I know I don't say this nearly enough, but let's talk about tits for a minute...
Perfect! Blog's over, thanks for everything people.
You can fap to anything you like, but you can't fap here.
Joking aside, I've been fascinated by the almost non-stop chatter that Vanillaware's new 80s arcade inspired Fantasy Brawler DRAGON'S CROWN has gotten from the press these last few months. Now, when I say "press" I mean websites like Kotaku, Destructoid, IGN and other similar sites that focus on video games as a general rule. With all due respect to everyone working at these sites - hell, I even like a handful of the guys that do it - they literally make money by saying things that get people just riled up enough to comment, log in, reload the page and get a fraction of a penny via advertising dollars. To haphazardly mangle a lovely quip that long-time anime critic Zac Bertschy gave at the AX Anime News Network 15th Anniversary panel beyond recognition, when he was asked why he continues to review new content when he angrily dismisses far more than he likes: He basically said he does it because those reviews are among the most viewed content on the entire site. Most of the people reading it clearly don't agree with him, but they sure want to know what he had to say about it anyway!
I get it, sad as it may be: With the only future of internet columnists being boiled down to professional blog-trolls baiting for clicks, it's hard to begrudge anyone for making constant breast jokes and overly snarky observations about much of anything. Despite the trailer having first reared its head in 2011, it largely flew under the radar until April of this year, when the impending release of the game drew nigh. With even a rudimentary understanding of the current state of click-bait ad revenue keeping the video game press alive, giving Dragon's Crown as something to talk about was basically begging for them to tear the unique, stylized, and - yes, let's not be stupid - sexualized art style a new one if they didn't like it, and tear it apart they did for the most part... but there was an unexpected twist when The Internet ran its course. See, the eye of this shit storm is - most notably at least - an exchange between Kotaku writer Jason Schreir and the game's lead artist/Vanillaware's president, George Kamitani. In brief, Schreir called Kamitani an adolescent boy over "The Sorceress" and her gravity defying proportions, and Kamitani shot back a macho-beefcake pinup he'd worked on for the game in response and - yeah, basically called him a faggot, or such has been the consensus of the Google Translated Engrish that accompanied the joke piece. (To be fair, what else was there to say?) Both men chilled out and, gasp!, talked it over like adults - Kamitani apologized for any offense, and Schrer (to his credit) stood by his criticism, but gave Kamitani the respect his previous dickery had completely lacked.
You'd think that would be the end of it, but you forget, this is THE INTERNET. Everyone has to pull their drawers down and join the circle-jerk - yours truly included, obviously! - and either decry this as everything that's wrong with the video game community at large, or defend it as a brilliant work of satire. The detractors say it's pushing potential gamers away and making the rest of them look bad. The defenders say that toning the game down would be tantamount to censorship. Personally I think both sides took this shit way too seriously, particularly with most of the big throw-downs having happened long before the game itself actually came out.
Yes, let me be crystal clear on this: Most of the battles over this thing were fought, won and lost before anyone had even actually played it. Certainly the character designs themselves were the issue being discussed so I suppose that's somewhat fair, but this is akin to spawning a massive discussion about a movie's supposed sexism based solely on a trailer. I'm somewhat shocked to find that, once the dust settled and all the (American) critics had their say, it walked away with surprisingly positive marks - and, yes, plenty of critics who still didn't like the over the top art style still commented that the game underneath was well designed and fun, in the nostalgic Beat 'Em Up style it was clearly meant to emulate. And good on 'em for that.
And hey, at least people are actually talking about a Vanillaware game... that's more than can be said for the Muramasa: The Demon Blade HD remake. Which nobody knows is a thing because fucking nobody has a PS VITA to play it on anyway.
