Levels… so many levels…

I’ve talked about a lot of different aspects of video games, that make them interesting, engaging, brilliant, and, quite frankly, make them art. I’ve written about their music, their gameplay, the innovativeness, and lots of other things that are all wrapped up into the whole of awesomeness that is a good video game. But what I really think bears talking about today is the level design of games in the past, and games today. They’re like night and day, but most people don’t realize this because they’re too busy killing Covenant/Zombies/Foreign Armies/Reapers/Whatever You Happen To Be Shooting At.

I honestly think that level design is an incredibly important aspect of what makes a game good! And let’s look at some old games: Super Metroid, Megaman X, and Mario. (Links at the bottom to download ROMS; make sure you download an emulator like ZNES before you try them.) You’ll note that these are all 2-D platforming games, a genre of game that has somewhat fallen by the wayside in the era modern gaming (and that makes me very sad). Starting with Mario: It’s a simple platformer. You jump, you get coins/mushrooms/flowers, you dodge enemies, and you try and go down every pipe you see because that’s a plumber’s instinct. It’s pretty flippin’ cut and dry. Now, with all of those aspects, how many levels do you think you could squeeze out of it? Maybe… 10? 12, if you’re good. And yet there are TONS of 2-D platforming Mario games, because the game mechanics that they add into these levels make it incredibly varied, exciting, and difficult. Underwater levels, lava levels, cave levels, ghost castles, regular castles, cloud levels, random levels with cape-wearing turtle-things and football players… They all have different bits that make it an interesting challenge. And now, with all of those added bits, you have the ability to design tons of great levels that engage the player and make them love the game (which, if you were born after 1989 and live under a rock, EVERYONE loved that game).

Next is Megaman X! The levels are all there is to these games!  The boss battles are a lather/rinse/repeat of “Dodge this attack, find the power he’s weak to, spam the fire button. Oh look. He exploded. Big shock, there.” But the levels… they’re nothing short brilliant. They are smooth, not-always-linear paths that mix platforming with shooting in an incredibly epic way. They have extra mechanics that add variety to your gameplay, too, and they have those delightful little secrets and special items that you have to really work to get. Also, your special powers often have the ability to affect the environment, whether it’s creating a bridge made of ice to that upgrade, or using your flame weapon to torch an igloo and get a heart (and c’mon, the game has IGLOOS, how can you not love that?).  But here, ladies and gents, is my favorite part: depending on what bosses you defeat, the levels you play afterwards change. If you defeat the ice boss (whose name is… Chill Pengiun… Folks, I can’t make this stuff up), the fire level’s flame jets and the floor made of lava are frozen over, making it a little colder and a lot less, you know, death-y. If you go to the power-plant level first and defeat its boss, another level’s exposed circuits no longer damage you, but the lights go off at another part in the level, making it more treacherous (and AWESOME!). That’s just ingenious level design right there, folks.

Chill Penguin has a rocket pack. Hooray.

But the tour de force (why are all the cool words French?) of level design has got to be Super Metroid. This thing basically has five or six ENORMOUS levels: Brinstar, Norfair, Tourian, Crateria, Maridia, and The Wrecked Ship. These enormous levels meticulously guide you through the game by opening up paths to new upgrades only by using the upgrades you previously acquired. The platforming and shooting elements are used with unbelievable variety, requiring you to overcome more challenges than I care to count. And the secrets! There are probably a hundred optional secret things you can do in Super Metroid. They require you to be clever, observant, and have a lot of free time to be able to get them all. Of all the level designs of all the games of the classic systems, I will say that Super Metroid’s were the absolute best. The creative genius and perfection that went into those levels still astounds me, 15 years later.

