March 12, 2014

I Should Have Finished... Red Dead Redemption

I picked up Red Dead Redemption when it came out, and only played about an hour or so before I put it down again -- not for any reason that I can remember, only a recognition that it was probably going to take more time than I really had. As I recall, it came out in the Spring, which is always a super-busy time for me, with two kids playing baseball.

I picked it up again this January and finished it in a couple of weeks -- and by finished, I mean finished, achieving every goal and earning myself the "Legend of the West" costume for 100% completion. So, yeah, I liked it. I can see why it was on so many GOTY lists. And I do love me a Western game.

The story was decent; I spent a lot of time chasing after other things, so it wasn't always completely coherent to me, but that's always a danger with these sorts of games. I liked the Fistful of Dollars quality of playing both sides of the street in Mexico, and assembling a Wild Bunch for the first section of the game. I thought the final section had its own kind of poignancy; the game has you finally engaging in the more prosaic sorts of activities that Marston had been craving all along, with some story notes that reminded me of Unforgiven. The transition to the younger Marston was maybe a little too abrupt; although I probably would have enjoyed some more of the hardship and hardening of that character, I imagine most players would not have.

I particularly enjoyed the various chains of goals the game provided, which they called ambient challenges -- hunting, sharpshooting, treasure hunting, and survival (finding plants)¹. They engaged my favorite part of virtual worlds like these, the pleasure of developing an understanding of the game's ecosystems or even being able to see from a good distance a little flash of color and know it's a sort of plant you're looking for. That's a kind of immersion I really treasure when I play this sort of game.

The other lists of goals you could chase after were outfits, by which you could dress Marston in different ways whenever you went to one of his safe houses. I didn't really care about changing his outfit too much, but I did like having a list of six things to try out to earn each one.

The visuals were fantastic. I felt like I was in a John Ford movie, and that was just great. I admit, I was a little surprised to find a section with snow (and apparently all year round), and that still doesn't feel like it fits all that well, but that's a quibble. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see such a rich ecology, and to watch dozens of beautiful sunsets. It's a wonderfully and aesthetically realized environment. I think that Deadly Premonition gave me a much stronger sense of place, of being in a real place, due to the activities of its inhabitants, but Red Dead Redemption was a close second -- had its NPCs been more likely to roam and have their own schedules, it would have felt less like a series of movie sets and more like a real place.

That's a real tension in open world games; NPCs are basically functions of the game, either as quest givers or vendors or what-have-you, and it's frustrating for players to have a hard time finding a particular person so that they can check off some goal that they have in their head. In Red Dead, there are certain schedules of these things -- bounties get posted at a particular time, stores open and close, that sort of thing, but you don't feel like any of these characters are all that well drawn or fully embedded in the world. Deadly Premonition did this fabulously well -- but it was a cast of dozens, not hundreds.

I didn't have a lot of things I didn't care for -- I wasn't a big fan of the mini-games, with the exception of Liar's Dice, which I played again and again. I did have to win at each mini-game in a particular location to earn many of the outfits, and typically I only played those games just the amount I needed to complete those goals. Liar's Dice, though, really captivated me in a way that seems silly. It's a game of probability and bluff and pushing your luck and judging when other characters are doing those same things. I could play it again right now.

I also might have liked a little more depth to the side quests; these were almost always simple affairs with a single step (deliver a thing, go investigate a place to learn about a thing), and a little more depth to them would have been welcome -- that's a thing I think we did quite well with in Skyrim. Often, these tended to simply be examples of Rockstar humor or what they often call satire, such as a young woman who you had seen in the game's earliest scene talking to a preacher on the train who needs your help. She's a bit obnoxious as a character, always describing as God's work that which was clearly achieved by men (or in this case, the player). That sort of thing just doesn't work for me, I guess; it's all surface, no depth, a mocking tone that doesn't speak to me. There was one set of quests with a guy who was apparently trying to make his way to California but didn't really know how to get there and was slowly being driven crazy by the elements, and encountering him a few times was interesting and a little bit deeper, and that resonated a lot better.

In any case, the game was fantastic. I'm glad to have played it. Going through my back catalog is particularly rewarding when I come across a few games of such caliber.

Hoping to come back in a couple of days and write about a short PC game I played this week, Serena.

¹Give me a series of goals to chase after and I'll always be happy, and if you also tell me I'm leveling up in those skills so much the better.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:52 AM | Comments (0)

January 09, 2014

I Should Have Finished... Deadly Premonition

While I was finishing up my holiday break, I also finished up Deadly Premonition, a game that completely had me gripped from start to finish.

Deadly Premonition is a game about a serial killer loose in a small Pacific Northwest town -- it has a lot in common with Twin Peaks in terms of setting and general aesthetic¹. It starts with the player-controlled FBI profiler arriving in town to investigate a murder and promptly having a car crash that brings him face-to-face with twisted human ghouls from another world. Throughout the drive and indeed, throughout the game, Agent York converses with "Zach", addressing asides constantly to Zach and you sort of feel like it's you, the player, he's talking to.

It's difficult to encapsulate this game in a few sentences, other than to say it plays out in many ways like a season of Twin Peaks in video game form. There are lots of little mysteries -- we don't really know, as players, whether or not York is really experiencing these other-worldly phenomena where all the combat takes place or whether they are simply a representation of the difficult art of profiling. After all, York is a little off-kilter, talking to Zach frequently and having kind of an odd view on the world. His name isn't really even York -- that's his middle name, and he always introduces himself that way, "Hi, I'm Francis York Morgan, please call me York, everybody does." The way he says it is so earnest, you almost feel like no one at the FBI actually does, and he's trying to assert a role for himself.

It's among the strangest games I've ever played, which is funny because it's more-or-less set in a realistic place and more-or-less right now. York drives around town, talking about his favorite movies (through hitting the "A" button when prompted to allow him to Talk to himself/Zach). In addition to the main storyline, which quickly ties into a bunch of other murders York has investigated over the years, there are lots of side missions that you can undertake, many of which grow your understanding of the various players in the mystery. The game's concerns are so strange here -- there's a hunger meter for York and a health meter and a sleepiness meter, and there's even an adrenaline meter which I need to attend to when I'm in combat or running or driving fast. And there's a lot of driving -- you're covering the real space of this game as if it were GTA, but it feels eerily slow.

Early on, I was driving in the first significant player-controlled event where you have to get to the murder scene, clear across the map of Greenvale, and I'm going along, talking to the characters in the car with me about movies, and I'm just thinking "What the hell is going on here? What is this game doing?" It took forever. I started noticing that I didn't have tons and tons of gas left -- who ever worries about how much gas is in a video game car? -- and I wondered if I'd even be able to get back. Why this? Why this dead space?

