Thursday, October 17, 2013

Here today, Godzilla tomorrow: Learning to adapt

at 6:56 PM
Sometimes, when a licensed property is planted in fertile soil for just the right amount of time and administered just the right amount of care, a metaphor is born. Lavished with love and tenderness, that metaphor may just grow up into a fresh bowl of shredded cabbage.

Super Godzilla and Godzilla: Save the Earth present different facets of the character. The Godzilla character, not the shredded cabbage. We're off the cabbage thing. Move on already.

Besides supporting a series of substandard plots, underdeveloped characters, and contrived science fiction, there are two main activities associated with the G-Man: destroying cities and fighting monsters. After all, most of his movie titles are built from the words "Godzilla", "Versus", and "Destroy" (Godzilla vs. Destroyah cuts right to the chase). So it's only natural that in playing a Godzilla game we'd expect to control some egg-huffing reporter/cop who has to convince his boss that some giant monster is about to go crazy, and we'd expect to completely drop out of the game and have nothing to do after about 20 minutes. Or we'd want to be a young, optimistic politician/military officer who has to rally Japan's defense forces in their futile struggle against the unstoppable G. I kid, but it only took one adaptation before Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters (NES) shifted gameplay to a Famicom Wars army-versus-Godzilla structure. While there's certainly something to that approach, the most obvious appeal of the Godzilla franchise is shifting the Big Bad Beast into the protagonary role, giving us a break from fighting monsters and lettings us play as one. As Godzilla, the players are going to want to smash, crash, and bash; elements any decent adaptation would be wise to incorporate.

2004's Godzilla: Save the Earth and 1993's Super Godzilla are indeed decent adaptations. They let us control Godzilla, they let us wreak havoc on civilization, and they let us go toe-to-toe with other towering foes. They let us drive a Godzilla-shaped bus, eat Godzilla-shaped cereal, and brush Godzilla-shaped teeth using a Godzilla-shaped toothbrush.

Godzilla: Save the Earth is the easier game to describe, so let's start there. One of the main things Godzilla has done is his half-century as our spiritual guide is lay waste to other big dudes. Particularly in the late Showa era (~1966-1975), Godzilla served the function of a gigantic reptilian Hulk Hogan. The kaiju had human personalities, their own signature move-sets, and match records to defend. This was the era that gave us Destroy All Monsters and All Monsters Attack. Save the Earth was a semi tie-in with 2004's Final Wars, a revival monster mash that made for a temporary sendoff to God-Z and his over-sized compatriots, so it's to be expected that it's a 4-player 3D arena fighting/wrestling game the likes of Power Stone and other games in that genre that I don't play. Rakugaki Showtime? That's such an obscure reference I'm not even sure it fits here. Anyway, Save the Earth isn't completely off-the-hook Party Fighter; the big focus is on one-on-one matches, and practiced strategy is enough to overcome ad-hoc "equalizing" mechanics like power-ups and environmental attacks. It kinda goes without saying why this works for the Godzilla franchise - of course we want to select from the classic kaiju lineup, of course we want to battle it out across cities, of course we want multiplayer mayhem. The entire concept is a no-brainer, it sells itself.

Save the Earth, in accordance with the film era that inspired it, is very man-in-a-suit Godzilla. When we step into Godzilla's (or any other kaiju's) shoes, we aren't necessarily restricted in unusual or specific ways any more so than when we take over Sub-Zero or SoulCalibur. It looks like we're playing as a giant monster, but doesn't inherently feel like it. Godzilla controls like a human. BUT!, Godzilla's capabilities and surroundings are not in keeping with those of a normal human. He towers over a fully interactive playground of office blocks, skyscrapers, boulders, and oil tankers. The uniqueness of this interactive incarnation of the Gentle Giant comes from what you can do, not how you do it. The game gives us control of a massive all-powerful abomination and lets us gleefully run rampant in the sandbox of civilization, freely flexing our new-found might without limitations. Chuck buildings? Swat helicopters? Swing a radio tower like a club? You better believe Godzilla can in Save the Earth. It's a game that lets our imagination run wild over what it might be like to have a tiny city at our feet - what it might be like if we were the man in the suit. It's a game about the abstract concept, appeal, and potential of Godzilla.

On the flipside, Super Godzilla lets us feel like we've stepped into the films and wormed our way into the cinematic flow. The Heisei film run (1984-1995) focused on the antagonistic, monolithic nature of the big G, painting him as mankind's terrible curse that repeatedly comes back to punish us. This fully animalistic Godzilla is indifferent to humanity, often destructive but occasionally manipulated to good ends. Super Godzilla sticks with this framework and the general storytelling rules of the movies, using a human cast to bridge the player to Godzilla and providing only second-degree control of the monster. The conceit, if you'll allow me to use that word in a way that it is not supposed to be used but frequently is, is that Japanese scientists have developed a device that draws Godzilla in a certain direction, north, south, east, or west. (This feels loosely based on the "bird-machine" from Godzilla ('84) that used magnetic "bird-waves" to draw Godzilla into a volcano). Godzilla marches forward on his own, but the player sets his direction as indicated by an onscreen arrow. The split-screen interface pairs a symbolic tracking map with a widescreen video monitor on the beast himself, steadily plodding forward. When Godzilla moves through an obstacle we watch on the monitor as he autonomously interacts, tearing terrain to pieces and shrugging off gunfire. The boss fights likewise implement a heavily cinematic spin on fighting games, in which the player needs to time attacks with Godzilla's and the enemies' "fighting spirit" to execute lengthy cut-scene specials.

The player gets the sense that they're barely in control, clutching the reigns of this relentless force, struggling to coax it to the desired goal. They can never concretely specify a path or destination (or an attack in the boss fights), left with the imprecise means of the Bird Machine. Godzilla can't be expected to wait or make intelligent decisions on his own - direct him through a building, and he will crash his way through. He is a dumb animal, but a powerful one. That makes it that much cooler that we have even a little bit of input - our limitations show how powerful he is, while the extent of our influence is enough to make that power feel our own. Super Godzilla puts the inhuman, savage power of Godzilla in the hands of the player.

Save the Earth and Super Godzilla make a pretty interesting pairing, both as different types of Godzilla games and as different types of adaptations. Save the Earth decides to hone in on the most game-ready aspect of the franchise and run with it as far as possible, letting the player indulge in the sensation of control in a familiar setting; "if I were Godzilla, I would...". Super Godzilla recreates the movie-going experience from top to bottom, establishing the core audience participation that defines the films: the simultaneous awe and terror in response to Godzilla, the notion that this is a horrifying, destructive monster... that is also essentially innocent and thus fun to root for. The real battle is for control of Godzilla. It's kinda interesting that the more cinematic and what could be called more mature interpretation is the one that came out in 1993. Anyway, what we have are two really great adaptations. Great games by their own right? Who cares. No one's trying to sell them without the 'Zil. But absolutely a great case study in how to successfully translate other media into video games.

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