Games

Smash Bros’ Deceiving Simplicity

When I am not working, writing, reading, politicking, or sleeping; my preferred activity to pass the time is gaming. It’s always been a passion of mine, and for the over a month that passion has been directed towards one game in particular. Super Smash Bros Ultimate, the crossover fighter of Nintendo legacy characters, is that obsession; and out of all the addictions for me and others to have, the high the games give is, what I would argue, the best. The series is not starved for success by any means, being financially lucrative and repeatedly praised for it’s ability to deliver engaging gameplay via simple inputs and mechanics. While as a fan of the series I certainly appreciate any praise thrown it’s way, I believe the perception that Smash is simple is false to a large extent, born out of a focus on technical inputs rather than the miniutia of gameplay.

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It’s fair to say that grasping the basics of Smash isn’t too hard of a task. Repeatedly pressing A performs the character’s jab combos, tilting the control stick in any cardinal direction followed by a press by the A preforms a tilt attack, the same principle for ground attacks hold true for aerials and special moves, and simply flicking the right stick will preform a smash attack. Grabs can be preformed by pressing one of the top triggers, shielding is done by pressing one of the lower triggers, etc. Comparing Smash to other fighting games with the same surface level glance, it’s understandable to conclude that Smash was simple. For instance, a game like Street fighter has special moves being preformed with more demanding quarter-circle, half-circle, full-circle, z-motion, or holding inputs followed by one of the 6 attack buttons. Combos are rarely preformed by simply mashing one button, but often require a more technical series of inputs such as Ryu’s standing medium punch-crouching medium kick-hadoken combo. The basics are harder to execute in a game like Street fighter than a game like Smash, and that lends the latter to being perceived as simple.

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But as I said before, such an analysis is deceptive and lacks the context of the mechanical details of Smash that separates it from other fighting games. Ryu’s standing medium punch-crouching medium kick-hadoken combo might have a greater difficulty in it’s execution, but at least he has the benefit of it always working through-out a match. Smash operates under a unique knock-back health system. As a fighter accumulates blows, their knock back percentage increases along with the ease to knock them to blast zone resulting in a stock loss. This unique take on a health system affects the gameplay in multiple aspects, one of them being combos. For example, assuming low percentage, the character Link can follow his down-throw with consecutive up-tilts for a combo. However as percentage accumulates on the opponent the effectiveness of the combo diminishes and after a certain threshold the combo doesn’t work at all. But the percentage does open up new combo possibilities for the fighter, such as down-tilt-full hop-forward aerial only working at higher percents.

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The opponent being damaged isn’t entirely powerless in that moment either. When being knocked back by a move, the player can input a direction that will affect the trajectory of their ascent. This mechanic changes a great deal in the reliability of certain combos. To give a personal anecdote, when I was exploring the fighter Zelda I was excited to discover a kill combo that worked when the opponent was between 70%-85% where I preformed an up-throw followed by an up-special. However this combo didn’t work if the opponent D.I., making it less reliable than my initial impression; requiring me to use other follow-ups in order to train my opponent not to D.I. in order to use my discovery.

I could go on, but given the mechanical complexity of Smash I feel that to discuss it in full would require a dissertation, not a simple blog post. So in summary I would say what makes Smash unique isn’t it’s simplicity but it’s continuous design space. The player has a lot more leeway in how they preform combos, play neutral, respond to edge-guarding, etc. For instance, when a player is in the air, they can alter their ascent and descent with simple taps of the control stick rather than being committed to any sort of trajectory. When juggling an opponent, the player has multiple vectors of attack to choose between, none of them necessarily being the clear superior option in all circumstances. What this does is lower the skill floor, as the player is given much more freedom to respond to circumstances that pop up during a match, but raises the skill ceiling due to an increased amount of nuances and complexities the player needs to be aware of at all times in order to be successful when playing at a high-level. Smash is a more analog type of fighting game, not a simpler one.


