a review of Sin And Punishment: Successor To The Sky 『罪と罰 宇宙の後継者 』tsumi to batsu: sora no koukeisha (japanese title)
a videogame developed by treasure
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo wii
text by tim rogers
Many were wondering when someone would make a Treasure game for the Nintendo Wii. Technically, Treasure did release Bleach: Versus Crusade for the Wii last year, and that was maybe a Treasure game, though seeing as it didn’t make countless references to other Treasure franchises, it didn’t count.
Well, it’s happened. It took Treasure to make a Treasure game for the Wii. Sin and Punishment: Successor to the Sky, whatever that means, is that Treasure game.
When the Nintendo Wii’s controller was first detailed via a thrown together sizzle reel that depicted Japanese teenagers aiming at an unseen television screen whilst borderline cackling with glee, sixteen or so of the internet’s most vocal nerds immediately stood up and declared to the cold, dead silence of our their basements: “This is it. This is what Treasure was talking about, when they made Sin and Punishment.” The announcement of the Virtual Console only lent further credence to the claim: the Virtual Console was invented so that they could put Treasure’s Sin and Punishment up there with the control scheme it deserved, and the entire world would love it and literally dump billions of dollars into Treasure’s lap, finally giving them the financial freedom they need to go on and do all those things we the devoted know that they simply must do — like reboot the currently existing concepts of blockbuster films, television serials, pop music, and / or toothbrushes, et cetera, with That Treasure Attention to Detail we all respect so dearly.
Unfortunately, Nintendo’s announcement that any and all Virtual Console games would support no new features in the name of some fetishistic purity — even going so far as to keep the shoddy screen resolutions in PAL territories — put a damper on our dreams. Then Sin and Punishment was announced and released. Miraculously, it made it to the West, as well, even though it had previously never been released outside Japan.
The World Refused to Burn. Many Treasure fanatics, who had shamefully never played Sin and Punishment, gave it a whirl and nearly died to witness its greatness.
For some reason, when Sin and Punishment 2 was announced, close to nobody wet their pants (except us (winking smiley face)).
Why is this? Why would you want a sequel to Sin and Punishment? Isn’t it nutty enough over there by itself? What could any sequel possibly add to that?
The buzz surrounding Sin and Punishment 2 was so subaudible that it managed to completely slip under our radar and be released at a time when we literally had no idea it was even more than a quarter developed, much less near-complete with a release date announced, much less actually released. There it was, on a shelf, next to Bayonetta, in the New Games section, on October 29th, 2009. We confess: we were at the store to buy Bayonetta. We did buy it, and we hate it. Fuck that game. Fuck Weekly Famitsu for giving it a perfect score. Fuck Japan for letting this shit happen, and for ignoring Sin and Punishment 2. The game opens with a title card in English: “In a world of light and darkness, where perception is reality”. What the fuck does that mean? “Where perception is reality”? Did anyone actually apply any brainpower, there?
ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT THE GAME NOW
So here’s Sin and Punishment 2. It should be noted, however, that the game title actually contains no numeral. This fact is irrelevant. It is, without a doubt, a sequel to Sin and Punishment. Where other Nintendo Wii game developers saw a chance to translate everyday hand movements like vegetable-chopping or flashlight shining to controls in games about chopping vegetables or shining flashlights, Treasure saw and seized the opportunity to use the Wii remote to translate the everyday gestures of playing a hardcore shooting game into a hardcore shooting game.
An urban-myth-like tale has proliferated, on the internet, that Treasure was originally founded by Konami’s Contra team because the team members had gotten tired of making sequels. We have met and conversed with the CEO of Treasure, Mr. Masato Maegawa, and come away with an excellent rumor-busting question-answer: no, Treasure was founded so they wouldn’t have to make sequels of Contra. They wanted to make their own games. They wanted to explore game mechanics that they personally found compelling, instead of making games for the masses. (Back then, Contra was “for the masses”.)
We asked Treasure, don’t you guys want to be rich? Masato Maegawa’s answer was a quick, bold, “No”. They just want to make the games they want to make. So why did they try to make a mascot game (Dynamite Headdy)? Was that a postmodern joke? Why do they make all those Bleach games? For money? Just to stay afloat? Why did they make Sin and Punishment with big, bold 3D cut-scenes and a voice script entirely in English?
