Got Mad Skills? – Part I

Possibly my favorite video game series of all time is Mega Man. I am a fan of the Mega Man. Even to this day, the classic Mega Man games are regarded as some of the best platformers ever made. And yet, at its earliest stages, you could “walk” (in the sense you didn’t have a faster “run” or dash button), jump, and shoot. That’s about it. Yet people loved it, and still do. I know I do.

Now fast forward. Recently I played a point-and-click shooter platformer on the Kong with a vast array of upgrades ranging from double jumps, gun stats, and player upgrades like increased agility and jump height. And about 10-15 minutes in I was already getting bored.

I really like to dissect old video games and figure out how they tick. And I’ve learned something. When you consider your player character, you need to have two perspectives: what he CAN do and what he CAN’T do. Real rocket science, isn’t it? But think about it. How often do we become engorged with an in-depth customization scheme or an arsenal of detailed weapons? These aren’t necessarily bad, but somehow we can end up tricking ourselves into the mentality of “How many toys can I give the main character?”. The truth is, I’m not sure we think hard enough about what the player CAN’T do.

Allow me to elaborate. Think about the original Mega Man game. Mega Man can only shoot straight left and straight right with his buster. So? Ah, suddenly altitude becomes very important in your level design, because he CAN’T shoot up and down. Suddenly, a simple cannon enemy is amplified in its effect by the fact that its sitting on an elevated cliff. A simple flying enemy becomes more annoying because it swoops in and out of the player’s horizontal plane of attack. The list can go on, and that’s just one example.

Now back to the Kong game, which I will let remain nameless. This wasn’t some low-rated game. It had a suitable 4+ star rating (out of 5) and looked impressively put together. At the end of the day it was not a bad game by any stretch, yet I was not very impressed. To summarize, I felt it rewarded me for minimal effort. The level design and enemies were repetitive, and it was just a lot of shoot this monster, jump over here, shoot that monster, blah blah blah. The power-ups, pretty as they may be, were borderline nullified in their effect. Take an easy game and make it easier? Ugh, am I the only one who’s frustrated by a game that subtly insults a player’s ability to rise to the challenge?

See, the player needs to be aware that they CAN’T. Do you know why? Because if they CAN’T, you motivate them to the point of “I CAN, and I WILL.” Its those “I CAN’T” moments that the true, seasoned gamer lives for. Does Mega Man give up because game physics declare his buster arm can’t be pointed in the upwards direction? No, the true player runs and jumps and gets to that sweet spot where he CAN shoot the enemy. They accept the challenge! Throw some “unbeatable” enemy in my face. I’LL SHOW YOU!

You can’t simply think about what abilities the player should have; you need to make the player conscientious of their limits too, and in the process challenge them to push those limits to the edge.


* * * * *

Of course, Mega Man does have that wonderful ability to acquire a grand plethora of boss weapons. What about those? Are those unnecessary tack-ons? That is what I plan to discuss and share my thoughts on in the Part II post later on. Stay tuned!

Posted in Design

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