Failed Revolution: Sonic The Hedgehog

“Hey, before you go play a Sonic level, how about a terrible fishing minigame!”

The Sonic the Hedgehog games are awesome. Sonic can both really move, and has an attitude, and starred in some of the best games ever made. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is honestly, seriously, as good or better than any classic Mario game. They have great music, fantastic level design, and an incredible, fast-paced action that makes them constantly exciting and fun.

Then there are the other Sonic the Hedgehog games. The ones that started as slightly rough, inconsistent 3D platformers and slowly degenerated. By the year 2006 the series was something of a joke– elements that had been clunky in Sonic Adventure 1 had metastasized into tw0-thirds of Sonic Adventure 2, the music had gone from being so good Michael Jackson admired its craftsmanship to sounding like Smash Mouth b-sides, and the characters that had been lovable and cool in the early 90’s now seemed like Poochie, if Poochie had melodramatic comic books and uncountable amounts of porn made about him. Sega knew the brand was in trouble, and they launched a last-ditch attempt to save the franchise.

That attempt was 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog.

The Tragical History of Sonic The Hedgehog

Sonic 06 isn’t just bad, it’s tragic. Over the span of 15 years, the Sonic series went from being represented by arguably the best platformer of all

The first five Sonic games. The first real console RPG. Nights, a game so good Miyamoto said he wished he’d made it. Because of Sonic 06, he now makes cell phone games.

time to being represented by possibly the worst. Like Duke Nukem Forever, what’s fascinating here isn’t just that this is a bad game, but that its failure is a tragic irony of Shakespearean proportions. It wasn’t a grudging cash-in. It was the game that was going to save Sonic, that was intended to be a callback to the classic games. They even called it, simply, Sonic The Hedgehog— as though this was the game that summarized the entire series, that was supposed to embody why Sonic was great and important. After a decade of dodgy games, the shuttering of their hardware division, and the complete creative bankruptcy of their signature franchises, Sega was making a project that would celebrate their successes and remind everyone of what their games used to be.

The universe was not going to let this kind of hubris go unanswered. By the time the game came out, it had gone from a grand artistic mission to a cash-in so desperate Sega was shoveling it out for Christmas as an obvious beta. It did so much damage to the Sonic brand that not only is it now out of print, but unavailable for download– the game that was supposed to be Sega’s pride has been quietly erased from public record. It embodied, not the Sonic of old, but every single mistake of Sonic’s 3D era. It was so disastrous, and so terribly managed, that Yuji Naka– the man who created Sonic, Phantasy Star, and Nights Into Dreams –quit the franchise he had helped create and left Sega entirely. This is a huge part of why we find the game fascinating– that, with everything riding on it and an entire franchise depending on it, Sega ran the project into the ground so thoroughly and devastatingly that it seemed like a deliberate attempt to tell the saddest story in the history of game design.

A Master Class In Failure

It’s pretty sad when you had better physics back in 1991.

Another part of why we find the game fascinating (and yes– we own it, and have played it through twice)? Its sheer number of mistakes, and the enormity of them. It’s not just that it’s unfinished, or that it’s poorly written, or that the graphics are terrible. It’s that the game seems like a deliberate attempt at franchise suicide. The very promise to “return Sonic back to his roots” means that Sega knew there were problems with the previous Sonic games– and yet Sonic 06 takes every previous complaint against the series and carries it further. No one liked playing as Amy in the first Sonic Adventure, and yet here she is, playable. The very idea of vehicle sections was laughable in Shadow The Hedgehog, but now they appear in every one of Shadow’s levels and side quests. Sega recognized that the open world in the first Adventure was poorly-done and removed it, but it’s in this game and it’s worse. Whereas everyone who wasn’t looking for fanfiction ideas thought the previous Sonic games had terrible stories, Sonic 06 has a story so incredibly convoluted and obtuse (involving time travel, alternate futures, stable time loops, and a plethora of misunderstandings and betrayals) that we’ve played it twice and still can’t explain it accurately. And these are just the mistakes that there was precedent for– some of the game’s ideas are so bad that there’s no sensible explanation for them.

This is where the game gets interesting. Almost every level has to be played three times, and then again in a fourth, abbreviated version. Sega licensed the Havok physics engine, built an entire (awful, awful) character around using it, built in complex physics puzzles and then forgot to give anything mass or friction. Some powerups do absolutely nothing; you can buy shoes that make Sonic shrink, which has no effect except that the camera can’t follow you and you essentially end up playing blind. One competitive race map– yes, we’ve played them — is actually unplayable because the version used in competitive play is from a level for a flying character, leading to players needing to coordinate jumps off each other to proceed. Playing as Tails makes it impossible to jump on enemies; instead you throw bombs that shoot rings and make the exact same noise and graphic as when you take damage. The end result isn’t just a slog through a bad game– it turns into a darkly comic experience akin to the painful awkwardness of a film like Waiting for Guffman. It’s not just that the game is bad, it’s that the people making it were trying to salvage the franchise and ended up failing in ways that no one could have ever predicted or expected.

Get used to this screen.

