Short essays and musings from my independent study of Game Design

Tag: Game Design

F-Zero: Well Aged Fun

Watch the video version of this essay here!

F-Zero was made for the Super Nintendo, a console with one of the best controller designs.Unsurprisingly, the way this game interacts with its intended input medium is phenomenal. However, it leaves a lot to be desired if trying to
substitute the SNES controller for just about anything more modern. First, the controls are rather simple: B is the throttle or acceleration (hold this one down to go the big fast), X and Y are brakes, L and R shift the craft’s weight for sharper turns, and A allows you a boost only after the SSS on the bottom of the screen is colored in. The game is very tightly controlled on a controller with a decent Directional Pad, making the game’s speed feel natural and easy to get in the groove of. Unfortunately, halfway through my first session, my personal Super Nintendo controller decided to have a handful of senior moments leading me to have to play the game using a DualShock4. The D-Pad made the whole game noticeably more slippery and harder to play. And to be fair, F-Zero wasn’t intended to be played with anything other than the console for which it was developed, so this is more warning than criticism. One major thing missing from the game is the multiplayer, understandable because of the limitations of the time, but a shame, nonetheless.

Overall, the game is delightful; its intensity and high-pressure style of balancing risk and reward make this game easily of my recent favorites. It has a real quick learning curve just for being able to be picked up. However, it is a game that begs to be mastered in the same way games like Dark Souls do. Since the game is about speed and precision, this mastery seems to take a lot of time and practice. There are three difficulty modes, four vehicles that all handle differently, and three tournaments that get more complicated after each one–leaving a lot to master, and giving F-Zero a shocking amount of replayability. Its flow is excellent despite being an older racing game. Often, these games can be accused of jank or unfair rubber-banding, primarily due to the technical limitations of the time, but F-Zero excels in making each race feel as natural as the console could possibly produce. Because there is always so much going on and so much happening so quickly, computer opponents make mistakes, you constantly make mistakes, and it never feels like it’s out of your control.

Open Ended Design Courtesy of 1974

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Chang: I am Brutalitops! the Magician! Ha, ha, ha. Magic user, baby. What?

Abed: An arrow flies through the air, almost hitting Brutalitops. Six goblins are running toward you, drawing daggers.

Troy: Oh. I attack them using my… additional notes.

Abed: It has no effect.

Community Season 2 Episode 14 “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”

That was a moment from Season Two of Community and may hit close to home for any one who has ever experienced the hobby of Dungeons and Dragons before, or most Table-Top RPGs for that matter. There’s a lot of things that could be said about Dungeons and Dragons and its influence on Video Games and their mechanics decades later. However, I want to talk about one interesting design aspect that is highlighted by Mike from Red Letter Media during their commentary of that one really bad Dungeons and Dragons Movie.

…it’s (D&D) made so that there’s so many different ways you can tell stories. There’s no like, its not like Star Wars, you know? Blow up the Death Star or whatever, there’s like, a very specific kind of story. The Dungeon Master has to uh think on his feet, and change the storyline as it happens. You could totally f–k with a dungeon master’s plan of where they’re going, “I’m not gonna go this way, I’m gonna go do this s–t instead” and so hes gotta scramble and rewrite the story as its happening. It’s kinda fun actually.

Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media

He goes on to elaborate by explaining that he “ruined” a campaign by killing the final boss by landing a critical hit with a single dart. This is a hilarious example of what D+D at its core is,

collaborative storytelling.

Dungeons and Dragons is much more a system than a game itself, as while pre-made campaigns are a popular and a great way to play, from my experience home-brew campaigns are much more prevalent and rewarding to play, anything could happen in a campaign, sex atop the corpse of a hydra, using magic missile in a bar fight, and much much more.

There are important rules that must be followed however. This is to keep the game consistent and not feel like a playground pretend session, while keeping it open enough for storytellers and players alike to be compelled by the experience.

The addition of chance and skill checks adds the possibility of failure just enough so the table can’t plot armor themselves into immortality.
The game, when played right is brutal, tense, unforgiving, and still more beautifully open ended than most games today.

