". . .fighting stupid with stupid."
Know this: the "rocket-slide" button in Vanquish pulls double-duty as the "smoke-cigarettes" button.
Remember a long time ago when you were an American kid and your parents forbade you from doing certain stuff, knowing that that stuff was really, really bad for you ('cuz of all their adult experience) and you had a friend that lived in a house that smelled just a little too weird to be considered safe and you went over there simply to play a Nintendo Entertainment System? That kid's dead now. Your friend, not you. You're reading this, you're definitely alive. But he's definitely dead. He's dead because of an explosion he saw at the end of Bionic Commando where your playable character, Radd Spencer, mecha-whipped Hitler so hard that the motherfucker's digital ancestors tasted your cool chrome claw and his head blew up, splattering somewhere between 18-35 pixels of gore against a 19-inch TV.
Back in the 90's, can you believe that people thought Mortal Kombat was bad for children? Nobody realized that it was a joke. Strange that all the politicians making these kinds of judgments have themselves not ever acknowledged an ironic moment in their lives, opting instead for paranoia and assumed worst-case scenarios that somebody, somewhere, somehow will discover Their Secret, and then they'll just be frantic old men trying seal up their sex dungeons at 4am with concrete and bricks and snotty spit. Not a single elected official could laugh at Mortal Kombat and nudge the dude (or lady-dude, they do have those) next him and say "LOL, can you believe this shit? Lookit that blood! There isn't that much blood inside a person. LOL again! Let's bomb Yugoslavia." MK was developed by men that were deep fans of stupid kung-fu films and awesome 80's action movies and, assuredly, they were fans of Itchy & Scratchy and Looney Tunes. The finishing moves were so gimmicky and hilarious and the kids cackled with glee at the one ninja that tore off his mask to reveal a reptilian maw, slinging his tongue out at his defeated opponent's face at a distance, masticating on its fleshier parts for nary a second before rubbing his ninja/lizard-belly in satisfaction. The kids got chortles while concerned parents looking on, shaking their gray hairs in disbelief. Children live to illicit a reaction from adults because they're only sort of stupid, and if they know one thing in this world for sure, it's that they're just peons in adults' world. They want to conquer the world -- it's the basic, dominant concept they default to until sex becomes a viable alternative, at which point, the desires will merge, mesh, and kink together. Kids will mimic anything that gets a reaction out of their parents, miniature-trolling comedians that they are, so the joke is that they just want to get a laugh and be done with it.
They don't actually want to tear off a woman's skin in a forest full of living trees though.
Parents don't believe it. If a kid sees something moronic, they'll emulate it, even if it's entirely fucking impossible and stupid. Videogames were, and continue to be, stupid, just as they were, and are beginning to become less, awesome. 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 MK were now playing the surprisingly bloodless Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64, the system of Mario Kart and Zelda. And it was good.
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 again with a slower framerate -- 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 hold a shotgun in each hand at the same time.
A few years earlier, far across the ocean in Japan, a man named Shinji Mikami wrung his hands together, crafting his first joke for Capcom Ltd., a game called Resident Evil, which featured voice acting as elegant as a canine dry-heave and a gruesome horror plot that wouldn't appeal to the Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn fans dumpster-diving behind Sam Raimi's house. Now those were movies that made schlock-horror fashionable! They are highly-compelling in their slap-stickiness and that's why their style is best confirmed by word of mouth. The best art is misshapen from one angle and well-formed from all angles and it needs, and is worth, defending. Mikami loved well-formed horror because he knew it was secretly gleeful and he had a breakout hit in Resident Evil, one that was obsessed with violence and with winking.
And then came Halo. He wrote down a letter to himself inside his own head 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 -- sure, it had buttery controls and the occasional comedic moment, but at its core, it 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 (* * * * out of 4), which was such a purple piece of shit made for babies that The New York Times had to print a correction, confirming that Melee had turned a bunch of straight boys into gay women. Nobody liked the GameCube. Americans thought it was a joke -- a discolored lunchbox that couldn't play DVDs or Halo. Zelda became cel-shaded, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest stayed with PlayStation 2, and all the athlete-bro-dude-mans in the US that had secretly been playing Counter-Strike and Unreal Tournament as teenagers and they loved it, despite it being frowned upon by all 'dem meaner boys, wanted a BLACK SYSTEM that could play Madden 2003 and Chappelle's Show Season 1 on DVD, and they bought Xboxes, which is a console that plays Halo. 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 knew what good gameplay was, they knew that high-resolution televisions existed, and they bought the Xbox 360 the moment it came out in 2005.
