Friday, 24 April 2015

One Hit Wonder: Double Dragon Neon and Miriam…? Muriel…? No, it’s Marian!

Does just copying someone else's mistake afford you unaccountability?

The new Spider-Man isn’t going to come with an origin story, apparently. I’d hazard that this is because the lovely people at Marvel/Disney/Sony are finally sure everyone knows why Spider-Man is Spider-Man. He was bitten by a scientifically fiddled-with spider and inadvertently let his hubris hurt those closest to him. Essentially, he learnt that “with great power comes great responsibility”. This kind of stuff is, I think, built into the Western, movie-hungry consciousness, so it's nice to hear it isn't going to be forced upon patrons again.

Less widely known, but still tiresomely unnecessary, is the origin story of Double Dragon. Its complex tale of two men beating up lots of people is set in motion by the heartbreaking scene of a woman being punched in the stomach, thrown over a burly bloke's shoulder and having her almost bare arse shown off to all who'll take a look. The lady in question, Marian, is (bizarrely) the joint love interest of protagonist brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, but also all the sexualised MacGuffin 80s players needed to go and bonk some bonces. ‘It were a different time’, you see, so that's about as complex as narrative justifications got.

Double Dragon received a reboot in 2012 in the shape of Neon. It added numerous extra levels of mechanical complexity and a good ol' dose of persistent character progression - things deemed necessary to bring the aged beat ‘em up into the modern era. Marian, by contrast, still gets a smack in the gut for being a woman, and remains merely a hollow trinket for players to follow. While how one plays the game is deemed important enough to warrant an overhaul, moribund gender representations and a morsel of respect for narrative are clearly not.

The genre is, of course, largely defined by its mechanical purity. It harks back to the days of arcades, where getting through combat challenges was a thrill unto itself, buoyed along by skill or sheer fiscal determination. Completing the game efficiently and without spending a small fortune was a player's aim, and this tension is largely lost once continues are stripped of their monetary value. What we're left with, then, is a relatively rudimentary collection of inputs; combinations of punch, kick and block are tiresomely anemic when compared to newer, more complex games. Something as simple as Double Dragon cannot possibly compete with the likes of contemporary Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden games. They offer hugely deep combat experiences, where positioning, stance, weapons and combo strings affect the very core of one's offensive and defensive capabilities. A 2D beat 'em up, by virtue of its own design tenets, can't possibly feature comparable depth. Yet Neon is preoccupied with augmenting its mechanics within the strict generic template it is confined to, chasing an unachievable complexity while developing very little else. Neon is, essentially, a flashier copy of the original.

Wholesale reproduction-with-bells-on has proved genuinely effective in the past. Evil Dead II is a slapstick take on Evil Dead, which sees the absurdity of the original’s low budget aesthetic being played for laughs within the framework of what is essentially the same story told again. Aspects of Hulk Hogan’s fight with King Kong Bundy at WrestleMania II were reworked to great effect the following year. At WrestleMania III he picked up and slammed the 520 pound André the Giant, creating what is still one of the most enduring images of professional wrestling. Nirvana’s follow up to Nevermind, In Utero, was consciously created to appear similar to their mainstream breakthrough in terms of basic composition and sound. It was, however, produced in a very raw and stripped-back way, and in parts features many abrasive and contradictory elements. Ultimately it is very difficult to compare the two, and upon release In Utero accomplished the band’s desired goal of alienating casual listeners. Skillfully created reproductions, those with a real intent, tend to work out quite well.

Neon seems to tacitly acknowledge that Marian's depiction is outmoded. Right at the end of the credits, after the men have spent the whole game beating on others to protect her honour, and while she has been held prisoner and (surprise, surprise) brainwashed into being a momentary adversary, it is Marian who strikes the final, lethal blow to chief-antagonist Skullmageddon. She is, ultimately, the only one strong enough to bring the story to a close after so many false endings and mid-stage boss battles. The men on the title screen spent hours whipping Ol' Skullers and were still only able to subdue him for a few minutes. Marian truly gets it done though, Neon tells us. But her victory is hidden right at the end. Admittedly, there is a catchy song playing over the entire credits scroll to hold people's attention, but even so, some will miss this token gesture. It's past the end after all, can you blame them? It's like - to go back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a moment - Nick Fury popping up right at the end of Iron Man. Him doing so is a lovely little wink to diehard fans, but the average moviegoer will be queueing for the toilet by that point. He isn't part of the plot; he's outside of it, something to look forward to or get you thinking, but he isn't integral to anything that came before his tiny scene.

