the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Inspiration in the Uninspired

Inspiration in the Uninspired

There’s a lot of talk these days about how the gaming industry has gone stale; everything’s just the same game over and over again, as though people have forgotten that Mega Man was ever a thing. People are screaming so loudly for something new, that they bash all but the most avant-garde of experimental games, many of which are only noteworthy because they’re different, and aren’t actually good. Disappointment abounds, but developers really don’t know what to do for their fickle audience anymore. I have to ask, though, is it really so bad to be the same, though? I’ve recently played a few games that were little more than big reviews of their respective genres, so let’s dissect them.

Wild Arms, despite being on the Playstation, was a review of all that we held dear in the JRPGs of the Third and Fourth Generations of gaming. The battle system was a simple turn-based affair, and each of your three party members was given his or her own skill derived from another JRPG. Rudy’s ARMs each had three parameters that could be upgraded, and as the titular weapons, I suppose that they were given all of the creativity. Jack’s Fast Draw techniques, on the other hand, were sword skills that are learned by finding hints and using them over and over again until something sparks and he executes it, which is almost exactly how you learn techniques in the Romancing SaGa series, albeit in a much more controlled way. Cecilia has magic, which is in almost every RPG – J- or otherwise – but in this case, you learn them by placing markers on a grid, not unlike in Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom, except that you can actually learn everything, so you don’t have to sacrifice your other magic.

Even the story is a throwback to the days of the NES, where the only reason it existed was to give you a reason as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Yes, it gets into existentialism a little bit, but at its core, it’s really just a story about teched-up cowboys battling metallic demons from outer space. A lot of people would say that such a dumb story ruins an RPG, but as you might recall, I don’t play them just for the story, and nobody who does would enjoy Wild Arms, because it’s fairly grind-heavy. That in itself is calling out to the oldschool JRPGs, and an excellent reason for why the story isn’t all that deep; when you’re stopping at each town to grind for new equipment, a riveting story isn’t something you want, because grinding seems like more of a chore when you’re eager to be done with it. Even beyond that, the narrative is a brilliant reference to the days of yore, because while an over-the-top, mindless story is something that would have existed back in the day, a Playstation has the graphical processing capabilities to make it happen, and yes, I enjoyed the spectacle quite a bit.

Look, it's live action Rudy!

And you thought you were sooooo clever

Of course, the game isn’t just grinding to progress to the next town or through the next dungeon. The dungeons, themselves are lined with puzzles, many of which actually make you stop and think about how to solve them. Many of said puzzles are solved with various tools that your characters acquire throughout the course of the game. Sound familiar? Of course it does; Lufia 2 had tons of puzzles, as well as a few tools to solve them. Wild Arms, however, has more tools, as well as a few traps that activate in real time, so you’re going to need that extra dash button to keep yourself alive.

So, to summarize, Wild Arms takes a bunch of elements from great JRPGs before it and does them better. For how little it does new, though, it isn’t surprising that it’s able to improve on so much that’s already there. As I said of Dragon Warrior Clones in my JRPG miniseries, it’s easy to make a quality game when the basics are already there for you. It might seem a little lazy to design games this way, but not only is it a common practice even today – just take a look at how many games are built upon the _________ Engine; it’s the same basic thing – it’s also a better way to guarantee a quality product. In fact, the upcoming Sonic Boom is doing just that with CryEngine 3.

But what did the gaming community think about Wild Arms? While it had 4 sequels, a remake, and an SRPG spin-off, it was and remains a bit of a sleeper hit. I’ve talked about Wild Arms to a fairly wide pool of gamers, and aside from the ones that know so many games that they’re really into obscure stuff like Choro Q, and other things that even I’ve never heard of, most don’t even know the game. So, what happens when a popular game happens to have been Frankensteined together from other games in its genre? Well, as it turns out, I’ve recently finished such a game that I think most every gamer of the Seventh Generation knows: Darksiders.

Legend of DEATH

Because come on

Ah yes, that game that was trying so hard to be God of War… or was it Zelda? Or maybe Devil May Cry, Metroid, Castlevania, and probably a few others that I’m forgetting. The game hasn’t been fairly assessed by most, because everyone is so busy deriding it for being just a shameless ripoff of- Ooooo! Look! A new colorless, “realistic” First-Person Shooter! We’ll make fun of Darksiders right after we sink the next several months of our lives into that! Hypocrisy aside, how does Darksiders actually hold up as a game?

