I became aware of a presence lurking over my shoulder just about the same time as I heard ToastyFrog's distinctive (and somewhat nasal) voice say:
"Holy cripes, what are you writing here?"
My instinct was to hunch defensively over my work, but of course that's a far more effective tactic when you're writing on paper; with a laptop, all I'd have been doing is protecting the keyboard from prowling eyes. Which of course would have been pointless. I reined in my reactions and settled for a slow pivot accompanied by what I hoped was an irritated scowl.
"It's a review for WarioWare."
The frog squinted at me. "Isn't that game, like, ancient?"
I grunted unenthusiastically. "I'm catching up with what I've missed during my stress-induced, um, hiatus."
"Ah," he nodded. "I see. But, say, shouldn't you be starting with that Gohatto review you promised readers several years ago?"
The daggers in my eyes caused his mouth to stretch into a grin. With his already wide amphibious features, it was a pretty impressive sight.
"Don't you have anything better to do than hassle me? Go do some work."
"Of course, of course," he said, leaning over my laptop and bringing up a Safari window. "It's just that first...." His thick tridactyl hands tapped keys with surprisingly efficiency. "I wanted to show you this." He turned the laptop back toward me. On the screen was an old post from the site's forums.
"Huh," ToastyFrog murmured, feigning amazement. "This post was written by... you!"
I scowled, but couldn't say much in protest. I had been caught indulging in the exact sort of verbal posturing I had mocked mere months before, and I could think of no way to justify my crime. I tried anyway.
"I'm just trying to take a different approach to reviewing this game than anyone else has," I offered lamely.
"By out-pretensioning everyone else? Good job. That's something to strive for."
I scowled. "At least I'm shooting for something more insightful than, 'Those wacky Japs! What'll they think of next! They must snort some serious crack over there! Boy howdy!' Which is more than I can say for about half the online reviews I've seen to date."
ToastyFrog shrugged dismissively. "Just because you're being less of an idiot than other people doesn't mean you're not being an idiot." He tapped a finger into his left palm. "Come on, really. Can't you excercise a little integrity here?"
I rubbed my forehead. "I've... been having trouble writing, lately," I confessed with no small reluctance.
"Recently?" The frog cocked his head as he fiddled with the stuffed Afro-Ken? hanging from my door knob. The little toy dog's hair was a bright yellow loofah, and the body was terry cloth, so technically it could probably be used as a washcloth of sorts. The idea of scrubbing my body with a plush puppy reeked uncomfortably of the less savory sort of fetishists hanging about the fringes of the anime community, so the ablutionary canine had been given a permanent home hanging from the knob of my office door. "Like, what, the past few days? Weeks?"
"Um, more like... months. Actually."
The thin ridges that served as his eyebrows rose about half an inch in surprise. "Months? Well, that would explain why the site has sucked so much this year...."
I bristled inwardly but curtailed my urge to throttle him. "It's honestly been ever since I played Xenosaga?. I think that game broke something deep inside me. I was willing to give it a fair chance and it went and sucked anyway... seriously, the game hurt me somewhere in my soul, and I haven't been able to write since then."
"Fool, that's what you get for putting your faith in Tetsuya Takahashi?," ToastyFrog scoffed. "Me, I didn't even bother with that train wreck. I spent my time playing Dragon Quarter? and Dark Cloud 2?, which makes me a lot smarter than you." He looked thoughtful. "Maybe I should be writing the reviews here."
I shrugged and turned my laptop to face him. "Be my guest."
Nonplussed at my refusal to respond to his goading, he changed the subject. "So, tell me. What was it you were hoping to accomplish with this... uh... this." He waved at the page editing program where the nascent Wario Ware review was shining at me like an accusatory stare. "Like, what was the point of all this 'defining a genre' crap?"
I cleared my throat. "Well... the point I was going to make is that some games are important because of how they define a genre. But an even more select few are important because they embody the very idea of gaming."
"With the ultimate conclusion that Wario Ware is one of those games?" ToastyFrog gave me a look of complete disbelief, as if the audacity of my pseudo-intellectual meanderings had exceeded the bounds of reason. Which, I suppose, they had.
"Well... yeah." He snorted a small, scornful laugh, at last raising my hackles enough to prompt me to defend myself. "Look, throughout the past 30 years, there have been a few games that define the essence of what video games can be. Pong?, for instance. That set the standard for man-versus-man competition. Space Invaders? set the standard for man-versus-machine. Tetris?, that was man-versus-himself. Now WarioWare is something even more interesting: man-versus-gaming."
"Um." Toasty's response was impressively neutral.
