Friday, May 17, 2013

On Old-School Difficulty in Games

Hero Man has had a difficult journey. His home village was burned down leaving no one but his plucky childhood love interest and himself left alive. He uncovered the ancient Sword of Stabbin’ Shit in a tomb filled with unruly undead. He recovered the Seven Seals of Seriously Significant Sorcery from all across the world. He’s performed hundreds of inane tasks in between, from rescuing kittens to killing rats to dealing with more fetch quests than any mortal man should ever have to see. He’s fought snakes and skeletons and sirens, demons and dragons and doppelgangers, Cyclops and cultists and centaurs, mummies and minotaurs and manticores and much much more. He’s been through hell and back, possibly literally, and is finally about to finish his epic quest. Atop of Mount Merciless, in the upper spire of the Castle of Catastrophe, our hero is finally about to put a stop to the evil sorcerer and save the entire world from his wrath, once and ffffffffffffffff-

-FFFUCK! I missed the jump again!

Depending on what type of game this is there are multiple possible outcomes as to what happens next. But if it’s an old-school game, I can sure as hell tell which outcome is most likely. And that’s that you won’t be getting to the conclusion of your quest without throwing at least half an hour of your life out the window. And if it’s me in this situation, then that half an hour won’t come until I muddle through a few minutes of muffled profanity, or alternatively just up and quit. Maybe I’ll come back, but maybe I won’t.

I don’t want to point any fingers, but the first half of this sentence is a bold-faced lie.

The issue of difficulty in video games is so wide-ranging I could never cover all of it in one article, so today I’m just going to talk to you about difficulty in old-school and retro games, and my problems with them. It should also be noted that, as with pretty much everything on this blog, this is going to be my opinion, not an objective treatise that all games must follow by decree of King Genericide. You may disagree with my views on what constitutes good difficulty balancing in games, and that’s okay. Just head on down to the comments below the article and we can discuss the issues calmly and in detail like rational human beings. Given that this is the internet, I know this approach may cause shock and dismay, but bear with me for a bit.

So being born at around the same time as the Super Nintendo, I didn’t have much experience with that older class of gaming as a kid. My first home console was a Nintendo 64, which raised me on 3D, more exploration focused games that I’ve already talked about wanting more of. However, despite the fact that I didn’t grow up with that era, I play a lot of video games. Everyone has a different definition of what a ‘hardcore’ gamer is, so I’m not going to get into whether or not I qualify for that pointless title, but I’ve played several hundred games (hell I own over 300) and have beaten a not-insignificant portion of them. I’m interested in the industry as a whole and have made it a point to go back and play some older ‘classic’ games via various means like download services. The point is, I may not have grown up with retro games, but I’ve played a lot of them.

I have not, however, liked all of them.

You can’t handle all this incredible subtlety I’m throwing at you.

You see, when I play a lot of games from those bygone eras, I tend to come up with some common problems. These problems can tell you a lot on where I stand on how video games should preferably be balanced difficulty wise. They also explain why despite wanting to like a lot of old games, I end up wishing that I had physical cartridges so I could have something to set fire to. So enough intro, let’s just go through some things I hate about old games one-by-one and explain why.

Where to Go

Though this is a problem in all sorts of different games, it’s one that’s definitely more noticeable in older games. In fact, game developers may have sometimes gone too far in the other direction in recent years, but my problems with new games is a different article. This problem is relatively simple, and also easier to fix than some others: The game doesn’t tell the player where to go when they need to.

Now, the qualifier “when they need to” is an important one. What with my love of exploration and non-linear gameplay, I am by no way saying that I don’t like it when a game lets you loose without a ton of instruction, or gives you a big world to work with. No, this problem stems from when there aren’t any good cues of what to do even if you’re looking for them. It’s a combination of an open format combined with the game not giving a clear enough indication of what you do to progress. A Guide Dang It moment, essentially.

…Though no video game maze can get you as lost as a link to TV Tropes.

This can stem from a number of sub-problems, actually. Bad directions in a game could come from a lack of them, due to plonking a player down in the middle of nowhere without telling them anything, though again this is usually the least pressing problem. It could also stem from the available hints not being clear, whether from bad translations or bad writing in general. I’m sure everyone has been annoyed by a fetch quest here and there where an arcane hint is supposed to be like a clever riddle for the player to unravel but ends up being an unintelligible mess of bad writing that everyone just checks the internet to solve. But the final portion of this problem, which is probably the most common in old games, is the one that annoys me most of all: secrets that are necessary to progress.

There are all sorts of examples of this, but here are a few specific ones. In the original Metroid there were some walls that looked exactly like all other walls, yet you could pass through these walls. And some items that you needed to complete the game were hidden behind these trick walls. The old Legend of Zelda games had similar problems with bomb-able walls. If walls are cracked or give some other type of indicator that you can break them with a bomb, that’s fine. But later on in these games you can find a plethora of normal-looking walls that you can and sometimes have to break through in order to progress. I was playing through one of the last dungeons of Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening not too far back and not only was there a switch I needed to hit in a hidden room, not only did you need to bomb a wall that wasn’t cracked, but said room didn’t appear on the map. Moments like this, where it feels like the game is cheating (probably to artificially lengthen playing time) really frustrate me.

