Wednesday, March 20, 2013
The World Ends with You (Nintendo DS) (Square Enix, Jupiter, 2007)
The World Ends with You is, no question in my mind, the greatest game on the Nintendo DS, and it's also my favorite game of the last generation. It's also one of the least sensibly designed games I've ever played.
You know how, every time new hardware is released that has unique new functionality, developers, even if they haven't figured out any thoughtful new ways to take advantage of it, will shoehorn in gameplay that uses it, just so they can advertise those bullet points on the back of the box? In the early life of the Wii, for example, this meant a lot of lazy third-party games that were basically the same as games we'd played before, except that actions that were formerly simply performed by pressing buttons were now made harder and more tiresome by requiring players to waggle the remote. Or how many early PS3 games included gratuitous Sixaxis segments, before developers realized that the proper way to use it was "not at all"? At first glance, The World Ends with You similarly comes across in its design as a game that was built with a goal in mind of getting as many DS-specific bullet points on the box as possible. Stylus controls? Check. Gameplay across two screens? Yep. Passively exchanging information with other DS systems over wireless? Count on it. Annoying segment requiring you to use the microphone? So annoying! Even the internal clock comes into play. And this wasn't even an early DS release.
No, by 2007, developers had pretty well learned how to design both core and casual DS games that used stylus controls, as well as when not to use them at all. The World Ends with You was not an exercise to figure out the proper way to design for the system, but seemingly more an experiment to see just how far design (and the player) could be pushed. It used everything the system offered and as much as possible. It featured stylus controls, yes, but it also asked you to use the D-pad at the same time. Gameplay occurred on both screens at the same time. It was as though someone had made an entire game out of that old exercise of patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously. Here, you were tasked with controlling two characters at once, and the more in sync they were, the stronger their attacks, but if either died (and they shared a life bar), it was game over. It was effectively a co-op game where you had to be your own partner against waves of enemies on every side, all while a clock also counted down to your demise if you didn't wrap things up quickly enough. It was not elegant, the controls were not perfect (in a pinch, sometimes random swiping would work as well as deliberate strokes), and the premise didn't always even seem fair or feasible.
And the game would toss you into the deep end of the pool pretty quickly, but that was actually in keeping with the narrative. The idea was that, though things may not have made a whole lot of sense right away, you didn't have the luxury of time to figure it out. How quickly could you scramble to action and do whatever it took if left with no other option? In The World Ends with You, you were almost perpetually facing that kind of pressure during combat. For some players, it could be overwhelming. For others, it was overwhelming but also highly addictive. You would feel barely in control yet, at the same time, be working so frantically that, when a hard fight was done, you didn't feel so much that you had won as that you had survived.
I'm not sure I'd ever want to see another game that plays like The World Ends with You. (You won't see my name on any petitions for a sequel.) But, at its very best moments, this was a game that left you feeling you had given more than you thought you'd had in you to give, and that is such a uniquely and immensely rewarding feeling. In the same way that being pushed to your physical limits through a strenuous workout program can serve to enlighten you on your own limits and capabilities, I almost want to say that playing The World Ends with You made me feel more fully myself, as my hands and thoughts were forced to operate faster and sharper than they would ever need to be in daily life.
And the mechanics may be only half the appeal of The World Ends with You. The striking art style and fresh sound consisting of several pop and hip hop vocal tracks lent the game a unique identity, and the story at times harked back to days when Square told the best in the business. As tiresome as apathetic emo teen protagonists sporting extraneous zippers and buckles had become, removing such characters from the otherworlds of Final Fantasy and placing them instead in the real-world setting of the Shibuya shopping district, which actually is populated by teens (and grown men) dressed like JRPG characters at any time of day, just made perfect sense.
The story had exactly one twist too many for my taste. I really loved everything up until the game suddenly dumped a huge amount of plot on me via a convoluted eleventh-hour reveal that only served to confound me and even slightly detracted from what I had enjoyed about the story up to that point. Even so, it was a consistently gripping good tale up until then—tense and ominous but also humorous and surprisingly heartfelt, with an ultimate message to challenge that stereotypical JRPG player's mopey emo attitude, instead of enabling it as so many JRPGs seem to.