I Play the Mega Drive Collection Part 5: Gain Ground

Criticism, I Play the Mega Drive Hits Collection

(Part 5 of a 54 part series. Introduction and index located here)

GainGroundEUBox

Game: Gain Ground
Release Year: 1991 (on Genesis, originally a 1988 arcade release)
Plot Summary: We’ve seen some nonsensical excuse plots before, but Gain Ground has by far the most baffling frame story of a game we’ve encountered so far. Essentially, in the universe of Gain Ground the video game, “Gain Ground” is the name of a combat simulation game, and people are trapped inside it. From the back of the box:

The “Gain Ground” system, a five stage combat-simulation game, became a sensation overnight as a way to release tension. However, one day during a competition, the central computer went crazy! Combatants and spectators alike were trapped inside the arena, with no means of escape. We need you to guide the 3 Fighters who have volunteered for the rescue mission! Move through the system, save hostages, and disintegrate “The Brain!”

Stop and admire the strange levels of meta-narrative here, where you the player play a game in which you’re playing a player in a game. It’s like a non self-aware The Stanley Parable. Some further points to ponder as you reflect how far game writing has progressed:

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The Games I Made, Fall of 2015

Criticism, Ideas

Alright, so here’s a list of all the games I made this past semester. I wanted to jot down some thoughts about them before they all go the way of tears in rain.


“War & Loyalty” September 8th 2015.
Card Game. Co-designed with Danny Nanni & Seth Scott.
War&Loyalty_2Our first assignment in design class was to ‘fix’ a broken game, and my team was assigned the card game War. It was a great way to dive into the program and get used to constantly designing things. We worked on solving the biggest issue in War, namely the complete absence of any choice whatsoever, by introducing a system where you and your opponent drew and placed cards. Our solution was pretty okay! A little clunky perhaps, but definitely more fun to play than the original War. More interestingly though, we wanted to solve the fact that War goes on forever by eliminating the card replacement mechanic. Inadvertently, we created a sort of reverse deck builder, where at the beginning of the game your deck is mixed, and through smart play you can strategically lose bad cards to create a statistically better deck over time. It was actually an interesting mechanic, and we only stumbled into it through playtesting, the value of which was a good lesson to learn early on.


“What’s Your Deal?” September 15th 2015.
Card Game. Co-designed with Blake Andrews, Sean Heron, & Christian Sutton.

For our second assignment in design, we were tasked with making an abstract game with a given set of constraints. My team got bidding and hidden information. In just a week we actually came up with a pretty neat bidding game. Players were assigned one of five secret goals at the beginning, like “Collect 4 Hearts”. Then, cards were revealed and bid on by the players. It created some neat moments of misdirection. We struggled with the economy though, and the clever mechanic we eventually came up with was having the money stay internal to the system. Each turn a player became the “auctioneer”, and the money from the winning bid was given to them. So in addition to considering how much you wanted to bid for a card, you had to do so knowing the money would go to another player (potentially letting them outbid you next turn). The game needed some tweaking, but it was definitely a solid foundation for a competitive group game.


“Put Your Best Foot Forward” Date unknown.
Genre unknown.

Feet1a

This is a game I proposed at a brainstorm that was based entirely around the title. Players had… foot cards? And you had to… bid on something… shoes maybe? The only certainty was that each turn, players had to put their best foot forward. The awfulness of the idea, coupled with its nebulous nature, meant it was called forth and jokingly iterated on throughout the semester. Christian contributed the amazing tagline “The game’s a foot!”, which doubles down on the feet puns, and Blake suggested the central mechanic should involve, obviously, players actually sticking their feet forward as the game pieces. Put Your Best Foot Forward remains an enduring example of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to design a game solely around a punny name.

 


“Ascend or Die!” September 22nd 2015.
4-Player Board Game. Co-designed with Blake Andrews, Sean Heron, & Christian Sutton.
AscendOrDieThis was the first game I worked on that definitely looks like a finished game. Well, except for the monster token I guess, which still looks a bit placeholder-y. Ascend or Die! is a four player board game where the players are mountaineers attempting to climb an inhospitable mountain. There was a day/night cycle (tracked by a sun counter along the outer edge of the board), and players had to gather resources during the day and return to camp at night to ascend a level. There’s an “AI” controlled monster as well, who just randomly moves around and causes trouble. There was some good elements, but unfortunately it sort of ended up as a children’s game since the core movement was pure dice rolls, and the only choice the players had was which direction to walk in. So while there was some tension in the “do I try and get more supplies, or head back to camp early and play it safe?” decisions, it was a little too random in the end which robbed the player of meaningful agency. But still, I’m pretty proud of it given that’s the result of one week of design work.


“Spice of Life” September 23rd 2015.
Digital Game. Playable Here
SpiceOfLifeThis is my first honest to God video game! For our first assignment in digital studio we had a small project to acclimate ourselves to Phaser, a framework for Javascript games. We had two weeks to modify a weird broken unfun game provided by our professors. It had you moving around and hitting random circles, and if you hit the same color twice you died. I kept those elements, but moved it off of a grid and made it a freeform sort of action game. You chase the dots, and get points for getting a dot different than the last one you got, and lose them for getting the same thing twice in a row. To complicate matters, the dots flee from you if they’re different, and chase you if they’re the same.

I’m most proud of two things here (besides it being a relatively complete game experience). First is the time mechanic. As you get points, the game speeds up; you move faster, the enemies move faster, enemies spawn faster, and the music itself speeds up(!). This makes the game easier as you’re doing well, since you can rack up more points. But it also makes it harder, since you have less time to course correct and get a wrong colored dot. So the game also slows down when you’re doing poorly, which makes it harder to score high but easier to get the right dots. I really like that system, and can’t believe I got that all working in two weeks. Secondly I’m also proud of the randomized AI; each enemy has a range of parameters like their run speed, their perception distance, etc, and they’re randomly determined when they’re created. This makes them feel a little more random and alive as you play, because every enemy is different. You might chase down one no problem, but find another one dodging you better, or another chasing you for much longer. I think it makes it feel much less mechanical overall. Anyway you can go play it for yourself! It’s mostly bug free, and it only takes a minute to play, check it out.


“Superlativity” October 6th, 2015.
Social Game. Co-designed with Zachary Barash, Patrick Ford-Matz, & Michelle Senteio.
SuperlativityOur next assignment in design was a “social game”, which I was initially apprehensive about since it’s not a genre of games I’m particularly familiar with or really like. But I think we developed something that was actually pretty good. It was a sort of voting game for a group of five to seven players. Two players would serve as the “candidates”, and then a question would be read about them, like “whose singing could soothe angry beasts?”. Then the other players would close their eyes and point and the candidate that they thought best fulfilled the question. Then the winning player would get points, but so would any voters who voted for the winning candidate. So it required this sort of weird social calculus, where you had to consider not just who you thought should win the question, but also who you thought most other people would think should win. That dynamic, along with the really funny questions, made it pretty fun to play.

It was also one of the first games we had time to more thoroughly playtest. We playtested it quite a bit, and even used written feedback forms. One of the main lessons of the semester has been just how unbelievably vital playtesting is, and this was one of the main examples. In particular we had this great element where players would sort of give little speeches to try and influence voters, like about how they would best fulfill whatever the silly question was. We liked it so much we made it explicit- like, candidates got a few moments to give a speech. Making it explicit though made that become the whole game, and changed it from a funny little side activity to the primary thing players were caring about. In the end we took a lighter touch in the rules, so players could be tempted to speak if they wanted to but not be forced to. I love those sorts of discoveries, the sort of things you only find through iterative experimentation and testing.