Some of the game’s best comedy comes from its absolute technical ineptitude. Struggling through it serves as a harsh reminder to people who want to work in games that, for the majority of a game’s development cycle, it’s unplayable and bizarrely broken. The loading times are infamous (even the logo needs a loading screen): starting a sidequest requires the game to reload the entire world to play a few seconds of dialogue, and then load the world again for the actual mission. You’ll see four load screens between starting the game and actually playing a level. All the font is Comic Sans. Sonic’s spines look like fleshy protrusions covered in fur, and they sway slightly like a camel’s hump. The controls are so finicky and glitchy that the best way to play this Sonic game is as slowly as possible. Water in the game is a plain, unmoving mirror that doesn’t reflect enemies, characters, or parts of the scenery that can be destroyed. Characters always stand perfectly perpendicular to the ground, even when this means they whip wildly back and forth while walking over uneven surfaces or when that ground happens to be a wall that they casually stroll across in zero-gravity. There’s a real sense of joy to be found in playing with the game’s horrendously broken physics. Have you ever made yourself fly by standing on top of a crate and then kicking it a bunch? Have you ever played a Sonic game and wished it had a stealth segment? All this and more awaits you.

The Worst Sonic Characters (Worse Than Cream the Rabbit)

So the Sonic series has some of the worst secondary characters known to video games. Characters like Rouge the Bat and Cream the Rabbit sound and look like fan creations more than official Sega characters. But Sonic 06 manages to take the series to new lows even in this area. The first of the two new characters, Princess Elise, is a human who becomes Sonic’s new love interest. And yes, they do kiss and it’s a horribly awkward scene. So that alone explains why Elise is awful (not that there aren’t at least 50 other reasons too), so let’s move onto the new playable character, Silver the Hedgehog.

It’s like his head’s a permanent facepalm.

Silver’s gimmick is that he’s psychic. He throws boxes with his mind, and that’s about it. Sometimes if you stand on a trigger point he’ll do scripted action, like bending bars, so the level can continue, but your main way of attacking is via box. This is probably an attempt to utilize their half assed implementation of the Havok Physics Engine. Aiming and throwing these boxes (which just happen to be scattered everywhere, and will respawn out of nowhere right in front of you) is especially tedious with the bad camera controls. On top of all this, Silver moves at a snails pace compared to every other character yet he has most of the same levels so it just takes forever to get anywhere with him. He can float for short distances too, but it’s only about as useful for crossing gaps as Sonic’s or Shadow’s Homing Attack, without the added benefit of killing enemies.The only things he can do that the other characters can’t are horrifically unfun, and in no way feel like they belong in a Sonic game.

But it’s Silver’s personality that makes him a horrible character, even by Sonic standards. He whines throughout the entire game and constantly attacks the other characters (particularly Sonic) due to various misunderstanding in the convoluted storyline. Now we at Cardinal Virtual have no problem with characters who are unlikeable for a reason, but Sonic Team clearly wants us to love Silver. He is, after all, the game’s main character— you spend more time playing as him than as Sonic, and it’s his insufferable conflict that drives the plot. Despite his whiny obnoxious behavior, Sonic Team tries to pass him off as a mysterious badass in many of the cutscenes, having him kick Sonic’s ass even after Sonic beats him in a boss fight. And in the end, he doesn’t change or learn anything. He spends his whole storyline worrying about the responsibility his role in defeating the main villain entails and at the end his best friend/girlfriend ends up taking responsibility for him. He literally has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

You Are Tearing Me Apart, Sonic

NO. NO. STOP IT. STOP THIS RIGHT NOW.

In the end, Sonic 06 is a lot like Tommy Wiseau’s cinematic masterpiece The Room. Not just in a “oh my god this is awful way,” but in being so bad that it’s worse than “so bad it’s good.” You can laugh at it, but playing it feels like more than just playing a bad game– it turns into a test of endurance and willpower. We ended up playing it once just out of morbid curiosity, laughing constantly at how broken everything is and how hideous the game is. And then, a year or so later, we played it again. We have no idea why, except maybe to inflict it on someone who wasn’t there for the first playthrough. And then, while researching this article, we tried to play it again but started feeling physically ill and had to turn the Xbox off and lie down for a little while.

In the end, it might be worth picking up. We’re certainly better for having played it– though awful to actually suffer through, the game becomes hilarious in hindsight. It’s also an absolutely fascinating look into what happens when developers drift so far away from critical opinion or objective quality that they become incapable of figuring out which ideas are good and which ones are awful.  This is perhaps the biggest lesson to take away: the next time you defend a game with “I don’t care what the critics think, I love [Franchise X]” remember what happened when Sonic Team went down that path.

It would be an awful game normally, but the context magnifies it. We played Sonic 2 in between levels of this game and the experience is surreal– one of the best games of the Genesis/SNES generation, followed by one of the absolute worst of the current. The glitches, terrible writing, and absolutely catastrophic design ideas are funny on their own, but knowing why this game was made, and why it failed– that turns it from simply a laughable experience into something strange and sad.

Man, remember the Chemical Plant Zone? That was rad.

Advertisements

Wine or Vinegar: Morrowind

Morrowind was an amazing game. It was beautiful, original, hugely immersive, incredibly fun, and ground-breaking. There was nothing else

Don’t even pretend you don’t want to ride this thing.

like it in all of gaming. It wasn’t just the best Elder Scrolls game, it was arguably the best Western RPG of all time.

In 2002.

In the ten years since, gaming’s changed a lot. The Elder Scrolls series has progressed through the crowd-pleasing-yet-broken-and-ugly Oblivion (which we’re never going to do for this series because that game has aged about as well as a sack of meat) to the crowd-pleasing-and-pretty-awesome Skyrim. Western RPGs have changed from the D&D-style romps of Neverwinter Nights to hugely ambitious spectacles like Mass Effect. So how does Morrowind hold up? Is it still an incredible RPG, or merely a stop on the genre’s evolution?

