The 2000 Toyota Echo of Video Games

As rumors of a follow up to one of the greatest fighting games of the century began circulating, most of the original Under Night’s player base began to wonder how the developers may handle a numbered sequel. I think I can speak for most people when I say UNICLR felt pretty much perfect (at least structurally) and making a brand new game seemed unnecessary at best and worrying at worst. What might French Bread change? Would they bend the knee to casual players and broaden its appeal through simplifications of its systems? Would they go the Type Lumina route and remix things in a such way to not shift the series’ DNA entirely while still feeling completely alien next to Current Code?

As I wandered the EVO floor on that fateful Friday morning and heard the news that the fated successor to our darling Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] was just announced and playable at that very moment, my personal anticipation and anxiety rose to all new heights. Things seemed promising from the trailer, but it was hard to judge anything for sure until I got my hands on it. After a bit of waiting in line I finally got my hands on the game, and to my absolute delight there wasn’t anything that jumped out to me. To be clear, UNICLR was never a game I was particularly great at, and as such any small tweaks and balances that did exist surely passed me by, but the foundation felt extremely similar to what I had played in the past. Somehow, it seemed like FB did the one thing no one expected but everyone secretly hoped: they didn’t fuck with the formula.

Flash forward five months, and now that I’ve had the full release of the game in my hands for the past few days I can finally confirm that this is functionally just an iterative sequel to the first game - think like how Street Fighter 4 handled its packaged versions back in the day. In fact, I’d almost liken it more to a glorified balance patch or brand new season than an entirely different game. While someone who casually messed with UNI back in the day may have yearned for more of a refresh to give the series another shot, I appreciate the restraint of the devs to understand the value of their game and not second guess themselves on old mechanics. They didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, they didn’t make GRD easier to parse, they didn’t fix what wasn’t broken. “More of the same” is the highest compliment I can give to a game with Vorpal Cycles and Chain Shift in it.

To touch a bit on the adjustments more directly, each small new addition targets the GRD system and gives the player just a few more tools to work with and consider in a match. Things like the new forward roll aren’t terribly substantial on the face of it, but by adding more things to this towering stack of mechanics built off the same central resource, it leads to further complications in how to make the best choices in the heat of the moment. When to spend GRD for a force function, when to hold off and play defense, and when to take a chance on a shield to push the Cycle forward and build massive GRD at the risk of a Break are just a few strings of general choices you can make in a pinch, and this is only from the defending player’s perspective - this doesn’t consider how to play with GRD in neutral to even end up in these intense scrambles to begin with. For a modern comparison, in a game like Street Fighter 6 this type of complex decision-making already feels exhausting in the best ways with a lenient timer and an automatically generating central gauge to spend, so making these potentially higher risk gambles on an ever repeating 16 second timer in UNI2 feels just as if not more exciting in the heat of a match. Additions to the system could have run the risk of tipping the balance of an extremely well considered system, but at its core, UNI2 is still all about the captivating tug-of-war for GRD and the race to achieve Vorpal we all fell in love with before, just further touched up and refined in really intelligent ways.

The true meat of this package as a “sequel” really just comes in everything surrounding the game itself, which I don’t want to get too caught up in for the brevity of this blog, but it must be said that this is absolutely one of the most feature rich and complete fighting game packages ever made. Barring the exclusion of cross-play (forever and always, fuck Sony), no stone was left unturned and nothing was left behind. From intense training mode options to replay takeover functions, this game truly has every tool you could ever want and shit you probably didn’t even know you wanted, it makes you wonder how anyone can accept less complete packages from far more established developers in an era where fucking French Bread of all companies is dropping what’s unquestionably the most accessible and rich fighting game of the year.

This has always been a series I’ve held in high respects - never one I was particularly great at or could understand all the intricacies of beyond the the first layer or two, but always one I kept at the top of the stack when it came to my “casual” fighters. I’ve always been a player who loves obsessing over and gaining a strong understanding of game’s and their mechanics, so while I’m still willing to appreciate Fighting Games largely for their surface level “approachable” aspects, I always try to dig a bit deeper whenever possible. While there’s been many games over the years I’ve dreamt of attaining a greater understanding of, few have occupied as much space in my brain as Under Night. In the past it felt like a far off dream to understand the intricacies of the game, to understand something simultaneously complex and beautiful in its construction yet tragically hidden in the shadows behind passionate local communities bound by the shackles of delay-based hell. It felt impossible to slip in and catch up with everyone else in the moment, but now with the release of UNI2, I feel the spark to play and learn far more than I ever have before. For the first time in a while, the thought of going out to events big or small is alluring to me for a bit more than the usual communal aspects you tend to find with fighting games - as fun as it is to stumble into CoN5 without touching the game for months and hitting B-Tatsu in bracket without a care in the world, the drive to learn and improve for nothing more than the love of the game is something I haven’t felt as often as I’d like these days. It’s one of the many reasons I continue to show up for new fighters despite my adult life constricting the amount of time I can put into them, no other community driven games are gonna give you the same sensations as playing and learning with other community members, and that’s always a high I’ll continue to chase for the rest of my days. As much as I love falling back on old favorites, I’m so thankful companies like French Bread are still capable of lighting that spark of life within me for a new release like this. Even if you’re not into fighting games for the competitive glory or paltry prize pools of small tournaments, if you’re into the genre in literally any capacity at all, I hope this is a game that can light the spark for you too.

Completely dumbfounded at how this is one of the first rogue games ever made? Beneath Apple Manor and, uh, Rogue both predated E.T. by a few years each, but for many, this was surely their exposure to the genre - I know it was for me, anyway. Assuming you don’t manipulate your RNG and lock in the positions of the phone pieces (and presumably the zones, I’m not sure) in advance by holding the fire button on startup, each reset should essentially result in a completely unique playthrough. For a time where most games didn’t even have an ending, let alone such variable factors to consider in each run, this is a pretty impressive piece of shit, I gotta say. It’s not all glamorous of course, people have torn this game apart for years (and repeatedly recited the same factoids about its history to a more exhausting degree than even the development of Super Mario Bros. 2) and I’m obviously not blind to its faults. Still, I think people can be pretty uncharitable towards it all the same.

First, if you’ve ever belabored that the game is too confusing or doesn’t make sense or whatever, you have to consider that all the game’s mechanics were actually broken down in the manual. No stone is left unturned, it even explains how the scoring system works (or how it’s supposed to work, apparently the way your point total gets tallied during the ending is kinda fucked up). Pits are the mechanic that have seen the most criticism at this point, and while they can certainly be frustrating, they’re not glitched or broken or whatever. People have even pointed towards the collision being the culprit, which isn’t true either. In fact, they work completely perfectly. The real problem is that the collision is too good. E.T. and his sprite is so accurate that it’s incredibly easy to clip the pits while navigating, on top of easily falling back in once you get out. While this can be alleviating beforehand by improving your steering, or afterward by leaving the bottom part of the pit rather than the top, it’s still a mechanic that could have seen some brushing up with some hindsight - shrinking your hurtbox slightly should theoretically fix the issue entirely.

