Tetsuya Mizuguchi Profile – The real Child of Eden (I) 01/07/2011Posted by jspanero in Features.
Tags: Rez, SEGA, Sega Rally, Space Channel 5, synesthesia, Tetsuya Mizuguchi
With his latest game Child of Eden out this month on Xbox 360, Tetsuya Mizuguchi is back after a few years away from the headlines. Auteur extraordinaire, Mizuguchi belongs to the pantheon of Japanese game designers with an uncanny ability for tapping into the avant-garde whilst still producing accessible gaming experiences.
His games often borrow from existing, validated concepts (like Tetris or Space Harrier), but his genius provides them with a sensorial overload that completely transforms them into organic experiences. In other words, his creations are a total trip – it has become a running joke in the industry that Mizuguchi’s games come from (and are meant to be played in) an, ahem, altered state of mind.
It’s no surprise that the man graduated on media aesthetics at University – even on failed experiments, you would be pressed to find another game designer who takes command of the audio-visual to serve the interactive in the way he does. Where other games try hard to make you feel like you are inside a film via heavy scripting and stylized cutscenes, Mizuguchi’s most powerful titles abandon such pretension and instead transport you right into the matrix of a game, showering your senses with playful noises and geometrical figures to interact with. In an industry full of frustrated Spielbergs, it is refreshing to find someone who understand the pure concept of videogaming.
While Mizuguchi considers himself a games producer and not an artist, he has co-written songs with several Japanese musicians (most famously Mondo Grosso) as well as directing some of their music videos. Looking at his games resumé, all this multimedia dabbling seems a far cry from his first release at SEGA, the muddy Sega Rally Championship in 1995. It is over the years that his productions have become less and less constrained by reality and the anthropomorphic and progressively more ethereal, with Child of Eden as the zenith of his immersion in the abstract, ultimately breaking free from the final constraint that is the gamepad.
His career can be split into two halves – the first one as a SEGA employee from 1990 until the Sammy-Sega merge in 2003, and his later output with his own company Q Entertainment. Mizuguchi, like others from the SEGA diaspora, left the company after realising that the opportunities to realise his vision inside the big S had dried up. While the split wasn’t acrimonious, it was clear that his ideas were not going to get too far into production when all stakeholders wanted to hear back then was Sonic Heroes this and Shadow The Hedgehog that. His vision would be however later vindicated when some of the signature games he produced for SEGA turned out to find new life in consoles of the following generations, not only via ports or sequels, but also as part of the offering in current online marketplaces – like a good visionary, Mizuguchi is a digital download evangelist and has gone to the extent of buying some of his old IPs from SEGA and re-working them for the XBLA. It is also a testament to his oeuvre that more than a decade after the games were published, UGA’s output is still not only relevant to new generations, but in many ways unsurpassed. Here is a brief summary of his most famous accomplishments:
- Sega Rally Championship (Arcade, 1995) & Sega Rally 2 (Arcade, 1998):
As part of the legendary AM5 studio, these two games were Mizuguchi’s first projects for mid-nineties arcade queen SEGA, and what a way to make an entrance. Most of the game designers in the world would have easily traded off the rents and fame of these brilliant entries in racing game history had their names being attached to the project, but not Mizuguchi. Tellingly, he has always spoken fondly of their production process even though it’s clear they were assignments rather than personal projects. Appearing at a time when real-time texturing in 3D was all the rage in videogames, they show a rare instance of the man following a trend rather than bucking it. They do, however, reveal some very Mizuguchi-like characteristics which would continue to be present in his later work – for a start, they demonstrate his unrelenting commitment to technology, with both games being right at the forefront of 3D racing when released. What’s more, whereas other racing games of the time like Ridge Racer or Daytona USA had been all about hitting the gas/accelerate button and perfecting reflexes, Sega Rally and its sequel required the player to change the way they handled the car depending on the surface they were driving on (mud, gravel or asphalt).
This focus on the environment and how it affects gameplay would be a constant in subsequent Mizuguchi projects, particularly audio landscapes in Lumines or Rez, but a glimpse of it can be spotted in the way Sega Rally Championship plays. For such an intense but short-lived experience (the original game only has 4 tracks and can be over in less than 10 minutes), Sega Rally Championship was massively popular both in the arcades (some cabins can still be found nowadays) and its following Saturn conversion, spawning sequels well into the noughties for current generation consoles. It is fitting, though, that Mizuguchi didn’t feel the need to return to the franchise once photo-realistic technology had reached ridiculously high levels of competency – he has been involved in far less worldly affairs ever since.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE RATE: While Sega Rally has Mizuguchi’s trademark naturalistic gameplay in spades, it is still a tighter-than-Spandex race game across wild landscapes. so please do not drink and drive. 1/5The latest game in the Sega Rally series, Sega Rally Online Arcade, was released this year on XBLA.
