(A convenient tale, told in 3 short acts.)
It’s May 14th of 2012. I am a 31 year old who has been playing video games as long as I can remember, and I’ve never gone to a midnight launch. For some reason, my brain decided that it was OK to go to one today for Diablo III. Oh, and Akai Katana.
A few weeks ago, I hadn’t even been all that interested in Diablo III. I had never caught the Diablo 2 bug, since I didn’t have a computer that could run it until well after everyone else had beaten it into a pulp, but I had played a ton of the first game. And then the D3 Beta happened, and I found that my computer could just barely run the game, so I got into it, and spent a weekend getting a nice addiction going. So I even pre-ordered the thing. Oh, and Akai Katana.
So this is how on a decently seasonable Cleveland night in May, I found myself at a GameStop at Steelyard Commons, about to head in to wait in a small line with other gamers, all of whom were picking up either D3 or Max Payne 3. Nobody was there for Akai Katana.
As a 31 year old man who kinda hates gamers and gamer culture and all that lot, I sat in the car for a moment, nervous about confronting this. My best friend Pat, sitting next to me, felt equally ambivalent about the whole idea, but he was also equally excited about the game. And, if we are being honest, that kind of eager anticipation of a game doesn’t happen much to either of us any more.
So we got out of my car in the dark and mostly empty giant plaza parking lot, and went in.
Honestly, it was better than any of my normal dealings at GameStop. The line was not very long, and seemed skewed mostly towards Max Payne, but that was to be expected. The staff had ordered up a big aluminum container of chicken fingers from the recently opened Guthrie’s. Nobody tried to sell me a game that was already opened as “new”, or even tried to upsell me on anything other than the strategy guide, which at this point I can’t get mad about. There was one problem?
“Akai Katana. It came out today too, but I don’t know if you will have it yet.”
“Hold on let me check on the computer. How’s that spelled? Oh, whoa, we have it, I guess, let me go look in back.”
I am pretty sure they had two copies, mine and one for the shelf. As a guy who has gotten more and more into shmups (I know I should probably hate that word, but I don’t), I am getting used to this, but it still seems weird. I pay off the remaining balances on the two games, Pat grabs D3, and we head home.
There’s something anticlimactic to all of this. I’d built up the concept of the “midnight release” so much in my head that I felt almost sad to not have any horror stories of crazy fights or arguments or Nerds Gone Wild. Just some pretty solid chicken fingers and a mildly befuddled GameStop clerk. Pat and I discuss this a bit on the drive home, where we know we will sit and spend a few hours installing D3, and probably not even really get to play it till the morning (I had already called off of work).
I drop him off at his apartment that is a block away from mine, and head home. My wife is already asleep, but she wakes up enough to say hi, and then goes back to sleep, and I start installing the game, and it takes forever. I find out it won’t even work until 3am, as the thing is on Pacific time, so I just go to bed. Oh, I don’t even try Akai Katana.
What follows the next day, and for a month-and-a-half after is a frenzied playthrough of Diablo 3. Initially, I play a Demon Hunter, who gets to level 60 with a ridiculous DPS and the ability to get one-shot by almost anything in the game. I do feel a bit ridiculous for knowing what that even means, but it is fun anyhow. Getting tired of that, I get a Barbarian up to the level cap on learning to take as many hits as possible.
It’s a really good time. Honestly, I have not spent such a concentrated amount of time on one game with a group of friends in years. We meet up each night, sometimes all day on weekends, chatting through Steam on our mics, murdering demons by the thousands, racing to skip the insane silly bullshit of the story as fast as we can. The first time we beat the story, I am at a small LAN in my friend Kevin’s basement, and he can’t stop laughing at how silly the ending is. We make it a past time to make up the silliest possible things for Tyrael to decide to be the new angel of.
And so the game was a lot of fun. All told, I probably spent about 150 hours on it. I could check right now, but that would require downloading the updates for it (updates which more often than not just nerfed otherwise fun abilities, forcing the seemingly wide open characters into a few viable builds), and I don’t really feel like sitting through that just to get an exact number. I enjoyed those hours at the time, right up until the very end, when my enjoyment turned to annoyance turned to anger, and I stopped.
With each character, I hit Inferno, the highest difficulty of the game, and things just fell flat. There was no balance to Inferno, aside from the kind of balance that Blizzard hopes will get people to drop money on their Real Money Auction House, and I was never interested in that. And so I stopped. But I found myself angry at the game, and it felt like those hours and hours of enjoyment I had in the game were negated by the feelings I had when I stopped. The game left me feeling sad and drained and like I was wasting my time. I wasn’t the only one of my group of friends who felt this way.
I hate it when games make me feel like I am wasting my life with them. That is probably D3’s biggest sin. It was a sin big enough that for a moment, it made me wonder if I should just stop playing games. It was a sin that led me to wondering about my hobby enough that it probably contributed to this site existing. So maybe it wasn’t all bad.
Oh, and I had barely touched Akai Katana.
Cave games like Akai Katana take some…umm…”getting into”. There’s no other way to put it. Sure, you can pick one up and get some enjoyment out of it right off the bat, but if you are going to get anywhere, you are going to need to sit down and play the game for awhile. When I already had one game chewing up most of my free time, there wasn’t much left for getting into Akai Katana.
But when Diablo 3 had drained out some of my desire to play games, Akai Katana sat there, on my desk, just patiently waiting for me to play it. This is how Cave games work for me. Sure, there are fanatics for their releases, waiting right away for their release to the arcades or consoles, spending hours and hours with them right away. I was like that for the release of DeathSmiles in the US, and it was wonderful. But Cave games can wait for you, wait for years if they have to. They don’t have an online community that demands you play them in the first few weeks, the way so many major releases do, either because EVERYONE IS PLAYING or because if you don’t get in right away, the online community will be dead. In Cave games, the community (such as it is) gets better as the games age, as the only part of the community that matters is that high score board, and you know that it will get higher and higher as the game gets explored and dissected post-release.
So I fired up AK, and man, that felt good. Even before I had the slightest notion of how scoring worked, it felt good to just be moving, shooting, and dodging in real time, not worrying about numbers and loot, not thinking about what skills I would get for that next level up. Yeah, at a certain time my brain starts thinking “OK, how do I get more points at this?” and I start looking up the rules of the game, maybe watch a few replays to get a feel, but this feels like something much different from the continual spreadsheet management that D3 degenerated into. This is about getting good at the game as a skill, not running numbers and grinding till they look good.
I’m not enough of an expert at these kind of games to give you a big breakdown of the specific mechanics, but I will say it is harder than DeathSmiles, but not approaching Cave at their most difficult. And who even knows that the whole story/aesthetic is. I don’t really care. I just care that this feels like a fucking video game, at a time when I need a FUCKING VIDEO GAME.
And so, having spent weeks of my life invested in such silly abstract game ideals as DPS maximization and spreadsheet management, I was at an all time low. I was on my knees in the church of gaming, drunk, soaked from the rain, waiting for a God whose faith I had lost to show me something worth believing in, and so Akai Katana was that.
OK, it wasn’t all that serious. Certainly not Spec Ops: The Line serious. No matter how much I may give a fuck, this is fucking video games, after all.
Onward to Part 2: Touhou Yuuen Sekai