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October 10, 2016

So How Good is Capcom, Really?


Well, the book’s officially been closed.  As of September 22nd, Street Fighter V has assembled all of its first-wave DLC characters.  It started off with Alex, went to Guile, gave us Ibuki and Balrog, dropped Juri, and now let players use the Illuminati executive Urien for the first time in well over a decade.  Unless you count Capcom Fighting Evolution (i.e. the game where Ryu fought a squid), but in terms of mainline releases?  Mr. Aegis Reflector is back to do what he does best: throw out energy walls and remain averse to clothes. 

But from what I’ve heard, Urien came with a less-than-welcome surprise for PC users.  Apparently, an anti-cracking (i.e. anti-cheating) measure was included, and it involved giving the game kernel access.  So on top of causing game-breaking bugs, it would’ve been entirely possible for said game -- and Capcom by extension -- to control a person’s PC; more importantly, it would’ve let the baddies in the online space exploit the game to reap whatever they wanted.  Not exactly ideal, that -- so it’s no wonder that Capcom rolled that back near-instantly.  That’s good news, I guess, but it makes you wonder why they did it in the first place.  Incompetence?  Laziness?  Panic?  Contempt for their fans?

I don’t want to think the worst of Capcom.  But, sadly, it looks like that’s the world we live in now.


I should probably preface this by saying that I’m no dedicated Mega Man fan.  And I’m not really an expert on Street Fighter, either; the first non-compilation installment of the latter I ever played seriously was Street Fighter IV.  And outside of the X Collection, the first non-compilation installment of the former I ever owned was Mega Man X: Command Mission.  Many, many, many classics are lost on me, and doubly so because my older brother was the one who did the playing while I watched.  So in a lot of ways, my “loyalty” isn’t what I’d call undying.

But even if my loyalty doesn’t extend as far back as others, I still have a deep fondness of what Capcom represents.  They were the guys who helped bring us games like Devil May Cry, Onimusha, Viewtiful Joe, Okami, and God Hand -- games overflowing with style and complexities that showed the world what could be done with the medium.  Very few companies out there can boast about being able to host crossovers with companies like Marvel or Tatsunoko, and even fewer could have an in-house crossover featuring some of the most famous, most beloved faces in gaming history.  Seriously, I’ve never even touched Rival Schools, but you can be damn sure I was one of the ones asking for a new installment on Twitter.


I don’t think we can overstate the importance of Capcom to the fighting game genre as we know it.  Street Fighter formed the backbone (with SFIII Third Strike considered as one of the pinnacles), but let’s not forget some of the others.  Marvel vs. Capcom, Darkstalkers, Rival Schools, and more esoteric stuff like Power Stone, just to name a few; they captured hearts, minds, and quarters back when arcades ruled the roost.  They left players impassioned, to the point where guys who fought it out in front of cabinets decades ago are pushing hard to this day for the genre’s legitimacy as a sport…and are succeeding.

To be fair, Street Fighter got off to one hell of a bad start.  But Street Fighter II made people stand up (literally, in many cases) and take notice.  It wasn’t a fluke, either, because not too long ago Street Fighter IV helped spark a fighting game renaissance that brought the genre back from the brink.  What was once an obscure and niche diversion became…okay, relative to other genres it’s still pretty obscure and niche.  But there’s been a huge surge of interest.  Old and new properties have taken roost.  They aren’t guaranteed bank-busting sales numbers, but they’re at least financially viable options for developers willing to put in the work.  After all, there are dedicated fans that’ll put in the work in kind.


Again, I don’t know every title and franchise in Capcom’s arsenal.  But I know enough to have fond memories of them.  Their games have cool characters.  Their games have sick gameplay.  Their games have some of the best songs -- and soundtracks in general -- that the world will ever know.  (Roberto’s theme will never not be amazing).  And their variety is absolutely worth celebrating; they’re not just the guys behind fighters or platformers, but also hack-and-slash forays like Sengoku Basara, visual novels like Ace Attorney, survival horror like Resident Evil, shooters like Lost Planet, puzzle games like Zack and Wiki, beat-em-ups like Final Fight, RPGs like Breath of Fire -- the list goes on, and on, and on.

Okay, sure.  Capcom’s products as a whole aren’t going to win any awards for clever writing (outliers like Ace Attorney aside) or sophistication.  You pretty much call in a napalm strike on that bridge once one of your flagship titles features a wild man who learned how to conduct electricity by imitating eels in the jungle.  But even if Capcom games are a far, far, far cry from being intelligent, they compensate for it with something that’s arguably a lot more important: heart.  I’ve argued as much when it comes to Devil May Cry 4 and Street Fighter V, but that holds true for a lot of their output.