“Lunar-7” October 8th, 2015.
Procedural story. Co-designed by Danny Nanni.
Lunar7This was just an in class assignment we did as an exercise as an introduction to games and narrative. So it was made in just about half an hour or so. It was based on Eric Zimmerman’s “Life in the Garden“, a procedural storytelling game where random pages are assembled to form a narrative. So we wrote up around ten or so, and you deal out four to form the middle of the story. It’s set on a loop above with an example story, the title page is the beginning. We made ours about an astronaut exploring a deserted lunar colony, which is perhaps a bit more pulpy and lowbrow than Zimmerman’s biblical original, ha. But I think it came out well nonetheless. I really like procedural narrative as a concept, so it was fun exploring it in analog.


“The Walker” October 14th, 2015.
Digital Game. Playable Here.
TheWalkerFor our first real digital game in Phaser, we got three whole weeks to make something. For some reason, I had this idea to try and create a game about mechanical linkages, specifically a Jansen’s linkage. I think they’re really beautiful and love the way they move. As a game though… eh. So The Walker has you controlling this little walker robot, but it isn’t an animated sprite or something. It’s actually a dynamic physics simulation, with the entire structure of its legs being modeled in realtime using hinge joints. So you don’t actually control the legs, you control the little rotors which move the whole contraption. Which is kind of cool, but “To what end though!?” I ask my past self. It took so long even getting the game remotely playable. I think I had an entire week where the whole structure just exploded whenever a foot hit the ground. I am proud of the art direction, basically all of that was done in just a few days. Using a collage of metal textures and ruined buildings, it has a nice apocalyptic cityscape feel. The sound design isn’t great, but I do like some of the metal clanging I was able to work in. You can play it if you’d like! Unfortunately it has two major bugs: hitting the left wall messes everything up, and sometimes if you fall down a pit the wrong way the camera gets screwed up permanently. Just refresh the browser in either case. But give it a play, and see the folly of making a meticulous physics system that ultimately results in merely controlling a weird floaty robot.


“The Story of the Drowned Village” October 27th, 2015.
Narrative Board Game. Co-designed with Rizky Winanda and Noca Wu.
StoryOfTheDrownedVillageAhh, this game. On one hand this was a total pain, just weeks of banging our heads against a wall, but on the other had some great ideas and lessons. For our three-week long narrative game assignment, we were given a Grimm’s fairy tale to replicate procedurally. We got the literary classic “The Louse and the Flea” which is a weird chain tale. A louse burns herself, and so the flea starts crying. The door asks why the flea is crying, and she explains it’s because the louse burned herself, and so then the door starts to shake. The broom asks why the door is shaking, and he explains it’s because the flea is crying, who is crying because the… and it goes on this way for awhile, until the river hears about it, and then he floods the whole town and kills everyone. We felt there was a weird moral about spreading sadness there, so we tried many, many iterations of games where you tried to find out other people’s emotions, and if they were sad then you became sad too. And if the river became sad everyone died. It was maybe two weeks of various false starts on this theme.

Ultimately the pretty genius idea we went with (proposed by the inestimable Noca Wu), was that rather than trying to depict the events of the story, we suppose they already happened. So the players are investigators trying to discover what happened to the destroyed town. So we had a ruined town board for the players explore, and they try to piece together story fragments and deduce what happened. But there’s also a ticking clock in that the flood waters have only receded temporarily, so you need to get in and gather clues and get out before it floods again. This premise really worked well, and I think we could’ve made something really good, but unfortunately we didn’t have quite enough time for fine tuning and balancing by that point. So the ultimate game was pretty promising and had some fun moments, but also had some broken interactions (like a small possibility for the game to kill all the players by like, turn 3) that needed ironing out. I’m still very proud of the framework for it though, I think there’s a lot of potential in that sort of procedural archaeology setup.


“Cyclops, Look Away” October 28th, 2015.
Digital Game.
EyeballMy first game in Unity! This was another little intro game, where we had two weeks to fix a weird broken game. The sample was a game where triangles fly at a circle, and you need to keep a dot in the circle while it bounces around from the triangles’ impacts. The dot within a circle made me think of an eye, so I made it an eyeball that looks at where the cursor is. I changed the triangles into bees, which now fly out and try and get into your eye. You protect it by looking away so that your eyelid blocks the bees. As bees get into your eye, your eyelid closes, so it gets easier, but it also gets harder because there are more and more bees. And you just try to survive for as long as possible, the bees always keep coming and you can’t really win. That was the intent anyway, I didn’t quite finish it. Instead of the game ending when the eye fully closes, the eyelids just start spinning around endlessly as an infinity of bees swarm into the eye. And the buzzing sound effect of the bees eventually coalesces into this hellish unending crescendo drone. So… yeah, I created a pretty nightmarish game I guess.


“Good Taste” November 10th, 2015.
‘Intervention’ Game. Co-designed with Blake Andrews, Zachary Barash & Hannah Monck.
GoodTasteRulesAfter the lengthy (by the standards of the semester) narrative game, we had a week for a palate cleanser project, which was an intervention game. That is, a game which by its nature causes players to re-contextualize something familiar and consider it in a new light (I’m paraphrasing). MAGNET, the NYU facility that houses the Game Center, very quickly becomes a home for the MFAs, since we spend so much time there, but it’s also a space populated by so many strangers, since we share the floor with a number of other programs. So it’s a space that is at once familiar and filled with friendly faces, but also filled with people you don’t know and sort of ignore. This game uses those strangers as game pieces, and forces you to consider strangers’ tastes as a sort of combination trivia and empathy game.

This was inspired by a “game” I had played with Christian at an event, where he bet me that we could ask ten people and none of them would have played the classic puzzle game Lemmings 2: The Tribes (… he won). In Good Taste, players speculate about a game a stranger may have played, and the other player guesses whether they have or haven’t. This has a nice balancing effect, as you try and pick something that could go either way- you can’t pick something too obscure or too obvious. I think that as an intervention into a social space, Good Taste is only so-so. But it is actually pretty fun to play, with strangers as well as friends. Those are the full rules up there, so you can play it as well… if you’re in an environment filled with games-related and games-adjacent people. It requires a pretty specific game piece, admittedly.


“Minus World Games Trivia Night” November 12th, 2015.
Bar Trivia Game. Co-designed and hosted with Blake Andrews & Zachary Barash.
MINUSWORLD_announcementThis wasn’t for a class at all! For a long while I’d been wanting to go to a games trivia event. I like bar trivia, but while you can find trivia focused on specific pop culture properties (like, Ghostbusters trivia, or whatever), I hadn’t been to a live event about games trivia. So, being the change I wanted to see in the world, I dragooned two of my like-minded classmates into putting on an event at the Game Center. It was a lot of fun! It was perhaps ambitious (read: dumb) to try and put something together like this during a particularly busy time of the semester, but I’m glad we did it. It also made me appreciate just how difficult writing trivia questions is. A good question is a sort of puzzle or riddle, that seems difficult but can actually be figured out fairly reasonably. You can’t ask things that are too obscure, otherwise no one will know them, but they can’t be too familiar either otherwise it isn’t enjoyable. My favorite question was an audio one, where we played sounds and you had to name the game they were from. One sound was the dog snickering noise from Duck Hunt, which is a very famous sound effect and pretty easy to identify. But, stripped of its visual cues, it’s actually a sort of abstract sound, so it’s not immediately obvious. That was a good question. Others we had were less so, but on the whole it was all pretty good. I think having it at the center was a mistake though. Like, wow, does bar trivia sure change substantially if you’re not actually at a bar. It changes the nature of it completely, because there’s no idle chatter or general hanging out, and it becomes a much more tournament-like atmosphere without all that. I think it was a really good lesson in context and physical space, which is an easy factor to ignore when crafting a game experience, but is actually vitally important.