I wish I could talk about Dragon's Crown myself... but hey, I just got my copy in this week, and haven't put in more than four or five hours or so into it yet, and as this supposedly has a 20 hour story mode, I've clearly just started to scratch the surface on a lot of things here. My first impression is certainly a positive one; it's a visually decadent button-masher with a surprisingly complex class/leveling system, in-level traps and ambushes, screen filling bosses, wild animals to use as grotesque weapons of mass destruction, a customizable inventory allowing you to focus on equipment or character specific power-ups, and a quest system that rewards exploration and grinding in "completed" areas only to find new twists and pathways in previously hidden away, all with both XP and in-game art as a delicious reward. The game's multiple class system - which has 50% more options than slots to be filled at any given time! - also encourages you to bring as much loot home as you can carry, so that you can outfit your Dwarf with the cloak your Elf can't use, or shuffle those magical glasses away for a second, inevitable playthrough with a character who actually uses magic. The game is also designed for up to 4 simultaneous players, and is kind enough to allow you to bring 3 AI controlled NPCs should you not have any friends to join your quest IRL - or, at least none who share your love for simplistic side-scrolling retro brawlers with tig ol' bitties
I'd actually written a lengthy piece about the most fundamental issue I've had with most of the criticism I've seen leveled against the game - not that I think people can't dislike the game for being exactly what it is, but the way they've gone out of their way to take a huge, steaming dump on a product that was never intended for them in the first place. CRITICAL MISS, however, kinda' beat me to the punch, and it sums up my major concerns... so I'll just have to talk about objective quality versus aesthetic merit another day. You guys are totally missing out, though; I'll just have to pull out that awesome Twink Kenshiro pin-up by Hirohiko Araki sooner or later.
This, in a nutshell, is what Dragon's Crown actually looks like:
If that last one doesn't get you hard as steel,
eat some horse steroids and call me in the morning.
Y'see, the people saying "Dragon's Crown is the worst thing ever because I don't like it" - or any other variation that completely shrugs the whole thing off as garbage unworthy of discussion - aren't really criticizing Vanillaware or George Kamitani's aesthetic, so much as they are stating their personal dislike of the product at a core value. That's perfectly fine, in and of itself: I don't give a wet rat far about Call of Honor: Modern Warfighter X, 50 Shades of Smut or the latest Rebecca Beebs single, either, but I was never an FPS Gunbro*, a horny teenaged girl with no concept of healthy sexual boundaries, or a twat who thinks music is something that must be enjoyed solely by its ironic value. (A factor, maybe - I do love the Puncolle album. But not the be-all end-all.) In short, my saying I don't want any part of these things is meaningless because I never wanted them to begin with; the potential quality of the product is irrelevant to the people who were never in the market for it, the same way the quality of bagged supermarket ice is irrelevant to polar bears. To put it another way, a vegetarian's opinion of the idea of a hamburger means nothing to someone who actually eats hamburgers. With this in mind, a lot of the people who got all up in Vanillaware's grille on this were doing so seemingly because they were upset by its very existence, not because they were otherwise interested in actually playing Dragon's Crown. And that... well, that bums me right the fuck out.
* Though, to be fair, I think I finally "get" the appeal that at least some people have here; they're MMO's for people who think stabbing basilisks with enchanted rune-daggers is silly. But I like stabbing basilisks with enchanted rune-daggers, so here I sit, forever uncool and totally satisfied anyway.
Truth be told, I tend to think the absurd character designs in Dragon's Crown is absolutely the norm for Vanillaware - it's just that this time they focused on the iconic, super-sexualized "Fantasy" style started by pulp-illustration demigod Frank Frazetta, which led to illustrators to follow suit in the same hyper-stylized aesthetic, each of whom took their own fetishes that much further in the process. Like it or not, there's nearly 50 years of "Fantasy Art" being a genre unto itself - a brash, bold, almost comically hyper-stylized one that's only been downplayed in recent years by the emergence of slightly less crazy fantasy aesthetic largely borrowed from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (which in turn was inspired by the slightly less outlandish - but lovely - art of Alan Lee). Instead of the already asinine parody of Japanese-inspired imagery the studio usually focused on, instead it looked like something of an only slightly snarky parody of what "Western Fantasy" art looks like. In the same way that the largely underrated - but, I admit, hardly flawless - Lollipop Chainsaw was Suda 51's take on Americana by way of its cheerleader fetish and the zombie apocalypse set to a high-octane Rock 'n' Roll soundtrack, Dragon's Crown was meant to emulate - and perhaps, eclipse - an entire generation of Post-Frazetta testosterone fueled adventure.
