Hard Project: Cowboy Bebop
When I find myself looking at anime and wondering if it was always just a series of horrible premises and teenage breasts, Cowboy Bebop is kind of my fallback. If you’ve never seen it, you should go fix that, but you could do worse than boiling it down as Firefly without references to the Civil War and with references to the mob. It’s not much of a leap from the two, is what I’m saying.
There have been two attempts to bring the title into video game format, one of which was an on-rail shooter that was more or less forgotten in the time it took to write this sentence while the other almost had a US release before everyone noticed that it was a terrible game. On the one hand, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a popular anime neither based off of video games nor mired in a series of weak and forgettable game adaptations. But what makes a Cowboy Bebop game so hard to get moving in the first place? Is it all the same problems that stymie a Firefly game?
Nope! It’s a comfortably unique series of problems.
A whole lot of what makes Cowboy Bebop a joy to watch basically doesn’t translate at all into a video game.
We’ve all played games where the look of places was a big deal, but one of the things that the series excelled at was setting scenes in the midst of crowded cities while giving an immediate sense of character to every single one. Often these were long scenes without a single word spoken, just stretches of carefully arranged visual chatter with a perfect soundtrack in the background. You really got a sense of how each city differed from another, despite the fact that all of them were ostensibly of the same basic food group.
That’s not even getting into the many episodes that almost had nothing to do with the crew of the Bebop or the huge portion of each episode that was spent chiefly with characters talking and sitting around. You could, on one level, look at it as wasted time – sure, most episodes were 80% chatter and 20% things actually happening. Yet the net result was always that you learned more about these people, that you understood who they were and what they were about on a more intimate level.
None of this fits well in a video game, naturally. But that’s the stuff that the series ran on. Leaving it out makes it feel less like Cowboy Bebop and more like something using the name for nefarious purposes, like… well, an alarming number of video games based off of licensed properties. When I sink back into the world of these largely incapable bounty hunters, I don’t want to be chasing waypoints. I want to be slumping around, enjoying the atmosphere, and after a whole lot of character building I’d like to end off with an action sequence. But, then again…
Demanding multiple parts
When stuff does happen in Cowboy Bebop, it happens in a big way. Spike, Faye, and Jet are all accomplished pilots and brawlers, each with a distinct style. The action sequences of the series are elaborate, and replicating them would take a lot of time and effort in any game. You don’t just need to combine a ground game and a space game, you need the ability to have elegant space shooters combined with an intricate melee system and plenty of options for shooting, too. Oh, and it needs to be a melee system that accounts for both one-on-one duels and fighting large groups.
This is leaving out some of the other elaborate action sequences that the show uses, the sort of thing that Saints Row lives and dies on. It might take a while for the guns to come out in a given episode, but when they do, it’s a thing to behold indeed.
I’ve mentioned before that designing a game with a whole lot of moving parts doesn’t just improve the odds that one of those parts will be terrible, it improves the odds that the whole thing will be bad. Getting a perfectly tuned model for everything is hard enough, and trying to balance that while you’re also trying to balance four or five other sets of mechanics doesn’t help matters. To really do the whole thing justice, you’d need a very elaborate interface able to account for a lot of different gameplay styles. I didn’t mention Saints Row by accident up there; it’d need to work for an immense open world with a whole lot of options.
The contradiction here is obvious. On the one hand, if Cowboy Bebop is a series based on smaller character moments, making a bit open-world game is doing work that doesn’t need to be done. On the other hand, the engine underpinning all of that needs to be able to handle more diversity. So how do you strike that balance?
You can’t win too much
In a micro sense, you know this to be true. Just like Firefly, this is a show where the continued premise of the show relies almost entirely upon the protagonists being bad at their jobs. They’re supposedly bounty hunters, but the reality is that none of them are trained as such, and half of the time they either miss the bounty altogether or wind up causing so much damage that there’s very little money left over. That’s part of the feel; actual success is damning.
But in a larger sense, the series has already ended. There has been subsequent stuff, but none of it has hacked at the central message of the story or divorced itself from that final outcome. Even the movie was set before the ending of the series, which meant that it wound up feeling just a little bit shoehorned in… but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Obviously, you eke out little victories along the way. That’s a given. Yet like so many things I’ve covered here, there’s very little space to actually fit a new story. Sure, there are always ways to work around that, but they’re limited, and part of what makes the series work as well as it has is the simple reality that it’s not overly burdened. There’s not an endless collection of episodes. It’s contained, and it only goes on for so long.
As more time goes by, it starts to become more and more set in as what it is. So maybe it’s for the best that no one’s too eager to take another spin on this one. See you space cowboy, indeed.