Ultimately, fundamentally, what makes the game work so well is that it's very, very well realized; the sense of proportion and place directly contribute to the experience and draw you in. Each of these drives is an opportunity to get to know characters better, or York better. And there are perhaps a little over 30 characters, and all of them seem fully fleshed out, or at least memorably written. They have schedules of places they'll be, and they'll drive back and forth in the town to them or whatever. Everything plays out in close to real time - at one point I went to time it and forgot, but it feels like at best it's a little faster than real time. Certain main story events have to be attended to on the schedule the game sets, typically within a window, but otherwise you're free to drive around and talk to whomever, attend to side missions, etc.

There's some other weird stuff. The main story mostly surrounds going to locations, entering this "other world" creepy environment with combat and the finding of clues which turn into snippets of grainy video explaining what happened at the location. This is handled better, in my opinion, than the much more slick L. A. Noire, by gating progress on finding the important stuff and not having lots of superfluous dialogue about beer bottles and such. (Playing on easy, there was even highlighting in different colors indicating what was critical path and what was merely useful; I'm not certain that these little fountain particle effects appear in harder difficulties.) But even while I'm in the midst of doing that, I can walk into a little safe room and find myself able to shave, or change my outfit (and pay for the other suit to be cleaned!), or save the game at a pay phone. It's crazy and great.

It's a very rich experience and one I'd totally recommend. My quibbles are mostly with the combat and how it interacts with the controls (which are survival horror, character relative style) -- feels a bit like playing RE4, but not nearly as smooth, much more like an early iteration. I played it on easy and would recommend that, since it's rare that you'll die as a result. I would have been thoroughly annoyed had I been replaying the combat over and over due to dying in this game; the character mostly controls like he's a Mack truck, and I just am not interested in that kind of control-fighting anymore. If it doesn't cost me anything... I can live with it.

There are also... quick time events. I don't mind them so much here, as they're very sparing, not terribly difficult, and only used in connection with certain encounters. They do tend to really focus you, since you know that they're going to be coming and you really have to stay focused so as not to be defeated by them. The few times when I'd die in a scenario were typically because I let my attention wander to Twitter or whatever³.

Finally, it took me a while to understand the side mission cards -- they basically have a bunch of numbers at the top, which I thought related them to other side missions (which are numbered), but instead those referred to what "Chapters" of the game the side missions were available in. As a result, I missed quite a few early ones, which is too bad, because a lot of them seem to tie into the main storyline and enrich the experience even further. The ones I did do added an even greater sense that I was in this complicated town with all these different people; even if the main storyline itself is linear, the attendance to these side issues really made it feel as if it opened up and was more personal to me.

These quibbles are really minor. The whole game is a little bit janky -- I'm sure they knew that this wasn't going to be a big seller4, so they budgeted accordingly. The sensation of place is amazing, and the revelations of what's going on with York and Zach and the murders and everything at the end of the game are simply fantastic. In the end, I came away feeling that this was one of the greatest games this generation, certainly an overlooked gem, and perhaps my favorite that I've played from 20105. I believe they've recently released an updated HD or Director's Cut version of the game, and I imagine I'd recommend that too.

OK, as mentioned in the footnotes, I'm currently into Red Dead Redemption, so it may be a while before I have any game stuff to post, though I have a few from last year which I thought were fantastic and may get to soon (particularly Gone Home, which I was waiting to blog about until I had played again with my girlfriend, but that still hasn't happened, and The Novelist, which came out in December but which I playtested and therefore have played a couple times since September). Cheers!

¹I.e. something along the lines of "Small towns are weird," or, as with Blue Velvet, "There is a dark core underneath the American small town experience." Speaking of which, I really wonder what happened to David Lynch as a kid. Also speaking of which, did you hear they're making a little more content for Twin Peaks for the Blu-Ray anniversary edition? That's crazy. End footnote digression.
²The speed of traversing the environment changes over the course of the game, if you pursue certain side missions that increase the speed and gasoline tank capacity of your car, which translates into "any car you drive," since all police cars and SUVs share the same underlying data. It's weird.
³It's a situation which would compound itself, too. Having played a bit and been in a period of mild waiting around, I'd grow complacent and my mind would wander, so I'd end up dying and having to play that section over. Which meant that not only was I waiting again, but I was waiting in a situation I had already seen and which therefore even less held my attention. These sections almost encouraged a sort of meditative focus or presence. Not what I expect with a controller in my hand, and as a result, kind of interesting!
4And indeed it wasn't, with around 320K units sold, according to VGChartz, though that's not entirely accurate, it's probably within 10-20%.
5 Admittedly I have a few to go, notably Red Dead Redemption, which I started last week and which I also quite enjoy.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:22 AM

January 07, 2014

I Should Have Finished... Brütal Legend

It's embarrassing to me that I never finished Brütal Legend, the second title from one of my favorite studios, Double Fine. I buy all DF titles on or about the first day they come out, and if I have time I'll dive in playing those games right then -- in fact, I held off buying the original Xbox until Psychonauts came out, and then went and bought the game and console together, and I also bought Brütal Legend on the day it was released, though I had bought an Xbox 360 when a good bundle came along a few months earlier.

And, in fact, I played a ton of it when it came out -- playing through it again last week, I realized that I had made it to the penultimate RTS-style battle; I probably had about an hour to go in the main quest before I set it aside due to being busy. I also remember that battle to cross the bridge over the Sea of Black Tears was really difficult for me, so it's possible I set it aside out of a little frustration.

Brütal Legend is an open world game set in the grand old ancient times, when Metal shaped the very earth -- it's the world of heavy metal album covers, mostly from the seventies, bold and kitschily amazing. And the world building, really, is the most fantastic part of the game; everything that you encounter has been viewed through that lens and the variety of environments channels all the various aspects of that culture. It's fantastic. It's another one of those games where I can just pop it in and enjoy just moving around in the world¹, loving the care with which it was all constructed. As someone who develops games, I can just feel the early preproduction meetings on this one, where people were spitballing all the various ways in which they could represent heavy metal's themes in the game, and then knowing that they executed on just about every darn one of those ideas. The world just astounds with its attention to detail.

You gradually uncover the map of this fantastic land by playing through the story, which tells of humanity reclaiming the world with the help of your roadie-from-the-future Eddie Riggs. As you do, you uncover more side missions you can do, which have a fair degree of fun variability, and you also discover various old statues that increase your powers and more critically, your music list. Songs play from the speakers of your Druid Plow hot rod as you drive around the world, gathering up fan tributes for various excellent feats and customizing the powers of your weapons -- an axe which is used for melee, an electric guitar² used for ranged spell-casting and bigger "solo" effects -- and the car and its own weapons, plus some features in the world. This stuff is grand fun, and I spent hours and hours on end just driving around trying to find and free all sorts of Bound Serpents and discovering Relics and the mythology behind the land. I haven't found everything, though I have freed all 120 of the Bound Serpents, and I kind of find myself itching to go back and get an online map to find the rest.

