Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Games Wii Forgot: Deadly Creatures

Developers/Publishers: THQ
Released: Feb 2009
Sales: ~180k worldwide

Our first forgotten Wii game is the one which THQ said would decide for them whether there was a so-called 'hardcore' market on Nintendo's console. Several major publishers tried this trick, to blackmail players into buying spin-off versions of bigger franchises and promising that success would later bring more credible  franchise entries to the console: think EA's Dead Space Extraction (later given to PS3 owners for free) or Capcom's two Resident Evil rail-shooters. Respectable games on their own terms, but hardly ones destined for major success regardless of their platform, yet publishers acted astonished when none sold in their millions.

The most hilariously misguided attempt to ensnare a few extra sales in this fashion came from THQ with Deadly Creatures. Barely an interview or preview went by without players being reminded that if this game didn't clear the shelves, THQ wouldn't be bringing the rest of their amazing library to Nintendo. Now if Deadly Creatures wouldn't be the subject of this article if it weren't a terrific game. Games Wii Forgot is a tribute to all the great games that didn't sell as well as they deserved to on Nintendo's console, on the eve of the Project Café reveal on June 7th, a date confirmed last night. However, the idea that a game like this, where you alternate between controlling a tarantula or a scorpion, could ever sell more than a handful of copies just shows how, for all Nintendo's failures to make their platform accomodating to other publishers, third-parties also bear heavy responsibility for their failure to make the most of this generation's top-selling console.

Apart from the unhelpful title and cheap-looking box art, someone in the marketing department really should have done a little research into how widespread arachnophobia is across the world, before cutting off this project before any money was rolled into it. THQ's projected sales were 500k copies. I would have said that one-tenth of that would be pretty good, though the game ended up at around the 180k mark (according to the ever-reliable *cough* VGChartz) after heavy discounting. I'm delighted that no-one in THQ's marketing department was doing their job properly though, because the idea of a game from a spider's-eye-view turned out to be an inspired one, creatively at least.

At its heart, Deadly Creatures is an old-school brawler, where you navigate from one arena to the next and lay waste to everything in sight with your crazy arachnid skills. Although the basic attack is mapped to the 'A' button, more advanced moves shift the onus to motion controls. You'd think from the Wii's reputation that this would be an abject debacle, reducing players to flailing wildly to get any sort of response,as tends to be the form for even such first-party games as Wii Sports boxing. However, everything works surprisingly well: the scorpion has a burrowing move, reliant on the controller being turned upside, which struggles, but each move has its own distinct motion and a highly respectable success rate. As with any brawler, you soon learn that the trick is in the timing. When given a single, authoritative motion to interpret, the Wii remote is far more responsive than it is given credit for. Flailing, as is admittedly the natural tendency when in the midst of a combat situation, tends to confuse the sensor and send everything out of whack, but once you learn to control and time your movements, errors are reduced to near-extinction. Once perfected, the motion controls give gratifying physicality to finishing moves which, with the tank-like scorpion in particular (compared to the tarantula's ninja-style stealth attacks), grow increasingly brutal and inventive as the ten-hour game progresses.

Where the game really excels though is in the creepy vibe it creates. Controlling a tarantula or a scorpion, both animated with unsettling realism, would be enough to set the controller down for most people, but it's the use of  crisp and strikingly rendered environments that make the game so unsettling and one of the Wii's most visually accomplished. There's a stark beauty to this insectoid microcosm, hidden in desert fissures and dried-out undergrowth, scattered with pieces of human junk - the splintered screen of a mobile phone lighting up an underground cave, or a garden gnome wrapped in dead vines and crawling with hungry arachnids -  that lends a skewed perspective shift to a world where bloody battles for survival between native insects, spider and reptiles takes on a comfortable commonality, while the human world and its trinkets are otherworldly and best avoided.

Humans themselves are only seen in glimpses, part of a weird attempt at storytelling which includes the voices of Billy Bob Thornton and the late Dennis Hopper and is more interesting than effective. Why a scorpion and tarantula would notice two men trying to find buried Civil War gold is a question to put to the designers, but watching the action through their eyes - sometimes while upside down - has a strange pleasure of its own.

The creatures' ability to climb up surfaces is used to great effect, none moreso than in a moment when  you emerge from an underground passage to find an enormous metallic pillar waiting ahead of you, the only way to overcome a vast wall. As you climb to the top, the camera flips to reveal that it is the axle of an upturned truck. It is a powerful, subversive moment in a game stacked with them: whether scuttling around an abandoned doll's house occupied by rats (a clever touch is the hierarchy established across the various species) or navigating a dilapidated tool room, it's a game which draws out the strangeness from everyday environments and objects we take for granted. As imperfect as the game is, with no shortage of bugs of the non-insect variety and some tediously overcomplicated platforming sections, Deadly Creatures is a strange little curio which crawled unnoticed through a land of generic FPS' and committee-designed sequels, an underground game taken to a fascinatingly literal extreme.

Check back next Wednesday for the second entry in the Games Wii Forgot feature.



Speedofthepuma said...

Hmmm, a well written, interesting take on a game that passed me by, how unusual..

I look forward to the next one.

verticalstand said...

Good read, had never heard of that game before, gaming could do with more titles based around non-human/humanoid protagonists.

Consider yourself bookmarked, only have a few Wii games but I consider Madworld to be the Wiis very own PNO 3 - publisher pressure caused an early release making it too janky to be a cult classic but a enjoyably gonzo B-Game curio worth revisiting.

Probably didn't get the same cult following due to it lacking the finesse and depth of the fighting in God Hand but its character and charm mean its still well worth trying for the few quid it now costs ahead of Anarchy Reigns.

Daniel said...

I followed this game back before it came out due to its premise alone, but after picking it up there there unfortunately never came a point where the game really clicked with me. I couldn't tell you why. It's not as if I thought the game was terrible or anything, I just couldn't get into it for one reason or another. :/

Anonymous said...

I was excited about the release but the controls made this game more frustrating than fun. Visually it was beautiful but not enough to make it worth playing twice.

Jordan said...

I was the lead designer on Deadly Creatures, cool to still read coverage of this after two years.

To clear up the THQ/Wii comment you mentioned - that came from an interview I did shortly before release. DC was, of course, a risk on the Wii, and when asked what we (the team at Rainbow) would do if it didn't perform, I said it was likely we would wind up doing something more in line with the rest of the Wii's 3rd party successes, i.e. a minigame compilation. That of course, got blown up into "Buy our game or it's back to making minigames!" (Which is silly since this was our team's first Wii title). Sigh. I still give credit to THQ for having the balls to fund and publish this game - can't say they didn't try to do something new!

Anyway glad you enjoyed the game. I'm probably due for a playthrough one of these days.

Anonymous said...

Well put. Even when I picked this game up (and I really admire and enjoy this great title) I was sure it would not sell.

The theme and tension of this game are clearly an adult/core gamer and not in the Wii wheelhouse of kid/family friendly titles.

I also have a touch of arachnophobia but I don't see that as an issue. The large part of gaming is experiencing (or role play) in a safe environment. The game truly does give me the creeps but in the same way horror games do. Its a unique and well constructed game. One of the best old-school evoking, adventure games I played in a long time.

Swe.Ge said...

Just picked this up in the bargain basement of my local game shop the other day.
Interesting little game, which even my 9 yr old daughter is getting a kick out of.
Keeping an eye out for that Disaster one now...
Good Blog. Keep it up.

Good luck with the writing, I know what it's like as I get to be the first one to read my wife's work, as she is an aspiring novelist and prolific blogger also.