I've written at length at this point on multiple aspects of game design, covering a wide range of "do's" and "don'ts" of a vastly complex subject. Today, as indicated by the title of the article, I'd like to take a step back and propose a basic rule of thumb which can give you a basic idea about how well a game is designed without analyzing it too deeply (or, at least without analyzing it from any other angles). This guideline is as follows:
"How much opportunity and incentive does this game provide to the player to use all of the tools available to them?"
The over-simplified version of this question is, "how many of the options given to the player completely suck?" such as a fighting game with a character that nobody would use unless they wanted to intentionally handicap themselves. This test expands that question by asking why that character sucks - are their abilities simply bad, or are they just bad within the context of a game environment that wasn't designed with their abilities in mind? Sometimes an item or an ability in a game is actually helpful, or at least it would have been had it been given to you sooner. And other times you have things that are clearly designed to feed that monkey drive in your brain just by existing, but are clearly useless upon closer inspection.
We will apply this test to five popular game franchises and see how they hold up. Bear in mind that this is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of how well-designed they are on the whole, but rather how well they perform when judged according to this one specific guideline that is itself being evaluated as much as the games in question are. Also note that the term "tools" should be defined very broadly here to include basically any action the player can take: an attack they can use, an item they can collect, or even an environment that they can explore. Many people go through life embracing the question of, "why shouldn't I do this thing?" but today we'll be taking points away each time a game fails to come up with a good response to, "why should I?"
So, without further ado...
Super Mario Bros.
Arguably the most basic of all platforming franchises, Super Mario Bros. should provide us with a decent baseline of expectations for this experiment. By its very nature as a pioneer of its industry, it will also provide us with examples of evolutionary leftovers from the era that bore it. Super Mario Bros. arose from the height of the arcade age and, in some ways, never really left it behind. Case in point, the supremely superfluous scoring system serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever and sticks out like a third nipple upon even mild scrutiny. That said, there is nothing in any Mario game which exists solely to boost your score (the same, interestingly enough, cannot be said for more "advanced" games like Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania), and so this entire mechanic can be safely ignored.
The other vestigial mechanic of the series is its "lives" system, which at least upon its initial release was still quite functional. The original Super Mario Bros. demanded to be completed with either a minimal amount of fucking up or an excessive amount of grinding 1-ups from the only spot in the game where doing so was actually possible. Extra lives were otherwise very scarce, and collecting coins to earn more of them was, at least for the time being, actually rewarding. Throw in the fact that mushrooms, stars, and fire flowers (oh my) were vital upgrades because, again, arcade games were designed primarily to murder you and eat your quarters, and the first game in this long-running series is pretty coherent as far as our test is concerned. We shouldn't give it too much credit, however; given how basic it is, it would be like congratulating a caveman for discovering how to club his neighbor over the head.
The second game, or at least the one we got here in 'Murrica, was a complete departure from the rest of the series as many sequels of the time were (bear in mind that Super Mario Bros. itself was a sequel to a vastly different game). Most notably, it introduced an incredibly cool character selection system that would be criminally neglected throughout the remainder of the series and significant exploration elements in its stage design. With the latter, however, we began to see the cracks form in the foundation of the series that would later grow into massive fault lines. Thoroughly exploring the game's "subcon" areas was critical to your survival as it contained both coins, which could be used to earn extra lives, and mushrooms, which would increase your more immediate survivability. The only problem was that each mushroom was applicable only to the stage in which it was found, severely diminishing the incentive to hunt them down in many of the shorter/easier stages - again, not the hugest of deals, but a portent of things to come.
Super Mario Bros. 3 saw a return to the basics of the series running directly contrary to an attempt to be more progressive. The reappearance of the scoring system was an overt nostalgic throwback even by the standards of its time, but far more noticeable was the increasingly ripe corpse of the lives system dressed up in its Sunday best and being paraded around like it was Weekend at Bernie's. A game over would now send you back only to the beginning of a world rather than the entire game, not that you'd ever see it given that the game crammed more green mushrooms down your throat than a Dr. Seuss antagonist. Once precious extra lives were reduced from glistening oases in the middle of the desert to, "...if I hear that Goddamn Wonderwall song one more fucking time, I'ma strangle a bitch."
Superficial aspects aside, however, Super Mario Bros. 3 fares about as well as you'd expect it to. The various power-ups were the real meat of this game and every one (except that damn frog suit) was a welcome sight whenever you happened across them. In fact, given their transient nature and the extreme rarity of the most desirable amongst them, they became a little too desirable and more often than not ended up being hoarded in players' inventories rather than actually being used. This issue was exacerbated by the fact that they existed in set quantities rather than variable depending on player action. The developers missed a critical opportunity at this juncture to take the franchise's iconic coins, which continued to litter every stage and made half the game feel like a dive into Uncle Scrooge's vault, and attach them to Mario's inventory rather than to the rotting carcass of his seemingly-infinite supply of lives.
(Please note: SMB3 will be docked several points for the inclusion of the totally fucking sweet shoe in only a single stage where it ends up being more cool than actually useful.)
Not much changed for awhile beyond this point in the series. Mario continued to cling to outdated mechanics long past their expiration date, culminating in a hilariously gratuitous appearance by Yoshi in Super Mario 64 to reward your efforts in finding every star in the game with a load of useless green shit, but they remained a relatively harmless and largely insignificant presence until their eventual abolishment. The important aspect is the incentive to explore the game's stages rather than running straight to the end, which is what these superfluous elements ostensibly existed to facilitate. When probing the depths of every stage stopped being necessary for the sake of survival, the series floundered a bit until it fully embraced the collect-a-thon genre. This issue was perhaps most prominent in SMB3, which presented the player with an amazing world full of secrets and almost no reason whatsoever to look for any of them. Curiously, the GBA remakes of both Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario World addressed this concern with the addition of the "dragon coin" system (present in the original version of the latter, but there was no incentive at the time to hunt them down), but Mario 3 was for whatever reason ported over lacking the one change that would have made a classic game even better. And that's terrible.
The Legend of Zelda
Looking at just the first game in the series, Zelda scores remarkably well on this test. Every item in the Goddamn toolshed that Link has stuffed inside his tunic has a legitimate and viable use, although a few of them do see an unfortunately small window of application. It would be nice to stumble across the Red Candle a bit earlier than the seventh dungeon, and you may as well not even bother getting the wooden boomerang in the first dungeon since you'll acquire its upgrade almost immediately thereafter in the second. But these are ultimately minor nitpicks in an otherwise solid game.
Moving on to the second title, we see similarly high marks. Items here served almost exclusively as keys to new areas, leaving spells as the "functional" upgrades. And again, there are some nitpicks - Fire could have been more universally effective and Reflect could have worked on more types of projectiles - but ultimately every piece of Link's repertoire feels like it belongs there and has something to add to the mix. Moreover, the experience system provided incentive clear up until the end of the game to use those abilities to murder everything you came across.
The 16-bit jump to A Link To The Past is where we start to see extraneous elements creep into the game's design. Link's inventory is larger now than ever before, and at least some of this shit should probably have been cut from the final product: the Magic Cape was just a redundant version of the Cane of Byrna, red and green potions had no reason to exist alongside the clearly-superior blue ones, and not one but three different spell medallions that each killed every enemy on-screen was just a wee bit excessive. Now, the potions might not have been an issue if it weren't the biggest design misstep in this installment: completely ruining the economy. Collecting rupees became excessively trivial in this game, rendering it invalid as a balance mechanic (i.e. purchasing cheaper red or green potions instead of the more expensive blue ones) and reducing any attempt to reward the player with financial gain to "thanks, I hate it."
Hyrule's busted economy would persist through its next several games and would remain arguably the biggest flaw of the series for quite some time. While Link's Awakening and Ocarina of Time both had a few items that mostly sat in your inventory and took up space, by far the absolute most useless thing in both games was the mountain of rupees burning a hole in your pocket because you had nothing to spend it on. The creators even seem to be aware of this issue between the snarky messages from rupee chests in Link's Awakening and the crowning insult of rewarding the player for finding every gold skulltula in Ocarina of Time with an infinite supply of money which was, by that point in the game, literally useless.
The closest that the series ever got to putting its economy back on track was the Oracle games, by which I mean that there was actually a decent amount of stuff to buy and rupees weren't being handed out to players like free candy from the back of Jared Fogle's van. The Oracle games are also a welcome return to form with regard to their deliberately purposeful inventory and are especially notable for featuring upgrades to several items that seem to arrive just around the time that you're starting to wonder why you're even carrying the damn things around. Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages both very clearly had their fingers on the pulse of what makes the series tick and combined the best elements of all of the games which preceded them while simultaneously learning from their mistakes. It's because of this that I choose them both to represent the Zelda franchise as a whole to render my final verdict.
Score: Great (but Adam Smith would like a word)
The Mega Man fanbase is firmly divided between two types of players: those that insist on playing through as much of the game as possible using just the regular gun and those that have fun looking for opportunities to use the other weapons. While this article is written from the perspective of the latter camp, the existence of the former tells us a great deal about the design of the series and the unique challenges it faces as a result. More specifically, we must view the ability to play through the game's stages in any order - a staple of the Mega Man franchise - as one of the tools available to the player.
Bearing this in mind, its design flaws become readily apparent. The stages are designed to be played in any order and this is reflected in their difficulty; each one is potentially the first one to be tackled and thus must be winnable without the benefit of any weapons other than your basic pea-shooter. This has the negative impact of providing little incentive to the player to experiment with their new weapons aside from the novelty value. Contrast to the Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania games, wherein subweapon use was greatly beneficial in preserving your health and, ultimately, surviving. A key factor in this discrepancy is the noticeable generosity that the Mega Man series has with health refills: were Mega Man's health pellets (which is to say nothing of E-Tanks) as uncommon as Ninja Gaiden's potions or Castlevania's wall chicken, there would be a far greater incentive to use all of the tools at your disposal in order to mitigate damage intake.
Looking to the primary use of Mega Man's secondary weapons, we see a game that largely seeks to invalidate its own structure. Exploiting the weaknesses of robot masters to the weapons obtained from the others effectively trivializes every boss fight beyond the first in a typical Mega Man title, which in turn reduces the ability to play through the game's stages in any order to a simple decision as to which one to play first, with the rest of the order being dictated by the "weakness loop"(*). Mega Man 3 was the first - and only - title in the series to attempt to break away from this by having two loops joined together by a single robot master with multiple weaknesses, and this increasingly-stagnant series would stand to benefit from further exploration of this concept.
(*Yes, the game becomes more interesting if you play the stages in a wacky order and don't exploit boss weaknesses, but I've said before that self-control is a terrible thing to balance your game around. There's nothing wrong with encouraging self-imposed challenges in your game, but you must provide the player with a tangible metric by which to do so.)
