Retrokick – Earthbound

It’s been a while since the last Retrokick. I know, almost two months since my last headlong collision with the saccharine walls of my childhood. Shocking. Discontented pensioners should be collecting at the end of my road, locked in hushed discussion about my sudden living in the moment, allowing only the occasional “Oh I know” and, “Absolutely appalling” to waft its way through my perpetually ajar window. But to tell you the truth, the switch-up’s quite…bracing, it turns out.

I was hit, however, by a particularly strong waft of blast-from-the-pastitude after rewatching Rob Reiner’s 1987 film Stand By Me. Dark, folkish, wayward with a discernible maturity, the King adaptation has always held amongst my top coming-of-age films. And despite Ape Inc’s Earthbound attracting most of its praise from its satirical nature, it’s very much a game that instilled that same juvenile precocity when I locked buttons with the 1994 RPG after it launched on Nintendo’s Virtual Console.

Earthbound might for me be an endearing, refreshingly witty JRPG, but it’s also incredibly relevant today. Gaming and self consciousness has attracted more in-depth discussion currently than has ever been, and the reflexivities of Metal Gear Solid, The Stanley Parable, Undertale and most recently Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, have had their hands in developing gaming not just as a form of entertainment, but one of creative expression.

And considering that all this has happened in very recent years  (Pony Island only having released two months ago), it’s rather innovative ( not to mention brave) of Ape Inc. to have produced a concept so fresh and challenging as Earthbound.

 

As the second in the now-cult-favourite Mother series, Earthbound‘s very inception could very easily have been canned. The Mother series was dreamt up by one of Japan’s top slogan writers, Shigesato Itoi, whose advertising line for Seibu Department Store remains one of most prominent in the Japanese advertising industry. As well as landing a voice acting role in My Neighbour Totoro, Itoi had co-written songs with the Oscar-wining Ryuichi Sakamoto and a collection of short stories with Haruki Murakami, who just so happened to be one of the country’s best loved contemporary writers.

Photo

Actually, I don’t remember this self-proclaimed ‘photographic genius’ giving Ness the pictures. Did he just stalk a young gang of children, obsessively capturing their adventures?

Understandably, Nintendo eventually approached him in 1987 to write the slogan for one of its games. Itoi, however, agreed on the condition that they allow him to pitch his idea for his own video game: Mother. Despite his creative portfolio, however, Itoi was turned away by the company’s best known developer, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a high-profile games enthusiast, rather than an artistic prospective designer. It was only later that Itoi recovered his chances. Itoi was called back by Miyamoto, having been instructed by Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to inform the seminal sloganer (whom Yamauchi heavily respected) that his idea had been successful.

Mother’s success continued, too, selling nearly 500,000 copies in Japan. After a sequel was planned, Itoi set to work with Kirby’s HAL Laboratory, and suffered technical difficulties to say the very least. Earthbound was worked for four years, and after multiple developmental set-backs, the remarkable Satoru Iwata was brought in to lend his development expertise.
And of course, here Mother 2 is. It was finished, and released in Japan in 1994, a year later in the US as Earthbound. Of all things, the ambitious SNES title was advertised through the olfactory medium of the scratch-n-sniff.

Those cards of what can only be described as compressed death, that all too often laced the underside of your fingernails with eau de rotten egg, or something equally repulsive. It evoked curiosity, but together with slogans like “Earthbound. It’s like living inside your gym shoes” and “Earthbound. The first Role-Playing Game with BO”, adverts didn’t offer much in the way of enticement, even if the satire within the game’s description was markedly apparent. The game’s cheery art style wasn’t held highly in the States either, and along with its vague marketing campaign, Earthbound struck both as unfashionable and unpromising at the time. Quite ironic considering the huge success of the similarly styled Pokémon Red and Blue only two years later, with no graphical criticisms in sight.

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Earthbound‘s narrative strikes initially as a nod to the coming-of age film. Ness, the incurably inquisitive protagonist of this double-sided adventure is woken one night by a meteor landing, and obviously feels compelled to check it out. The id of the child. Upon discovering that the fallen chunk of rock now native to his back garden is rather the vessel of powerful spacebeing named Buzz Buzz (because of course he is), Ness learns that his idyllic 1960’s hometown is under invasion by intergalactic warlord, Giygas, who intends to enslave the Earth. What ensues is a shared quest between a psychic girl, a firearm-handy genius, a perpetually-frowning distant prince, and an incredibly determined young man, as they traverse various cities and civilisations to thwart Giygas and save the Earth. An average plot, but communicated with remarkable boldness and even bolder flair. A shame, considering its self-effacing marketing struck as little more than a cheap joke.

