Category Archives: Level Design

Limbo and Its Elegant Pace

For as much as I love a game that challenges and intrigues me, there are a lot of great ones I haven’t played.  One of them was Limbo, which I played in one sitting with a friend late at night.  It was a real shock to the system, because although Limbo is considered an indie smash hit, I’d seen very little about it.  Everything I encountered was essentially new to me.  All the puzzles, environments, and mechanics flowed together into a tight little package with a ribbon on top, waiting for me to open.

I found myself lost in it all very quickly.  And that’s a good thing.

Hanging cages and a crow
A crow and cages. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

As games get more complex, realistic, and creative, we both gain and lose a lot.  One thing we often lose is a sense of pacing.  Sometimes we’re introduced to a new tool in the middle of a game, and it gives us a controller cue to teach us how to use it.  Other times it takes a slow hour or two for a game to get really good.  There are plenty of moments in games where they do something…inconsistent.  And by this I don’t mean they do something different, or fresh, but something that takes us out of the experience.

To be fair, making a game that doesn’t run into these problems at some point is extremely hard.  They don’t necessarily make a game bad.  The reason I mention them is, Limbo is the closest I’ve seen a game come to having a perfect pace.

Limbo's dark landscape
Art of Limbo’s eerie dark landscape. (Photo: Angel Barreiros via Flickr)

There’s a lot of debate surrounding Limbo‘s meaning and message.  It has no dialogue, no clear-cut cast of characters.  Some suggest that it’s the story of a murderer, of the afterlife, of the struggle between light and darkness.  The very name of Limbo suggests the theme of purgatory, a merging of all things into one silent world.  In this world, conflict has no clear meaning; characters have no faces, and death is only temporary (a truth you learn over and over again).  As I wandered through the grayscale landscape solving one brilliant puzzle after another, there was no obvious transition between places.  I remember being in the forest, in a mine, and in a factory, but not the order in which I found them.  It’s as though Limbo doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end, and that feels appropriate.

Hangman
The nameless child stands surrounded by countless dead. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

The endless stream of symbols, solving puzzle after puzzle to reach an unknown goal, almost put me in the mind of the little silhouetted child I was controlling.  The only difference was the immense satisfaction I felt, conquering increasingly tougher, more mind-bending challenges.  When it all finally ended, it took me a while to come back into the real world.  It felt like I’d ended where I’d started, and even in the moments when I was stuck on a puzzle, I never felt fully conscious of everything outside the game.

The rain machine puzzle
The great rain machine. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

Instead, my full attention was on how to get a floating box in exactly the right place for me to reach a high ledge, or how to time my rope swing to get away from a giant saw blade.  Limbo is a master class in doing a whole lot with a clever approach and a creative vision.  It’s so simple, it doesn’t need to follow traditional rules.  It challenges not only the structure of puzzle games, but also our preconceptions of what games can say narratively, using the themes of death, darkness, and the afterlife as its tools.  To whoever reads this, go experience this game for yourself, and make sure it’s late at night.

Its creators, Playdead, repeated their brilliance with their latest game Inside, and I’d say check it out.

Horrible Boss Battles: Sonic Rush

Can you remember your favorite boss in any game?  Can you think of three you really enjoy?  How many do you absolutely hate?  For me, I dislike way more boss battles in games than I like.  So many of them miss the mark of making a fun, challenging encounter.  I haven’t talked much about this problem as of now, so I want to start with a boss battle that annoyed me recently.  It’s at the end of Sonic Rush.

I love Sonic Rush.  I think it’s a very fun game, and the best of handheld Sonic.  But its final boss is one of the worst I’ve ever played.  This series has a very bad history with final bosses.  They usually end up being a drudge, impossible, or overly-time consuming.  But I haven’t yet found one in the series worse than Rush.

Let me set the stage for you.  Rush has two campaigns, consisting of the same stages with different layouts.  One is played as Sonic, the other as Blaze the Cat.  They control slightly differently, but end with the same boss.  After getting all the emeralds as both characters, the true final boss can be beaten after completing both stories.  As I said before, the same boss must be fought as both characters.

