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FGC #530 Little Nemo: The Dream Master

Let's get dreamyLittle Nemo: The Dream Master is an excellent NES Capcom title. It doesn’t always get the same accolades as Mega Man or Ducktales, but it is worthy of its Capcom pedigree. Did you know that this game basically pioneered Kirby’s copy ability well before the advent of the little puff ball? Or that the presence of the keys makes this the rare NES collectathon that encourages combing large, lush stages? LN:TDM has a few issues here and there, but it is a game where you can trade your normal skills for the jumps of a frog, the punches of a gorilla, or the stickiness (?) of a lizard. That counts for a lot when you are on the same system as some comparatively primitive adventures. Little Nemo feels like the prequel to a SNES game that could have been absolutely amazing, but, as it is, it is simply a NES title that pushes the boundaries of what was possible in 1990.

But we’re not going to talk about that today.

We’re going to talk about the worst, scariest level in a Capcom title.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s look at House of Toys.

House 'o Toys

Right from the start, it is obvious that something is wrong with this level. Every other stage begins with some whimsical creature, like Flip the Chain Smoking Frog Monster, introducing the basic concept for the area. “Oh, Nemo, use your candy to feed moles for some reason,” they say. Or, “Oh, look, this is your house, a thing I shouldn’t have to tell you, but here we are, guess we’re going to provide clumsy exposition now.” What are you told by your creature-greeter at House of Toys? Nothing. There is not a friendly face to be found. There isn’t even the illusion of narration or an explanation for your current predicament. You are at the House of Toys now. Expecting a warm welcome? No. House of Toys is all you will ever know.

And speaking of friendlies, let’s take a quick look at the best part of Little Nemo: The Dream Master. As was mentioned, Little Nemo is a fairly revolutionary title for the way it utilized animal friends as powerups. This was not another NES title that had “one size fits all” powerups like a spread beam or muscle serum, this was a game that constantly presented new challenges and puzzles, and the only solution to these puzzles was to get the help of an animal buddy. If you needed to reach a high area, you befriended a frog. If you had to climb even higher, you might gain the assistance of a bee. And levels with particular trials, like the prerequisite underwater stage, featured singular encounters with friendly animals adapted only to those areas. Basically, every new stage is interesting not only because of the geography or enemies available, but also the promise of new and interesting animals with exciting new abilities.

You will die hereAnd what particular powerups and/or animals appear in House of Toys? None. Nada. Zilch. There is not a single animal companion in the third level. There isn’t a hidden guerilla, sneaky lizard, or even a hermit crab to be found. You will not find a single ally anywhere in House of Toys. Not only is this lonely, but it also means Little Nemo will be stuck with his little life bar and its extremely limited durability. And as far as offense goes, there is no mouse hammer or hornet stinger to help Nemo this time, so the absolute best Nemo can hope for is ineffectually tossing candy like some manner of rogue oompa loompa. Do toys care about candy? Not so much. Nemo’s lifespan is going to be drastically shortened in his solitude.

And if you think House of Toys is going to go easy on Nemo because he’s completely, wretchedly alone, you’ve got another thing coming. And that “another thing” is “a constant assault of airborne opponents”. The main “monsters” of House of Toys are flying threats in the form of toy airplanes and floating, bombing balloons. In both cases, you are dealing with foes that appear above Nemo… and that’s not great for a little dude that can only toss candy horizontally forward. Not that your candy is going to do any good, though! At best, Nemo can only stun a foe on a good day, and when the screen is constantly scrolling forward, a motionless enemy is just as deadly as a mobile one.

And, yes, this is the only automatic, horizontally scrolling stage in the game. Yes, that is going to get you killed via squishing against any number of blocks. Thanks for asking!

A little pokeyBut wait, there’s more! It is not enough that you are being literally dive-bombed by an army of toys, there have to be a host of traps across the stage, too. It starts simple enough with some crashing crate-looking things, where the worst you have to worry about is mistaking the perfectly flat “enemy” platforms for something you can actually jump on without taking damage. Can more traps be equipped with “do not touch” signs? The encroaching spikes throughout the stage don’t need warning signs, though. Everyone knows anything slightly pointy is incurable poison to every last NES hero, so it’s no wonder that you’ll expectantly steer Nemo away from those prickly pals. But good luck with that! The hit detection on the spikes is atrocious, and nudging Nemo in the general direction of anything triangular will result in instant death. Since this kind of sloppy mapping only appears in this stage, it may be a side effect of the auto-scrolling. Or House of Toys was just designed by masochists! There could be any number of explanations for why every goddamn thing is trying to kill Nemo for a solid few minutes.

And then the stage itself starts trying to eat you:

WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING!?

That’s not great, either.

And if this all seems like a terrible idea for a level, also consider that House of Toys eschews one of the most important parts of Little Nemo: The Dream Master. The majority of stages in LN:TDM require Nemo to find keys scattered about the level. This leads to exploration and experimentation, and seems to be the essence of Nemo’s appeal. Since House of Toys relies on an autoscroll that absolutely precludes the ability to backtrack at all, there are no keys to “find” across the level. Exploration is dropped for an endless parade of death traps, and that is the complete opposite of the rest of the game’s style. And, hey, because no one had a good idea on how to incorporate the keys that are the point of other levels, there’s a cache of keys right there at the end. That’s right! The designers of LN:TDM didn’t have a clue on how to integrate the gameplay they themselves had established. It’s a bizarre reminder that the rest of Nemo’s quest isn’t this horrible!

My magic wandBut! There is something of a vindication for this shift in gameplay within Little Nemo: The Dream Master. The final levels introduce an assault on the Nightmare King’s lair, and the key conceit is dropped for something that is more action-based. This shift is welcome, as it creates a more dramatic finale for Nemo: the adventure is no longer about having fun in Dream Land, it is now a no holds barred battle against an invading monarch. That’s cool! But is House of Toys an effective preview of later challenges? Well, it might be if it equipped Nemo with the powerful Morningstar (pictured in use versus a penguin) that makes those last levels actually survivable. And, oh yeah, if this didn’t happen five levels before the finale. This is Level 3! They’re aping the challenges of the final levels before you’ve even mastered the basics! That’s lunacy!

House of Toys is a black mark on an otherwise amazing NES title. It eschews everything unique about the game, and drops a straightforward action level into the middle of whimsical, exploration-based stages. And then it kills Nemo quickly and frequently. For one stage, Nemo’s pleasant dream becomes a nightmare, and I’m unlikely to forgive House of Toys for this transgression anytime soon.

Toys are supposed to be fun, dammit!

FGC #530 Little Nemo: The Dream Master

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System. Like the Disney Afternoon Collection, the fact that this game is associated with a license outside of Capcom’s usual oeuvre means it never saw direct sequels or rereleases. And, unlike the Disney Afternoon Collection, it’s unlikely it will be rescued by a craptillion dollar company. C’est la vie.
  • Number of players: This Nemo dreams alone.
  • Another explanation: There is a rarely seen Little Nemo arcade game from Capcom, too. It’s pretty similar to the Willow arcade game, and it’s a sort of “action beat ‘em up” that occupies the space between Mega Man and Final Fight. And its first stage is familiar…

    To the arcade!

