Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Unity Bullet Manager Script

Well I haven't been posting much lately but in my defense I've had my hands tied in the one other true passion I have besides gaming - game development. I have a lot of ideas forming for a bullet hell shoot em up, but while those continue to ferment in my brain Ive been slaving away at a bullet manger script for easily creating and managing those complex bullet patterns.

I'm developing the script for the UNITY game engine. The engine is so great and easy to use(not to mention free) that I feel the need to type the name in all caps for emphasis. Anyway the script is coming along good and is very fun to use, as just a few adjustments can create some really crazy patterns. However it still needs quite a bit of streamlining, as creating some of the patterns from my favorite shmups (just for testing purposes) isn't as easy as I would like. In other words it isn't very user friendly at present.

Who knows, with enough tweaking I might put it on the Unity Asset store...but I don't know how high the demand would be. Don't see a lot of people making shmups with Unity. Anyway I left a video of a short demo of some things the script can do - the framerate might seam low but I assure the real deal runs at 60 FPS easily. If  I make any noteworthy progress on the game itself, I'll probably throw some screens up, and a playable demo if it gets really good.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Blast Corps

I often see people complaining that Rare never comes up with their own ideas and instead opt to create games that refine ideas already presented by Nintendo in their games; such as Banjo Kazooie "improving upon" Mario 64. But Blast Corps proves that Rare more than has enough potential to come up with and establish their own great game concepts.

Basically you have a half assed plot that is just there as an excuse for you to destroy buildings to clear a path for an automated nuclear missile carrier. Initially you'll be clearing paths with a Bulldozer like vehicle, which just requires you to ram into buildings. But soon you'll be forced to use a variety of weird vehicles and robots in order to clear a safe path with style.

These crazy vehicles are how and why Blast Corps shines with so much creativity. The vehicle Skyfall has an armored underside and a power booster, so its ideal method of destruction is to charge into a ditch or gully and launch into the air, landing on and smashing buildings below. Ballista is a biped that requires the player to collect missile boxes for ammo and launch them with dual cannons to cause destruction. J-bomb is a flying humanoid robot that can fly and hover in mid-air, and charge downwards at any time to stomp on objects below.

In addition to the creative aspects of the vehicles, the game itself is creative in its presentation and menu layouts, and exudes a sort of childish theme that doesn't take itself seriously despite the danger of the missions. The level selection itself is literally presented on a spinning globe as the levels take place all over the world, and even the moon and other planets later in the game. A sense of progression is easy to achieve when you can see the location of every main and bonus level.

The other key element to this game is in how much it pushes the player to achieve perfection in their playstyle. In addition to the main missile carrier levels, their are several timed bonus challenges that require becoming acquainted closely with the intricacies of the various vehicles. And anyone who has played this game to (or near) completion knows of the notorious platinum medals, which require insanely fast completion times and mastery of the vehicles. Unfortunately, while many players will enjoy this very difficult challenge of their abilities, others will find it absurd they should have to practice so much and have to achieve near perfection to get a single medal in a bonus round. Sometimes you can't please everyone....

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Donkey Kong (Game Boy)

I had no intention on doing a write up on this game. But recently I had a hankering to replay it and figured I'd give it a shot but wouldn't learn anything from it as far as game design goes. But it wasn't long before this humble monochrome GB game proved me wrong.

Here we have a game where Nintendo said "what if the arcade classic Donkey Kong was re-released on Game Boy with today's standards for video games?". What we get is a shining example of just how much a game design creative process can improve through reiteration.

Mario is no longer crippled - he is slow as ever but jumping is greatly improved with moves like the backflip jump and handstand.He can stand on many enemies and pick them up/throw them as in Mario Bros 2 US.

Even with all these extra moves and features, the developers knew the original games structure was still too simple to really make the most of them. So they settled for a simple but appropriate solution : make the end of the level a door that can be placed anywhere (rather than always the top of said level), and put a key somewhere required to open the door. This adds multitudes of level design possibilities, as well as puzzle elements to the game. Levels can either require platforming skill and dexterity to get through, or be slower paced and require some brain power to get through. If the designers decide they don't want the key to be part of a particular level design, they can place it very close to the door. Modular level design is king in a game with 100+ levels.

