STGs and have always prided myself on knowing of the ones that mattered.

I couldn’t believe how I had lapsed here.

Kokuga was not only made by G.rev, one of the world’s last remaining and most storied STG houses responsible for the likes of Under Defeat, Ikaruga, and Border Down, but was also directed by Hiroshi Iuchi: Director of Radiant Silvergun, Gradius V, and Ikaruga.

What makes G.Rev’s STGs different from Cave‘s is that they all rely on a combination of fringe mechanics that push the conceptual identity of the genre.

Cave is a company driven by pure arcade action, overflowing with style.

G.rev is a laboratory.

Ikaruga has color-switching. Radiant Silvergun has seven weapons. Border Down’s levels change depending on where you are shot down.

And Kokuga isn’t any different.

Kokuga is not afraid of experimentation and may be the purest form of G.rev’s vision to date.

The game takes place in an era of war between two nations and the player is tasked with piloting country A’s most advanced weapon: Kokuga, a tank of the future.

This is a game made at the cross-section of freedom and gambling.

The player is left to choose where to begin the game.

Levels are all labeled alphabetically and the general trend is that as levels progress upwards, the more difficult they are.

Unlike many of its famous ancestors, Kokuga is a multi-directional, non-scrolling shooter.

It maintains the verticality of other shooters, but allows the player more maneuverability.

The levels are very tightly designed. Nearly claustrophobic.

Levels are littered with obstacles and embedded/mobile enemy types.

To succeed in Kokuga, the player must be aware of the spaces around them, more so than in nearly any other shooter I’ve seen.

Kokuga isn’t just about dodging bullets, it’s about tactical positioning and resource management.

It’s a roguelike disguised as an action game.

The game takes place on the top screen, while the bottom screen is utilized for selecting powerups.

There are four powerups, assigned at random, sitting on the bottom screen.

Any one of them may be selected at any time to bolster either the tank’s defensive or offensive ability.

Each powerup is limited in both duration and frequency. Once you use a powerup, another one is assigned to the slot at random until they run out.

Burn through powerups too quickly and the boss fights become overwhelming. Burn through them too slow and the player is bogged down by the enemy.

This is a game that actually holds the player accountable for the decisions they make.

This is a game that does a fantastic job at giving the player a simulation of the responsibility that comes with power.

The player is free to decide where they would like to enter the world and after making the choice, they are thrown into closed, tight spaces and forced to fight through swarms with very limited resources.

This transition is seamless.

In a traditional STG, the player is only ever allowed to make micro-tactical decisions that mainly involve movement.

The urgency in classic STGs is filtered through the forced scrolling levels.

Even in newer STGs, urgency is manufactured through inverted mechanics: Sine Mora uses time/time-manipulation. Luftrausers uses a simulation of gravity.

While there is tactical urgency in Kokuga, the focus is more on the broader, more strategic plane.

It is a type of urgency which burns slowly at first and accelerates as the level becomes increasingly difficult.

This is further reinforced by the smooth, calm movement of the tank itself. Nothing feels rushed.

Kokuga’s greatest strength is that it does not rely on only one mechanic.

Even though by releasing it on the 3DS eShop, one may get the impression that this isn’t an important game, it is by far the purest manifestation of G.rev.

One of G.rev’s weaknesses has always been their over-reliance on one main mechanic around which others revolve.

One of the problems with Ikaruga was that after awhile it’s color-switching became so overused that it quickly lost its novelty.

With Kokuga, G.rev have been able to multithread their innovative style, creating a game full of interesting mechanics that fit together in a near-perfect way.

Kokuga’s systems not only maximize the game’s obvious strengths, but give the player a more dynamic experience by broadening their access to choice while throwing in a randomness element (powerups) within already tight margins.

Kokuga is a deep meditation on elegant, immersive, mobile game design.

It’s frightening this game almost passed by me unnoticed.

It’s frightening that it has flown under the radar of so many others.

Kokuga is everything G.rev have worked toward: A pure distillation of their innovative style.

With it’s somber tone, wonderful styling, and mechanical coherency: It is the true evolution of Ikaruga.

A true evolution of G.rev’s experimental precision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrape.

 

 

In the arcade dark, desperation blazed.

Late 90’s: Everyone knew the trade was dead, that arcades were unsustainable.

That didn’t stop new ones from opening.

Like the euphoric hallucinations of a dying hermit, the hardware was twisting.

