Castle in the Sky

Writer/Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Publisher: Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Japanese Release: 2 August, 1986
U.S. Release: 15 April, 2003
Genre: Adventure
Based on: The Monomyth, the Watt steam engine, and Miyazaki's usual idyllic vision of youth.

Games | The Laputa Effect: Part 1

Article by alexb | Published April 28, 2008

You don't have to be a particularly devoted student of gaming history to see that video games as a medium flourished in parallel with the blossoming of Japanese animation throughout the '70s and '80s. Anime's stylized aesthetics and its equal emphasis on frenetic action and embarassing melodrama have provided abundant raw material for Japanese game designers from nearly the very beginning. This has made for more than its share of overwrought drivel (like the Xenosaga? series) and cynical gestures (like the entire .hack//Franchise), to say nothing of the vast, fetid sea of licensed tie-in games that perennially line the bargain shelves like plaque in Gabe Newell's heart.

However, this parasitic -- or symbiotic, if you're feeling generous -- relationship has also produced a number of viable offspring, including a very special subset of games inspired by one work in particular.

The games in this rarefied group don't belong to the same series or genre, nor do they even share a common play mechanic. Rather, they're kin because they draw inspiration from the same subject matter: Namely, an idealized view of the late Victorian era, with its rapid technological advances and sense of boundless discovery, and the interplay of a fairly specific group of character archetypes. To put a fine point on it, they draw inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki's 1986 film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which more or less introduced these concepts to Japan.

Actually, one could argue that this goes a bit further than mere inspiration. To paraphrase Picasso: Good games borrow, great games steal. And these games have grasped at greatness by nicking sizable portions of Laputa's plot, characters, themes, motifs and art style. To coin a phrase, they exhibit the “Laputa Effect.”

I'll assume you've seen Castle in the Sky, so there's no need for a rote recitation of its plot, right? If not, you really should watch it. In fact, you should go do that now, as discussion of its plot and themes will probably spoil the film for you. We'll wait. ...ah, back so soon? Excellent. Now please also note that you're about to encounter some necessary spoilers about Skies of Arcadia and the Mega Man Legends series. You should catch up on those, too, although that'll take longer and we're going to move ahead without you. Sorry!

The protagonists of Castle in the Sky are two textbook Miyazaki archetypes, Pazu and Sheeta. Pazu is an idealistic extrovert of a young man with precocious mechanical skills and an iconic pair of flight goggles. Sheeta, slightly older than Pazu, is a mysterious girl who has literally fallen from the sky -- well, an airship, really -- with a standard-issue mystical amulet. Pazu is an orphan who strives to live up to the example of his late father, an explorer who discovered the remnants of an ancient civilization on a floating island above the clouds and named it Laputa after the island in Gulliver's Travels. Sheeta is on the run from people who want to take the amulet, which is of course the key to the floating island found by the Pazu's father. Naturally, she's also the scion of the island's long-dead royalty.

Yes, there’s definitely something very familiar about all of this, but keep in mind that this film had a large hand in establishing genre tropes which seem so overused today. These two characters have spawned countless progeny. Which isn't to say in any way that Castle in the Sky itself is the origin point for the core character archetypes, but the specific configurations of appearance and character traits presented by the movie have been popular blueprints for Japanese character design for more than two decades now.

You see shades of plucky, mechanically-inclined Pazu in everyone from Skies of Arcadia’s Vyse to Mega Man Volnutt (and Roll) to Steambot Chronicles’ Vanilla Beans -- just to name a very few. The Laputa-inspired hero is generally physically smaller and considerably younger than his foils, with slightly unrefined manners, a sunny, never-say-die attitude, and a willingness to get his teeth kicked in by doing things the hard way. Which is to say, he's a bit thick-headed. The idea here is that he's raw material for his companions to work with, his roughness allowing them to better teach him strategy and tact so that he may experience some degree character growth before the credits roll.

