Everyone has nostalgia for something, from playing with your friend down the block, to the meal your grandmom used to make, to the artifacts of our childhood. In the world of the internet the word seems to come up most when talking about video games. Everything old is “fueled by nostalgia”. Games like IWBTG are, apparently, nostalgia trips for 20-somethings who miss the games and the difficulty of their youth. In a sense, this is true. A lot of us go and download ro~ I mean buy Virtual Console versions of games we played in our childhood to relive our childhood. I mean, who would play these games now? Certainly not young kids!

… Yet this isn’t quite true. As I’ve mentioned before, the I Wanna Be the Guy forums were never filled with mid-late 20-somethings pining for the classics. The forum was filled with high-schoolers. I’ve asked them on occasion ‘hey why do you play these old games’ and the answer has pretty much been consistent… Because they’re free and really good. That’s a lot better than you can say about the quality of games on newgrounds. So amazingly, I had a forum full of kids who knew the references in IWBTG and played those games even though those games came out before they were even born.

Should we be surprised about this? I doubt most of the people who read my blog would be surprised, but I think you all know people who would be. Why? We have kids buying LPs of bands far before their time and playing the music on vintage equipment. We got upcoming film students falling in love with old black and white movies. Many people have favorite books written spectacularly long ago.

The past is not superior. The past is valid. The past is ripe and rich for examination. Contemporary media is a puzzle we enjoy and piece together and opine about in a tricky way. We don’t know what will withstand the scrutiny of time. The past, on the other hand, has been meticulously cultivated so we can easily find its best bits. In the now, you’ll get a good album, book or movie every so often. When you dig into the past though, time is compressed, leaving a dense layer of goodness. Even if you exhaust that layer, the past is so dense there is plenty to discover. We make an assumption that because something lacks quality in certain areas (graphics, usually) that no one will ever be able to go back and enjoy it. Why should we assume this? We do this all the time even with contemporary media. Or mobile games look worse than our console games. Our TV shows look worse than our movies. We are able to accept these limitations as long as the core of what we’re consuming is good. I have a friend under 20 who’s only been really playing games for 3 years and talks about games like Super Metroid, Final Fantasy 9 and the original Metal Gear Solid, all while he plays and enjoys modern games. I’ve heard one of my favorite podcasters, John Siracusa, talk about having his kids play old N64 games. According to him, they don’t notice the dated graphics. They also want their 4:3 TV programming stretched to fill the whole screen. We’re less discerning about these things than we seem inclined to assume!

As silly as it might sound, I don’t find myself feeling much nostalgia. The old retro games I love now are games I couldn’t stand as a kid (Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania). Many of my favorite NES games of my childhood are almost unplayable to me now (The original Legend of Zelda). The generation I was born into shaped me and informed my tastes and values, but ultimately it’s about the quality of the games I’m playing and not the emotions I ascribe to them. If I’m playing an old game, I give it some leeway on some things, just like I woul an old movie, regardless of whether it was part of my childhood or not.

Then theres the pixel art aesthetic. I know many young kids who make pixel art games. Many film students, pre-digital, also made Black and White movies. The reason is because pixel art isn’t the aesthetic of the past, it’s the aesthetic of accessibility. It survives in a form detached from modern times. People of my generation pine for scanlines, and screen curvature and color bleed. Modern young game makers employ them for the opposite reason. Pixel art is crisp and clean. It’s sharp edges and straight lines look beautiful in HD (Where pixel art on a console on your TV will look like crap). High res, beautifully illustrated sprites look even better, but they’re prohibitive. Unless you’re the guy who made Dust, you’re not doing that by your self. Old men get mad that modern indie games don’t get pixel art right for all those reasons I said above. They buy high end CRTs or upscalers and other equipment to capture the perfect look of their childhood… and that’s fine, but the modern pixel art movement is more important. Pixel art is not about nostalgia. Pixel art is a -modern aesthetic-. Crisp, yet lo-fi. a retro throwback, with modern sensibilities. It borrows from the past, but it is not the past.

The most ironic part of all of this is the ones most likely to deride something as just a nostalgia trip are people of the generation who could feel nostalgia for it in the first place. It seems almost like ‘nostalgia guilt’. We assumed the things we loved as a kid are not worth loving. Sometimes we’re right, but I see more old gamers trick themselves into thinking that enjoying older games is an immature frivolity, even when the younger generation is beginning to dig into our old libraries.

Nostalgia can sometimes trap us in our youth, but the past in ALL art forms is littered with gems. Don’t assume it’s nostalgia. Sometimes something is just good.

Reaction Speeds in Gaming

The topic of reaction speeds comes up a lot in my pet-genre of fighting games, especially when talking about casual players. Commonly they will exclaim “I just don’t have the reaction speed to play these games!” which I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of how one’s reactions work. There is a biological component to reaction speed that is hard or perhaps, impossible to improve, but that is not what most people lack. This is much like the concept of APM in RTSs. People commonly exclaim they don’t have the finger speed to play despite easily being able to type over 100 characters a minute. The bottleneck is rarely biological. The bottleneck is in your head.

The mental component, unlike the biological aspects of your reactions and reflexes, is readily and almost easily improvable. It represents the ‘skill’ component of reactions. The biological component of your reaction speed might represent your upper limit (which, by the way, is not perfectly represented by online reaction checkers), the vast majority of your sluggish reaction times in activities come from complex mental processes.

What I’m about to say isn’t strict science, but more so, a personal theory, coming from years of both gaming and watching other people improve at games. It might not perfectly represent the actual mental/physical model of what’s going on, but I think it’s a useful tool for understanding it in a way that will help you improve.

The Stack

The stack is the mental “post processing” that occurs once stimulus is received. Just like the post processing on many televisions, actions taking in one’s mental stack delay the time it takes to respond to something you see on screen. In the above (and silly) example, the new player is spending so much time trying to parse what’s going on, what he can do and how he’s supposed to do the thing that he wants to do that he not only fails to respond to the stimulus (a fireball), his thought process is totally out of sync with what’s going on in the game. He is getting hit and thrown before he totally can remember where the kick button is. This might sound ridiculous, but for anyone who can remember what it was like even as an experienced player to switch from Pad to Stick, the amount of extra processing that goes on in your head to remember what button you’re supposed to hit is ridiculous and frustrating.

A player in sensory overload can commonly think their reflexes and reaction speed are terrible simply due to the fact that they are not experienced enough to know what’s going on. Or how can they be expected to make a good decision after being knocked down when not only can they not parse the seemingly infinite pool of possible actions and responses, but is probably too mentally backlogged to be able to generate a meaningful decision until after the knockdown situation has passed? The problem seems overwhelming, but all the player has to do is clean up their “Stack”.

Cleaning Up Your Stack

The first part of improving is realizing you WILL get better if you try. Especially your reflexes. Games always seem to get slower as you learn them. You can help speed up the process though by really thinking about what you’re doing. My advice to all new players is to, as soon as possible, have a plan. A bad plan can be changed, modified and adjusted. Making such adjustments without a plan is often messy and unreliable. One of my favorite bits of advice is telling people to use less buttons when they play. This isn’t always applicable, but is especially relevant to Street Fighter. Lets take Ryu…

Medium Kick (all versions)
cr.LK (close up poke)
Cr.HP (easy anti air)
Hadoken (range attack)
Shoryuken (anti air)

We’re cutting a move set of 30+ moves down to 6. More so, you can have a gameplan with only like 3 of these moves. The player can use MK for basically anything. It’s a good jump in, cr.MK is Ryu’s best poke and standing MK is okay. All the player needs then is a Hadoken and some Anti Air. This GREATLY reduces the stack. When standing in front of an opponent, one doesn’t have to think about all of Ryu’s moves — if they’re somewhat close, cr.MK. If they’re far, Hadoken. Lets represent these stack processes…

One important thing to remember: Problem solving can ALWAYS be eliminated. Problem solving in match generally means you’re losing. That’s stuff that you’ll be doing outside the match. You might also experiment in a match to figure out something against a more experienced opponent. Regardless, you want to avoid it when possible. You’ll also probably never get good enough that you’ve eliminated all problem solving from your stack, but in theory you could (thus becoming the best player ever). As you learn and become familiar with situations, these should naturally vanish, even if that situation is “doing a move”. Eventually there is no overhead for inputting a move. Your muscle memory will have that covered for you. Eventually you won’t have to run all the calculations on which move to anti air someone with, you’ll just skip to the important part — getting him out of the air.

