Hell’s Angel: Image Over Substance
As anyone who has ever worn a leather vest or leather chaps knows, there is nothing cooler than a skull…except, perhaps, a flaming skull.
The Ghost Rider character has been with us since the early ‘70s, and, like many of Marvel Comics’ ‘70s stable of characters like the roller skating disco dancer Dazzler or blaxploitation-inspired Luke Cage, Ghost Rider has a certain kitschy charm. In this case, that kitsch is derived from one of the ‘70s’ many counterculture icons, that macho bad boy, the biker.
That Ghost Rider’s head resembles a biker’s shoulder tattoo is only part of his correlation to that butchy image of yore. Thematically, his funny book was driven—quite literally—by the notion of the rebel angel, but on wheels. He is a biker in the service of a demon—a literal Hell’s Angel—a rebellious spirit of vengeance utterly romanticized, much like the biker antihero of drive-in-movie or television fare of the ‘70s. Such badass figures hearken back to the image that a nineteenth century romantic, Lord Byron, infamously made famous through his reading of Lucifer as the Satanic Hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is a rebel and a bad boy, but his desire for independence makes him compelling and sympathetic as well.
Marvel Comics has resurrected this character representing a somewhat universal archetype, but in a rather dated counterculture form, several times in the last few decades. However, I was surprised that they were again planning to do so on the big screen this year in a film starring Nicholas Cage. Spider-Man? The X-Men? The Hulk? Sure. But a kitschy 70s throwback superhero? Is the hardcore biker even relevant anymore?
Barring the more obvious parallels between the biker and the traditional American icon the cowboy (a sometimes-loner astride his steed traveling under his own power across the American landscape), the only other real place that the biker image really resides now is in bar fight or bar intimidation scenes in comedies or within the gay subculture that has embraced the hypermasculine appearance represented through leather, tattoos, and facial hair.
The reason that I mention this adoption of another counterculture’s imagery by gay men—an imagery that extols masculinity—is that, curiously, there is a weird parallel adoption made by the creators of the new Ghost Rider video game released in time to support the arrival of the big budget film. If gay culture has recognized the curiously enhanced masculine nature of the biker’s appearance and attitude and co-opted it alongside what has previously been seen in the culture as a less than masculine lifestyle, Ghost Rider the game has decided to draw its gameplay inspiration from the similarly ambiguously masculine style of another game series, Devil May Cry.
Anyone familiar with the protagonist of Devil May Cry will likely see the obvious parallels in the at once hypermasculine and hypereffeminate appearance and attitude of Dante. Dante is styled as a fairly typical manga or anime inspired hero—a somewhat androgynous badass wrapped in red leather and packing big blades and equally big guns. A kind of rock and roll biker figure himself, Dante and his game were driven by a pounding rock score coupled with wickedly stylish button mashing carnage.
Also like Devil May Cry, Ghost Rider favors a similarly masculine kind of brutality as both the center of gameplay and stylistics. The player is asked to cut and blast his way through hordes of attacking foes, while doing so in an elegant and stylish fashion. These types of action games do not reward players for merely mashing buttons. Doing well in them requires a commitment to the aesthetics of savage combat by requiring the mastery of stringing together chains of attack combos and juggling enemies in the air. Merely killing them without any elegant tactics is possible in most cases, but style is highly rewarded by providing greater amounts of “soul orbs” to use later to upgrade your abilities.
As a result, games of this sort tend to have a fairly high learning curve (at least for the reflex-challenged). Learning combos and linking them together effectively and efficiently is the key to providing a balletic combat scene reminiscent of movies like Desperado or just about any movie made by John Woo.
Surprisingly, though, with all of Ghost Rider‘s focus on flash and style, the game’s graphics grow fairly monotonous fairly quickly. Passing from area to area produces similar environments with hordes of similar-looking enemies. The game’s opening levels in Hell are particularly obnoxious. One has to wonder if there isn’t some more original way of presenting Hell in a game than providing a red tinged cavern punctuated by pools of fire for our consideration. I mean, I know the appearance of Hell is kinda classic, but some kind of twist on the classic wouldn’t hurt now and then. While the art here doesn’t look bad per se, the backgrounds and images tend to blur into one another, which detracts from the flashy violence on display in Ghost Rider‘s dance-of-death game style.
Some really fancy looking and exceptionally executed comic book-inspired cut scenes, replete with comic book panel presentation, do break up some of this visual monotony, but they are somewhat few and far between. They provide a nice nod to the comic, but a little more stylized art might have made the more monotonous moments feel more worthwhile to plod through. Likewise, the Ghost Rider’s unique vehicle—his flaming bike—gets short shrifted in uninspiring driving sequences that have you riding on rails as you shoot, hop, and slide under obstacles and creatures that bar your path. If ever a super hero game called for good driving sequences or a sandbox world to roam around in, it would seem that a guy with a flaming skull that rides on a motorcycle would call for some more inspired driving dynamics.
The game’s developers seem to have been more inspired by Ghost Rider’s image as a hypermasculine badass in leather, though, than that of a road warrior. So, its tendency to mimic Devil May Cry‘s mechanics as well as its aesthetically pleasing violence likely made more sense to them to focus in on.
As a result, ultimately, violence for its own sake doesn’t count for much in this game, as it is only violence that makes you look cool while doing it that pays off in the end. But, then again, isn’t that the reason for playing the badass?