Archive for the ‘Retrogaming’ Category

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Finishing Metroid II: Replay Incentives

March 13, 2013

This is my last Metroid II post, I promise. It’s spoileriffic, so most of it’s hidden behind a jump. Sorry.

Metroid II Ship

Even in 1991, game developers wanted their games to be lasting experiences, things that their target audience would be playing ten, 20, even 40 hours after they were done. I finished Metroid II in a little over seven hours. I’m satisfied — seven hours is no small amount of time to be entertained by a black and gray Game Boy experience — but what if I wanted to get more out of it? What incentive do I have beyond the personal satisfaction of pure mastery of the game to try to get through it again?

Well, by this point, the answer to that question was simple, because it was answered by the original Metroid: offer an incentive for mastery by changing the ending.

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Metroid II: Setting the Mood

March 7, 2013
...I can see you...

…I can see you…

It is the rare video game that can effectively build a sense of suspense that is legitimately frightening for the player. Driven by the need to progress, obstacles increase in difficulty, maybe, but they don’t often increase the wariness one feels in approaching them. The God of War series, for example, kills the trepidation you might feel at facing an enemy several hundred times bigger than your avatar by making such a battle happen early on; when Kratos has taken down a titan, there is removed any reason to feel afraid of anything. In fact, any battle in which you are not battling something huge and fierce and angry feels like a bit of a letdown.

Metroid II actually builds the sort of tension that can be so intimidating as to force the player to put down the machine it’s being played on. As the ever-helpful Metroid Wiki notes, there are more “boss battles” in Metroid II than in any other Metroid game, at a staggering 40 encounters with metroids at various stages of their life cycle.

Now, whether you actually consider those battles “boss” battles or not — for the most part, these “boss battles” are quick little missile-firing sessions, battles of attrition where you fire as many projectiles as possible without losing too much energy — their setup is very skillfully executed. Almost every metroid you need to fight is preceded by the sight of a broken metroid “shell”, letting the player know that a battle awaits in the next room or so.

This is a nice touch, a “be ready” signpost that more often than not had me grinding my way through minor enemies for energy and missile refills before I went after whatever waited for me. The sense of dread is particularly pronounced as the metroids get bigger, as the Giger-esque Omegas and the smaller but quicker and more tenacious Zetas become more and more common. Once you’re startled once by a metroid uncovered by shooting away sand, you realize that they could be hiding pretty much anywhere.

All of that is well and good, but nothing compares to the sequence that awaits the player at the end of the game.

(This gets into spoilery territory, so I’m going to go ahead and put it after the jump. Yes, I still worry about spoiling 20-year-old Game Boy games. Hey, nobody spoiled it for me, why should I for them?

…ahem. Jump. Clickyclick.)

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Metroid II and the Danger of Subversion

March 5, 2013

It will surprise nobody who knows me that I got lost, and often, throughout my time with Metroid II: Return of Samus. It’s not that it’s a huge game, really, it’s just that it’s in black and white, it’s big enough, and it seems to take pride in re-using some environments for the sake of making the player lose any sense of directional bearing.

Also, I have no sense of direction. I spent a lot of time — a lot of time — taking the controls while my brother barked directional instructions at me when we were kids. Spatial reasoning has never come easily to me; I can read a map just fine, but put me in the middle of a city and tell me to find my way out of it, and I might remain trapped forever.

Of course, I’m too stubborn to actually draw maps as I go…but I digress.

About halfway through Metroid II, I got lost. Hopelessly lost. I had done what I needed to do to that point, I had fought and won against a handful of “gamma metroids”, and I’d picked up a mess of missiles and a couple of energy tanks along the way. I followed the implied suggestion of the game to clear an area of metroids, let the energy-draining lava that blocks off other areas recede, and then move on to the next area. It seemed like a nice way to let the game dictate where I should be at any given point, something the game uses to keep the world from getting too big at any given point. But then I got lost, running around in circles, bombing every wall, checking each area once, twice, three times for secret passages.

Finding nothing, my resolve fell.

The Metroid Life Cycle

As it turns out, a combination of a few energy tanks and the half-damage ability of the varia suit allows for the ability to go through the lava-filled passages into segments of the game that theoretically shouldn’t be open yet.