Well, as my lady and I played through it, we were making our snide remarks about how they weren’t even trying to hide the fact that it’s trying to be (insert game here), and when you’re stealing things right down to the camera angle when you’re shimmying down a rope, it’s well-deserved. Then, we actually got into it, and were pleasantly surprised. You have the God of War with a touch of Devil May Cry combat, the Zelda tools and puzzles, and the Metroid backtracking with a post-Apocalyptic motif and enemies that wouldn’t look out of place in a Castlevania game. This was nothing we hadn’t seen before several times over, and yet, neither of us could stop playing; we were like addicts until we finished it. Let’s break this down into its source material and see just how the bigger parts compare to the whole from whence they came.

Compared to Devil May Cry and God of War on their hardest settings, Darksiders is a pretty easy game. As such, the combat isn’t nearly as intense, nor are the movesets quite as varied, but they do their job just fine. Better yet is that you don’t have quick time events; when an enemy is ready for a finisher, you just hit the Circle button and enjoy the spectacle. You kill bad guys to get souls to buy new moves, spells, and other items to help you along your way. However, while the combat isn’t quite as refined, and the shop system is just the same, Darksiders is a lot less linear and mission-based than God of War and Devil May Cry, so there’s actually something for you to explore, rather than just power your way through it. The puzzles also tend to require a little more thought and involve a little less frustration, so you might actually look forward to encountering them.

Now, for Zelda; even a close friend of mine who really enjoyed the game refers to it as the best Zelda game she’s played in a long time. Now, if you go into this expecting a full-blown Zelda game, you might be disappointed; there is a much smaller world to explore, and most of the boss battles aren’t terribly puzzle-oriented, though the ones that are are fantastic. Despite this, I do agree that this is the best Zelda game I’ve played in a while. What could the Zelda series really use? Well, deeper combat would be nice, and while it doesn’t quite hold up to God of War‘s insane movesets, it certainly is quite a bit more diverse than that of any Zelda game. Better money grinding is always a plus, and in Darksiders, you’re guaranteed money for absolutely every thing – and even much of the scenery – that you kill. Many of the puzzles require more thought than that of your typical Zelda, to boot, but there’s one thing in particular that outshines every single Zelda game since Ocarina of Time, and maybe even A Link to the Past

If you know me, then you already know what’s coming: minigames. So, you’re exploring a vast, beautiful world, slaying baddies with a magical sword, but how do you get the upgrades that make you stronger? Herding goats? Sorting mail? How about snowboarding against a yeti and his wife? Something tells me that one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse isn’t going to stand for that. No, in Darksiders, you don’t find the game’s equivalent of Heart Pieces or any other upgrade by peforming inane tasks that have nothing to do with anything; you find them by exploring. When you finish a dungeon, you have something new, and you often use that new thing to reach new places in old regions, and that’s where you find your upgrades. I almost feel like I’m playing an Action-Adventure game or something. This is where Metroid comes in: Metroid doesn’t have minigames, despite having far more numerous upgrades than any Zelda game, and it does just fine; I don’t know why developers – even the very same developer – can’t see that.

So, in the end, is it bad to be a shameless amalgamation of other successful games? I’d say no, so long as they’re put together well. Though they offered little to nothing new, both Wild Arms and Darksiders were great experiences. In fact, when people asked me what I thought of Darksiders, my response was, “Even though most everything was old hat, I’ve been waiting for a game like this for a very long time.” I didn’t just have to play a Metroid game, a Zelda game, and a Devil May Cry game, all the while wishing for some kind of hybrid, maybe even with that cool gun from P0rtal; in Darksiders, I got to have it all, and it was great. Besides, no matter what you make, someone is going to accuse it of being derivative for one reason or another; I’ve even had someone try to convince me that Ninja Gaiden was just a Castlevania ripoff because the power-ups were in containers stuck on the wall that had to be attacked to be opened.

At the end of the day, whether the work was original or not, you have to ask yourself, “Did I enjoy it?” Think of how many times you’ve reread a favorite book, rewatched a favorite movie, or even replayed a favorite game. What if you could replay that favorite game with a new coat of paint? These works aren’t uninspired ripoffs, they’re attempts to improve something that is already good. Granted, like any kind of fanfiction, you’ll find both good and bad examples of this; if I were to make something like Darksiders, there’s no way you’d want to play it, because I’m not any good at making games. However, if a development team that understands what makes the source material so good and what doesn’t wishes to do so, I think that they should, and with our blessing. So, gaming industry, do what you do, just do it well.

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