A much more interesting take on the Mega Man formula would see each boss possessing minor weaknesses to several weapons as opposed to a debilitating weakness to a single one. This would change the flow of the battle drastically depending on which weapon was used due to the different behavior of each one and allow for a far greater variety of potential viable routes through the game. As for the stage design, some games in the series experimented with diverging paths within levels or optional exploratory elements that required certain weapons to proceed, but neither idea had the (apparent) intended result of promoting different routing choices since neither focused directly on strengthening that core concept. Instead, the design would have done better to focus on a dynamic difficulty curve with each stage posing greater hazards the later in the order it was attempted - and, thus, the more equipped you were to handle it.
Score: Poor (Great with a few tweaks)
Unsurprisingly, Metroid beats out pretty much any other game series out there when graded on this scale given that it's almost unfairly biased toward Metroid's core design concepts. Metroid games are specifically designed around the tools given to the player as a means of both progression and gameplay. This seamless integration makes every upgrade feel far more meaningful as a result with the only real downside being that the scavenger-hunt nature of the series makes finding your 50th missile pack feel a little like opening up a treasure chest full of soiled linens.
So, really, what more is there to say here that I didn't already say in the article I wrote about Super Metroid? Well, games in the series tend to be somewhat on the easy side when played through casually, only revealing their true sadistic colors to players who attempt challenge runs. A low% run, wherein the player attempts to complete the game with as few items as possible, tends to see some fairly ingenious use of the items which are collected. Alas, this shoves all of Samus's other items by the wayside along with the equally ingenious tricks that can be pulled off with them simply because there's just no reason in any potential run of the game for those tricks to be used unless you're just screwing around. In short, if I had to find a failing with Super Metroid based on the criteria at hand, it would be that it's not a more robust version of itself.
Enter the internet. Something that has become increasingly popular in the hacking scene are randomizers: programs which, well, randomize various aspects of a given game to generate virtually infinite replayability from a game that many players have beaten hundreds of times over by this point. They tend to be hit or miss, depending on the game in question. For example, Final Fantasy VI is an absolute mess of a game, and one of the more popular randomizers out there takes it and turns it into... well, an even bigger mess. There's no accounting for taste, I suppose. But something like Metroid, on the other hand? Samus is practically begging for it.
If you love Super Metroid (and who doesn't?), definitely consider giving the randomizer a spin the next time you've got a hankering to play. And if you also like Zelda, you're in for a real treat. Due to an incidental compatibility between the SRAM usage by the ROMs for both games, it turned out to be possible to combine them into a single game, randomizing items from each throughout both games. And yes, I'm aware that what was supposed to be an examination of the Metroid series devolved into me shilling a fan product, but it's something I wanted to get around to sooner or later and it's not like I had much else to say here. (Also, you should play AM2R. It's fucking amazing.)
Score: Excellent (guitar riff)
Obviously, we had to cover this one. I mentioned before when I touched on the concept of this test that the average JRPG would score miserably and if you've read everything I've written prior to this point you'll have a pretty good idea as to why. The issue certainly isn't the lack of options - if anything, you have way too many of them. Rather, there is simply no reason to not just pick the most powerful attack you have and spam it ad nauseam. Although by no means unique in this regard, Final Fantasy VI remains a notable offender due to the sheer excess of clearly superfluous options it provides.
As I discussed at length in my article on boss fight design in RPGs, the complexity of combat in most JRPGs rarely progresses beyond, "hit the bad guy until he dies, stopping to heal thyself as necessary." Other options are indeed universally present - buffs for your characters, status debuffs for your enemies, or weaker attacks that might prove more beneficial if used under the right circumstances - but rarely if ever did any of them prove to be useful. Debuffs in particular are a subject I've elaborated on in the past, and their ubiquitous shittiness can be summarized thusly: they don't work on anything you'd actually want to use them against. Thus, the opportunity to utilize these options exists only on enemies for which there is absolutely no incentive to do so.
Again, this is where Final Fantasy VI breaks away from the rest of the pack and stands out as a glorious example of what not to do seeing as several of its bosses are, in fact, vulnerable to status effects. Now, this might sound like a good idea at first - which it almost is - except that the majority of FF6's statuses will not merely weaken but will rather completely shut down whatever you use them on. There's a difference between an intelligent player effectively using the tools available to them in order to make a difficult challenge easier to overcome and a tool which destroys that challenge altogether.
This highlights a significant issue with such abilities in RPGs. Seeing as they are tactical affairs rather than action-based platformers, their skills generally do not require quick thinking or reflexes in order to use. Implemented poorly, they're simply an "automatic win" button that the player merely needs to remember exists and think to use. Ideally, their use would be contingent on at least some degree of forward setup and planning and/or would render the battle easier rather than free. However, that requires careful consideration and battles designed specifically around the concept, so it's very easy to see why most RPGs simply go the route of status debuffs only being effective against trash mobs.
So, coming back around to the original question: does Final Fantasy VI provide both opportunity and incentive to use abilities that, in any other JRPG, would have been completely ignored? Yes, it does, but the lack of careful design around this decision makes the result worse than if they hadn't tried at all. By allowing certain options to be so over-effective that there becomes little sense in trying any other option, you ultimately end back up at the same point where you started. Final Fantasy VI scores technical points on this front, thus proving that this litmus test is not without its flaws.
And there we have it: five popular game franchises judged by a single metric that hopefully provides some insight about how well their designs work. There are several other game series(...es?) that I'd like to visit in a potential follow-up to this article: Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and a different RPG series that might shine a better light on the genre than today's selection did. But for now, this article about a quick and easy way to tell how well a game is designed is already, ironically, one of the longest and hardest (giggity) that I've ever written. I'd like to thank the various communities that keep reading these articles and whose encouragement helps keep them coming. I honestly can't think of a better reward for my efforts than to have played a part in inspiring so many of you.
(Well, besides the groupie sex.)
With the 2.0 release of Brave New World just around the corner and one of its most prominent changes being a complete overhaul of enemy AI, I wanted to take a moment to talk specifically about how to design a good boss fight in an RPG. Now, anyone who's played Brave New World at all in the six years since its initial release can generally agree on at least one thing: Atma Weapon is the fight to watch out for. He's big, he's mean, he caps off the first half of the game in an epic fight with its own special music, and I set out to make sure that every bit of that distinction was earned. All of the other bosses in Brave New World have slowly evolved over time to get to where they are now, but Atma in particular has barely changed at all for fear of fucking with the gold standard that I was holding everything else I was designing to. And that's particularly interesting since, when I wrote it, I really didn't know what the hell I was doing.
There are many ways to go about making your boss difficult, most of which fall under the definition of "fake difficulty" and should be avoided. More important than if something is hard is why it's hard - I'm not going to complain if you have an erection, but I will be concerned if you got it from stabbing children. Giving your boss more hit points (beyond a certain threshold) does nothing except needlessly prolong the fight and, while random elements are necessary, relying too heavily on them will turn your fight into a luck-based mission. There are several reasons that Atma works despite the fact that his AI is not particularly complex or interesting by my current standards: most importantly, he uses a wide variety of attacks that are both directly and indirectly offensive, and his stats are fine-tuned to my personally-suggested guideline of, "make the fight just hard enough that you, the developer can beat it, but only barely, and then dial it back a notch". But even this is just scratching the surface of what really makes the fight tick.
At their core, battles in RPGs are nothing more than a balancing act of priorities. At their most simplistic, those priorities are defense and offense. Will my character be able to survive another hit? If not, then heal, else attack. A third priority often comes into play in the form of a limited resource, most commonly MP for magical abilities, that might force you to think one more turn ahead. You can see right away that this isn't particularly deep, especially when that third priority isn't stressed hard enough either because MP is so plentiful or consumable items are so abundant to the point of never being an issue (extra demerits if said items are just as good as or better than any character-specific abilities that they imitate). Sadly, many RPGs are comprised of battles which are barely if at all evolved beyond the point of "hit the bad guy until it dies" - unsurprisingly, such games tend to be regarded by their fans for their stories rather than for their gameplay. I've stated in the past that status effects are the "X-Factor" separating an interesting battle system from a pure numbers game, and this is where we dive head-first into that concept at work. By expanding the above list of priorities to include both positive and negative effects on the player character as well as the opponent, suddenly there's a lot more to juggle.
Indeed, Atma Weapon is a battle where negative statuses are applied liberally to the player while positive ones are periodically stripped by force. Atma himself gains status buffs halfway through the fight that the player can opt to remove. However, this is immediately followed up by a particularly devastating attack that will require action to recover from, thus effectively dividing the player's attention. Initially, these buffs were a one-time application which would simply reward any player who thought to remove them; the only significant change that Atma has seen in the last six years was my realization that a "set and forget" approach to this particular element meant that it didn't end up factoring into the player's list of priorities. In order for those buffs to be part of the great balancing act, they had to be a persistent factor throughout the fight, and thus a new core mechanic of the battle is preemptively dispelling those buffs at set intervals.
The final ingredient in what makes the battle with Atma Weapon particularly rough is his inherent ability to regenerate health. That it makes the battle more challenging is obvious, but it's again important to note why. Looking at the player's list of priorities, we see now quite a few things: offense, healing, resource management, buffs and debuffs... but this can all still be simplified to "get on your feet and then attack", meaning that the player can adopt a heavily defensive approach to greatly minimize the risk of defeat. With the enemy afforded the capability to heal, however, offense can no longer be completely de-prioritized and becomes woven into the fight's balancing act in a way that it otherwise wouldn't. Other fights in Brave New World take different approaches to this problem, most notably Phunbaba's "rage timer" that earns the player a face full of Blow Fish if they go for too long without attacking, regardless of how powerful that attack is.
So, where does good boss design have to go from here? We must look past offense simply existing as a single priority and break it down into several of them, else offense is a simple matter of "hit the bad guy with the strongest attack you have" since there's generally no benefit in not using the strongest attack available. This is a concept that the original game attempted to explore with "wallchange" bosses which would periodically shift their elemental weaknesses at random while gaining immunity to every other element. Unfortunately, it didn't quite pan out as they'd hoped since players found it preferable to simply ignore the gimmick by spamming non-elemental attacks. Even when Brave New World took this concept one step further by preventing non-elemental damage and thus forcing the mechanic on the MagiMaster boss, the result was more of a gear check than an interesting or challenging fight. So clearly, there was a flaw to this approach.
Enter Kaiser, king of the dragons and famous dummied-out boss from the original game who finally got his global debut as one of many questionable additions to the GBA re-re-release of Final Fantasy VI. He also appears in Brave New World as a third "wallchange" boss who somehow ended up even less interesting than the two who preceded him. Of all the boss fights to get a complete rewrite in 2.0, none were as significant or as needed as Kaiser's, which basically takes the "wallchange" gimmick and makes it proactive instead of reactive. The elemental premise still exists here, but rather than waiting in boredom for a weakness to present itself the player must instead actively cycle through their available attacks in order to prevent Kaiser from unleashing its real ultimate power. It's an extremely hectic fight that, moreso than any other in Brave New World, tests the player's ability to balance multiple priorities if they are to have any hope of pulling through.