Frazetta may be the grand daddy to all of this, but to understand why The Sorceress has such a ridiculous rack, and why The Dwarf doesn't ever wear goddamn pants, or why everything has to be a caricature of fucking everything even vaguely inspired by medieval warfare, one only need to turn their attentions to the somewhat more modern artists who took Uncle Frank's core ideals to, arguably, its logical extremes with each of them focusing on a slightly different fetishized aspect in the process. To focus on a few personal favorite examples, Boris Vallejo approached it as a way to worship the human body - lean, strong, and photogenic above everything else, using both minimal clothing and backgrounds to focus on the Adonis and Venus-esque loveliness of his subjects to make them appear as powerful and awe-inspiring as the classic Roman sculptures of old. Luis Royo, a latecomer who wasn't regularly published until the mid 1980s, focused on gothic imagery and gaudy fashion photography alike as the source of his inspiration, which has led to a somewhat consistent "Beauty and the Beast" tone to a lot of his paintings - often enough with a single beautiful woman fulfilling both roles on her own. He's also released several publications with blatantly pornographic pieces, but since the focus is on the broad strokes I'll let you go find dripping orc dick on your own time. Richard Corben - despite being slightly less interested in cumshots than Royo - has always had a special place in his heart for exaggerated sexuality, never shying away from huge floppy dicks, and has only in the last decade and a half restrained his urge to draw giant dicks to work on substantially less pulpy fare like Hellboy. Irrelevant, but I actually had a set of "Fantasy Trading Cards" sold as a complete set in a little plastic case as a kid - loved the shit of 'em, age appropriate or not, and Corben's entries were easily my favorite at the time.
Some brief samples, just for fun. I'd encourage any of you to look up artbooks on these guys if you're interested, though; JPG's are fine and all, but having a nice, glossy coffee table book is so goddamn much nicer in the end.
Are these artists talented, in a technical sense? Unquestionably.Anyone who'd argue against any of these four men as having a phenomenal grasp of blocking, color theory, really any measure one would measure an artist at imitating life and engaging the viewer's senses visually. But is what they produced art? Fine art, that is, the sort of thing pretentious intellectuals can appreciate with their monacles and their white gloves at wine-tasting events? Well, that's certainly up for debate; despite replicating historical aesthetics in the broadest sense of the concept, these were literally paperback covers for young adult pulp novels and borderline pornographic comic books; nostalgia and re-appraisal has been much kinder to this material than serious art critics of the 1960s through the 1980s ever were. But love it or loathe it, the fathers of what's now seen as "Fantasy Art" wove brazen, adolescent sex fantasy into the fabric of the style itself. Dragon's Crown and its approach to sexuality is actually less ridiculous than half of the material produced by the artists I've listed above, and the sheer ignorance to this fact has left me a bit surprised. Kids these days, man. Wait, how old are they? How old am I?!
To be clear, the idea wasn't always as over the top as what we have now. Kamitani actually started working on Dragon's Crown as a concept back in 1998, when video game design was, shall we say... a bit more restrained in general. Even so, it contained absurd armor, plenty of exposed flesh, and a hyper-stylized "look" that only vaguely resembles the human body. It just had bigger hands instead of bigger asses, I... guess?
