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Grate.

 

 

There are moments I stop playing video games.

I can recall each moment because they are all defined by an exploration of something new.

Lost somewhere in the fog of high school, I walked away from games for the second time.

It was never clear what triggered this.

Freshman year I was playing Grand Theft Auto on the Game boy Color.

Sophomore year my brother and I pooled our money together for a Playstation 2.

Junior year and something shifted.

I turned to music.

I explored vinyl records.

I pulled my parents’ old Sanyo floor speakers from the basement.

I bought my first pair of Sony Stereophones.

Sound became important.

The first car I owned was a 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo.

Its stock stereo system had a visual equalizer.

I spent hours tweaking frequencies and audio presets.

When I came back to games I had developed an aural palate.

I knew what I wanted to hear.

I picked up my Game Boy Color and played Dragon Warrior for the first time since its NES release.

Its music stuck with me long after I had forgotten about it.

I asked a friend if he could copy specific songs off the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack.

I listened to it everyday driving home from school.

I began to pay attention to what I once considered passive elements.

Soundscape. Music. Sound Design. Lighting. Art.

My only focus had been on plot and mechanics.

I revisited games from my past.

Lion King. Aladdin. Super Mario 2. Guerrilla War. Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Contra. Jackal.

I experimented through them all.

I played with the fluid sprites of Aladdin.

I realized how deep Jackal’s music had dug into my past.

 

Coil.

 

When the original Playstation hit, it occupied a strange place in sound.

The PS1 rendered an insinuation of orchestra.

Everything from Final Fantasy VII to Metal Gear Solid to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had soundtracks that landed between what was and what was to come.

With better hardware, it was a matter of time before game music became orchestral and real.

I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Most film soundtracks use orchestral variation and most film soundtracks are forgettable.

With each consecutive hardware generation, games became less immune to being forgotten.

Designers dropped simple, tight, engaging melodies for large, sweeping waves of sound.

Final Fantasy X was my first exposure to this.

I cannot recall a single FFX theme.

When everything is drowned in realized, emotional music, it has no impact.

It has no force.

The most recognizable themes in games today are those that understand how to use boundary and limitation.

Halo and its haunting, simple, choral opening.

Crysis 2 and Hans Zimmer’s dissonant, driven theme.

Armored Core V and its awkward, shifting, stuttering soundscape.

Transistor and its somber, tense, contemplative anthem.

Game music succeeds when it does new things with mathematical elegance.

As games shift further away from their origins, as they become more complex, more rooted in an approximation of reality, they can only strengthen their identities by reexamining the technical boundaries of their past.

By trying to forge identity through deliberate misremembrance.

 

Sea.

 

Until 2011, the last piece of Nintendo hardware I owned was a first-generation Game Boy Advance.

I skipped the N64, GameCube, Wii, and DS.

The 3DS was the first Nintendo console I bought in ten years.

I was annoyed at myself for ignoring the DS in favor of the PSP.

I was interested in experimenting with the parallax display.

It took time to get reacquainted with Nintendo.

I disliked what they did with the Wii and the 3DS was their initial attempt to rediscover the ‘core’ gaming audience.

Super Mario 3D Land shocked me. Its music was simple and memorable.

It was the perfect evolution of sound.

The music was experienced and enhanced the game’s bright art.

Nearly every first-party game on the 3DS had a thorough, crafted approach to sound.

The 3DS was the first handheld console where I couldn’t just mute the games.

I needed to hear what was going on.

In 2013, I bought Animal Crossing: New Leaf to cope with my wife leaving for a month.

It was the first Animal Crossing game I played.

The wholeness of its soundscape was captivating.

The music was light, crisp, and warm.

The sound of the rain, the waterfalls, the shore was thick and meditative.

The sound of footsteps on sand, grass, cobblestone, wood was mesmerizing.

More than any other element, the sound design stuck.

Listening to New Leaf was just as much a pleasure as playing it.

I bought a Wii U not long after launch.

I waited for the first-party games. I waited for the extension of the 3DS’ promise.