“But wait!” you exclaim! Eliminating DECISIONS? By what sorcery do you just ANTI AIR automatically? In fact, anti airing every time someone is in the air seems like it’d be kinda dumb and would fail all the time! You only want to AA someone when the AA attempt will succeed and with that, aren’t there tons of other observations that weren’t included? Wouldn’t they read like…

“The opponent jumped.” “Is he going to be able to reach me?” “Is he attacking?” “Have I noticed in time to do a Shoryuken?” “Normal?” “Do I just block?”

Well yes, but we can not only explain that, but greatly simplify what and you need to observe!

Simplifying the World

One of the big pieces of speeding up your reaction time is deciding what is worth observing and looking for. If an opponent is right next to you, you do not generally need to look for them to jump (unless they’re a dirty, dirty dive kick character or have a brutal crossup). If they’re totally across the screen, putting priority on the fact they’re jumping isn’t important either. If you’re at midscreen, you generally shouldn’t be setting up your stack to respond to overheads. If you’re knocked down, you can go slowly break down what your opponents options ACTUALLY are with experience, and once the basic high/low/throw/meatie okizeme situation is internalized, you can put all your observation can be put toward tiny details to help you make the right decision. If an opponent doing something in a situation wouldn’t make any sense, or if responding to it wouldn’t give you any benefits, then there is little reason to be looking for it and by looking for less things, we can respond and act faster.

I also want to introduce the concept of Autopilot. Autopilot is the subconscious script your gameplay follows once you get good but aren’t terribly playing attention. You can learn to play the game quite competently without really “thinking”. The advantage here though isn’t that you don’t have to think — it’s that you can use your autopilot to free up mental resources to make more decisions. Combos are something that are often able to be done on autopilot after a while. The great thing there is you can use your mental energy during the combo to either plan on what you want to do after the combo, or look for things going on in the combo that might be concerning. In games like Guilty Gear, realizing that your opponent is a bit out of position in an air combo and finishing the combo differently to compensate can be a big deal. It’s also something that can only be reasonably done when the combo is running on auto pilot. If you’re looking to anti air your opponent because they seem to be in a “jumpy mood” it is super beneficial to be able to play decently while waiting for the jump. If you just stand there and wait for the jump, they will likely never jump (and might even gain an advantage). Having a functioning Autopilot allows you to decide what things you want to put your focus on. Your auto piloted actions will never be as good as they would be if they had your full attention, but by choosing where you full attention goes, you can pull off things that seem, to inexperienced players, super human.

This is also why having a plan is SUPER IMPORTANT. Even if your plan is to do cr.MKs -> Hadoken, just doing that all reflexively gives you the breathing room to think about what you’re doing in more detail. It gives you the focus necessary to decide what should be in your Stack. By managing whats in your stack and using your focus carefully, you can, with average or even bad natural reaction speed, do things that seem stupidly robo-fast.

It’s not about being about to perceive and react to everything, it’s about being able to simplify the problem and removing the clutter from your brain that slows down your actions. It’s experience that holds you back more so than your inherent abilities.

Designing for Accessibility and the Inversion of Peak Effort

So awhile ago I wrote a little thing about the concept of Peak Effort, which is that, given equal motivation, top players of various competitive games put in a relatively equal amount of effort, even if the returns for their effort aren’t the same. The hardest games to play at a high level are often those with the most hype communities or biggest prize purses (higher motivation). If that still doesn’t make sense, read the article real quick, I’ll wait.

Okay so — I was having some conversations about fighting game accessibility and everyone wants to make it easier for players to “be good”. That always seemed odd to me, not due to some meritocracy-ish reason, but because it didn’t just make sense for a reason I couldn’t put together. If accessibility so important, why are hard games super popular? If super hard, games are so accessible, why are so many more people accessing them than other games?

Well I got it, I think.

The difficulty of getting into a game at a competent level is based almost exclusively on the community/people you play with. You can’t design a game where it’s easy to get into high level play because the best players, on average, will be putting it waaaay more effort than you. If you manage to truly offset effort, you’ve probably shot the chances of your game being taken seriously in the foot. It’s sort of an inversion of peak effort. The better people are at your game, on average, the harder the game will be to get into.

So what can you do, as a designer? Well, lets look at Street Fighter and Smash bros. I’m going to say something a lot of design people will probably find crazy.

Smash Bros is not intuitive, nor is it elegant. It is not ‘Accessible’ in the way people assume it is.

Besides having a button to do Specials and control unity between characters, the game is pretty obtuse. Just getting into the game, you have the reliance of smash attacks to kill people — something that does not have a discrete button. Recovering properly is hard. It’s super easy to fall and die on accident. Knocking someone off the screen is not intuitive. The concept might be, but what’s required is not. Nor is even surviving! Then when you get better you got things like tilts and fast falling and multiple kinds of jumps, some of which sometime take super brief inputs to perform… And then you got all the CRAAAAZY Stuff and glitches that I won’t even hold the game responsible for. In highschool, my friends made me play Smash 64 and I was pissed off because of how complex the game was and how impossible it was for me to do anything significant. When a friend forced me to play melee, the skills me and him developed put up the same ‘skill barrier’ street fighter did.

… So why is Smash Bros more accessible than Street Fighter?

Well the short of it is the communities. While the competitive Smash Community could be described as a bunch of manbabies, Smash has a huge community of casual players , while almost everyone who plays fighting games knows what the hell they’re doing. You can easily find someone to play Smash with you at your skill level, but if you’re getting into fighting games, you’re always going to be dealing with people who know everything. You can find groups of players who will even be playing Marvel vs Capcom casually together and it’ll be indistinguishable from the casualness of Smash. They’re little bubbles of accessibility where no one is trying hard enough to ruin it for everyone.

The real difference is that Smash makes you care less. Items, four players whimsical attitudes and generally a source of “hilarity” and “craziness”. You rarely can’t do the thing you want, you only don’t know it’s there. The game is “fun” to play when you’re awful. While in SF, you FEEL the parts of the game you’re missing. You know what a hadoken is and can’t do it. You’ve seen the combo videos. You play online and you can’t do anything. Playing street fighter at a low-level isn’t particularly fun. When you lower the skill barriers earlier on in a game, what you’re doing is trying to hook the player in. As long as players are having fun at low levels, you can almost be as unintuitive as you want (though I would not recommend it).

Designing for accessibility is hard, dawg.

Dark Souls: In Depth

Before I begin, let me thank long time listener of TMT, Trynant, for sending me this and Demon’s Souls. I had no idea the joy I was depriving my self of by passing them up.

My Other M: In Depth post was a tear down of a significantly flawed game. This time is different. Now it’s time for me to heap praise on a superficially flawed game as well as an analysis on how future games of it’s ilk can improve. It’s time for me to expound the virtues of perhaps my favorite single player experience in the last five years and time to get into the nitty gritty of why this game works. So if you’re looking for a spoiler free review because you don’t know what to do with the GameStop gift card you got for Christmas, all I can say is “If you like hard, skillful games, buy it”. So just like last time, be wary of spoilers (not that the game has many). So anyways, lets do this thing!

The Premise and Mechanics

The Sunk Ruins of New Londo

Dark Souls is a dark fantasy themed, metroidvania-esque, combat driven action RPG, with a heavy focus on combat mastery and accumulating knowledge. Despite putting an emphasis on learning, the game also has many ways to instill a fear of death in the player. Death often involves replaying long sections of an area again — forgiving checkpoints are a rare. The player can also risk losing all of their unspent currency/experience in the game by dying. A bloodstain is left where the player died, but if the player dies again, it’s gone forever. This is problematic because the game is also trying to do everything in it’s power to kill you. Unlike most action RPGs, levels and stats play second fiddle to skill. The game, played by an expert, is beatable at level one (though using powerful equipment). You are never expected to be able to tank near-unavoidable damage and running up to a boss and mashing at them blindly is often a fatal strategy.

