Writing pure and unapologetic opinion pieces like this blog post is dead easy: I can always retreat behind the safety of my “BUT IT’S JUST WHAT I THINK” opinion-shield at the faintest whiff of legitimate criticism, I usually have me around if I need to ask myself something, and I never have to worry about fact-checking my own brain… do I?
It turns out that if I want to do this bizarre unpaid not-job of talking an awful lot about old games on the interwebs properly then actually I do: (Re)Examining the game itself as well as my own dust-covered knowledge – often established years or even decades earlier – for honesty and accuracy if I want to be sure I’m really looking at what’s in front of me and not allowing a flimsy set of unquestioned “facts” to be wheeled out for another airing without any thought. Retro gaming is brilliant. Retro thinking… not so much.
And this is how we come to Blood Gear, a PC Engine Super CD-ROM title (pink spines!) I last tried a few years ago and came away from distinctly unimpressed. Rather than immediately throw such disappointments up on eBay to me that’s exactly the sort of game that deserves a fresh play and another fair chance to work whatever magic might be hiding away in there, because the only thing worse than a game I don’t enjoy is one I could be enjoying if only I realised it was any good. I’ve been stung too many times to risk missing out on something fun again: I was convinced Metal Gear Rising wasn’t my cup of tea before I finally sat down and played it, and it took years before I saw the magic in Vagrant Story (quick tips: ignore guides, hit stuff, use the reflect damage ability if you can’t hit stuff, soak in that atmosphere, stand underneath dragon chins). I like having my opinion completely upended by something I didn’t notice the first time through. I like finding something to love in games I’ve previously been certain I dislike. It’s not a question of my point of view being right or wrong, or of “correcting” a prior “mistake” – maybe I missed the point last time, or perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for whatever a game was offering. It happens! So long as I keep looking at old games and the opinions I’ve attached to them with a fresh eye I don’t see a problem with any of that, because at worst nothing will change and at best I’ve got a brilliant “new” game to play – and all it’s cost me was a little free time and learning how to look at things with a certain point of view.
I say all this because I want to make it perfectly clear that I gave Blood Gear an honest second chance, went into it with a positive attitude, and truly hoped the game would wow me with a special secret something I’d completely missed the first time around.
Only… that didn’t happen.
Blood Gear is a 1994 RPG/side-scrolling action hybrid created by a woolly amalgam of what would have been considered at the time to be an all-star team of developers and their associates: You’ve got Hudson Soft (Bomberman, various well-received Falcom PC Engine remakes), Westone (Wonderboy, Monster World, Wachenroder), and Red (Sakura Taisen, Galaxy Fraulein Yuna) working together on a format they’d all released excellent games for already – it should have been great. It should have been incredible.
It all kicks off with some very… ordinary cutscenes: As you’d expect from a nineties Super CD-ROM release this game is stuffed full of beautifully pixelled cutscenes accompanied by reams of spoken dialogue. Lips – and only lips – move in a repeating pattern as another screen-filling face chats away to the back of somebody else’s static head and there are lots instances of sprites sliding around on a foreground layer without any actual animation to them. So far, so very “Guess we’d better fill up this CD with something“.
No wait, I’m not being fair.
I’m actually quite spoiled when it comes to this era of gaming, and also perhaps a little too used to seeing this sort of thing. I may have a lot of titles with this level of presentation (or better) but that’s not because they were common, it’s because I am lucky enough to own an incredible collection of the generation’s best games. Some of Blood Gear’s shots aren’t just nice for the time but genuinely good art, using dramatic lighting and expert framing to bring well drawn and interesting designs to life. The characters are all distinct individuals, posed well, and when a cutscene comes up you know something important’s about to happen.
OK, that’s about right.
Now I’ve got to consider something else: How these scenes are used to tell a story I just can’t drum up any excitement for. There’s the hot-blooded mech piloting youth with a dead dad. The evil empire filled with nothing but generic goons and unique leaders with increasingly improbable haircuts. A woman who exists as little more than an object to be kidnapped, imprisoned, rescued, kidnapped, rescued, injured… it’d be funny if only Blood Gear wasn’t determined to make it all so serious, making you carry her injured frame around a new town hoping the next NPC will tell you where you can get her treated instead of bumping into a kid who’ll say “Hey, don’t you think Powered Gears are cool?!” to a man cradling an unconscious woman. It all serves to drag the craftsmanship found in those pretty event images right down to the floor, like finding a single cat hair in a slice of cake. Nothing’s really changed but it’s still been ruined, hasn’t it?