Clifford F(ucking). 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 apart people you don't like. Go play Heavy Rain if you don't believe us. There 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. Videogames are entertainment and leisure, and leisure cannot subside on sadness alone. For example, the first time we played Shadow of the Colossus (* * * * out of 4), when we reached the last boss, we were so distraught that we couldn't finish the game. If you don't understand why, then go YouTube "Shadow of the Colossus Agro fall." Almost six years later, we're playing the game again, this time in HD, and it's really pretty fantastic. Shadow of the Colossus will take you about eight or so hours to finish the first time around and no movie is that long, nor should it be. Nobody sits and reads a book for eight hours and nobody should play Shadow in one sitting and the game is planning on that. Its story is constructed around that very concept, crafting it so you don't realize your semi-silent avatar's descent into darkness, all in the name of doing something traditionally videogamey (killing big monsters) in the name of a videogamey prize (save the princess). This concept can work as a movie or a book but it works best as a videogame, the same way Watchmen works okay as a movie, but delivers its message better as a book. As a movie, it's just another semi-intelligent film about superheroes in decline, masquerading as a glitzy action movie. The point is that Shadow wasn't all about real-world unhappiness and immediately-human tragedy. It had a creepier, meaner emotional spine in addition to being a great giant-slaying simulator. That's how games should engage the intangible weight -- engage it in the way that is unique to the medium.
The clock struck 2010 AD, and Shinji Mikami decided it was time to play a trick on all those self-serious videogame-makin' foolio's, and that trick was in the form of his own game called Vanquish and it was good. Vanquish mocks all the games that are trying to emulate the videogame/movie/explosions/recognizable-IP, as produced by Jerry "The Bruck" BruckAgain, trend permeating entertainment right now. Its 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!)) and he 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 after drinking a smoothie blended from all six hosts of EPSN's Sunday NFL Countdown. He is boastful, pun-obsessed sociopath with mild militaristic-Asperger's, resembling what Ron Burgundy would have become if he'd 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 mourning period.
They fight Soviet robots on an occupied space-colony orbiting earth that 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? Apparently, during the development on Street Fighter II, it didn't being as a fighting game, it's only mandate was that the characters be large on the screen and move with obvious, unique animations so it would catch people's attention in the arcades -- the fighting game concept came after. Vanquish must have come to life in a similar fashion -- its thesis statement is: "We're gonna show these dumb fuckin' western developers how silly their games look, and all our characters are going to be such obvious caricatures that the rest of the game will practically write itself."
"Western games trundle like lazy glaciers? Give our hero a rocket-slide that's four times faster than most racers!"
"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 Robert Heinlein novel? Let's have our heroes actually steal 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!"
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 (* * out of 4), which strips out modern game design frills so all we can see is the stupidity of we waste our lives playing games (we so DO NOT waste that time!) -- is that Vanquish plays it cooler than any game ever. We mentioned that swimming has never been done better than in Majora's Mask -- well, 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 and it turns running into "YEEEEEEEEHAAAWWWWW!!!" Your character is basically an atomic bomb and you are riding that bomb down to ground zero. The game gives you slow-motion skills that recharge so fast that you're gripped by fear if you're not in it. On harder difficulties, if you aren't rocket-sliding or slow-mo blasting a goddamn sniper-bot, you will be afraid for your life. It is the whippiest exhilaration since outrunning your brother around the perimeter of Block Fort in Mario Kart 64's battle mode. Zelda: Ocarina has a two-handed claymore blade called the Biggoron Sword and it has a leaping-attack that deals eight-times the damage of your starting sword, but it also leaves you open to attack. Every melee attack in Vanquish feels like you're using the Biggoron Sword; in HD.
Some shooters have a bunch of different types of sub-machine guns with dot-sights and silencers. Vanquish has a lock-on laser weapon that you have to charge up to track up to eight targets, their acquired-target chimes are grippy and melodic. It charges up and unleashes seeker lasers that fuck up their targets like deadly plasmic-spaghetti from half a world away. There's a death-orb gun that floats through walls and encourages the very matter that the bad guys are made of to forget that it exists. All of these guns can be found in the game's survival mode, which is unlocked after beating the campaign. Survival mode is the final test of a game's brilliance. If it were out of context and endless, would it still be fun? Yes, Vanquish is still fun. It is always fun. It surprises you every step of the way. It's too good to be true.
It's silly. Would you rather it be silly and joking, or a dead-serious? In a videogame that simulates this much murder (against robots, technically, but that's yet another point being made, which you'll see in three sentences)? Is that a serious question? Well, the violence in Vanquish has only the noblest of intentions. Vanquish is a joke on the seemingly-bloodless culture Call of Duty has inflicted on us. CoD is the game your parents warned you not to wander so complacently into, so representative of "What Life Oughta Be Like" and it sucks up your time so much that you convince yourself that it's worth it because it sucks up your time so much and. . . waitta sec. CoD is the lowest-common denominator for a sub-culture that is wider than you'd like to admit, don't side with it. We can't believe how much people defend CoD -- it's a big boy, it doesn't need defending! Instead of giving you Stockholm Syndrome, 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 making Vanquish look like it "totally meant for that to be awesome on purpose," one moment after another. Nothing lingers in Vanquish and that's how you know it's honest with its joke. The humor works in confidence in the background and it reminds you that you are still capable of adoring something with such child-like voracity because it's an 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 has a personality that is highly-stylized, in that it indirectly points at its own insanity, using a series of fun-house mirrors and a fake neck-brace.
Even when you forget it's a wonderful comment on where videogames are these days, it is 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.
Recommended related reading:
[Sly Cooper and the Thevieus Raccoonus | ] by Doberman
[Killzone 3 | ] by Ghost Little
[The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask | ] by Ghost Little
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-- Doberman and Ghost Little (in that order)
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