Taking an axe to a dead horse

Let me start this post by not just kicking that one dead horse, but again mince its meat and turn its hooves into glue; the story of a game is in its play, the rest of framing. The thing that makes electronic gaming so interesting is that the framing is considered equal, if not more important in some cases, than the content it is framing.

A game’s framing narrative will always be second to the play of the game, that’s part of the medium. The framing can never escape the play part, and ultimately has to be break itself apart and into segments to satisfy the needs of play. This could be, for example,  the need for the player to move a character from locale A to locale B in order to continue the narrative segment. Or in case of Xenosaga, walk from a room to another to continue from a fifteen-minute FMV. The narrative also has the option to cover game mechanics as part of the world, but that is not specifically necessary.

The game can cover rules of the play by other means as well, but for the sake of game’s own narrative consistency, more often than not the rules are implemented as part of the framing narrative. Sometimes it makes sense, like how Trails in the Sky has the whole orbs-in-slots system, something concrete that the player sees and collects, and other times it’s rather abstract like Junctioning Magic to Guardian Forces in Final Fantasy XIII. Nevertheless, the framing itself matters less than the function and rules of the play the provide.

Of course, depending on the game, the framing device can be extremely important, or matter very little. Modern audiences are used to having everything in FMVs and pre-scripted sequences that take control out of the players’ hands, but in the arcades this context was delivered via cabinet marquees and attraction screens. In the best cases, games were laid out and designed to deliver the framing without much words or time wasted. For example, the subtitle of the first Street Fighter II was The World Warrior, referring to the world stage the player’s chosen character would be in. The selection screen itself presented this concept with the world map and plane flying here and there. Much like any other visual medium, games excel in the visual side of things. Certainly, many arcade games slapped a text to give you the base framing and that was that, which is effectively an equivalent of any modern FMV. More abstract games didn’t need any. Pac-Man eats pills and tries to avoid the Ghosts. That’s the minimum amount of framing a game needs to fully justify its play. Funnily enough, that is also the description of the play, getting two birds with one stone.

The framing fights the player agency because it’s not the content, the play is. Nowadays we take for granted how large the overall framing is to give a whole world for the play to be justified, which is overreaching it rather hard, but it is one of the easier and most accessible aspects to analyse regarding games. This is because we are taught to read from a young age and how to analyse media overall. Film criticism comes a bit later, but often we build our own preferences based on certain aspects of films, which makes the whole analysing this framing device very easy.

It’s not as easy with other media, where specialised knowledge is more or less necessary to understand how the content is being framed. To drag the remains of the horse’s corpse here for a moment, not many people concentrate on the frames of a painting or on the pedestal of a statue despite the possibility that they too could have seen masterful works themselves. A painting is being elevated further when an unique frame has been designed and carved for it, accenting its strokes and colours properly. Often they just get overlooked and whatever readily made models are there on the table gets picked up, because the frame isn’t the main point. Not many know wood-crafting well enough to begin to appreciate the necessary skill and knowledge master framers have built up throughout the years to pair a painting perfectly to a frame, and proceed to frame it in an equally skilful manner. Everything from material selection to the attaching itself must be taken into account. Or, y’know, just nab that proper sized black frame from Ikea and go with that. Sure, same thing. I’m overstating this point because handiwork and craftsmanship isn’t something we all learn too deeply. We dabble in it and may learn base skills, but we aren’t taught them to any deeper extent. Craft lessons at school mostly just play rather than building up any true skill, unlike your native tongue lessons.

Games that rely heavily on the framing narrative also tend to decrease the agency of the player, the freedom of play. This doesn’t matter too much in games that are laid out as fields of challenge, like almost every action and racing game out there, but raises its ugly head when it comes to RPGs. More often than not, RPGs do not offer a whole lot of ways for the player to realise their own play. Some RPGs allow completely free character creation and follow in suit, but even then framing device is ready and sometimes can’t even be affected. When the developer concentrates on emphasizing their framing as a single narrative, the player agency is effectively nil. Very few times the framing allows the player to have a large agency on its course and in cases like YIIK the narrative is overwhelmingly more important than the play to the point of it having been designed to hate the player. The greater the narrative design, the more it has to rely on the techniques from other media, but marrying it to the play also requires an equal amount of design decisions regarding the play. For example, Kojima may have made his titles long-ass movies at times, but simply allowing the player to turn on the first person camera and look around for clues and easter eggs add to the player agency. While the player can’t continue the scene on their own terms, they are given control over an aspect nevertheless. A small thing that adds value to otherwise lengthy scenes of doing nothing.

While the framing narrative sees ever-rising budgets and effort to have the most well-scripted stories to be delivered, there is an immense lack of any effort to meld this narrative within the content. This, of course, would necessitate far larger scale of stories and pathways the player can take, making it necessary to consider completely opposite directions of their current framing narrative than intended. For example, imagine if during a Call of Duty campaign the player could at certain points make a decision to change sides. Perhaps this could be a multi-campaign element, where the player could choose to effectively change one campaign to another, but at the same time changing the way the framing of the campaign works from thereon. The rules of the game don’t change, but rather than being one of the Allied, he might end up playing a soldier who now fights for the Axis. This would offer the developers ways depict a more complex narrative as well as offer the player more options to explore. Perhaps even allow a third option of abandoning the war altogether and be chased throughout the fields by both sides. These aren’t RPG elements or the like, these would simply be options to be presented to the player in a similar manner that optional routes are. All this of course goes in the face of the current paradigm, where the narrative must one whole that the player must experience. The Last of Us 2 aimed to make the player uncomfortable by making enemies lament on their friends’ deaths while the narrative didn’t offer any other options but what the developers intended. It didn’t work out.

This isn’t exactly railroading the player as much as the paradigm for video and computer games haven’t shifted to consider these a valid option. Not that they necessarily should, as these spreading games are more or less considered gimmicks. Surprisingly, the Drakengard series, including Nier, has taken strides in this. Their multiple endings can be unlocked by player actions to different degrees, though usually, the first round is always the same. Nier: Automata has one of my favourite examples of this, where you can turn around as 9S when you first get control of him in New Game + and just fuck off from starting point, you achieve an end to the game. Another example would be when the player reaches the peaceful robot village, and despite their pacifism, the player proceeds to murder every robot there, gaining another ending. Again, these are minor things and yet they show how the developers considered possible player actions or at least their want of certain kind of action, and realised it as a solution or a path as part of the framing narrative. None of this, of course, would function if the frame wouldn’t have designed to house these deviating rules of play.

The thing is, with games making the framing is easier than making the content. The content isn’t as freeform or artsy, it requires intensive labour hours and demands a lot of skill even if you use a ready engine. The designs of play and choices made have to function, each and every programming error and design mistake compound on top of each other faster than it does in the framing narrative. Creating the framing for a game is the fun part, but creating the game itself is where the true difficulties lie. It’s no wonder that a multi-branching game that would allow the frames to change at the player’s decisions are still rather rare, and even then some franchises make clear-cut marketing that this is an element of their play, that routes are a franchise gimmick. That’s not even what I’m truly trying to convey with this post.

Let me try to rephrase the whole thing in short; Computer and video games still rely on methods of film and literature in their framing narrative and have not been able to truly marry it to the play. This some times comes through as route selections, sometimes as exposition being spouted during a boss battle. The main split is whether or not the player is in control. The marriage of the frame and the content would need to be as with painting that has specifically made frames for; a player should have large agency, perhaps even control, to move the framing narrative. This way the story, that is the player actions during play, would be part of the narrative. This is just a solution. Furthermore, the more the framing device aims to be the main point of the game, the more the game will suffer as it still has to accommodate the play. This is why video game adaptation on the silver screen can’t work as intended because they are written and planned around the game. Point of a game is to be played, to be the active participant.

