Playing the Lame Vol. 17

So yeah, we’re a couple days late with this one. Sorry, I had finals. Not that you care or anything, but I thought I should just throw that out there.

I don’t have anything more interesting or creative to add, except to say that for those of you who came here from the main page, if Widro is going to add in gigantic top story art icon placements, I’m damn sure going to use them.

PLAYING THE LAME, VOLUME 17.

Name of the Offending Title: Aquaman: The Battle for Atlantis, henceforth referred to only as Aquaman.
What System Was This Forced Upon: We’re working with the Xbox version. There’s supposedly a Gamecube version as well, and both versions are compatible with their next-generation counterparts if such a thing interests you.
Who Was Responsible For This Crap: TDK Interactive published it, and Lucky Chicken developed it. Amusingly enough, GameFAQs says the Xbox version of Aquaman was cancelled. Oh, if only that were so…
Date This Abomination Was Foisted Upon Us: June 7th, 2003.

THANKS KENNEDY.

A BRIEF LAYOUT OF AQUAMAN:

The appeal of a licensed title should, in theory, be obvious. By latching onto a property everyone is familiar with and making it into some sort of piece of entertainment software, you can essentially rake in the cash by allowing players to take control of their favorite fictional characters as they do whatever it is they’re known for. This isn’t even remotely difficult to understand: make a game based on Spongebob or Batman or, “insert the name of a sports star who is presently famous for the RIGHT reasons here” or whatever and watch the money come rolling in from fans of said property. Unfortunately, however, sooner or later all of the A-list talent will be snapped up by other, more financially viable publishers, leaving the remaining low-tier publishing houses to bicker back and forth over the B and C-list licenses left behind. In theory, this is a bad thing from the start, but a good developer could take this and run with it to make something worthwhile and, in the process, turn the character into a break-out star by virtue of making something great with their name on it. In practice, we get things like Shadowman and the PS2 Spawn game, which are inoffensive attempts at translating licensed properties into games that aren’t great, but aren’t terrible either.

Then every once in a while, we get that magical combination of a developer who doesn’t know what they’re doing, a publisher who doesn’t give a shit, and a license no one has any interest in that gives us wonderfully abhorrent titles like Aquaman.

Aquaman actually has the distinction of being the SECOND licensed game from TDK that we’ve looked at in the history of Playing the Lame, with the first being Dinotopia, which was also, as you might have surmised, pitiful. Well, Aquaman continues TDK’s trend of taking licenses no one cares about and making horrid software out of them, though which of the two efforts is ultimately worse is hard to really determine. While Dinotopia was a hideous game with poor voice acting and uninteresting gameplay, Aquaman is essentially much of the same (minus the voice acting), only this time attached to a license someone somewhere might care about. See, the thing about comic books is that no matter how unknown or horrid your character might be, there’s always a point where a great writer got their hands on the character and made them awesome for a period of time. Even if the writing before and since has been pitiful, there will be fans hoping for a game featuring that character JUST BECAUSE they were, at one point, a fan. For those that are wondering where Aquaman falls in this discussion, if we stick with the DC Universe specifically, characters like Jonah Hex and Hellblazer (not the hideous Keanu Reeves version, the REAL John Constantine) would fall into the “unknown” category, while characters like Captain Marvel and Aquaman fall under “horrid”, so we’re all under the same page.

The problem isn’t, you understand, that Aquaman is an under-the-radar character, or that no one’s heard of him, so much as it is that by and large no one cares about him. He’s spent most of his existence dressed like a walking advertisement for Sunkist oranges and his most readily identifiable super powers are the ability to swim fast and the ability to talk to fish, neither of which is particularly useful in a story that DOESN’T take place in the ocean. People know who he is, they just think he’s a giant joke. Some great writers have given Aquaman the star treatment at various points in his life, completely bringing the character to life in interesting ways,. While he’s not as well regarded as a Superman or a Wonder Woman, he has SOME fans, at least, who would pay money for a game with his name on it, so long as said game is actually reasonably tolerable and well done.

I think you know where this is going.

WHY THIS GAME SUCKS:

So, video games based on comic book characters occasionally feature this odd cinematic intermission type where the story is delivered in comic book panels instead of as a cutscene or what have you. There are certainly benefits to this sort of style, not the least of which being that you can use ACTUAL comic book artwork in these cutscenes instead of having to render a cutscene itself, which is something fans of the character will most likely love. There’s also the fact that these sorts of cutscenes can make the game feel more authentic in a lot of ways, which, too, is nice.

Aquaman tries to do this.

It is not very successful.

Now, it would be unfair of me to say that Aquaman looks horrid because of the dated visuals, for much the same reason it would be unfair to say Casablanca looks horrid because of the dated camera technology. Old games, even those that used the blocky horrible 3D of the early PS1 era, can still look good in an artistic sense, if not in a technological one, so let it be said that Aquaman doesn’t look horrible because of the old technology. No, it looks horrid because the developers had absolutely no interest in making anything that looked even remotely good. This is why the textures look like they were drawn over the characters instead of, say, natural. This isn’t even that outdated of a game: it came out years after Halo and Dead or Alive 3, both of which launched with the system and both of which looked worlds better than this. This is just hideous because no one cared to make something that looked better than kindergarten paintings.

