Jun. 17, 2009 - Issue #713: Works It
Infinite Lives: Japanese obscurity
Caveman, cowboy, kung-fu master, robot, ninja, cyborg, wrestler, knight ... how's that for a who's-who of escapist badassery? Or maybe, I keep thinking, they form the nucleus of an all-new troupe of Village People, an expanded travelling revue that takes the stage along with a pirate, a drill sergeant, a Viking, a voodoo priest, a regular priest, a chimney sweep and a trucker in an all-singing, all-dancing cavalcade of camped-out clichés. But I'm getting two fantasies ahead of myself. Those eight stereotypes are in fact (of course) the stars of a video game, and not just as sidemen or companions; in Live A Live, an obscure Japanese title from the Golden Age of Super Famicom RPGs, each of these dudes takes his turn as the main player character.
Yes, it is very weird, which would explain why nobody was much interested in risking the money and time to give it an official North American/European release back in '94. A strange title in a niche genre, kind of a compilation album of short but fully realized RPGs, each conceived by an individual artist whose fame and cachet ended at Japan's 12-mile limit, linked by common themes and concepts, coming together in the conventional sense only in the final, symphonic "tracks." Interesting, yes; a minor masterpiece, maybe; marketable to the SNESheads stateside, busy going gaga over Super Metroid and Mortal Kombat II? Not so much.
Live A Live, a game so obscure that I'd never even heard of it until it, well, it came to me in a dream. Woke up one morning with the name "Shimomura" rattling around in my head. Making coffee: Shimomura, Shimomura. Walking out to get the mail: Shimomura, Shimomura, Shimomura. What the hell? I came back with my stack of overdue bills and consulted my dream advisor, the modern-day Daniel of Googlipedia: Yoko Shimomura, Japanese video game composer and musician. Lots of credits. Kingdom Hearts, Parasite Eve, Street Fighter 2 (wow, cool) ... Live A Live? Never heard of it. Click. Caveman, cowboy, kung-fu master ... I know a must-play when I see it.
Live A Live is highly recommended to all curiosity seekers; the patched English ROM and emulators with which to run it aren't hard to find. Each character's chapter has a distinct look, feel and sound, yes, but beyond that each has a distinct thesis, a distinct soul, its own approach to how the rather formal genre of the Japanese role-playing-game might be approached. I started off my journey, kicked off what would eventually add up to a few dozens of hours of play, at what I figured would be the chronologically sensible point: back in the old caveman days. Ninja games, kung-fu games, even cowboy games, these, I'd played quite a few of; cavemen are still quite a novelty.
The idea of Live A Live's caveman segment is that the culture is pre-verbal, or at least pre-abstract-speech; there's no dialogue, only pointing and gestures and "speech" balloons containing pictures of discrete concrete objects. Never mind that these prehistoric people obviously have a material culture and social organization that'd be impossible without sophisticated language; it's still fantasy, after all. The gameplay gimmicks here are item-crafting—you gather bones and rocks and animal skins to make the stone axes and hide robes that are the caveman's arms and armour—and scent-trailing; pressing X causes little clouds to appear and drift around the field, the spoor of animals and men. Following these scents—and/or avoiding what you're smelling—is key to moving through a plot of primordial knight-errantry.
And this continues, very different gameplay variations through ages and universes. As a ninja you'll use stealth and guile to move through an enemy stronghold, making the choice whether to slaughter those in your way or to slip by like a shadow. As the gunslinger cowboy, you'll instruct beleaguered townsfolk in the setting of traps and pitfalls in order to even the odds against a bandit gang. The sci-fi chapter involves almost no combat, instead following the adventures of one little robot as he moves through a claustrophobic, ship-bound mystery-thriller filled with murder and betrayal. As the kung-fu master, last of your lineage, you will recruit and train a trio of disciples and ultimately choose a successor. Each segment is its own little gameworld ... until they're all brought together in a very satisfying cross-time struggle against ancient evil.
The world of games—especially Japanese games—is much bigger, so very much bigger than what the English-speaking markets have been officially allowed to see. Check out Live A Live and then by all means go further, down into the hidden byways of concepts and creations within another culture's canon; it's the videogame equivalent of getting into French film, Argentine literature ... a trip into another world of worlds. Worlds that just happen to contain ninjas and cyborgs. V
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