And for the closest thing that Brave New World has to an optional superboss, I would accept no less.
At some point in every game developer's career, they are legally required to write an essay explaining why Super Metroid is the gold standard of game design, because when a game is so groundbreaking that it names an entire genre, it deserves to be examined. While my previous article took a look at Final Fantasy VI and pointed out a long list of game design "don'ts", this one is going to tackle the "do's". But instead of following same format as the FF6 article, I'm going to start out with a single point - the thesis of this piece, if you will - and then I'll spend the rest of my time coming back around to it.
"People like playing games, but they don't like being reminded that the game was designed by someone."
Now, that's going to sound kind of hypocritical coming from me given how much Brave New World leans on the fourth wall, but there's a huge difference between the initial impact of that statement and what I'm actually talking about here. Self-awareness in games is not a bad thing - the greatest thing about Hideo Kojima (or, for a more contemporary example, Toby Fox) is his unrivaled ability to remain one step ahead of the player, anticipate their actions, and react accordingly. Although my point does concern the narrative of your game as much as it does the mechanics, the intended takeaway is that it should always be the player initiating the action rather than the game itself.
Of course, a game does need to give the player some direction or else you end up either lost or, in the worst case scenario, with what Penny Arcade once referred to as a "quicksand box". The goal is to direct players without making them aware of the fact. Playing a game is a personal experience, and so players are naturally inclined to want to make the game their own. Being a part of someone else's vision places you in a box with restrictions and limitations, so it's of great importance that those limitations are kept hidden from the player at all costs. It's because of this that I prefer to avoid "artificial" boundaries wherever possible, such as an invisible wall at the edge of a map or a game that's designed for the player to hit a hard level cap instead of a "soft" one. Anything that highlights a limitation in what the game is or has to offer will pull a player out of the experience just as much (and arguably more) than a bad joke will, and the best-designed games are the ones that make you feel like no matter how much you've discovered, there's always something more just out of reach.
So, back to Metroid. The original game pioneered the ideas of open-world exploration, upgrades that open up new areas in addition to making you more powerful, and backtracking through old areas to access the new ones. It dropped the ball quite a bit due to the hardware limitations of the time - the entire game was a whopping 128 kilobytes - and the fact that it was the first of its kind. There were only a few upgrades that allowed further progression and so a lot of the world opened up very quickly, leading players to get lost more easily. This was compounded by the repetitive map design that, again, existed due to hardware limitations. Damningly, the game failed to telegraph its secrets well and made the fatal error of gating progression (which will be discussed just below) behind one such secret.
(Fun side note: did you know that the origin of Samus's iconic "morph ball" is that the developers of the original game couldn't be assed to come up with a "crawling" animation that wouldn't set the NES processor on fire? Goes to show you how good ideas can be born out of limitations, even if that limitation is laziness.)
See, there's a difference between figuring something out from a clue and being given no clues whatsoever and stumbling across the answer by, as Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw once put it, "...carting a truckload of miscellaneous knick knacks around, patiently rubbing them all one by one against everything else in the hope of hopping on to the train of logic unique to the game's designer." One gives a sense of accomplishment, and the other is literally brute-forcing your way through every possible option until you land on the right one. Super Metroid made an important compromise in this regard by adding a map system, which in the hands of lesser developers would ruin the core exploration aspect of the game but was instead used to great effect to hint at the game's secrets rather than laying them bare. Compare how the entrance to Kraid's Lair is discovered in Super Metroid by means of the in-game map system revealing its location, but not how to get there, to the original game requiring you to bomb nondescript tiles at random to find your way into lower Norfair.
One might be critical of Super Metroid's above-mentioned approach for making things a little too easy to figure out, but bear in mind that this occurs very early in the game in what can still be considered to be its "tutorial" segment. Later puzzles are more subtle, such as the broken glass tube in Maridia hinting at the player to blow up the other one in order to continue(*). The important thing to note is that the game never flat-out tells you where to go, but rather invites the player to explore the path leading forward through its level design. Where the original game stumbled with this by opening up too much of the game too soon, Super Metroid presents new players with a deceivingly linear path for its first act, only opening up the bulk of its world after it's taught you how to properly explore it.
(*The Mandela Effect shows up here seeing as a lot of people - myself included - recall the game pulling a Hideo Kojima on this one by showing off the solution in its "attract mode", which it doesn't. It does, however, act as a comprehensive tutorial of the game's basic and intermediate mechanics for a new player, which is pretty damn ingenous.)
Of specific note in the above paragraph is the term "new" players. In the beginning of its second act, Super Metroid teaches you two tricks - not by text, but by literal example - that can be used to break the game. And while there's nothing that kids enjoy more than breaking things, what's extremely important is that at no point were we actually told to do so. The game simply gives you a pair of neat tricks that the astute player will realize can be used to skip the game's "intended" sequence of events. And one of the most beautiful things about Super Metroid is the ambiguity about where the line lies between what its developers intended and what paths the players have since forged for themselves.
Now, contrast the next two games in the series. Fusion looked at how Super Metroid could be broken, scoffed, and then proceeded to railroad you so Goddamn hard that you had to cough up two hundred dollars every time you landed on it. Following massive fan backlash, the following game went to the opposite extreme but continued using the same flawed method of heavy-handed delivery. Rather than taking Super Metroid's subtle approach, Zero Mission beat you over the head with both directions and sequence breaking tools to the point of requiring them to get the best ending - which really begs consideration of whether it even qualifies as sequence breaking if the developers overtly intend for you to do it.
One thing that Zero Mission shoots for with this approach, however, and succeeds in accomplishing is highlighting the "easy to learn, difficult to master" gameplay for which the series is equally known, but rarely lauded. Super Metroid is very approachable to the casual player, but it is one of the most brutally unforgiving games ever when played for score. And that specific word is very important, because the idea of score as a measure of performance in games has been a joke since the early 90's. The modern era has seen "challenge" runs, often of the self-imposed variety, replacing the bragging rights of yore from holding the high score at your local arcade. Upon completing Super Metroid, it presents the player with a screen detailing the percentage of items collected and the time taken to finish, thus providing both the basis for and a means of tangibly rewarding what would otherwise be completely arbitrary challenges. More importantly, it does this without ever explicitly issuing a challenge, thus going back to my point about the difference between the game initiating action versus the player doing so. This is by far the biggest area in which Super Metroid suceeds where Zero Mission fails.
It's worth discussing the purpose of challenge in video games. Something that I've written about before is that many ROM hacks fall into the trap of making challenge their primary - and often only - notable feature. By contrast, Brave New World was developed to focus primarily on the fun of character development while its challenge is simply a means to an end: an obstacle that warrants that development to overcome. A good game is designed as a vehicle to present the player with opportunities to use the tools they're given, while a great game creates a seamless divide between the level of skill with those tools it demands in order to complete it and the level of skill that it inspires in order to master it.
A good (albeit not infallible) litmus test for how well-designed a game is in this particular aspect is to look at how many of its tools, skills, and/or abilities remain useful in its final stages. A proper climax should be a culmination of everything that you've learned in a game up to that point, testing all of your skills and knowledge in more complex and varying ways than before. A typical role-playing game will fail this test miserably: players spend the entire game collecting a plethora of skills and abilities only to spend its closing moments spamming nothing but the strongest ones. The idea of "situational" skills that are only useful when the circumstances allow are often overlooked by developers and players alike, leading to games (RPGs most egregiously) that marginalize them since the ones that aren't situational end up being all that you ever need.
The Metroid series as a whole avoids the above-mentioned issue entirely by designing the game around the core concept of Samus's abilities as a means of both combat and exploration. Going back to the "challenge" aspect mentioned above, it's entirely possible to complete Super Metroid with only a handful of its upgrades, but doing so requires great skill and mastery of the ones you do collect. And even on a casual level, the "fun" of any Metroid game is primarily derived from two sources: exploration and the player's movement. These two things go hand in hand; backtracking through previously-explored areas in order to progress is one of the chief defining characteristics of the Metroidvania genre, which in turn draws extra scrutiny to the means by which the game is traversed. Done poorly, this can be seen as padding meant to artificially increase the game's runtime. Done well, however, a combination of tight player controls and well-crafted level design can turn traversing old terrain with new abilities or from a different perspective into a completely fresh experience.
Another thing that Super Metroid is particularly well-known for is the laconic nature of its player character; aside from a brief introduction at the outset of the game to set the stage, Samus does not speak at all and the entirety of the game's plot is presented through subtext. Now, I'm of the opinion that stories in video games are like panties: they can be interesting, but I'm much more interested in what they're covering up. Super Metroid, for all of its sparsity, managed to present one of gaming history's most memorable plot twists completely inline with its gameplay. Eight years later, Metroid Fusion showed us why Samus should never be allowed to speak. Fast-forward another eight years and Other M showed us that nobody on Nintendo's current writing staff should be allowed to eat with a fork.
In summary, Super Metroid highlights something I believe to be not only a good game design principle, but a valuable life lesson, as well: show, don't tell. People will rise to far greater heights if simply given the tools and encouragement to do so rather than being explicitly shown the way. It was true in 1994, and it's still very true now 25 years later. Case in point, this article that been floating around in my head for awhile now, and it was playing a certain modern game that manages to encapsulate and build upon so much of what made Super Metroid great that inspired me to get off my ass and write it. And what more could an artist possibly hope for if not for their work to inspire others?
(Oh, yeah... groupie sex. Definitely the groupie sex.)
In light of the upcoming version 1.10 of Brave New World, I figured now would be a better time than ever to finally write that follow-up article to the one I wrote about the nature of modding. This time, I'll be talking about game design as a whole, using inherent flaws in Final Fantasy VI that are addressed in Brave New World as key talking points. I'm going to state up-front that you don't spend seven years underneath the hood of anything without developing a resentment towards the people whose mess you're cleaning up, but I'm going to forgo my usual vitriol towards Squaresoft here in favor of remaining as objective as possible... and in the process hopefully imparting upon y'all at least something I've learned in the last seven years.
Intent is three-fifths of bad game design
We'll start on an easy point, but a very important one nonetheless. If you ask most anyone what makes Final Fantasy VI a bad game he or she will invariably respond by citing one or more of its three most infamous bugs: the Sketch glitch, the evasion bug, and/or the Vanish/Doom bug. Although all three of these are serious problems in definite need of repair, none of them are indicative of poor gameplay design (although a case could definitely be made for poor coding in the case of the Lovecraftian Sketch routine). They are nothing more than mere programming errors.
Let's make a comparison. On one hand, we have the above-mentioned evasion bug, which causes the physical evasion stat to do literally nothing due to an incorrect ASM pointer. On the other, we have the "stamina" stat, which does practically nothing due to being deliberately designed that way. One of these things is an honest mistake; the other is a bad idea.