My interpretation of Capcom games is that they want you to feel.  They want you to get sucked into their individual rhythms, and lose yourself in the immersive worlds and systems they’ve built.  Obviously, they’re there to build loyalty with sensory overload -- a way to prove that they’re an irreplaceable brand in the industry -- but their games still manage a bit of pathos on a regular occasion. 

The writing is clumsy and nonsensical a lot of times, and it’s hard to have serious moments or drama when the gameplay is built around high-octane thrills.  Plus, if we go strictly by their fighting game output (with various non-canon endings), they can’t even have a straight narrative most of the time.  Still, when they actually give it a shot, you can feel the intent.  Whether it’s an effort to make the world more than just masses of pixels or having you believe in the journey of the hero du jour, Capcom’s stable is as much about having fun as it is about letting the Feelsmobile shift into overdrive.

But if you’re a savvy enough reader, you’ve probably noticed a certain discrepancy.  This is a lot of rosy reminiscing about (mostly) Capcom’s old games.  In contrast, I don’t have quite as many nice things to say about the company’s current output.  Well, except for one thing.

What the fuck happened?


I know there was that very public falling-out Capcom had with Keiji Inafune a while back, which is probably one of the main reasons why we haven’t seen a 100% new Mega Man game in years.  Likewise, I know that Inafune famously claimed that Japanese game development was done, doomed to crumble in the face of western AAA behemoths.  But cripes, was he the only one holding the company together?  Because sometimes, it sure looks that way.

The seventh and eighth generations of gaming have seen Capcom making a pretty big swerve, and it’s to the point where they might as well be a different company.  Back in the day, I feel like I could look to them for virtual artistry; these days, I wouldn’t fault anyone for claiming that they’re the Japanese EA (or Ubisoft, or Warner Bros., or whoever did the most evil thing this week).  Games are unquestionably art, and artists need to make money off their art to succeed -- and survive -- but sometimes it feels like the artistry is a happy coincidence instead of something we can reliably count on.  That’d explain Street Fighter V, at least.



For the record, I like SFV.  I like it a whole lot; the gameplay is on point, the visuals are impressive, the sound design is aces, and the soundtrack is truly a thing of beauty.  (I hate Balrog, but damned if his new theme song doesn’t make me want to use him as my main.)  By the sound of things, I’m not the only one that likes it -- but even so, I can’t say I like all of the things it does.  Or to be more specific, I hate that more than half a year after its release we’re still having debates on how much content is missing and how much needs to be fixed.  What should’ve been a bold step forward for the fighting game franchise has been mired in controversy.  And I’m just left here thinking, “Why’s it gotta be this way?”

Arguably, it didn’t.  But this is the Capcom of today that we’re dealing with, and “problems that didn’t have to be there” might as well be part of the company mantra at this point.

So off the top of my head, SFV has or has had 1) eight frames of lag, which is either a conscious design decision or an accident that needs to be patched out, 2) minimal punishments for rage-quitting, which let the point-obsessed effectively get away with murder, 3) unstable connections, including server issues that can boot you out of a local match if something goes wrong, 4) alternate colors locked behind a slog of a Survival Mode that teaches all sorts of bad habits to players, 5) touted features that have been missing since launch, 6) a story mode that, while defensible, completely betrayed the hyping up and detailing Capcom did before release, 7) the foundation for all sorts of DLC, including some hefty prices justified by “support” of pro tournaments, and 8) Ken’s alternate costume and face.  That right there is a national tragedy.


As depressing as that list and those issues can be, I can still overlook them because I adore the core gameplay.  But my problem is that those same issues are a problem for others -- that Capcom’s missteps have left people, newcomers and diehards alike, with a bitter taste from one of the company’s main pillars.  We can’t just come together and enjoy a kickass game, because it was released in a less-than-ideal state, and the business side of things has overwhelmed the artistry.  Anyone who points fingers at Capcom for trying to rush the game out for the fiscal year or to start circulating DLC has a strong platform for their argument.  The company half-built on letting its players experience and embrace idealism is now built on making its customers into entirely-justified cynics.

I want to love Capcom with all my heart, but they are NOT making it easy.  Not when they passed of Lost Planet to a western dev that didn’t have a single game break the 75% mark on Metacritic, and turned the franchise into a worse version of Dead Space.  Not when Dead Rising 3 had a mess of a PC release, performance issues elsewhere, and stripped the game of its crucial color palette.  Not when Resident Evil 6 turned out to be a mishmash of ideas and genres more nightmarish than any of the monsters in it -- and despite massive sales still managed to be a financial failure.  Not when they’re content with turning old favorites like Onimusha and Breath of Fire into little more than mobile games.  Not when they gutted Devil May Cry and passed it off to a dev who’d never seen huge sales numbers -- and then expected huge sales numbers regardless.


