A Thousand Words: Undertale

Undertale

It’s the 5th anniversary of Undertale , the cult classic indie RPG/homage to Earthbound. It’s hard to really explain, because in some ways it’s a victim of its own success. There was a yo-yo of crazed fandom and understandable backlash. People know the plot twists now.

When I first played, I didn’t, and I could appreciate what it delivered, and what’s been lost. So yeah, I know it’s a five year old game now and has been successful, but I’m going to be spoilering it all.

You control a deliberately androgynous-looking child (I thought the sprite looked more feminine) as they fall, Alice-in-Wonderland style, into a sealed-off world of goofy monsters. The battle system is an action-RPG hybrid where you can move around on a screen to avoid attacks.

What works is how it works with the expectation of it being a normal RPG. Basically, I thought “You don’t have to destroy anything” was just a sardonic comment like Postal 2’s “only as violent as you are”. Flowey, the psychotic flower-beast, is basically a “lolmeta-lolgoofyIkillforfun”… at first. When I first battled Toriel, the overprotective monster-mother, I was convinced that reducing her to zero HP would just trigger some kind of cutscene, and that she’d be fine. (She wasn’t).

To date, one of my absolute best video game moments comes from fighting the dogs. Now, they’re portrayed as little more than normal enemies and not the most special, so I deal with them. Then I go into the town and they ask where the dogs were and how good they were and wonder what happened to them and I go…

“Oh.” (gulp)

That’s why I haven’t personally played the game since my one violent neutral route. In many way it’s still a short, cheap, simple indie game, and the magic just wouldn’t be there if I knew what was happening.

Even with the blind run, the game had some down parts. The Hotland area is execrably bad, being a combination of the same lame social media joke, an extremely annoying character, and puzzles just hard enough to annoying but not complex enough to be fun. I felt like I had to stagger through-then came the finale.

Even with full hindsight, I can say this-the finale, whatever route, is the highlight of the game. Part of this, I believe, is that it plays everything straight and goes for legitimate gravitas. The best fiction, even the kind that’s often silly, knows when to be earnest, and the conclusions of Undertale count as that.

It’s still good-the music and art are both excellent, and the mechanics, while simple, aren’t bad by any means. Undertale definitely deserves its success. It’s just that I think it was at its absolute best when you didn’t know what to expect-and I was fortunate enough to play it that way.

A Thousand Words: Revolution X

Revolution X

What happens when you take a pair of has-beens fading rapidly from relevance and merge them together? You get Revolution X, an arcade light-gun shooter starring a past-its-prime Aerosmith. The plot is simple-save Aerosmith from a bunch of people in yellow gas masks who’ve outlawed fun. You do so with a gun that fires CDs as well as bullets. Yes, it’s that kind of game.

The gameplay is mostly simple-fire at the hordes of enemy goons on your screen, put more quarters in when they inevitably kill you, repeat as necessary. Two of the later levels make this worse by trying to be more complicated. One, a maze, is simply annoying. The other, a time-sensitive mission where you have to completely destroy a bus before it reaches its destination, is considerably more aggravating.

By the time of its release, Aerosmith had long since fallen from the heights of their popularity, and with more powerful and smaller consoles just coming out, arcades would soon follow. This game is one of those weird novelties that can only happen at a specific time.

The Confrontation

See, I’ve always envisioned an out-of-the-norm final confrontation in a hypothetical video game as being in this large vacation home in a beautiful mountain town (kind of inspired by the Adirondacks). The town would otherwise be peaceful. A sort of melancholy but beautiful music would play in the town.

There’d be no enemies except for the principal antagonist, and I’d imagine the confrontation mostly taking place through dialogue. Maybe that’s be appropriate to the genre and maybe it wouldn’t, but it’s sort of how I’d want my dream video game to conclude.

A Thousand Words: Violence Fight

Violence Fight

The video game Violence Fight is a very, very strange game. It’s also very, very bad. One of the pre-Street Fighter II arcade fighting games, this Taito “masterpiece” only stands out for two reasons.

The first is its “story”, where, in the 1950s an underground fighting tournament is popular among (exact words) “mafia, reckless drivers and general businessmen.” This is a 1950s that includes a World Trade Center, a wannabe Mr. T, and multiple tigers for the player to fight. It’s weird, but this is an old video game, so it’s a little less weird in context. The second is the bizarre effects that occur with a hard blow, like “GOGON” and “BOGOON!”.

Otherwise, it’s not very good. The controls are multi-axis but bad, like Pit Fighter, another dud from the same time period. The graphics aren’t bad for the time, but that’s pretty much it. It’s a weird period piece and that’s all.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

Weird Wargaming: Beat Em Ups

Ah, the “beat ’em up”, a type of video game that achieved its first popularity with Double Dragon, and may be known best from Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Should one wish to simulate it using tabletop rules, the following should be adhered to:

  • Given the genre, the system must have robust melee rules. This is an obvious requirement that needs no further explanation.
  • The enemies will resemble, by and large, stereotypical 1980s “punks”. Bosses will be bigger and stronger versions of them and/or exotic in some way.
  • If they have weapons, it will be stuff like pipes, bricks, and knives. Because…
  • The amount of guns used, especially any bigger than a pistol, can be counted on one hand. Double Dragon set the precedent that only the final boss is allowed to have a gun. While the degree to which this adhered to varies, it’s still generally enforced.
  • The final stage will be this opulent area that contrasts massively with the tone and theme of the rest of the game. Double Dragon had an ancient temple complete with mechanical traps. Final Fight and the first two Streets of Rage games have giant mansions. The latest Streets of Rage has an island supervillains lair complete with a castle.

 

A Thousand Words: Yume Nikki

Yume Nikki

The early indie game Yume Nikki is, even by the standards of what this blog has become, a strange choice. It’s a cult classic art/puzzle game. There really isn’t that any plot or explanation beyond the surreal illustrations as a pigtailed shut-in named Madotsuki wanders around various dreamworlds. For an indie game, it has a distinct, memorable artstyle, and its early origin, much like Cave Story’s, helped it along significantly.

Of course, the other side of this is that it combines the type of low-intensity gameplay later referred to derisively as “walking simulation” with (barring looking it up online) often impenetrable puzzles. It’s definitely a cult classic, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t become anything more.

There could hardly be anything less like the usual fare of Fuldapocalypse. Which is kind of why I selected this. A huge part of the appeal is in wondering what everything is and what it means-all the many, many, many guesstimates of who Madotsuki is, what happened to her, what all the monstrous dreams mean, and even the seemingly obvious ending, add to the appeal of mystery and uncertainty.

It would be ruined if there finally was a definitive, official explanation for everything.

And yet, in the technothriller and especially “alternate history as a genre” style of story, massive detail is a centerpiece. This could just be apples and oranges, but a thought that often comes across when I read such tales is “Is this detail really necessary? Would it often be better, or at least not any worse if it wasn’t spelled out so much?”

It’s good food for thought.