Category Archives: Classic Games
I’m sorry for not writing before now! Two reasons: first, my computer is kaput. Not your problem, I know, but it did kind of put a damper on my blogging abilities. Second (related to first as well), I’m playing through the game FEZ, and I’m working on kind of a big post about it. However, I realized that I was not nearly deep enough into the game to do it justice, and my save file had just been erased. So, the past week has been comprised of relearning and redoing everything I already did, and finishing up that game. Look for the awesome post Monday! It’s going to be magnificent. Anyway!
With the recent release of GTA V I thought it’d be a good time to discuss the positive impact video games have on our children.
So, yes. I’m a horrible person, so on and so forth. I haven’t been updating, even though I came and said I would. The main reason for this is because I am woefully without internet at my current place of residence! Unfortunate, to be sure. But that’s okay. I’m sitting here in the music university, surrounded by one love, writing about another. Who could ask for more?
Except, of course, internet in my house. That’d be good.
One of my professors (a Texan who speaks flawless Italian. They exist??) mentioned offhand that German internet sucks. Since he probably has more experience with it than I do, that doesn’t bode well for me! Hopefully I’m the exception to the rule… or else, how will I surf Facebook and make meaningful blog posts about the nature of video games??
Anyhow. If I had previously turned you on to the idea of the Humble Bundle, you hopefully bought the most recent one that came out. It was a little bit geared towards mobile-gaming again, but it still had a couple gems in it that I’m playing, have played, or am looking forward to playing. But I won’t talk about that now, for the reason that it’s irrelevant (as you can no longer buy it). Sorry! I hope that you made your purchase in good time, and I’ll be sure to make another post when the next one comes out. Naturally, I want you, dear reader(s?), to take advantage of the artful awesomeness that is indie gaming.
But for now, today’s blog post is about a gem that I found recently. This game is certainly not NEW, by any sense of the word (except the astronomical sense. Everything created by man is extremely new in the grand scheme of time), but it is both extremely interesting and a little bit fun, too. The game I am speaking of, of course, is Zelda 2.
It’s… side-scrolling. It’s a side-scrolling Zelda game! WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN? Well, 1987, to be exact. A couple years before I was born, but then again, I am so saturated with old games that one would have thought I’d have played this to death. But, (obviously, due to the surprised tone of my earlier sentences) I hadn’t discovered it until only a couple weeks ago. Sure, it’s an old game, but in the grand scheme of the Zelda franchise (and video games in general), it illustrates a very important concept.
What concept, you inquire? Well… the concept of a franchise! The concept of putting a number 2 next to the title of that game you released a while back, and hoping people will buy it and enjoy it just like they did the first one. There is a reason the Zelda franchise was so successful! And… well, it wasn’t this game. Just from looking at one screencap, you can immediately tell that this game is entirely different from every single other Zelda game in existence (with the slight exception of one part of the first dungeon in Link’s Awakening, where you get knocked off by the boss into a pit-type thing that is in fact side-scroll-y). It’s got experience bars, it’s platforming, it’s a very great deal more action-y and less puzzle-y than most Zelda games we’re aware of.
So, why does it exist? Knowing what we know now about the Zelda franchise, why didn’t they make a game that improved upon the concepts of the first game, offered a different storyline, and more cool features for the player to take advantage of? That’s what EVERY SINGLE OTHER Zelda game is! Why make this one such an anomaly? (Okay, that’s one too many rhetorical questions.) The answer is, naturally, because there were no rules and strategies to this sort of “franchise” thing. The world of console gaming was just starting to come into being, and the idea of putting out multiple games and relying on the brand of a fictional character was somewhat… foreign! It’s not just the matter of sticking your quarters in a machine anymore; it’s the idea of playing a whole other game, from start to finish, just because you liked the first one.
