Bloodborne, Released on PS4 in 2015, developed by From Software
Stalking oppressive streets as you are set upon by a colourful, seemingly endless hoard of violent evildoers, all while timing your attacks and dodges carefully. At the same time, it is vital to conserve precious health, supported via an array of powerups as you smash through an army of your foes.
There is something familiar, even retro, in the appeal of Bloodborne, a Gothic horror brawler that is part of the insanely popular series of ‘Souls’ games. These are titles built on an appeal of increasingly intense challenge and learning over and over from your mistakes.
The game’s almost oppressive mock Victorian setting, where you battle increasingly demonic hordes of werewolves, malign spirits, demon pigs and feral cockneys in relatively photo-realistic 3D environs, is the pinnacle of what modern hardware can create.
Yet without intending to do so, Bloodborne’s development – alongside that of the wider Dark Souls series – has given a very modern update to the arcade-style brawler game that has largely disappeared from mainstream gaming, apart from the occasional retro remake.
These brawlers were 2D gems of varying quality and challenge that were truly from another era. Games where the player stalked oppressive streets set upon by a colourful, seemingly endless hoard of violent evildoers, timing your attacks and dodges carefully and conserving precious health, supported through an array of powerups as you smash through your foes.
Something old, something new….
And therein lies the thesis of this piece. An assumption that some older styles of game genres, in keeping with technological progress, do not die off, but perhaps are developed or evolved into something else.
Much like Bloodborne’s undead antagonists, the brawling genre was never really dead, but has, in the intervening decades, been shifting and turning into something new and different.
Certainly there have been attempts to try and shift the 2D-style scrolling beat em up classics of yesteryear, such as Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage, into a 3D setting with most of their style or design intact.
Yet in these new forms, these gaming brands arguably never really reached the same heights of their source material – the world had moved on.
The Warriors, a lovingly crafted videogame based on the cult, funky gang warfare movie from the 1970s – that really was a thing – was developed by Rockstar Games in 2005. It was a relatively successful and critically acclaimed attempt to modernise the genre. However, it did not pave the way for a new generation of brawlers.
Meanwhile, a very stylistic and long awaited follow up to 1994’s Streets of Rage 3 is now in the process of being developed as a new 2D brawler with state of the art cell shaded characters to see if there is some life in the genre.
Streets of Rage 4, as the title is called, will licence Sega’s original characters with a new developer and follows in the wake of Double Dragon 4, which was released in 2017 with the aim of directly taking the graphical and gameplay style of the 8-bit NES sequel Double Dragon 2.
However, in the case of Double Dragon 4, the critical consensus that shifting such retro-gameplay to modern hardware without accounting for changing tastes was a futile and underwhelming endeavour even for those with fond memories of the source material.
But is Bloodborne a rare example of a new genre of game that takes the base concepts of older titles and forges them into something seemingly new?
What does Mr Biffo say
Paul Rose also known ‘as Mr Biffo’, is a storied videogame journalist of the Teletext television era, where he served as the influential, somewhat sardonic editor of its gaming magazine service Digitiser. He is therefore about as on-point a long-term expert as you will get for our childish pastime. He argues that game genres are now much more integrated than they were during previous console generations.
Mr Rose explains, “What I mean by that is that something like Grand Theft Auto V contains elements of everything from racing games to shoot ’em ups to – yes – scrolling beat ’em ups. Even in the latest Assassin’s Creed, the combat very much reminds me of classic scrolling fighting games. It has that same sort of rhythm to it. You just also get exploring, and stealth, and messing around on a horse thrown in.”
“That said, certainly a game like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry is a more linear descendant of something like Final Fight. So, I think it’s a bit of both, but overall… the trend towards open world games suggests much more of a consolidation on genres.”
Clearly then, certain genres are better able to emulate and take forward older type of games, be they puzzlers or scrolling beat em ups.
But even brands that were once titans of the videogame industry have had to evolve, not least the Final Fantasy series. By 2016, the 15th game in the main Final Fantasy series finally shifted away from turn-based combat after decades of gradual innovation towards more exploratory, live action combat. The game sought to create a kind of road trip simulator with digital friends, mashing elements of the Monster Hunter series, as well as Western action games, with an esoteric Japanese RPG long associated with stats and strategy.
Unlike humans, genres arguably never die. But much like us, they do get older, adapting in some ways and stubbornly sticking to other things they perhaps refuse to let go out of a sense of tradition or love.
Yet somewhere in between these contradictions, unique, clumsy, scary and sometimes wonderful new things can arise.
And so, here lies Bloodborne and the end of a very clumsy metaphor.