Sin and Punishment was huge, for a Treasure game. It took the Panzer Dragoon style of on-rails shooting game to a whole new level. The mechanics were tougher and stickier. The cut scenes were lengthier and much harder to relate to. The bosses were more plentiful. The construction and flow of the game was nothing short of masterpiecely. The game was clearly made with the entire world in mind, with a catch: the “entire world” was a hypothetical projection, an assumption that maybe some day the entire world will be Treasure fans.
Sin and Punishment would have probably been revered as art if Treasure had employed a little better marketing, or maybe waited ten years to make it, and make it in HD. The way it was released, it likely frightened Nintendo of Every Country Except Japan, which meant it never saw release outside Japan. The story was just too obtuse. The cut scenes were just way too long. The words “PRESS START TO SKIP” blink epileptically at the top of the screen throughout every cut scene. The English script was so bad it wasn’t even laughable. It was like watching the opening of Zero Wing mashed-up with a video of someone stomping kittens in grotesque slow motion.
It turns out that Sin and Punishment is based on a “light novel”. The “light novel” is a concept probably unique to the island nation of Japan. Basically, it’s a comic book without pictures. Paragraphs are very, very seldom more than three sentences. One paragraph would usually be one frame of a manga. Characters’ dialogue lines are preceded by a short, complete, present-tense sentence that names the character speaking, the character(s) being spoken to, and maybe an “~ly” adverb. (“Jimbo turns fiercely to Sully: ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.'”) Usually, readers buy light novels because they like the comic artist who contributed the cover. Light novels are basically like junior novelizations of movies too bad to actually exist, aimed at a market made up entirely of kids who have read enough comics to spontaneously conceive and design a fully-drawn manga in their head while they read a light novel.
We haven’t read the Sin and Punishment light novels, because we’re afraid to, or because we’re pretty sure that the complex universe in which plucky resistance fighters blast grotesque alien behemoths who have body parts that exist just so that they can be detonated by other body parts just wouldn’t really work without letting us press the trigger ourselves. Maybe there’s more to them we would assume by just playing the game, though we’re more than happy enough to decide that there isn’t. We rather like the conclusion to which the games have pushed up: in this world, the “Sin” is breathing, and the “Punishment” is death by gunshot wound to the head-equivalent.
Biological life forms are a sin, and they must be punished by being Made Dead.
Robots are a sin, and they must be punished by being destroyed with lasers.
So here’s how you play the game. You are a guy with a gun. Your guy is running at full speed. The camera is behind your back. You use the analog stick on the nunchuk to move your guy around. You use the Wii remote pointer to aim your crosshair. On the Nintendo 64, you used the directional pad to move your guy and the analog stick to aim. Sin and Punishment 2 lets you use a Gamecube pad, for the insipid “purists”. You’d be a fool to use it. The shit in this game gets way too real way too quickly. Get over yourself, and use the fucking Wii remote.
You press the little button on the nunchuk to make your guy jump. You press the big button, in conjunction with a direction on the analog stick, to make him roll. To roll in the “traditional” controls, you have to double-tap a direction on the directional pad. That worked pretty well in the Nintendo 64 game, though in the sequel, as we said in the last paragraph, the shit gets way too real way too fast, so it’s probably better if you just use the instant, one-button roll command.
You press the B button — the trigger button — on the Wii remote to shoot. That’s important! Remember that part! For most of the game, as in any bullet hell experience, you’re going to be following the ABS rule: “Always Be Shooting”.
“Most of the game” implies 99% of the duration, with the other 1% existing as half-second intervals distributed evenly throughout the experience. At these times, you have to let go of the shooting button and then tap it, very gently, like you would an ass. This causes you to swing your sword. In the first Sin and Punishment, the sword was a big long bayonett thing mounted on our gun. In the sequel, it’s a laser-saber thing that comes out of dude’s elbow. Man, whatever. It still works the same: the sword will one-hit kill most enemies that get close to you, and, most importantly, it will reflect certain enemy projectiles.
The sequel adds a new use for the sword: you can use it to literally destroy / absorb about 90% of enemy fire. (The other 10% is either unblockable or reflectable.)
