Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Occidental Fantasy Gaming (OFG): The Case of the Early 90s SNES

From the period between, say, about 1992 and 1996, I played a lot of SNES games. I didn't actually have a SNES (my parents didn't allow me to have one; my misery-porn memoir about my childhood spent living in a basement subsisting on buckets of fish-heads will include a chapter on this), but it seemed like all my other close friends did, and our social lives tended to revolve around either that or Games Workshop games (or cricket and football for those of us not completely steeped in nerdiness). Most of the time it was Mariokart or Street Fighter II. But every so often it would be something else - something which I now realise was of a genre all of its own: Occidental Fantasy.

Occidental fantasy is a particular type of pastiche of Western medieval high fantasy tropes, made in (usually) Japan. Here, for instance is the bizarrely-titled Knights of the Round [sic], which features up to three players controlling King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival as they, well, basically fight their way through a particularly cheesy 1980s jidaigeki (complete with suspiciously Japanese-looking swordsmanship) with incongruously European furniture.


On a similar theme, but showing that occidental fantasy can be based on Tolkien-esque rather than folkoric tropes, there is King of Dragons, which is more or less exactly the same game as Knights of the Round, but with magic and goblins and the like:



But exhibit A in the OFG dossier is, without doubt, the Squaresoft oeuvre, and chief among these is the original Secret of Mana.


Words can't express quite how nostalgic it makes me feel to watch the first few minutes of that YouTube video, but setting that to one side, notice its key characteristics. The Japanese aesthetic touches (the birds which look like cranes; the fetishization of swords) layered on a pseudo-European foundation; the preternaturally lush green grass and bucolic charm of a British Isles rendered hyper-real by an Asian imagination; that peculiarly East Asian merging of the high- and low-tech; those Tuscany-via-the-Cotswolds cottages. This is the occidental fantasy palette at its most vivid and enticing.

The Final Fantasy series also fill a significant section in the OFG dossier. Feel free to offer your own suggestions; here I have barely even scratched the surface of the iceberg.

20 comments:

  1. YES! THIS!

    See also: Breath of Fire, Zelda:aLttP, and likely others I'm unaware of...

    It's anime, but Record of the Lodoss War fits pretty darn well.

    I feel like the manga Berserk is some late-arriving outlier for the genre... like Frank Miller revamping batman and rekindling a franchise...?

    Anyway, yes, this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, Zelda no doubt - there are billions of examples probaly (almost!).

      Delete
  2. Occidental Fantasy lives on today, my friend. The extremely popular Dark Souls series on PS3/4 began with Demon's Souls (note the slightly off-kilter punctuation/grammar) in 2009. Developed in Japan and sprinkled with bits of Japanese game elements and aesthetics, it lovingly sought to bring to life a "European"-style fantasy. The voice acting and dialogue really nailed it, though. Check out the voice-over on this narration:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lOAIH0wud0

    The accent seems to be going for... Eastern Europe? But sounds closer to, I dunno, the South Bronx. And the misuse of "thine"s and "thou"s and "thy"s is like nails on a chalkboard. I remember there being a repeated line of dialogue from that character -- something she says every time you talk to her, which happens about ten thousand times in a given playthrough -- which read as a sort of word-salad satire of "fantasy" language. Ah, Google has fetched it for me:

    Soul of the mind, key to life's ether.
    Soul of the lost, withdrawn from its vessel.
    Let strength be granted, so the world might be mended.
    So the world might be mended...

    Anyway, the game hits all the right notes for an Occidental Fantasy classic. Lovingly detailed medieval armour and weapons, witches in pointy black hats, crossbows and polearms, castles and dragons and so on. And yes, of course it is my favourite video game of all time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. God I can hear her voice just from reading it!

      Delete
    2. Dave might be pleased to know that one of the direct inspirations for the Souls series was not just western fantasy in general, but the Fighting Fantasy book series specifically. That and the Berserk manga, but most people know that already (In fact it's startlingly blatant when you look at some side-by-sides of the creature designs!)

      Delete
    3. While Berserk and Fighting Fantasy were explicitly stated as influences in developer interviews, I believe that a third unstated major influence was The Book of The New Sun. Particularly in Dark Souls I and III.

      Delete
    4. Oh, video game recorded dialogue.
      I still have some of the lines from the original "Resident Evil" game etched into my mind.
      "What happened to Jill and Wesker?"

      Delete
  3. Go to Inverse section of the Animesque trope:
    https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Animesque

    ReplyDelete
  4. I was playing the original dragon quest and dragon quest monsters games on gameboy as I was reading LoTR in middle school, and I also grew up in the SNES era, so to me, "Occidental Fantasy" is inextricably linked to traditional fantasy. There is also something really nostalgic about chiptuned fantasy music. I also always appreciated how Japanese "Western" Fantasy was so anachronistic, and how they would always put their own unique touches on the traditional fantasy concepts, and weren't as concerned about specific tropes. Even the original Final Fantasy has more character to me than many actual Western Traditional Fantasy Settings, by virtue of those things.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Secret of Mana music is fabulous. I also love a lot of the old Final Fantasy music too.

      Delete
  5. Golden Axe, Altered Beast, and maybe Valis are some others.
    I'd even argue there's an Occidental Science Fiction genre (Contra, Metroid, E-SWAT, Alien Syndrome) and an Occidental Action genre (Streets of Rage, Metal Gear.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was going to say that Occidental Fantasy is just the genre counterpart to the Spaghetti Western, but really Japan has pretty much tackled every corner of Western media, as you point out. Area 88 is Occidental "Top Gun", and of course Sunset Riders is the Occidental Western.

      The only one I can't find a good counterpart for off the top of my head is James Bond. Metal Gear kind of (MGS3 especially, but everything about that series skews a bit more military/Tom Clancy). Maybe Golgo 13?

      Delete
    2. Yes, I had forgotten of the existence of Golden Axe, but for sure.

      Delete
  6. This is pretty much my childhood of SNES, Megadrive and arcade games. And a good chunk of the retro games my kids enjoy playing too, particularly a couple of old Dungeons and Dragons branded side-scrolling coin-op games.

    ReplyDelete
  7. One of the reasons I get sad when Kids These Days talk about "cultural appropriation" as an activity unique to White People is that it overlooks all the weird and wonderful examples of straight-up appropriation of European and North American culture by non-white people, especially the Japanese, who have always been imperialists par excellence. Film, video games, and especially stuff like the fetishization of American products like Levi's Denim... I remember getting the feeling, upon first visiting Japan from my native USA, that the culture there was "more American than America", and while that's not quite right, I think it's true that the Japanese are even better than the Americans are at grabbing things they like from other cultures and having a field day with them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree.

      William Gibson is good on this in "The Gernsback Continuum".

      Delete
  8. Chrono Trigger certainly seems to fit part of the bill...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I never actually played that one but I do know of it.

      Delete
  9. Tom H said it first, but I'm going to have to push for Castlevania - it's very very japanese, but also it's all about CASTLES and ROMANIANS and VAMPIRES and THINGS THAT COULD BE IN A UNIVERSAL HORROR MOVIE, BUT DONE DIFFERENTLY SORT OF

    ReplyDelete