The Hardest, Simplest Video Game Ever

The question of what makes a “hard” game is one of the most interesting in all of game design.  A game that’s hard but fair is one of the greatest sights to see in gaming.  But what’s the model for this balance?  There is one game to rule them all.  A game that is rewarding, complex, heart-poundingly difficult, and unwinnable, but at the same time fair.

Tetris.

Tetris for Game Boy
Tetris for Game Boy. (Photo: Conor Lawless via Flickr)

Tetris.

Tetris on a building
Tetris on a building. (Photo: Chris Devers via Flickr)

Yes, you heard me.

How is Tetris the hardest game ever?  It’s so simple that anyone can play it.  It’s about stacking blocks in a big box.  Both of these are true, but there’s a lot of hidden complexity in this little game.  At first, it’s child’s play, right?  There are seven different shapes you can rotate, and you try to fit them into straight lines to get points.  You just do this until you lose.  Easy.  Or, at least it sounds easy.

But then the pieces start moving down the screen faster and faster with each line you complete.  Eventually, they go so fast that each new piece is down with the chaotic clump of squares at the bottom as soon as they appear.  You inevitably run into a streak of bad pieces, and awkward shapes that you can’t get rid of.  Your only chance of salvaging your game is to think fast, adapt, and find a good place for each piece.   Things ultimately get worse and worse until the screen fills up and you lose.  Tetris never goes on forever.  So why is it that you can lose and feel so accomplished?

Tetris Ultimate gameplay
Tetris Ultimate gameplay. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

It’s all about high score.  The concept of the high score is old-hat, but Tetris does it better than any other game.  When you lose a round and just barely miss out on beating your personal best score, it’s crushing.  But when you sit down, focus, and beat your score, it’s the most satisfying feeling ever.  Again, why?

The answer gets down to the root of the psychology of human accomplishment.  People are driven by adversity, and fueled by self-improvement.  Tetris isn’t pitting its players against a well-defined gauntlet of challenges, it’s pitting them against themselves.  Victory in Tetris is doing better than you did the last time you played.  Doing better and better means venturing further out of your comfort zone than you ever have.  It also means mastering the management, adaptation, and quick reflexes that are required to play the game.  And the only way to do this is playing the game over and over.  See what I mean?

Tetris is a game with no surprises.  Everything in the game is right in front of you from the start.  It’s a distilled essence of what makes games fulfilling.  Experience, improvement, and perseverance.  Every game from Dark Souls to Super Meat Boy is based on these precepts.  But the grace of Tetris is it’s simple, accessible, and endless.  It’s also the best-selling game of all time at over 170 million copies sold.  Considering what I’ve said here, now I can see why.

Fire Emblem’s Support System is Amazing

If I haven’t made it clear already, I’m a huge Fire Emblem fan.  Fire Emblem has made a massive comeback, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  Fire Emblem Awakening quickly became one of my favorite games.  I had to think a long time about why I love it.  That’s how it often is with favorites — there are just so many things to love that nothing really stands out.  Sure enough, I like just about everything in Awakening — great voice acting, beautiful art style, and deep strategic gameplay.

But Awakening is a great example of a lasting mechanic in Fire Emblem that I’ve seen in no other game: the Support mechanic.  In the context of Fire Emblem, Support affects basically everything: it enriches the story, lengthens the game, and makes the game stick with you after putting it down.

If you’re unfamiliar with the games, the Support mechanic is a series of conversations between your units.  By using certain units together on the battlefield, you unlock one-on-one support conversations between them.  The practical benefit of these is that  higher levels of support between units means greater stat boosts when they fight together in battle.  But my favorite part is that each conversation is a treat.  For one thing, there are at least three conversations between every single character in the game.  This is impressive by itself.

Beyond that, every conversation is entertaining and/or moving, and makes the universe feel authentic.  With every conversation, you feel the relationship between every pair of characters develop further.  Hearing the conversations for a particular character gives you the best possible picture of that character.  Support conversations make the units in your army cease to be units and instead become people.  People who are part of a team, all with unique personalities, in support of one cause.  It’s even possible for certain characters of opposite genders to get married, which affects which characters you meet later on in the game.

What also interesting about this system is how you have to work to pair up some characters on the battlefield.  Your gameplay experience is improved by going deep down the rabbit hole of using all the characters.  You have to pair units up in unexpected ways and use unusual strategies to see them all interact.  Support creates a blending of narrative world and gameplay that I haven’t seen before.  Each aspect of the game builds upon the other beautifully.  Fire Emblem has created an amazing method of character development that doesn’t stand in the way of gameplay.

The latest Nintendo Direct on the Fire Emblem series has promised a ton of new games in the coming year.  Hopefully they keep up or even expand on this system, because it’s a unique bit of design that defines the series for me.

Reactions to 01/13 Nintendo Switch Presentation!

Well, first of all, the Nintendo Switch presentation was amazing.  I was nervous going into it, because it had to lay the foundation for an important console.  The Switch is Nintendo’s future in an uncertain time.  This presentation needed to win over some fans.

Let me start off with some partial cons here.  Not everything about the presentation was perfect.  Nintendo is switching to a paid online multiplayer model.  I don’t think this is a bad thing, mind you, since now that money is flowing into the infrastructure, it’ll likely improve the service.  Although I’m going to miss being able to play games online at no cost.  If it keeps Nintendo competitive, though, I have no objection.

