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September 10, 2012

Difficulty at the End of the PlayStation 1 Era

Over the last nine months or so, I’ve been going back and playing through games from my back catalog that I bought and either never finished, or in some cases, never even started¹. I wrote about JRPGs and grinding and Metal Gear Solid back in April, and I finished a couple more games from the PlayStation 1 era over the summer that didn’t offer enough to warrant their own posts.

One of the more popular posts on this blog in the past was one about “Managing Difficulty” -- it was reposted over to GamaSutra and so it got some notice. In any case, I picked up a couple of techniques from a couple of the games I played recently that I thought were pretty useful and worth mentioning as additional approaches for mucking about with game difficulty. I’ll just add them as new bullet points as if they appeared in the original list.

  • Give your players free extra lives before particularly difficult challenges and reduce the penalty for death. This one comes from Ape Escape, one of the first games for the PlayStation to incorporate the dual shock controller into actual game mechanics. As an industry we’ve moved away from the “lives” approach to design, a holdover from arcades and their three-minute playtimes, but in the PlayStation 1 era they were very much in force. In Ape Escape, level pickups reset whenever you die, because the expectation is that you might be coming into the level under-prepared. In one of the memorable later levels, a new enemy was introduced around a particularly difficult section of environmental navigation. The designers were kind enough to place a power-up for an extra life just at the beginning of this section, and when you’d die, you’d respawn right at the point where you’d pick up that extra life, which would respawn along with you. It made what might have otherwise been a really painful episode retain its challenge and yet provide the player with the welcome ability to iterate quickly on that challenge, rather than burning through lives and having to get that far into the level again on some later playthrough.

  • Reset health at narrative beats. Fear Effect 2 is a quite challenging game, so I wouldn’t typically think of it as something that manages difficulty particularly well, but one good element of its difficulty was that at many points in the game, the currently played² character’s health would reset, typically associated with a narrative beat such as a dramatic change of location or gameplay challenge. As a player, this meant that I never worried that I was going to get to a point where I quite literally couldn’t continue owing to the lack of sufficient health to get through particular challenges. While the game was fiendishly difficult at spots -- I nearly rage-quit in frustration once or twice -- I always knew that I had come into a particular challenge with the tools to get through it and could trade off health as a resource because I knew it would likely be replenished before long. While it didn’t do a good job telegraphing when this would occur, you could sort of trust that it would before too long and get a feel for the narrative rhythm which accompanied these shifts in location or character.

Since finishing the rest of my PlayStation 1 library I’ve moved on to my PlayStation 2 library, and have finished a couple of early titles in that generation. I hope to come back and post about those soon.

¹Indeed, fixing this defect in my consumer habits is largely what’s behind my motivation to go back and play or finish these games. I have dozens of games I bought and never finished and a disconcerting percentage of those I never played a minute of. This little project is keeping me from doing the same with all new games. Sure, I'll miss a few new games as they come out, but if they are really interesting I'll be able to catch up with them at some point in the future. I've never been able to keep pace with new releases, anyway.

²Fear Effect 2 features the player controlling four characters in a story arc, each of which has a specific feel to his or her combat, though all play basically the same on a fundamental level. It allows for a bit richer storyline, and was something we did for much the same reasons in Star Wars: Starfighter, though there we also felt that multiple characters coming together was very “Star Warsy”.

Posted by Brett Douville at September 10, 2012 08:04 AM