Now, if that were your goal… how would you go about it? Would you, say, make a game that is in most respects quite similar to the first game, but fluffed up a little bit, with more bells and whistles? Of course not! In the eye of the game developer, it would be foolish to put out such a similar product, and kind of seems like selling out, too. That mindset is all well and good, (and this game we’re talking about is produced FROM that mindset,) but as we now know, that’s not what video gamers desire! I know that when I play a Zelda game, I know what I want, and I know that I’ll find it within. There’s going to be a gradually increasing level of difficulty, lots of puzzles, tons of special items, princesses, Gorons and Zoras, something about the Triforce and the Master Sword… and it’s all going to be in top-down goodness. That’s a Zelda game. That’s the Zelda franchise.
And so, we have this game, different in style, and certainly less famous and less successful, all because it wanted to offer a totally different experience with the characters you know and love. Everyone knows, however, that characters don’t make a game franchise, because we’ve all played Super Mario Bros. 2. Turnips? Magic potions? Hearts??? (By the way, in case you didn’t know, Super Mario Bros. 2 was not originally Mario at all. Check it out here.) It’s a good game, but it’s an anomaly.
So, finally, what I’m getting at with this whole thing. The idea of a video game franchise is more than simple characters and worlds. It’s also gameplay! We have these great worlds that are developed, with cool characters, and interesting plotlines. However, when we play these franchise games, we expect them to behave a certain way! Metroids are ALWAYS frozen with ice missiles! Latikus ALWAYS drop spike balls. You ALWAYS get the Master Sword somehow. It’s the way the game works. You can’t just go fooling around with them willy-nilly. (By the way, willy-nilly is a totally awesome word. Use it in conversation sometime. But not willy-nilly!)
Having said all that, aren’t there good examples of games that HAVE been changed drastically within franchises that have also been successful?
Absolutely. Games and their franchises change with the capabilities of their systems. The ones that are successful, however, move the concept of their games to a new system, utilizing the capabilities of said system fully while preserving the idea behind the older games. Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the best games Nintendo has ever released. Super Mario 64 is another. Argue with me if you like, but… maybe you should just trust me on this one. These games are both in 3D, which is an entirely different feeling for both franchises: Zelda’s top-down was equally as iconic by this time as Mario’s side-scrolling excitement. And, certainly, the idea of playing a musical instrument (actually controlling it with your controller, I mean… not Oracle of Seasons/Ages style)… was a game-changer (pun absolutely intended). Same deal with Mario: you now had health, and the world was way more free-form, even quest-oriented. There were little races and challenges and strange things that none of the other games before 64 ever had. And yet… Ocarina of Time? It’s a flippin’ PUZZLE game. You spent hours in the Water Temple not FIGHTING crap (except for those Tekteks. Screw those guys), but solving puzzles! You pushed blocks, shot fire-arrows, used small keys, hookshotted the hell out of targets and vines alike, and made your way through dungeons not by brawn, but by brains. It was a Zelda game, through and through. That idea was preserved. And NO ONE can dare to say that Super Mario 64 is not a platformer. Perhaps it was a little more forgiving with lives than the earlier Mario games, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t spend hours timing jumps right and trying to run without falling off one edge or another. The feeling of Mario was there, even if it looked a little bit different. Super Mario Galaxy and Skyward Sword (or Twilight Princess, too), took the games in a different direction. But c’mon. They’re still Mario and Zelda. You’ll always know a little bit what to expect.
So we see these games, how they change, how they stay the same, and we ask ourselves: SHOULD it be that way? What if every Zelda game had a different gameplay style, a different goal, a different set of mechanics governing your experience? Would those games still be good? The answer is unequivocally yes. The only thing is, instead of making these games “Zelda” or “Mario,” why not call them by another name? That way, we don’t have the problems of brand name expectations, and we can work within a much freer framework for what we can do and what we want to do as game developers! Let’s have a look at the result: Chibi Knight!
If you decide to play it (and you really should), you’ll find that it’s fun, cool, addictive, engaging, and altogether very well-made! It’s also exactly the same style of gameplay as Zelda 2. So, after all this, I’ve come to this conclusion: the failure (not really FAILURE, by the way. It was successful in its original run, but it failed to stand the test of time like some other Zelda games we know) of Zelda 2 wasn’t because of its actual gameplay… it’s no longer a popular Zelda game because it was just too different. I guess the moral of the story here is “Be careful what you call Zelda.”
