Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Blast from the Past: 3 Modern Games Inspired by Retro Classics

A look at DrinkBox Studios' Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition

I was fortunate to have been born during video gaming’s childhood. Had I been born during its infancy, in the mid 1970s, I likely would have been overstimulated before the pastime’s potential had truly revealed itself beyond mere mindless diversion.  Had I been born during its troubled adolescence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I would have been denied the precious perspective afforded me by having grown up alongside gaming. My introduction to video games was the heady Wild West days of the early 90s, when developers were still finding their footing, but doing so on firm foundations of success. This is the period of gaming history everyone remembers, when gamers forswore the kinetic din of the arcade in favour of the convenience and intimacy of the home console, and it is to this tumultuous era that so many games now turn for inspiration.

Maybe it’s part of the retromania obsession that current pop culture is busy suffering through, full of Hollywood remakes and vintage typewriters. But maybe a decade of collective revisitation, revision and replication have taught us a few things about taking the old, and making it new again. Maybe now is gaming’s true golden age, when we have the tools to apply the wisdom of the past while avoiding its pitfalls in the present. Games like Guacamelee!, Shovel Knight, and Super Time Force certainly make a strong argument: all three are 2-dimensional platformers, drawing inspiration from a cornucopia of 90s material, and serving up classic gameplay with a modern twist. But is their reliance on nostalgia doing a disservice to players in the present?

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition doesn’t think so; in fact, the game trades on it. Guacamelee! is the tale of Juan, a poor agave farmer who must save his true love, the daughter of El Presidente, from the clutches of the skull-faced charro Carlos Calaca when he takes her hostage and unleashes the legions of the dead on Dia De Los Muertos. Poncho-clad esqueletos invade the peaceful, wrestling-obsessed world of Juan and his neighbours, and they are powerless to resist until a mysterious luchada named Tostado gives Juan a magical wrestling mask, which transforms him into a super-powerful luchador. With heavy emphasis on traditional Mexican culture and folklore and zesty, colourful, cartoon-like presentation, Guacamelee! creates a brazen and compelling 2D world right out of the gate.

The gameplay, unsurprisingly, is based on wrestling-style melee combat, wherein you must employ Juan’s meaty punches and kicks to soften up enemies before they can be grappled and thrown (into the floor, the walls, or even other enemies). A robust range of upgrades and special abilities you gain along the way round out the traditional setup, calling for the player to backtrack through previous areas in order to reveal new paths and secrets.

“Metroidvania”, an unwieldy portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, two classic games which featured sprawling 2D maps for the player to fight through and explore, is now a catch-all term for any game that conforms to this structure. Guacamelee! is not only proud of how closely it follows this tradition, it’s downright boastful; its references to Metroid in particular are about as subtle as a luchador’s ring entrance. (For example, the Guacamelee! player busts open “Choozo” statues in order to gain new abilities, when in the Metroid series the player would find upgrades clutched in the talons of Chozo statues. Like I said: subtle.) Other icons of gaming pop culture are lambasted as well, with fraying posters of upcoming luchador fights pasted on pueblo walls featuring fighters like “Los Super Hermanos Brothers”, “Casa Crashers”, and more. But these references, while cloying and overly-ingratiating in most games, suit the bombastic tone of Guacamelee! perfectly – they’re much easier to genuinely enjoy in the brash and satirical context of this stylized Mexican brawler than in just any game which tries to curry favour with the player by appealing to their sense of nostalgia. Guacamelee! certainly does this, but it does so skillfully, blending the familiar mechanics of past titles with its own unique (and very modern) style and charm – and this makes all the difference.

Screenshots from Shovel Knight (click image to expand)
Shovel Knight also owes a debt to Castlevania, with its medieval 8-bit aesthetic and its life-giving roast turkeys hidden inside castle walls. But if it riffs on Konami’s veteran vampire-hunting series, Shovel Knight positively shreds on Mega Man. So much about its challenging, twitchy, hyper-energized gameplay feels like the summer of 1995 to me, when Mega Man X was busy reassembling my fledgling neural structure. Like all the classic Mega Man games, Shovel Knight is boss-based, meaning each level is themed after the boss enemy waiting for you at the end – but instead of Bomb Man and Ice Man, there’s Treasure Knight and King Knight. And instead of the exquisitely simple “jump-and-shoot” architecture established by the very first Mega Man (1987), it’s more like “jump-and-shovel”, which sounds much less engaging, but might actually be more tense and reactive than Mega Man’s projectile-based combat, as it requires the player to really get up-close and personal with every enemy. 