The player character is a classless entity (the classes at character creation are merely starting kits) comprised of numerous stats, most of which only have to do with equipment pre-requisites and damage scaling(Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Faith, though dex does decrease spell casting time), and a few others. Attunement gives you more spell slots, Vitality gives you more health, Endurance gives you more equippable item capacity and Resistance does what it says and should never be leveled up (the stat probably shouldn’t have been in the game). Every level up also increases your defense a little bit. How generous! You got 4 weapon slots to define your offensive capability with and two actions for each hand (mapped to the appropriate shoulder buttons). Left is defensive (generally block and parry, but for wielding two weapons, one is often a block and the other is an attack. Or an attack and a parry), right is offensive (two attacks. You’ll attack even with a shield if you put one there). There are tons of melee weapons, shields, bows and three classes of magical implements (talismans for miracles, cataylists for sorceries and pyromancy flames for.. pyromancy!), so what you equip your self with really defines the capabilities of your character. Sure, you can change equipment in the menu, but considering that the game plays even when you’re in the menu, that’s not always practical. Thus, your loadout is an important decision making process.

Kindling a Bonfire

The key ability in the Souls games is the roll. Much like Bayonetta and newer games, avoiding damage is one of the biggest challenges. Unlike new games, Dark Soul’s roll does not have staggeringly large windows of invulnerability (well, unless you get a certain ring…), doesn’t give you any bonuses for dodging successfully and doesn’t always give you a brisk recovery. Yet somehow this move is of critical importance. The reason is, unlike games like Bayonetta, attacking is very dangerous too. You need to use your ‘mediocre roll’ to survive until you get into position to attack. You also need it to cancel a portion of your attack’s recovery when you whiff. Contextually, this weak roll is amazing and given both your flawed offensive and defensive abilities. As such, even simple foes can do significant damage if you’re not careful! Despite these flaws, your attacks still feel powerful. The slow windups just add to the impact of individual hits. Which swing is a build up and release of tension and a key point of excitement and fear. Instead of feeling like a loose and clunky game, it feels like a tight game where every decision matters — because every decision DOES matter.

Attacking, blocking and rolling all use the stamina bar. The stamina bar recharges very quickly (in a few seconds while not holding any buttons), but in the heat of combat, it never fills up fast enough. It’s a resource to manage and it makes even blocking relatively weak. Damage done while blocking is turned into stamina damage (With some portion hitting your actual health, depending on the stats of the shield) so if you attacked too much, you cannot roll to escape and any hit to your shield will stagger you and do normal damage. When you run out swinging and mashing attack, you have to either expect your enemy to die or prey you will have just enough energy to roll away when you’re done. This adds a rich tension to combat. Even relatively easy enemies require a methodical approach to kill safely!

The player has two states — human and hollow. By using a semi-rare humanity item (or doing some other stuff that’s not worth talking about) the player can resurrect themselves. This has only a small handful of advantages (unlike Demon’s Souls where you lost most of your life!) — the ability to summon other players and get invaded, as well as the ability to kindle bonfires. The exact mechancis of humanity are arcane and silly, so we’ll just ignore them and move on to the kindling and the bonfires.

The bonfires shattered about the world act as both a source of healing and your checkpoints. Going to one fills your health bar but resurrects all (non boss/unique) enemies in the stage. You have no ready access to stores of healing items like Demon’s Souls. Large stockpiles of grass have been replaced with the Estus flask. Every time you go to the bonfire you get 5 swigs of the flask, which provide significant healing that must be rationed carefully. You can kindle your bonfire with humanity to give you larger amounts of Estus (Normally you can only kindle once to get 10 flasks, but later you can kindle more for up to 20 flasks) and you can upgrade your flask to have it heal more per swig. This controlled healing gives the developers a better way to balance levels and bosses as well as giving the player a new resource to manage. It also removes the desire to ‘horde’ healing items, while also punishing their overuse. In short, it gives the player the perfect amount of healing! With about two bonfires per boss, you get a pretty traditional level structure, despite the game’s free roaming nature.

The rest of what you do is simple. You proceed through parts of the game to achieve relatively simple tasks. Less ‘fetch quests’ and more ‘just kill all these fuckers’. So you roam the land finding new areas to clear and more fuckers to kill, with any progress in any direction bringing you closer to the end of the game.

I suppose I also should not ignore the difficulty of this game. It’s hard. Very hard and very unforgiving. But it is also fair. Luck in Dark Souls can always be replaced with skill and planning. It is when one relies on luck that one dies the most. Sometimes you die because the game is teaching you a lesson. If you roll with the punches, next time can always be different and you will get a little farther. This game questions the entitlement gamers have to not die. Despite the punishing aspects of death, as soon as one stops worrying about losing souls, the game gets a lot easier. The pressure is relieved and you can just continue to play through this fierce meritocracy. Many reviewers paint the game as horrible, oppressive, soul crushing experience, but I find that to be downright hyperbolic. If you’re the type of person to like a real challenge and self improvement, you will find the majority of this game to be deeply enjoyable because you will have earned but of success you receive. If you’re soul is getting crushed, it’s because you’re probably not respecting the game. You are hoping to luck your way through a boss battle that you have to learn and it’s just not going to happen.

Enemies in this game are dealt with through careful observation. Often a new area may seem overwhelming, by analysis of their attack patterns. Getting to a new room might lead to quick, brutal death, but each subsequent attempt will increase your ability to cope with your situation. Your handling of a situation will get progressively more refined until once difficult sections become relatively easy. Each Boss often starts out feeling like an effort in futility, but knowledge is power. Often when you finally win, you don’t feel lucky, you feel mastery. You might often feel like if you fought the boss again, it’d be easy! It’s that deeply satisfying feeling that drives a player through Dark Souls.

Wonderful Level and World Design

Outside the combat, one of my favorite thing about the game is how the world is constructed. Not so much the lore — we’ll get to that later — but the structure. Firstly, the world is amazingly and complexly interconnected and incredibly easy to navigate. If you can see something in the distance, you’re probably going to go there at some point. The world is so interconnected that often it’s surprising how to areas link, but once you find the link, it makes sense. The world is also ecologically sound. Areas reasonably blend into each other and, in fact, the deeper you go, the more you can infer about the world. The dark and shadowy places of the world are deep in the lower ravines of the world. Looking up from the dark sewers of Blighttown, you can see the sun, sky, and the walls of the castle above you. It doesn’t cease to exist because they demanded a dark atmosphere for a segments of the game. It’s right there where you can see it, confirming the validity and persistence of the world. It’s a place you could draw a map, if not for the staggering 3d aspect of it. It’s also darn easy to navigate and this is accomplished with a few simple, but invisible tricks.

First, main path branches never lie to you. Forward is virtually always forward. Rare do you come to a crossroad, not sure which direction to go in and even rarer does the ‘wrong’ path have any significant length to it. Going down these harder to reach, short paths usually reward the player with treasure and other items before quickly setting them back in the right direction. This might seem minimalistic and rather shallow, but this conceit allows them to construct a staggeringly 3d world. Another tool is showing you what is ahead. In say… the Prime series, you are restricted by doors. While mostly a concession of the times, these doors created sealed environments that that often prevented you from telling what was ahead of you (that said, I wanna play a 3d Metroid that goes “Metal Gear Solid 3” and embraces a super open map, but thats another story). The only hints you get are the door frames. In Dark souls you can SEE the tower where you fought the Demon and the Dragon and you can just run in it’s direction and mostly find your way pretty easily. Remember a few key sights and paths and you can get virtually anywhere you want with minimal effort. While being open ended, the world is, for the most part, a series of linear paths with a hand full of relatively large areas that have very obvious goal points.

Dark Soul’s dense cylinder of a World perhaps navigates better than any large 3d game I have ever played and does so without a map screen.

Individual areas are designed for distinctness and well crafted combat encounters. They are not afraid to put enemies in the most annoying spots possible and as such, they squeeze all the mileage they can out of their enemies. This is a design trick used famously in older Castlevania games but has been forgotten in modern times. But as long as a situation can be learned, it can be dealt with. The decaying nature of the world also makes it easy to create a world that plays like a level while not breaking suspension of disbelief. Collapsed walls, makeshift bridges and destroyed structures are a staple. The areas that do not abide by the decaying aesthetic are designed to resemble places. The pristine Anor Londo has bedrooms, filled with paintings and furniture. It has a church, a tomb and other important sites. Not-pristine-but-not-decaying Sen’s Fortress gets a pass, having been DESIGNED to be a complex, trap ridden structure. The aged nature of the world also makes it great for creating dangerous and precarious combat encounters where falling to your death is a real possibility.