Look at this map of the final dungeon in the original Legend of Zelda. Every single cracked door way is a wall that had to be bombed. That’s 18 walls in this single dungeon alone. Plenty of them didn’t have cracked appearances, either.

Cheap Deaths

Of all the frustrations people have with old-school video games or indeed games in general, this is the one that most often gets voiced. Anyone who has played games for a significant span of time has surely felt that one moment where their demise felt simply unfair. The type of moment where the fun you were having overcoming a challenge feels cheapened, because you realize now that the challenges don’t always have to be fair and when you fail it isn’t always your fault. The type of moment where you curse the game designers name and prepare an effigy of them to send dark spirits from the darkest abyss to haunt them mercilessly for the injustice they’ve brought upon you.

Perhaps that last part is just me.

This is totally an appropriate reaction for that archery mini-game being too hard.

Cheap deaths are obviously an unavoidable part of video games, because game designers aren’t perfect and there will be times when they don’t balance things properly or make some mistake that results in failure due to no fault of your own. However, a few problems arise when discussing cheap deaths that make it very hard to tell when they’re valid. Cheap deaths can occur from countless different sources, and thus are more or less impossible to generalize. Not only that, but the cry that something is ‘cheap’ is, due to human nature, often leveled at plenty of things that are perfectly (or at least sufficiently) fair and balanced. It’s hard to distinguish between complaints of those who let their emotions get the better of them and people with legitimate complaints. This problem is aggravated by the fact that everyone has different standards and skill levels, which increasingly blurs the line between a game that’s simply very hard and one that is legitimately unfair.

This is even worse with multiplayer games, where it’s only rarely that mutual consensus can be reached.

However, though there are exceptions to every rule and it may be hard to determine cheap deaths on a case-by-case basis, we can come up with a vague definition of cheap deaths that more or less fits most of them. Generally, I’d say that a cheap death is a one that is caused by something the player could not have prepared  for and/or had to know about in advance to avoid. To a lesser extent, cheap deaths are caused when a player could have avoided something, but it was much harder without prior knowledge, the player was not sufficiently prepared for it, and/or it was disproportionately difficult for the current context.

There are examples of the lesser type of cheap deaths everywhere, though they can be particularly plentiful in old-school games. Things like enemies coming from an unexpected place very quickly, or one level being really hard (instant death pits and spikes are a particularly egregious offender for this) even though later levels are notably easier. Random elements are also an example of this, like say if the attacks of a boss aren’t predictable and sometimes are impossible to avoid based on positioning. You pretty much never see the ‘pure’ examples of cheap deaths from the first definition, those that are literally impossible to avoid. But, even though they are still rare, they’re certainly more common in older games.

I don’t play many old-school adventure games (I generally only play retro games that are renowned for being good) and so I haven’t experienced much of this personally, but it seems clear that they were some of the worst about truly cheap deaths. You’d encounter situations where something completely illogical could kill you, perhaps even as blunt as going down the wrong path or opening the wrong door, where random chance or trial and error are your only defense against this terrible type of game design. Even worse were slow-burn errors. Some of the more inferior adventure games of the past could have things that would kill you if you didn’t have a certain item that you had to pick up earlier in the game. Combined with the infamously shaky logic of some old adventure games, this led to deaths that were not only arbitrary but meant you had to repeat large parts of the game, if not the whole thing, over again. This segues nicely into my next point…

The Death Penalty

This is the big one. The other issues are certainly problems that detract from the overall experience of a game, but this is the part of old school games that I most commonly have a problem with, sometimes to the extent that I can’t finish them. Its problems with how these games handle death. Not narrative-wise, but how they handle failure and penalties for it.

For example, in some games failure might as well be the goal.

In any game based on challenges, you’re going to have to have a possibility of failure, because if you don’t then it doesn’t matter how well the player does and the tension will evaporate along with player’s interest. Games have all sorts of different ways of dealing with this, but they almost all eventually come down to penalties of time before you can resume playing as you did before failure. And generally speaking, old school games have much more punishing penalties when it comes to death, sometimes even having the player start over at the beginning of the entire game when they fail.

So why were old games so bad about this? Did they just hate their audience and want them to suffer? Potentially, but in actuality there were a number of reasons that they took such a harsh stance on penalties. One of them was that saved games were much less common in the olden days, so plenty of games weren’t capable of letting you pick up where you left off, with some lacking even a password system. Another reason was that there was much less game to go around. One of the reason games like Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda were so popular back in the day, though there are plenty of other reasons, was they contained a large amount of content that wasn’t repeated ad nauseam. More common at the time was the type of game that might literally only have several different screens of gameplay before all content was used up, and in order to make the player feel like they got their money’s worth game designers stretched their limited content out further with high levels of difficulty.