Once you have a grasp of world navigation, finding the phone parts and scraping the map for zones is actually pretty fun. And I hate to say it, but scrambling for and getting to the “go the fuck away” zone icons in-between scuffles with the government agents can actually provide very small bursts of excitement during the game. Getting grabbed by an agent sucks, but since the game is over in three minutes and a fresh start is a reset away, the pace is genuinely kind of electric. Where it does fall apart for me is actually in the home stretch of the game - while placing the Phone Home zone on one single unique spot of the map is a natural evolution of the preexisting rogue mechanics, it’s pretty obnoxious blindly running around each of the game’s five major screens looking for the correct spot while avoiding the rest of the hazards. Oftentimes I’d get all the phone parts, fumble around for the last zone, get caught, and then just reroll the system for better odds. Again, while the game can get away with these weird bumps due to its length, this one in particular feels the most cheap to me - it’s not enough to ruin the game, but definitely holds it back from being something I’ll want to replay often.

If you’re not 5 years old and refuse to read an instruction manual, there’s really no reason to be so vehemently against this one I feel, especially on a system like the Atari 2600 which, in retrospect, wasn’t pumping out the finest of the medium. It’s not high art, and surely there’s a lesson to be gained from how its launch window was handled (not just for this game, but other games launching around the same time), but gimme a break lmao. With 40 years of hindsight, I think it’s fair to say this is easily the 2nd best piece of E.T material that’s ever been made.

Maybe there’s a decent game in here somewhere, perhaps buried under hours of firing yourself at an immovable brick wall or just bending the knee to wiki guides or YouTubers telling you how good the game eventually gets, but I doubt I’ll ever see it. Maybe it’d be one thing if Fear & Hunger made any attempt to sell any central hook for it’s oppressive world beyond an opening text crawl to lure me along, or present any spark of intrigue in its mechanics for me to want to interface with the game on any meaningful level, but I truly feel like there’s just not a whole lot here for me. Is it possible this is spurred on by preconceptions of the JRPG foundation this game is laid upon? Or maybe it’s just a skill issue and I should get good? Sure, Man. On one hand I gotta respect the level of challenge this game presents, but even a version of F&H with a steadier on-ramp still wouldn’t erase all the nasty set-dressing that’s honestly impossible for me to look past. No censor patch in the world is gonna change the fact that maybe conveying the long-lasting horror of SA through an RPG status effect is in poor taste. I tried, and initially I planned on going back for one more shot, but the more I think about this game the less I fuck with it, so I guess I gotta throw in the towel. If you clicked with this that’s dope and I’m glad you have something you want others to experience, but I felt genuinely kinda gross while playing this and i just wanna move on. Here’s to Fear & Hunger 2, I guess

Probably the greatest NES game ever made, but this shouldn’t be a surprise, right? Super Mario Bros. 3 represents Nintendo at the peak of their creativity and technical prowess, with no competition in sight but still blowing the fuck out of everyone around them regardless. A peak so tall that not even Nintendo themselves have been able to make the climb since, at least for this sub-category of Mario games.

I’d rather not get hung up on what was “impressive for the time” since I wasn’t even a cell at its release and only played it years later from the early 2010’s and beyond, but this thing is just an absolute monster on every front. More mechanics, more abilities, more physics tricks, more tech crammed in the cartridge itself, all in 10 times the file size of the original Super Mario Bros. despite only launching a mere 3 years after that game. A save feature is the most obvious omission given its release window and massive campaign relative to other Mario games, but I have to believe they would have included it if they found it practical to cram into the cartridge. It’s an absolute marvel for the hardware, that much is clear, but I wouldn’t be singing its praises if it ultimately amounted to little more than a tech demo.

After a groundbreaking first entry and a successor that amounted to little more than an extra-challenging level pack, Mario 3 sets to evolve the series in every facet, from ancillary elements like the world map and progression, to the actual structure and pacing of the platforming itself. Where modern 2D Mario is most often concerned with the “introduce in safe space -> expand in challenging ways -> throw away idea and start fresh” cycle of design, it was really refreshing to go back to this one and see just how different R&D4’s philosophy was back then. Individual Worlds are still often differentiated by tone and trends in terrain like the repeated encounters with Big Bertha in World 3 or the labyrinth of pipes that make up World 7, but the actual meat of the platforming found in each stage is often ambivalent to the thought of gimmicks or setpieces.

If you asked me, I’d say the defining trait of Mario 3 is its density. Rarely in all of its 90 levels does the game ever give you a moment to breathe, frequently subjecting you to brief dopamine hits of platforming gauntlets to blast through before moving onto the next level. While in a lesser game this could lead to ideas passing right through the player’s subconscious, effectively getting tossed away and lost to the sands of time before you hit the credits, Mario 3 sidesteps this in some pretty clever ways.

Firstly, the game is pretty tough, at least by Mario standards. This is something I never considered as a kid growing up with Super Mario USA as my still-pretty-shitty version of Mario 2, but you have to understand that this is the developer’s follow up to The Lost Levels, not Doki Doki Panic. Mario 3 never gets anywhere close to the cruelty of that game, but this connection reassured me that no, I’m not just bad at the game, but Mario 3 was actually getting kinda tough. Since dead air is all but eliminated and fine control over Mario requires more skill than ever before thanks to the addition of P-Speed and the lack of extended tracks to easily get there, most moments take more mental input on average from the player to lock in on and get through, so even after getting through the game spread out over the course of a few days in-between impassioned sessions with Ninja Gaiden Black (a game that has occupied all available brain space this past month), I doubt any moment will stand out as alien to me when I revisit the game in the future.

Beyond the surface level difficulty, I think the biggest triumph of these levels is the brisk pace in which you get through them. Levels are frequently over and done with in under 30 seconds, and since no moment is wasted, it feels like less of a commitment to munch through them in quick succession after either a full reset or even just a game over within a world. I can absolutely see this becoming the type of game where I just boot it up for a few minutes to mess around in a few levels, only to get caught in its orbit and run through the whole thing in an afternoon, that magnetic sense of flow and pacing is something I find difficult to maintain in a ~3 hour game, but Mario 3 nails it with absolute grace. It’s revealing to me that this is the only(?) 2D Mario that features absolute no checkpoints within any of its levels, further lending to how sticky the full layouts of stages tend to be in the game. Turns out it’s way harder to remember small slices of geometry within a stage if it lands in the half you won’t have to play through nearly as often to succeed completely.

