Posts Tagged ‘nintendo’

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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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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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The Limits of Nostalgia: Ice Climber

April 6, 2012

It’s like life, yes? Always another mountain to climb.

Being spoiled on modern games is the type of experience that makes Ice Climber feel even older than it is. Yeah, it’s an NES game, but it’s unremarkable even in an eight-bit context. These characters have names, but they’re essentially interchangeable as palette swaps of one another. The enemies are innocent birds, bears, and (um) fuzzballs, that are mostly minding their own business unless they are actually trying to repair the mountain that is their habitat.

Clearly, environmental conservation wasn’t on the minds of the developers here, nor those who enjoyed the game.

Worse than the lack of an identifiable central character and the fact that the route to completion is via destruction rather than construction is the physics. Momo and Popo can apparently jump three times their height upwards, but side to side, their jumps are hopelessly feeble. It’s like their knees work, but their ankles don’t. Even if you build up a head of steam on your way to a jump, your momentum actually slows down when you make the jump.

There’s not even a defined goal! Why are we jumping? Is it because the pterodactyl stole the eggplants? Is it because the Ice Climbers are trying to get home, and only the eggplant (or pumpkin, or pickle) stealing pterodactyl can get them there?

Good Lord, this game’s a mess.

I never owned Ice Climber, though I did covet it. As one of the original NES experiences, complete with standardized, pixelated pseudo-screenshot cover art and the types of generic names we might now more readily associate with the Atari 2600, I just kind of took for granted that it was, you know, a good game. Maybe not Mario good, I guess, but good, whatever that even meant in the context of the early NES. Maybe “good” just meant that there was more to it than your average Atari game, that it did something that nothing in the previous generation could. I’d go to friends’ houses and ask to play it. Sometimes we’d play together. Sometimes I’d borrow it and play it with my brother on my own NES. It probably got just as many hours out of me as a modern blockbuster. And I can’t for the life of me fathom why.

Even as the “Nintendo Ambassador” crowd of games was announced, I found that still, I coveted Ice Climber, and it became one of my top two or three anticipated games when I found out I’d be getting 10 NES games on my 3DS at no charge. It had been forever since I played it, and the romantic notion of it still stuck in my head. Even as I knew I’d be playing for score, even as I knew there was no defined ending other than to start over again in a more difficult iteration of the first 32 levels, I wanted to play it and conquer it.

It turns out, nostalgia can only take a gaming experience so far.

My gaming habits have been largely tied to nostalgia essentially since I entered college. Some of the first NES emulators were just hitting the internet at that point, and the idea that I could play these games that I loved, not ported but utterly unchanged, was extremely appealing. I got to play games I never knew existed, I got to play games that I loved that I thought had disappeared to time. While I understood that the mechanics, music, and visuals of these games were primitive, I would still defend them anyway to those who might not have played them when they were, you know, new. Take away the modern-day expectations that we have for video game experiences, and there was true, unassailable quality to be found.

There’s a limit to that nostalgia, and it is Ice Climber. While it does properly invoke nostalgia for a time when my standards were low enough that I would enjoy any game set in front of me, it does not hold up as a gaming experience, either now or in the context of its contemporaries.

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“Ambassadorship” is a new category that will concern itself with looks at the 20 games offered by the 3DS Ambassador program. As one of the lucky ones who ended up with these retro games, it’s a way to get me to play them (again) and look at the effect of time and nostalgia on some of the better games of their respective generations.

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For the Sweet Tooth in Your Life…

March 12, 2010

Spotted at Dylan’s Candy Bar in NYC this week:

Wiimotes and Marios

Look at all of those fake Wiimotes. Obviously, Nintendo's winning the candy console war.

Pac-Man is a nice touch, but my favorites here are the Hylian shields, which are comparatively subtle.

…did I buy any? No.  Little hard candies are not what I go to a candy store to buy, no matter how spiffy the packaging.  Unfortunately, there were no A Boy and His Blob branded jellybeans, which I totally would have walked out of there with.