"But it's something more that that, too. WarioWare effectively sums up 30 years of video gaming through a four-hour experience. Its story and gameplay encapsulate everything that gaming is -- the gestalt of playing WarioWare is, I dunno, a field trip of the entire medium. As seen through the lens of Nintendo?, of course. Zelda? and Mario? and Punch-Out!!? get represented, and even some of Nintendo's ancient pre-Donkey Kong games, but there's a marked lack of Space Harrier? and Pac-Man. But even so, it's completely brilliant - WarioWare gives you four-second flashes of video games of practically every genre and style and forces you to respond to a single-word instruction for each 'microgame' within that brief window of time. So you're constantly adapting on an almost instinctual level to each new gameplay requirement. Which is fitting, because the game actually reminds me a lot of the movie Adaptation?."
"Adaptation?" said a voice from the doorway to the office. "I loved that movie."
I pulled a chair away from the desk behind me and turned it so she could have a view of the screen as well. She dropped into it and leaned forward to see the text on the screen.
"No, I was just walking past this room and heard you talking about that movie. I saw it a few weeks ago and really liked it. I dunno, I guess because the main character -- Charlie, is that right? -- yeah, Charlie, he reminds me of you, Parish."
ToastyFrog sniggered rudely, but I clenched my jaw and let the barb sail right over my head.
"So, anyway, what I was saying is that WarioWare reminds me a lot of Adaptation in certain ways - mostly at a conceptual level, of course." I began clicking through Safari as I spoke. "I mean, Wario doesn't spend the game crippled by self-pity, and he doesn't lay in bed pleasuring himself to a picture of Shigeru Miyamoto? --"
"That's Nintendojo's job, I think," ToastyFrog muttered. I could tell this was going to be a terribly difficult conversation to keep on track.
"-- but what the two do have in common is... well, here. Read this."
I sat back and let them read the forum post I had retrieved.
There was a bemused, possibly embarrassed silence as my employees considered what they had read.
"So I guess you've been violating your pretension moratorium for a lot longer than you were letting on, eh?" There was a distinctly smug tone to ToastyFrog's voice.
Rorita spoke up. "Why are you even bothering with this? I thought WarioWare was pretty much just a 'party' game like Mario Party? or something. What more do you need to say? It's fun, it's manic, it requires a lot of button-mashing. The end."
I frowned. "Not really. WarioWare and Mario Party have about as much in common as...um...." I thought for a moment. "Say, Vagrant Story? and EverQuest?. The superficial similarities are there, and they're identical in the sense that each contains a crapload of minigames built around skill and reflexive thinking." Wait, where was I going with this?
"But...?" she demanded impatiently.
"But...." I continued, groping about for something that sounded reasonable. "But Vagrant Story and WarioWare both differentiate themselves from the other games by emphasizing solitude."
I shook my head. "Have you ever actually tried that? It's about as much fun as donating a kidney without anaesthetic. EverQuest, Diablo, PSO? and other statistic-intensive fantasy dungeon crawls rely on social networking to maintain the gamer's interest. Vagrant Story's gameplay makes human interaction almost impossible. Your 'party members' in Vagrant Story aren't other people on a LAN?, they're the seven weapons that Ashely Riot carries, customizes and levels-up during his quest."
Rorita game me a skeptical look. I hurried along toward my point.
"Um, anyway, what I'm saying is that WarioWare is totally not meant to be shared with others. Passing it around while you're working through the story destroys the integrity of the plot, trivial as it may seem - the idea that Wario, the inventor of the game, is exploiting you the gamer as part of his latest cracked money-making venture."
The expression on Rorita's face mutated slowly from doubt to sheer disbelief.
"Are you still one of those RPG? freaks who thinks that games are nothing without story and that even the most mundane and simple games have to have some sort of detailed plot to cement their gameplay? Because I really think that's annoying. And it's pretty much a western invention, too - I don't see that kind of fanaticism back home." Ah, I thought with a touch of smugness. I had wondered when she was going to launch into her American gamers are so dumb routine. "I mean, my brother is completely addicted to RPGs, but he just goes for stuff like 'Mysterious Dungeon?,' which is all about earning as many statistical bonuses as possible. Sure, my friends all think Final Fantasy is very pretty, but what they really want is a lot of involved, time-consuming number management. Which is why last I heard every person in the country owns a copy of Dragon Quest VII?. This nonsensical fixation on games as high literature is pretty much an American invention. And stupid. Like, I mean, everyone thinks that Tom Clancy? guy is a big hack, and his books are a whole lot more intelligent than Metal Gear Solid, which is one of those games you people always wave about like some sort of crowning literary achievement. So if you think WarioWare is a game that should be played for its story, you deserve a hard kick to the shins."
She glared at me defiantly, clearly daring me to give her cause to launch an assault against my legs.
ToastyFrog steepled his fingers. "That's very interesting, Rorita. Very informative. I mean, I never knew you had a brother. Thanks for letting us know."
We ignored him.
"Don't misunderstand me," I backpedaled a bit, swiveling my chair slightly away from where Rorita was sitting to protect my poor delicate shinbones. "The point of WarioWare is mental dexterity -- how quickly you can jump from microgame to microgame,how easily your mind can switch gears. The games all basically down to, you know, pressing A, but they're all wrapped up in visual metaphors, like skiing and jumping hurdles and running away from giant boulders and fighting ninjas."
