February 24, 2013
I Should Have Finished... Maximo: Ghosts to Glory
One of the most difficult games of the PS2 generation was reputedly Maximo: Ghosts to Glory, a Capcom platformer derived from the old arcade classic Ghouls 'n' Goblins. It very much has the feel of the old title both in terms of narrative and some base mechanics.
Maximo uses a fairly classic narrative set-up; the Princess is held in a castle by an evil wizard who has built armies from the undead. In the opening cutscene, he kills Maximo, who then faces the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reaper offers him a bargain: he'll return Maximo to life if he'll fight the wizard. In raising the dead back to life, the wizard's dark magics have deprived the Grim Reaper of a job, you see. And so Maximo goes off to gather the three or four whizbangs from the spirits of who'sis -- standard stuff to set up the context of why we're visiting these disparate worlds.
Maximo's health is represented by how much armor he wears; each time he is hit by an enemy he'll lose one level of his armor (first helmet, then chest-piece, and finally pants, leaving him in his heart-covered boxers), in a nod to the old games. If he is hit while in his underwear, Maximo will "die," losing a life and returning to either the most recently reached checkpoint or the beginning of the current level. Should Maximo be deprived of all lives, the Grim Reaper will return him to battle with five new lives for a price; I'll return to discuss the weird mercenary/economic level of this game later in this post. However, this "one shot - one level of health" mechanic is at the core of the micro-difficulty of the game. Moment-to-moment success depends on learning the rhythm of attacks of enemies, quickly identifying the type of enemy you're facing, and remaining patient, dodging attacks or catching them on your shield until you can deliver a killing blow.
The level structure consists of introductory levels which lead to level hubs. Each hub branches to several levels which can be played in any order; a boss level will open once all of the levels have been beaten, via reaching their exits and returning to the hub world. Defeating the boss is usually a tricky, unorthodox bit of combat; defeating it leads to the introductory level for the next hub.
And that's our macro-level of difficulty which can make this game so frustrating -- having defeated the hub's levels, we are treated to a boss battle, usually resulting in much trial and error leading to the loss of many lives. From there, we continue on; we are given the option to save our game here, but only by trading off against other choices which often seem more valuable (such as being given a full set of armor). Our next stop is the beginning of a new hub world, that introductory level -- where we'll encounter new enemies and attacks, again sapping Maximo of many lives, and possibly killing him altogether. This changing set of challenges establishes a rhythm of difficulty; even though these introductory levels are relatively less challenging than the levels which will lead from the hub world, they nonetheless surprise and those surprises generally lead to death.
This brings me to the strange underpinning of many of these mechanics; the economics of the play, which are unlike anything I've ever seen. Throughout play, Maximo picks up "Koins" much as in other platformers. However, unlike in other platformers such as Mario and Sonic, gaining these does not simply lead to additional lives -- it allows Maximo to purchase armor from spots placed in various levels and to also purchase individual transport between hubs or indeed even to be able to save one's game. Maximo: Ghosts to Glory may be the only game I've ever played where saving progress has to be earned; you don't have enough "Koins" at the start of the game to do so¹. Games can only be saved in the hub worlds at special locations, where one can also purchase transport to another hub.
What's stranger still, given the narrative underpinning, is that the additional lives that can be granted by the Grim Reaper are also only available via purchase, in this case via a special "Death Koin" that will pay off Death (and indeed, these may become available as you gain multiples of 100 normal "Koins"; I've forgotten). Having died once, it will cost a single Death Koin to placate him and return you to the land of the living; dying a second time costs you two Death Koins, and a third, four Death Koins, et cetera. That progression is strange given the context that you're supposed to be helping out the Reaper.
I'm not entirely sure what the point of all this mercantilism is in the game; is it a commentary on capitalism in some way? It's not well-enough thought through, if so, but it does add a sort of comedy to the proceedings, as if the designers actively would prefer you not succeed, or if they are at the very least setting up significant bars against your success. "These are the odds, this is not for the timid. Take it or leave it." It reminds me of the current fervor for those very difficult Souls games.
