Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sin & Punishment: Reading between the dimensions

Deviating from my undying love of vertically-scrolling shmups (Tate mode forever ♥), I'd like to take a moment to observe a peculiar behavior of mine in Sin & Punishment. There's a section of Scene 2-1 (or as I like to think of it, the one after you take part in drowning Tokyo in a fiery sea of magma) wherein you have to defeat a miniboss that spews out an array of candy corn bullets. For whatever reason, I always find myself reorienting the camera, in my head, to be a top-down perspective, allowing me to dodge all bullets with ease. It seems way more difficult to view the bullets as is - a barrage of near-overlapping oranges that grow larger.

It makes me wonder, then, why Treasure (♥) decided to add this section of the game (to which I can't seem to find a similar one elsewhere). Level variety and their clever use of space aside, this seems apart from all of the other bullets-coming-at-you / creatures-crawling-towards-you stylings of seemingly everything else in the game. It could be that they originally tried out this bullet pattern and found that a closer camera made it too hard to see what's coming, or even the inverse - that their 3rd-quarter camera perspective allowed them to make more complicated patterns. And so they did.

The rhythmic pulsing of the bullet waves remind me heavily of a section in Chapter 2 of Ikaruga, shown here in a near-flawless run. The player must daftly maneuver through various symmetrical waves of bullets that need to be dealt with in one way or another. Although, in Ikaruga's case, the challenge here is in maneuvering through the unstoppable waves, while you were expected to obliterate the entire miniboss in S&P (to put things in very general terms, you dot-eating max-chainers out there).

Another way to think of this situation is to think of your character as a ship that has the added ability to "jump" (pun definitely intended) through different Z-depths, effectively dodging a particularly pesky array of life-stealing orange cones. True, this has been done before as far back as 1942 (the game, not the year) and Zaxxon (the video game, not the board game), but in this case you get to do it with a complicated control scheme.

Below, that very section of 2-1. I suppose this player wasn't thinking in the top-down fashion, hence the numerous errors. On the other hand, he seems to ace the subsequent sections, so I'm at a loss.

[cross-posted to Gamasutra]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Radiant Silvergun: Takin the dog for a walk

Going on side quests has always been something fun in videogames, from their gratuitous presence in MMORPGs, to their hidden subtleties in other games. They're usually carried out for the sake of gaining something of value, something that makes the trip worthwhile that makes the rest of the game even more fun. Surely there wouldn't be a quest in a game that gives you nothing other than bragging rights... right? Although I'm speaking specifically of the TopBreeder ranking in Radiant Silvergun, collecting dogs technically gives you points as you collect them (some worth even 1000 pts!!!), so there's at least something to be had whilst trying to collect them all.

For those not in the know, the TopBreeder ranking is acquired by collecting all 30 dogs hidden throughout the game, in one play-through. Dogs are always hidden, needing to be uncovered by your lock-on weapon. They give off a charming little "woof" that I suppose is a reward unto itself, if you happen to like dogs - the kind of dogs that require you to go out of your way amidst hundreds of oncoming enemy obstacles with the risk of losing that 1CC you've been numbing your rump over since you finished dinner the night before.

Nevertheless, this is something I can only assume is an extension of the director's personal life, possibly a life of training and breeding dogs. It's only natural for a game designer to want to take these "slices of life" and implement them into the game for a richer experience. In this case? I'm not so certain that collecting a score and a half of dogs adds to the experience of trying to destroy the root of all evil in the world (an abridged backstory of Radiant Silvergun), though the quest in itself gives you one more thing in the game to become obsessed about perfecting. At least it's not a feature that was supposed to be an inside joke, but ended up becoming frustrating to the rest of the world.

There are so many different bonus quests that could have been added to this game. At this point, I could either go in the direction of listing more relevant quests or of listing even more oddball quests. Choosing the latter, I'm wondering why they didn't also include "porcelain ornament collecting", "replicas of the Wonders of the Ancient World collecting", and "prime factorizations of odd Fibonacci sequence numbers... collecting". Whatever. It's an added feature that was clearly odd enough to gain attention, optional yet functional, and popular enough to be talked about over 10 years after its initial release. Maybe I'm just looking forward to the equivalent feature to come with the arrival of project RS3. That's actually the primary reason I bought an XBox 360. One day, it shall be ours. Until then, go get 30 leashes and prepare to scour the depths of time and space for those adorable woofs, once again.