As I mentioned before Blood Gear is a hybrid of RPG with side-scrolling mech-based action although the “action”, if I dare to use such a strong term in these circumstances, involves trudging horizontally across pancake-flat stages with only the occasional perfectly vertical shaft or right-angled square step to break things up. Slopes do not exist in Blood Gear. Neither do multi-animation attacks, enemies that attack in groups greater than three, or opposing robots that display combat prowess any greater than “Shoot at the player in clearly defined intervals.” or “Keep jumping towards them if the player’s higher than you until you die”. It all feels stiff and – hah! – robotic. Some of this is bound to be deliberate – players would struggle to notice the stat upgrades (you choose what you want to improve at a town’s factory, using money earned by defeating enemies) or the extra power of more expensive equipment if the base mech abilities started out quite fast and strong then ended up being even faster and stronger, but it only ever improves the flow to a pace that’s best described as “What it should have been in the first place”.
I’ve played a lot of games, and I know I can reel off a list of titles from the same year or earlier that do Blood Gear’s thing better than Blood Gear does without even thinking about it: There’s Mad Stalker, the single-plane robo-action game that inspired Guardian Heroes. Super Metroid‘s an atmospheric 1994 release that proves over and over again that even landscapes constructed mostly out of square tiles can still feel natural and organic. PC Engine classic anime Belmont vehicle Dracula X: Chi no Rondo came out the year before Blood Gear. Ex-Ranza. Alisia Dragoon. Golden Axe. Strider. Neither the hardware nor the storage medium are holding the game’s real-time action back, and even if you tried to point to the Mega Drive’s (blast) processor or Nintendo’s fastidious attention to detail as reasons to ignore these comparisons any form of meaningful defence crumbles the instant you remember the more ambitious hybrid side-scrolling action games that all came out in the eighties on less capable formats ( Zelda 2, Castlevania 2, and Ys 3) – Blood Gear’s just shallow.
…And then I paused my little internal know-it-all internal monologue for a moment and realised that actually I’d been enjoying myself while I’d been playing the game. The “methodical” action had started to actually feel more methodical the less I thought “Yes well but it doesn’t really communicate the feeling of piloting a mech the way Assault Suits Valken or Armored Core games do, does it?” and I began to appreciate the exploration and quasi free-roaming nature found in (some of) the stages a little more, going deep into an enemy fortress and really feeling like you’re venturing into somewhere dangerous because the game doesn’t allow you to easily item-escape or menu your way out of trouble. I even had to admit I’d experienced a few flashes of brilliance along the way: Like the one area that’s completely dark until you find an infrared scope that when activated bathes the whole location in a deep red light, revealing a detailed background design that’s actually worth seeing. There was also the time an imperial fortresses footprint on the overworld map actually matched it’s sidescrolling equivalent as best as could be reasonably expected, and the vast crater that actually started and finished with some hoppity-jumping up and down the sides – that was clever! Before long I’d started to plan out my routes, found some interesting single-use items to carefully horde for next time’s next time, and felt like I knew what I needed to do and how to do it.
So what do I think of Blood Gear? Is it a game that’s been thoroughly beaten by a whole host of alternatives on similar or weaker formats, a huge damp squib of a game even though it contains both laser swords and giant enemy death machines? Or is it a solid attempt at merging two traditionally very different genres, a game with vision and an attention to detail so confident and so fine the game’s content to let players discover – or miss – its highlights on their own terms?
Is it both? Can it be both?
Right now my opinion’s about as firm as a frightened bowl of jelly on a trampoline.
So let’s try to break this down. Do I think the negative points I’ve raised are hasty or untrue? No, I don’t.
But they’re not the entirety of my experience either. Some of it felt good just because it was good, and other parts started to fall into place the instant I stopped doing the mental equivalent of walking into McDonald’s and complaining about the lack of wagyu steak on the menu.
So let’s ask again: Do I think the positive points I’ve raised are hasty or untrue? No, I don’t.
But they’re not the entirety of my experience either. Blood Gear’s an easy game to want to love: It’s got impressive mechs, great cutscenes, and it’s by all the right people on a system well-suited to bringing their ideas to life. And while I’ve been playing I’ve grown quite fond of it, I think, even if it is a remarkably OK sort of 16-bit game released at a time when there were so many excellent ones available to buy.
So how do I feel about Blood Gear right now? Honestly, I’m not sure – cautiously optimistic and frustratedly disappointed all at once, maybe? Oscillating between weary familiarity at the general concepts and genuine pleasure when it all comes together? The most important thing is that I’m still thinking.