Playing through the major story beats engages the player in RTS-style battles, where you can command your growing-in-variety army to defeat enemy stages. The conceit is that you're throwing a concert and gaining fans to power your performance and defeat the other guys in a Battle of the Bands. And early on, these are really great because the open area of the map is still small and your memory of the controls is constantly fresh and you're gathering a little bit of skill at a time.

As time goes on, however, when you have a lot of the map uncovered and you want to drive around and have fun with the side missions and the open world stuff, you end up spacing these battles quite a bit... and the controls start to feel unfamiliar and clunky, even as the difficulty and complexity of these battles starts to grow. By the end of the game, when I had spent easily a dozen hours driving around doing side missions between battles, trying to use the controls to direct my forces in battle felt a lot like trying to speak in a foreign language that I knew really well in high school. The vocabulary was there, but my command of it was stilted, halting, and fraught with lots of stupid little errors. In a way, the generosity of the world-building and how much fun all of that is works directly against the main story and its separate gameplay³. To a degree, there's also some unit management issues that come from being on a controller -- having a mouse to select all of a single unit type and give it orders with a bunch of buttons is a superior solution for an RTS with much complexity.

Most open world games don't give you this much controller complexity; keep the various control schemes constantly fresh in your mind; or abstract infrequent interactions to a much higher degree. In Skyrim, you're never far from a fight and the puzzles are extremely simple from a controller perspective4; in a GTA game you're going back and forth from on foot to driving very frequently, and much of the additional control schemes are brief and optional mini-games.

That said, although I originally played this game on the middle difficulty mode, for this return to it I played on the lowest difficulty setting and found that really best for me. It made the big battles mostly fairly trivial, let me feel like the bad-ass I wanted to be, and kept the story moving along without a lot of needless replay. I'd fumble through those big battles, constantly issuing a mistaken command, but it was very forgiving. I'd recommend this approach to anyone, and especially those who like to spend a lot of time on the side stuff in games like these.

On a personal note, I totally understand why Double Fine backed away from AAA and drove into their own smaller games more frequently5, and indeed, I love the approach and still buy every single one of their games the day it comes out. But I miss what this team does when it has masses of time and money. Brütal Legend is enormous and encompasses so much craft that it's hard not to wish they had projects this size in the works alongside the smaller projects that make up their bread-and-butter these days. I miss the diversity of voice, vision, and pure personality they brought to AAA scale.

Back in a few days to talk about another game I thoroughly enjoyed over break, Deadly Premonition.

¹Like Spider-Man 2, which I love just because of the flow of the navigation of the environment. Looking forward to Jamie Fristrom's Energy Hook follow-up.

²So, yeah, also an axe.

³Probably a fixable problem. Without going into too much detail, I think it's safe to say that the really big battles make the most sense from a story/narrative perspective where they are, but I think using Eddie's command-and-control set would have been possible in side missions if only on a lesser scale, perhaps with Eddie helping other, smaller bands battle in the same spaces where the major story took place.

4E.g. press 'x' to do a puzzle-contextual move, but you always press the same buttons to execute the logical moves in a puzzle.

5And funded in all sorts of ways, especially crowdfunding of late, but also the Indie Fund and traditional publisher routes.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:40 AM

March 03, 2013

Replaying my own games, part 2

A few months ago I posted about Star Wars: Starfighter, my first title, and now I've gotten to the point in playing old games I hadn't finished where I've run up against my second game, which came out a year later, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter.

By and large we made some significant improvements over the first. The introduction of large capital ships and Force Powers to the basic formula of Starfighter are welcome ones, and make it feel more Star-Warsy than the original. The storytelling is better, too, with ties to the film largely cut away¹ and some clear continuity in the missions, particularly Nym's story arc, which ties together several missions in the construction of a moon-based cannon to provide cover as they retake the base they lost in the first game.

It had some similar issues with difficulty as the first, just a substantially strange curve, though in this case it tended to err on the side of being too easy at points, particularly at the end where, owing to the ability to slow down time using the Force, you can pretty much knock off the final boss in a matter of a few seconds².

My job on this one was different from the original, my first time out as a lead programmer, and so I think of it differently. I was an active lead, as the only programmer from the first game to return, and took on different responsibilities³. As a sequel done in roughly a year of development, we started from the original game's code and focused on higher performance and adding features such as the Force powers, additional weapons, and co-operative play throughout the main missions. Several of the designers from the first game returned, and their knowledge about the tools and performance characteristics of the engine made for a very stable development cycle; as I recall, this game went through six months of QA with fewer than 400 bugs4.

The one fixed constant through development was the schedule; due to whatever reasons, this product had to ship in the fiscal year, which ended at the end of March. So we adopted a strategy whereby we reviewed paper mission designs early. The format of the meetings was simple; there'd be 10 minutes of the level designer describing the mission and answering brief questions, 5 minutes each from art and tech describing risks they saw with the design, and finally 10 minutes revising the mission or coming up with approaches that would help ameliorate the risk.

For example, the sixth mission of the game as described was originally meant to take place around a truly immense mountain, so high that you couldn't see the ground, and really a cloud cover would provide the visual reference of the direction of gravity. There were obvious difficulties with this and as a production team we allotted a small amount of time to prove out the risk artistically; in the end, it was scaled back to the large but not truly immense landmark that actually shipped. Similarly, a mission that was to take place on a small moon would require gravity that attracted bombs to a point, rather than along an axis, and the recommendation to the designer in that case was to build it in such a way as to have most of the mission take place on the side of the moon which would already align with the way things worked in our ground missions (and in this case, tech was able to give the designer what he was looking for, but the risk was largely avoided by design). Every mission was reviewed in this way.

Certain aspects certainly could be improved:

  • To provide replayability, every mission has bonus and hidden objectives, with the thought that multiple plays would unlock rewards and such, and this lack of information can be frustrating, so it may have been a good idea to unhide them once you finished the game.
  • There's no notification when you receive a new weapon or Force Power, so players may not even realize they have them5.
  • We should have better instructed the player about various elements of the controls, particularly with regard to controlling wingmen, ground units, and in the final mission, the giant space cannon.

Surely there are other issues, but on this revisiting, those are the things that stood out.

It was fun to take the old Jedi Starfighter out for a spin again and remember that frenzied production, which included a dramatic rewrite of the plot after the events of September 11th the year before it came out. I really enjoyed working on those games, and I'll always remember them fondly. Between the two I had so many firsts, including the first time I ever got to be on a production set for a commercial, about a poor Jedi who loses his keys.