The general design for this type favors dark hair over fair and usually sports some kind of distinctive headgear or eyewear, most often goggles. These guys tend to have catch phrases about never giving up or achieving a dream or something, too. The Pazu-style hero was the predominant strain during the 8- and 16-bit eras, and while the type has slipped from mainstream ubiquity in more recent times in favor of Cloud Strife’s brand of sulky, emo dickishness, the cult popularity of games exhibiting the Laputa Effect is proof that there’s still an audience for an earnest, eager-to-please protagonist in the vein of Miyazaki’s boy hero.

But as prolific as Pazu’s legacy is, he’s got nothing on Sheeta. Please direct your attention to nearly every jRPG heroine since the birth of that particular acronym. You know the type: A girl who's a bit older than the hero, shy and vulnerable, with an air of melancholy, but nonetheless able to silently endure whatever dire fate awaits. Her poise and gentleness complement the hero's brashness, inspiring him to keep up the fight. In other words, the ideal Japanese wife. No wonder you see so many of these heroines.

But then, why do so many of them also come standard with mystical amulets? And of these demure girls with magic baubles, why are so many of them secretly the last heir of a mysterious heritage? And of these, why do so many use healing magic?

The early Final Fantasy series made especially heavy use of this template, from the girls with just a glancing resemblance (Rosa and Lenna) to the ones who go for the full hat-trick (Terra and Aerith). Of course, if you stripped Final Fantasy of everything lifted from Castle in the Sky or Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (perhaps Miyazaki’s most famous), you’d be left with only the parts swiped from Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars.

Not that Final Fantasy writers Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yoshinori Kitase are alone in this respect, mind you. As great as Square Enix’s creative debt to Miyazaki is, Sega owe him even more for Skies of Arcadia. Even if you were to ignore the fact that the hero and villain of the game are strikingly analogous to those of Castle in the Sky, the extreme similarity of heroine Fina to Sheeta would still beg comparison -- not only for specific details in her back story, but also her overall character arc. Even her body language and mannerisms, really.

Game Arts wasn't fooling anybody with the likes of the Lunar series' Luna and Lucia, for that matter.

But what good are heroes -- especially these two -- without villains? Or at least anti-heroes? The protagonists, being typical Miyazaki avatars of innocent pastoral life and pacifism, are pretty flat characters on their own. Without somebody to start fires and chase them around with guns, they would probably have just hung around and played with the pigeons for 90 minutes of screen time. That's well and good for them, but it would have left the jobs of untold generations of hard-working and diligently-borrowing Japanese video game scenarists undone. Luckily, Sheeta is pursued by three parties: A crew of air pirates led by Dola, a coarse and demanding but ultimately good-hearted mother figure; a jackboot, imperialistic military force; and most dangerous of all, Muska, a slick government agent with a mysterious past of his own and personal designs on the hidden power of the floating island.

The general and his military are nothing special; just your typical roughneck fascists without much to distinguish them from any other army of brownshirts aside from their tiger-striped military airship, Goliath. Muska, however, is a more distinct (and thus far more memorable) character. While he initially comes off as an efficient, buttoned-down government operative in pursuit of Laputa's technology for his country's benefit, it soon becomes clear that he aims not to salvage Laputa but rather to revive it. Like Sheeta, he's descended from the royalty of Laputa and would use her amulet to control the island's overwhelming technology and conquer the world. But, in time-honored fashion, he is defeated by his own inability to love -- yes, really! -- and by a bunch of glass being jammed into his eyes.