As you progress through each of the 8 Worlds and new arrangements of locales spring to life on the route to the castle, it always feels like a completely fresh journey awaits as soon as you land. The idea of bringing in a world map was probably born of the desire to bring more flavor to progression as well as to house your item inventory, two things that surely smoothed out the flow of play for a wider demographic of people, but surprisingly, laying out a route in disarray has a cool side effect on potential failure. The most obvious benefits to world layouts are the ability to hold secrets and skip levels, but it’s the wipe of progress that comes from a game over that really perked my ears up on this recent playthrough.

Rather than simply wiping all your progress, Mario 3 slowly peels back the world with shortcuts and new routes that open after passing certain milestones or using specific items, with the distinction that main number levels will still be reset when all lives are depleted. If you had to start fresh each time in a challenging section of the game, it could potentially lead to repeated runs becoming more exhausting to play through. While I personally enjoy gauntlet challenges in games as I find them to be interesting tests of endurance when done well, it can get tiring pretty fast (unless, again, you’re as suffocating as say, NGB).

With the middle-ground approach found here, I think it more easily satisfies all types of players rather than catering to one side of the fence. After tearing down a fortress you can start skipping levels you may have already completed, but crucially, they still remain open if you want to go back in for power ups or extra lives. If game overs had truly no downside, walls of progression could potentially drain you of all your resources and become all the more frustrating to push through when you have nothing left to fall back on, but here, you always have time to rethink your approach and plan for your next attack. Alternatively, if your nuts are fat you can always smash your head against the wall more quickly by going straight to these tougher sections, ultimately leading to a faster pace and more rewarding level completions. While it admittedly comes into play mainly at lower skill levels (let’s not kid ourselves, Mario 3 isn’t that hard of a game all things considered), it’s still a consideration I greatly admire. And besides, high level players still get to enjoy the simple pleasures of the map, such as the increase of tension late in the game or the joy of cleaning out an entire screen of content without heavy failure.

While the advent of 3D titles as well as later 2D Mario games are clear canvases for expression from the big N, always keeping this series fresh some 40 years on, so much of their success is owed to this game in particular. You could say the existence of a level hub and level skipping are probably the traits Super Mario 64 are best known for on a wide scale, but they weren’t designed fresh for that game, they started here. It’s not just a case of a game introducing cute ideas for later games to perfect - though a compelling case can and has been made that Super Mario 64 is one of the best to ever do it - it’s a case of a game truly perfecting every pillar of design it tackled. I’m not sure I’ve played another 2D Mario (or maybe Mario in general) that feels so alive and well-realized as this. Beyond its influence for future games, beyond how impressive it stood for the time, beyond how important it is culturally, it nails perhaps the most important trait of a game like this. It’s just really god damn fun to play. For my money, it passes with flying colors and soars into the skies of perfection. It’s Super Mario Bros. 3, man.

After drudging through Sonic’s latest adventure through mediocrity, I felt thoroughly deflated. In all honesty, I was starting to think I was just completely tapped out for this series and it would never give me the same highs it used to. As it turns out, all I needed was a brief refresher with a personal favorite of mine. It’s been a while since this series provided me any pleasure, but boy lemme tell ya, when Sonic hits it really hits.

For many, the predictable choice here would be Mania or 3&K, but despite their obviously quality, it wasn’t the skew of Sonic I was looking for today. Not even Sonic 2, a game I’ve loved for longer than I’ve had cogent memories, would scratch the particular itch I was looking for. Instead I reached for Sonic CD, a game that continues to stand tall as a singular pillar of excellence in this ridiculously far reaching series of games.

If you’ve known me online for the past few years, you should already know how hard I’ve fought on the Sonic CD frontlines in the past, and as such I won’t reiterate everything I’ve previously said of the game in this log - instead I just wanted to gush incessantly for a little bit about one of my favorite games of all time.

In retrospect, bringing in the character designer of Sonic to direct the sequel to the first game was an inspired choice, and this is felt as early as the very first level. Visually and sonically this thing is unparalleled in it’s swag (but you didn’t need me to confirm that), levels and their layouts are as chaotic as the series would ever see in this format, and the pace at which you can breeze through each zone is comical even by Sonic standards. Later titles like 2 or 3&K arguably worked better as 2D platformers for normal people rather than absolute freaks, but no other Sonic game understands the appeal of the character quite as well as this, and it’s obvious in all areas of its design.

Even the time travel, something that continually gets mocked by detractors of the game, is so effortlessly cool and natural for the character that it’s kinda weird playing the other games without the mechanic now. The main sticking points for most have to do with the execution of time travel itself, and its actual mechanical use in the story. If you personally land in this critical group of goblins, I hear you, but I just don’t care. You’re so concerned with traveling through time just for it’s “intended” function as a vehicle for the true ending of the game, when honestly, the best way to enjoy it may be to focus on the purely shallow benefits to it. On my most recent playthrough I disregarded the robot generators entirely, breezed through all seven special stages, and continued to utilize the time travel nearly 40 times in the run just to change the scenery and layouts while leisurely bouncing through all 7 of the game’s magnificent zones. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that bring the most pleasure.

While on the note of the time travel, this most recent playthrough was done on the Sonic CD Restored version of the game along with it’s massive time travel overhaul, and while I’ll always be able to hang with even the nastiest ports of the game, this cleans up the experience to an honestly absurd degree. In fact, it was such a smooth experience I can’t help but wonder if people’s hatred of the game comes more from shitty ports than anything. While some of the changes here could be argued to be somewhat superfluous (from what I understand, time travel in the original CD version of the game is around 35% faster than the 2011 port, with CDR’s time travel being around 16% faster than even that), it’s clearly the closest representation of how the game not only was on release, but how it was always meant to be. Sure the time travel is absurdly fast here to the point where it’s maybe a bit too easy to pull off, but the core of the game shines so clearly with this port that I think it doesn’t take away from the experience at all.

In the bad timeline we landed in where this series is just inconceivably fucked up with no way to turn back, it’s nice to still have a title that shines bright in a sea of never-ending shadow. This game tickles my brain in a way not easily found elsewhere. The joy of flinging this blue bastard through pinball mazes from hell. The joy of effortlessly seeing all eras of time just for the sake of it. The joy of beating a level in 30 seconds or 5 minutes dictated only by how you feel like playing the game rather than by some slapdash gauntlet level design. The joy of true and uncompromising play.

Arzest has done the impossible: they’ve managed to design one of the most distressingly mediocre games of the year, a game that bears no soul and feels entirely devoid of life, and I’d still play it over Sonic Frontiers

(the following is a blurb I contributed for pangburn’s massive “sight & sound” project from earlier this year, preserved in this lone journal entry to please no one beyond myself. i thought it would be nice to have something on my page for my favorite traditional fighting game, and after seeing djscheddar do something similar for silent hill i thought it would be a good excuse to crib his style and finally post something small on third strike.)

