It’s strange how the mind “justifies” fiction.
I’ve seen this a lot lately: people justify… questionable narrative choices with “but the setting demands it!” Alright, easy, not-to-specific example that you see all the time: female character walks around in skimpy clothes constantly, but it’s explained, “no, this isn’t just an excuse for you to see/picture a half-naked woman regularly, oh no, this is because she comes from a culture with no nudity taboo, so it’s totally okay!” Now, if an author wants to turn the girl next door into a scantily clad dominatrix because it’s his fetish (hi, Chris!) that’s one thing. Like, that’s cool, Lord knows I slide all sorts of oblique references to my preferred kink (slightly injured, despondent centaurs) into most anything I write, whether it be speculative cyborg fiction or my tax returns, but it’s another thing when a fan attempts to justify the author’s hang-ups. “She has to walk around naked! It’s part of her culture!” …. Well, yeah, but the author made that culture, too. It should have been a tip off when she announced she was from the planet Ladynakedia.
Even beyond wank material, often the medium defines an author’s excuses. You can write anything in books, and I’d say that even applies to comic books. Live-action movies and TV shows have budgets, but special effects have improved dramatically in the last few years. Sure, you can have a guy with a flaming head in your main cast, but better save those fiery antics for the finale. What’s the excuse? Uh… well, firehead may only be used when we’re absolutely in danger… yeah… that’ll work. And never mind the concept of medium censorship and what actors will or will not do. Let’s face it, there’s a reason Game of Thrones isn’t on basic cable, or that anime gets about 10,000% more up-skirt shots than anything with live actresses.
Videogames, however, have to justify practically everything. If you’re unaware, Mario’s iconic design is entirely based on sprite limitations. How does this one go? He’s got a mustache so he wouldn’t need an animated mouth, white gloves so his hands would be distinct, and a hat so Mario’s luxurious locks wouldn’t get distracting. Clouds and bushes have the same face because it makes life easier, and there are so many random creatures posing as Bowser because it would just be a pain to come up with eight unique bosses. I mean… King Koopa’s magic made a goomba into a duplicate. Yeah… that… is everyone buying that?
So, yes, some of the greatest moments in gaming where created exclusively to justify the game involved. I don’t think we ever got an official explanation of osteoporosis for Simon Belmont’s lethargic jumps, but we did eventually see “Dracula has dominion over all monsters” to explain away a castle full of public domain creatures. Final Fantasy has ancient dungeons and floating sky cities because their tile sets looked cool, not because of advanced civilizations falling beneath the waves. Hell, even Lara Croft’s infamous chest is the result of programmers dicking around, and not a universe soaked in bovine growth hormone (is that canon?).
Which brings me to today’s game, Sqoon.
Sqoon… defies all sense of reason.
Sqoon is a shoot ‘em up from the early days of the NES. As far as gameplay goes, it’s pretty basic shooter fare. You control a small ship (The Sqoon), and you’ve got bullets to shoot and “missiles” to drop on ground-based enemies. You may collect powerups to enhance your arsenal, but the constant stream of enemies will likely cause you to crash well before seeing level 2. Hey, it’s an early-era shoot ‘em up, don’t expect to get very far. And, in early NES fashion, if you do succeed, the game just loops forever. Go for that high score!
So, superficially, we have a pretty simple game. It’s another Mag Max or Gradius: fly, shoot, try not to die. There were a hundred of these games on the NES.
Except… not so much with the flying as… swimming.
The Sqoon is a submarine. Narikeen, the captain, is a pirate. And the entire Earth has, incidentally, been flooded. The plot of Sqoon revolves around an invasion of Neptunians who, wanting a planet much like their watery homeworld, melted the polar ice caps and flooded the entire world. This game opens with a fly over (swim over?) of a sunken American city (there’s a teeny tiny flag in there), and moves on to other submerged landmarks with each level. The story further explains that the Neptunians are interested in Earth because they like humans… covered in special sauce and on a sesame seed bun. So, in addition to blasting Neptunians back to Neptune, you’ve got to steer that Sqoon into people processing plants and rescue captured humans. Quick, before those jerks are jerky!
Except… shouldn’t the human race already be dead by that point? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I can only hold my breath underwater for ten minutes, tops. If the entire world flooded, alien invasion or not, I’m pretty sure we’d all be swept away to the grave before we could give Captain Narikeen a ring.
And, with this bonkers plot plainly stated, I come back to… why? Like, even with the most rudimentary understanding of biology, I’m pretty sure the typical “Nintendo kid” would identify this world as one that maybe is beyond saving. Even if there were an ending (any ending!) to this game that featured the Neptunians vacuuming up the excess H2O and leaving the Earth just as they found it, we’d all still be under the sea for the half hour or so it takes to run through this game, and that’s not so great for these squishy, human lungs.
This is a shoot ‘em up on the NES, and, yes, a number of those games feature either planes or spaceships. We’re all on the same page there? There is nothing about the gameplay of Sqoon that wouldn’t work equally well with a black, starry background instead of a blue ocean. You can still use your missiles, you can still use your “ice ball bomb”, and you can still navigate in eight directions to avoid monster gauntlets. There are a pile of shooters out there, and I want to say most of them start their plot without the extinction of the human race.
So… why? Why is Sqoon a game that must feature an underwater adventure? It’s not like the controls take advantage of the aquatic environment. The Sqoon controls just like the Vic Viper. There’s a “rescue people, drop off people” mechanic in there, but there’s no reason that “drop off” ship at the top of the screen can’t just be a mothership or helicarrier rather than a lifeboat. And half the enemies are just abstract shapes, anyway, and not aquatic creatures.
Except… there are a few aquatic creatures floating around. There are really good crab and killer whale sprites swimming around, and they’re right there from the start of the game.
My God, the developers of Sqoon destroyed the entire human race for a pretty good whale sprite.
This seems… unjustifiable.
FGC #141 Sqoon
- System: Nintendo Entertainment System… seems like this one should have originated in the arcades, but nope.
- Number of players: Sqoon is a solitary vessel.
- Busiest title screen ever? Oh yes.
- Killer whales: Oh yeah, those whales don’t injure you, but if you rescue some humans, and leave them to float in the water for longer than a second, well, bad news, that guy is whale chow now. Shamu is insatiable.
- Good ol’ fashioned religion: There are crosses on churches in the sunken version of America. I thought those were supposed to be scrubbed out all Nintendo games, particularly in situations where it’s a clear sign of “where is your God now, drowny?” And that mermaid has an cross, too! What’s going on?
- Just play the gig, man: The music for this game is pretty neat. And there’s an entire song that’s reserved exclusively for the pause function. That’s a rarity.
- Did you know? In the American version, the Sqoon is conscripted into service by the Earth Defense Army. In Japan, the SOS comes from… the US Pentagon. This game keeps getting weirder and weirder…
- Would I play again: It’s a brutal NES shooter, so probably not. I’d rather play a brutal, modern shooter.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Wario World for the Nintendo Gamecube. He’s Wario! He’s number one! Please look forward to it!