Nitpick: Same ol' Hack and Slash
I remember there was a time when hack and slash 3D action games didn’t exist. Back on the Super Nintendo, it was impossible for me to think that a game capable of full 3-D control existed. As gamers transitioned into the new generation, players were introduced into a world that was entirely new. No longer looking from fixed camera angles from the side or above, players had the option to toy with their perspective. Games such as Zelda allowed players to shift their camera or even enter first-person.
It was this entry into the 3-D world that gave birth for a whole different type of movement in games. Players could actively move and attack at the same time, jump, shift cameras, or even create interactive environments. Of course, some of these could be done in the previous generation but never at same time. In an instance, the boost in hardware performance allowed for a more technologically advanced game. So what was the result of the new generation?
The action games came into fruition. Two games that instantly pop into my mind when I think of action is Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry. I thank Tomonobu Itagaki and Hideki Kamiya for their contribution of action gaming excellence. I would go so far as to call them the birthright fathers of the action genre. Each made their own unique foray into the genre and despite falling into the same genre played very differently from each other.
Devil May Cry appeared to be a simple hack and slash but focused more on consecutive hits on enemies without getting hit to create combos. In addition, the amount of tricks and moves you can pull off by customizing your character allowed to add diversity to attacks. This stylized combat system was completely opposite of Ninja Gaiden which focused more on precision rather than flash. Ninja Gaiden was less about hitting an enemy multiple times in one-go but made use of blocks, dodges, and terrain control to gain an upper hand on your opponent. You would slash an enemy a few times and then block your opponent or move out of the way in order to avoid heavy damage. It was more about tactics. Both games allow you to hack and slash your opponents but how you approach enemies and how the game enabled you to do that was extremely different. Essentially, each game had their own identity.
Riding the hype of this newly formed genre, other developers began to make games similar to it. While not all of them rode their way into super stardom there are some recognizable franchises like God of War and Onimusha, of which the former turned out to be immensely popular. These games borrowed the idea of destroying enemies by spamming attack buttons like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden but beyond that, there’s rarely no personality to it.
Take God of War for example. Although it’s critically-acclaimed as one of the best action games released to date, the game feels like it has no true sense of identity. It borrows or uses systems and mechanics from other games making it feel like an assortment of goodies rather than a game that has distinguished qualities. Personally, I love the various weapons that are offered in God of War III. The cestus feel very different from the normal blades but the idea of having varied weapons isn’t something entirely new. In fact it’s something that’s staple to the genre. The ability to switch weapons on the fly has been done before as well.
What distinguished God of War was something not gameplay related but something visually related: violence. The amount of blood, brutality, and crazy amount of destruction in an action game is unparalleled, even today in my opinion. Sadly, this was about it. Sure there were things like the dawn of quick-time events that set it apart from other games and spawned a series of games that relied on it as well. There wasn’t anything particularly special in terms of gameplay for God of War. This is deeply saddening considering that for an action game, gameplay is king.
Another example is Onimusha, which is quite similar to Ninja Gaiden in many ways beyond its aesthetics. It has slower paced combat much like Ninja Gaiden compared to Devil May Cry. Its distinctive precision based combat is what sets it apart from Ninja Gaiden, and the lack acrobatic stunts gives it a more realistic feeling. While normally these two elements would set it apart from other games, it works to its detriment. Other players have praised these elements but I think that its pace makes it far too polarizing.
My argument is thus for action games: the games spawned from this genre end up being so similar to each other, that it’s no longer unique or it ends up being so different that it becomes undesirable. I’m not saying these games are particularly bad or great. In fact, I’m saying that they are great games, however, the fact remains that many action games tend to be extremely similar and borrow pieces and elements from other games making it rather pointless. It’s sort of a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation. It's one thing to tout innovation and another completely to follow through. While the genre doesn't do things wildly different from title to title, it's at least a proven theory that most of the time, gamers just want to hack and slash at anything they see on screen, and therefore I understand the popularity. While my complaint doesn't have a solid solution this week, I think that it was a topic well worth discussing. Are you sick of the same old action games, or do you think they provide enough cathartic hacking and slashing for them to get by?