Really, this is a strength of the game, given that the ability to go into these areas opens up the game in a way that will appeal to those who don’t care for forced linearity. You can seek out and find a few of the overpowered omega metroids if you like, you can get a look at terrains that you’ve never seen, you can practice fighting enemies that you’d only seen in the instruction book to that point, and you can save your game in areas that you’re not supposed to be. You can explore the entire world of Metroid II, aside from perhaps the final boss, once you can withstand enough punishment to speed your way through the lava.

The problem with subverting the intention of the lava is that the entire point of the game is to eradicate all of the metroids, not to get to some predetermined destination. If you go exploring in places you shouldn’t be, you are necessarily increasing the scope of your search for those metroids, and when you get to the point where, say, you have one left, you have the entire world of the game to explore, rather than one comparatively smaller section of it.

That said, it’s difficult to resist the pull of new things, especially when you’re not entirely sure whether the lava is truly telling you not to move on. The last retro game I spent this amount of time with was The Legend of Zelda, a game that delights in slowly breaking down the rule set it establishes early on, forcing the player to consider possibilities about the world that would have seemed impossible in the early going (walking through walls, whistle-triggered staircases, and so on, particularly in the game’s second adventure). Unable to find the metroid that would trigger another lava-clearing earthquake, the question lingered: was I supposed to be navigating my way through the lava to progress? What if my self-imposed limitation, my understanding of the implications of the game’s mechanics thus far, were hindering my ability to conquer it?

Don't do it!

Don’t do it!

Until I did finally figure out what I was missing, a simple strategy allowed for the exploration I needed: go where I like, but don’t save until I have an answer to my question. Metroid II‘s usage of save points allowed for the approach, and my own fear of trapping myself somewhere I shouldn’t be was enough to get me to restrain myself from using them — no matter how off-track I got, I knew that the simple act of video game suicide would return me to familiar territory. Eventually, I did find the metroids I’d been missing, and I didn’t have to go through the lava to get to them.

And thank god, because I might have been at this game for months (or until I dropped it for a prettier, newer game).

The ability to subvert a game’s implicit rule set is one of the things that makes even playing a video game a creative experience. The way you play is unique to you. Whether it appeals to you, however, may depend on how willing you are to accept the consequences of that subversion. Subverting a game’s rules terrifies me, at least until I’m familiar enough with it to turn it into my own personal sandbox; I’d rather see what it has to offer on something as close as possible to its own terms before I start forcing it to conform to mine. Now that I’ve beaten Metroid II, I’m much more willing to go in and try to break it.

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Tools and Toys: Origin of a Gamer (#BoRT)

November 7, 2012

Prologue: I promise I’m going to write some blog posts that aren’t #BoRT entries someday. I’m moving across states this week, nine months after last time I did it. Time is…well, it’s difficult to come by.

The theme of this month’s Blogs of the Round Table is “Origins”. Per #BoRT curator Alan Williamson: “What are your earliest memories of gaming? How do you think your childhood (or childish adulthood) experiences of gaming have influenced your life, if at all? Are there any game origin stories that reflect your own?”

Here goes nothing:

* * *

I didn’t “get” my first console. It was just, you know, there. I don’t even remember how I came to start playing it, just that I played it. I played Pong on it with a paddle, I played Combat on it with a joystick. It was an ugly thing, a giant brown box with conspicuous ports, buttons, and switches. It was my older brothers’ machine, and for some reason, when they moved out, they left it with my folks.

It was an Atari 2600. It didn’t change me or anything, I just can’t imagine my childhood without it.

I remember playing Pac-Man on that machine. I loved Pac-Man on that machine. I’m fully aware, 30 years later, that the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man is largely derided as perhaps the worst version of a classic game, but it didn’t matter. It’s amazing what can come off as brilliant when you don’t know that anything better exists. All I knew at that point was that it worked part of my brain that no other entertainment could. It also offered the first hints of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it came to video games; even when I was five years old, my Pac-Man strategy was to get all the dots first, saving all the power pellets for the end.