    Was the ill-advised House of Toys an aborted attempt the capture the same gameplay as the arcade title? Or is it a simple matter of reusing the same iconography of the attendant movie? The world may never know.

  • Favorite Animal Buddy: It’s bee. If it’s an NES game, and you can fly with a particular ability, I’m going to choose that buddy every time. It doesn’t hurt that this hornet can also visit spikey death upon its enemies, too. That lizard can barely walk, but the bee is just an unending parade of destruction.
  • What’s in a name? Little Nemo: The Dream Master is based on the movie Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, which is based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland which itself was a spin-off of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In Japan, the game is called Pajama Hero Nemo. … Whatever works.
  • Goggle Bob Fact #1: This was one of the few videogames I owned as a child (well, “few” compared to how many I have now). As a result, I played it a lot… with the stage select code. I’m pretty sure I skipped Level 3 every time. Go figure.
  • The city in the skyGoggle Bob Fact #2: This is one of the few videogames I have owned that I eventually tossed in the garbage. No, gentle reader, this was not because House of Toys drove me to hitherto unknown levels of destruction; it was simply because of the cat. Or a cat. Some cat (or other animal of like size) puked all over my Little Nemo cartridge, and no one in the house wanted to clean or even touch what was possibly the most gross hunk of plastic in the house. Luckily, this was years after the NES was relevant, but it still hurts to know that my “original” copy of Little Nemo was lost to an explosion of Whiskas.
  • Did you know? People are aware that Flip, the frog-thing that greets you at the start of the first level, continually has a cigar in the movie (and arcade game), but had his smoking censored for the NES edition. However, you might not know that the Guerilla buddy is supposed to have a big, fat stogey, too. This explains why that hairy ape is continually making ducklips through the whole adventure.
  • Would I play again? This is a beloved piece of my childhood that seems lost to the ages. I might not fire up my NES for another go, but it would be really great if someone could make a new Nemo game. I’d buy that on day one. Hint hint, Pie for Breakfast Studios.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 for the Nintendo Gameboy. Is Mario even in that game? Why does he get billing at all? Wario is the best! And please look forward to his adventures!

Check out that tongue

FGC #525 Parodius

Today, we’re going to address some reader mail. Let’s look at our first letter from one Mr. Tiger of Battle Creek, Michigan.

It's Greeeeeat

Well, Tony, if we want to know what parody actually means, we should look at some videogames. Are parody videogames supposed to be fun? Funny? A “send-up”? Let’s find out! We’ll start with the game that apparently prompted your question…

Parodius (Franchise) (1988, Konami)

PARODY TIMEWhat is it? In a long forgotten age, Gradius was one of Konami’s tent pole franchises. Given Gradius was a super-serious shoot ‘em up wherein the fate of the galaxy depended wholly on a ship that exploded every seven seconds, someone at Konami decided to produce a game with the same basic gameplay, but a wildly different tone. Parodius was born, and it featured an octopus saving the world from penguins. Or something. Parodius wound up becoming a franchise onto itself, and, for about a decade, you could count on at least one adventure every once in a while where a ship that shot boxing gloves attacked a giant lady that moved like a robot.

Is it fun? If you like Gradius, you’ll like Parodius. You’ve got overwhelmingly fragile “ships” (sometimes they are octopi) that can cycle through powerups by nabbing orbs to launch missiles against gigantic bosses. The game is just as difficult as its serious Gradius cousin, though, as death means losing your abilities and often starting back from an earlier point in the level. But it’s an excellent and ultimately fair shoot ‘em up, so if that’s your thing, it’s going to be a fun time.

But is it funny? Initially, it’s simply funny for the absurdity of sticking an octopus or lone option in the place of the Vic Viper. Eventually, the franchise tried its hand at adding more complicated joke characters, like a bald eagle decked out for American patriotism, or an entire stage full of slave-labor penguins (uh… it’s funnier than it sounds). Later games even added an overarching plot that involved a cantankerous octopus boss making off with your wages in clearly labeled dollar sign bags. That’s always funny! I think!

So is it a parody? Yep! It’s right there in the title. Parodius features familiar bits from Gradius, R-Type, and other games of the era repurposed to be funny or occasionally sexy (and we are very much employing air quotes for “sexy” here). This is a “burlesque imitation” to a T.

Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti (1989, Namco)

Splat!What is it? Splatterhouse was a hyperviolent beat ‘em up/action title that was released in arcades in 1989. It is, at its core, a pastiche of horror movies of the 80’s roughly adapted for a videogame format where you’re the monster combating other monsters to save a princess. In a way, this already makes Splatterhouse a sort of parody. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, in an attempt to make Splatterhouse gameplay more palatable for the Nintendo Family Computer (emphasis on the “family” part of that Famicom), the gore was turned down to one, and the comedy was cranked up to eleven.

Is it fun? In so much as Splatterhouse gameplay is fun, S:WG is fun. It’s pretty basic: walk to the right, chop down baddies, eventually reach a boss, kill what you gotta kill to move forward. Not unlike Parodius, the game is very unforgiving, and you’ll want to take as little damage as possible if you want to stretch your three lives (continues) to the end of the adventure. With the caveat that this is an early NES game that should not be judged by 2020 standards, Wanpaku Graffiti is pretty fun to play.

But is it funny? Again, judging it as a NES game from 1989, it’s pretty comical. It follows the same pattern as Parodius and doesn’t rely on text, but presents bosses and opponents that are… amusing. The big bad is The Great Pumpkin. The boss of the first level is Thriller-era Michael Jackson. The finale sees “the director” accidentally stumble on set. It might not be laugh out loud funny, but it is at least silly.

So is it a parody? Transforming one of the most violent games of the day into its own “kiddy mode” sure seems like a parody. Also, the protagonist, Rick, is downright adorable in his chibi form, so it’s hard not to smile as you chop up zombies riding tombstone pogo sticks. There’s a lot of ambient amusement in this affectionate adaptation.

Kid Dracula (1990, Konami)

It's the kidWhat is it? Parodius worked out for Gradius, so why not parody Castlevania? Kid Dracula is the story of Dracula’s son (or his younger self? Or Alucard’s younger self? Can we get a timeline here?) venturing around the world to stop the forces of Galamoth, a robot dragon from the end of time. Or… something. Whatever the situation, it’s Castlevania through a more comical filter.

Is it fun? This is basically Castlevania sensibilities mixed with Mega Man-style gameplay and the ability to walk on the ceiling or transform into a bat. If it was released in America in 1990, I would have married the game by now.

But is it funny? Like other games on this list, it has a general level of “whacky” to its humor. Once again, the basic concept here is that the original franchise is deathly serious, so any time you have to fight a “goofy” chicken, it’s supposed to be funny. Of course, Kid D’s shorts are always going to be funny on their own.

