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(originally published October 5, 2011)
"Vanquish is stupid. It is fighting stupid with stupid."
Know this: the “rocket-slide” button in Vanquish pulls double-duty as the “smoke-cigarettes” button.
First released in 2010 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Vanquish joins the Japanese developer PlatinumGames Inc.’s expanding back catalog on Steam. We need to celebrate this. Vanquish volleyed forth a tongue-in-cheek counter-argument to a decade of western action design sensibilities in 2010. In 2017, the joke is finally landing.
It turns out this joke began in 1992.
Thinking you might buy Vanquish on Steam? Good idea—first, a history lesson.
Can you believe anybody thought Mortal Kombat was bad for children? Nobody in 1992 realized it was the start of the joke. The politicians making these judgments calls have themselves never acknowledged an ironic moment in their lives, opting instead for paranoia and assumed worst-case scenarios that somebody, somewhere, somehow will discover Their Secret.
Then they’ll just be frantic old men trying seal up their sub-basement at 4 AM with concrete, bricks, and snotty spit.
Not a single elected official got Mortal Kombat’s joke. Not one nudged a colleague to say, “LOL, can you believe this shit? There isn’t that much blood inside a person. Anyway, are we still bombing Baghdad today?” Mortal Kombat was developed by men that were deep fans of stupid kung-fu films, Looney Tunes, and John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. The gimmicky finishing moves sent kids cackling with glee at the green ninja revealing a reptilian maw beneath his mask, slinging his tongue out at his defeated opponent’s face before masticating on its fleshier parts. You’re all imagining Reptile rubbing his ninja/lizard-belly in satisfaction now.
Where you’re laughing though, your concerned parents look on in concern, shaking their gray hairs in disbelief. Children live to illicit a reaction from adults because children are only sort of stupid. In fact, no, kids are smart, because if they know one thing in this world for sure, it’s that they’re just peons in adults’ world. Kids will mimic anything to summon a reaction from their parents, miniature-trolling comedians that they are. The joke is that they just want to get a laugh and be done with it.
Kids don’t actually want to tear off a woman’s skin in a forest full of living trees, no matter how much adults fear Mortal Kombat II’s terrible influence. The joke of western game design continued unabated.
While not yet of-age kids “illegally” played Mortal Kombat and Doom, concerning their caregivers to no end, it was the 18 year-olds that could legally play these games that we should have been worrying about. They were the ones playing the games and saying: “This if fucking awesome!” glancing down at their limitless erections. Those American men grew up to make the tasteless, ultra-gory fighting games of the late 90’s and early 2000’s or some low-rent bullshit FPS on PC like Soldier Of Fortune while the kids raised on Mortal Kombat 3 were now playing the surprisingly bloodless Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64, the system of Mario Kart 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Is Vanquish Good? Yeah. It's an all-time masterpiece.
Out of the failed promise of Perfect Dark in the year 2000—the N64 game that should have been the last videogame ever made, and was instead just Goldeneye 007: The X-Files—the world was given the Xbox and Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001. Finally, the children weaned on the giggle violence of Mortal Kombat and the frenetic gunsession the N64 gave the world, had G.I. Joe: Space Swearing: The Game, from Bungie, the creators of Marathon II, which should correctly be cited as the first PC game to let you dual-wield whip-cocking shotguns in each hand.
This is where it gets good. A few years earlier in 1996, before Halo arrived, a man named Shinji Mikami wrung his hands together at Capcom Ltd., fresh off of Goof Troop for SNES. He directed a game called Resident Evil, which featured voice acting as elegant as house-cat dry-heaving and a gruesome horror plot that would barely appeal to the Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn fans eagerly dumpster-diving behind Sam Raimi's house.
Mikami loves well-formed horror because he knew it was secretly gleeful, not too dissimilar from Mortal Kombat. He had a breakout hit in Resident Evil, one that was obsessed with violence and with winking.
We were so ready for Vanquish in 2000 AD, guys: an eastern-designed blasterpiece that knew what stupid is and stupid was.