(One thing that’s not up for debate: the theme song. That will always be amazing. In a thousand years archaeologists will find it and say, “man,  these people knew what was up.”)

Graphics and Art

It’s worth joining the Randian slaver-wizards just to hang out in their awesome houses.

We decided to start here, since it’s where the passage of time is most obvious on games. Morrowind didn’t have a huge amount of graphical power when it came out, compared to contemporaries like TimeSplitters 2 or Windwaker— its textures were flat, it had a fair bit of copy-pasting, and the game’s color palette heavily tilts towards shades of brown. We came into this category with low expectations.

We were more than a little surprised. This game’s aged better in ten years than Oblivion has in five. The game’s still fairly brown-and-grey, but it works very well within its limitations and produces some fantastic visuals. The game’s short draw distance is strategically used to make the island of Vvardenfell seem mysterious and shrouded in dust and fog, while the roughness and blockiness of the game’s models lends itself to the rustic, inelegant architecture and hostile landscape of an unwelcoming and harsh country.

Its biggest visual strength comes through here– the incredible art design, which is honestly heads and shoulders over Skyrim or Oblivion. The architecture and look of the

This image contains just about everything wrong with the game.

world is incredible and inventive, and serves to create a lush and deep world. From the twisting vines and mushroom towers of Telvanni wizard colonies to the insect-shell homes of the volcanic interior, there’s a ton in Morrowind that looks absolutely original. Your first time visiting Sadrith Mora, as you walk out of the plain Imperial fort and see the bizarre mushroom city emerge from the fog, is a moment of strangeness and wonder that not many games could hope to match. The game doesn’t have great graphics on pure hardware, but elements like this infuse it with a real life and energy.

It does have its faults, of course. The character animation is unbelievably stiff and clunky, a lot of the interior environments (especially the caves) look really, really, dull and repetitive, and a lot of the magic effects are fairly ugly and look like basic particle effects. Then again, that last one’s the only one we have a right to complain about, since apparently Bethesda’s firmly committed themselves to bad character animation and repetitive dungeons.

Role-playing and Exploration

ORIGINAL CHARACTER COPYRIGHT CARDINAL VIRTUAL, DO NOT STEAL.

Okay, this is what Morrowind’s famous for. There’s just so much stuff. So many skills that you can, if you want, build a character that specializes entirely in useless ones… which is not a point in the game’s favor (if you want to play it, don’t invest in Spear). The ability to hyper-specialize in character creation is fun, but it does make the game less intuitive and with a steeper difficulty than its predecessors. It won’t be until your second playthrough that you learn that there are almost no good spears or blunt weapons, that Medium Armor doesn’t have any great endgame gear, that Security can be made obsolete with only two spells, or that Alchemy is a free pass to break the game. That said, it’s nice that the roleplaying is much less combat-heavy than later TES games– it’s much, much more viable to play as  someone other than a god-killing warrior, and more routes to fame and fortune. You can go diving for pearls and hunting for valuable supplies, you can dedicate yourself to raiding tombs, you can even go all Omar Little and rob crime syndicates and drug smugglers for a living (although, if arrested, you can not put a tie on over your armor and talk about the corruption of the system). And, unlike the later games where smashing everything is a viable option, each of these will require different skills and a different play style.

This choice really shines through in the game’s sidequests, which absolutely dwarf Skyrim in their variety and number. For the sake of the replay we focused on only three factions: the Fighter’s Guild, The Temple, and Great House Redoran. No main quest, barely any sidequests apart from these, no other factions. It took about 30 hours. And there’s still the main quest, two guilds, two Great Houses, another church, the Imperial Legion, and the club of government-sanctioned assassins. And two expansions. This amount of content definitely leads to some repetition (and a fair bit of walking, since there’s no fast-travel apart from the major towns and a couple spells) but it also makes the game feel epic and gives a real sense of scale to your accomplishments. It can be fairly grind-heavy and occasionally tedious, but we prefer it to the Skyrim model where you can go from a new recruit to Guildmaster over the span of about five days.

The world’s just as complex and sprawling. It has its faults– the Ashlands are just not fun to be in, and needing to walk/fly/swim everywhere gets real old– but the thrill of exploration that the game offers is fantastic. Because it doesn’t rely on random generation (the worst thing in Oblivion hands-down and one of Skyrim’s big problems), there’s always a chance that you’ll stumble upon something wonderful and cool, whether it’s a cache of endgame weapons, a book that can help decipher a dead language, or a secret ring that can change the whole balance of the game. It also means that there’s some incredibly powerful things in the world, just waiting for you to come and take them– meaning that exploring isn’t just about becoming gradually stronger, but about the chance to find real treasure. And since the world is so unique and alien, simply exploring is its own reward. In almost every fantasy RPG you go into the world knowing what it’s going to be like, but poking around Morrowind’s dark corners brings you ever-closer to actually understanding the weird and unwelcoming world of the game.