So is it a parody? Unfortunately, Kid Dracula seems to drop the distinct parody elements pretty early in the adventure. The first level is straight up Castlevania, and it’s a blast to deal with a castle full of spikey traps and inane zombies, but the franchise connection seems all but lost later when you’re fighting a giant robot on an airship. For better or worse, Kid Dracula moves past its parody factor pretty quickly.

Star Parodier (1992, Hudson Soft)

Right there in the name againWhat is it? Parodius worked, so why not another parody shoot ‘em up? Hudson had the Star Soldier franchise kicking around since 1986, so why not give that shooter a send up? Will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions?

Is it fun? This is the vertical shoot ‘em up to Parodius’s horizontal shoot ‘em up. That said, it seems a lot easier to survive in Star Soldier/Star Parodier, as you acquire a shield a whole lot quicker. There’s also a slightly more cerebral powerup system, wherein you have a few options (not those options), and can enhance them by grabbing like-colored pickups, or switch to another color for a slightly different attack. It’s a neat idea for a shoot ‘em up, which is already a style of game that requires a lot of quick thinking and darting around the screen.

But is it funny? Parodius clone plays by Parodius rules. Star Parodier is definitely its own game, but its humor style is still “look at the next whacky thing that shows up”. Also a strangely high number of penguins…

So is it a parody? Yes. Or… I assume. I’ve only ever played like three levels of one Star Soldier game… so this seems like a parody of that. I think? They replaced a round boss with a ferris wheel, so I think that counts. Whatever! Look, you can play as a flying Bomberman, so that’s at least a parody of something.

ClayFighter (1993, Interplay)

Whack em smack emWhat is it? Shoot ‘em ups are old hat, let’s move on to the next big thing: fighting games. Clayfighter is technically your typical fighter, but with a cast of Claymation loonies that lampoon everything from Elvis to… blobs? Is that a thing? Do people not like blobs? But… nothing beats the blob!

Is it fun? OG Clayfighter is a fighting game in the Street Fighter 2 mold (… was that a pun?), and plays very similarly. It doesn’t have quite the move variety as its target franchise (ducking attacks are often exactly the same as a standing or jumping action), but it’s still a much better fighter than some of the turds that were cranked out during the era of its birth. You ever play Fighter’s History? Don’t.

But is it funny? Hey, this is the first parody game on this list created by an American studio! And it’s pretty amusing in a 90’s kid kinda way. Remember when “Fat Elvis” was the target of every other late night show, despite the obvious handicap that he had been dead for decades? And “the fat lady sings” was somehow an oft-repeated and literalized phrase? And we were all afraid of clowns? Clayfighter spends all of its humor bucks pretty quickly after you see a fighter’s complete moveset, but isn’t that how all fighting games work, anyway?

So is it a parody? Clayfighter eventually went on to produce C2: Judgment Clay, which was more of the same, but with a veneer of extra MK parody, and Clayfighter 63⅓, which was a super specific parody of Killer Instinct Gold. That said, the original Clayfighter isn’t too precise of a parody (N. Boss is the closest we get to a fighter parodying an actual character from another game, and that’s mostly just the name), and more a parody of the concept of “serious” fighting games. So it qualifies, but it’s less “parody” and more “vaguely humorous”.

Pyst (1996, Parroty Interactive)

It's pronounced P-ystWhat is it? Myst was an adventure game that was the most popular videogame of 1993/1994. It was ubiquitous, and, somehow, everyone from your next door neighbor to your dad to your other next door neighbor that was secretly your real dad had played it. Realizing that such an omnipresent game was ripe for parody, Parroty Interactive (a division of Palladium Interactive) was founded to produce a game mocking Myst and its associated culture. Pyst was released three years after Myst, and… it wasn’t great.

Is it fun? Pyst is barely a game. There had been adventure games that were funny in the past (the entire LucasArts oeuvre was amazing, and would be featured in this article if they weren’t their own thing, completely eschewing the need to be a parody to be funny), and there’s a lot of potential in lampooning the esoteric puzzles of Myst… but this ain’t doin’ it. Pyst is little more than going from screen to screen and clicking on buttons to activate videos. It’s about as fun as “playing” Youtube (but marginally less racist).

But is it funny? I will admit that I chuckled a bit at Pyst when I was a young’un. It’s like Airplane! But for a videogame! That said, the jokes are rough, and it’s less an affectionate parody of the game itself, and more of a parody of the culture and general public reactions to the game itself. It’s not something that was produced by someone that played Myst for twenty hours and then ran out and bought the companion books, it’s a Saturday Night Live skit based on one those videogames the kids seem to like. And, further cementing the SNL connection, John Goodman is in a few scenes for some reason. That… is something.

So is it a parody? Well, certainly, even if it barely qualifies as a game. Someone forgot to fill in the whole “videogame” part of the “videogame parody” equation, but it definitely happened. Take that, game that revolutionized what a videogame could be, and was then somehow forgotten presumably because all the sequels sucked!

Star Warped (1997, Parroty Interactive)

STAR!What is it? Parroty returned the next year with Star Warped, their “parody” of Star Wars. In this case, someone decided to include a videogame in the videogame, as there are some meager minigames and a skimpy fighting game pastiche. The whole experience is hosted by a pair of brothers that are Star Wars superfans that supposedly have not left the house since first watching and consequently dedicating their lives to Star Wars. But they were somehow able to collect oodles of Star Wars merchandise in the meanwhile! Before the advent of the internet being “The Internet”! This parody has some gaping plot holes!

Is it fun? There might be a game this time, but nobody said those games had to be any fun. Do you enjoy using your mouse to play whack-a-ewok? A fighting game that looks like it was animated in the most primitive version of Flash available (actually, in 1997, that might be a completely factual description)? If you’re looking for actual gameplay out of a Parroty Interactive title, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

But is it funny? Do you like laughing at nerds? Great! Enjoy watching them caper around and talk about Star Wars like it’s a religion. And then you can play as Cool –Handless Luke and fight Pizza-Flipping Greedo. Yes! Someone took the time to make a parody of Greedo! Are you laughing yet!?

So is it a parody? Man, this game sucks, but it’s why parodies are important. This is one of the last remaining relics of the “before time” for Star Wars. You know how Disney bought Star Wars for $4,050,000,000? They did that because Star Wars is a very serious film franchise for very serious people (and certainly not children). And it only got to that point because the hype around the “Prequel Trilogy” rebranded Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon on par with the Moon Landing. Before 1999, though? Star Wars was just some weird franchise for weirdos that hang around in their weird basements. Star Warped is a perfect encapsulation of that embarrassing era for the franchise. It’s a parody of a particular time and place in a cultural zeitgeist, and it would be all but forgotten if not for digging Star Warped out of the dustbin of history. In the same way that Scary Movie can remind us all of the Scream-craze of the late 20th Century, Star Warped inadvertently can remind us of the Dork Ages of Star Wars.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001, Rare)

It's kind of a swearWhat is it? Parroty Interactive went on to produce an X-Files parody and a parody of an operating system (seriously!), and then went out of business. Or pivoted to making learning games. Whatever. They didn’t survive to make it to Riven, so somebody else had to pick up the parody torch. Rare had always produced games with a generally humorous bent (even Donkey Kong Country premiered with DK kicking out the old man), so it seemed natural when they produced Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a game meant to clash with the traditionally “squeaky clean” image for Nintendo systems/releases. Join a typical “videogame mascot” that has become a little more surly than your average bear or hedgehog.

