The year in SquareBlind: Jan – June 2020

By Neil Merrett

A year like no other began somewhat earnestly, with a rumination on the television adaptation of the hugely popular and critically acclaimed game, ‘The Witcher’. The series launched on Netflix at the tail end of 2019. 

The game, which is itself based on the writing of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, is a fantasy/western hybrid about the tenuousness of terms such as ‘hero’ or ‘monster’ in a grim world where morality is often a privilege for the wealthy and powerful to define and indulge in. 

Basically, a good bit of Christmas telly. 

Much like the videogame, the series deals with how complex worlds rarely leave us simple options. This, of course, makes being a hero a bit of a drag.

But unlike the games, Geralt of Rivera – played with chiselled charm by Henry Cavill – is something of a finished product. A gruff, stony voiced and jaded warrior that has a clearly defined, if imperfect moral code. Sometimes, when he is lucky, this moral code can almost make him appear a heroic avenger of the downtrodden, rather than a hardman for hire.

By comparison, the videogame adaptation of The Witcher forces the player to learn the dangers of throwing yourself into a heroic quest without first getting the all-important context of who you are helping.

Why not take a simple quest to uncover a petty thief in a small town? Of course, this might lead to the execution of a well-meaning, but desperate man for taking some bread. With the quest complete, you get the promised reward, but you may not like the unintended consequences of such actions.

The moral ambiguity of a television series doesn’t leave an audience facing the consequences of their actions in the same way that an interactive experience such as the The Witcher 3 does. To some, this might seem a little redundant.

At best then, are screen adaptations of games, even if lovingly realised, ultimately just a form of advert for the original source material?

A one-man Super Mario Party

The following month, we considered another kind of video game adaptation – this time in translating the appeal of a static board game into an interactive 3D experience.

Specifically, SquareBlind towers looked at the experience of playing alone through the Super Mario Party games. Traditionally, the series is sold as a multiplayer extravaganza whereby you take turns to move Mario or other related characters around interactive boards with the aim to collect the most power stars.

In true Mario fashion, there are a number of different game mechanics such as special items that a player can use as weapons or booby traps to try and trip up rival players and get some form of advantage.  The main appeal of the game, beyond the traditional colourful approach to character and board design long associated with Nintendo, are a range of mini games that can be played against computer and human foe alike.

But as board games and tabletop games have evolved and developed in the real world to match and compliment videogames, Super Mario party is a throwback to a seemingly simpler era of gameplay and entertainment

This is one dictated by dice rolls, luck and friendly human rivalry that can sometimes and suddenly tip into a more spiteful contest of personal grudges.

In Super Mario Party, the luck of the dice ultimately decides success or glory – even if you are a player skilled at mini-games.

Yet as a single player taking on the computer, you can never quite shift the nagging sense that this digital dice is ultimately a construct of a computer. A computer that – in the case of competitive solo-player Super Mario Party – is the enemy. Your foe to be vanquished.

A dice should always be fair, lulling a player into thinking there is some element of skill in consigning their fate to the random whims of gravity and motion. In reality it is a one in six chance of success.

In the case of a digital dice, there is no reason for a computer not to create the same sense of fairness.

Like any good board game, success or failure in Super Mario Party rests on the thin line between luck and skill. This is a heady, if intense means on which to determine success. In fact, success in mini-games can at times allow a player to buy handy items such as a one use dice that can be used to roll a specific number as required by the player. You don’t find that in a game of Monopoly or Cluedo.

What the game does do however is highlight the perilousness of consigning too much meaning, or indeed personal wealth to the concept of a dice.

The mercy of strangers/the importance of friends

By March, the increasingly global disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic had found its way to the UK, which joined a host of other European nations at that time in introducing national lockdowns to try and limit further spread. This has been the new normal that has largely defined 2020 for millions, if not billions.

Amidst the unprecedented economic and societal upheaval resulting from the pandemic, millions have been required to isolate and, if possible, work from homes.  For those of us lucky to not be on the front lines of upholding and protecting the vital infrastructure on which society is built, social interaction was limited to sharing experiences online.

Games such as Risk of Rain 2, released initially in early access in 2019, became a useful tool for whiling away a few hours with friends from the safety and solitude of their living rooms.

In the strange times of March 2020, there is something to be said for a game that reinforces the importance of trying to share resources and ration power ups with those closest to you. This can involve marking out in-game items and treasures of interest to others in your team or power-ups that you might buy to support your allies preferred character-type or play-style. This style may suit some basic ability, or a friend’s basic love of being able to set opponents on fire.

Other players, of course, may just see value in stocking up as many power ups as they can find during the game’s increasingly intense battles and therefore leaving their fellow players to fend for themselves as best they can. Perhaps a skilful enough player can drag through the less fortunate to each new world anyway – there are always casualties with progress.

An online playthrough of Risk of Rain 2 is really about throwing yourself onto the mercy of friends or strangers, committing yourself to a shared world and sense of time that intensifies the game’s challenges with each passing second.