Now, why is any of this relevant? Because one of the most confusing things I've seen raised about the game is the argument that it's ignoring the larger market, which includes women who might be put off by the Sorceress' jiggling jubblies and the Amazon's terrifyingly toned assets and the Elf's... cute haircut, I guess, could put off girls who have, I dunno, grotty hair or something. See, the issue I take with this notion is that while I agree, the way most game publishers treat women is deplorable - shuffling Elizabeth to the back cover of Bioshock Infinite, not focus testing girls or women at all until the developers demanded it for for The Last of Us, so on and so forth - well, those are games with a lot to offer everyone. Complex characters, in particular, with a pair of well rounded and fully developed heroines. Similarly, the fact that Call of Duty - literally the most popular piece of electronic media released in the 21st Century - has just now added female avatars to its latest upcominc chapter is kind of surprising, particularly when you realize how fantastic and wish-fulfillment the "Modern" chapters are by design. (Not featuring any women in the WWII cycle made sense, I suppose. Today, having a vagina isn't going to prevent you from being shot in Iraq.) There's a way to be inclusive to a different audiences - namely, half the fucking population - that literally changes little, to nothing in the development process. It's just a question of how you present your product to an audience that you might not have considered even wants it. Inclusivity in the new black, breaking down the "Boys Club" image the industry itself has perpetuated for decades, so on and so forth. And that's fine for a title that has a prayer of having a wide audience in the first place.
And that, I suppose, is where I start to get a bit lost: Not in the big picture, but on this game in particular. Dragon's Crown isn't a game focused on story, relationships and world building - it's an old school beat 'em up that looks like an Albert Pyun video cover that freebased a lot of Odin Sphere. While the game's controls and partner system are decent enough to want me coming back for more, the art style was one of the things that immediately sold me - a fairly 2D side-scrolling brawler, with a unique bend on a visual style I grew up loving. Realistically, the visual style here IS Dragon's Crowns' most unique selling point, and I have serious doubts that there's a market hungry for a product that...
* Plays like the old Dungeons and Dragons arcade game and similar fantasy brawlers
* Looks like Dragon's Crown in the super-exaggerated Western Fantasy mould
* Doesn't have suggestive female costumes or exaggerated sexual characteristics
MIGHT a market for a game I've just described exist? Sure, why not! Until someone's actually created a game it's impossible to know what will and won't catch on - hell, nobody thought Pokemon was going to be a big seller and it was crapped out onto the Game Boy shortly before they figured it was time to take the system out back and put a bullet through the ol' LCD screen. But whatever this Dragon's Boobless Crown game is, it's not the game that George Kamitani was clearly interested in making, and it's likely not the game the Japanese producers who green lit a [roughly] one-million dollar budget to create
Now, would I have been interested in the game, without the sex appeal? Yes. C'mon now, I'm a grumpy old man and I'll play fucking anything with genuine pixel-art and retro mechanics. Hell, the only reason Nintento hasn't cancelled production of everything that isn't Pokemon related is because they've realized the only people who play Mario games are men in their 30s, and actually turned the complexity of their own product back a decade to cash in on that sweet, sweet nostalgia. But the thing is, I'm well aware of the Heavy Metal and Dungeons and Dragons inspired aesthetic that built the groundwork for this game. I "get" the joke, and presenting the game with a mostly naked, hyper idealized, muscular Dwarf and - let's just pretend - a far more sensibly clad and less badonkified Amazon would have felt like a copout, a limp fart to deflect inevitable charges of sexism without actually changing the formula that's woven objectification and idealism into its very core.
There's also the question of whether or not Dragon's Crown is an exaggerated homage or a blatant parody - and that, my friends, is something worth discussing. To be honest, I think it's somewhere in the middle - there's always a sense of humor in Vanillaware art, and this one merely took it to the limit of an already exaggerated aesthetic. One of the defenses brought up is that it's "Clever" or "Ironic" and I'm not convinced that's entirely true - it's fun, make no mistake, but it doesn't go out of its way to take the piss out of any of the stereotypes or concepts its playing with. If it's a parody, it's pretty damned subtle outside of the character designs, and I tend to think it was made merely as a loving homage rather than a ground-up reworking of the notion of Fantasy Tropes. Homage and Satire can get pretty murky, even to the creators themselves who are unable to pick out the love from the respect, and whatever side of this you think Dragon's Crown lands on it doesn't "excuse" the art style completely. Personally I don't think it needs an excuse just to exist beyond "it's fun", but hey, if we're delving in this far we need to get that out of the way at some point.