If we examine the sizeable number of hacks available for FF6, we'll notice that those which fix the above-mentioned bugs are the most popular - and with good reason. But nearly none of them, Brave New World being the only example that I can name, address the fact that three of the four core stats in the game are virtually useless by design. And it's extremely easy for people, particularly those who view the game through nostalgia goggles, to fail to realize that repairing its bugs does not do anything to address its more fundamental underlying issues: the ones that are there on purpose.
Don't invalidate your own systems
Final Fantasy VI is, by both its narrative and mechanical design, a game where magic reigns supreme over all else. Of the above-mentioned core stats, the only one that functions to any worthwhile degree is magic power. Even Sabin, the game's resident "monk" archetype - a class known for being bare-fisted fighters with no magical powers to speak of - is ultimately reliant on his magic power rather than his strength due to his ultimate skill being a "magic" attack. And this isn't because the attack itself is actually magical in any way - it's flagged as such solely because the game's physical damage formula does not mechanically allow for a physical attack meaningfully more powerful than the ones that Sabin starts out with.
At their core, games are basically a series of interlocked mechanics designed with the intent of being fun to play with, or failing that at least mildly interesting. One of the biggest mistakes that a game can make - and one that this game is particularly guilty of - is allowing poor design choices to render one or more of these systems moot. In this case, the decision for physical combat to be useless in the face of magic negatively affects every other mechanic that ties into it, which is quite a few of them given that damage formulas are, understandably, a core component of the game.
Let's look at equipment for example. Armor isn't in a terrible place because defense actually does work in FF6, so there's at least a reason to want to put the stuff on (even if 90% of the time it's just a matter of picking the option that automatically equips whatever has the most defense). Some armor can also boost stats in addition to providing defense, but we really don't care unless they include one of the two "god" stats: magic power or magic evasion. So while we can definitely see the effect of useless stats in play here, it's really not as bad as it could be.
Weapons, on the other hand, feel the burn hard.
As one might expect, when the only meaningful form of combat is tossing around fireballs and lightning bolts, it really doesn't matter what the hunk of metal in your hand looks like or how strong it is. Unless it's boosting that almighty magic stat, it might as well be a moist towelette for as much good as it's going to do you. Like other characters of his ilk, Sabin wears "claw" weapons meant to reinforce his role as "he who punches things". But his special "punch stuff" attacks - even the ones that actually do physical damage - don't actually consider what he's wearing on his fists at all.
For an even worse example, we look to Cyan: an unfortunately-named samurai and perhaps the most maligned character in the original game because, unlike Sabin, his special skill is all physical damage. Since his ability is sword-related, it does actually require that he be holding a sword in order to function, but as with Sabin these skills all have their own set powers and function the exact same regardless of whether that sword is a legendary Hattori Hanzo or just some cheap garbage he bought on the Home Shopping Network. Upon defeating one of the game's penultimate bosses, you are bestowed with the most powerful katana in the game. And while that sword may do a good enough job of feeding into that all-important reward/pleasure zone in the player's brain, it's functionally identical to the one Cyan had when you met him.
Never offer a choice between fun and convenience
On the subject of equipment, we come to what is possibly the biggest design misstep in all of Final Fantasy VI: the Sprint Shoes. These were an item that, when equipped, would increase your character's abysmal walking speed to acceptable levels. Players would acquire them about an hour into the game, after which they were happily equipped and never removed because that hour was one spent watching Terra walk as if she had two pot roasts strapped to her feet.
The important thing to note about the Sprint Shoes is that increasing walking speed conveyed no combat advantages whatsoever. It did not help you get more turns, dodge better, or even help you avoid battles altogether (that last one is an entirely different can of worms altogether). Its only function was to make the game less annoying for the player at the cost of occupying an equipment slot that would otherwise be used for something that did provide a combat bonus.
It's telling that this is the only design flaw that was ever addressed in the deluge of re-releases that Squaresoft has put out over the years. Every other version of Final Fantasy VI provides a "dash" button to allow faster movement without the need for extra equipment, but curiously it does so without actually removing the Sprint Shoes, whose effects will stack with the standard dash just in case you needed to break the sound barrier or something. It becomes quickly apparent through such decisions that Squaresoft is more fond of Band-Aid solutions to problems rather than actual solutions, such as resolving the aforementioned Vanish/Doom bug by making "boss" enemies immune to being made invisible rather than addressing the mechanical problem that causes instant death attacks to ignore immunity when used on invisible targets.
(Needless to say, Brave New World adds a dash button to the game and removes Sprint Shoes. It fixes the Vanish/Doom thing properly, too.)
Just because something is long does not make it hard
To expand on the underlying problem with the Sprint Shoes, something that players and game developers alike have a difficult time understanding is that just because something takes forever to accomplish does not mean that doing so is a challenge of anything but one's patience. This is ultimately an issue with any game where your character grows stronger over time, as most any challenge can be overcome by "grinding" out more levels rather than re-evaluating your approach and adjusting your strategy. Good game design favors the latter over the former, and I won't elaborate much on that subject since my previous article already discussed my thoughts on "trial and error" gameplay at length.
That said, the answer to the "challenge vs. time investment" question lies within the consequence for failure. In a more traditional arcade-style game, such as pinball, the punishment for failure is "game over" since the entire point of those games is to see how many points a player can get before they die. However, that model doesn't translate to a game that's actually meant to be completed, especially one like Final Fantasy VI that requires several sessions to do so (unless your name is Puwexil). The consequence of failure in FF6 - or any other game with a save feature, for that matter - is time, and the "challenge" comes from whatever you have to do to get back to where you failed.
The above point is one of the biggest reasons why unskippable cutscenes, particularly those that precede a challenging encounter, are so vehemently despised by the gaming community at large, as they are the most extreme example of failing to provide any challenge whatsoever in the process of returning to the point of failure. It is thus of paramount importance in a lengthy, story-driven game like FF6 to not utilize save denial as a form of difficulty, since it ultimately inconveniences the player rather than challenging them. This is why Brave New World adds several save points to the game and would have added more had event space (and other coding issues) allowed.
Compare this to an action-oriented game like "I Wanna Be The Guy", where the only difference between difficulty levels is that the harder ones offer fewer opportunities to save your progress, thus forcing you to go back and repeat more of the game should you happen to fail (which you will). The "save denial" model works here since the game is a persistent test of skill. People who persist at the higher difficulty levels often see themselves becoming much better at the game as a result, since they are forced to practice more of the game for each failed attempt to progress.
Back to Final Fantasy, a common complaint that players have regarding Brave New World is that many bosses have a lot of health and take forever to kill. To an extent, this is warranted: bosses must be able to take enough punishment so that your own endurance is sufficiently tested and so that luck alone will not pull you through the fight. However, there is a very specific tipping point - that point being where the battle ceases to be dynamic and instead becomes repetitive - where real difficulty becomes "artificial" difficulty and an otherwise-fun boss devolves into a boring damage sponge.
The "damage sponge boss" issue is one where Brave New World admittedly struggles to hit the mark at times, and each new version strives to come closer than before. One major roadblock is a simple lack of space to make enemy AI as robust as it could be, and it's extremely important to note exactly what I mean by that. The key is variety, not just in how the enemy behaves, but in how the player should best respond to that behavior. An enemy with fifty different attacks is no more interesting than the one who only has five if the answer to all of them is just "hit it until it dies".
A good example of this is Guardian, a late-game boss that possesses the most health of any boss in Brave New World. However, it is rarely cited as an example of the aforementioned issue since Guardian is a "boss rush" fight that goes through several drastically different phases throughout the battle as it mimics the attack patterns of other bosses in the game. Contrast to a boss that either doesn't change at all or simply gets more powerful as you whittle down its health, which at its worst is a very common but far less-recognized variant of the above-mentioned unskippable cutscene.
You want to design more than a numbers game
I've got a guy, God love him, who has been one of Brave New World's biggest and most vocal supporters from its earliest days. And this guy, he loves his math. Like, a lot. Whenever I get to work on a new update (and often when I'm not), he is always there to throw numbers at me and to point out exactly which attacks on which characters can produce the highest ratio of damage over time. He even wrote out a formula to help him calculate these numbers on the fly. But with each passing version of the mod, there is more added to it that his "magic" formula simply can't account for.
And that's the point. You know what's fun? Games. You know what's not? Math. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that, a key point of good game design is doing your best to make one that can't be solved by a magic formula.
Once upon a time, I watched a man play through Brave New World. And this man was known for, among other things, his tendency to power-level his way through games (the above-mentioned "grinding" issue) well beyond the point of them providing any reasonable challenge whatsoever. And as I watched him play through the end of the game with a team of over-developed characters all pimped out with equipment that prevented enemies from afflicting them with status ailments, I thought to myself, "...this is quite possibly the most boring thing I've ever witnessed."
Status ailments are a staple of turn-based RPGs and the primary "X-factor" that can't be accounted for when looking at raw numbers alone. Anyone who's ever played Pokemon might recognize things like blindness, paralysis, and confusion as one of the biggest mechanics separating an interesting game from "hit the other guy until either he dies or he kills you". However, Pokemon is a rare example of a game where, primarily due to its one-on-one combat system, status effects were implemented and handled well. More commonly in games that possess them, they are either ridiculously overpowered to the point of being exploitative, or useless on the whole since they won't work against anything you'd want to use them against and they (usually) don't work on you since the game hands out ways to defend yourself against them like candy.
It's thus a very harrowing tightrope that status effects must walk in order to be a relevant part of game design without completely running away with it. One half of the equation is a simple answer: enemies should make frequent use of them against your characters and there should be no (or very limited) catch-all methods of completely avoiding them. The other half is a bit more tricky. In order for status effects to truly have a place in a player's arsenal, three things must be true:
One, there must exist enemies which are threatening enough that the player would want to disable them to make fighting them easier (or even possible).
Two, those enemies must also be durable enough that you can't simply dispatch them through direct offense in the same amount of time. Similarly, disabling them should not consume more resources than direct offense would.
Three, and perhaps most obviously, disabling your opponent should have a reasonable chance of success. This means that enough enemies must be vulnerable to status effects that players will consider using them.
With respect to that third point, it's important to consider exactly how disabling a given status effect is. In Final Fantasy VI, the majority of them are completely debilitating while the rest don't actually do anything due to either bugs or poor design. FF6 commits a particularly egregious sin by making many of its bosses vulnerable to the former type, thus making it an inexplicable example of both wrong ways to handle status effects. Rather, the statuses that stop your enemies dead in their tracks should only work on some regular enemies (about half is a good rule of thumb) and only in boss battles when there are several of them - and even then not on them all. By contrast, the weaker statuses should be resisted uncommonly or not at all, and ideally should be worked into boss battles where possible to make them more interesting.
