Of all the Let’s Players out there, raocow stands out as one who gives fun, wacky commentary, but also has an eye for design and brings up insights on level structure, aesthetics, and the creative use of technology. He certainly isn’t out to trash or make fun of the games he plays, either, which are my least favorite kinds of LPs, and he mostly plays rom hacks and indie games that tend to put into perspective how indie developers (including individual game designers) can utilize ideas that bigger developers wouldn’t, ranging from games that are too hard to sell to a mass audience to games like Psycho Waluigi, a platformer in which Waluigi gains psychic powers and sets out to conquer the world.
The video he posted today was one of those hard levels—was it ever. Above all, I watch raocow because he’s a jovial, positive dude, so when he titles one of his episodes “Unraocow video” then I know we’re in for something brutal. I’ll say first that I’ve loved watching the rest of New! Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island by YoshisFan. I’m not writing this as an attack (and I doubt he’d see it anyway). I’d say YoshisFan has done great work on a wonderful Yoshi’s Island fan game. I enjoyed Artoon’s Yoshi’s Island DS, but I’d take his game over it any day.
This one level, though, goes over the line—and, as always in my blog, the question is why and how. Most people who dislike the level would give the simple answer “it’s too difficult,” but I want to break down what that really means. Writing about “legitimate” and overbearing difficulty has been on my backburner and today just brought it to the forefront. Here are seven types of difficulty found in video games:
Challenging enemies (enemy overload, powerful individual enemies, large sprays of bullets)
Changes to game mechanics (altered gravity, slippery floors, wind)
Gauntlet length (boss rushes, Dr. Wily’s fortress in any Mega Man, individually long levels)
Harsh punishment (one-hit deaths, redoing half an hour of gameplay)
Necessary memorization (complex tracks in racing games, speed sequences in action games)
Precision movement (tight platforming, stealth sequences)
Time limits (literal time limits, a Tetris screen filling up)
If Castlevania, Super Mario Bros., and Pokémon never existed, could they be invented from scratch today?
Game development is, for both better and worse, not what it used to be; the monetary costs and time costs to create Grand Theft Auto IV are lightyears apart from Street Fighter II. When games are Hollywood-level productions with Hollywood-level expenses, one misstep can sink a company—and so, to the best of each company’s abilities, with every statistic available to them, their number crunchers need to determine a priori whether their games will sell based on the history of their series and comparable series.
In the modern world, big game developers craft their games from market statistics. Some gamers love it (“give me bigger and better”) and others hate it (“give me something original”), but either way, developers do that because, in a real and literal way, they can’t afford otherwise. Market statistics can’t breed innovation, however; no one can create the future by replicating the past. When the game industry was still young, companies needed to pioneer new ideas because they had no comfort zone of existing trends and bandwagons to follow.
Konami could not have created Castlevania in this millennium. My pitch as the creator: Simon Belmont, a descendant of vampire hunters, battles Dracula and the undead with the Vampire Killer, a holy whip passed down over countless generations. My response as the publisher: a guy fights Dracula with a whip? Nobody buys into characters with whips unless they’re Indiana Jones. Give this Belmont guy knives like in Blade or guns like Resident Evil and House of the Dead. Make him more generic because then he’ll be a safer bet.
The scary side of appeasing market trends. 6-3-2012 update: would you believe that I wrote all of the above without even remembering that Konami rebooted Castlevania? I only had their ill-fated Bomberman Act Zero in mind as a point of comparison.
And it’s all similar stuff. I treated the Grand List of Role-Playing Game Clichés like an unchecklist when I spent my time paper-plotting my dream RPGs at the age of sixteen: anything I thought up that I found on the List needed to hit the cutting room floor. Years later, I discovered TVTropes—and if I had treated that like an unchecklist, no game on the planet would remain.
I’ve heard an academic theory that, from a satellite view of screenwriting and literature, they only offer two types of stories: a hero takes a journey or a stranger comes to town. “Hero” is shorthand for “main character”, but I won’t break that saying down further because I don’t devote my time to movies and novels. I devote my time to something far more interesting and this is my theory:
Video games only offer two types of gameplay: Mario and Pokémon. Either circumstances control the hero or the hero controls circumstances. Either a big bad dragon rolls into town and captures a princess, ruining the hero’s peaceful life, or the hero has had enough with peace and sets out to challenge the world and be the very best—like no one ever was. Dragon Quest vs. Etrian Odyssey. Mega Man vs. Street Fighter. Castlevania vs. Monster Hunter. Tetris vs. any sports game ever made.
The best-selling video game franchises epitomize the basic building blocks of any title in the industry: the two possible goals and roles of the player.