“Heliotrope” (Version 1) November 18th, 2015.
Digital Game.
HeliotropeV1For my three week Unity game, I continued my tradition of weird experimentation style game design. This began as an attempt to do a procedural city builder. I had this little system for generating “buildings” (cubes) which would place themselves randomly and be of random heights. It actually produced kind of cool looking cities, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Someone suggested that maybe it was a plant, instead of a city, and so I created this thing where the player generates sunlight, which grows this procedural plant creature. I had this idea of it being a puzzle game, where you’d have different plants with different behaviors and you’re trying to grow them all in balance. Like, a plant that likes the sun, but also a second one that flees from it, or something. Unfortunately I wasted a lot of time on side issues I should probably have ignored, like making the sun look good. That bloom effect on there took me about a week to figure out (turns out its sort of tricky to signify light when it doesn’t have objects to hit), and I probably should’ve just done something that looked bad and worked on the dynamics of the system more. Still though, I can’t describe the feeling of gratification from the first moment that I got the plant working. The logic was all coded, the script worked, and when I pressed down the mouse the sun illuminated and the plant grew to reach it… pure poetry! This is why people fall in love with procedural systems, it really sends shivers down your spine when you have these moments when you get to yell “Life! I have created life!” like a mad scientist.


“Merchants of Shifting Seas” December 15th, 2015.
Board Game. Co-designed with Michelle Senteio & Noca Wu.
Our final project in game design was a four week project to make whatever we wanted with whoever we wanted. We had a pitch session in class where we all said the sort of things we’d like to work on, and groups formed over shared interests and designs they wanted to explore. I had the immense privilege of getting to form a group with with two designers I had worked with on previous projects, Michelle Senteio and Noca Wu. I got to work with some truly amazing people this semester, and it was great to have a shared vision with two designers I really got along with. Our initial premise wasn’t that concrete, but we wanted to make a Euro-style game that focused on exploration and didn’t feature direct or military conflict between players.

I haven’t been talking a lot about process so far, but I think how we developed this game in particular really worked well and is worth a mention. We had a system of “stakes in the ground”. When you’re designing a game, the full infinitude of potential ideas can pull you in all sorts of directions and make it hard to make anything at all. So we had this system of general idea brainstorming but with periodic commitment to particular ideas. So our first ‘stake in the ground’ was that it’d be a board game, about exploration, without direct conflict. So from there, we were committed to the notion that even if we had some cool idea, we weren’t going to backtrack on those constraints, and subsequent ideas had to treat those as constraints. Later on we had the idea of procedurally generating the board by revealing tiles, that became another stake in the ground, and so on. By gradually making commitments like this, we could iterate on lots of neat ideas, but while still making gradual progress on something. Rather than constantly starting from scratch with like, “well, what if we made a game about feet…” we were always getting further towards something.
MakingOf_MerchantsOfShiftingSeasThe game went through a lot of iterations as we explored different things, but a shape slowly formed of a game about nautical exploration and trade. Because of our process, it really felt like sculpting something out of marble, where this final game was slowly revealed (ha, I mean, not that it’s Michelangelo-level good or anything). We still had dead ends of course, like we spent a lot of time experimenting with physically representing the cargo. You’d sail around, pick up goods and put them on your boat, and sell them somewhere else. It was just so slow and finnicky, and out of scope to balance a system like that in just a few weeks. We also received really great feedback from our professor during status checks, and he helped us hone in on what was working well and what was overly complicated. Eventually we came up with the idea of abstracting the goods entirely and just creating trade routes. So in the final game, you sail around and gradually reveal and map, and link supply and demand in order to form a trade route and make money. The procedural exploration of revealing tiles is really pretty fun. You start out of with an empty map, and gradually reveal it to see what the ocean holds (a process inspired by Civilization V, actually). This can create too much variance though, with one player potentially getting too many good islands near their starting position. We solved this by introducing some statistical smoothing; by dividing the map into shallow and deep regions with different tilesets, as well as “known” islands in certain parts of the board, we could balance some of the randomness so that no one received too great an advantage due to luck.
MerchantsOfTheShiftingSeasWe really went all out on the production values. Probably overboard, really, but it felt good to put in so much hard work and have such an amazing final product. We laser cut all those hex tiles and painstakingly glued all the artwork to them. So much glue. The art in particular was simply fantastic, done by Noca who was/is an accomplished graphic novel illustrator prior to entering the program. The sepia of the old map board, contrasted with the beautiful blue ocean tiles, is really visually arresting. And check out the cute sea monster on the box cover! Oh that’s right, we even had a fricking box too. With inserts to hold all the tiles and game pieces! As I said, it was probably overboard, but it was great to go all-in with two great teammates. There’s nothing like working with amazing people, making something as good as you possibly can. Merchants of the Shifting Seas still needs some additional elements, so further balancing and playtesting and so on, but it absolutely feels like it could be an actual published board game. It was a great high note to end the semester on, and felt like a culmination of everything we had learned prior.


“Heliotrope” (Version 2) December 16th, 2015.
Digital Game.
HeliotropeV2Heliotrope, now with texture maps! This is like the HD remake. So for our final project in digital design, we had to take a prior project and improves its game feel. I did not relish the opportunity to go back to The Walker, or Phaser, so I was happy to have a chance to continue work on Heliotrope. The game is essentially the same, but I added a lot to improve the experience. The most obvious is the visual style. I tried doing some quasi-realistic plant and soil textures, but they never felt right. I think using Japanese washi paper really worked well though, they gave it a more organic and naturalistic feel, while still remaining abstract. The plant itself is a bit different too, it no longer grows by suddenly jumping in height, but instead grows in a visual tween. There’s also a light particle effect when they pop into existence too. The other major addition was music, the original Heliotrope had no sounds at all. Now when the plants grow, there’s a pleasant violin note, and when it expands, a random piano note plays. With help from my little sister on what notes to use, the plant now plays little procedural arpeggios as you grow it. Oh and there’s a bad plant that gets in the way (barely visible in the top right in the example gif), and it plays horn notes instead of piano notes. Because horns are bad news. I think the game is worlds better with all these improvements, but sadly it’s still not much of a game! I’m going to put some more work into it so there’s a little bit more structure, and then I’ll put version 3 up on my site to play.


And that was it! A flurry of experiments at the start, and some more developed pieces towards the end, all of them a blast to work on. I’m so excited to dive back in next semester!

 

The Cruel Tutelage of the NYU Game Center

Events

Wow. Phew.
I haven’t had a chance to write anything here, or do much of anything else, since I started my first semester of the masters program at the NYU Game Center. It’s basically been 15 weeks of punching a board until you know game design. Maybe I’m doing it wrong.

I wanted to get some thoughts down about the experience now that I’ve had a moment to breathe, and try and unpack what it’s been like so far. It’s an amazing program that I feel ridiculously privileged to be a part of, and I can’t believe there’s still three semesters left to go. So, what’s it like in games school?

The first thing I wanted to note is that it is crushingly difficult. I was repeatedly warned that this was the case, but from a combination of hubris and ignorance didn’t really believe it. The past semester has been probably the most challenging experience I’ve ever had. While I’ve been told it’s “not as hard as a masters in architecture”, I found it to be very difficult. I think everyone in the program does, or if they don’t, they’re at least polite enough to pretend they do.