Here’s a point where this is apparent. During TGS 2020, Square-Enix released a trailer of the new Final Fantasy because overseas customers wanted to see a trailer that shows the game’s play footage. What SquEnix did first was to offer the game’s frame, as that has always been their forté. However, what the customer always wants to see is the content and that applies to every field. You can jingle shiny keys in front of the customer however much you want, but at the end of the day, they want to go for a drive too.

New consoles, same old shit

With the PS5 and the new Xboxes coming shortly, it’s a good time to remind ourselves the reality of console launches; they’re always terrible and early adopters are effectively used as testbeds to see what’s being fucked up on hardware and firmware level. Very few consoles have seen a decent launch line-up either, with the American NES launch arguably being the top simply because it was tailored to suit the American tastes based on the few years of Famicom releases. Console iterations have often fixed terminal faults, like the 360’s heating issue causing Red Ring of Death. Even with the NES, the Top Loader model eliminated the shit design of NES’ contact, which would loosen with time due to designer wanting to replicate that VCR insertion.

The power of a console mascot, or a single driving and defining franchise, becomes more apparent when you check you PS5’s and Xboxes list of launch titles. Both systems share most of the same games with only a few differences here and there. Lot of names that we already know, a lot of names we already have played, not really any new things to grab the attention. Neither Microsoft nor Sony has the same kind of company defining line-up of games that customers could associate with, which has in some manners contributed to the whole idea of all games should be available on all platforms. Nintendo manages to make good dough because they have games that customers overall want to play, not just their fans. Super Mario as an IP alongside The Legend of Zelda are this kind of company defining names. For Sony and Microsoft, they don’t have this nearly to the same extent. Microsoft has Gears of War and Halo, yet both of these IPs haven’t been able to lend themselves into the same kind of massive expansion. Sony’s current bid is to ride on Spider-Man and have effectively killed all of their own IPs. I still remind people that if Sony had managed to promote and roll out more Gravity Rush rather than dilly dally around, then kill whatever was left of Vita’s mangled corpse by porting it to the home consoles and further screwing up the second game, they’d be in a better position. Sony had a long line of unofficial mascots with Crash Bandicoot, whatever characters were at the forefront in Tekken at any given time and Solid Snake’s latest movie always being fitted to this slot. Reliance on third-party to define your console’s nature and perceived nature is a crapshoot, as they can fuck up at any moment. Metal Gear as a franchise is more or less tarnished thanks to the Kojima/Konami infighting, Crash Bandicoot stopped being relevant after the third game for whatever reasons and Tekken is about as much associated with any other platform the games are on as their competition is. Street Fighter is still associated with the arcades it originated from, to make a comparative example. Mortal Kombat has no true home anymore either. Things are spread about and there is little to no association with a specific kind console or place of play anymore.

Every time I’ve talked about console releases I’ve made a point about it needing to have unique and stand-out games that take advantage of the console’s own special capabilities. That’s almost impossible nowadays, as both MS and Sony consoles are effectively the same deal. In terms of overall function, their main difference is branding and the controller. Nothing truly separates the two. This was the same with the 360 and PS3 too, though you can make an argument about DVD VS Blu-ray if you’d like to. That’s not with Nintendo consoles, as they always had something that makes them stand out. I’m not talking about gimmicks per se, but simply how the systems were designed, to begin with. Take the DS and the PSP as examples. Both had completely different design philosophy how they intended games to be played, how the games would be presented and what the systems excelled at. This is similar to the whole Mega Drive VS Super NES situation, where the systems were completely different. There were valid reasons to pick either one or both systems because they were offering different kinds of games and ways to play. The Switch is the only console in our current generation of consoles that offers anything different as a hybrid console. It’s a one-two punch; you can still play the same old shit that’s on the other systems to an extent, but you gain the access to all these Switch-only titles. Hell, seeing how many titles that are on Xboxes and PlayStations get ported to Steam, the argument of Nintendo + Steam covers most of the ground is, sadly, rather valid.

However, the whole thing what the console can do pales in comparison in terms of relevancy when it comes to its library. Customers hate buying new systems. It’s expensive and it’s somewhat a gamble. There are no guarantees that the company providing it will keep their support high and strong. Again, look at the Vita; promising start and all that, and effectively abandoned in about a year. The mantra Exclusive titles are the lifeline of a game console rings still true, though the main three could manage just with fan support. Though not anymore, with the economy being what it is. People are losing their jobs and money is kept tight to the chest everywhere. The Xboxes and PlayStation 5 were designed to a whole different era of economy, with Sony repeating their mistake they did with the PS3. The Switch has been out longer than its generational cousins that are coming out soon. Whether or not the rumours about Nintendo intending to release Switch 2.0 to upgrade the hardware for 4K and whatnot are true doesn’t really matter, and questioning if the Switch even needs a 4K upgrade. Sure it’s nice if the games look nice and all that, but graphical fidelity will always play second fiddle to play. A game that looks nice and plays bad will always be a terrible game, while a game that looks bad but plays great will always be a terrific game. Want an example? Most NES games, if not all, were comparatively weak in terms of graphics compared to the possibilities and visuals 16-bit computers of the time could do or what the arcades would show. Yet so many of the most popular and venerated games make the best use of the limited hardware and have absolutely master-level of game design and ageless play.

The whole Xbox Series X naming scheme is absolutely stupid. Whoever decided it was a good idea to mimic the smartphone market and repeat the Wii/Wii U marketing fiasco should find another day-job. The common consumer won’t find anything but jumbled mess on the storefronts and many kids who wanted that new Xbox will be disappointed when their parents gift them Xbox One. Microsoft’s marketing and name department dropped the ball hard on the branding to the point I’m not even trying to make any quips about it. It’s The Xboxes for me. For all the jokes Sony and Nintendo see for their console namings, they’re straightforward, easy to understand and make a statement about them being individuals enough. Outside the whole Wii U thing. Nintendo Switch can not be mistaken for anything else, PlayStation 5 is not the PS4. I applaud Sony for sticking numerics. It might be dead simple, but it just works. It keeps the branding clear and doesn’t mess with it.

What’s the point? Don’t buy a console at launch. Wait a year or two when they’ve iterated inside the shell and some proper new games have hit the shelves and bargain bins. Play the games, not the consoles.

Review: Streets of Rage 4

A very Sega cover

The original Streets of Rage games are a prime example of how Sega of Japan mishandled the Mega Drive in the Western markets. The three original games were never really popular in Japan or in Asian markets in general, but they were hits in American and in Europe. The whole thing about Streets of Rage series being cool at the time, hitting the rights spots with the popular culture phenomena in especially in the America with influences taken from the then-current music scenes across the pond made these games stand out, though the third game’s music splits opinions harshly due to its experimental nature. Sega was extremely good with this for a short period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s as numerous of their projects managed to capitalise what was way cool. Sonic the Hedgehog is without a doubt their shining example of this, blending polygonal visuals that were popular in advertisement at the time with a great soundtrack, with emphasize on environmental themes that were around to a point and mixing them all in a blender to produce the most attitude ladden mascot to that point. Streets of Rage harkens a bit further back to the 1980s than Sonic, with the movie Streets of Fire being a heavy influence thematically. Other contemporary games, like Final Fight, were a massive influnce, with Street Fighter II being played at the developer Ancient Corp.’s offices and having a great impact on Streets of Rage 2. If the second game was evolution of what made the first game a success, introducing more moves and wider variety of enemies, the third game took that and gave more emphasize to the stages themselves. Branching paths became a more common thing, further moves were introduced, and for better or worse, the game’s story got more emphasize with cutscenes and dialogue. Unlockable playable characters made their first entry in the series.

