Video games first came into their own during the guilt-free excess of the late ‘80s, when the kinetic pleasures of the simple gameplay forms offered by the likes of “Mario” and “Zelda” sank their hooks into the general public. Since those supposedly-halcyon days, many games have lined up to worship at the altar of ‘80s nostalgia, kneeling down to witness the glory of the proton packs of “Ghostbusters,” or a certain souped-up DeLorean. But as independent games have moved in a more experimental direction, developers have leveraged the iconography of the glitz and glamor of one of America’s most decadent decades to shine a neon-tinted spotlight on themes that speak to the real legacies of the decade – unfettered capitalism, corporate welfare, and naked warmongering.
“Katana Zero” is an action game that makes no claim of verisimilitude – after all, it stars a superhuman hitman who skulks around in a blood-soaked bathrobe, killing indiscriminately – but it nevertheless reflects the wild abandon of the ‘80s in its every facet. Or, to be more precise, it reflects the reflection of the decade in the mirrored aviator shades of previous generations of ‘80s-themed media, especially “Hotline Miami,” the highly-influential 2012 top-down action game that “Katana” shares many of its core conceits with. (The two games also share a publisher, Devolver Digital). As an amnesiac assassin with the power to rewind and slow-down time, you serve a bookish psychiatrist who speaks in vague terms about benevolent “employers,” who select your targets and ply you with unknown drugs.
Justin Stander, the game’s programmer and main creative force, says that he doesn’t mind the inevitable comparisons to “Hotline Miami” – after all, the games share a certain DNA. “There’s just something about the neon, the ‘Blade Runner’ thing, the ‘Drive’ thing, that really speaks to people,” he says. “I didn’t even really want to make a longer game, I personally prefer making shorter, free games. But I discovered around the release of Terry Cavanagh’s ‘VVVVVV’ [in 2010] that games that you have to pay for get a lot more coverage than free ones, for whatever reason. That’s when I started really working on it.”
The game’s affinity for the fictional past conjured by a symphony of similar works isn’t limited to its lo-fi pixel-art aesthetic graffitied by the constant splatter of blood, or its four-on-the-floor synthwave soundtrack. Instead, it leans as hard as it can into the time-manipulation aspect. The sound and image of the wanton killing sprees that make up the majority of the game are depicted as entirely diegetic, seemingly removed from the fiction of a video game – your assassin cues up the pounding backing track on his Walkman, and your final path of destruction is shown as a security tape for your paymasters to scrutinize and review. As you fall again and again – to errant bullets, mistimed sword-swings, the slash of an unseen foe – shafts of artifacts disrupt the image as time winds backward, giving you another chance to record the perfect run. When you finally deliver the precise set of commands you need, a deflection here, a smoke-grenade there, you can rewind the tape at will, the pure retro bliss of the white B-to-E navigation bar guiding your way.
These era-appropriate touches aren’t just empty nostalgia or window dressing. As you proceed from facility to facility, massacring every guard in your wake, the usual questions begin to mount. who’s paying me for all this? What’s in that syringe that they insist on injecting me with? Who am I, anyway? But while the answers to these queries correspond to the typical array of video game plot devices, the sheer intensity of its voyeurism elevates it above many of its competitors. Unlike many action games, “Katana” gives you an unusual degree of freedom in how you want to conduct yourself throughout its many story scenes, and your decisions carry forth consequences, even for things that seem petty or irrelevant. (For example, when a powerful foe asked me to give him my katana to cut some cocaine during a party scene, I didn’t think anything of it – until he kept it, and I was forced into a difficult combat encounter without my key weapon).
Perhaps the game’s greatest contribution to the form is its unique dialog system, which allows you to interrupt nearly any character before they finish speaking, which usually annoys them to no end. In a game that’s all about getting down to your bloody business, it’s a remarkable conceit and one that I’d like to see in many other games.
Despite some of its more goofy trappings – the source of your powers is eventually revealed to be time-dilation drugs that make you functionally immortal, another government experiment run amok – more than anything, the specter of violence and war haunts every aspect of “Katana Zero.” You spend precious little time exploring the world outside of viscera-coated corridors, but the trickles of world-building you do get suggest a stratified, childless society on the brink of collapse, still driven by a war that ended seven years ago. Perhaps the best scene in the game comes when your protagonist stumbles into a local bar, down-and-out. Through a series of jump cuts interspersed with static and video artifacts, you reminisce with some fellow veterans about the “cromag” menace, drink too much, and wake up at the empty bar right as the bartender closes up. You have no control over how intoxicated you get, or whether or not you even go to the bar – only the lines your character says. In the neon-tinted world of “Katana Zero,” it seems to suggest, where death comes cheap and even the assassins are expendable, violence is a non-negotiable – along with the trauma that inevitably blooms from the bloody soil.