Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Building a Better Platformer

Well, I felt like continuing the whole 'Build a Better [Genre]' while I've got gaming in my head. Plus, it's a little wearing to keep doing doggerel. Need to find a bit of skeptical inspiration. But that's for another post. Anyway, platformers are one genre where I tend to stay firmly entrenched in the mainstream: Mario Brothers, Mega Man, etcetera, so suggestions for other games would be nice. The most recent platformer I played was Super Paper Mario for Wii, and they delivered on most fronts. I'll be using it as a big yardstick, so forgive me if I miss out on something.

1. You don't have to go 3D: I firmly believe that 2D platforming is very much alive, and can still be filled with new innovations. 2D simplifies things greatly, and that's especially handy when it comes to jump puzzles. Relevant note: I enjoyed Metroid Prime in 3D, but I enjoyed Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission more. I think a 2.5D Metroid would be awesome.

2. She's got her father's eyes... and her mother's forehead ridges: I think platformers can hybridize with just about any other genre. Super Paper Mario did a great job mixing it with RPG. Hmm... Platformer and Shmup... Imagine I could think of something that already fits that description. (*smacks self* Duh. Contra, Metal Slug, etcetera.)

3. Cut down on hairline jumps: You know the kind I mean: The ones where you have to jump at the very edge of a platform to make it, otherwise you get instant death? Let's have fewer of those. I can appreciate them in Mega Man Powered Up's challenge mode, but I'd rather not face a series of them in regular places.

4. What challenge means to me: I prefer challenge to be in the form of confounding puzzles, elaborate enemy evasion, pattern anticipation and recognition, and that sort of thing. Challenge shouldn't come solely from making gaps a little bit longer, landing points smaller, and addition of insta-kill spikes.

5. Spikes & Miscellaneous Pointy Things 101: First: Can you think of some other deadly object to put there? Before you say 'lava,' make sure it matches the environment. Good example: King Arthur's World had some wizard-ruled cloud worlds. The deadly pits were filled with groping zombies (presumably animated by the evil wizard), hungry for the brains of your men. Second: Spikes hurt because you fall on the pointy-end, so with some spike arrangements, it should be possible for me to walk across. I once played an old Prince of Persia (like?) game where you could careful-walk across spike traps, or carefully lower yourself onto one from a ledge. Third: Some spikes can be atmospheric. I've seen some cases where insta-kill spikes are strictly decorative and impossible to fall on. They still make me uncomfortable.

6. Endurance, not perfection: One thing I liked about Super Paper Mario was that you had hitpoints: As long as you performed well in an overall sense, you were fine, and could get through a level. Messing up would, at most, put you at a disadvantage in the next area. In some platformers, you had to perform perfectly to get through the later levels, leading to many deaths and hair pulling. I'd prefer one very durable life over several fragile ones. Save the fragile lives for challenge modes and the like.

7. Narrative: Just like with space shooters, I like to feel that there's a relationship between levels. One thing I'm kind of annoyed at: Mega Man teleportation. It feels too artificial, especially since I can't think of it being involved in the plot anywhere. It's like it doesn't really exist in the game world, and is just shorthand for the characters walking around.

8. Customization: Those of you who've read the other two entries may have seen this coming. I like being able to tweak my characters, especially on the fly. They offered this in a number of the later main line (MM8 and Rockman & Forte) and X series, but it just didn't strike much of a chord with me.

9. Plot & Breathers: I like doing moving platform acrobatics, spike dodging, and all that. Otherwise, I wouldn't be talking about the genre, but I need some breathing time: Have some relaxed moments in a town with no deadly stuff, just some relaxed pace puzzles.

10. Does this even make sense?: In the acid-trip world of the Mushroom Kingdom, I can accept bricks hanging in the air for no reason. That's not so easy for other genres: Would it make sense for a fortress that regularly has friendly troops moving through it to have open spikes in main paths? Wouldn't sturdy, manual trap doors make more sense?


King Aardvark said...

Hairline jumps, how I hate thee. Never was any good at them. Get killed by a mushroom with teeth? Ok, I accept that. Get killed from a simple jump just because it's pretty damn far? What the hell is the point of that? In fact, I can do without most jumping puzzles. Too many of them require crazy precision that's just not fun.

Bronze Dog said...

I can deal with jump puzzles in 2D but I really prefer it when stuff is synchronized: I'd like the patterns of moving platforms and popping traps to go through a short, regular cycle, rather than slowly diverge, leaving me to wait some more for everything to get back to a manageable pattern.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. Like those two spinning platforms the game has been spinning since before you got there. Only, one is just slightly bigger than the other, and you can imagine how long it takes those things to synch up again. Of course that's what you call bad design.

You know though, I think what you call a game that emphasises strategy and puzzle solving over hairline jumps is "Zelda". I was actually one of the people that really liked Zelda 2. That game was just genuinly hard without resorting to crazy jumps.


Well it did resort to invisible holes though...

Akusai said...