Bad design giveth, and good design taketh away
One of the less fun aspects of being a modder of poorly-designed games is that it often feels like taking a flamethrower away from a child after a lazy developer handed it to them and told them to go nuts. Remember that quip I made earlier about how Sprint Shoes don't actually help you avoid battles? Well, there just so happens to exist a well-known piece of "hidden" equipment in the game that does exactly that: the Moogle Charm. In what I consider to be a flat-out admission by Squaresoft that FF6's battle system was not entertaining, they put in a way to negate it entirely. And you'd be amazed (or maybe you wouldn't) at how many players are upset to see it gone in Brave New World.
I promised myself that I wasn't going to rip off Mark Rosenwater's Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons speech in this article, but at this point I need to bring it up. In his speech (which I highly recommend watching), Mark talks about the emotional impact that games have on players, and it's through that impact that they become fans. Players want to feel empowered, and nothing has the exact opposite effect on them more than taking away something that's ridiculously overpowered and shouldn't have been there in the first place. Some people will argue that if players didn't want to use it, they wouldn't, but I'll just cut right to the chase on this one and say that self-control is a terrible thing to balance your game around.
On a similar note, Mark also cites the process of film editing, stating "...no scene is worth a line and no movie is worth a scene. If it's not serving the film as a whole, it needs to go." And just as with films, the editing portion of game design is a very important one that is too often overlooked in favor of the "quantity over quality" mentality that Squaresoft is particularly guilty of. There are many things in Final Fantasy VI that are too overpowered for their own good and far more that do nothing at all, and players will complain about removing content if you take any of it out.
But you should. Everything in your game should have a purpose, or else it needs to go. "Less is more" is a philosophy that I live by, and as such it's almost always better to look at doing what you can with what you have than try to add more.
It's all about choices
The concept of "fun" in a game, or at least one that favors strategy over dexterity and/or stamina, can ultimately be boiled down to a single word: choice. Choice is what drives a game like Final Fantasy VI if it wants to be anything more than a 16-bit movie where you occasionally have to press "A" to progress. It's also where FF6 drops the ball the hardest, despite providing an illusion to the contrary.
Final Fantasy VI boasted the largest cast of characters of any JRPG of its time, each with their own unique stats and skills, and the possibilities to customize them through the game's esper system, not to mention its vast array of weapons and armor, seemed almost limitless. But the holes in this facade were already discussed at length earlier: stats do nothing, magic was the only thing worth focusing on, and the esper system allows every character to learn any spell that they want, thus rendering the cast entirely homogeneous. For there to exist meaningful choice in a game, there must be a difference in what you are choosing from. "Diversity" isn't just a corporate buzzword: it's the spice that brings games like Final Fantasy to life. And by restricting access to which characters can use which espers, Brave New World provides meaningful choices to the player that didn't exist in the original game.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but restrictions on the choices you make are what make them choices in the first place. If you were offered a million dollars with absolutely no drawbacks whatsoever, then it's not exactly a choice, now is it? The same would be true if you were given the choice between one of a dozen different options, all of which were equally terrible or useless. Final Fantasy VI, again, manages to do both of these things. I draw much of my inspiration from games such as the original Final Fantasy or the Might & Magic series, where you select a party of characters at the outset of the game and how it progresses varies wildly depending on that initial choice. And that constant, nagging thought of the "road not taken" is what lures a player back in to your game after they've finished it, and often times even before that.
"Replay value" is a term that gets thrown around a lot with regards to video games, and with good reason: you want to get the most out of that fifty bucks you dropped on them, after all. It's because of this that I for so long resisted the addition of a "respec" system in Brave New World, where players can wipe a character clean in the late-game and rebuild them with different espers. If a choice can be so easily undone, I reasoned, then the player would not feel their lasting impacts and the choice itself would therefore be meaningless. I eventually acquiesced on the condition that this process be made to cost resources - an apparent violation of my "time consumption is not difficulty" rule, but appropriate in this case since the investment of time would cause a player to rethink an attempt to rebuild their characters frivolously.
Partial information is a sin
What ultimately tipped my hand and convinced me to go along with the "respec" system was the notion that players were unlikely to replay a ROMhack like Brave New World as they would an ordinary game, and that new players would not know enough about the game as they progressed through it to make truly educated decisions about how to develop their characters. While I still don't entirely agree with this reasoning, it does segue well into my next point.
Players make choices based on the information they have, and lacking that information, will be forced to do so blindly. Failing to provide players with the resources they need to make intelligent decisions will reduce your game to "guess how many fingers I'm holding up", which is rarely anyone's idea of fun. It's a less-extreme example of a "leap of faith" in a more action-oriented game, wherein players are forced to progress literally by making jumps that they have no possible way of knowing whether or not they will survive.
In ye olden times, RPGs would frequently come packaged with "feelies" such as manuals, fold-out maps, and various charts of information that could not be easily provided in-game due to technical limitations. Brave New World includes such peripherals, but in addition also modifies the game's shopping interface to severely limit the amount of up-front information the player is given about items. "Why", you ask? Because the partial information that was provided in the original is far worse than providing none at all.
Prior to the hack devised for Brave New World's 1.10 release which allows players to review all of the relevant information about an item prior to purchase, we initially deliberately provided none at all. The key is that in providing players only with partial information, they are not aware of what they are not being told and will make uninformed decisions based on what they do know. If a player is instead told nothing, they know that there is information they don't know and will (generally) choose to seek it out.
Put me in, Coach!
Speaking of characters and decisions that aren't necessarily permanent, we come to an issue that has plagued almost every game, or at the very least every RPG, that has ever allowed you to change your characters at will throughout. "Benchwarmer Syndrome" as I like to call it is a problem that it often addressed in games, but almost never successfully. The dilemma is simple: "how do I encourage players to partake of every character they are given control of instead of favoring a selected few while ignoring the others?" Perhaps a better question is "should I?"
Now, in a game like Super Mario Bros. 2, where your characters do not become any more powerful through continued use, this isn't a problem: you simply select a character for each stage whose unique talents best suit your approach. But in basically any RPG ever, the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker is a severe problem. Final Fantasy VI is a notable example due to its exceptionally large cast: twelve characters (plus two hidden characters, bringing us to a total of fourteen) with only four of them being controllable at any given time. Squaresoft's answer in the case of FF6 was to provide "leaked" experience to all inactive characters so that everyone grows more powerful regardless of whether or not they are actively used combined with a final stage that forces you to utilize all twelve of them concurrently. It's not a bad solution, all said and done, but it is a double-edged sword.
The inherent issue with leaked experience is that it equally encourages NOT using your benched characters since they will grow with or without your help and players tend not to use benched characters unless they're forced to. Other games have tried more innovative approaches, such as the "wagon" in Dragon Warrior IV allowing your benched characters to replace active ones at a moment's notice (a great idea in theory, but under-developed in practice) or Breath of Fire III's "master" system encouraging the use of your "B" team with masters whose primary benefits (stat gains) did not mesh with your favorite characters but whose secondary benefits (new skills) could ultimately benefit them. Notably, BoF3's cast was also half the size of FF6's with a much more favorable ratio (2:1) of total characters to those allowed in your current team.
Ultimately, we chose to forgo leaked experience with Brave New World both to encourage the varied use of a cast that is now actually as diverse as it claimed to be in the original game, as well as the fact that the way it utilizes espers to further develop characters beyond mere basic growth sort of has to be done the old-fashioned way of actually using those characters in battle. However, that's not to say that our answer is the right one. Unlike every other topic I've brought up thus far, I'm not offering a solution to this one: just thinking points. How a game chooses to handle this problem ultimately rests on the answers to many other questions, all of which this article has gone on far too long to get into now.
Above all else, have fun
At last, we get to the absolute most important aspect of game design there is: make the game that you want to play and have fun while you're doing it. My favorite piece of advice to give anyone in their creative endeavors is to stay true to your own vision, and others will follow. If you make your game trying to please anyone other than yourself, then it will fail.
To that end, it's readily apparent to anyone who plays Brave New World that it's a hack created first and foremost to amuse its creators. While we receive occasional frequent criticism for some of the jokes and referential humor it contains, what is never contested is how funny I thought a joke was when I wrote it. People can tell the difference between someone who is making a joke because they're trying to be funny and someone who makes a joke because they are genuinely amused by it. Understand the truth in that, and you will understand the key to winning peoples' hearts.
In the end, making a game is just like being a rock star: if you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.
(And also, if you're really good at it, you get groupie sex.)
Hello, my name is BTB, co-creator and designer of Final Fantasy VI: Brave New World. And like anyone with a job or hobby that attracts an audience, there are certain questions that tend to come up a lot to me in my capacity as a modder of video games... certain "frequently-asked questions", if you will. Today, I would like to take a moment to answer some of the most common/pressing of them.
Why don't you just make an original game?
Of all the questions modders are asked, this is easily the most offensive as it both belittles and completely misses the point of our craft. It's like asking someone who enjoys restoring classic cars why they don't just make their own. I'll talk about this in a bit more detail further below, but the short answer is that improving on an existing idea is an entirely different task from forming a new one and, more importantly, is no more or less valid a form of artistic expression because of it.
Why did you change "X" thing?
Game mods face a somewhat unique obstacle in that, unlike an original game, they are expected to justify their own existence. Design decisions are generally not scrutinized in a "vanilla" game to the degree they are in a mod, which makes a certain amount of sense given that players are actively looking for changes in the latter no matter how much its creator wishes they would treat it like the former. It's kind of like dealing with people who can't enjoy a movie because they're too busy comparing absolutely everything about it to the book.
Modders take note: no matter how stupid, arbitrary, or poorly thought-out anything in a base game is, no matter how minuscule or insignificant, someone will question your decision to change it. I've had people ask me why I changed the names of certain enemies in Brave New World when their original names were literal nonsense words so unremarkable that nobody (including the person asking) remembers what they were. And you can fall back on logic or reason all you want to justify your actions, but ultimately the answer will be "because I didn't like what it was before and wanted to change it". And one of the most important things to learn as a modder is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Why DIDN'T you change "X" thing?
Contrary to the above, the answer to this one is usually, "I couldn't". Modding is frequently bound by the restrictions of the source material or by how deep into the code we are able to dig, and things that may seem to the outside observer to be an easy copy/paste job often aren't. Also, do assume that modders (or at least good modders) have put a lot of thought into their final product and have considered all of the potential implications of even a seemingly small change.
That said, ask away - I've made countless changes to my mods based on player feedback pointing out something I just hadn't thought of, and at the very least you're likely to get an interesting piece of developer insight in response.
Why would you mod a game that you don't like?
