Archive for the 'Games' Category

Plumber in a Half Shell

mario1.gifThere has been much debate over the additional power ups in New Super Mario Brothers. Do they add very much to the game, and how do they compare to our favourites of old. Possibly the most maligned of the new abilities is the shell suite. Admitedly following in line of mario suites that feature in most players favourite mario moments, this little outfit has its work cut out.

However, of the reviews I have read the majority have missrepresented this power-up that provided me with a good few interesting play experiences. Leaving the actual dynamics of clading the player in a new outfit to one side, the main issue here is understanding what the turtle shell gives you.

Firstly, there is the invulnerability aspect of the suite. This has been pretty well documented elsewhere. Essentially, you are safe from most enemies once you have got up to speed and are hid inside your shell.

Secondly, and this is less widely talked about, is the ability to destruct bricks from the side. If the only available face of a brick is the left or right, the shell enables you to bash your way through it. This is used in the game to provide access to some of the harder to reach secret levels and exits.

Thirdly, is the unmentioned ability of the suite to let the player slide up slops that they could not normally walk, run or jump up. This can be used (particularly in the ghost mansion level with dissapearing stairs) to easily access areas that previously would have been awkward or impossible to get to.

Finally, there is the aforementioned dynamic of having a whole new outfit for our little plumber guy. Something that gives the player the sense that their avartar is more real, in the game world.

For my play experience, the shell is one of my favourite power-ups.

Pledge your support to the blue shell suite, below.

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Zarch: A Virus in your mind

zarch_screenshot_21.pngLet me take you back. To a time when the idea of 3d graphics was still something of a novelty. Something that had mainly been used in the slower space navigation games such as elite. The fast action shooters was still the domain of 2d bitmap powered engines.

Then, almost unnoticed a title appeared on the Archimedes that quietly re-wrote those rules. Zarch provided the player with a fixed perspective window of a large 3d space. Islands and sea were rendered in light sourced three dimensions. Then into this world arrived aliens that slowly infected the place, turning the green tundra to mud and soot. Tree’s decayed, fields turned to mud, alien pods were planted.

What first trikes the player though, is not the slow unwinding of the environment, but the sheer speed at which you could fly through it. At full pelt, the engine would throw a bewildering stream of land and sea at the player. They could accelerate both horizontally and vertically at rapid speeds. The experience became one of sensing the wider space you were exploring. This is the first time I had the real feeling of another reality that I was connected to, and could play in.

And this play was possible because of another highly distinctive aspect of the game: it’s control system. The game chose freeform play and flexibility over accessibility. The first time you launched your little ship into the unknown would go fine for the first 10 seconds. Then came the point where you needed to change direction, which usually resulted in much fumbling with the mouse until the ship flipped upside-down and rammed itself into the ground. Both curious and frustrating. (So much so that the Z-Virus remake of this game felt it necessary to provide and defualt to a different control scheme.)

Hoever, for those who persevered with this, there was a gem of a play dynamic to be found. It would slowly dawn on you that moving the mouse up did different things to the ship depending on its current orientation. And slowly at first you would begin to be able to fly in the direction you wanted. Then as you clocked up your fly-time, things would start to click into place, as you were able to hang the back of the craft out on an arced turn, or quickly flip direction for rapid braking. Eventually you hit the sweet spot and the experience was much like surfing around the place with your hand resting on an imaginary wave.

The rest of the game, the levels and enemies essentially provided a framework within which you could enjoy flying the ship, performing increasingly audacious maneuvers. Because of this the replay value of the game was huge, the opportunity to catch another ‘wave’ always beckoned.

We live Moment by Moment

I recently realised, whilst reading a review of a new computer game, what I am looking for in the games I spend so much time playing. It was what the review called Moments. Those times in the run of play, that give you a sense of being a part of something significant, of an unfolding epic. Whether its the clinching goal of a game of football, or the seconds before springing a surprise attack in a battle game. In these moments, you are caught up in the unfolding story, not just as a key player but as the chief protagonist.

The game has the job of establishing a story that you can become part of. When this is done well, it is inevitable that those momentary highs of enjoyment are delivered. And you discover that the game has inadvertantly become part of your life story, there is an emotional connection.