 

However, the fourth game didn’t materialise for some two decades. 1994 was the deathknell of the Mega Drive, advent of Sega Saturn, Darkstalkers saw a release in the arcades among other things. Streets of Rage 3 didn’t even scratch the top ten most sold games for that year. Despite the third game attempting to push everything the second game layed down, in most terms it was a commercial failure. The beat-em-up as a genre was moving out from its golden days with Konami and Capcom still making some of the best entries, leaving Streets of Rage behind both in terms of game play, design and visuals. The fourth game in the series was attempted few times around, one of which ended up as the PlayStation/N64 game Fighting Force, or Metal Fist in Japan. One of Sega’s attempts turned into Dynamite Deka series, which was used as the basis for the Die Hard license. Ancient had been working on a Streets of Rage 4 for the Dreamcast as well, but supposedly, execs at Sega of America closed it down very early in development. Nevertheless, the DNA of Streets of Rage was carried over various directions. Ultimately, these kind of 3D action games would end up as being similar to Devil May Cry, which are a far cry from the first Final Fight and Streets of Rage.

 

The reason I wanted to include this whole bit is to show that despite all fans and fanfare the two original games got, the third game was a miss despite it taking the series further. The genre moved onwards with other games and Streets of Rage was mostly used a launchpoint. Fans have been making their own games based on the IP, and all things considered, Streets of Rage had become a dead franchise. That was until 2018, when DotEmu announced they’re working on a new entry with Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games.

The initial trailer split opinions, some liking the new style while other hating it. It showed nothing too much on the play outside few seconds, but the later DotEmu would release more footage as the game’s release was closing in. However, from the very first on, it was rather apparent that the game wouldn’t push forwards what the franchise had been back in 1994. That’s probably the whole review in a nutshell.

A revival like this can be don in two ways. First is to stick to the guns and not change much, or anything, about the formula and roll with that. You won’t disappoint anyone and you know you’re catering to the core fans who just wanted a new entry no matter what. This is effectively what Capcom did with Mega Man 9 and 10, and Nintendo with the New Super Mario Bros. line. This kind of catering to nostalgia first and foremost works few times around, but it can’t be milked. The other option would be to take core essence and see how far you can push it. With two decades and then between the SoR3 and 4, it would be rather easy to see what sort of design innovations the beat-em-up, or action games in general, have made during that period and how they could be implemented. Both are very different routes, and DotEmu and co. ultimately decided to stick with the core guns of the franchise and not deviate.

Good amount of research into the characters was apparently done

When it comes to SoR4‘s play, it’s as pure action as you can get. It’s methodical and orthodox and even fights against players who want to blitz. Timing is everything in these games, alongside positioning. The wide variety of enemies use different tactics to get away from the player, with some having moves that allow the to traverse across the screen or move in the air the way the player can’t. If you’ve ever plaued, or even watched footage of a beat-em-up, you already know what to expect from the play. However, the player is ultimately limited in their actions, even if the new control scheme does dedicate a button for picking up items and such. There is no running or dashing, nor there is a dedicated button or combination for sure certain grab and throw. You can only punch and jump, and grab when you’re close up. In terms of play and controls, there’s nothing pushing the Streets of Rage forwards. At the same time, once the slow pace clicks to you few stages in, the game becomes a bit more open. You can’t really device your own ways of approaching and playing it, however, as the design doesn’t provide the tools for that.

This approach has cost the game’s design some points. While many of the normal enemies are fine tuned, some of them exhibit unnaturally large amount of invincibility frames in their moves, something the player is lacking. Benefits are given to the enemies to the point of game feeling annoying rather than hard or challenging. There’s no point trying to counter moves, when you can almost break the game by grabbing and throwing things around. This is further examplified with the bosses, as they gain similar Star moves the player has access to, but with the difference they can use them in a pattern willy nilly without thinking about their life being drained or such. Some of the bosses are just lacklustre, like the helmetted DJ that feels like an unnecessary thoraway just to have a boss in there, while others give a satisfyingly levelled challenge with their own twist, like with Shiva.

Outside Shiva’s bullshit-bunshin, the fight’s really on the even grounds

The game is also rather long, longer than it really needed to be for a beat-em-up. This is further emphazised but that slower paced game design mentioned earlier. Cutting one or two stages out and make it an even ten, or even just nine stages with multiple paths would’ve made the game more interesting on revisits, but in one sit-through Streets of Rage 4 begins to slog and overstays its welcome rather hard. However, the game has embraced modern sensibilities in that you are able to continue with the stage you left off with a save file, with 1 Coin challenge being offered in form of Arcade Mode.

In tersm of visual design, the game is top notch. It looks great with all the lighting effects and colours being used in proper manners. It looks like a French cartoon with heavy Japanese influences thrown here and there. In this the game is rather contemporary, slightly revolting against how the original games tried to level with realistic look. The way the visuals have been realised and executed is probaby the best part of the game, testifying how 2D is still the best way to realise the age-old dream of games looking like cartoons on telly. Animation work is terrific and nothing to be scoffed at, characters are easy to tell apart and while stage designs and environments can be lacklustre, they still come through strongly simply because how well they’re visually made. Despite all this, the edge in the visusal style is rather rounded and maybe even dull. The Y Twin, the end bosses, don’t really jump out in their design, and the fact that they utilise a giant robot during the end battle is uninspired at best.

On the music side, you have what we could call classic SoR tunes. It fits and doesn’t intrude on the player’s nerves. Some tunes stand out more than others, so overall a well done soundtrack that’s not too uncommon nowadays.

The story doesn’t matter. While I fully expected some scenes to be voiced, I found myself more annoyed by the cutscenes more than anything. The difference in visual style becomes drastically evident during these, which also emphasize how it ultimately doesn’t fit. Within the series narrative, it’s almost like the the early 1990s never moved onward, yet we see contemporary factors dropped here and there. Perhaps fully embracing that early 2000s aesthetic would’ve been a better option rather than create this sort of fetishised hybrid of 1980s/early 1990s nostalgia through rose coloured goggles.

This game sounds, looks and plays like a standard Streets of Rage 4 fare. We’ve played this three times before. If this game has been released in the 1990s, it would’ve scored low. Now, far removed from its setting, it stands out as a classical example of well made and polished game, but a game that offers nothing special on its own. Expecting this game to deliver anything else than that will be met with gross disappointment. It’s a game that does get the franchise, it fully embraces what it is, but at the same time, it makes itself rather hard to recommend if you’re already familiar with the series, or the genre overall. If SoR5 will be a thing down the line, it can’t surf on nostalgia and has to find its way to create its own indentity and expand on already-explored play of the franchise, or go bust. I can’t fault what the game was designed to be, as that’s extremely well realised. It’s just that design was already out of date twenty years ago.

I have no title and I want to talk about TMNT III The Manhattan Project in relation to Streets of Rage 4

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project is one of the best, if not the best example, of a well-made beat ’em up, or belt scrolling action game. Dare I say, and even argue, that it is superior to the game that got more money and more attention that was in development at the same time, Turtles in Time. This is an opinion against the grain though, as the fourth game (or third if you’re Japanese) is considered to be at the top. Why then would I argue for TMNTIII to be the superior title? Mostly because the game offers more.

