Crash Bandicoot, Completionism, and Depth

This past summer I was lucky enough to get my hands on an old PlayStation 1 copy of Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped.  I’m a life-long fan of Crash games.  While Crash 2 remains my favorite, I believe Warped to be the best of the trilogy in terms of design, variety, and quality.  But that’s not quite what I want to talk about.

Crash 3 logo
The Crash Bandicoot logo as seen in Crash Bandicoot: Warped. (Byron Cabrera via YouTube)

Playing all this Crash Bandicoot got me thinking about the nature of replayability in games like Crash.  They’re pretty straightforward on the surface.  There is no open world in early Crash, unlike in contemporaries such as Super Mario 64.  There aren’t hundreds of stars for you to collect.  Instead, it’s very much a game of going from point A to point B, playing through level after inventive level.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but it leads to the question of why this game is so fun.  I wonder why I come back to it time and time again.

Although Crash games are fairly short and straightforward, the depth of the game doesn’t lie in simply getting from the first level to the last level.  The depth is in scouring every level for all of the game’s hidden treasures.  Sometimes you have to hunt down a secret path in a given level.  Sometimes you have to find a hidden path in one level to find another in a completely different level.

In Warped, a big part of getting collectibles is just speed-running levels for relics.  Therefore, you need to know each one inside and out.  I think this is the beauty of Crash Bandicoot.  Sure, it can be a great game for people who don’t play video games a lot.  But within it lies a spectacular challenge: completing everything the game has to offer.  That’s why I think this game is a perfect example to use for talking about completionism.

“Completionism” isn’t a very well-known term yet, but it’s a gaming term coined by Jirard Khalil, nicknamed The Completionist, whose YouTube channel is dedicated to beating every possible challenge in various games and making videos breaking down the games and the challenge of tackling everything they have to offer.  Everything from Chester Cheetah to Skyrim is fair game.

The fact that he’s able to do this with any kind of regularity is extremely impressive by itself, but what intrigues me is that at the end of every review, he gives a rating of whether to play it, finish it, or complete it 100%.  Games don’t always get the “complete it” rating for various reasons, but the most common reason is that total completion of a game is a hassle, except over a very long period of time.

Crash Bandicoot games, meanwhile, beg for 100% completion.  They use creativity to make a limited number of assets go a long way.  Gems are often hidden behind unconventional solutions and secrets, and time trials test your reflexes and skills to the core.  As a result, the game encourages players to beat it multiple times, and makes it possible to get a lot of mileage out of playing the same game for the promise of a secret ending, bragging rights, and satisfaction.  That goes to show that a game’s appeal and longevity don’t have to come from an open world or hundreds of levels to finish.  This is the meaning of depth in a game.

Crash Bandicoot finds a secret path.
You need to stay alive to find some secret paths! (Photo: ReaperHunter via YouTube)

In fact, one of my favorite things about Crash 2 and Crash 3 specifically is that they fall into a rare breed of games where it’s possible to get over 100% completion.  For example, in Crash 3, the maximum completion possible is 105%.  You obtain this completion by beating every level, obtaining every crystal, and finding every gem.   This means finding every box and secret paths, and obtaining every gold relic obtained from time trials.  You also can’t forget the five extra levels and the two secret levels hidden within other stages.  Even then, it’s possible to go for platinum relics on every stage, which basically require perfect time trial runs.

The amount of stuff you can challenge yourself with in Crash games is inspiring.  Games like these, where you can literally push past the boundary of 100% through your own wit and skill, are uniquely rewarding.

Crash pulling some dangerous stunts. (ReaperHunter via YouTube)

The original Crash trilogy is being remastered by Vicarious Visions and is going to be released in 2017.  This is massive news not only because it’s af treat for the fanbase, but could also lead to a revival of the franchise.  I truly hope that these remasters remain faithful to the series legacy of short-but-deep level design.  If not, I think it will be a shame, because the development of Crash Bandicoot is an incredible story of repeatedly making something out of nothing.

Andy Gavin, co-founder of Naughty Dog and Crash Bandicoot creator, tells the full story of development on his website, and it’s an awesome read that I recommend you check out if you want to get into game design!

Nintendo Switch: Our Thoughts and What We Know

Yesterday morning, the video game market underwent a legendary change as gaming giant Nintendo revealed details about its newest console, the Nintendo Switch.  Formerly codenamed the NX, rumors circulated about the platform for over a year, teasing everything from cartridge-based game publishing to a hybrid design combining handheld and home console elements.

