VA-11 Hall-A and Japanese PC Cyberpunk

Earlier this year, we finally saw the release of the Venezuelan visual novel VA-11 Hall-A. If you missed out, I wrote a pretty comprehensive article on it for Hardcore Gaming 101, but the short story is that the game is a cyberpunk visual novel about a futuristic bar in a decaying city, telling the stories of the various customers that come in for some spirits and a break from the daily grind. It's easily one of the best games of 2016 by a large margin for me, but since I've already discussed how good it is in detail, I'll instead be focusing on the game's aesthetics today. It's a good as an excuse as any to finally talk about one of the coolest things Japan ever did: PC-98 gaming.

The PC-98 was one in a line of Japanese only PCs made in the 80s and 90s, and it was the home to a gaming Renaissance we here in the west have only gotten a taste of. We know it mainly because Hideo Kojima released Snatcher on the sister PC-88 series, while his equally infamous Policenauts found a home on the PC-98 line proper. There was also the strange case of the failed localization of Princess Maker 2, though we were supposed to get the DOS version. If you dig around the net awhile, it won't be long before you come across beautiful screenshots and gifs of old games from the PC line. The machine was god's gift to eroge, and even saw some Touhou Project games. Similar PCs also out at the time saw the release of major franchises like Metal Gear, and all of it was for Japanese eyes only.

Despite this, the PC-98 and its ilk has gained a sort of mythical status among many anime and gaming fans. The intricate pixel art found in many releases and old, forgotten art styles have created a strangely timeless style, helped by the heavy bent towards cyberpunk. Japan loved it some cyberpunk back then, and Blade Runner was a huge cultural phenomenon that helped whipped up the big OVA movement. As a result, many games released on Japanese PCs focused on futuristic settings and styles, with lots of bright lights and complex, bulky machines. It's like some dreamlike other-world we were never privy to, and no matter what the actual quality of the games were, just the style and look they carried was enough to instantly endear a myth of what these machines held.

As time has gone on, a lot of western productions have taken inspiration from this era. Christine Love's Digital: A Love Story tries capturing the feel of an old western PC, but it captures a similar aesthetic to Japanese PCs. The fantastic Read Only Memories takes more direct inspiration, channeling the likes of Snatcher most, even down to a similar aiming mechanic during one section. It also perfectly captured a few similar design sensibilities, like a focus on pop-up images and colorful screens. VA-11 Hall-A, though, really sticks out to how close it sticks to this style and blends it with other styles from the time.

Along with similar approach to presentation and the focus on unnecessarily decorative menus, VA-11 is basically the single most 80s game to come out in a long while. It makes pretty direct visual references to Akira, Blade Runner, Bubblegum Crisis, Ghost in the Shell, Metal Gear, Snatcher, Policenauts, Shin Megami Tensei, and a whole mess of games and works that were partly inspired by that era or helped inspire it. It's THE 80s cyberpunk piece. I also hope it's a sign of a trend of things to come, because that is a style we need to see more of. I can't think of a time where it hasn't been more relevant. Just look at the state of hings in the United States and where it's headed for the next few years. Cyberpunk is basically the grim fantasy version of that.

It's the 80s Japanese PC game style of cyberpunk that has always struck me most. There's just something so unbelievable about it. I think cyberpunk is just the right genre to explore that coming grim landscape in a meaningful manner, allowing us to take in the worst and best of what life has to offer in such a fantastical way. VA-11 Hall-A is a fantastic example of this. Using their own experience in living in a degrading country, the developers crafted a story filled with overpowering dread, but in a comfortable way. No matter how bad it gets, life goes on, and there's something beautiful to find in the waste and rubble. That's the cyberpunk I love: Grim, unflinching, and gloriously human. No matter how much technology advances or government corrupts, we keep going and adapt. As a people, we will continue on into the next era. History tends to move in cycles as it continues on a direct path to an unknown future, and as history tells us, the worst doesn't last forever. It will get better. Until then, we fight through and enjoy the small things the best we can.

That's what this aesthetic has always said to me. It's a dream coated in darkness and horror, but it is a dream. There's always something to strive for. Good cyberpunk, particularly VA-11 Hall-A, tackles such dark elements so unflinchingly and still finds levity in it. It's very nihilistic, but shows beauty still exists within a struggle. We're here right now. Let's enjoy that as best we can.

To all my fellow queer friends and racial minorities, we will continue past this. Stay safe, and most importantly, find something that makes you smile. Do what you can and go enjoy a drink after. You earned it.


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