Last week, I began my foray into the cynical world of cyberpunk gaming with a look back to Hideo Kojima’s second game, Snatcher, released for the MSX 2 in 1988. I’ve been playing, and recently completed, the English language version released in 1992 for the Sega CD. Snatcher initially appeared to be an early example in the Japanese visual novel genre, but as I delved deeper into the game, I’ve learned it really embraces the adventure game format and offers players a multitude of ways to interact with the environment. Last week I only glossed over my investigation of the abandoned factory, but looking back to it, I feel this was the scene that really shows players what they’re in for.
In order to even enter the factory, the player must select the same LOOK and EXAMINE options more than once. This counter-intuitive design for menu selection occurs throughout the game. Once inside, the player finds the dead body of would-be partner Jean-Jack Gibson and begins to investigate. A handwritten note in Gibson’s pocket suggests the player should check his home. Metal Gear, Gillian’s robot companion, assists the player by providing further information when pressed, most notably his chemical analysis of the contents of Gibson’s stomach: buffalo meat, another clue. Throughout the game, players need to collect clues to know where to go or who to talk to next. These clues can be collected by using the EXAMINE menu option, by having Metal Gear analyze something in the environment, and even—as found later in the game—by interviewing witnesses and speaking with informants. Later on, the player even uses the computer back at Junker HQ to build a mugshot of a suspect from a variety of facial parts using only the description provided by a witness. Investigation really forms the bulk of gameplay in Snatcher, but the player must employ a variety of methods to succeed, which really helps the player feel like a detective. Conversations also act as a means of developing characters, forging new relationships and, in the case of Gillian, helping the player feel like the lecherous Junker agent. Gillian’s video-phone conversations with his estranged wife Jamie appropriately convey the tension, and hints of remaining chemistry, between them.
Whenever Gillian talks with women, he has the chance to flirt. But flirt too aggressively and conversations can come to an abrupt end. In this scene, Gillian can shamelessly hit on Jean-Jack’s daughter Katrina by selecting the DO SOMETHING dialog choice. But too much flirting will get you kicked out. This proves to be quite the disincentive, as Katrina refuses to let you back in for several real-time minutes.
There’s a depth to the characters in Snatcher that is rarely found even in narrative-heavy games. For this reason, coupled with the game’s detective theme, I won’t reveal any further spoilers. Snatcher should be experienced (or at least watched on YouTube). In my research on Snatcher following the game’s end credits, I learned that a followup was released two years later for the MSX 2. Instead of a sequel, this game—called SD Snatcher--is actually a reimagining of the original as an action RPG. Although the story remains mostly intact, the gameplay is radically different. The art style has also changed from a late ’80s anime aesthetic to the “super deformed” chibi style featuring characters with massive heads atop tiny bodies. The art produces an odd juxtaposition of comical visuals with the dark themes and stomach-churning gore Snatcher is known for.
With its engrossing story, deep characters, and exploration of challenging concepts, Snatcher has remained popular among adventure game and cyberpunk fans alike. The interest generated from the official radio drama, released in 2011, is a testament to the game’s longevity. Known as SDATCHER (no, that’s not a typo) the radio drama is a prequel to the events seen in Snatcher and stars Jean-Jack Gibson as he takes on a case that leads directly into the events of Snatcher including foreshadowing his death. The SDATCHER radio drama attracted a number of industry veterans to the project including Goichi Suda (game designer better known as Suda-51), Akira Yamaoka (music composer for Silent Hill), and Akio Otsuka (voice actor for Solid Snake) who gives voice to Gibson. SDATCHER has been translated into English and is worth the listen for Snatcher fans.
More than just a Blade Runner pastiche, Snatcher features mature storytelling, complex characters, rich environments, and plenty of humor. It’s a Hideo Kojima interactive story that, despite some antiquated game mechanics, shouldn’t be missed by fans of adventure games, narrative-heavy games, or cyberpunk. If you can struggle through the gameplay you’ll be rewarded.
