Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Vanillaware: I'm Enchanted..

I believe games can be used to convey art. Not one form of art but they can blend different forms together. they can express music, literature, and most obviously graphics. Games by themselves are not art. That's why we praise only handful of games for being artistic, meaning that these games have more to them than what games in general should have. If you read what I said about the challenge and experience of games before, then you should already realize that while art doesn't add to the challenge, it strongly affects the experiential value of any given game.

Generally speaking, games are played for the challenges they offer. They sell for the challenges they offer. Highly praised games might not sell if the challenges are not interesting to the players, while average games might sell if the same players are interested in their challenges. There are still minority who look for experience & art in games as much as they look for challenge or even more. The most exposed of these might be the exclusive Japanese RPG players. They pay close attention to the story (literature), the soundtrack (music), and character design (graphics), while they may be satisfied with the gameplay if it's just enjoyable. I know I'm not one of them, but I also know that I, too, care more about the experience than the challenge. After all, the most memorable games to me are the ones that gave me pleasure by provoking my senses, not my acts.

That being said, it should explain some of the reasons behind the poor popularity of Vanillaware's games. But more importantly, I want it to clarify that when I say I love them, I mean I'm going gaga about them! So from this point onward, I'll be grasping this chance to address my admiration as much as I can.

Undeniably, the most powerful aspect of Vanillaware's games is the graphics. It's the first thing that captures your attention and what keeps you constantly impressed. So what makes Vanillaware 2D style outstanding even among other 2D games? I have a quite simple answer for that. While most 2D sprites are rendered using computers, the sprites & background Vanillaware uses are hand-drawn artworks, and what's more to them is being moving artworks, not still. The outcome for that are dazzling rolling paintings. Once you have a look at them, you can't help yourself from getting allured.

Another really incredible thing about these games is that the stories are no less impressive than the graphics. Each story is presented in a different way and adapted from a different culture. Odin Sphere deals with the story of a grand war during the times of Norse mythology. It sets the focus on 5 protagonists from 5 nations letting you experience the story from 5 perspectives, and then leads you to an epic conclusion in the end. Grim Grimoire has that kind of mysterious & twisted story told in the atmospheres of Magic and Occult. I can't speak without spoiling it, but at least let me say that you play in a period of 5 days that is repeated 5 times allowing you to interact with the same characters and situations differently in order solve certain problems. In Oboro Muramasa, time and money were a big issue, and sadly, the storytelling was severely affected by it. You can still sniff the same brilliance presented in the other games nonetheless. Speaking for myself, I never get bored of its Kabuki play influence with the exaggerated speeches thrown everywhere, even when the awful translations didn't do them the justice they deserve. The characters in all these games have certain depths that can't be overlooked as well. And even though Odin Sphere and Grim Grimoire both offer English voice option, I insist the Japanese option is the one to choose as it adds more layers to what the characters already have. Japanese are considered to be masters when it comes to voice acting after all.

The music in Vanillaware's games is always the job of Sakimoto Hitoshi, who was previously working in Square Enix and currently is the owner of Basiscape. The musical scores blended perfectly with each game when each one had its individual settings and atmospheres. That alone was enough to tell me that this man is talented, and I believe Vanillaware agrees with me regarding what I say about him.

When it comes to gameplay, the truth is that it doesn't match how good the visuals are, basically due to the visual being superb in first place. It's nowhere near bad though, and actually has its own depth and magic. It has a particular flavor, this flavor is what made me adore these games even more than just for their splendid storytelling and visual style. Each game has basic gameplay mechanics with added twists turning it into something fresh and new. Odin Sphere is 2D hack'n'slash RPG with hidden strategy elements in using alchemy and planting trees. Grim Grimoire is fast paced 2D RTS in closed rooms with vertical advancement rather than horizontal. Oboro Muramasa is more about 2D action with metroidvania style of play. That alone might not be enough to attract someone to play, so that where some magic might come in handy and exactly where it was used. Vanillaware developers did what they do best trying to raise the value of gameplay, that is by "painting" it artistic. Fighting armies in Odin Sphere, summoning chimeras in Grim Grimoire, or even running in Oboro Muramasa, it's all done in style. The endless spread of details in there is enough keep me wowed the whole time. Be warned though, going through these games is not all sweet and sugar experience. Playing them can be frustrating sometimes as they are somehow difficult to beat. I'm guessing this is one more reason that made them even less accessible, that is going by the old-schooled [skill challenge -> reward] formula rather than the [gimmick challenge -> reward] formula which is overflowing these days. That really shocked me the first time I played Odin Sphere. I thought the game was going to be gimmicky and didn't expect such skills to be required when I was literally playing with arts, not pixel perfect sprites.

I'm enslaved by love and I can no longer escape from its prison. I bought Kumatanchi as soon as I finished Grim Grimoire before yesterday and after I learned that the publisher Dimple is closing its doors. It's a completely different type of game with a completely different purpose than the others, but I'm still going crazy over it just because Vanillaware was the one behind it. Now I only wish for a new game announcement from them. TGS is coming in few weeks so I'm gonna pray night and day for my wish to come true by then, and I'm gonna be among the happiest lovers on earth if it actually does <3

P.S. Van+illaware = Vanillaware! I'll consider that to be a proof of my eternal love xP

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