Page 28, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out

Edge Magazine #134 March 2004

Over and over and over again

Edge #134, March 2004

You've all heard of Stockholm Syndrome, right? It isn't a swelling of the wrist from downloading vast amounts of Swedish art photography, but a psychological condition coined after a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, when four employees bonded with their captors.

Despite being held in a vault for six days and being subjected to extreme physical and verbal abuse, the captives developed an affection for the captors to the point where they even feared their own rescue. There have been other examples, with hostages French-kissing their kidnappers upon release, baking cakes for them and making 'Thank You For Holding Us Hostage' card'.

While that's all very jolly and interesting, cynics have suggested that a form of Stockholm Syndrome causes us to hang on to destructive relationships far longer than we should - how even after things have got really bad, and she's started deliberately farting on your washing and burning effigies of you in the front garden, you somehow still can't bring yourself to split up.

These examples illustrate that I now realise there is one relationship I've been hanging on to for far longer than I should. I have accepted that I've fallen out of love with platform games — and it's all the fault of that wanton hussy Yuji Naka for trying to force his pungent eggs down my throat.

If his Billy Hatcher And The Giant Egg was anything other than a videogame, it would be a straw — a 50-ton iron straw, and right now it would be resting atop my poor dead camel, Ali Osman, whose vertebrae are shattered into a million pitiful pieces (apologies to Jeff Minter if that analogy has set you weeping into your woollen lap).

Frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn about platform games any more. It wasn't so much the repetitive simplicity of Hatcher's levels (I doubt it's a coincidence that 'Hatcher' sounds a bit like 'Hitler' - for they are unequalled in their parallel evil), or the frustrating way the game seemed to conspire against you. It wasn't even the dull, 32bit-style graphics. It was the fact that — giant egg rolling aside — it was the same old thing we've all seen a billion times before. And yeah, we've all heard this argument before, I know, but this time it's different. You see, Billy Hatcher And The Giant Egg was to be a return to form for the once-proud platform powerhouse that is Sonic Team. It was going to establish the characters as icons and reinvigorate the genre, not to mention Sega's fortunes.

Instead, we got familiar pirate levels, and snow and ice levels, and lava levels, and jungle levels. There were switches to bounce on, and crates aplenty to smash, and bits where you roll down long slides. There were uninspiring bosses who were defeated in the usual ways, and Pokémon-esque creatures to gather, and - for the love of Jesus H Corbett — coins to collect! How often are these flaccid clichés going to be paraded before us? Are these developers oblivious to the fact that they're feasting upon the rancid corpses of a billion other games? Do they just not care? Where is their dignity? Where is their lust?

Imagination is our only defence in the war against reality, but if it were down to Sonic Team and their ilk we'd have fought World War Il using balloons on sticks with the faces of Douglas Bader and Winston Churchill painted on them. Playing modern platform games is like being stuck in a recurring dream where you writhe about on a greased bouncy castle with the girl of your dreams. It's fun at first, but after the 50th night you'd probably rather be dreaming about Darth Vader eating marzipan, or something.

This time last year I was venting similarly flavoured bile in the direction of the risible Starfox Adventures (a roleplaying-ish game dressed in tedious platform game clichés). Seriously, friends, it's gone beyond a joke now — the bottom of the barrel is no longer being scraped. We've broken through the planks to the ground beneath and, jeepers, is that tough on the old fingernails.

The point is, you expect something better from a studio with Sonic Team's reputation (though I'd dispute that its track record actually justifies that esteem, but that's a debate for another time). A videogame begins as a blank canvas, and there are a trillion chances to do something different, unique and wonderful. Even within the platform genre there are infinite ideas we've never seen before. Instead, those responsible for Billy Hatcher chose to crib from their own memories rather than use it as an opportunity to be a bit different.

If you ever see an eight-year-old in the woods (as I often do from my camouflaged hide), they pick up sticks and use them as guns, or swords, or atrophied limbs. You can't help but ponder if Sonic Team would use those same bits of wood for a game of Branch Collectors and Twig Hunters: "Look at me, Naka-san! I am the branch collector, Mr Woods, and I'm going to pretend this gnarled bit of bark is a type of gnarled bark!"

Oscar Wilde, God rest his pert little bottom, once said: "Consistency is the last resort of the unimaginative." Lordy, platform games have been consistently dull for a decade now. The most depressing realisation is that it's many of the pioneers of the platform genre who are the worst culprits. Sega being one, obviously, while Nintendo hasn't produced a truly original platform game in God knows how long. Let's not even get started on Rare. It's doubly depressing to realise that, where once the platform game ruled the charts, it's now a rare occasion one even makes a dent. Is it any wonder when the only distinguishing feature is the animal the main character is based on?

Pertinently, it's the ones that do things a bit differently which perform the best. Vivendi's Crash Bandicoot continues to be a cash cow for the company, while Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time has been a similar success by literally turning many platform game conventions on their head. Lord knows how big Viewtiful Joe could've been if it hadn't been a GameCube exclusive.

Why should I be bothered if derivative games get their just desserts? Because it's as frustrating as watching a hen sit around eating crisps rather than using its wings to soar in the sky. Nobody likes to watch an idiot squander his talents, man.

Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's

Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me ( right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.

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