It became about size, flash, otherness, heat.

Some cabs grew large, some lit up like Vegas, some flowed with murals.

Arcades became desolate cities, the hardware became the graff and the alleys.

Before this, my passion had settled in the rapid flows of STGs.

As the death knell grew louder, STG cabs stood unchanged.

Smooth and fluid, they understood themselves better than other games.

They were simple to understand, beautiful to look at, exciting to engage with.

Their fundamental design was perfect and exhilarating.

For almost a decade, STGs colored the base of my arcade experience.

As the late 90’s began, as stranger and  more surreal cabs manifested, I celebrated the end by expanding.

I understood what the other genres were. I waded in their ideas enough.

Light gun games, fighting games, racing games, puzzle games.

Arcades gave us multi-game literacy.

Shuffling through the exposed subconscious of the era, I came across a new kind of fighting game.

I messed around with Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat II. I was terrible.

But in this time and place, I had lost the self-consciousness that had driven me away from the fighting genre.

Marvel vs. Capcom was strange, brash, and flashy.

It did not care what you thought about it or yourself.

It had something to say and it celebrated the end like a lone tank crew charging down an enemy battalion.

 

Share.

 

Marvel vs. Capcom was not the first crossover title to combine the two universes.

Capcom released two games prior: X-Men vs Street Fighter (1996) and Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter (1997).

None of the arcades I went to had either, making MvC the first crossover fighting game I was exposed to.

MvC1 released in two variations: a large screen format and the standard cab format.

The local arcade had the large cab which lit up like white phosphorous in the dark.

The first thing you notice about MvC is how much it flashes.

How bright it burns.

The colors are simple and bold, searing.

The levels are dynamic and had more verticality than I was used to in a fighting game.

It was a fireworks show lighting up the heart of a dying industry.

When I got a chance to engage with it, I had no understanding of tiers.

With fighting games I had always assumed that the developers gave all the characters asymmetric, but equivalent tools.

I chose my team based on looks.

Strider/Jin.

The assists were chosen at random (sort of).

MvC is a physical game.

The characters have real weight and density, they have honest friction.

The physicality of the game reminded me of SFII.

Its speed and difficulty of Strikers 1945.

While I found some success in the single-player campaign, I failed competitively.

Looking back, I just didn’t know enough about fighting games.

I enjoyed my time in that world.

I enjoyed the end of that time.

 

Deus.

 

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was released two years later.

One of the most anticipated releases in the arcade world.

The large cab was enormous, with a screen that swallowed everyone’s field of vision.

The graphics were improved and the character roster had expanded to levels never before seen in the genre.

With the breadth of character choice, Capcom also expanded from a tag-team fighting system to a full trio.

MvC2 was more explosive, faster, more chaotic than its predecessor.

It suffered for this.

I still had no idea about fighting games so I ended up sticking with my MvC1 team: Strider/Jin.

I put Jill Valentine in the third slot. I loved Resident Evil.

Something was off for me the second my first match started.

Something was lost.

While the art and levels honed the original’s bold, bright aesthetic, it lost its physicality.

The characters felt lighter, faster, less fricative.

This made MvC2 a better game to watch than 1, but not as necessary to play.

It was a social game before the era of mobile internet.

It was a prophecy.

It was a game you stood around and discussed in awe of what you were seeing.

The initial shock value of the game was high. With 56 characters to choose, it seemed like a game of true expression.

Over time, it became evident that along with Capcom not honing the movement, they hadn’t really taken the time to balance it.

In going for a faster game, a more chaotic game, Capcom had only made a handful of teams viable at high-level play.

MvC1 had been broken as well, but proportionally the player had more, real options with less than half the selection of 2 (22 characters).

MvC2 was bright and empty, like the place it was born into.

 

Era.

 

Marvel vs. Capcom 3 wouldn’t come out for another 11 years.

Capcom lost the Marvel license after MvC2.

By the time MvC3 released, the arcades were gone.

Many of the last remaining, best known arcades in the U.S. had either closed or were on the verge of closing.

MvC3 had no understanding of the time that had spawned its predecessors.

MvC3 was more ‘floaty’ than either of the first two games.

There was even less friction, less density than MvC2.

It also lost a lot of the brightness, a lot of the flash.

The art style was altered, creating a dark, murky, muted world.

This was Marvel vs. Capcom for the home generation.

In spite of its poor physics and boring style, Capcom did mange to improve in a few areas.