Muska's poncey mannerisms and tendency toward sadism, not to mention his overweening god complex, have made him a longtime favorite among fans and scenario writers alike. His poisonous smile and penchant for the theatrical live on in characters like Valkyrie Profile’s Lezard Valeth and the Lunar series’ Ghaleon. Even Final Fantasy VI's legendary Kefka Palazzo owes a great deal to his sardonic but snappily-dressed forebear, from his plan to control the world using what amounts to a magic laser beam right down to offing his own boss by chucking him into open sky. And Skies of Arcadia's cribbing is once again shameless in its boldness; villain Ramirez is yet another secretive, dramatic fellow who shares a hidden lineage with the heroine and bides his time as a loyal imperial subject, waiting for that perfect opportunity to revive an ancient weapon and teach everyone just who wears the pants around here. Chances are, if your game has a stylish, double-crossing lunatic who kills his boss in order to intrude on the realm of God by unsealing some ancient power, the designers were channeling Muska.

Beyond its well-done but somewhat conventional villain, Castle in the Sky also introduced Dola, the eccentric matriarch of a band of air pirates. Though one might reasonably expect the leader of a violent criminal enterprise to be one of the bad guys, that's only the first of the many assumptions that Dola tweaks. Operating somewhere in the strange nexus between Ma Barker and Pippi Longstocking, Dola commands her airship, the Tiger Moth, with a grip strong enough to crush stone. Through a combination of curses, cuffs, and genuine affection, she holds the undying loyalty of a crew of buffoonish, childlike toughs who, to her endless annoyance, call her Mom instead of Captain. While not exactly bloodthirsty, she's crafty and driven largely by material gain, not to mention quite happy to crack heads when given the chance. And yet, her iron façade hides a sentimental side, causing her to side with Pazu and Sheeta in the face of the true villain.

Despite her abundance of unique and easily-mined character traits, Dola's been copied far less frequently than the other characters in the movie. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that's she's a massive, physically formidable crone of a woman with a long, bumpy witch's nose, thick red pigtails jutting out from her head, and a physique that strongly suggests the image of Street Fighter II's Zangief in drag. In other words, she's absolutely worthless as wank-fodder to all but the very most insane in the audience. Not to say that Dola as a character has exerted no creative influence on a generation of imitators. It's just that everyone has had to think hard to find a way to repackage her in a form that could also sell PVC statues.

Which brings us to Tron Bonne. Like Dola, Mega Man Legends' Tron commands a crew of bumbling henchmen from the bridge of an airship. Of course, her crew are a throng of forty-one nearly identical, Lego-inspired robots that she built herself, but the element of motherhood remains. As do the propensity for violence, the criminal behavior, and the overriding zeal for plunder. And just as Dola before her, Tron ultimately fights on the side of angels, helping Mega Man to battle an enemy that just so happens to threaten the world using the sky-based technology of a dead civilization.

Despite some marked similarities to Dola in temperament and role, Tron does strike out in a markedly different direction in terms of physical appearance. Whereas her inspiration is a towering, eldritch ogre of a she-pirate, Tron is lithe and young, with big doe eyes and a conspicuous metal plate on her crotch. Yet sadly, it seems even the potential for obscene statuary cannot save Tron from obscurity, as her last game was released in 2000. [Unless you count last year's mobile game. Which you shouldn't. -- Parish]

Who can say when the Gesellschaft will fly again? Keiji Inafune, I guess.

Interestingly, there are actually more characters derived from Tron than derived directly from Dola herself. The closest example is Captain Rose from last year's Zack & Wiki. Another pirate queen with a crew of inept, identical henchmen, she too ends up helping the hero fight the true villain on an ancient, floating island. With her cute face and miniskirt, one can very easily see where the bulk of her inspiration lies. And along another branch of the family tree, we have a more tenuous connection in the form of SkyGunner's aristocratic master thief, Ventre. While he sports a rather unattractive physical form like Dola, his army of minions are small, mechanical creatures with high pitched voices called Poulets that share more in common with Tron's Servbots than Dola's motley bunch.

So yes, the influence of Castle in the Sky is rather profound. I'd recommend somebody make a drinking game out of it all, but I don't need deaths from alcohol poisoning or liver failure on my conscience. And it only gets worse from here -- in part two, we'll explore the influence of Laputa's world design and plot motifs on the world of gaming.

To Be Continued... (Or not, sorry.)