Being a series that founded its core identity on timeless, generalized depictions of caricatured combat, it’s fascinating to me that Street Fighter tried to reinvent itself with the SFIII Series, seemingly to appeal to the masses and ultimately burning bridges with a large number of their fans in the process. I think that’s a large part of why it's so special to me though: this series of games (especially Third Strike) stands nowadays as a perfect time capsule of a bygone era laced in frivolous sass and a shared optimism for a new generation. Third Strike could easily be held up on the merits of its artistic tendencies even if it wasn’t strong mechanically, but this aesthetic isn’t just cheap set dressing - this drive for creativity and spunk is interwoven with every thread of its design. While mechanics like parrying and a brand new roster of bozos may not appeal to everyone who loved the simplicity of SFII, the confidence on display in every element to the identity of SFIII makes it a peerless monolith in one of the most colorful and creative genres in the medium. As the turn of the millennium draws near and the world resets at midnight, what's the harm in being the most honest and playful versions of ourselves in the meantime?

Link tearing through the lands of Hyrule on the shit that killed Shinzo Abe

[April Fools 2023]

”I’m in love. I’m floating, I’m happy… Ahh, the world is so beautiful.”
On the surface, you may be inclined to write off 2005’s masterpiece Marry Me, Misato! as nothing but a cute love story, strewn with the longing desires of a boy way out of his league on his journey to marry Misato. This read is certainly the easy one, but it's understandable that the reader may come to a conclusion such as that. The deliberately faceless protagonist makes it a natural instinct for the reader to slip into their shoes, and their journey is a selfless one. He yearns not to satisfy his own desires through matrimony, but to fulfill the needs of his one true love. However, this read would be missing the trees for the forest, as I believe something far more poignant lies within the text.

At the heart of Marry Me, Misato! lies a greek tragedy for the ages. The tale of a love that can never be. A tale of a boy throwing everything away in pursuit of a mistress who remains ambivalent toward his existence right up to the very end. And perhaps most tragic of all, a tale that rings far too close to our mortal realm to be fairly maligned as anything resembling “fiction”.

Whether we admit it or not, far too many of us have found ourselves longing for love from beyond a computer screen that we should not, nay, CANNOT pursue. Whether that be someone from within our realm who we wish to lay, or a fictional character that exists only within the confines of hand-drawn animated cells, flashing 24 times before our eyes with every passing second of our attention. We know deep down this lust is sinful, yet we pursue regardless. This is not an emotion that has gone unnoticed by the author, as illustrated towards the end of the adventure wherein the protagonist has a rare moment of lucidity: “I thought I was happy, but I am devastated. All my plans to marry Misato were in vain.” There’s a clear understanding of the psychological impact this type of longing can do to a person - should they push themselves to such extremes anyway - yet in a moment framed initially as newfound positive twist of fate, the boy shifts course for one final time and devises a new plan to get just what he desires. What may be seen as a moment of grand victory after a minor trip on the curb can only be described with context as tragic. Despite the courteous feather capping off the adventure in the tasteful arial-fonted “THE END” blazen on screen after our hero's revelation, this this just as shallow as the blank screen that lay beyond the text. This is not a resolution, it’s simply the first loop of a newfound never-ending story, and one with no true conclusion for this boy if his final statement is anything to go by.

As stated previously, it's easy to slip into a trance with Marry Me, Misato! and the narrative it lays out (Who DOESN’T want to marry Misato, after all) but admitting to such hypnosis simply proves its thesis to be correct. There is no clear end in sight for such an adventure: all that lies beyond is a desert of blistering pain and betrayal from the one you think you hold closest to your heart. It may seem fruitful now to chase that woman in red with the soft blue hair dancing in the starlight-draped park, but calling it a wasteful venture would be generous. There’s more beyond the curved pixels on your screen resembling a woman, and unless you pull that plug, you’ll never face that grim reflection on the other side. There’s plenty of things to love in this world, plenty of fish in the sea, but none of them are Misato. None of them can be Misato.
“I love you, Misato!”

Forget about misplaced film analogies, I’m starting to think Resident Evil 4 might be the Abbey Road of video games - not just a title that shook the industry and course corrected everyone even thinking about flexing their own creative muscles in its wake, but also arriving fully formed after years of refinement and experimentation, effectively acting as a thunderous mic drop for their creators and the years of work that preceded it. In fact, this game has been so universally and thoroughly praised, that the idea of picking it apart critically feels futile.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to denounce a modicum of this game’s quality here. Anything I say for the rest of my mortal life that resembles intense negative criticism of RE4 ought to be interpreted as a cry for help, and the authorities should be alerted of my status immediately. What I am suggesting though, is that its monolithic status in the industry has likely steered away modern critics from really digging into the systems to discern what really makes the package sing. “Resident Evil 4 is one of the greatest games of all time” is a sentiment that’s as natural as breathing to most (myself included), so why even bother trying to justify that notion? I won’t be challenging that instinct today, as breaking down every positive element to RE4 would be an exercise in futility at this point, but there is a single ever-present thread that permeates through the game’s massive campaign that I would like to discuss today.

Call it a theory (a game theory, if you will) but I think many modern “gamey” games have taken RE4 and its sneakiest qualities for granted, or just completely missed certain brushstrokes that brought the game together. It’s hard not to love everything here, obviously, but something that really stood out to me on my numerous recent playthroughs was how RNG influences every corner of play across the game’s massive campaign.

We all know by now how masterful Resident Evil 4’s restricted control scheme is, but in my eyes, the reason why is due to everything else surrounding the control scheme. Say for the sake of argument you’ve just cornered yourself in a room with a dozen Gonados. A fate worse than death in a traditional action game, but it shouldn’t be too scary here due to Leon’s plethora of ranged options, right? If you’ve played RE4 before (and if you haven’t, what the hell are you doing here?) you know that encounters rarely play out in such a breezy fashion. Enemies and their movement patterns are erratic, their attack options are multifaceted and frequently require different countermeasures, and the silent difficulty scaling that pulls the strings on normal mode means you always have to stay on your toes to fight for your survival. This dynamism swings in your favor too, with critical hits and item drops occasionally feeling like the determining factor between success and failure during bouts. Even in the most ideal of circumstances you always have to stay on high alert, with every layer quickly crumbling with the slightest of breeze and collapsing over your plan near constantly. It’s miraculous how you can play one room over and over again with a vague route in mind, and things can still go wrong.

The item drops are another point too: while the game gives you far more ammo than you could ever need, relying on one weapon will all but guarantee its depletion, forcing you to fall back on other options until you find more ammo. It’s easy to rely on the shotgun due to its range and power, but it feels like for every encounter where you want to fall back on it, another harder fight is sure to come soon. Despite the clearly uneven power scale between your arsenal of weapons, the game somehow remains near-perfectly balanced for an entire playthrough as a result of these micro-decisions you’re forced to make every 5 seconds.

