THE YEAR IN SQUAREBLIND 2021: July – December

By Neil Merrett

The second part of our annual review of 2021 considers why Super Mario Party’s Slaparazzi might be the definitive minigame, the implications of Amazon’s New World and the concept of teamwork in Back 4 Blood and Marvel’s GOTG game.


July

This is the final part of Squareblind’s review of its gaming exploits in 2021. Back in July we considered what exactly makes a great minigame.  The answer, according to our editor at least, is Super Mario Party’s Slaparazzi.

The minigame, which can be played out in around a minute, is simple in concept, consistently chaotic and entertaining to play. It is akin to having a great indie game with a slight satirical edge distilled into a family friendly contest of ego and self-importance, according to Neil Merrett.

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In short, the player must do whatever it takes to navigate a circular redcarpet area and ensure that when a cheerful camera-wielding Koopa paparazzi appears from outside of the screen – they are at the forefront of their lens. In short, just get to the front of the camera… whatever it takes.

The whole game is played out using only the Joy Con’s control stick and a single shove button that can allow you to fend off or punch your opponents out of the way to get the maximum points as the character at the centre of each photo.

Whoever gets the prime spot in a photo the greatest number of times – regardless of how they did it – is the winner.

Squareblind noted how it matters not how the player themselves is poised within the final shot, or even if they are perhaps caught in the middle of landing an absurdly violent attack on the other player to ensure that they are the literal centre of attention.  The player just has to be at the centre of the camera’s gaze. 

Sometimes, the most outright and blatantly antagonistic player will win, whereas other times the player standing back from the violent chaos may be best placed to sneak up and get the majority of the lens’ gaze.  As a way of both sating family or friendly grudges and mildly commenting on the vapid nature of our attention economy, Slaparazzi might just be the perfect minigame.

August

A season of articles looking at a range of different titles published by multinational developer Square Enix kicked off in August with a particular focus on the concept of remaking older games that were either iconic or barely known in the West.

The most prominent of these has been the 2020 remake of Final Fantasy 7 that sought to update one of the late 1990s biggest selling games with a complete overhaul of its graphics and gameplay mechanics.

While the move to modern hardware allowed for the creation of more photo realistic reimaginings of FFVII characters such as Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart – it also revises the focus of the story arguably to centre much more on the industrial city of Midgar and what makes its people tick.

Midgar is reimagined as a conflicted character in itself, a city fleshed out as a vibrant mash up of magical fantasy worlds and a dying future dystopia that is seemingly unable to meet the basic needs of its masses either via magic or technology.  Swords, sorcery, satire and a touch of social commentary with a smidgeon of RPG action.

Squareblind.co.uk found the narrative changes reminiscent of literary works such as Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea.

Rhys’ book can be read as a story about how Mr Rochester, the classic Byronic hero and brooding love interest of Jane Eyre, ended up with a ‘mad woman’ in his attic. On the surface, it is a story about how he, and the mad woman, both came to be the people they are in the source material.

More than a prequel though, the story was partly a means to revaluate the settings and social norms of the era Jane Eyre was set in a more modern context. In this case, the book was written through the prism of developments – or the lack of – around women’s rights, feminism and racial equality in the more than a century that had passed since Jane Eyre’s publication.

Neil Merrett found the most innovative features of reimagining Final Fantasy 7 was in the way it retold a well-known and iconic videogame story through the scope of more modern concerns about the fears and compromises required when providing for those we love. It also touched on the universal need to find home and stability in an increasingly fraught world that seems to be leaving so many behind.

Although there are impressively expansive vistas, the programming and system requirements mean that the new Midgard is more a set of themed areas, rather than an open world approach to game design seen in 2016’s Final Fantasy 15.

But the use of modern cinematic motion capture performance and effective voice acting really fleshes out the characters in a way that goes beyond a graphical overhaul.

September

Square Enix Season continued into September with a look at how the company has sought to update another of its storied and venerable franchises – in this case, Tomb Raider.  The article looked specifically at the most recent adventures of Lara Croft, the digital Tomb Raider at the cutting edge of 3D gaming from the mid to late 1990s.

Specifically, Squareblind.co.uk considered how the Tomb Raider series has evolved to compete with more modern, cinematic action games such as Uncharted and The Last of Us.  As a videogame character, Lara Croft arguably now more closely resembles the all-conquering macho heroes of 80s American cinema.

Traditionally, this pantheon of ultra-violent, apparently ‘righteous’ heroes that adorned cinemas and video stores in the 80s and 90s were almost always men. However, the new Lara Croft can certainly match the excesses of peak Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in terms of her capacity for violent retribution and body counts.

That’s not to say that modern Lara Croft doesn’t raid tombs in her latest trilogy of games that began with a 2013 reboot, simply called Tomb Raider, and has so far continued up to 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

All three of these games have a range of tombs to uncover and ransack – often as optional cul-de-sacs for the player to test the skills they have developed in the game in order to solve a range of escalating traps and puzzles.

But the idea that Lara is an archaeologist, scholar and expert on lost worlds and dangerous artefacts feels somewhat secondary to her just simply kicking ass.

While the real-life action movie icons such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger seek to adjust their personas in line with the inevitability of their aging bodies, as a digital creation, Lara Croft might be the nearest we get to an evergreen action star.

October

In October, JJ Robinson took a look at Amazon Game Studios’ ambitious title, New World. He found that for a game made by an all-conquering corporate behemoth, it was surprisingly enthusiastic about the merits of taxation for common social good.

The New World of the game’s title is the Riverworld setting of 60’s sci-fi author Philip José Farmer.