The quaintly tiled visuals might’ve been unimpressive for the SNES, but where the anterior Secret of Mana and Illusion of Gaia opted more for *proportionate character design, Earthbound’s visual predilections assume instead a decidedly Charlie Brown direction. As I guided my motley crew of children across Halloween-party ghost towns and strange cults lead by paintbrush-headed townsfolk, the knee-bobbing piano licks of Peanuts hummed reminiscently at the back of my mind.

Lassie

Much of the humour in Earthbound stems from its observation of a world where kids appear to run the show. Not in a despotic, We Need to Talk About Kevin way, for adults certainly aren’t lacking, or much controlled. They just don’t care as much as we might expect them to. Against Earthbound‘s waggish crayon art style furthermore, it’s not just noticeable – it’s startlingly funny.

Your own mother tells you to ‘Go for it!’ as you embark on your adventure with no certainty of return, because she knows you’ll just defy her anyway – as is the instinctual impudence of any gamer. She also knows you’re playing a game, as does seemingly everyone in Eagleton, many of whom occasionally let the illusion of this Trumanesque world to slip every now and then, with its smarting jabs towards at the player and gaming traditions. Honesty is Earthbound‘s driving characteristic, and given reflexivity in gaming has only started to trend recently, you can imagine this drove quite the rift between the peculiar SNES title and…well, just about every JRPG going at the time.

And it wasn’t just a distinctive quality that made Earthbound notable. Whilst there was nothing quite like Earthbound at the time, its wryly literal humour and deceptively Utopic art style has since fed through into a plethora of other games, both within and beyond the realms of Nintendo. Majora’s Mask, Animal Crossing, Retro City Rampage are just a few titles that revelled afterwards in intentional kookiness, and there’s a little more than a mere taste of Earthbound in all of them. Heck, it even inspired South Park: The Stick of Truth. The game as a foundation for quirkier titles cannot be overlooked, and whilst the form is somewhat taken for granted nowadays, back in 1994, it was a huge risk for APE to take. I’m ultimately glad they took it. I bet Miyamoto is too.

Dungeon Dev

Beneath its smarting, referential tone and beguiling writing though, Earthbound is a relatively standard turn-based RPG. You can attack, defend and use consumables to regenerate health, as well as equip a variety of weapons in between enemy attacks. Levelling up and increasing character health and strength is noticeably easier than in other RPG’s, with experience points being awarded voluminously, even for reasonably straight-forward encounters.

I’ve never been one for turn-based combat, but battles with some of the weaker, yet more persistent enemies often felt unnecessarily drawn out. I found myself resorting to the ‘AUTO’ function after one too many Runaway Dog encounters, and since most opponents possess idiosyncacies and tendencies, this leaves combat feeling predictable, monotonous and occasionally mundane. The original’s lack of save points could also become frustrating; throw in as many quirkily-penned lines as you like, when you’re constantly oscillating between your next big location and finding a damned hotel to save your progress, gameplay can feel restricted by just how time-consuming this transpires to be.
Fortunately (or perhaps not, considering the power of first impressions), most of these instances occur early on, and gradually sputter out as the story develops.

Ruffini

Something I really did appreciate, as a veritable un-frequenter of turn-based bashing, however, was Earthbound’s neglect of random encounters. I’ve always felt interrupted at the prospect of random encounters in an RPG, so much so that Pokémon regrettably continues to be one of the most unnecessarily frustrating games I’ve ever played. But allowing enemies to be visible whilst exploring the battle ground aided Earthbound’s pacing unanimously, even including the option to outrun larger enemies should Ness’s health dip too low.

Another favourite quirk of mine is its constant mockery of the empowered player. Rub a possessed toadstool the wrong way and it might just muss up your control scheme, leaving Ness floundering freely into rocks, trees and all manner of townsfolk as you try earnestly to control him. And don’t worry, it’ll leave you just long enough to suss things out before inevitably re-muddling it all over again.