MvC3 produced more viable teams.

The game doesn’t just boil down to variations on the same team at high-level play.

Almost every year since its release, the meta-game has changed.

This made it even more watchable than MvC2.

Capcom understood the social draw of MvC2 and honed it further.

MvC3 is a fighting game that generates an enormous amount of discussion and collaboration.

It is often touted as being ‘fun to watch’ by the fighting game community even for those who don’t play it.

While the first two games in the MvC series were about chaos and explosiveness, MvC3 was about experimentation.

In the arcades, a person didn’t have the time or money to poke around inside a game.

Either someone was going to challenge you or someone was waiting for you to finish.

There was always a sense of urgency: You had to be able to develop and pick up technique in repeated bursts of play and in carefully watching the competition.

By turning away from the urgency of its arcade roots (there is no Marvel vs. Capcom 3 arcade cabinet for instance), by increasing the viable options available to the player, Capcom transitioned a series which grew out of the brash, colorful dreams of a dying market to a darker, colder era more geared towards experimentation, technicality, and discussion.

I miss the flash and physicality of MvC1.

I miss the chaos and breadth of MvC2.

But in making MvC3 more social and more open to experimentation, Capcom pivoted the game for a new market.

While the changes may have left MvC3 with a less satisfying aesthetic experience overall, the series has adapted and will survive in a new era instead of going down with the place and the time that birthed it.

 

Italy.

 

Watching STGs struggle outside of arcades has been painful.

With all their elegant design and beauty, to see them collapse cuts deep.

Fighting games tend to be slow to adapt: 11 years between MvC2 and 3. 12 years between Street Fighter III and IV.

But they are able to change and yet carry on the seeds of arcade tradition into new futures and technologies.

The collaborative and competitive nature of fighting games is what made the communities around them strong enough to survive the collapse.

Strong enough to celebrate the beginning and the end without weeping at the ruins.

Something has been lost.

That can’t be denied.

The death of the arcade was tragic and infuriating.

It was a slow decline, like watching someone you love whither away from some terminal illness.

But rather than mourn the loss, MvC embraced it.

The series celebrated what was and what was to come.

The FGC did the same:

Not always with grace, but with an endurance that can only come from profound loss and the enigmatic, joyous love of competition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Periphery.

 

 

Near the giant Hawken mech looming over the show floor, sat the Transistor booth.

PAX East 2013 was my first video game convention. It was the first time I traveled out of state with my wife.

She had only been in the country for a month. She was excited to see Boston. She didn’t care about video games.

I like that though.

I like that her world is bigger than this.

I like that she still tries to understand what I mean when I talk about games.

She still reads the things I write here.

She still goes with me to PAX.

PAX East 2013 was when I began to respect indie games.

I had taken issue with independent games in the years prior.

I disliked their constant rehashing of 8 and 16-bit aesthetics. I disliked how, for the most part, they never seemed to take themselves seriously, that everything was a big joke. I disliked their lack of mechanical polish.

I was also down on AAA games. I hated all their bloat and lack of innovation.

But I saw indie games at PAX with promise.

Hawken. Mercenary Kings.

Transistor.

I knew about Supergiant Games. I knew they made Bastion.

I never played Bastion. I knew that it got a lot of credit for doing interesting things with narration.

It’s hard to pin down what made me not want to play it, maybe because it looked like a more involved Braid: Another colorful game about deconstruction.

Standing outside the Hawken booth I stared at the mural:

 

 

I knew in 2013 that this was a game I wanted to play.

A female lead, robots, a giant sword, a city: Neo-noir Cyberpunk Concentrate.

I liked what I saw so much that I didn’t want to play the game before it was released.

I wanted to be surprised.

Even when it showed up again at PAX East 2014, I avoided the Supergiant booth.

Transistor released a few months later in May 2014.

And it surprised me.

And it mixed me up.

 

Sink.

 

Transistor is a celebration of the urban.

It is about the love of the city. It is about the love of the self.

It is about Narcissism.

Cloudbank is a place defined by change: A place that shifts according to the will of the citizenry.

Everything from the weather to new structures are voted on and enacted according to majority opinion.

Cloudbank is the final extension of urban expression.

It has both canonized and limited the will of the deviant: Destruction of property by the majority.

The fundamental conflict in Transistor comes into play when the city’s elites, the Camerata, use ‘The Process‘ to preserve parts of the city, to solidify the city, to slow down the change.