All of the above features were present in Sin and Punishment. The sequel lets you do three new things: lock on, shoot charged shots, and fly. The first two are really awesome. The latter is kind of lame.
You can lock on by pressing the A button — the big round button on top of the Wii remote. You could do something like this in Sin and Punishment, though it required you to press a button to switch your dude into a whole different “firing mode”. It works a lot better as something that’s always turned on.
You hover the cursor around an enemy and gingerly tap the A button to initiate a lock on. A red circle closes around him. Now you can just hold down the fire button as you dance around the screen, dodging projectiles and shooting. The game starts to feel like a bullet hell shooter at some points. Just hold the fire button and move around, confident that you’re hitting something.
When you’re not locked on, you can play the game like a third-person shooter. It’s fun enough this way. Though locking on has its benefits. One of the benefits is huge: when you’re locked on to a dude, any projectiles you hit with your sword will fly directly at that dude.
This is really subtly brilliant. In Sin and Punishment, where you moved the crosshairs with the analog stick, all you had to do when you wanted to “lock on” to an enemy was let go of the analog stick. Maybe the guy would move, or maybe he wouldn’t. Usually he wouldn’t move too much. Then you could sword some projectile in his direction, and pump your fist when you get the kill. The sequel’s lock-on ability gives the level planners license to let the enemies move around a whole hell of a lot more, and also create some really intriguing mini-game-within-a-game scenarios where you find yourself buzzing around the screen trying to knock back reflectable projectiles. The lock on releases every time an enemy is hit with a big hit, even if he’s not killed. So let’s say you’ve got this big robot-thing in the background, and a missile launcher shooting missiles. You lock on to the robot, reflect a missile, and then sweep your crosshairs back over the robot, lock on to him again, buzz over to another missile, and knock it back at him. It’s fun. It feels really sticky, like you’re actually doing something.
Then you have the charge shot. To charge a shot, hover your crosshairs over an enemy and then hold the A button. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to tap the A button to lock on to the enemy before charging the shot. Let go when the shot is fully charged and you will deliver a crushing blow. The charge shot will require about twenty seconds’ of waiting to become usable again. The boy (Isa) has a charge shot that delivers one aggressive blow on one enemy of your choice. The girl (Kachi) has a charge shot that can lock on to and chase multiple targets (like Panzer Dragoon).
Throughout the first half of the game, on any difficulty, firing a charge shot is what you do when you want to take down a big enemy in style. For the second half, it’s something you will do every time the opportunity presents itself. During later boss fights, you will be expected to fire a charge shot at every opportunity, and sword back any swordable projectiles. You will be expected to hit the enemy with your much-stronger-than-your-gun sword attack whenever he is close enough, as well. You will play the game this way, or, in true Treasure fashion, you will suck, and you will not enjoy yourself. Treasure fans enjoy the sermon portion of the games almost as much as they enjoy the experimental coming-to-grips part.
So, Treasure fans, do not be afraid: the sequel to Sin and Punishment pulls no punches. It is the scariest kind of straight-ahead run-and-gun shooter for its first half, and the most teeth-grinding type of perfectionist boss parade for its second half. We got over our hang-ups regarding the first Sin and Punishment‘s terrible story and voice acting, and learned to love the idiocy in the sequel — which weirdly now takes place in a universe where everyone speaks Japanese, where the people cower under the shadow of a weird, sick, evil empire whose entire economy exists to purchase bullets. What in the flaming fuck happens in this story, we don’t know, though we love it so much we’ve played it nine times. We didn’t even skip the cut-scenes for, like, three of those times. They’re so much terser, this time around. There’s less of the burning desire to “explain”. We have our two characters — a boy and a girl he’s trying to protect — on the run from people who want the girl. It turns out the boy was sent to kill the girl — cleverly, before the story begins — though something about her changed his mind. How nice; how small. All of the conversations in the game attack the “give us the girl” line from a different angle. The boy’s retorts similarly reinvent the “Never!” The bad guys have miniature personalities. We have a Japanese girl who has a sword, and a Chinese guy who commands a flaming dragon, and a fat man who can turn into a manta ray or a whole conference of killer whales, for example. At one point, you ride a lizard down a highway while shooting at a giant sprinting tiger. Later, you sprint or fly down a catwalk, sword-deflecting stampeding buffalo at distant airborne gunships. By the end of the game, you’re in space, fighting a monolithic Ikaruga ship. Either way, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever in the hell is “happening” in your character’s immediate surroundings, whatever the enemies / monsters / robots are made of, the conflict is always clear: here’s a guy trying to not die, and succeeding maybe-gorgeously. We love this game. We even love the music — the boss fight themes are so well-produced that we instantly thought, “so this is what Treasure was trying to do with the Mega Drive sound chip!”