I remember playing Football on that machine. Honestly, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

I remember playing E.T. on that machine. I may have played more E.T. than any other Atari game save for Pitfall II, certainly more than any other game that I “inherited” from my brothers. It was a fascinating and alien thing. It was aggressively strange, punishing, and difficult, and I wanted so badly to understand it. I got pretty good at it, if I’m being honest.

I remember playing Yars’ Revenge, Venture, and Super Breakout. I remember playing Pitfall, and Kaboom, and River Raid. I remember playing some odd Sesame Street thing that involved an exclusive number-pad peripheral thing. And I remember playing them over, and over, and over again. Somehow, my parents let me stick with these games, they let me treat them like any other toy, and not like the devil in the TV.

Heck, I should probably thank them for that.

The first machine I was alive for when it was introduced into the house was an IBM PCJr. As if to try and convince me that this machine was a necessary component of our household, my dad showed me Jumpman on the first day that computer was in the house.

Do you remember Jumpman? Think a sub-8-bit version of N+ and you’re probably not too far off.

My god. I just remembered that computer was in the kitchen. THE KITCHEN. Why was it in the kitchen?

The actual cover art for the IBM PCJr version of King’s Quest.

As much as the 2600 showed me what video games could be and do, that PCJr showed me what they were made of. I bought books of BASIC programs that I one-fingered into files, LOADed, and RUNned. Every so often, a game I bought in the store would error out, and I’d get a glimpse of the source code, a stray GOSUB or a division by zero error. It was proof that these things were written, line by line, by actual honest to goodness humans. I admired these humans, even at six years old. I wanted to meet them, and I wanted to be them. I wanted to know what it was like to make something as open-ended and gleefully difficult as King’s Quest (a PCJr exclusive when it was first released!) and as utterly mysterious and far-reaching as In Search of the Most Amazing Thing.

Where the 2600 represented the future of toys, the PCJr represented endless possibility, a world in which creation and consumption could coexist and intermingle, a world in which I could, when I learned enough, change my games to suit my needs and interests.

Could I have articulated all that then? Hell no. Still, I think it was there in an abstract sense. Just as a child can sense tension even when all the grownups in the room are still plastering smiles on their faces, a child also knows when the future is knocking on the door.

My brothers, and then my father, brought the future into our house. I didn’t even have to ask. It’s no wonder I can’t just “play” games. I have to understand them, too.

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Endgame: The Legend of Zelda, Second Quest

May 23, 2012

As it turned out, I couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. I actually set out to do the one thing I hadn’t tried in the overworld: I went through each screen — every single one — one by one, and bombed, burned, pushed, and whistled my way through them. I found a small pile of secrets to everybody. I found many more grumpy old men who made me pay to fix their doors. I found a couple of shops, some old ladies selling potions, and a shocking number of money making games.

And yet, I never found the seventh dungeon.

As a fun fellow who calls himself Octopus Prime mentions in this thread, “It lies concealed under a completely innocuous shrub on a screen full of shrubs.” Even as I willed myself the patience of exiting and re-entering each highly forested room to try and burn down every god forsaken tree, I never found it. My suspicion is that I “missed” – that my attempts to burn multiple trees at once in order to reduce the time it took to go through every single one got slightly lazier than it was allowed to; that while I thought I had tried to burn that bush, I never actually did. Once I was done with that room — once I could assure myself that I had tried everything there was to try in that room — I never went back. There was no reason to, unless I wanted to try bombing trees.

Thankfully, I never did try bombing trees. While I did go ahead and force my way through dungeon 8 before I ever found dungeon 7 (something that goes against the pseudo-OCD behaviors I typically display while running through games like this), I never got desperate enough to think that maybe shooting arrows at rocks would help, or anything like that. This is where, long ago, the primitive sort of crowdsourcing was the only way to win; advice from a friend, or a couple of hours of play in the hands of my brother. I can confidently say I never would have found that dungeon, and I’d have put the game down having still (still!) never finished the second quest.

I’m glad even my stubbornness has its limits. If I had spent another 10 hours looking for that dungeon, eventually finding it, and then almost immediately finding the red candle that lives in it, I’d have had to seek a refund for my shattered 3DS on account of “a destructive sense of irony”.