I’ll try to explain it as best I can.

THE NUTS AND BOLTS

The enemy: Eggman/Eggman Nega in a massive mech suit.  Nine rings are available to the player in total.  The goal is to hit the mech’s cockpit eight times (on Normal) by baiting it into getting its arm stuck on the stage and running up its arm.

The boss has six attacks: 1) slamming the stage with alternating fists, which send out damaging energy waves; 2) a similar delayed slam with both fists that can kill instantly; 3) a repeated laser attack that automatically trails the player; 4) a series of drones that arc electricity across the stage in succession; 5) one similar drone that automatically trails the player and traps them, forcing them to follow under it or get hit; 6) slamming the stage to create energy 4-5 waves that the player must dodge to get on its arm.

Now, attacks 1 and 2 are the only ways to trigger 6, meaning the player has to wait for them and land a counterattack just for a chance at doing damage.  As the boss progresses, it will attempt to shake the player off its arm as they try to attack.  The player must crouch down and wait to stay on the arm.  If the player doesn’t, or takes too long, the player gets knocked back to the stage.  On top of everything else, it will also send rolling spikes down its arm that can not only do damage, but make the frame rate drop, which adds an unnecessary layer of challenge.

THE PROBLEMS

Three things make this fight fundamentally broken: length, random chance, and unpredictable attacks.

This boss drags on for about 7 minutes for each attempt.  Over the course of two fights, I had to take about 20 tries.  This part of the game took me over two stressful hours.  It should’ve taken maybe 30 minutes overall.

The attacks that Eggman will use at any given time vary randomly — sometimes it’ll take a couple attacks to make him vulnerable, sometimes it’ll take four.  Sometimes he’ll use the same attack twice in a row.

The problem here is that attacks 3, 4, and 5 that I mentioned above are impossible to truly learn.  That is, chance determines how well the player will fare against them.  4 and 5 are both virtually undodgeable.  What rubs salt in the wound is, these attacks are most common when the boss is nearly beaten.  This means that the player has to complete over half the battle before dealing with three attacks that basically come down to luck.  Again, this comes back to time-wasting design.

I wanna re-iterate, you have to fight this boss twice.

As difficult as this boss is, the true final boss is a chore.  It consists of hits with virtually no consequences, and collecting rings to avoid death until the player can deal out a hit.  Most of it is spent in meaningless hitstun.

But hey, the music is awesome.

SOLUTIONS

The final boss sequence of Sonic Rush is some of the most frustrated I’ve been playing a video game.  Here’s what I’d do differently for the Eggman boss:

  1. Reduce the necessary hits by 2 or 3.  If the undodgeable attacks are staying in, the fight has to be shorter, and get to the point.  This is less than ideal.
  2. Only include attacks with discernable patterns to which the player can adapt, to create a sense of progression.  Attacks that are virtually a toll on rings only create a sense of rage.  This improves the fight.
  3. Since the player attack sequence lags, remove the spikes.  They have no reason to be there except frustration.
  4. My best solution is to make every attack an opportunity to make the boss vulnerable.  This would cut down on wait time, leave room for learning patterns, and force out random strings of attacks.

On a fundamental level, a hard boss should be quick and dirty, and it should be something the player can improve at dealing with.  It should be less a gauntlet, and more a tug of war.  If the player fails repeatedly, they can become more efficient instead of waiting on a lucky run.

Again, this game is great.  The boss is not.  If the player is going to relive the same fight over and over, the number one priority is to give it nuance and ways to get better.   Sonic as a series should take that to heart.

Online Gaming and How The Legend of Zelda (NES) Predicted It

I’ve had Zelda on the brain for a while now (AKA my entire life), and while playing Breath of the Wild one day, I thought about how confusing it can be.  It feels like the 30-year sequel to the first Zelda, the original open-world masterpiece.  The Legend of Zelda for NES could be confusing too, and this is a common criticism in the face of all the praise it gets.  But Zelda‘s wild-west design resounded to present day through online gaming communities.  How, though?