With Love, From: Skyward Sword To: Breath of the Wild

In November 2011, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released as a swan-song to the Nintendo Wii; fully embracing a motion-based control scheme in a way no title this decade has truly done before or since. While the title got a positive critical reception upon launch, the following years of discourse have been unkind to the game. Releasing the same year as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a title the popularized the ‘open world’ genre for the decade, Skyward Sword‘s more laid out, restrictive, set of areas connected loosely by an open sky quickly grew to be regarded as antiquated and overly strict on the player. It’s use of motion controls, unpopular amongst swaths of dedicated players, certainly didn’t help matters.

Fast-forward to the late 2010s, another 3D Zelda game has released, this time with a much warmer reception. 2017’s Breath of the Wild was lauded for the openness of it’s environmental design and it’s ability of facilitate emergent gameplay possibilities for the player to take advantage of. While much has been made, from both individual observations and interviews with the development team, of Breath‘s influences, from the original Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System to more contemporary open world titles, there is an influence that is unsung. Despite their differences, Breath of the Wild owes much of it’s environmental design to Skyward Sword.

In a Iwata Asks interview, key members of Skyward‘s development team placed emphasis on the density on display with the environments. When referring to past 3D Zelda games, Yutaka Hiramuki from Nintendo EAD talked about how “the fields were the scene of more easygoing play, but once you went into a dungeon, you would get a new item and act strategically and solve puzzles”. Other development staff noticed a lack of verticality to these fields as well as a lack of utility to these areas once their associated dungeons were completed.

Looking at Skyward Sword‘s predecessor, Twilight Princess, confirms the development team’s observations. The image above shows a segment of the larger Hyrule field that connects the various other areas of the game to one another. While the vista is certainly beautiful, it doesn’t communicate any intriguing secrets the field might be hiding. The field certainly isn’t lacking in secrets, in fact there exist several collectible bugs, poes, secret holes, heart pieces, and even a hidden cave that acts as an optional dungeon. But it isn’t the quantity of content, or even the quality that’s the problem. The issue is that the player would lack the information to glean where this content is.

Contrast that image to this, admittedly shoddy, first person view of a section of Skyward Sword’s Faron woods.  The increased verticality of the area is immediately apparent, with the grounds circling the large tree at the center. From that tree stems several wrinkles and branches that contain clearly visible goddess cubes, ancient monuments that the player can strike in order to unlock loot that can be collected in the sky. The terrain itself is also notably elevated in several places, communicating to the player unique subsets of areas they might want to check out. The area isn’t completely open, there do exist hard gates such as preventing the player from say entering the tree itself without the ability to swim, but it does cleanly communicate to players areas of interest that they are free explore if they are so inclined.

A more clear example of this design principle is Eldin Volcano. From the base of the volcano, the summit remains clearly visible as well as the paths along the slope. The base itself is also marked by vertical structures that connote areas of interest, such as center island in the lava lake that marks the home of the native Mogmas. This design clearly highlights areas of interests and potential secrets for the player to investigate. This guides players, as if by an invisible hand, to the unique gameplay challenges the developers wants them to experience, such as the loose sand slopes that force the player to manage their stamina as enemies attack them from their elevated perch or the interesting scenarios to be found in the Mogmas dwellings.

Breath of the Wild, despite it openness serving as a contrast to Skyward Sword‘s more arranged approach, adopts the same design principles to create a similarly dense world that guides the players to it’s secrets in a discrete manner. Looking towards the horizon in the image above, several mountains can be seen. A volcano to the left, a pair of twin peaks slightly towards the right, and a whole host of smaller pillars, hills, brightly lit structures, and other small oddities dotted across a rugged terrain. This isn’t just for aesthetics though, for example the volcano hides the perpetually autumn Akkala region and the research scientist that has the ability to craft the ancient arrows for the player. On it’s summit lies the heart of the Goron civilization and all of the mining operations that are central to both their economic prosperity, and the player’s own personal pursuit of wealth. Beyond just simply orienting the player, these oddities connote potential places of interest that encourage the player to investigate them, much like how the tree at the center of Faron Woods encouraged the player to circle around it or how the volcano encouraged the player to hike it slopes.

