Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Games Wii Forgot: Sin & Punishment 2


SIN & PUNISHMENT: SUCCESSOR OF THE SKIES
Developer: Treasure
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: May 2010
Sales: ~270k worldwide

Although I use it occasionally, the term 'hardcore' has not sat well with me during this gaming generation. It's not just that it exemplifies a division between two markets that need not exist, but is a word whose meaning has so drastically changed over the past few years that it feels almost hypocritical to use it in a context so diametrically opposed from what it meant only during the last generation, even moreso the one before that.

In the SNES and N64/PS-eras, it loosely referred to gamers who grew up playing the toughest of the tough arcade shooters. During the PS2/XBox/GCN era, it came to mean players who had been around before Sony dragged gaming into the mainstream and were more dedicated to the medium than the wave of newcomers, derided as 'casual' gaming mercenaries for their supposed habit of just picking up whatever title was most popular at the time. The 'casual' gamers of that era then became the hardcore gamers of this one, where the 'hardcore' tag evolved again into its most scathing and segregating form, encouraged by Microsoft and Sony to differentiate their market from that of Nintendo, whose foresight in cornering a new market of non-gamers by offering accessible controls and interfaces sent Wii sales skyrocketing past its competitors. Nintendo and the Wii became synonymous with 'casual' gaming.

It's not just because I divide the vast majority of my playing time between my Wii and PC - which I maintain to be the best set-up for getting the best of both worlds, especially now that you no longer need to buy an improved graphics card for every new PC game, thanks to most of them being console ports - that this new definition doesn't ring true. In the oldest sense of the word, the Wii has hosted some of this generation's most 'hardcore' titles. In reviving the unforgiving point-and-click adventure for a new era, Zack & Wiki (which I considered for this feature, but ultimately decided was too well known) was a good example. The best, though, is one published by Nintendo themselves, a sequel to a Japan-only N64 shooter called Sin & Punishment. 

Sin & Punishment: Successor Of The Skies (Star Successor if you live in the US, though I'll hereafter be referring to the game as Sin & Punishment 2) has roots going back to Space Harrier in 1985, a groundbreaking title in the history of the third-person rail-shooter subgenre, and the emergence of developer Treasure with the magnificent Gunstar Heroes two years earlier. While those games are very different in play and presentation, Sin & Punishment 2 combines the format of 2D character movement in a 3D environment from the former, with the playfulness and humour of the latter. It is unashamedly old-school at its core, right down to the Engrish subtitle (Successor Of The Skies?), yet is given a fresh and contemporary tune-up through its use of the Wii remote.

While there are no doubt many who would argue that adapting to the imprecisions of an analogue or joystick is part of the genre's challenge, using the remote's pointer for shooting adds a renewed urgency that allows the developers to throw increasingly complex shooting galleries at the player to test the exactitude of their aim. It's less a case of the player having to work with the limitations of their controller as much as the controller now reflecting the limitations of the player: where stiffer analogue aiming allowed players to hold their cursor unwaveringly over a single point, an accidental twitch with the remote can result in a rare opportunity being missed to land valuable hits in the midst of a relentless onslaught of attacks. 

The thrill is that every mistake becomes entirely your own, with Treasure's unparalleled design experience in the genre virtually eliminating any trace of luck. Given how most modern games cushion the experience for their players, it's all too easy to confuse the insane level of difficulty for unfair design. Yet as you progress, gradually refining your tactics with every death and spotting boss attack patterns that little bit quicker, it becomes clear that no matter how packed the screen becomes with bullets, beams and rockets, there's always a way through, even if it is an especially narrow one.


Perhaps Treasure's greatest achievement with Sin & Punishment 2 is serving as a reminder of when games demanded that players constantly improve themselves to meet new challenges, and the satisfaction that came from overcoming them through nothing other than your own skill. Make no mistake, the game asks a lot: in many respects, this would be an ideal franchise to continue on the 3DS, because  the action demands concentration on two fields of vision. You have to keep your eye open for every gap in an enemy's defences in the background, while handing and taking advantage of the threats assaulting you in the foreground. A perfectly-timed melĂ©e attack can deflect missiles back at enemies, but you have to get the timing just right (which often involves judging depth) or else you'll be blown to smithereens. Once you're dead, it's Game Over and back to the start. Frustrating for sure, but the kind of frustration which invokes an angry passion to fight harder and show the game who's boss.

Even for those who feel overwhelmed by the difficulty, the variety of environments and gameplay challenges which Treasure throws at the player make it all the more compelling to force your way forward, just to see what's around the next bend. In addition to the straightforward - if such a word could ever apply to this level of mania - rail shooting sections, you'll be tasked with completing a side-scrolling level that seems to deliberately echo the developer's own Bangai-O, a boss fight which doubles up as a hyper-violent game of Tetris, a couple of sword fights and a boxing match. The bosses who are more conventional in challenge make up for it in the madness of their design - you'll be sent to to face off against giant mutant chickens, a fleet of (literally) killer whales and a fire-spewing mechanical terrapin. That's to say nothing of having to work around environmental hazards as well, such as keeping inside a tight air corridor while navigating the bottom of the ocean or using your cursor as a torch during a midnight run through a haunted forest.

On your first playthroughs - assuming you complete the game with both characters, whose slight but vital differences can completely alter the way a situation has to be approached - the scoreboard at the top of the screen, reset with every death, becomes irrelevant in the face of a brutal battle just to stay alive for as long as possible. Once you start to master the game's rhythms though, it's in those every increasing numbers that the true test is revealed. Despite the game probably not being much more than five hours long if played  faultlessly - you can multiply that figure several times for your initial runs - individual levels are long and being asked to survive each one can feel both an impossible ask and irresistible challenge. Having the scoreboard be online-enabled only increases the ravenous desire to scrounge every last point, thus making you increasingly vulnerable to poor decisions. This is a game which asks you to keep a cool head while the world explodes around you.

It's also not just a question of chaining attacks together to earn coveted multipliers: there's the inspired twist of having your score increase automatically every time your character forgoes their jetpack or hoverboard to put their feet on the ground. In a genre where players are trained to hone their every ability to the fullest and take every possible advantage, offering a substantial reward for adding a self-imposed restriction of movement makes every split-second spent on solid ground a frenzy of adrenaline-fuelled tension while still alive, and an age of regret when you stay a moment too long and suffer the consequences.

Sin & Punishment 2 is not only one of the most imaginative and varied games of this generation, but an example of a true and unashamed hardcore game in a time when the word's meaning has been diluted by unjustified prejudice. Like most of the games covered so far in the Games Wii Forgot feature, it demonstrates the Wii remote's capacity for reinventing and invigorating traditional genres when applied with a little care. (The only game to be featured that doesn't use the remote is Little King's Story, where one of the few downsides was not being able to use the pointer for navigation in an RTS, whose advantages were proven by the Wii's Pikmin ports). With a traditional controller, Sin & Punishment 2 would just have been one of the finest games in the genre's long history. On the Wii, it feels like the first word in a new chapter.

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