WHAT WE KNOW

As it turns out, just about every rumor turned out to be true.  What we saw in the reveal trailer for the Switch is an incredibly ambitious piece of hardware.  The Switch is teasing multiple controller setups, including dual miniature Joy-Con controllers for on-the-go play, custom pro controllers, and a lightweight 6-inch tablet controller that allows you to take a game on the go seamlessly, like a handheld console.  Two NS owners can also sync up their tablets, which are the core components of the console, for team-based multiplayer.

Switch games will be on cartridges, much like they are on the Nintendo 3DS.  At first glance, this may seem like an old-fashioned choice, but according to BidnessEtc, it may be a great decision in the long run.  Cartridges hold up better than discs, make no noise while being read, allow for faster load times, and even have more storage per card.  To demonstrate, a massive Wii U game like Xenoblade Chronicles X only takes up about 3.6 GB, and most 3DS game cards already have 8 GB of space.

Since the Switch is a hybrid console, its use of cartridges will allow for much-needed storage of large AAA games that will have to be portable as part of the console’s design.

Not much is currently known about the console’s specs, although its GPU is a custom build from Nvidia.  Nvidia has released a blog post expressing their happiness with their Switch build.  Apart from this, we’re yet to find out about the resolution on the tablet screen, the consistency of the Switch’s frame-rate, or most importantly, about its maximum battery life.

Unsurprisingly, Nintendo has also confirmed that the Switch will have amiibo support just like its predecessor.

The Nintendo Switch logo!
The Nintendo Switch logo!

WHAT THE SWITCH WILL NEED

Battery life of the Switch’s various portable parts is the most important question in my opinion, because this is what will make or break the console’s extraordinary portable gimmick.  If the Switch is going to be practical, its users will have to feel free to use its many control options without having to constantly buy new batteries or bring the controller back to its charging dock.

I think that it would be in Nintendo’s best interests to make the Switch the ultimate mobile machine.  In a time when mobile gaming is continuing to grow and push gaming further into the mainstream, the Switch should become a must-have for people who want to carry games wherever they go but don’t necessarily want to use their phone.  That’s why I think it should feature some kind of platform for open-source software development.  Basically, an app store where developers can come to present their games and apps to the public through the Switch.  If Nintendo can partner with some of the best developers in the mobile market and encourage people to buy the Switch for the best mobile gaming experience, we could see sales that could give the Wii a run for its money.

Most of all, the Switch needs great games.  It looks like it will be re-releasing Wii U games, but it will need to shoot for the trifecta of a good game library: strong launch titles, great first party IP showings, and third-party support.  From what little we know right now, the NS is looking strong on all three, with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild being shown off and a new Mario title being teased.  TechCrunch has released a long list of third party developers who have also been shown to be partnered with Nintendo Switch, including EA, FromSoftware, and even Bethesda Softworks.  This list is a good sign, but the Switch will have to sport some big new releases, and end the trend of major companies developing games only for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.  Nintendo has always had incredible exclusive IPs, so if it can branch out into third party releases, it might re-take the spotlight.

It may be that the Switch can even compete with the likes of the iPad, depending again on battery life but also on the variety of software and apps it makes available.  If it can combine the console experience and the tablet experience, it could have an even more massive influence on technology than expected.

MAJOR QUESTIONS

The big question that remains in my mind has to do with Nintendo’s plans for game development in the future.  This is really the first true hybrid console to ever exist, combining the handheld market and the home console market.  Until now, these two markets have remained separate, and have built up their own separate IPs.

Now, it may be disappointing to some major Wii U fans, but I can tell that the Switch is about to make the Wii U history.  The big question is, what will be the future of the 3DS line of handhelds?  Now that we have the Switch, which is technically portable, is the 3DS going to become defunct as well?  Nintendo has said that there are many more 3DS games in the pipeline, and this is to be expected, but what about the future beyond the 3DS?  Will we see a merging of the two markets, with games like Dragon Quest and Pokemon becoming part of the home console market?

This could have a huge implication for the way the company makes money in this next console generation.  Will NS games be more expensive because they double as home and console games, or is the transition so seamless that games will cost the same, or even less?  If that’s the case, does that mean that the NS will be crazy expensive for all the tech it’s packing?  This could easily be, since President of Nintendo Tatsumi Kimishima has stated that the console won’t be sold at a loss.