Absolutely terrific cover that barely represents the game, as the artist had given no clue of the contents outside floating Manhattan

TMNTIII was built for the NES from the grounds up, it had no arcade original counterpart to be compared to. This is the opposite of TMNTII: The Arcade Game and Turtles in Time. It’s a title that takes what was in the previous game and goes to

town with it all, expanding and exploring all the little intricacies the previous had and how to improve upon them. Most things play wise were left untouched but polished up, and each Turtle gained their own unique Special move. On top of that, something simple as throwing an enemy was added and surprisingly makes approaching enemies in certain situations a whole lot different. Turtles in Time would have the horsepower under it to make things more cinematic for sure, but its throwing mechanism, despite being full of flurry and flash, is not as satisfying. TMNTIII uses it in a very tactical manner, and though the end result is something that is common with most other games in the genre, the fact that it is instantly in your command like normal attacking makes it a far more viable option rather than needing to first grab the enemy and then throw. The reason I make such a big thing about straightforward throwing is that all the other things are like that; there is an honest directness to TMNTIII that is somehow lacking in the other games in the series.

The game is also stupidly long. While officially TMNTIII has eight levels, there are sub-sections that in some games could be their own levels. These levels also get longer at points, making the game a challenge and then some to beat in one proper sitting. You have a variety of Konami codes under your belt to change the difficulty and amount of Lives the players have, as well as the usual Stage Select and such. Even on Normal difficulty, the game provides a tough nut to crack, but this shows the last thing the game holds over to this day; its abrilliant design. All the stages feel their own entity with their own stage hazards. From falling advertising panels in the Miami Beach to the broken sections of the Brooklyn Bridge, none of the stages turn into muck. There’s only one gimmick stage, or half a stage, where the Turtles have to surf to a submarine. All these are supported by an equally well-designed cadre of enemies that, at their base, don’t have anything special over the player. There are few enemies that can chuck spears and the like, yet these weapon using Foot soldiers are well balanced for the player to approach. Beat-em-ups sometimes introduce enemies that aim to keep distance from the player only to execute an attack that can cover most of the screen, if not all of it. With no real long-range weaponry, the player can’t really do much to counter outside stepping to the side. TMNTIII has balanced this perfectly by allowing players to counter most of these longer-range attacks in a manner or another. Best of all, the game has no gimmicks to rely on, no one kind of play mechanic that defines its existence and separates from the rest of its kind. All this makes an extremely balanced experience that gets overshadowed for being the third (second) game in the series at a time when Turtles in Time was already in the horizon, and never saw release in the PAL region. It’s just such a damn fine piece of gaming. Not only that, as one of the late NES/Famicom games, everything it does is at full blast, from the terrific soundtrack to impressive visuals. I have to admit that when I think of NES, this is one of the games that come to mind and what the system is. Oh, woe is me whenever I venture into the earlier days of the Famicom library.

For a B-Team of developers, named Kuu Neru Asobu (Eat Sleep Play), with less budget to turn out a massive game with high polish and quality like this, only to be pushed aside in favour of the original classic, The Arcade Game, and supplanted by its flashier younger brother when the 16-bit consoles were taking to the market, TMNTIII fell between the cracks. Sadly, the team wasn’t utilised much more outside this one title and The Lone Ranger, with the team unofficially still being around to make other licensed games like Batman and Zen: The Intergalactic Ninja. That’s a goddamn travesty, as TMNTIII went largely untested before going out due to shorter development time, which really shows the skill and talent the team had.

Why the hell am I singing high praises for TMNTIII here like it just gave me a blowjob and served me ice cream? Because I have been playing Streets of Rage 4 and I am being eclectic about the game. While playing the game I expect to be able to do something and then I remember that this is Streets of Rage, it doesn’t allow me to do so. It’s been twenty years since the pinnacle of the beat-em-up games, and yet I’m feeling like I’m playing a throwback game that hasn’t even tried to evolve outside graphics and cutscenes. The game feels like I’m playing the old SoR titles all over again without any improvements and not in a good way. As things are, I can take any entry in SoR and change between them. We can argue that’s not the case with the first game, but let’s not quibble too much about. Being able to pick up three out of four games and have the exact same overall game being played in front of you with mostly graphical differences could be called consistent game series design, but I’d call it not even trying to go outside the box and push things forward. The people who worked on Streets of Rage 4 understand how methodical the series play is, what the series is all about, what are its 50s and 80s rock fantasy influences while trying to update things a bit here and there, but ultimately they don’t try to push things forwards. Then again, they never intended to so. They wanted a bonafide a Streets of Rage experience and they replicated it perfectly and now their game has no personality of its own. Streets of Rage 2 is still the best entry in the series with the most iconic music. This isn’t the review of the game (that’s for Sunday) but rather me venting out personal frustrations so I can get back to the game and not allow my expectations of a better Streets of Rage game influence what the game is.

The whole rant how food TMNTIII is should reflect my personal philosophy about game sequels; they don’t need to try to do anything wildly different per se but aim to perfect everything possible all the while introducing all these little things that can be grown out into something new and special later own. Look at Final Fantasy and how its evolution has gone from a mere Dragon Quest clone to whatever fuck it wants to be, spinning off to the SaGa series and whatnot. Then look at how the Golden Days of Super Mario Bros. changed the games’ play from entry to entry, making classics after classics, then began to slouch around and produce bottom mud with the New SMB sub-series. You can’t just stay put and do nothing new. You’re going to be replaced with the competition that takes the same base idea and improves on it. You can only coaster on name recognition and nostalgia only so many times, and if others have done the same already, you’re out of luck. Customers get burned out from being introduced the same shit over and over again. I guess what I’m saying is that the game industry needs to find ways to evolve their games’ design and play at a constant pace to ultimately make all the older games obsolete.

Pizza Pizza

As long as I can remember, Domino’s Pizza has been the butt of jokes to the point even my Vietnamese associates know a few. They had a massive problem with PR and their pizza for numerous years and found themselves in a downward spiral in the mid-2000s, striking the all-time low in 2008 when their stock price was just three dollars. Nowadays they go for around 380 bucks. It wasn’t the easiest route.

Despite Domino’s hitting their lowest point, they experienced a massive PR crisis following Michael Setzer’s and Kristy Hammond’s Youtube video showcasing how much they loved to ruin the food they were preparing. They pleaded guilty a year later. This video effectively confirmed how Domino’s food was prepared in the minds of the consumers, further enforcing the jokes that were made and pushed customers away. It didn’t help that the video ended up being one of the top search results if you searched for Domino’s at the time. Even disregarding this incident, Domino’s was seen as some sort of crime against food and ingredients, or as Adweek’s short story put it on their focus testing, it’s startling to hear the degree to which consumers regard Domino’s as the embodiment of culinary evil. During this and numerous other focus tests Domino’s pizzas were called all sorts of names and claims of them using fake cheese and the like in their products were common, hence the jokes of the time. Some of them have survived long enough to be part of pizza-eating culture.

Domino’s decided that they need to turn their ship around and hard. Ever since their record-low stock price and the whole PR disaster with Setzer and Hammond, Domino’s began to comb through their complaints and reviews for the most common negative mentions and comparisons, as mentioned in their four and a half minute documentary what they were doing. This video, while being a corporate produced piece, is one of the things Domino’s did to have that boat turned. They went back to the recipes and worked on them and revised what they were doing wrong. Supposedly more training was given to the workers to prevent the mishaps the aforementioned video caused. Domino’s, in all effect, owned that they were rather shit company with workers who didn’t care if your pizza was terrible or not. The linked video shows how proud Domino’s was after they went and created new pizzas, which were more or less made from scrap. Everything from the dough to toppings was tested multiple times over and changed wherever needed. Whether or not this is all true will probably be always an open question, yet even from this video it is evident how much money Domino’s spent to revise their image by revising their image through their product. They even went as far as providing their focus group members with these new pizzas to test and get their opinions. They made these into ads, no less.