The difficulty primarily stems from the quantity and differentiation of the workload. In my undergrad, I used to joke that I double majored in History; essentially all the classes I took differed only in content and not at all in form. Here though you’re using many unrelated skills simultaneously. Each week you’re writing critical design essays, studying and being tested on games history, writing summaries of readings in games studies, working on academic research, programming a digital game, and working in a group on designing an analog game (which itself entails a multitude of skills). Any of one of these would be enjoyably challenging on their own. Juggling that many things at the same time requires intense coordination though, and it can be very stressful. Like in Darkest Dungeon, it becomes a game of managing that stress and finding the best worst option since there isn’t time to do everything. So the Game Center is a roguelike, is basically what I’m saying.

It is a good sort of stress though. Perhaps the main reason the program is so difficult is because everyone is trying their absolute hardest. Unlike work or school where at least some of the tasks are perfunctory, everyone has chosen to be here. Competed to be here, really. So the level of effort and dedication is the kind that can only come from love and passion. Which leads to the second thing I’d note, which is about the people in the program. It’s as varied a group as one could hope for, and speaks to the strange omni-cultural power that games have. There’s something exhilarating about being part of a community that includes artists, musicians, programmers, lawyers, architects, writers, nuclear submariners, and one humble former analyst. It’s also intimidating as hell, but there’s nothing quite like being around so many talented people with whom you have a shared love. You also get to work together, which while all manner of stressful on its own, produces amazing work that no one could ever manage on their own.

The last thing to note is that designing games is really hard. Like, fantastically hard. A sort of thing you could devote your life to and never really get good at, that kind of hard. As a result, much of the program isn’t really about designing games, not really anyway. There’s a focus on learning by doing, sure, but also an emphasis on cultivating something akin to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. An appreciation for games and their design beyond mere enjoyment; a practiced and studied love of the form. It reminds me of when I wrote for the Punch Bowl, UPenn’s oldest and least reputable humor magazine, during my undergrad. We thought a lot quite seriously about the craft of humor writing (though you wouldn’t think that from reading our stuff, heyoo!), like about what makes a joke well crafted, and what a truly funny joke really is. Of course, that experience basically ruined most expressions of humor for me. You become so familiar with the cadences and tropes of jokes that you see them coming from miles away. And that’s a bit what it’s been like studying games as well. Honing a critical lens and appreciation of the art, and as a consequence ruining it for yourself most of the time. I find myself howling at some things I play now, because you start see every thing they do wrong. Occasionally, if you’re super smart, sometimes you even see what they do right too. But I think that’s just the paradox of dedication though, like I’d wager that magicians are seldom amazed by magic tricks.

So that’s a a little glimpse at any rate. I’m also putting together a list of all the games I’ve made last semester, which’ll hopefully be the more interesting show to this post’s tell. Stay tuned!

I Play the Mega Drive Collection Part 4: Ecco the Dolphin

Criticism, I Play the Mega Drive Hits Collection

(Part 4 of a 54 part series. Introduction and index located here)

EccoTheDolphin_md_eu_cover

Game: Ecco the Dolphin
Release Year: 1992
Plot Summary: This section so far has really just been to make fun of what has passed as a plot in these games. They’ve ranged from “excuse plot to justify the action” to “utter nonsense”, so there wasn’t much to really spoil. But Ecco actually has a story to tell, and it’s a really good story at that. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I should go through it in detail or not, since while the story is pretty good, the game itself is definitely not. I don’t think I can in good conscience say something like, “But I won’t spoil it for you, go and play it yourself!” for reasons I’ll be discussing later. So be warned that I am going to discuss the story here, if you’d rather play through it on your own. I mean, it is a nearly 25 year old game, so there has to be a statute of limitations on spoilers. I’m also going describe the story in some length, probably too much for a plot ‘summary’, but I want to capture it in detail because it really was an engrossing and surprising story.

HomeBay

Our hero, and playable character, is the titular dolphin Ecco. Ecco has stars on his head in the shape on the constellation Delphinus, and so like the Sneetches on the Beaches, he is obviously better than all the other dolphins. So, he’s a pretty bland typical chosen (albeit a dolphin). The game begins with Ecco playing around in his home bay, a lush tropical paradise. Here we’re introduced to cetacean society, where intelligent dolphins communicate with each other via “singing” to eachother with sonar. But this idyllic existence doesn’t last for long, because soon a terrible storm sucks up the entire pod and all the surrounding sealife as well, and only Ecco is spared. It’s actually quite shocking and totally inexplicable. One moment you’re playing around in a sea teeming with life, and in the next its barren and lifeless. The game absolutely excels at environmental storytelling moments like these, using the level itself to convey the shock, horror and loneliness. So that’s the plot impetus, and what follows is a three act structure for resolving this mystery.

Act 1 is essentially an exposition fetch quest, BigBluewhere Ecco keeps trying to find out what the deal is and is referred on to someone else. Some dolphins tell you something, then you meet an Orca who suggests finding an old blue whale for answers (the whale is unimaginatively called “Big Blue”, which you have to imagine is a nickname or something). So then Ecco heads up to the arctic to find Big Blue, who also doesn’t know what causes the storms, but does know that they’ve been happening every 500 years. Big Blue in turn refers you to someone even older and wiser than himself, “the Asterite”, who is rumored to be the oldest being in the sea and might know what’s up.  The Asterite turns out to be a floating helix of orbs, who’s appearance and nature is completely baffling and never actually explained. He also greets Ecco with “I remember you!”, which is a hint of the time travel paradoxes we’ll soon be encountering. The Asterite, inexplicability aside, is basically an exposition machine. He lets us know that aliens named the Vortex live on a distant planet, and when our planets are closest to eachother (which occurs every 500 years), they harvest life from our planet to consume because they’ve rendered their own dead and lifeless. Each successive harvest has increased in intensity, and soon all life on Earth will be consumed. Whoa! This is a lot to lay on a little dolphin.

Then we start Act 2. Although we now know who the villains are, we lack the means to stop them. The Asterite can help, but it needs a missing part of it restored, which inconveniently is located 55 million years in the past. EelFriendSo you need to go use the Atleantean time machine(?), which thankfully is located in a nearby sunken city. The time machine can evidently move you precisely in time but not space, since Ecco has to battle protean eels and trilobites for awhile before he eventually makes his way to a hostile version of the Asterite, who attacks on sight. Ecco steals an orb from him and returns to the present (somehow) to… give it back to the Asterite? I guess, from the Asterite’s perspective, one day a creature shows up (who’s species doesn’t even exist yet), beats him up, and rips an orb off of him. Then, millions of years later, the same creature shows up. Rather than saying, “Right, now it’s time for payback”, he figures out it’s the same guy, so sends him back in time to get his orb back… from… himself? Time travel never makes sense.

With his orb restored (but it was only missing in the first place to restore it! Argh!), the Asterite can finally help by bestowing upon Ecco… hands? Wings? Razor teeth? Nope: just the ability to breath underwater. This is sort of a letdown, but it is handy, and admittedly critical to the mission Ecco is about to undergo. Because then the Asterite tells Ecco to go back in time again, to the moment his pod got sucked up, and go with them and defeat the Vortex. So in the final act, Ecco show up back in the home lagoon (shouldn’t a past version of ourselves be swimming around here?) and get sucked up into the storm. So now we finally get to see where our pod ended up, who we haven’t seen since the storm’s original appearance way back in the game’s first moments.

And the results are terrifying. The tornado of the storm sucks everything up into a food processing tube, which grinds up the collected organic matter for consumption. I can’t stress how disorienting this level is. After an entire game of beautiful naturalistic settings, the biomechanical nightmare of the tube is utterly jarring. Ecco has to swim through this processing plant, while avoiding being ground up himself. We also meet the Vortex themselves here, who are awful Giger-esque monsters. Their bodies burst apart when sonar hits them, by the way, but their heads continue to pursue Ecco afterwards. Ecco eventually makes his way to where the feeding tubes terminate, which is at the Vortex Queen. He kills her, by systematically ripping body parts off of her head, and then returns to Earth with the rescued pod.