So why does Marian still need to get a slap?

The answer to this, in my mind, is because the experience of playing is usually held above anything else a game might have to offer. It’s why addons to Bioshock Infinite tout a “combat experience [that] has been rebalanced and reworked with a greater emphasis on stealth and resource management” (woop woop), right up there with the main draw: a continuation of its story. It’s why Titanfall’s entire single player portion is a series of offline multiplayer matches you play against your Xbox. It’s why Shadow of Mordor’s numerous expansions all take place in entirely the same location as the main game and simply tweak the mechanics a bit. It’s why Far Cry 4 is Far Cry 3 and then some (but not much more). If it's fun to play does anything else really matter?

Neon lets you counter attacks, share lives with your co-op partner and pull out a high five at a moment’s notice. It, in many ways, plays more smoothly than previous Double Dragon titles. And while it is still a bit clunky to move about and perform these maneuvers, it at least pinpoints the deficiencies of its inspiration and works to sort them out. It also gently pokes fun at 80s machismos; painting the Lee brothers as unintelligent, air guitar-wielding, dudebro-ing fools. It sort of does a lot of things right when it comes to updating the template it is - by virtue of being a flashy copy -  beholden to follow. Which makes it all the more of a shame that the single most outdated aspect of the series, Marian’s place within the whole mess, is left almost intact. Neon might be intentionally dumb fun, yes, but it isn’t by any means clueless. Perpetuating this kind of tasteless, backward-looking representation - especially when it changes so much else - isn’t done out of ignorance, it is done out of indifference. And that, to put it lightly, just isn’t very fun.


The above prose is proud to be associated with Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table, an initiative which seeks to bring the diverse voices of video game criticism together about the person of a once again monthly topic. I think it's dead good, and so do these lovely individuals:


It isn't just women who face a glass ceiling when it comes to monetary income. I, even as a white male living in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, still manage to earn a paltry sum every month. If you're thankful in any way for my free written gift to you, maybe consider making it ever so slightly less free by donating to my lovely Patreon, it resides here: Chrz.   

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Form Over Function: I’m Going to Buy Video Games a New Vacuum Cleaner

The day I bought my Playstation 4 I also became the proud owner of a Dyson DC49. It's their - possibly the world's - 'smallest, quietest vacuum cleaner'. You can almost fit it in the palm of your hand. Now, I’ve always wanted a Dyson, let us make that clear from the off, lest I build up the following introductory anecdote to an unfairly inflated stature. For me they are the perfect product for our consumption-led society: functional to a fault and reassuring expensive. They are the kind of thing even an aged Yorkshireman could get behind, such is their exquisite balance of monetary outlay and usefulness. Upon returning home I carefully laid both products beside one another on the sofa and quietly surveyed the fruits of my wanton spending. I then gleefully opened up my new vacuum cleaner, pieced it together and cleaned my flat. I got to the PS4 an hour or so later.

Dysons are great.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Decorated Hero: Cave Johnson and the Aesthetics of Science

I don’t really go in for loving many cultural products. I’ve got my favourite film posters on my walls - Casablanca, Easy Rider and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - but they are there because I like both the prints themselves and the films. I find it generally quite difficult to take that step from appreciating something or finding it stimulating to laying down my life in its defence. I’ve never argued about which David Bowie album is the best, or which Call of Duty campaign is the most thrilling and visceral (man), or whether becoming a vegan should simply be a personal choice or part of a wider-reaching political/moral crusade. I steer clear because all of these things - and in general any topic with the power to bring forth heated conversation - are hugely subjective, and the people willing to jump into discussion at the drop of the hat - over the Internet or over wine - almost certainly have their minds made up already. I stood on a hill once and inadvertently urinated right into the wind. I haven’t made a habit of doing so since.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Warfare * But Were Afraid to Ask Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 is a very serious video game, maybe the most serious video game ever created. Its unflinching earnestness makes it, in my opinion, one of the most important games of recent years, if not all time. Far Cry 2 is everything big-ticket games are almost always too scared to be: it is hard, it is strict, it is a pain to actually play, it is uniformly bland in its approach to conflict and interpersonal relationships, it is - well, genuinely amazing.