Not only may I use D&D as an inspiration but its design allows for it to be used as a valuable tool for storytelling and quest design.
When you’re a DM you still have to guide the players through an interesting quest or adventure. Its why Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto works while many procedurally generated open world games don’t, or at least as well. It takes a lot of skill and talent to make a compelling campaign for your party to stumble their way through and it still has to be planned.  On the same side of this coin, I have heard stories before where a DM designs this perfect story and thinks that the party will make the same decisions they want them to, but when they don’t, they either have a meltdown or it just breaks the game. (Many Video Games are designed this way and are typically derided for taking away player choice.)

It requires thinking on your feet, I learned this the hard way while in Korea both teaching English and teaching about my religion, You have to think on your feet. The students or party members are not always going to be fascinated by the lesson or quest you have that day and you must adapt. A good DM will take something a player does that goes completely against the story and turn it into a new angle or a new questline.  I believe this is a large part of the reason why with all the tech we have in our video games, tabletop gaming and particularly table-top RPGS are still extremely popular, in a good D&D campaign there are no boundaries, or invisible walls, you can ride the bike in the Pokemart, go see whats beyond that wall, and kill the NPC you’re escorting. What becomes of it, the story you’ve participated in, can be something worthy of remembering fondly.

Communicative Level Design in Super Mario Brothers

(Watch the video version of this article here)

Super Mario Brothers is a pretty pervasive game, it was the title that launched the NES and Famicom into the stratosphere of public opinion and sales and may be one of the few pieces of software to save the video game market after the games market crash in the early 1980s. Everyone knows Mario, everyone has memories of Mario and it started here. ( well it actually started with Donkey Kong but whatever. )
Super Mario Brothers  taught millions of Children the language of Video Games through this simple first level. Nowadays you’ve got games that have tutorial levels and reminder dialogue and and holding to teach the complexities of the Game, which is fine… I guess.

“Omochao” from Sonic Adventure 2, the Robotic tutorializing nuisance of the Sonic franchise.

But, way back in 1985 games didn’t have dialogue or a streamlined tutorial level. Most playthroughs of games started and ended with the console’s power button. Super Mario Brothers was no different in this regard. So the initial level had to be something players could learn quickly how to play the game from while also being a level returning players wouldn’t fell bored and patronized by.
So here we have world 1-1, iconic music, iconic scenery and iconic design.The controls in Super Mario Brothers are probably the simplest of any NES title, you have left, right, down to crouch but no use for up. the only vertical  movement in the game is achieved by pressing A for a jump, and it is A because you will be jumping most often in this game. These are all the basic things you figure out during the first few seconds of the game, just by experimentation alone. That is, without a manual handy. The next piece of this communicative level you encounter is a mystery box, some floating bricks and this little mushroom guy.


Super Mario Brothers' tutorial section.
Observe the order in which everything is presented to the player

The section in question.

“Maybe you’re supposed to walk into,
what does B do? Dash? lets try that
For now I’ll just get out of his way and see him later I guess. “

The first thing about this level and the games design in general is it gives you two options to move forward, avoid enemies, or find a way to eliminate them. Sense the controls are so simple it doesn’t take long to find a way to dispatch these moving obstacles by jumping on them.
The next piece of this brilliant level is the question mark block, the regular bricks are similar to the ground and in context is not much of interest compared to the bright yellow square with a big question mark in it, interestingly enough the Japanese cartridge actually shares this shade of yellow with the blocks. It just has to be something interactive… right?

You cant walk up to it an interact, there is no interact button as earlier we learned what B does.  So again through the simplicity of it all you try everything until you figure that jumping under it would work. The game rewards you with a coin, a nice ringing sound and points to tell you that you’ve done something right. The other question mark blocks in this game’s opening also reward the player with power up silently teaching the player how power-ups work in the platforming title.

Why is this section of this level of this game so important? Because its a perfect example of the game itself speaking to the player without using any words. Allowing the player to learn the core of  how to play the game through experimentation alone.

I hope to be able to emulate this same kind of design driven communication when making my own games, because its a hell of a lot better than Omochao.