This past weekend, the videogame stars aligned and I finally had the chance to play two games that have long been on my videogame checklist, Majora’s Mask and Mr. Mosquito. What really defines both of these games, and most of the games on my yet to be played list, is that they’re pretty demanding experiences. Majora’s Mask is not another breezy romp through Hyrule, it’s a carefully paced and demanding exercise in time travel. Similarly, Mr. Mosquito is not a cute platformer, it’s a descent into suburban hell that is only occasionally amusing. When I sit down and think about them, it’s not clear to me how either of these games came into existence. But they made it, and after this past weekend I think we’re all better for it.
With the exception of Mario and his abstract environments, it’s safe to say that you can’t go home again when Nintendo 64 graphics are involved. For those acquainted with modern videogame visuals, the first ten minutes or so of Majora’s Mask look like the lo fidelity dream of a madman, with strange blurry textures and hard geometric lines. But, after another five minutes I found myself acclimated to the strange graphics, kind of like when you’re able to believe that a fist with lips painted on it is actually a talking character and not just an appendage with lipstick on it. It looks dated, but I wouldn’t call Majora’s Mask a visual mess. Despite the years, the game is still genuinely creepy, between a moon with a face that doesn’t look merely angry but homicidal, a strange mask merchant who sits just outside of the main town, Termina, most likely because he’s a registered sex offender, and a gruesome transformation sequence when Link puts on a mask that seems to reference Jekyll and Hyde. The Legend of Zelda series usually has a fairly liberal dose of cuteness thrown into the mix, but between the peculiarities of N64 graphics and the recurring motif of doom, doom and more doom, Majora’s Mask strays about as far from the Nintendo party line as possible.
The other thing that’s interesting about this game is the time mechanic, especially the idea that you’re constantly rewinding or pushing time forward on a three day cycle. The first of many times that you travel back to the beginning of the three day period of the game is definitely a “What the hell were they thinking!?” moment. It’s pretty conceptual stuff, especially as the game forces you to control the process at a granular level. I haven’t played enough to say how the whole exercise will coalesce, but the amount of design a game like this requires is impressive. Not only must the game be intricately designed, but even believing a player can be guided through a puzzle box of that scope takes a leap of faith on the part of the developers. I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed this game in junior high the way I enjoyed A Link to the Past. It strikes me as a game that, without the Zelda brand, exists for some as of yet undefined audience. There are some games you’ve got to have moxie to make, and Majora’s Mask is definitely on my short list.
The other game I played this weekend, Mr. Mosquito, inspires similar amounts of “What the hell were they thinking!?” moments. But unlike Majora’s Mask, it’s not a virtuoso performance of game and visual design. Where Majora’s Mask is a complex mix of chronological chaos and carefully thought out gameplay devices, Mr. Mosquito is about one thing: sucking blood in suburbia. The basic gameplay conceit involves flying around, targeting specific spots on the bodies of various members of the Yamada family household and then sucking their blood, gently, so as not to incite their wrath. The game changes a little bit when you’re being attacked, and you have the option to flip some light switches on and off, but mainly it’s about flying around, seeing the sights and sucking blood. It’s a weird looking game, with rooms and people that aim for realism and the mosquito protagonist who looks like some sort of cartoon alien, which is admittedly preferable to the multi-appendage flying proboscis that defines the appearance of a real mosquito.
I will say that the game works on several levels. Ostensibly it’s about the perils involved with being a mosquito, just trying to store up enough blood for the winter, and on a secondary level it’s a look at the family dynamic in a suburban Japanese household as one mosquito drives the members of it insane. But to stop there is to ignore the game’s deeper weirdness, which is that the game’s real pleasure is in being a voyeur. This much is clear when the first level has you flying around the room of the Yamada family’s teenage daughter and sucking blood from her inner thigh. That’s just the first of about twelve more “What the hell were they thinking!?” moments in the game, culminating, I’ve been told, with attacking the daughter while she’s in the bathroom. Honestly, this game has less to do with being a gregarious mosquito than it does with controlling a finicky spy cam.
Both of these games are game design dead ends. Not that they fail at what they set out to do, but rather that their appeal is limited. Majora’s Mask, with its exacting take on time travel, is just too complicated to be readily accessible for a mainstream audience. Mr. Mosquito, and its steadfast obsession with suburbia, too plain and limited in scope to really draw in the crowds. Neither of these games are system sellers, and I wonder if, as a result, they’re kind of a dying breed.
Games like Mr. Mosquito in particular, the adventurous AA game, seem like they aren’t long for this world. I worry less about games like Majora’s Mask: a risky game design that someone figures can sell based on the strength of the brand alone. But as of late I feel games like Odama, and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter are in short supply. They are games that aren’t massive in scope, but created with a larger budget than might be given to a downloadable game, lately the bastion of all things weird. I hope, in this estimation, I’m merely being shortsighted and that when I start mining the catalogs of the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii that plenty of “What the hell were they thinking!?” moments still await me.
Tom Endo thinks Mr. Mosquito is the Citizen Kane of videogames. Not really.