To manipulate The Process, the Camerata utilized the Transistor: A sword-like object which doubled as a tool for issuing commands to The Process and storing data for urban development.

The Camerata lose the Transistor after they try to assassinate Red, Cloudbank’s most influential singer, with the Transistor.

The Camerata were attempting to trap Red inside the Transistor in order to use her persona to influence future development of the city along with the traces of other notable Cloudbank natives.

The assassination attempt goes wrong when a man jumps in the way of the Transistor, taking most of the blow for Red.

The man is then ‘downloaded’ into the Transistor and Red, having been slightly injured by the weapon, loses her voice.

Red takes the Transistor and goes to find answers while the Process is no longer under control, rapidly deconstructing the city.

The man inside the Transistor becomes the narrator throughout the game.

Initially, I enjoyed the stylized narration.

The man’s voice is cool, smooth, flowing, loose.

At some point though, it all flipped. The stylization began to sound like a parody of itself.

The voice begins to annoy.

The man inside the Transistor talks too much.

The game would have benefited from tighter narration.

The seriousness and integrity of the voice would not have become the joke it ends up being.

By far the worst of this occurs when Red begins to encounter the Spine, a massive Process enemy, which affects the voice of the Transistor.

His voice becomes slurred, slow, stuttering.

This would not have been so terrible, but the narrator refuses to stop talking.

It becomes difficult to listen to and was grating enough that I almost wanted to shut off the game.

The gameplay suffers from the same problem.

Transistor’s combat is highly tactical.

In battles, the player can initiate a tactical mode which freezes the enemies. The player can then set a sequence of actions. Actions are limited by a bar at the top of the screen.

The actions are then initiated after the player confirms.

During fights, the player has access to four active abilities, which can be further enhanced by up to two passive abilities each.

Initially, the combat is satisfying.

It’s all about angles and positioning.

It is a game of pool taking place at some dark bar in Parasie Eve‘s New York.

But as the game progresses, as the player becomes more involved in the plot, the combat and the narration become the least interesting parts of the game.

 

Swan.

 

At this point, at the point where the narration becomes a parody and the combat becomes a slog, the real beauty of the passive elements bursts out.

Cloudbank itself is stunning.

The intricacy and level of detail is inspiring.

The entire game is rendered in cyber Art Nouveau:

 

 

Supergiant did an excellent job in making Cloudbank a place the player wants to be.

It is dripping with character.

It feels lived-in.

Near the end, as The Process deconstructs the city, there is a sense of mourning, of loss for this place.

Spending a few hours in Cloudbank, one cannot help but become attached to its expansive, colorful vistas.

Its urban density.

Its thick flourishing.

The look of the city, the art of the game, is further enhanced by the music.

Transistor’s music is full of mourning as well.

It breaks the fourth-wall.

All the music in the game is sung by Red.

The player is being exposed to the same sounds, the same music that garnered Red such a massive following in Cloudbank.

The use of Red’s music forces the player to confront the loss of her voice.

Her music is also a celebration of the city, an epitaph in the face of its loss.

The player relates to it, having become attached to the place.

The way the art and the music work together seamlessly, the way they include the player, is not something that has been done before.

Transistor is at its best when it’s not trying to be a game.

Transistor is at its best when it’s just trying to tell a story.

What Supergiant does well is find new ways to express narratives. They should focus more on that.

Afterall, it was the promise of the art of Transistor that made me pay attention to it:

 

The gaze of a determined woman in a dying, neon-drenched city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deform.

 

 

When I first picked up Advance Wars in 2001, I had no idea what I was doing.

I enjoyed strategic war games, but I never played them with any tactical focus.

Always brute forcing through missions.

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I would spend hours amassing huge tank swarms, sending them into the enemy base at once.

In Age of Empires II, I would scour the map for every last remaining enemy before the mission ended.

I always thought of myself as a strategic person, but I needed a narrative draw to act strategically.

In RPGs, I did well at managing my parties and character abilities.

But whenever the narrative layer was removed, I had no drive, no patience, for strategy.

When I first picked up Advance Wars, I had no idea what I was doing.

The game frustrated me because unlike Red Alert and AoE, I didn’t have total control.

Each mission was tight. The parameters were clear.

There was no free rein to sit back and amass units.

There was no brute forcing the enemy.

Because of the tight margins, Advance Wars taught the player how to be tactical, but only if the player had the right kind of eyes.