The game strives to keep the player interested, as there is a mini boss of sorts against Donkey Kong every 3 levels (!), and each encounter is quite different, often you'll have to pick up tossed barrels and launch them back at DK. Also levels often introduce new obstacles and ideas. For example not far into the game arrow blocks are incorporated, which allow you to place timed bridges or ladders anywhere you want in the level. Stimulating ideas like this are VERY important for keeping a player interested in the game. Once a player beats a level, gets bored, and puts down the game; there is a good chance he will never come back. No matter how long or short the game is, new ideas and concepts must continuously be introduced to the player. Zelda games do this by giving the player a new weapon every dungeon for example.

What's truly amazing about this game is how far the designers managed to expand upon the original arcade concept from 1981. Makes me wonder what other older games would be like if they received the same treatment, say Ballon Fight or Clu Clu Land.As cliche as it sounds, the possibilities are endless.

Today I ask myself "What if the arcade classic Donkey Kong was re-released with today's standards for video games?" Well as cynical as it sounds : it would be overlaid with a grey gritty filter with bloom, auto save every step you take, and offer an extra DLC level pack for 10 USD. I think I'll stick with Mario vs Donkey Kong on GBA.

+Look to older games (your own or others') for ideas you can iterate upon to create new concepts! Furthermore, don't be afraid to take the ideas in the game you are currently working on and iterate them by looking at them in a different light. You might be surprised with what you end up with.

+When you are playing old games always look for ways to improve your design thought process - its what this blog is all about! Even terrible design elements can be a lesson learned.

                                             What do I need 25 lives for?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dynamite Headdy

Treasure may not be as well known as Nintendo or Sega, but they have proven their expertise in the platformer genre (and other genres) several times.

Immediately upon starting this game its stage/play theme is made apparent. The opening where Headdy is captured and escapes is done on stage and all the characters are introduced. Its made obvious that many characters including Headdy himself are puppets, and of course you as the player will serve as the head puppeteer.

Establishing a theme this strongly early on is an extremely important but also unappreciated facet of game design. Also assigning the player a role more descriptive than "the main character" goes a long way into immersing them into the game. But the main point is that when starting to design a game you should have a strong idea of what your theme will be and what vibe you want the entire game to give off.

That means you need to be able to describe your theme in more than two words - "bright cheerful" or "dark and gritty" and going to cut it for themes. If you can't write at least a page worth of description for the theme and setting behind your game: you need to rethink how much you care about your game, how much you care about game design, and most importantly if the game is even worth making. Because if don't care enough to describe the direction and feel of your game to yourself before you even begin to think of developing it, no one will care enough to think about playing it.

I realize I am throwing out some harsh words here, but I want to stress it isn't that hard if you really care about your game, its world, and its successful design. For example, you know you want your game to be "bright and sunny". OK, when does it take place? Springtime. The spring breeze will play a role in the game, and the rebirth of life will be a strong recurring theme. The color palette will be primarily "Easter" colors like yellow and light blue. Enemies will contrast with the theme by being dull black and blue - icy, representing winter and death. Just writing down things like this can help you understand where you want your game to go and what you want it to accomplish.

Moving on, the games main claim to fame is its sheer variety in level design and elements. No two levels play exactly alike and the game is constantly bleeding new ideas - a trademark of Treasure. However this can also be a drawback as one of the later stages consist entirely of a shoot em up stage. While it is not particularly bad, it ends up being a mediocre shooter stage instead of a fantastic platformer stage like the rest of the game is. You could argue it keeps things from getting monotonous, but its a silly argument in game that has you changing head powers every 10 seconds and fighting giant wardrobe changing puppets.

