We’re all victims of circumstance.
As I’ve randomly referenced before, I’m a professional computer geek, and I’m pretty successful in that field (by “successful” I mean “I can buy stupid video games without financial repercussions”, and that’s really all I want from life), but I know damn well that my apparent success is only the result of lucky happenstance. Yes, I studied computer science and now have years of experience in the field… but I don’t control the field. I’ve been a Windows user since eighth grade, and if Macintosh or Red Hat conquered the OS market back in those days, I might be a professional couch mover. And this is assuming “computing” as we now know it took off at all; a specialization in maintaining personal computers may have been just as useless as complete knowledge of Betamax if digital solitaire never made that splash.
And even within the field, we’ve seen dramatic shifts. A “Flash programmer” once earned $300 an hour… now you can’t give that crap away. Want to build a website? Sure, that’ll be $1500…. Or completely free and done within ten minutes on WordPress (proudly supporting Gogglebob.com for exactly a year today). And speaking of websites, who needs one of those when you’ve got a Facebook… but now we have to pay someone to update that. Yes, even within the relatively new and small “computer world” we’ve seen dramatic shifts on the micro (me, specifically) level. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a Highlander with a job at a printshop.
The videogame industry (arguably a subset of that computer industry) seems to be even weirder. Videogames are, at their core, the impossible combination of “latest technology” and “art”. No, I’m not trying to start another “are videogames art” debate, but videogames irrefutably get judged like art. The best games are the ones that make you feel something, whether that feeling be a deeper appreciation for your family, or a hate for all things furry and clad in t-shirts. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “best”… Memorable? Yes, the most memorable games are the ones that exploit completely subjective reasoning. I can’t tell you precisely how many bits the game uses, or the exact controls, but I can tell you that MTV Remote Control for the NES is a lousy game, and it’s for reasons that have nothing to do with its technical prowess.
So, in order for a game to succeed, it must satisfy not only the hardware qualifications of the day (dig out some old magazines and read up on how Yoshi’s Island was originally reviewed. Spoilers: 2-D models are dead forever and never coming back), but also the capricious will of the gaming public. Look, I’m not just bitter because Bomberman somehow has gone away forever, I’ve seen entire franchises disappear because there was a real or perceived (adventure games?) shift in the public’s fickle desire to see certain genres. Where oh where have you gone, my Gradius?
But every once in a while, we see a game that was actually ahead of the curve. No, I’m not talking about games that practically started genres, like Doom or Super Mario Bros. And, no, I’m also not talking about games or franchises that revitalized previously generally ignored genres like Final Fantasy 7. No, what I’m talking about are games that got everything right… for a game that would be released five years later. I’m talking about games that landed like a used monkey diaper on the zookeeper of the public perception.
I’m talking about games like Under the Skin.
Under the Skin was clearly an experiment by Capcom (and if there’s any confusion as to why Capcom doesn’t experiment any more…). UTS stars Cosmi, an alien toddler that has been tasked with causing as much chaos on Earth (that’s our planet!) as possible. While simply showing up and announcing, “I’m an alien!” would likely be all you’d need to throw earthlings into anarchy, Cosmi is a little more subtle. Cosmi has the ability to disguise himself as any human, and then, once that human has been replicated, use special abilities that are specific to every person. Some of these abilities/items are mundane, simple pranks, like a set of tacks to spread along the sidewalk, or dramatically more interesting, like the capability to transform into the amazing Super Cosmi. Whatever the case, the general goal of this adventure is to hop from human to human, using as many tricks and traps to confuse and irritate the populace as much as possible.
Now the kicker is how this is all implemented into a “game”. While what I described could easily be a 2-D action game or a more modern 3-D action adventure, what we have here are a series of levels that are more akin to arenas than stages. And, in nearly every arena, your task is to, in some way, score more coins (points) from pranking than a rival second player, whether that 2P be an AI or another real life human. And, as you might expect, each arena has its own characters, traps, “panic time”, and goals.
In other words, this game is basically the prototype to the modern arena shooter. Just, ya know, without the shooting.
