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A Boy and His Monster


Jack Gardner

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Video games are undeniably one of the most bizarre mediums of artistic expression. Sometimes, like right now, I’ll sit down to write about a particular game that is so spectacularly something that I just stare blankly ahead and think, “How do I even begin talking about this?” Super Godzilla for the SNES has consistently rendered me speechless when trying to nail down how I feel about it. It is just so inexplicable. Between the strange design and the repetitive, slow gameplay, it delivers almost (but perhaps not quite) completely the opposite experience you would want from a game about a skyscraper-sized reptile fueled by a lust for destruction and nuclear fire. And yet… I find myself drawn to it all the same, like a child to a comforting blanket. So, how do I even begin talking about this? Perhaps, like most things, it is best to start at the beginning. 

 

Over the past year, Extra Life has been accepting article submissions from the wonderful people in the online community. I’ve had the pleasure of working with dozens of talented writers, helping to edit and refine their work into the quality think pieces and entertaining musings you can find on the site. Being able to bounce thoughts off of each other and grow as writers together has been a rewarding experience. The process is very much collaborative, and often I come away feeling like I’ve benefited from being exposed to the deluge of fresh perspectives that enter and exit our little collective of willing authors. Out of that back and forth came two excellent articles in the past couple weeks, one by Dylan Dzedzy and the other by Eliot Hurn. Both approach gaming from a place of deep appreciation and respect for classic games and their place in the evolution of the medium. Working with them on their respective pieces made me wax nostalgic for a game that I spent a large chunk of time playing during my younger days. So it came to be that I popped a dusty Super Godzilla cartridge into my Super Nintendo over the weekend and played through the entire thing in one sitting.

 

Before I get into the bones of what makes Super Godzilla so incredibly singular, I should probably give a bit of background on why I am so acquainted with such an obscure title. The most obvious, surface level reason is pretty straightforward: I love anything to do with giant creatures, real or fictional. That was true when I was a little kid, it is true now, and it will probably remain that way until the day I die. I find large creatures fascinating. I’ll readily admit that having towering monsters isn’t the best reason to like a game, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t contribute slightly to the allure the game held for me once. It is a bland, uninteresting truth about myself, but it is the truth.

 

Buried slightly below the surface enjoyment of large-scale monsters is another reason with a slightly more familial bent. One of my earliest memories of my dad is him coming home from a business trip when I was four or five years old with a VHS of Godzilla vs. King Kong. This created an abiding place in my heart for the movie monster that represented near unstoppable nuclear Armageddon to theater audiences in 1954. Of course, at the time I knew the history of neither the giant fire-breathing dragon nor that of the giant ape that it fought (nor the giant octopus that attacks said ape at the beginning of the film). All that mattered to me was that it was a movie my dad and I could watch together. And when we did watch it, my young eyes entirely bought into the illusion. To me, they weren’t laughable rubber suits fighting in prop cities, they were tangible forces of nature so powerful that oceans boiled and tanks melted. As I’ve grown older, I outgrew the illusion and lost some of the magic I once saw in those rubbery, titanic struggles, but the fondness remains. I’ll sheepishly admit that I have seen pretty much every Godzilla film that has been released in the United States (we are currently at 34 feature films, with another one on the horizon in 2018). While I recognize them for the campfests that they are now, I can also marvel at the artistry inherent in the massive sets that they created and tore down, the attention given to scale and the incredibly “out there” ideas they successfully translated into movies.

 
 

That’s a theme song for a robot that grew to be the size of a building to fight alongside Godzilla against a giant beetle sent from a secret civilization under the ocean. What’s not to love?

 

Remembering the delight that a younger me felt when I discovered that there was a Super Nintendo game that featured Godzilla still brings a smile to my face. There were Godzilla games on the original Nintendo, but I had certainly never encountered them at that point in my life. It was a moment of discovery; a moment when I learned that one of my favorite cinematic characters wasn’t limited to the rare VHS found in a rental store (remember those?). I can’t remember exactly how it happened, I think either a birthday or Christmas swung around and one of my parents slyly procured a used copy from Funcoland (remember those?), but I was eventually gifted this marvelous thing. Then I played it. And I played it. And I played it. I played Super Godzilla a lot, to the point that I can still remember some of the finer points of the game almost two decades later. The mechanics of it seeped into my bones.

