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It’s easy to look at Transformers Devastation, with its thick black outlines and bold streaks of color, and understand that the game is reminiscent of Saturday mornings.
Weekends were spent with televisions burning images of mutant turtles, futuristic militarism and warring space robots into impressionable eyes. Transformers, and its many contemporaries, were part of an entertainment consciousness.
Devastation is courting the predominantly male audience who grew up cuddled in Transformers pajamas while downing boxes of chocolate-flavored Transformers cereal as Transformers played on TV—and immediately afterward, reaching for their Transformers action figures. Source accuracy is tantamount to keeping this fan base happy, and Devastation’s passionate flair is on point.
Watercolor backdrops enhance the scale of the city as Megatron seeks to Cyberform Earth. Recognizable voice actors, from Frank Welker (Megatron), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), and Dan Gilvezan (Bumblebee) return to their celebrated roles. Devastation ends with a screeching, hair-infused power ballad over the credits, topping off the totality of this throwback.
Television animation of the ‘80s was a distinctive medium. There are visual tells. Backlit animation cells—where individually finished frames were laid over lights and then photographed—created a dense, slightly hazy glow to certain elements. On outrageously heavy and bulky CRT TVs of the era, the effect sizzled, as if neon bulbs were streaking across the screen. Red and blue lasers made for colorful combat.
Real Ghostbusters used backlighting. G.I. Joe was enamored with it. Transformers adored the process. Explosions, sparks, computer displays; backlighting was integral to each. Cyberton tech looked alien, but dazzling too. Devastation mimics the searing effect of that abandoned technique, using it for gunfire in addition to melee strikes.
The game’s unique art style doesn’t emulate the cartoon’s episodes themselves, but rather, that of the attractive introduction, albeit enhanced. For TV, the intro only needed to be completed once by animators. It would be seen hundreds of times, and by default, becomes the persistent recollection.
Devastation appears affectionate, agreeable to a fond memory. A multitude of faux-metallic colors draped over the Autobots and Decepticons mirror that of the cleaner, time consuming work used to energize kids into watching immediately—and to gorge them on profitable commercials later.
In-episode, characters didn’t look that way, colored with intentional plainness. Simplicity meant they were easier to rapidly paint in such quantity on the budget/schedule of weekly programming.
But the game pays tribute to the enormous workload that went into the cartoon, during an era when shows were created by hand, frame-by-frame. Most of it was accomplished by the cheaper labor available from overseas studios—typically in Korea or Japan. It’s why purely American film properties like Ghostbusters received the Asian anime-esque Real Ghostbusters cartoon spin-off.
The action in Devastation, as designed by developer Platinum Games, is distinctly Eastern in design. Attacks are splashy, arcing, wild, and opulent. It’s cultural. Manga, anime; the action-driven art from the East favors showmanship rather than practicality, and that’s reflected here.
Taken further, Devastation has a goal which moves beyond the Hasbro-granted license. That closing power ballad is representative of the game’s all-encompassing grab at everything a TV in the '80s did for the decade’s generation. A turret section offers flying Insecticons “galactic dancing” as in Namco’s iconic Galaga. Levels spit out references, including platforms which jut out from walls in patterns—if only for a few seconds, Mega Man would feel right at home. Mid-game driving levels drop the 3D camera for a static side view common to a litany of classic Nintendo favorites, from Seicross to the Ecto-2 stages of fellow licensed counterpart, Ghostbusters II. Power-up boxes break open, spilling shiny, spinning icons.
The game is as much a tribute to all manner of kids’ entertainment from the decade as it is to Transformers.
At a time when licensed video games are rapidly being downsized into free-to-play mobile cash-in adventures, Transformers shows resilience. Activision’s 2010 War for Cybertron and 2012 Fall of Cybertron were high sheen, high quality anomalies. How easy it would be to re-coat those popular entries and call it new. Instead, fans are given something adventurous—even clever—to rekindle old fantasies. Arguably, the Cybertronian war depicted here was the expectation for Michael Bay’s boomy Transformers movie series. Instead, they turned out to be noise starring Shia LeBouf.
Devastation becomes a surprising honorific, not to the Hasbro marketing that has kept this franchise alive, but to those often unspoken animators who gave it all life. And they’re overdue for credit. Playing in something designed to mimic their work is a grand tribute.
How easy it would be to rely on the branding alone! Childhood sentimentality always sells. Devastation grasps why the sentimentality exists at all.
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