As I said earlier, the trailer showed several Wii U games being played with NS technology, but they aren’t original Wii U releases.  Nintendo has confirmed that the Switch isn’t physically compatible with Wii U or 3DS games.  For example, Mario Kart 8 showed extra characters like King Boo, and Splatoon has different hairstyles and idle animations on its characters.  Since no Wii U disc being used, this could mean that Nintendo will be continuing its tradition of re-releasing its most popular titles on its next generation of consoles.

This would actually be a shrewd decision from Nintendo.  It would help people to remember the best aspects of the unpopular Wii U generation and carry them into the next generation along with everything new that the Switch will bring.  Then again, that brings up the question of which games will be carried over, how much will they cost, and what will be new in the re-releases?  Will Super Smash Bros. 4 be ported to NS with new characters, perhaps?  Only time will tell.

We’ll need to know more about the Nintendo Switch before determining how competitive it will be in the tech and gaming market.  Regardless, it looks like an incredible machine, and I was personally giddy watching the trailer for it.  Nintendo has always been innovative in its development of new consoles, and this machine could set the new standard.  Nintendo has stated that more details on specs and pricing will come sometime next year, and we can’t wait to hear more!

Shovel Knight: WELCOME TO THE FIRST LEVEL

The opening menu of Shovel Knight
The opening menu of Shovel Knight!

If you ask me, Shovel Knight is one of the best games of this decade, and most certainly the best indie game of the decade.  It’s full of clever mechanics, great levels, and loads of personality.  But another one of its greatest strengths is how it teaches its players intuitively.

A lot of what I say in this article is covered by a major inspiration of mine, snomaN Gaming, in his series “Good Game Design.”  I encourage you to check it out below.  But for the sake of a thorough breakdown, we’re going to look at the first steps into this wonderful world of shovelry and examine how it’s put together.

We enter the first level of the game, “Plains.”  On the first screen, it’s just you and a small, glistening pile of rubble on the far end.  Starting out, you only use two buttons: a button to jump, and a button to attack with your shovel.  This first screen uses a common 2D level design trope.  It puts you on one side and a stand-out object on the other.  Jumping does nothing to this pile of rocks, but digging at it reveals treasure.  Already it’s clear that your shovel is how you interact with each set piece.  It also allows you to collect treasure, which hints at some kind of money system.  This comes into play later, so we won’t talk about it here.

The first enemy encounter in the game.
The first enemy encounter in the game.

Immediately after digging up the rocks, you find your first enemy.  This thing is slow-moving and pretty powerless, so it’s not hard to figure out that a whack of the shovel does the trick.  Plus, you have plenty of health, so if you try out the Super Mario Bros. logic of jumping on an enemy and find that it doesn’t work, you’re still good to go.

Now we have our first platforms — a cluster of three with another slow-moving beetle on the tallest one.  This teaches the player to jump and slash at the same time, and lets them get a feel for the timing.  Immediately afterward we see our first dirt block on top of a platform (a key element in the rest of the game) and two beetles underneath.  In this case you can break the dirt block and ignore the beetles, go under to fight the beetles and get some treasure, or do both.  Whatever you do, you’ve dealt with a new scenario.

Then we come to a wall of dirt blocks in the way of progression, just past a bottomless pit.  Most players will know to break through the dirt and not try to go down the pit to progress.  Even if you make that error, the stakes are low and you can still recover your gold.  Let’s move on.

The player's first time shovel-bouncing.
The player’s first time shovel-bouncing.

The game then teaches you another core mechanic of the game: downward attacks.  This is the first time we see a dirt block that we can’t hit from the side.  But they’re clearly breakable because there’s stuff below them and there are no other paths.  The only thing to do here is experiment with the buttons and movement.  Eventually you find out that jumping and holding down on the control stick allows you to bounce on certain blocks with your shovel.  The bouncing is also shown off by the fact that there are two blocks stacked on each other.  Right away you have a pretty complete sense of how this mechanic works.

Shovel-bouncing gets the player across tricky gaps.
Shovel-bouncing gets the player across tricky gaps.

This is important, because your next obstacle is a gap that can only be crossed by shovel-bouncing off of a respawning bubble.  This may take a couple tries, but after getting past it, you know how to use the shovel bounce to do tricky platforming.

The first checkpoint and a moving platform!
The first checkpoint and a moving platform!