This is a scenario where millions of people from across human civilisation suddenly awaken along the shores of a vast river valley.

Robinson notes that they appear exactly as they were at age 25, speaking only Esperanto, and naked apart from a small modesty towel. Grievous injuries regrow, while the dead are once again resurrected randomly along the river. Why is this happening? 

He argued that this is the perfect premise for a Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).

Mr Robinson wrote, “After parting with £35 for the privilege to gain access to New World, players wash up on the in-game shores of Aeternum, a mysterious and inescapable island where they quickly learn they are unable to permanently die. Gamified resurrection thusly is baked into the narrative. Players quickly divide into one of three factions: the religious zealots of the Covenant (yellow), the conniving scientists of the Syndicate (purple), or the piratey thugs of the Marauders (green).” 

Whichever you choose, you play a somewhat conquistadora-style settler exploring the island’s mysteries while strip-mining it of natural resources, its immortal wildlife a genuinely renewable supply of natural leather. What drives this need to craft ever-more potent muskets and tricorne hats? The urge to slap down the other factions and seize the means of production.

This makes for a pleasantly emergent and player-driven political sandbox. New World is like a Greatest Hits album of the past 15 years of online worldscaping, inventing little of its own but liberally borrowing features like Warhammer Online’s town and territory control.

November

The following month, Squareblind took a look at how games such as Boyfriend Dungeon and the long running Fire Emblem series on Nintendo platforms have both attempted to make romance an actual gameplay mechanic.

Concepts of digital romance and even sexuality are interesting themes for games to explore when considering that the medium’s digital nature is built around creating a meaningful or satisfying sense of cause and effect from their actions.

While the mechanics of early videogames were built around more simplistic tasks such as blasting spaceships or bouncing a ball past an opponent, gaming as a medium has evolved to look at more complex consequences such as romantic attachments and failed relationships. 

2021’s Boyfriend Dungeon shows that games can play a role in exploring the complexity, awkwardness and nuances of romance, lust and sexting – in this case as a background for a dungeon crawling adventure in a semi-fantasy seaside setting.

But it is certainly not the first game to try and convey the concept of love and coupling as a means to build immersion and dramatic tension into tried and tested game genres.

For example, Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series, developed by Intelligent Systems, allows players to pair different characters together during turn-based fantasy battles with the eventual aim of forming stronger relationship bonuses during gameplay. This is done as a means to encourage the player to think about how they might overcome one type of character’s shortcomings in terms of physical vulnerabilities or limited movement.  For example, a more cumbersome and less mobile axe battling warrior can be partnered in the game with a flying horse-riding Valkyrie to allow the player to cover more space and make progress during a turn on the battlefield.

However, a failure to swap in the right character in the pairing at the correct time risks leaving the player vulnerable during an enemy’s turn. So, flying your axe fighter into the middle of a battlefield may be one path to victory, so long as the player remembers to swap out their Pegasus riding warrior that is highly vulnerable to bow and arrow attacks before the end of the turn.

A large focus of the game is built around pooling certain character types together to create sufficient statistical improvements during battles. The more a set of characters are paired, the stronger the bond and relationship that they have and the more generous and powerful bonuses they will receive. One pathway in the game towards creating a powerful attacking unit is to essentially marry different male and female warriors in your team.

This can also create a more personal attachment to the choices made by the player in terms of characters that they come across or perhaps lose in the quest to bring justice to the game’s fantasy setting.

Boyfriend Dungeon arguably also looks at the concept of love and sex as a means of expanding and building the player’s abilities and armoury, but also has a more nuanced and sophisticated view on our responsibilities as friends and partners to those we love either by choice or familial bond.

December

We saw out the year on the site with a look at two very different releases that both seek to explore the concept of teamwork and working well with others to stave off some form of apocalypse.

One of these games is a single player adventure based on the Marvel Comics characters, the Guardians of the Galaxy – the other is Back 4 Blood, a spiritual follow up to the multiplayer squad shooter Left 4 Dead.

Success in both games is largely based on knowing how best to coordinate and keep your head under pressure either as a leader, or a vital part of a four person team battling against sometimes literally impossible odds.

Square Enix’s Guardians of the Galaxy game is a separate entity from the hugely successful movies that have seen characters such as Star Lord, Groot and Rocket Racoon become beloved movie icons on par with a Superman or Spider-man.

However, like the movies and comics these characters come from, the game explores often esoteric themes about legacy, the responsibilities we have as ‘parents’ and friends, as well as the morality of hurling colleagues over chasms to find a quick shortcut.

Somehow, an almost charmingly simplistic single player shooter/smash-em-up starring these ‘guardians’ builds an interactive story that effectively asks whether any single good or bad action is enough to define an individual. 

This theme of leadership is important not only in how well you work with the computer-controlled teammates in battle, but also in the quiet interactions and choices you make in-between missions when planning your next course of action.

Back 4 Blood meanwhile looks to update the mechanics of a first-person zombie shooter and survival game by requiring players to coordinate their special abilities with their teammates. This need for coordination applies whether they are chatting and working with real life friends or with strangers online.

Even by Left 4 Dead’s standards, it is a game that can be punishingly difficult if your cards and skills aren’t well coordinated.  So much so in fact, that the game’s developers have admitted they are still working and patching the game to get the challenge just right so that a zombie apocalypse game is actually fun to play while also pushing a team of players to work closely together.

Unlike the Guardians of the Galaxy, these makeshifts teams may fall short of performing sharp shooting super heroics. But survival can be just as satisfying a sensation when battling through endless hordes of mutated monstrosities.

Whatever you choose to play over the current year, or who you chose to play it with – have a fabulous 2022.

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