Advance Wars required the right kind of mind.

I struggled with the game because I had neither. I resented its limitation.

I hated the game for keeping me focused.

I stopped playing.

 

Contort.

 

Advance Wars lingered in the back of my mind the following years.

Whenever I came across a war game that gave me the space to breathe and slow the game down, I felt like a fraud.

I’d recall my time feeling stressed and pushed to act in AW’s world.

That urgency felt more authentic in a strategy war game.

No one else seemed to get it right.

Advance Wars became the lens through which I would assess myself in other war games:

“Would this strategy have worked in an Advance Wars level?”

The answer was always no.

My tactics, my strategy, lacked all focus and urgency.

I was using war games to fulfill my inherent desire for spectacle and completion.

I was using strategic war games as engines of ego.

I needed to return to a place of focus.

I went back to Advance Wars, 13 years later.

What shocked me was how the game had lingered in my mind.

The controls were so elegant and logical that they were impossible to forget.

The rest of the game struck me as lean and clear.

Now that I had the right kind of eyes, now that I approached the game with a softer mind:

I understood what the missions were.

I understood what the game was.

 

Arms.

 

Advance Wars is a strategy puzzle game hiding within a turn-based war game.

AW is more about solving than attacking. Much like Ikaruga, it is about adapting.

The ‘puzzle’ elements of Ikaruga (switching the ship’s colors to absorb bullets) slow the game down and it becomes a sequence of novel set-pieces.

By not giving the player free rein to hold back or charge forward, digging out the ideal strategy for the mission is much more engaging in Advance Wars.

Unlike other war games, the UI in AW is simple and concise.

The player can do everything  inside of two small menu screens.

It avoids the clutter and bloat of larger games.

It rewards a player’s attention. The proper strategies are not immediately obvious, but also are not buried under layers of difficulty.

They are there if the player chooses to focus.

In spite of all that it does stunningly well, Advance Wars does have its design problems.

Rather than acutely increasing the difficulty each mission, the game increases the options available to the player.

The player might gain a new Commanding Officer (CO’s determine the special passive stats and active abilities that a player has access to) or the ability to build and manage units, or adding new units.

Intelligent Systems did an excellent job in gradually ramping up the player’s options.

But by focusing so much on access to options, the difficulty is uneven.

There is no gradual development of difficulty, only plateaus.

The ratio seems to be 3:1 or 4:1. For every three or four missions, there is one which spikes.

Advance Wars is a game about patience, but it doesn’t take the time to teach the player how to be patient. It operates as if it expects the player to stick through it.

These vertical difficulty spikes were one of my problems with Dark Souls II.

One of the stranger things about Advance Wars is the art style.

It is a war game that does not take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the unit icons are bubbly, and the dialogue can be childish.

This creates a fair bit of dissonance considering that soldiers are supposed to be dying.

This clash of style and substance has left me with quite a bit of  cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, I’m happy to play a war game with a different aesthetic: One that isn’t entirely drab and brown.

On the other hand, this is trivializing the worst parts of us.

The way the COs carry on talking as if no one is dying adds to the sense that of avoidance. It’s happening everywhere, but no one talks about it.

Intelligent Systems has worked very closely with Nintendo since the very early NES days.

Seeing as how Nintendo likes to keep their games from tackling cultural issues like homosexuality in their latest Tomodachi Life release, I could see them not having a problem white-washing the brutality of war.

Although, IS is also the developer behind the Fire Emblem series and does not seem to have an issue tackling questions of sovereignty, nationalism, death, and sacrifice in that series.

In spite of these issues, Advance Wars is a substantial game, especially for an aging portable system.

It is a thorough study of excellent design.

With clean controls, a unique aesthetic, and tight levels: It is a strategy game that out-maneuvers nearly every other war game in the genre.

13 years after its release and the game still shines…

long after many have forgotten it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flower.

 

 

In 2007, I came back to video games.

It has always been a dynamic relationship.

After the release of the SNES in 1991, I stopped following or caring about games until a friend of mine showed me the PlayStation in 1996.

My brother convinced my parents to get us a PS1 for his birthday. We stuck with Sony consoles through the PlayStation 2.

My interest in games waned again just before the generational switch (PS2 – PS3).

Having witnessed the July War in 2006, I was full of anger, resentment, rage.

I wrote a lot in that period. I read a lot. I listened to music and drove around the Midwestern back country alone.

I had no place for games then.