Another issue is that the Switch is going to be $299.00 US.  Again, this is a reasonable price point at launch, and Nintendo isn’t making the Switch at a loss.  But it also means that it’ll have to compete with PS4 and Xbox One price-wise, so it’ll have some work to do to justify 300 bucks.

The Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

The Switch has a seriously low portable battery life, only 2 -6.5 hours depending.  I was hoping for a solid 4-8.  The Switch’s gimmick of home-to-portable console seems like it’s in danger now.  Lastly, it also seems like apart from Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the Switch will have a fairly weak launch lineup.  All this worries me.

Now onto the good stuff.  The Switch is packing some great technology, including HD rumble that delivers extremely detailed vibration.  The new game Arms is planning to capitalize on this technology with a sort of multiplayer Punch-Out!! style.  The Switch has a virtual console, as we saw, with a promising lineup.  Above all, it promises a LOT of great games in just this coming year.

Breath of the Wild gameplay
Gameplay of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WIld! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Breath of the Wild is looking more action-packed, compelling, and beautiful than ever.  Personally speaking, this is new-favorite-game material.  Super Mario Odyssey, the new open-world 3D Mario platformer, is exactly what I wanted Nintendo to do with the series.

Skyrim is confirmed as coming to the system, and Nintendo is set to release Splatoon 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  These are now two of my most highly-anticipated sequels.  Splatoon 2 is offering a wealth of new content and portable play, and the new Xenoblade is stunningly beautiful and looks like it’ll tell a great story.

Koei Tecmo is also making a new Fire Emblem Warriors title as a follow-up to Hyrule Warriors.  I’m extremely excited for this, because I predicted the announcement of Fire Emblem Warriors and I think the two series are a great fit.  More is coming on the 18th in a Fire Emblem Direct, so keep an eye out for that!

Overall,  I have a lot of faith in the Nintendo Switch after Thursday.  Nintendo trades on good games, and the Switch looks like a return to roots.  From here onwards, it’s important that Nintendo keep giving out information on its games, and announcing new, interesting games.   I personally can’t wait to see how the Switch does, and I’ll keep reporting the news as I see it.

Assassin’s Creed III: Why the Hate?

My annual stint of playing Assassin’s Creed has come again, and I’ve been playing a lot of Black Flag.  A great game, for sure, but that’s a post for another day.  Whenever I go back to the series, I always think about the first one I played, Assassin’s Creed III.  Somehow this game seems to get a lot of hate.  Well, maybe it doesn’t get hate, but people seem to forget about it a lot.

Assassin’s Creed III had a difficult task from the beginning — follow up the acclaimed second game and provide a foundation for a new story arc.  Early on it had incredible promise…the E3 trailer alone sold it for a lot of people.

Imagine this!  The satisfying realism of Assassin’s Creed placed in the colonial era, letting the player experience the American Revolution.  A Native American rising to carry the American rebellion’s fight for freedom on his shoulders.  Surely this was a fail-proof concept, right?  Well no, it never is.

But Assassin’s Creed III is not a failure of a game.  I mostly enjoyed it when I played it through the first time.  It introduced naval combat that was the basis for its groundbreaking sequel.  You were able to storm fortresses and take them single-handedly.  The cities of Boston and New York were realized beautifully.  All of that was great.

AC3Frontier
This game had a beautiful wildland frontier. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

In my view, the problem this game ran into was that it didn’t quite deliver on its implied promise.  The Assassin’s Creed games traditionally use history as a playground.  You collect items that eventually have an impact on you, or the surrounding world, or both.  Story-wise, the games usually make you feel as you would want to feel.  The first was experimental — you felt like a badass, stoic killer.  In the second, you played as a charismatic renaissance man (who operated in the literal Renaissance) with a sense of roguish purpose and familial devotion.  In the fourth, you played a pirate with a questionable moral compass, always taking or looking for something in return.

Fittingly, the first Assassin’s Creed was a very focused and intense experience, the second was a bit more playful and eccentric, and the fourth was the ideal pirate fantasy.  So what about the third?

Connor in battle
Assassin’s Creed III promised the ultimate American Revolution experience. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

Assassin’s Creed III, from a thematic standpoint, promised an action game that would capture the chaotic, uncertain underdog story of the American Revolution.  It planned to show off moral gray areas of war in a way that none of its predecessors had done before.  In a way, it delivered on that — the story tackles betrayal and loss in a pretty interesting way.  However, the protagonist, Connor, is kind of a stick in the mud.  He never tells a joke, and doesn’t have much of a personality — he’s a classic dutiful warrior.  He’s far from chaotic or roguish.  He suffers horrible loss, so it makes sense that he would be stern, but he doesn’t mesh that well with the other characters, like the revolutionaries.

Sadly, the rest of the game reflects this issue of one-dimensionality.  The sidequests of collecting feathers or trinkets are interesting ideas, but it’s hard to get invested.  There’s no substantial payoff.  The story missions take cool ideas and make them scripted.  A mission focused on an massive battlefield confrontation has you follow a clear-cut path to a stealth assassination.  Riding with Paul Revere to alert the minutemen under the nose of the British comes down to following directions from Revere’s voice clips.

This game loses a lot of the dynamic conflict that so many stories about the Revolutionary War capture.  It’s a shame, because Assassin’s Creed does this kind of stuff very well.  There was just a little too much focus on creating a certain story and not enough on letting the player do whatever they darn well please.  It’s not a terrible game and it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, but the vision it had was held back.