I’m not just a fan of old games; I’m a fan of old movies too. The science fiction scene of the 80s holds a particular reverence for me, perhaps none as much so as the quintessential cyberpunk film Blade Runner. For those who haven’t seen it, set aside two hours of your life. It’s worth it. I’ve recently watched the film for the umpteenth time. But as I often do when I watch such an engaging film, I immediately turn to video games to satiate my desire for similar thematic and atmospheric, yet more interactive, experiences. And so begins my quest to play every retro cyberpunk game that I haven’t yet experienced.
But first, let’s take a moment to examine what ‘cyberpunk’ is all about. At its core, cyberpunk shows how advances in technology—particularly computers and cybernetics—might lead to exploitation and marginalization of the general populace by increasingly influential corporations that come to control nearly ever facet of daily life. In short, it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with a more technological and corporate bent, a clash between, as Wikipedia describes it, “high-tech and low life.” But remember, it’s science fiction. Mega corporations with the same rights as human beings? The prevalence of corporate products and advertisements in our daily lives? The increasing dependence on technology, wholly owned and controlled by corporate entities, for human interaction and public discourse? Nah, it’ll never happen!
First on my list of cyberpunk games is Hideo Kojima’s acclaimed yet controversial masterpiece Snatcher (Sega CD version). The first thing I notice when starting Snatcher is the game’s high production values. The city of Neo Kobe certainly takes inspiration from Blade Runner, although it has an even more Japanese flavor, at times literally (try a slice of Neo Kobe pizza if you dare). The sprites are detailed and read well, with a clear attention to detail, and reflect an anime art style typical of the period. The music and sounds liven the environment, but I was particularly impressed with the English voice acting, added for the Sega CD version in 1994.
The story of Snatcher seems to be its strongest aspect, though. Featuring a strong cast of nuanced characters that, in typical Kojima fashion, break from their seemingly cliched archetypes, the player takes control of Gillian Seed, an amnesiac ‘junker’ tasked with tracking down, and eliminating the ‘snatchers.’ A cross between the replicants of Blade Runner and the cyborgs of Terminator, snatchers are cyborgs that kidnap and replace humans in prominent societal positions for reasons unknown. Gillian must use his detective skills to uncover the snatchers’ plot and eliminate them before it can be completed. Only partway through the game’s first act, the plot has already turned more than once, and I can tell I’m in for another complex Kojima narrative.
As engrossing as Snatcher‘s narrative may be, the gameplay can be infuriating. Reminiscent of visual novels that remain supremely popular in Japan, Snatcher provides players with a menu interface to navigate the game’s world with options such as “MOVE”, “LOOK”, and “INVESTIGATE.” Unfortunately, Snatcher requires the player to select the same options multiple times in a set order before the next scene will trigger. This issue only crops up occasionally in modern visual novels such as the Ace Attorney series, so it makes Snatcher difficult to get into. There are also shooting sequences that require quick aim with a sturdy d-pad to survive. These sections made me thankful I have a reliable controller!
Despite the shortcomings of its gameplay, Snatcher has drawn me in with its strong environmental narrative, anime-inspired production values, and a complex plot on which I feel I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. Join me next week as I offer closing thoughts on Snatcher and continue my high-tech journey as a low life.
Retro game. It’s a term ostensibly tied to release date, but in truth the retro label has come to be associated with everything from pixel art and chiptune music to punishing gameplay and simpler control schemes. The resurgence of interest in old school games, coupled with backlash from some gamers against the cinematic focus of modern AAA titles, has led to a glut of self-classified “retro” games from the indie development scene and even from giant publishers such as Capcom, Konami, and Sunsoft. “Retro” is quickly becoming a marketing label meant to push units by triggering nostalgic memories of childhood gaming experiences among older gamers while also piquing the interest of younger gamers looking for an alternative to the high-definition cinematic driven games that permeate the modern marketplace. Unfortunately for both groups, the “retro” label serves more as a means to draw the attention of the target demographic rather than imply particular gameplay conventions or even aesthetics that might recall the style of games past. In short: some self-proclaimed “retro” games aren’t retro at all, and likewise, some games that may at first glance appear to be completely modern actually reflect the retro gaming philosophy. Below, the concepts of the retro design philosophy will be listed and explained, and along the way modern games that exemplify these traits will be included. Wherever possible, the modern examples will come from games without pixel art to further prove that pixel art is neither a requirement, nor even a central concept, of retro games.