Dark Souls also hits it’s aesthetic elements spot in. it embraces the classical medieval look and feel in ways that their competitors cannot not. Some games go crazy and anime-esque with their armor (which is fine), while others tole and rot in almost a medieval uncanny valley, much like Oblivion and Skyrim. Dark Souls owns it’s look. It’s equipment feels real and functioning. Function surpasses the rule of cool and when the rule of cool is applied, it’s because some weapon or set of armor came from an unlikely source, such as a demon or long dead entity. It embraces the awkward helmets and odd armors that rarely make an appearance in fantasy and use them to add a sense of reality to the world. It’s simple, yet amazingly distinct.

Story and Lore

A criticism commonly levied on Dark Souls is it’s poor, primitive story. I want to set the people who say this on fire. The story and lore of Dark Souls is “shown”, not told, and it is shown so subtly that one can blink and miss a lot of it. Details of the world, bits of dialog and small excerpts from item descriptions allow the player to piece together many details. The world is not centered around you — the world of Dark Souls feels no responsibility toward you and doesn’t require that you understand it. You stand as ignorant as the numerous NPCs that inhabit Firelink Shrine. In a world like Dark Souls, why should you be any different? This might even add to the joy of victory one feels while playing. Your success is not preordained in a significant way and even when the weight of the plot is finally put on your shoulders, it’s hard to tell if you have the whole truth. You are just an entity in a dying world and while you can piece together quite a bit you will never have all the answers.

Let me give an example of a deduction that can be made in Dark Souls.

In the Duke’s Archive (a mad laboratory for a crazy magi-science dragon), there is a section filled with Cells. There are a bunch of squid-headed-snake like enemies — Picasas — crawling about and being driven to attack by a sound. When you turn this sound off they hang around in a cell and if you fight through them, you’ll notice two at the back that avoid you and won’t attack you and seem to be crying. If you kill them, they scream out like women and drop two spells. One of the spell descriptions reads…

Bountiful Sunlight

“Special miracle granted to the maidens of Gwynevere, Princess of the Sun.
Gradual HP restoration for self and vicinity.

The miracles of Gwynevere, the princess cherished by all, grant their blessing to a great many warriors.”

Well this isn’t going anywhere nice. Lets read more item descriptions! How about some of the jail cell keys!

Archive Tower Giant Cell Key

“Key to the giant cell below the Duke’s Archives Tower.
The giant cell once imprisoned countless maidens, but is now empty, save for a few key persons. They struggle to uphold their sanity, as the horde of “mistakes” writhe at a fearfully close proximity.”

Archive Tower Cell Key

“Key to the cell of the Duke’s Archive Tower.
The Archive Tower, once a trove of precious tomes and letters, became a prison after the onset of Seath’s madness. The serpent men who guard the prison know not the value of what they hide. In the basement of the tower are the writhing “mistakes” of the terrifying experiments which were conducted there.

Okay so these things are probably Maidens of Gwynevere who have been horridly experimented on…. Oh wait there are these enemies called Channelers in the level! Let’s read what their weapon description is!

Channeler’s Trident

“Trident of the Six-eyed Channelers, sorcerers who serve Seath the Scaleless in collecting human specimens. Thrusted in circular motions in a unique martial arts dance that stirs nearby allies into a bloodthirsty frenzy.”

Well isn’t that wonderful. It makes it all the worse when the hollowed body of a female NPC end up there later in the game. An NPC who you saved. From murder. By someone who claimed to be her friend. Several characters in the game game warn you about Petrus the Cleric and most of them are unsavory folk. Somehow this guy is looked at pretty lowly by some of the biggest creepers in the game. if you do enough talking you can find out at one point that she abandoned him and hints at wanting her to die. If you save her and leave the two of them unattended for too long, he’ll murder her. And you’ll know he murdered her, because after you find her body, you can kill her and find her casting talisman on him. Oh such sweet little details.

A lot of this might feel like “telling” and one could make the argument that it is, but I think the big difference is this sort of plot discovery leads to active thought among the player. They feel like they are putting together a puzzle if they choose to look. It’s active participation. This also clears the game up of a lot of the cruft, such as cut scenes and other non-interactive elements. Not that cut scenes are necessarily bad, but they certainly do something to the tone of the game and that change of tone is not befitting of Dark Souls melancholy world. None of the Bosses give you a pre-bossfight speech. Only two optional bosses talk to you at all and the final boss doesn’t even have an intro cutscene. This does not necessarily mean the bosses are aimless and shallow. For example, we can learn that Queelag was using the second Bell of Awakening as a place to hunt adventurers to collect humanity for her dying, blight ridden sister. You can find the bottom of the world — a giant sea of ash with giant arch trees that support the world above it. In there you can find a large fledgling Dragon, pulling into question the accuracy of things said in the introduction as if it was a story told to you and not necessarily the truth. The world does not feel like it’s there for you — it seems like the answers are there, but you are simply not privy to them. Not out of spite, but because the player can only gather information that would naturally come to him. This helps paint a world that is beautiful, sullen and lonely.

Only one character, Kaathe, ever goes out of his way to illuminate the truth of the world to the player. His “Truth” though can be hard to swallow and possibly not even honest, but serves to call into question which of the games two endings are the good and bad ones. This game, which is derided for it’s shallow story and world have spawned numerous threads and conversations involving individuals nit picking every carefully chosen detail in the game to squeeze every ounce of knowledge they can out of this fantastical, dying world. Dark Souls tells it’s story in a way that is hard to emulate, yet so perfect for the medium of Video Games.

Online Elements

While the game stands without it’s online elements, they do add significantly to the game experience. Unlike Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls does not use a central server, but still has all of the features of it’s predecessor (just with more connection issues). Without ever even being alive, the transparent phantoms of other players can occasionally be see, fading into existence and either running off or getting killed before fading away again. You can look at blood stains to see how other players in an area died. When sitting at bonfires, you can the transparent aura of other characters who are playing at the same time. The two bells you have to ring in the game toll when other players close to your network(the ad-hoc network the game forms to make up for the lack of central server). You can also leave messages from from a pre-existing list of terms to try and give hints to others, telling them about ambushes, secret passages and suggested tactics for dealing for enemies. Even when not directly interacting with other players, the world feels like an occupied, haunted place.

The interactive elements are pretty good too. One gets a stone early on that allows the player to be summoned for co-op in exchange for humanity. Only human characters can summon (and can only summon two phantoms at a time), but if someone succeeds in helping someone else, the idea is that he can unhollow and then summon help of his own. Human players can be invaded by other players though (assuming they haven’t beaten the area boss yet), who will attempt to kill them for various rewards. Thus being able to summon help comes with the risk of PVP combats. Phantoms that summon and invade are likely around your level but cannot access their estus flask (though when the Host uses his flask he will heal any phantoms he summoned to help him). so the invader has to be skilled and have strong gear for his level to stand a chance. Fighting another player can be one of the biggest rushes in the game and, for an unprepared human player, one of the scariest.

There are covenants that the player can join that can help with both co-op and invading. Three of the Covenants are Co-Op based (Way of the White, Princess Guard and The Warriors of Sunlight). Not only do they tend to make you favor networks with other people of the same covenant (thus reducing invasions and facilitating PVP), successful PVPing can grant you access to new spells and equipment. For the PVP side of things, you have the Covenant of the Eternal Dragon, which allows players to partake in mutual PVP in exchange for dragon scales (used to level up the covenant and upgrade dragon weapons). By doing this, members of the covenant can earn items that allow them to convert their head and torso into that of a humanoid dragon. The Darkwraiths are a hard to join covenant that allows members to freely invade other players without using a normally limited item. By defeating their enemies, they gain humanity that they can turn over to their covenant in exchange for gear. The Blades of the Dark Moon allow players to invade the worlds of Sinners — players whom have invaded other games, betrayed covenants or murdered innocent NPCs. This allows players who don’t want to be jerks the ability to invade other games and feel like they’re delivering justice. They also receive a ring that, when warned, basically will randomly let them invade the world of players in ‘Dark Anor Londo’, an area that can only be accessed by killing one of the world’s Gods. The Forest Hunters have a similar mechanic. By wearing the appropriate ring, players may be summoned to defend a second of forest and can also bypass the usual “single invader” limit. The Gravelords (which unfortunately don’t work too well) can lay down a sign that will corrupt 3 game worlds, populating them with stronger enemies. If they kill the player of those worlds, the Gravelord collects a portion of their souls. If the player finds their soul sign, they can invade the Gravelord and attempt to murder him, thus ending the corruption of your world.

As such the game has countless ways for players to interact, but in this strange, impersonal way that is befitting of Dark Souls.