 

If that seems a bit strange, I agree with you. Underneath my natural inclination toward colossal beasts and Godzilla’s association with my father, there was a third layer to my obsessive playing of Super Godzilla. For a good chunk of my young life I found myself hard pressed to make or maintain friends. People were mysteries that I found hard to understand at a young age, in many ways that still hasn’t changed. But games? Those I could understand. Video games have rules, boundaries. You can win or lose a game. I don’t think the same thing can be said about people, at least not in the same way. As a kid, I couldn’t articulate those ideas, but I knew them on instinct. I didn’t know what I was doing to attract the attention of bullies and ostracize myself from classmates, so I retreated inward. If I was going to be a social pariah among my peers in school, at least I could find validation by spending time with one of my favorite movie characters. Now that I think on it, maybe another part of the allure was that Godzilla was so big that nothing could kill him. He could be hurt, definitely, but no matter how many tanks were thrown at him, no matter how many lasers pierced his sides, no matter what, Godzilla would come through it all and let out a wild roar. Maybe I was trying to be more like that. Maybe I’m reading a bit too much into it. Regardless, the third layer of my relationship with the terror of Tokyo was that I was just another lonely kid looking for something that eased the sense of isolation.

 

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What exactly did I throw so much time into? What is Super Godzilla?

 

One of the first things that I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty is that there has never been, and will never be again, a game quite like Super Godzilla. It barely even conforms to a genre. If someone held me at gunpoint and demanded me to classify it, I suppose I’d say that it falls uncomfortably into the RPG category with fighting game elements. But that doesn’t really convey the essence of Super Godzilla, because I’d comfortably bet money that it isn’t anything like what you’d picture an RPG or a fighting game to be.

 

Before I go further into the mechanics of Super Godzilla, it might help to have some context. It begins with the Japanese city of Osaka coming under attack by King Ghidorah, a three-headed space dinosaur that can shoot lightning out of its mouths. Luckily, a group of scientists have discovered that a method of mind controlling Godzilla for limited amounts of time by using the Super X-II, an experimental weapon originally designed to fight Godzilla. The player takes on the task of defending the city as Godzilla, but must first maneuver the towering monster through the streets of Osaka before engaging Ghidorah. After blasting the middle head off of King Ghidorah (I mean that quite literally), aliens show up and explain that they have all of the world’s other monsters under mind control and that they’ll use them to destroy Japan and Godzilla. That’s the set up for six stages worth of searching out monstrosities and battling them to the death. That seems like it would be a moderately good set up for a brawler set in the (incredibly insane) Godzilla universe, right? However, Advance Communication Company, the developers of Super Godzilla decided to try and make something unique.

 

Boy, did they ever succeed.

 

I want to preface my attempt to explain Super Godzilla by saying that the game can’t even explain itself. I’m not saying that to be mean; the tutorial is practically non-existent. Even though the opening level is relatively easy compared to the rest of the game, it can still get the better of players who have never encountered it before because none of the Super Godzilla’s advice makes a lick of sense. As a kid, I managed to overcome that learning barrier through sheer force of will.

 

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The gameplay of Super Godzilla is separated into exploration and battle modes. Every stage begins in exploration mode, which splits the screen horizontally into two different displays. The upper display shows the actions being performed by Godzilla as he crashes through mountains, skyscrapers, electrical lines, etc. The lower display consists of a map of the area with a blue dot representing Godzilla and other icons that represent tanks, artillery, mines, buildings, mountains, or places of interest.

 

The map is where all of the action of the exploration mode plays out. Around the map are numbers indicating how much time remains before the scientists lose control of Godzilla (which results in a game over), another which gauges how close the enemy monster is, and a third that displays Godzilla’s energy (aka health). That last stat is important to keep an eye on because anytime that Godzilla gets hit with artillery, steps on a mine, or crushes a building while searching for the enemy, a fraction of his energy gets chipped away.

