They say there's a war going on in video games. But those of us who have been around a while know what real war looks like. It is the image of two perfectly matched adversaries locked in brutal combat, their faces twisted with a terrible rage that burns in their souls and blackens their hearts. The air is filled with thunderous primal screams, punctuated only by the sound of a hedgehog bashing a plumber's head against a pipe.
That's how it was, right up to the mid-90s. Then along came PlayStation, flattening the battlefield and crushing the opposition with its giant tank of hip. Video games were no longer about chiptunes and cartoons; they were about slick visuals and sick beats. They were cool.
If there's one game that exemplifies what PlayStation meant back then, it's Vib-Ribbon. Masaya Matsuura had already established his credentials as king of the rhythm action genre with 1996's PaRappa the Rapper. For the follow-up, released three years later, he stripped everything back, swapping felt tip colours and karate-chopping onions for monochrome vectors and stick figures.
On paper, the end result sounds rubbish: it's a game about a dancing rabbit, played with only four buttons and designed using a zero-colour palette. But throw in a fabulous soundtrack, an impressive technical feat, a dash of quirky charm and a ton of minimalist cool, and you've got a game that could only have been made for one console.
And in one country. Vib-Ribbon is subtly but impossibly Japanese (perhaps too Japanese for Sony Computer Entertainment America - it was never released in the US.) The in-game tutorial even reads almost like a haiku:
"Vib-Ribbon is a game Where you press the buttons That match the sound-generated shapes."
That about sums it up. You control a rabbit, Vibri, walking along a straight line, and must navigate obstacles using L, R, down, X or simple combinations of these. Get it right and the rabbit evolves into an angel. Mess it up and the rabbit becomes a frog, then a worm, and then it's game over.
The soundtrack on the disc is provided by pop band Laugh and Peace, and it's one of the most Japanese things that's ever happened. Weird and cool and jolly all at once, it sounds like what would happen if Joy Division and Shonen Knife got pissed in a karaoke bar. In other words, it's genius.
Each song starts slowly but gathers pace and intensity in sync with the gameplay. The intention seems to be for the player to reach a state of flow, where they're performing rapid repetitive movements without the need for conscious thought, becoming one with the music as the rhythmic beats reach a euphoric peak. It's hard to know where these developers making games at the height of late nineties rave culture got their ideas from.
But although the in-game soundtrack is great, it's optional; the Vib-Ribbon software is loaded into the PlayStation's RAM, so you can stick any music CD in the disc drive. The game will then not only play your tunes of choice, but use them to generate unique soundscapes for Vibri to navigate.
This might not sound like a big deal in these days of console hard drives and multiple in-game radio stations. But back in the day, the idea of being to choose your own game soundtrack was thrilling.
It was something I'd already experimented with as a right-on student, sticking my Tracy Chapman cassette in my Amstrad micro stereo system and turning the sound down on Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest. "Standing in the welfare lines, crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation," Chapman would sing, and I would contemplate the fate of the proletariat while throwing barrels at crocodile pirates. Good times.
But Vib-Ribbon took things one step further by introducing the user-generated content element. Again, this was pretty mindblowing stuff back then (bearing in mind this was also a time when having five TV channels felt like a novelty, and owning a mobile phone seemed as futuristic and extravagant as wiping your arse on holograms.)
The best part was that you never knew what kind of level you were going to get. My housemates and I spent ages raking through our CDs, taking bets on who would make for more playable levels out of The Smashing Pumpkins and Whigfield. Literally hours of fun. (For the record, our Desert Island Vib-Ribbon Discs ended up being New Forms by Roni Size and Steps' seminal second album, Steptacular. With a bit of Enya for the morning after.)
It seems unlikely that this month's re-release of Vib-Ribbon will have the same impact on today's younger generation of gamers. Using a dead format to generate vector graphics doesn't seem that exciting next to Spotify, Minecraft and sentient servers that use invisible lasers to detect what kind of mood we're in and beam the appropriate entertainment directly into our eyes from space.
And that's fine; that's progress. Meanwhile, those of us who lived through the first Great War, and may yet live through this one, can reminisce about the olden days, when CDs weren't just something grandad uses to scare the birds down his allotment.
But if there's one lesson to be learned from history, it's that true innovation can only flourish if creativity comes before profits. As Sony's Shawn Layden explained in a recent blog, "Sometimes games like Vib-Ribbon require backing and belief that do not comport with the marketing wisdom of the day, or the forecasted financial upside. Sometimes you get behind a project because, well, you gotta believe."
Vib-Ribbon did not sell a million billion copies. But this quirky little curio did play a part in establishing PlayStation as a hip, bold, pioneering brand - and that's what made Sony a million billion dollars.
So come on, publishing executives; junk those pie charts and fire those focus groups. Forget about chasing the money and put your faith in new ideas, even when they seem too silly, too simplistic, too foreign or just too bonkers. The risk might well pay off in unexpected ways.
Hurry up and make Tokyo Jungle 2, is what I'm saying.
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