Is it fun? This was Rare at the height of their 3-D action/adventure/collectathon powers, so Conker’s Bad Fur Day is, if nothing else, a pretty fun game to play. For the personal Goggle Bob rankings, I’d put it above Donkey Kong 64 and Jetforce Gemini, but below Banjo-Kazooie or Mario 64. And those are all top tier games to begin with! It’s right up there! And, hey, it even foresaw the future of Mario with context-based abilities that only appear in particular levels. Mario should write Conker a thank you note.

But is it funny? I was the exact right age when this title was released (old enough to not be shocked, but young enough to find peeing unequivocally funny), so your mileage may vary, but Conker’s day is a funny one. The basis of much of the humor is the cute animal creature (Conker) having to deal with “real world” problems, like war or hangovers. And the juxtaposition works! It (as is always the case with Rare) maybe relies on being a little too talky and anxious to explain the joke on many occasions (a googly-eyed poop needs no explanation), but it’s about twenty times funnier than anything else on the Nintendo 64 not involving a giant ninja robot.

So is it a parody? One could easily argue that the gameplay of Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a 100% mundane 3-D platformer experience, and the occasional jokes or wisecracks from his furry friends aren’t enough to warrant a full parody label. But CBFD is more than that! The gameplay doesn’t have to be that subversive when an alien bursts from out of a panther’s chest. The incongruity of this Diddy Kong Racer facing a world that is about twenty miles above his maturity level is the joke here, and it winds up as a perfect parody of the heyday of videogame mascots. Gex could never touch this squirrel.

The Simpsons Game (2007, Electronic Arts)

Katamari MilhouseWhat is it? Hey, everybody, it’s another Simpsons video game. Try to sound excited! This time, we’ve got a game that was actually penned by writers of The Simpsons series! That’s good. But it is The Simpsons writers of 2007, and it gets very self-referential, very fast. That’s bad. But it’s the best videogame The Simpsons have ever seen. That’s good. But it is also looking at videogames from a very “dad” perspective, so the jokes are more broad than biting. That’s bad. But you can earn all kinds of achievements. That’s good. But the achievements contain Potassium Benzoate.

Is it fun? Continuing the platforming/collectathon tradition of Conker, The Simpsons Game predominantly vacillates between “obstacle course” style levels and excuses to bump around and find random crap all over the place. And The Simpsons get super powers! Which is fun! Homer turning into a big, doughy wrecking ball is always going to be a great time, and the different ways the various Simpsons can work together through diverse levels is a great.

But is it funny? It’s basically a Simpsons episode in videogame form, so what is there to complain about? This is the first game on this list that allowed for the “modern” convenience of overt and incidental voice acting, so quips come fast and furious. And the various super powers and situations the Simpsons encounter add some much needed physical/visual humor to the proceedings. Humor is hard when all you can do is make a whacky looking dancer boss, it’s a lot easier when you’ve got next gen graphics and the best voice actors in the business.

So is it a parody? While The Simpsons themselves are the yellow butts of a few jokes, the main target here is generic “videogames”. The family ventures through levels themed after Dungeons & Dragons, Pokémon, and whatever franchise is exploiting World War 2 the most this week. And one of the big collectibles for the game is simply “videogame clichés” that can be amassed for achievements. And special guest Will Wright wants to destroy NES cartridges full of 8-bit Simpsons. It’s still very broad (Patty and Selma are a two-headed dragon! That’s a thing happens in games, right!?), but it is very much “The Simpsons tackle videogames”, so calling it a parody of the medium at large (of 2007) seems accurate.

Hatoful Boyfriend (2011, PigeoNation Inc.)

Love dem birdsWhat is it? It’s another Japanese visual novel where you’re the transfer student at a high school, and you’re about to get into all sorts of weird and wacky situations with your new classmates. Maybe even romance will bloom! One minor caveat, though: you’re the only human in a world of giant, intelligent birds. Yes, this game started as an April Fool’s Day “prank”, but it’s one of about three visual novels this author can stomach.

Is it fun? It’s a visual novel, so that’s a resounding no. What? Press X to advance text isn’t my bag on a good day. Oh, I’m supposed to enjoy the roleplaying? Well la de da, give me a call when your roleplaying involves killing god.

But is it funny? You don’t play visual novels for the gameplay, you do it for the sweet, sweet writing. Or the pictures where “you” fall face first into a cyclops’ panties. Whatever floats your boat. Regardless, the writing and scenarios for Hatoful Boyfriend are some top notch anime bullshit. And that’s great! Because the entire cast is comprised of photo-realistic birds, so it’s immediately apparent how everything in your average visual novel is absurd nonsense even when there aren’t avian creatures abound. And then a doctor eats you.

So is it a parody? Most visual novels “reward” the player with scenes of…. Can I say pornography? How about art? You receive art for taking particular paths or options. A game where your potential suitors are replaced with pigeons is certainly going to qualify as a parody, as it draws a stark contrast between the usual expectations and our feathered friends. It is parody in absurdity in a genre that has had already entered the realm of self-parody. Good birds. Pretty birds.

Divekick (2013, One True Game Studios)

Kick it againWhat is it? It’s another fighting game, but this one more or less the result of decades of giant nerds playing fight games. Years of scientists studying characters, tiers, and frame data have determined one thing: the divekick is the only viable fighting game move. So here’s a fighting game where all the characters can only perform a diving jump kick. There are different combatants. There are different techniques. But there is only divekick.

Is it fun? In a way, this is a fighting game boiled down to its absolute essence. There’s a variety of characters, a story mode with rivals and endings, and warnings about the prevalence of concussions. But it’s all in the service of a fighting game where one hit wins every match, and one (or two) buttons is all you will ever need. And that’s fun! It’s not the kind of game anyone would want to be alone with on a desert island, but it is enjoyable for short bursts. The ideal downloadable title for the modern console/computer.

But is it funny? There’s a mutated skunkbear that is named Redacted because it is way too similar to one of Marvel’s mightiest mutants. That’s funny! Kicking someone in the head might not be the funniest thing in the world, but the characters and general situations are filled with humor. Oh, and the master wears boots on his hands. That’s silly.

So is it a parody? This is one of those “affectionate parodies” I’ve been referencing elsewhere in the article. This is insider politics for fighting game fans, and a true work that was created by fanatics, for fanatics. It’s a parody that loves its source material, but still acknowledges fighting games are more than a little goofy. There could be another paragraph here just explaining the seven layers of dumb Street Fighter jokes surrounding the final boss, and that’s a sign that something parody-related has happened here.