"And picking your nose," ToastyFrog added. We continued ignoring him.
"So what does story have to do with the game at all?" Rorita demanded. "It sounds to me like you're just... what's the phrase?"
"Navel=gazing?" the frog muttered darkly, expecting his comment to go unanswered.
"I guess," said Rorita. "Making up nonsense in order to have something 'unique' to say. Whatever."
"But that's the thing," I pressed on, determined to talk my idea to its conclusion. Or at the very least clear myself of these cruel charges of mental wankery. "Those visual metaphors, and the overall story, are what really makes WarioWare different from Mario Party and Sonic Shuffle?. Party games are presented in a casual, board game-like environment where competition takes place in isolated rounds of minigames. Wario Ware is different - it bombards you with a dozen or more non-stop microgames at a time, and the point isn't to mash a button faster than your friends but to keep on your toes and deal with the constant, changing flow of game types coming at you. And it's held together not by random mascots playing a board game but by a narrative which basically says you're being scammed. Used as a guinea pig by Wario, just like all the programmers who are creating these games for him. You're less a player than a victim. But since the game's so addictive you don't mind being used - you keep coming back for more. That shows some serious chutzpah by Nintendo, you know? Creating a game that's so compelling that you can comfortably tell your consumers that they're big suckers, and they'll still come back for more. But then, it's not every game where you can inhale a blob of snot, assemble a smiling vegetable, destroy Mother Brain and go curling in the space of fifteen seconds."
"What is curling, anyway?" Rorita demanded. "I can never figure out that little minigame. I lose every time."
"It's like... ice bowling, or something. You push a big puck across the ice and sweep ahead of it with wisks to help it travel further." I gestured vaguely in what I hoped was a northward direction. "It's big in Canada."
Her eyes narrowed. "Aren't Canadian radio stations required by law to play at least one Celine Dion and Rush song per hour? I can't trust people like that."
Rorita shook her head and stood, pushing her chair back and turning to leave. "I'm sure the Beatles were completely stoned when they made that movie, too. Well, whatever. I'm going home. Ja ne." Pausing to grab her jacket, she swept from the office. The door closed with a gunshot sound, and our train of thoughts was momentarily derailed.
"So... let me see if I understand this." ToastyFrog's eyes lost focus as he tried to get back on track. "You're saying WarioWare is a game about its own creation, a title constructed around a fictionalized account of its own development in which the gamer himself plays a key role in the production of and refinement of the game?" He gave me one of those looks usually reserved for the gibbering crazy people who stumble through busy city streets muttering to themselves and occasionally screaming out obscenities, or the names of people who exist only in their imaginations. The condescending stares people give them behind their backs, not the bland, neutral looks used as a shield in the terrifying event that eye contact is actually made.
"Maybe. Or maybe Rorita's right and it's just a crazy wacky fun game."
"'On crack!,' as those edgier and hipper than yourself might say," he interjected sarcastically. I continued as if I hadn't been interrupted.
"The important thing is that WarioWare should be required gaming for everyone who has ever had anything more than a passing interest in the medium. There's really no excuse for this game to sell anything less than 4-5 million copies."
Toasty made a terse clicking sound with his tongue. "OK, then. Write that. It sounds like a review to me."
Startled, I realized that he was correct.
"I guess you're right. It's sort of bland, but it works."
"Even if it's a bit pretentious," he added as a qualifier.
I let out a satisfied hmmm as I considered the prospect of finally getting this review underway. "Maybe this article can serve as the introduction for my new two-point rating system. A 2 means 'you must play this game,' a 1 means 'take it or leave it' and 0 means 'life is too short to waste on this crap.'" I began building a nested table for the score as a I spoke. "WarioWare, of course, gets a two." I gestured to indicate my creation.
Rating: Wario Ware: 2 of 2
Inspired Madness Required gaming: if you enjoy anything vaguely resembling creativity. Also required gaming even if you don't care about creativity, since this might jumpstart your brain for once.
Avoid this game: if you are dead, or completely inhuman.
Also try: licking toads, eating those spotted mushrooms that grow in your front yard.
The frog squinted. "That's sort of obtuse, don't you think? I mean, who uses a two-point rating scale? People are going to think you hate the game or something. Especially if they were weaned on GameFan? and brought up to believe that games should be rated on a scale of 100. You didn't even use the word 'sausage' or substitute 'llama' for 'lamer,' so they won't be able to relate at all."
I snorted, or what passes for a snort with me -- a short, sharp nasal exhalation that sounded less like an expression of derision than an attempt to clear slightly congested sinuses. Actually, it brought to mind images of an angry cockatiel and I vowed to curb that particular habit. "Like I care."
Toasty stood and glanced askance at me for a moment. "Well, fine. But remember, there's something to be said for the classics, too."
"Hmmm." I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. "There is that."
WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$