Learn As You Play
Perhaps the most immediately obvious design philosophy of retro games is their intuitiveness. Once upon a time games lacked a tutorial mode or in-game instructions entirely, but gamers didn’t feel lost. While minimal instruction was provided in the game’s manual, many gamers simply popped the game into the console and worked out how to play through experimentation. Through virtue of controllers with fewer buttons and carefully crafted level design, players were rarely confused about how to play. And as the game progressed and new abilities were gained, players learned how to effectively use them organically through repeated use alone. Perhaps the most obvious example of this concept can be found in the two-dimensional Legend of Zelda games. In each dungeon, players attained a new item, but even without referring to the manual, the game made it clear how to use each one. Another famous example of this concept can be found in another Nintendo game,Super Mario Bros. In world 1-1, as the player moves across to the right, Mario encounters a walking mushroom (a goomba) right as he reaches a floating question block. Accustomed to avoiding enemy collisions, the player jumps, but as he does so the goomba keeps walking. If the player jumped straight up, Mario will land on top of the goomba, killing it, and possibly also hit the question block above him. In only a few seconds into the game, the player has already learned that Mario can kill enemies by stomping on them, that in doing so he will automatically be propelled upward again, and that a question block’s secrets can be attained by smashing them from below, all without the need for an in-game tutorial. Even if the player jumps forward instead, he still learns something about Mario’s jump mechanics, and there are ample opportunities within the first stage to learn about killing goombas and breaking blocks. The first stage in Super Mario Bros. also introduces players to the concepts of the mushroom, fire flower, starman, and 1-up mushroom power-ups, as well as breaking blocks only as big Mario, hidden coins in some blocks, and even invisible blocks. The two main enemies in the game, goombas and koopa troopas, are also introduced to the player. All the information the player needs to play the game exists in the first stage, with later stages offering greater challenges to test mastery of that understanding.
The biggest influence on the design philosophy of games in the NES era came not from earlier consoles but rather the thriving arcade scene. Arcade games were—and still are—designed to drop players immediately into the action with little, if any, exposition and to keep the action coming with only short breaks every now and again to let players catch their breath. Arcades, after all, provide short bursts of excitement coupled with punishing gameplay meant to get the player’s adrenaline pumping. Arcade game designers had to produce a near perfect difficulty curve to keep players consistently challenged yet never feeling cheated, or risk their game being pulled from the stores and replaced with a better performing cabinet. This style of frantic gameplay, the focus on action over exposition, may have been in part to keep players “feeding the machine” with their hard-earned quarters, but it also came to be the expected experience from a visit to the local arcade. Even today with narrative-driven adventure games and Japanese role-playing games thriving in the home market, it would be absurd to expect either style of game to be available on an arcade cabinet.
Just as the arcades influenced NES era game design, retro games too reflect the arcade experience. Although limited lives and punishing difficulty, both staples of arcade games, are not necessarily reflected in retro games, these traits remain common among them as well. The shmup genre (short for “shoot-em up”) offers the most direct translation of the arcade mentality to home consoles and PCs, although indie developers have aimed to scratch that itch themselves, with some even going so far as to put challenge at the top of their priority list, leading to the aptly named masocore style—games so challenging that players need to be a little masochistic to even attempt victory. All action games owe a little something to their arcade ancestors, but retro games take this influence a step further to provide frantic, adrenaline-pumping action at a breakneck pace.
