Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Give this game a shot, revisited: Comix Zone

at 11:19 AM
I've picked up Comix Zone once or twice in the past, only to be frustrated by its lame difficulty so quickly that I tossed it aside before moving past the first level. Who hasn't? Giving the game another shot, I was surprised to find it's actually spectacularly ahead of its time, as possibly the most cinematic, narrative-driven 20th century sidescroller I've ever played. Not what you were expecting to hear, was it? That's because this forward-thinking architecture is a bit muffled by the in-your-face brawling challenge and idiosyncratic art-style. The game is usually brushed away as a small footnote in the Genesis library, notable only for its immediately effectual presentation. Play a little longer, and you'll find an experience far more unique, one that utilizes its comic book inspiration for more than just pretty graphics.

Comix Zone may very well have been made by people who had never played a video game before, or were at least extremely new to the medium. There are dozens of weird decisions that go so thoroughly and unintuitively against convention that the designers must have been either completely unaware of these conventions, or looking to boldly set them alight. I lean toward the former because their sights don't seem set on a particular target, rather they haphazardly reinvent left and right. Death resets the entire game! Punching things drains your life! Fighting game controls except with a jump button! It's like they played Mortal Kombat once and then assumed all other games were based on that. It's kinda weird and amateurish, but not in a bad way. Not in a remarkable way, either. In those days, plenty of games popped up with this kind of "I can make a video game too!" feel. Play the other Strider II sometime, or anything developed by Culture Brain.

If you get caught up in this, and you will - momentarily - you're likely to quickly pass on Comix Zone as a game with a gimmick and nothing more. That'd be a shame, because a little more time reveals that the comic book theme of the game is much more than a gimmick. Games often mimic film in an attempt to add narrative depth, adopting the trends and proven success of an older and more artistically acclaimed medium. I'll discuss elsewhere why I think this is often a mistake, and that "cinematic" should be a dirty word in the gaming community, but we can at least acknowledge that it's business as usual. Is it any more a gimmick for Comix Zone to borrow the presentation of comics than for Ninja Gaiden to use cinematic cut-scenes to tell its story? Only when you take into consideration the fringe presence of comics in the scholarly and popular artistic communities.
The narrative structure of comics turns out to lend itself surprisingly well to video games. This is an episodic structure, a presentation of sequential static scenes with discrete leaps in time and place linking them together. A structure which can be whittled down to only moments of action without sacrificing fluidity. This works perfectly for a game, which wants to take you to as many places as possible in as short a time as it can, without ever taking the control away from the player. It also needs to keep in each place for long enough for action and exposition to occur, rather than a film which will continuously move.

Note that none of these techniques are unavailable to film, as in fact it and comics are already excruciatingly close art-forms, presenting a union of imagery and language. The emphasis, however, is different. For a game of the 2D era like Comix Zone, comics offer a more natural influence. A smaller field of view must be crammed with more details because the viewpoint will always be static, changes in location need to be discontinuous because walking is boring, and action and exposition need to be able to be set aside for one another, rather than passing by so quickly that the player loses track.

The end result is that every situation in Comix Zone is narrative-driven. Every panel of the game's stage structure needs to justify its existence and needs to be different from those before and after it. This divides the gameplay into micro-stages that only last thirty seconds or a minute, and imbues each with only a small chunk of narrative, rather than relying on a five-minute cutscene to explain the subsequent thirty-minute level. The story is developed throughout the whole of the game, and while gameplay still relies on a repeated fighting mechanic, each fight is the result of some new plot development and is given a reason to exist. This is wildly ahead of its time in 1995 when the age of Streets of Rage beat-em-ups was just coming to a close, where you accepted that sometimes a bad guy actually did just have a literal army of thugs to stall you.

It's certainly heavier on action than any genuine comic book or film could be while still carrying a story, but what is important is that the action is tied to the narrative. That means the game is actually watchable, not just playable (hence the longplay above! Check it out, because I assure you, you won't make it to the end otherwise, not without a lot of dedication). Games don't have to tell stories, but those that do should look to an example like Comix Zone as a means of accomplishing it without abandoning the tenets of the medium.

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