Super Mario 3D World was just as beautiful and whole as 3D Land.

Mario Kart 8 infused pop and joy into nearly every track’s theme.

The thoroughness of Sonic’s sound design in Super Smash Bros. Wii U is nothing short of a loving tribute to a dying friend.

Nintendo is often attacked for being slow to adapt, to change.

Nintendo is often accused of thriving in their own bubble and calling it success.

While these criticisms are fair, it is important to examine what it is they get right.

They understand how to build games.

They understand that sound and music aren’t just aural skyboxes encompassing their worlds.

They consider and entwine sound into every step, every inch.

Nintendo’s approach to sound is simple and profound.

Soulful and considered.

 

Grinning and whispered.

 

 

 

 

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Supercar.

 

 

One day, they reorganized the last arcade I went to.

I went there every Friday. It was attached to a cinema.

The House of the Dead was my game: I had every high score on the list, even when the gun broke.

This arcade went through phases.

At first, it was driven by families and birthday parties. People thought of it as a ‘cooler’ Chuck E. Cheese’s.

When that business began to die off, they pivoted focus to bringing in bigger, stranger arcade cabinets.

Dance Dance Revolution. Guitar Freaks. MoCap Boxing. Flash Beats.

F355 Challenge.

Anytime one of the new cabinets came in, I dove into them.

I became most proficient in DDR and Flash Beats as secondary games.

I only played F355 Challenge once.

F355 was designed by Yu Suzuki and released in 1999.

It released in different cabinets, but the true nature of the game emerged purest in its largest iteration.

The game had three screens powered by four NAOMI units: one for each screen, one to link them.

The center screen was the windshield, the two outer screens were the side windows.

It had a realistic H-Shifter and three pedals.

It was considered by many to be the most accurate racing simulation possible at that time.

This arcade managed to pull in the large cabinet.

One day, I came in and everything was moved to make space for F355.

The owner made sure it was visible to everyone.

It was intimidating: Large. Complex. Dark.

It took $4.00 each play.

When I decided to jump in, I didn’t know if I would have fun with it or not.

Getting into the cab felt like you were attending some adult cocktail party full of glances and covered mouths.

The cab had curtains to keep other people away.

When it came time to drive, the formality didn’t dissipate.

This was a cold, raw simulation.

It was confusing and awkward.

In a place where you were primed for hot, fast action: F355 felt muted.

It felt empty. It was boring.

I only played F355 one time.

I moved on.

 

Litre.

 

Coming from Yu Suzuki, F355 was a disappointment.

Suzuki proved himself as an auteur of immersive action games throughout his career.

Super Hang-On. Out Run. After Burner. Space Harrier. Virtua Fighter. Shenmue.

F355 possessed none of the excitement his games typically exploded with.

F355 interpreted attention to detail as love.

This trend of equating detail and adoration began with Gran Turismo.

When the first game released in 1998 (one year before F355), the entire gaming community was floored.

It was a sign that we were now on the cusp of significant technologies, that the world had begun to blur.

Gran Turismo was a technological achievement.

Kazunori Yamauchi and Polyphony Digital had made an affordable, pure racing simulation for the home on a piece of standardized hardware.

Gran Turismo was a crowning achievement for the racing genre then.

Gran Turismo was also the end.

Before GT and F355, the genre was dominated by arcade racers.

They mainly used cars and driving as filters of action and momentum.

A few months before GT, EA released Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit.

I played NFSIII for a year.

Hot Pursuit wasn’t about accuracy or simulation, it was about capturing the thrill of slamming on the accelerator.

It was about laughing at the police as you ram them into a guard rail.

It was about the daydreams people have while stuck in traffic or pulled over on the side of the road, glaring at the officer in the rear-view.

NFSIII was about rediscovering that time you rode your bike down the longest hill you had ever seen and wondering whether you trust yourself to hit the brakes at the right time.

It was wild and honest and young: The original face of racing.

The following year saw Namco‘s best entry in the genre: R4: Ridge Racer Type 4.

Where Hot Pursuit was about aggression and fantasy, where GT was about simulation, R4 was about finesse and exploration.