No there isn’t more after this! What d’you think this is, one a’ them fancy-schmancy multi-screen games?

This low amount of content and high amount of difficulty was particularly common with arcade games, a breed of games that had a third motivation for difficulty: to get your money. When it came to arcade games, how much a person paid depended on how many times they failed, because most of them had you pay for each chance one by one. A try until you die model, so to speak. And this meant that if the player failed often, the game made more money as they pumped in quarters to continue. This is another type of game that hasn’t bothered me much, because arcades have been in decline since around when I was born and I haven’t played at them too much. But it’s worth mentioning even if you don’t partake of arcades because their prevalence probably influenced the common design philosophy of the day. And that philosophy, sadly, was that your game had to be difficult, even if it didn’t always do so fairly.

Unfortunately, the big penalties for death can really spoil my enjoyment of games I find perfectly fine otherwise. Take for example Mega Man 9, which isn’t an old video game but is done in the exact same style of some older games and thus still counts. I thought this was a good game, with the tight controls and excellent music you’d expect from a Mega Man game. The game starts out with 8 robot masters whose stages you can beat in any order, though each robot gives you a new weapon that is good against another in a sort of rock-paper-scissors configuration. These stages are hard, and it took me quite some time to beat them. Nonetheless, I ultimately persevered and beat their stages, and from then on when I replayed them I could generally beat them in just a few minutes. They were hard, but short enough that I could accept them and get through them.

But after all 8 robot masters you unlock Dr. Wily’s castle, a series of 4 stages. The first 3 are the hardest stages in the whole game, each with their own unique boss at the end. The fourth and final stage is merely all 8 previous robot master bosses in a row, followed by a final (multi-stage) fight with Dr. Wily. This all sounds pretty difficult, but if the difficulty of the stages were the only problem I’m sure I could endure it and come out on top. There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned, however. And that is that you have to beat all 4 stages, bosses and all, in a row; as in one sitting, without running out of lives. This final sequence being structured like this is a staple of most Mega Man games, a tradition they’ve kept for years.

I still think it is completely asinine.

Your castle is a stupid butt that is also dumb.

I once got up to the final stage of this sequence, but I never beat it, I don’t think I ever will, and this conclusion has given the whole game a sour aftertaste in my mouth. There are a plethora of instant death spikes and pits in these final stages, but their difficulty on their own would have been more or less acceptable to me in isolation, one stage at a time. But as it stands, to make it back to the part I died at last time I’ll have to go through something like half an hour of fairly difficult gameplay without screwing up. The vast majority of my time playing the game would be spent not figuring out challenges and overcoming them but doing the same thing over and over again just to reach  that challenge! And all other pros and cons of the game aside, this type of thing is, to my mind, an objectively bad game design approach to take.

And sadly this sours not just Mega Man 9 but all sorts of old school games for me. I’ve never beaten Super Mario Bros because whenever I run out of lives my entire playthrough of the game is forfeit. I disliked Zelda 2 not because of its side-scrolling platforming and RPG elements breaking tradition (platformers and RPGs are arguably my favorite genres of game), but because of its completely out of place lives system, instant death pits and difficulty in general making playing the game near the end a chore due to how much I’d have to slog back through uninteresting portions.

Though these assholes didn’t help. Remind me to do a more complete review of Zelda 2 at some point, because I really wanted to like it more than I did thanks to its difficulty.

To contrast this, let’s take a more recent gaming title, Super Meat Boy. Though certainly not a perfect game, Super Meat Boy is an excellent example of doing difficulty vs. death penalty right as far as I’m concerned. You see, Super Meat Boy is a difficult game. A horribly, brutally difficult game. However, I still find it fairly playable and enjoyable due to a couple factors. One is that the game controls very well, but that’s not really the one I wanted to bring up. The other is how the game handles you dying. When you die in Super Meat Boy, it only takes at most a single second before the stage restarts. It’s actually kind of common for me to occasionally run forward to my death when the stage restarts because the respawn happens so quickly. In addition, the stages are very, very short. There are hundreds of them, but on average I’d say they’re only about something like 15-20 seconds long. And so you’re never losing much by failing, and therefore can’t get too frustrated about things, and consequently are much more likely to keep going until you succeed.

I’m not saying all games have to have lightning quick respawn times, or stages that are gone in the blink of an eye. In fact, I most definitely don’t want every game to be like that. However, the absurd level of penalty for death that old school games maintained is something I simply can’t deal with past a certain point; and it’s a real shame that so many great games are in my opinion hindered by this ugly type of difficulty.

So that’s what I have to say on old-school difficulty in games. There are plenty of more things to discuss on the broader topic of game difficulty in general, but I’ll keep the topic limited for this article. Obviously given the amount of love for some of the games/types of games I’ve mentioned there will be some people who disagree with what I've said. Again, feel free to comment about it below, just so long as you keep it civil…and don’t try and tell me I just suck.

Too late! C’mon guys, let’s all point and laugh at this scrub who can’t beat Mega Man 9.

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