Speaking of, bosses are plentiful and creative, and the difficulty builds up nicely up until stage 7. The boss here is so hard I remember thinking for sure it was the final boss. Considering there are 9 stages and the real final boss is considerably easier than the aforementioned boss, you can imagine the disappointment. Its always a challenge to ensure 100% that the final encounter is the most difficult thing in the game, but when the player has a clear imagining of various obstacles in the game that were more challenging, its hard to take the final boss, the ending, and frankly, the whole game seriously. Difficulty spikes are hard to keep in check, but are detrimental to good game design. Probably one of the easiest traps to fall into. Overly obnoxious difficulty is closely related but thankfully a little easier to keep in check - but that is discussion for another time.

                                            Are you sure this isnt the final boss?

+ Think carefully about the theme you want your game to employ early in development so it will shine forth in all aspects of the game design. Also, your theme should be specific and able to be described in detail.

- Enforce a different game genre in a certain level or stage that is completely different than the genre the rest of the game categorizes itself in.
- Fall into the difficulty spike trap, ramping up difficulty linearly goes a long way for keeping the player interested

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Super Mario Bros 3 vs Super Mario World

These games need no introduction as many people wouldn't hesitate to call either one the best platformer (or even game) of all time. Fans, not surprisingly, often hold debates on which is really the better game.

Comparing how much the series "jumped" in quality and new features with each of these games, SMB3 wins in a  landslide. Consider for a moment that the real SMB2 was just an expansion of sorts with similar design principles and levels as the original, albeit much harder. Therefore when one looks at SMB and SMB3 the difference is astounding. SMW in comparison, feels much more like just a big brother to SMB3. It has some improvements but not enough to feel like a completely new series in the way SMB3 does.

What do I mean when I say that? What makes SMB3 so shiny and different? Well first off the world map is glaringly obvious from the start. Being able to move around on a grid and select a level is far more immersive than SMB's traditional method of linear level progression(barring warps of course). This also opens the possibility of having optional levels - either for an extra challenge, rewarding the player with a powerful item, or branching paths. World maps can also have a very visible theme to them - you know right away whether you are in a desert or water world. Of course the fact you have so much more terrain variety in the levels is another huge improvement in of itself. And warps are still present in the forms of flute items, teleporting you to the warp zone where you can select a new world to play in.

Despite this massive improvement to the series with SMB3, SMW actually does manage to further improve as far as the map system goes.At first it doesn't seem too much more impressive in Yoshi's Island, the first world - its pretty much SMB3's map system with a graphical facelift. But once you enter the Donut Plains you can view the entire world and see how MASSIVE it really is. Many levels can be beaten in more than one way, leading to different paths. You can go through the cave or swim straight through the lake. You can finish your way through Vanilla Dome and take on Castle #3, or climb your way out to the top and take on your first Fortress and proceed to Butter Bridge. Options are everywhere and just by looking at the world map you can only wonder and imagine where secrets or hidden levels might be. To say its a thing of beauty would be an understatement, and I've never seen even an attempt to replicate this sort of world map in any platformer since. Is it simply too daunting to try? If so I think developers should know that many players would be happy to see any sort of attempt even if it does ultimately fall short of SMW's brilliant map. Get to it!

                                                                              Holy Mother of God.

Even though SMW takes it home and then some in the world map department, it falls short in other areas. One such area would be power ups. Players will remember all the awesome items SMB3 introduced like the frog and hammer bros suit. Actually every Mario game since has failed to live up to SMB3's legendary items - nowadays you get terrible half-assed attempts like the turtle suit in New Super Mario Bros... *bleh*.

SMW doesn't have any suits to speak of though, and you can't store items like flowers or even starmen for tricky levels(there's the item box at the top of the screen, but thats not the same thing). But on the other hand, the flying is VASTLY improved, allowing you to dive bomb, drift indefinitely, or swipe your cape to attack so much faster than the tail in SMB3.

                                                                    Swimming has never been so easy.

And while on the topic of items, I do feel the need to mention Yoshi. A definte plus for World, but I feel he actually doesn't add as much to the game as he could - but I do feel he was a strong inspiration for the "Animal Buddies" in the Donkey Kong Country games; which are obviously awesome.