¹With the exception of the Jedi Starfighter itself, and a few lines here and there about events on Geonosis while you tackle a mission there... On the other hand, I may just be missing the references, since I skipped the second and third prequel films on the strength of the first.
²It's quite amusing, too, since he ends up playing all of his lines one right after the other, the "I'm at 75% health" line, and the "I'm at 50%" line, all of which are basically along the lines of how feeble I am compared to him, how inevitable my defeat is, how the world will soon be his, yadda yadda yadda, ended with a dying yell.
³This was, for example, my first time professionally programming at the system level, as I made substantial changes to the resource system.
4Here again we had the benefit of a well-built code base and development strategy; the original Starfighter went through a bit longer QA cycle with just around 1000 bugs.
5Indeed, I was nearly at Nym's final mission when I remembered some of the advanced secondary weaponry he had, and I built the damned thing. =) After every project I did with lead designer Tim Longo, I'd ask him what he thought we most missed, and in the case of JSF, it was the planned but cut for time feature of announcing new weaponry at the end of each mission. I can't disagree, in this case.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:08 AM | Comments (0)

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.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:54 AM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2013

I Should Have Finished... Rez

I've decided that I don't have a lot more to say about Metal Gear Solid 2, so I'm moving on to comment on the absolutely fantastic Rez, which I played through in one frantic 24 hour period in October.

Rez is perhaps the most elegantly designed pure shooter I've ever played, one whose elegant design is layered and subtle; I don't play lots and lots of shooters, by any means, and I know there are many excellent examples of the form. Tetsuya Mizuguchi's attempt to incorporate synaesthesial elements into the play are well known, and although I had played the game a bit at times to experience just that sensation, it wasn't until I played the whole thing through to the end that I began to understand just how deep the design went.

Thematically, it appears that the game centers around hacking into a computer of some sort; rhythmic, pulsing enemies accompany an electronic music score, and the aesthetics all have a sort of Tron Legacy-like outlining. Percussion accompanies your shots, which come rhythmically, and you only have a small amount of control over the camera -- primarily, you are responsible for directing the firing of a laser-like weapon at targets as they appear. As you progress, you have opportunities to upgrade your avatar, which occurs automatically as you consume various items that are dropped by destroyed enemies. This character grows in complexity, from 8-triangle polyhedron to Buckminster-Fuller-style globe, to humanoid character sitting cross-legged and floating inside a shell. All of this is beautifully presented and aesthetically interesting.

But what's really fantastic about the game is how the levels actually work. The structure of the game is that there are five levels; each of the first four must be sequentially unlocked by defeating the one prior. Each of these four levels contains ten phases; there's an item that the player can shoot that will appear in each of these phases which will skip the remainder of the phase and take the player to the next phase. (In each level, the final phase is a boss battle.) If the player ignores these shortcuts, more of the phase is available to challenge, and the player will naturally progress to the next phase as he completes the remainder of these sections of the level.

The fifth and final level can only be unlocked once all phases of the prior four levels have been tackled in this way; the fifth level has a similar structure, but the difficulty is quite high, and so you'll find yourself revisiting the earlier levels to power up your avatar.

And here elements of the design really surprise. The game maintains information about your performance on these earlier levels, particularly what percentage of those levels you completed and what percentage of the enemies you destroyed. As this latter number climbs, the difficulty of the levels noticeably increases, particularly in the boss fights in the final phases. The game seems evergreen, constantly challenging you even as you might be attempting to simply grind your way to accumulating enough avatar powering up to tackle that final level. And further, the new difficulty of these earlier levels will raise the player's skills sufficiently to be able to approach the very high degree of difficulty of that fifth and final level. Fantastic stuff.

It was a beautiful experience and one that caused me to remark at the time that I can't wait to play all of Mizuguchi's other games. I'll get to them some day. I can't recommend Rez enough to players nor to game designers looking for elegance in design, even in something as apparently simple as a shooter.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:18 AM | Comments (0)

December 30, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Metal Gear Solid 2

Part 2

A few months ago I finished playing Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty on my PS2, and I wrote about it a bit and said that I would come back to it. I know there's been a lot of digital ink on the Internet about this game and this series, but part of playing these old games is writing up what I learn about game design from them, and so here we are.

My experience playing the Raiden section of the second one was a bit different from the first. At the beginning of the game you play as Snake, and for the culmination of that experience the penalty for failing to sneak through areas is "game over," as you're surrounded by ranks and ranks of marines. Returning to the location of the incident as Raiden is like slipping into a comfortable suit.

The early stealth game was wonderful, that terrific Metal Gear experience of moving through an area out of sight of your enemy, occasionally taking out a particularly pernicious guard with your silenced pistol or sleep darts. There was even a nice addition of guards who would report in at particular places in their patrol routes, which meant that eliminating these by any means would result in calling in reinforcements, which could be extremely difficult to evade.

But I found as I played this second installment I was less focused on making the stealth work one hundred percent all the time; Kojima changed a little bit in his thinking about the stealth mechanics as it interacted with mission failure this time around, and this changes the feel of the play somewhat significantly, at least as regards the moment-to-moment sneaking¹.

This time out, Kojima drops the need to load from a save game at every failure, instead allowing players to continue from their previous location, with health restored. It becomes possible to run through areas alerting enemies and making it through a door, only to have them chase you down and kill you -- but starting you from the other side of the door, past the sneaking challenge, after your death. When I discovered this, perhaps midway through the game, my experience of these stealth areas changed significantly.

I can remember one room in particular which early on was the site of much careful sneaking, a sort of two-level warehouse room where guards patrolled upstairs and down, with a clever pattern of sight lines that made sneaking a real exercise in patience, with one of the guards additionally being the sort who would radio in at a particular stop in his patrol.

Towards the beginning of the game, this was a hugely tense experience, though the lower floor had affordances for attempting to take out guards in different ways and hiding bodies and all that fun Metal Gear stuff, with tense moments of waiting out the alarm in a safe hidey-hole if you failed. But in the later game, once I stumbled onto the effects of the change in the mission fail/start from last location mechanic, getting through these rooms to the other side only needed to be a mad dash. Sure, I'd probably get spotted, but just as surely I'd get to the other side of the room and through a door. Guards would chase me down and probably kill me, but I'd have the opportunity to continue from the other side of the door. I found myself gaming these sections in this way more and more as time went on.

That said, perhaps that's as it should be -- though I lost some of the experience of being the superspy bad-ass, I gained a little bit of my time back in navigating these spaces, some of which you need to traverse several times over the course of the game, going back and forth to achieve different objectives or to rendezvous with various bosses. But there's clearly a trade-off here and I'm not convinced that this is the best resolution for it.