Also, in case you were wondering HOW MUCH Chibi Knight is like Zelda 2 (and how obvious the relation is)… Here’s the opening screen from Zelda 2:
Happy gaming, see you next time!
There’s a wonderful Robert Frost poem, something about the road less traveled by. It’s a heartfelt and florid plea for you to live your life exceptionally, and not to just be the next lemming off the cliff of doing what’s popular. There are probably about four people reading my blog who actually know what the heck I’m talking about, but then again, there are only four people who read my blog. 100% Success! Anyway. This idea is applicable, of course, to more than vague, non-specific life choices! And unless you think this is a blog about poetry for which composer Eric Whitacre was sued for, then I guess we’re talking about video games.
So what about video games? Am I being philosophical, and saying that video game developers should “take the road less traveled by”? They should be novel and new instead of creating another first-person shooter? Not at all, go for it! What I’m talking about is for the GAMER. No game is EVER perfectly linear. The very idea of gaming implies a choice between different options, whether it is to try to get the cherry in Pac-Man, or to go down the pipe in Mario, or to merely reflect the ball vs. trying to spin it on the tip of the paddle in Pong. That’s the wonderful thing about video games! They are full of choices. Of course, as video games have progressed, so have the choices. What began as “do I want to go down the pipe?” progressed to “do I want the feather outfit or the fire flower outfit?” progressed to “do I want the frog, fire flower, feather, raccoon, giant boot, pink evening dress or yellow spandex outfit?” in Mario (guess how many of those are actual outfits you can wear). But also, you get choices for endings. You could save the animals in Super Metroid. You could get married (or not) in Harvest Moon. You began to see tons of different options for loyalty, gameplay, relationships, storyline, endings, allies/enemies, and sidequests. It’s magnificent and (if you play games by BioWare) you can see the effects of that change today.
While that’s all wonderful and I’m pleased as punch that games have taken a turn toward the customizable, I really just want to talk about the gameplay aspect of these choices. And really, what is there besides gameplay in a game? Everything that happens in the game is caused by a choice you make (which, in lame-and-mundande World, we call those choices “playin’ the frickin’ game”). But, even more specifically, how your gameplay choices affect the rewards you receive! We have been conditioned as gamers to understand the golden rule of gaming: the more difficult it is to achieve, the better the rewards are. Hence, true to the title of this post: The path of least resistance is for wussies.
Moving on. Resistance is a funny term. We use the phrase “path of least resistance” without actually thinking about what the word means. Resistance is a measure of the difficulty of the obstacles the gamedevs put in the way of some goal that the player is trying to achieve. In Mario, it’s Goombas, Koopas and bottomless pits of death and agony. In Metroid, it’s Space Pirates, indigenous flora and fauna, and the occasional bloodsucking Metroid (it IS the name of the game, I suppose). In Final Fantasy, it is puzzles and battles, both random and scripted. But the gamedevs put these things there to present a challenge. However! They serve another purpose.
They tell us where to go. (Ka-blam! That was the sound of your mind being blown.) In the game Diablo (which I love to reference a lot), enemies do not respawn. So, logic quickly follows that enemies = someplace I haven’t been yet. It’s the simplest explanation for what I’m trying to illustrate, but it works. The resistance that the developers of these games put in place for us is a SIGNAL to us that this is a direction we should progress in. The LEVEL of that resistance is another signal to us. Is it higher or lower than what we have previously encountered? Is it easily avoidable or placed squarely in your main means of progression? These are subconscious clues to us as gamers that give us an idea as to where we MUST go, where we WANT to go, and where we want to really, really stay away from. They are wordless bits of information that the game developers place in the game to nudge us in the direction of advancing through the game.
The way I see it, there are two end goals in mind when the level of resistance changes in a game. The first kind uses difficult fights and tasks to serve as a benchmark to your progress through the game. Think “boss fights,” people. To get to the end of the level (and progress to the next one), you have to beat the King Slime! You have a choice to go through the main path and fight the King Slime, or you can go down this other path full of mini-slimes. In these games, what does going down the side path usually yield? (All together now!) TREASURE! Goodies, equipment upgrades, gold, potions, things that help you to die less in the inevitable altercation with the boss. For example, try this delightful little gem: Epic Battle Fantasy 3. It’s quite like Final Fantasy (which certainly provides a lot of the kind of resistance I’m talking about here), but it’s free and you can play it on your computer. At least get through the first boss! You’ll see what I mean.