So what about modern levels in great games? Like I said, in modern gaming, the 2-D side-scrolling adventure has given way to the 3-D, “richer,” more “complex” environments. (I don’t think quotes can even express how sarcastic I am right now.) I can’t help but think that this is a cop out that a lot of game developers use to avoid doing anything creative with levels. If you look at the so-called “modern” (more quotes) 1st-person or 3rd-person shooter (since there really isn’t much of a platforming equivalent in today’s games), the levels are boring, linear, remarkably lame examples of using a formula to dictate how to “challenge” (yep, quotes) a player. You traverse an extremely rich-looking world, with panoramic scenes of otherworldly landscapes, aliens blowing crap up, and you say to yourself, “Wow, this is so cool!” In terms of actual design… no, no it’s not. You have a main path that you must progress down, riddled with enemies, some easy and some difficult. There are optional side paths that nearly always lead to dead-ends with some sort of supply waiting for you: ammo, health packs, extra gear, a spellbook, or a sidequest. It’s inevitable, andi t’s BORING! Today, we believe that to have an engaging experience in a game, we must always know exactly where to go, and the vast majority of our concentration is spent discovering new ways to shoot holes in baddies.

Sure, it LOOKS pretty, but seriously?

Now, all the critics will say, “What about the free-roaming worlds of Skyrim and those MMORPG’s? They’re sooper cool!!” They’re equally as formulaic! The gamedevs think, “We have all these things that are interesting. Time to place them in a strategic order and provide clear directions as to the desired route. But we’ll make it free-form-y by putting a lot of empty space in-between.” It’s not what I’d call inspired. They probably label chicken bones with their dungeon names and toss them mystically over their drawing board.

However, there are diamonds in the rough. Namely, Portal. Portal has consistently brought incredible level design to the table, creating interesting, challenging levels that require serious thought to navigate. Portal 2 (which was, thankfully, funded a little better due to Portal’s success) was also really, really pretty. They used the game’s many mechanics to create an incredible assortment of levels at the beginning. Portal’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna– Wait, I have to JUMP over that deadly, bubbling pit of acid? Great. But then when things inevitably begin to go amiss, the developers create a smooth, high-action chase and escape, that really gives a feeling of thinking on your feet, punctuated by hilarious and slightly menacing British-isms. No wonder everyone loves it so much.

There are other games today that have interesting level designs, it’s true. Mirror’s Edge, while a horrible game, had pretty cool levels and an interesting way of navigating them. The new Zelda game was also pretty innovative, though it fell into a lot of classic Zelda traps (and you know what? Fans like myself were largely okay with that). But today’s big names like Mass Effect, Halo, Left 4 Dead, Skyrim and Deus Ex… they really need to wise up and include some variety, not just in the way the levels LOOK, but in the way we get through them. How cool would it be if you could jump on the Reapers’ heads and get 1-ups?

~Another Gamer

That's the Super Metroid level map. Link to the ROM as well.

Flash game modeled after Megaman X. Pretty awesome remake, no downloads required!

Flash version of Mario! Creative! Fun! Hooray!

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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 March 26, 2012, in Classic Games, Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. christinedonath

    I don’t really understand what problems people have with modern games. You did the same thing over and over in Mario (running, jumping, shooting fireballs, … ) and you do the same thing over and over in modern games (running, jumping, shooting guns, … ). Don’t get me wrong – I love Mario, Metroid and Megaman as much as I love Mass Effect, Portal and modern Zeldas. But I think one has to separate different parts of gaming. Level design tends to be boring nowadays, yep, I totally agree with you on that, but there is so much more to consider when it comes to modern games (I don’t want to say every single one is damn good). Let’s take one example: The most important part of the Mass Effect franchise is its story. It’s indredibly thought-out, incredibly deep, in my opinion a much better Sci-Fi-story than Star Wars. It lives on the relationships you have with your teammates (and believe me, I nearly cried when some of them died or had a very sad past, and I really liked how your chosen lover enjoys being close to you), on the epic story of saving the entire universe and gathering all species to fight at your side and on the choices you have to make, sometimes really hard choices.
    Of course it’s totally okay if you think games like Mass Effect are boring – freedom of opinion – but you should consider all the other factors we haven’t got at the time when there was Mario and Metroid. Games have changed. There are not worse or better – just different. Hell, if there wasn’t any humor in Portal (2) I never would have touched it. But would a game like this have worked in 1988? No. Mass Effect? No. Dark Souls? No. There are so many new reasons to buy a game and I love that. Simple gameplay without much variety – epic story? I buy it. Lame story but funny gameplay or solid multiplayer? I buy it.
    Just my two cents – no offense of course.