Criticisms and how the Souls games can Improve

First I’m going to talk about PvP and what is both great and bad about it. At this point, it is perhaps my favorite aspect of the game while also being heavily flawed. First off, despite all the stats the game has to offer, characters play mostly the same. Currently, levels could be discarded and the game could be built around equipment/spells. Unfortunately, while this method would be simplier, it is perhaps better to induce more character variation into the game. Many weapons are viable currently, but they all fit into a handful of classifications. Off the top of my head, Fast weapons, slow weapons, weapons that can attack while blocking and weapons with reach. Sometimes these things are combined (Spears for example can attack while blocking and have reach) but in short you deal with most of these problems the same way. Sure, you might have a trick or too for getting in against a spear user, but ultimately you get in and smack the shit out of your opponent. The game has another problematic element. Attacking is also not a very strong option! This game can be very turtlish, especially among competitive, level 120 1v1 pvpers. It’s much easier to wait for a mistake than to attack and ‘chip’ damage is usually insignificant (until you run their stamina down, break their guard and hopefully murder them). Boring games are created when inaction is the best strategy.

Most spells are not particularly useful either and also have the worst kind of balance (Does insane damage but shouldn’t reasonably ever hit) with a few exceptions. Most useful buffs in the game only increase damage output. No spells increase stamina regeneration, teleports, stun or allow you to move faster or to lay traps, or have any decent area denial (all the clouds are far too weak for that purpose) or basically any kind of spell that would be common in a competitive game. I could think of a million spells that would be super cool in the game and the only one that exists is Wrath of God — a fast cast, area of burst damage that does a lotta hurt. It’s rather ‘lame’ but has that ‘it’s so good it’s fun’ feel that a lot of spells need. I could go on forever describing spells that would have rocked in Dark Souls for PvP and PvE but they’re just not there, leading to a lot of saminess. Equipment is also pretty boring. A few novelty weapons are cool, but there are few interesting effects granted by equipment. You basically pick the weapons you want and pick armor to get as much poise as possible while keeping to the weight class you want. As such I never found much fun in the mutual PvP stuff. I think From Software was actively trying to discourage it, but that’s a fools game. Still, invasions are where it’s at for me. The host has a purpose — to get to the end. You have a purpose — to kill the host. He can heal and is probably well supported. You can’t heal, but probably have much better equipment and can create ambushes with the enemies. It’s the massive situation asymmetry that makes things shine.

That said, there is still too much variance in who you get matched up with. You cannot re-spec your stats and builds are easy to mess up. Since PVP players are going to know this better than new players, PVPers will have better stats for their level. An unaware player can be, strength wise, 10-20 level lower than what is appropriate for the invader. Also the level cap is absurdly high (level 711, compared to the level 1-200 most people get to). Invaders have no upperlimit on who they invade, just a lower limit, so invading a world with 3 max level characters and getting ganked is somewhat common. Now, in the multiplayer ecosystem of the game, you take your lumps with the gankers and get lucky with unprepared newbies and then a get a few fair fights, but that’s not OPTIMAL. The upgrade system isn’t optimal either. Weapons that scale with stats are outclassed by elemental weapons that are the same strength at any level. Why do any weapons not scale? Perhaps SOMETHING could not scale, but that should not be a common thing. All this allows is for invaders to have overpowered weapons well before their victims can. Now, this is necessary with how the game is now, but you could balance it in much better ways. Why can’t invaders heal? Why isn’t say, their health tied to how many phantoms their are? Or maybe them being able to heal is enough? Then you can remove the elemental weapons that dominate the sub-100 level range. The numbers could be crunched in so many other ways that aren’t as abusable and scale better with levels. When levels are the determining factor of who fights who, why does equipment matter so much more? It’s far from optimal and just barely works. When it works, it’s brilliant — a brilliance that eclipses any flaws the multiplayer has. This shows how much room this “Genre” has to grow. You can adapt to the players who want to do 1v1 while also enhaving PvE and invasion gameplay. You can improve the matchmaking and help players not ruin their characters and help equipment scale better off of your level. You can cap levels at a reasonable point that doesn’t lead to insane shenanigans and focus on a limit that forces interesting choices. By doing so you improve all aspects of the game — the guys who want to 1v1, the guys who want to invade, the co-op guys who can run interesting support spells or even the guys who are playing Solo. Limiting the levels also helps put players within reach of each other, maximizing the amount of players available to play with at any given time. The games that follow in Dark Souls footsteps have a lot of room to improve from the multiplayer component that that’s amazing.

The game also seems to have over-reached it’s budget and schedule. The Covenant system is somewhat broken and unfinished Rewards are limited and often too come quickly or far too late. Some covenants don’t even have rewards, or rewards after the first level. Gravelord BARELY works. Actually seeing powered up enemies due to a curse is super-rare. Some of the later areas, while architecturally interesting, are lacking in interesting enemy encounters Lost Izalith was clearly rushed, both in enemy placement AND the bed of chaos boss battle, which is perhaps the worst in the game. I also imagine that the Valley of Drakes was originally hoped to be a bigger area (possibly with a hellkite wielding a spear, like was pictured in many early screen shots). Demon’s Souls clearly had a lot of cut content. The Land of Giants (I wonder if it became the Tomb of Giants? Most probably, but I’m not sure). Every archstone was also probably intended to have an additional area. The game reduced it’s self a way Dark Souls couldn’t — with grace. Perhaps it was for the better to have those weak areas instead of no areas at all? I’m not entirely sure, though the 1.05 patch did smooth out the worst bits, making those sections at least somewhat worthwhile.

As wonderful as I find the story, I do sort of wish there was more direction and a little bit more “showing”. Not in the ‘hunting for clues’ way, but literal showing. Just the tiniest, most careful bit more, to just give a little be of cohesion to the game and allow for a few areas of closure. It is definitely that they were conservative with story elements, but they haven’t quite struck the perfect balance yet. Having to really examine the world to understand it is amazing, but the fact people think it doesn’t exist is a real tragedy. Just enough needs to be shown to help encourage players to look harder. They just need to know that something is there, waiting to be unearthed.

Most of Dark Soul’s flaws are very easy to get over. If the game play the game provides jives with you, you will probably enjoy even the worst segments. It’s faults instead point to a greatness that is yet to exist. Perhaps from From Software, perhaps from future clones like Dragon Dogma that might truly establish these conventions as a genre. If they do, it will be a victory for gaming in general.

Edit: E-W-G-F, a prominent Dark Souls youtuber wrote a nice rebuttel to some of my points on reddit. While some weren’t entirely applicable to what I meant, it’s all interesting. So please, give it a read.

The Executive Barrier Extended: Peak Effort

There was an idea I left out when it came to idea of smoothing out the executive requirements of a game. I suppose that is appropriate because this is even more theoretical than my claim that the most competitive players in a real time games are ones that either enjoy execution or multiple avenues of improvement. The idea here is one that I can only intuit to possibly be true through experience, though I admit I can entirely be wrong. My idea is that of Peak Effort, the theory that, motivation being equal, effort at the highest levels of play across good and successful games is roughly equal. This probably sounds pretty crazy! We can look at Street Fighter 2 and Street Fighter 4 and see 4 has way more links and combos and difficult things to do. Even though that is true, we see much more precise spacing, and developed sequences of pressure and tricks and what have you in Street Fighter 2, all of which is executively demanding. Watch a pro Japanese Ken use an air hurricane kick to do practically anything he wants and do so CONSISTENTLY. Players do not exude effort proportional to the requirements of the game, they exude effort proportional to their desire to win.

This is another idea I refer to “Squeezing optimization out of a stone”. Games certainly do not take equal effort to initially get good at and in the beginning stages of a game, one is focusing on big, fundamental ideas. These ideas might be tough as hell to do, or easy, but regardless, they greatly increase your win percentage. Learning how to block, or learning to always build SCVs, or whatever massively increase your win rate Sometimes even double it (or more)! As one becomes a highly skilled players, the rewards for new facets of information and skill are much smaller. Still, players do not ‘burn’ excess effort due to diminishing returns, they just become content with smaller optimizations. They will find them ANYWHERE they possibly can.

