I made a claw. I use it to play Sin & Punishment.
It’s kind of ugly, right? Ugly and clunky and awkward. My thumb jumps between Y and A, and my index finger hovers restlessly over button X, waiting to strike. It’s a headache to coordinate. It cuts off access to the right trigger, and its job could’ve been done more elegantly by the right analog stick. I’d never play this way if I didn’t have to. (I have to.) I’d never play any game this way if I didn’t have to, and I’ll be happy if I never have to play any game this way ever again.
But all the same, I like my claw. I like it enough to make a picture of it, to take a picture of myself, something I don’t do very often. Despite its immateriality, despite its being but a construct of the mind, a pattern of thought, a sequence of muscle signals, a memory, I can feel in it all the weight of a prized possession. It’s an imposing image. It confronts me with the time and effort it took to discover and learn to use it. The claw is the echo of the screaming voice of the game that brought it into existence.
Why “screaming?” Why not? This is some loud stuff. It’s an information overload, an attempt to pour a 24MB game into a 12MB brain. It’s messy. It overflows. But it feels good, the way blazing neon signs can feel good, just trying to take it all in. The claw is a symbol of that, too, a testament to the strange idea that an experience described as an “information overload” could be fun at all. The hand curls in response.
Sin & Punishment is the most punishing game on the N64. Its controls are confusing, its plot is confounding, and the best way to play it may be to just let it wash over you.
I could fill a small list with the control setups I experimented with before finding my claw. My early days with this game were a nightmare, and there was once a time when I couldn’t so much as aim and move at the same time. But don’t laugh. I reckon everyone goes through a phase like that at first. It’s no cakewalk controlling your character and your aiming reticule independently. I’ve mentioned it here before, and I elaborated on it in my Miiverse Play Journal:
This is difficult even if, like me, you’ve set running and jumping to the spare analog stick, consolidating those controls into a single unit. Humans aren’t as great at multitasking as we like to think we are. We can switch our attention quickly between tasks, but this is just overwhelming. (04/18/2017 11:10 PM)
Overwhelming was the word. The controls are painful enough; That you can’t get a grip on the tools you need to process the non-stop stream of information the game throws your way is compounded by there being too much of it to process in the first place. It was like trying to watch a movie in a language I didn’t understand, one which, for +1000 Pain Points, was written by its local James-Joyce equivalent/analogue. Joyce was a novelist, of course, but the movie metaphor still stands, because if there was a single feeling that defined those infant kicks in Retro-Neo-Tokyo, it was the feeling that everything was whizzing by too fast. I was a wishy-washy civilian trying to stop a runaway train. Ever heard of Densha De Go?
The only times I ever came close to cutting through the noise were by dividing the workload between two machines. A 2-player mode split movement and aiming between pilot and partner. The results of this cooperative approach, two players stuffed into a single body, were as often funny as they were genuinely helpful, and I’ve been singing its praises ever since.
But even then, I was (we were) hardly able to crawl out of Stage 1-2. No, my big breakthrough didn’t come until I transferred the game from my Wii to my Wii U. The Wii U’s Virtual Console allows you to set customized inputs for each game. You might think that the primary benefit of this feature, for me, is that it allowed me to escape from the restraints of the original control scheme. But in fact, what I gained was something quite the opposite:
I’ve never made it this far before, but I think I’ve finally found a control scheme that works for me. The A, B, X, and Y buttons act as the C Buttons would have acted on an N64 claw. It’s as close to the original experience as I can get; Maybe this is the way the game was meant to be played. You can tell the run and jump controls weren’t designed for an analog stick. (04/30/2017 6:40 AM)
Which brings me to my own claw, and why I had to make it: The Wii U’s face buttons aren’t as close together as the N64’s C-Buttons were, and I have to be able to reach any and all of them on a moment’s notice for the game to be anywhere near playable. “It’s incredible just how much, how intimately, this game was designed around such a strange controller. It’s an experience even harder to emulate than the game itself” (05/10/2017 12:29 AM). Sin & Punishment is the only game the N64 controller fits as well as Super Mario 64, and given that this controller was virtually designed for the latter, that’s saying a lot.
In this way, the claw is an artifact of the game’s emulation, of the inauthenticity of the version I was playing, and that inauthenticity runs deep. I’d used a modification of a control scheme that had itself been modified to run on different hardware, in order to properly manage a control scheme that I’d already modified in the game’s own menu. (Feeling dizzy yet?) There were many layers of mediation to my experience with this game, yet the claw still feels authentic, and even projects an aura of authenticity onto this heavily mediated emulation/translation, because it articulates in a single pose so much of what the game is.
After I’d started making enough progress to convince myself that I had a shot at reaching the end of the game—which, I should add, required me to beat all stages in one go, arcade-style—I found myself hitting a series of walls, getting blindsided by this boss or that stretch of stage or any other obstacle that was too taxing to adapt to before my credits bled out. Fortunately, the game comes with a “Scene Select” mode, which allows you to play one credit of any stage you’ve reached in the main game (regardless of whether you’ve completed it or not.) “I’m playing Scene Select to get better at certain difficult sections of the game, so that they cost me fewer credits in a full run. So many routines to get down…It feels I’m rehearsing for a movie” (05/15/2017). I did take after take, rehearsing the opening moves ad nauseam and in rapid-fire succession, until they felt as foreign as the word “make” or “cake” does once you’ve said it too many times out loud. All of this was building towards toward the successful execution of one very long, unbroken performance, like I was practicing for a one-shot movie. It was a performance for no one in particular, and it left me wondering whether the language of performance, of acting specifically, had anything to offer videogame studies.
