What is a “smart” videogame?
“Smart” is inevitably a subjective, loaded term. People are often described as smart as a result of good grades or quick thinking, but, as with so many things that define who we are, it’s a moving goalpost constantly ferried about by the audience. Is Donald Trump smart? He is college educated and successful in his field. If you vote “no” on this one, he’s also likely to retort with a hoary old, “Then if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Theoretical Trump might have a point, but just because someone is wealthier than Stephen Hawking doesn’t mean they’re smarter. It’s all relative, and if the smartest man on Earth can’t figure out how to consistently make fire, then he’d look pretty dumb stranded on a deserted island (or just an episode of Survivor).
Different pieces of media also get the “smart” label. Citizen Kane is never going to finish my math homework, but it’s often regarded as a very smart movie. Suicide Squad, meanwhile, is “dumb fun”, even if it’s potentially just as big a waste of time as any other movie. I suppose the theory here is that movies that can be described as smart “really make you think”, while dumb movies are based primarily on explosions and watching fat people fall down. For better or worse, I feel like the internet as it currently stands has widely disproven this theory as indicated by the sheer number of articles I’ve read regarding popcorn flicks of the 80’s and 90’s and their impact on society and the secret meta meanings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In other words, you can get a lot of “smart” out of “dumb”, so either descriptor for a movie, book, or television show seems disingenuous.
And then we have my favorite entertainment medium: videogames. A few short years ago, it would have been impossible to convince the general public that a videogame could ever possibly be described as “smart”. Luckily, thanks to either actually good videogames or just focused advertising campaigns, a number of recent games have cleared the “smart” bar and occasionally won the title of “The Citizen Kane of Videogames”. Obviously, that phrase has no more actual meaning than claiming “Super Mario Bros. is the Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed of Videogames,” but the sentiment is there. Videogames can now be high art, and, as art, they can be smart. Unfortunately, I feel like we’re still a ways off from “The Louvre of Videogames”, but gaming as an art form has gained a lot more ground in recent years, so hooray for recognizing that gaming might be able to be smarter than the smarties.
Herc’s Adventures was released in 1997, the same year Final Fantasy 7 revitalized storytelling in videogames and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night put the “vania” in Metroidvania. At this time (nearly two decades ago, yeesh), videogames were still considered silly toys for children by much of the public. However, the “adventure genre” over in the land of personal computers was considered much more adult than anything seen on the consoles. The King’s Quest series was likely the most popular of these games, but Lucasarts had also carved out a critically acclaimed niche in the genre with titles like The Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. At a time when many console games could barely provide coherent English, the Lucasarts adventure games provided interesting plots, clever puzzles, and humor.
Now, it’s impossible to know what people of the 80’s and 90’s were thinking (see: parachute pants), but Lucasarts adventure games were consistently referred to as “smart”, and it’s difficult to know if this was because of the gameplay or the writing. Adventure games could basically be described by the more unwieldy phrase “logic puzzle games” thanks to the challenge of these titles ultimately relying on how quickly the player can adapt to the internal logic of the game’s world. This, naturally, was considered “smarter” than the twitch gaming of Super Mario Bros. or a button-mashing fighting game. And Lucasarts titles were considered even smarter than their PC brethren, as, unlike Sierra adventure games, Lucasarts tended to rely dramatically less on “you are dead” and gotcha moments. Actually being inviting to a player is only ever going to be interpreted as smart.
And the humor is the other side of the smart coin (which is probably sitting somewhere in the Batcave). I’m not going to dissect the frog and explain why humor is interpreted as smart on many occasions, but the rapid-fire jokes of games like Sam & Max portray a very smart writing staff. Again, these games were on the market at a time when the most popular console mascots (Mario, Link, Super Alfred Chicken) were all silent, and the talkers we did get (Bubsy, B.O.B.) were generally created by Deflucucus, Lord of Despair. Basically, when most console games couldn’t get out of the orbit of fart jokes (Boogerman! That happened!), Lucasarts was writing on a level that might make Woody Allen guffaw.
Despite the name, Herc’s Adventures is not an adventure game (well, it’s what I define as an adventure game [which means it fits the criteria of “kinda like Zelda”], but it’s not what Lucasarts defines as an adventure game). Herc’s Adventures is a more action-y game, and plays much more like Lucasarts’ other excellent console experience, Zombies Ate My Neighbors. The gameplay is much the same, but Herc’s Adventures eschews the schlock horror aesthetic of ZTMN for a tongue-in-cheek look at the myths of Ancient Greece. Hera, Goddess of Fertility and wife of Alpha God Zeus is still a goddess… but now also a stereotypical overweight housewife that eats cows like potato chips. Hercules is a narcissist, Cassandra predicts pizza rain, and Athena seems less Goddess of Wisdom and more Marvin the Martian. Also, actual Martians are involved, but I’ll try to avoid spoiling that particular plot point.