Kamitami himself explained in his apology to Schreir that had he kept the character designs at the less ridiculous end of the spectrum where he'd planned them 15 years ago, they really wouldn't stand out among the jarringly silly outfits we've seen Japanese Fantasy game designers come up with since:
Drakengard 3. Fuck yeah.
I could go on for days - literally, days, just posting increasingly WTF outfits in Japanese made "Fantasy" games yes Magna Carta was drawn by a Korean, shut up and let me post some Hyung Tae-Kim already. But I got shit to do, bills to pay, so if you want further proof, take a look at this:
This, for anyone blissfully unaware of endless JRPG franchising, is from Final Fantasy XIII-2: Lightning Returns. This is the main outfit for the main character of the game. This pointy, frilly, mish-mash of fantasy spines, bird feathers, and bared chunks of flesh that hovers somewhere between "totally badass" and "totally non-functional" is PERFECTLY NORMAL in the context of Japanese Fantasy design, particularly in video games where complex armor can be rendered once instead of hand-drawn thousands of times. Now, when this is the standard, how the fuck are you supposed to pay homage without looking cheap? You can either do it tongue firmly in cheek, as Vanillaware chose to do, or you can... look like a crumby knock-off, I, guess.
Simply put, the polarizing style of Dragon's Crown did exactly what it was supposed to do: It got people talking about it. A shame people had to be semi-professional dickheads in the process, but hey, if nothing else all the attention an otherwise potentially unassuming fantasy brawler got convinced me to drop $50 on a new game, just to see what everyone was screaming like a fuckweasel about. Naturally, though, what 'Murica thinks about a Japanese game is largely irrelevant; reports indicate that 175,000 physical copies were sold in the first week to an eager audience in Vanillaware's homeland, with initial reports of "300,000 copies shipped" (presumably including digital pre-sales). I won't deny that Western markets have become an increasingly important part of Japanese game development - hell, the first game in the Dark Souls franchise sold less than 135,000 copies in Japan total, and only got a pair of sequels primarily because Western audiences loved it - but Japan will continue making what Japan loves, and it so happens that Japan loves games like Hyperdimension Neptunia, Disgaea, and Senran Kagura enough to make TV shows and overpriced character merchandise based on the lead characters. In other words, Japan is a lot less sensitive to charges of sexism and objectification than the English language community.
And frankly, aside from the game having a ridiculous aesthetic - one that applies to women, men, and monsters alike - I really don't "get" the issue here. I understand that there's been a dialog about feminism, misogyny, and the representation of women both in video games and the culture surrounding them, but... well, I'm not seeing that this particular game was the poster child for inclusivity to start with. To use a not totally unrelated example, Team Ninja - yes, everyone's favorite developer, I know - was being given notes from the Western Tecmo/Koei offices to tone down the overt sexuality in Dead or Alive 5 during its initial development - smaller breasts, less revealing outfits, and so on. This is a developer trying to appeal to a wider, international audience - not inherently a bad thing, and quite in line with what a lot of the people who aren't crazy about Dragon's Crown wish Vanillaware themselves had done. Case closed, right? If Team Frickin' Ninja can tone down the jiggliness of its core franchise, clearly the competition needs to class it up and get with the time!
Bunny Girls: Empowering Fictional Women Since DAICON IV
Well, not so fast, there: Team Ninja did as they were asked, and shipped out Alpha builds for play testers in North America. What they found was that the testers themselves - you know, the people who were actually playing this, and showed up in many cases as prior fans of the franchise - didn't like the changes to the character designs. Hey, imagine that! Dead Or Alive, a franchise that's both eternally popular and universally known not for its game mechanics, but for blatant fanservice, has a built in audience that actually likes fanservice! Call the papers, people. Said game series figures out what things it's especially good at (Grappling Mechanics + Sexy Girls = DOA), and the people who show up for the franchise not only expect, but want both? Shut the front door. With this in mind, it's pretty amusing - to my pig brain, at least - that when they updated the game later on, they included a feature they'd initially removed... the PS3 six-axis tit-jiggle physics engine that first made an appearance largely as a gag in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 (which, notably, shares a few characters with the same universe as DOA).