- Space Channel 5 (Dreamcast, 1999) & Space Channel 5 Part 2 (Dreamcast, 2002):
There is deliriously insane, and there is Space Channel 5. After the restrictions of the Sega Rally games, Mizuguchi finally got the chance, the budget and the team (the newly renamed United Game Artists studio at SEGA) to come out of the virtual closet and reveal his true (saturated) colours to the world in the most outrageous way. In this rhythm-action game the player guides cosplay queen Space Reporter Ulala through several stages where she out-dances the Morolians, an alien race threatening the human race with perpetual body-wiggling, by challenging them to a game of Simon-says in time with the music.
If this doesn’t sound preposterous enough, its high camp presentation values should convince anyone that we are talking serious mentalism here: there is the irresistible Ulala, oozing charm and chutzpah and casually flashing her knickers in her little orange PVC two piece, her mad power-strutting in towering platform shoes, the over-excited commentator who eggs her on (“Nice shootin’!”), the groovy soundtrack from the swinging sixties propelled into hyperspace, the pseudo-erotic dance-offs between Ulala and her sister Pudding (!), Michael Jackson’s alien cameo… Everything in Space Channel 5 screams psychedelic crazy to the nth power. The game is an explosion of unrelenting joy, a love letter to all things kawaii from a gifted team of designers who have had one too many Sunny Delights and found in Ulala their perfect hyper-hostess. Mizuguchi, with his first chance to prove his artistry, not only tricked us into playing one of the oldest games in the world (repeat after me!) with a silly smile on our faces, but he also managed to create an icon in the process.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE RATE: chu-chuing with Ulala while waiting for the comedown to kick in at 5am feels like being transported to a rave sponsored by Starburst and organised by 10 year olds. Unmissable. 4/5A copy of Space Channel 5 Part 2 on the PS2 is a rare collector’s item these days, but the game is also currently available as part of the “Dreamcast Collection” for the Xbox 360 and PC.
- Rez (Dreamcast, 2001):
To lift an analogy from his Space Channel 5 guest star Michael Jackson, much in the same way Off the wall marks a departure in his career from Motown standard fare into feverish disco king, so does Rez show a before and after in Mizuguchi’s. This is the moment where he finally breaks away from studio constraints and delivers on the earlier glimpses of brilliance.
Originally code-named K-Project, Rez was first born as a 3D shooter in the style of Panzer Dragoon, with a human protagonist running on the ground. This approach would later be ditched in favour of a more surreal setting and character representation, all wireframes and striking colours, much better suited to the cyberspace setting of the game. The K in the title alludes to Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first abstract painters and a major inspiration for Mizuguchi. Plenty has been said about the game’s aspirations to portray synesthesia – the visual representation of sounds as theorized by Kandinsky. This illusion is achieved in Rez by enhancing the electronic soundtrack with sound effects generated by the player’s actions and syncing the onscreen movement and the haptic feedback on the controller to the beat of the music. While this may sound awfully brainy, there is no denying that the genius blend of music, graphics and gameplay in Rez works smoothly. Like any good art piece, there is no need to understand the concept behind all the theory to feel a reaction to it.
Sure, you can play Rez as some sort of straight-forward shooter, trying to rack up the highest possible score, but that would be missing the point: you play Rez to the best of your abilities because it is AWESOME to listen to and watch what happens onscreen when you do so. It is a game so unique in its conception and it speaks in such an intimate way to the player that anyone who has ever experienced it remembers the occasion. When it came out, there was nothing of the kind on the gaming scene, and it has taken 10 years for Mizuguchi himself to come up with a spiritual successor (Child of Eden), because no one else would dare tread this path.
If you ever feel like the excitement for headshot counting, pod racing and goal scoring is diminishing and that you have (gasp!) fallen out of love with videogames, a hasty revisitation of Rez‘s psychotropic ecosystems will rekindle the passion instantly. This is Mizuguchi’s masterpiece, the poster child for videogames as an artistic expression, able to provoke an emotional response not just by incorporating elements from other media but by adding an interactivity exclusive to games that museum pieces cannot claim.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE RATE: Rez is not so much under the influence as chasing the dragon while riding a white horse on the druggy scale. Heart Games neither advocates nor berates the use of illegal substances, but if you were to try something fun this weekend, exploring Rez in the process could prove the trip of a lifetime. 6/5Playstation 2 copies of Rez pop up every so often on eBay, but the ultimate version of the game (Rez HD, with hi-def graphics and 5.1 Surround sound) is available on XBLA with Mizuguchi’s blessing.
In part two of this Mizuguchi feature, I will cover his later work with Q Entertainment leading up to Child of Eden. Look forward to some Genki Rockets fun.