I was reminded of this again, when reading an article in the Times which told of games companies teaching their staff about classic story telling techniques:

“in an effort to introduce plot, character development and narrative tension to games. They had realised that although their games are addictive, few are emotionally compelling. I’ve never seen a computer game that made me cry” – Professor Jenkins of MIT.

More recently it has been collabortive multi-player experiences that have most moved me. A LAN halo 2 match, pitting three teams against each other, not only raises my adrenalin levels but also plays deeply with my emotions.

Game Experience Launches

Welcome to game experience, the place where you get to hear about every day people’s experience of the games they play. Offered as an alternative to overly technical game reviews, we are the soft voice of the gamers here.

We reflect on a wide range of games, but always want to consider the implications for todays players and games. We want to reconnect the play experience, old and new, as fresh players approach their game time in new and imaginative ways.

If you are interested in writing for our merry band and are willing to be profiled for our statistics then reply to this post. You need to be able to write coherent emotive descriptions of experiences you have had with computer games, whilst drawing on the latest developments in the industry.

Rainbow Density

rainbow1.gifAs we disucssed it was the controlled yet open play of Bubble Bobble that hooked players, slowly revealing more of it’s mechanics as they learnt the game. But what comes after one of the most accurately weighted platformers that all but defined it’s own genre?

The easy answer would be a follow up, reworking the graphics, adding levels and bonuses. But not for Taito. With a waiting crowd of gamers watching, they launched a game that again on first appearances was a rather basic, if odd little platformer. I remember having similar conversations with people as I tried to enthuse about how much more this was than it predecessor, without much luck. It seemed that rainbows and insects and platforms don’t lend themselves to parabolic rhetoric.

This rainbow3.gifwas a much denser game, even controlling the character and getting around the screen was a challenge in itself. I remember pumping an arcade machine with countless coins, still unable to make it off the first island. In fact so tricky was this experience, that it wasn’t until Rainbow Islands hit the Amiga that I really got started with it. The play dynamic took a risk, it was complex. The player moved differently depending on their context. If on the ground they could be controlled as usual, but once on a rainbow and they would always walk to the end once initiated, and jumping would crumble these fragile platforms. But givem time and the wisdom of these movements slowly embedded themselves in your head. You could start to perform similar bubble jumping tricks, just now it was rainbows that took the role of play-partner.

I was looking for what I had loved about Bubble Bobble, and not having much luck. Where were the simple fully visible levels, the sequential power-ups, the planning and chain reactions. All this seemed to be greatly lacking. But with some determination to obtain something out of this frustration a few chinks of light started to appear.

I slowly realised that the power-ups were now not only based on what else you had collected, but how you rainbowed the enemies. Knock a rainbow down on them and out popped a power-up. Hit an enemy with a rainbow and you got a point bonus item.

I rainbow2.gifremember the particular game when I noticed another pattern emerging for the diamond items. It seemed like the red ones were always on the left and the purples always on the right. Then the penny dropped. The place were the defeated enemy landed determined the colour. The screen was invisible assigned a strip of colour from the rainbow. From the left to the right the colours progressed, red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, purple. The rest of my play that day was spent trying to collect the full set of diamonds, progress onto the later islands forgotten for a while. This was only intensified once I read that to really complete the game you needed to collect the diamonds in order on each island.

This kept me busy for a while, but gradually I continued the task in hand, getting to the last island and finishing the game. But not for long, as I soon started noticing another layer. Bonus fruits were hidden through the level and could be unearthed by dropping rainbows at ground level. Again the rest of that days (and weeks) play was spent re-exploring the levels trying to find all the bonuses. This had a secondary effect of turning the players attention back to the score as the challenge was now to achieve a near perfect maximum for each level rather than just racing through. Later plays on different systems reveal subtle differences, the Megadrive/Genesis version resetting the bonus fruits on each level whereas the Amiga version let the fruits continue to rise in value until the player died.