TheTube

It’s celebrations all around, with dolphins singing your praises since you saved not only your pod but the entire planet. All except for one spoilsport dolphin who wonders “Do you think the Vortex are destroyed?” which is like, wow, way to jinx it buddy. And there’s a sequel, so no, I guess we didn’t, ugh.

Gameplay Summary: Ecco is an action-platformer using a 2D perspective. Since Ecco is swimming, he can move horizontally as well as vertically in a manner that would be like flying in a typical platformer (actually the game uses some clever animation tricks to indicate you’re floating, rather than flying). Ecco can really be a joy to control, and he darts around smoothly in a way that really feels like the balletic grace of actual dolphins. Ecco can also use sonar to sing to other cetaceans and occasionally to attack. Holding the sonar will cause it to bounce back and bring up a mini-map of the area, which is a beautiful way of tying of the game mechanics to biology.

Ecco plays out over 25 levels, and with only a couple of exceptions each has the same set-up, requiring the player to navigate a maze to find the level exit. The challenge is in exploring the underwater caves with limited air supply and fending off hostile sea life. This exploration based gameplay works well. The controls are smooth and the setting so novel, that merely exploring the sea is pretty fun in its own right. But not content with exploration alone, the game also throws in some puzzles to impede progress. These typically take the form of “glyph” crystals, which are extremely contrived “gate and key” puzzle mechanisms: a given glyph won’t let you past until you find the key glyph somewhere else first.

Glyph

There are occasionally other types of puzzles. There are some baffling ones requiring the player to guide starfish or sea snails to remove obstacles, which fill the exact same puzzle mechanism as the key glyphs (you hit a gate and go find the key), but with the added “fun” of difficult maneuvering, a time limit, and moon logic. Worse still, the weirder puzzles tend to be one-offs, so the player can’t build on their knowledge in any meaningful way. There is also a recurring puzzle element of strong currents, which typically require finding something to block them or swim behind. I feel like you could build a whole game on puzzles like that, but Ecco explores the design space only fleetingly.

There’s also what might be called platforming or jump puzzles, though Ecco doesn’t jump per se. But except for Ecco’s unique method of movement, they’re the typical twitchy movement based challenges of other platformers. Sometimes these are navigating environments in which there are damaging environmental hazards, and other times it requires precise timing, or even literal jumping out of the water. In one memorable level, the challenge was to navigate extremely animated icecubes:

IceBlocksAnd the enemies themselves lean more towards puzzles than action. Being a dolphin, Ecco can’t blast his way through foes, so enemy encounters are usually about learning their behavior and finding a way to defeat or avoid them. Like, octopods have to be swum past very slowly (so they don’t detect you? I don’t think that’s how octopodes work), or seaworms that will grab if you wander too close. If you die, you restart the level.

The game is incredibly fun when it emphasizes observation and exploration. Most of the time though, it emphasizes being a total asshole.

Play Summary: I really liked Ecco, but that’s not for the game’s want of trying. The difficulty is terrible. I don’t mean it’s extremely challenging and rewarding, I mean the difficulty is arbitrary, unfair, and completely unfun. There are so many minor annoyances and sloppy design decisions, like puzzle pieces that are too hard to maneuver or enemies that respawn constantly, sometimes even while you bring the mini-map up. Those annoyances rankle, and have not aged well, but they’re nothing compared to things actually designed to be very difficult.

EccoJump_GIFByHauke

A casual player like myself could probably get up to the Asterite, maybe, without too much trouble. These levels are not easy, mind you- the game occasionally expects very specific things from the player, and the price for failure is restarting the stage. Most of the time this isn’t too bad a punishment, as the player learns the level layout and how to fight enemies. Enemies which vary wildly in difficulty by the way, from jellyfish and sharks that are basically just mobile environmental hazards, to goddamn hunter-killer crabs which leap out of nowhere and grab you until you’re dead. In the level I mentioned earlier with the ice cubes, the ice cubes all fly around randomly, and if they crush Ecco instantly kill him. It occurs towards the end of the level. So if you die (and you will), you have to redo the whole level, and then try again with the goddamn randomly flying death ice cubes. It’s frustrating and not at all fun, but it’s achievable. I did it with only occasional save scumming.

But the back half of the game is virtually impossible. I’m serious. Comix Zone was stupidly hard, but I could conceive of someone beating it with enough practice. These levels though… I know people have beaten them, but I would venture to guess that less than 1% of Ecco players have ever beaten it without cheating, if that. The second to last level is nonstop instant kills by crushing, so even with cheating for infinite health, and constant save reloading (woohoo emulation!) it was hard for me to beat. It was hard for me to beat, while cheating. And that’s not even mentioning the sadistic jump puzzles in the City of Forever level of Atlantis, which require some of the most precise platforming I’ve ever encountered. Or the fricking trilobites which chase you forever and move as fast as you do so you can’t outrun them. Or bullshit like the Asterite fight, which requires you to hit 4 quickly moving orbs of the same color in succession, and if you hit one of the wrong color you have to start over. While dodging lightning that can kill you in two hits.

WhatTheHell

All throughout the design is unfair, frustrating and stupidly hard. And the worst part is that it was deliberate. The designer Ed Annunziata has stated the reason for the high level of difficulty was because he was afraid of kids being able to beat it over a weekend on a rental. So he wanted it to be hard enough that you’d need to buy it, not rent it. This causes me almost physical pain: an artist defacing his own work in the vain hope that it would make him a few more bucks. Tragically it’s probably cost him money, not made any, actually. It’s hard to reconcile such a self-defeating mercenary attitude with a game that was so lovingly made that the manual has a two pages of facts about real dolphins.

Observations and Takeaways: Like Comix Zone, Ecco is a sad example of how pointless and unfun difficulty can ruin an otherwise good experience. In both games, the difficulty is naked attempt to increase the playing time, and nothing more. Comix Zone was just a generic beat em up though.Whereas there’s so much about Ecco which is innovative and compelling, even a quarter century later! But the barrier to entry for enjoying those moments is so dizzingly high. It’s enough to compel one to make a fan remake that fixes the difficulty.

While ruined by awful, awful design choices, it is worth taking note of what Ecco does well. In and of itself it’s not that great as a game actually: the puzzles are tired and the platforming, even when not rage inducing, isn’t special. But this mediocre core is completely enlivened by such a refreshingly original setting and story. It achieves this by taking an interesting premise and committing to it completely. The world building and sense of setting that Ecco builds are impressive. It excels at creating an uncanny atmosphere by blending familiarity with the alien. We know what dolphins are, and are familiar with ocean life, so Ecco doesn’t have to do any special explanation of the settings basic elements. But when deviates from these expectations, sometimes radically, it can be quite startling.

FriendSinger

I loved that the dolphins of Ecco aren’t anthropomorphized. This isn’t a “dolphin adventure” in the way Finding Nemo is a “fish adventure”, say. Rather, it posits intelligent cetecean life in a realistic way, which makes it more harder sci-fi than it might otherwise appear to be. There are so many small moments of great writing in the way the dolphins talk to each other, or the whale calls Ecco a “little singer”, or they refer to ice as “hard water”. It’s all excellent world building, and shows that “world building” doesn’t need to mean completely from the ground up.