That out of the way, and free to get back to the business of exploring things whose existence I had not yet come to doubt, it didn’t take all that long (comparatively) to finish out the rest of the game. Even finding the red ring and silver arrow didn’t feel like terrible awful trudges through the unknown. Other than a mildly insidious multi-room moving block puzzle in the final dungeon, it was pretty straightforward the rest of the way through. Awful blue wizzrobes here, awful red bubbles there, and a couple of awful triple dodongo rooms later, Ganon showed himself once again, and with no new tricks up his sleeve, he quickly fell to dust once again:


And then, The Legend of Zelda told me I was “great”, for lo, I had only (well, “only”) died 24 times over the course of two separate adventures:


And I thought, “you know what? I am great.” Then I powered down.

There’s a beautiful balance that The Legend of Zelda strikes, between setting a certain set of expectations and rules, and then slowly breaking them down. You see this a bit in the first adventure — figuring out that you can bomb your way into rooms unmarked on a dungeon map is one of the great little secrets that everyone who conquers the first adventure eventually has to come to realize, since finding these unmarked rooms is actually necessary in the final dungeon. The second adventure, however, is full of this — between walls you can walk through, advice whose meaning changes, and whistles that could blow open a staircase pretty much anywhere, the second quest is a tremendous mash of “everything you know is wrong”. There are even old men more ornery than the “door repair charge” guys, old men who demand either 50 coins or a heart container(!) before they allow you to proceed.

The beauty of it is that if you’ve put the time into conquering the first quest, none of the second quest will really feel impossible. It’ll throw you for a loop, sure, but the ways in which the rules break in the second quest are introduced just as gradually as those same rules were set in the first. Throw your assumptions about what you can and can’t do out the window a bit, and you find an open world that’s even more “open” than the first quest even suggests.

Maybe you won’t find everything, but it won’t be because the game cheated. It’ll only be for lack of diligence.

Even as it delayed my progress on other things, taking on the second quest was a pursuit worth doing. Best of all, I can finally claim the mastery of it that should accompany my other Legend of Zelda-related claim: namely, that it is the best game the NES ever saw.

Took long enough.

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The Legend of Zelda. Second Quest. Search for the Seventh Dungeon. Day 8.

May 18, 2012

I don’t know how much longer I can hold out.

Until now, a random survey was enough. Explore the world I know, set some bombs in the conspicuous spots, explore the dungeons as thoroughly as I can muster, and try to burn every tree I find. And now, it’s suddenly not enough.

I almost gave up at the sixth dungeon. It almost had me. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I’d be blowing a whistle to make a gravestone disappear. I’d tried to move that same gravestone countless times before that, sure that I had simply not pushed for long enough, or perhaps that I had let my fingers slip and gave it a crooked push. It never budged. It was waiting for a melody.

The Legend of Zelda‘s second quest has that effect on you. Every time it breaks the rules that the first quest laid out, every time it opens up one more possible place to hide something, you don’t feel as though you’ve accomplished something by making that possibility a reality. Rather, there’s a despair with uncovering the secrets of the second quest. It’s the knowledge, once you blow the whistle and open up a random stairwell in the desert, that you’re going to have to blow the whistle in every single screen of the overworld if you want to uncover all its secrets.

Scratch that — it’s not just the secrets you need to uncover. It’s the dungeons. These are the necessary pieces of conquering the quest. And they could be anywhere.

It’s the terror of the unknown. It breaks you down. It makes GameFAQs look awfully enticing.

I mean seriously, are you kidding me with this?

Part of my goal in returning to these old games was to inspire the nostalgia of playing games before the internet age. Playing games felt different in a time before spoilers were inevitable and answers were readily available. When you ran into a dead end and you had no idea how to progress, you typically had three options: crowdsource an answer from any friends who might also have been playing the game, spend some money to call a hotline or buy a strategy guide, or just run bull-headed back into the game convinced that this was it, this was the attempt when a solution was going to become clear.

Really, it’s not that different from the paid-DLC model that instantly levels up your character. How much money could Nintendo have made if they had come up with a way to offer $4.99 paid “Dungeon-Finder” DLC? What if they offered the Master Sword as a bonus?

It certainly would have been awfully enticing in a time like this.

At least it was obvious what to do here.

