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Monday, August 17, 2009

Player's Club: Shadow Complex and craft vs. nostalgia

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I was talking to some people about this band Cold Cave. They make lo-fi electro-pop that sounds like old New Order four-track demos, but without almost any of New Order’s songwriting skills. It’s pretty dreadful stuff. One guy said he liked Cold Cave because it reminded him of old OMD records. Another guy asked why he didn’t just listen to old OMD records, if that’s what he wanted to hear. That’s not a great argument, normally, but in this case I kind of agreed with it. Why waste time on a vastly inferior rip-off when you have access to the original?

I thought of this conversation about Cold Cave a lot while playing Shadow Complex, a new Xbox Live Arcade exclusive that comes out this Wednesday. Both blatantly pay tribute to ’80s classics. Shadow Complex is basically just Metroid, straight-up, or more specifically the ’94 Super Nintendo sequel, Super Metroid. The game’s makers aren’t ashamed to admit it. That means it’s a 2-D side-scrolling action game that prioritizes exploration over blowing stuff up. Things do explode, and man does kill man (hundreds of men, actually), but the crux of the gameplay is unlocking all the game’s secret passages and power-ups.

Like Metroid, Shadow Complex doesn’t have levels, per se. You start in one area of a giant map, and gradually gain access to more territory as you acquire various weapons and abilities. Back-tracking is pivotal. From the very beginning you’ll see ledges you can’t reach and doors you can’t open until hours later, after you’ve found, say, the missile launcher or triple-jump booster. So it’s basically Super Metroid 2, but with modern graphics and a lame conspiracy theory story that's mercifully easy to ignore.

Both Shadow Complex and Cold Cave could be accused of slavish imitation. It doesn’t bother me at all with Shadow Complex, though, whereas it’s one of the main reasons I don’t enjoy Cold Cave. Maybe it boils down to the fundamental differences between playing a game and listening to a record, between physical interaction and passive consumption. Maybe it’s just down to quality. It’s obvious, to me, that Shadow Complex isn’t just pastiche, but a legitimately well-made game that doesn’t need nostalgia to succeed. Cold Cave, meanwhile, evokes the sound of classic bands without any of their songwriting abilities. When a work is well-made, nostalgia is a boon; when it’s not, familiarity’s just another thing weighing it down.

I’ll have more on Shadow Complex later this week, including a full review.

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