EASY DOES IT 


It hit me somewhere around the fiery end of the second chapter, when I was busily twirling my lunar staff like a maniac and trying to knock Genshin on his smug, Spider-clan ass.

Hey, I haven’t died yet.

Not even once.

Whoa.

Now if this were the original Ninja Gaiden – the ball-breakingly difficult Xbox classic that gamers still discuss in hushed tones, as if it might yet rise up, break out of its DVD case and smite their sorry butts once more – this would not have been the case. Quite the contrary, the “restart/continue” button would have been pushed at least as often as the “off” button was mashed when Denise Richards’ ill-fated reality show popped up on the TV screen last month.

But it’s not.

It’s the sequel, which features an “acolyte” mode – now there’s a nice, non-insulting way to say “amateur,” wouldn’t you agree? – that, unlike the first game, didn’t even make me feel even slightly emasculated for selecting it. Character Ryu Hayabusa’s not the only one dialing down the difficulty these days, embracing the Zen of an easier path. Hell, some games even give you the option of switching to the kiddie table in the middle of dinner. Get your flame-tattooed head handed to you enough times in the “normal” or “hard” mode of God of War: Chains of Olympus, and the game will stop to ask – embarrassingly – if you’d prefer to flip to “easy” mode. (Funny how the game never asks if you’d like to ramp up the difficulty when you’re piling up medusa corpses with the ease of Hulk Hogan inserting his foot into his mouth.) This feels like the video-game equivalent of being carded while sneaking into an R-rated movie.

 Even a game like Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee 2, one of my current favorite diversions on the PSP, has instituted an “easy shot” function – and this is a game with a built-in casual fan base, a game whose central mechanic requires nothing more than clicking a button three times on a shot meter. Seriously, how easy has easy become? Punch the “X” button, receive a hole in one?

 It’s not quite that bad, but it feels like it’s edging ever closer.

Just about everyone recognizes that the profile of a hard-core gamer is evolving – some would even say evaporating into the mist – as the industry edges ever closer to mainstream with every copy of Wii Fit that flies off the shelves. And you can argue that including “easy” in the mode menu simply gives gamers another option, broadening the appeal of a game; after all, if you’re reasonably new to gaming, do you really want to drop 60 bucks on Ninja Gaiden II only to become permanently stuck on a boss battle because you can’t figure out how to deploy anything other than your katana into empty air?

Well, not so fast there, Easy E. If it’s there, the temptation to use the easy setting becomes like sipping from the dark side of the Force, especially when everyone else you know is on Level Seven while you’re toiling to solve Level Three. It’s not just about earning the respect of fragmazter664 and the rest of the chest-thumpers who can beat Gears of War on the “insane” setting. Doesn’t beating a game on its easiest setting diminish the accomplishment? Olympic athletes don’t score any medals for taking the 500 meters at a brisk stroll – well, at least not yet.

 If it sounds like I’ve become a curmudgeon who carps about awarding a participation medal to every player on the fifth-grade soccer team, well, I guess I am. Of course, I’m also a clumsy-thumbed gamer who complained about how impossible it was to blast through Capcom’s Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening, so maybe this cavalcade of easy is payback. Karma is a bitch, especially when it shows up with well-coiffed hair and a big gun.

 Once upon a time, the concept of “easy” wasn’t part of the video-game picture. There was no option to wind down the complicated control scheme on a coin-op classic like Defender. Instead, you just blew through stacks of quarters until you figured out how to collect the matchstick humans in midair while dodging the mutants and space mines at the same time. Going into a killer game like Robotron: 2084, you’d be lucky to survive to the fourth wave. If you had to have an easier touch, you could always take the walk of shame up to the front of the arcade and play a cinch-fest like Sea Wolf. And yes, we liked it that way.

As the evergreen quote by an unknown author goes, “There are always two choices – two paths to take. One is easy, and its only reward is that it’s easy.” But it’s clear that the dude never lived to see 2008, and he’s never heard about achievements and gamer score.

arts@orlandoweekly.com

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