Gameplay

After all this praise, it’s good journalism to end on our reservations, which is why we saved the actual gameplay for last. This wasn’t great when

Wait, no, THIS picture contains everything wrong in Morrowind.

the game was new, and time hasn’t been kind to it. The combat system is too dominated by invisible dice rolls and repetitive animation, and you won’t be consistently hitting enemies until your weapon skills are incredibly high. There is an upside to this– watching your character transform from a bumbling oaf who manages to miss a crab 80% of the time to a master swordsman who can duel gods is pretty rewarding– but it’s not worth the frustration. If you’re a new player who gives up on the game, we’d wager money that’s what drove you away. Enemy hitboxes can be  fairly weird (especially cliff racers, pictured right– the much-despised enemy who is hard to hit, screechy, persistent, and everywhere), and some things, like enemies who can damage your stats or absorb your health, are intensely frustrating. Magic and stealth don’t fare much better– casting spells in a combat situation is infuriatingly trial-and-error, while sneak-attacking enemies is so futile as to be almost laughable. They’re both much more tolerable outside of combat, so playing a pacifist thief or specializing in healing and exploration magic are both viable.

That said, the combat’s general weakness isn’t as huge of a deal as it might sound, because it’s only one path through the game. Even in the main quest, there’s only a handful of missions where combat is the real priority, while exploration, intelligence-gathering, and diplomacy are the real meat. Even a character with no particular skill for violence can get by most quests by investing in some decent enchanted items, finding a decent weapon, and keeping stocked on potions. If you’ve ever had the experience of trying to play a thief in Oblivion, you can see why this approach has its merits.

Still Worth It?

Absolutely. It may not be as fun or as pretty as Skyrim, but as far as game design goes it’s every bit as good. The issues with the gameplay aren’t really a product of its age, either: they were an issue in 2002, and they didn’t keep it from being the best game of the year then And the game’s triumphs, in some cases, still haven’t been surpassed. It’s still one of the best settings in video game history, still has a clever and well-written plot, and in some cases still looks amazing. In the end, it’s not so much that it’s aged well as that it hasn’t really aged: the things that were problems have gotten worse, but the game’s sheer scope and ambition look even more impressive in comparison to a lot of RPGs since then than they did when it came out. If you’ve enjoyed the more recent Elder Scrolls games, and especially if you’d wished they’d had more depth or a more original setting, check it out by all means (slap on a mod that gives you a house and some merchants with more money, first). It’s not the game it used to be, but it holds up as a fun and interesting experience, and one of the deepest and most detailed RPGs of all time.

Wine or Vinegar: Grand Theft Auto III

[Our “Wine or Vinegar” series examines older games that were influential in a big name series and examines how well they’ve aged.]

The most influential sandbox game ever.

Every medium has it’s classics, film has the all to often mentioned Citizen Kane (still a great movie though), literature has The Great Gatsby, and theater has Death of a Salesman, just to name a few. The art form of video games is in the process of building it’s own library of classics, but due to the nature of the medium, these classics don’t always stand the test of time. That’s why we’re starting this series, to see whether highly influential titles have aged like fine wine or grown bitter like vinegar (or in most cases, a little of both). Whether you like the series or not (and we do), Grand Theft Auto, particularly the third instalment, has had a nearly unparalleled impact on video games, arguably on par with Super Mario Bros. and Doom. But wait, you probably won’t ask, why GTA III? What about the first two games in the series? Well, to the few people asking this question, Grand Theft Auto III was the first installment that most people played, the first one that was considered a truly landmark game, and, not coincidentally, the first one that was 3D (2D graphics can’t quite capture that signature GTA gameplay). So let’s look at some of the aspects of this classic game and see what still works and what doesn’t. Even though one of us is a huge GTA fan, we’ll try to stay objective.

Gameplay

Harder than it looks.

This section’s honestly a very mixed bag. As far as the controls go, driving still holds up pretty well. It’s easy and intuitive to get the hang of (probably easier than GTA IV) whether you’re coming back to the game or if it’s your first playthrough. Even this early on in the franchise, Rockstar did a good job of making the different types of of vehicles (cars, trucks, SUVs, etc) all feel different, so that there’s more of a reason than just aesthetics to choose a sports car over a van. Boats on the other hand control alright once you’re out in the water, but getting out of them is a pain since you can’t swim and jumping can out can be somewhat imprecise. The one plane in the game is nearly impossible to fly without a lot of practice but given the name, the Dodo, this is definitely intentional and you never have to fly it on missions, it’s strictly and easter egg. You’re able to move around on foot much faster than in GTA IV and hijacking cars is also quick and painless, but the controls really fall apart when it comes to the shooting. Keep in mind, we’re talking about the PS2 edition here since it was the original version and the shooting mechanics work better on PC, but on PlayStation 2, shooting is clunky and unintuitive. You’re supposed to lock onto the nearest enemy but often times you’ll find yourself targeting a fleeing pedestrian instead and though you shift between targets, you’ll lose precious health while shifting to the target you want. Oh yeah, and there’s no map of the whole city on the pause screen so you have to navigate by mini-map alone. Have fun watching for landmarks.

Tailing someone, very conspicuously.

