Theory of the day: The reason people cannot see videogames as art is that videogames are the last difficult artform left.
This idea is presented to you today by 9 Years of Shadows. 9YoS is a metroidvania that was initially released on Steam, but arrived on Nintendo Switch just recently. Long story short, you are Europa, you’ve got a little bear buddy, and you must traverse the gigantic haunted tower of Talos to eventually face a demon that has sucked all the color from the world (not a metaphor). As is traditional to a metroidvania, you gather new offensive and traversal abilities as you go, and battle a variety of bosses that may or may not have been lifted directly from other metroidvanias. By the finale, you are a whirling dervish of destruction, and any demons that still stand in your way best beware of a halberd that has torn through more than a few monsters.
But what really sets 9 Years of Shadows apart from its plentiful peers (seriously, is there a month that passes without a new indie metroidvania being released? I never thought I would be spoiled for my favorite genre) is its unmistakably stunning presentation. The animations are as expressive as sprites have ever been, the usage of color is deliberate and poignant, and even traditionally overlooked bits like character portraits display an unmistakable attention to detail. And the music! When I was first stalking the halls of Talos, I thought to myself, “Hey, these ditties are pretty good.” But when researching this article, I found there was a reason for that: some mad lads got the composers for Castlevania (Michiru Yamane) and Metal Gear Solid (Norihiko Hibino) on board. And I really should have noticed that faster, because Hibino is straight up a character in the game…
I was trying to figure out where I knew that name!
And speaking of those musicians, 9 Years of Shadows certainly pays tribute to its artists. Arguably the most important location in the castle is the theater, where side quests, health upgrades, and your armory are all up for (eventual) grabs. The theater seems to magically bounce around the castle, and it is your one sanctuary in a citadel that is otherwise trying to kill you at all times. And in at least one case, directly across from the theater is this lovely spot…
You have a pair of artists appearing in these galleries, and their paintings are essentially “challenge levels” for new abilities. While seeing an easel always means at least one mandatory, difficult boss fight in your near future, every portrait of ruin also means a mini-dungeon where there are plenty of powerups and two new abilities to sus out. So, while dodging a sea serpent may not be the most fun in the world, every new artist’s alley is an exciting opportunity to try out some new skills.
So between the theater and the galleries, the indisputable best places in this tower of horrors are where the artists hang out. In fact, couple the fact that the musicians’ theater could easily be mistaken for a more traditional “play” stage, and it sure looks like we have a trifecta representation of all the major art forms here. Drama, music, and illustration-artwork are all on full display in 9 Years of Shadow. Just like the game itself! This is a dramatic tale featuring distinctive characters, scored with lovely music, and brought to life with beautiful pixel work. Of course 9YoS pays tribute to artists, it is art.
Except… Liza Minelli never had to be involved in the videogame industry to earn an EGOT…
Let’s talk about the other side of 9 Years of Shadow: it’s hard. Difficulty is relative, and everyone has trouble with different things, but Gogglebob.com is confident in labeling 9YoS a challenging game. The central gimmick is that Europa must rely on the power of light to survive the darkest demons, and said light is a resource that is mandatory for health and attacks. Much of the challenge across Talos involves budgeting your light meter throughout battles, and deciding whether you need to fire off some striking “light bullets” to do additional damage, or conserve your light to survive an oncoming attack. Light is a renewable resource that can be partially restored through hugs (it is good to have a teddy bear ghost buddy), but hugging is not always safe, and discovering the point in a monster’s assault when you can safely duck out to sing a lullaby with your playmate to recuperate is half the challenge. And there is certainly challenge, as many of the later bosses practically transform their arenas into bullet hells, and no measure of mermaid powers is going to help you dodge multiple lightning blasts. Even traversing the castle can often be difficult, as there are many areas that expect you to expertly use your toolset, and rapidly cycling from snake to phoenix to fish can be exhausting. In traditional metroidvania fashion, you gradually gain abilities to transform previously difficult areas into cakewalks, but, until it is time for cake, you are stuck chewing through gristle for every mile.
And reminder: most people don’t like gristle.
