Friday, January 29, 2010
For the first time ever, my previously unpublished review of Falcom’s Gurumin on PSP, originally written for The Gamer’s Qaurter. In an attempt to mimic the surreal style of Digitiser’s Mr Biffo, I wrote it as a stream-of-consciousness piece. Written in 2007, and looking back on it, it’s either excruciatingly awful and maybe a little offensive, or possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever written. I can’t help but feel that, under all the nonsense, there is a sentiment which rings true for nearly everything today.
I mainly ramble a lot, so scroll way down if you want the review.
This was originally written for the unpublished Gamer’s Quarter Issue 9, but since it never materialised, this never went beyond the draft stage. For the record, I think TGQ was incredibly ahead of its time, perhaps a little too much so. It was, in my eyes, an attempt to replicate Reader’s Digest for the videogame world, where instead of the usual print format of news, previews and reviews, it was all features. If you want news, you go to a website. For reviews you visit Metacritic. But features aren’t easy to come by. They also pioneered footnotes in games publications. The UK’s NGamer later copied this idea, and when I suggested it be used on Retro Gamer during my tenure there, I was shot down: We can’t do that, you idiot! Everyone will think we’re copying NGamer!
Well what about every university paper that’s been written for the past few decades? The games magazine world is a strange place, full of misguided and blinkered people, and so good ideas will often die in the gutter. Footnotes was one of them. The opportunity to incorporate them was missed, and now I think only TGQ and NGamer will have the legacy of having used them.
But anyway, Gurumin. I’d actually previewed it for PSPGo, a short-lived PSP magazine in the UK, where I’d requested a switch-around: instead of one page on the godawful Xyanide, and half-a-page on Gurumin, how about we move them around? It made no difference to my commission, and I relished the chance to talk about Falcom which, as I pointed out, used to be one of Japan’s tripartite RPG developers. Sure Climax, Sega and Nintendo dabbled in RPGs to varying degrees, at various times, not to mention the plethora of undocumented Japanese computer developers, but for sheer quantity, quality and breakthrough into the console market, Falcom stands alongside Square and Enix. Over the years their relevance has diminished, but from what I’ve heard they seem like a decent company run by good people – they’ve even freely released some of their older games!
The preview is below.
Sadly my comparison to Zelda was a little overzealous, and the final game was mostly boring. Still, as an unrepentant Falcom fanboy, I did and will continue to buy their games regardless.
All images taken from GamesPress and IGN (who actually took them from GamesPress most likely).
ORIGINAL TGQ DRAFT – unedited, uncut and faaaar too long:
A nostalgic dissection of Falcom’s Gurumin on PSP
I was out in a Wrothendelshire farmer’s field with my Spanish friend, Pablo Gonzales, and we were murdering pigs by asphyxiating them on custard-cream cakes; which, I must add, were purchased, not stolen, from Tesco – while we might be porcine killers, we are not thieves. As was tradition, we chatted about everything and nothing on these excursions - mostly videogames - and on this occasion, the topic was the PSP and Falcom’s Gurumin.
“So Pablo, no love for Falcom’s Gurumin?” said I, with a cheeky glare in my eye.
“Sí señor,” said he, with a moustache that made women blush and men envious.
“But why not Pablo?”
“Una palabra, señor. It ís $40. It ís muchos expensive.”
“But it’s by Falcom, Pablo. Remember all the fun we had playing Falcom games over the years? Remember Legacy of the Wizard? Popful Mail? Ys? Faxanadu… No, wait, forget Faxanadu, that was terrible, and it was actually done by Hudson, or some jazz.”
“This is true, señor. It was terrible. But the others? We loved them. We were so carefree back then, señor.”
“But a Falcom game should be fun, and worth the price of admission, right? I mean, there’s not been a console-based Falcom we’ve ever not played, right?”
“Silence señor, I am hunting thee pigs,” he blustered, wrestling one of the said pink roley poleys to the ground and smothering a custard cake over its face until the muscle spasms stopped.
The origin of our strange hobby dates back to a birthday party we were invited to as small children. During its course, one of us, and we cannot remember whom, threw a custard cake at a Piñata pig (Viva!), after which we promptly burst into hysterical laughter. The other children backed away, many in tears, fearing for their lives. But we only continued to guffaw. Realising the joy in such behaviour, we decided to repeat it each year. Over the years though, we needed to increase the intensity of the act in order to get that same original high; this is why at two in the morning we were standing in a maize field, naked, with those same custard cakes, and a fresh set of momentarily living pigs.
But I was determined to pursue the issue of Gurumin, revealing to my European friend, “I picked it up because I try to support Falcom whenever I can. You should too Pablo… It has awesome things in it!”
“But señor, you don’t really like it. Do you see?” he crowed, as the sky behind him exploded into a spasmodic kaleidoscope of undulating winos and hard rock music.
His question and this vulgar display flummoxed me. Looking in the mirror I would say that I liked it, but did I really? It’s true that while holding the package, having spent closer to $60 on it due to importing, I was initially pleased with the cover art. It looked authentically Japanese, meaning Mastiff must have done a good localisation. Obviously a good sign, seeing as we only had to wait two decades, from the NES era, for companies to follow the example set by Working Designs and actually do things well. Still tasting the bitter tears of Working Designs’ unfair collapse, my mind was filled with thoughts of Popful Mail, Lunar, Dragon Force, and other games of such ilk. Gurumin had to be excellent. It was Falcom for goodness’ sake!