As for the missions, the best ones tend to be the less linear missions that involve wide portions of the city. Unlike GTA IVIII isn’t really capable of telling a narrative through it’s missions. Many of the more linear missions, especially the ones that introduce new gimmicks like the “spookometer” shown on the right, tend to fall flat since said gimmicks are often unintuitive at first (the spookometer for instance is way to sensitive, rising almost quicker than you can react if you get too close to the target). Also the linear missions don’t have a sense of progression. The bank heist in GTA IV was linear but it covered a lot of ground, leading you from the bank, through the surrounding alley ways, down into the subway, and then finally through one last car chase. Most of the linear GTA III missions, even if they have an interesting premise, don’t amount to much more than “go here and kill these mooks.” One of the best missions in the game, “Triad’s and Tribulations”, tasks you with killing three Triad leaders on behalf of the Leone Family. These Triad kingpins are scattered all over Portland (the first district of the city) and as you drive around looking for them, you’ll see Triad and Mafia soldiers fighting on nearly every street corner. This mission manages to be fun by making you feel like your part of an epic citywide gang war and gives you the freedom to take out the Triad bosses in any order and in any fashion you like. It uses the sandbox to it’s full advantage.

Characters

Claude: “…”

The inhabitants of Liberty City in GTA III are not as deep as the characters in the later games but entertaining none the less. First off, Claude, the player controlled character, is a silent protagonist. Rockstar presumably made this decision to make the player feel more a part of the world. The problem is, Claude feels like a lazily designed silent protagonist, with the bare minimum of gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations (grunts, screams, etc). Link, from The Legend of Zelda series, is such an effective silent protagonist because he’s given a wide range of the above features which all work to give him a personality. He has all the advantages of a silent protagonist without feeling like a cipher. If Link is a stylish designer suit, Claude is a used sports jacket; he still gets the job done, he just feels like nothing special while doing it.

Donald Love: “Nothing drives down real estate prices like a good old fashioned gang war.”

Unfortunately, the other characters Claude interacts with are also hampered by his muteness. Most of the pre-mission cutscenes merely feature a character giving a brief monologue to set up the mission, though the writing is usually still entertaining. Special mention goes out to Donald Love, CEO of Love Media which owns several of the in game radio stations, who is a yuppie billionaire using gang violence in his business practices and has some…questionable eccentricities. Another interesting fact about the characters is that two of the major gang leaders in the game are women: Asuka, the sadomasochistic leader of the Yakuza and Catalina, the head of the Columbian Cartel in Liberty City, the main antagonist, and Claude’s ex-girlfriend. This is noteworthy because many of the later GTA games (with a few exceptions) don’t feature women in such powerful roles. Overall, while the characters don’t feel nearly as fleshed out as those in Vice City or San Andreas (not to mention GTA IV), they’re still quirky and interesting enough to hold your attention and leave a lasting impression.

The World

Welcome to Liberty City, where your car is all our car.

The Liberty City in GTA III is much less based on New York city than the GTA IV incarnation and is more an amalgamation of north-eastern American cities in general. The intro to the game perfectly captures the feel of the city. The slow jazzy piano theme that plays over the intro is the perfect combination of class and sleaze to introduce the world of GTA III. The city itself, definitely leaves something to be desired today. It doesn’t have nearly as much of a distinct look and feel as Vice City or the Liberty City of GTA IV. There just aren’t enough noticeable buildings or other landmarks to make the city truly interesting. The city does however have a very dirty, gritty look that emphasizes how poorly run Liberty City is. If GTA IV’s  Liberty is modern day New York, GTA III Liberty is more like 1970s New York. Pedestrian models recur far too often and the pedestrian dialogue, while funny at first can get old pretty fast. There aren’t nearly as many songs on the radio stations (Flashback FM for instance is just the Scarface soundtrack– okay, yes, that’s awesome) and you won’t find very many famous songs either. The radio DJs, however, are just as funny as those in other GTAs, especially Head Radio (fantastic satire of mega corporation radio stations). Finally Chatterbox, the first talk radio station in the GTA series and the first appearance of Lazlow, is just as funny as ever.

In the end, GTA III is nowhere near as amazing as it used to be, especially after GTA IV, but it’s still genuinely fun to play. Age has dealt the game a lot of shortcomings but the best parts of it are still a lot of fun and make it worth playing.

Power-Ups and Pitfalls: Ikaruga and Nights into Dreams…

[Our series, Power-Ups and Pitfalls, examines truly innovative and exceptional examples of level design in games.]

Level design is easily one of the most important disciplines in the video game industry. Things like an interesting art style, deep characters, and exciting new mechanics are all well and good but the entire game falls apart if the levels (the vehicles through which the player experiences the art, controls said characters, and preforms the mechanics) are poorly made. And that’s why we’re starting this Power-Ups and Pitfalls series, to highlight exceptional and interesting examples of level design (that and because writing about it’s a hell of a lot of fun). Both of the games we’re looking at this week manage to create fast paced and exciting levels that capitalize fully on the unique mechanics these games offer. So, without further ado:

Ikaruga (2001)

The game’s unique mechanics make this fight easier than it appears.

Like most shmupsIkaruga is a brutally difficult game– at least it’s difficult to play well (the more attempts you make, the more continues you unlock). However, what sets Ikaruga apart from other shmups is it’s simplicity. While most other games of this genre focus on gathering as many power-ups as possible to survive the extremely difficult levels (and not dying and losing said power-ups for future attempts), Ikaruga doesn’t feature speed boosts or spread shots. It structures all of its levels around one simple mechanic, the ability switch your ship’s polarity between light and dark and absorb the enemy shots of whichever polarity you currently have. Absorbing enough shots will fill up a meter at the bottom of the screen that will allow you to fire a salvo of homing missiles of either polarity. Also, in order to add  a risk/reward element to the gameplay, your shots do extra damage to enemies of the opposite polarity, meaning that you’ll destroy a white enemy faster with dark polarity even though you’ll be vulnerable to it’s light shots.

