She’s a wobot!

| christian

Last night I walked out of a local GameStop with a copy of The Bouncer, Squaresoft’s overhyped 2001 beat ’em up for the PlayStation 2 — released only a handful of months after the console came out in the U.S.

For less than $3, I ended up with a paper sleeve containing a scratched-up copy of this game I’d never really played before — one caught in my memories, all the same, of that console’s early days. About two hours after I slotted it into the drive of my PlayStation 3, I was done with it.

I don’t regret my investment.

One of the weird things about The Bouncer — besides everything about it, including its massive hype — is how it sort of feels like a contemporary game. At the time, the game’s cutscene/fighting/cutscene/fighting pacing seemed really strange. Some of the fighting sequences in the game last less than a minute. But you implemented a modern checkpoint system and streaming instead of clunky manual game saves and constant loading screens, it’d feel oddly contemporary, I think.

On the other hand, it also reminds me of nothing so much as the kind of weird not-quite-there games you’d get on the TurboGrafx/PC Engine — the ones where people didn’t yet know how to balance the pacing of cutscenes and gameplay, the ones where the control was just a bit off and there was lots of “why is this here?” about the gameplay design. The ones where the developers bit off more than they could chew.

The ones by developers that didn’t make it past the 16-bit era.

In the end, The Bouncer is only about two hours long on first playthrough — and that’s if I include my die-and-retry time instead of going by the clock (90 minutes). It’d make a neat Xbox Live Arcade game, these days. It’s like watching a silly movie that you get to play. I’d buy another one of these for $10.

The most interesting thing about The Bouncer — at least as far as playing it in 2012 — is how much games have changed since it was made. You could fit this entire game in one of the good bits of Final Fantasy XIII — Lake Bresha or Palumpolum. The colorful world of The Bouncer hints at a much bigger story than the game manages to tell, but it seems so small compared to today’s games — even the small ones.

But even more obvious is how we’ve clearly lost something, I think, in the streamlining of game development to provide only those things that are determined to be essential. We can all think of instances of strange depth in the games of the past — unexpected (or even, at times, seemingly unintended) complexities.

Those TurboGrafx games I talked about had charm because of these rough edges. We’ve all heard developer stories of people staying late to sneak in little passion-project features into classic games. Some games, like the original Smash Bros., were even born this way. But with massive teams, complicated and controlled production, and crushing schedules, mainstream console games don’t have room for that sort of thing much anymore. There are no thumbprints. There are no happy accidents.

As punishing as putting out this game so soon after the PlayStation 2’s launch must have been, and how much pressure the hype must have generated, it’s still clear that Dream Factory managed to have fun developing this game. It’s got their trademark stupid robots.  I didn’t even bother to play the game with Volt or Kou yet, but Sion alone has an unnecessarily complicated repertoire of moves for a game like this. He moves just like a character from Tobal or Ehrgeiz, of course.

He doesn’t quite play like one, though. The weird balance the designers had to strike between making a character that can navigate a 3D space and one that has a deep moveset resulted in some strange compromises. The fact is, you can’t really have directional command inputs because of that. The compromise? Pressure-sensitive controller buttons — face buttons. Remember those? I all but didn’t.

Sion may have all of these moves but, true to its era, The Bouncer doesn’t give you any easy way to learn about or practice them — not even an in-game movelist. As it stands, thanks to its unusual gameplay design and pacing, you barely even get to even navigate locations, and when you do, you’re often prevented from attacking at all. And the pressure sensitivity? The only feedback you’ll get on whether the moves come out right is, well, if they come out right. I guess the upside, so to speak, is that most encounters are so short you’ll never be forced to learn how to play, really — I cheesed the last boss with low kicks just like I would have in a fighting game of the era.

There’s a sequence leading up to the game’s climax in which you have to navigate a multi-floor compound filled with fighting robots. Even though I’d dumped most of my experience into HP and defense upgrades, it was crazy tough — the game’s only challenge. But the strangest thing is about that challenge is that you don’t even have to meet it. You can just run to the exit and get through it in moments. There’s nothing stopping you.

But who wants to do that? My boyfriend and I traded the controller back and forth trying to beat it. Doing anything else would be boring — would be cheating.

