Wrath UnleashedJun 17, 2005 · peterb · 6 minute read
It is well understood that there is nothing new under the sun in video games. I recently borrowed Wrath Unleashed from the local library, not knowing what it was.
What it was is a remake of Archon.
Archon, for those of you who have never heard of it, is on every old computer game player’s list of The Greatest Games Ever Made. The basic idea is: it’s chess. But when your pieces occupy the same square as your opponent’s piece, you move to an “arena” and the two players fight it out in arcade-like combat. Each piece has different powers, so while one can in theory win any battle in combat, the strategic element is very significant: you really, really, really don’t want to try to fight a Basilisk with a Knight.
Remaking Archon is something everyone seems to do, sooner or later. It seems like such a good idea. Archon itself is a remake in a manner of speaking, being clearly inspired by the “chess game” in the original Star Wars movie.
The fact is, remaking Archon is a bad idea. The game itself had some sort of magical, alchemical balance wherein it was only fun if you played it on an 8-bit computer. Even in emulation, it’s not any fun. You need that big clunky Atari joystick to make the game playable. The authors even tried to remake it, twice. The first attempt, for the old 8 bit computers, was Archon 2: Adept. It almost worked, but the simplicity of the first game’s chess board was replaced by a zone-based game of concentric rings, with odd rules about moving between them, and mostly what you thought when you played it was. “Huh. This is pretty neat. But I think I’d rather be playing Archon.” SSI remade the game for the PC as Archon Ultra in the mid-90s. This remake got the mechanics right, yet it was soulless. I bought it, but felt empty inside, like a child whose ice cream cone has dropped in the middle of the street.
Wrath Unleashed, by Lucasarts, is Archon Ultra with even less soul. The game mechanics are nearly the same as those of Archon 2, down to letting your “wizards” cast spells in addition to sending your pieces in to combat. So I’m not really going to talk about the mechanics. I want to talk about the window dressing. I want to talk about the game’s presentation.
Remember that guy in your homeroom, in high school? He wore denim everything and listened to metal and seemed sort of stupid, except he could draw these really bitchin’ little cartoons of metal dudes riding motorcycles while smoking a joint with a naked chick in the pillion seat who was waving a chainsaw and killing zombies? Well, that guy did the production design for Wrath Unleashed. The game is so thoroughly a paean to arrested development that it can only be on purpose. Somewhere in Lucasarts is a Marketing Requirements Document that identifies the specific vertical segment they’re aiming at as “morons with disposable cash and deep-seated issues with their sexuality.”
Some of you may remember the movie Heavy Metal. I suspect this movie had a similar MRD, and it specified that the viewer would be 17. With an R rating, 16 year olds wouldn’t be allowed in to see it, whereas 18 year olds might have met actual women by then. With the customer base so ruthlessly narrowed, the authors were free to dispense with all manner of elements normally associated with the filmmaking art (plot, drama, a point). Since I actually saw this movie at the age of seventeen, I thought it was cool. Then I turned eighteen. Then they made a sequel that failed on all counts, because fans of the original had long moved beyond the “puberty” phase of their lives. This game manages to be even more pointless than the sequel to Heavy Metal.
To make room for this garbage, they cancelled Sam and Max: Freelance Police. There is no justice in the world.
Two of the four Gods in the game are women. 2 of the four Gods in the game are wearing skimpy clothing. One of them, in particular, is wearing a bra shaped like a pair of hands that are groping her breasts. I’m sorry, but I just can’t respect a goddess who is in an abusive relationship with her lingerie. The concept artists who came up with this have violated the Gamer’s Bill of Rights Clause 3. They must be punished.
The four gods in the game are (basically) the gods of earth, air, fire, and water. This bothers me, for two reasons. First, this is the second Lucasarts game in 2 years to have gods of earth, air, fire, and water, and they have completely different names. You’d think that Lucasarts, of all companies, would recognize the importance of keeping a consistent cosmology in their products. And apart from the marketing aspects, consider the practicalities: what’s going to happen to Lucasarts when the gods of earth, air, fire, and water discover that their names are being mangled? There will be a whole lot of smiting at Skywalker Ranch, let me tell you.
Second, why is it always earth, air, fire, and water? How about having some different gods for a change? Why not have us live under the dominion of the mighty Gods of Blood, Bile, Choler, and Phlegm? Weep at the mighty passage of the lords of Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and the apostate devil Umami? Think of the narrative possibilities of a game chronicling the mighty conflicts between the followers of Jo’n, Paul, Jorge, and Ring-o.
My point, to the extent that I have one, is: have you no shame? It’s not like putting the zombie-hand bra on the game actually helped the game sell: Wrath Unleashed plopped into the marketplace with all the allure of a frog in a milkshake.
They say that sex sells, but not even sex will sell if it’s sufficiently stupid.
So, Lucasarts, maybe you should look at the decisionmaking process that led up to green-lighting Wrath Unleashed. You’re looking for a brand identity outside of Star Wars. You’re not going to find it in zombie-hand bras and bombast; any junior-high school metalhead can do that.
Maybe it’s time to see if smart might sell.