Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Games Wii Forgot: Disaster Day Of Crisis

Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: September 2008
Sales: Under 100k (Europe and Japan only)

With E3 and the reveal of Project Café less than a week away, the Games Wii Forgot feature comes to an end. Over the past five weeks, I've tried to not only select the best Wii games that got sadly overlooked by players, but also ones which exemplified certain aspects of what made the console so special. Deadly Creatures, the niche but innovative and thoroughly distinctive third-party curio. The Godfather: Blackhand Edition, which proved that motion controls could work brilliantly within the context of traditional genres. Little King's Story, the deceptively complex game wrapped in cutesy colours. Sin & Punishment: Successor Of The Skies, one of this generation's purest 'hardcore' gaming experiences enhanced by the Wii remote.

The final game in the list was saved for last not only because its sales were so catastrophically low - barely registering in the two territories where it saw release - but because it encapsulates so much of the joy and frustration of being a Nintendo gamer this generation. Disaster: Day of Crisis was one of the games used by Nintendo at an E3 demonstration to show off what the Wii could do, but subsequently disappeared, along with another game called Project HAMMER. While that game was cancelled, Disaster struggled on and eventually scraped into a tiny number of shops in Europe and Japan, where it was left to die.

Nintendo explained this strategy as a means of testing the sales potential of a game which they did not feel was up to their high technical standards. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime was infamously scathing, stating that the title was not worth $50 and singling out the "laughable" voice-acting. Yet this 'pick and choose' attitude towards its markets has been a constant source of frustration for Nintendo gamers this generation, who have seen the company refuse to release Fatal Frame 4 outside Japan or bring the highly-rated ExciteBots to Europe. It's a small but important factor in Nintendo losing the confidence of many of their longstanding fans, and Fils-Aime's comments about Disaster exemplify how poor some of their judgments for the traditional fanbase have been: yes, its voice acting is terrible. But if it weren't, and if so much of the game didn't follow suit, it wouldn't have turned out to be one of the console's most ridiculously entertaining games.
If we consider the movie Die Hard as exemplifying the 'one man against the odds' theme that the game so enthusiastically embraces, in the hands of Disaster's developers Monolith Soft, John McClane would not only be fighting terrorists, but doing so as the Nakatomi Plaza was in the midst of flooding, exploding and crumbling all at once.

The story, which sees professional rescuer (?) Raymond Bryce attempting to recover stolen nuclear bombs and the kidnapped sister of his deceased partner from a rogue military organisation as every conceivable natural disaster blows up around him, doesn't make the slightest bit of sense, but has no pretence of offering anything other than ten hours of escalating TV disaster movie madness. Any obstacle that can be thrown at Ray is deployed with aplomb, right down to an inspired face-off against a giant rampaging bear. The main villain's motivation is not political power or to prove any sort of point, but because he's a frustrated thrill-seeker who got aroused by storms as a child. All the characters have names so boring as to slip into hilarity - bosses include 'Gordon', 'Roger' and 'Gregory' amongst many others - suggesting that Monolith's parodying of the over-serious nature of macho American disaster movies is completely intentional.

Granted, the visuals range from terrible to a notch above N64 standards, but not only does that add to the B-movie aura, it's excusable because of how much more ambitious it is in what it depicts than a significant majority of the console's library. Tsunamis tear up bridges only yards behind your escaping car, cities collapse around your eyes, a blazing pillar of flame roars through a park, a lightning storm rages as you parachute into a flooded city, a cloud of ash from an erupted volcano suffocates a forest... the blurry textures and chunky character models may inspire derision, but the scale of what the game is trying to do can't be faulted. 

As terrible as they may look, the disasters are superbly staged and rarely challenge the player in the same way twice. Though they may have lost confidence in the game, Nintendo were right to put it on their show reel to demonstrate the versatility of the Wii's motion controls. Whilst Time Crisis-esque shooting sections are the most common, much of Disaster's running time is spent playing through a succession of mini-games which put the Wii remote and nunchuck's every capability to the test. You'll do some driving with the remote held sideways à la Mario Kart, run away from oncoming disasters in the style of Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games, perform timed motions to do CPR or pull victims from beneath rubble, control a parachute descent with tugs on the remote or nunchuck... were any of these sequences to occur regularly, they would quickly become annoying. (The driving sections recur a few times, despite being among the least interesting). In short and isolated bursts though, the intelligently used motion controls, which accurately mimic actions performed on-screen, keep players on their toes and don't overstay their welcome. By rarely asking you to do the same thing twice, the game is both compelling and imminently replayable.

That carousel of calamities is given substance by a robust system of risk and reward. Though you can complete your goals fairly quickly, going off track to find and help survivors grants you points which can be traded in for a huge range of upgrades in health and stamina options, or to buy new weapons. You are sometimes asked to hand over vital supplies (health packs, food to keep your stamina levels up) which could be the difference between your own survival or death later on. There is never such a drastic shortage that you won't be able to cover for your charity later on - destroying environmental objects rewards you with comically enormous hamburgers and other snacks to eat and restore yourself - but never quite enough to make the choice an easy one. Even the arcade-style shooting sections bring a degree of tactical planning to otherwise simple set-pieces through the use of environmental hazards, numerous enemy types (forcing you to adjust your timing in emerging from cover, depending on the threat you're facing) and a zoom function which doubles the power of every bullet, but increases the damage you take with every hit.

Fils-Aime's claims that the game wouldn't justify a $50 asking price are absurd - this is as comprehensive a package as any on the console. Between missions, there are shooting galleries and Disaster Files to unlock, the latter offering a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge on each disaster represented in the game, presented in a succinct and highly readable manner. Though you could never call it a subtle game, its willingness to offer a bit of  unintrusive education alongside the bombastic entertainment marks a rare but welcome divergence from the norm.

There's even a brief interlude in mid-game where you wash up at a park and are given the time to wander around, replenish your supplies and talk to fellow survivors, hearing their stories of how they escaped the ravaged city, now but a smouldering graveyard on the horizon. It's an unexpectedly sober moment, where the game pays its respects to the real-life consequences of the disasters which up until that point have been presented as little more than elaborate rollercoasters. Within minutes you're on your way again, but that moment of peace in the midst of the chaos endures in the memory, a fine example of unforced interactive storytelling adding a whisper of honesty to the game's many excesses.

Few games are such good fits for their host console as Disaster: Day of Crisis is to the Wii. They're both undoubtedly flawed, a step behind its peers in visuals and technical quality and mismarketed to the people who should have been lapping up what they had to offer, but also ambitious, defiantly mad and a huge amount of fun to play when everything comes together. Disaster may have disappeared without trace, but the ultimate purpose of the Games Wii Forgot feature has been to give a little more time to a handful of great games which got lost in a difficult market, and so that players can remember the Wii with fondness for its wonderful eccentricities and hidden delights, before it fades into the annals of history to make way for its inevitable successor.


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