Strong Environmental Narrative
Despite technical limitations, the graphics in games of the 80s through mid-90s felt like living, breathing worlds. Developers took the time and effort to plan out each level and populate them with nuggets of insight that implied a richer narrative than was actually directly stated to the player during gameplay. Although old school games are sometimes derided for lacking a clear narrative, exposition was simply downplayed in favor of letting the world itself convey story information to the player. In short, games focused on the environmental narrative instead of telling their stories through cutscenes and dialog exchanges.
Visuals only tell part of the story, though. In retro games, the environment speaks in a more literal sense as well, through sound design that properly conveys the atmosphere of the world that surrounds the player and serves to immerse them in the environment. Non-diagetic music plays its part too, conveying the feelings that players are meant to experience within that given context. The Metroid series in particular is renowned for using sound to ramp up the tension and drag players into the power suit of Samus Aran.
Thankfully, this trait of retro games is the most pervasive throughout the modern gaming industry. Even mega-popular multibillion dollar franchises such as Grand Theft Auto manage to use their environment to convey narrative information, they just also include a more traditional narrative told through cutscenes and player dialog exchanges with non-player characters.
Abstract Visuals That Represent Something Greater
Despite the limited graphic and color palettes afforded by old school hardware, artists still produced fully realized concept art to represent the game’s world and characters. This art would then be abstracted into a simplified representation, with care taken to ensure the visuals would still read as intended. Players were meant to perceive more than just the simple, pixellated images when they played the games. Artists of this era had to be creative in choosing how to represent characters, objects, and environments to reflect the world as intended. Nowadays, with pixel art en vogue, some designers miss the mark and design their art backwards, trying to make the pixellated characters look like pixellated characters. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but recognizing that pixel art actually represented a hand-drawn concept really makes all the difference.
There also seems to be some confusion among developers about the look of old school games. True, games on the SNES, NES, Genesis, and other contemporaries used pixels instead of polygons to render graphics, but the blocky, jagged look that has come to be associated with this era never actually existed. This is because everyone had CRT displays that are much better at upscaling images than modern LCD and LED displays. A combination of more accurate upscaling and scanlines produced a “blurred” look. The better artists of the period recognized this and would line up pixels intentionally to create the illusion of different shades of color and subtle shading as the pixels blurred into one another. This resulted in much more dynamic visuals compared to a direct emulation of pixellated graphics.
It would be inaccurate to claim that all old school games utilized every one of the above design philosophies, nor would it be fair to expect retro games to ignore modern conventions entirely. But the retro game label has been diluted by developers looking to make a quick buck off of nostalgic gamers. Art style and music alone cannot be the sole measure on which to judge a game as retro. Instead, developers should delve below the surface details to dig out what made old games so captivating and unforgettable even to this day, despite the soaring improvements in processing power and the ability to produce far more realistic visuals.
Continuing Chris’ series for this week, I have crafted a list of recommendations for a gamer making their first foray into one of my all-time favorite game styles: the Metroidvania. A portmanteau of the vaunted Nintendo series and Capcom’s Gothic cousin, Metroidvanias feature platforming action in a free-roaming, two-dimensional, labyrinthine environment that encourage non-linear exploration, sometimes even backtracking, along with persistent power-ups that, when discovered, provide access to previously inaccessible sections of the world. Because the freedom afforded by Metroidvanias requires a certain complexity, they lack accessibility for the uninitiated and those accustomed to the simpler experiences offered by puzzle games. But don’t worry, I’m here to help!
The games on this list offer the most easily accessible entry-points. No attempt has been made to create a “best of” list.