So with these things now understood, the rainbow dynamic, the power-ups, the diamond collecting and the bonus fruit. The player was ready to tackle the game proper. Here for me is the strongest aspect of the game, these various aspects could easily have detracted from the whole. Whereas in practice they meshed together, becoming a background of mini-achievements to the main aim of progressing upwards. Something modern games could do well to learn from this “less is more” approach. Game features need to be both balanced and integrated. It is important that they don’t detract from the key hook of a game, but at the same time add to the immersion.

Pro Evolution/Winning Eleven is a great example of this, where the strong football play dynamic is supplemented with well balanced and well fitted special and advanced moves. These are able to exist in the background of the play, tempting mini-achievements, that can be drawn on as the player is able, but never intrude on the run of the play.

Bub and Bob ball

bobbub_start.gifHow did a game capture mine, and so many other people’s, imagination with so simple a premise. I remember first hearing about Bubble Bobble in the playground. Our local video store kept three or four coin-operated cabinets, and we new that one was being changed. As always this caused a bit of a stir amoungst the regulars. One lunch time I passed a fellow gamer in the hall, and he enthused about the new game. I still remember his description of it: “two little dragons that fire bubbles and jump around on platforms”. The next few weeks called for regular visits to the machine as we slowly figured out how to make a dent on the 100 levels.

bobbub_level.gifThe first hook to the game was the simple play field. Each level filled a single screen enabling it to be viewed without scrolling. This meant that you quickly learnt the layout and levels became instantly recognisable. Even when away from the game you could strategise new routes to follow, or shortcuts that may enable a quick victory. I remember many morning paper rounds passed while day dreaming my way through the first 20 of so screens.

On bobbub_monsters.giftop of this was layed the simple enemy intelligence. The routes and rules followed by the several different enemy characters. Each of them was distinctive in their movement, and attack abilities ranging from simply charging you down to firing a variety of projectiles. Each level had it’s own configuration of attackers, which led to popular approaches to deal with them, and much discussion of the best solution amoungst the regular gamers. This jostling for approach was intesified as every level gift the player with a few second at the beginning before the enemies sprang into action. As a player grew wise tot he game, this time became crucial to either position your little dragon in an oportune location, or to try pre-emptive strikes to reduce their numbers.

bobbub_chain.gifUsually after some repeated plays over the first twenty of so levels, the player would start to notice another layer to the action. Each level has it’s own particular air currents. These would blow the bubbles shot by the dragons around a particular path. With this knowledge in hand, it was possible to wow a watching audience with craftly moves other jumping on a well positioned bubble to gain qucik access to a platform during the pre game period, or blowing a series of bubbles into a particular current to cause a chain reation of pop’s to set off an out of reach special bubble.

Even with all this to hand for the player there was still more to discover. And with these layers of play stacking up, the more of them you had down the better you could impress anyone watching the play and more importantly the better chance you had at beating the other player to the big points. There was a few days in our local arcade where it seemed that some of the players had some magical knowledge of which bonuses where going to appear. This became particularly infuriating for their opponents as they would find themselves contantly out positioned for the large end of level fruits and prizes. It slowly seeped out down the hierarchy of players, that the bonuses where not simply random as we had thought but were triggered by particular collectables.

This was the final layer to the puzzle, that triggered power-ups. They were each controlled by collecting certain items. And in tern each of these items were triggered by the play doing something specific. Some high value power-ups were triggered by collecting certain lower value items. One, particularly fabled item: “the gates” were only available if the player hadn’t died in the first twenty levels.

So here we have it, the playfield, the enemy intelligence, the air currents and the triggered power-ups. What on first visit appears to be a simple platformer, actual exhibits the sort of depth that many modern games struggle to deliver today. Much akin to the pinball machines of the same era, the more you played the more you realised there was to do. What at first seemed to be knocking a ball around the table (in our case a dragon) opened up into a very rich and player controlled enviornment. Something more akin to the open sandboxing we are seeing in the latest generation of games.

I was recently reminded of this layered player experience when I discovered (somewhat belatedly) that weapons in Halo 2 needed to be used in very particular ways to be effective. Halo had a whole layer of play beyond the basic play mechanic. I needed to use the plasma based weapons to knock off my oponents shield before I could use the bullet based guns to kill their flesh, geneous!