Over the past few weeks I’ve been advising people that the new Godzilla game is only “good” for die-hard fans of the classic Kaiju flicks. I’ve tried to avoid phrasing it in a fashion that suggests “posers” of whatever sort wouldn’t “get it”. Which, in its own right, is partially true. There are a lot of people out there that like the concept of Godzilla in theory, and may claim to be true fans to the monster in question, but don’t know Ebirah from Hedorah.
For many, the entirety of Godzilla is watching giant monsters (or more accurately, men in rubber suits) have a colossal, metropolis-sized brawl. It’s the main attraction of Godzilla and the entire reason for being. As such, a game like Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee got it right. Construct a fighting game that captures the scale of kaiju having a battle royale in a city. They even embraced the cheese by allowing players to lift whole buildings up and chuck them at a friend’s head!
To say this is all there is to Godzilla films, however, is like saying there’s nothing more to wrestling than the fights in the ring. It ignores all of the drama, the storylines that help fuel the conflict brought to a boiling point between those ropes (and often knocked outside of them). It doesn’t matter whether the drama or brawls are real or not. The audience buys into it because that’s what makes it fun.
Godzilla is a different, but similar, beast. The thing to recall about Godzilla is that he did not have the same origin as so many other corny monster films of the time. The original Gojira, localized in America as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was a reflection on the nuclear bomb from the perspective of the people that suffered its devastating power. The horror of an unstoppable power you could not fight, the oppressive aftermath, and the long, hard journey to rebuild. In the midst of all of this comes Doctor Serizawa, a scientist that has devised a weapon powerful enough to stop Godzilla, but is reluctant to share its secrets lest it be used for evil. It creates an ethical conundrum that drives the human drama in the face of this horrifying monster.
The original Gojira was not a cheesy film. Yes, its special effects are dated and there’s plenty to be viewed as campy from a modern perspective. However, it is likely the one film in the entire franchise that truly stands the test of time on a dramatic and technical level. It was good, and as long as you’re willing to wind your brain back to a time when film was still transitioning into the art we know it to be today, a time when technology was limited and everyone was expected to suspend their disbelief, then there’s a really good movie in there still.
While most of Godzilla’s filmography does not age so well, creator company Toho has always sought to provide a human drama that carried with it a message to Japan. Often this has come in the form of environmental messages, such as those in Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster and Godzilla on Monster Island (also known as Godzilla vs. Hedorah and Godzilla vs. Gigan, respectively). Other times it has been anti-war sentiment. All Monsters Attack, released in America as Godzilla’s Revenge, was a film intended for children, teaching them to be confident, strong, and stand up for themselves.
In other words, just as there’s more to wrestling than the fights, there’s more to a Godzilla film than the giant monsters clashing.
So what does this have to do with the recent Godzilla video game? No, it doesn’t have that much of human drama involved. There’s no real storyline to it. But the developers managed to creatively implement the human element into the game. The approach has more in common with how Rocksteady approached the design of Arkham Asylum, building mechanics around the elements of a traditional Batman yarn rather than strong-arming the character into existing genres. This doesn’t mean Arkham Asylum lacks design elements from other games, through. It just means the elements were chosen carefully.
In Godzilla, the player is always aware of the human drama that is unfolding. A member of the G-Force, a team whose entire purpose is to fight and defend against Godzilla and other such beasts, calls for reinforcements, notifies of incoming monsters, and warns of the current level of devastation. The game’s “collectibles” take the form of photographs taken by the observing G-Force, all in an effort to build a machine that can oppose Godzilla. In other words, in order to fully complete the game, the player must attempt as many stages on as many difficulty levels as they can. It provides a narrative context for unlocking new monsters and stages.
As for the difficulty levels themselves, like Star Fox on the Super Nintendo, Godzilla organizes its levels into branching paths of varying difficulties. The player can jump between these branches if they desire, or stay on one track. Each branch has a difficulty personified by the Prime Minister in charge. Each Prime Minister responds to the devastation being caused by Godzilla differently. The “easy” Prime Minister believes Godzilla can be reasoned with, and that if they leave the monster be then he’ll live and let live. As the player wreaks havoc and devastation the alert level increases at a slower pace, preventing G-Force from bringing in more powerful reinforcements.
The other two Prime Ministers are more aggressive, and as such the more havoc is raised the faster that alert level rises. Each Prime Minister is given a different philosophy, and the shifting of difficulty levels is narratively addressed as the populace losing faith in the current Minister in office.
A key part of the Godzilla films is thus implemented cleverly and narratively into the game without interfering with the destruction. Which brings me to the real crux of this game and how it fails to meet common player expectations.
Technically, Godzilla is not about fighting other monsters. While fighting other monsters is an important aspect of the game and features in every level, the purpose of the game was tied to the common motivations of the monsters themselves. Why does Godzilla wreak havoc, and what thus causes these conflicts to arise? In the films of the 80’s and 90’s, Godzilla came ashore so that he could feed.
The goal is thus not to destroy other monsters, though certainly that’s an objective as well. The goal is to destroy the nuclear reactors so that Godzilla can feed and grow, elements introduced in Return of Godzilla (released in America as Godzilla 1985) and 1991’s Godzilla vs. Ghidorah. It’s typically only after leveling so many skyscrapers that monsters start to appear. Just as in the films, buildings must topple before the titans clash and fight.
A game like Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee may have a clear and obvious love of the Godzilla franchise, but it is not trying to take those films and reinterpret them as a video game. Bandai Namco’s Godzilla is a labor of love that somehow interprets every aspect of a Godzilla film into a game mechanic. The two approaches are very different, and as such should be analyzed differently.
The problem is that most of the critics and players analyzing the game are doing so from a shallow appreciation of what Godzilla is. They want to focus on giant monsters fighting, and because so much of Godzilla is spent not fighting monsters, the game becomes a disappointment.
I, on the other hand, prefer to analyze a game based off of the basic principles laid out by John Updike, most notably to review what a game is rather than what it isn’t. So in my next entry I’ll be discussing whether the mechanics and overall design accomplish their intended goal: to play a Godzilla film reinterpreted as a video game.