Loot drops from villagers and the economy as a whole also go great lengths towards affecting Resident Evil 4 long-term, but it's revealing to me that even on the highest threshold of difficulty, it's something you never actually need to engage with. Due to the strength of universal options like the knife and invincible melee attacks, combined with the breadth of ways to use crumbs of ammunition for even the weakest guns, you always have a strong chance of survival. The core gameplay design is so tight knit that even the addition of an in-game shop that lets you sell every weapon and item in your arsenal simply exists as a way to mix and match gameplay styles on the fly, and try out distinct strategies in a way that feels totally customized to the player and no one else. If you want to sell everything just to max out the Killer7 at the very end of the game and kill the final boss in 8 shots, you can do that! If you want to kill off the Merchant entirely and only use the tools the game is guaranteed to give you, go for it! You’re all but directly encouraged to do so. That’s true dynamism.

Considering everything at play, from Leon’s limited control to the intense variables that shift the playing field with every passing second, it’s fair to say the outcome of the game is at the mercy of RNG in some way. Generally speaking I’m wary about this flavor of design - I always like to have control over my inputs and consequences if I have the dexterity to overcome a challenge, so the idea of a spinning wheel of numbers guiding me towards (or away) from victory isn’t something I normally want to engage with. This may be why I’ve gravitated towards fighting games as a competitive outlet over the past decade, as their mechanics are so cut and dry that the only thing standing in the way of success is my own skill (and often, my hubris).

Resident Evil 4 isn’t like the other girls though. The core mechanics and encounters are so good on their own that the designers didn’t need to weigh down on the player in other more heavy handed ways. It doesn’t need to randomize the shape of rooms to differentiate encounters, weapon stats are never clashing up against the power level of enemies in a way you can’t be expected to work around, and the player is still largely in control of their success at all times despite factors that are genuinely out of your control. Even an enemy randomizer, something that has been proven through ROM hacks to still add to games in meaningful ways, is simply unnecessary when you have a campaign so tightly packed with variety and interesting scenarios. The unpredictable elements that do come into play simply follow the player and force them to engage with the mechanics in cool and interesting ways - no more, no less. It’s one of the more elegant threads of randomization I’ve ever seen, and is a clear sign from the designers that they absolutely knew what they were cooking with. Capcom created perfectly optimized systems around the simple act of pointing and shooting, and could be as hands off from the player as possible to let the design of this suplex of a game speak for itself.

This past week I made a trip to hang out with some friends an hour down the road, and something we do almost every time I come over is plug in the modded Wii and fuck around with whatever iso catches our eye. This two day event was no different: Monday night I banged out the last third of Resident Evil 4, and the next morning; huddled around the TV looking for something to pass the time with, I tried Pikmin on a whim. My memory card was full from last night’s adventure so I could only get a taste of the adventure at the risk of losing a massive amount of work, but even from the 3 day sample we tried, I could tell it was something special. Everything about it was attractive to me, from the Nintendo-spun RTS mechanics to the peculiar world they inhabited. I knew when I got home from that trip that I had to sit down and really sink my teeth into the game.

Funny enough, Pikmin has actually been a bit of a white whale for me personally. As a kid playing Luigi’s Mansion for the first time, unearthing the Pikmin trailer felt like peering into something beyond our world. It always looked like something I’d be into, but fate was not kind to my interests, and I never got my hands on a copy. Though maybe in retrospect I should have actually asked for the game once or twice… Regardless, I finally sat down to play it as an adult, and predictably it was absolutely wonderful. What I didn’t expect was that I’d go on to play through the game 3 times to completion within the week. Looking into it online it seems like the length of the game, and by extension the 30 day time limit, seem to be the biggest point of contention amongst most players. This is peculiar to me, as in my experience I found it to be the glue that prevented the game’s systems from completely collapsing in on themselves. That’s not a sleight against the mechanics though, and I do want to shine a light on the actual game part because I feel like it gets overlooked when looking at the game from the outside.

Every layer is razor sharp, and the few massive pieces of design interlock so well to allow for interesting strategy puzzles, that removing or adding just a single piece would likely send the whole thing crashing down. Across a single day there are only a few major things to keep track of: The Pikmin population, part locations, level layouts, and enemy spawns. It’s all disgustingly simple on paper, but contending with everything at once is where the magic really happens. Efficiency is the name of the game here, and because tasks have to be performed in real time by the Pikmin (with slight time saves coming from the number of Pikmin on a task and the status of their bud), a strong grasp of level navigation is all but essential to prevent massive time and population losses. Some weeks I’d play simple and juggle basic tasks to nab a part or two a day, whereas other times I’d find myself playing more towards chipping away at level hazards one day, and then cleaning up with 3 or 4 parts in a single stretch the next. It’s a testament to the complexity and density of the admittedly small levels that even after multiple reasonably efficient runs, I still couldn’t even begin to chart out anything resembling an optimal path to get parts as quickly as possible.

So how about the timer? Well, it's maybe not a direct threat in the way the developers intended. On a first playthrough you have more than enough time to collect all 30 ship parts and get the best ending (on my first playthrough with minimal resets I managed to beat the final boss on day 27, and collect the final part on day 28) and you’ll likely continue to shave off time with every subsequent run, so on paper it may seem like it the timer may as well not be there at all, right? I’m not convinced.

The reason I find the time limit to be such a captivating piece of the puzzle is not because it’s a particularly challenging thing to work around on its own, but for how it shifts your perspective on every mechanic and every choice you make over the course of a run. If you took this exact campaign and all it’s challenges, but lifted the 30 day timer, the way you’d approach each level would completely flip on its head. Multitasking would be unnecessary as you could execute a plan as slowly and carefully as possible, you would have all the time in the world to plant the maximum amount of Pikmin for any one scenario, and the punishment for mistakes shifts from added tension and short-term changes of plans, to simply robbing you of more of your time. In layman's terms, removing the timer would probably miss the point.

It’s been said that people tend to optimize the fun out of something if given the opportunity. In the case of Pikmin, this has completely different insinuations depending on the existence of a timer, and that’s what makes it such a fascinating inclusion to me. No matter how well you understand the game, no matter how sharp your execution is, it doesn’t matter. The timer is always looming overhead like an albatross subtly weighing on your psyche and steering your every move. Some may view it as something that just restricts player freedom, but with how loose the balance of the game and the timer admittedly are, it somehow perfectly balances itself as an element of the game that always subconsciously keeps the player in check. Few titles before or since have promoted optimisation in the face of a looming failure state so well, and this coming from a Nintendo game of all things could very well steer younger audiences to explore more games of this niche, and I just sorta love that prospect honestly.

