Earlier this month, New York University’s Game Center presented Bad is Beautiful, a playable exhibit of some of video games’ most brilliantly aberrant atrocities. At least one game was missing.
“This is the crap avant-garde,” the exhibit’s website gushes. And the Game Center’s main mission — to champion garbage, to uncover the truth and beauty burning within even the most inane — sure is noble. The exhibit was poised, it seemed, to hone in on a type of videogame art brut.
But the exhibit’s curator, Owen McLean, mmmmmight have courted controversy when he included GoldenEye 007 (N64, 1997) in the gallery lineup. The Internet became predictably indignant: Whaaaat? Who would do such a thing? And to be honest, I had to side with the Internet here. The GoldenEye games are classic! What was GoldenEye 007 doing in a “bad games” gallery exhibit?
Maybe the exhibit had missed its mark. Where was the Typing of the Dead, the Takeshi’s Challenge? What about all those Burger King Xbox games?
And — this was the most egregious omission by far — where was Cho Aniki?
I am very, very serious about furthering the “bad games” conversation and, as such, I have prepared a video to welcome ye uninitiated to the Cho Aniki cult:
The Cho Aniki games (1992-present) are, in a word, shitty. Now, this is no knock: the series is typically labeled kuso-ge, a colorful descriptor that literally translates as “shit-game.”
And while there are those accidentally-shiteous games that err and stumble their way into the “kuso-ge” moniker, we occasionally find a game so giddily, deliberately earnest about its own awfulness that we kind of have to salute its audacity.
Cho Aniki: Bakuretsu Rantou Hen, the third game in the series, deserves nothing short of awed reverence.
While the rest of the Cho Aniki games — six in all! — are 2D space shooters, Bakuretsu Rantou Hen defies convention (?) by being a straightforward fighting game.
It isn’t very good, either. In fact, it’s terrible. Controls are clunky and chances are, if Player Two had taken up her controller, we might’ve heard a lot more cursing in that video.
It’s doubtful, though, that the game’s designers ever intended to make a “balanced” 2D fighter with “whip-fast reaction times” or “a killer framerate.” No, Bakuretsu Rantou Hen is notable only because it pushes the human boundaries of aesthetics and taste.
And! It is probably the only game in which we can play as a musclebound naked guy whose skull doubles as a laser cannon.
Oh, did I not mention the musclebound naked guys before? I’m sorry. Cho Aniki (translation: “Super Big Brother”) is so-named for its eponymous heroes, Samson and Adon. These brothers are no mere bodybuilders: they are flying, laser-shooting bodybuilders.
Yet Samson and Adon aren’t the real stars of Bakuretsu Rantou Hen at all, because the cast of playable characters is rounded out by some pretty major weirdos. Take Mami-Jyuku, for instance: she’s a flying battleship with three miniature, undulating naked men constantly on “deck.” She might be half-boat, but she’s presumably all woman.
Or we might choose to play as “Adam” — as in Adam, the naked guy from the Sistine Chapel — now sailing around the screen in a half-moon. Then there’s “Sabu,” a rocket-powered pagoda with a rockin’ pompadour. And we mustn’t forget “Uminin” who, fans speculate, is supposed to be an anthropomorphized condom.
Perhaps this outrageous ensemble of characters is about as titillating as the Muppet Show. Perhaps the cast seems disingenous, too zealous and desperate to really shock. Perhaps Bakuretsu Rantou Hen instead derives its real power, its allure, from those marvelously detailed, animated backdrops, teeming with subtle movement.
We don’t notice them at first, do we? We’re so intent on playing the game — wrestling with the mushy buttons, frowning to discern whether our punches are actually landing — that the overwrought setpieces hardly register.
Certain fights are set in a green field that has been overwhelmed by massive daisies. Others are apparently staged within the walls of an otherworldly Catholic church. And suddenly there it is, scrolling past: a bleak, burned-out city, all rivets and steel architecture and purple fog. Its skyline is dwarfed by some copper-green mecha-monument, as if Lady Liberty herself were trapped inside Tetsuo the Iron Man.
This is the stuff of nightmares.
In another stage, the stars dangle from an artificial nighttime firmament, twirling on strings. The moon is a… grinning… harp… that strums itself…? Whatever it is, it’s terrifying.
Then there’s the cyborg train, a locomotive that pushes itself along the track using its own human arms. And it has a face.
Oh, my God.
All people must suffer automatonophobia to a degree — we are sensitive to anything remarkably “uncanny,” if subconsciously — and Bakuretsu Rantou Hen plumbs those Cronenberg depths for a more authentic horror.
The game’s wackiness and camp are superficial. They’re just show. All the while, Bakuretsu’s characters and backdrops hint at something darker. To borrow from Baudrillard, there is a gradual “perversion of reality” until, at last, we are looking at a “facsimile” with “no original copy.”
What, as a culture, do we worship? Adam is an important religious icon, at least for some; here he is literally overturned. Samson and Adon are ghastly representations of health and vitality. Mami-Jyuku, however sexualized, is a battleship intended for war. Sabu is meant to resemble Elvis, the epitome of celebrity. Here, every cultural icon is manipulated and permutated until, finally, it is rendered incomprehensible.
This isn’t to say that Cho Aniki: Bakuretsu Rantou Hen isn’t a terrible game. It’s a mess. It cannot be recommended to any enthusiast of the 2D-fighter genre; meanwhile, it is so self-aware, it forgets to be playable.
But as a work of theater — and make no mistake, that is exactly what this is — Bakuretsu Rantou Hen is a masterpiece of performance art, staging philosophical battles against a surrealist scrim. In a fight between religion and celebrity, which would win?
Cho Aniki: Bakuretsu Rantou Hen doesn’t aspire to answer these important questions, but it has an excellent soundtrack.