Monday, 2 February 2015

The Rise of Neo-Punk in the Playstation Generation


In every era of gaming, there are always titles with a discernible and definable style. Once a new look or ethos becomes flavour of the month, many companies look for ways to capitalise on this, taking the easy option of appealing to the most common denominator by using elements from something that is popular in the mainstream and filtering them into a new title (look at EA's recent output for evidence of this).

On the other hand, there are companies who seek to push things forward and find something that adds a unique edge to their output and make their products feel more fresh and vibrant, even when it remains very much niche (such as the much underused sub-genre of Cyberpunk). While the Playstation generation of gaming may well be remembered as the time when everything became 'street', there was also something much more encouraging beginning to filter through and press its own unique stamp on the market and that something was Neopunk.

Neopunk derived from Cyberpunk and the two share many similarities: the main difference is Neopunk's focus on a much lighter tone. On the whole, the theme of Cyberpunk occupies run-down worlds with groups executing secret operations to try to bring down powerful and corrupt organisations against a dystopian background. Neopunk has a different stylistic approach: here we find individuals who tend to be either superhuman or incredibly skilled, fighting against a more pure form of evil; this is especially apparent where it has infiltrated gaming.

The Neopunk look is somewhat more stylised than its Cyberpunk predecessor. Neopunk is as much about the look of the hero as it is about any driving ethic behind the fighting of evil. As such, Neopunk characters tend to stand out from the crowd, often looking out of place with their surroundings, and forming a lasting impression in the mind - flamboyance is the ruler of this realm.

At present there are three main companies who are using the Neopunk theme with regularity in their products: Japan-based companies Capcom, Konami and Square-Enix. The most obvious example of Capcom's would be the highly flamboyant Dante; here we have a character with superhuman abilities battling the forces of evil. He himself may not be a clear-cut hero, and the reason he fights evil may not be as simple as wanting to save the world, but that is of little importance. The setting of the Devil May Cry titles juxtaposes images of the medieval and the futuristic (something else which is beginning to form as a defining characteristic of the genre).

When Devil May Cry first appeared on the scene, it was hailed from all corners as something exhilarating and exciting. Many years later and with Capcom's clever development of the character, we see the series with the image of Dante being the closest thing gaming has to a cultural and fashion icon this side of Lara Croft. Other examples of Capcom's new-found foray into the Neopunk world can be found in P.N.03 and the hard-edged killer7. Even Leon from Resident Evil 4 has felt the slight tinge of influence on his dress sense - never let it be said that Capcom underuses an idea that works.

In comparison, Konami and Square-Enix's moves to bring the genre into their titles is relatively low-key. Konami's main focus of attention is Castlevania's (Aria and Dawn of Sorrow) star, Soma Cruz. The story of both titles is set in the near future and has Soma searching his way around large gothic castles in order to stop Dracula from being resurrected. The titles mark a subtle departure in graphical style from the previous Castlevania games: a lighter colour scheme has been introduced and much of the black and grey has been replaced with blues and purples. Soma himself is a striking figure wearing a long white coat and having bright white hair. He looks for all the world as if he should be at the top of a megacorporation in Tokyo fighting off robots, yet here he is fighting vampire bats and zombies with a sword in a castle dungeon - more out of place one could never be.

Square-Enix has been making small steps into the Neopunk genre for some time. The Final Fantasy series was tentatively pushed vaguely in this direction with Final Fantasy VIII, but a less than warm reception from gamers made Square change their strategy. In truth there are only small signs of Neopunk in the title as most of it holds with a sterile utopian approach lacking in the necessary character and setting. Recently, though, Star Ocean: Till The End Of Time has been used to develop Square's understanding of the Japanese phenomenon: again, here we have a character completely out of place with his surroundings, fighting against what seems a 'pure' evil.

A checklist seems to be emerging with regards to setting up Neopunk adventures. We nearly always get the future crashing together with the past and occupying an uneasy juxtaposition where nothing quite fits as it should, yet the protagonists carry on anyway. Maybe it is down to this anarchic charm that gamers are picking up on titles which are beginning to use this style. In most industries, when something bland, soulless and predictable becomes the norm, a movement begins to try and refresh, overthrow or otherwise demonstrate there is more to come. It happens in film and music regularly, and it also happens in gaming as demonstrated though this generation.

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