What are video games?
For me, there are two answers. Most recently, I think, they have become something that makes the very name incorrect. They are not necessarily games, anymore, and the kind of experience you can get from this medium is rapidly becoming a fascinating new art form. The immersion, the connection, the agency of the audience made manifest in the work itself rather than as a conceit of critics and academics – these are all things that will, I believe, lead to a whole new genre of art. A video game can make you fall into a world and a story, breathe it, live it, even though that world and story would make you roll your eyes and throw the whole thing in the garbage if it were a book or a film.
But the medium is far from maturity. Most games are at the artistic level of professional wrestling (which is, to be fair, pretty fascinating in some ways); they are a carnival of base desires, beliefs, pleasures, fantasies, and wish-fulfillment, full of misogyny, racism and general idiocy. Beyond that, even a brilliant immersive experience like Shadow of the Colossus is, well, artistically crippled by the necessity of clinging to the concept of “game.” I think that there is much to explore at the intersection of “game” and “art,” but that intersection does not circumscribe the whole medium, not by a longshot. There is something about interactivity, agency, immersion and control within the piece that is really special in itself, and I will argue that to death.
And then there is the other type of video game.
This is the type that doesn’t really care about immersion or agency or any other fancy high-falutin’ words. This is the one that is about reflexes, timing, memorization, planning, tactics, strategy, practice, and skill, about the raw, kinetic energy of physical and mental challenge. This is the one that puts the game in video game.
I could talk about the delicate balance between the two, the border where a game can either enhance or ruin one aspect by focusing too much or too little on the other, and the kind of game that manages to pull it off (Portal) or just outright fails at both (Fable 2).
In the SNES era, though, most people just went right for the throat and tried to make the gamiest game that ever gamed. That’s why many of this generation’s games are scrotum-blisteringly hard. Some of them are terrible, some of them are sadistic, some of them were just kinda fun ways to kill time and waste precious seconds of your life and childhood, and some of them – some of them – were truly transcendent.
Contra 3 is the brutal, flesh-tearing king of these games.
If you have not played Contra 3, I contend that you have missed out on the best game for the SNES. It is merciless but not cruel, it forces you to learn skills and build on them without becoming repetitive, and it flings you into wildly varying situations and hammers at your reflexes, your patience and your perseverance until you either die and give up, or you crawl to the end of the stage over the flaming corpse of a six-hundred-story robot demon from hell.
Contra 3 played alone is a pure and wonderful thing, but played cooperatively it is unassailably the most fun you can have on the SNES. The only thing better than being a lone gun-toting hero mowing down hordes of aliens is standing back to back with a friend against waves of horrible monstrous adversity.
This game is where my love affair with brutally hard games began, and it is the only SNES game I will occasionally load up and play for more than half an hour, because it is so good. Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden could stand to learn something from Contra 3. None of this prolonged cutscene bullshit, with protagonists who have feelings and voices and who spasmodically attempt to play out some kind of feeble drama in between the horrible, horrible bouts of murder. No. Look to Contra 3, and take note.
Contra 3 is aliens shooting at you and then a huge alien shooting at you, and then explosions and fire and a ruined highway with a flying scorpion robot thing and then some bikes and then a plane and then you are fucking standing on missiles flying through the air, and you are still shooting aliens. There is no explanation. It is not needed. All you have to do is stay alive, and move from the left to the right. It’s just like reading a sentence.
The sentence is FUCK YEEEAAAAAAH.