Let me throw up a much hated exploit. Wave dashing in Smash Bros Melee is, outside of competitive play, universally reviled. Why? I have no idea. It’s not even that powerful of a technique, especially considering the effort. You jump and slam a diagonal direction down in the direction you wanna go and press R. The air dodge mechanic than makes you slide across the ground. It’s a less good version of Guilty Gear’s run (it’s of limited direction and is execution intensive) and a better version of Street Fighter’s dash (you can attack and defend out of it like in Guilty Gear). It’s certainly a GOOD technique, as position in games is paramount — but it’s not the majority of the reason why good players win. In fact, I think people loathe it because it’s the most apparent thing that top Melee players do. Combine that with it’s difficulty, the fact it’s kinda stupid and the fact that it’s a glitch/exploit (though apparently nintendo knew of it?), people get really pissed over it. Yet the simple technique of SHFFLing accounts for the fast majority of the reason pro players beat casuals. It’s a technique thats easy and transparent. They just do a ton of fast air to ground attacks and you die.

What wave dashing DOES is it find ways to squeeze optimization out of a rock. It is a mechanic that strong players can use to create new situations where they have an advantage. A lot of middle ground players likely actually harm their game by focusing on this technique too much. Hell, in terms of ‘squeezing optimization from a rock’, wave dashing is a huge find. As much as it offends a lot of people, look up a list of ‘advanced techniques’ for Smash. Look how minor these advantages are. People need a way to make use of all their potential effort. Say what you will about Smash (I sorta think it’s a stupid, janky game that is only playable on accident, personally), but the community has a lot of competitive motivation.

Kara throws in street fighter, or tiny map movement optimizations in fighting games are also similar. In SF4 you might be kara throwing or extending combos, and in SF2 you might be practicing safe jump timings. To be fair though, these things are not necessarily even. Smash for example is pretty stupid, because it starts out easy and then almost immediately becomes incredibly hard. SF2’s branch of games have a pretty good gradient after a moderate initial investment. SF4 has an easier initial investment, but a very large middle investment before smoothing out somewhat well.

It is clearly STILL very important to design a well designed game with a good execution curve for accessibility and encouragement. Also controlling the rewards of optimization. If intensely difficult optimizations increase a players chances to win 50% over players who don’t, the game will likely suffer for being inaccessible. If these optimizations give a 1% advantage, top players will likely get bored and switch games. If they give say, 5-10% that might feel right. I’m making up these percentages, but the idea is that you can still control the accessibility of your game while allowing the most competitive players to make use of their potential effort. If you don’t let them, they’ll probably play something else.

On a final note, remember, motivation is critical in the idea of Peak Effort. Star Craft is probably the most skill demanding game out there because of the fact it’s a paid Korean sport. If your game can’t generate interest or motivate players to be competitive (Good match making!) it doesn’t matter how well you do the rest.

Other M: In Depth

This write-up is brought to you by New Game+. Their founder, after hearing all my comments on previous Metroid titles got me a copy of Other M so I could write more. As such I encourage you to take a look at New Game+. It’s small, but the previews are very good and they’ll likely be getting me more games to review in the future.

So please, support my sponsor and go give their site some hits. :)

I hesistate to refer to what I’m going to do as a review. In fact, if you care about spoilers, DO NOT read anything outside of this paragraph. Instead I wish to pick the game apart and explain how it ticks. I will say right here that it is absolutely playable, and, depending on your tolerance for bullshit, quite good. Despite being highly critical of games, I’m, in a way, rather forgiving and thus had a mostly positive experience overall. I’d perhaps even play this again — well before Fusion or Prime II! Despite that, I would say its flaws are more egregious than any made in either of those titles. I’ll get into where its strength lies, but first I want to get through the worst of it.


Samus Aran

Adam Malkovich

Anthony Higgs
Bob 'The Beast' Sapp

Madeline Bergman or a Little Girl

Red Shirts
Cheap and Disposable!

Now, unlike most people, I am not immediately and deathly afraid of a Metroid game having a plot. Just because it was terrible in Fusion did no mean the idea had to be terrible forever and I support games trying to innovate. Sadly the plot in Other M is a Trifecta of failure.

  • All the text in the game are horrendously localized. In fact, I dare say no localization occured what so ever. It was a translation in the strictest sense. It’s like Sakamoto got an intern with a basic grasp on english to translate it. The dialogue is stiff as hell and in no way resembles conversations with real people.
  • The voice acting is awful. Why Retro hired Jennifer Hale to grunt, but Nintendo hired some random nobody is beyond me. I’m not going to say any of the voice actors were bad, but none seemed experienced enough to salvage the crap they were given. Instead, they stumbled on it and made it even worse.
  • Oh right, Sakamoto can’t write and there are no editors in Nintendo apparently.

The Story

I could expand 3 into subsections spanning the entire alphabet, but I’ll just finish up here. But first and foremost, no one who worked on this game could write worth a damn. I think, conceptually, the ideas presented in the game are salvagable, but no one was capable of actually salvaging it.

Is Other M Sexist?

This is the question that was going around since the the game came out and cutscenes were available on youtube. Well I have an answer for you! No, it isn’t. In much the same way that Author C Clark said…

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I propose that…

“Bad writing is often indistinguishable from sexism.”

Samus was not written to be a weak female, they simply did not have any clue how to characterize her outside of your typical female stereotypes. If you look at the rest of the cast, we can also deduce that bad writing is also indistinguishable from stereotyping.

So what actually goes on in Other M? Samus wakes up at Federation Facility after her mission on Zebes (Super Metroid) and basically goes through some quick medical treatment before being released. She laments about the death of the Baby Metroid that thought of her as its mother and from that point on can’t stop obsessing over this whole baby thing. This is actually a fair bit of characterization. Maternal issues with female characters is a fine way to express feminine qualities. Whether it should have been applied to the young, adventurous and independant Samus Aran is debatable, but what is not debatable is the fact that this bit of characterization is handled with all the grace and tact of a nail bat.

Samus, now rollin’ through the cosmos in a ship that is (and has traditionally been) a giant version of her head recieves a distress call. A “Baby’s Cry” from a “Bottle Ship”. Perhaps this is where Iwata-san should have taken his belt off and beaten Sakamoto. Perhaps Gunpei Yokoi should have risen from his grave to stop these atrocities. Perhaps Sakamoto’s nail bat or his team of Ninjas protected him. Unfortunately, the plot presses on.

Once on the Bottle ship (and this is a good time to remind you what a horrible name for a game M:OM is), Samus, after some pixel hunting, discovers a federation unit on board the ship. The squad composes of Adam Malkovich, her former CO from her Federation days, token black dude and Samus’s old friend from her old unit, Anthony Higgs Bob “The Beast” Sapp, as well as an ensemble of various poorly characterized red shirts.

Adam agrees to allow Samus to help as long as she follows his orders. These orders involve not using any equipment that he has not authorized, meaning Samus has to disable her entire arsenal outisde of bombs and missiles. He does makes a point to explain how incredibly dangerous super bombs are to justify this, but this “Clever justification” quickly becomes a problem for both the plot and gameplay (which I’ll get into later). You see, Adam is characterized as a military genuis. So much so that an AI of his personality was made in Fusion. The problem is, Nintendo does a lot of telling, but no showing. Adam doesn’t make a single good decision throughout the entire game. Now let me just say, I was ready to like Adam as a character. He dresses sharp and isn’t a japanese style pretty boy or anything. He looks serious and determined and actually carries himself with the necessary dignity for the role. I hoped perhaps I could like Fusion’s plot a little bit more by understanding why this Adam guy was so great. Between both games only one decision he ever makes carries any heft. It’s eventually revealed in a flashback that Adam sacrificed his own brother to save the lives of hundreds of people. Sadly this scene was mostly about how much of a brat Samus used to be, because all she could do is berate him on how bad an idea it was. Anyways.

The first order of business is to separate everyone into solo missions despite communication systems being fucked. Apparently Commander Malovich isn’t aware of the concept of fire teams or anything either. So it turns out the ship, which contains every climate on earth (and an ACTIVE VOLCANO) is a site for Federation bioweapon research (which is illegal fyi guyz). Well, that’s certainly not good news. Neither is some random red shirt dying off screen. Everyone proceeds to emotionlessly gawk at how fucked up the corpse is and Samus is sent into Active Volcano Zone.