As the designer of a prominent Final Fantasy VI mod, it often confuses people to learn that I am not all that fond of the original game. While some mods are created by people who are deeply in love with the game in question, these mods are rarely of good quality since their creators saw so little room for improvement. More often than not, they end up veering into bad fanfiction territory and/or falling victim to the philosophy of adding more stuff just to have more stuff with absolutely zero regard for how well any of it fits in or concern for existing content (AKA "Squaresoft Design Theory 101").
This is not to say that good modders hate the games that they are working on; something obviously had to draw them in, after all. But I've come to realize that too much reverence for the game you're working with tends to prevent good or even necessary changes for fear of breaking from the traditional and familiar - this mentality is the reason I am often bitched at for fixing legitimate bugs and exploits. Good mods are ideally born from an attachment to an idea (or ideas) by people with a vision of their full potential and, more often than not, a certain degree of frustration toward their flawed execution that keeps them from realizing that potential. And this frustration - something generally lacking in people who are already happy with games the way they are - is what drives us to make a better game.
On trial and error...
So, this is neither a question nor a complete sentence and it pertains to game design as a whole rather than just modding, but it's an important topic to discuss here given the prevalence of "kaizo" hacks out there in contrast to an audience that is generally more accustomed to modern game design. For those unfamiliar, the term "kaizo" comes from the name of one of the earliest known hacks of its kind: a Super Mario World ROMhack that utilized extreme difficulty as a form of comedy, winding up as a sort of self-directed schadenfreude. This was an extension of the very first such games - a trilogy of Super Mario Bros. hacks called Syobon Action or "Cat Mario" - whose difficulty stemmed entirely from their "puzzle" elements which murdered the player in increasingly ridiculous ways for taking the most logical course of action, thus forcing a purely "trial and error" method of gameplay that (along with the racist sprite hacks of yore) has since gone on to stigmatize modding as a whole. The term is now used to describe any ROMhack of difficulty sufficient to warrant pure trial-and-error gameplay and tends to be freely (and often unfairly) used to describe mods that introduce difficulty of any kind.
It's because of the above that Brave New World shies away from the "difficulty hack" label altogether, but it tends to draw arguments from players who (correctly) realize that it is, in fact, much harder than the original game. My personal take is that there seems to be some degree of resistance to the idea that the player should be made to think, that the game is a puzzle meant to be figured out rather than a mere interactive viewing experience. What some players label "punishment" is to me simply a part of the learning process. Learning involves experimentation, which by its very nature equates to trial and - more often than not - error. Brave New World was designed with the expectation that players would frequently die and be forced to rethink their approach to certain battles, but comparisons to games designed to make the player suffer are inaccurate and something that we wish to avoid.
There seems to be a commonly-held notion that a good game should be easily beatable by a blind player ("blind" in the figurative sense, not literal) without failure and that anyone who thinks otherwise is one of those "Dark Souls" weirdos. There is little acknowledged middle ground between games requiring no effort whatsoever and those specifically designed to be unfair, which from my experience manifests primarily as an unwillingness to experiment. Again using Brave New World as an example, one of its major design philosophies is that the random encounter system should pose a challenge to the player's abilities to figure out how to deal with them quickly and efficiently, or else they exist for no other reason than to waste the player's time. A big part of this is a wide variety of enemy weaknesses and resistances so that no one attack or tactic is universally effective, thus forcing the player to adapt to each individual encounter.
Sounds good, yeah?
The result of the above design, however, brings to mind the cautionary advice of Mark Rosenwater against fighting human nature. It's become somewhat of a meme in the Brave New World community for a new player to complain that "X thing is useless because everything is immune to it", with that "X thing" usually being wind damage. And it's not that this statement is even remotely true (approximately 15% of enemies in Brave New World resist wind damage) so much as that players are so rarely forced to attempt different strategies in the original game's design and are very quickly discouraged from doing so at the first sight of failure. The unfortunate ultimate result of this phenomenon is a refusal to move away from "tried and true" tactics even when they fail, with players stubbornly attempting the same thing over and over again rather than trying something new (which, by the way, is the definition of insanity).
And that's it for now. Perhaps in the future I'll do a "part two", but these are the questions that have been stuck in my head for awhile and itching to get out. Thanks for reading, and remember that modders are just people who perform a labor of love for no reward other than the hope that our work makes the world a better (or at least funner) place.
(Or get us laid. That's pretty nice.)
Let's talk about modding. No, I don't mean stuff like Skyrim or New Vegas mods, I mean the kind of stuff we host here on NGPlus: modified versions of your favorite old school games. Modding isn't simple, but it's not impossible either, as the downloads section shows. I've been seeing a lot of threads pop up lately, each with their own misconceptions about how modding is done, so I figured now would be a good time to talk about it.
Before I go any farther, this is something that has to be said. No one will make your mod for you. All of us who mod or hack these games do so because we love the game in question. Most games are pretty simple nowadays, and others have a few imperfections, but if polished could have shined like a diamond. We do what we do in order to shine these games to something closer to perfection. We do not do it for attention, or for recognition.
First and foremost, you need to figure out the scope of your mod. You need to figure out what kind of mod you want. You have to have some kind of vision. Do you want a difficulty mod? Do you want to rebalance the game and get rid of that one ability (or bring it more in line with the others) that makes everything really easy? You need to be able to answer these questions. You may not know exactly what kind of mod when you start. This is okay, just keep in mind that the lack of a vision will spell death for your project in the long run. Scope Creep is a very real concern, and something you always need to be aware of.
This next one is possibly the most important thing to understand: Time. Modding a game is a huge time commitment; it's not something that will be finished quickly. Any good mod has months, sometimes years of work put into it. Taking breaks is fine; no one will fault you for that, but this is something that needs to be understood. As a result, burn outs are a very real concern. Take breaks.
Alright, now that we have that out of the way, let's get into how you're actually going to mod your game. I'm going to list off the different tools you can use to accomplish this from the simplest to the most complex.
Thankfully, we have a wide range of tools at our disposal. The simplest and most popular of these are game editors. These are not universal, as no two games have exactly the same code. The quickest way to find one would probably be to use Google. For your benefit, I'll list off some popular games that we know to have functioning editors.
Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy [I-VII]
Golden Sun: The Lost Age
Dragon Warrior [1-4]
Ghosts n' Goblins
Fire Emblem  – The Sacred Stones
Super Mario World
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
There are, of course, more than I've listed here, but you can do some research and find them rather easily. Zophar's Domain has a ton of them.
There are, however, times when a game does not have an editor. What do you do then? Well, at this point it's a lot more difficult if your game doesn't have documentation. Either way, at this point you need to rely on a few other tools.
Hex Editors are basically what you're going to be hacking the game with. It basically opens the ROM or ISO and allows you to go in and edit the bytes of data (displayed in hexadecimal form) contained within. I won't go into this too much, as there are many, many resources available to you via Google. My preferred hex editor is HxD, if you're curious.
Tile Molester is more for palette editing than tweaking the actual game. It essentially converts hex values to a color map. Each hex value corresponds to a different color. You can import palettes to make it easier. I'll be the first to say that editing color palettes via Tile Molester is a massive pain, as some of our modders can attest to.
See how that has "Patch" and "X" to the left and right of the usual title? That's done with Tile Molester.
Another thing to note is that you cannot load an ISO itself into Tile Molester, only ROMs. You can, however, extract files from the ISO and load them in Tile Molester. That's how you edit item icons or World Map Ramza in Final Fantasy Tactics.
Let me just say right now that disassemblers are currently out of my league. I don't use them, because I don't know Assembly, the language that these games are coded in. If you don't know Assembly, you're not gonna get anything out these. Essentially, a disassembler allows you to track the data being called by the game so that you can find the bytes you're looking for easier. They're highly advanced.
I'd like to also add that if your game doesn't have an editor or extensive documentation, a disassembler is really your only option, because unless you know what bytes to change in a hex editor, you're not going to be modding anything.
As you can see, modding isn't something you can get done in five minutes with no effort. It's a process. You will never know everything when you begin; you will learn more modding your game than you ever could by playing it. Anyone who has a mod on here will tell you that.
Modding is fun, though. It's like breathing new life into a piece of your childhood to share with others. Always remember that no one here started modding knowing exactly what to do. We all started from the same place: with that one desire to make a clouded diamond shine.
We've talked about what modding a game involves, but another huge misconception I find is what constitutes a good mod. For the sake of this article, we're going to be restricting this largely to difficulty mods, for obvious reasons.
To create a good difficulty mod, you have to look at the following:
Each of these must be managed and/or worked around appropriately in order to make a good mod, and to be honest, these are largely applicable to any type of mod, not just difficulty mods.
First and foremost, a difficulty curve is absolutely essential to any kind of mod, hardtype or not.
A mod that is really tough from the get go will quickly reach the point where strategical difficulty becomes statistical difficulty, or in other words, your well thought out strategies will become simply a numbers game. Or, failing that, will reach a point where the player simply isn't enjoying themselves anymore. A huge offender of this is Phantasy Star IV: Purgatory Mode. The difficulty is very high at the beginning (characters being one shot in the first dungeon) and does not let up.
It's also very possible for your mod to be too easy as well. Ideally, you want a difficulty curve that challenges the player to step up their game, but you don't want the game to beat them into submission either.
Just as important as the difficulty curve is the type of difficulty. Difficulty is something that, in RPGs, needs to be present at all times in some way, shape, or form. How much is comfortable both depends on the mod, and the player. I'm not going to say that any one type of difficulty is superior to another, because to be quite honest it's all subjective. What you find fun may not be what another person finds fun.
Most RPG mods try to have a heavy emphasis on what I call strategical difficulty. The term is self-explanatory; the difficulty comes from the strategies you employ rather than your overall stats. Golden Sun 2: Risen Star and Final Fantasy VI: Brave New World are two mods that do this very well. This is generally a very fun type of difficulty that a lot of people who enjoy RPGs enjoy.
Some people find enjoyment in the type of statistical difficulty I mentioned before, and there's nothing wrong with that. If your mod is targeting that crowd of people, have at it, just don't expect those outside of that group to find it very fun or entertaining.
There's another type of difficulty that you generally won't see emphasized too much outside of action games: reaction-based difficulty. A really good example of this is our Megaman X Hardtype created by Hart-Hunt. The emphasis on your reaction time is displayed quite clearly in the very first level and sets the tone for the rest of the mod.
Then there are certain mods that combine all three of these: strategy, statistical, and reaction time. In this case, the statistical part of the formula is most often done through equipment choices and, if applicable, the game's job/class system.
As a side note, a concept regarding difficulty that is something of a golden rule is to never break an established "law" without telling the player. If the player has gotten used to playing a certain way (most of the time different from the original), you don't simply change that completely without giving the player some kind of clue. Teaching the player to use different strategies is well and good, but don't do something like emphasize highly aggressive play in the first 75% of the game and then completely nullify that playstyle in the last 25%. You know who you are.
Content in a mod is many things. It is the number of viable equipment and abilities, the new stuff you add to the game, and, to add onto the first, builds.