While Ecco‘s successes lean more towards its narrative, it’s important to note how those aspects are woven into the gameplay. It is not simply a game with a plot painted over top. So many of the mechanics feel deeply tied to the story, like Ecco’s sonar, or even the fact that you can acrobatically spin when you jump from the water, which serves no real mechanical purpose but utterly cements the feeling of playing a dolphin. My favorite moment though, is that the game never tells you that in “the Tube” you’re swimming through a nutrient slurry of eviscerated sea life. Instead, your health bar continually regenerates whenever you take damage. It does this no where else in the game, and the only time you regain health elsewhere is when you eat fish- so the implication is that you’re “eating” here, too, in a sense. Ahhh! That is top-notch sci-fi horror, and it relates that detail through gameplay. That’s an achievement in ludo-narratively consonant storytelling.

Ultimately I am glad I played Ecco, even if it wasn’t quite worth the slog.

Next Time: The next up in the collection will be Gain Ground, a weird little shoot-em-up with a huge cast of 20 playable characters.

Two Part Article on Incremental Games

Criticism

I’ve got a pair of articles up at the Game Development section of Tutorials Plus! They’re about the misunderstood genre of incremental games, check them out:

Numbers Getting Bigger Part 1: What Are Incremental Games, and Why Are They Fun?

Numbers Getting Bigger Part 2: The Design and Math of Incremental Games

It was a lot of fun researching this one. I already had a little bit of a soft spot for these kinds of games before, but I definitely developed a real affection for them over the course of writing these. Whenever the games press or critics talk about incremental games, they’re generally pretty disparaging; usually calling them dumb, mindless and pointless. But they do have players, sometimes lots of them, so they’ll sometimes concede that they’re ‘strangely addictive’ or some other phrasing that suggests these are the games equivalent of heroin: empty experiences devoid of merit. I think approaching them in this way not only does a disservice to the interactive medium as a whole, but it also completely ignores the very normal kinds of fun incremental games enable (discovery, optimization strategy). So, it was fun to look a little deeper at the genre and try to give a bit more ‘objective’ analysis to them.

I Play the Mega Drive Collection Part 3: Crack Down

Criticism, I Play the Mega Drive Hits Collection

(Part 3 of a 54 part series. Introduction and index located here)

800px-CrackDown_MD_EU_Box

Game: Crack Down
Release Year: 1990
Plot Summary: The exposition is provided by the pre-start screen, and it is an amazing example of the “90s Video Game Plot Writing” style. I present it to you in its entirety, typos and all:

CrackDownStoryAmazing.

It raises a lot of questions, no doubt designed to hook the player’s interest. Like, why is the “Artificial Life System” so evil, since that otherwise sounds pretty cool? Or, why does the federal government have only two Special Service agents? And most importantly, what is this new type of time bomb? Or even, what is a time bomb?

The manual actually explains things a bit better. There we learn the antagonist is Mr. K, “a genius scientist gone mad”, though I guess he was just a grad student or something since he’s only Mr. K. He’s evidently a competent roboticist though, and he creates some “war-like bodies”, which is never something you want to hear. Then, he uses them to take “control of the United Nations future industrial city, Atlantis” and, whoa whoa, talk about burying the lede, game. Future industrial city, Atlantis!? And it belongs to the United Nations! I would play a game just about that! Well anyway, Mr. K took it over, and is going to use it as an evil base. I guess this is why we can’t have nice things, world.

FutureIndustrialCity

So, enter the special agents. The game only identifies them as “Ben and Andy” which are among the least threatening names for a heroic duo. The arcade version of the game gives their full names though: Ben Breaker and Andy Attacker. I could sort of see “Breaker” as a lastname, like maybe it got changed at Ellis island. In fact, a brief googling shows there are in fact people named “Ben Breaker” in the world, which is pretty amazing and makes me wonder if they know about this game. But poor Andy- imagine how hard it must’ve been growing up with the lastname ‘Attacker’.

Manual_Enemies

So the special service agents Ben and Andy are to go into the industrial island Atlantis, and strategically place the “time bombs” around to completely annihilate the place. You might think that’s pretty brutal, destroying an entire city and all, but don’t worry! Robots aren’t people. The manual assures us that “all the enemies they encounter on the way are artificial, non-living bodies”, so it’s okay to kill them. Mr. K is a person of course, but I guess the United Nations authorized us to assassinate him instead of putting him on trial at the Hague. So Ben and Andy make their way through Atlantis, placing time bombs, killing warlike artificial non-living bodies by the dozen, until they get to Mr K’s lair. There, he was building a giant goat-headed robot that the manual hints would have been invincible. We’ll never know though, because we destroy it with time bombs. The end, Ben and Andy out.

SmilingAtTheFourthWall

That’s a picture of Mr. K surveilling Ben and Andy, and turning to laugh at the audience. Mr. K, you fourth-wall breaking rascal!

Gameplay Summary: Woohoo, we’ve got a actual hidden gem here! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Playing Crack Down is a little intimidating at first because there is a lot happening on the screen and you jump right into the action. Look at this:

FirstScreen

We have a play area, a map, a list of enemies, ammo counters, score, a timer… it’s a lot to take in, and since you die in one hit, the game is a more than a little bumpy at first. It’s a top-down co-op shooter, which means when it was released (originally as an arcade cabinet) it was compared constantly to Gauntlet although they don’t have a lot in common besides the camera perspective. You move around the grid-like environment, and you can fire your machine-gun (light damage, hits one target) or switch to your “cannon” which shoots missiles (heavy damage, penetrates through enemies). You also have “super bombs” which kill everything on the screen. The super bombs not only kill every enemy, but even passive environmental hazards, but don’t cause any damage to the buildings or to Ben and Andy, which suggests the UN should just carpet bomb the place with super bombs instead of using these time bomb things. That’s it as far as the arsenal goes, although you can also punch enemies if you’re close enough, because would it be a Mega Drive title without buff dudes punching things? Haha, seriously though, it’s been three games and every single one so far has had a muscular Caucasian bro punching guys.

So each map has locations where you need to put the time bombs. They’re the red squares on the mini-map, and they appear as red Xs on the main map. Each level gives you a limited amount of time to enter, place all the bombs, and then escape, all while the enemies try to stop you. It’s actually a really good setup mechanically, and makes sense narratively, which together leads to fun play. The time limit is usually somewhat generous, but it means you can’t play things too safe or you risk running out of time, so it forces you to press ahead and improvise, and it also means you need to plot a course strategically though the maze-like maps.

ConstructionLevel

The levels are surprisingly varied as well. There are 16 levels, spread across 4 acts. They do a convincing job making the place seem like a future industrial city (whatever that means). Some are entirely tight corridors with lots of close infighting, and others are more open where robot dogs have room to chase you. For a game about killing war-like bodies and time bombs, I expected each level to be pretty much the same, but the variety was surprising and each felt like a concise self-contained story.

Ditto for the enemies. They have surprising and welcome variety. The game lets you know what you’ll be up against on a given level by listing the enemies’ appearance and name, along with their abilities. The names are frequently awesome and thought provoking, like “MAD-MURDERER” or “SHADOW-PANTHER”. The enemies can use the same machine gun and cannon as the player, but also appear with flamethrowers and lasers, or melee-only options like swords. They have pretty decent AI also, typically walking a perimeter like actual guards, and only homing on the player once they’ve seen you. Other times they do pop up out of nowhere though, which is a little cheap.

Sneaking

Ben and Andy are pretty wimpy, and anything will kill them in one hit. But you respawn instantly, provided you have lives remaining. So its pretty difficult, but the game is relatively forgiving since it features ample extra lives and continues. That’s the only design element I think hasn’t aged well actually, and I think a health bar would be an improvement, since the one-hit system can lead to occasional annoying difficulty spikes. But the enemies themselves are fairly wimpy too, rarely requiring more than a few hits to take down.