Earthbound never really lacks originality or character, it’s more the issue of design and technical issues clouding its kooky charms. Amongst the most beguiling is its soundtrack; a peppy, rosy-cheeked, shoulder-twitching, nostalgia-rousing chipset collection that often does as much to reference underlying themes as the words of its odd little folk.

Mini Barf

As I mentioned earlier, it does try its best to be honest with you. Beneath the boppy muzack symphony lies a darker, suspended set of notes; ones that escape every now and then to merely hint that there could be something deeper going on. Today, I’m oddly reminded of the static interruptions and bassy monotones of David Fincher’s Fight Club, although that particular dose of satire didn’t come till ’99.

But alas, playing Earthbound for any of these things alone is a little like watching JJ Abrams’ Super Eight just for the aliens. It’s the wider awarness that makes it. Not just within genre and archetype references, but of the communities that thrive within those genres and know those archetypes well. Earthbound still retains, for the most part (although the Toby Foxotrons, Foxlings, or whatever else they may or may not like to be referred to have since turned to enjoy the delights of Undertale’s influential Daddy), something of a cult status. As of this moment, it’s still incredibly niche, but given its recent release on Nintendo’s Virtual Console (and I have a sneaking suspicion the aforementioned skeleton-dating sim partially influenced that) and the increasing vocality around commentative video games, Earthbound could enjoy some- I think quite deserved – post-millenial praise.

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*considering the visual constraints of the SNES era and the technological advancement consoles and PC has seen since, it can be problematic to claim either game was particularly or remarkably proportionate, but we’ll keep the comparison here between SNES games to avoid any unwarranted or potentially violent eventualities.

Retrokick – Super Mario Land

The void is a beautiful thing. The more I engage in the humdrum regularities of life’s to-ing, fro-ing and woeing as I tarry inexorably into the complex realms of adulthood, the stronger the allure of a few moments of vacuous bliss transpires to become. It’s not a bad thing, for I’m still a complicated person. I’m practically parfaited with tendencies, joys, fears and intolerances; including a consolidated compulsion to hoard conkers like a gargantuan squirrel. I’m a multi-tiered blood-cake of stuff, and I’d imagine you are too. Unless you’re reading this as an absolutely new born baby, in which case, kudos.

Level 1

But there’s a value to be had in simplicity, and for my platformer-mechanised thumbs, none hit the mark quite like Super Mario Land.

Super Mario Land is an odd little thing. It was one of the last titles that depicted a still rather adolescent Mario. His identity wasn’t set in stone yet, allowing Nintendo tried on a few different components on before settling with the peppy plumber we know today, among the extensive cast of Bowsers, Peaches, Toads and Waluigis that all very much have their own brand. Mario even pursues Princess Daisy here, rather than his regular beloved, Peach.

In that way, you could play Super Mario Land without it feeling truly like a Mario game, and as such, the adventure feels as fresh to me now as it did upon my ingenuous first encounter with the mustachioed protagonist.

super mario land

Unlike its counterparts, Super Mario Land is set in the new environment of Sarasaland.

Whilst Retrokick’s whippersnapperous delving has mostly covered systems that were technologically impressive at launch, the Game Boy’s restrictions were well noticed even back in 1989. This knowledge meant that compact, simplistic games took priority for the Game Boy, and among Tetris and a smattering of sports titles, Super Mario Land debuted alongside the console.

This was one of the only Mario games not produced by the protagonist’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto. The glory for Super Mario Land laid with Miyamoto’s mentor, Gunpei Yokoi. Manager of Nintendo’s oldest developer – R&D 1 – and daddy of the D-Pad, a possible reason for Super Mario Land’s enduring freshness was Yokoi’s technological perspective. He approached Mario Land’s production aiming to use dying technology in a creative way, and perhaps as a result of that, there’s still an incredible youth to Mario’s monochromatic exploits today.

jump

During an interview with Imanishi and Masayuki Uemura, it was explained that Mario’s original nickname was ‘Ossan’ meaning ‘Middle Aged Guy’, before making numerous transitions to Mr. Video, Jumpman and Mario.