There are competing pressures here: you want to streamline the player experience so that they aren't losing lots of progress at every little mistake, but you still want to allow for the player to experience the wish-fulfillment fantasy of being a stealthy super-soldier. The other options to achieve the former aren't all that terrific: for example, reducing the difficulty of the stealth sections with looser patrol and sight line patterns would also reduce the thrill of successfully navigating the stealth experience. It's a tricky and fine line to navigate; the choice Kojima made here is clearly of its time and I don't have a better solution, though I do tend to favor loosening the rules surrounding player failure after the player has demonstrated that he's having difficulty with a section². That's somewhat tricky to do here, but not impossible.

I think I'll come back one last time to talk about Metal Gear Solid 2 with respect to the macro story and boss battle framework, as well as my particular favorites. Cheers!

¹The boss battles are much the same, though arranged slightly differently, which ties into part of the story, and which will likely be the subject of the third and final post about MGS2.
²The example here is the suggestion I gave to Jamie Fristrom about difficulty surrounding the Spider-Man 2 game -- in the various "chase character X" sections, if you failed them a couple of times, the game would slow down the character you were chasing to make it easier on the player. The illusion that you are getting better at the challenge is preserved as long as you don't recognize the trick.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:22 AM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Metal Gear Solid 2

Part 1

A few months ago I finished the second of the Metal Gear Solid series, and the first for the PlayStation 2, Sons of Liberty. I played the first earlier this year and wrote a couple of posts about it back then, focusing on the interaction between stealth, combat, boss battle, and team communications and exposition that really drove me on.

It's hard to know where to begin with Metal Gear Solid 2; the game splits between two major narrative element sections, one as Snake and one as Raiden, and since this was a big deal at the time, perhaps I should start with that first. For the most part, you play this game as Raiden, a VR-trained operative that is only now getting his first work out in the field, supported by others in much the same way Solid Snake was in the first game. However, the game begins with a memorable section of Snake infiltrating an oil tanker in New York's harbor. This establishes the storyline -- Snake has gone after other Metal Gears to expose them and the danger they pose to the world, and a major new model is being moved on this boat. (It also serves as a showpiece for the sorts of technical improvements that the PS2 can provide; I can remember watching these early cutscenes from the E3 footage earlier that year, and watching someone play a bit of the game when it came out here in the States. Between the weather effects and the camouflage suit effects, the whole thing was pretty damned impressive.) The section also introduces us to the controls, teaching us all the tools we'll need to tackle the game as a whole.

And then it does the unthinkable -- it kills off Solid Snake. Fades to black and introduces a new character trained entirely in VR¹ brought up to speed on what's going on at the same location a few years later, where an enormous pair of "shells" has been built to contain the environmental disaster caused by the original oil tanker going down. It's quite a big choice by Kojima, and it didn't sit well with fans. What's more, he has a whiny voice and it's his first mission in the field. You can sort of see why fans were annoyed.

I'll get back to Raiden and the rest of the game and its structures in a second post, probably in the next week or two, but I wanted to talk about the response I had to this moment, which was somewhat bittersweet.

I have no special attachment to Snake himself -- to me, he seems like a fairly generic wish-fulfillment vehicle, intentionally like so many we've seen before. But I had finished the first game approximately six months before, and as I blogged about, I found the interaction between Snake and the support team members particularly compelling, and in this new title, I had already seen a bit of the interaction between Otacon and Snake in the Codec and really responded to it. I especially liked the interactions surrounding the save game system, where Otacon would talk inanely about the meaning of various Chinese proverbs and Snake would be kind of bewildered, a nice bit of self-mockery regarding the Mei Ling character from the first game by Kojima. While it had that tone of Kojima having a bit of fun at his and his characters' expense, it also established these as two men who had had a friendship that had been going on for some time between the first game and the second.

Besides, what kind of threat is so big that it can take out Solid Snake? This ramps up the stakes considerably, and even though I think Kojima is making a statement through this game about the similarity of the player experience across all these titles, it's still a nuanced one which puts that same experience front and center and as the most important thing. It's almost as if Kojima is scratching his head and saying, "Boy, videogames, they sure are strange, aren't they? Everyone having this same experience, which would seem to trivialize it, but at the same time that experience doesn't exist at all without the player there to guide it, so the player is hugely important." The threat that's so big that it can appear to take out even the super-soldier requires something superior, a player, to take it on.

That's my read, anyway. Solid Snake will, of course, return later in the game as Lieutenant Junior Grade Iroquois Pliskin, but the player will control a new character, Raiden, through the rest of the game's challenges and bosses. The story will basically retell that of the original, and in typical Kojima form, that'll be part of the story as well. I'll get back to talk about that part of the story and about the gameplay later on.

¹The idea that every soldier is as interchangeable as are the millions of players sharing the same experience was not lost on me.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:03 AM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2012

Should I Have Finished... Grand Theft Auto III?

I've talked about GTA III once or twice, and I've tried to play games in the series from time to time. In 2005, I wrote about how the representation of prostitution in the game repulsed me and then in 2010 I tried Grand Theft Auto IV, which returns to Liberty City for a couple of articles. I've never been able to finish a game in the series, until now, as I push through my back log of games that I bought but have never brought myself to finish. This time, with this project on my mind, I pushed through and finished the game -- perhaps not every mission, because there are storylines that don't need to be finished to complete the game -- but through to the end battle against a helicopter after which the credits roll. I'm still not a huge fan of the fiction in the series (although I gave GTA IV the biggest chance in those articles from a couple of years ago), so I tried to put blinders on and watch what was happening in the game systems. If you're interested in my thoughts about the fiction, go back and read those earlier articles.

What I see is a game that subtly and slowly breaks down your natural barriers to bad behavior. When I started driving around in the various cars in the game, I'd start out by simply obeying the rules of the road, stopping at lights and such. The game is stacked against you, though, and it feels almost like time at lights will be even longer if you start to try and play that way. Before long, you're running the occasional light, maybe slowly... and next thing you know you're nudging your way between cars waiting for a light. Soon, and especially after you have to do one of the timed missions that make the game particularly difficult, you're in a position where you never want to stop moving, always driving wherever there's a bit of open road, even if that open road happens to be the wrong side for the direction you're driving. Designing and balancing systems to be just this frustrating and not completely logjamming the streets must have been a difficult task.

One thing that impressed me is that the city feels real enough that you get a sense for how it's laid out, slowly building a mental model of the connections between various neighborhoods and which streets go where, what the fastest way to get somewhere might be regardless of what the map indicator reads. In that way, it's almost like a real city, and that's impressive in and of itself. This was a little diluted for me as the game grew into additional islands that were blocked at the start of play, and because those locations had fewer story missions in them (and perhaps also because I had grown impatient with driving at reasonable rates of speed long before them) I never felt like I got to know those locations at all. If you dropped me on the first island even a few months from now, I think I'd know my way around -- but not anywhere else.