Domino’s Pizza owning up and takings steps to deliver to the customer the kind of pizza they wanted while making a public, transparent stunt out of it all has made them the most valued pizza restaurant chain. While some still retain the image of Domino’s being the worst kind of pizza you can have, that’s rather outdated view by about a decade. That, and they probably never had Greek pizza. Domino’s stocks have been in constant rise, and they’ve been trying to renew customer interest in various manners after their renewal, like collaborating with Hatsune Miku in Japan. part of their whole shtick of being transparent to at least some extent, they’ve allowed Food Insider to make a short video how their pizza is made and delivered, though personally, I have to say I’m not exactly excited by the idea of the dough being made elsewhere from the spot. Delivery food is making some nice bucks at the moment, so Domino’s made some nice bucks earlier this year as people didn’t want to leave their homes.

What’s your point? I hear Wes asking me there. My point is that Domino’s pizza listened to their customers, changed their product and working methods to better fit the demand. Not only they were willing to take in feedback and were honest about it to themselves, but were willing to make rather transparent transition from what they were to what they wanted to be. Customers love that, and that made them a billion-dollar company.

This same set of ideas can be applied to any industry on their basis. While the creative industries want to sell the image of one creator or a team of creative individuals delivering an earth-shattering piece that can only be experienced in so many fashions, the reality is that any product needs to be carefully planned out and balanced between the original intent and the customers’ wants. That is far harder than you would expect, as some corporate cultures do everything by data alone, which can lead to discarding feedback in total and the only thing that says anything is sales data. This can be combined with long-term career businessmen, who are hard stuck on their own methods of working, as it has produced large revenues up to that point already, making the total renewal of their productions hard if not impossible. In the foodstuff world, this is easier to do than e.g. in automobile production or the like, where you can only begin to start this process with the next series of cars rather what you already have in production. With games, music and film this could be implemented in an easier manner, but it requires humility among these egos, and that’s something the self-clashing creative industries do not see too often. Imagine if, for example, EA would make a public announcement that they’ve listened to all the feedback they’ve gotten through the years and have begun to consider how they produce, develop and publish games, as well as how they tackle advertising in their games or in which manners lootbox mechanics function. It’d take years for them to root out these methods and manners they’ve cultivated throughout the years and end up putting efforts into making games that wouldn’t nearly kill their workforce or would contain whatever is currently the most underhanded way of making that extra money. Something like this happening in the creative industries is as likely to happen as a pig flying through your window. It happens on occasions, but extremely rarely.

Few posts ago I wrote how I’m tired of the PR game. Domino’s Pizza turned their PR disaster into a chance of renewing their image through transparency. Because transparency to that effect would necessitate losing face first in order to gain higher PR wins in the long run, you won’t see this happening with franchises like Star Wars or any of the botched film franchises. You will never see one of the head honchos stepping up, admitting the money they spent on a movie bombing like no other was a mistake and that they will look into renewing and satisfying the customer. That would go against how things are presented to the audience, the whole Hollywood/ creative myth, how glamorous it is to be a successful creator. Yet even sure-shot franchises like Star Wars, Alien and The Terminator have slumped, the latter two effectively becoming more or less dead thanks to the latest movies. Hell, even the Predator franchise is back in the casket after The Predator managed to fuck up the series. As much as it often goes against the corporate grain, transparency and honesty are two things the customer values. If a corporation manages to be open about their faults and missteps about themselves and is visibly improving themselves, that creates almost natural emotional connections to both your current customers and your possible customers.

The one place where transparency should be the most important bit is in crowdfunding like Kickstarter. If you’ve run a Kickstarter and have managed to each your funding goal, every single thing you do with the money or with the project should be logged in without censorship shared with the backers. All the good you do is doubly more worthwhile when you admit fucking something up and explaining the methods of either supplementing or fixing what’s gone wrong. With crowdfunded products you have to remember that these aren’t your customers; these are the people who funded your project. Being transparent with them is the least you can do. The PR game wants to mangle and twist every screw-up into something positive in false manners, and more often than not the customer can see through that. It’s up to each individual customer how much leeway they might allow the PR game, and most often you can see it in the form of taking their business elsewhere. Of course, if you proceed to attack the customer when you want them to buy something from you, well, not everyone is masochistic.

Perhaps Marvel and DC should take after Domino’s Pizza. Japanese comics have been outselling American Superhero comics for some time now. In the face of this fiercer competition from beyond the ocean, it would be a good moment for American comic companies and creators to stop for a moment if they’re doing something wrong.

Yet another post about the old argument about something making money and its relation of being good

The few main things this blog has covered multiple times is how good is a terrible determinant in any comparisons or discussions and that financial success is a form of determining whether or not something is the aforementioned good. You know the argument, just because something sells doesn’t mean it’s good. Mark Hamill continued this with something along the lines of It only matters if it makes money. The two, of course, don’t exclude each other, as often products that are well-made sell just as terrible products bomb like no other. Cue for references to the latest Terminator and Charlie’s Angels movies, because a well-made product doesn’t equate to something the customers want or need. Those two movies are competently made, have high production values and realise what the staff wanted those movies to be. It wasn’t something the audience wanted or fit the franchises per se, so what does it matter if they were well-made movies? The customer is the ultimate reviewer who decides whether or not your effort and time were worth it. Nobody is required to purchase or consume products you make, just as you don’t need to appease them (if you don’t look for financial success.) Often you can veto some objective point of review, like how arts used to have. There films that are seen as cornerstones of overall motion picture history, as perfect examples of how to structure and build a movie. The same can be applied to music as well, I’d have to guess, though I have no Citizen Kane of music to reference. Whether or not it is because of technology changing and evolving too rapidly to have a proper point of reference, or people thinking video games are completely separate examples from other forms of play, electronic gaming doesn’t really have that objective point that majority of the gaming industry could look at and consider as an exemplary pinnacle.

We do have those games though and they’re all watershed moments. Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Super Mario Bros., Ultima, Wizardry, The Legend of Zelda and a whole slew of other 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s titles should be considered as points of comparisons, but of course, things get muddled down when you consider how modern gaming has changed the way video and computer games are pushed, even if that’s not exactly working all that well. The gaming industry would like you to believe that electronic gaming is a method of storytelling over a method of playing. To repeat this point to ad nauseam, the story of a game is the story made through play. The “story” bits in FMV sequences and all those are just framing devices to justify the action of playing.

Some shirk at this notion, saying the story is the thing that keeps them playing games. That only would be natural, as each and every game has to have a core reason why it is being played. At the core level, winning against the opposing player or team is the most basic reason to play something. However, the act of playing is what makes it enjoyable. The player himself feels that it is his own actions that are carrying things forward. This is the player’s agency, which is lessened with each moment the play, the control of the game, is taken away from the player. This is why, especially in the Deep Red Ocean market, not having a Skip Movie option is considered almost a criminal offence. As a side note, you can skip PlayStation’s Final Fantasy games FMVs by opening the console’s lid and closing it again, as that forces the console to seek the next bit right after the FMV sequence. This is pretty much the only way European FF9 players can get Excalibur II due to terrible PAL port screwing with the game’s timing.

This whole post really came together because Fall Guys became the most downloaded title on PlayStation Plus. Fall Guys is nothing short of entertaining, made in a relatively short time compared to its top competition, meaning its financial results will be that much greater than Triple-A games that spend the better part of the decade on the development table. Most often you can see people citing how it beat The Last of Us 2, which is rather apt. TLoU2 was intentionally made a narrative-driven game and mentioned that it wouldn’t be fun. It would end up as gritty and gruesome, wallowing in dredges and trying to be bold as a video game. Despite the game making some kind of bank, we can’t really call it good just because it made money, right? For all intents and purposes, the play of TLoU2 is very generic and overall uninteresting. Its film-like qualities have been at the forefront and whatever agenda it’s supposed to have is a few years too late, if not whole decades. Whatever debacles it had around itself is no real interest, but Fall Guys becoming the most successful PlayStation 4 game of 2020 really says it all; the customers prefer games as games. You could say there is one core, ideological difference between Fall Guys and The Last of Us 2 and that’s in the attitude of the creators.