But some would be quick to point to indefinite flying and Yoshi as a liability, as they do make the game MUCH easier than SMB3. Even barring that, the level design feels much more brutal in SMB3 especially near the end of the game. SMB3 is definitely the harder game to beat.

SMB3 pushes the level design a lot more too. What I mean is there is a lot more variety in what you encounter in the levels. You have kuriobo's shoe, the giant world, the level in the 7th world where those little plants alternate coming out of the tunnels(pricks), the levels where you can get non-stop star power out of the blocks if you fast enough, the level where the sun comes down to attack you..I could go on forever really. You can name cool things from SMW too, like Ghost Houses and Switch Palaces...but SMB3 pushes the limits a little more.

That said, I'm thinking SMW has the better enemy roster. Chargin Chucks(the football guys, which have huge amount of variety in of themselves), the blue dinos(rex i think?) that shrink down when you stomp em, crumpling dry bones, koopas pop out of their shell, you can steal capes from some koopas, FREAKING MAGIKOOPAS..yeah. SMB3 does get props for introducing the koopa kids though.

                                                       A true BAMF if I ever saw one.

Overall both games are amazing, if not perfect, and you can't go wrong with either. Personally I would say SMB3 comes just a little closer to pure perfection, but I have to say I like SMW just a little bit more. Why exactly I don't know, but I have always been a fan of its amazing world map setup. It really does put the "world" in Super Mario so to speak. And SMW does have the more amazing secrets..Star World anyone?

But really the real question at hand isn't whether SM3 or SMW is better...its what the fuck happened to Mario? People often poke fun at Sonic and ask where's the REAL Sonic 4, but if you ask me Mario is no better off. If we don't count Yoshi's Island(known as SMBW2 in some countries), then I'd say SMW is the last true 2d Mario platformer. Just like the Sonic Advance games feel like watered down Genesis Sonic games to many, I'd say the "New Super Mario Bros" games are watered down compared to the Mario Bros games of old.

The weird part is Sonic has an excuse; Yuji Naka and several other key members of Sega are gone - they don't work on Sonic games anymore. But Miyamoto still works at Ninty...does he have less creative power these days? Are other key developers of SMB3 and SMW no longer there? What about Miyamoto himself, what does he think of NSMB:DS and NSMB:W? Does he honestly think they can even compare to god-like gaming goodness of SMB3 and World? Does he even care anymore? I'd like to think if I was in his shoes I'd always care, but maybe things change after making two platformers that are about as perfect they can get.

Or maybe as I said, I'm giving one man too much credit. Maybe the team chemistry is no longer there just like it isn't present in Sonic Team. All I know is I've given up waiting for the true Sonic 4 and I've given up waiting for the true SMB4 (or 5..whatever). Instead I wait for a developer that can spur a renaissance and recapture that 16bit magic with a platformer that has all the amazing ideas and free-flowing level design I've come to love. Maybe that developer is me, maybe its one of you reading this pointless analysis/rant/internal debate. All I do know is it isn't Nintendo or Sega or as much as I hate to say it...any modern game company with over 100 people and more than a million dollars to spend on producing a single video game.

I'm not saying company greed is the cause of declining quality in a lot game series, but it seems like no coincidence that the older classics had much smaller teams with much smaller amounts of money to throw around. Was imagination the secret ingredient they used to make up for the lack of pure purchasing power? Money is the root of all evil. Maybe there is some truth to that statement after all.

                           Not a bad game in its own right...but ultimately a huge disappointment.

For the record, Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 were fantastic games...I'm not sure why Mario is still excellent in the 3d realm but the 2d offerings as of late are so pitiful.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lion King (SNES, Genesis)

These days movie games have the stigma of being cheaply made cash-ins, but back in the early 90's when this game was made, movie tie-ins were often of average, if not great quality. I'll be reviewing this game SOLELY as a video game, but I'll say this: the game's levels and progression do a fantastic job of following the movie's pacing and plot structure while maintaining video game integrity (ie not ripping dialogue and scenes straight from the movie). That's about all I ask from a movie game in relation to the movie itself. The point is the game should stand on its own two feet as a GAME and take only plot structure and basic ideas for gameplay from the movie - which this game does.
SNES favoritism?