There are other things that feed into the systems, and one I pursued a bit more were the collectible packages throughout the cities. I'm certain that I didn't collect them all, but it was helpful to find those (and indeed, to get a sense for where the designers would place them) and to slowly earn benefits to my hideout, such as more available weapons waiting for me when I'd load my save. These were a nice diversion and I could feel myself dropping into the mindset of the designers -- another mental model to build of the space around me.

I never fully grasped the rules behind when the police would elevate or lower my mayhem rating, those stars up in the corner of the screen. It seemed as if staying out of their sight for long enough could do it, as could driving into a paint shop (something I did frequently in a mission where you had to steal several sports cars in short order). I found a few items that could lower this rating as well, though those were few and far between. This doesn't unduly trouble me, but it did make for some significant difficulty in a few missions where I felt as if I just understood the police better, I'd have been able to get out the mission in less time.

There's little impact of your choices on how the story turns out; you're going to get the same story no matter how you play, from a macro level. And I suspect, lots of little stories about particular situations are also probably pretty similar. By the end of the game I had earned a little over half a million bucks doing all these missions and in the end I gave it all up for a woman I clearly had no interest in -- you can even hear Claude shooting her in the credits¹ -- and I had to appreciate the circularity in that, almost as if the game's writers are thumbing their nose at you for all the hard work you've put in, just to get back to where you started.

I also have to admit I'm very impressed with the technical feats of this game -- a game of this scope running as well as it does on the PlayStation 2 is a very impressive feat. Playing it, I reflected with a fair amount of shame that the load times going between cities took less time than loading up a mission in Starfighter or Jedi Starfighter -- even a space mission. I have to tip my hat to that.

On balance, I'm glad I've played it and it closes a gap in my open-world knowledge now that I'm working on open-world games myself. But it's not a world I want to return to, even with the recent announcement of another game in the franchise. I know it will do big business, but the worlds and the acts I'm asked to commit in them just don't appeal to me.

¹It shouldn't be surprising that I find the treatment of female characters to be at best troubling in this game. But then, the game really has no attractive characters of any kind, and treats them all with similar nihilistic dismissiveness.

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:41 PM | Comments (2)

November 11, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Dark Cloud

I remember in 2001 how much I looked forward to the release of Dark Cloud, a role-playing game from Level Five, particularly owing to its "Georama" system, which allowed for a small amount of SimCity-style gameplay, though admittedly far less economically focused.

The narrative behind the game is fairly straightforward save-the-world-and-its-bacon sort of stuff: a wizard seeking power frees a great evil which then goes on a world-destroying tear, and your young hero is chosen by the forces of light to restore it and defeat the Big Bad. Typical stuff, from a story perspective, but what most caught my attention back then was the ability to restore the world directly, to take those parts of the world that the Dark Genie had stolen away and, using the strange mechanics of the game, to place those pieces back in the world.

It worked like this: in each area of the world, you would delve into a dungeon¹ and find pieces of the world wrapped up in little balls² and store them away. On returning to the surface, you could then place these items in the world in a special grid layout mode. For example, you might find a building and its occupants, as well as various adornments that would dress up the place (storage space, signs, benches, etc., which could not be placed in quite the same way, they were simply parts that had to be restored). Once you had enough of the building you could place it, and once all of its places were restored you would be treated with an event of some kind, a little bit of story about that building and its occupants. It's fairly innocent stuff, especially in the early villages.

Beyond that, you could interact with the little computer people and determine their various wishes, such as "Oh, I'd like to be by a little stream" or "It would be great if I didn't have to live next to so-and-so, his chimney stinks" or what-have-you. These little bits of story really made the world very vibrant and when I played the sequel some years later, I was very disappointed that these things had gone.

However, as I played the game anew, I saw the progression of world-building from village, to town, to city, to a logic puzzle of a tribal village in the desert (complete with totems), to a giant magic robot and a spaceship³, and finally to a series of memories of how the Dark Genie came to be and how it came to be imprisoned and all of that. This last section was particularly affecting, assembling the back story of the game and even having the opportunity to participate in it in a small (cutscene) way. What I realized, as I got to the end of the game, was that this particular idea, the "Georama" idea was completely played out; they had done basically everything I could have wanted with it, and indeed, also did a few things I couldn't have anticipated given the game's setting. There was nothing more to do.

The reason, of course, is the limitations of the approach -- there's only a single arrangement of the world that is "perfect" and the stories that come from it are fully based on achieving those arrangements. Characters may wander a bit near their newly rebuilt homes, but they don't interact in any different ways if you place them differently, nor do they seem to interact at all except in the most scripted of ways -- cutscenes, again.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course; an early launch window RPG like this couldn't be expected to do more than the many things they already did (new platform, randomly generated dungeons, many many monster types, a six character party with individual environmental interactions4, a fishing mini-game, etc. etc.). But the Georama concept had reached its limits simply because it was little more than a collection game gating game progress with a very light logic puzzle element. It only could have gone further if there had been more Sim in this City.

What remains is a very inventory-management heavy game: sure, there's the combat in the levels, but what I spent much of my time concentrating on was the various ways in which I could power up my characters' weapons. The main character wields swords, and they can be built up in various ways until they are at a power level required to beat the game's hardest monsters and final boss. This requires a lot of inventory management; you have the various items that are in your main inventory (cures for various status ailments, primarily, as well as potions and equipment for fishing), but you have secondary inventories of the weapons themselves and of the items that power them up. There's no stacking in the game, so you're constantly storing items away for later use as you power up the weapons -- these secondary items, which grant elemental damage powers, are put on the weapons and then stored there until you've slain enough monsters for the weapons to consume the material and level up. Weapons also only have a certain amount of swings or shots in them before they break, so you'll end up carrying lots of items to repair them.

What remains, then, is a highly repetitive RPG involving an enormous shell game of inventory space management. For example, fishing bait can be turned (via a mini-game) into more of these power-ups, which frees up one type of inventory for another. Furthermore, there are characters in several of the towns who serve as overflow inventory slots. If you ever die, you lose half of your gold, so you may also want to trade in 1000 units of money for a bar representing that amount... in this case trading inventory slots for post-resurrection security. Sadly, all of this inventory management gained the play nothing whatsoever, as discarding items or figuring out what to store where was largely a matter of seeing how much I had of one thing versus another -- the game would have lost nothing by stacking equipment in a manner akin to a Final Fantasy game, or indeed most RPGs.

On the whole, it was a game I really enjoyed, to the point of finding myself grinding away to improve my main weapon just to see what it would turn out to be. When late in the game I accidentally allowed one weapon to break and decided I didn't feel like playing the last half hour or so again (the time since I had last saved), I knew the game was over for me, and I just powered through and killed the final boss at that point. Good game, but its inventory management had overstayed its welcome, and the original Georama conceit had played all of its cards.