1. You don't have to go 3D: I firmly believe that 2D platforming is very much alive, and can still be filled with new innovations.

I know exactly what you mean, and it saddens me that the industry seems to be moving utterly away from 2D platforming, as 3D platforming has never, ever been as satsifying. They're all plagued with camera and perspective problems that make even the best of them inferior to a good 2D platformer.

That plus most every 3D platformer has been pretty well ripped off from Super Mario 64, with the kind additions of more and different stuff to collect!

Also, a 2.5D Metroid would make me weep with delight, just like New Super Mario Brothers did, before it made me weep with frustration. But that's part of the wonder of the platformer: it brings out your inner masochist.

Bronze Dog said...

I was also one of the people who enjoyed Zelda 2. It's far from my favorite Zelda, but I think it did a good enough job at the time.

I'd certainly be in favor of giving the concept a second try... Heh: Here's an idea: Do it like a fantasy version of Metroid.

Samus goes through labyrinthian regions, steadily collecting ancient objects that increase her mobility, power, and general ability to reach other areas.

Link goes through labyrinthian dungeons, steadily collecting ancient objects that increase his mobility, power, and general ability to reach other areas.

Think they can spin it well enough.

stogoe said...

#6 is dead on, although I'd say Super Paper Mario was a platformer that stole the hp concept rather than a hybrid of platformer/RPG. I loved not having to perfectly avoid all enemies or die instantly.

Bronze Dog said...

On the balance, I'd definitely say that it's platform-heavy, but the level of character interaction and such brings RPG into mind.

Akusai said...

Damn. I really need to just suck it up and dtop the $50 on Super Paper Mario.

And I have to bring up what is probably the best side-scroller/RPG hybrid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. That game is infinitely wonderful.

Bronze Dog said...

Haven't played a whole lot of Castlevania, here. That a good one to pretty much start with?

Nes said...

Give Cave Story a try. It's kind of like Metroid with story sequences. You'll also need the language patch, unless you can read Japanese.

Akusai said...

Symphony of the Night is a fabulous game to start with. I view it as one of the finest games ever made. It's huge, deep, and fun, the soundtrack is phenomenal...It's just all around great. It was originally for the PSX, but if you can't find one of the old discs, its on Live Arcade now, I believe.

Chris said...

Odd coincidence that this thread should come up just after I've gotten a new(ish) platformer RPG: Wild ARMS 4.

Some areas are 3-D (with no manual camera control, argh!) and have all the associated problems, but others are only graphically 3-D and movement is actually restricted to a 2-D manifold. Fortunately the game tells you which one you're in with a "side view" indicator.

Anyway, WA4 has an interesting mechanic I don't think I've seen before: quite early in the game you get an Accelerator ability, which you can activate to greatly slow down time for everything but you. Blocks that collapse 1 second after you step on them, intermittent flamethrowers, rotating lasers and other familiar platformer nastiness are a lot easier to deal with in Accelerator mode. But you can only use it for a certain amount of time before it runs out and you have to wait for recharge. Some puzzles are less annoying with Accelerator and others require it. (It doesn't make you fast enough to run on water without sinking, or extend your jumps, though.)

Another interesting wrinkle is that although there are a lot of tools you can pick up and carry and use on things, unlike the previous WA games you don't get to keep them: you can only carry one tool at a time, and if you use it or break it you might have to go get another one. And you can't jump while carrying a tool; half of some puzzles is figuring out how to get the tool to the place you need it. You can set down tools anywhere you want, though - including on moving platforms, or ones movable by switches located somewhere else, which is sometimes important. Some tools interact with objects to become a different tool. Even broken tools have some uses.

Anyway, Accelerator and the limitations on tools make for some interesting puzzles, which I really enjoy when I'm not being frustrated out of my mind by hairline jumps (double-jumping is a standard ability, but some jumps are still pretty picky - there's a tradeoff between height and forward movement based on when you make the second jump, too) or 3-D areas where I jumped at almost the right angle.

Since it's a platform-RPG, though, you can't be killed by failing a puzzle or jump - you just restart the room. Actual Game Over can only come from dying in battle. (This is a feature also shared by another of the few 3D platformers I've really liked, Kingdom Hearts - also a platform/RPG hybrid, but it's heavier on the platform and action elements. Sometimes you have to backtrack several rooms to recover from a bad jump - or being knocked off a ledge by enemy attack - but falls and traps never just arbitrarily kill you.)

BTW, I'm pretty sure it was the original Prince of Persia where you could slowly walk through spikes (but trying to run would lead to impaling yourself). It was also one of the first games I know of to allow edge-grabbing when you almost make a jump (and some jumps can *only* be almost made), and running jumps near the edge of a platform automatically delayed the jump until you actually reached the edge. This made it a lot more user-friendly than other platformers.

Akusai said...

I went out and bought Super Paper Mario, and it is eating my life, and I'm perfectly okay with that.

Thanks for the recommendation.

sylvainulg said...

i'll try to keep those comments in mind when it'll come to design my own platformer levels.