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A rare find, perhaps?

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.

What… what is going on?

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!

 

Click to play CHIBI KNIGHT, The Zelda 2 Knockoff.

 

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:

Hm. I don’t see the resemblance at all.

Happy gaming, see you next time!

 

~Another Gamer

 

The Path of LEAST Resistance?

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.

See, Robert Frost likes the one on the left.

 

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 three animesque (it’s a word!) protagonists. And a star thing.

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.

It’s about a dwarf. Don’t ask me.

 

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.”

 

~Another Gamer

 

A Gamedev You’ll Love: Flipline Studios!

In the deepest ruminations of my complicated and entirely illogical mind, I have been throwing around the idea of doing game developer profiles. Lost in the annals of time, I did a blog on the creative group “2DArray,” because they’re generally awesome and have put out some of the best flash games ever (yadda yadda, so on and so forth). But NOW, I have decided to make a catchy title that will be present in all of my Gamedev profiles. It’s not an instant classic, like “Two-Minute Tuesday” or “Sado-Masochism Saturday,” but it’ll do! So, whenever you see “A Gamedev You’ll Love,” you’ll know that it means there are plenty of games and examples here for you to play (and hopefully you won’t have to pay any money for them! Hooray internet!).

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HERO Week Continues (and ends, really) with music!

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.

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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. Read the rest of this entry