Lego City Undercover (2013, TT Games)

Goin' undercoverWhat is it? The Lego Videogame franchise finally got away from straight franchise adaptions in 2013, and produced Lego City Undercover, a game featuring an average (Lego) cop that runs over a strangely high number of (Lego) pedestrians. The game is a large departure for the traditional gameplay of the Lego titles, as it is less “levels”, and more of an open-world, mission-based situation. Also, there is full voice acting and a wholly original plot, so this is like a real videogame, and not just Star Wars-lite.

Is it fun? Damn right it is. Lego City Undercover is basically a Grand Theft Auto title with Lego sensibilities, and it’s kind of amazing how effectively those two genres mesh. What’s more, Lego City Undercover is better than your average Lego game, as it doesn’t require the player to obsessively break every goddamn thing every seven inches for additional studs (there is more than a little breakage, of course, but it doesn’t have nearly the same emphasis as seen in other Lego titles). This is just swinging, driving, and busting criminals all over a Lego city, and that’s pretty damn great.

But is it funny? Double damn right it is. Lego City Undercover is generally hilarious on occasion, which should come as no surprise, as actual comedy writers were hired to punch up the entirety of the game’s script. If there are seven seconds of “downtime” in the plot, you can be sure that space will be filled with some manner of capering. And, on a personal note, while cops and robbers are equally lampooned across the game (along with anything else that wanders into the frame), I am currently enjoying any humor derived at the expense of the boys in blue. Those egos could stand to be deflated a pinch…

So is it a parody? In Grand Theft Auto, you are a criminal. In Lego City Undercover, you are a police officer. Somehow, the gameplay is exactly the same. Funny how that works. Lego City Undercover manages to present a family-friendly take on the genre that also provides some insightful (and seemingly deliberate) commentary on the state of the world, and that’s a sign you’re dealing with an excellent parody. Some of GTA’s imitators may border on parody (Saints Row comes immediately to mind), but Lego City Undercover distinguishes itself as its own, albeit parodic, animal.

Goat Simulator (2014, Coffee Stain Studios)

DEM GOATS!What is it? You’re a mundane goat. That’s it. Thanks for playing.

Is it fun? Oh, wait, little caveat here: Goat Sim is more of a game physics demo that evolved into a full-fledged game… Or… almost evolved, at least. There are general goals for your goat simulating here, but, by and large, it’s just you (a goat) in a medium-to-large playground, and your only real tasks are finding new and interesting ways to be destructive. It’s like Blast Corps, but, ya know, with a goat.

But is it funny? In a way, this is a total “make your own fun” adventure. However, despite the fact that the game generally lacks legitimate goals or a level structure, the “playgrounds” available are all meticulously designed. What does that mean? Well, imagine a million perfectly aligned dominoes, and you’re playing as the wrecking ball that just crashed into this clumsy metaphor. This is not a game that relies on clever dialogue, this is a game that relies on the player’s innate need to lick a moving tractor to see what happens. Spoilers: it winds up funny.

So is it a parody? Goat Simulator is the kind of game that could only happen after decades of established videogames. This is a game that looks at the many, many ways you can interact with a world in a videogame, and then pushes them to absurd levels. Yes, you can climb that gigantic crane and jump off… but please don’t do that while aiming for the highly volatile gas station, or bad things might happen. Combine this with a variety of “cheats” and achievements that encourage complete lunacy (a basic rule of the universe is that you should never give a goat a jetpack), and Goat Simulator is more than a simple goat game, it’s a parody of gaming as a whole. And then there’s that MMORPG mode. Class: Microwave is just silly.

Rainbows, Toilets & Unicorns! (2019, Fantastico Studio)

What is it? A man eats a unicorn-flavored ice cream, and, yada yada yada, now he’s being propelled through the sky on a toilet and shooting up his worst fears. And if you guessed “worst fears” included “Salt Bae”, then congratulations, you’re one of the cool kids for today!

Is it fun? It’s a modern “bullet hell” shoot ‘em up, so if you like that, this one is pretty great. The gameplay conceit du jour is that every explosion drops rupees, and catchin’ ‘em all will lead to your arsenal being immediately upgraded. Like with Star Parodier above, this is an interesting mechanic for advancement in an already frenetic genre, so it fits into the shoot ‘em up genre like a glove. Oh, and you can barf unicorn puke all over the place if things get too overwhelming.

But is it funny? This is referential humor at its most obvious. You could be shooting ships or wieners or whatever, but, no, it’s all references to pop culture. Is it overtly funny? Not necessarily. Is it satisfying to lay suppressing fire on a giant, orange toupee? It’s not bad. The basic joke in this game is seeing what ridiculous thing pops up as a boss next, so please enjoy a chuckle when you have to go hand-to-hand with The Pope.

So is it a parody? We’re right back to where we started: a shoot ‘em up with the usual nonsense replaced with joke characters. If Parodius was a parody of Gradius, then it makes transitive sense that Rainbows, Toilets & Unicorns is the modern (and American) parody of Gradius’s same genre. This parody doesn’t have much to say beyond “yes, these things exist”, but it winds up being an amusing way to spend an hour or so. Not all parodies are created equal, but there is certainly room for parodies in the videogame sphere.

So what does parody actually mean, Tony? It means you’re going to have a good time.

… Until you die sixty times in a row to the same stupid boss. Then the joke gets a bit stale.

FGC #525 Parodius

  • Poor penguinSystem: You may find Parodius on practically any videogame system… outside of the United States. Even Europe saw a couple of Parodius games! The best the Americas can hope for is the occasional big fat nothing. I somehow have a Gameboy version, though. Blame Europe again.
  • Number of players: 2 player simultaneous! Who cares if Americans wouldn’t get the references, here’s a reason this shoot ‘em up could have done well in the West.
  • What did you actually play: As is my wont, I played through the complete Parodius arcade collection for this article (even if ROB did technically choose the Gameboy version). This is definitely a franchise that gets better as it progresses, and Sexy Parodius is great with its branching paths and gigantic monsters/ladies. My understanding is that there is also a Parodius Tactics game for the Playstation 1 by the name of Paro Wars… and I’m not touching that with a ten foot penguin.
  • Favorite Pilot: Michael and Gabriel are flying pig angels. I’m pretty sure there need be no further explanation.
  • Worst Powerup Ever: The Oh!/!? powerup block will immediately strip you of all power. It is horrible beyond measure, and, considering the average arcade game doesn’t come with much of a manual, downright mean-spirited. One would suppose it at least gives you a reason to pay attention to manual powerup activation…
  • Konami gonna Konami: If you’re wondering what the Parodius franchise is up to nowadays, may I interest you in a series of pachinko machines?
  • Super 'Sexy'Most Excellent: Otomedius carried on the basic concept of Parodius for a little while, basically focusing on the “sexy” part of Sexy Parodius. It didn’t last very long, but at least it gave the Twin Bee franchise another spotlight.
  • Did you know? Koitsu, Aitsu, Soitsu and Doitsu, the little dudes riding paper airplanes, reappear as monster cards in the Yu-Gi-Oh franchise. The Vic Viper pops up there, too, so Konami kept its crossovers going.
  • Would I play again: Yes! Can someone look into porting this entire franchise to the Switch? Get to working on that! That system needs more penguins!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy 7 Remake! Time to get reacquainted with some old friends! Please look forward to it!

