No second should be wasted in a video game intro. Years ago or perhaps recently, an intro could have influenced how you spent your quarters or tokens in an arcade. Intros, along with gameplay footage and high score lists, are part of what is called “attract mode” in arcade machines. As a case in point, my teenage self was frequently attracted to the Killer Instinct 2 arcade machine. The cool guitar riff and character bios in Killer Instinct 2’s intro played a big part in getting me excited to play the game again and again and again.
Intros have increasingly become a staple in video games that we play at home. Unlike the idea with attract mode in arcades, intros in console and computer games don’t serve as enticing advertisements – they are used to set up a narrative and/or establish a tone or theme. During the days of the NES, intros were not as common in console games, so it was always cool to see an intro, even it sucked. Today, pretty much all video games are expected to have intros. This development has not always been positive. The majority of video game intros are uninspired, often plagued by bad voice acting, poor direction, and too much exposition. But the cinematic narrative is here to stay with video games, for better or for worse.
So which video game intros are the greatest of all time? Before I answer this politically explosive question, my definition of “intro” must be clear. I am defining a video game intro as any cinematic segment before or after the title screen that sets up a narrative and/or establishes a tone or theme. Also, the title screen itself may be an important part of an intro, as I will explain in some of my choices. Finally, no gameplay is allowed in my definition of intro. If the gamer, as opposed to the director, controls the direction of the segment, the effect is interactional, not cinematic. It’s the simple difference between viewing and playing.
Let’s start with No. 10.
10. Planescape: Torment (PC)
Life is said to flash before our eyes when we know we’re about to die. This intro plays with that idea to great effect. A dead man on a stone table is pushed into a room of other dead people by a zombie. But the dead man is seeing things, some of which are random visions (a shelf full of skulls), events that happened to him before his death, and nightmares (his significant changing into an undead creature and pointing an accusatory finger at him). It’s a disturbing and sad sequence. The last vision of a strange, radiant woman provides a sense of hope, but the segment flashes back to the present, the dead man left to rot by the stumbling zombie. The intro is haunting and, above all, entices the player to discover the rest of the story.
9. Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
A lot of people wouldn’t expect a game on the Wii to be an example of cinematic brilliance, but a lot of people haven’t played Muramasa: The Demon Blade. From start to finish, Muramasa is the most beautiful game of the seventh generation of consoles. The intro is a great example of the game’s visual supremacy. Many modern video games pretend to be movies, packing Hollywood clichés, tired dialogue, and big-name voice actors into an embarrassing pile of shit, but the intro of Muramasa is legitimately cinematic. The narrative doesn’t hold your hand and tell you what the game is about. It simply shows you a girl and boy who wield swords in breathtaking natural settings. Even though the intro doesn’t show any fighting, the stirring music suggests a fantastic battle is about to begin. The image of the insect hanging on a leaf in the sunset is stunning and not unnecessary – it gives you a glimpse of the graphical detail that permeates the entire game. The credits in the intro are not wasted: this is a case where you might want to know the names responsible for such beauty.
8. Bioshock (PC/360/PS3)
The intro begins with an egotistical voice-over: “They told me, ‘Son, you’re special. You were born to do great things.’ You know what? They were right.” Then there are screams, a distress call, a whirring and sputtering plane, an explosion, and a flood (the title is literally soaked – a great touch). The game then goes first-person. After a struggle underwater, you rise to the surface, fire everywhere. At this point, the gameplay starts. Although some people would insist that the intro of Bioshock must include the fascinating monologue that follows this short spurt of gameplay, my definition of intro ends when you start playing. Even so, the intrigue and confusion created in the first 80 seconds of Bioshock are extraordinary.
7. Samurai Shodown (Arcade/NeoGeo)
In 1993, Samurai Shodown set itself apart from every other fighting game with the help of this intro. The sound alone suggests a departure from the norm, with the Japanese voice-over and traditional Japanese instrumental music. The subtitles state a code: “A samurai fears not death. Struggles to triumph over evil. And lives for one purpose: TO DESTROY ALL ENEMIES.”
The main character, Haohmaru, meditates between two antique lamps. We barely see him draw his sword and, during a flash of light, hear two clangs of his blade. The screen then presents the aftermath. The two lamps have been cut in half, followed by a revelation that some people might miss the first time around. This sequence gave Samurai Shodown a cultural richness and sense of subtlety that would only be approached by The Last Blade a few years later.
6. Onimusha 3 (PS2)
Many video game cutscenes feature good-looking polygons, but very few have great direction like the intro to Onimusha 3. Unless you’re an Onimusha fan, the narrative won’t mean much. To me, this intro is a good guy killing a lot of bad guys, with a few nonsensical voice-overs for good measure. Nonetheless, the six-minute segment is engaging and zips along like a Steven Spielberg adventure, flowing seamlessly from one crazy idea to the next. I’ve heard people remark about the repetitive gameplay of the Onimusha series, but this intro is a blitz of creativity and stupid energy. PS2 owners got their money’s worth with this movie. In one word: fun.
Be sure to check back later in the week for Part 2.