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Derakon

A rant about metroid-style games (long)

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I don't know how useful this will be to people; with any luck it'll inspire some discussion. I've been playing a lot of Metroid-style games latel - Super Metroid (and a few Metroid ROM hacks), recent Castlevania GBA games, the Prime series. Metroid games, for those not in the know, are what I would classify as adventure/exploration games. The player is dropped into a large world with relatively little guidance (typically, just the overarching goal that they want to accomplish), and are free to explore to the limits of their abilities. New abilities can be found which expand those limits - for example, a double-jump to allow you to reach higher ledges, or a special weapon that can break down a certain kind of wall. What you have here is a glorified "lock and key" system, where the lock is an obstacle and the key is an ability needed to bypass that obstacle. One of the bigger dangers you can get into with this kind of game is turning it into nothing more than a set of "find the silver key to open the silver door"-type puzzles. This happens when the abilities you grant to the player do nothing except allow them to overcome some specific obstacle. A few concrete examples: 1) The "Heavy Ring" in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA) allows the player to push large blocks. These blocks are found in essentially two places: first, blocking the path to the next area after you get the ring, and second, as parts of puzzles much later in the game. The ability to push large blocks around is thus completely irrelevant except in that if you lack it, you can't get to the next section of the game. 2) The "Seeker Missile" upgrade in Metroid Prime 2 (Gamecube) allows you to "charge up" a set of missiles to fire onto multiple targets. However, it is rarely in your best interests to hit multiple targets at once instead of one target at a time, especially given the time required to charge up; the "real" use of this upgrade is to allow you to open specially-locked doors that require five ports to be hit simultaneously. There's also a boss where they help out slightly (Chykka, adult form), and an enemy that can likewise only be beaten by this upgrade, but otherwise, it is essentially purposeless in normal play. You're better off using normal missiles, which fire faster, or super missiles, which give more punch per shot and track better. Upgrades should be useful throughout the course of the game, not just in bypassing a handful of obstacles. Examples of good upgrades include mobility upgrades (e.g. double-jump, the ability to run, fly, or slide, and so on), new general-purpose armament (though this too can be done poorly; see below), or new armor. Mobility upgrades make movement smoother, thus improving the player's ability to get from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss. Sure, you could force them to re-play the jumping puzzle that's in the way, but they've already proved they can pass it, so why not give them a shortcut? New armor allows the player to worry less about enemies that used to be dangerous, because they deal less damage. Armament upgrades likewise allow the player to worry less about the minor enemies that used to be significant; if you can use one big blast to take down an enemy that used to require extensive duelling, then you'll spend less time on the annoying parts of backtracking. Now, new weapons, as I mentioned, can be done poorly. The biggest concrete example here is the new beams in Metroid Prime 2. You have the Dark Beam, Light Beam, and Annihilation Beam. The beams are needed frequently to open doors and to activate portals from the "light world" to the "dark world". That's fine. They also allow some interesting tactical decisions - the light beam can create beacons that are highly destructive to dark-based creatures, while the dark beam can freeze enemies (the annihilation beam is just destructive). That's good. However, all three beams require ammunition, and therein lies the problem. You, as the game designer, have just given the player a spiffy new ability and then said "Okay, now don't use it." Imagine how the player feels. The beams are not amazingly powerful, though they are significant upgrades over the basic beam. Ammo is sufficiently plentiful that the player can use the beams, if not freely, then at least frequently. But because the player now has to track use for two more ammo systems, the upgrades are less fun. Requiring the player to spend ammo to open doors, well past the point where the beams are acquired, is just rubbing it in. See, upgrades should be fun to use. The player gains power, allowing them to walk all over the old, annoying enemies. In contrast, you come up with new enemies and new areas to challenge them. In Prime 2, the player never really gets to walk all over his earlier opponents, unless he wants to spend a minute or two recovering ammo later on. As a result, when backtracking through previously-seen areas, they have to spend just as much time fighting off their opponents as they did when the area was still fresh and new. That's a problem. As near as I can tell, the only reason why the new beams require ammunition is because both the light beam and the dark beam are given to the player early on and are required to traverse most of the game content (see: activating portals from one world to another). What we have here is a poorly-designed lock with a key that thus needs to be reduced in power. The game would be more fun if the dark or light beam were given to the player later on with no ammo restrictions, as the player then gets to climb that power curve; however, the game world as designed requires both beams or neither is useful. One more thing - when you give an upgrade to the player, they should be thinking "Oh, cool! I can use this!" Not "Finally! There's that damned thing I need to proceed to the next area." This is going to be more a matter of subtly guiding the player from place to place than it will be one of choosing upgrades. As an example, the Super Metroid hack "Redesign" forces the player to run through a significant portion of underwater zones without the benefit of the Gravity Suit, which gives free motion underwater. Not having the Gravity Suit when underwater is very much not fun; mobility is vastly reduced and in general you can't go anywhere in a hurry. The original Super Metroid, in contrast, taunted the player with a few underwater areas that were inaccessible without the suit, but there were no underwater sections before the suit was obtainable. A similar philosophy applies to shortcuts. If you have a long, arduous jumping puzzle, put a shortcut on the end! You don't want players to dread some segment of the world because it requires the same set of carefully-timed jumps over and over again. Once they've proved their mettle, let them hit the "wave me through next time" button. In general, make certain that the second time the player visits an area, everything that was difficult about it has been toned down. Unless, of course, you're remixing the area (e.g. an earthquake occurs, changing up the terrain and loosing nastier enemies from their cells). In that case, the player is effectively exploring new terrain, and all bets are off. So when you're thinking about giving your player upgrades, make certain that the upgrades are actually useful. Ask your beta testers (assuming you've gotten that far) if a new toy was fun when they first got it, or if they just used it to figure out where to go next. Letting the player grow in power is not a bad thing; you can always scale the difficulty of later enemies to suit. Keeping the player from growing in power, in contrast, can aggravate them, as they end up feeling like all of the tasks they've accomplished have gained them no rewards. Find out what parts of your game are aggravating, and tone them down. Play other games in your genre, and figure out what they did well and what they didn't. Apply that knowledge to your own creations. Make a better game!

