This article at Cracked features some really great indie games that I was thinking about featuring as “Things I Dig” (seriously, if you are into gaming, every one of these picks is fantastic). But when I sat down and thought about what each of these titles had in common, I realized that, collectively, they reveal a great deal about how the videogame subculture, specifically the segment of that culture that think of itself as “hardcore,” defines itself.
Each of these games trades heavily on a shared knowledge base that it assumes all of its players have. Without this knowledge base, one could still likely successfully play through these games, but doing so would mean missing out on a huge chunk of their pleasures, which are based in references to a “canon” of classic video games. In addition to providing players with a jolt of nostalgia for the games of their past, each reference produces the kind of pleasure one receives from getting an “inside” joke.
Take, for example, Mushroom Kingdom Fusion. Mechanically, the game is a relatively simply platformer: avoid enemies, get power-ups, navigate across each screen in order to move towards the end of the level, repeat. The true source of the game’s appeal comes not from these simple gameplay mechanics but from seeing sprites, locations, obstacles, and power-ups from a host of different games all showing up in the same space. The fun comes from recognizing a familiar game element when it shows up in an unfamiliar context. “How many of these characters do you recognize?” the game seems to be asking.
Organ Trail works in a similar way, taking the shell of the classic historical resource management game Oregon Trail and re-working it into a cross-country trek through the zombie apocalypse. Many of the old hazards of the original game remain intact (starvation and dysentery are still pressing concerns), but they are juxtaposed against new ones specific to the setting (if a party member is bitten, the player must make the decision: should they try and keep them alive to help fight off the horde or kill them off before they inevitably turn?). And one of the most charming aspects of the game is its insistence on retaining an old-school pixilated aesthetic and its chiptune soundtrack. In other words, the game is at its best when it is simultaneously evoking and undercutting expectations created by the original Oregon Trail.
The same can be said of what Ian Bogost calls “prank” games in How to Do Things with Video Games. Sometimes called “rage games,” these pranks work because they trade on the expectations set by games that have come before. For example, Syobon Action (Dejected Action), known in the USA as Cat-Mario, lures in the player by looking like a typical 2-D platformer. However,
instead of allowing equal viability to numerous approaches to a physical challenge, the game demands that the player undertake bizarre and arbitrary routes. It punishes rather than rewards genre conventions, like item collection (in addition to coins and power-ups, enemies sometimes pop out of question-mark blocks). And the rules change arbitrarily (Bogost 42).
In other words, these pranks only work on those who are already knowledgeable about and skilled at games. One might imagine that, to a non-gamer, all platformers are just as frustrating and rage-inducing as Cat-Mario ! The game can only fool those who think themselves to be prepared by their previous experiences. Thus, in addition to functioning as a clever prank, these games also work to construct the identity of the hardcore gamer via the mechanism of the gaming canon.