Grand Thrash Auto: Zak McCune (Yarrow, Swamp Witch, Atone)

Operating somewhere between the bleak realm of sludge and the grotesque realm of death-doom, Oakland’s Yarrow craft music that draws from the most depraved aspects of both, the resulting sound feeling like an expression of despair and anguish but also one of malevolent hatred at pretty much anyone and everything. Latest record We Made What God Could Not oozes onwards like a river of coagulating blood, the riffs bleeding forth as sinister keys add to the imposing atmosphere. When the band break into pacier sections, it’s done with all the grace of a shark attack – as the listener, all you’ll want to do is scramble to safety. The band’s upcoming follow-up Blizzard Woman, due later this year, promises to be even more intense.

As it turns out, guitarist and vocalist Zak McCune, also of bewitching doom outfit Swamp Witch and ultra-heavy sludge duo Atone, is somewhat of a gamer. In the latest Grand Thrash Auto, Zak looks back on the games that left an impact as a child, showing us the way that powerful gaming experiences can stick with you, and also talks about a couple of slightly less conventional picks and why they deserve more love. In Tenchu and Vanquish, we see an argument for why simplicity is key and the advantages of prioritising gameplay over story, whilst in A Link To The Past we see how video games are capable of driving us to tears.

Super Metroid

I played Metroid for NES when I was five years old and it was such a heavy experience for me. Hearing that ominous droning space-alien melody play while these massive hypercoloured letters M-E-T-R-O-I-D strobed over the top of some far-off cosmic landscape was so impactful for my little developing brain that it got to a point where I would turn the game on, go sit down, and suck packets of Taco Bell hot sauce that I had blindly swiped from the butter compartment of our fridge while that (eternal) title screen looped to infinity. What a thing to behold! Then, when my tank was full, I would play the game. But even then I would momentarily stop. I’d set the controller down at the world-elevator screens and just listen to the music. That game blew my little legs off.

So, it’s understandable that five years later when Super Metroid came out for SNES, it was tantamount to giving heroin to a crack addict. Quite the upgrade. Something icy and familiar that was firing on all cylinders with more distinctive music, more details, more rummaging through the angry darkness of the cosmic unknown. I’ll go further and say that Super Metroid was to the original Metroid as Darkthrone’s Total Death was to A Blaze In The Northern Sky. Not better per se, just an upgrade. All the elements which made the primal forerunner what it was had been emphasised and reinforced every step of the way until reaching a new realm of grim possibility and punishing enjoyment. The phrase Metroid-vania wasn’t coined because it sounded cool (though it does), it was coined because I am not alone in experiencing the game’s power. Metroid was/is something utterly heavy. It’s punishing enjoyment. At its core Metroid is simply a series of rewards you unearth while scrutinising every inch of a forgotten dungeon planet. Sort of like collecting records. Sifting through a planet-sized ghost prison packed to the rafters with nasty organisms which feed off one another in the ruins of technology in order to survive. Why? Who knows. For Samus, it’s just another day. Another bounty. And it is a bounty she claims by fighting to survive. It’s brutal. The game’s ascetic austerity still manages to impress my crusty jaded misanthropic old-ass to this day.  

Maybe one day I will detail my complete obsession with Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano’s soundtrack and the amazing stories regarding the inspiration for how Super Metroid’s music was composed. Onward!

Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past

If you ever want to see an ugly hairy grown man cry, just ask me to tell you about the boy with the pan flute who disappeared from his village one day and how, through Link’s heroic quest to save Zelda from the clutches of evil pig sorcerer, Ganon, he manages to mend the wounds of the past, reunite it with the present, and lay it to rest through the deeds of the heroic. Fuck, man! There is not enough space on earth to do this game any sort of justice with the written word. Simple dungeon crawler, simple game-play mechanics, beautiful fantasy imagery and a narrative as old as time itself. It was the game that cast the mould which all who followed would be based on. HYRULE FOREVER!