1986 Zelda wasn’t ruthless, but its players were mostly hung out to dry.  Aside from the general point of the game, it had no long-term direction.  There were eight dungeons in the world…somewhere.  And there were secrets, hearts, and items hidden…someplace.  You could save your progress and keep these things when you found them, a major bonus.  But just when you’d made it somewhere new, the game starts you at square one with each new session.

The Legend of Zelda golden NES cartridge! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Looking at the “map” tells you nothing about its layout or terrain.  You only saw which screen you were on relative to all the other screens.  If you weren’t paying attention to where you found that nifty heart piece in the ocean, it was on you.  There were secrets around every corner, but the only way to find them was through your own intuition.

If you’re wondering how this ties into gaming online, it’s coming.  See, Zelda was one of the earliest games to take advantage of its community aspect.  I’m not looking to read the designers’ minds, but I think the game’s simplicity plays into this idea.  The most famous anecdote about Zelda‘s inspiration comes from lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto.  He wanted to recreate the feeling of pure, unpredictable exploration that he had exploring the woods near his home during childhood.  By making a virtual world, he saw the opportunity to create new terrain for people to explore.

Keep in mind, also, that in 1986, games mostly appealed to kids.  Furthermore, there was no Internet to help people congregate and talk about games.  The closest we got to “tips and tricks” was Nintendo Power (R.I.P).  This meant that if an 8-year-old was looking for secrets in Zelda, his best tools were himself and any friends who played it.

The Zelda overworld map
The Zelda overworld map! (Photo: rd76pag via Flickr)

When the New World was being discovered by European explorers, what did we see?  It wasn’t all obvious where things were.  They had to scout, experiment, and exchange information.  There were often gaps in their understanding.  The geography of the territory they were exploring wasn’t clear-cut the way it is now.  Co-operation was the key to progress.

Same thing with Zelda.  Maybe one kid was great at finding dungeons while his friend could find his way to the far edges of the map to look for secrets.  These two could help each other out to create a bigger picture.  The game not only became more fun and interesting, it also brought people together.

With the mass popularization of the web, this community aspect of gaming has changed a lot.  I could look up a 100% completion guide to The Legend of Zelda and get all the information at my fingertips from a dozen different sources.  But just as there are more ways of talking about games, games themselves have gotten bigger.

MMORPGs like Guild WarsWoW, and so on have massive communities that constantly put out information to help newcomers.  Open-world franchises like Final Fantasy, the Elder Scrolls, and to a certain extent Zelda have expanded to the point where its huge communities can still bond over them.

Although it started small, the vision of exploration from games like Dragon QuestFinal Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda have reached their full potential after three decades.  And what potential it is — the energy of a community of virtual explorers is so infectious and widespread that people have now made careers out of it.  From the kid next door to thousands of YouTube users, sharing is still caring in the world of video games.

HOW TO FIX: Sonic Adventure 2 Battle

I firmly believe that Sonic Adventure 2 is actually a good game.  Maybe that’s being too generous…but I still really enjoy this game despite all its faults.  But what are its faults?  How can they be fixed?  What would it take for Sonic Adventure 2 to become a masterpiece?

First of all, this game has a lot of positives.  Given its cult fanbase, this makes sense.  The soundtrack is amazing — it’s my favorite soundtrack in the series.  Honestly, it’s probably one of the best rock soundtracks I’ve heard in a game.  Its combination of acid jazz, 90s pop rock, and metal works well with the psychedelic style.  And although the rap tracks in the Knuckles levels are cheesy as hell, I still nod my head to them constantly.

Overall, I like the characters in Sonic Adventure 2.  Sure, they border on being parodies of themselves, but I think characters like Rouge and Shadow are endearing.  In fact, I think the depiction of Shadow in this game is better than in any of the other Sonic games.  There’s actually some emotional content to his character, and by Dreamcast standards, his voice actor David Humphrey puts on a good performance.