Why are we only giving it three and a half stars? Two reasons:
1. They took out the “PLEEEEASE CONTINUE?” and “GET BONUS!” voice samples, and
2. Because there’s too much flying.
The flying kind of sucks. We’re going to sound like purist-posers when we say this: despite the sequel’s bigger set-pieces and heartier, chunky, soup-that-eats-like-a-meal progression, the original was a better game to play at any given moment because of the jumping.
Jumping meant you always knew your place on the screen. It meant that the level planners could always fall back on “give the player something to jump over” in a pinch. You felt more grounded, when attacked by a harrier-like plane-thing. It shot machinegun bullets at your feet, and you jumped over them while skipping horizontally to the right to quickly reflect back a missile.
Now, you have the choice to be flying around in the air whenever you want. The only risk is that it takes about three-quarters of a second to lift your guy / girl off the ground with his little soccer-ball-shaped jetpack / hovering skateboard.
Once you’re in the air, the enemies seldom take the opportunity to encourage you to not be in the air. The level planners got kind of lazy with the flying thing. Most of the levels in the game see you flying from start to finish. “The Aircraft Carrier Level” from the first Sin and Punishment is famous to this day as a pinnacle of shooting-game level design, and that level has you flying through the air, shooting at super-distant enemies, for most of its running time, though the secret is that in The Aircraft Carrier Level, you’re still technically standing on the ground meaning that you still can and have to jump at many key instants. It’s just that the “ground” in The Aircraft Carrier Level happened to be a chunk of pavement which a psychic little girl is hovering via the power of telekinesis.
We’re grateful that the sequel doesn’t explain its flying with as much needless exposition, really (the explanation is: glowing, soccer-ball-shaped flight backpack). Though we were a little shitted off that it made us do it so much. Where’s the finesse in all this flying around? Sure, if you put guns to our heads and told us to choose either the missile reflecting or the jumping from Sin and Punishment, we’d choose missile reflecting in a heartbeat (and maybe ask you to scratch an itchy spot on our scalp with that sexy metal of yours), though that doesn’t mean we don’t miss the jumping.
In the sequel, most of the time, the most graceful you’re going to feel is when you use the dodge button to zip through an enemy projectile on the screen. That doesn’t look as neat, or explainable to a casual observer, as jumping over machine gun spray! Here’s where we pause to reflect upon our emerging impression of the psyche of a Treasure programmer: whether the bullets are roll-dodged or jumped over, the “result” is the same: No Damage Taken.
It’s just weird, though. Rolling is an action that makes you invincible for a moment, at the expense of being able to not shoot while rolling. You might find yourself just rolling all over the place all of the time. Just, rolling like a real nutter. Eventually, the programmers (also the play-testers, it seems) start putting individual bullets in each bullet curtain just shorter apart than your typical rolling distance, meaning that if you roll without thinking sufficiently before hand, you might end up inside a bullet, and screaming with hateful frustration.
So, thanks to all the flying, we’ve got a game where your character can be at any part of the screen at any time. The best parts of the game are arguably when it shifts into side-scrolling mode — which the first Sin and Punishment waited impatiently to the very last stage to do, and the sequel joyfully does right there in stage two — and various obstacles fall from the top of the screen, effectively forcing you to play Space Tetris. Again, as seen in the entire NES era of game design, restrictions breed fun: when the game starts forbidding you access to certain parts of the screen, forcing you to work with what you have, your mind lights up. Then there are the set-pieces where you fight a boss with no life meter — only multiple targets with immediate on-screen consequences. Like, you’re trying to raise a crane and two platforms up to the top of a giant pyramid. You take hits, dwindle to a love-tap away from history, get serious, and realize that maybe you’re following the wrong rules. You’re thinking on your feet — and in the air! Wow! Games-within-games abound in this game. Much of the time, asking yourself what you’re supposed to do is the question that comes second in line after what kind of game it is you’re playing at this very moment. It’s fun — bite-sized, momentary puzzles where the solution usually involves aiming a gun and then firing it at something.