Should DOA exist, or is it too far gone for the 21st century? Fuck me, it's a game that literally sells objectification as a bonus feature one DLC costume at a time, and keeps an audience that seems to blatantly encourage the mindset that fictional, idealized characters can be attractive and comoforting. The nerve of them! I mean, cripes, if you ever wanted a fighting game with just a bit less in the blatant T 'n' A department, it's not like Street Fighter, Tekken, King of Fighters, Virtua Fighter, Guilty Gear, Soul Caliber, Mortal Kombat, and a dozen other current franchises that might also satisfy your want to punch your friends in the teeth with a six-button contro-- ah, good, you saw what I did there. And no, I never said that any of these franchises were completely without fanservice, merely that it wasn't the selling point as it was with DOA, which - in attempting to cater to what it thought Western audiences wanted based on corporate number crunching, rather than actual sales data or interaction with their core consumer base - tried to tone down perhaps the one thing that keeps DOA that much different from its competition in the first place.
And hell, if watching ladies jiggling around in the ring is something that irks you in any capacity, there's a number of far less interesting boxing, wrestling, and mixed martial arts simulators to try out that are almost exclusively interested in beefcake over cheesecake. You can even buy the amazing Jojo's Bizarre Adventure game on the PSN for a song these days, and that thing's such a manly sausage fest that they actually added a naked woman to the roster just so it wouldn't quite be as gay as the Chou Aniki franchise. If Hirohiko Araki Manservice isn't enough to quell your jiggling rage, I honestly have no idea what else to offer you... tea, maybe coffee? That's all I've got at this point.
Cho Aniki: Pretty much the only time that whole flawed
"But MEN are sexualized in video games, too!" argument holds up.
With any luck, this long, broken, rambling series of sentences stapled together have convinced you that, whether you like it or not, Dragon's Crown knows exactly what it wanted to be and achieved those ends, for better or worse. Maybe you like the result - maybe you don't, that's fine either way. I just hope that if you start jibber-jabbering on about whether or not it's a success or a failure, that you're approaching it from at least a basic point of knowing what the creation was trying to do in the first place - a measured look at its roots and its aims, not merely a personal knee-jerk towards one end or the other. Dragon's Crown wasn't trying trying to reinvent the wheel; it was paying homage to the Western Fantasy stylings that the creators themselves had worked in in years past missed, cranked up to 11. It's also not meant to be a deep, convoluted character story; it's a mindless, repetitive button masher pulled from a simpler time, with the added length and complexity that have become the norm in an industry that's always pushing for a better bang for the consumer's buck. It's also not - I repeat, not - the adolescent scrawling of a teenager, or a work inherently designed to undermine the presence or prominence of women. It's a silly, tacky, and satisfyingly functional multi-player arcade-brawler that's riffing on Frank Frazetta and Pals without even the pretentious to pretend it's anything else. If you want those things, the game absolutely delivers. If you don't, well, this was never created for your tastes in the first place. And that's fine, because there's likely a billion other video games available at this moment in time to pick from, and let me assure you, every single publisher offering them will take your money just as quickly as Atlus would have.
If you were ever in the mood for this game - if the notion of gloriously rendered 2D pixel art characters slugging it out in four-way co-op arcade play with the visual aesthetic of an over-wrought Dungeons and Dragons universe sounds appealing, and you still take issue with the exaggerated sexuality... please. By all means, say whatever you need to say. Because the more I see this title get brought up, and the more I see people angry that the game exists because it doesn't appeal to them at a core level - not because it might have appealed to them, had the game not been so inherently over the top - the more I'm convinced you're as rare as a goddamn Pegacorn.
I'm exhausted, I'm sure whatever point I was trying to make has been stretched into obscurity... I give up. Hope you enjoyed watching me dump my brain-meats onto the page. And hey, since I've already brought it up, I've decided to leave on a high note: For your viewing pleasure, Hirohiko "Jojo's Bizarre Adventure" Araki's interpretation of Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's legendary Kenshiro, THE Fist of the North Star!
Stay classy, friends.