Short essays and musings from my independent study of Game Design

Tag: Retro

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.

F-Zero: communicating intensity through gameplay.

Watch the video version of this essay here!

Speed is an aspect of a game that requires a lot of careful planning. Too fast and you overwhelm the player, not fast enough, and the game is either boring, or its physics feels too weighty. “Fast games” (like Star Wars Episode 1 Racer, Halo 2, and SSX 3) have everything from good presentation to tight controls communicating an extreme sense of speed.

Despite being from about a decade before the oldest game mentioned above, F-Zero is what I would call a fast game. Everything from the visual and auditory feedback to the controls exudes a sense of speed only present in the best racing games. Since it is an arcade racer dedicated to an air of future-cool, it’s vital that the game’s design and mechanics pull off the speed correctly. Despite being made at the very start of the 16-bit era of console gaming, F-Zero seems to take this challenge on in strides.

The Blue Falcon in Mute City

Things like jumps, barriers, and other drivers on the track add to the sense of speed and risk. You’re constantly reminded that you could crash and ruin your run at literally every moment. In addition, randomized traffic on the track keeps each run from being a memorized set of button presses for the best time, requiring the player to think on their feet in this intense blur of color and sound.

The game keeps the pressure high by having two distinct loss states to worry about, both are oft in direct contradiction. In my opinion, the easiest way to lose is to “Crash Out”. You have an energy bar to worry about, essentially the vehicle’s health, and once it gets to 0, that’s it; your race is over. You deplete this bar in various ways: bumping into the side barriers, running over marked ground, and running into other vehicles. This system is in place to punish the player for not being careful. Going too fast into a turn or hitting other racers can cause you to get very quickly stuck into a bouncing loop, and it will invariably be your fault. Using the brake on sharp turns and precise movements are not just advantageous in this game; they are required to be able to even finish the race.

The other, and often painfully complimentary loss state is “Rank Out”. The player is given a “safe rank” each lap to stay in until the next lap. Failure to do so or even reaching too far outside this safe ranking will result in an immediate loss and an early end to your run. This punishes the player for being too careful and not taking enough calculated risks. Like precision in control to avoid a fatal crash, taking advantage of risky shortcuts, making turns as tight as possible, and keeping your speed up are all imperative to your success in the F-Zero Grand Prix.

Ranking Out: As explained by the game’s manual.

Communicative Level Design in Super Mario Brothers

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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.