Insomnia | Commentary

Of Genocides and Reinventions

By Raúl Sánchez / Translated by Iago Mosquera / March 23, 2008

This article is a translation of the Spanish original first published on Postback.

So as to not stop the tendency of thematically linked editorials (nor my already ultrapopular tone of protest), I take the liberty to revisit the last idea sketched in our previous editorial piece. That one about the dictatorship of the polygon that has found in the Western fan its best warlord. But let's avoid the usual obviousness to try to get to the reason of the colonization process from a merely stylistic perspective. Not for being less obvious, probably, but for being less usual, or less appropriately verbalised, if you prefer.

That each couple of months a more or less distinguished franchise is picked up from memory lane for a supposed update with polygonal graphics is a disgusting phenomenon of our times that can be perfectly useful to lay out our thesis. Disgusting, of course, because more than updating, these revivals actually represent a drastic denial of the defining traits of the original work. Let's talk about the graphics, leaving the mechanical aspects for another article (even though they would be, no doubt, even more atrocious). We have an excessively current example, so why not use it? Bionic Commando.

Few are unaware that Bionic Commando is the name given to the Western versions of Top Secret (with the understandable (though no less ridiculous) pretense to link the game with the very successful Senjou no Ookami/Commando), a fondly remembered arcade game from Capcom's early days which received a Famicom sequel by the name of Hitler no Fukkatsu (Hitler's Resurrection), called in the West (in a display of boldness and originality) Bionic Commando (...). As few are unaware that a new Bionic Commando (based on this second episode, the one really successful in the US) will see the light next year on current-generation home systems, produced by Western luminaries (mainly) for the North American market. So, I don't think it's necessary to point out that this revival resorts, once again, to polygonal environments, realistic proportions and a gritty style, supposedly adult, serious and even cerebral [this is where the laughter starts]; the keys to domination of the Western mainstream.

Man... no, thanks. Top Secret was anything but proportioned, dark and serious, and it looks like everyone misses this point; it seems mandatory to ignore that Japanese productions of the eighties and nineties were visually defined by a caricature look.

This is an incredibly important term: caricature. Keep in mind that the hardware of that era imposed it, in a way. With a poor color palette (global and object-wise), meager memory banks and very limited screen resolutions, it was difficult to design sprites and backgrounds that mimicked reality. That way, Japanese graphic artists embraced abstraction, trying to make the most of those limitations instead of trying to oppose them (all the while the West fought these impositions as if the very evolution of video games depended on it). And, beyond personal taste and cultural tradition, it seemed an intelligent approach.

Because of that, a Top Secret (like a Final Fight, or a Bomber Man, or an Alien Syndrome, or an... (the list of tragedies is unending)) should not make use of realistic or pseudorealistic aesthetics, or even, if you push me, use entirely polygonal graphics. A Top Secret (or a Final Fight, or a Bomber Man, or an Alien Syndrome, or an...) is CA-RI-CA-TU-RE. Anyone who pretends to reinvent [!] any of these classics without taking this into account is so lost in his own ignorance, so blinded by his pride, that his attempt is already rotten before being born.

The North American industry (and by extension, the European too), historically (save a couple of exceptions from before the boom of anime in the US), has systematically denied Japanese caricature. When it was time to adapt a video game from that country, everything that smelled of Japanese cartoon (not to mention in the case of having any satirical themes) was, if the money allowed it, despicably censored. You just have to look, for example, at game covers then, which now draw mockery in most forums and websites of the Western world. We laugh, but we actually have a literal translation of that clumsy practice in this wave of revivals made or conceived, mostly, in Yankee lands. It's the greatest contemporary aberration; the swallowing of the Japanese caricature in video games by that passé sensibility of cinematographic inspiration where only brown, weapon technology and the time the main character spends in the gym seem to matter. Uff.

And maybe this is what will always differentiate the Western fan (I'd love to separate here the European from the American, but I would be lying like a ruffian) from the Japanese one. This aesthetic born to please the Linkin Park Generation, simply, can't be successful on the other side of the Pacific, where, like it or not, sensibility towards visual representation forms (due to a cultural theme that starts in something so basic as writing itself) is immensely more evolved.

Video game development, I'm afraid, is business before artistic expression, so it's not surprising that Japan surrendered so soon (not unanimously, but almost) its own stylistic principles and discarded sprites in favor of polygonal models; the potential North American market, that one incapable of telling realism and caricature apart, today, is many times bigger than the Japanese one. And yes, of course a polygonal model allows a certain kind of abstraction (which is the basis of all caricature), but can never be measured to what two-dimensional art allows -- not only because of the modeling method; let's not forget that, when talking about graphics, we talk (too) about physics and animation.

I won't tire of repeating this: it may be more or less subtle, but it's artistic genocide. Beware, because they are committing it.