Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hockey avec Sade (Blades of Steel and Blaster Master)

For what is I believe the first time, today we have two games that are actually quite good and well-regarded: Konami's Blades of Steel, and Sunsoft's Blaster Master. Both hail from the 1988 Christmas season, and, perhaps more interestingly, both are completely bizarre and perverse experiences. Having discussed the question of what 1988 is last entry, today, I suppose, I shall focus on perversity.

Blades of Steel is a classic hockey game. Although the image might suggest that the reason it is perverse is that the teams are comprised entirely of frost giants, that is not the issue. What is the issue is that Blades of Steel is the most disturbing celebration of wonton violence I have ever played.

Blades of Steel perfectly captures the way in which video games distill. I have no doubt that hockey is in fact a fairly complex game. I base this mostly on the fact that my friend Matt really likes it, and I like to think that Matt has good taste. I personally have next to no understanding of the sport, besides the fact that it is very popular in Canada. But what is interesting about Blades of Steel, for me, is the degree to which it breaks these elements down dramatically into a game that is, in essence, a pure and unencumbered meditation on speed.

Blades of Steel is very possibly the single most kinetic game that I have ever played. The main play dynamic is, in essence, a high speed game of bumper cars punctuated by occasional shots on goal and, perhaps more intriguingly, fights. Fights are interesting for two reasons. First, they are fights. They involve punching people. This is, if you are American, interesting. (If you are Canadian, on the other hand, the fact that this game is ostensibly hockey should do it.)

But more interesting, or at least amusing, is the bizarre gladiatorial world in which Blades of Steel takes place. I do not, as I admitted, know much about hockey. However I am reasonably certain that there is not a penalty enforced for failure to win a fight. In this regard, hockey differs from Blades of Steel, where the loser of a fight is put in the penalty box. Adding to the perversity is the astonishingly brilliant graphic of the referee dragging the still prone player off the ice and into the penalty box after a fight ends.

Though comical, this fact seems to me to in some sense underscore the basic design goals and appeal of Blades of Steel - it is a game about the ruthlessness of speed and the chaotic appropriation of space for the purposes of moving accurately through it. Thus far, none of this is particularly violent. Where that all goes terribly wrong is two-player mode.

Two-player mode involves a fundamental shift to the nature of the game. As a single player game, Blades of Steel ultimately features no distinction between opponents and rink. That is, the opposing players occupying your space and the space itself are part and parcel of the same challenge, and kinetic mastery of that space does not necessarily distinguish between the two. This is the challenge of the golf course - the matching of individual dexterity and skill against a terrain that is itself a challenge. But in a two-player game, the opposing players suddenly bristle with life. Because they are controlled separately and are not mere extensions of the game, they render the game something stranger - a competition. Here the space is not a challenge as such, but rather a scarce resource that one must assert dominion over. Where in a one-player game one strives towards cyborg-like fusion with the machine, Blades of Steel, in two-player mode, takes on the far more perverse form of the old joke about not having to outrun you, just having to outrun the lion.

There is, in short, not enough space for two players to move through. The kinetics of space must be dominated by one player. Equilibrium is impossible. Symbiosis is impossible. The complete elimination of the subjectivity of the Other is the only viable option, lest you yourself be eliminated.

This is perversity on a level far beyond the mere triflings of a game like Grand Theft Auto. The fact of the matter is, the circumstances in which the existential state involved in murdering a prostitute to get your money back arise are relatively far and few between. Grand Theft Auto instills at worst a sense of ruthlessness in the face of danger, and a sense of chaotic glee. Neither are universally viewed as good things, but on the other hand neither are unequivocally bad.

But Blades of Steel is a far more troubling experience, because the violence it encourages does not get to mask itself in the mimesis of fantasy. Blades of Steel does not advocate violence as a solution to a specific set of problems. Rather, Blades of Steel creates a situation where the acceptance of the need to remove another subjectivity from the world so that yours may have dominion over it is a necessary part of life. This is only reinforced by the perverse fight dynamics.