This type of psychological tension is something I wish would be explored in more inherently childish games like this, and not just reserved for “mature” games. I sorta understand why this hasn’t been a common design principle - especially for a modern children’s game - but I love that the Big N was willing to put something like this together with their own flourish and have it come out so perfectly realized despite being such a bizarre mismatch of aesthetical and mechanical sensibilities. It would be easy to call it just a tech demo given its compact size (and it’s literal roots in GameCube tech demos) but that would be a mistake. The original Pikmin still stands as one of Nintendo’s boldest games to date, and I think it deserves to be viewed in the same glamorous light as every other masterpiece released on the purple lunchbox at the time. We need to do our best to cherish this game now, because I think the time of its potential influence and popularity has already begun to fade.

No sense at all in acting performative and presentable about this, MediEvil stands as a crowning representation of everything I found to be appealing about video games in my youth, and is a welcome reminder of why I still spend most of my precious free time with this embarrassing hobby of mine. This goes beyond just strumming the chords of nostalgia in my old greasy heart though (this isn’t a title I grew up with), there’s simply a childlike-playfulness on display here that you don’t see much of these days. Yeah yeah I know, new game bad old game good, take a shot - this is just one of those things you just can’t really recapture in modern day man.

“But Luke!” you may be exclaiming, “This game is so outdated by today’s standards! It’s clunky and hard to go back to.” In an attempt to be charitable in response to this hypothetical (yet distressingly common) sentiment, I will say that you aren’t exactly wrong about your assessment of the game, but is that really much of a problem? I suppose most people are used to friction in games stemming from stat grinds and seemingly endless pool of meaningless dribble disguised as content to sift through, but I think there's room in the industry for games as bumbling and occasionally cumbersome as this. Say what you will about Dan “The Man” Fortesque; “clunky” this, “slippery” that, your foul words have no ill-effect on him. It’s no skin off his back, for he is literally a pile of bones.

In retrospect, It’s no wonder why my capacity for critical thought was shut off so long ago: I was smitten by this game from the very moment I laid an eye on it’s harrowing field of mindless zombies and a wall constructed from some of the most impressively poor draw distance I’ve seen on the system, but can you blame me? Many people hold up the PS1 as the system where razor sharp aesthetical visions come to life, as a canvas for gorgeous technical flexes of the highest possible calibur of the time, and as an excuse for a bunch of nerds to showcase intelligent teardowns of system OS and architecture to really make Sonic’s ass sing. But how often do you hear the praises of a game like MediEvil? I don’t want to diminish the value of the art itself, the land of Gallowmere is truly inspired and seeing the cartoonish depictions of common Medieval tropes and caricatures delights me, but there’s something to be said for how the crust layered over the vision really amplifies the whole thing. I mean this with complete sincerity, a game like this works so much better when presented with all the grace of corpses tumbling down a hill while draped in the cold moonlight.

That’s to say nothing of the actual structure of the game itself though , creatively nudging you towards cleaning out every polygon of the game’s 20 odd levels lest you miss an important item in the pumpkin patch that won’t be needed until you reach the dragon’s nest. I think it’s this scatterbrained approach to puzzle solving that really brings it all together for me, rarely being as obtuse as to necessitate a walkthrough, and only occasionally being as linear as to promote blind runs through levels. You never know exactly what's expected of you or when certain items will be needed, so I occasionally found myself stumbling over simple problems in pursuit of an answer less complex than was actually required of me. Generally speaking the game is never more complicated than “use this item on that thing” but it just makes the whole thing feel very adventurous, I adore how it feels like there’s an endless treasure trove of shit to find while being so small and compact so as to not feel overbearing.

I’m guessing that this is exactly the type of game that FELT insurmountable as a kid, sharing secrets with friends on the playground in an effort to learn all of it’s secrets and finally make it to the end, but as an adult it still holds up just as much in my mind as a quaint adventure with exceptionally low ambitions and a sharp knack for tickling all the pleasure centers in my brain. I dunno, I just love everything about this lol. I’m sure someone out there far smarter than me can piece together the little sprinkles of worldbuilding that make the world feel more alive, or write a captivating college thesis about how Zarok is an intensely compelling villain with his lofty goals of checks notes ruling Gallowmere(?) but I have no pretensions about this. I’m a simple man of simple needs. I like when the funny British skeleton with bad teeth tries to talk when he doesn’t have a jaw after a lifetime and beyond of spreading falsehoods about his name, only for him to be the one who has to put a stop to the mustache twirling villain and his dubious schemes. Truly the hero the United Kingdom needs, but not the one they deserve. Maybe in MediEvil 3 he can take down the late Queen of England once and for all, I’m sure not even Dan could resist an adventure as treacherous and deadly as that. My DM’s are open Sony if you wanna discuss this further

As the dominance of arcades fades further into the past along with other relics of our memory, a growing collection of armchair critics have begun to question limited lives and their place in gaming, often unfairly maligning them as nothing but an outdated relic from a time where arcade operators just wanted to squeeze extra money out impressionable children. Similarly, many modern games have leaned away from actively scoring the player during the duration of the game, also to the delight of some. Obviously these don’t belong in every game (you’d be hard pressed to conjure a compelling argument as to why the scoring of Super Mario Bros. is one of the better elements to that title), but what detractors of these don’t recognize is the extra layers that immediately get added when you build a game around these two systems.

Scoring on its own may be an explicitly intrinsic reward in an old arcade game, but what happens when you’re granted extra lives for getting high scores? Suddenly the thought of working towards mastery over basic mechanics becomes a bit more alluring, especially in titles where an extra life can be the determining factor between continuing to play the game and being forced to spend more of your parent’s money. Depending on the game, you may also realize there's been a shocking amount of consideration for how scoring itself is handled - it's not just about bragging rights anymore, you’ve essentially unlocked a whole new slew of mechanics and gameplay challenges to play with in a title you may have disregarded before. These old games weren’t just a ploy to steal your money, they were designed by real people trying to make their game a more exciting and complete package than whatever other games were sharing space in the arcade.

These hidden gems of design ideas can still be found all over arcade titles waiting for a curious player to discover, and one genre that feels absolutely rich for this type of exploration is the shoot-em-up. These games tend to be so challenging for most players that the only reasonable way towards an elusive one credit clear is to earn extends through creative uses of the game’s scoring systems, because there's no way the layman would be able to get by without eventually crumbling under pressure and making mistakes. While you may not be able to read every single bullet pattern that gets thrown your way even after many hours of play, if you engage with the scoring system you’ll likely have a bit more room for error and have a far greater chance of reaching the end. While these games seem insurmountable at a glance, these truly are titles that anyone can learn and get into with enough determination and perseverance. That said, I think there’s extra room for these games to blossom and evolve even more than they already have since their inception.