For most of the last half of the game, you’ll be constantly thinking in two planes: the 2D plane, and the 3D plane. Treasure games have flirted with this since Yuyu Hakusho on the Mega Drive — no, maybe since that stage in Gunstar Heroes where you can see the bosses watching you on a TV monitor. Either way, Guardian Heroes gave you a button to press to switch between planes. The new Sin and Punishment is much slicker than that. You’ve got the 2D plane, right there in front of you, usually consisting of bullet-curtain patterns that you must suffer and survive by navigating your character through their momentary labyrinths. Then you’ve got the 3D plane — out there in the horizon, infinitely textured. When you reflect a black-hole missile at a super-distant bullet-curtain-generating robot-thing standing on the deck of a battleship, you might have to suffer five more seconds of dodging before the reflected missile reaches and neutralizes its target. Sometimes, during this five seconds, you have Huge Fun, and sometimes you just kind of forget where you are and let yourself zone into the moment. Either way works. It’s a pretty great game.
It’s just, maybe it’s too much of everything. It’s run-and-gun, it’s jetpacking, it’s a hardcore 2D shooter, it’s a modern-like third-persoon 3D shooter. Only the jetpacking doesn’t work flying-colorfully. It makes the level design a little lazy. The end.
Watching a friend play this sequel to Sin and Punishment is enlightening. He might totally miss parts that you totally got, and he might discover things that you didn’t. Like, maybe you fought this one big-armed demon boss, and beat him, without realizing that you could use your sword to deflect his fists back whenever he does his big attack. Deflecting the fists doesn’t do any more than the minimum amount of damage to him, though it elicits an animation you’ve never seen, looks pretty bad-assed, and gives you a whole new idea for tackling the boss on your next time through.
Roger Ebert once wrote an article about how he shows “Citizen Kane” to groups of film students every year, and that he’d thought he’d seen everything in the film until one year, just a couple years ago, when a kid stopped the film (which students can do at any time during these showings, to ask Important Questions or bring up Important Points), to inform Ebert that “the chair moves”. The kid was right — while the camera pans through a wall, an unseen hand pulls a chair away.
Treasure games, in general, though hardly a match for “Citizen Kane”‘s artistic merits, are home to dozens of little things like that. This new Sin and Punishment includes a really neat take on “achievements” that, hopefully, we might see more of in games. Radiant Silvergun gave players bonuses for shooting arbitrary parts of the screen at arbitrary times. Ikaruga heaped on points if players participated in a non-common-sensical chaining system (which needn’t make “sense” from the perspective of the game being, at its core, a shooting game with a puzzle-like feel). Sin and Punishment‘s sequel offers players “Special Bonuses”, represented by bouncing gold medallions, eight times in every level. It doesn’t tell us, at any point, how to get the bonuses. We only know that we need to be daring. In the case of the above-mentioned boss with big hands: maybe you reflect his lightning-fast fists three times, and a gold medal pops out.
This feels very real, and not at all tenuous. The entirety of the game is a desperate struggle of two dumb kids with laser guns against all manner of supernatural freakbeasts or bad-science robots. Why shouldn’t the special scoring system require the players to try every desperate tactic, and to communicate in some outside-the-game community? This is how games live happiest.
Five years from now, game developers the world over will be talking about Treasure games. Treasure is probably the first foundation building block of the Monument of Games to Come. At this moment, in this context, it’s almost a tragedy how many great game ideas Treasure strung together in this sequel to Sin and Punishment, only to (no offense, Nintendo fans) just bang it out on the Wii with sloppy PS2-like graphics that betray the genuineness and delicious idiosyncrasy of the graphic design. If they don’t want to be rich, why does it look like they’re trying so hard? Or, like us, do they merely type really fast? (That’s a metaphor. Explanation: We usually have to warn girls whenever we drunk-email them on dating sites: just because the message is like 2,000 words long doesn’t mean we spent time on it.)
What we have here, at any rate, is the game equivalent of “Django” — a bizarre, virtuosic, misunderstood mishmash collision of great ideas and terrifying filth, to be later lauded as a turning point in the creative development of some great Quentin Tarantino-figure to come.