Fall Guys was created for profit, thus it had the need to satisfy customer wants and needs in some manner other titles on the market really didn’t. Its play is entertaining and makes for a good competition. The developers had the craftsman’s mindset and it allowed them to make a game that was good. Or as this blog often puts it; the game good enough in every aspect to satisfy the customer. The Last of Us 2 development cycle didn’t clearly consider the profit part being a question, but a rather a thing that would happen anyway, as long as they stuck to the mould. After all, the series had its fans and that already would bring in the dough. Thus, it followed the artist’s mindset, which is antithetical to craftsman’s mindset. It’s against the customer, expecting the product to sell despite it ignoring the customer altogether. TLoU2 outright hates the player at times, something that has occurred more often nowadays than it did in the past, which fights its own nature as a game. You can easily make something like this with a product that’s supposedly a guaranteed success, especially during times when macro-economics are in fine shape. If the game had still been in development and would’ve published next year, its success would’ve been smaller. The entertainment industries are feeling the effects of plummeting economics. It’s become more expensive to produce anything and customers don’t have the same amount of money to throw around willy nilly. Games like Fall Guys will become a necessity for the next few years, where the customer and their play will matter more than the creators’. The trophy project mindset hasn’t been beneficial to the game industry or to the customers overall, so perhaps forcing all the developers to re-examine their methods and games on the publishing list. There won’t be nearly as many sure-shot games in the near future.

To roll it back around, sure. Being financially successful doesn’t necessarily mean something is great by some standards, but it does mean it does scratch the itch people have had and find a superior product over its competition.

Music of the Month: Drill Domination

I’m writing this post, though I should be sleeping. I’m using the excuse of eating to stay up enough to write this post, while in reality, my food is still in the microwave because I didn’t feel like cooking chicken risotto this late in the middle of the night. Sudden shift changes due to a robot being programmed have thrown my daily rhythm to hell, which doesn’t really jive well with me exercising. Despite my utter hatred, dislike and sheer abhor towards exercising, I decided against my better judgement to start it again, as your body is the best investment you can have. That’s one more thing that eats two hours of my daily life away from hobbies and other stuff I should be doing. Then again, my scanner/printer just broke down thanks to a part that’s designed to break down in time due to its smaller than necessary contact points bending easily under normal ink cartridge usage. Don’t buy Epson.

With food in front of me and half a litre water in my mug, I’m wondering why the hell I didn’t do enough food for the whole week. I’ve noticed that salads don’t keep me full for the whole day. Eating before I go to sleep might cause some mishaps according to some, but at least I’m not hungry and I have the energy to exercise in the morning.

That doesn’t change the fact that I hate exercising in the morning, it makes me groggy for the whole day. Pissed off, unsociable, and generally about as enjoyable to be around as a bear shot in the ass. I guess that also makes me want to do my job as fast and as efficiently as possible so I could be done with it. I’ve picked up reading again due to some of the downtime (that may be increasing in the near future thanks to the whole Chinese originated flu floating about) and the series I’ve picked up again is A Certain Magical Index and its numerous spin-offs.

The problem with me and reading is that I’ve taught to think through the prose I read. Turning your brains off can’t be done, unlike with other media. This is partly why I prefer science fiction to fantasy, as fantasy doesn’t handle concepts as SF does. An exception to this is Japanese Fantasy, which blends SF into itself to a far larger degree. If The Lord of the Rings was a science fiction work, the concept of the ring and its abilities would have been explored further and in far greater detail. However, for fantasy work, it isn’t necessary or even desirable at best. Some of the Japanese prose has a tendency to stop the story in its track and explore a concept through a wholly different lens, sometimes citing actual studies or experiments. Some works turn this into a whole dialogue and explore the extent of the concept as a whole or its possible branches before putting it into proper use within the story. Purple’s Qualia does this to the point of fault, as a friend mentioned the work’s like the author was masturbating about these subjects. Funny that thing, he doesn’t like Science Fiction all that much. Another friend agreed the works’ pretty dang sweet, so what’d I know.

A Certain Magical Index is a series that’s a rarity for me anyhow. Both its literary and animated versions have their own strengths and pacing. Sometimes the books work out things better, sometimes the animation adaptation takes the lead. Going through both, even if I’m already familiar with the other, seems like a worthwhile effort. Reading through all these books will take me ages, but I’ll squeeze a book or two in some slots whenever I have downtime and haven’t planned on doing a scan-marathon. I should try to have one this Saturday.

What I find interesting in the series is that outside the whole practical exploration of concepts within the work’s setting, it goes to town with them. Often I end up questioning a pathway of a story or author’s decision to have events and concepts turn out in a manner that ignores their secondary characteristics. With A Certain Magical/Scientific series I’ve found constantly that these secondary characteristics, even tertiary in some cases, are weaved straight back into the whole story not thirty seconds after I’ve raised a question. That is mostly because the characters aren’t written as dimwits or idiots as most of their fellow genre characters often are, as they often stop and think. An example of this whole thing would be something like as follows; a concept of a person split into two cyborgs with different halves is introduced and explored. The two halves are clearly distinct beings that live their own lives despite being sourced from the same person. AI and advanced cybernetics have been helped to realise this (Academy City, the main setting of A Certain Magical Index is a scientifically hyper-advanced self-governing city with everything being tested and examined from weird mixtures of food to creating false deities). After living as two separate beings, the two halves are rejoined together. The rejoined human has two different sets of memories, but the overall acceptance of the situation and the participant’s psyche hasn’t been damaged or has rejected two sets of memories from the same time period. My first question after this was straight up What about the mechanical parts? and ‘lo and behold, the main point of the story ends up being these secondary elements, where the experiment also brought the cyborg halves into one whole, resulting in an android that considers itself as the same person. It just lacks any memories before the patient was turned into two cyborgs.

The series is full of these What about this thing? moments. It’s an effective use of a relatively short length of the books themselves, and the series is almost wholly consistent with itself. When a series runs a decade and then some, there are bound to be some small issues here and there, but nothing major. For an ever-expansive series, a franchise really, the overall story hasn’t really let go of its interesting characters and slowly building plot that keeps raising the stakes. I would be amiss if I didn’t mention that the series also crossed over with Virtual-On, which is why the series experienced a short, but oh so sweet, come back.

I guess that covers things what’s going on. I’m certain you’re able to read between the lines that the current situation where I am is somewhat dire, and despite my personal feelings and wants, I’m still returning to write an excessively long post about nothing to start the month with in order to get some steam out, as well as forcing myself to get rid of some fat again. It doesn’t matter regarding the blog itself, but things aren’t… well. That will, sadly, be reflected in the future posts but hopefully not in their amount. I doubt things will get better towards the new year either. I’ve got to start prioritizing. Maybe I’ll start writing more about single entry series or things that I’d like to have covered like I’ve done with Muv-Luv and Purple’s Qualia. Ah well, just wait ’til I start spouting shit about compact cassettes.

Sick and tired of the PR game

I deeply dislike the PR game any and all companies play. I hate to bring Star Wars up so often, but it’s a solid example of it, and one of the most recent. When Kathleen Kennedy said that Star Wars didn’t have books and comics to adapt from, that was a PR statement in itself to confirm and instil the notion of abandoning what Star Wars had been up to that point and everything from that point onwards would be completely new and proper. Everyone knows this is horse shit, as the 1990s was a golden age of Star Wars media with the explosion of Expanded Universe books and games hitting the shelf one after another, and George Lucas wanting to test the waters with the movie event without the movie, Shadows of the Empire. Kennedy’s statement was first and foremost for PR for people who didn’t want to read these old stories or didn’t like them. All these moves were, after all, to alienate the audience of the classic Star Wars stories in order to replace them with a newer, more hip audience. As it has been often stated, gaining a new audience from scratch is much harder and time-consuming than keeping your old one. Building those emotional connections and brand associations take time and money, which all this PR was aiming for. Star Wars was to be easily accessible again, despite it never needed more than a cursory knowledge of the setting. At most, to get any Star Wars media, the only movie fully necessary to watch is the first one. Star Wars is not a hard franchise to understand and give a crack at, but it is an extremely hard franchise to write for and build from consistently, as Disney and new Lucasfilm staff would find out.