In my first Retro Rewind feature, I discussed the over-the-top manliness and outright absurdity of run-and-gun shooters. Duke Nukem 3D, I had claimed, might just be the culmination of the sub-genre. But I have a confession to make: I lied! Compared to the Doom comic released in the very same year of 1996, Duke Nukem 3D might as well have been a Disney film. Doom Guy, the nickname for the space marine protagonist of Doom, never utters so much as a word in the games. But in the comic, Doom Guy becomes a farcical amalgamation of Roddy Piper’s character from They Live!, Ash from Evil Dead, and Tony Montana from Scarface after snorting the mountain of cocaine. Come to think of it, Doom Guy is probably on more coke than Tony. Here, you be the judge…
Best part? It’s a love story. No really! Disgraced by his inability to rip out a cyber-demon’s guts with his bare hands, Doom Guy runs off in search of a gun that packs enough power to blow the cyber-demon to pieces. But as in love, not just any gun will do. Oh no, Doom Guy deserves only the best. Avid Doom players, at this point, know I’m referring to the BFG (an acronym for “big, uh, freaking gun”).
Surprisingly, the comic’s narrative doesn’t depart too far from my childhood experiences playing the video game: Doom Guy carelessly runs around the station without any clear idea of where he’s supposed to go, regularly falls for each enemy ambush, experiments with a variety of weapons, provides his own running commentary of the action with every bit of wit granted by a middle school education, and even finds the time to deliver a poignant message about protecting our environment. Okay, I never did that last part.
But even being completely submerged in a pit of radioactive waste can’t douse the flames of passion in Doom Guy’s heart. When he’s finally united with the BFG, it’s love at first sight.
Although it’s been nearly twenty years since it was first published, the Doom comic remains an accurate reflection of the desperate lengths games and comics would go to match the extreme fad of the period. Equal parts gory and stupid, the Doom comic deserves its place in a time capsule of the ’90s right alongside a piece of the Aggro Crag, a bag of Corn Nuts with the anthropomorphic corn cob mascots, Nick Cage’s mullet from Con Air, and a can of Surge cola. Just kidding. Surge deserves at least a six-pack.
Oh and as for the cyber-demon? He gets what he deserves.
In this second in my series on forgotten and overlooked design principles of the retro era, I look back at the second Game Boy Color outing in the Wario Land series: Wario Land 3. The Wario Land series began on the Game Boy as a spin-off of Super Mario Land, and it plays like a 2D Mario platformer with a few twists: Wario dons absurd helmets that power him up in a variety of ways, such as the Dragon Helmet that grants Wario the ability to shoot fire from the dragon’s nostrils to roast his enemies. While still an enjoyable platformer, it wasn’t until the third game in the series (the second is one of only two games on the failed Virtual Boy console that’s actually worth playing), Wario Land II, that it stepped into its own.
One of the series’ biggest changes is that Wario has become essentially invincible. Taking a page from Sonic’s playbook, upon colliding with enemies Wario drops some of his hard-earned coins. Some enemies, such as falling blocks—cousins of the thwomps of the Super Mario series—crush Wario into a flattened form that can provide access to previously inaccessible areas of the level. This unique mechanic would be further explored in the sequel: Wario Land 3. Not only does Wario no longer drop coins when hit, the player must actively seek out certain enemies, and get hit, in order to explore the level. Need to drop down a few narrow platforms? Let Wario become zombified! Need to burn through flammable bricks? Catch Wario on fire! Need to reach a higher platform? Let a bee sting Wario so that his head swells to the size, and buoyancy, of a balloon! There are many different forms Wario can take, but each must be triggered by enemy damage. Instead of posing a threat, most of the enemies unintentionally help Wario complete the level.
Although Wario Land 3 flips the notion of enemies as obstacles to that of helpers, it still retains the trappings of classic platformer tropes, most limiting being that enemies can still impede player progress. The game’s bosses, while delightfully absurd in design, require perfection from the player in order to progress as even a single touch will send Wario back the stage’s entrance. A modern revival of Wario Land 3‘s primary mechanic might pour more effort into the puzzle-solving nature of Wario’s transformations. The levels themselves would then become the only obstacle for the player to overcome.
