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Brain Scrap House #2 – Lonely Rolling Stars

My gaming time for much of the last week of February was spent playing, beating, and generally messing around with de Blob, the THQ-published Wii game released last fall to much fanfare from fans of quirky, fun games. De Blob centers around the title character, Blob, a member of the rebel group the Color Underground, which seeks to free their once colorful Chroma City from the monochrome dictatorship established by the INKD Corporation. In each massive level, Blob soaks up different colors of paint and roams the area, bringing color to whatever he touches. There are a variety of goals in each level, the main one of which is to generate enough “color energy” to reach the escape route before time runs out. The overall design is simple yet elegant, and the sound in particular is marvelous and well integrated into the gameplay. It’s a very addictive game that should put a smile on any jaded gamer’s face, and is yet another perfect example in the tiny genre of…

Wait, something’s wrong. You see, de Blob’s genre doesn’t actually have a name, so I’m not sure what to call it. The basic game design is very similar to Katamari Damacy and Elebits (aka Eledees), two other games I played and loved. All three feature large non-linear levels, often with sub-levels contained within, each one accessible by meeting a certain objective. In addition, they all require that their goals be met within a time limit in order to progress to the next level and they all have quirky stories and good music, but this is where the similarities end. The Katamari games and de Blob are third-person, but Elebits uses a first-person point of view. Katamari and Elebits require the collection of items to move forward, while progress in de Blob is determined by how a given environment changes. Katamari uses a blocky visual aesthetic, de Blob’s is filled with curves and round shapes, and that of Elebits is somewhere in between. Katamari’s Prince and de Blob’s Blob are silent, obedient heroes, while Elebits’ Kai not only has a distinct personality, but the story revolves around him rather than the tasks he does. Blob can freely jump around, unlike the Prince and Kai. And so on.

Still, for all their differences, the Katamari games, Elebits, and de Blob are all essentially cut from the same cloth. They all have also been assigned to various genres by reviewers and others. They have been called “action”, “puzzle”, “action/puzzle”, “adventure”, and/or “action/adventure” games. Of course, the problems with these labels is that they’re very broad. Moving on to more specific genre headings, Elebits has been called a “shooter” and de Blob a “platformer”, which they sort of are, but aren’t. One review I happened upon even labeled Elebits—which happens to have a multiplayer mode, same as Katamari and de Blob—as a “party” game!

Granted there aren’t many of these types of games around right now, but maybe it’s time they got a less generic name of their own. There are several named sub-genres already—”open world”, “strategy RPG”, “god game”, “Metroidvania”, “shmup”, “graphical text adventure”, and so on—so what’s one more?

In the early days of a genre’s prominence, the “clone” term is often an acceptable, quick substitute for an actual name. Games were said to be clones of other, older games that were not necessarily the first of their kind, but were the first to garner a certain amount of recognition. Thus, we saw the likes of Mario clones, Doom clones, and GTA clones before terms like platformer, first-person shooter, and sandbox/open world game came about. Problem is, a lot of the early games inspired by such landmark titles were “clones” and by the time that games that were more original (but still similar in basic structure) came about – your Quakes and Assassin’s Creeds, for instance—the genre names we all know today were already being, or had been, established. As previously mentioned, Elebits and de Blob are both very different from Katamari Damacy, and excellent in their own respect, so calling them “Katamari clones” does them a bit of a disservice.

With this naming option right out, I thought for a while about what new genre term could be used to encompass Katamari, Elebits, de Blob, and other games of their ilk, and the one I liked best has much in common with the term “sandbox”, a genre which shares DNA with these games. The term I came up with is “garden”. Like a real-life sandbox, a garden is a contained area, usually outdoors, which can be handled in any way its user likes. However, while the main purpose of a sandbox is play, a garden’s purpose is something else entirely: cultivation. Whether it is used for food, or simply for aesthetic reasons, a garden is a place to grow things. On top of that, the success or failure of a garden hinges on a number of factors, but the main ones are the garden itself (quality of the soil, its location, the types of plants used, and so on) and the skill of the gardener.

Seeing as how Katamari, Elebits, and de Blob are all games where the player’s actions, above all else, directly alter the environment with the goal of “cultivating” a certain amount of color, electricity, or random, everyday objects, I think the “garden” term fits rather well. What do you think? I’m curious to hear your thoughts, as well as other ideas for naming this and/or any other genre that is currently nameless.

Special Stage: In my previous column, I stated that the Sonic Saturday morning cartoon characters never appeared in a video game. It seems this was incorrect, as some of them did apparently appear in Sonic Spinball, according to this piece at 1Up’s retro games blog; sadly, I never got far enough in Sonic Spinball to see them. Some commenters also pointed out the appearances of characters from the weekday Sonic cartoon in the Puyo Puyo knockoff Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, which I did know about, though I wasn’t aware that the source for these characters was the cartoon and not the other way around.

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