Editorials and Features
Article by: MrCHUPON
Column: Delusion of the Day: My Design Flaw Enhances Gameplay! [Written 2006-10-03]
Now, how many of you remember the frustration of having your character ricochet between two enemies in close proximity with each other, helplessly watching your life meter drain to zero? Or, how about when you destroy an enemy near the edge of the screen only to watch it instantly respawn?
If your hand isn't still raised, you've got the gracious gift of selective memory. I envy you, for you are spared the occasional trauma of remembering the frustrations of bad game design.
Ninja Gaiden, a game I hold close to my heart despite these gripes, is popularly and appropriately cited - like its current-day incarnation for the Xbox - as extremely difficult. For sure, only "ninja gamers" can get through this title unscathed. Yet, while the high level of challenge is often extolled as one of the game's virtues, a careful re-examination of the classic title reveals that many of the challenges came from piss-poor game design.
Take, for instance, the grace period that our hero, Ryu Hayabusa, is given when he takes damage from an enemy. This is commonplace in many games of that era: when Ryu takes a hit, his character sprite begins to blink rapidly for a short amount of time. During this blinking, he is invulnerable. This gives the player an opportunity to recover from his mistake. After all, continually getting knocked around after suffering a single direct hit would make for a "cheap" experience.
However, Ryu's grace period is all too short. Furthermore, when hit, Ryu is knocked back a significant distance. Finally, there are several instances where two or more enemies wander about separated by that exact distance. Given this, an often occurrence in Ninja Gaiden is to accidentally fall on one of these baddies, get knocked back a few steps into another baddy, and get knocked by that enemy back into the first one. The aforementioned neutered grace period is too short for Ryu to recover by the time he comes in contact with the other enemy. The infinite chain of damage is set, and the result is not unlike an infinite juggle in Tekken or Mortal Kombat.
This is one of many instances where some might be inclined to say, "But this adds to the challenge!" True, one's evaluation of what constitutes an engaging challenge is subjective. However, I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that instituting a grace period that's too short to avoid death-by-endless-hits is a bit foolish. It just doesn't seem to make sense. What, then, is the point of the existence of such a grace period?
If Ninja Gaiden for the NES is too ancient for you, let's take a look at another infamous "But this adds to the..." mechanisms. A series we all know and fear, Resident Evil, makes for a prime candidate. Surely, many aspects of these games are appealing. Great graphics (relative to their time). Huge scares. The constant feeling of danger and survival, due to the choice to purposefully not include ammunition. Yet, there's one thing that remains a point of contention for many an RE fan: the "tank" controls.
To explain for the uninformed, from the original Resident Evil all the way up to Code Veronica, your protagonists controlled less like a free-walking human and more like a vehicle. Pressing left, for instance, does not move your character left on the screen; instead, it turns the character left. Pressing up moves your character forward, and likewise pressing down results in backpedaling. This is all fine and dandy for a game handled from an appropriate perspective - see first-person shooters and Resident Evil 4 for instances where this works.
However, the games in question were all played from a completely third-person, fixed-camera view. The exception here is Resident Evil: Code Veronica, whose camera moved with the scenery. However, the key here is that the camera did not move from a first person perspective. Therefore, neither the scenery nor your viewpoint would shift intuitively when your character turns. If a game's control setup is meant to mimic the perspective of the on-screen character, so too should the viewpoint of the character. Otherwise, your eyes aren't seeing what your hands are doing and vice versa.
This is cumbersome to a fault. Yet, those involved with the game and many fans have attributed this to the "survival" aspect of the game. I get it, I get it. They really wanted to add an element of fear into the game by throwing yet another obstacle your way. What could be scarier than trying to run away from a pack of slow-moving zombies and finding the task incredibly difficult to successfully pull off?
A little tangent here - between you and me, the implementation of "tank" controls was included largely to counteract the fact that the original Playstation controller lacked analog sticks. Directing your character in a pre-rendered or fixed-perspective environment with the precision required to pick up items and run in several different directions presumably could not be pulled off with only eight directions. It's the same reason why 2D Tony Hawk games for the Gameboy Advance are played in a similar fashion. Tangent - fin. (Applause.)
So sure, clunky control is included to try and make a game scarier. The problem is that it's far more frustrating than it is scary. (Or challenging, for that matter.) Once analog sticks debuted, there was no reason to not include an "analog movement" option in future iterations of the series (which, thankfully, developer Angel Studios included with the Nintendo 64 port of Resident Evil 2). The game can still be scary when designed properly. Exhibit A would be RE2 on the N64, which remained plenty, plenty scary even when played with the optional analog movement turned on. Exhibit B would be the numerous Silent Hill games that offer this fully analog movement control.
The scares, thrills, chills and panic should be induced by clever enemy placement, claustrophobic level design, and environment. It should not need a control obstacle thrown at you. It's as if the developers decided to continue using a design flaw as a feature. Similarly, with Ninja Gaiden, the challenge should come from platform and enemy placement without strange cheap tricks like instant-respawns and broken grace periods. Contra for the NES is a wonderful example of how to create a vigorously challenging design without resorting to cheap tricks. (Depending on who you ask, however, one-hit kills may be seen as cheap.)
I suppose my biggest gripe is that, unless it makes absolutely perfect sense to do so, a developer cannot impose challenge by neutering your ability to play the core game. If a grace period is offered, it should be of useful length. If a character needs to run and move, the player should be uninhibited from doing so - or at least, the playing field needs to be leveled.
For a great example of the latter, take Condemned: Criminal Origins for the Xbox 360 and Windows PC. Your character, Ethan Thomas, walks at a slow, deliberate pace. He runs decently fast, but nowhere near as fast as your average first person shooter hero. Depending on the weapon he brandishes at a given time, his strikes are often just as deliberate, conveying a sense of heaviness and momentum required for a brutal hit. However, his enemies run and walk at the same speeds. They strike with the same amount of wind-up and effort. The playing field is level, and the player's job thankfully becomes a matter of wit, timing and precision - not the ability to overcome cumbersome controls or frustrating bugs. This is how things should be.
Then again, Condemned's level design is full of Halo- and F.E.A.R.-esque loops, dead-ends and "sameness". It takes the psychological horror out of the game and introduces monotony. However, that - my friends - is a rant for another day.
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