The other kind of resistance occurs in games where the main goal is simply to progress through a level. Think Metroid, or even Megaman (minus the bosses). The level is set up with pretty manageable challenges of dexterity, battle prowess, and puzzle-solving abilities. But then, there are areas of EXTREME puzzling, impossible feats of jumping and dashing, or incredibly tough baddies, stuck in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. But there IS an apparent reason! TREASURE! (It’s always about treasure, isn’t it?) This seems exactly the same as what I said before, only in this instance, the easier path is the MAIN path, and the only time you encounter any true survival difficulty is when you go for that missile tank or that extra armor. The main path requires you to freeze some enemies and jump on top of them, whereas the energy tank upgrade requires arduous wall-jumping and crazy Samus backflips that would make my yoga instructor jealous. The big difference in these games is that your “treasure” is permanent. That upgrade stays with you for the rest of the game, so the gamedevs nudge you to AVOID getting it, as opposed to nudging you TOWARDS it to prepare you for some other altercation. A perfect game to show this is called Endeavor. It is a platform RPG, and that’s all I’ll really tell you. Notice how hard you’ll have to try to get some of the upgrades you seek.
So there are many kinds of resistance, it’s true. Some lead you to explore new areas of the game, some discourage all but the most dedicated gamers from venturing near. But resistance, in itself, is an awesome tool that game developers use to guide the user through the game, and encourage a certain course of action (while perhaps rewarding the gamer if their encouragement is ignored). You see? As if we needed more proof that the Borg are a little off in the head: they keep saying, “Resistance is futile.”
Now, if you’ll recall the last post’s heroic exploits and explanations, you’ll remember that we talked about how video game heroes, with a few notable exceptions, are just a little more hero-y than the protagonists of most other storytelling genres (I realize “heroic” is actually a REAL word, but “hero-y” just sounded better in my head. Critics, I swear). We have lots of strong, silent types. People who get the job done. People who, let’s face it, just DON’T die, no matter how much they really ought to. The world of video gaming is a bright and magical place, full of wonder and people with ridiculous amounts of survivability and tenacity. That’s the first time I’ve ever used “tenacity” or any of its conjugations in a way that didn’t refer to Jack Black. And, coincidentally, that makes the perfect transition into the suitably epic topic for today’s post: the music of heroes.
Hooray for Hero Week, where we delve deep and discover the true awesomeness that is a video game hero (or heroine). “But, dear blogger,” you say, “your delightfully witty and well-written blog only updates twice a week!” To that, I say: you’re right! But I had an idea for two posts that were related, so why not make a week out of it? Pure blogging gold, right there. And that idea, of course, is to write about those fabulous doers of good, those just and fearless warriors, those people who horrifically skew the “Number of Princesses Rescued per Capita” rating of Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom.
We’re grownups, we have responsibilities! You know, when we were four, we dreamed of growing up to become a firetruck. Then, shortly after realizing that becoming a Transformer/Megazord is slightly out of our range of career options, we decided on something slightly less awesome. And we slowly but surely worked our way through being picked on, then puberty (oh god), then all that great stuff that happens after, like getting a job and going to college. And none of that has to do with video games. But you remember when you were __ (insert your appropriate age here) and Poke’mon Blue came out? You flipped your frickin’ lid. You saw a video game cartridge that was BLUE. It was blue, folks. And you had to have it. You pestered your _______ (insert appropriate family member or figure with money here) so much that he or she took you to Toys’R’Us and just bought you the damn thing. Score one for kid you!