Although backtracking isn’t allowed in the main game, there are benefits to being able to revisit stages in Scene Select. These stages are deliciously dense, for one thing, and there’s a lot that gets missed even after repeated runs. They’re fun to take apart, and even after I’d finished the game there were still secrets I was learning in the bolts and gears of these contraptions, an overlooked detail here or there from which I could squeeze one more priceless advantage in runs to come. Much of my time was spent doing just this, picking the game apart, its levels, its controls and—most of all—its cutscenes. It’s a good thing I could re-watch those, too, because they tended to require multiple viewings to wrap my head around.
Sin & Punishment has the story its gameplay deserves. The opening scene leaves you gasping for context, and the first few minutes aren’t any better. Who are the rebels? What are they rebelling against? What are the Ruffians? Why are you fighting them in a dream in the first stage? Doesn’t this dream look like it takes place in prehistoric times? Just how long have these creatures been around, anyway? The game’s backstory is sometimes hinted at, but at no point is it ever explicitly revealed. The only thing I know of that might shed some light on it is an official site from 2000, provided you can read Japanese (Love that Y2K web design, by the way.)
What’s the plot? Imagine you pull the wrong brick from a Jenga tower. Now imagine what happens next. Now imagine it in slow-motion. That’s the plot. There’s a broader story here, but the tiny slice of that story we get to peek at through this game begins at the moment of its collapse and subsequent spiral. The first shot is of the valiant rebel group being gunned down, all but exterminated. All but; the game centers on the attempts of one last group of three to escape from a totalitarian Tokyo: Saki & Airen, biologically-enhanced monster-human hybrids chased by the police state, and Achi, a kiddie-voiced psychic waif who is—spoiler alert—not what she seems.
“Soon, it will all begin,” says Achi in the last line of the opening sequence, but whatever the story might have been running up to this point has already ended. We’re just watching the aftermath of the storm, a roller coaster ride going straight down. Characters drop like flies, cities are destroyed, the dreams that brought the trio this far are soundly crushed, and by the end there’s nothing for them to come back to but rocks, ruins, and the prospect of a lifetime spent on the run. They even spared extra polygons on their character models to articulate their ankles and sinewy musculature, giving our fugitive heroes a sense of desperate raggedness. It’s a short ride, but that just means it doesn’t run out of steam during the second act. It ends in the kind of open-ended scenario that would’ve been a hit with fanfic writers (Though there was a sequel released for the Wii that I’ve been meaning to get back to.)
It all combines into a game that is aggressively anime. That means more than you’d think. “This whole game could’ve aired on mid-‘00s Toonami, honestly. You could’ve found it elbow-deep in a bin of late-'90s OVAs. It’s a very specific kind of style” (04/18/2017 11:49 PM). Or it could’ve been featured as a Toonami game review. It’s a style that harkens not to classics like Ghost in the Shell or Neon Genesis Evangelion, but to the shows that inevitably sprung up around them, tried to be like them, and failed, shows made by people who, moved though they might have been by these classics, didn’t understand why, misdiagnosed the source of that emotional response as the shows’ tangible surface tropes (read: database elements,) and so appropriated those elements in hopes of creating that same effect (You don’t like blue hair; You like a character whose story is sympathetic.)
NOTE: For those of you who can’t read Japanese (including myself,) the text translates to: “Get in the Ruffian, Airen!”
Typically, the resulting stories are hollow, and Sin & Punishment is certainly not a deep theological treatise with infinite layers of subtext (though I am getting a faint “Fall of Man” vibe from the climax, ending and, uh, title.) It’s hammy voice acting and cheesy writing on a Wonder Bread apocalypse. But it wears these symbols so well, so proudly flaunts its mindscapes, its monologues and moodiness (not to mention its bizarre and borderline-fetishistic obsession with blood,) that it becomes its own aesthetic. The game is stylish as heck. It’s a great game to take screenshots in, and it’s the kind of game I can a see certain kind of person plastering all over a Tumblr blog. (I’m sorry, did I say “a certain kind of person?” I meant @posthumanwanderings.) Key to its success, in my opinion, is the way this kind of story compliments a game that could only have been harder to read if I’d imported an N64 copy and had to navigate the menus in their original Japanese. Every element of this game conspires to drown you in its utter excess, but the result isn’t an information overload. Or rather, it is, but this overload turns out to be a surprising source of pleasure.
I’m taking a break from the game for a while. It’s not technically over; after barely scraping through the game, I was confronted with a new Hard Mode, and I’ve heard that there’s a Turbo Mode and a Frame-Skip mode after that (Save me, Achi.) But judging by the rate it took me to wrap up normal mode, I don’t think I’ll have enough time to clear this too. Well, I will, but I’ll have to play nothing else if I want to get that done anytime soon, and I’ve already been doing that for far too long. Nevertheless, I’m sure that no matter when I decide to come back, my claw will spring to command like a repressed instinct.
In case you don’t know who I am, I write stuff like this all the time, and I’m even taking commissions (info here.) For what it’s worth, I also have a Ko-fi page you can donate to if you want, as well as a Patreon.
(EDIT: By the way, a big special thanks to my patron, Raeyn of @plus10tofireresist!)
EDIT: As a minor revision when importing this to Neocities,
I changed the second instance of "confounding" to "taxing". (0918.104.22.1688)
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