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As the player continues to explore these oddities and mountaintops, they are consistently rewarded with either useful loot, seeds from the lovable koroks, or best of all interesting gameplay challenges. Once while exploring a cliffside to the east along the shoreline, I came across a trial that called upon me to collect an orb from a set of three hinoxs, each more deadly than the last. While I conquered the trial in a uniquely emergent fashion, defeating only one of the hinoxs while using the terrain to jump on the bellies of the sleeping beasts to steal their orbs, it was only because the game adopts the environmental design principles of Skyward Swordthat I was able to encounter this challenge at all.

Ironically, it’s this adoption of a design principle from a fairly arranged, ‘linear’ game that makes Breath of the Wild such a masterpiece in open world game design. Often games of this type are reliant on abstract means to communicate to the player their location and points of interest in the environment, whether that be through a compass, pre-made map markers, or other means. Breath of the Wild forgoes this and is able to pull off a more natural, landmark-based approach to exploration; an approach possible only through the letters it received from it’s older brother, a seemingly more strict individual that nevertheless had valuable insights on how to have a good time.


The Pitfalls of Abstraction: An Analysis of the Battle System of Octopath Traveler

The gaming industry can at times be heavily reliant on nostalgia. Legacy games from the 90s and 80s experience revivals at a regular rate and sometimes even genres that have fallen from popularity can return to the forefront of the public’s attention. Enter Octopath Traveller, the recent RPG hit from the developers Square Enix and Aquire. From first glance, it’s obvious that the game harkens back to 16-bit RPG classics such as FF6 with a sprite based art style and a non-spatial turn-based battle system. While the former is certainly quite the sight to behold, with it’s pop-up book approach and the way the aesthetic informs exploring the areas the players finds themselves in, it’s the latter that makes me wonder if some design choices are better left in the past.

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What RPGs, whether played on the table-top or LED screen, share in common is that their all abstractions. They don’t capture the concrete realities of living in their chosen settings for players to interact with but instead communicate the general ideas of these actions apart from concrete reality. Perhaps that was a bit to abstract as well, so allow me to give an example. Say I was learning to play the piano in real life. Such a task would involve improving my execution of playing notes and scales (i.e. learning how to press down on the key, how hard to press it for the desired dynamics, when to move my thumb so I can play notes further down the scale, etc.) and as I continually practiced these aspects correctly my skills with instrument would improve, as noted by the audio feedback generated from my playing. Contrast this with a hypothetical, non-spatial Piano RPG. Here the player encounters scales and compositions at random, with each note assigned as one option in a menu. Execution of each note requires little skill, needing only a simple selection, and as the player continues to encounter and conquer pieces of music they will “level-up” and increase stats such as precision or dynamics which are represented by one-dimensional numerical values which endeavor to note an increase in ability.

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Thats RPG’s in a nutshell, abstractions on the actions they wish to convey. But as my detailing of the hypothetical piano RPG implied, this translation can result in a loss of depth and complexity, a problem I believe Octopath Traveler suffers from.

How do you defeat enemies in Octopath Traveler? You obviously have to get their HP down to zero, but at the start the damage players can do to their opponents is minuscule and since they share the same turn as the players they can’t necessarily heal in response to enemy attacks as effectively as in other RPGs. Enter the break system, where by attacking enemies with their given weakness the player whittles at enemy defenses until they erode completely. Once this happens, for the rest of the turn and the next the enemy that is broken is unable to preform actions, making him a sitting duck for the player to do massive damage upon. While skills exist in the game that serve to attract enemy attention, increase party member stats temporarily, or inflict status ailments onto opponents, all of these mechanical aspects conform around the break system rather than represent alternatives to it.