Diablo 2 was a pretty frickin’ awesome game. I’m just gonna put that one out there before I go any further. Diablo 2 climbed the Mount Olympus of PC gaming, beat the crap out of Zeus, and pronounced Blizzard ruler of all awesomeness forever and ever, amen. And that certainly hasn’t changed. Diablo 2 rocked the world with its algorithmically generated dungeons, amazing abilities, cool music, rich storyline and voice acting, fluid combat system, gratuitous violence, and visually stunning environments (for that day and age). I mean, jeez, how many more qualities of gaming are there? Oh noes, it doesn’t have Wii-motion technology. Suck it up, Nintendo-philes! D2 was the pinnacle of gaming for its time, and I bought it at a very developmental time in my life (around 5th grade or so). So, this game holds a very special place in my heart. My time hearing the words “Stay awhile and listen!” over and over and over were well spent.
But okay, guys: I got a beta invite to Diablo 3. When I found out they were making a 3rd Diablo game, I leapt for joy. Pretty much. Maybe not actual leaping, but there was some definite freaking out. I began following the lore religiously, watching as each new development came out, got a desktop background, scrolled through pages of fanart, and adopted a chihuahua and named him “Baal, Lord of Destruction.” That’s how excited I was. Now, of course, school started and I was dragged kicking and screaming back to reality, so I completely stopped following any of the hype, because Blizzard hadn’t put out a release date. And then Blizzard put out a release date, and I got a beta invite. And now, without knowing anything knowing anything about the actual gameplay, I delved into the awesomeness that is Diablo 3.
Games do a lot of things very well. They tell a story, they engage the player, they provide entertainment, and they express the ideas and imaginary fantasies of the game creators. And man, some of those creators are pretty frickin’ twisted. The people who made the game BioShock must have had some pretty creepy childhood memories. And when that comes out in their games, it is really, really scary. The reason that games like BioShock have a level of awesome added on top of the generous amounts of awesome they already possess? They scare the crap out of people. It takes a carefully crafted world and mechanics to set up a truly frightening environment for players to travel through, but there have been several games that have done it masterfully. And, all jesting aside, these incredible game developers have created nightmares, out of nothing more than pixels and their digital imagination. How do they do it? I’m glad you asked! Read the rest of this entry
Balance is very important. It’s the only thing that keeps the universe in order. Yin vs. Yang. Good vs. Evil. Microsoft vs. Apple. You get the picture. But in video games, it’s you against the baddies, and only one of you is going to get out alive (or in the case of Poke’mon, un-fainted…?). And when push comes to shove, balance in video games is about how much power you have versus how tough the enemies are. Balance is yet another important aspect of video games that constantly frustrates developers, and can truly make or break a game’s playability. And in the world of making video games, it is special because each game’s balance is unique; whatever you start with is going to take some serious tweaking to be viable, no matter how much experience in the industry you have! And if your game’s balance sucks, the first bits of feedback you’ll get are: “1/5, too hard” or “1/5, too easy.” Critics. I swear.
There are many things that go into making the balance of a game good. It seems all mystical and stuff, but in reality it’s just a collection of numbers. I mean, you say “Okay, your magic missile does… *rolls dice* FOUR damage.” Four is a number! (And while we’re stating the obvious, the sky is blue.) These numbers, when working in conjunction with each other, make up your games balance. The main things I’ve found that really affect how your game is balanced are: your survivability, your damage, and the health of enemies. If you die too quickly, then your game will be spent hiding behind a wall to avoid being hit. No fun. If it’s too high, then you’re just going to run through the levels, blasting everything that comes your way. More fun! But still, not engaging enough to make you want to play it all the way through. Same thing with your damage. And, of course, the health of enemies is the biggest thing that makes a difference, because it not only affects how the game feels, but gives you lots of options for different enemies with different health. So you can have big, bad, tough enemies, and little, annoying, squishy ones. Yay!
This is all very abstract and math-y, so let’s look at some examples! World of Warcraft is popular, and we could say its balance is pretty good. But really, is it? 90% of the time, you’re facing one enemy at a time, whittling down their health until they’re a bloody heap of loot at your feet. And no one feels powerful just facing one enemy at a time. But then, you get to what’s lovingly known as “Endgame Content,” where you have somewhere between 10 and 25 guys beating the living crap of one guy. Now, if you think to yourself: hang on, I spent this entire game 1-on-1 with regular enemies, and you’re trying to make me feel MORE powerful by making it 25-on-1? Real smart, Blizzard. But here’s the thing that changes all that and makes you feel pretty cool and powerful and like you’re doing something with your life (okay, maybe not that last one). When you have that team of 25 people, you’re free to totally let loose with your powers, because (wait for it!), your survivability changes completely! All of a sudden, instead of worrying about dying, you now have healers and things covering your butt and keeping you from death, which you are unfortunately NOT blessed with in regular 1-on-1 combat. Whoa, Blizzard, it’s like you do this whole balance thing pretty well!
