Writing that last post about Dishonored made me realize how much I really enjoy weird superheroes. Superheroes whose powers don’t really fall into the normal categories, and don’t lend themselves to “having a cool superpower fight in the city with a bad guy”.
I think this little quirk of mine probably started after catching Mystery Men on cable TV one bored summer afternoon as a kid. The movie follows Ben Stiller as the leader of a B-team of superheroes with extremely lame powers, like throwing silverware with extreme accuracy, and turning invisible if nobody is looking. The story involves these heroes figuring out how to confront a traditional supervillain-style lair with their incredibly specific skills. To the man with a hammer, every problem is a nail, and to the woman with exceptional bowling skills, everything kinda starts looking like pins. I thought Mystery Men was an extremely fun movie, but didn’t think of it much more than that.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m on my computer, staring at the above comic panel, confused. Is this…what is this? I mean, it’s a manga, obviously, but what the hell is a duwang?
As it turns out, a duwang is a translation error, made in an extremely shoddy fan-translation of Part 4 of the series Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. After discovering this, I dug deeper, and learned that Jojo’s is a long-running, classic manga series by Hirohiko Araki. Describing the overarching plot of Jojo’s is…hard, but know that it follows the bloodline of the Joestar family, as they fight various forms of evil using special powers known as Stands: manifestations of one’s psychic energy in the form of a sort of humanoid…ghost…thing. They’re Personas. Stands are Personas. It’s not fair, because Jojo’s far predates even the first Shin Megami Tensei game, but it’s the easiest way to explain it.
Now, there’s a lot of reasons I like Jojo’s. It’s hilariously stupid in a delightful way, every character constantly strikes a series of ridiculous poses, every name is a reference to Western music. However, in a sentence probably never before recorded in the history of time, I think the reason I like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure so much is the same reason I liked Mystery Men years ago.
Let me explain. Every Stand in Jojo’s has a unique power or set of powers. Early on, when Stands were first introduced in the series, these powers were pretty standard superpowers. Star Platinum, Stand of Part 3 protagonist and somehow-17-year-old Jotaro Kujo, is super strong and super fast. Muhammed Avdol’s stand, Magician’s Red, can shoot fire. Jean Pierre Polnareff’s Stand, Silver Chariot, is…really good at sword stuff.
As the series went on, however, be it by design or by pure creative bankruptcy, the powers of the Stands in Jojo’s got real weird, real fast. Crazy Diamond, Stand of Part 4 protagonist Josuke Higashikata, can return anything it punches to its original state, allowing it to heal things…via punching. The Stand called Echoes is capable of placing sound effects on surfaces, allowing associated effects to be activated when they are touched (for example, touching the word “whoosh” would cause a gust of wind). One Stand, Pearl Jam, takes the form of sentient tomatoes, which heal and restore anybody who eats them.
Both the heroes and the villains of Jojo’s were subject to this, meaning that the duels between Stand users, which used to involve a lot of trading punches and fireballs, got a bit more interesting. All of a sudden, battles became more like puzzles. How do I use my incredibly specific ability to counter my opponent’s incredibly specific ability. Since every member of the Joestar family has a Stand which can punch real fast, the physical blows are usually the sign of victory, not an actual element of the fight itself.
For instance, take an early fight in Part 5: Vento Aureo. The fight takes place between protagonist Giorno Giovanna, whose stand Gold Experience allows him to turn inanimate objects into living things, and vice versa, and Polpo, a gang boss whose stand Black Sabbath has been hunting Giorno across the city. Polpo, thinking he’d bested Giorno, revels in his victory with a banana. However, as he puts it in his mouth, Giorno reveals himself, and returns the banana to its original form: a gun. Polpo accidentally kills himself, and Giorno is left the winner.
Some character’s weird powers end up being extremely powerful as the character explores the possibility space of their powers. For instance, take Rohan Kishibe, from Part 4: Diamond is Unbreakable. Rohan’s stand, Heaven’s Door, allows him to literally read his opponent as an open book, flipping through the pages of their life and, literally, reading their thoughts. Furthermore, Rohan can write in this book, allowing him to alter memories or, as he discovers, have direct physical effects on the target. For instance, Rohan writes “I will fly backwards at 70 km/h” in the mind of the arc protagonist, and when he closes the book, sure enough, the protagonist flies backwards. If Rohan Kishibe can get close to you with a pen, you’re done.
It’s something I wish the few Jojo’s games would actually capitalize on, or even more games in general. While most Jojo’s villains are punched to death, that’s not really how they are beaten. Each one gets figured out like a puzzle, as the protagonists figure out how to apply their very specific skillset to each new scenario, like the aforementioned man with a hammer figuring out just how the problem they are confronting is, in fact, a nail. It’s interesting, and I want to see it applied to more games, especially as games like Gunpoint and even Shadow of the Colossus present the idea of combat as a puzzle.
I think an interesting way to form one of these “combat puzzles” is to follow the formula set up by Mystery Men and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: give the player an extremely situational and specific set of tools, and a fairly complex problem, and let the player, like a computer scientist trying to simplify a problem into a simpler form, try and simplify the situation they are facing into one solved by their extremely specific solution.