In a way, all of this is a “smart” interpretation of Greek Mythology. All the elements are already there (playboy Zeus pretty much would sleep with anything in the classical myths), this is just the more absurd (by modern standards) elements of the Greek Pantheon and its heroes dialed up to eleven. This isn’t just “let’s make Athena chubby and call it a day”, this is playing off myths that the creators of this game had to know pretty well in order to parody so effectively. Bacchus doesn’t get nearly enough exposure nowadays, but the folks at Lucasarts were quick to get that drunk on board. You have to be smart to lampoon your subject so well. I think there’s a magazine based on that.
But it’s a shame about the actual game portion of the videogame.
Herc’s Adventures isn’t a bad game, it’s just very banal. Unlike Zombies Ate My Neighbors, there are not levels, but a gigantic “overworld” that completely connects across the land… Except, each “area” is much more like a level than anything else, and backtracking rarely leads to shortcuts or additional powerups. Once you complete a not-level, there’s little reason to return, so it may as well be, ya know, a series of sequential levels. When you die (and you will die a lot), you do not simply respawn, but your character is banished to the underworld, and must fight out of an increasingly more tortuous Tartarus. This sounds like a clever death mechanic… but you still only get five trips to the underworld before a Game Over, so why not give me some straight-up “lives” and save us the annoyance of this “extra” dungeon? And, honestly, it feels like the game makes a lot of rookie mistakes, like an unforgiving lack of invincible-after-hit frames, bottomless pits, and items that are limited, but offer no easy explanation for the what the hell you’ve got there. I was supposed to give this boar’s head to some dude back in the swamp? That’s great, but now that I missed that guy, it’s going to take up inventory space forever with no indication of its benefits? Great. Just great.
It’s disappointing that a game that is so clever and smart with its writing is boorish and dumb with its actual gameplay. Nobody ever claimed the (extremely limited) dialogue of Mega Man X or Super Metroid could rival Shakespeare; but, in the end, those are extremely smart games for how they use the conventions of gaming to not only craft impeccable experiences, but also tell memorable stories. Final Fantasy 7 might not have been the most original game in the JRPG field, but its story and gameplay were both amazing, and redefined a genre for generations as a result. Herc’s Adventures… well… it’s funny and has good writing, but its gameplay is so tedious, you’re unlikely to ever see the end. All this effort to make a perfect Poseidon, and most people are never going to bother completing the first quasi-level to see him.
A smart videogame knows how to be a videogame first, and the rest is secondary. Anything else is just… dumb.
FGC #175 Herc’s Adventures
- System: Playstation and Sega Saturn. I’m not certain I’ve ever seen the Saturn version in the wild. It’s also on PSN, for the record.
- Number of players: Two, and, like Zombies Ate My Neighbors, your second player is not going to survive long enough to enjoy anything.
- Favorite Character: You’ve got your choice between Herc, a young Jason of Argonauts fame, and Atlanta, home of the Braves. I want to like Atlanta, because I normally enjoy ranged attacks, but she takes forever to reload, and she’s going to be eaten by a cyclops in that time. That leaves Jason, as he’s the speedy one, and, like in other games like this, speed is how you avoid the reaper (sometimes literally).
- And yet again: I never get tired of how many fair-skinned blondes were running around Ancient Greece. I think this is where cheerleaders come from.
- An End: Like some other Lucasarts adventures, the finale will see you encountering the designers of the game in their home office. This puts Herc’s Adventures on the same echelon as Chrono Trigger in exactly one category.
- Did you know? Disney’s Hercules was released the same year as Herc’s Adventures, and I wonder if that was a calculated move. Think any grandmas mistook one game for the other?
- Would I play again: Despite being rather hard on the thing, I do kind of enjoy this game, albeit only in a situation where I absolutely know what I’m doing. I might fire it up again at some point in the distant future, and shut it down the minute I die. I am not a patient man.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy 7! Actually, ROB didn’t choose anything this time, I’m just going with 1997’s other biggie on the 19th anniversary of its release (before everybody does the same thing next year). And I’m not just covering Final Fantasy 7, I’ll be looking at everything (almost everything) in the Compilation of Final Fantasy 7 all week. So come back Monday, and you’ll see there’s even a reason to come back Tuesday, too. Please look forward to it!