In pretty much every way, this game could have been much more successful just a generation later. Under the Skin feels like a vaguely incomplete product, like there should be a more dedicated “one player mode” or “story mode” or something, as opposed to what we have, which is an arena competitor with a perfunctory story soldered on. But I wouldn’t even be making that complaint if this were a $20 downloadable title. Speaking of internet features, it’s a pain in the ass to find someone to sit on the couch and play this game when Smash Bros Melee is right there, so how about some online multiplayer to get Cosmi going? And that couch co-op isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: complete with the “disguise” feature, this is a game that lives and breathes by whether or not you can see your opponent’s location… and that’s not so hard when you just have to glance at the bottom screen. Online play? Not so much an issue. As a full-fledged PS2 title, Under the Skin fails, but as a PS3 or PS4 downloadable “let’s play around” title, UTS may have flourished.
Personally, I want to live in that world. Here is my secret shame (#3,528): I can’t aim for crap. Like, I generally like the idea of online arena shooters… but I’m terrible at them. As I write this, I’m eyeing Overwatch, a game with a great art style, interesting lore, and… oh yeah, I’m never going to win a round. That’s something of a deal breaker. But I enjoy the arena shooter concept! It’s pretty much the same reason I like fighting games: quick matches with unique characters in eclectic areas, and we’ve got a winner inside of a few minutes. Time for the next match. I like that setup, I’m just terrible at it, so I, at best, watch from afar. Until Splatoon, when (thank you, Nintendo) I could finally contribute by missing every damn thing and just spraying the floor to my content. I’m erratically hopping around with a paint roller, and I’m helping! Yay!
That’s why I feel bad for Under the Skin. This isn’t a great game, but it’s a Capcom game, those guys only know how to make sequels good anyway (Street Fighter 2, Mega Man 2, Resident Evil 2, Dragon’s Dogma: The Next Day). If Under the Skin had a chance to flourish on the next gen systems, it may have spawned a great sequel (Under the Skin 2: Electric Boogaloo) that could have been Splatoon before Splatoon. The world needs more innovative, different arena “shooters”, and UTS could have fit that bill. But Under the Skin was a touch too early, and it left us before the party really got going. Cosmi left well before Callie and Marie hit the stage.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong diaper. Guess we’ll never know what might have been…
FGC #144 Under the Skin
- System: Playstation 2. Huh, I want to say even the original Xbox might have been a better fit…
- Number of players: Two, and only two. Bigger arenas and four player online action? Would have been nice.
- Capcomian: Probably the only reason people remember this game is that one of the locations is Raccoon City, and the goal of that arena is defeating Nemesis (in Resident Evil 3 mode) while assisting other members of STARS. More subtly, however, is how your life is measured: one hit leads to being stripped to your underwear, while a second leads to death. Sound familiar?
- Favorite Arena: Alright, I’m a sucker for cameos, so Raccoon City takes the gold here. It’s not just because I’m a RE fan, though! Raccoon City is one of the few stages where you have to actually cooperate with your “opponent”, as opposed to just beating the poor AI into oblivion, so it makes for a more interesting, unique experience.
- Favorite Prank: You can inexplicably summon a tornado, because… that’s a common prank? I guess? It seems to work well.
- Wait, this is your one year anniversary article? Hey, I didn’t realize the date until the article was already going. Uh… I’ll put something cool together for #150. In the meanwhile, there will be celebratory cake in the comments section.
- Did you know? There are a number of auxiliary characters in this game, and each seems to have their own reason for pranking the people of Earth. For instance, one of the aliens was lost and alone, but was taken in by a convent of nuns, and now wishes to win the global prank contest to secure the prize money and pay back the needy nuns. This character’s name is… Baron von Proptop. Huh.
- Would I play again: I’d like to play the sequel that will never exist. In the meanwhile, we’ve got this half a game that doesn’t quite pass muster. And now I’ve got Splatoon…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bayonetta! It’s witch time, baby! Please look forward to it!