Don’t worry, it get’s tougher.

The first level of Ikaruga is comparatively easy to the rest of the game. The game gives the player plenty of room to fly around the screen and, at least at the beginning, enemies don’t fire so frequently. This gives the player plenty of time to experiment with the game’s unique mechanics and get a feel for how to play. In order to defeat the first boss (pictured above), you need to be familiar with the basics of the polarity system. The second level forces the player to deal with more shots of differing polarity at the same time while making the player fly through a narrow pathways for much of the stage. Level three is where things really get tougher as it takes the narrow navigating room and increased enemy fire of level two and makes you deal with it at a much faster pace. The fourth level increases the rate of enemy fire significantly and the boss does the same, but gives you a minuscule amount of maneuvering room. Finally, the short fifth stage bombards you with projectiles of the same polarity, to get you in the habit of rapidly filling up your meter and using your super attack constantly, a strategy that will prove invaluable on the final boss.

So as you can see, Ikaruga does a stellar job of using its mechanics to create varied and increasingly challenging levels, the basis of good level design in nearly any game, but that’s only the half of it. You can play through the entire game without dying at all (a very difficult feat), and still get low rankings (C and C-) on all the levels. That’s because you weren’t taking full advantage of your scoring opportunities. Shooting three enemies of the same color will initiate a chain set at one, killing three more enemies of the same color (they can be the opposite color of the first three though) will set your chain at two, and so forth. The higher you get this chain, the higher the multiplier will be for your score and the higher your rank at the end of the stage. Surviving a stage in this game while making sure to only shoot an enemy of the color you need requires a huge amount of skill and planning, making Ikaruga’s levels optionally even more complex, while still catering to more casual players, since you can just choose to ignore the score and concentrate on surviving. This feat is why Ikaruga truly excels in level design and is definitely a game to check out, especially if you like shmups. Also, the boss theme kicks huge amounts of ass.

Nights into Dreams… (1996)

Not exactly the most self-explanatory game.

Nights into Dreams is one of those games (like Pikmin or Katamari) that is truly unlike anything else out there. What genre does it belong to? The game is a mix of adventure, action, flight, racing, even bobsledding. The game let’s you play as one of two kids (each one has four stages to play through), who have to travel to another world through their dreams to free a magic jester named Nights who then has to collect four multi colored crystals called Ideya while avoiding enemies within a time limit so he can fight the boss of the level *gasp for air*. So yeah, this isn’t the easiest game to describe. Essentially, while you’re controlling one of the kids (while searching for Nights at the beginning of the stage or after running out of time), the game is a 3D platformer/adventure, and while controlling Nights (flying around to destroy the cages the Ideya are kept in), flying as if in a 2.5D game.

In dreams, even flying through rings is fun.

Like Ikaruga, Night’s levels are entertaining, challenging, and certainly unique even when stripped down to the bare minimum needed in order to finish. But these levels also become incredibly hard to master for players who want to earn the highest possible score. During the Nights sections, which are the vast majority of the game, (if you’re good, you’ll only control the kids briefly at the start of a level), the player must collect twenty blue chips to destroy the cage holding one of the four Ideya. These chips are placed in such a way that the player can usually collect twenty within the time limit and recover the Ideya, which will allow the player to complete the stage with an adequate score. However, by exploring the levels, players can uncover hidden caches blue chips letting them claim the Ideya faster and use the remaining time to score extra points, by flying through rings, collecting stars, and other trinkets. In order to unlock the final stage in both of the kids’ quests, players must earn at least a C rank on the three previous levels. So the game forces the players to engage in some of this level exploration in order to complete the game. Some players may stop there, but the developers are hoping that this will hook other players into going for A ranks on all the levels. They’re essentially easing players into a more hardcore play-style in order to make the game (which is very different from any other) less daunting– the design allows players to “opt in” to higher levels of difficulty through exploration.

3 Free Indie Games Worth Your Time

For most of Indie Month, we’ve been doing big-picture kinda deals– looking at two talented and prolific developers, and examining some elements of the “genre” as a whole. We thought we’d close by looking at what makes indie games really exciting: the huge breadth and variety of available experiences, and the huge number of them that are free.

There’s no excuse for not playing these. They’re generally pretty short, almost effortless to get a hold of, and every one of them has something inspiring or original about it. Go forth, and remember that we live in a pretty exciting time for the medium.
Time Fcuk

“I’m in a room full of bodies. They all kinda look like you.”

Edmund McMillen makes games that are creative and sharp, but have a tendency to be muddled in tone. Super Meat Boy was a great masocore platformer which eventually turned into visually uninteresting levels full of buzzsaws. The Binding of Isaac is fantastic, and probably his best work (god knows we can’t stop playing here at the CV “offices”), but its moody atmosphere and dark humor evaporate every time a stupid meme reference or rage face pops up.

Time Fcuk does not have these problems. It’s a tightly-bound puzzle-platformer that maintains a bleak, dread-drenched tone from start to finish. From the moment you enter The Box– stepping into the time loop that you’re trapped in –the game sinks into a deep melancholy. Its monochrome level design, atonal soundtrack, and stellar sound all give it a hopeless  feel. In a genre where every game seems to want to imitate Portal, going for more of a Silent Hill vibe is a pretty daring choice.