Of course, simple platforming and sidescrolling design choices formed the game’s core. But with inspiration drawn from arcade shooter Gradius, Super Mario Land implemented different styles in the form of two scrolling shooter levels, switching up the difficulty to mark pivotal narrative moments. Mario also left his weighty fireballs at home here, instead able to propel powerballs that could bounce off of scenery, through the air to attack enemies and collect coins, if the player’s angles permitted.

More than a mere gimmick, Yokoi introduced an elegance to level progression that had never been seen before, often allowing players to alternate between platforming and puzzle elements with a fluency that made speedrunning delectably satisfying, and the accumulation of extra lives (as collecting 100 coins equaled one Mario life) eased the tension the further you progressed.

Rest assured, the comfort was minimal; with 12 checkpointless levels to progress, and the game’s total reset after lives were depleted, the lamp-lit sessions I spent in Sarasaland were ones spent sifting every available coin to beef up my longevity.

game over

Oh yes, Super Mario Land is as much a real-life-simulator as it is a platformer.

Super Mario Bros. had you stomping about repetitive Mushroom Kingdoms. Each frame was embezzled with the same cheery blue sky and viridescent pipery, again and again. And that was okay; I never played Super Mario Bros. for the groundbreaking visuals. But if Bros.’s world was vanilla, Super Mario Land’s was Neapolitan.

In terms of visual capacity, the NES trumped the Game Boy, but even considering the portable console’s algae-hued limitations, Super Mario Land offered a greater variety, creative flair and a surprising sense of humour than Bros. had, often through world design alone. Mario sprinted through ancient Egypt, China, even Atlantis; taking on pharaoh Lions, aquatic overlords and sentient Moai statues. An undersea robotic invasion even joined the overalled protagonist’s opposing roster. A far cry from the Goomba-Koopa ubiquity.

Although for me, Mario had always been about hopping about gleefully gathering coins like a capitalistic rabbit, Super Mario Land’s many realms made it an adventure. The odyssey was incredibly potent within the game’s ancient depictions, and as such, they communicated a powerful sense of plot without thrusting a narrative right under the player’s nose.

Seahorse boss

The Underwater ‘Muda’ Kingdom was inspired by the ‘lost kingdom’ Mu, and Bermuda.

When I finally reached Daisy (that is, the Daisy that doesn’t experience some sort of Kafka-like transmogrification), it didn’t just feel like a victory because the levels were challenging. It was a victory because I’d battled through all these gauntlets, traveled all these mystical lands of odd little creatures to reach her. Old romanticism doesn’t always die hard.

The variety didn’t cease with the design. Hip Tanaka’s chiptune compositions are recognisable across Metroid, Tetris and Kid Icarus, and characterised Super Mario Land’s levels in a way that was straightforward and undecorative. Void of the hailed jauntiness of the Super Mario theme tune, each kingdom proffered its own theme, blending the game’s numerous mythical representations with the distinctively electronic chipset limitations of the Game Boy. The ancient China levels comprised jaunty chimes, whilst the boss theme managed to be unforgettably ominous, often playing well before the player uncovered the villainous golem blocking Mario’s path.

 

Daisy

But what if this Daisy is Peach inside a Daisy suit? Does Daisy even exist?!

Super Mario Land stood as a lesson in minimalism when the Game Boy first launched, and it still stands as one today, even if its mother console has retreated into antiquity. This simplistic platforming odyssey integrated mystical locations with a charming sense of humour, communicating a malleable narrative that could align with the player’s own experience. It broke conventions, even when the Mario brand was still shaky, and it’s one of the weirdest, boldest and ultimately most beguiling Mario games to date because of it.

If there’s anything I wish I hadn’t taken from Super Mario Land, however, it’s my inescapable paranoia that women I like will irreversibly turn into flies. Of course, before I realise that that isn’t a feasible thing that can happen.

That’s not a feasible thing that can happen, is it?

 

oh daisy

Retrokick – Monster Hunter Freedom Unite

Alas, Monster Hunter. The game I always turned to whenever I felt small. A world I didn’t necessarily topple into in order to feel massive because, if anything, its menagerie of formidable Wyverns and flatulent Conga habitually bludgeoned into virtually negative hit points. But what was so appealing about the Monster Hunter games was the assertion that one didn’t have to be massive in order to face smothering odds, and that brute force was a mere tool at the disposal of style and methodology.

mhfu popo1

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite  was the hopeful enhanced edition of the prior action-rpg, Monster Hunter Freedom 2. The Western Monster Hunter games were ported from the second Monster Hunter for the PlayStation 2, which never reached outside of Japan. After a modest reception on larger consoles, Capcom decided to translate the franchise onto portable devices, and Freedom Unite received a Western PSP release in 2009.