Nine Years of Shadows wants to talk about artists? Let’s talk about movies. The movie business has had a tumultuous time of late, what with practically everyone in the industry striking, and, prior to that, global diseases making the concept of “going to the theater” all but impossible. In short, the “movie biz” has had some very public reasons to adapt and change over the last few years. But what of the changes that weren’t covered in Variety? Within the last twenty years, we have seen a dramatic rise in international revenue from movies. The result? Well, when was the last time you saw an honest-to-God screwball comedy? Sorry, folks, the pun-heavy, cultural reference-dependent likes of Airplane! or even Norbit do not play well with societies that have no concept of Mel Brooks, so they are not being funded anymore. Conversely, watching an iron man punch another, larger iron man is universal, so superhero movies have dominated the landscape, even when “superhero” could be loosely defined as “features some cat people”. And even when spiders-men aren’t slinging around the city, the general cultural impact of any given Marvel feature is felt in the DNA of separate projects. Or, put another way, the “so that just happened”-ifiction of cinema is well and truly in its heyday. Studios are going to be chasing the triumphs of “unexpected success” Barbie for the next decade, but, from a personal perspective, I can say that I bought a ticket to that one entirely because it was the first movie I can remember in the last decade where I didn’t know how the ending was going to go just from the trailer.
But who can blame the movie studios for their films becoming homogenous? Do you understand how difficult it is to coordinate four separate human beings for a one act play? Imagine multiplying that by hundreds of actors, composers, directors, producers, digital effects artists, craft services, and that one guy that is always walking around with the duct tape? Even before you get to the literal cost of making a movie, the human cost of activity involved in filming one scene on one set for one day is incalculable (though there are accountants that have a pretty good idea). So if you are going to all of that effort, you want it to succeed, right? And the people holding the purse strings care about one thing (those previously mentioned purse strings), so it is no wonder cinema as we know it has become a sort of gray mush in the last few years. They know what works, and so long as it works, they are going to get to doing the exact same thing. Bulb lights up, press button, rat gets cheese. Do not deviate. Rat is always going to want cheese, so repeat forever.
Rat is always going to want cheese, huh? Always? So is it possible this has happened before? Is it possible that this has happened for centuries?
About once a year, one of those “remember when” articles gets passed around the internet regarding how our musical history just ain’t what we remember. The most common version of this goes something like “the same week that Nirvana dropped their first album, the number one song on the charts was ‘(Do the) Awesome Octopus’ by Sharky Shark and the Toothy Tots.” The message is clear: what has greatly influenced the music of today has not always been popular at its inception, and what was prevalent at its inception has not always lasted past a week. And, while that is a fine lesson to learn, one thing that is often ignored is how this applies to generations that did not grow up with email. Forget “the 60’s ain’t what Apocalypse Now remembers,”, I am talking about whatever our grandparents were listening to while necking. And even further back than that! Was Beethoven the only composer of his era? Because I am pretty sure that him and four other (white) guys represent approximately the entirety of 1600-1850. We are getting Bach to basics here, but what if everything we understand to be modern musical theory and “how to write a song” is the result of what we understand to be music becoming the same homogenous slop to please some rich dudes back in the 19th Century? What if even the most experimental ditties of today would be judged by music aficionados of 1700 as nothing more than “another Marvel movie”?
What if anything difficult and experimental in an entire art form has been weeded out over the centuries?
And what if gaming, an artform still comparatively in its infancy, is the only place where an audience can be challenged today?
9 Years of Shadows does not have an “easy mode”. There is no invincibility code, and no option in the accessibility menu that will account for sluggish reflexes. If you cannot fight a boss on the boss’s terms, you will not see the ending. You will have no resolution to this story. Get good or get out. And maybe that is too much? I have straight up stated elsewhere that I cannot recommend this game to everybody, as it requires “gamer reflexes”, and I know well how many people in my life would rather do anything else in the world than master combat-hugging (key to surviving any battle). I have no doubt that there is a future coming where this and any other game that requires a distinct skillset to conquer will be derided in the same way we disparage “Nintendo difficulty” today. There isn’t a mode for people that simply want to experience the story? Trash.
But there is something to 9 Years of Shadows and its difficulty. The final boss is a three-phase monster that expects the player to use every skill they have earned over the course of the game to not only survive, but triumph. There is no easy path to victory, nor even a checkpoint to save your progress between phases. It is a pain in the ass. But the final boss is more than a final fight. It is a decision that your main character has made. It is Europa taking the hard route, and not murdering a liar just because they deceived her. It is difficult, and it is something only Europa can do, because it is something only she will do. This is something that is challenging for the player character and the player, and the ending feels that much more earned because of it.