Standard shmups are often complex but somewhat linear pieces of artistry. Interesting offensive mechanics may throw wrinkles into the equation and force players to consider each scenario with every possible solution, but due to the relative rigidity of bullet patterns and enemy layouts, you could reasonably find an optimal path through and solve the game with enough time, dedication, and study. There's obviously a certain beauty in that - ascending to match the piece on its level and finally seeing through the canvas between the splashes of painted bullets that get in your way of success - it's one of the more literal ways you can use games as a vessel for artistic expression and there's absolutely value in that. The only problem is that at a certain point, the core loop of the game shifts from a problem solving affair to an execution check. Obviously this type of gameplay has its own appeal, and my simplified summary doesn't account for tertiary methods of play such as score attack and pacifist runs (or any number of ways you feel like tweaking the gameplay flow to your liking), nor the arduous journey of climbing the mountain of success in the genre to even reach a point of true mastery. It's just that, with their traditional implementation, I don't find them to be the best vehicles for pure player freedom and expression in the medium of games.

On that note, I think it's unfortunate, albeit understandable to a certain degree, that Battle Garegga a title that's slipped under the radar for most. Its initial facade of an industrial war-grounded aesthetic is relatively unassuming paired next to the otherworldly architecture of galactic ambitions in more popular shooters, and at a glance it's hard to parse its mechanics any further than "it sure is a shmup". The irony here is that, once you peel back any preconceived notions on the game and really dig into its cavernous depths, this is by far one of the most enchanting takes on the genre you can find.

If traditional shmups are more about knowing what the game is about to say than what your actual response is, then Battle Garegga is all about constant back and forth exchanges where making a poor decision may blow up in your face with no easy way to bounce back. It's an active conversation, constantly flowing between leading roles of command and brief moments of reprise to consider your next plan of attack. Few games of any genre have truly captured this feeling for me, let alone shmups, but what's really surprising is that it doesn't do anything extremely complex on the surface to demand this type of engagement. There are many different selectable ships that fuzzy up the decision making during runs, but bullet patterns can be easier to read than what you may expect from your average Cave affair, your secondary attack options are multifaceted but still pretty easy to understand, and bombs mostly work how you'd expect for a shmup. Altogether, this makes the game rather easy to enjoy on a baseline level, but those elements alone are not what set it far above the pack for me. Rather, the defining element to Battle Garegga is it's infamous ranking system, essentially this game's version of dynamic difficulty scaling.

To me, dynamic difficulty is put into games for two primary reasons: putting higher skilled players in check to prevent them from feeling bored by a challenge they're far beyond the level of, and to push lower skilled players past their comfort zone and give them a taste of what's just beyond their grasp. You could make an argument that it's unfair to punish skillful play like this, but generally speaking I don't think this is done out of malice. It's fair to say most developers designing their game around scaling difficulty simply want to push players a little bit more each time they play and make sure they never hit a slump where they desync with the natural difficulty curve of the game. In its best iterations, dynamic difficulty has worked so well at keeping players in the zone that they didn't even notice it was pulling the strings at all.

Battle Garegga, conversely, feels outright antagonistic towards the player at basically every turn. Nearly every action in the game is enough to push the in-game rank just a little bit higher, and the only way to drop the rank is by dying. Don’t get your hopes up that this is like Resident Evil 4 or GOD HAND either, where you could easily tank the difficulty through repeated failure to make an upcoming section easier if you felt like it, because its limited life system will quickly net you a game over if you try to quickly drop your rank with rapid, thoughtless deaths. It sounds so simple, but applying this design idea to a shoot-em-up of all things has such massive ramifications on the game and seeps into every single facet of play. There's no doubt in my mind that many people have and will continue to drop Battle Garegga simply due to the Ranking system, and if they’re just starting out I don’t think I’d blame them. Improving at shmups already feels like an impossible task for most, so considering that the game was severely punishing them for standard play, as well as requiring more money for each credit at the game’s release, I can see why players quickly roll over to a different game after getting frustrated and confused at this one. In modern day with the benefit of hindsight however, I think brushing this aside would be a huge mistake.

As you can probably guess, Battle Garegga ignited a spark from me I haven’t felt in a long time. But what is it about this exhausting cocktail of cruelty and creativity that does it for me? Well all of it, frankly.

Rank is the big elephant in the room regarding the game as I’ve mentioned before, and it really is the backbone of the whole experience. Nearly everything you do increases the Rank, but what does this actually mean? In the long term, it means every decision made can have unforeseen consequences later in a run, varying from faster and denser bullet patterns to end-game bosses having their HP doubled, but simultaneously this means your short term stretches of gameplay are orders of magnitude more stressful. Take stage 1 for example, many shmups suffer from the first stage being a minute-long warmup before you get to the real game, and can lead to resets becoming all the more exhausting when the biggest slump of gameplay (comparatively anyway) happens right at the start. In Battle Garegga, there’s SO much shit to worry about and so many variables to consider that every fresh run feels like you’re already starting at nearly 100% mental capacity. I mentioned rigid routing earlier, but here it's not so cut and dry. Depending on your ship choice your upgrade route might swing wildly, and every item you pick up is preceded by a massive question that lingers for your entire playthrough: “how might this fuck me up later in the run?”

Looking at it on paper, it genuinely might not be a massive boon on your rank to pick up one extra shot upgrade or not, but even beyond the ramifications of prepping at the start for a stretch of the game you won’t reach for another 4 stages, there’s a blanket of anxiety that gets cast over a run from this that completely shifts the energy of the entire experience. For a mainstream comparison, I felt a similar ever-present pressure while playing through Resident Evil for the first time this year. Similar to controlling the Rank in Battle Garegga, every bullet fired and Ink Ribbon spent left me wondering much harder how my final stretch through the mansion would be, but it can’t be understated just how much of this is retained when compressing this feeling into a 30 minute game compared to spreading it across a 4+ hour one with multiple save points to catch your breath.

Not only does this change how you view items you’ve already collected and decisions you’ve already made, this has a really cool side effect on the physical space that items themselves take up before you even think about picking them up. While item drop locations are entirely deterministic, the shifting Rank means you can rarely be quite sure of when and where specific items might drop, and also inadvertently turns surprise random drops into an extended piece of the enemy roster. Some items are good at different points in the run, and also change in external value depending on how you want to deck out your ship, so every drop requires a quick and intelligent evaluation of whether it's something you should deal with or not. Options are probably the easiest example of this, being one of the most valuable upgrades you can earn for your ship, but adding more rank in one pickup than any other item in the game, so while you could pick up a few extra Options early to dramatically increase your DPS, you have to quickly decide whether or not this extra firepower is worth it in spite of the rather large immediate rank increase.

