Pete Davison: Cultural Differences

Posted on March 8, 2011 by


Games are a fairly unique medium in that they allow pretty much anyone easy access to material from other cultures without the language barrier necessarily getting in the way. A book in a language you don’t understand, for example, is pretty much useless. A film can be appreciated for its direction and cinematography if not understood. Music can be enjoyed on a certain level. But a foreign game, assuming its not too story-heavy, can be enjoyed by anyone.

It’s here that we run into the East-West divide. Both parts of the world enjoy producing games with stories, though Western stories often tend to err on the side of “gritty” while Japanese tales tend for the most part to be more on the colourful, melodramatic side, often derided by people who don’t enjoy them as being “emo”. Let’s leave narrative-heavy games aside for a moment, though, and look at games that are “gameplay experiences” first and foremost.

For comparison purposes, I’m going to take dear departed Bizarre Creations’ Geometry Wars 2 for the Western front, and CAVE’s Deathsmiles for the Eastern front. Both are Xbox 360 titles, both released at a low price point, though Deathsmiles saw a retail release as opposed to Geometry Wars 2‘s Xbox LIVE Arcade-only release. This, in itself, is somewhat telling.

Let’s consider the games’ respective aesthetics first. Geometry Wars 2 is, as you may expect from the title, abstract in nature. There are no “characters”, there’s no “story”, it’s just a bunch of neon shapes against one little white abstract “ship”, and everything explodes into a shower of beautiful fireworks. It’s spectacular to behold (assuming the person playing is any good) and recognisably “next-gen” (or “current-gen” if you prefer, since it’s technically more accurate).

Deathsmiles, on the other hand, looks like a SNES game, albeit one with enough things on screen to make the little Nintendo box explode. It’s all sprite-based, it has chunky pixel-art backgrounds that have been upscaled to HD but not quite by enough, it has animations done by hand rather than generated procedurally and suffers from occasional slowdown due to the sheer amount of shit happening on screen at once.

Not only that, though, but Deathsmiles has “character”. Rather than the abstract appearance of Geometry Wars 2, the player “ship” in Deathsmiles is a person. Specifically, it’s one of four underage Gothic Lolita angels dressed in borderline-inappropriate costumes accompanied by a familiar. Similarly, all the enemies are recognisable as “monsters”, be they humanoid, dragons, flying eye things with bat wings, spiders or indeed the wonderfully named final boss, Tyrannosatan.

The key thing about the two games’ respective aesthetics, though, is that Geometry Wars 2 is consciously trying to look shiny and new, while Deathsmiles is more than happy to look like an arcade game from at least 10 years ago—the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Neither approach is necessarily more or less valid than the other, but it’s an interesting contrast.

Then we come to how the two games play. Geometry Wars 2 has a variety of modes, all of which can be explained very easily. They all involve killing things before they touch your ship, with only a couple of modes (King, in which you may only fire while sitting in certain temporary “zones”; and Pacifism, in which you can’t fire at all and can only destroy things by detonating “gates” by passing through them) varying even slightly from this formula.

Deathsmiles, on the other hand, should be a simple matter to explain. It’s a shoot ’em up, after all—how complicated can it be? But I attempted to explain it to a friend earlier and ended up confusing both myself and him. The game’s tutorial makes it sound rather straightforward—fire in either direction, use a smart bomb, charge up shots or use a lock-on attack—but in fact there’s a surprising amount of hidden depth.

Firstly, since it, like Geometry Wars 2, is a game about getting high scores, there’s a somewhat intricate method to attaining the highest scores that involves destroying the correct enemies with the correct type of shots. The game mentions this in passing, but it’s up to the player to determine what it actually means. Geometry Wars 2, on the other hand, is about shooting shit and using a bomb if you’re in an inescapable situation.

Secondly, there’s the key element of the “bullet hell” shooter—the hitbox. Graze any enemy in Geometry Wars 2 and your ship explodes. But the same isn’t true inDeathsmiles—mercifully, since the player sprite is relatively large. No, instead there’s a pulsing “heart” symbol in the middle of your characters chest and that—and only that—is the thing that can be damaged. Because this is so small, it means you can navigate your player character through intricate arrangements of bullets that initially seem impossible to avoid. Much of the game becomes about less about shooting things and more about learning how and when these patterns appear, and finding an appropriate path through them. The patterns are the same each time, too, so you certainly can “learn” the game, as opposed to Geometry Wars 2‘s more random chaos.

Then there’s the matter of replay value. Both games are designed to be replayed in a “score attack” style. But Geometry Wars 2‘s sessions tend to be rather short for the most part—a few minutes at most. In most modes, the game ends when you’re dead. More skilled players get to play for longer in most cases.

Deathsmiles, on the other hand, takes you through at least 6 levels, the order of which you can select to a certain degree, and offers you unlimited continues. The whole game takes about 20-30 minutes from start to finish. This means that “beating” the game is within the reach of absolutely anyone, even on the hardest difficulty settings. Sure, you’ll get crap scores, since your score resets to zero every time you continue, but you can at least reach the end and whore for Achievements if that’s your bag. The sign of a skilledDeathsmiles player, then, is not how long they play for, but how long they can survive without their score resetting. This doesn’t necessarily have to be from the beginning of the game, as tackling the levels in different orders can provide optimum bonus-point scoring potential, but then we get into a whole other order of depth.

It’s interesting to see two wildly different approaches to what is essentially the same genre—the shmup—and contrast them. I like both games very much, but I feel that most people will probably find themselves favouring one or the other, much like game design philosophy in general.

I’ll leave you with one of the most interesting things to ponder: whether Deathsmiles‘ character designs would have ever been green-lit by a Western developer, even knowing the fact that the arguably “sexualised” nature of them doesn’t factor into the game itself at all? I somehow doubt it. Don’t believe me? Take a look:

Cute, right? Bit of a stockings and thighs and boobs theme going on. We’ve seen self-consciously sexy Western female characters before, so surely nothing new there. How about if I tell you how old they’re all supposed to be?

Yeah. Pervert.


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