Saturday, 30 June 2012

British gaming heroes: 1998-2002

Continuing my series of posts taking a year-by-year look at the history of British video games, focusing on the many colourful characters that the industry cooked up.

Well, I tried to inject some variety into this instalment. While I was researching I hoped to cover a range of different developers, but it soon became apparent that one company dominated this era: Rare. Four of the five games I picked were made by Rare, and the fifth was brought to us by what was essentially a Rare split-off company.

So let us commence this overview of Rare's golden years...

1998: Banjo and Kazooie

 In 1998 Pixar released its second feature, A Bug's Life, and DreamWorks jumped on the CGI bandwagon with Antz. This initiated a cycle of CGI films set in the traditional juvenile milieu of talking animals, but - in theory, if not always in practice - containing an undercurrent of altogether sharper humour that adults would also appreciate. Rare's Banjo-Kazooie arrived just in time for the zeitgeist.

The story of Banjo-Kazooie is nothing special - the hero's sister is kidnapped, so he must rescue her - but what makes its world memorable is the characters. As well as the central figures of Banjo the bear, Kazooie the bird and Guntilda the wicked witch, there is a whole host of side personalities: Mumbo Jumbo, a skull-headed shaman; Dingpot, Gruntilda's disloyal cauldron; Blubber, a pirate hippo who wants a jetski; Loggo, an anthropomorphic toilet. The characterisation is not always original (Banjo himself is basically Goofy with a bit of Eccles, complete with the former's patented "guh-huh") but is always strong.

Kazooie's sarcastic exchange with Loggo the toilet.

 Banjo-Kazooie contained a lot of dialogue but, due to the technological limitations of the period, none of it was actually voiced. Instead, Rare came up with an ingenious solution: each character is given three short samples which are played in random succession as their dialogue text appears onscreen. When Banjo talks, we hear "guh-guuh-gur-guuh-gur-gur-guh-guuh-guh", while Gruntilda lets out strings of shrill croaks and Blubber talks in a series of belches. It's both funny, and effective.

The game has a wry sense of humour, with even the bodily-function gags just coy enough to work. The opening sequence kicks off with a parody of Snow White, as Gruntilda asks her cauldron "Dingpot, Dingpot, by the bench, who's the nicest looking wench?"; these gags carry on until the final confrontation with the hag, during which she repeatedly remarks that she needs to use the toilet once the fight's over.

This was stepped up considerably in the sequel, Banjo-Tooie. At one point the heroes fight a giant inflatable dinosaur whose air-nozzle is positioned... between his legs. Oo-err.

1999: Jet Force Gemini

 If Banjo-Kazooie pointed forward to the new wave of CGI features, Jet Force Gemini took the opposite approach and harked back to previous decades. With a noticeable retro-eighties flavour and the acknowledged influence of the anime series Battle of the Planets, it was informed by irony-tinged nostalgia: a game for the generation of twentysomethings who still wore Transformers t-shirts.

Jet Force Gemini pitted a quartet of spacefaring heroes - Juno, Vela, Lupus the dog and Floyd the Droid - against the evil Mizar and his hordes of aliens; along the way they were also tasked with rescuing good aliens, who resembled Ewoks. The cuddly demeanour of the characters was set off by the level of violence involved, with green goop spurting from insectoid villains, but as with the cult British science fiction comic 2000 AD this kind of thing was conducted in a healthily tongue-in-cheek manner. When the player happens upon a cache of flares a message window helpfully explains that this is a type of ammunition, not a sixties fashion accessory.

The first promotional art of Juno and Vela was rather disturbing, depicting them as creepy doll children that call to mind Svankmajer's Alice rather than any Saturday morning children's anime. Whether this look is merely a botched attempt to adapt a traditional manga style to 3D or a result of Rare's warped sense of humour is unclear.

By the time the game had been released the characters had been reconfigured as adults, partly due to comments from Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, partly due to the progress in the skills of the game's graphical team, and - according to some reports - partly due to concerns about portrayals of children with guns: the Columbine shooting occurred during the game's development.

Jet Force Gemini was well-reviewed but not a commercial success, possibly because something was still a little off about its general tone. A 2D adaptation for the Game Boy was in development but ultimately cancelled, and a sequel was never made. Nevertheless, the title has its staunch fans to this day.

2000: Joanna Dark

 One of Rare's biggest successes was GoldenEye 007, a 1997 game based on the James Bond film from two years beforehand. There was demand for a sequel, but the development team decided against another Bond project, instead creating a special agent of their own.

Perfect Dark is set in the near future and avoids the Cold War thriller inspirations of GoldenEye in favour of a science fiction yarn, drawing on contemporary UFO folklore. A war is on between bug-eyed greys on the one side and reptilians disguised as humans on the other, with an espionage group working for Daniel Carrington (a relative of The Thing from Another World's Dr. Carrington, perhaps?) caught in the middle. The player must guide one of Carrington's spies, Joanna Dark, through all of this intrigue until the final confrontation on an alien planet.

