Over the last decade, gaming has become a partial replacement for other forms of cinematic media. Realistic graphics and striving for realism can be seen in a lot of AAA releases. Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us Part II are key examples in the last 5 years especially and both were praised endlessly for how well they achieved new facets of a realistic gaming experience. Even games that do not focus on realism will have a lot of cinematic qualities to them such as long cutscenes and in-depth-character arcs can be seen in most fantasy RPG’s. Yet there is still a small space in the industry for games that go for a more arcade approach. I have always appreciated these types of games, but I never thought about them in this manner until I looked back upon the Super Monkey Ball series with the release of Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania on October 5th, 2021. It’s no surprise that the series itself started at the arcade and kept at least a small level of relation to those roots.
Is The Games Industry “Growing Up?”
While gaming has always been for all ages, in recent years there has been a shift into games ‘maturing’ in a lot of people’s eyes. The key example in recent memory is the reboot for the God of War series in 2018, which was praised for making the protagonist Kratos a better fleshed out character and giving him more motivation than the original trilogy did. Making the story more personal elevated it in a lot of people’s eyes, even leading to it winning Game of the Year at the 2018 Game Awards. The same thing has been said about games like Bioshock Infinite and the Tomb Raider rebooted trilogy (pictured below) and their more measured representations of their female characters. This development has proven to be successful in a lot of cases as many of the games I mentioned sold very well and have high critical acclaim. Another way in which some games ‘grow up’ is through rich atmospheric open worlds such as those created by From Software like Bloodborne.
However, would it be accurate to say the industry as a whole has ‘grown up’ in this sense? I feel the main factor to consider in this case is whether or not a game is considered ‘cinematic’ in terms of its story. The previously mentioned God of War (2018) is a great example of this, with a consistent tone and meticulously placed environments and objects to create a great sense of immersion. Compare this to Doom Eternal where the story and immersion are present but not placed at the forefront of the title, with massive powerups in bold colours helping the gameplay to flow from one encounter to another smoothly. So ‘cinematic’ games have gone for more mature approaches to storytelling compared to similar games from the early 2000s, but what about those that do not focus upon stories like Doom Eternal?
The Modern Arcade-Esque Approach
A lot of games go back to the gaming industries starting point in the arcades, and include similar elements to those arcade games, especially the gameplay loop. If you’ve played any fighting game this is readily apparent as they all feature some variation of an ‘arcade mode’ which still lasts to this day. Let’s look at the game which brought about this thought process, Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania. The game has one of the most minimal stories I’ve ever seen as it breaks down to a slideshow with no dialogue showing Aiai and the other monkeys chasing the game’s villain to get back their bananas. The game instead focuses on tight controls and quick levels that gain immense amounts of difficulty once you reach the later stages, much like what you would get at an arcade machine back in the day which creates an enjoyable gameplay loop. There are also multiple alternative modes that work as mini arcade games of themselves such as monkey racing, monkey football, and reverse mode just to name a few, allowing for a good amount of variety. In essence arcade modes or games that focus on that style put gameplay first and keep it to a fast pace, similar to the earlier discussed Doom Eternal.
The advent of keeping gameplay first has its own appeal that works to the most basic of desires from the games. I personally had much more consistent satisfaction with Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania or even indie equivalents such as Super Meat Boy than with a lot of story-based games after beating a particularly difficult level. In a way, it’s another manner with which to make your own stories with the game even with static stages. Finding shortcuts in the levels, getting a lucky save or taking a particularly difficult path when given the options help each player’s experience feel more personal through the players own input.
None of this is to say any specific type of game design is better, they all have their own special place in the industry. I simply wanted to highlight what I feel is a game design philosophy that is on the way out in a lot of areas. Story-based or atmosphere driven games are definite highlights of the industry, but sometimes we all simply want a round of Monkey Ball or to challenge ourselves to a few levels of Super Meat Boy.
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