But I got tired. I burnt myself out.

I collapsed in and found nothing.

A friend of mine had managed to purchase a PlayStation 3 near launch in fall 2006.

I would go over to his place some nights and we would play Call of Duty 4 together.

It was strange to me even then that I could find some comfort in playing a war game considering I had just lived it.

But I was tired and it was fun.

I bought a PlayStation 3 in 2007.

The PS3 was more than just a console to me, it was a companion.

A friend to pull me back into myself.

I still had my PS2 and used it to play fighting games and old JRPGs, but the PS3 was about potential, it was about looking forward.

I chose PlayStation over Xbox because Microsoft was taking themselves too seriously at that time. It felt as though MS was trying to turn the 360 into a war simulator (Gears of War, Halo 3) and I couldn’t deal with it.

Assassin’s Creed was the first game I bought.

I bought it because it looked like Thief.

I bought it because the hero was an Arab. I needed that. I needed to see that.

After I completed AC, I bought CoD4. I loved the crispness of its action and the quick pacing.

It was a grand piano of a game.

I was back into games now. I was having a great time.

And in Christmas 2008 I discovered something I thought had died in the medium:

Joy.

 

River.

 

I still don’t understand what compelled me to consider buying Prince of Persia.

It was getting a lot of attention. The sentiments were mixed.

I had tried to enjoy the franchise before, somewhere in the Sands of Time trilogy on PS2.

I didn’t like it.

Coming off of God of War, PoP lacked the visceral, flashy combat I had become used to.

Prince of Persia was all about the fluidity of motion and in the mid-2000s, that wasn’t something I was looking for.

When the new PoP released in December of 2008, I had already begun to think about games differently.

I had begun to see them less as virtual gauntlets and more as products of interlocking systems. I made the switch from playing games to analyzing them.

As I looked through the screenshots of the new Prince of Persia, I fell in with the art.

The colors were vivid, bright. The lines were bold. It reminded me of Okami, but more fluid.

I bought the game based on art alone.

I went home for Christmas.

Sitting in my old bedroom in the middle of a heavy winter: I spent a lot of time in Prince of Persia’s world.

The movement was bubbly, the levels had charisma. It was a beautiful game.

Much of the talk around this new interpretation of the PoP series involved not being able to die.

Many in the gaming community felt that not being punished for failing a jump made the game too easy, too simplistic, and less rewarding.

They got this one wrong though.

The punishment in Prince of Persia is that you lose the fluidity of movement.

You lose the ability of fluid expression, of pure motion.

This subtlety was lost on many.

The amount of negative feedback has stalled the series.

 

Soil.

 

Prior to the 3DS, the last Nintendo console I owned was the Game Boy Advance SP.

I never bought a DS.

When Nintendo announced the DS, they said it wasn’t meant to replace the Game Boy.

I held onto my SP waiting for a new Game Boy announcement. I loved and still love everything about the SP.

But that announcement never came.

I bought the 3DS out of frustration, out of having been tricked by Nintendo into waiting, into missing an entire portable generation of content.

I bought the 3DS when the media and the community at large was saying it was going to fail.

I always have a tendency to get involved at the ends of things and I believed them.

At one point, I hadn’t touched my 3DS for months. I thought it really was over.

Then I read Tim Rogers’ review about Super Mario 3D Land.

I bought the game immediately.

I loved it.

SM3DL was the first Mario Game I played since Super Mario World.

It had the same core, emotive design as PoP in 2008: A platforming game designed around joy, around really inhabiting and exploring a world of bright colors, excellent movement, and charismatic levels.

Super Mario 3D Land made me smile.

While critically acclaimed, again the game was considered too easy by many.

The point was missed again.

The player can still die in 3D Land. However, death isn’t the punishment for bad play.

The actual punishment is being kicked out of that world for a brief moment.

The punishment is the extraction from a joyous place.

Death is only the conveyor.

 

Rustle.

 

3D Land has stuck with me.

I go back and think about it.

Super Mario 3D World is also a good game, but it has more problems.

3D World lacks some of the joy, the lightness of 3D Land.

It takes itself a little more seriously.

3D World is a little more messy.

This probably has to do with it being a console game and therefore having to be full of content.

It’s no surprise then that the next joyous platformer would appear on the 3DS.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe is the first Kirby game I have played since Kirby’s Dream Land in 1992.

Triple Deluxe is wonderful.