Let’s find another example. This other, totally unknown and unpopular Blizzard game, Diablo 2, has in my opinion some of the best balance choices of any game ever, and I’ll tell you why (as if you doubted that I would). In Diablo 2 there are 5 types of enemies: Regular enemies, Boss enemies, Champion enemies, Quest enemies, and Final Boss enemies. (Yes, these categories have been arbitrarily created by me, but I’m writing the blog here, so suck it up!) Now the regular enemies, from the very beginning of the game, can be torn through like bloody evil tinfoil. They come in huge packs which eventually threaten your existence, but only if you’re really not paying attention. This is great because it makes you feel like you’re this awesome superhero, who vanquishes little annoying lizard-things with relative ease. Boss enemies are much tougher versions of normal enemies with special powers. Beating on them takes a while, but boy, does it feel good when they die. In that situation, your survivability’s down, your damage is up (because it’s focused on one enemy), and the enemy’s health is increased. But the balance feels right, even though it’s different than normal. Champion enemies are groups of slightly-less-than-boss-level enemies. Yet a different feeling of balance! Now come the fun ones: Quest enemies and Final Bosses. These are exceedingly tough enemies, and truth be told I think this is where the balance of the game breaks down a little bit. It’s rough to be constantly beating on an enemy with little or no indication that you’re really getting anywhere. Eventually, however, you finish them off, and it’s both well-rewarded with gear/uprgades, and with plot progression. And how those fights are balanced really makes the difference as to whether or not you feel like you really DID something, even if it took you a long time.
Interesting side note about that: Boss names are randomly generated, but their health bars are the length of their name. So if you have a Diablo 2 boss named “Ted,” then each hit feels like you’re taking away about a pixel of his health. But if you have a boss named “Angerfist, the Pustulant Harbinger of Doom and Destroyer of World-Eating Zombie Dragons,” then each hit makes it look like you’re taking away like 3 letters of his needlessly lengthy name! It’s an interesting Diablo 2 kind of thing. Unfortunately, Diablo himself has a very short name, and boatloads of health, so you’re really working for that next pixel of damage, and generally dying a lot in the process.
It all makes sense, really. And if you think about it, it’s pretty crazy that Blizzard can take two games with essentially the same style of gameplay (one hero versus many baddies), and yet can make satisfying gameplay out of 1-on-1 and “1-on-wow, that’s a lot of enemies.” You get the feeling how unique balance is? And truth be told, there’s one aspect of it that’s really more important than how easy or difficult the game is. That aspect is how the game FEELS. Balance, in its very essence, is about feeling. It’s about how powerful you feel when you’re mowing down armies of enemies, or how helpless you feel against that final boss. It gives games variety within their own combat system, and it keeps you engaged as you figure out how to fight tougher enemies, or gloriously shoot down hordes of weaker ones (I don’t know if you can tell, but I love killing those weaker enemies. It’s a better stress-reliever than yoga!).
On a slightly more interactive note: to illustrate my point about balance, there’s a specific kind of game genre called “Bullet Hell.” These games have a pretty fun balance typically characterized (I bet you’d never guess this from the name) by a LOW survivability. Check out one of my favorites here. Dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge, folks.
So that’s that. Think about it the next time you play a game like Ratchet and Clank, or Ninja Gaiden, or Mass Effect. How does it feel? I don’t mean to sound like your resident video gamer Freudian shrink, but seriously. You’ll realize that not only did the game designers really make an awesome gameplay experience for you, your character is really effective at blowing stuff up, and it feels good. 😀
P.S. So… tell me about your mother.
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. Read the rest of this entry