And in a restricted sense, it worked. Very well, in fact. Freedom Unite was a veritable hit in Japan, with a million copies sold in the first day. Western reception, on the other hand, was, and continues to be, comparitively dry.

mhfu pokke What little story Freedom Unite possesses is simple. Lone, insipient hunter you are, your exploits in the snow-capped mountains fall short with the prompt arrival of the Tigrex, an enormous wyvern adorned with orange-blue stripes. After a brief battle segment you are rendered unconscious, awakening in the parochial village of Pokke. Weakened, but before the straightforward path unto Monster Hunter glory.

However, in Freedom Unite, the line between ‘straightforward’ and ‘easy’ has never been more stark.

A large part of what there is to love about Freedom Unite lies in its stunning visuals. Expansive maps are comprised of craggy mountaintops, tropical jungles and punishing desert territory, all of which are home to highly specialised – and highly lethal – monsters.

mhfu cephadrome

Your timely rendezvous with the notorious Tigrex opens up an unforgiving world of hulking, fanged gorrillas, subterranean manta-worms and paralysing super-wasps. The tally of things that can kill you in Freedom Unite is vast, and its diversity has come to be a hallmark of the Monster Hunter series.

Ventures are punctuated with smaller, peace-loving beings too, however – and from the passive mammoth creatures, the Popo, to the nippy anthropomorphic Felyne race, the prehistoric world of Freedom Unite breathes with every alcove. And it’s truly beautiful – however ambiguous and terrifying – to behold.

The village of Pokke constitutes your base of operations for your monster hunting antics; a place where you can buy armour, farm and stock up on provisions for the treacherous path ahead. Whilst the purpose of the village is more administrative than anything else, the atmosphere of Pokke is one of rustic cosiness; a warm, welcoming lull after hours of beastly galavanting.

You can also have a pig. With a crown.
mhfu pig

Freedom Unite possessed a combat system that has since been refined by the Souls games, boasting gargantuan foes with equally dessimating attacks. Weapons are extravagant but equally taxing to handle, making calculating one’s moves imperative, as one ill-timed roll or wonky swing could very well send you reeling into the cold clutches of oblivion, lending greatly to the game’s challenge level.

It’s also remarkably satisfying to watch your character prancing about Pokke with all the vaulting vigor of an incredibly pent-up Freudian.

Whilst, in retrospect, there are similarities between Capcom and From Software’s creations, Freedom Unite still achieves a very personal uncertainty as to what waits around the next corner, and with the looming prospect of randomly spawning beasts over unrelated missions, the sense of danger remains as fresh today as it did then. As a result, Freedom Unite‘s world – six years on – still appears very much alive.

The life of Freedom Unite extends beyond the single player experience, and its online play system is often the reason some return to the game. The PlayStation Ad Hoc Party function allowed four PSP and PS3 owners to team up and brave true titans of beasts, which, considering the tough single player tussles, amounted to a more balanced and deeply involving battle experience. Admittedly, Ad Hoc practice is relatively thin nowadays, but Monster Hunter’s capacity for camaraderie endures to this day, surfacing in the more recent 3DS titles.

mhfu battle

This being said, the series is a gem with some very distinct blemishes. Freedom Unite is certainly no exception, with clunky combat manoevres and esoteric gameplay explanations overlooking some of the game’s truly beautiful aspects.

Capcom’s inefficacy at explaining the game to newcomers has filtered into the series’ overall reception, which has only hindered its reputation. Battle tutorials take the form of exhaustive dialogue segments, which, especially when so adamantly placed at the beginning of the game, makes Freedom Unite difficult to really jump into. The interface is particularly elusive, designating a weighty ‘start up time’ to Freedom Unite to merely learn its navigation. Rest assured, Freedom Unite isn’t a game you can play in your lunch break.