Some of the environments in Sonic Adventure 2 are amazing.  City Escape is iconic, and has an awesome theme to boot.  Radical Highway has a cool aesthetic, Green Forest is nice and elaborate, and I honestly love Pumpkin Hill.  My favorite thing about this game is its overall tone and aesthetic, even if it sometimes borders on absurdity.  The feeling I get from this game is the feeling I think all Sonic games should try to give its players.

But I acknowledge that I have a better-than-average tolerance for iffy games, and SA2 is certainly iffy.  The levels where you play as Shadow and Sonic are considered pretty solid, but the gameplay of every other character is where things fall apart.  Let’s diagnose these other two level types one at a time.

The levels where you play as Dr. Eggman and Tails revolve around using mechs to shoot up enemies.  There’s also some simple platforming to reach the end of the level.  The more enemies you can lock onto and destroy at once, the better the score you rack up.  These levels struggle in part because locking onto enemies at different heights using a straight reticule involves an annoying combination of jumping and spinning an analog stick.  Since you’re usually trying to platform at the same time, this doesn’t help.  What’s more is that the control of the mechs themselves is clunky.  They don’t move at a consistent speed, and turning on a dime is not an option.  Combine that with occasionally glitchy surfaces and you have a recipe for disaster.  Bonus problem: the targeting beam makes the loudest, most obnoxious beeping sound ever.

The solution: place enemies so that locking onto them requires fewer acrobatics.   Locking onto enemies should be faster, and once you lock on, enemies should be destroyed instantly.  It might require better processing, so the better option might just be to have fewer enemies.  These levels just have to move faster.  The next step is to make movement more fluid, give the player more space to maneuver, or both.  The player has to feel in control at all times to have a good experience.  (Also, just get rid of the beeping noise.)

Next up, we have Rouge and Knuckles treasure hunting levels.  In these, you have to navigate a set space with no goal — the mission is to find three hidden objects somewhere in the level.  The locations are always set, but there are a lot of different possible locations.  Even worse, the locations are random every time you do a level.  You have a radar that tells you when you’re near an emerald (sort of like hot-and-cold) and you can get hints from sentries in the level.   I didn’t mind these levels quite as much, but they need fixing.

For one thing, bring back the same radar system as the first Sonic Adventure.  In Sonic Adventure 2, the radar will only let you track them emeralds in a certain order.  This means you can find an emerald by accident but not be able to grab it.  The first game never did this, and for good reason.  If you got close to any emerald in any order, you could track it.

This is the most concise and fair way of doing things.  Beyond that, some of the locations need to be more logical and some of the hints more accurate.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a wild goose chase in these levels.  Otherwise, some of the level layouts need to be simpler.  There are so many levels where you have to go through several steps to reach an area, and half the time there won’t be an emerald and you waste your time.  Others are just too darn big and complicated (like Mad Space).

Is that the bottom of the pile?  Mostly.  There are a lot of issues with this game that deal with the fundamentals, like control and level design.  Sometimes the enemy placement or design is unfair, or the controls unreliable.  Caddicarus put it pretty well when he said he would lightly flick the control stick and suddenly go “flying off to Mercury.”  I can’t really argue with that.  Sonic Adventure 2 often isn’t as fun or solid as people might like.  The story is often completely ridiculous and contradictory.  The voice acting is pretty terrible.  But do I think it deserves hate?  No, not at all.  There are lots of things this game does that I hope more Sonic games do.  It may not be a great game, but it will always be in my heart.

Also, the Chao Garden must be its own mobile game.  Get on it, Sega.

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.

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.

Why I Prefer 3D Sonic Over 2D Sonic

Sonic Logo
The Sonic the Hedgehog logo! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Sonic the Hedgehog fanbase has gotten a lot of hate over the years.  There are good reasons for it that I won’t get into, because that’s not the point.  Despite the hate, though, Sonic is a universe that I’m happy to be a fan of.  It’s unlike any other universe there is.  You can legitimately question the quality of any game in the series, but I still love the series.  It has a lot of creativity, heart, and innovation (for better or worse), and a spectacular Twitter feed.

