I have no mouth, but that's okay
Conventional wisdom tells us that video games based on licensed works are a bad idea. The problem might be one of translating a story or a concept across different media; books and film and television and games are very different entities with very different goals, and they require very different approaches to successfully engage their audiences. Taking the things that make movies and books uniquely their own and shoehorning them into the mold of a game is at best an uphill battle, and at worst an invitation to disaster. Of course, it doesn’t help matters when most licensed games are slapdash shovelware designed to score a quick buck off the back of the latest children’s movie or cartoon show.
There are times, however, when you don’t have to worry about what’s lost in translation between texts, when a character and the world it lives in exist as a sort of cultural free radical: not bound to any particular medium, but easily fit into whatever form seems handy at the moment. These properties and brands somehow manage to build a following with little more than a catchy name and memorable logo. They defy classical criticism, neither meriting nor requiring a defense for their nonexistent stories, their absence of development or growth, their blatant disregard for text, subtext, and context. These pure brands, aggressive little memes that they are, worm their way into our collective consciousness until we can no longer imagine life without them and the mere suggestion of them is enough to bring joy into a dark and stressful day. There is no brand more pure or completely free of the bonds of text and media than Hello Kitty, and the latest in a long series of video games featuring the cat with no mouth is Hello Kitty Roller Rescue.
In many ways, Hello Kitty is the perfect subject for a video game. The popularity of games has long been fueled by mascots that engender a sense of loyalty in their fans not by being deep and compelling protagonists, but by being adorably iconic. From Pac-Man’s abstract appetites to Donkey Kong’s barrels to Sonic’s need for speed to the Prince of All Cosmos’s sticky ball, video game characters need little in the way of background or motivation to encourage us to play with them; they simply need to exist, to catch the eye, and to provide us with an opportunity to do something fun with them. In general, the fun thing to be done with a Hello Kitty product is to give or receive it as a gift; in the case of Roller Rescue, fun is to be had by gliding around on roller skates and bonking bad guys with your magic wand.
The baddies in question are a bunch of invading block-shaped aliens from space, bent on transforming the innocent denizens of our world (or rather, of Sanrio’s world) from their pleasantly biomorphic selves into stunted, geometric monstrosities. To retrieve her kidnapped friends and relatives, the title character must scoot through town on her roller skates and smack an army of cylindrical and cubical enemies into submission. Tolstoy it ain’t, but then it isn’t trying to be.
The gameplay is similarly unambitious; for the most part, Hello Kitty simply cruises through the game’s brightly-colored levels, occasionally solving some simple “find the key to progress” puzzles and bopping anything that moves. There are coins and power-ups to be collected, of course, and for added assistance, you can have a computer-controlled helper escort you on your missions. Your helpers have different abilities, but who you choose is mostly based on whether you think Purin is cuter than Monkichi or vice versa. And if the subject matter and well-earned E-rating weren’t enough to tip you off that Roller Rescue is a game aimed towards younger children, then the very low difficulty level should drive that point home.
When looked at through the normal critical lens, there’s little here to recommend; it’s competent but unspectacular, doing little that hasn’t been done before and offering no real improvements over your typical action game. Even judged as a children’s game, it provides only a mild diversion, with no opportunity for learning or problem-solving. So just what is it that takes a trifle like this and makes it compelling? Is it the prospect of unlocking bonus costumes for Hello Kitty to wear, or the desire to improve on your high score? Is it an extension of the brand loyalty that’s probably more than half the reason you picked up the game in the first place?
What makes Roller Rescue enjoyable is its uncanny ability to make you squeal like a three year old at every turn. Everything about the game—the way the characters bob and bounce around the screen, the explosion of hearts and stars that bursts forth from Hello Kitty’s special attack, the stick-in-your-head music—is designed to trigger that carefully hidden lobe in your brain that’s in charge of being charmed by the unbearably cute. And then there are the mascots themselves: Hello Kitty, Badtz Maru, Keroppi (he’s always been my favorite), the Little Twin Stars and a horde of other representatives of the Sanrio stable form a resistance movement against the alien invaders that’s as inexplicably adorable as it is delightfully absurd.
There’s no shortage of gratuitous cuteness in our lives, of course (or at least I hope there isn’t), but what separates Hello Kitty and company from the pack of Pikachu and Ham-Ham also-rans may be her lack of a mouth. Although she has numerous conversations throughout Roller Rescue, the game’s developers wisely chose to stick with speech balloons instead of voice acting, possibly to avoid the question of how Hello Kitty is supposed to talk without a mouth. Rather than being a sign of silence or passivity, though, the absent mouth manages to suggest a certain calmness, a serene disregard for the verbal and a rejection of the chattering and egoistic self-naming of other cartoonish mascots. In a world where it’s impossible to escape the crush of language, where call-in shows and blogs demand that we listen to what everyone is saying at all times, it’s comforting to have a moment with someone that’s free of words and texts—even if that someone is just the mascot for a tchotchke manufacturer.