The game is always playing with and manipulating player expectations through clever level design.

It is bursting with joy.

It is the true companion to 3D Land.

The most impressive element in Triple Deluxe is the use of 3D.

Levels are two planes: Front and Rear.

The Front plane is where the player operates most of the time.

The player can still see what’s happening in the Rear.

The player is also transported in and out of the Rear plane throughout the levels.

With the player operating in one plane, while being able to see what’s happening in the other, Kirby: Triple Deluxe wastes nothing.

It is a tight game driven by Chekhov’s Gun and joy.

Triple Deluxe is stunningly beautiful.

Bright, thick, and layered: Triple Deluxe is a rainbow ice cream cake of art.

Dying in K:TD is difficult.

It sits somewhere between PoP and 3D Land, between not dying and dying as a conveyance.

This again has led many to suggest it is too simple.

And again, the subtlety is lost.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe doesn’t really want to punish the player. It encourages the player to inhabit the world as much as they want.

Where in PoP the player loses movement and momentum and in Mario the player’s time in the world is dictated, Kirby wants the player to lounge around in its world.

It wants the player to hang out and poke around.

This is very rare for a 2D platformer.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe is a game that should be sipped at, like Dark Souls.

The gaming media and community need to stop judging games simply by the merits of their difficulty.

Not every game is designed within the spectrum of ‘simple-difficult’.

The metrics of analysis must be greatly expanded.

The medium needs more games designed around joy, designed around the idea of wanting to inhabit a place.

Since 2008, I’ve played a lot of games and the only ones that have managed to stick with me are the ones that make me feel welcome:

 

The games with warmth in their bones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fist.

 

 

The first time I saw The House of the Dead was in the summer of 1997: Zahle, Lebanon.

One of the main attractions for children and families in Zahle is a large outdoor arcade set deep in the valley.

Beneath the cool trees and flowing water, you can play anything from bumper cars to fighting games.

In ’97, we were there on a family trip, it was a stopping point. I remember having the distinct feeling of bored animosity.

Walking through the arcade, I couldn’t find anything that drew my attention long enough to warrant dropping coins. Then, out of nowhere a giant THotD cab loomed up, bigger than all the lights around it.

In the U.S., arcades still existed then, but they were few and hard to find.

I had been lucky in that everywhere I lived, there was at least one active arcade nearby, usually attached to a movie theater.

I still hung out a lot in arcades in the late 90’s. Every weekend when my parents would drag us to the mall, my brother and I would hit up the local mall arcade (Pocket Change) and burn through an afternoon.

Somehow, Pocket Change always managed to pull in new, expensive cabs at a time when other arcades were failing. I had no idea how they did it, but I was thankful.

They didn’t have what Zahle had though and the more I watched two kids burrow further into THotD, the more I hoped Pocket Change would catch up.

 

Spring.

 

I was never excited about light gun games in the arcades.

In spite of its popularity, I felt Time Crisis was a boring and hollow experience. I did not enjoy the novelty of its pedal/cover system and I did not enjoy having a timer ticking down through the whole game.

The game felt disconnected.

Time Crisis operated only as a sequence of separate shooting galleries, never as a whole game. It had no fluidity.

At first glance, TC seems interesting: 1) There is a timer counting down through the game in which time is only added by finishing ‘scenes.’ 2) In order to reload and/or avoid getting hit, the player must release the pedal to return to cover, thereby slowing the player down.

Combining these two mechanics (urgency of time and tactical judgment) the game is asking the player to make choices.

However, the mud thrown into this machine of micro-choice is the addition of time through the clearing of sections.

The game has no forward momentum: Time Crisis only jumps from section to section, making it a jarring, unnerving experience.

In 1996, Time Crisis had been out for a year and I was done trying to like it.

Walking away from the ‘House’ cab in Zahle, what stuck with me was how much forward momentum Sega built into the game. THotD’s urgency didn’t come from some cheap mechanic (time), it came from atmosphere, a constant drive forward, and quickness.

I wanted to play it more than any other arcade game of that time.

A month later I left Lebanon and came back to the U.S., I went back to Pocket Change.

They had The House of the Dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know how they did it, but there it was: the same massive cab I saw in Zahle, next to the doorway, and a line of people that ran through the food court.

A line of people that Time Crisis couldn’t bring in.

 

Span.

 

THotD was one of the most cohesive arcade products I had ever seen.