Big ol' heads

FGC #518 Cannon Spike

Let's spike it!Let’s pour one out for the concept of videogame characters as actors.

Today’s title is Cannon Spike, what could best be described as one of Capcom’s final arcade experiments. The same company that revolutionized the arcades by establishing at least two genres (crediting beat ‘em ups to Final Fight and fighting games to Street Fighter 2) while pumping out more than a few general hits for two decades basically attempted to create a twin-stick shoot ‘em up for the arcade and Dreamcast. Such a genre would become very popular around when the Xbox 360 started warring against Geometry a few years later, but in 2000, Cannon Spike was showcasing a fairly unexplored genre. And it was character based! No space ships for this shooter, it’s all about actual humans (give or take) zooming around and shooting on… roller blades. Okay, one kid has a skateboard. Look, this was clearly designed in the late 90’s. Don’t have a cow, man.

But this makes perfect sense for Capcom, as its bread and butter was earned through bright, colorful, memorable characters, rollerblades or no. Final Fight was a dumb beat ‘em up, but Haggar-mania led to more than a few dudes walking the streets sporting that glorious “one-suspender strap, no shirt” style. Mega Man’s host of robot masters guaranteed everyone had a favorite robot (I’m fond of Snake Man), and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts had some monsters that became so popular, they got their own games. Even Capcom’s JRPG division gave us the wonderful world of furries that is the Breath of Fire franchise. And Street Fighter 2? After the wholly forgettable duds of Street Fighter 1 (sorry, Birdie, but you know it’s true), the cast of SF2 was nothing but solid gold that got us to a point where “generic sumo guy” has more renown than the car manufacturer that also bears his moniker. And by 2000, we had seen Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter 3. Say what you will about SF3, but no one is ever going to forget battling a final boss that can rock a banana hammock so hard. Face it, in the era of Cannon Spike’s release, Capcom was the absolute best at creating remarkable characters, and every other gaming company should have just gone home to be a family man. Why would Capcom generate a generic shoot ‘em up ship when it could build the game around characters as extraordinary as those Street Fighters?

Or, here’s a thought, let’s just go ahead and use those Street Fighters wholesale. Is Cammy doing anything else this week?

Go Arthur!The cast of Cannon Spike is very familiar. They might be wearing slightly different outfits, but Cammy of Super Street Fighter 2 and Charlie of Street Fighter Alpha are immediately recognizable. Arthur of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts returns, too, but he’s encased in a vaguely familiar suit of golden armor. Shiba comes compliments of Three Wonders (look it up!), and Simone is technically original, but clearly has origins in a shared, licensed title. And, just for giggles, the two secret characters are B.B. Hood (of the Darkstalkers franchise) and Mega Man (of the Dr. Wily and his Rambunctious Robo Pals franchise). Give or take how much you believe in the omnipresent threat of xenomorphs, the cast of Cannon Spike is entirely recycled from other Capcom titles, complete with expies of Vega and Felicia on the villain’s roster. If you were a fan of Capcom and saw Cannon Spike’s player select screen, you were looking square at a screen full of familiar faces.

But… isn’t Charlie supposed to be dead? Aren’t Mega Man and B.B. Hood from another time and/or dimension? Arthur shouldn’t be palling around with robots! He’s from some silly medieval time that hasn’t even properly worked out pants-based technology! Is Cammy fighting Vega because of a Shadaloo-based sleight? And where does that leave Chun-Li? What’s going on here?!

And the answer is a resounding “it doesn’t matter”.

Blast itCannon Spike is not “canon” with the Street Fighter universe. Cannon Spike is not canon with any universe, Capcom or otherwise. Mega Man and The Hood feel like cameos, but Charlie, Cammy, and Vega are very much their own characters that just happen to resemble other videogame stars. You can count on these heroes and villains to behave similarly to their other-universe doppelgangers, but they’re their own men and women, with their own motivations and lives. Charlie never died fighting some evil organization, because this is his first evil organization. Cammy was never brainwashed (or grown?) by Bison, because there is no Bison. And Arthur never fought a legion of demons, because this is a world generally devoid of ghosts and/or goblins. You know these characters. You might love these characters. But these are not the characters you are used to seeing.

And that can be pretty great sometimes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love continuity as much as the next nerd. But sometimes it’s nice to throw off the shackles of continuous stories, and just have fun with the basic archetypes involved. Arthur and Mega Man are always going to fight for justice for the sake of righteousness. Charlie is always going to be a hero that is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Cammy is always going to like cats (it’s part of her ending!). But consider that the Street Fighter story has technically been going strong since 1987, and has definitely been rigid since Street Fighter 2 in 1991. Include “sister series” Final Fight in that equation, and you have 30 years and hundreds of characters that have to be accounted for every time you tell a Street Fighter story. So wouldn’t it be nice to just have a game where Charlie doesn’t have to worry about being an undead abomination, and he’s allowed to zoom around on rollerblades? So can we have more games where Samus Aran doesn’t have to constantly reference her daddy issues, or where 2-B can run around without bearing the weight of the world? Can’t these characters from famous franchises just be like “actors”, and, like when you see Tom Hanks light up the cinema screen, you can just smile at the appearance of good ol’ Charlie once again?

In the HoodApparently the answer is no, as even “simple” characters like Mario are stuck with decades’ worth of continuity. Link has to consult a complicated timeline involving multiple dimensions before he can even get out of bed, and Mega Man is overwhelmingly tied to a chronology that sees the literal end of all humanity. Yes, while you’re having fun steering Mega Man through Coffee Man’s latest maze of zany traps and colorful robots, remember that this all ends with global catastrophe and thousands of years of mavericks warring against elves. It seems our heroes are stuck with histories that are often older than the people playing their games, and we’re not allowed a simple, Bugs Bunny-esque “he’s an opera singer now, just roll with it” reprieve. Even when we see such a thing, it’s generally because a director has gone soft on characters that were created for a dud, like when the cast of Snatcher kept migrating over to the Metal Gear universe. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, videogames are stuck with continuity like a bad case of crabs, and Mario doesn’t seem to be getting around to clearing out this sewer.

But at least we have Cannon Spike. At least we have one Capcom game where the heroes don’t have to explain themselves, and we can all just have fun runnin’ n’ gunnin’ on some anonymous secret base. At least this Charlie gets to have a life that doesn’t end before Street Fighter 2 even begins, and an Arthur that isn’t shackled to a literal hell world.

It just goes to show: to enjoy a company’s canon, sometimes you have to spike it.