Combat movements are slow, leaving the player vulnerable to hits against large groups of enemies. Healing said hits are no picnic either, and last a positive age, requiring the player to distance themselves from the action in order to heal and evade failure, which isnt’ always easy when there’s a litter of raving Giaprey on your behind.

The champion ailment in Freedom Unite, however, is its wonky camera controls. The camera is unintuitive and lacks precision; often requiring manual adjustment via the D-pad’s left and right. This unnecessarily complicates combat situations, and strikes as particularly archaic with retrospect.

mhfu giadome

Freedom Unite takes a risk-reward decision with quests, but it doesn’t always serve the game well. Particularly bountiful quests will eventually ask the player to pay in-game ‘Z’ currency to progress, which can prove harsh on beginners. Each time you fall in battle, your pay is docked, which found me continually out-of-pocket before unlocking the next set of adventures. Previous quests must then be re-done or useful crafting items sold, again touching on that prehistoric sense of the nomadic, but proving incredibly repetitive in the process.

The lasting mundanity in a game with such epic moments is unfortunate, and seems to have affected the series overall. Monster Hunter sustains a reputation for heavy grinding and steep learning curves – something that perpetuates the series’ still rather niche audience.
But as I always say, there’s more to life than a good old grind. I’ve said it at least twice, anyway.

mhfu beach

Freedom Unite’s glorious soundtracks remains one of my favourite things about the game. An orchestral treasure, Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack offers a score of epics to tap into the soul of the hunter. Each boss revels in its own operatic theme, scopic hikes are mellifluously resonant, and many humorous inflections are taken to brighten the mood. There is a distinct sense of majesty exuding Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack, and alongside its towering behemouths and lush landscapes – it’s certainly a game that sounds as good as it looks.

Freedom Unite is a rewarding game, but only when studied extensively. The stringent control scheme and haphazard camera controls make the combat significantly more difficult, and possibly contributed to the game’s poor Western sales. This being said, Freedom Unite proffers a level of immersion uncommon for a PSP title, and its hefty challenge has gathered something of a cult following.
mhfu tigrex

In the wake of Freedom Unite and its predecessors, further entries have built upon the world of the hunter, and with the fourth installment proving more accessible than any other in the series, the Monster Hunter following is timidly – very timidly –  expanding, albeit on an explicitly Nintendian platform. It does, however, mean that there’s not a huge amount of reason to return to Freedom Unite, as later installments have proven a little more forgiving, navigable and visually pleasing.

But you can have a pig. That’s the take home message here. With a crown.

Retrokick – God of War

In light of the increasingly pervasive surge of festive spirit, I’ve found myself having to go cold turkey. It’s been tough, but I’m getting there.

For nights still plague me with visions of Raiders. I’m racked with Radscorpions;  head run amock with the metaphysical Deathclaw, as incited by the diminutive hue of the Dualshock lightbar in its longing coo for my re-initiation into The Wasteland. Settlers need your help. Bobbleheads lay undiscovered. Steel.

No. No I say! There is time elsewhere for Mutant escapades and Mad Max romanticism. I need to go outside, so that I can do things. I need something fresh, something linear, something relevant enough to quell my Fallout 4 infatuation; outlandish enough to convince that my retentive collection of Nuka Cola Quantum isn’t, in fact, the be all and end all.

god of war kratos j.jpg

Maybe God of War wasn’t exactly what I needed, but it does have the word ‘war’ in it. And war never changes.

And before the ‘outside’ part of the above is brought up, I did play it with the windows open.

I told you, I’m getting there.

God of War was developed by Santa Monica Studios, who’d go on to affiliate with the Twisted Metal series and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, as well as subsequent entries in the God of War franchise. After the generally positive, but fairly forgettable reception of their first game, Kinetica, director David Jaffe was given nigh on complete control by Sony over the studio’s next title. Expressing a desire to create a game that had its routes in passion, Jaffe  strove to make Santa Monica’s next project a game that he – as a gamer – would delight in playing.

So naturally, God of War was born. A furious action platformer that blended the epic with the ridiculous, and demonstrated an ability to thrill and nauseate in equal measure. No winning Playstation mascots today, folks. Just Kratos. And his winning beard.