The story revolved around two AMS agents, Thomas Rogan and G., called to the mansion of a well-known and highly regarded scientist, Roy Curien, after an ominous call from Sophie, Rogan’s fiancée.

Upon arriving at the mansion, the agents are immediately thrown into a grisly, murderous scene where all of Curien’s horrific abominations have been let loose throughout the entire complex. It then becomes the agents’ job to rescue Sophie and find Curien.

THotD’s cohesive process begins with the title font and styling:

 

The House of The Dead Title Screen.

The House of The Dead Title Screen.

 

Not only is the font of the title chosen as a reflection of older pulp horror franchises (See anything made by Hammer Film Productions), there is also the addition of the decaying hand summoning/corrupting/reaching for the person who may either be Rogan, G., or a scientist.

The person represented in the title is covered with scratch marks, signifying both abandonment (cobwebs) and violence (the scratching-out).

The intro cutscene is about a minute and a half long. In that short time, it does an excellent job setting up the premise of hopelessness: Scientists running for their lives, monsters being unleashed everywhere, dead bodies.

All this is set to an ominous intro theme riddled with bells and synth organ:

 

 

After taking in all these passive elements, coins are dropped in. Each coin engages a loud howl, bellowing from the speakers, another homage to older horror films and a reinforcement of isolation.

From the second the game begins, it pushes forward into its world. The player is greeted with a cutscene showing Rogan and G. pulling up to the house at high-speed, running out of the car, and immediately engaging.

The game never loses that momentum.

The world of THotD is a dark one. All the grass and plant life in the mansion courtyard are dead, the sky is dark. The initial interaction in the world is shooting an undead creature trying to kill one of Curien’s assistants.

The mansion itself is in complete disarray as well.

The environment shows how far into his own mind Curien had fallen.

 

Stress.

 

THotD filtered urgency through its cohesiveness and the speed at which its camera moved.

Time Crisis was too disconnected and Virtua Cop was a glorified shooting gallery.

The first House of the Dead perfected the sensation of perpetual motion, a sensation that has since been a staple of the THotD series.

It was a fast, hot game then and it still is now. The way in which the camera twists and turns, the way it bends, is a thing of art. Movement in this game is the final cohesive link in Sega’s vision.

It is unfortunate that THotD is the best of the series. Its sequels consistently suffer from a lack of vision.

I was obsessed with The House of the Dead ever since I first saw it. I played that game any chance I could from 1997 on. Initially, it took me five dollars in quarters and 45 minutes to complete.

In 2012, I had all 20 of the top High Scores at another local arcade. I could beat the game on 25 cents and a little over 25 minutes.

The first time I saw and played THotD 2 was in Las Vegas, at the Luxor in 1999.

It was another of the massive cabs.

My parents dropped my brother and I off early at the arcade before heading to the Casino, around 10 AM.

After having played so much of the original, we couldn’t believe we now had access to the sequel.

It took us a little over an hour and around seven dollars in quarters to complete. The sequel was never as compelling as the original. Something about it was all wrong.

The difficulty was turned up, The action was slower, the camera did less.

There was no propulsion through that world, no urgency. It was lifeless.

The last major game Pocket Change bought before finally closing was THotD 3, which utilized giant plastic shotguns instead of the smaller, standard light gun pistols.

I played it once and walked away.

The shotguns were uncomfortable to hold, awkward to maneuver, and the series’ difficulty was turned up yet again.

With each iteration becoming slower, less dynamic, more difficult (cheap), and less cohesive: The series continually failed to achieve the promise of the original.

The most recent installment in the THotD series, The House of the Dead: Overkill, reworked the series’ aesthetic into comical pulp horror, the seriousness and dramatic effect of the previous games are completely erased.

The House of The Dead revolutionized light gun games. It was incomprehensibly cohesive and faster than any other game of its kind. It was one of the last true arcade games that challenged and engaged the player with seriousness and immersion.

Given the death of the arcade outside of Japan, we will most likely never see another game like it.

We will never have the kind of cohesive immersion THotD presented. An immersion rivaled only by Virtual-On: Oratorio Tangram.

The House of the Dead had charisma, it touched on something, attracted people to it.

Exactly what  its successors could never do. It was an excellent game with a strong identity, a strong sense of how it wanted to be.

Action games today can learn so much from studying what The House of the Dead presented: meticulous cohesion, immersion, and perspective.

Afterall, its only fitting that it be remembered in better games than the series it spawned.