shinobi

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #15-11

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the introduction to this list here.

15. VVVVVV (2010)

With the press of a button, the protagonist of Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV quickly floats to either the ceiling or the floor via gravity. Although VVVVVV wasn’t the first game to feature this concept (see the Mega Man series or, for a less well-known example, 1986’s Terminus), it commits to the idea like no other title. The best segment of the game highlights the excitement of moving from one screen to the next: to nab one item, you must twice guide the hero through a treacherous series of tunnels with spikes as he’s pulled in midair for several successive screens. Later in the game, Cavanagh takes away platforms altogether for a few challenges to achieve an even stronger sense of nerve-wracking vulnerability and physics-defying adventure. VVVVVV looks and sounds retro, but Cavanagh’s willingness to take a premise to the extreme underscores the relentless drive of a modern artist rather any cliched attachment to nostalgic pleasure.

14. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (1991)

Let’s forget, for a moment, that Capcom’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts requires you to beat its perilous levels two times in order to save, you might have guessed, a princess. The way the game uses platforms to keep the player off-balance is genuinely unpredictable the first time through. In the very first level, sections of the ground shift in extravagant fashion as zombies rise from random spots in the earth. In the next level, you must ride a small raft through a raging ocean, taking special care to account for how the constantly changing sea level can alter the trajectory of your projectiles and the probability of you successfully threading your avatar through deadly traps. In another level, you ride a flying palette of blood and bones during a challenge that wouldn’t be that diabolical if not for the fact that the ceiling, floor, and walls are drunkenly rocking back and forth as aerial enemies do their damnedest to push you off to your doom. Such ingenious and wicked twists, along with an oppressively melodramatic soundtrack, make Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts an essential horror game.

13. BurgerTime (1982)

In Data East’s BurgerTime, the player can’t leap. You can only climb up and down ladders to transition to different platforms. The goal is to literally run on top of ingredients, such as meat and lettuce, to make them fall to a platform below. Eventually, full hamburgers will form at the bottom of the screen. The problem is you’re being hounded by walking food items, like pickles, but if you can manage to make an ingredient fall as one of these pursuers try to cross over it, more points are awarded. The timeless appeal of BurgerTime lies in how it takes the vertical progression of 1981’s Donkey Kong and flips it into an absurd resource-management challenge that often feels like a deadly game of Tag. The game also demonstrates that the potential of platforming is only limited by one’s imagination — that there is no reason a developer’s creation must follow in the footsteps (and jumps) of Mario.

12. Shinobi (1987)

This side-scrolling arcade hit, designed and directed by Yutaka Sugano, has a stealthier bent than its contemporaries despite its shuriken-throwing, sword-slashing action. Taking a page from Namco’s Rolling Thunder, Shinobi allows you to jump to floors above or below the protagonist, and the transition to another plane is faster than that of Rolling Thunder. In some cases, this technique can be used to appear suddenly behind or in front of an unsuspecting enemy. Moreover, you have the ability to walk while crouching, an early example of a common mechanic in modern first-person games. In addition to giving the player the means to cleverly switch and traverse platforms, Shinobi rewards those who proactively line up the small hit boxes of their shurikens with adversaries, sometimes via mega-precise throws during jumps. Shinobi might share a lot in common with beat ’em ups and shooters, but it earns its classic status because of its platforming dynamics.

11. Cave Story (2004)

As the intricate work of one Daisuke Amaya, Cave Story frequently receives praise as a labor of love. But labor lacks personality without style, of which Amaya’s game has plenty, thanks to its quirky storytelling, unique leveling system (where an individual equipped weapon can gain or lose power depending on how often you collect triangular items or take damage), and, yes, a memorable approach to platforming. The hero in Cave Story has one of the most distinctive-feeling jumps in game history. At a glance, the high height of the jump might suggest a floaty sensation, but the actual action seems a bit stiff as you play. This strange feel, combined with the diminutive size of both the protagonist and certain platforms, demands a different kind of precision from players. Interestingly, with a machine gun, you can shoot down and propel yourself to higher positions. Such unusual mechanics come to a head for the monstrous final boss fight, where floating platforms that pass like clouds can either help your aim or hinder your mobility.

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The Fetishization of Violent Enslavement in Gaming: A Response to Retro Gamer

by Jed Pressgrove

As surely as artists have the right to depict violence, people also have the right to enjoy and criticize violence in art. From the enjoyment angle, many gamers are sensitive about criticism of violence in video games, partially due to politicians and media using violent games as a scapegoat for their own failures to foster a safe society. Indeed, the idea that violent games breed killing machines is an overstatement from a statistical standpoint. At the same time, it’s fair to raise questions and make claims about how violence is used in games and how its usage might impact our sensitivity to violence or conflict with our morality. Some game critics have written good analyses of game violence (see articles by Patrick Lindsey, Ed Smith, and Mark Filipowich, among others). But a recent article in Retro Gamer (Issue 131) gave me considerable pause after I read its evaluation of a certain act of violence in BioShock.  The most troubling sentence was in the article’s final paragraph:

‘A slave obeys,’ it tells us, as we smash our own father’s head in with a golf club — an activity we had no choice but to perform.

Let’s note that we, the audience, always have a choice about what art we consume in our homes. We can stop reading books, watching movies, listening to music, or playing games at any point. I recall Takashi Miike, the transgressive filmmaker of Audition and Ichi the Killer, saying that if the violence in one of his films gets too much for you, take a break and resume later. This very simple choice that we have as an audience stands in contrast to the notion that a game segment was “an activity we had no choice but to perform.” This notion rejects enjoyment of violence in favor of a morbid fascination with supposed enslavement.

The Retro Gamer article in question is part of a regular column called “Future Classics.” I was unsurprised to see BioShock selected for this distinction. The game is overly loved by game critics. The issue doesn’t lie with people enjoying the game or discussing its themes. The issue arises when critics, such as Leigh Alexander and Tom McShea, promote a sort of cultural elitism when speaking about BioShock or creator Ken Levine (Alexander’s and McShea’s negative reviews of BioShock Infinite do little to refute their appraisal of Levine’s superiority). All that said, my disappointment in Retro Gamer’s article is more related to its refusal to place BioShock’s patricide in a meaningful historical context; after all, history is the magazine’s strength (Retro Gamer is my favorite magazine for this reason). Instead, the article blandly sets us up with an unenlightening genre statement: “It [BioShock] took the assumptions developers (and players) had made about the FPS protag, turned them on their head, and fired them back at us.”

What about the assumptions that the above claim makes about all of us? This line of thinking about BioShock’s “subversion” brings to mind the commentary of The Stanley Parable, which draws a useless parallel between pushing buttons in an office, pushing buttons as part of a mechanic in a video game, and pushing buttons on the controller as a game player. Sure, some gamers are unintelligent and exploited by big studios, but are we all as unaware and dumb as The Stanley Parable suggests?

Moreover, are the gaming literati that unaware and dumb? Have they forgotten that not one but two 1980s action games toyed with the idea of confronting one’s father in violence? As if it couldn’t be anymore obvious, both of these 1980s games starred ninjas! Retro Gamer should have known better. The BioShock article ignored the precedence of Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden and glorified a more graphic form of patricide with the takeaway that we really didn’t know any better. On the contrary, I’m pretty sure most players know what a plot twist or design choice is. The suggestion that BioShock and The Stanley Parable enlightened us might be more than condescending. It’s starting to seem flatout dishonest.