But being a part of the Sonic fanbase, I’m extremely aware of the passionate divide that exists among fans over the franchise’s true golden age.  That’s the thing about the this fanbase — very rarely will you find a fan who genuinely loves every game.  Through all the formula changes, cast changes, and strange narratives, it’s easy to love one game but hate another.

Sonic 1 title screen
The Sonic 1 title screen! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Even the first three titles in the series, the OGs that started it all, receive hate from certain Sonic fans.  Likewise, there are a lot of fans who like the originals and nothing else.  Personally, I like to think of myself as someone who likes the original trilogy (plus CD)…but these games don’t like me.

There’s anything inherently bad about early Sonic games.  I have the utmost respect for what they are, the foundation they created, and their unique style.  It’s just that whenever I go back and try to relive the classic Sonic experience, I always end up giving up the ghost as soon as I started chasing it.  The design philosophy of these games is revolutionary, but it doesn’t click with me and the way I play games.  Let me explain.

Sonic 1 Green Hill Zone
The first level of Sonic 1, Green Hill Zone. (Photo: Chris Dorward via Flickr)

The beginnings of these games are simple enough.  They build you up fairly well, and most people get through the first few stages of Sonic 1, Sonic 2, and Sonic 3 (and Knuckles) without much difficulty.  Yet, just being adequate at these games isn’t enough, because that’s when its design starts to get strange.

What’s the first thing everybody says about Sonic games?  You go fast.  That’s it.  Now, I don’t necessarily agree with this assessment.  I feel like the core gameplay varies, but thrilling platforming is the common thread, and the end goal should be speed.  This is where the 2D games falter in my opinion.

Take the first Sonic the Hedgehog, for instance.  You make it through Green Hill Zone feeling pretty amped, but then comes Marble Zone.  Marble Zone consists of a pretty slow crawl.  There’s lots of waiting on platforms to cross lava, dodging tiny fireballs, and dealing with unstable terrain.  It gets tedious, and you lose so many lives if you don’t know what you’re doing.  One might argue that this is good design, because it’s challenging and it rewards the player for knowing the level.  But the issue is, you basically have to have the level design memorized to get through without taking a lot of frustrating hits.  And even then, there’s so much waiting involved that you lose the game’s sense of urgency.

But this is just one example, right?  What about Sonic 2 and 3?  These games added things like the spin dash, which you use to immediately generate speed.  The new elemental shields help you combat enemies, and they make platforming easier.  You would think this would fix the problems.  But again, in my experience, the game just isn’t built that well for the way Sonic moves.  The camera angle still shows a very limited range around you, so you can’t see very far ahead of yourself, and whenever you try to randomly spin dash to gain momentum, you find yourself unknowingly plunging into a lower path full of traps and grueling platforming meant to punish you for being reckless.  Don’t even get me started on corners that stop you completely and then spear you with spikes before you can even react.

In other games I would understand this, but again, my idea of Sonic is that it’s about urgency.   The games encourage you to go as fast as you can, but within a certain set of limitations.  If you don’t know where you are and what you’re doing, you’re going to get yourself in a sucky situation.  Again, I can imagine people saying this isn’t a problem.  The need to focus on your surroundings and play well to be rewarded with speed sounds appealing, but it’s so much more easily said than done.

Sonic CD
Sonic CD gameplay! (Photo: McCatTeam via YouTube)

The best way I can sum up the design of these games is that to reach the pinnacle of early Sonic takes tons of repetition.  The game doesn’t give you a whole lot of feedback at any given moment — it takes a lot of playing the same levels over and over to really have a sense of where things are and how to avoid frustrating gameplay.  In the meantime, though, you can expect to get your ass handed to you a lot trying to get through levels quickly but instead running into constant setbacks.  Being good at these games takes commitment.  This makes me respect people who get really good at these games, because they’ve put in the work and earned their quick times.  But for the rest of us average joes, early Sonic is a cruel mistress.

I suppose that’s why I like Sonic Adventure 2.  It sounds bizarre, but I have good reason.  I appreciate that you have a clear sense of what lies ahead, so it’s easier to take in information and react.  Even the 2.5D levels of Sonic Generations are a huge step in the right direction for me.  The camera moves more dynamically and the level layout is always clearer.  Things are just better for me in those games because they give me exactly what I look for out of this series: a quick, straightforward platforming experience.