Gameplay is split between two sections - child and adult. Child gameplay is pretty much vanilla platforming with jumping as your main form of attack (similar to ole Mario himself). There's also a roar function but its mostly useless, stunning some enemies briefly and possibly killing really weak enemies.

This game has one incredibly valuable lesson to learn as far as game design goes. Platformers often have levels or level segments where the gameplay is quite different than any where else in the game. Normally this isnt a bad thing as it keep things fresh as far as these "ventures off the main path" are fun. But if incorporated incorrectly, it becomes an ugly train wreck fast, and all too often the devs will be blind to the abomination they created. Meanwhile the player is crying "I was having so much fun playing this game, WHERE did we go wrong?"

This game commits that terrible sin. That sin is the "I can't wait to be king" level, the second one. Anyone who has played this game as a kid knows exactly what I'm talking about. You have to roar (yeah I know I said it was useless, oops) at these damn monkeys so they face in the right directions and toss you toward the goal. The last segment is particularly annoying and very difficult to get them facing the right directions when you know nothing about it. It has little to do with platforming, and it isnt fun, period. It has no place in the game. To add insult to injury, there are these ostrich riding sections in the same level. They aren't too bad, but they are difficult and will kill you at least a few times before you get the hang of it. Oh and then there's the BS where you have to swing across some rhino tails across water. Altogether its too many difficult and annoying mechanics, ESPECIALLY for the second level.

                                                       Looks can be deceiving. This level is actually the devil.

How many people do you think will give up on this level? That's a damn shame because the rest of the game is fantastic and considerably less annoying. But it isn't the players fault, that much I can tell you for sure.There are many devs and apologetic players that will argue otherwise, but they are wrong, just so you know. You can't take whatever you come up with and shove it into the game and think it will hold together with some fancy glue - if you could there would be a lot more game designers out there. You have to know when your shit stinks.

After such a negative rant you probably think I hate this game, but pretty much everything after the 2nd level is fantastic. The "elephant graveyard" is some awesome and challenging platforming done right, bouncing off stretched out elephant hides and pouncing on vultures and climbing jagged rocks to avoid geysers. Damn. And once you become an adult in the later levels things get awesome as you get A LOT of combat abilities and you'll be mauling and slashing hyenas and cheetahs left and right.

But I'm going to avoid reviewing every little thing because there's already an entire internet out there for that crap. I really wanted to use this game to rant about annoying unique mechanics destroying otherwise good games. Its a pitfall that is so easy to fall into when designing games - I guarantee some sad sack is ruining some awesome game right now with some effed up idea he cooked up, and he's getting paid good money to do it.

And for the record, I'm aware the stampede level also incorporates very different gameplay than the rest of the game, but honestly it isnt bad. For one it lasts for the entire level and is quite short, and its just some basic dodging with a different viewpoint and some epic music. It doesn't have much to do with platforming, but it captures that moment of the movie well and more importantly its not the SECOND level. Overall its not adding a whole lot to the game, but isnt really subtracting anything either. Its not cancerous like the second level.

                                                Not cancerous. Or maybe just less so.

PS - The final level is *bleeping* epic. THAT is how you take an amazing final battle from a movie and turn it into an amazing final battle in a game.

+Very nice graphics and animation that do a fantastic job of capturing the feel of the movie
+Each level has its own niche and plays differently, keeping things interesting; the transition to adult keeps things fresh as well
+Even today, the final level and battle with Scar is amazing. You even have to throw him off the cliff to finish the game.

-Don't put so many mechanics early on in the game that are completely different than the rest of the game(in this case the 2nd level, its a HUGE turn off to the player, especially when they are not fun


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quest 64

Quest 64 is one the few JRPGS available for the N64, and the scarcity of the genre on that platform probably contributed to its limited success. Not that the game doesn't have some good things going for it, but by traditional JRPG standards it falls more than short on several fronts.