It’s also one of the only McMillen (and co.) games where the writing really shines. Throughout the game, you’ll get communications from yourself in the past and future. However, as you spend more time adrift, going more and more mad from the isolation and puzzles, the “yous” in various points in time start to fracture and change. Partway through the game, it becomes ambiguous if you’re even yourself or playing as a doppelganger. There’s not much plot to speak of, but the writing is sharp throughout and contributes to a great sense of building horror at your situation.

 

Tower of Heaven

At first glance, Tower of Heavenis the kind of game that indie development is bloated with: a brutally hard platformer with retro graphics and

The game gets a lot of beauty out of three colors.

slightly philosophical themes. And while that doesn’t make it bad— the gameplay is solid all the way through, the Gameboy-style graphics are cool, and the music’s excellent– where it really shines is how much it plays with that formula.

Every couple levels, the game adds another seemingly-arbitrary rule that will instantly kill you if broken: don’t touch blocks from the sides, don’t touch certain blocks, no backtracking, et cetera. What makes the game so smart and interesting is that, taken together, all these really mean is “get better at platforming.” Every rule just means you need to be more precise in your jumps, avoid obstacles, keep moving forward, and evade enemies– the same basic constraints all platformers put you under.

The end result feels incredibly pure and focused in a way a lot of ultra-hard platformers don’t. Just as the game works with an intensely reduced color palette smartly applied, the core mechanics are all about taking the unspoken rules of platforming and giving you absolutely no room for error, and building an entire game out of these rules.

 

Iji

Dan Remar’s Iji is definitely the highest-profile of the games we’re looking at this week, although not on the level of Cave Story or Spelunky

It takes an entire game’s worth of planning and risk to get that gun. It’s worth it.

(which we didn’t mention under the assumption that you’ve heard of them, and if you haven’t, well, you have now, so go download them immediately). It deserves that profile– it’s a staggeringly fun action game with great vector-style graphics (think Another World) and a damn good central story.

The story’s where it really shines, although the combat, fleshed-out RPG elements, and Metroidvania-ish level design are all pretty stellar as well. It puts you as a survivor of an alien attack, cybernetically augmented and fighting to drive out the invaders. This is all pretty rote stuff, but the game keeps track of your choices and gives you real input into the narrative in a way action games usually don’t. A no-kill run will result in some enemies trying to be peaceful and helping you, whereas playing more aggressively will gradually turn the protagonist into a bloodthirsty wreck incapable of mercy. The change– from hearing Iji shriek when hurt and whimper after killing an enemy in self-defense to hearing her howl with rage or laugh when catching enemies in traps –is heartbreaking and guaranteed to make you want multiple playthroughs. It does a better job of making you feel sorry for your enemies than any other game we’ve seen. There’s tons of easter eggs hidden in the story as well– careful planning can save the lives of certain characters, different skill focuses can make boss fights and areas skippable, and it’s possible to go through the whole game with a clean conscience if you’re very, very careful.

And, as said, the gameplay is a beast. It’s fast and frenetic, with gigantic weapons, hoverbike chases, colossal boss fights, and a detailed and beautiful world. Taken together, the game feels like some bizarre hybrid of Metal Slug and Shadow of the Colossus.

 

My Brain It’s Swollen: A Cactus Primer

[We’re back from hiatus, and ready to spend all month talking about our favorite indie games and developers!]

A little while ago, Jonatan Soderstrom, aka Cactus, announced his first for-sale, distributed, studio-made game. It’s called Hotline Miami, and

Get ready for fun!

it’s a fusion of several of his loves: neon colors, brutal violence,  the horrors of consumption, trash culture, and psychological horror.

There aren’t words for how excited we are about this. Cactus is amazing. You need to know some of his games. He’s right up there with Ken Levine, Valve, or Suda 51 for people who are taking games forward as art. And, while all of them are doing large, well-funded, mass-market projects, he’s doing tiny psychedelic nightmares on the fringes. His main focus seems to be using games– often with deliberately ugly graphics, controls, and themes –to explore the dark and ugly parts of ourselves. He’s said before that, in the realm of art, he considers himself more in line with Jodorowsky, Lynch, or Burroughs than the James Camerons that most mainstream game designers picture themselves as. But, like those artists, his work can seem a little unwelcoming and requires an introduction to its more palatable examples. That’s what we’re here for.
Norrland

Norrland  is, at first glance, a game about the mundane. You play a blue-collar Swedish hunter going on a trip to the wilderness to shoot animals (or, if they get too close, punch their heads off). There are minigames where you drink beer, piss, and swat mosquitoes. Then, after a full day of hunting, you go to sleep and have a dream where you’re forced to dance to a beat you can’t keep up with and are screamed at when you inevitably fail.

Also, the sound is horrifying. Because Cactus.

As the game goes on, it becomes pretty clear that the hunter is filled with some pretty ugly issues. His dreams inevitably end in his destruction, and escalate in violence and anger– one early one has you driving a car through a city where the only way to wake up is to crash, whereas a later one involves slowly pushing a hunting knife into your own skull. Every dream is loaded with creepy imagery and fairly unsettling symbolism, and gain a lot from the basic controls. You always know what buttons you’ll use, but what they do and what your goal is are made up each time. The overall feeling is one of helplessness, frustration, and uselessness: you end up feeling like you can’t do anything right and the world is actively against you. It becomes fairly clear as the end approaches that the hunter has gone into the woods to die. (There is, to be fair, a fairly rich vein of absurdist humor running through the game as well).