God of War is a bombastic tale that isn’t afraid to shout about it. Drawing inspiration from Desmond Davis’ Clash of the Titans, its story chronicles arguably the most iconic badass in video gaming. Kratos is a palid, brawny spartan, whose brutish attitude and rampant sadism aren’t exactly in short supply.
god of war ed nortongod of war kratos

The design for his character was later revealed to have been inspired by American History X; Kratos exuded a similar static aggression to Ed Norton’s Derek, even possessing a few visual references to the film. Kratos possesses a scarred eye that faintly resembles barbed wire, for example, with a tattoo that discernibly crosses his left breast.

As Kratos, the player takes on the role of the epic ‘hero’ in a bid against Ares, the perfidious ‘god of war’ who has naughtily turned his back on Olympus to cause mayhem in ancient Athens. Much in contrast to the endeavours of the typical do-gooder, however, Kratos’ vow to kill Ares has its roots in personal gain.

Equipped with the Blades of Chaos, whose chains have been seared into his flesh, Kratos is tasked by the etheral goddess, Athena, to find Pandora’s Box, that will grant the power to kill Ares and purge him of his sins.

god of war rubergod of war ares

And, as nostalgic comparisons are quickly becoming customary, here are  pictures comparing the likenesses of Ares and Ruber from Quest for Camelot, a marvellous film that I implore all readers of this post  to watch. It also has Eric Idle.

We’re consistently given tidbits of Kratos’ history, through a series of cutscenes that surface throughout the game, explaining the roots of his personal wrath towards Ares. The cinematic themes of loss, betrayal and hardship are all rather archaic, but the episodic nature of Kratos’ story keeps the player interested learn of the sin-riddled anti-hero, however repugnant he appears.

The art style is reminiscent of classical mythology, although Jaffe’s childhood interest in Greek myth permeates the presentation of its kin. Purple-tinted minotaurs wield giant, spiked hammers, and glaucous cerberus puppies must be offed before they promptly treble in size. There’s a very definite juvenility about God of War, that serves to enliven its environments amongst the, often quite literal, barrage of death.
god of war minotaur grunt
The battered halls of the suffering Olympus are obstructed by bloodied corpses; defiled structures bear the observations of architects who’ve since faded from existence. The tormented, forelorn atmosphere lends to an immense sense of solitude, granted, but it also emphasises the epic proportions of Kratos’ Homeric quest to restore ancient Greece.

Environmental transitions of the game are met with picturesque cinematic sweeps of the crumbling Greece, and even now, it’s difficult not to gawk. There are moments in God of War that have you clawing your way up a titan’s back, torpedoing through Atlantian ruins and leaping betwixt chasmic pitfalls, and it’s still spine-tingling to behold those same tortured surroundings, despite their restricted access by the game’s linear format.

god of war landscape

God of War implemented the engine of Santa Monica’s first game, Kinetica. Fun factoid for you.

In interviews, Jaffe has made his value of gameplay over cinematic quality clear, and as a result, the gameplay is truly what makes God of War. The combat system is combo-based, and relies on swift, rapid attacks in order to decapitate and disembowel and disembody your way through each fallen land.

Opponents themselves are easily obliterated singularly, but the sheer mass of them that tends to be propelled your way is frequently met with avid button-mashing. However, encounters with some of the larger enemies will benefit from implementation of God of War‘s many combat combinations. The execution of specific combos relies on memory, but sets are simplistic and feel natural to perform. The game bulks typical PS2 platforming controls with block and dodge mechanics, allowing alternation between favoured attacks and evading those of enemies to flow; a crucial element in games of the hack n’ slash genre.

If the Blades of Chaos aren’t doing it for you, though, there’s a smorgasbord of special abilities to ensure your every sadistic whim is catered for. Whilst unnecessary powerups and seldom-visited abilities remain a common problem amongst action games, those in God of War have a reasonably equal niftiness. Poseidon’s Rage, for example, can come in handy when thronged by multiple soldiers, whilst Zeus’ Fury employs capabilities more suited to ranged opponents. Hades even equips you with a damn army of souls.

god of war hades

Of course, you’re free to hack your way through with your chaotic kitchen knives if you’re so inclined, but using a selection of powerups during a boss battle can often provide the hefty dint needed to aid a bloodthirsty victory.

