Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why you shouldn't feel guilty about playing it: Senran Kagura edition

I kicked off this year (or, rather, closed out the last one) by encouraging everyone to play good games. Y'know, the games you'd actually like to play as opposed to the ones that you access out of convenience.

Tied to this call-to-arms was another bit of implied encouragement: don't be ashamed of the games you like, even if they involve you spending 80+ hours paying off a debt to the raccoon mafia or beating a teenage ninja girl until her clothes fall off.

If that last sentence caught you by surprise, then chances are that you're not familiar with the Senran Kagura franchise.

Launched just three short years ago in Japan, Senran Kagura is an old school, arcade-style beat 'em up in the spirit of Golden Axe or Streets of Rage.  You fight your way through a stage full of average baddies (mooks) before a standard-issue boss fight pops in at the end of the level.

This sort of gameplay has been seen hundreds of times before, but what makes Senran Kagura stand out from other entries in the genre is its all-female cast of ninjas and unexpectedly deep storyline which features a spot-on deconstruction of moral absolutism.

Also, there's its sheer, almost defiant, love of fan service.

Much like Master of Martial Hearts or Ikki Tousen before it, Senran Kagura games let you literally beat the clothes off of another girl as you make your way through a fight.  In the criminally underrated Senran Kagura Burst (3DS), this stripping stopped at lingerie swimsuits - but on the PS Vita SK games, you can bash those away to leave the loser in a heavily censored state of undress.

This outfit is conservative by Senran Kagura standards

But here's the rub - Senran Kagura isn't necessarily erotic.

Sure, there's a lot of eroticism on display and - yes - the girls all blush and cover themselves out of embarrassment when they're divested of their outerwear, but series producer Kenichiro Takaki masterfully imbues each game with an insanely subtle, blink-and-you'll-miss-it critique of fan service and the trend of modern games and anime that embrace it.

If, for example, you spend $2 on the PlayStation Network and download a "naughty apron" (naked apron) DLC outfit for your ninja girl of choice, you can freely swap her special shinobi outfit out for the far more impractical, yet far more revealing, apron.  But when you actually get around to putting it on a character in the in-game dressing room, you'll be subjected to a torrent of scorn and abuse that ranges from "You really are the worst person on earth" to "What an unbelievable pervert".

Sure, there are some people enjoy that sort of talk - but one has to imagine that Takaki is laughing to himself as he counts the dollars from the DLC purchases.

Each individual player is ultimately free to dive into a Senran Kagura game for its story, gameplay, eroticism, or mixture of the three, but those who flock to it for the eroticism alone might miss how heavily the game pokes fun at them for their choices.

This level of self-aware satire is actually kinda poignant, since Takaki has said that he would like to return to making other, traditional games like his excellent Half-Minute Hero - but for now, he's more than content to be the breast-obsessed standard bearer for the boobacious brawler that is Senran Kagura.

Yet what most people don't realize is that this version of Takaki is (almost assuredly) only a persona he adopts to help sell the games.  Takaki is, first and foremost, a gamemaker, and almost every game in the Senran Kagura franchise is built upon a satisfying, combo-focused style of gameplay sure to appeal to arcade action enthusiasts.  Those who enjoy narrative over juggling mooks with launchers will find a story that swings from silly to tragic in the blink of an eye.

But above all of this bounces the pert, perky perfect pair of fan service and a tongue-in-cheek critique of fan service which combine to become - sometimes literally - the icing on the cake.

In short, while many might view the Senran Kagura games as everything that's wrong with the male-dominated games industry, the simple fact of the matter is that they're surprisingly capable, fun, and self-aware satire machines that will keep you happily button mashing until the final curtain falls.

Or the final bra comes off.

The point of the matter is that they're good games and they're built from the ground up to not be taken too seriously by fan or critic alike.

Either way, be sure to check 'em out if you have access to a gaming handheld and approach them with an open mind.  But above all else, never - for a minute - feel guilty for enjoying them.