¹Randomly generated and, as a result, more or less completely forgettable. Each time you entered the dungeon, it would be randomly generated anew.

²Considering the genie destroyed the world by eating these pieces, the provenance of these pieces of balled up world is rather dubious and probably quite unclean.

³I know, right? A giant magic robot to do battle with the genie in what amounted to a boss battle.

4These amount to the characters in question just being special purpose keys to procedurally placed locks, and some crucial interactions to make boss battles work. I don't say this to be dismissive, because it's clever and ties well to the save-the-world story, with many characters from all over coming together.

Posted by Brett Douville at 04:45 PM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2011

I Should Have Finished... Crash Bandicoot

Welcome to the first installment of “I should’ve finished...”, an occasional series of posts about games from my back catalog I bought but never got around to finishing (or, in some cases, even starting). I’ll play these titles and take notes as I go about my mental state, about design decisions I think worthwhile, or other things that strike my fancy. Generally speaking, I’m not interested in tearing games apart, so these will tend to be positive (or at most, gently critical). Look elsewhere for snark.

The first title in the series is 1996’s Crash Bandicoot, developed by Naughty Dog for the PlayStation, and published by Sony. Before I sat down to play, I thought a little bit about what I remembered about the series -- vague memories of an orange-suited mascot with a megaphone yelling at the Nintendo building in commercials, its run-into-screen platforming (which seems fresh even now), its crazily difficult bridge levels¹, and crates... lots and lots of crates. And now to the game itself, taken from notes as I played.

Depth and into-the-screen platforming are still fun, and the remarkable thing about this 15-year-old game is that the graphics are just fine for me. Granted, we’re looking at 200 poly meshes at best with flat textures and no hardware-supported perspective correction, if I recall correctly, but they really made the most of what they had, even with this early title. It took me a bit of time to figure out the timing on these early shield-bearer enemies, but I got them.

Here are a few things that have mostly faded from triple-A games, though there are of course exceptions to all of these:

  • Limited saves (moderated saves)
  • Passwords as a means to allow players to continue from a certain point (owing to add-on nature of memory cards at the time) - and quitting the game after play to get that new password
  • Lives (and ways to get more lives)
  • Today, the market has less room for skills-based game play than it had at that time
  • Lack of analog sticks -- purely the dpad and face buttons on this game, which briefly confounds me every time I start it and try to change my menu selection to "Password" or "Load Game"

Some of these are reminders of a time when arcades were still a recent memory, or perhaps even still financially viable; I can recall a small arcade in one of the Penn buildings when I was an undergrad perhaps five years before this title came out.

But even saving came with difficulty -- to save, you had to successfully make it to the end of a bonus level. To get to the bonus level, you had to find the three crates containing pictures of Crash’s girlfriend.


I died many, many times on the first boulder level until I realized that a spinning Crash ran a bit faster than a simply running Crash. The game requires this sort of discovery and experimentation to beat its challenges.

Rolling Stones XSXCXSTX

Resource usage in these early games was quite efficient - the shield bearers the more traditional scrolling platform levels appear later in the “Hog Wild” segment, but only able to move left and right. There’s this clear maintenance to the player of what their abilities should be - they are allowed to move left and right relative to the camera, even if that means side-to-side or forward-and-back relative to their own orientation. This lets them serve a different function as an obstacle, while keeping constant player expectation as to their movement.

Native Fortress SSTXOOXT
22% ²

In the Lost City, the pieces all start to come together -- the recognition of pieces that will behave differently, provide rewards not available to the less aware. Positive reinforcement here -- a virtuous cycle for the attentive player; pushing yourself to better play and taking risks rewards you with goodies that better your odds, such as extra Crash lives.

Temple Ruins XCXCCXSC

Crash Bandicoot values patience and timing over speed -- in those cases where I hurry, frustrated, to replay some short section I’ve already played, inevitably that’s when I make silly errors -- running into bats that appear just when I know they will, messing up the timing of a jump. You can’t hurry Crash, you have to find its rhythm.

Boulder Dash SXTTXSXT

It takes focus and anticipation to get past these “boulder chasing you” levels, an early precursor of several challenges in the Uncharted series. While you run relentlessly on, you need to feel ahead, to anticipate the next drift from right to left. The same rhythmic approach, patience first and then speed.


As I reach the third boss, Koala Kong, the locale turns definitely more mechanical. Good storytelling simply through the themes in level art. There’s a clear sense of progress through the differentiation of level assets.

Heavy Machinery SSXTXSCS

The next level after “Heavy Machinery” is tough indeed, “Cortex Power,” though this is often because I start here with few Crashes avaliable to me. But there are several of the masks here which allow you to make one mistake, and gathering three of them makes you invincible for a short time as with Mario’s star. You feel invincible, too, and so you are far less tentative, and therefore... more likely to succeed. In Cortex Power, the real failure is being tentative, and in these levels Crash Bandicoot is telling us to GO FOR IT, even without the masks that give us confidence.

You can spend days trying to get through some level and then one morning just breeze through it on your first try. Cortex Power is just such a level for me, involving one or two attempts daily for around a week. Crash Bandicoot is a process of mastery -- of dealing with the plateau long enough to be able to accomplish your goals. I thought I learned that reading George Leonard’s “Mastery”, but here it’s taught to me in a visceral way. These breakthrough moments are so terrific because they leave you stocked with extra Crashes -- chances to make an even bigger dent, to ride that crest of surmounting that plateau. I pass through the Generator Room on my first try.

Generator Room SXCXCXSS

This pleasure was much of the appeal of these difficulty-based games. Surmounting something difficult. Pushing yourself. Sure, the successes are ephemeral, but the satisfactions are real. It was hard, but I didn’t give up, and in the end after dozens of attempts, I did that thing. Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls players have been describing this feeling with triumphant tweets over the past months. We’ve grown bigger -- found a much bigger audience -- but in doing so it often seems we’ve lost much of this. It’s there if you look hard enough, but you have to look hard indeed.

Once you take the time to get good at the game, taking a week off is no big deal -- you have enough skill that you won’t fall off your plateau quickly. You may make stupid mistakes your first time back, but you’ll quickly get back where you were. Which is good, because my longest, most arduous section of the game comes next.

The Generator Room and its subsequent challenges are the hardest I’ve faced in the game so far, making me feel trepidation for what more fiendish battles will follow. First is the Generator Room itself, a traditional platform area with only camera bots for enemies. Then a challenging, into-the-screen section... this contains a “bonus round,” so in theory I can save, but the one time I manage to get to the bonus round it kills me with TNT blocks. Soon after I’m on a boss, Pinstripe, who takes some figuring out, then a challenging bridge section. Zowie. Even with my tons of extra Crashes, my last three or four are drained away so fast my head spins like a bandicoot.