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I notice you didn't have many complaints about Prime 1 - I found it was good about making old areas either quickly traversable (by getting, say, the plasma beam [grin] and double jump) or adding new challenges to them/reusing areas already cleared. I can understand your gripe about some of it, particularly new abilities that are used only to clear very obvious blocks and are useful nowhere else. However, I'm not so sure that keeping cleared areas difficult is a terrible thing. I've never played Prime 2 so maybe it just turned into an annoyance if you had to backtrack through the same area 10 times, but I don't think it's necessarily so bad for things to stay a challenge.

EDIT: This is so OT but have you seen how much sequence breaking has been done in Prime 1? I thought they were pretty heavy-handed about keeping things more linear than previous games, but people have done absolutely ridiculous stuff using bomb jumps and other creativity.

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In the book Swords and Circuitry, Neal Hallford described what you're talking about as "Dead Squirrels" and "Vibrating Blue Squirrels".

Basically, a dead squirrel is a pretty much useless item that you have to carry around with you to complete quests in games, but is otherwise of little interest.

A vibrating blue squirrel is an item that is needed to complete a quest, but also has useful side effects that make the player want to carry it around with them.

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To be fair, I'm not really sure that it's possible to make EVERY "key" valuable even beyond it's function as a key.

Although Super Metroid and CastleVania: Symphony of the Night are widely considered the pinnacles of this genre, and part of this stems, I think, from the fact that both games were able to minimize the number of items that were clearly just keys. One example is the aforementioned Gravity Suit; while it was clearly the "key" to several areas blocked by water (though there were several underwater items that were obtainable even without the Gravity Suit), it also had the effect of reducing damage from enemy attacks, thus also making the rest of the game easier. (Not to mention the bombs, which throughout the series have been used by players in ways I'm sure the developers hadn't anticipated.)

Some examles from SotN:
The bat form, which was needed to access certain areas, and as a side effect made many areas easier to traverse, especially after the fireball upgrade.
The mist form, which again was necessary to reach certain key areas, also rendered the player invincible. It became even more useful after the two upgrades, the first of which extended the form's very short duration, allowing the player to stay in mist form as long as he had MP (or entered water), and the second of which caused the player to also do damage to any enemies he passed through.