With such a dominant plan of attack and the bottlenecking of alternatives, this leads Octopath Traveler to have the following repetitive gameplay loop:

  1. Discover enemy weaknesses which will be automatically revealed in successive encounters of that particular enemy upon discovery.
  2. Exploit enemy weaknesses to break the opponents, using healing and status affecting skills to manage the party and mitigate the damage received by enemies.
  3. Once broken, tap into your bp reserves liberally to do massive damage to your opponent while also healing the party to prepare for the next turn.

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An oversimplification? Perhaps, but one I still feel is on point. As I played through the game up to 110 hours, this is the strategy that the game kept pushing me to adopt in my play. A march towards a break, accomplished by a simple attack-attack-heal loop with a few status skills thrown in. While the game occasionally complicated this loop with it’s bosses, which would often change their weaknesses or cover a certain number of them given certain conditions, it was too little and repeated itself for nearly every boss fight once it was introduced, making it lose it’s luster. This accompanied by a nonexistent range in skillful execution made the combat flat. And at risk of repeating myself, this stems from the developers choice to abstract the combat rather than represent it concretely.

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Ironically, most of the game’s complexity and depth that I experienced was in the menus, equipping my party with weapons, armor, and classes to alter their stats. Although all the complexity offered here is that of a math problem, though one of the player choice. As typical in RPG’s the choices on offer with such manipulations is largely whether you want to maximize a characters strengths, minimize their weaknesses, or something in between. For my play through I chose the former, I will admit to enjoying the discrete choices on offer. However since stats are one dimensional, it’s not immediately clear to the player how such changes impact a characters effectiveness in combat. What’s the visible difference between a 131 and a 150 Evasion stat? Seems like my character is being hit just as often as before. Such a disconnect can make these efforts in mathematics seem rather fruitless in the end.

Now everyone who has been following this game even casually is aware of Octopath‘s success, both critically and financially. And that’s fine. I’m not here to diminish anyone’s feelings towards a work they like. But when I talk to others about this game, or observe conversations regarding it on the internet, the praises seems to center on either particular narrative moments or the freedom it grants player in choosing the order in which to experience said stories. Quite frankly these seem to be very shallow praises that ignore how the game as a whole works and the feelings it imbues to it’s players. Regardless of the quality of the narrative-focused bits, when the majority of players time is spent engaging in the story of one-note gameplay, that represents a bit of a failure.

Moreover, it makes me question the value such abstractions bring to a game. While the 8-bit and 16-bit eras were limited in the scale of worlds, enemies, and conflicts they could convey, making the abstraction of a non-spatial, turn-based, RPG make a degree of sense, that isn’t really true now. Games and the machines that run them have proven their ability to craft concrete fictional realities at a massive scale, actualizing the potential of gaming as a half-real medium. This makes the experiences that Octopath and others like it offer appear rather antiquated, and while I won’t say such pursuits are never worthwhile as franchises like Pokemon have proven such a format can provide deep strategic gameplay, it makes me wish at the very least for developers to be considerate in decisions on whether to abstract or not abstract.


Review: Mario Tennis Aces lives up to it’s subtitle

 

The chief difficulty in translating any physical sport to the half-real experience of video games lies in what is lost. Physical sports require dexterity, the muscle memory to perform necessary actions consistently, and the stamina to keep up with the pace of the game. Their video game adaptations demand the arduous task of fiddling with an analog stick, memorizing the actions associated with a given button, and the stamina to press it. In the case of any tennis adaptation, the question for any developer is how to make a deep and interesting gameplay experience that facilitates player skill growth when stokes such as the topspin, slice, lob, and drop shot that can take years to reliably preform are just a button press away. Mario Tennis Aces answer to this, to put simply, is to add more mechanics that could only be implemented in the medium of games to facilitate interesting gameplay choices unique to it alone.

Ignoring it’s additions, Mario Tennis Aces plays like a simplified adaptation of the sport where strokes are a button press away and the ball in motion is clearly visible thanks to the colored speed streaks that tail behind it. Beyond it’s inheritance however lies features unique to it alone. The before mentioned colors that visualize the ball also represents the shot used during the return. If the player fails to match the shot with the appropriate counter it gives their opponent a zone star opportunity at their side of the court. These zone stars tell explicitly where the ball can most easily be returned and when making a return from this location the ball is shot at a higher speed which causes more pushback on the player trying to return it, giving the other player more court control. Hitting the ball from a zone star also fills the player meter more than with regular or charged shots.