Vehicles in R4 fell under two general classes: Drift or Grip.

It came down to what you, as the player, wanted.

Drift cars were ‘loose’ and allowed you to powerslide with a slight tap to the brake.

Grip cars were tighter and powersliding was done by balancing brake and gas.

R4 was about style.

Everything from the car selection, to the tracks, to the driving, to the UI: It was all about style.

R4 was about Japan and its love of motorsport.

R4 was bosozoku and Kunimitsu Takahashi.

R4 was Keiichi Tsuchiya drifting every turn of the Tsukuba Circuit.

It asked: ‘What would you like to do? Who do you want to be?’ and let the player run free.

 

Metal.

 

This balance between racing games didn’t last.

Gran Turismo’s dominance in the racing genre went unchallenged for its next four iterations.

It wasn’t until Forza Motorsport appeared in 2005 that GT had any real competition in racing simulation.

Need For Speed kept pushing more aggression, especially after Burnout‘s success with its emphasis on heavy, hard crashes.

This led to Criterion being tasked with developing the latest entries into the NFS franchise, making the last few entries the most aggressive in the history of the series.

Ridge Racer became a parody of itself.

What was once a series defined by a Japanese love of motorsport and style is now flailing in a sea of strange experiments and half-finished ideas.

Ridge Racer’s latest entry, Ridge Racer Unbounded, was never even released in Japan.

It is in this environment that Driveclub released.

It is in this toxic mess the racing genre has become that Driveclub tries to reclaim the identity of the middle and the vast expanse of the margins.

Driveclub has not been well-received.

Most gaming media outlets share similar sentiments that Driveclub has no soul or passion or heat.

Driveclub is compared to Gran Turismo, Forza, NFS and is found to come up short.

And I have never seen the media so inept.

Gran Turismo destroyed the diversity of the racing landscape.

Like some hegemonic amoeba, it devoured the imagination.

It devoured subtlety.

To compete, racing games now either had to be pure math or pure rage.

Either a game competes in the same arena (Forza) or it rejects everything and creates a new paradigm (NFS).

Ridge Racer tried and failed to find some sort of synthesis and has lost its identity in the process.

There is no longer any proper lens through which Driveclub is accurately interpreted.

There is no longer a language for it.

Driveclub is a classic arcade racer.

It has inherited the best traits of R4, NFSIII, and GT.

Driveclub is about finessing through powerslides, healthy aggression, and maintaining driving lines.

Driveclub is about rediscovering the fun and beauty of driving.

The tracks are stunning and inspiring.

The races are exhilarating and frustrating.

Though Driveclub’s greatest success is that it gives the player the space to approach the game how they would like.

It has shown itself to be more malleable than any other racing game ever made.

It can be a simple simulation or an intricate arcade game.

How the player chooses to drive influences its tone.

Drifting on turns and the sheer force of momentum on straightaways is incredible and fricative.

Drafting, precision cornering, and avoiding collisions are fulfilling in ways that Gran Turismo and Forza never were.

It incorporates objective and points-based elements from Project Gotham Racing so that it isn’t just about winning races.

Driveclub is more than a racing game, it is a driving game.

Its focus isn’t just on competition and winning, it’s about appreciating the art of driving.

Driveclub is like sitting at the Musee d’Orsay in the early morning, drinking coffee, and letting your vision blur the steam and the painting in front of you.

It is a warm experience coalescing and exploring the mastery of the past.

It is a confident game.

It has none of the insecurity with which Gran Turismo protects its cars.

It feels no need to subvert the racing genre by making it more extreme.

While Driveclub is currently suffering from technical issues, it has more than enough potential to become one of the best racing games out right now.

Driveclub is what the gaming community and the racing genre needed: A step back. A reexamination and rediscovery of a love that has slipped further and further into schizophrenia.

I missed the world Driveclub emerged from.

I missed its warmth.

And it feels strange going back now, realizing how much has been forgotten.

But while remembrance can be embarrassing, it is liberating, even if its language has been lost…

 

Even if its value is ignored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.