I mean, what kind of sadistic game encourages you to not only bomb every wall in every dungeon, but attempt to walk through it? The very first dungeon in the second quest makes it very clear that the map means nothing, so it doesn’t even matter if you think there’s a room there. You’d better try and get through that wall, or risk missing something very important.

I thought I could hold out. I did. I thought I had the patience to look under every rock, to methodically search every room. I am operating under a few basic assumptions: there is a maximum of one visible or hidden door, combined, in every overworld panel. Every treasure necessary to uncover a higher-numbered dungeon can be found either in the overworld or in a lower-numbered dungeon.

Rafts need docks to be launched.

Even the master sword can’t break down a wall like a bomb can.

How do I know that any of these are even valid? In my searching, I’ve found the entrances to the eighth and ninth dungeons. How do I know that I won’t find the entrance to the seventh dungeon somewhere inside the eighth dungeon?

That’s the issue. I don’t know. And I don’t know how much longer I can keep up the search.

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A Legend that Lasts

April 15, 2012

It’s funny how the faces of some games shine brighter, even on a tiny little screen.

After what turned out to be the relative disappointment of Ice Climber, I needed something that I knew I would enjoy, something that had never disappointed me no matter how many times I returned to it. Looking at the 8-bit offerings on display, my eyes kept flitting back and forth, back and forth…

ZeldaMetroidZeldaMetroid

Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda might actually be my favorite NES game of all time. Mere mention of the name triggers the “Overworld Theme” in my head, a miniature 8-bit symphony that can last for days. It’s the only game that I’ve played start to finish enough times to legitimately have a case that I’ve memorized it; I could tell you where the blue ring is, where every heart container is, which gravestone the old man with the magical sword is in, and so on. It’s a game I’ve been able to relax and enjoy while whipping through it, taking down dungeons and bosses like it’s my job, planting bombs on inconspicuous walls to find even the most hidden of treasures (though I do still have to pay the “door repair charge” on occasion).

My only real hiccup so far has been the sixth dungeon, in which the ever-despised Blue Wizzrobes took me for a ride after one of those walking gullets called Like-Likes took my fancy shield away.

As of this writing, I am on the 9th dungeon and looking for a Red Ring, a Silver Arrow, and Ganon himself. The 9th dungeon is something like the 1986 version of Ocarina of Time‘s famous and infamous Water Dungeon, a confusing and difficult slog through difficult enemies, passageways that lead to other passageways, and a factory’s worth of doors that require keys. It is a dungeon that reminded me of 8-bit gaming’s utter willingness to trap you in a place where your only means of escape is either suicide or the Reset button.

Yes, I forgot to dig the Master Key out of the eighth dungeon. Of course, I paid dearly for my oversight, reduced to stabbing an old man so his fire would slowly, painfully (shoot fireballs at me and) kill me.

(An aside: the map for the fourth dungeon always reminds me of the Atari 2600's rendition of E.T.. Is it just me?)

Being trapped in The Legend of Zelda is a startling thing, given that it is largely an extremely open and forgiving game, full of fairies and potions and stray hearts all strategically placed in such a way as to keep you going and make sure you can stay alive and explore as much of the world is possible, almost at your leisure. Sure, it’s not really a good idea to go anywhere near the sword-throwing Lynels before you have a Magical Shield or a Blue Ring, but even that’s not impossible if you’re determined enough. That the game would actually physically keep me from progression due to an oversight on my part, well, I hadn’t experienced that since maybe 1987. Given the intricacy of the dungeon design elsewhere, it’s honestly pretty impressive that such situations don’t happen more often.

Pondering the difficulty of this ninth dungeon, it seems hard to imagine that Zelda‘s second quest could offer up a more difficult version. It occurs to me that for all the times I’ve played through the first quest, I have never actually beaten the second quest; as a purist who tries to refuse all outside help in solving a given game, the second quest has always eluded me. I have always given up before conquering it; putting as much work as I did into learning the first quest exhausted my capacity for adventure. I suspect I moved on to something else meaning to cleanse my palette, never coming back as I intended.

This realization reveals a hole in my Legend of Zelda experience, a hole that must quickly be filled.

Onward, then.