FGC #518 Cannon Spike

  • System: Sega Dreamcast and Arcade. Modern gamers are going to have just the easiest time playing this one!
  • Number of players: Two! And it’s cooperative! It’s pretty great!
  • Let's rockPort-o-Call: Cannon Spike has the unfortunate issue of being a quarter-killer arcade title that limits credits on the home version. I completely understand the concept behind adding challenge through limitation here, but maybe we could have an infinite credits cheat for those of us that don’t want to play the first level over and over again? Actually, I think the first level is randomized… but still!
  • What’s in a name? Charlie is definitely named Charlie, not Nash like he is in Japanese territories. But the flamboyant murderer with a claw hand is named Balrog, ala his Japanese moniker, not Vega, his more familiar, American designation. So it appears there was some localization here, but not an awful lot.
  • Additional Names: One boss is a trio of mech opponents. They seem to be named according to their robot colors: Rick Blue, Bob Green, and Ken Brown. I don’t know about Rick, but Bob and Ken wind up with incredibly mundane names, which seems a little unusual for gigantic fighting robots.
  • Favorite Character: I like every character except Shiba, who refused to be an actual dog. That said, if I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Mega Man. Don’t look at me like that! I have a type!
  • Other Crossovers: There aren’t any members of STARS, but there is a haunted mansion with zombie dogs, giant bio-monsters, and at least one peculiarly rotting guerilla. This is all an obvious allusion to Resident Evil, but the setting and the bullets flying fast and furious also evokes Sega’s House of the Dead franchise. Maybe this was an homage to another company that was having issues with the fall of the arcades?
  • I have to get to that game sometimeAn End: Cannon Spike not only has individual endings for every character, but it also has unique endings for every 2-player pairing of characters. An obvious advantage of this situation is that Charlie dies in his own, solo ending, but survives every other ending where he has a buddy around. An unfortunate side effect of this, though, is that every ending with Mega Man almost exclusively focuses on the Blue Bomber… which kind of gives the impression that Rock jets off on Rush while his partner is left to explode. It… does not portray our favorite robot in a favorable light.
  • Did you know? Cammy gets a Cannon Spike costume in Street Fighter 5, and it impacts her win quotes against Charlie and Vega. Unfortunately, Vega doesn’t get the same courtesy, which is a shame, as his Cannon Spike look of “emaciated, murderous zombie” is pretty distinctive… assuming you don’t just think he looks like Mumkhar.
  • Would I play again: Oh yeah, I kinda forgot to talk about the gameplay. It’s fun! It’s a lot of skating and shooting and could be pretty entertaining for an hour or so on a modern system. I’d play Cannon Spike again in a heartbeat… assuming there was an easy way to do that.

What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Smash TV! Wow! It’s twin stick shooting before twin stick shooting week! Or something! And there will be fabulous prizes! Please look forward to it!

Manson

FGC #516 Celeste

Let's climbWhat does it mean when “difficult” equals “fun”?

Today’s game is Celeste, which Google apparently describes as “A game about climbing a mountain”. Big deal! You climb about seventeen mountains across your average 32-bit JRPG, and it’s hard to even recall how often you are forced to dash across mountaintops in your average platformer. Mario was climbing mountains before he was even born (technically)! But what makes Celeste different from any other trip up some rocks is that Celeste is truly about the challenge of climbing inhospitable terrain. On its surface, Celeste is little more than a basic platformer: you run, you jump, you cling, you dash, and that’s all you got. There is combat in only the absolute loosest sense (maybe you can hop on the occasional angry ghost), and the typical “collectibles” are little more than excuses for challenge rooms. Celeste is a very simple game, so its surface-level description as “A game about climbing a mountain” is very apt. This isn’t a complicated experience for a complicated world, this is climbing a mountain, plain and simple.

But don’t let the simple trappings of Celeste fool you into believing this is a retro title bereft of a plot. Celeste is about climbing a mountain, but, more than that, it’s about a woman learning that she can climb a mountain. Madeline is climbing this mountain, and, when her journey begins, her self-loathing and doubt is so palatable, it transforms into a living entity named Badeline. While Madeline and Badeline initially clash, over the course of the adventure, Madeline comes to accept Badeline, as Baddy was never her evil twin, but a part of herself that she tried to ignore. Once Madeline has accepted herself, “bad side” and all, she levels up as a character and a human being, and gains a second air dash. This is life-affirming and hella sweet. Along her way to self-actualization, though, a number of levels also seem to follow a sort of “lesson” framing, with that previously mentioned angry ghost demonstrating the dangers of putting the needs of toxic people over your own, and another level ending with instructions on breathing exercises that can help mitigate depression and panic attacks. Celeste might have an extremely basic plot, but the narrative successfully turns this simple videogame goal into a story about overcoming challenges both mentally and physically. The mountain is a metaphor!

This is funAnd we’ve seen “the mountain is a metaphor” before on this very blog. There’s another game that sticks in this humble blogger’s head that used the exact same story framing: Catherine. Catherine is a game that is mostly remembered for showing its whole ass with some of the worst sexual politics this side of Persona 5 (gee, wonder if there’s a connection there), but it was also a story about comparing the struggles of Vincent and his dream-mountain climbing to real-life decision making and the trials and tribulations of navigating the dangers of reality. And, if you think that metaphor is simply implied, don’t worry, the writers of Catherine assumed you were an idiot, and framed their story with a character breaking the fourth wall to shout “it’s an allegory!” at all the nimrods that bought Catherine because the logo looked like panties. To say the least, Celeste was slightly more subtle with its morals while maintaining the added benefit of 100% less upskirt camera angles; but it still boils down to the same palpable lesson: you can treat the complications of life like a video game. This mountain may initially seem insurmountable, and you may fall again and again, but you will reach the peak. Whether you’re Vincent or Madeline, you can climb.

But when multiple stories present the moral that you can triumph in real life despite hardships, what does it mean when you play these games to face those “hardships” for fun?

Why compare Celeste to Catherine? Well, Catherine might have an odious plot and tone, but its gameplay is almost wholly different from anything else that has come down the pike in the last decade (and, as you may be aware, I’ve played a lot of videogames over the last decade). The combination of puzzle and action in Catherine is a sweet success, and, while it might be fair to say the writers of Catherine should be shipped off to Penlackicus: The Isle Where Pens Are Forbidden, the gameplay of Catherine is something that can be returned to again and again. It’s unique! It’s frenetic! Occasionally sheep are murdered for their insolence! That’s always a good time (assuming you’re not a shepherd). Similarly, Celeste is an amazing platformer designed by people that understand the genre better than most Sonic curators, and solving each environmental conundrum is as delightful as it is precise. Once you have a full grasp of Madeline’s moveset (and its occasional evolutions), you’ll be revisiting each path to collect a pie’s worth of strawberries not because you have to, but because you’ll want to spend more time bounding and dashing around her world. Celeste and Catherine, two games containing obvious lessons about triumphing over impediments even when such a thing seems impossible, are both games that make those impediments… fun.