A clever reader may at this point suggest, not entirely without reason, that I am, as the idiom goes, taking the piss here, and deliberately reading the game in a logical but implausible way to score cheap rhetorical and dramatic points in my role as an entertainer. I am not. It is my contention that the fight mechanics of Blades of Steel are fully consistent with a reading of the game that interprets it as a brutally violent game with an ethical value that puts Grand Theft Auto to shame and would make Jack Thompson, if he weren't a complete idiot, go insane with fear.

Consider - fighting is an integral part of hockey. But once you opt to add a fight mechanic to a hockey game, you're hamstrung - in fact, to this day fight mechanics in hockey games are hotly debated. In the most recent edition of EA's NHL series, they've tried to make fighting work by mapping it to intimidation - the actual social reason that fights occur.

But in 1988, the social dynamics in which violence occurs were nowhere near codeable. So to add fights, you had to alter the dynamic. It stands as obvious that there has to be an advantage to winning a fight. And so the mechanic of removing players from the game for losing fights is, inauthentic as it is to the actual rules of hockey, a completely logical move within the context of the game design - it's about the only serviceable choice open in 1988.

But what that means is that the simple ethic where victory is rewarded and defeat is penalized gets reiterated throughout the game. Blades of Steel requires its overly aggressive fighting mechanic because it is very much the game I described - a game that, in its two-player mode, is ruthlessly zero-sum.

Blaster Master is thus a nice respite from Blades of Steel, inasmuch as it is purely a one-player game. It also reverts to the paranoid discourse of classic era video games, where the world is actively seeking to harm you, you have no viable chance of overcoming it, and so you may as well just lay down and die now. (See also Bionic Commando)

This is itself a perverse discourse, and at some point we ought discuss the transition of video games from a paranoid discourse to a neurotic discourse, but it is not actually the most perverse part of Blaster Master. No, what is perverse about Blaster Master is actually its plot.

This is one of those moments where my readers who are not deeply steeped in 80s and early 90s video gaming are going to have to trust me when I say I am not making this up.

So you're a guy. With a pet frog. Your pet frog escapes, and gets to the barrel of radioactive waste that is, for reasons unknown, sitting in your back yard. This waste mutates him into a giant frog, and he leaps down a hole that is also sitting in your back yard. You leap down after him, and while you do not find him, you do find a tank and a suit that you can use to fight through legions of monsters to try to find your missing giant radioactive frog.

What is, shockingly enough, even weirder than this is that when Blaster Master was originally released in Japan, it did not have this completely insane plot. It had a perfectly serviceable generic plot about space empires that was wholly interchangeable with any other plot about space empires or Scientologist holy text. This comprehensible plot was actively removed from Blaster Master so that it could be replaced with the missing giant radioactive frog.

There are two things that need to be made very clear here. First, this was done for America. That is to say, this is not, like most truly bizarre things in video games, able to be written off as "That's Japan for you." No, no. Second, it was done deliberately. That means that there was a meeting, somewhere, where a group of people got together and all agreed that this space empire plot has to go, and it should be replaced with a missing giant radioactive frog.

The utter insanity of this is no doubt a large part of why the game is so popular, along with its inclusion in the Worlds of Power series of novels, which are themselves one of the most utterly weird cultural artifacts ever to exist. But the game is also actually pretty good, putting me in the odd position now of having written about three pretty good games in a row - a streak I am almost happy is going to get brought to a crashing end with The Blue Marlin next time.

Sure, the game has flaws - excessive difficulty, a lack of sufficient lives and continues to overcome said difficulty, no passwords, and the cardinal sin of being an exploration based game with no automap. But if you are not (as we all tragically are now) horribly overloaded for entertainment options, Blaster Master is the sort of game that could fill many an afternoon, which, in 1988, was as close a synonym to classic as existed.

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