But, instead, there was Halo. Protected sources tell us Mikami wrote down a letter to himself inside his own head in with invisible ink and it went like this:
"Spaceships?! God-fearing aliens? Machismo? Men that trundle under the weight of a fucking ton of plate armor and rocket rounds? They have the gall to call a two-weapon carrying capacity ‘realistic?’ They're not serious. This thing is style-dead—it has to be a fucking joke. They’re deliberately chewing the scenery, aren’t they?”
They weren’t. The Halo franchise was as serious as a heart-attack, a tone that dominated Bungie until Destiny 2’s release, it seems.
Make no mistake, Halo had buttery controls and an unequaled combat engine that rightly gobbled long days and dank nights. At its core, Halo was about hard, righteous human soldiers delivering bullets, fast, to warbling space-heathens.
Plus, 9/11 had just happened and Americans were desperate for gun/religion metaphors and we were double-damn (Damn! Damn!) sure weren’t going to find them in Super Smash Bros. Melee, which the dominant early-2000s zeitgeist branded a purple piece of shit. Nobody with self-respect liked the GameCube. Americans thought the GameCube was a joke—a discolored lunchbox that couldn’t even play DVDs or Halo.
The now-classic Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was cel-shamed upon release. Final Fantasy X and Dragon Quest VIII stayed with PlayStation 2. The athlete-bro-dude-mans in the United States that’d secretly been playing Counter-Strike and Unreal Tournament as teenagers were now brave enough to play video games in public again but only if the console:
- Was colored black
- Could play Madden NFL 2003
- Could play Chappelle’s Show Season 1 on DVD
They bought Xboxes. They were dead serious about hardcore games. Out of that ashen age, men that had grown with both the PC shooters of old (Quake, UT) and NES action games like Mega Man, Gradius, and Contra, had come into money. They had decent taste. They knew that high-resolution televisions existed. They bought the Xbox 360 the moment it came out in 2005.
Clifford Bleszinski once said that he made Gears of War on the Xbox 360 hyper-violent because nobody had figured out how to make diplomacy as much fun as chainsawing people apart. Go play Heavy Rain if you don’t believe us. There wasn’t and isn’t as much of a market for somebody that wants to inhabit a miserable middle-aged man as their avatar, no matter how artfully crippling sadness is simulated.
The tools weren’t ready to create anything else.
Vanquish is the best game possible can do with the technology we have.
The clock struck 2010 AD. Resident Evil 4 now exists. Director Shinji Mikami decided it was time to put some air back in the video game joke. That joke was called Vanquish. It was a good joke.
Vanquish mocked the Halo-era shooting games attempting to inflate the video game / movie / explosions / recognizable-IP market, as produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. The Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t a thing yet, which meant Mikami’s target was humongous American entertainment. His weapon of choice against western game design was all-too-knowing schlock.
Vanquish’s male characters chew the scenery with alligator jaws. The protagonist, Sam Giddeon, is the idol of every Japanese boy that grew up wishing he had been an American. Sam throws his grenades like a college football quarterback (as his backstory gives reason for (he was one!)). Sam rocket-slides and chainsmokes like the hardest-edge anime character never to exist.
Burns, Sam’s support character, is a roughly 9-foot tall, vintage-80’s version of Schwarzenegger. He looks like he drinks smoothies blended from all six hosts of EPSN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. He is boastful, pun-obsessed, militaristic sociopath. He resembles Ron Burgundy, had he skipped newscasting in favor of the army, where he promptly got his entire platoon killed and grafted a bionic-gun-arm to his shoulder during his shriek-weeping mourning period.
Please remember this entire game is a deliberate joke.
Together, Vanquish sends Sam and Burns to fight Soviet robots on an occupied space-colony orbiting earth. The colony has a microwave beam that could boil every soul in New York City alive—
—Stop right there, you’ve struck oil!
Are you fucking kidding? This thing sells itself. It wears its dead-unserious on its sleeve. To elaborate what we mean, apparently, during the development on Street Fighter II, it didn’t being as a fighting game. Its only mandate was that the characters be large on the screen and move with unique, attention-catching animations to dominate noisy arcades—the fighting game concept came after. It was a product of its environment.
Vanquish must have come to life in a similar fashion—its thesis statement was: “We’re gonna show these dumb fuckin’ western developers how silly their games look.”
Vanquish’s caricatures were so obvious, the game’s design document practically wrote itself.
