When we train in an artistic discipline, we learn the forms before we attempt personalized expression. Beginning dancers learn to tango. Before tackling freeform poetry, you learn sonnets and sestinas. Aspiring guitarists learn to read music through 12-bar blues. Formalism doesn’t constrain the artist: It’s a tool, a subtle language that expresses more meaning than the notes, words, or steps that make up the art’s chief mode of expression. As videogames’ premier formalists, the developers in the Japanese company Treasure have managed to simultaneously thrill their devoted fans and confound the average player with their precise action games. Their latest, Sin & Punishment: Star Successor, is a marriage of the shmup and beat-’em-up forms they’ve worked in for nearly 20 years. While it isn’t their magnum opus, it’s a sterling example of how to find inspiration in classic molds.
Expanding on the shoot-slash-dodge of its N64 predecessor, the new Wii Sin & Punishment is about demanding players’ attention while bombarding them with balletic chaos. Your avatar is either a boy named Isa, with a soccer ball-shaped jetpack, or a hoverboard-toting girl named Kachi. It’s your job to move them on foot or in the air to avoid getting killed by stormtroopers, giant birds, or hulking subterranean volcano turtles. At any given time, the screen is flooded with objects moving in complex patterns, and your other task is to shoot them all, or when they get too close, cut and kick them until they explode. Your control of a targeting reticule for shooting is free from Kachi or Isa’s movement, and your progress through the game’s stages is predefined and constant. You’re constantly accounting for your character’s physical location, enemy placement and bullets, the movement of your surroundings, and where to attack. It’s simple, yet deeply demanding, and repeat runs on previously conquered stages reveal layers of activity that are easy to miss the first time through. Videogames’ earliest modes are represented here: the projectile exchanges of Space Invaders, the careful momentum of Pole Position, the timing and score multiplication of Star Wars Arcade. Sin & Punishment is gaming in a pure form.
Form is the meat, because story certainly isn’t. Star Successor is every bit as oblique as the original Sin & Punishment (and every other Treasure game). Isa is a protector from Innerspace; Kachi is an alien teen from Outerspace. Isa is protecting Kachi from a droid attached to a nervous system floating in a tank of goo, who commands a legions of jerks in black suits called The Nebulox. You wouldn’t get most of that if you didn’t read the manual, though. The game isn’t beautiful, but its otherworldly aesthetic is wonderful because it’s so muted. Still, the tale and the graphics aren’t a reason to play this game. It’s worth playing because it’s good.