Next up we find our first checkpoint and our first moving platform, which is again teaching without telling.  The placement of these elements is key, because we then see a moving platform over spikes, and spikes are the only thing other than falling that kill you instantly.  If you hit the spikes accidentally, it’s no big deal because you just hit a checkpoint.  If you die, you go back to the previous screen, and now you know how checkpoints work if you didn’t already.

A big, not-so-friendly dragon teaches the player about vulnerable spots.
A big, not-so-friendly dragon teaches the player about vulnerable spots.

Next we see our most interesting enemy yet: a big, yellow, cat-like dragon whose weakness is bouncing on his head.  Now we know that certain enemies have specific vulnerable points.  And once we defeat him, we see certain special enemies drop lots of treasure and even health.

The player destroying a wall.
Tear the walls down!

Go down the ladder to fight another new enemy: the skeleton.  The skeleton reacts to your attacks and movements in a way the beetles didn’t.  Therefore, you have to be smarter about how you fight him.  On the next screen, we learn about secret walls.  The game drops you into a situation that looks like a trap, but there’s a clear spot you have to reach.  Right in front of you is a wall with a little notch, and striking it reveals a new pathway.  These pathways can hide enemies, though, so be cautious!

By this point, every basic mechanic of Shovel Knight has been taught to you: the rest of the level teaches you to look for different paths to get interesting rewards and to bounce off enemies to get to gems.  Some rewards are hidden behind secrets that are even harder to notice.  You even learn how to cancel out a line of shovel bounces to go after a gem.

The first boss fight in the game.
The first of many face-offs with the Black Knight.

Everything the player learns about combat then culminates in a stage boss.  This also allows you to learn about reflecting projectiles and countering specific attack patterns.

Shovel Knight is a testament to good tutorial levels built around simple mechanics.  It doesn’t just teach controls…it teaches instincts.  By the time you reach the end, you know how to play the game, yet it doesn’t actively point out a single control.  This keen level design isn’t just a one-off, either.  Shovel Knight is more than personality, and its design is ruthlessly intelligent.  If you designers out there take nothing else from this game, it’s the importance of teaching without telling.

Divekick and Design by Subtraction

Fumito Ueda is the designer of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.  One of his philosophies is “design by subtraction.”  This basically means creating a game that’s simple, without too much fluff.  Some games do this by taking great formulas from existing games, then carefully stripping away most of their features except one or two, refining them to the absolute furthest.  You might imagine that games like these are really just ripoffs, but they’re specifically great because they focus so much on doing one thing well that they become unique experiences.  Divekick is an interesting example.

Divekick is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a game about flying divekicks.  The game only uses two buttons: one jumps, and the other does a downward kick while in the air.  This same button will let the player jump backwards when they’re on the ground.  It ignores the decades-old dynasty of fighting games with complex combos and dramatic signature moves in favor of one, single mechanic.

Image of Divekick Gameplay
Kick vs. Kung Pao in Divekick! (PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

The key is that while this game has very little complexity in its mechanics, the characters in the game vary a lot, even with the simplistic gameplay.  All the dive kicks are different for all the different characters.  Some characters’ kicks are slower and more horizontal, others are quick but short-range, and some have kicks that can change direction in mid-air.  In fact, some characters even have specific tools, like the Fencer’s throwable sword.  Quirks like this bring a whole new angle to combat.

Movement is still limited, but the variation from character to character makes each round of Divekick an intense yet ridiculous jumble of mind games and precise timing.  This isn’t surprising, because its developers are all competitive fighting game fans.  The best I can describe it is like intricate swordplay.  Each round is over with one decisive strike, and the two players just have to outdo each other.

Some intense Divekick gameplay
Some intense Divekick gameplay!

Divekick is an experience that I can’t say I’ve had with many other games.  Its sheer self-awareness and weird characters are a fun surface to a game that’s actually pretty intelligent in its design.  Even better, it’s a very accessible game.  I’ve seen people pick it up for the first time and outplay the entire room.  This is one of the strengths of design by subtraction, which is why I think it’s a good philosophy.

I’d actually like to see more multiplayer games that experiment with designing around very specific, very simple mechanics.  They tend to be good examples of how designing games mechanic-first results in a better, more addicting experience.

For those aspiring designers out there looking to experiment with simplistic game design, take this tip from Uncle Sensei: try out Divekick, and see what other kinds of games you can come up with.  It’s available now on Steam, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Xbox One!