The best poster child for content I've seen has got to be, without a doubt, Brave New World. BTB and Synchysi have added a lot of things to the game, and in doing so made practically everything viable. Every piece of equipment and every ability is useful, niche or not. Every character is viable and has multiple builds, each of them with different strengths and weaknesses. This adds a lot of replayability to the mod as a result.
Something to always be cautious of, however, is overbalancing. Ideally, you want to make as many things viable as you can, but also give the player the freedom to experiment. Pigeon-holing the player into using that one ability for a given fight over all others (not to be confused with an intelligent choice of abilities for a fight) is not a good thing.
Tedium goes hand in hand with the first two points about difficulty curve and type. If you want grinding to be a necessity, that's fine. Just don't expect a lot of people to be a huge fan of your mod, because let's face it, people generally don't like tedious, arbitrary, repetitive tasks.
The key word there is "arbitrary." I'll use Final Fantasy Tactics 1.3 as an example: everything in the Deep Dungeon is level 99, but the Deep Dungeon is optional. You can complete the game without ever grinding a single point of exp or JP. However, it is not uncommon to feel like in order to compete later on in the game, you need to poach items. Poaching is exactly that: a tedious, arbitrary, repetitive task that very few people find even remotely interesting.
Brave New World (most mods that we host, really) does a very good job of this. If you fight every battle you get into, then you won't have to grind at all. If you run from battles, there's obviously going to come a point where you need to do a little grinding to keep pace.
It's always good to see that a modder has put up safeguards to deter the brute force (beating a fight with levels, not strategy) approach to a given boss fight. as well. For example, I had a situation where a mod I was designing was going through one of its first betas, and a certain tester brute forced his way past the first boss. To curb that urge, I made the ability (that he was grinding for) do significantly less damage. You can also spin this another way, and make a boss counter a particular ability with an attack that almost wipes out your entire party.
That said, you also don't want to create a situation where you're countering everything, because then it's just not fun anymore. You're just beating them into submission, which is bad, remember? Speaking on modders for a moment, there is also something to be said about how you, as a modder, try to balance around what the player may or may not do. It is a mistake to try and have complete control over what the player will do, because that stymies creativity and interesting mechanics.
"The hand of the developer should be invisible and gentle, not gigantic and shoved up your ass." - BTB, Co-creator of Brave New World
Ah, technical limitations, the bane of a modder. Anyone who has ever modded something knows all too well what these roadblocks feel like. However, all is not lost; these roadblocks are expected. As a modder, you have to find a way to work around them, as we all do.
Sometimes you work around them with mechanics, sometimes you cut to the root of the problem and change it with an Assembly hack, but regardless, you still have to get past it or your project is doomed.
Do not be afraid to ask for help. That's what we're here for.
BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma is the third installment in the BlazBlue series, following Calamity Trigger and Contimuum Shift.
BlazBlue is the spiritual successor to the Guilty Gear franchise, and, as such, is also developed by Aksys Games (also known as Arc System Works in Japan).
As a fighting game, Phantasma is in a class all its own. I don't mean it's the best fighting game out there, but I do think you'd be hard pressed to find one that could stand toe to toe with it besides Street Fighter. BlazBlue fills the void that Guilty Gear left in its wake.
Before I begin, I'd like to state that the reason I clarify that I'm reviewing the Vita version isn't because of extenuating issues with the Vita version (like with my Battle Royale review), but rather because the Vita version is awesome, and the console version has a bit -- not much, but some -- more content.
So let's check it out, shall we?
Oh, man. Where do I begin? You start out with 23 playable characters, one character unlockable by clearing Story Mode, and currently an additional four via DLC.
Each character has a distinctive battle style, there are no clone characters. The closest thing to clone characters are Relius and Carl Clover who do use the same fighting style, but they're also Father and Son. It can be argued that Hazama and Terumi have similar styles as well, but they're effectively the same person.
This doesn't just extend to how the character plays as far as commands go, some even have their own mechanics, but I'll get into that later.
This is probably one of the last things you'd expect to see in a fighting game review, but make no mistake, this game has an absolutely amazing story. The story mode of Phantasma plays out in a Visual Novel style format with some fights spread out here and there, and a few choices.
There are three different storylines, all of which are connected, and they all kept me absolutely enthralled from start to finish. Every character makes an appearance, everyone is very memorable, and the storyline itself is very, very intricate.
As a newcomer to the series I was able to dive right in and pick up most things by just following the story of Phantasma, relying on the wikia to fill in the few blanks I had left once I was done. I know I'm gushing, but I fucking loved the story.
The mechanics of Phantasma at its core are very similar to Guilty Gear and other fighting games, so I'm gonna skip the basic ones and cut to the chase.
The differing mechanics I mentioned earlier usually involve some variant of the Heat Gauge, sometimes completely replacing it. Not all characters do this, but I'm not going to talk about all of them that do. Just enough to give you sort of an idea on how it changes.
Hakumen has what's called the Magatama Meter instead of the Heat Gauge. You have up to eight Magatama, with one being generated each time the meter fills. The meter fills (slowly) by doing absolutely nothing, but of course fills faster when you're fighting. The Magatama are spent with certain attacks, all of which have a visual cue on screen. This alone drastically alters how he plays, as Magatama management becomes important.
Another example is a character that I main, Izayoi. Izayoi has two modes, her normal mode, which has a defensive playstyle, and her Gain Art mode. In her normal mode, you build Zero-Type stocks, and in Gain Art, you spend them to perform special abilities while in that mode. A lot of the special moves you spend stocks to perform in Gain Art mode you can do in normal mode, so what's the point?
Well, the point is that in Gain Art mode, a lot of your moves change and your dash is greatly enhanced, making her play very differently; it switches her from a defensive playstyle to a highly aggressive playstyle with the push of a button.
Going back to the default Heat Gauge though, it primarily serves two functions: your Distortion Drives and your Astral Heat.
Distortion Drives are your bread and butter special moves. All Distortion Drives use up 50% of your Heat Gauge to activate, and some of them change when you're in Overdrive, but I'll get to that in a minute.
Astral Heat is, basically, your fatality. Astral Heats have three conditions for activation: it must be a match-deciding round (both you and your opponent have won one round, and it's two rounds to win, for example), the enemy must have less than 35% health, and you need a full Heat Gauge. When all of these conditions are met, your character's portrait will begin to pulse, letting you know you can use your Astral Heat.
Astral Heats are instant kill moves, but more to the point they're like this game's teabag. You're not going to have a full Heat Gauge very often, and almost never under those conditions unless you're trying for it. And even if you do, it's usually more practical to fire off a combo, unless it's something like Noel's Valkyrie Veil; a counter.
Overdrive is a new mechanic in Phantasma. When activated, it increases the damage you dish out, and grants access to new moves unique to the character. Normally, this lasts around 5 seconds, with the duration increasing the lower your health is. Your Overdrive will fill up over time, so it's no longer set as in previous games.
If you're getting comboed pretty heavily and need an escape, however, you can sacrifice your Overdrive and instead use a Burst to get rid of some of that offensive pressure and knock your opponent back. Baiting Bursts is a very good strategy, since you're more susceptible to combos until it recharges.
Stylish Mode is a new addition to the game. Basically, Stylish Mode is an alternate playing style that's tailor made for people who've never played a fighting game or just outright suck at them. It makes pulling off those awesome combos much, much easier. It's for the kind of player who just wants to jump right in and have fun instead of going through the process of learning (or if you're thinking of trying out a new character; even I use Stylish from time to time).
I personally think it's a really great addition, as when it comes to multiplayer, Stylish puts you at more of a disadvantage because you're very predictable. There's really nothing bad I can say about it.
As a sidenote, the in-game tutorial is really very good, it explains all of this and much more very, very clearly.
I think this is the first time I've had a section of my review be specifically for talking about the visuals, but this game deserves it. Phantasma is an absolutely gorgeous game.
From the high-definition sprites to the vibrant, hand-drawn stages, it really makes this game stand out in comparison to contemporary 3D fighters on 2D fields.
The visuals in this game are stunning.
Phantasma definitely has no shortage of game modes, that's for sure.
In addition to your staple Arcade and V.S. Mode, there's Score Attack, but the ones I want to touch on are the Unlimited Mars, Abyss, Highlander Assault, and Challenge modes.
Unlimited Mars mode is.. well... the insane mode of this game. I started it up before writing this section just to see how it plays, and I got absolutely dominated with Noel, the character who I probably have the most time on. I'm convinced that EVO players train with a combination of this and online play.
To put it more simply, Unlimited Mars pits you against ten extremely intelligent opponents where you try to get a high score. If you're connected to PSN, you can post your scores.
Abyss Mode is something I think is pretty cool. It's basically a survival mode with RPG elements thrown in. You have four different stats -- Attack, Defense, Speed, and Heat -- that you can raise as you travel through different floors. There are several different "dungeons" to choose from. The beginning ones are ~10 fights deep, but they can go into the hundreds (possibly even the thousands).
One interesting thing is that randomly during fights, you'll be interrupted by a new challenger, in a way not altogether different from Smash Bros. When you defeat this new challenger (who has increased stats, by the way) you restore more HP than you usually would and choose from four prizes.
If you don't make it to the end of your dungeon, you only keep half the cash you gained while down there, but if you finish it, you get the full take.
Challenge Mode is pretty much what you'd expect. They're 30 missions per character with increasing difficulty levels. I wish more games would do stuff like this, because it's something that I personally really enjoy.
I know that I said I'd talk about Highlander Assault mode, but due to its spoiler nature, I'll just say that it's a fun little mode where you can fight the last boss in the story mode over and over again. It is, of course, unlocked upon completion of story mode.
As an addendum, the Network mode seems to be pretty solid as well. The Vita doesn't have a lot of players (most are on the PS3) but the netcode is done rather well; I wasn't getting much lag at all.
This game definitely has no shortage of unlockables. There's one character -- Kagura Mutsuki -- to unlock, but I really do love all of the artwork that's unlockable, and especially the character palettes. There are 24 palettes for each character; 1-6 are unlocked by default, 7-16 are unlocked by buying them in the gallery, and everything past that is DLC, though 23 and 24 are free of charge.
I really enjoy the difficulty of this game. The skill floor is low, so it's easy to get started, and the skill ceiling is really, really high, as evidenced by my crucifixion at the hands of Unlimited Mars mode.
The difficulty primarily stems from knowledge of inputs and how your opponent plays, along with execution. The inputs are precise, however not so precise that yours truly can't do it. If I can do it, anyone should be able to. I suck at fighting games.
The Bottom Line
I've looked, and looked, and looked, but I just can't find anything negative to say about this game. It's absolutely phenomenal. I always say that no game is perfect, so I never give a perfect score, but I have been proven wrong. I can't find any grievance with this game, no matter how small.