Not to mentioned both games' numerous jumping upgrades, most of which were so useful they hardly even registered as keys.

As a side note, I'd also like to point out that it seems to me that, since there are very few truly bad games in the genre (or is is just a sub-genre of action games? Action-adventure hybrid?), it's easy to become hyper-critical of the games. Not that that's a bad thing.

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I would argue that key items which are not useful except as keys should not be in the game. They're a sign that you have a weakness in your world design. If you have a key that only functions usefully in one place, why not remove the need for the key at that location? Allow the player to do things out of order if they so desire, and replace the key with an item that may not allow you past any more obstacles, but is useful in its own right (e.g. a health or damage upgrade). Not every item has to let you access new content. Some examples off the top of my head:

1) The Spazer and Plasma beams in all 2D metroid games simply make your beam weapon more powerful, and are never needed to open new areas.

2) The super-jump ability in Symphony of the Night. Bat form is a requirement to get it, so you can already fly; this just streamlines the process.

3) The aforementioned form upgrades in Symphony of the Night. You only need to get the basic Wolf, Bat, and Mist forms, but there's at least two upgrades for each that make the forms more useful.

4) Ammo capacity/health upgrades. Boring but still appreciated by the player, especially early on.

5) Any and all of the "sequence breaks" in the various Metroid games, most notably Super Metroid. Every single beam upgrade, as well as the Grappling Beam, X-Ray Scope, Spring Ball, Screw Attack, and I think even the High-Jump Boots xor Speed Booster are all optional, though most are apparently required on the first playthrough. This stuff is more for experienced players than for the people new to your game, but sequence breaks can add a great deal of depth (and therefore, replayability). Designing a game with sequence breaks in mind can be tricky, though.

This doesn't really relate to my point in the first post, where I was ranting about useless items that are required to get to new content. Here, these items are not useless and not required! They're just rewards for the curious, perceptive, or skillful players. Metroid-style games are supposed to be about exploration, after all, so there's nothing wrong with having "dead ends" in the world - that is, explorable areas that do not themselves unlock more areas - so long as the dead ends have something interesting in them. If every area of the game is required to be explored, then you've just taken the Metroid format and crammed it into a linear adventure game. Encourage the player to want to explore your world, but do not force them to.

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I don't know if you're aware of this since you didn't mention it, but in Metroid Prime 2, if I recall, you got Light Ammo by using the Dark Beam, and Dark Ammo by using the Light Beam. The intention as I saw it was to encourage you to switch between the two beams during normal combat rather than pick your favorite of the two and use it all the time. Personally, I liked that aspect of it... I generally preferred the Dark Beam, but when the ammo would get low I'd switch to the Light Beam (which would have full ammo due to the above effect), and often discover some new useful property it had. I almost never ran out of both types of ammo, except in boss battles; as long as you evenly split your time between the two guns you'd always have enough ammo.

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This adventure/exploration style game (or as I call it, light RPG) is one of my favorites. I think your rant is correct, although I don't find it nearly as severe an issue. I love Metroid games for the exploration and finally getting the item that will open new areas I've been seeing up. I like the feeling of prgressively getting more and more powerful. I guess it just depends on your desired gameplay style.

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Helix - it's one of my favorites too, which is why it's frustrating to see games which make (in my opinion) mistakes. The biggest two mistakes you can make with this genre are a) focusing too much on the "key" aspect of abilities and not enough on the "ability" aspect, and b) trying to limit the player's power level too much. I've already discussed the abilities-as-keys aspect, so I'll talk now about the player's power level.

These games are all singleplayer (though co-op could be done, I suppose in the Diablo II style), so limiting the player's power level just means that you end up toning down the difficulty of later zones. Why not reward the player with more power and then compensate by making the later zones more difficult? That way the player gets to enjoy his new toys and actually put them to good use. As a bonus, you improve the backtracking experience. Backtracking by its very nature requires the player to re-play content they've already seen. Unless something is different about the experience, it'll just become boring, like a cutscene you've seen before. As a game designer, you have two basic ways you can change the experience: change the player or change the content. I mentioned previously the possibility of having an earthquake that would change the terrain around and release new enemies into a zone; that's an example of changing the content. In that situation, the player is still backtracking, but they're effectively taking an alternate route through new content. This keeps the gameplay fresh and non-boring. The other possibility - changing the player - can be done in two ways. The first is the one you expect me to mention: make the player more powerful. Allow them to just run through the zone with a minimum of fuss. If you do this, then these parts of the game will not really stick in the player's mind, but then again, they also won't be nearly as boring as they could have been. The other option is to make the player weaker. You need to do this carefully, because players rarely like having things stripped from them, but you can set it up so that the first time the player visits a zone is the "easy" time, and the second time through is the "hard" time. This is essentially reversing the normal flow of the game, and can be quite interesting, if done well.