Have you ever had a male friend who asks, immediately, whenever anyone mentions any girl of any kind, “Does she have a sister?” Creepy, isn’t it? You might be like, “The new girl in the office made cookies for everybody”, and he immediately asks, “Does she have a sister?” He’s highlighting many elements of his own psyche. First, that he would never touch a girl that a buddy is into. Second, that in his world, the only reason a guy would mention a girl is that he is into her. Third, that he believes any and all other guys in the world are just like him. We used to know a guy like that, and we started asking people if the girls they mentioned had sisters, just as something of a piss-take. A friend mentions his sister, for example, and we say “Does she have a sister?” Or, if a guy informed us that a girl did have a sister, we would ask, “Does her sister have a sister?” Sometimes, the guys would say they didn’t know, they’d have to check, and we would lol like a deflating hyena falling down the world’s tallest upward escalator. The first Sin and Punishment was kind of like that joke. People never thought it was funny. At one point, we devised a much more clearly hilarious joke: namely, whenever a man mentions a girl of any kind, even his own sister, we say, “Did you remember to give her my phone number?” This is funnier. The sequel to Sin and Punishment is like the second joke. Back to the “Does she have a sister?” guy: if you ever tell him that you just had a one-night stand, and after he’s asked if the girl has a sister and you’ve said no, or that you don’t know, that you doubt you’ll ever see the girl again, he will almost invariably ask: “Was she hot?” If you say “Yes”, he will invariably ask, “Did you get a picture of her?” Of course you didn’t. Sin and Punishment: Successor to the Sky is a game about the one time you did get a picture of her.
SPECIAL (get) BONUS SECTION
This game was marketed poorly in Japan. There was a TV commercial, though we don’t watch (“hate”) TV in Japan, so we never saw it. We presume it uses the (really nice) theme song from the ending credits of the game. Aside from that commercial, which apparently showed on, like, two channels once every nine hours or so, the game had literally no marketing presence. Why not?
Because we like this game a little bit more lot, and because we want our website to be bigger and more popular than it (already?) is, we are going to offer you, Nintendo of America, full permission to do one or both of these two things:
1. You may, if you like, report “Four (out of four) Stars from Action Button Dot Net” on the back of the game box, even though we are only giving it three and a half.
2. You may use any of the following quotes / word-combinations (some cultivated from the text, some invented exclusively for this section) on the back of the box.
“. . . a veritable monster pancake stack of delicious, sticky frictions.”
“. . . the crunchiest, stickiest, most frictive game we’ve played in ages.”
“. . . graphical effects so freaky you’ll forget you aren’t wearing 3D glasses.”
“. . . the most fun we’ve had with our Wii since the News Channel.”
“It took Treasure to make a Treasure game.”
“Nothing short of masterpiecely.”
“. . . the “Sin” is breathing, and the “Punishment” is death by gunshot wound to the head-equivalent.”
“You are a guy with a gun.”
“The shit in this game gets way too real way too quickly. Get over yourself, and use the fucking Wii remote.”
“ABS: Always Be Shooting.”
“. . . pulls no punches . . .”
“. . . the scariest kind of straight-ahead run-and-gun shooter. . .”
“. . . the most teeth-grinding type of perfectionist boss parade. . .”
“big set-pieces . . . hearty, chunky, soup-that-eats-like-a-meal progression.”
“We love this game.”
“A pretty great game.”
“Very real, and not at all tenuous.”
“A desperate struggle of two dumb kids with laser guns against all manner of supernatural freakbeasts or bad-science robots.”
“Probably the first foundation building block of the Monument of Games to Come.”
“A bizarre, virtuosic, mishmash-collision of great ideas and terrifying filth, to be later lauded as a turning point in the creative development of some great figure to come.”
We used to work in marketing, you know. We used to get paid to pull out quotes, okay? We’re not going to say what company we worked for, because you wouldn’t like us. Just know that, hey,
1. this review is pretty god damn decently written!
2. kotaku.com pays us to write 13,000-word articles once a month about nothing in particular!
3. we paid for this game ourselves!
4. we put our favorite quote at the top! :-3
Anyway, happy marketing to you.