I should make it clear that I don’t think 3D Sonic is fundamentally superior to 2D Sonic, or vice versa.  I wish more of the Sonic fanbase saw it this way.  Every game in the series does something extremely experimental.  The mechanics of one game might be completely different from those in another game five years later, and they won’t all work for everybody.

Sonic Mania title screen
The Sonic Mania title screen! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

If we can just appreciate the things that each game does right and be willing to realize that not everyone will like the same things in their Sonic games, we’ll be better for it as a fanbase.  Let’s hope that the big 2017 lineup, including the throwback action of Sonic Mania, does a good job of bringing us all together again!

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!

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.

Portal 2: Best 3D Puzzle Game Ever?

I came to Portal 2 way late.  There have actually been quite a few games that I missed out on at the time of release.  Portal 2 came out in 2011, so it was either that or Skyrim.  I chose Skyrim.  I don’t regret it, but I remember that both Portal games were praised for their brilliance.  Thankfully, I have a friend who absolutely loves Portal and was awesome enough to lend it to me.  So now I feel like I should take the opportunity to talk about this gem.

A brief view of the majesty of Portal 2!
A brief view of the majesty of Portal 2! (Photo: Flickr)
Portal 2 Should Be Impossible to Make

Playing Portal 2 has confirmed for me that there are some games you have to play to really appreciate, both for better and for worse.  The brilliance of Portal is that the player’s greatest asset is one incredible, unique mechanic.  The fact that you can place a portal in one spot, and then another portal in a different spot, and the two lead into each other is…just extraordinary.  I remember seeing it in action for the first time and wondering, “How could they possibly code this?”

And yet, as dumbfounded as I was, using portals felt natural.  It was only a couple minutes before I started using them proficiently to solve puzzles.  The game’s famous slogan is “start thinking with portals,” and that’s literally what the gameplay consists of.  The challenges Portal 2 presents to its players are mostly intellectual.  They don’t require much motor skill apart from jumping and good timing.  This makes it possibly the most accessible 3D puzzle game in years.

The level design is are brilliant and innovative, both in single player and two-player modes.  Each of the many sets of levels features a particular gimmick like tractor beams or energy bridges (none of which came about simply).   These gimmicks are used in a variety of ways to keep them from getting stale.  This also keeps the experience challenging while only requiring the ability to navigate 3D space efficiently.  The ability to think in terms of these set pieces is more important than anything else.  That makes it an excellent puzzle game by itself.

Portal 2 is Charming as Can Be

What really turns this game into the stuff of legends for me is its presentation.  Its narrative.  Its world.  The main personality of the game, GLaDOS (voiced by the spectacular Ellen McLain), is so humanly charming in her inhumanity that she may be my favorite villain in any game.  Although I play a lot of games with my dad, Portal 2 is one of relatively few that I’ve really seen him immediately take to.  Part of what he loved about it was its tongue-in-cheek humor.  Not only was its humor memorable, but the way each test chamber gradually introduces the player to different uses of portals made a vast multitude of possibilities seem manageable, even to someone new to the series.

Portal 2 also makes some brilliant aesthetic and thematic choices that make it stand out from the crowd.  The fact that player characters never talk makes it that much easier for the player to feel like part of the world they’re in.  Even the color palette, with its shades of black and white broken up by the colors of the portals, is brilliantly simplistic.  And while I won’t spoil the story, I will say it’s fantastic.  It’s not only hilarious, it also made me ask questions. I questioned things I knew about games and about life as a whole.

Furthermore, the presentation compliments the genius design of the game – while the game’s introductions to puzzle-solving are fairly quirky and on the nose, they don’t feel rigid, as they’re supported by the thematic tone of the game.  Portal 2’s unique personality, combined with its fantastic commitment to a unique gameplay style, is why I don’t hesitate to say this is my favorite 3D puzzle game ever, and I hope it goes down in history for being remembered as the favorite of many.