 

The act of moving Godzilla around the map plays out at an almost agonizingly slow pace as players manipulate Godzilla square by square to the target of each stage. It takes a second or two to move to a new square, which only serves to hammer home the realization that waiting makes up the majority of the game. Exploration is little more than waiting to make it from point A to point B. To make things a bit more interesting, there are a variety of items and power-ups that players can collect during exploration that can then be used in battle for stronger attacks, invulnerability, or stopping the clock so you don’t fail the stage. There are also a copious amount of nuclear reactors scattered around each stage that restore health if the player has walked Godzilla through a few too many landmines. The only real appeal of this portion of gameplay is being able to see Godzilla interact with the environment and wreck things. Unfortunately, the locked camera angle in the upper screen limits the scenes of chaos and destruction, so it is a relatively poor delivery on that front even when taking into account the limitations of the time.

 

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When players guide the blue Godzilla dot into the red enemy dot, exploration mode shifts into battle mode. At first glance, these clashes look like what you might expect from a fighting game. Two sprites face each other on a level plane and look ready to kick some tail. However, a quick run through all of the SNES controller’s buttons reveals that the options of this fighting game are limited to moving left or right, guard, and throwing a punch. The only line of dialogue that even attempts to shed some light on the situation is something along the lines of, “Make sure to keep up your fighting spirit!” Which is completely unhelpful unless you make a flying mental leap and realize that the pulsating bars that take up a small portion of the screen represent fighting spirit. Moving to the right raises Godzilla’s fighting spirit, but being hit by the enemy causes it to fall significantly. Battles become a strange dance of shifting left and right at the appropriate times, getting the fighting spirit as high as possible before closing in to throw a punch.

 

When a punch hits the enemy, players are supposed to instinctively know to move left, away from their enemy. As Godzilla moves away, a roulette of sorts appears in the middle of the screen and allows the player to select an attack for Godzilla to perform, from a puny tail whip to a mighty blast of irradiated fire. The higher Godzilla’s fighting spirit and the farther back he walks from his foe, the more powerful the randomly selected attacks can become. Once the attack is selected (hopefully before the enemy monster rushes in and cancels the selection) an animated sequence begins that shows Godzilla attacking the opposing monster. Of course, enemies can do the same thing and will often unleash obscenely powerful special attacks if they are allowed to strike Godzilla.

 

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That’s it. That’s all there is to Super Godzilla. A player that knows the game can beat it in two hours or less, but for someone who has never played the first stage can prove to be both confusing and fatal. Looking back at Super Godzilla’s 1994 release, the now defunct magazine GamePro recommended it only for the most hardcore of Godzilla fans. That recommendation fit exactly for kid-me. I was young, lonely, and motivated enough to play this game for hours. It was a time during which I still bought into the illusion of the movies, when I couldn’t see the seams that held the movie magic together. For that younger me, it wasn’t a boring slog through a frustrating wasteland devoid of fun. Instead, the illusion of the movies extended over the game as well. It was a battle between gods and demons, the fate of humanity resting on the shoulders of a great, green behemoth. It was all just so much bigger than me, and yet it couldn’t continue unless I played. It made me feel important.

 

Playing Super Godzilla now, I can see every awful inch of it. It is horribly boring, weird, and has very few redeeming qualities. Despite the numerous flaws and my older eyes, it still makes my heart glad. The simple sprite work of the 90s era Godzilla smacking around aliens and movie monsters strangely comforts me. The lengthy waiting periods during which I can listen to the repetitive score aren’t as painful as I imagine it must be for other people. I suppose what I am trying to say is that the quality of Super Godzilla is almost entirely divorced from what it means to me. On a personal level, it is more of a symbol than a game; a symbol of good things in a not so good time. I imagine that we all have a few of those laying around in our hearts somewhere.

 

That’s Super Godzilla in a nutshell. I can’t in good conscience recommend it to most people. If you are curious about video game oddities or interested in learning from it for a game design course, I might suggest that you to actively seek it out. It would probably be a great lesson in how not to make a video game. For the rest of you, if you see it in an antique shop or a garage sale or something, consider picking it up for a dollar or two as a novelty. As for me, I break it out sparingly to show to interested friends for a laugh. And, when those friends have gone home and I’m cleaning up, maybe I’ll take a minute to sit down with it again, remembering a young kid who could relate more with a monster than he could with people. 

 

By the way, this poster for Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is better than anything that Americans have done with Godzilla.

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