The imperfect nature of humans trying to share resources and time does of course throw in the added risk of a player suddenly having to return to the real-world mid-game. This can leave your three or four-person squad with a sudden lifeless husk to manage, or not as the case may be.

Money, money, money

A different approach to communal gaming came the following month as SquareBlind looked at the century-long appeal of the classic property trading title Monopoly. It considered a recent port of the board game to the Nintendo Switch console, which includes the added function of shaking your motion controller as if a dice.

As a videogame simulation, the enhanced interactivity of recent videogame adaptations of Monopoly adds a timely sense of brutal competitiveness to the archetypal property simulator.

Whether through the introduction of real-time electronic auctions or a digital finance system overseen by an unrelenting and faceless digital banker, Monopoly the videogame can eerily mirror modern anxieties about the unrelenting pace of modern capitalism, as well as the primal thrill of being flush with cash.

Like many great games, whether computer or board-based, Monopoly takes some simple, well-devised concepts and approximates them into something that condenses our personal relationship with money and captures a basic truth about spending for almost every player.

The game’s ongoing success is not so much in recreating the way money works, but letting us play out the greatest and most base ambitions of being rich, poor or destitute.

Monopoly tries to show people how they might ultimately seek to use, lose or abuse finance for a variety of reasons – without theoretically destroying lives in the process.

Power, revenge, or even compassion are viable motivations in the game, especially when sticking it or giving salvation to a loved one.

Not bad for something using die-cost models of pets and home appliances, a few pieces of card and some dice.

Just dance 2020: a snack for the ego

Towards the end of a second full month of lockdown in May, the floors of SB towers were literally shaking with the thrills, spills and minor hernias caused by trying to swing and gyrate motion controllers to the choregraphed actions of the Just Dance series.

First released back in the era of the original Nintendo Wii console, the Just Dance series is ostensibly a rhythm game that asks you to perform a fully choreographed dance number to some long-lost euro pop tune or a modern hip hop banger.

This dance must either be performed vaguely in time to the music, synced to some obscure visual cues from the game itself, or the movements of a silhouetted onscreen dancer.

The player’s performance, tracked seemingly via the movement of motion controllers such as the Wiimote, a Joy-Con or even a mobile phone, uses a pleasingly opaque points system that provides scores in the thousands to each player depending on how well they do. This score is then handily broken down into a star rating.

Theoretically, the game is no different to the motion-controlled bowling game that was famously packaged with the original Wii console more than a decade ago.

However, instead of swinging the controller back and forward to approximate the basic play style of ten pin bowling, Just Dance asks you to waggle your controller to some complex and not so complex dance moves. These can combine everything from Jazz hands, disco and break dancing, to popping and locking and the conga, amongst a host of other styles and improvised movement.

Super Mario World – A study of a complex 16-bit digital ecosystem

SquareBlind was back to studying more ‘traditional’ videogame formats by June, with a long overdue look at world building in the 29 year-old critically acclaimed title, Super Mario World.

Out of some of the more grandiose titles to be attributed to Nintendo’s flagship Super Mario series, 1991’s Super Mario World is arguably the game that most lives up to its title in terms of scope and indeed population.

The game has some 44 idiosyncratic enemy creatures that live throughout the game’s regions and secret worlds. This excludes the playable and non-playable hero characters, including the Yoshi species that debuts in the game as a dinosaur the player can ride, weaponise or literally use to consume levels and certain antagonists.

In terms of character design and concept, a standalone game could almost be made on any one of these creatures, such as the socially anxious ghost creature, Boo. But the enemy design is emblematic of a wider eco-system of friends, foes and passive aggressive lava beasts that gives ‘Mario World’ and its successors so much personality.

That Mario World is built on almost 100 levels spread across a giant interconnected map with secret routes and inter-dimensional star zones allows for different regions to be rendered in the game. Each has a unique look and climatic conditions that house their own enemy creatures.  A dense forest area entered mid-way through the game for example, will see the introduction of creepy crawly enemies to battle such as the Caterpillar-esque Wiggler. 

A fairly sedate and slow-moving creature to avoid or navigate around. Yet should the player find themselves bouncing on or antagonising a Wiggler with some fireballs, the creature instantly becomes a heavily armoured and fast-moving menace.

A canyon setting shortly after this area introduces being such as the cumbersome Dino Rhino that attempts to ram or pounce on the player. 

Should the player bounce on the creature instead, it will then be transformed into a mini-dino that when threatened can spew jets of fire up into the air.

One of the game’s core revolutions is a relatively open-ended approach to how a player travels across or scales many of the game’s levels.  Almost three decades on, and the SNES launch title can still show modern hardware how best to make a game-world and its inhabitants feel alive.

This is the first of a two-part review of SquareBlind’s 2020 coverage.  The final roundup will look at how developers have sought to create an anti-football football game in the age of FIFA and Pro-Evo, as well as making the original Super Mario Bros into an online Battle Royale. We will see you then.

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