The magic happens when Lassie is captured at the 0:33 mark. Bottom right. Look closely.

And as always, be attitude for gains.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Galaga: When going left isn't always right

There comes a time in every gameplay type's lifespan (usually occurring in its days of infancy, namely during the golden age of gaming) wherein key choices by the developers - oftentimes "happy accidents" - result in a gameplay mechanic that forever becomes a staple of every proceeding offering in that category. Since these types of behaviors are taken for granted and are as much a part of our lives as the stale taste of mushrooms is to Mario's mustache - especially in our seventh generation of games - I'm having trouble giving examples other than the one I'm about to discuss, that being the "fake out" in Galaga.

First, allow me to define the "fake out." This is a simple maneuver involving you, the player, to position yourself strategically on the screen such that the enemies' AI will think that's your chosen destination in which to chill for a while. Suddenly, you move in the opposite direction of your false dwelling, making for advantageous odds in your favor, whether they be for points, a power-up, having less to deal with, or simply to survive.

I speak of the "fake out" so fondly because it's a very important ingredient of our shmup lives. I've found that the very first implementation of its usage (and necessity) was in Galaga, released in 1981. Space Invaders may have come first, but all shots fired by the aliens were random (or at least unrelated to how awkwardly you hid behind your own bases in fear of losing too early in front of your friends). Galaxian may have come earlier, but its attack formations were too cosiney, allowing for easy escape. And for those toting the Xevious love, that didn't come along until the following year, so credit goes to Galaga. That was the first shmup that required you to perform the coveted "fake out" in order to survive.

The setup is rather simple: A legion of enemies on the left side of the formation are just itching to dive in succession after your precious, quarter-starved bounty. You start to move towards the left, making it seem as if you're playing the safe route, surfing inside their tunnel of pain. They immediately change course, aiming right for your cockpit, both bullets and enemy ships glaring towards you. Suddenly, and without much reasoning, you dart towards the right - the very place they used to be going, but simply can't go to anymore (not because they spent time, money, and energy making on-the-spot changes in ship formations and coordination, but because they were programmed to stop following you once they've already plotted their course) - thusly rendering you safe, without worry of bullets, enemies, or even the dreaded forced-abduction with no lives left.

Here's a little taste of the subtlety that is the fake out. Note the subliminal one at 0:36. Just beautiful.

Oh, and on a side note: Awesome a bit?

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Imperishable Night: Easier challenge means more adrenaline?

In Imperishable Night's second level boss battle against Mystia Lorelei, there is one phase of the battle wherein most of the playable area of the screen is shrouded in darkness, despite an already hectic array of bullets dancing about in all directions (which also can be considered a clouded area of bullets, giving me even less content to speak about). All you have to work with is a small circular area surrounding you, forcing you to focus moreso on bullet dodging rather than shooting the boss as a top priority. I've commonly found myself leaning to the edge of my seat, sitting perfectly upright, licking my lips in anticipation, and giving off a wry smile that invites the game to "bring it on."

However, I sometimes stop to think why I get so excited over something like this. At first impression, it feels as if this phase requires exceptional reaction time and swift maneuvering in order to survive (both of which are certainly true), but for a few reasons, this phase is far easier than the rest of the battle.

First off, you have only a small area of the screen to worry about paying attention to, as opposed to the entire screen otherwise (but in my eyes, the player need only worry about this immediate surrounding area to successfully survive in any situation, sans unscheduled evacuations to other locations).

Second, in viewing the entire screen of bullets, the eye will quickly locate the bullets that are an obstacle and that pose an immediate threat, negating all others. Players of this game specifically know that early patterns of bullets will be in entirely different configurations by the time they get to you below.

Add ImageThis brings me to question: Why does this portion of the boss battle bring the most tension, excitement, exhilaration, etc., despite it simplifying the game and bringing me to the most primitive of mechanics (the process of movement )? I suppose it's in the presentation. You're forced to watch this ominous, dark clouded area swallow up your battlefield, leaving you with little to hold onto by the time you gain back control. And then once you complete that phase, the viewable area becomes even smaller, making you feel as if there's no room to even breathe, let alone dodge seemingly hundreds of bullets.

Keep in mind that this phase would have failed design-wise if it weren't for a set-rhythm of bullets that are repeatable and not tied to player position. Thankfully, the barrage of sudden pain spikes is known to be escapable, a feature that makes the entire experience worthwhile and memorable.

And now, a section of the Level 2 boss battle of Imperishable Night:

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]