I had loaded it up, feeling re-assured by the accompanying Japanese cry. So far, so good. It then did some stuff games do, which I forget right now, and then at some point there was an awesome animated intro with Japanese theme song. Damn, I can still remember the era when I first heard Japanese theme songs. It was during the Turbo Duo days, warm-happy-safe-warm days.
Finally I was about to play… But wait, let’s reload and hear that song again. With feeling this time! Wait for it. Ahh, there. Good, wasn’t it?
Playing it felt intuitive since, after all, third-person 3D action games are not new. But I kept telling myself this was good, since it meant Falcom didn’t need to cut its teeth on a new concept. Refine and polish I hummed, refine and polish.
The main character, Parin, wandered about an idyllic town before making friends with some Mr-Men styled monsters – oh those wacky Japanese, copying the Yorkshireman Roger Hargreaves like that. This had to be a classic. Then there were the superfluous details as she ran around, which showed that true effort must have gone into the game. When Parin jumped she would perform a short unbalanced animation. Then, when she ran past NPCs, their heads would turn to follow her.
But there other things which made take pause, to think about. NPCs would say words like “Cool” and “Sedgewick” and “Gin-soaked-balls!” when you performed special moves near them. Well, maybe not the last two, but you get the gist. They talk to themselves. Enemies also talk. There are these dancing puppy-cubes, which look like little cubes with legs, except they behave like puppies and have small hearts floating above their heads, and they talk to each other. Until you attack them, at which point they get upset and their icon-based language changes from hearts to… some other symbols. Then they attack, leaving you with only one option: murdering puppies. Murdering lots of puppies. There are other enemies too, which talk amongst themselves, and you will witness lover’s spats, double-dealings and friendly arguments. Until they attack. But, these enemies aren’t just any enemies, they have a slightly Hayao Miyazaki influence to them, making for some genuinely (visually) impressive fights. The boss fights in particular are great fun. Surely any game which reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki has to be awesome, right?
So, I’ve killed some jive-talking puppies, bought some cookies, befriended some monsters, and then I’m going through some dungeons. Legacy of the Wizard had some astoundingly cool dungeon designs – at least that’s what my memory tells me – and so the hopes, they were high. Metaphorically. Except, actually playing the bulk of the game proved hideously repetitive. It was an exercise in pure tedium, with the sole object being to run through a linear stage while smashing every encountered pot (basically a box by another name) and defeating every enemy (basically a box by another name, except a bit more dangerous). Smashing every box in a stage results in a medal, and several medals can be exchanged for masks, which in turn improves your chances of smashing all boxes and also enables you to do it faster.
So, looking at the facts, Gurumin is basically a game where you just break loads of boxes, and it encourages you to do this task faster and more efficiently, in order to be able to break more boxes. Still, the level layouts are cool, right, because this is by Falcom. Right? Well, the levels are stiflingly linear – which makes every journalist who compared this to Zelda a crazy fool (oh wait, I did that, in a preview for another mag… damn). And while being linear, they also repeat. After a couple of hours of playing, the levels are reversed and the box locations remixed to create entirely new levels. Except, they’re not new levels, if you think about it. Take five minutes to do so. Back? Good. But I can forgive Falcom, because maybe they were busy, or doing cool things that Japanese people do, like eat ramen, smoke cigarettes and play Dance Dance Revolution. Maybe they HAD to cut corners with the level design. If you ignore this, it’s not that bad. It’s ok. Well, there’s this whole crappy MacGuffin section where you have to find a mole, to open a gate, to get at more boxes, but after this it’s cool. Actually, I really have no idea, since the clock rang 9 and I knew it was time to meet up with Pablo for our annual pig hunting. The game could wait until afterwards. But even so, my reality was slowly disintegrating.
As I went to the rendezvous point I had to remind myself: just keep thinking of the jumping, and moving heads and the enemies who talk. It’s not that bad, it’s fine. The moving heads makes up for the repeating linear levels and boring-as-hell mole hunting. See? Twenty more minutes and it’ll be over, and I’ll be back in the village, watching those wonderful turning heads which Falcom programmed. I had that. I had to stick to that. It’s a Falcom game, you owe it to them to stick with it, remember how good it was before, playing Falcom games? Remember Popful Mail? Remember Ys?
Now… Where could that daft mole be hiding? Hunting moles is a lot like hunting pigs I thought, and then suddenly I remembered that I had forgotten about Pablo, in the field! Except, I was still there, simply enjoying a flashback of the game, and yet, at the same time I am typing these things down. Strange, isn’t it readers?
I tried explaining all these thoughts to Pablo, but I could feel my enthusiasm waning. So in a disturbing moment of self-realisation, I asked him, “It’s not much fun, is it Pablo?”
“No, señor. Asphyxiating pigs is not much fun anymore. I do not know why we keep doing it. Perhaps we are trying to relive that same moment from our youth; chasing a near-forgotten memory of bliss in this bitterly miserable world. We keep going through the same motions, trying to tell ourselves it was as good or even better than before, but… But señor, these days it feels so empty, and I feel so alone.” He then began weeping into a silk shoe he had stolen from a nearby motel.
I looked at him. “Pablo, I was asking about Gurumin.”