The grinning weasels of “Toxic Waste” fairly haunt me -- especially their rigor mortis when my spin attack bangs them off to oblivion, frozen at whatever animation frame they last held, surprised with odd grins on their faces.

Pinstripe’s pattern becomes simplicity itself, even after beating him only once, and I thank whatever designer made this boss fight relatively simple after the beatings I took getting here. Indeed, most of the bosses are fairly straightforward and reveal their unchanging patterns quickly; they serve as mere story-based punctuations to the player’s progression in skill, not genuinely difficult challenges. On subsequent mornings, I might need to learn his patterns again -- but I don’t think so. He’s the easiest boss so far... which is good, because I’ve failed the bonus round yet again.


Four quick deaths in rapid-fire succession on “The High Road” -- all stupid stuff that gets my blood up. But you have to be calm, playing Bandicoot, you have to be Eastwood at the end of Unforgiven. But then I get to a section where I’ve got to hit turtles at just the right moment and I’m sunk -- another six Crashes and it’s over.


Third attempt this morning and I’ve finished “Generator Room” with eleven Crashes to spare -- my best thus far. How will I do with “Toxic Waste”? Must. Stay. Calm.

By the time I’m at the second checkpoint, I have 16 Crashes and still bear a mask, allowing me one mistake for free. This has never gone this well... stay frosty.

And I complete the bonus round! 19 Crashes in my quiver. And still going, though without the mask this time. Back through Pinstripe without further incident, and I’ll start “High Road” with 21 men -- hopefully, enough to either get me through or enough to teach me all I need to know about it.

By the time I get to the first checkpoint, I’m at 20 Crashes -- I’ve gained two, but died three times -- and the big challenges are still ahead of me. But it’s long before I’m down to zero before I know I’ll go no further today. Happily I can start from Pinstripe now.

Pinstripe SXCXTXOO

Starting from “The High Road” with only 5 or 6 Crashes seems like an impossibility. Will this be the truest test of devotion in the game thus far? Having played three times this morning, I’ve only succeeded in reaching the first checkpoint on my last two Crashes of the morning. Sadly, work beckons.


Aha! A discovery! The turtles must first be turned over -- their soft underbellies are huge trampolines. What looked like a timing puzzle isn’t... Crash Bandicoot is teaching me to continue exploring, even on your ninth or tenth playthrough. This discovery propels me very nearly to the end of the level - in my excitement I nearly lose to Pinstripe on my next play... and that excitement carries through to the High Road, where I burn through all my Crashes before even reaching the first checkpoint once.


The game reveals more secrets to me -- the High Road is an onion of game design, layer upon layer. Running towards the camera at the start of the level nets you more lives -- the boards appear beneath your very feet. And at last, I make the bonus round on the High Road, my reward.

Slippery Climb CSSXTSST

Doing well at Slippery Climb takes a fierce concentration -- there are so very many ways to go wrong that after a while you begin to think a trap-by-trap, jump-by-jump outline might be helpful. I often feel my ability to focus getting exhausted, which leaves me falling off a cliff, mistiming a jump. Impatience is an enemy here more than the new, dynamite throwing minion of Dr. Neo Cortex is. The level is punishing -- after many attempts, only once have I made it to the first checkpoint.


For whatever reason, every stupid mistake one can make in Crash Bandicoot, I will make on the Slippery Climb. For whatever reason, it demands things that I feel unable to provide. I feel like the percentage complete should jump to 75% after this level, based solely on the time I’ve spent on it.

My mistakes, though, at least have the virtue of being further and further into the level, though this necessarily means that my play sessions get longer and longer.


After ten days off, I’m worried... but for no reason. I make it to the first checkpoint without a single death, even picking up two other lives and 60 peaches in the meantime. And even though I miss the bonus round’s save -- I’m through, with 8 lives to spare... only to discover that the next level, “Lights Out” is too much for me.


I have to hand it to them. This game, in seeking new platformer experiences, finds new affordances for me. I hadn’t thought of being able to see the level as something I needed to earn, but the masks I put on now both protect me and light my way, for a time. If I move too slowly, or make the mistake, I won’t die... but death will be highly likely, given that I’ll be unable to see the obstacles in my path.


It feels odd to try to get so good at something... only to never see it again.


Lights Out falls to my persistence, taking me on to Jaws of Darkness.


Two days pass -- I try a few times, but it’s only on the third day that I get to the Bonus Round on Jaws of Darkness, with no Crashes left. It’s only the second time I’ve been on the level, but I get to save.

“Castle Machinery” starts with a bit of design witticism -- just out of jumping distance sits the exit level, and trying for it sends you down floor after floor, falling until you start to wonder if you’ll ever land, and then suddenly you do.

Castle Machinery CXXCSCSS

Castle Machinery is relatively easy after the others -- really it and the Nitrus Bio boss battle are palate cleansers, giving me that breather which makes me renew my faith that I will eventually beat this game. I make it to “The Lab” soon after -- and get my next save point.


One positive about The Lab is that although I’m failing, I’m failing fast. Despite recent levels taking up to 20-25 minutes to lose (due, usually, to extra Crashes), here I’m in and out in only a few minutes -- enough time to iterate my skills but short enough that I can make multiple attempts in my limited time with the game. It’s wonderful at this stage of the game.

The final series of jumps, across boxes filled with TNT, are diabolical, and they require that I trust my skills there rather than letting them faze me. They are tricky, but ultimately very beatable.


The game takes a strange turn at this point, and I can’t work it out until afterwards. Having beaten The Lab, the next level is “The Great Hall”, which is basically an empty level, just jumping twice to the exit. (I’ll reconstruct afterwards that having beaten levels perfectly at various points of the game would open up others, or branching points in other levels. Instead, I find myself at 63% basically finished with the game. The manual gives hints at this, but lessons learned in early console generations: no one reads the manual.)

The next level is a fight with Neo Cortex himself. He is like the other bosses, in that his patterns are easily discernible, and he’s pretty easily beaten. I enter here at one point with seven or eight Crashes, and Neo Cortex goes down. Crash is reunited with his girlfriend.

Roll credits.


I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Crash Bandicoot, and look forward to more games in my “I Should’ve Finished...” series. I’ve got seven unfinished or unstarted games from the PS1 era, and 58 games from the PS2 era (31/12/15 PS2/GCN/Xbox). Should give me plenty of old playthrough material for a long time!

¹These now seem like a hallmark of Naughty Dog, if Uncharted 2 is any indication.

²It’s at Ripper Roo, the second boss, where I start keeping track of the percentage through the game the save screen reports to me. It’ll turn out to be a distraction, ultimately, since what the game is reporting to me and what I read it to be reporting to me are different.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:30 PM | Comments (2)