Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Difficulty: Way Too Hard To Be This Easy

A Challenge of Choice
Shmups are one of the few kinds of games out there that are, from the start, as easy or as hard as you want them to be. Sure, you could make up your own implicit rules for any game to make things more interesting (my favorite new way to play a game being the Green Demon Challenge from Mario 64), shmups are naturally a bipolar beast. The question is: Would you rather beat it right now, or get a highscore later?

If you don't care about score; if you aren't interested in rank mechanics; if you don't want to earn your power-ups; if you don't care about second loops; you are probably one to want to simply beat the game. Fortunately for you, most shmups grant infinite continues, allowing a fairly uninterrupted session from title screen to final boss upon first playthrough. Some games, like Ikaruga, require you to earn your free credits through extended playtime, but the point is that they're eventually available.

Going Back for Seconds
And once you beat the game on your first shot by blazing through those continues? Maybe twenty minutes passed by. Over an hour if you were playing Radiant Silvergun (♥). Then what? If you didn't like the experience, you'll just move on to something else. If you liked it, how many times more will you play until you're tired of pressing Start to your heart's content? I would love if someone at this point realized the true potential of playing that same game with the intent of using less continues (preferably zero), but I am just a dreamer.

The truth we'd love to ignore is that once you get to see everything you'll be getting in a game, there's not much drive to go ahead and get good at it. Conversely, if you were only given as much of the game as you had earned, many people would be turned off by such strict filtering of game to the point of giving up (or "moving on to something else").

The Little Shmup That Could
Hydorah, a free and AMAZING game, does precisely this. I say amazing (nay, AMAZING), because the developer chose to keep some shmup rules from several decades ago: If you get a game over, there are no continues. The only way to get far in the game is to get good at it. How does one get good? This requires many plays through the game, starting with the first level, until the game has been beaten. What this amounts to is becoming exceedingly skilled at the beginning of the game, being fairly competent through the mid section, and being a vulnerable wanderer of hope in the final stages.

If you had the ability to replay stages you've unlocked, that would be great. If you had the ability to gain continues as you progressed through one session, that would be great. However, these great things are not in the game. In fact, there is a warning screen preceding the title screen - not to inform about the potential of seizure-inducing visuals, not to let us know about the relationship between winners and drugs, but to tell us how hard and unrelenting the game is going to treat us.

So, to say that this game is AMAZING is simply saying that I am amazed that this type of game was both created in modern times and accepted as rightfully as it would have been 25 years ago. To be fair, the entire game is a love letter to shmups of yesterdecade, namely the horizontal quarter-fests Gradius and R-Type. I'm glad this game exists. For every Hydorah that comes out - a polished, fine-tuned, intelligently-crafted game that harkens back to the days of dedicated skill-gaining power-hungry leaderboard overtakers - there are always dozens of relatively easy freeware/browser shmups that lack any sense of direction, challenge, flow, etc. Those games, unfortunately, have no hard method to play (unless they're poorly designed and are hard without reason or the ability to gain the necessary skills to overcome specific obstacles).

Why Try
This choice-driven difficulty is something special. You could be attempting a world record, get blind-sided by a strangely-generated bullet pattern, and then merrily give up and play the rest of the game using continues, no switch needing to be flipped. You could also do the opposite I guess, but your score wouldn't be all that impressive by the end (and wouldn't have any such notation on your ranking).

And let's not forget that score is only one drive to get to the end of a game on few credits. Simply beating any of these giants on a single credit is enough of a self-confidence boost to keep one feeling exceptionally proud for much longer than would be deemed healthy. There's also bragging rights, being able to play the true last boss of a game, getting all of the Achievements/Trophies, etc.

A True Man
The only thing stopping you from truly sitting down and dedicating yourself to a shmup and showing it how much of a man you are (ladies - you can be men, too) is if you want it. It's as simple as that. If you wanted to get to the top of that leaderboard, you'd be watching YouTube superplays and buying a new arcade stick instead of reading this. You'd be turning your monitor sideways and RSVPing regrets all weekend long. You'd know that you can do it, and you will do it, with enough perseverance, dedication, and energy drinks.

Or, if you just want to see what the rest of the game is like, if you've given up hope for the night and just want to shoot things, if you suddenly realized that leaderboards don't hi-five you back, then you can just press Start and use a continue. Just make sure you know what you're missing when you're granted another chance.

Hydorah trailer, complete with lovably cheesy voice work:

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]