The current trend in the indie game space is to challenge the player to survive a virtual gauntlet of fatal hazards and dangerous enemies. Platformers like Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be the Guy, action side-scrollers like Volgarr the Viking, and Rogue-likes such as The Binding of Isaac expect the player to die over and over again until he learns the level well enough to advance. There’s even a name for this type of game: masocore, a portmanteau of “masochist” and “hardcore.” While the unapologetic difficulty of these games appeals to many, indie game developers would be wise to look back to the retro classic Wario Land 3 as a reminder that games need not challenge with an ever-increasing number of enemies, spikes, and pitfalls. Instead, damage could open up new areas to explore, new trophies to collect, and new methods of level completion.
Over-the-top, hyper-violent, one-liners, muscles: these are each properties associated with the action films of the 80s and early 90s. But the genre can be boiled down to just one word: machismo. Although originating as a loan word from Latin American cultures, machismo does not imply a sense of masculine superiority in English, but rather exaggerated masculine characteristics, often so much so as to border on parody. Action games developed in or influenced by American cinema during this period often followed this trend with shooters, beat-em-ups, and action-platformers such as Contra, Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, Heavy Barrel, Ikari Warriors,and Duke Nukem that each oozed machismo.
Nowhere was the machismo of the 80s action movie better exemplified than in the delightfully absurd first-person shooter (FPS) genre of the early to late 90s. In the days before Half-Life revolutionized the genre with its seamless fusion of gunplay with story, shooters were built around one simple concept: a lone bad ass with an arsenal of guns is mankind’s only hope for survival. Unlike more cerebral shooters such as Half-Life, Rainbow Six, and Ghost Recon, 90s shooters were cut from the same mold as 80s action films, imbuing the player with machismo through a focus on unrealistic combat conventions such as dual-wielding chainguns, using weapons nearly as large as the player, and slaughtering hordes of enemies without worrying about stealth, cover, puzzle solving, the psychological consequences of war, or any motivation for killing other than clearing a path to the exit and feeling bad ass in the process. Similar to 80s action films, 90s shooters offered a pure gameplay experience—narrative, character development and other concerns were ignored, or at least extremely downplayed, in favor of the action.
It all began in 1992 when Id Software released Wolfenstein 3D--actually the followup to a series of stealth action games—which became the genre-defining FPS. As B.J. Blazkowicz, players were tasked with killing Nazis, Nazi experiments, and even Adolf Hitler himself, in a mechanized battle suit equipped with quad-chainguns.
A year later, Doom exploded onto the scene, taking the sci-fi absurdism of the genre to new heights by pitting the player against a demonic legion from Hell. For the next five years, the FPS genre only knew one style of play: run-and-gun. With each passing year, each new release aimed to push the genre even further towards the violent and the absurd, culminating in Duke Nukem 3D in 1996, a game that succeeded as both a prime example of the run-and-gun FPS as well as an intentional parody of the genre. Due to the hordes of enemies coupled with technical limitations that prevented ducking behind cover and aiming up or down, the player’s goal was to escape each level as quickly as possible without getting killed in the process. This focus on speed and survival, rather than methodically clearing each area of enemies, resulted in a frenetic experience, in which the player employed whatever weapons were at his disposal to clear a path to the exit.
But just like chain wallets, slap bracelets, XTREME marketing campaigns, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulging pectorals, the run-and-gun FPS couldn’t last forever. In 1998 with the release of Rainbow Six, the FPS genre saw a shift away from the hectic, fast-paced action and absurdist backdrop that had defined it toward a more realistic setting featuring a soldier, spy, or special operative armed with more realistic firearms and who might perish to a single bullet. Gone were the days in which the player could charge headlong into hordes of Nazis, demons, and aliens and kick some ass. Instead, players were forced to seek cover from enemy fire and plan their approach tactically. In contrast to the run-and-gun of earlier FPS games, these games were tactical shooters or condescendingly, stop-and-pop shooters.