I'll start by saying the monster designs are phenomenal. There are over 70 different ones and although they reuse some model shapes or structures, there are no actual palette swaps that I recall. Well, maybe a few butterflies or something, but the point is this game has some of the better enemy designs out there.

Bosses are terrible, in pretty much every sense. Half the time you will have no idea who you are fighting and they will introduce themselves and say "I will kill you and take all your stuff". Even the final boss tells you more about himself then the rest of the game does. No story buildup or anticipation at all, not a good way to build anticipation for a tough fight.

Bosses have 2-3 attacks as well, with only a few attacks that are fun/interesting to dodge. So most boss fights becomes a test of how many items you have (which are limited in supply).

Not only do the bosses have little to no background, the rest of the game isnt doing much better. I'm not asking for a book full of text, but the entire game has no narrative. Every city you can just pass on through, or talk to a few people to tell what is going on and where you should go next. A little narrative or actual EVENT(S) that happen throughout the game keeps a sense of pace and keeps the player from getting bored. Instead of entering a small town and then going into the woods to kill a boss, something should happen to the player that MAKES them want to go in to the woods and kill the boss. Huge difference.

The thing that does keep this game interesting is its battle system. No game in over 10 years has replicated this gameplay to my knowledge. It mixes turn based with real time action by avoiding attacks and positioning for offenses. Also the restrictive area fields are a great strategic touch.

The AI is an issue though, as all enemies feel the need to stay as close as possible to you, which is silly considering some enemies should play a keep away game while using powerful ranged spells. Instead they come up to you to use these attacks in your face, taking away a possibility for more strategy in the battle system. Basically even though the enemies look varied, they all fight basically the same.

This causes a lot of fights to become straightforward battles with rushdowns with as much damage as possible, with you healing when needed (enemies almost never heal, or even need to really). There is so much untapped strategy sitting in this game.

Another huge problem is that the usefulness of the elements is unbalanced. Water has healing which is too important considering dungeons are long, MP is aplenty, and items are not. Earth has Avalanche which is by far the best damage ability in every situation(dealing hundreds of damage with no effort). Fire and Wind are left weak and unimpressive. Fire can raise your staff damage and cause you to heal as you strike with it, but these are admittedly cool abilities in a game where utility doesn't mean anything. Wind Cutter does good damage yes, but its still far behind Avalanche, though maybe less random. Point is extreme unbalance in elementary usefulness is a problem when the game gives you the option to increase them how you wish. A good way to fix this would be to require the player to have a mix of elements to get new abilities (which is exactly what the GBC version of the game did).

For the record, I'm not counting this game's lack of party members against it, because it performs well as a solo game, although they could have been a source for some actual narrative, AND it could have add some serious depth to the battle system and leveling system (each member with different elements sets? spreading out elements you find in the field maps?) But basically its not a glaring flaw in of itself.

The game does have a lack of RPG qualities, which isnt necessarily in issue in of itself, but it is often complained about. Its probably more just the fact the game can feel abit barren and has a lack of overall features and things to do besides the main game. No sidequests, no money (hence items being limited), no equipment. However, I cant say I'm comfortable counting these as actual flaws with the game design.
There's definitely a lack of polish though.

+Good monster design with a lot of variety
+Battle system is fresh and innovative, even 10+ years later!

-Dungeons are mostly just long tunnels with no traps or distinguishable features other than the scenery
-Bosses are nothing more than glorified enemies - no flashy attacks and their fights dont require any new strategies from regular fights
-Enemy AI is flawed to the point where it hurts the complexity of the battle system
-Practically no story narrative - this can potentially hurt the player's drive to continue the game
-Element attacks for the player are unbalanced to the point where only a few attacks are desirable

Quest 64 has its ideas that could stand to be revisited in a future game, but it seems rushed in many aspects. I do recall production was accelerated because they wanted to get it out before Ocarina of Time[citation needed]. Now we are left with a mostly average game that probably garnered some extra sales at the time, but we could have had a game that would always be cherished as a classic.