9 Years of Shadow is hard. And I am glad I can still find hard art somewhere.
SBC #18 Palutena & 9 Years of Shadow
Palutena in Super Smash Bros Ultimate
- She any Good? In a game all about adapting to unique situations, Palutena has the advanced toolset that can really wreck everyone else’s day. That Up+Smash is amazing, but she’s got something for every circumstance tucked in her toga, and it sure seems like this goddess lives up to her title.
- That final smash work? The destructive Mega Laser triggers regardless of if the initial blackhole hits, which puts this one head and shoulders above its Final Smash contemporaries. I’m starting to get the impression that somebody on the design team likes this gal…
- The background work? Palutena’s Temple is one of the big boys. It is neat to zoom in and see all the areas, but it is unwieldly to actually play. Players seem to bunch up in one area regardless… which makes sense! This is a fighting game! Not hide and seek. I wonder if this one would work better as something scrolling, like Rainbow Ride.
- Classic Mode: A Little Divine Intervention is Palutena echoing her proclamation from her Smash 4 trailer with… Well… This one is extremely loose. The unifying factor here is “religion”, and Shulk and Bayonetta make sense there, as they fight their gods on occasion. But Simon and Richter are just dimly aware of religion thanks to their boomerangs and vampire taunts. Link and Zelda deal with a goddess that is often just a phone call away, and Cloud… What? Just understands there is an afterlife? “Holy” is a materia, not a state of mind. I guess that hands are an appropriate final boss, as they are the gods of at least the original Smash.
- Smash Trivia: Palutena appears in the spirit fight assisting Trevor Belmont. With Simon representing Trevor and Sheik matching Grant’s agility (and occasional bandages), Palutena is apparently there to be the Sypha Belnades of the group. Which is weird, because Zelda much more properly slots into the “lady mage” archetype of the Smash Bros. roster. Maybe they just wanted to mimic Sypha’s robe?
- Amiibo Corner: Gorgeous gold piping, proper crystal ball with reflective “mirror” shield, and even a translucent halo. This is one of the most detailed amiibos out there. The shield has a properly detailed back! Who would even think to look at that!
- Does Smash Bros Remember Today’s Game? This is another flimsy excuse to cover a game that interests me, but has no real connection to Nintendo or Smash Bros. That said…
You cannot tell me there isn’t a resemblance there! And Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and 9 Years in Shadow both celebrate videogame music in significant measures, so there is more than a superficial connection.
Palutena (in spirit) in 9 Years of Shadow
- System: Nintendo Switch and Steam at the moment. Maybe we will see more?
- Number of players: Europa and her haunted teddy bear may only be controlled by one player at a time.
- Favorite Armor: There’s a red one.
- Favorite Upgrade: Those maniacs made the “jump kick hop” of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night into an actual, required upgrade. It is not used as often as some abilities, and it is more or less sublimated by the “phoenix hop” that is gained shortly thereafter. But it is good to see some designers extol the virtues of the jump kick.
- Favorite Boss: Death of Castlevania appears in all his glory. Complete with commentary from the characters…
He falls just short of standing next to a neon sign that says “Get it!?” And you know what? Death does not need to be subtle, so I am down for this. Oh, also the fight is pretty fun, too. Little death scythes are always a good time.
- Favorite Boss (not an overt reference edition): Leno the Pig Monster throws tomatoes out of garbage with enough force to knock you into next week. I do not know the precedence for Leno the Pig Monster, but I am anxious to see if he has any relation to The War for Late Night.
- Kickstarter’ed: Some games that raised funds for development on Kickstarter only reveal their origins when you notice the credits go on for three hours. Not 9 Years of Shadows! Aside from the obvious portraits of the “backer gallery” in the final area, so many of the optional boss fights read like “original characters, do not steal”. But this is appreciated! As you never know if a boss room is going to contain a corrupted guardian warrior, or a cute slime girl. Brings back the feeling of old school NES titles where you never knew what was next in some corrupt programmer’s mind.
- Did you know? Halberd Studios will next be releasing a title named “Mariachi Legends”. It looks good all on its own, but this is very much a “you had me at hello” situation. I have specific tastes.
- Would I play again: Probably! This is a more combat-focused Metroidvania, so there are not many pickups you could miss if you pay attention to the map. 100% completion is attainable! But playing through it all again? Odds are high I will revisit this one in less than nine years.
What’s next? You’ll never see the next post coming, because it is about a bunch of jokers. Please look forward to it!