It’s almost worth applause, really.  Somehow, by sheer force of will, Capcom managed to bury itself while simultaneously digging its own grave.  This is the company that reportedly had just $150 million left in the war chest not too long ago.  All the brilliant IPs that it owns have turned to dust in the wind, to the point where it feels like their only real pillar these days is Monster Hunter.  And they keep destroying any chances they’ve got of earning sympathy with their consumer-screwing decisions -- DLC spam, locked-away content, shortcuts that immediately get called out by gamers, and more.

Would bringing back some of their old games immediately save them from the depths?  Absolutely not.  But A) I’d like to think that it’s possible to release lower-risk, middle-tier games instead of big-budget titles and make at least some money with their old catalogue instead of going for the gambles.  And B) Capcom is a far cry from the wellspring of ingenuity and creativity it used to be.  It’s been three years since the debacle that was DmC, and now there’s no telling when the franchise is coming back (if at all, given that it underperformed).  The most we’ve gotten is an HD remaster…and maybe some teasing, but that’s about it. 

Resident Evil may have gotten a new installment in Revelations 2 -- and will get even more in RE7 -- but I’m concerned about the franchise’s direction given that they’re doubling down on remakes and remasters of past games.  Dead Rising 4 is on the way, but again, it’s less about taking a bold step forward and relying on the past to rebuild trust and love.  “Hey guys, look!  It’s Frank West again!  Now you’ll buy our game, right?”  I can’t help but assume the worst, because that’s what Capcom has trained me to do.  I have to look forward to the next controversy or issue instead of the next sick combo.  I have to be wary of a company that’s delighted me so much in the past.  And it truly, absolutely, genuinely sucks.

I guess this is what happens when you trash Clover Studios for no raisin.


Well, to be more precise, what happened with Capcom and Clover is a sign that a company alone isn’t the sole determinant of a product’s quality.  It’s the people behind them, especially in a creative field like video games.  Hideki Kamiya was a major force behind games like Okami and Viewtiful Joe, but he’s long since taken his talents to the halls of Platinum Games.  Now they’re pushing out whoppers like Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising, and The Wonderful 101 (sales figures be damned). 

Comparatively, Capcom’s released a number of big titles that might as well have been financial black holes.  They’ve willingly, if not eagerly, toppled most of their smaller pillars to focus almost single-mindedly on bigger ones.  And what’s it gotten them?  Resident Evil’s still a mystery, Street Fighter’s underperformed, and Dead Rising isn’t exactly reliable in its release schedule -- to say nothing of the fact that its latest release will be a zombie game in a market drowning in them.  How do you bounce back when you’ve made so many mistakes?  How do you bounce back when you’ve got almost nothing left in the chamber?  How do you bounce back when you’ve left fan after fan after fan out in the cold, betrayed by broken franchises or spurned by desperate money-grubbing tactics?  How?  Besides adding in Shin Dee Jay, of course?


I don’t know.  But I hope that Capcom does bounce back someday.  There’s no telling if it’ll happen, or if they even deserve our love (or forgiveness) after diving headfirst into a gorge of their own making.  But I want to believe; I want to have faith in them, because the fact that we’ve gotten a sixth Ace Attorney game -- with even more in Japan -- means that they’re still trying.  Some of its figureheads have expressed a desire to do better, and I want to trust that they’re not just blowing smoke.  A Capcom that stands strong and firm is a Capcom geared to deliver some of the best games we’ll ever know.

In recent years, they’ve stumbled.  It’s pretty hard to deny that.  Resident Evil 6 was a jumbled mess of ideas with less than 1% of the trademark charm (for better or worse).  Lost Planet 3 just tried to be like everyone else, and wound up getting left behind by everyone else.  DmC is DmC, and nothing more needs to be said about that.  The heart those franchises once held has been jeopardized, and the chance to prove that Capcom hasn’t forgotten about said heart has dissipated thanks to the pillars so willingly imploded.  But even at their worst, there are still glimmers of hope.  Every once in a while, Capcom gets the chance to show that it has the potential to be the hero it used to be.  And I really, truly hope that someday, the company won’t be “the Japanese EA” or “Crapcom”. 

Can they do it?  I don’t know.  But I want to believe.


Thanks for reading.  Now, feel free to weigh in at your leisure -- and in exchange, I’ll join in as one of the millions of fans clasping their hands in prayer for a new Mega Man game.  I always loved the designs in Battle Network, after all.  There’s no topping SearchMan.EXE.


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