And, like Norfair before it, AVZ is so hot you lose health just by being in it. You see, Adam hasn’t authorized the use of your Varia suit yet! You’d think Samus would complain, but she acts like a good girl until she encounters the area’s boss. After letting Samus cook for god knows how many screens, Adam finally calls in to authorizes the use of the Varia suit. A piece of equipment that posed no threat to anyone. Adam Malkovich, Military Genuis, decided it was okay for Samus to toast a little bit before letting her activate a harmless piece of equipment. Lets look at what else Samus couldn’t use that wouldn’t hurt anyone…

  • Gravity Suit
  • Space Jump
  • Grappling Beam
  • Speed Booster (arguable)
  • Ice Beam (sheerly because all the Fed troops were explicitly authorized to use them previosly)

Not even Samus is a big fan of Other M's plot

Samus wonders where her cool armor went!

Sakamoto's Nailbat. +5 vs Plot

So in short, Adam sucks.

Eventually you get ordered into the tundra. You find another dead Redshirt and Madeline Bergman, lead scientist on the ship and seemingly the only survivor. She freaks out, assuming you’re going to kill her. Why? Because she saw one fed soldier shoot another (the dude you found, to be exact). Well, that is certainly a good reason to be nervous. Then the assassin shows up in a giant murder forklift. The game goes out of its way to show he’s in federation power armor, but doesn’t show you his head.

Not that it matters since power armor has helmets.

So you beat his forklift up and him and Madeline disappear for no reason. Samus then wonders who could be the killer. Could it be Adam? Bob “The Beast” Sapp? Some nameless red shirt? I will actually say flat out, that you never find out. You can make an educated guess that it’s the last one you find dead, but this entire plot point is basically aborted by the end of the game. Anyways, before we get to the worst scene in the whole game, lets go over some things that pass for characterizaton thus far that I didn’t go into.

  • Adam refers to Samus as “Lady”. A big deal is made out of this as if it was some deep thing.
  • Bob “The Beast” Sapp refers to Samus as “Princess”. Not much of a deal is made of this at all.
  • Samus, while undering command of Adam, when his unit was supposed to give the thumbs up to express approval of his orders, Samus would give the thumbs down. OH SNAP.
  • Samus also has inner monologue where she can’t shut up about “The Baby”. I’ll just link an example. It’s basically the same thing every time Samus opens her mouth.

So eventually Samus meets up with Bob “The Beast” Sapp and they run into Ridley, which apparently evolved like a pokemon from this little cute furry bird thing that was following you around. Sweet, we’ve waxed Ridley a ton in the past, right? Well, as you probably know as someone who is on the internet, Samus totally freezes in terror, has flash backs and gets wrecked by Ridley so much that her clothes fall off. Finally Bob “The Beast” Sapp intervenes and gets flung into lava, snapping Samus out of it. Some people like to justify this scene saying something horrible like Ridley would never not be horrifying to Samus. Others say this is why Other M is sexist. Again, no, Sakamoto just has no idea what he’s doing with the plot.

It is a fair thing to want to characterize Samus with fear. Samus’s parents were killed by Ridley (though I’m not sure the game actually explicitly states this, even though it explicitly states every other obvious piece of information at least five times). The problem is you can’t forgo the precedent established in your previous games. Samus has killed Ridley twice, not counting the Prime series. You can’t make her scared this time just becasue you couldn’t make her scared in the previous 2d games (and they could have in Zero Mission anyways). But they did it anyways and they did it in an act of ham fisted characterization. It’s not because Samus is a weak girl who needs to be saved by a big black dudes, it’s because Sakamoto wanted to show how traumatizing Ridley is and how he hurt Samus. He wants ot show that Samus hates Ridley. Sadly he can’t write, so we get some schmaltzy garbage people try and pass off as PTSD or something. Samus is a heroic character type and such responses are inappropriate. The PTSD angle could maybe work in theory (since it is realistically plausible), but considering Sakamoto’s subtle nail bat style of writing, that would be giving the scene too much credit..

Anyways, to speed along, Samus loses contact with Adam, finds out that Adam wrote the report for using Metroid’s as bio weapons and that there are in fact METROIDS in a RECREATION OF TOURIAN with its very own MOTHER BRAIN all made out of BABY FLAKES…. RIGHT OVER THERE. So you head over, all excited. You get to the elevator. You see a baby metroid that Samus as some mommy issues with before deciding it must die. She aims, goes to fire and… is shot in the back. By Adam. With a gun that makes her clothes go off. He then ices the metroid. He then explains to her while she recovers that she can’t go in there because the new metroids are immuned to ice to be the perfect weapon. Samus asks how the fuck he froze that Metroid just now. Adam shrugs.

He also explains that his report was on how using metroids for war would be righteously retarded and how he’s going to go in there and blow stuff up so the tourian section activates its self destruct and he’ll die all gloriously. He tells Samus to go kill Ridley after she’s finished being naked. Samus than begs and pleads and gives him the thumbs down as he marches off to die. Adam saves the day. Well, I guess that was a pretty good decision — besides shooting Samus in the back and all that. So to finish up, a Metroid Queen eats Ridley, Samus kils it, finds the real Madeline Bergman who explains the one she found (who was also much younger looking) was actually an AI of Motherbrain in a little girl body and goes into a whole Metal Gear Solid style explanation for everything. Then Motherbrain shows up, then more Feds show up, then Motherbrain freaks out and summons monsters and you go to shoot her but oh wait Madeline shoots her instead and hey, Bob “The Beast” Sapp is still alive. After some goofy exposition, the game than ends. There is a post game where you go back to get Adam’s helmet thats meant to be the part of the game where you get to explore the ship, but that doesn’t have any plot relevance. You fight Phantoom (?!) and recover Adam’s helmet and then the space station blows up. Apparently it was a weight bearing helmet. Then you escape in classic fashion. While naked. Whatever.

Well, thats Other M’s story. This isn’t entirely spot on and some details have been compressed, but it’s as bad and awkward as described. It really does feel like Sakamoto played too much Metal Gear Solid when it came ot the plot. At least the cut scenes weren’t as long. That said, we’re not done yet.

The Actual Game

Well excuse me, Princess!

I like hallways

While the plot is a failure on almost every level, the game as a whole is close to being a flawed gem. I really like the core engine the game is founded on. Analog controls? I think they’re a highly overrated feature. I’m not saying analog controls are bad or that a lot of games aren’t better with them, but I could think of a ton of games where I practically never want to move in any speed other than “as fast as humanly possible”. Samus hauls ass in Other M in near Super Metroid fashion. The decision to fixate the game mostly into a 2d spaces was also great. You move primarily in straight lines, often in the typical 2d orientation. Some rooms recede into the background in proper 3d fashion, in the style of Crash Bandicoot, but somehow that isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. There are other touches. Some rooms are just open. Other areas automatically make you run in a circle in a very fluid and enjoyable way. There are some hiccups occasionally, but in the whole it feels great. Analog controls were entirely not needed. You generally are either moving left and right or up and down and the times you do both don’t really stress gradual motions. The digital controls are snappy and responsive and makes the game truly feel like a 3d metroid without going all out, prime style, or hanging back on concepts such as “2.5D”

Combat is highly revised. You automatically aim at enemies now, which is required since up and down and used for 3d motion. This is fine, but would remove some amount of depth from combat to mindless button mashing. Metroid’s combat has never been deep, but giving the player something to do in combat is important. The designers got this and filled the void with the “Sense Move”. Tap a direction any time you’re about to be hit an enemy and you roll out of the way and get a free cannon charge out of it. I had a blast staying painfully close to meaty enemies, rapidly dodging while loading them filled with charge shot. The game also incorporates “kill moves”. Running or jumping on enemies at certain points (usually them being disabled in some way) triggers a stylish kill animation that generally kills the enemy off much faster than you normally could. This sort of gymnastics is the sort of thing we haven’t seen from Samus before, but it works. It’s not much of a stretch to think our Chozo blooded warrior would not have the capacity for fancy CQC kills.

What sucks however is the missile system. When I originally saw the first Other M trailer, I thought the idea was brilliant. Swing out the remote to point at your screen and go into a first person mode! In practice though, this mode sucks and it’s the only way to fire missiles! The transition is goofy. The camera switches to wherever Samus is facing, which is logical, but still extremely disorienting. You also have no bearing on what the wii thinks your remote is doing when you switch views, so you usually spend the first few seconds wobbling around until you center your self. The game slows down during the transition to aid you, but this only treats the symptoms. The system just feels bad. You can lock on with the B button, but that just furthers the need to totally adjust your hand while switching modes. To make it worse, there is seldom any reason NOT to be holding the B button, as it allows you to truly move around rather then just move the cursor on the screen. Doing this in the middle of boss fights to hit a weak spot just feels gross and imprecise. I’d miss a lot of chances to deal damage by what would seem like luck.

