Before the holiday season, I made a blog post about a little experiment I planned on undertaking over the break. I was going to be very choosy about which games I played, and the rules were something like this:
1. Nothing with too much story or too many cutscenes
2. Nothing with too much unlocking hell
3. Challenging is okay
4. Skill based is preferred
Essentially, I wanted a holiday break where the gaming was filled with old skool sensibility. It was quite a learning experience too, both about gaming in general and my own tastes.
Here are some of the titles I ended up playing, and what I thought about each.
Twilight Princess: Zelda is the only game I pardoned from the first rule, not because it was the only story heavy game I was playing before the experiment, but because it was the only one I wanted to continue playing. This adventure accompanied me in the very beginning and end of the break, and I’m sad I didn’t get to play it more between. I think the stunning thing about Zelda is that as much as gamers complain about the series on a whole getting stale, not too many other games can balance its story and gameplay so damn well. It just feels stuffed with premium content everywhere you go, and for once I don’t want to skip through the story. Its not very deep or hugely epic, but it works because it feels so honest. Most of the characters are simple, but I care about them, because for once I can understand where they’re coming from. Watching Link interact with his friends with such good cinematography and a loving soundtrack is something I don’t grow tired of, and since it doesn’t dominate the game, it never feels spoiled. There’s something about going on another adventure with Link, about saving Zelda and hunting down the Triforce that feels warm and welcoming. I feel like a kid again, and I’ll take that over being preached to in an RPG any day of the week.
What I learned – If I have the choice, I’ll take text dialogue over full voice acting. Some great games have had terrific voicework, but you also run the risk of seeing something akin to Square’s early PS2 work, where bored actors spit out awkwardly translated lines with two second pauses between everything. I find that rather than enhance the story even a little bit, bad voice work actually hurts it. I still see reviewers bark at Zelda for its use of text. Maybe next Christmas I’ll send them a valuable gift; an imagination.
Soul Calibur 3: I thought this might be a clear winner, the game that would dominate my time. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Soul Calibur 3 took over its first night of play with gusto, and then it collected dust. I tried popping it in shortly after New Year’s, and it couldn’t hook me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game with so much stuff be so unorganized. SC3 is an absolute mess, so bad that I just found out that there’s a tutorial mode in addition to straight up practice. With its Chronicles of the Sword mode and emphasis on Create a Character, it feels like there is a completely different game here in addition to the regular fighting. Thankfully, you can ignore most of it, but even if you just want to enjoy all the characters and weapons, good luck, because they’re buried beneath multiple layers of unlock hell. A comparison; you can unlock all the fighters in King of Fighters 2006 by playing arcade mode enough times. In Soul Calibur 3’s fancy Tales of Swords mode, you have absolutely no clue if you will unlock anyone on any given playthrough, because you have no clue if you’re going to meet them or not. Patience – tried.
What I learned – Folks, this is what you get when you try to add some fanciness to fighting games. I think I’m actually yearning for the sparse menus of yore.
God Hand: Hands down the most played game of the holiday season. God Hand is old fashioned beat ’em up with the new age technique that only Clover can provide. It’s hard, it’s replayable, and it’s much deeper than you might think. God Hand was a welcome addition in my house, reminding me of skills I forgot I had, and giving me that urge to do “one more level”.
What I learned – God Hand’s 100+ different moves are hidden away in the unlock shop, but by giving you tons of gold and even free moves in each level, I always had new toys to experiment with. This game taught me that unlockables aren’t so bad if the barrier to entry can be chopped in half.
Trauma Center: I played a lot of Trauma Center in a short period of time, and as a game that’s often frustratingly challenging, it was perfect for this experiment. The challenge was welcome, as was a story that I could choose to listen to or skip. Fun as it was, Trauma Center taught me an important lesson as to why its bad to focus only on super challenging games; they frustrate me too easily. In the case of Trauma Center, the ranking system is expert at destroying your self esteem. Think you’re hot stuff earning that A rank? Too bad you can actually do better. But don’t try for that S rank any time soon, because it seems almost impossible to determine whether that stitch you just made is going to be given a “cool” or just a “good” rating, and one screw up can cost you the gold.
What I learned – Adding rankings can be fun, but TC proves that it can actually be too much of a headache if you can’t figure out what is behind them very easily.
Guitar Hero 1 and 2: My trusty standbys, these guys still got a ton of solo play as I tried to compete with a friend and get more five stars. GH is perhaps the opposite of Trauma Center; there are rankings, but you can tell what you’re doing wrong and how to improve your score. I think it provides a strong balance, in that there are only two ways to hit a note; right or wrong (as opposed to DDR, in which each note gets a rank depending on accuracy). It is easy to tell when you’re doing really well, or really poorly, and practice mode means you can go and fix the kinks. Still, it isn’t quite perfect. I actually find that the more I play, the less I understand the scoring system. I’ve gotten 5 stars on songs I’ve easily faltered in just because I got a 4x multiplier for half the song. Other times I’ve hit 92% notes and barely muster four stars. Regardless, I’m beginning to appreciate Guitar Hero more and more on the level of a hardcore player. It offers enough challenge without crushing your soul, and encourages you to keep trying again and again, because you always feel like you’re going to make it eventually.
What I learned – GH2 doesn’t reward you with cash if you 5 star a song on expert and go back to beat it on medium. I think more games need to do something like this.
Gradius: My new virtual console game, Gradius is a solid reminder that games of yore weren’t necessarily better. It’s a fantastic little schmup, even if the sequels are cooler, but it has that frustrating problem where you become good enough to beat the early stages but still find yourself stuck somewhere in the middle for ages. You don’t want to try again, because the early game bores you, but damn do you want to see the rest.
What I learned – Bring back the Konami Code for goodness sake.
Conclusion: I had a lot of fun with the games I played over break, but unless you’re entirely frustrated with modern gaming, or are doing it already, I don’t recommend attempting to live with nothing but old school and skill based games. I believe now that they are a cornerstone of any true gamer’s diet, but you can’t live on it alone. Sometimes it is nice to sit down with a game where you don’t have to worry about losing or practicing, where you can coast through and get a nice feeling of gratification without hassle. I also discovered that a very important facet of game design is making sure you balance risks to reward appropriately. If you want your game to be challenging, it helps if the player has the feeling that they can improve naturally as opposed to resorting to glitches, FAQs or sheer luck.
I think the entire experience can be summed up as so: I managed to get to the final boss in Sonic the Hedgehog without cheats or emulator savestates. Getting that far completely by my own skill, playing it on the Virtual Console with TV and control pad, was like being twelve all over again. It was a thrill I haven’t gotten from a game in very many years.
I’m not playing Sonic the Hedgehog again for at least a few months. That little guy put me through the ringer.