Very much a product of the post-Lara Croft wave of gaming heroines, Joanna Dark was also influenced by the female leads of The X-Files, Nikita and Ghost in the Shell. She may not have become a household name in the same way as Lara, but her game was well received.

A particularly eager reaction came from N64 Magazine, which ran specially-made artwork of Ms. Dark by its house illustrator Wil Overton, who had made a name for himself in the early nineties with his anime-inspired magazine covers. This mangafied Joanna seems to have caught the eye of Rare, as Overton was recruited to redesign the character for the prequel Perfect Dark Zero.

Publicity art was released revealing Overton's portrayal of a younger and very cartoonish Joanna Dark, but this look was ultimately rejected. Instead, Zero ran with another quasi-realistic version of the heroine, albeit one retaining the funky new hairdo that Overton gave her.

Perfect Dark Zero was released in 2005, and in the same year the series went multimedia with the publication of Greg Rucka's novel Perfect Dark: Initial Vector. After this came Cold FuZion Studios' six-issue comic Perfect Dark: Janus' Tears, and a second novel by Rucka. Perfect Dark Core, planned as the next game in the series, began development but was aborted.

Concept art for the abandoned Perfect Dark Core.

2001: Conker

Banjo-Kazooie was announced alongside another project, a game called Conker's Quest which starred a Disneyesque squirrel. The two titles looked very similar, the main distinction being that Conker's Quest seemed rather more sugary and innocuous, lacking even Banjo's occasionally offbeat sense of humour.

When Banjo-Kazooie came out, its sister title was still under wraps. In 1999 Conker's Pocket Tales came out on the Game Boy, and seemed strangely isolated - it was clearly designed as a tie-in to a higher-profile release, but yet Conker's Quest (or Twelve Tales: Conker 64 as it was known by then) was still nowhere to be seen.

When the game eventually arrived on the scene it had been renamed Conker's Bad Fur Day and had undergone a major retooling. Now rated 15+, it starred a foul-mouthed, booze-swilling, cigar-chomping Conker who spent the game gunning down Nazi teddy bears, urinating on firey devils and killing a vampire by feeding him peasants until he became so fat that he fell into his own deathtrap. Banjo unbound, this was a platform game for the South Park generation.

Alongside this toilet-wall comedy was a visual style which resembled a cross between Pixar or DreamWorks CGI and The Trap Door, with perhaps a bit of Rex the Runt thrown in. Unlike Banjo-Kazooie, Bad Fur Day managed to squeeze in fully-voiced dialogue, adding the radio comedy element of Monkey Island or Simon the Sorcerer.

Conker's Etiquette Guide, an online Flash cartoon released to promote the game.

The game was well received, primarily for its humour, but was not a great seller. A sequel was on the cards (reportedly, this is why Rare dropped the game's original ending, which was to have had Conker committing suicide) but never appeared. Although Bad Fur Day was remade for the Xbox as Conker: Live and Reloaded, the Conker series was a bit of a flash in the pan; still, the character made his mark, and still has his fans.

Bad Fur Day was the last game Rare created for the Nintendo 64; the company was bought by Microsoft the following year. Something of an end of an era for Rare, which has recently been restructured by Microsoft after some of its Xbox releases were met with disappointing sales.

2002: Sergeant Cortez

Cortez (centre), with two co-stars.

By the time Perfect Dark was released several members of its development team had left to form Free Radical Design, now known as Crytek UK. The company's first release was a 2000 number called TimeSplitters, which attempted to meld the gritty sci-fi stylings of games such as Perfect Dark with a sillier, more cartoonish approach. Unfortunately, the effect was hampered by the clumsy CGI that games of this period were mired in - it's an irony that, in terms of graphics, late-period 2D games such as Yoshi's Island or Earthworm Jim have aged much better than the first several years' worth of 3D games.

The sequel did not entirely avoid this problem, but it went some way to compensating. The game was released alongside a wave of publicity art that translated the blocky CGI characters into vibrant 2D drawings reminiscent of Jamie Hewlett's work on Tank Girl and Gorillaz. Gleefully kitsch, the designs are a loving send-up of the comic book aesthetic that rival games were taking dead seriously.

The title characters of the TimeSplitters series are actually the antagonists - a race of time-travelling aliens. The original game didn't have a single hero, with the player instead controlling a different character for each time period, which ranged from an Egyptian tomb in 1935 to a rocket base in 2035. TimeSplitters 2 introduced a series protagonist in Sergeant Cortez while still keeping the first game's dynamic of a different character for each era: like the fellow in Quantum Leap, Cortez travels through time by possessing the bodies of various people who lived over the ages.

Disappointingly, the third game - TimeSplitters: Future Perfect - dropped this style in its publicity art, although it retained a similar sense of humour. A fourth game was announced, but its development has been troubled and it has yet to surface.

And that's it for another month. Next time: fantasy heroics, gritty crime, and a chap in his Y-fronts.

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Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Susan Young's Carnival

Some stills from Susan Young's 1985 Royal College of Art student film Carnival. Themed around the Notting Hill Carnival, it won the Special Animation Prize at the 1985 Annecy festival.