Resident Evil 2

Everyone alive when it happened knows, to the minute, where they were and what they were doing when they played Resident Evil for the first time. So, just as it was with Metroid, when RES 2 hit, there was a worldwide run on underpants! For the pair we’d had on were surely messed after that experience! 

Resident Evil 2 evokes so much weird psychological interaction between the player and the environments of the game. The ominous semi-stationary camera angles subtly implant feelings of paranoia as if someone were watching. The weird lighting of corridors that conjure the feeling of familiarity yet being intensely distorted drive to implant another layer of creeping unease in the player. The environment of RE2 is as much an opponent as the zombies roaming around in it. It is that subtle theme of creeping dread that forms each layer of creative design for RE2. Sure, what most people talk about are the jumpscares or sound design or the added stress of having nowhere safe to run while scavenging through massive yet somehow claustrophobic municipal buildings, underground labs, basements, alleys and apocalyptic streets drenched in streaming black rain while the undead vie like hell for your flesh (lord, that sounds fun already, no?).

Yet somehow, the game is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the greatness of RE2 is really just as simple as it being fun to scare a little pee-pee out of you from time to time. But, again, I suspect it is something else. I am of the opinion that all objectively-good survival horror genre games need to pit the player’s pride against itself. The zombies of RE2 are slow and dumb and aren’t totally dangerous. Not until you’re right next to them can any real damage be done. You’ve got bullets. They’ve got teeth. So, you feel pretty confident. As long as you keep your distance you can stay alive. But that is what I love! The natural ramping up and ramping down of threat and terror based on the illusion of proximity. This dynamic is paralleled throughout the game too. Somewhere along the way as you traverse nightmare passages, the mortal danger gets ratcheted up. Suddenly, as if coming out of a dream, you’re shooting rocket launchers deep underground in secret laboratories and aiming those rockets at disgusting clinical abominations three times the size of a human being with more warts and blisters than that little creepy baby thing from Eraserhead. You started the game out as a cop arriving at the station on the first day of the job. That’s a pretty big leap. Somehow, in the realm of RE2’s world, this path-of-travel feels normal. What a magic trick of game design! I just love the feeling of being slowly digested by horrors that lie just beyond the door. Feels like… victory.


Currently, Vanquish seems to be alive and well in the hearts and minds of certain types of people, but, for the most part, it is not celebrated in any sort of fervour. And why it’s not completely baffles me. It’s a game totally devoted to a few simple movement mechanics. The game tweaks those excellent mechanics with time-dilation. But, unlike 99% of games out there that try to incorporate this (that are all of them essentially trash), the tweak is non-essential. In Vanquish, time-dilation is just a garnish. It’s dressing. It’s a little flare. Hell, it’s STANK! The game has a PUT-SOME-STANK-ON-IT mechanic. That means while you ping-pong around some giant arena dodging a hail of bullets, you can slow everything and everyone down around you to really make you feel like you’re firing dual automatic pistols a-la the film Hard Boiled. It’s straightforward fun. From the very beginning your character can do everything you will be able to do for the rest of the game. No secrets, no grinding bullshit to get better weapons, no upgrades needed. Just furious stupid shooting and moving fun. It’s soccer with machine guns! It’s ballistic strobing arcade nonsense at it’s finest! It’s Pete Townshend’s power slide from ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ on adrenaline-overdrive-repeat! PLUS! The main character, the dude wearing some super insane muscle-altering killing-machine mech suit who you play as, smokes like a chimney! Hundreds of cigarettes thrown away after just one puff. It rules!