It took a few years for tactical shooters to catch on, but with the resounding success of the Half-Life multiplayer mod Counter Strike in 2000 along with Metal of Honor in 1999 and Call of Duty in 2003, by the mid-2000s tactical shooters had become synonymous with FPS. What the FPS genre had gained in realism, it had lost in machismo.
The video game market of the present day has shifted focus away from testosterone-fueled celebrations of violence and towards more mature portrayals of combat, warfare, and survival. While tactical shooters adequately serve as reminders of the grim realities of war, run-and-gun shooters approach violence with a carefree, guilt-free tone that provides a purer gaming experience. Eschewing any serious attempt at narrative, run-and-gun shooters provide players with a continuous, unbroken gameplay experience. Just as classic platformers like Super Mario Bros. offer players the opportunity to rush through levels, hopping from platform to platform with little need to stop for long to plan the next move, run-and-gun shooters offer large, non-linear levels that the player can rush through in barely controlled mayhem slaying hordes of enemies with a hailstorm of bullets from his arsenal. Yet while continuous platform jumping is considered an acceptable method of achieving a “flow” in gaming, continuously shooting and killing enemies affords no such excuse.
In the real world, war is a terrible tragedy, and gun violence poses a legitimate threat. But video games occupy fantasy spaces in some of which one man with a gun can rush headlong into Hell and come out the other side only slightly bloodied and even better equipped than when he entered. Likewise, in the fictional spaces in which 80s action movies lived, violence solved problems, one-liners could lighten any grim mood, and even the most over-the-top genre conceit was ignored because it was all part of the experience. Run-and-gun shooters, unlike their tactical counterparts, do not champion a socio-political platform, nor do they reveal an underlying message. Run-and-gun shooters are meant to evoke the same sense of unapologetic masculinity and sheer escapist fun found in 80s action movies. Can games be art? Maybe so, but games only need to be fun.
In this series of short articles, I plan to look back to the direct influence retro games have had on modern indie titles, with a particular focus on retro gaming influences that might not be immediately obvious to the less educated video game historian. In this inaugural article, I look back to a late addition to the vaunted NES library: Metal Storm. Late in the console's life cycle mere months prior to the launch of the SNES, veteran developer Irem—shmup fans will recognize Irem as the company behind R-Type--released Metal Storm, a side-scrolling platformer casting the player as the pilot of a mecha that looks kind of like a squat version of the AV-98 Ingram from Patlabor. As was typical of side-scrollers of the period, players must blast their way through a series of increasingly difficult levels on a mission to protect Earth. What set Metal Storm apart from other games in its admittedly overused genre was its unique gameplay mechanic, gravity switching, in which the player was able to swap the gravitational pull between the top and bottom of the screen through a single button press. Only slightly disorienting at first, the gravitational mechanic proved crucial to passing through certain areas that the player could not reach by jumping or first needed to eliminate enemies walking across the ceiling.
While most gamers will remember the gravity swapping mechanic best for its refined use in Nintendo's Super Mario Galaxy and sequel, a popular indie title also featured the mechanic to great effect. VVVVVV--that's six Vs for those too lazy to count—developed by indie gaming legend Terry Cavanagh in 2010 eschews the action mechanics in Metal Storm to instead focus on the puzzle-solving potential of gravity manipulation. Players must utilize both quick reflexes and clever thinking to work their way through devilishly designed levels where death comes quickly at the single touch of a floor/ceiling/wall spike. VVVVVV effectively capitalizes on the puzzle-solving potential of the gravity swapping mechanic to produce an addictively frustrating experience.
Retro games remain a fascination for me because of their creative and experimental gameplay, but often inhibiting that creativity is an attachment to the design paradigm of their era. Where Irem saw gravity swapping as a neat twist on the popular side-scrolling platformer format, Cavanaugh recognized the mechanic's potential as a game's singular drive.There are still many forgotten concepts in retro games just waiting to be mined by modern game developers. Going forward, I will seek to identify these concepts, where they have been used by modern game designers, and how they might be re-purposed to appeal to the sensibilities of the modern gamer.