    • None taken! I was simply talking about one aspect. I LOVE Mass Effect, and Halo, and Left 4 Dead, and all those other games. It’s just an aspect that I think could be exploited a little better, that tends to NOT be exploited in modern games. It’s no longer necessary to draw people to your game, like it was 20 years ago.

  2. classicalgaming

    It’s true though. A lot of newer games have a very… “on rails” kind of feeling. You have to move from start to finish and there are few paths inbetween.

    I think Sonic really established interesting level design. There were always tons of paths to choose from.

    I also remember, as a kid, combing through strategy guides that displayed the whole level for a game similar to the SMB1 map you have up there. There was one in particular- the Nintendo Power Super Mario Bros 3 guide that was always my favorite to look through. You could see the layouts to the levels and strategize your attack before even attempting them.

    To echo your sentiment, I feel like a lot of today’s games punish exploration. While we do get all kinds of awesome scenes and movies and killer graphics, all we’re essentially doing is walking from left to right. Then again, isn’t that what Mario just a game of getting from left to right anyhow?

    Interesting thoughts!

    • Indeed! I agree completely. I hadn’t even considered Sonic (as I wasn’t a SEGA kid), but you’re absolutely right. While the different paths are often very similar in their gameplay benefit, it makes the game more fun, more interesting, and more replayable!

  3. Quite a post!

    Well, I’ll start off by saying you’ve echoed what I’ve heard a few people say who tend to love older games a lot more than newer ones and I’m going to address them in an upcoming blog post.

    I definitely find the ability/environment thing you mentioned intriguing (how beating certain bosses/areas affects other parts of the game). While I’m not positive to what extent that dynamic can be carried over to most games/genres, it definitely rocks when well-applied.

    If you haven’t played Epic/Chair’s Shadow Complex (http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Shadow-Complex/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802584108f6) you definitely should, as it is heavily inspired by Metroid.

    As for modern platforming, have you played the Ratchet & Clank games? How about the Arkham games? Both have copious amounts of platforming — that is to say, getting around an environment, collecting stuff, etc. R&C is pretty much the perfect platformer/shooter hybrid.

    And as for shooters: how about Bioshock? Those environments were extremely unique. Moreover the gameplay mechanic (especially on hard difficulties) required a great deal of creativity when using limited quantities of Eve and ammunition.

    This post is getting long, so I’ll just quickly list a couple other thoughts
    -Any argument that suggests that modern games are formulaic/linear/unvaried and that retro games aren’t is kidding itself. ESPECIALLY Mario.
    -Portal is awesome
    -Left 4 Dead 2 introduced an AI director which manipulates the layout of the level and the types/frequency of enemies on the fly. Strategizing each new environment and the various enemies adds PLENTY of variety. Unlike retro games, you can’t memorize how L4D is going to turn out.

    • Don’t get me wrong, old games are formulaic as well! But I think that level design innovations and originality were a way to combat that, and it often produced awesome results. Also: Thanks for the info on L4D2. I didn’t know! I’m glad they changed that.

      BioShock still was very linear. The scarcity of ammo is more of a gameplay mechanic than a level design mechanic. I don’t want to make it seem as if I didn’t enjoy all these games. I did! Just not for the level design.

      And Ratchet & Clank is like… modern platforming perfection. They need to make another one.

  4. (sorry for the double-post, but it just occurred to me that I have previously addressed retro games and such on 1up, so I also wanted to share this link: http://www.1up.com/do/blogEntry?bId=9085414) Cheers!

  5. It’s funny, I rarely think of modern games as having “levels,” probably because there’s often (or seems, to me anyway) no cut and dry beginning and end to the areas. I also don’t think of “leveling up” in the same way when considering ME vs. Super Metroid. I don’t often pay much attention to when my character in ME, for example, gets better or stronger – upgrades are just a natural part of the game, not something that’s pointed out to the players, like getting the next weapon in Mega Man X. (Kudos for mentioning that one – one of the best with incredibly fun and complex level designs.) I do agree that modern games are more formulaic and less random that old-school games – that probably contributes in a big way to being able to sell them to a wider and less video-game-oriented public. Less difficult = more playability = more sales (I guess).

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