What’s in a Game?

Haha, get the Shakespeare reference?

When I think about a game and how awesome it is, for its intense ride, its cool gameplay, its addictive replayability (it’s a word, look it up)… I sort of wonder WHY these games are as good as they are. It’s not the gratuitous killing of innocent zombies (okay, maybe partially), or some cheesy cutscene in which your main character FINALLY gets a kiss from the main character girl/princess/person-you-are-trying-repeatedly-to-save. It’s a cocktail of aspects that give a game, no matter what it’s about, the ability to draw you in and keep you there.

See, in this picture, the raspberries symbolize unlockable superpowers.

Well, the first thing that should go without saying is that the graphics need to be engaging. I don’t mean flashy, I don’t mean incredibly detailed. It needs to be smooth, it needs to be clearly defined, and throughout the game there has to be enough variety to keep a user pacified, even if it’s nothing special. The variety of environments in Super Mario World is a great example! (If you’ve got some free time, the download link is at the bottom of this post, but be warned, you’ll need an emulator like ZSNES to run it). You go through forests, skyworlds, caves, pits of lava and haunted castles. Who could ask for more? Going hand in hand with this is the music! It doesn’t need to be the next Halo soundtrack, but it needs enough variety to not bore the player as they work through whatever world you have created. Bullet hell games, I’m looking at you! A 3-minute loop of Japanese techno music is not enough to make your game good! There should be at LEAST two songs! Maybe three!

So now that you have something that is easy to look at (and listen to), what goes next into making a game fun to play is how one learns to play it. A lot of earlier games for Nintendo and Super Nintendo had no idea how to teach the player to play, so they simply provided a thick (yet surprisingly easy to lose) booklet on all the controls of the game. Nevermind that they were incomprehensible and too complex to be any fun, that’s how they did it anyway. Modern day games have not gotten a great deal better. They simply throw an in-game tutorial at the beginning that teaches you the insanely complex amount of stuff you have to learn, then tosses you into a world filled with baddies that transition quickly into gnawing on the bones of your dead body. Hooray!

But the best games have a tutorial that begins when the game begins. You are tossed into the thick of battle, and only your discovery of cleverly placed hints will keep you from oblivion! A couple great examples of this exist in the Donkey Kong Country series (they have the suggested button for you to press outlined in bananas in the level: tasty and informative!) and the Megaman X series. (Links for both games down at the bottom too) Watch an absolutely hilarious video of Egoraptor ranting about the amazingness of this very aspect of Megaman X here:

Yep, that's Egoraptor.

There’s a lot of good stuff in that video, it’d be 20 minutes of your life well-spent. So we have good graphics, good music, and a good tutorial. Already I’m really enjoying this game even though I’ve just defeated the boss that teaches me “You must shoot to not die, young grasshopper.” But the thing that keeps me going is the increasing level of complexity. An absolutely classic example of this is the Metroid series (yes, links to this one on the bottom too). It gives you a very basic control scheme and then gradually increases your abilities in numerous ways to grant access to new areas, extra firepower, and harder bosses. You can curl up into a tiny ball, double-jump, shoot missiles, grappling hook across ceilings, and all sorts of nifty things that allow you to use the very simple NES controls to maximum awesomeness potential (there was only an A&B button, remember?). Nowadays XBOX games have 4 buttons, 2 triggers and 2 bumpers, 2 joysticks, a D-Pad, and the kitchen sink to use in their control scheme and yet they never achieve the simplicity and variety of what you can tell your character to do with an NES controller.

Seriously, which one looks harder to play with, hm?

The point of all this is to have more options, to be able to problem-solve and boss-kill in more ways than you could at the beginning. It’s a challenge and it makes you feel good when you use whatever upgrade you just got to do something or get somewhere you couldn’t before! Often these options come in an environmental form, like springs or seesaws or minecarts or a level made of bubblegum… In the Donkey Kong Country series, that’s all you get, and it works wonderfully. But the most often way games increase their challenge and complexity is upgrades! It feels so awesome to finally GET these upgrades, too, whether you find them in a hard-to-reach place or you earn them from a pesky, annoying boss (you’ll find quite a few of both in Megaman X and Metroid). So you obtain a way to make the game more challenging… by doing something challenging… and you feel good about that! A game dev has done a damn good job if they’ve gotten this whole challenge-and-reward thing down, and almost all of the best games employ it in some method or another.

The final aspect (and this is only my humble opinion) of games that makes them intriguing, engaging, addictive and satisfying is the boss battles. They’re everywhere, whether you’re playing Minecraft (yes, it now has a boss, go figure) or World of Warcraft, Touhou, Zelda or even the Simpsons RPG. A game that spends a good deal of time designing their bosses has a gem on their hands, and here’s why: it takes the environment you set up, and the abilities you’ve given the player, and demands that they be used in a new, creative way. Megaman shines here, as every boss in every game takes place in rooms that for the most part are exactly the same. Only now, you’re forced to dodge special attacks, to run, shoot, and evade like you don’t do in normal play, and you can pull out those special weapons that you won from the previous bosses to often devestating effect. It’s a whole different ball-game, and often it’s the only one in many games that doesn’t coddle the player, and really, really challenges them (look at most Zelda games: how often have you gotten all the way through a dungeon without trouble, only to die 20 times on the boss?).

Artist's rendition of a gamer after a Contra marathon.

So there you have it!

1. Good games are easy on the senses.

2. They teach you so well, you think you figured it out on your own.

3. The game’s increase of challenge draws you in even deeper.

4. The bosses of the game are cool, important-looking, and give you a sense of accomplishment when you beat them.

While these are really general rules that can be applied to a great deal of situations, they ARE broken all the time and wonderful games are created anyway! (Tetris: No bosses, no really great graphics, and no increasing complexity, just increasing levels of “A long block! Get over ther— NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” Great game.) Having said that, if anyone gets all the way down here, please post with comments about your favorite game that follows these rules, or some amazing games that don’t follow them at all! I’m always looking for exceptions 🙂

Super Mario World, one of the best games ever.

Don’t forget to download ZSNES before you play!

Donkey Kong Country: The first bad guy to get his own game.

Also, for Wii owners: Donkey Kong Country Returns is an awesome remake. Definitely a must-have in your collection!

Megaman X... This dude's just fricking awesome.

After reveling in this amazing game’s amazingness…



Metroid: the beginning of feminism in gaming ❤

Play this only if you desire mind-bending exploration and utter awesomeness. Which everyone does.

Also… no downloads required for this one. Play, enjoy, don’t die (too much).


About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on February 20, 2012, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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