Disney’s new continuity with Star Wars wouldn’t last too long. Reintroducing characters from the abandoned Expanded Universe like Admiral Thrawn as fan service were first cracks on the armour, as that was against the previous public statements. Rather than foraging towards something new and creating their new Star Wars Kathleen Kennedy was applauding early on and driving towards to, Disney Lucasfilm had begun to dig up characters and concepts from the abandoned Expanded Universe, which was turned into a Legacy canon that existed alongside the current continuity rather than being unceremoniously dumped as initially announced. Little bits of backpedalling here and there showcase that despite the cut-and-dry statements and intentions, Disney really wanted to keep the old fans in as well with these small chips of bacon thrown in. I’d argue the moment we first saw Disney acknowledging something was up with Star Wars success was when Thrawn was re-introduced, as that meant the new ideas that were being realised didn’t work, which would turn out to be a hard reality with each new movie seeing fewer revenues at the box office. I would be amiss of course if I didn’t mention that the PR game Lucasfilm was playing, with their whole The Force is Female shirt stunt and loudly driving political views and agendas alongside attacking consumers and customers all the while capitulating to the Chinese demands, as exemplified by the whole poster scandal off Finn’s size being shrunk. Chinese markets were supposed to make money, but seeing the Chinese don’t have a history with Star Wars unlike the Japanese and prefer wholly different kind of aesthetics, the success was less than desired. With the SARS-COV-19 making rounds, Disney is in need to look back into the US and European markets and cut their losses as much as possible, including their PR failures with Star Wars.

No media company can afford to make PR statements just for the sake of politics at the moment. People are losing their jobs, money is tight and people are not willing to join crowds in fear of infection (at least in most cases.) Kennedy has to play the PR game, despite her role having been constantly shrinking with Star Wars and other people taking her role in other productions, as it was with The Mandalorian. Kennedy had to backpedal her earlier statement about Star Wars’ media about a week back, making the very opposite statement she originally made, speaking about 40-years of Star Wars media and playing into the long-time fans’ corner, but also trying to play to the new audience’s corner by trying to introduce them as something new, as something “unheard of.” With Star Wars still in the red after Lucasfilm acquisition, acquiring that new audience failed rather damn hard all the whole alienating the old fans was a successful move, and Disney hurting for money, the PR game had to change. Making profit has become the priority again after a decade long growth curve in macro-economics, the sudden change has shown that these short-term plans have backfired massively. Disney nor any other company can afford to do whatever they want at whatever price. The money was never there for them to do whatever they wanted in whatever manner, but people had the extra money to throw at them. Now they don’t and they’re hurting. Kennedy, Lucasfilm and Disney can’t turn their coats in an instant, it has to be eased in and slowly, but surely, turn Star Wars back to something that would make money despite the personal feelings and stances of the creators themselves. A massive company has to consider their actions and the results in a far more careful manner, while individuals can throw their shit in whichever direction in a moment’s notice. For example, recently Jon St. John, best known as the voice actor of Duke Nukem, made a statement that was fast deleted. Naturally, an apology referring to the tweet was made without giving proper context what was said in what manner, but the PR game demanded it, with reinforcement of his account is going to be all about fun stuff. Statements made in anger are no less a PR disaster than statements made by Kenndy regarding Star Wars media. Pro-rape position and media giant fucking up are not exactly on the same level, but they’re both examples of the PR game on different levels. High-level PR game takes time and works slowly, it works on the consumer perception with each statement and tries to slowly turn the head of the consumer toward its own benefit. Low-level PR game is all about the moment’s heat, and often ends careers.

They’re both bullshit no matter how you turn it around though. The PR game’s intentions and attempts at changing the perception of the customer work wonders when you have the emotional connection, allowing people to justify almost anything as long as the provider has made some kind of argument, or have appealed to the emotion, in a manner that makes sense to the individual. Sometimes you can afford to make hard statements, something that most of your customers and the larger market might agree on, but not all the time. Even then, it’s probably best to simply not get involved in certain matters at all, as explicit sentiments can backfire in a very hard manner, pushing customers away towards competition. When you’re playing the PR game, you shouldn’t assume that all the customers will agree or want you to join the mob or make certain kind of statements, especially with entertainment media. Disney and numerous other companies have been hurt by their mismanaged PR as they’ve entered their brands into politics and agendas, and now that nobody’s spending money, all this is biting their asses. Yet the game has to be played and course directions have to be taken. The world shouldn’t be grabbed by superpowered flu in order for corporations to begin to serve their customers and aim for the long term, stable profits instead of short term gains that always leave something to be desired for.

Innovation from cult status

It has been some time since we got any news on Aleste Branch, a new Aleste game developed by M2, the developer responsible for loads of Sega AGES titles. The game was announced in 2018 and later we learned its proper title. I did a series introduction to celebrate the 30th anniversary, but even after we got some press events and the very first screenshot in a German gaming magazine/site (translations do exist), after that nada. Aleste Branch has been under development for around two years, but the sheer lack of information is enticing. Considerin M2’s Highma Fuyuno admits that only two people are working on the game, basically, it’s no wonder there’s not much to see. Their aim to replicate early 1990s CGI look to make sprites like they were 3D sounds rather fitting, but this is something that’s been almost overdone now. Mind you, despite yours truly is waiting for this game like a moonrise, the screenshot shown does make me worried. The following screenshots look much better and knowing that this game has blood taken directly from the legacy of the series, an unnamed self-published game series as well as that of Flame Zapper Kotsujin, as the character designer developed that game, expectations are hard to keep realistic and relatively low. The game’s budget is mentioned to be on the low end due to the small size of the shooting game market nowadays, and as such the game will most likely end up using such tools as Unity rather than M2 developing their own engine for the game. This, against everything else, doesn’t bode well with me. The game certainly seems to be a work of love, yet it has to be taken down a peg or three. Despite M2 being able to make their own Mega Drive emulator for their exceedingly well made Sega ports, there just isn’t large enough markets to put that kind of development time and money into an IP that is well-loved in one of the nichest of the niche circles.

Then I have to stop myself and ask what new could they be able to bring to the table?

Games like Fight’n Rage and Streets of Rage 4 are examples of time-tested game play being polished and brought to the table. There’s not much new about them, but the sheer polish in their systems, play and mechanics are stacking about thirty tears of genre refinement on top of each other, and capable developers have made solid titles with nothing much to complain about. This isn’t the first time though, these belt-scrolling action games were so common that almost everything about them has already been explored and adding new elements ultimately ended up as gimmicks. Well, 3D games, in the end, took their slot in the limelight. Action games like Devil May Cry have their roots in these action games, and for a time, 2D was passé. Thanks to the whole retro games boom, 2D became a more respected perspective once again, but despite so many action games hit the scene and were all around, shooting games shone with their absence. It’s a genre that after the 1980’s and early 1990s effectively petered out, going from all those orthodox and methodical slow games like Gradius and R-Type to modern bullet hells DonDonPachi keeps around. Aleste is no bullet hell and would not serve those sensibilities, but it could make a balance between different styles of shooting games if it would follow Super Aleste‘s footsteps and include multiple modes of play that change how the game plays, effectively allowing the player to choose what sort of sub-genre they’d be playing. That might make the genre fans happy, but that’s it. That’s it needs to be, in the end. Better have a great niche product than a lousy general audience’s one. Rise from cult status to mainstream is often the road to take.