Not only do you get to sprint around some icy science fiction space station satellite planet peeling off hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery as robots of varying skill and menace try to stop you from completing your mission, but you’re a smoker sprinting around some icy science fiction space station-satellite-planet peeling off hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery as robots of varying skill and menace try to stop you from completing your mission. This dynamic edges the simple into the supreme for me. What’s the mission you ask? I don’t even care! Shut up and shoot, jerk! You are smoking and backflipping and sliding all over the place in order to stop Russian supervillains who have similar technology. Load up and roll out. Have some fun! Smoke’em if you got’em! My only question is, when it comes to people and video games, WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?!? AND HOW MUCH MORE OF IT?!?!? You’ve got it all with Vanquish.
If listening to Motörhead were a videogame, it would be Vanquish. Cheap thrills y’all. Born to lose! Live to win! Insert Coin When Ready!

Tenchu: Wrath Of Heaven

This is a weird one. Even by my standards. Another sequel that really polished the ideas of the original (Tenchu: Stealth Assassins for PS1). Tenchu: Wrath Of Heaven is a personal favourite. It is one that I have continued to play my entire life. The concept is simple. It’s a stealth game set in feudal Japan with elements of dark fantasy and historical fiction. It’s pretty pulpy. Your main objective? Kill as many guards as possible while going undetected in order to save this person, or retrieve this information. You’re trying to help stop the spread of evil or something. But really, maybe you’re just a ninja who needs to keep his sword skills sharp. The simplicity is what I crave. Simple thoughtful mechanics are what most games and most modern music lacks and it is why there is so much stuff out there and so little of it that is really worth a damn. It’s no one’s fault. I suppose it’s just easy to get carried away while creating, obscuring the essential ideas of the things we create. I digress.

For me, Tenchu’s disciplined austerity is another example of things that lead to meaningful expression inside of art. Narrative in games is the last thing that means anything. If you don’t have good mechanics, fun controls, or if you lack an element of the competitive manipulation of those set variables, then your story means dogshit. If I want a movie, I’ll go watch one. I don’t want games that “tell a good story”. Those stories all end up as Marvel-Disney baby food anyway. Same goes for music. If you don’t have riffs, if you don’t have your aural textures nailed down, then your lyrics are just more bad poetry. Save it. Focus on what’s important. Fully-realised mechanics are the reason we all love the games that we love. If that doesn’t describe you and your tastes, then see you at comic-con, you fuck. Go read an Anne Rice novel!

The DNA of Tenchu: Wrath Of Heaven shares almost all of it with From Software titles like the Souls series or Bloodborne or Sekiro. The thing that Tenchu:WOH has that those games don’t? Nothing. Tenchu:WOH is simply an early voice in a small club of games that are attempting to create similar sorts of experiences through the interplay of their thoughtful mechanics. Tenchu:WOH has none of the technology going for it, however. Because of this, Tenchu:WOH becomes a really spunky underdog of a game that is always punching above its weight. It’s a game made in and of itself. It stands alone. For example, I don’t know who this game was made for. Certainly not Americans. I know this because it’s a stealth game whose main thing is delayed gratification. Tenchu could possibly be called anti-American by that measure and it wouldn’t even be political. Immediate gratification harbours weakness. Tenchu:WOH is a game devoid of any immediate gratification, so I am naturally drawn to it and things like it. There is no evidence of the game or its makers being preoccupied with dubious buzz-phrases like “know your audience”. It doesn’t care. It knows what it is and it will leave you behind if you don’t get it. In the game, it is simple: you need something. There are too many enemies in your way. Killing isn’t mandatory. Killing isn’t against the rules. Killing is simply a tool. Sometimes things are easier when you kill. Sometimes they aren’t. The game rewards cleaner methods for obtaining your goal. You decide. So, for whatever you need, you sneak, you eavesdrop, and, if need be, you overcome your opponents with lethal force. It’s fun playing with this dynamic. I daresay Tenchu:WOH is just a puzzle game. But like Metroid’s bounty-driven narrative, in Tenchu:WOH we keep what we find and establish our right to survive any way we choose to. Now, excuse me while I drop from a three-story pagoda and drive my katana deep into the skull and spine of an unassuming enemy guard as quietly as possible.

Find Zak on Twitter and Instagram. For more Grand Thrash Auto pieces, click here

Intro: George Parr

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