“Western games trundle like lazy glaciers? Bah! Give our hero a rocket-slide that’s four times faster than most racing games!”
“Western games leave you stuck behind cover? Make our hero a glass cannon. Kill first, die never!”
“Western characters’ voices sound like they eat cigarettes with dinner instead of asparagus? Let the Sam Giddeon, Master & Commander Of Cool, smoke in the middle of battle, if he so pleases! (Also, the robots hate the cigarettes (and try to shoot them when they’re tossed away.))”
“Western games’ dialog sounds like something out of a Paul Verhoeven movie? Let’s have our heroes lift verbatim lines from Starship Troopers without a trace of irony.”
“Western games have red, white, and blue stories about psychotic jingoism and hyper-nationalism? Have the villains literally be SPACE-COMMIES!”
Vanquish is a joke on the global video game industry, courtesy of Shinji Mikami, PlatinumGames, and Japan.
It’s like a call-and-response commentary on the state of the industry. And what’s even better—unlike some joke-games, like No More Heroes, which strips out modern game design frills to silver-platter serve video game’s endless stupidity, laughing at the player—Vanquish plays it cooler than any game ever. Movement, at least in an action game where your primary mode of killing is “gun,” has never been better than it is in Vanquish. It turns walking into fun. It turns running into “YEEEEEEEEHAAAWWWWW!!!”
Your character is an atomic bomb and you are riding that bomb down to ground zero. Not even the future-set Call of Duty games live at this speed. The game gives you slow-motion skills that recharge so fast that you’ll be gripped by fear when you’re running in real-time.
On harder difficulties, if you aren’t rocket-sliding or slow-mo blasting a goddamn sniper-bot, you’ll swimming in sweat. Vanquish is the whippiest exhilaration since outrunning your brother around the perimeter of Block Fort in Mario Kart 64’s battle mode. Every melee attack in Vanquish feels carries the weighty chunkiness found in Castlevania: Rondo of Blood’s deliberate, risk / reward whip-strike; now in HD.
The hand-to-hand doesn’t quite have the crunch of Mikami’s prior God Hand (another joke players are becoming more comfortable hearing) but then, what does?
Some shooters have a bunch of different types of sub-machine guns with dot-sights and silencers. Vanquish has a Panzer Dragoon-style lock-on laser weapon. It finds up to eight victims, an acquired-target chime pinging a chipper melody. It charges up and unleashes seeker lasers that fuck up their targets like deadly plasmic-spaghetti from half a world away.
Vanquish includes a death-orb gun. Its attack steams slow through walls like a ghost. On impact, it encourages bad guy’s matter to forget that it exists.
It all sounds so silly. It is so silly. Vanquish teaches you kung-fu in an hour and then takes a year and a day to teach you the secret reason why you should never use it. Vanquish makes the color gray sexy because it knows what to do with every other color. Once you play Vanquish, the question: “What superpower do you wish you could have?” ceases to be relevant. Some of the time, Vanquish is trying its hardest to make you look cool, but most of the time, without even noticing, you’re the one making Vanquish look awesome, one rocket-slide-missile-kick-backflip at a time. Nothing lingers in Vanquish and that’s how you know it’s honest with its joke. The humor works in confidence in the background. It reminds you that you are still capable of adoring something with such child-like voracity because it’s unique, and it’s unsafe, and it’s ironically rebellious, and amidst all that, its fundamentals still manage to function at a higher level than its peers. Its competition looks like a middle-schooler in a rented tuxedo by comparison. Vanquish’s highly-stylized personality indirectly points at its own insanity, using a series of fun-house mirrors and a fake neck-brace (to prevent whiplash from guests).
It wants you to laugh at its seriousness. No western game has been so confident in the seven years since Vanquish’s release. Now Vanquish is on Steam and it’ll live forever, ideally at 4K, 120FPS on a liquid cooled rig we dare not look directly toward.
Even when you forget Vanquish remains a wonderful commentary on where video games are these days, it’s joy at 88 mph, taking you back in time to a moment where it didn’t matter if something was moronic, or violent, or forbidden, or realistic, or had a purpose.
Vanquish succeeds at fighting stupid with stupid. Dare we be so confident?