Play Summary: Crack Down is the first of these “classics” that really felt genuinely fun. Altered Beast and Comix Zone were both interesting in their own ways, but neither were quite enjoyable as play experiences in the here and now. This one though was really pretty fun. It constantly defied my expectations in rewarding ways. When the opening screen made the plot looks tremendously laughable, I was surprised by the concise editing of the interstitial cutscenes. While it first looked like a ‘run and gun’ shooter, I was surprised to find it’s actually a much more precise and deliberate game because of the fragility of both the player and the enemies. Every enemy presented novel riffs as well: First they’re mostly melee only, but then they introduce shooting ones, and then ones that can get you through walls. Or, when you’ve figured out the enemies can’t shoot diagonally while you can, you find an enemy that certainly can shoot back at you diagonally. The design isn’t perfect by any means, but it does such a great job introducing you to gameplay mechanics, and then shifting those expectations as you master them.

My favorite moment was learning you can press yourself up against walls. At first I couldn’t find an obvious use for this, because it makes you slower and you can’t fire around corners as if behind cover. But I discovered its purpose, which is is that it makes you invincible to shoots fired along the wall axis you’re pressed up against. This is well balanced design already, because while wall-sliding makes you invulnerable in two directions, you’re defenseless in a third, you can’t shoot, and you move at half speed. But the masterstroke is that the enemies are affected by friendly fire. The sense of accomplishment and discovery when you first hug a wall and watch two enemies kill themselves in the crossfire is glorious. The game never tells you to do this, it just has an elegant system that permits such enjoyable discoveries.

WallSlide

The level design presents many little learning opportunities as well. At first the levels have no doors and you just bumble around. Then sliding doors are introduced, which block line of sight until you enter them. Still later you find doors that swing open, which block fire and movement until they’ve been closed behind you. All throughout, what could’ve been a very simplistic shooter is instead lovingly complex in the particulars. And Crack Down really shines in these intelligent little details. It more than makes up for the game’s only glaring problem, which is that its really quite short (though unsurprising given its arcade origins). Whereas Comix Zone compensated for its short length with horrible unfairness and difficulty, Crack Down is content to just be a fun and well designed experience, encouraging you to come back for more.

Haha, oh man, I just got it. They’re timed bombs, like on a timer. I kept thinking of a “time bomb” as something that like, exploded time itself. It just means a bomb with a timer though. Ughhh. It’s so obvious in retrospect. Oh, Crack Down.

Time Bomb

Observations and Takeaways: The main thing to note about Crack Down is the excellent design work in the details I mentioned above. Games too often feel like they’ve been designed at the macro level, like taking a big concept and going at it from there (ie, “it’s a beat-em-up, but you can turn into a beast!”). This though has a pretty unassuming, almost generic, design premise (top down shooter), and instead focuses on micro aspects of the design to really perfect that core experience. That’s an admirable lesson. The other thing I’d note is that the game is also a masterclass in narrative conciseness with its cutscenes. Each one is maybe two or three shots, each only a second or two long, that act as plot advancements and establishing shots for the environment. I was really impressed by their efficient and elegant conveyance of story, and they’ve aged remarkably well.

Phew! Playing Crack Down convinced me that this “play some old games” thing might actually be a worthwhile experience!

Next Time: Speaking of good games, next up will be Ecco The Dolphin, a beloved classic about singing cetaceans saving Earth from hostile aliens.

I Play the Mega Drive Collection Part 2: Comix Zone

Criticism, I Play the Mega Drive Hits Collection

(Part 2 of a 54 part series. Introduction and index located here)

ComixZoneBox

Game: Comix Zone
Release Year: 1995
Plot Summary: The game begins by informing you it takes place in “New York City, Present Day”, and that made me a little excited, because that’s where my life also takes place. But I soon discovered it is not the present day, but something much worse: 1995. You can tell because the protagonist is as 90s anti-hero as you can get. This is him. His name is Sketch Turner, and he’s a comic book writer (Sketch? Get it?).

SketchTurner
I don’t why he has magical hands in this picture, or why his sleeveless vest has pasties on it. I appreciate that he has glasses though actually. You don’t tend to see a lot of out-and-out hero types who wear glasses, just typically scientists or lawyers or whatever. So I do like the positive representation. There’s not much to like about Sketch otherwise though. He’s an oddly muscular writer, whose personality is just an amalgam of ’90s “cool dude” tropes. Also, he has a pet rat. It is New York, after all.

Noo!RatFriend

So one night, while Sketch is working on his comic in his impossibly nice midtown loft, the inevitable happens: the villain turns real and comes out of the comic. There’s no explanation for why this happens. Or why the villain of Sketch’s comic is such a weird looking goofball. He’s an alien/robot/cowboy, with one eye, who wears a leather duster and fedora, and has a Yosemite Sam style mustache. His name is Mortus. So, he bursts out, explains that he’s still a drawing, but if he can kill Sketch in his own comic, then he’ll become real (obviously). If Mortus feels any disappointment at learning that the god that created him is a deadbeat writer who lets rats crawl on him, he does not show it.

Mortus
Sketch doesn’t get any time to reflect on the power to create life that he has suddenly developed because he gets thrown into the comic world. This is presumably the “comic’s zone” of the game’s title, sans Xtreme spelling. In the comic world, he meets general Alissa Cyan, an intriguing woman who is the head of some organization that opposes Mortus. We meet no one other members of this organization though, so it isn’t clear who, if anyone, Alissa is actually the general of. Anyway, she just straight up tells Sketch he’s the chosen one, and that he has to defeat Mortus, which he was probably going to try to do anyway. You might think a writer/illustrator like Sketch would be ill-suited to taking on the comic-book bad guys he has created, but Sketch doesn’t look like a beefcake for nothing, and can punch and kick surprisingly well. He proceeds to battle through his own comic book, but thankfully his magnum opus is embarrassingly short. It’s just six pages. It’s also a disjointed mess of frequent location changes and fight scenes, from which I conclude Sketch is actually a pretty bad writer. So, it’s like a Twilight Zone episode about a hack writer trapped in a hell of his own inept creation.

2015-05-29_00023

The story then takes place over 3 two-page “episodes” (wouldn’t “issues” have been better?), that sort of vaguely form a plot. In the first one, Sketch defeats an alien queen who is producing mutant soldiers for Mortus. Then he journeys to a Kung-Fung (sic) martial arts monastery-temple-arena in Tibet, to destroy the place where Mortus’s soldiers are trained. Then in the last installment, he ends up in a weird desert / ship graveyard / weapon factory / nuclear bomb place. There, Mortus comes back into the comic to kill Sketch himself, which is really a bad judgement call on his part. To up the stakes, he throws Alissa into a drowning machine, and proceeds to square off with his creator Sketch. Then, there’s actually three endings.

If you ever die, Mortus does become a real boy. Then he goes out onto your balcony and proclaims that he will “ROCK THIS WORLD”. The game presents Mortus as an evil alien guy, so this is a pretty weird and unexpected threat for him to make. Not “destroy” or “conquer”, but “rock”? Maybe he only wanted to become real to share his love of music with the world? We’ll never know. This is, allegedly, the bad ending.

RockThisWorld

If you don’t defeat Mortus in the final fight fast enough, then Alissa drowns in the drowning machine that’s part of the nuke. It’s really grisly actually: she struggles inside this tube filling with water throughout the fight, and then she drowns and then just floats there lifelessly until you win. Then Sketch comes back to the real world, but sans Alissa, and the comic inexplicably burns up. The game points out this isn’t a victory worth celebrating, and asks “Will Sketch unleash the evil once again, to re-live his adventure, in the hope of a better ending?”, which is among the least subtle ways you can telegraph to the player “YOU GOT THE BAD ENDING”.