That said, even if your visuals look fabulous, you generally shouldn’t use said in-game visuals for your static cutscenes. That looks stupid no matter how great your talents. If you’re going to use in-game visuals, make animated cutscenes, and if you’re going to make static cutscenes, HAVE SOMEONE DRAW SOMETHING. Make some higher quality 3D, or hire a known artist to come in and draw some panels, but don’t use your terrible in-game graphics. Just don’t. Static images of your horrid visuals only draw attention to how horrid your visuals really are, especially when the only thing that looks even remotely okay is Black Manta, because he just looks like a round-headed bug. Strangely enough, the visuals make that look okay. Anything with definition, however, looks atrocious. This means that virtually EVERYTHING looks atrocious, so highlighting that with static images of said awful things that are meant to convey the story? Not a good idea.

Oh, and speaking of the story, it’s the sort of story that wants you as the player to know who Aquaman and his various villains are, but doesn’t want you to know anything about any of them. This might work for characters like Batman or Spider-Man, because everyone has at least a passing familiarity with them and their rogues gallery. We know that Spider-Man fights Doctor Octopus because of popular culture having spread that sort of information around years before the films told us as such. We know Superman and Lex Luthor dislike one another because Superman is iconic and this is just a thing everyone learns through cultural osmosis. We might know Aquaman’s nemesis is Black Manta, because he’s been in Superfriends, but most folks have no idea who Lava Lord, Aqualad/Tempest/whatever the hell his name is now and Ocean Master are. As such, their existence here is ultimately kind of confusing, especially since the game starts out with this whole song-and-dance from a shadowy figure proclaiming his brother is doomed. Okay, fine, but there’s no reason for us to care about this thing because most people don’t know who these characters are and have, at most, a minor amount of familiarity with Aquaman, so revealing his brother as a supervillain means nothing to us. It’s also kind of problematic in the other direction, as well, because anyone who actually DOES know about Aquaman’s history is going to see the intro cinematic and say, “Oh, Ocean Master, okay.” thus killing any compelling mystery the plot might have had about ten seconds in. So if you don’t know enough, you’re left in this awkward spot where you don’t CARE about what’s happening, but if you know too much you, well, don’t care THEN, either. There’s this odd sweet spot that the player is expected to inhabit to enjoy the story where they know who Aquaman and all of his allies/rogues are, but know nothing about these characters. While it’s unfair to say that someone like this doesn’t exist, it IS fair to say that this theoretical person would also find the story to be bland and stupid.

So good job guys! You’ve written a story for NO ONE. Give yourselves a pat on the back. Preferably with a burning torch.

So let’s move on to the gameplay. For those who were wondering what one would do in a game based around an aquatic superhero, it MAY astonish you to know that you spend about half of the game… SWIMMING! So this:

…is most of what you’ll be seeing. Note, if you will, the foggy “underwater” visuals that are meant to mask the horrible draw-in distance. Note, also, the background of the underwater cityscape. You’ll be seeing this background something like ten times throughout the game, presumably because the developers didn’t want to waste time making multiple backgrounds when really, Aquaman spends all his time in Atlantis anyway, am I right? Of course I am! For those wondering, the swimming mechanics are… okay, I guess? You can’t change the control scheme, of course, and the game inverts the Y-axis for the swimming controls, meaning up is down and down is up. While your personal preference will dictate what you feel about this, I hate Y-axis inversion as a rule and the fact that the game refuses to allow me to change that is the sort of thing that makes me want to toss the disc under my car tire. Forward movement is accomplished by holding down the trigger, and you can attack as normal from this view, though you’ll never really need to. The only other thing of note here is that Aquaman can fire off his grappling hook to grab stuff, which the game almost never gives you any need to do, except for the odd mission where you’re asked to grab stuff… because apparently Aquaman is too lazy to just swim up to it and pick it up directly, I don’t know. Swimming around in general is… fine, mostly. You can get where you need to go easily enough, so it’s not immensely complex, but it’s not particularly exciting or anything and I had more fun swimming around in Endless Ocean and Everblue 2.

Once you swim near an enemy, the camera tries to switch over to a side-view as the game tries to become a fighting game of sorts, complete with combos and special moves, which can be seen as such:

You’re given two punch buttons, a kick, a grab and a block to do your dirty work with. The yellow bar represents your health, the blue bar represents some kind of special attack meter that depletes as you do special moves, and the purple bar… I have no idea. Seriously. The whole time I played the game, I could never figure out what it does. Not a bit. The combat is pretty piss-poor, largely because the combo timing is hard to figure out. The combat is shallow and uninspired, and oh yes, ENEMIES GANG UP ON YOU A LOT. Not like this is the worst thing ever, since they’re all mostly stupid anyway, but it gets annoying after the tenth time it happens. Changing targets is a pain because you have to use the D-pad to do so, as opposed to, say, the right stick or something, since it doesn’t seem to do anything anyway. The only interesting thing about combat is that you can press a button to summon one of your underwater allies (usually a dolphin or a shark) to headbutt an enemy and kill it, which is amusing, if nothing else.

