By Neil Merrett
Much as the year ended, 2019 opened with Squareblind considering Pokemon. More specifically we looked at the existential and spiritual implications of a world full of cuddly creatures and sentient ice creams that have the power to weaponise the sun or reshape our reality.
The traditional Pokemon series tells a tell of a world where humanity lives in balance with these creatures. This is the case whether humans are domesticating them and the using their pets to improve their own societal status – or for simple economic benefit.
But in Smash Brothers Ultimate on Nintendo Switch, these creatures are unshackled from their usual game world and revealed to be a supernatural force of nature.
“The latest Smash Brothers title – a place where videogame characters from a range of different series are mashed together in chaotic battles with the aim of violently expelling each other into an off-screen void – reimagines Pokemon as a terrifying, primordial force.
Once a Pokemon is unleashed from their spherical prisons by a player, they are then free to inflict seemingly unstoppable chaos on rivals and the world around them.
In any given battle, Pokemon can stalk the skies and drag an unsuspecting player that jumps or is launched into the air away with the wind into oblivion, they can just coat the ground in flames or grow to encompass the entire level.
Smash Brothers is their world and we are just passengers here…”
Life and death in Battlefield 5
By February, perhaps sensing an unpredictable and unwieldy year ahead, Journalist JJ Robinson considered the strange notion of life and rebirth when battling boys and girls around the world in a beautifully realised, horrific World War 2-based encounter as is offered via Battlefield 5.
Dropped into one of the game’s titular battlefields, life can either be a heroic blazing quest to aide your fellow countryman, or a bleak, brief insight into the human condition that lasts a few fleeting seconds before you are shot down by a prodigious 14 year-old sniper.
He said, “One day in the far future, beyond singularity when the robots have finally (and justifiably) taken over from the Terran Trump Dominion, we’ll discover to our horror that video game characters have souls. And on that day, developers DICE will clearly be going to hell.
They’ve done a good job modelling it already. In fact, it’s quite good fun.
Press left to moan for help. Press right to hasten the passage to oblivion. A distillation of life, if ever there was one.”
Staying in the realm of online multiplayer experiences, we also looked at the release of Tetris 99. This new take on the classic puzzle game was brought to the Nintendo Switch with the added appeal of playing competitively with 98 others players around the world simultaneously.
However, in throwing the player together with an interconnected community of players, the basic nature of the game quickly becomes much more complicated, much as in real-life.
“The player must choose one of four options to dispose the junk blocks from their game. So, at the touch of a directional button, they must either target an individual player that is struggling in their game and near to being overwhelmed – further ramping up the pressure – or alternatively go for the player that most successful at that point in the game in terms of earning reward badges.
Certainly, a more satisfying option may be to opt for someone in the process of attacking you. Revenge against an attacker seems morally acceptable on the rocky path to victory, yet these more aggressive approaches all put you in the sights of the other 98 players as a threat.
Alternatively, why not opt to drop blocks onto a randomly assigned player chosen by the computer. This allows the player to go a little more undetected. What can be fairer than earnest random chaos?”
No person is an island, Tetris 99 is a solid reminder that everything little thing we do has consequences on those around us.
The climb into Dark Souls
Although not a new game, Squareblind also looked at the remake of the highly influential Dark Souls series and the lessons that the great philosophers, whether Albert Camus or Miley Cyrus, would make of a foreboding digital experience based on the timeless cycle of precision reactions, death and rebirth.
“You have to find some enjoyment in pushing further through the brutal game world. The player must be confident that each very gradual improvement in skills and dexterity may be enough to overcome the next insurmountable challenge lurking in some dark corner of the game.
In falling short of perhaps ever completing a game that other skilled individuals can seemingly overcome in an hour, enjoyment for some players is to simply enjoy the struggle itself.
Camus, and the great philosophers that have followed in his stride in the intervening decades since his death, would surely have approved….”
The arcade conundrum
For many supposedly grown adults reared on decades of gaming, the appeal of recreating true arcade cabinet games within the comfort of our own homes or bedsits remains a lucrative proposition for developers such as Capcom.
But the ongoing push to try and create arcade experiences that can be set up in bedrooms or garages raises questions about what exactly the appeal of old fashioned arcades. Was it the click of the joystick, the cacophony of sound or the type of games that once dominated in the era of coin-operated titles?
“Of course, the problem here is that you are not in an arcade, with its smells and coin slots, and faint echoes of some bygone caravan park or seaside holiday hotspot.
Arcades, for many people in their 20s and beyond, is now a retro affair – an act of defiant nostalgic enjoyment. It is the gaming equivalent of seeking out a Blockbuster Video store that once dominated high streets around the western world. There is an appeal there, but it is not necessarily for the movies or games themselves, but the associated world around them.”
We also got our mits on Katana Zero, which on its surface appears to be a slightly hyperkinetic retro platform adventure in the mould of the NinjaGaiden series of games.
Yet underneath the appeal of being able to deflect bullets with a sword, there is something much more interesting in terms of narrative and character development lurking in the game.
“The game is a mix of action movie staples that borrow the look, feel and even sound of movies such as John Wick, the Matrix and Drive. At the same time, the game also tackles more existential themes such as the fragile nature of honour, moving beyond past traumas, as well as the interconnected nature of dreams, memory and identity.
This side of the game touches upon literary sources such as Don Quixote and more cerebral storytelling mechanics from the critically acclaimed 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
If nothing else, it stood out as one of the more interesting games to be released this year, not least in using lightly interactive psychologist sessions as a means to advance the overall plot and detail your missions.
Who couldn’t deal with a little counselling now and again, even if it is from a console!