Medals are the one piece of this pie that feels a bit too rigid on paper, essentially being an item you should disregard entirely if you drop a combo and reset their value, but tied in with the rest of the items and the uncertainty of where they’ll appear, they end up wrapping around to becoming one of my favorite things to keep up with in a run. While the decision has basically already been made for you that you always want to pick them up to keep up a chain and quickly work up towards an extend, they have a nasty habit of dropping in the most repugnant places possible, as keeping track of every mechanic at once, on top of keeping a mental note of what enemies exactly will drop the item you want, is just too fucking much for the average player to juggle. Enemy formations are already beautiful and layered in their construction and consideration for a distinct challenge, so tie that in with an item that essential feels random in its placement -on top of fighting enemies that can effectively change the spread of their attacks from run to run based primarily on your rank - and you end up with fresh and unique obstacles to overcome, often when you’re not ready for it. Depending on the speed of your ship a bad item spawn can be absolutely catastrophic, so having to stay on your toes and be ready to squeeze through even the tightest of bullets to keep up your chain gives me a rush like no other. Shmups are generally defined by absurd hand crafted patterns to push through, so having a persistent piece of challenge that feels as dynamic and unpredictable as this is an absolute breath of fresh air for me.

The final layer that really makes this system so fascinating is its relation to deaths and your failure state. Death is the only action capable of dropping the rank, and hoarding your lives for long stretches of time is a surefire way to end up with an experience far too hard to keep up with by the time you hit the halfway point of a run where your Rank REALLY starts to bite you in the ass. Naturally this has led to strategies revolving around deliberate suicides before challenging sections or getting an extend, but giving you extra room to bounce back from genuine mistakes is a nice motivator to try and push sloppy runs further than you may have tried before. Even in the worst of my runs, I constantly find myself saying stuff like “well, let’s see how the rest of the stage goes”, “at least my rank is a little bit lower now”, or “shit, I better play well in the next stage to get that extra extend.” Again, it's this dynamism that really sets this game apart from not just other shmups, but most games in general for me.

Now, if you’re familiar with the development of Battle Garegga there’s a chance you already know this, but here's the part where I have to rip off the bandaid and admit something. In an interview translated by blackoak on the Shmuptacular forum in 2011,
lead designer and programmer Shinobu Yagawa admitted of the Ranking system that “...It sounds bad, but it was one of my methods for increasing income for arcade operators.” While this may just seem like a damning condemnation of Yagawa and the rest of the team, like they just made the game as a 百円硬貨 muncher and it just organically evolved into the mechanical mess it is today, that would be ignoring the fact that everything surrounding Ranking is exceptionally well considered.

I’ve already mentioned the enemy formations, but the general stage design here is just absolutely perfect. Each stage usually has a central gimmick, setpiece, or persistent element to consider that gives every stretch of the game a distinct identity and creatively blows up your rank for the next stage and eventually fuck you over by the end of it all. My favorite of these being a massive 1-2-3 punch right around the middle of the game: A mini-boss in stage 3 that you have to tear apart piece by piece and keep alive for as long as possible to earn an extend while keeping track of the fighter planes that act as safe spots for the boss and new enemies for you to deal with, the dozens of medals that come from bombing huts in stage 4 that skyrocket your rank and deplete you of your resources right before the impending boss rush, and flying platforms in stage 5 that always drop six items of varying use, but the likes of which being tied to your item drop order mean the actual layout and set of drops is going to different every time you fight them. As an addendum to my old point on items as dynamic obstacles, this stage and set of enemies is maybe the best example of this. They’re by far the easiest enemies to fight in a vacuum, but the core of each platform being an obstacle course of items to weave through to either avoid extraneous Rank increases or to keep up your chain when a Medal spawns is one of the most breathtaking pieces of design I’ve ever seen in an arcade game.

There's no doubt in my mind Yagawa did not envision the modern version of how Battle Garegga would be played, but you don’t just accidentally design and map a game out as thoughtfully as this. Somehow there isn’t a single stage in the lineup that feels out of place, and all of them contribute to the structure in ways I just can't get enough of. I especially enjoy how even the game’s pacing keeps you on your toes, going from a dense set of 4 levels where you prep for the hardest sections of the game, a massive endurance test of a boss rush right in the middle that takes place over whats by far the longest stage of the game, and two final stages that, while pretty standard as far as structure go, act as your final test of the game’s mechanics quite well. Initially I wasn’t sure how to feel about the last third of the game shifting the focus away from Rank control and setpieces, but being the section that shows most clearly the ramifications of your choices throughout the game, as well as being the one stretch that's anything like this, I think it ends up slotting into the full stage lineup quite well. Somehow, despite being as crammed full of overlapping ideas and off the wall mechanics that always have a new wrinkle to uncover, everything fits into place and adds to the game meaninfully (even dying to drop your Rank clearly had some thought put into it, with the number of lives you have when dying determining how much your Rank will drop, meaning its always better to suicide before getting an extend and not after. Brilliant.)

Maybe this persistent stress and indecision felt during play is why Battle Garegga isn’t for everyone, but I just can’t get enough of it. Even though I’m far below the level where I can truly capitalize on every millisecond of play to maximize my score, I constantly find myself pulling back to appreciate this impossibly complex web of interwoven mechanics, and ogle at the ways players have broken the game in half and bent it to their will. The fact that the game is over 25 years old and players are still pushing the limits of what's possible in it is awe inspiring. This perfect combination of its unsolvability and difficulty of wrangling with it’s mechanics, combined with its loose enough structure to allow for players to truly stretch their legs and express themselves, is a perfect microcosm of why I fell in love with video games to begin with.

What I’ve come to learn over the years of getting into games from before my time is that first impressions might fool you, and may inevitably push you away from something you’ll truly fall in love with. We always hear about “don’t judge a book by its cover” but even beyond that, I think shaking away preconceptions of art (whether it land anywhere on the scale of a singular piece or an entire genre) can lead to finding new ways to appreciate even something as overtly laced with cynicism and cruelty as they come. Taking off the rose tinted glasses, it's extremely clear that the era of arcades from the 80s and 90s didn’t always have a clean experience for the player in mind. It’s why games were tough as nails in their original pay-to-play format, and it's why a massive stretch of early console games felt like they carried over some old bad habits from their predecessors. Income was always a driving factor to their design, and pretending that wasn’t the case would be extremely disingenuous of me. Looking beyond that, however, is the key to finding what made these games stick with people back then, and continue to pull them in now. If we all cast aside our rigid understanding and discussion of certain game design concepts, I think we’d all collectively find more games to fall in love with and appreciate. Maybe we’d find more games that have an exciting platter of stuff to dig into that was truly there all along, just hiding under our noses waiting to be discovered. Maybe we’d find more games like Battle Garegga.