The game’s damsel in distress, Dominique, trails you during this level, and if she gets KOed, you lose — so of course she runs face-first into the robots’ fists thanks to a total absence of AI. We laughed loud and long when we tried to use defeated enemies to build a roadblock so she’d be trapped safely in an earlier part of the level — and even louder when she suddenly appeared running from an unexpected direction and flung herself right back into harm’s way.

The game, I barely remembered, also has a versus mode for up to four players. It’s just another example of The Bouncer’s weird duality: is it a shoehorned-in feature made to pad out a short game the easiest way? Or is it something the fighting-obsessed developers at Dream Factory felt was essential and spent the time to craft it? Or both? Does it matter?

Because while the game does have Dream Factory’s Tobal-scented thumbprints all over it, it’s also very clear that The Bouncer’s a mess because it’s a near-launch title that simply had to come out or else. Dream Factory and Squaresoft shipped what worked, probably as soon as it was possible. I’d love to see what would have been implemented if they’d had more time. I’d love to see what a sequel would have been like. I’d love to hear some of the development team’s arguments, read some of their whiteboards, snoop on some emails.

The game is a strange blend of things that aren’t necessary but are there (deep move lists) and things that are necessary but aren’t (in the scenes where you have to examine items, you just pause in front of them till the event triggers because there’s no examine button.)

And what might be the most interesting bit is that I can’t figure out if the developers were really aiming to make a movie-length game with a movie feel, or if they just ended up with a two hour game with a bunch of cinemas when it was all sewn together.

The idea of a movie-length game is something the medium has been dancing around since the PlayStation era at the absolute latest, and it seems it might be coming back into vogue. As a film, The Bouncer is nothing really special, though it’s a comfortable jumble of cliches. Bigger problem: the storytelling doesn’t build a satisfying head of steam before reaching its conclusion, and the game relies on text interludes during its loading screens to fill in the gaps in the plot.

On the other hand, The Bouncer was directed by Takashi Tokita, who also directed Final Fantasy IV, and I like to think that just as he turned the Final Fantasy series into melodramatic adventure, he wanted to turn The Bouncer into a serviceable action film. And he did. But I’m not convinced that it was a literal, 120 minute desire, and The Bouncer just brushes up against ideas both narratively and gameplay-wise that it could have explored in greater depth.

I miss Dream Factory. The company still exists, it turns out, and a cursory examination of its website suggests to me they’re still handling motion capture and working on Unity demos. But Dream Factory is not releasing games — and certainly not releasing games with the character that marks their brief golden era. There’s an aesthetic — both gameplay and visual — that carried between the Tobal games, Ehrgeiz, and The Bouncer. Somehow it got sucked out of the company by the time the characterless Kakuto Chojin finally hit the Xbox, and a quick Google and YouTube search shows that it never came back.

I guess the funniest thing about The Bouncer to me is that it’s weird to have nostalgia for a game I didn’t have much interest in at the time. But on reflection, it makes sense: It’s nostalgia for an era, not for the game. A very specific moment in time; a way of seeing things. For all that I said up front that The Bouncer almost feels modern in a weird way, it’s also leap down an evolutionary branch that’s long dead.

There aren’t teams like Dream Factory much these days anymore. And they certainly rarely collaborate with top-level publishers to create something so surprising. There’s an echo of this in MarvelousAQL’s Nier and The Last Story, I guess, though they’re much more complete games — and in the case of the latter, an unquestionably excellent one.

Developers these days — both the indies and the triple-A console teams — think they’re pushing the medium forward, and, of course, in their own ways, they are. But I feel like we’ll never have an era like this again, where strange things like The Bouncer become so important, and we’re put in front of something that’s unusual not because it it’s self-consciously unusual but because it’s a mess.

As for Square Enix, I’m not convinced they’ll ever have another The Bouncer moment, in a lot of ways. First and most obviously, it’s hard to imagine the debut of a new Square Enix IP could matter so much to a console’s launch ever again. I doubt that we’ll see their creative teams collaborating with untested, unusual developers like this. And if the Agni’s Philosophy demo is any indication, they’ve learned very little from their recent creative failures.

If The Bouncer might be branded a failure, it’s at the very least an interesting failure with personality. A fun failure. A loser uncle who you can relate to more than any of the other adults at the funeral reception.

– Christian Nutt went even further, buying a used copy of Galerians: Ash next 


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