The majority of God of War‘s gameplay seems focused on combat, but the game’s puzzle elements seem neither rushed, or careless. Levels are reminiscent of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – also for the PS2 – but instead opt for puzzles that are more isolated, and complexify some stages. Flipping a switch in this game often means backtracking through a level to see what on Earth you did, and there is a more diverse range of puzzle-solving to be had in God of War.

god of war puzzle

But alas, in a game with such an emphasis on combat, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Indeed, despite the masses of enemies offering an engaging challenge in many situations, I often found the persistent suffocation by innumerable zombies frustrating in those that required attention elsewhere.

There is a particular instance, for example, in which Kratos must push a cage up a slope. As the heave-ho begins, multiple soldiers rise from the earth to inevitably do him in. As I was incessantly caught in the replenishing swarm, the cage I’d lugged so far was left, again and again, to roll blissfully downwards. These instances feel painfully drawn out as a result, and err on the brink of mundanity.

Mundanity is veritably pulvarised when confronted with the game’s hulking bosses, though. These goliaths that surface at pivotal narrative points are a major asset to God of War, but their relatively meagre presence leaves much to be desired. No one boss battle is straight-forward, and unlike many of the common enemies, force the player to adapt their combat strategies. They’re also remarkably structured, ‘multi-tiered’ challenges, that end in the sort of rampant brutality that warrants a convulsive shudder, but as masochistic as I sound for admitting it, a couple more giants to contend with would’ve been grand.

god of war hydra

I realise the irony in asking for an additional set of monstrous jaws when I struggle to shift a cage up a hill. But what can I say, that’s just my skill set, by gum.

Despite the game’s tenacious brutality, however, there are a few attempts at empathy. But whilst many of the cutscenes hint at an intent to humanise Kratos, as a tortured soul riddled with guilt, the effect is often little more than parodic. Most lines are yelled unto the barren sky in a way that scream ‘soap opera’, more than ‘inner turmoil’. Although God of War was by no means intended as a captivating emotional drama, the delivery in these scenes feels forced, and too intense to give Kratos much substance outside his zealous butchery.

The game’s hyperviolence and apparent revelry in it has, does, and will no doubt leave a sour taste in the mouths of some, and whilst I find myself occasionally questioning its exuberance, I can only respect its awareness for what it is. A lot of the gameplay is stylised to the point of ludicrousy; a prime indicator that God of War doesn’t take itself all that seriously.

god of war violence.png

The game’s exaggerated animation and ultraviolent finishers border on satire, alluding darkly to humour without pandering for laughs. Indeed, if there are laughs to be had in God of War, they’ll almost exclusively be at the expense of one character or another, but however grim its humour may be, its presence provides an apt offset to the game’s intense narrative peaks.

Intense, in fact, seems to lace every sinew of the God of War franchise, including its score. Classical war-chants and instruments of ancient Greek culture have certainly formed the inspirational basis of many of the game’s battle sequences, to heighten the grotesque vigour of the menacing Kratos. Whenever I listen to some of its (marginally) less gallant tracks, however, there’s always a distinctive Indiana Jones feel which, I’ve a feeling, wasn’t entirely accidental.

god of war balls

NOPE. DOESN’T SEEM ALL THAT ACCIDENTAL.

God of War is, at its core, a hack and slash game, and whilst its vehement gore and intense narrative isn’t likely for everyone, it was an important entry in the action-adventure genre. Indeed, the game has since spawned numerous novels and sequels – the third of which was remastered for the PS4 only this year. Hell, there’s even been word of a film adaptation floating around, which – as of this moment – I’m only 40% concerned about, and the original still proves robust amongst the likes of Devil May Cry and Prince of Persia.

Whilst not technically original, the game’s cinematic spin, has only been enriched with numerous sequels, and its rich and compelling world-design continues to be recognisable today. Whilst the graphical capabilities of the PS2 original can’t quite match up with such more recent adventure titles as the Uncharted series, God of War‘s visuals still hold up in their own right, and for a game with rather unremarkable components, it’s certainly made a lasting impression on the gaming community.

 

DISCLAIMER

Mentioned interviews with Jaffe:

http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/i_godofwar_ps2

http://www.playstationlifestyle.net/2010/07/22/jaffe-reveals-inspiration-behind-kratos/

https://www.vg247.com/2011/10/26/jaffe-values-gameplay-over-cinematic-experiences/