The first person mode is used far too much in the game. In fact a lot of puzzles in the game suffer from their reliance on the first person view. Having to open the door by going first person and then looking all over the place for a button that isn’t obvious (or even at all visible) in third person mode is not fun. The fact that you can’t move in first person mode also means that you often end up constantly switching modes and readjusting your position in 3rd person mode to properly look around. A lot of puzzles are simply based on “find the thing that is hard to see”. Some of this stuff could fly on an HD system, but even then that would be bad design.

Apparently they really dug on the first person mode, because they implemented a “feature” known by fans as “pixel hunts”. At some points in the game you are forced into First Person mode and can’t seem to do anything. The intention here is that you look around, pretending to be Samus until you notice something and go WOW! The scene would then advance and you would feel all happy and immersed. I will say without reservations that someone should be fired over this feature. Not necessarily the guy who first suggested it, but someone, somewhere who had the power to go “You know, this is the least fun thing ever and it doesn’t add anything to the game” but didn’t open up his mouth. These segments are terrible. In the Prime games, everything you could scan was clearly labeled. This functionality would transform these segments from horrible to obnoxious and make it less hair pulling. Instead, you have to pretty much be entirely centered over whatever you are required to look at, with no indication it’s whatever your supposed to be looking at. All these things are little, almost unnoticable on an SD system. What ends up happening is you just spin around in first person mode for 5 minutes, putting your cursor over anything that vaguely looks like anything and then missing what you thought you were supposed to lock on to because your cursor wasn’t EXACTLY right. I just used gamefaqs. To give an idea about the crap that they want you to look at…

  • A tiny emblem on a space ship that looks like a tiny blue blur
  • A tiny patch of shaking leaves in a god damned jungle
  • Brown larva in the background that are crawling around a brown floor
  • A green puddle of goo all the way behind you
  • A white person in a white labcoat in a white building through a window. While it’s snowing.

Most bosses in the game look hella stupid!

I this this is the best original boss of the bunch

Old bosses are the best. Also I warned you about spoilers!

These scenes literally do nothing but annoy the player. Some are almost clever. One has you look up and see a ton of enemies that attack when you lock on. Of course when you don’t lock on to them (and somehow despite their size, they still have tiny targets to lock onto) they just…… stare at you for as long as you want. One is a cheap scare where you don’t lock on to anything. You look to the side and a metroid pops out! Thats alright, but all these sequences could be totally removed with nothing put in to replace them and the cutscenes would still all work fine and the game would only be better. How that got through testing is beyond me.

The game is unfortunately very linear. You could argue that not following tradition does not, in a vacuum, make it a worse game, but I will share why I think fusion is a bad game. Fusion is bad because it is a game designed to be a mostly linear action game without rewarding or interesting combat. Combat is not a strong suit for Metroid. Other M has a fun combat mechanics, but in a world of DMC, GoWs and Bayonettas, it is outclassed. Combining relatively fun and simple action with exploration is what would make things truly shine. Instead the map is designed in circuits. You proceed relatively straight through deck levels of the Bottle Ship, eventually looping around. You take very short detours here and there, but mostly it’s a straight shot. I could say the map is at least easy to navigate, but it is easy to navigate at the expense of the series greatest strength. It’s not hard to be easy to navigate when branching paths are so limited. They exist and there is some backtracking, but it’s all horridly forced. Very rarely do you ever get to go “I have super missiles this time around! Now I can open this secret and get the item!”. It happens, obviously, but to a much lesser extent than every other game in the series life. As a quick note, whoever thought the classic item sound should be replaced with a dull thunk should also be fired. Findng items has never been so boring.

There are four pickups.

  • Missiles: Of which you only get 1 per pickup. Atop the fact that you can recharge your missiles by holding your wii mote up and holding A for a few seconds makes them feel useless. Only in the last few boss battles do you ever risk running out, but theres always a good period to recharge so it doesn’t matter.
  • Energy Tanks: These are nice, but you can do the same thing with missiles with life. It takes longer, can only be done when your health is “beeping” and only gives you one energy tank back, but still, your survivability without Energy tanks is still quite high. Very nice, but not as nice as previous metroids.
  • Restoration Tanks: Each one of these makes it that when you recharge your health, you restore with one more energy tank worth of life. Awesome but rare.
  • Energy Tank Pieces: Because everyone loves heart pieces. These suck and I only completed one set by the end of the game. Garbage.
  • Charge Accel: Makes you charge faster. These are cool.

I’d say the Charge Accels and the Restoration tanks were the only thing that ever felt good to get. As such I basically did not bother hunting for most items. It didn’t feel rewarding at all and with the item puzzles being so awkward, I really had no motivation to go after anything but the most obvious pickups. The removal of new abilities from the game world is also disappointing for reasons outside of sheer nostalgia. Finding items is naturally more rewarding than being told you suddenly have something. There is buildup and excitement. In Other M, you just suddenly can open THIS super missile door, seemingly arbitrarily. Or you give up on a room after thrashing around for 10 minutes, walk out and have Adam tell you to go back and use a different powerup. Even Fusion handled this much more gracefully. Fusion pointed you to where to get the necessary upgrade (After being approved by the federation to get it) and you get the excitement and joy of knowing which toy you are going to get. You get to think about how you can use it in old areas as you look for it. Other M hands them out almost at random, thus removing the sense of discovery and reward.

The game makes other fumbles. For example, a select few areas moves your view to a “Resident evil 4” style camera where you walk slowly about. This at first is only used when exploring bath rooms (of which Samus can only explore the female side, despite being on the look out for survivors and items) but some segments involve painfully long, slow walking segments as you explore areas in slow motion or follow people you should be chasing after at full speed. They, like the pixel hunts, are another ham fisted way to try and make the game more immersing. Instead it makes the game more annoying (but not as bad as the pixel hunts). The boss fights at some times are at a high point for the series, but a lot of original bosses just seem awkward and goofy, killing a lot of the excitement. All the best bosses for some reason are classic ones. A lot of the enemies in general just look really dumb and poorly designed. They also seem to act more like little grindy road blocks than fun encounters. The quick kills for some of the toughest enemies are unreliable, making the battles drag out far too long. A lot of these battles also lock the doors, forcing you to finish the encounter before proceeding. This isn’t a new thing to the series, but it uses it more than any others previously did. The game did not play to its strenghts. In fact, its simple use of corridors and a fixed orientation could have been used to create very complex but intuitive environments, using up and down motion as the old fashioned “columns” of previous games. The game played it too safe and left too much on the combat. Fortunately the “post game” has better executed exploration, but it still feels empty.

Graphically the game is a mixed bag. It’s generally inferior to the prime art direction, but does use a nice crisp style. The enemy design on the other hand is almost strictly horrible. Everything looks like a mishmash of random animal parts with little reason and the level of polish is uneven. Some places look quite nice, while others are too hung up in the PS2 era. I also take an issue with the decision to go with a space station with various environments scattered about again. It’s a contrivance to make the game about something Metroid has never been about. Instead of a neatly crafted planet we get random shit. I can’t complain that this is bad on a fundamental level, but considering both it and Fusion rely on the same setup, I can’t help but to be disappointed. The game does do a good job of feeling like a space station though. There are catwalks and enclosed walkways and break rooms scattered about in a way that is believable and subdued enough not to stand out like a sore thumb. This is also good at telling you where you can and cannot go, but sometimes you get hit by invisible walls for practically no reason at all.

In closing, Other M is a very flawed game that is not without it’s merits. It’s fundamental gameplay is fun enough to validate i’s existence, despite its shortcomings. Unlike fusion, which was flawed AND stagnant, Other M tries something new and does so well enough that I actively hope for a sequel. I can rag on Sakamoto all I want, but Nintendo does try and improve their work. Maybe second times a charm? I’d be sad if such a solid engine was discarded after one attempt. I would dare say a classic could arise if Nintendo was savvy enough. Even Other M, story aside, wasn’t far off. It missed the mark for sure, but a few different decisions early on could have changed everything. That said, we also cannot pretend the story exists in a vacuum, as it heavily influenced gameplay. Lack of fun exploration, item discovery and stuff like the slow-mo walk sequences and pixel hunts exist purely because of the plot. Developers need to be careful of this in the future and I hope Nintendo realizes that a plot can be both powerful and dangerous medicine.