Metacritic Rating: 8.6
NGPlua Rating: 10/10
Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale (henceforth referred to as "Battle Royale" for obvious reasons), a game made by SuperBot Entertainment in conjunction with SCE Santa Monica Studio, is constantly being compared to Nintendo's hit franchise Super Smash Bros, and for good reason -- it's inspired by it.
Most of the reviews out there that I've read for this game either compare it to Smash or complain that it should be judged on its own merits. Well, the result is the same either way in my eyes, so let's take a look at it, shall we?
Battle Royale starts you out with twenty characters, with an additional four available via DLC. Some people who own a PS3 might recognize more of these characters than I did, but most of them were rather obscure to me, and even after looking them all up, I still saw a few from series I'd never even heard of.
The first one that jumped out at me personally was Raiden, followed by reboot Dante and Kratos. The rest were just kinda meh to me, but that's a rather minor nail in the coffin of this game, so let's move on.
On its own or in the realm of relativity, this game doesn't really deliver in this department. There are twenty-one items in the game, more than enough to give it some flavor and depth, but it doesn't really do anything with them. The items are more of an afterthought than anything, and don't really add any depth to the game itself, which is due in part to the gameplay mechanics, which I'll cover later.
The stages really aren't that bad. honestly. One thing I find really interesting is that after a certain amount of time, a stage from one franchise will be invaded by elements of another franchise, changing the level up a bit.
Let's take the stage Metropolis, for instance. Metropolis is based on Ratchet and Clank, with a conveyor belt, moving platforms, and some spikey deathtraps, but after a certain amount of time, the Hydra from God of War makes an appearance, adding a new environmental hazard as it can attack characters by smashing the stage with its heads and jaws.
Battle Royale has some pretty cool aesthetic unlockables, however they are sadly limited to alternate costumes. Most of these are unlocked upon reaching a certain rank (you rank up as you play games; it's not just an online thing), while some others are DLC. It was pleasing to me to play as Raiden from the first level of Metal Gear Rising before losing his right eye and one of his arms.
And now we come down to the biggest disappointment of this game, the final nail in the coffin, the gameplay. The gameplay of this game on its own is mediocre, but compared to a Smash title it's abysmal.
The first thing that jumped out at me was that the game itself feels stiff. When you're doing air combos, you don't get the feeling that you're really suspended in the air. The only thing that really feels as it should are ground combos. Dodging isn't really all that bad, nor is blocking, but the former could use a bit of work.
But there are two real reasons why I just can't play this game in addition to the stiff movement. One of them is the fact that you cannot kill someone without doing a super attack. This, in and of itself, makes this game unplayable for me. I'm told that something similar is done in Dissidia, but I've never played it so I can't really make a valid comparison in that regard.
What this single factor amounts to is me flailing around the screen, all of my attacks doing absolutely nothing except for building my super gauge, and then killing them off with my super attack. If my super attack misses or is interrupted, this process repeats itself. There is literally nothing that attacking your opponent does besides make them stagger or rag doll (obviously) and build your super gauge. It wouldn't be as bad (though nowhere near optimal) if your gauge filled more quickly the more damage they've taken.
The second factor I don't think would be anywhere near as bad on the PS3, and that's camera control. When you're on one side of the level, and someone else is on the other, the camera zooms out so far that I lose track of my character. This often culminates with seeing my marker fly across the screen because I can't see what I'm doing, and is incredibly frustrating.
This game's difficulty -- assuming you're talking about the actual difficulty setting and not the flaws in the gameplay -- isn't all that bad. I wouldn't compare it to Smash simply because in Smash it's the gameplay and the way the AI utilizes it that makes it fun, while in Battle Royale that's not really the case, but to be honest this is the least of my complaints, as you can see.
Metacritic Rating: 7.7/10
NGPlus Rating: 4.5/10
FUSE is a tactical third person shooter developed by Insomniac Games for both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. It's rather new; it just came out last month. I'd heard a lot about it from my friends, and the demo wasn't too bad, so I figured why not? FUSE isn't amazing, but it's not piss poor either. Let's take a deeper look at the title.
Movement, as most people know, in particular is a big thing in a shooter, especially a third person shooter because generally being able to move in, out of, and around cover comfortably is everything. FUSE has rather fluid movement for a TPS -- I was impressed with it. It's definitely much more fluid than the likes of Gears of War or Mass Effect.
You can run over cover or climb up walls by holding down a single button as opposed to tapping it once you hit cover like in the aforementioned titles. While in cover you can also do a takedown on an enemy on the other side of the cover or coming around the side. These takedowns are silent, and thus it's possible to clear some rooms completely with stealth. This doesn't happen very often, and even then is highly unlikely if you're not playing with friends.
You can also do a takedown by making an enemy stagger -- usually with a melee attack -- and pressing the Y (or Triangle, I assume) button when prompted.
The AI in FUSE isn't bad by any means; in fact I was actually kind of impressed with it. Your teammates use all of their abilities -- even Fusion, your God-mode ability that revives you and your teammates, makes you invulnerable, and gives you infinite Fuse energy for a limited amount of time.
The only downfall of it from what I've experienced is something that I'd expect from an AI: when you're doing an objective-type wave in Echelon, Dalton -- your tank of sorts -- won't put his stationary shield down in front of what you're protecting; he'll protect you and your allies with it instead. This could go either way -- it could be good or bad. Chances are that it's not very preferable though, as the enemies will make a beeline for the Fuse cell that you're protecting and shoot it unless you engage them directly.
This brings us to our next mechanic, the Leap feature. At any time, you can switch to another Overstrike agent that is not being controlled by a player. Generally when I'm playing Echelon, I'll switch to Dalton, put up the shield, then switch back if I want. The game constantly reminds you that if you bottom out on ammo, you can switch to another character who has ammo to stay in the fight. This isn't very necessary, and to be honest I for one am glad that they didn't build this game around the Leap feature.
Leap isn't exactly very fluid, and it's one of the only aspects of the game that strikes me as clunky. You press a button, a menu appears, you press another button that corresponds to the character you're switching to, and it jerks your PoV to that character. Chances are, when you do it, that your character is going to be out in the open firing at an enemy, meaning you'll probably go down soon and be unable to switch until someone picks you back up.
The weaponry in FUSE isn't exactly a broad selection, but each serves a rather clear cut purpose.
As far as Xenotech -- the weapon that serves as the differentiating feature between agents -- goes, this is no different.
Naya uses the Warp Rifle -- an assault rifle that creates a wormhole when you shoot an enemy enough with it which you can chain to take down a group of enemies at once. The sad thing is that this becomes nigh-useless in higher difficulties because it just doesn't do enough damage.
The Warp Rifle also gives her the ability to cloak and go behind enemy lines. When she's cloaked, her CQC specialist status shines, because she can do instant takedowns due to the enemy not being aware of her presence.
Isabelle -- Izzy -- has the Shattergun, an assault rifle-type weapon which turns enemies into crystal statues when you shoot them enough with it, allowing them to be shattered by further arms fire, a melee attack, or a grenade.
Her secondary ability is to throw out a Med Beacon to heal and revive teammates. This is incredibly useful, and as you can imagine sticks Izzy into the textbook Medic role. The Med Beacon can be upgraded to give a damage buff to agents that are inside the beacon as well.
Jacob Kimble has the absolutely terrifying and borderline broken Arcshot crossbow. This is hands down my favorite weapon in the game, and it excels in almost any situation. The Arcshot functions as a Sniper Rifle of sorts, with the delicious trait of sticking enemies to the wall if you kill them with it. A headshot results in an instant kill, and ends up sticking them to the wall by their head.
That's not what makes this weapon borderline broken, though. What makes this weapon so ridiculously powerful is Jacob's ability to ignite the Arcshot bolts after firing them at the cost of zero Fuse energy. This doesn't sound very impressive, so let me elaborate.
You're facing a group of Riot Troopers who are invulnerable to attacks from the front (with the exception of the Shattergun), so what do you do? You shoot a single bolt into the ground, wait for them to walk over it, then ignite it, setting one enemy on fire and chaining that fire to the other Riot Troopers, stunning them and allowing you to throw a grenade and eliminate them all in one fell swoop. I've massacred entire squads with minimal effort using this weapon.
You can also just pop a shot into an enemy that's in a group and ignite it to render the entire group helpless for a few moments. Like I said, the Arcshot is awesome.
Dalton has the most interesting Xenotech weapon, however, in the form of the Magshield. What this does is create a semi-clear shield of fluid in front of you that catches enemy projectiles, and when you get close you can pull the trigger and send a blast of energy back at the enemy. This blast can and will kill an entire group of enemies in one shot if you've absorbed enough ammo. You can also catch grenades and throw them right back, which is always amusing.
The Magshield's secondary ability is to throw down a stationary shield to protect your allies or an objective while keeping you mobile. This is really useful in objective games or when you're pinned down by enemy fire. The Magshield is pretty boss, but its biggest downside by far is that it runs out of Fuse really quickly. A single blast takes up between twenty or thirty Fuse energy out of the Magshield's max of 100, so it has to be used sparingly.
Dalton's Fusion is the most powerful I think I've encountered -- especially at close range. In addition to the infinite Fuse energy that all Fusions give, Dalton's cuts the cooldown of his Magblast to around 1/4 of what it normally is, allowing you to spam it to your heart's content. I've destroyed entire waves of grunts by using this, and it's ridiculously satisfying.
That said, two of the four of these seem too... cut and pasted, for lack of a better term, along with the skill trees. There doesn't seem to be a lot of imagination in them. Dalton's Magshield is by far the most unique of the weapons. The Shattershot and the Warp Rifle don't feel very unique at all. They both function in the same way (the guns not the secondary abilities) with the only differences being the way in which they eliminate enemies, and the fact that Naya's Warp Rifle can overheat when she's not in Fusion.
I was originally going to put Content and Difficulty in separate sections, but they really kind of go together. I'll just come right out and say it: the game is -- so far -- lacking in content and difficulty.
Echelon -- the game's survival mode -- is easily cleared. I've cleared all difficulty modes in both Campaign and Echelon -- which doesn't have a difficulty setting, sadly -- with two friends in one sitting per (one for Campaign, and one for Echelon).
As far as difficulty, I found FUSE to be lacking. Two of my friends and myself cleared it -- as I said, without a fourth person -- rather quickly. The difficulty in Campaign manifested itself in increased damage to players, which I don't think is such a bad thing in a shooter game.
The Bottom Line
FUSE was described by a friend of mine as an "above average third person shooter," and I'm inclined to agree with him. The game isn't bad, but it's not amazing either. I think Insomniac has only begun to scratch the potential of this franchise, however, and am pleased to hear that they're "just getting started" with FUSE.
I'm hopeful that they'll add a difficulty setting to Echelon and possibly introduce a plethora of DLC, because as I said, this game has so much untapped potential.
Metacritic Rating: 6.4/10
NGPlus Rating: 7/10