Monday, February 23, 2009

Stabbing My Eardrums

Peripherally related to the last post: There's a lot of work that's been put into 2D sprite filtering algorithms over the years, so you can get extremely good results when scaling 8/16-bit style sprites up to modern resolutions. The ones in Genesis Collection are actually very poor, but other emulators have much better results.

I think we should take that theory and apply it to the audio capabilities of those machines, to at least smooth out some of the noisier and higher-pitched effects of the era. At least then I won't stand there trying to cut the dog in Beyond Oasis in half.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fatal Labyrinth: A Review

As someone who played Nintendo consoles as a kid, my exposure to Sega is pretty much 1) Sonic, and 2) the trainwreck they are now. So Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection - the headlining title being the least interesting - is pretty much designed for me. One thing I was stunned to find on it was Fatal Labyrinth which as far as I can tell was the first console roguelike. In fact, released in 1990, it's contemporary with Angband (and so not too surprisingly, it's much more Hack-like than future Japanese roguelikes - persistent levels and only a cursory town).

Honestly? The game is crap, even if you can fly. But as is usual for roguelikes most reviews complain about the reviewer's dislike of fundamental aspects of the genre, rather than the particular implementation. That is if you handed them Shiren, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, and ADOM, they'd review them all the same.

What Worked
The level generation, including secret doors, was fine. I think it was a little more interesting than the random generation present in later Chunsoft-developed roguelikes. Rogue is meticulously balanced in terms of food vs. exploration and Chunsoft games tended to ignore that by eschewing secret doors. While there's an abundance of food in Fatal Labyrinth you can't actually pick it up and need to eat it on the spot, so starvation is a real threat in the early levels if you explore inefficiently.

The "you've been on the level too long" notification, common in Japanese roguelikes, is found here. Probably for the first time. Between this and the food, the game does a good job of forcing you into progressively harder levels at the right pace.

There were breeders, enemies that spawn copies of themselves.

Statistically, the difficulty curve was good, but I'll get to some particulars of why it was bad at the end.

What Didn't Work
The controls. I don't think I was happy with a set of roguelike controls on a dedicated gaming device until Izuna Ni. Notably, you can't turn without moving.

The UI. There's some excuse here for the same reason as the controls (I won't blame it for attack numbers getting truncated to two digits) but in other cases it's horrible. You can't see what an item is until you pick it up, you can't see how satiating food is until you eat it, and if you cancel out of the second or third stage of the three-level menu you need to start over from the first.

Loot is shallow. There's a lot of things (and the full gamut of types - armor, scrolls, wands, rings, and a couple classes of weapons) including some cursed items, but they don't have +X/-X variants variants.

The key place the game falls over is risk management. The primary goal of the player in a roguelike is to minimize the effect of the random number generator, because unpredictability is always what makes you lose. This problem manifested in two ways. First, damage variance was enormous. Tracking damage per hit looked like 12, 5, 106, 45, 19, 2, 95. Especially when you first encountered enemies I had no idea how much damage they could do, even after they hit me half a dozen times. Even if I knew I was safe I had no idea how long it would take me to kill the enemy.

Second, I had no options to mitigate non-damage risks. It's common for there to be rings or scrolls that will prevent some class of status ailment or raise your resistance to it but this game had no such thing I could find. I probably spent 90% of levels 15 to 25 confused, and all the items to fix that are consumable. None of the rings or armor offered me resistance benefits I could see, and the enemy attacks could be done at range so using a bow or shuriken did not help.

Fatal Labyrinth is a game I'm unlikely to ever play again, but as first efforts go it's an admirable re-imagining of Rogue for a console system.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A little more on Flower

The Flower developer diary is interesting. It could do without the Sony PR push, but then Flower probably couldn't have been made as it is without the Sony PR push, so you take the good with the bad.

I don't think I buy the "video game version of a poem" concept. Passage is a video game poem. Flower is a novella. The problem is that most video games are the equivalent of doorstop fantasy - next to George R. R. Martin, most modern literature will look like a poem. By this I'm not just referring to length, but content and structure - Flower progressively presents a theme and has a beginning, middle, and end, just with minimal filler. Actually so does Passage, so maybe I should consider something like Tori Emaki instead. This is a thing that eschews the literal for the aesthetic, which Flower and Passage do not.

It's interesting to see Penny Arcade claim "there isn't enough "product" here to be satisfied" when their own game came under fire for much the same thing at twice the cost and 2-3 times the play length, but far more filler and recycled game mechanics. That may be the video game equivalent of pulp fiction (it's even serialized).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Games You Missed: Blue Lacuna, Spelunky

I want to advertise two independent games I've been playing recently.
> cry
You feel only the mounting dread of impending loss. The loss itself is not yet real.
Blue Lacuna, by Aaron A. Reed, is the deepest and broadest piece of interactive fiction I've played. Granted, it's not a community I keep up on (regrettably), but I enjoy it more than Jigsaw and Galatea which were my two favorites. There is a prequel, Blueful, which is a bit too pretentious for me.

Spelunky (which really needs a better homepage at this point) is a roguelike platformer. By this I don't just mean the levels are randomly generated (although they are) but that it's difficult but rewarding, its interactions are multifaceted, it's short, and it's score-focused. It is also best played on a gamepad. It's by Derek Yu, who is one of the co-authors of Aquaria.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Flower: A Review

I have nightmares about the first third-person cameras in 3D games, especially in console games. Especially Crash Bandicoot, but even Mario 64 was inaccessible to me at that time. I retreated to a world of arcade and simulation games and eventually stopped playing enough games to be considered a "gamer" until 2003 or so.

Flower recalls the worst of that experience. Loose controls and a poor sense of depth. Entirely new movement aspects to consider like my turning radius. Homogeneous level designs with invisible walls and few landmarks. Undifferentiated paths and points of interest. Am I Mario or Lakitu? Am I the petals or the wind? Why can I turn around here but not there? Why can't I just slow down or turn the camera to get the angle I want to find this item or make that jump?

Despite that association Flower is not painful to play, and I want to identify why. Rewarding the players for exploration instead of punishing them for stagnation. The abstracted subject matter of the game. The pacing and integration of the themes - indeed, having a theme at all. Environments that are peaceful rather than frustrating to get lost in.

When someone asked me to briefly explain Flower's gameplay (ugh) I said "it's a game about making things better." I was referring to the game's environments at the time but after saying it I realized it went further than that. Traditional wisdom says polishing a game involves steps like "tighten up the controls, add more normal maps, and draw something really huge and evil-looking." Certainly that's one (expensive and difficult) development path. Flower shows us at least one way to step back, relax, reevaluate, and try to make it better.