How much new can we bring to something that’s, to put in less diplomatic manner, used up already? Aleste Branch by its very nature is adhering to the series’ roots, with lots of promise, but that is also its limiting factor. With completely new IP M2 might’ve been able to create something new. It’s a double-edged sword; despite Aleste being very varied series, it still has core elements that carry in each game. These elements colour the series and unify their overall play. In other words, we’ve already seen the core of Aleste Branch and it didn’t survive into the new millennium of video games. Certain genres or ways to make titles in a genre die out in time. They get superseded with titles with better execution and design, more advanced technology helping in the manner. It takes time. However, consumer expectations change and the wants in the market reflect this. Shooting games aren’t in demand, most games that require that level of skill and patience have become more or less exclusive titles for the showcase players and niche audience. Part of the audience now expects games to be accessible from the get-go, that the least amount of effort is needed to see, or “experience,” all of the game. It’s not the major part of the mainstream audience though, but they sure are loud about it. As the audience has matured, getting in and out of the game has become a more valid point, something that loads of games in the arcades offered. Browser games filled this niche, then some mobile phone games. This is defeated by the dedicated platforms, however, as you can’t just flip a console or PC open anymore and boot up the game. Even consoles booting up takes time and with some time between sessions, always are stopped by the necessary updates and such. Console gaming lost its speed advantage, and portable gaming has become ever so slightly more cumbersome with the ever-increasing screen sizes. Not that we have any other than the Switch to choose from, which kinda sucks as numerous Switch games aren’t exactly the most portable friendly titles.

What’s a developer to do in order to stand out from the grey mass of games, the number of which is largest we’ve ever had on the market, and then manage to do that with a title that’s a niche to the core? Well, I guess my own mention above about first being a great cult classic would serve better. Maybe rather than introducing something new or game-changing that could be a disaster, sticking close to your guns is the path to choose in order to gain more longstanding success. It’s nice and all to go with a big bang and throw money at a game you’re developing in order to make it the best and brightest, but often that’s ends up the game going fast past and end up as a whimper.

Nevertheless, innovation drives gaming. It’s not the controllers per se, not even how games are even played, necessarily. Perhaps how to “expand” the genre to its fullest, and take the name Branch to its heart. Storylines haven’t served the genre to any notable degree, but perhaps simply offering far more game to play per buck might be a way.

Destructive deconstruction

The new Battletoads game is more or less out, with all the cutscenes already out on Youtube. When the characters are effectively told that everything they’ve been doing for the last twenty-six odd years in a fantasy bunker (think of Holodeck from Star Trek, same thing), followed by an assurance that they’ll find a new audience, you get the thing the game is going for. This soft-reboot, which turns out to be a sequel, effectively tries to undermine and destroy the older games setting. After all, it was all a fantasy. It’s not just spiteful towards the ‘toads themselves, belittling them and making them outright idiots, but also turning the Dark Queen into some kind of annoying, childish bitch. The two of course team up to destroy two god-like alien beings, which for whatever reason are also gay stereotypes. I’m not going to pretend to be in the writer’s persona this time around and will call the game’s depiction of the characters, the setting, and pretty much everything about it, fucking retarded.

I’m sick of destructive deconstructions. Battletoads is a prime example of people wanting to play with an IP but having zero respect for it. Every aspect the original games had, from the cartoony giant mallets and drills in punches and kicks to eating flies, has put under the lens, made fun out of and turned to eleven for a comedic effect that doesn’t deliver. It’s like watching a train wreck being piled on five other train wrecks while people are still screaming in agony and pain amidst burning fuel and crashing steel. Except what the people are screaming is constant bad jokes and self-aware puns about themselves and the situation. That actually sounds better scene than anything in the game. Though the game isn’t just vile against its own cast, but also at the fans, the core audience this game could’ve had. There’s a scene where a non-player character laughs at the redesign of Dark Queen’s clothes ends up him being blown out into space with Dark Queen announcing he doesn’t get to decide what she wears just because they hung out twenty years ago. While it’s nothing new for developers, songwriters and directors to execute or belittle their critics in their works, it’s not too often you see them telling the IP’s fans to fuck off. After all, they are aiming to get that new audience.

Alan Moore’s (in)famous for deconstructing and reconstructing comics goes long way. Sometimes he fucks them up, sometimes he manages to take some of the parts and build something better. When he worked on Captain Britain in the early 1980s, he started a storyline called Crooked World, where a character called Jasper goes insane with his reality-warping abilities, ending in Captain Britain killed by a creature called The Fury. Merlin rebuilds Brian Braddock back from scratch to mettle with now-multiverse level threat and to restore a resemblance of balance. Rather than belittling Captain Britain’s past in fighting low-level crooks and criminals, Moore ultimately based all the previous adventures as building up to Jasper and his insanity. Rather than just fighting these street-level villains just for heroics, Merlin had build-up Brian Braddock’s mental capabilities in dealing with threats and enemies from down to up, until the moment when he had to face a supervillain capable of reworking reality in whatever form he wished. It must be mentioned that Moore didn’t work alone on this.

Alan Davis’ contributions as an illustrator and fellow writer made the pages breathe far more down the line and had a significant positive net effect on the whole storyline. Early on the story is rather text-heavy, but with Davis getting more room to tell the story through the images towards the end makes their writing stand out even more. This deconstruction of the character is an exceptional success, as it literally strips down everything the character was and had been up to that point and is rebuild from nothing in both physical and mental sense. However, the main difference in the two deconstructions, between the new Battletoads and Captain Britain: Crooked World is that Brian Braddock as a character didn’t change, nor did his intent. The ‘toads, and everything about them, has been revamped and changed, destroying their late 80s/early 90s too-cool attitude and replacing it with modern quippy, jokey, annoying parodies of themselves. If they had ended up as late 2010s/early 2020s cool actions heroes, or perhaps even as nostalgic throwbacks to 1980s teen action heroes through a modern lens, the deconstruction might’ve been successful. However, as they stand now, they’re spiteful tackles with no worth to them. It’s a new franchise shitting on the name they took with no recognisable characters to it.

Deconstructions have always been around. Yet with modern popular culture during the last century or so they’ve become more and more common as the millennia changed. Rather than building up something new and awe-inspiring, we’ve been getting works that take what’s known, breaking them apart and using those elements to produce pale copies with little to no relation. Often for political messages and agendas, which worked so damn well for the latest Terminator and Charlie’s Angels movies. Breaking things down is easy, deconstructing something is even easier. Creating something new and original that’s also worthwhile, that’s the hard part. Turns out, the new Battletoads can’t really do deconstruction properly and opts to channel the worst of Rick and Morty into its building blocks. You know what was the spot I honestly quit? Early on Rash is wearing diapers full of piss and shit while being a conspiracy nut, trying to parody procedural detective and police shows. I want to say this is taking a shit on the character, but this isn’t even the same character. It just has a similar face.

Could we burn the game while we’re at it?

You can only ignore these character to certain points. Everything from characterisations to the world and the setting is, putting it simply in one word, wrong. A game can be divorced from its story just fine, but it can’t be divorced from its visual and flavours. It’s a game that actively hates people who are fans of the original Battletoads and the developer intentions are loud and clear. When there’s a tiny particle of the original characters and games towards the end, they’re called relics of a time passed. Now you die. Microsoft probably enjoys all the publicity they’re getting.

Speaking of Alan Moore and deconstructions, that one The Simpsons skit with him describes the whole situation perfectly.