So what's a player to do? Well, this structure encourages two strategies of play: 1) getting really quite good at the moment-to-moment combat of the game by learning the timing of various attacks, and 2) replaying early levels to find hidden bonuses which grant extra lives, in a sort of grinding way. I found myself often employing the latter, particularly as I reached the extremely difficult later levels.
Despite this, I found the game both remarkably charming and immensely fun, in a sort of flow-state engaging way. Even having played through early levels many multiple times, the challenge never became completely rote, and intense concentration was required. My ability certainly grew over time, and while I could pass through the first levels without ever being hit, doing so was never a simple or mindless proposition. Players who enjoy difficult games such as the Souls games could do well to check out this one; indeed, I immediately thought about buying its sequel, Maximo and the Army of Zin, but that would go against the spirit of this project. Still, a great game that I'm glad I picked up at some point over the years.
¹One could argue that the same is true of the typewriter ribbons in a game like Resident Evil, but I'd contend that since you get your first 'save resource' at the same time you reach your first checkpoint that this is significantly different.
February 18, 2013
How Music Works
by David Byrne
About a month ago, I finished David Byrne's terrific book about the art, craft, and business of music-making, How Music Works. I'm always particularly interested in how other creators work, especially in fields that have been around a bit longer, and this was a terrific read, particularly the early chapters where he discussed his process with the Talking Heads and in other projects¹.
Byrne begins from a different point than one might expect; he essentially starts with the idea that the act of creation fits a pre-existing context, rather than as some spark of inspiration. He takes us through a musical history beginning with pre-classical music, through Western classical music and then into the twentieth century, focusing on various forms of popular music, and at each step of the way he indicates the music making context -- how and where the music was performed, and therefore what forces worked to make the music what it was. It's a fantastic and studied analysis, and I encourage anyone who thinks about their own creative medium to read it and consider how its thinking might be applied. I certainly had many thoughts about the context of games; where it began, and how it has changed over time, and why, which also gets one thinking about the future and where it might be going. Inspiring reading and thinking.
He goes on to discuss the actual processes he uses in the composition of songs and the construction of concerts -- and I followed up my reading of this book with a viewing of the Stop Making Sense tour DVD out of interest². Byrne's process really interested me -- he described how he and the Talking Heads would come up with a starting point for a song with a series of changes and he'd more or less improvise a scat over the top of it, just stringing together nonsense syllables for whatever "felt right" with the music he was hearing, recording everything with a simple tape recorder to try and capture the best moments. Later, he'd return to the recording and write lyrics to take the place of the nonsense syllables, but tried to use words which had similar phonemes in them. It's a really interesting way to work³, organically finding the sounds that make sense, and then refining those sounds into words through a more considered process. It called to mind the idea of using a game jam to find the kernel of a game design, and returning to it over subsequent months to flesh it out into a fully-formed game.
The construction of the Stop Making Sense tour is really fantastic as well, how Byrne drew on influences from Noh plays to create something really special and fresh in the American concert scene. Having seen it on DVD, it's something quite surprising4 and unlike anything I've ever seen in a concert.
It's a great read and well worth it for creators of any stripe.
¹The middle chapters tended to deal more with the business side of music making then and now, and the final couple of chapters had to do with the making of a "scene," or the conditions under which new music will flourish. These were interesting in themselves, but my favorite chapters were the early ones.
²More than one person has remarked to me about how this tour was their favorite concert ever. I'm not a frequent concert-goer, and I was young enough in the early 80s that I probably wouldn't have been able to go to this one, but I will say that I really wish I had. The concert video was directed by Jonathan Demme and was pretty fantastic itself.
³It's not, of course, the only way to work. I recently heard an interview with Aimee Mann on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, and she described a process of lyric-writing which shared a lot more with certain kinds of poetry, focusing on meter and attempting to find perfect rhymes. Following on the game analogy from the game above, that would be more like working in an established game genre to further refine it.
4I admit, if I owned that "Big Suit," I'd probably wear it all the time.
Posted by Brett Douville at 10:40 AM