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.)