You’ll spend eighty percent of the game swimming up to enemies, beating them to death, then swimming up to more enemies and repeating the process. Yep. Occasionally the game will try to change things up by asking you to protect something or destroy something else, but this is accomplished by, you guessed it, swimming up to enemies, beating them to death, then swimming up to more enemies and repeating the process. The developers tried to mix this up a little by tossing in some submarine stages, which are not any better, sadly.

The sub handles much like Aquaman himself, only it’s much touchier to steer and generally harder to control in general. It also falls apart in about five hits, so the sub stages often tend to be the harder stages in the game. There’s no melee combat to speak of with the sub, of course, so instead you fire your machine guns and homing missiles at targets until they blow up, and while this all generally works okay enough, it’s not any more fun than the regular stages.

Now, while the controls aren’t especially horrid and you can certainly work with them, the game itself is BORING. Plenty of games rely on the mechanic of putting you up against legions of faceless goons and expecting you to hammer the crap out of them, so Aquaman is hardly new and different in that regard, but this game fails to do one thing that games like Onechanbara, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows and the Dynasty Warriors franchise do on a consistent basis: it fails in all respects to make the combat exciting. Now, yeah, those games excel at throwing a hundred enemies at you and expecting you to bash their heads in, but the games do things to make this interesting, like giving you attacks that wipe out swarms of foes, or giving you impressive looking combos that are as outstanding to pull off as they are to witness. Spider-Man can surf around on enemies and zip around like a yo-yo into an enemy’s face, Dynasty Warriors characters can spin and zip around like crazy cutting down enemies like wheat, and Aquaman can punch and kick a lot. I mean, yeah, he has special moves, but your core combos are neither impressive looking nor exciting to pull off, and the special moves deplete energy, meaning they’re not usable all the time. Your special moves that deplete your energy should be your MOST impressive attacks, not the ONLY impressive attacks.

It also doesn’t help that the game is flat and bland in all respects, either. The city of Atlantis looks like a bland, rounded-off city of identical buildings with identical lights, and aside from the occasional school of poorly animated fish, the sea is barren and devoid of life. Other environments change this up a bit by switching out the barren, generic underwater city with barren, generic underwater ruins or barren, generic underwater rocky surfaces, but none of this really spices things up at all. The amount of exploration you can do seems, at first, to be massive, but there are invisible walls everywhere preventing you from moving forward, and swimming around under the sea feels surprisingly constricted. There’s nothing appealing about the characters or enemies, either; the characters that aren’t the main good/bad guys either look like Namor in long pants, armored crab men, or the Human Torch, and you’ll see them OVER AND OVER AGAIN. There’s also very little sound in the game. When there is music, it’s often generic dramatic score, and often you’ll be playing in silence, which is further amplified by the lack of ambient noise, the lack of ANY voice acting, and the generally muted and generic sound effects.

Assuming you can complete the game once, you’ll unlock the “Classic Aquaman” costume, and assuming you complete the game with THAT costume, you can unlock a couple more… but the new costumes don’t dramatically change the game in any notable way, and the only reason to play through and unlock the costumes is because you WANT to keep playing the game… so, y’know. If you have serious self-loathing issues, THERE YOU GO. There are also multiple difficulty levels to work with, again, in case you want to punish yourself, so there’s that.

Of course, if you’re the sort of person who worries about time investment with your personal punishments, no worries. I booted the game up to experiment with it a bit, just to see what I thought of it years later, and I ran through the first seven stages (of twenty-one, mind you) in about half an hour.

No, really.

CLOSING COMMENTS:

All of the above said, Aquaman, astonishingly enough, isn’t a particularly horrible game so much as it is just kind of a sniveling, needless product, and while that in and of itself is somewhat worth giving the stink eye, it’s not really enough to make much headway in the list. It’s bland and boring, certainly, but nothing it does is terribly offensive, and while the camera is spastic and the swimming is a bit annoying, you can make progress in it without much trouble, thanks to the mostly braindead AI. This isn’t exactly a perfect fix, you understand, but it kind of ruins the “badness” of the product. Dinotopia, for example, was offensively terrible because it featured weak com at mechanics, ugly visuals, horrible audio, AND terrible voice acting and in-game cinematics. Aquaman just doesn’t even TRY in that regard, rendering it more like a guy with a sandwich board who stands out of your path while meekly proclaiming the end of the world is coming. Yes, he’s certainly annoying and whatnot, but it’s kind of hard to get mad at him when the guy the next block over stands in your face and screams through a bullhorn at you, y’know?

Anyway, Evil Dead: Hail to the King in two weeks-ish. More like a week and a half now. Feel free to nominate more terrible games here or in the forums, or E-mail me if you’re shy. Remember, I’m Mark B, you’re not, yadda yadda.

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    • Alex Lucard
  1. Mark B.

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