Interestingly, modern games are, in general, only awarded the “old school” epithet once they surmount a certain standard of difficulty, the idea being that so many new games are designed to be accessible to all players that the few games which are prohibitively difficult stand out as unusual, when such a thing – the ability to reach the end of a game only through grueling practice and fierce concentration – was the norm during this classic era. Shovel Knight saw me cursing as I failed over and over again, and more importantly, saw me coming back for more. It hits that retro sweet spot of being just difficult enough to galvanize you (“I know I can beat this!”) but not too difficult that you give up. It doles out harsh punishment, but doesn’t skimp on the reward – every Knight you best in combat is a fist-pumping victory, celebrated with a fountain of glittering jewels and coins which you spend on items and upgrades. Shovel Knight’s treasure system actually forms a significant part of the gameplay’s foundation, as it replaces the traditional “lives” system (your character having a set number of lives or “attempts”, resulting in a game over when fully depleted). When you die in Shovel Knight, you lose a chunk of the cash you’ve earned, and you can navigate back to the place where you died and collect it again, but only if you’re brave enough to attempt the same challenge that killed you in the first place. This way, difficult sections can be avoided, so long as you’re willing to sacrifice some hard-earned loot (which I almost never am). This is just another way Shovel Knight sinks its hooks into you, and earns its “old school” status as not just an imitation of classic action games, but an perfection of the form.

Screenshot from Super Time Force
Super Time Force is perhaps the most unique – and most “modern” –  beast on the list. Its muses are the testosterone-fueled Contra, and perhaps even the chaotic, beautiful Metal Slug, where the player moves a tiny warrior on an endless path to the right of the screen, filling every available inch of visible space with deadly projectiles. The time-bending Braid also provides a strong influence – Toronto-based developer Capybara Games’ website even acknowledges that “Super Time Force isn’t what would happen if Braid and Contra had a baby: Super Time Force is what would happen if Braid and Contra had a PARTY!” They merrily abandon the musing, enigmatic, philosophical design of their best-known previous title, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, for a return to these 2D run-and-gun roots, and inject the proceedings with an overdose of irreverent humour and pixelated carnage. The “modern” aspect comes with the added time-based mechanic, whereby players can rewind time mid-action and have another go alongside their past selves – something Capy paradoxically calls “single-player co-op” – which creates a truly riotous experience, with literally dozens of heroes jumping around, firing weapons, exploding, and fighting for every scrap of visual real estate. There is a steep learning curve to this complex mechanic, as your roster of playable characters each use a specialized ability or weapon that, when combined with one another and with the time-bending self-multiplication effect, create situations of near-infinite variability. Jean Rambois and his machine gun (natch) might discharge a fan of projectiles into oncoming enemies, but they might get the better of him, so you’d rewind and bring in Shieldy Blockerson (obviously) to provide a barrier against damage. But these two might not be enough on their own, so you’d rely on Jef Leppard (seeing a pattern?) to clear a path with his rocket launcher. It’s true chaos in motion.

But though the gameplay offers, as the trailer puts it, “a veritable fecal storm of hot violence”, there’s not much beyond the pixelated art style and the “make-it-to-the-right-of-the-screen” design that places Super Time Force in any kind of retro category. Part of the charm of a retro-styled modern game, and part of the reason for creating one in the first place, is the special suspension of disbelief it requires: you want to imagine that this game could actually have existed alongside the Zeldas and Sonics of yesteryear. But Super Time Force’s aesthetic is bright and crisply animated, and far surpasses anything a classic console like the NES could ever have handled in terms of frame rate, colour palette, and complexity (unlike Shovel Knight, whose simple graphics and 8-bit music would have been right at home). The humour is too self-referential, and too often breaks the fourth wall – it’s not just modern, it’s post-modern. Super Time Force wears the trappings of a retro game, and while a challenging and brilliantly fun game in its own right, it betrays its modernity too easily to really nail the “classic” feel it’s going for.

Of the wealth of influences that 1990s gaming gifted unto the present, there are things gratefully retained and things thankfully discarded. Whether a game takes after Shovel Knight and lives and breathes the classic style, imitates Guacamelee! by blending old and new, or creates a fresh yet retro-flavoured experience like Super Time Force, it’s clear that the lessons of the past have been learned, and learned well. I’m consistently amazed by the rampant expansionism of the form, and it makes me wonder: look how much the art of film has changed in the past twenty years, and then consider how much gaming has changed in just five. In five more years, what will we remember about today’s games, and what will we forget? What fundamental facets of today’s games will we treasure, and look back on with the rose-tinted glasses we gamers wear so well? I, for one, can hardly wait to find out.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

No comments:

Post a Comment