If you do save Alissa, then Sketch comes out of the comic with Alissa in tow, and gets her as a reward, despite no hint of romantic attraction between the two prior to this. Alissa also comes out as a real person, she doesn’t need to kill anyone to become real I guess. Then you’re treated to the epilogue. Sketch publishes ‘Comix Zone’, and it goes on to become a “commercial smash”, and not only sells out, but becomes the best-selling comic of all time. Not bad for 6 pages of fight scenes and no plot. Roadkill the rat also gets an epilogue about eating 100 pounds of mozzarella that I’m sure seemed funnier when they wrote it. But what of general Alissa Cyan, you wonder? Her single ungrammatical sentence of epilogue explains: “Alissa Cyan joined the army, soon to become the chief of security for the United States”. Oh okay.

Action titles usually end with victory celebrations and good triumphing over evil, so I give Comix Zone points for telling us about the hero and heroine’s career results instead.

Gameplay Summary: Comix Zone is a side-scrolling beat ’em up, and has no real surprises in its core gameplay. You can block, throw punches and kicks, and chain them together for combos. You mostly face one or at most two enemies at a time, and that’s because the enemies are really well crafted. Most games need to throw hordes at the player because they’re individually so simple, but the mooks of Comix Zone have varied move sets and quite responsive AI. It makes them pretty fun to play against, since they behave more dynamically than the typical walking punching bags of side-scrolling titles. They do block too frequently though, which means the sparring sessions can drag on a bit. Overall though, it’s a good combat system really. It doesn’t really capture the dynamic POW! ZOP! action of a comic book fight, but it tries admirably to mold solid action-arcade fighting into a more comic-y sort of style.

FightScene

Most of the game is occupied by these fights, but there’s also a surprising amount of puzzle solving as well. There’s usually multiple ways to navigate a given level, and the brute force “punch your way through a door” approach is almost always wrong. You can use your pet rat to find hidden items and activate switches, and sometimes parts of the background or scenery can be manipulated in surprising ways. These elements sometimes work well. Like, a player needs to get through a moving fan, and the room has an explosive crate in it. Ah-ha! I push the crate into the fan and run away, and can waltz through unharmed! More commonly though, you discover the solutions randomly because there’s no real logic to them except trial and error.

CratePuzzle

The same approach extends to the three level bosses, all of whom feature a sort of “short cut” puzzle to beating them. The first two of these are actually pretty clever. The first boss shoots fireballs, and if one hits a barrel while you’re taking cover behind it, turns into a burning barrel which can then be pushed under the boss for massive damage. Its discovery felt natural, made sense, and was fun to interact with. That’s pretty solid design. The final boss is a bit more hamfisted though: You lure him to the exhaust of some rockets, and pull a lever to have the fire blast him, and then rinse repeat until he’s dead. It’s too obvious and straight forward, so it instead just feels like a poorly designed boss fight.

TreatYourCreatorOverall, despite some uneven implementation, the game has some great core mechanics and would actually be really fun if it wasn’t for the elephant in the room: absolute soul crushing difficulty. This game was famous for its difficulty in 1995. It says a lot that in an era remembered for its exceedingly difficult games, people thought this was too hard. You have a meager amount of health, limited opportunities to heal, and the fights all require extremely quick reflexes to complete flawlessly. Also, almost everything in the game hurts you, including hitting doors to progress or crates to crack open, which seems completely sadistic. There’s also a fair amount of controller-throwingly-awful instant kills, like bottomless pits or fire. There are no lives either, so if you die, you restart the level.

Play Summary: The difficulty is obviously present to extend the game’s short length. The game spent too much of its budget on the level art, which is all beautiful and barely even recycled, such that almost every room is unique. It’d be praise-worthy art direction if the game wasn’t lacking in every other area, having only four or five enemies across the just six small levels. How then to create the illusion of getting your money’s worth of play out of it? By making it so difficult it’ll be nearly impossible to complete! I stand-by very difficult games where the difficulty is an integral part of the game design (like the Dark Souls series, most famously), but here, it’s just a cheap tactic to hide the game’s meager length. The difficulty here completely undermines the parts of the game that do work well, actually. I found the fights fun and kinetic at first, but died repeatedly. Because the game expects almost flawless play to proceed, so you can’t actually enjoy the fight sequences, you instead need to play carefully and conservatively to avoid every hit you can. That’s especially ridiculous when the game’s setting is a comic book, where we expect characters to take a beating. And while the art is spectacular, truly some of the greatest vintage pixel art I’ve ever seen, it becomes significantly less appealing when you see it over and over again.

Yuck

Altered Beast was also short and difficult, but at least had the excuse of starting as an arcade cabinet (and still wasn’t as frustrating). Comix Zone was built for the home market though, and was one of the last game’s released for the Mega Drive, as Sega’s next system the Saturn was already out when this was released. Instead of reflecting the pinnacle of the platform though, it’s an over-engineered mess, trying too hard to be cool. Oh right, I haven’t mentioned that yet, but the game’s humor is pretty cringe-worthy. It feels like a particularly patronizing attempt to be cool, as if shoving in all the ‘Oh yeahs!’ would pass as young person vernacular. Also, if you push down on the controller in some areas, Sketch farts. OMG LOL.

WhatTheHashtag

While the game has a lamentable but typical presentation of masculine and feminine gender norms, viz punching and being rescued, I was completely unprepared for the outright misogyny written into one of the enemies. “Mongoria” is an acrobatic fighter who uses her bladed ponytail like a grappling hook, and while that’s a pretty stupid schtick, it’s mostly forgivable. What isn’t forgivable is her dialogue, which is just a barrage of sexist characterization. No other enemy says anything related to their (male) gender, but it’s all Mongoria can talk about.

Mongoria

Her fight taunts include “a female touch!” and “sweep me off my feet!”, and she says things like “Hey, I’m tender” when hit. When defeated, Sketch says “Maybe its my deodorant” or “Sorry, no date!” because its important to conflate physical defeat with sexual rejection, for some reason. And that’s if you want to defeat them in combat at all. When fighting Mongorias (and they do have a fun fighting style and so are quite challenging), Alissa will radio in to tell you that “Your rat could be useful here!”, while presumably hating herself for saying so. If you release Roadkill, who has no combat purpose anywhere else in the game, Mongoria will yell “Eek!” and throw herself off of the page. Because she’s a woman, get it!?

… I didn’t really take to this game.

Observations and Takeaways: Observation one is don’t write crappy dialogue, or if you do, at least don’t be sexist? But I didn’t need to play this to find that out. Comix Zone is a failure to me, as it fails to be fun. But that is educational, in its own way. It’s a great example of how crushingly difficulty should not be implemented, and how difficulty for its own sake can undermine what are otherwise good play systems. The combat is pretty impressive, and its a shame the game doesn’t let you enjoy it.

EnemyBeingDrawnThe biggest takeaway though is the setting. Comix Zone uses its comic book setting basically as a frame story and setting for its otherwise generic plot, but it’s actually a really cool conceit. I loved the way Sketch vaults outside the frames to move between rooms, and enemies being “drawn in” to fight you is a really compelling visual, and it’s a fantastic way to spawn enemies in-narrative. The comic book aesthetic is a great visual theme for a game, and it made me think of recent positive uses of it like the Telltale Walking Dead games. But while I’m sure there are other examples, I haven’t seen any other games that use the sort of meta-comic setting that Comix Zone uses. It’s not just the art theme, but woven into the play itself as gameplay elements. That’s actually a really interesting concept! Even bad games can have good ideas.

Next Time: Next up will be Crack Down, an interesting combination of gun-n-gun gameplay with time-attack and maze elements, with a top-down perspective and ludicrous plot that involves time bombs.