NOT FUNAnd, on a personal note, Celeste is the game I played most during the Spring Quarantine of 2020. The world was falling apart in drastically unprecedented ways, I personally had no guarantee whether or not I would have any kind of income from day to day (spoilers for anyone concerned: I made out okay), and there was the threat of a deadly virus striking seemingly at all times. Granted, as I write this article, things aren’t much better, but there’s now a certain kind of uncomfortable familiarity with the situation. Yes, leaving the house is still a gauntlet of social distancing not unlike attempting to dash through a hotel filled with malevolent and deadly energy, but at least it no longer feels like the whole of society is going to gradually slide into the nearest ocean (we have to wait for 2038 for that). Back in March, when everything was unknown and something as basic as “wear a mask” was reported with equal claims of it being our one saving grace and a way to instantly obtain a malady known as “fungus nose”, things were a lot more ambiguous. And, thinking back on that time, I can safely say that I was probably about thirty seconds away from a mental breakdown every moment. I won’t exactly say I was tangibly depressed, but it was more like I was… concerned. Perpetually concerned. Perpetually might-have-a-heart-attack concerned. In retrospect, it was a surprisingly gentle time, as most businesses were closed (so there was little reason to go outside and risk my life for a damn haircut), the concept that someone might be financially hurting was universally understood (extra unemployment and money from a government that was pretending to care about its citizens that week), and, give or take some supermarket meltdowns, people seemed unusually empathetic for a month or so (we’re all in this together!). Maybe it was just an illusion brought on by not having to directly deal with (much of) the public for a month or so, but, in retrospect, the general start of this COVID insanity seemed like it was the best part; something approaching a reprieve before we settled into Let's move itthe usual rhythms of watching our leaders toss more and more “essential” workers into the meat grinder. But when that “reprieve” was happening, it seemed like anything but, as I deal with uncertainty about as well as having a swarm of bees in my pants. March and April’s COVID situation brought me seemingly unlimited stress, and I chose to relax by… playing a game that is supposed to be stressful.

And it eventually dawned on me why I was doing such a thing: even when it seems impossible to make progress in Celeste, even when the next obstacle seems completely insurmountable, even if you’re barely trying, if you fail, at least you won’t lose anything.

And, in an uncertain world, that is infinitely comforting.

Celeste is about climbing a mountain, yes, but the climb happens one screen at a time. Madeline might be required to exhibit some arduous acrobatics, but if she fails, she’s immediately returned to the last place she had even footing. There are no continues that have to be conserved, or lives that have to be limited. While you will lose a strawberry bonus for dying halfway through its retrieval, once you have hit solid ground with your bounty, there’s no way to lose that prize, whether through immediately failing on the same screen, or at some later point in the level. Celeste is also extremely forgiving with save locations, so you can pop into a precise third of a stage if you want to clock in some practice in a particular area. Madeline may become frequently frustrated by the various trials she has to face, but the player is given every advantage in attempting the climb. There might be a number quickly approaching infinity next to that death count, but it’s all worth it if you finish the stage. You won’t be locked out of any future content for burying Madeline more often than the X-Men.

And, hell, I don’t know what Madeline has to worry about. I’m pretty sure I’d be happy as a clam if I mortally screwed up over and over, but came back fresh as a daisy five seconds later every time.

This blowsRemember those uncertain COVID times I mentioned earlier? In the Fall of 2019, I finally took the initiative, looked at my rainy day fund that hadn’t been touched for literally years, and cashed in on remodeling my ancient, remembers-the-fall-of-Napoleon bathroom. It was a lot of money, but I sat down with a ledger, looked at the past year’s profits and losses, and determined it would be a passable expense. I also consulted with my fiancée, who informed me she would leave me if she had to deal with a bathroom that involved a crankshaft toilet one more time. Wait, excuse me, she wasn’t my fiancée at the time. That came later, with the other major expense I picked up in February: an engagement ring. In that case, it was money I really didn’t want to spend, but, hey, I’m pretty sure I love the woman I’m buying it for, and she is a material girl ™ , so may as well make the love of my life happy. So those were two huge, once in a lifetime expenses that I decided would be endurable if typical trends continued. And then a worldwide plague tossed the idea of “typical trends” straight out the window. So, right about when I was concerned that my profession wasn’t as Thunderdome-proof as I might have liked, I also had blown my emergency savings on a sink faucet that doesn’t pour out exclusively spiders (I… really needed that bathroom renovation). Once again, to be absolutely clear, I made it out of that initial quarantine with a job and only a modest hit to my income, but did I know that would be the outcome in March? Of course not. I spent my days worrying over decisions I had made during The Before Time, and I wouldn’t stop worrying until there was a more comfortable “end” in sight. What good is an engagement ring when you can’t support the ones you love? What good is a tile shower in the face of a catastrophe? Can I just reset to a save point from a scant few months prior? Can I get a do-over on this apocalypse thing?

WeeeeeAnd, when I think about it, this is why I play “hard games” when things are stressful. No matter how badly I mess up in Celeste, it’s not going to impact my life. No matter how many times I damn Vincent to death in Catherine, it’s not going to make a dent in my bank account. Every setback in Bloodborne might mean I lose some resources, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to lose my home. Calling a videogame hard is all well and good, but the fact that there are no consequences (maybe beyond losing a few useless hours of actual life) is what transforms “difficult” into “fun”. Drop any consequences for failure, and repeated failures are enjoyable.

The climb is long, hard, and treacherous. But when you won’t lose a thing doing it, it’s fun.

FGC #516 Celeste

  • System: This is another “whaddya got” situation: Steam, Linux, MacOS, Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and certain garage door openers. This one is probably going to get around in future generations, too.
  • Number of players: Maddy rarely enjoys company, as she is a bit of a loner.
  • ScaryFavorite Level: The hotel stage is my uncontested favorite. It has a decent moral, a quasi-boss battle, and I love me some little black ghosty things that don’t allow you to re-traverse certain edges. It all works together beautifully, and seems to encapsulate what’s great about Celeste.
  • So, did you beat it: I’m sorry to say I don’t have every last strawberry, but I’m good with everything else that is going on. Celeste is damn good stuff, and it’s worth triumphing over tribulations to grieve over grandmas. Or… something.
  • Missing Pieces: I completely missed Theo’s explanation of the mountain and its ruined city during my initial playthrough, so I’m pretty sure I assumed the whole of the game was little more than magical realism on my first go. Mind you, that’s still kind of accurate, but Mt. Celeste is apparently supposed to be a “real” location in videogame Canada, not a complete hallucination like my initial impression.
  • Speaking of Dreams: This is the best animation of 2018.

    YUMMY

    Slurp!

  • Black Lives Matter: Celeste was my go-to “relax during quarantine” game, but it also publically resurfaced recently as part of the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. I will literally never get through the 1,741 bits of software that were included in that bundle, but I enjoy being reminded that that amazing set of games was so successful in raising $8,154,644.19 for a worthy cause. Way to go, Itch.
  • Did you know? M. Thorson made a full thread on Twitter about all the ways Celeste is designed to “feel right” for the player. I’m just going to go ahead and link to it rather than recount the full details, so just be aware that there is an inordinate amount of care involved in the creation of a good platformer. Also, “coyote time” is something that should be applied to every platformer ever. Looking at you, Castlevania.
  • Would I play again: Celeste is platforming comfort food for me. And I feel we could all use a little more comfort right now.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Retro Game Challenge for the Nintendo DS! Speaking of challenges and retro games, here’s… uh… both. I guess. Anyway, please look forward to it!

HUGS