In my opinion, it's much better to make an easy game that has well-thought-out gameplay than it is to make a difficult game that doesn't. After all, the player can always set challenges for themselves to make the game more difficult. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has an absurd number of ways to make the game harder, all the way up to playing a "naked" game (no equipment, no spells, only required extra abilities, punch everything to death).

Edit: Makeshift: I'm aware of the ability to regain ammo by using the opposing beam. Ammo was still not plentiful enough to allow free use of the beams. Compare: in Prime 1, once you got a new beam, it was used for almost all situations. The Wave beam was almost always better than the Power beam, the Ice beam better than the Wave beam, and so on. When the player gets a new beam, they get a clear boost in power. In contrast, Prime 2 does not give that clear boost. Even though ammo is available enough to keep you safe from running out in general use, it's not plentiful enough to let you use the new beams to the exclusion of the old ones.

[Edited by - Derakon on June 16, 2006 11:04:26 AM]

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Quote:
Original post by Derakon
Edit: Makeshift: I'm aware of the ability to regain ammo by using the opposing beam. Ammo was still not plentiful enough to allow free use of the beams. Compare: in Prime 1, once you got a new beam, it was used for almost all situations. The Wave beam was almost always better than the Power beam, the Ice beam better than the Wave beam, and so on. When the player gets a new beam, they get a clear boost in power. In contrast, Prime 2 does not give that clear boost. Even though ammo is available enough to keep you safe from running out in general use, it's not plentiful enough to let you use the new beams to the exclusion of the old ones.


There are, of course, people who see this as a good thing. If there is a clear boost in power, then you've turned a vibrating blue squirrel into a dead squirrel. The last Metroid I played was Super Metroid, which I thought did a great thing by letting you "stack" beams so that only the only one that becomes useless is the spazer beam. If there weren't stacking, I'd appreciate them making the beams "equal" but useful in different situations, which it sounds like they did. (Of course, I can understand the ammo hoarding. I almost never use magic in RPG's except against bosses and I never use the limited supply of "heal all HP/MP" items.)

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stray thoughts:

- "The Lost Vikings" used multiple players in a single-player environment: you actually controlled 3 characters. You had to get them to work together to win the game. You don't see that approach much. The nice thing about this game is that there were no powerups to speak of. The puzzles just got more and more fiendish.

- Something i would like to see more is NO powerups or increased skills (as in Metroid). A few games have done this before. "Alien 3" on the SNES pretty much gave you all the weaponry you were ever going to get right up front. It's just that the missions got longer or more complex.

I like this idea because it forces two things: it makes the designers make a better level with more traps and puzzles, and it makes a better experience for the player. Why? Because it's not so obvious how to use the items they already have for every-more complex puzzles. Recent metroid games have not done this. You get XYZ item, so obviously there must be somewhere to use it which opens something new up. No surprises there!

Another game that did this in a different way is "Ikaruga". It's a shoot'em up game, not an adventure, but you start the game with all the power you are every going to need. You play the game well by taking those basic abilities and finessing the snot of 'em! Each successive level drives you to the limits of what your basic abilities can do.

- Limitation of keys: Lets say you start out a metroid style game with 5 weapon choices, right up front. You get no powerups in the game at all. To make this interesting, you can only carry 2 or 3 at a time. You would have to keep comming back to "switch" weapons depending on where you go. If you are going into an alien-infested cavern, you take your spread laser. But after the alien-infested cavern is the lava area. It would have been nice to have your ice laser, but you couldn't carry that AND you smart bombs too... So you just have to tough it out. Or maybe you are required to bring the ice laser to open up some new area, but in order to bring it along you had to leave behind your smart bombs... That sort of thing. .

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