It’s this mechanic, the meter, that forms the crux of Mario Tennis Aces gameplay. With it, the player gains access to two moves, one offensive and one defensive. While at the zone star with enough meter the player can perform a zone shot, where they can then aim the ball’s trajectory at a specific point on the court and return it at high speeds. The opposing player may try to return the shot, but unless his timing is impeccable this will likely result in his racket taking damage. A single racket can only take 3 of these shots before breaking and the player is limited in the number of rackets available to them. Once they run out its game, set, match. Fortunately, such a predicament can be alleviated to a degree by making use of zone speed, which slows down the ball making it easier for the player to return a zone shot or reach the ball heading to the other side of their half court. Both maneuvers consume meter, but this can be replenished by maintaining the rally with regular, charged, or the new trick shot. Once a player’s meter fills to the brim, they can preform of a special shot whenever the ball is on their side of the court. These special shots are functionally similar to zone shots but differ in terms of the amount of damage done upon a failed block attempt. Rather than merely damage the racket, a special shot will destroy it out right.

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What all these mechanics allow for is the hallmark of any good gameplay experience, interesting choices. Do I maintain the rally safely with regular strokes or go for the risky trick shot to build more meter and give me an advantage? Do I try to block a special or zone shot at the risk of my racquet or let my opponent score so I could then come back with a meter advantage. Such a series of discrete choices is what elevates Mario Tennis Aces from a simplified sports sim to a complex experience further compounded by the quirks of each character on the roster.

The modes available help facilitate the experience even further. There are your standard offerings for such a game: local and online multiplayer, cups varying in cpu difficulty  and length. However, the highlight of these modes is the new single-player adventure mode. In a slight riff on the classic marvel infinity war, the titular Mario is tasked with collecting the 5 power stones in order to stop the long-sealed Lucien, a possessed tennis racket, from returning to full power after he takes control of several tennis players, including the classic player 2 Luigi. The story is absurd, but delightfully so. The mere concept of game of tennis being elevated to the position of deciding the fate of the world is infinitely humorous, and the game plays with it in comedic way. Don’t have a ticket for a ship; play for entry via tennis. Haunted mansion has you trapped, grab your racket to solve some puzzles. Etherial horror with the power to control the minds of everyone you know and love threatening just that, beat him at tennis, that’ll set him straight. And such a comedic yarn is facilitated by engaging challenges. There are of course the expected tennis matches, but also puzzles, rallies, and dexterity challenges that test a player’s knowledge about the games mechanics and their ability to make use of them. In a genre often lacking such offerings, Mario Tennis Aces inclusion of such a mode is a plus.

Mario Tennis Aces isn’t without its blemishes however, some minor and some major. The rpg-esque leveling system the adventure mode implements never really translates into meaningful game feel differences as you progress up the ranks. More damning however is the decision, outside of cpu battles, to have local and online multiplayer be restricted to a best 2 out of 3 games of 1 set format as opposed to the multi-set format of 3, 4, 5, even 6 sets seen in physical tennis. While decision to structure the online multiplayer around the streamlined format to facilitate speedy online matchmaking is understandable, the lack of custom format options for the local multiplayer is baffling. I do stand by the statement that the new additions made in this game give the gameplay experience depth that it would otherwise lack, for tennis aficionados it might appear to be a significant detriment as it prevents the long and hard battles on the court with great comebacks and lengthy mental warfare from appearing a much as it does in physical tennis.

Yet Mario Tennis Aces still succeeds as a sport adaptation despite these flaws. By making tactile additions to the simplified tennis framework, the game delivers an ace gameplay experience that should be enjoyable to anyone who has an inking to pick it up.

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Rating: 4 / 5

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