Where these gain their power, though, is in contrast to the “normal” game. You’ll still spend most of the game hunting, fishing, drinking beer, and taking care of your bodily needs, but the fun leaches out of them when you know what you’ll have to face at the end of the day. When you’re outside his head, the hunter seems like a normal guy who likes shooting birds and reading porno, and if you had never seen his dreams the game’s dark ending would come as an absolute surprise. There are countless indie games about depression and isolation, but they’re almost all melodramatic and obviously bleak. Norrland is about how depression and self-loathing creep in through normal life, and how ordinary, seemingly well-adjusted people can still have a huge amount of fear and pain in them.

One minigame has you playing Russian Roulette. Even after five clicks, you have to keep playing.

Hot Throttle

See? Perfectly sensible.

If Norrland is about the dignity of a troubled soul, Hot Throttle is about pointing and laughing at how ugly the soul can be. Released by Adult Swim games and collaborated on with Doomlaser, it’s probably Cactus’s most playable and “fun” work. It’s a kart racing game about naked sweaty men who think they’re cars and crawl around at top speeds, brutalizing pedestrians and eventually traveling to Hell. It’s grotesque and colorful and wacky, pairing the themes of J.G. Ballard’s Crash and the style of Yellow Submarine.

This demonstrates one of Cactus’s greatest skills: to wring real substance out of gibberish. Even the most narratively deranged of his works (probably Stallions in America or Stench Mechanics) have some real meaning and satirical meat to them (the inanity of action movies and the transformation of sex into an illicit commodity, respectively). Hot Throttle could have just been an insane and surreal kart racer, but there’s a real sense of both humor and dread to it. It carries the modern world’s obsession with cars and better living through technology to their logical ends: a man for whom anything that isn’t a car is a waste of time, who loves driving and cars so much that he wants to become one.

It’s an ugly game, and the deliberately off-putting art style is only part of that. Every race you win takes the hero one step deeper into his delusions, as his increasing belief in the fact that he’s a car hurts more and more people (in one level you trample someone during a race, injuring them further as you try to carry them to the hospital on your back). If you win most of the races, you leave your wife and children, take all their money, and spend it on surgery to turn yourself into a car. Whereas every other racing game on the planet is about how cool cars are and how fun they are to drive, Hot Throttle questions our automotive obsessions.  Whereas most driving games don’t even have characters beyond the cars, Hot Throttle puts us in the mind of a character for whom that’s a utopia, where literally the most important thing in the world is racing better than anyone or anything and being the best car.

The most bitter ending since GTA IV.

Mondo Agency

Mondo Agency is our favorite Cactus game, and for good reason. Whereas most of his games have kind of a breezy, amateur feel (given that a lot

“MY BRAIN IT’S SWOLLEN.”

of them were made in 24 hours or less), Mondo Agency has a level of polish and of narrative depth that many of his others lack. It’s also one of his only games that is hardly ever laugh-out-loud funny, using his usual surrealism instead for an atmosphere of extreme dread and oppression.

The premise is that you are a secret agent trying to preserve modern civilization by preventing the murder of the President (because, in the game’s deliberately distorted English, “president am much like world!”). You do this by navigating monochrome, agoraphobic levels, fighting Natives (the only things in the game that are brightly colored), combating cancer, and shooting everything. Even if the game didn’t have a lot of meaning to it it would be remarkable– the atmosphere is Silent Hill 2 levels of  creepiness,  the puzzles are interesting, and the sound and art design are some of the best we’ve ever seen in a freeware game. But Agency also has a pretty heavy amount of cultural commentary in it.

Because despite your goal of saving civilization, the game is a walking tour through the horrors of the modern world. The entire world is gray, sterile, and made of cubes– the “mountain” you have to climb in the second level looks more like a city skyline. Everyone you speak to has a TV for a head and communicates in garbled static. You are given your “shooter” by a gun-obsessed bureaucrat who thinks everyone should be armed all the time. Cancer is explained by your boss as a “mistake” that can be removed by building a better world. One of the later missions (fittingly titled “Massacre”) sends you to the home of the Natives to murder them for sabotaging the security technology (“what is a natives?” muses your boss in the briefing. “Is it worth much money?”). When you finally meet the President, he’s a horrible shrieking monster made of televisions. The game views western civilization as fundamentally evil and soulless, driven by violence, obsessed with technology, and ultimately self-destructive. Even though you’re doing action-hero duty– curing cancer, killing natives, and saving the world –you feel like the world you’re saving is toxic and wrong.

“What is a mountains?”

Also try (a lot of these are in the Cactus Arcade packs on his website):

Xoldiers: a collaboration with VVVVVV‘s Terry Cavanaugh, which criticizes the absurdity of war and is also full of explosions and showers of blood. We’ll be talking more about this game next week in our profile on Cavanaugh.
Space Fuck: A short, simple game with 2-bit graphics and a pretty cool twist ending.
Mondo Medicals: Agency’s predecessor– a lot less fun to play, but still horrifying, smart, and creative.
Psychosomnium: A quirky platformer that predates most of the modern wave of quirky platformers. One of his most popular, but the cute, gentle graphics and whimsical tone make it not very representative of his style.
Clean Asia! and Burn the Trash!: two very well-made shoot-em-ups with unique art styles and inventive mechanics. Great games in their own right, but don’t have as much narrative depth as the three we singled out. If you’re a fan of shmups, though, definitely worth playing.