The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Something is happening to game design. It’s been creeping up for a decade, yet only now is it striding into the mainstream, riding on the coattails of new infrastructure, emboldened by the rhetoric of the trendy. A new generation of design has begun to emerge – a generation raised on the language of videogames, eager to use that fluency to describe what previously could not be described.

First, though, it must build up its vocabulary. To build it, this generation looks to the past – to the fundamental ideas that make up the current architecture of videogames – and deconstructs it for its raw theoretical materials, such that it may be recontextualized: rebuilt better, stronger, more elegantly, more deliberately.

In the earlier part of this series, we discussed several games that exemplify this approach; we then tossed around a few more that give it a healthy nod. Some boil down and refocus a well-known design (Pac-Man CE, New Super Mario Bros.); some put a new perspective on genre (Ikaruga, Braid); some just want to break down game design itself (Rez, Dead Rising). In this chapter, we will highlight a few of the key voices guiding the change. Some are more persuasive than others. Some have been been making their point for longer. All are on the cusp of redefining what a videogame can be. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds”

The Wii that Wasn’t

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Market analysts call the Wii a return to form after the relative flop of the GameCube. Design analysts call it a potential return to form after the relative rut of the previous fifteen years. Whatever the spin, when people look at Nintendo’s recent misadventures, generally the Gamecube sits right on top, doe-eyed and chirping. Its failure to do more than turn a profit has made its dissection an industry-wide pastime. Everything comes under the microscope, from its dainty size and handle to its purpleness to the storage capacity of its mini-DVDs. The controller, though, has perplexed all from the start. Continue reading “The Wii that Wasn’t”

A very old story

I keep harping on this, yet the original Zelda really isn’t that sequenced. There are certain barriers you can’t get past without certain items, yet you find most of those items early on — and you can at least explore most regions and dungeons to a certain extent, whatever equipment you have. You can beat the entire game without a sword, if you want. You don’t require half the items the game offers; they’re just convenient to have. Most of the things you do require, you can buy in a shop.

What Wind Waker kind of does is try to pull the design back in that direction, only more so — yet it doesn’t completely have the confidence to break with the sequencing and hand-holding. Which, for such an otherwise free-spirited design, is kind of frustrating. It’s like it’s taunting you with excellence. This is almost such a great game. It just needed more encouragement. Or a rewrite.

You know that business at the start where you’re picking up weapons and items all over? Imagine if the entire game were kind of like that, until you found the Master Sword. Instead of necessarily having specific “treasures”, each with its own specialized use (grapple versus hookshot, for instance), you’d mostly just find and hang onto whatever objects seemed convenient to the task at hand, or looked like they’d be useful down the road. If you found really special, “permanent” items, they’d mostly just serve as a shortcut for tasks you could perform otherwise only with a bit more effort and inconvenience. Kind of like how paths open to earlier areas in Metroid games, to allow you to cut back and forth instead of taking the long route every time.

I like that Link is a real character, for once, with his own life, ideas, likes, dislikes, and priorities, that the player and the quest are just intruding on. I like the way it treats all the previous Zelda games as, literally, a legend; a relic of an unthinkable time, that doesn’t really matter to anyone anymore. I like the implication that Link actually failed at one point, by not appearing when he was needed. Someone suggested once that Wind Waker is sort of the follow-up to Majora’s Mask, in that the historical Link went off somewhere and never came back, without growing up to save Hyrule as he was supposed to. That’s pretty interesting.

And, again, I like that nobody except Ganon really cares. Hyrule is gone; life goes on.

The world has a certain coherence and thought put into it, strictly for its own sake, that the main series rarely has. It’s very much a reinvention of the franchise, in the form of a storybook; an acknowledgment that the same story will keep repeating, even if nobody believes in it anymore. Somewhere out there, maybe in the real world, there is a Link and there is a Zelda, even if they don’t know it. There is a Hyrule, buried somewhere, if you know where to look. This is pretty good stuff.

Mechanically, the game feels smooth and cozy to play. For a while, anyway, there is a real sense of adventure and discovery; that anything could be out there. The fact that you can pick up and use all manner of stuff even if it’s not an “important” item adds to the sense of improvisation. The game puts a lot of work into this feeling. It also undermines most of that work, but we’ve had that discussion.

The entire game is sort of jaded about the idea of a Zelda-like quest. (In theory; it becomes credulous as hell, in practice.) Yeah, we’ve seen this all before; tell us a new one. Isn’t the whole thing a little twee? I mean, look at this green outfit. Who on Earth would wear something like that? Yet it’s also joyful and energetic, almost driving home the message that although, yeah, this story has been told countless times before, what matters isn’t the broad structure and gestures; it’s the individual lives that are affected, and what it feels like for them to take part in that story.

It’s a very postmodern take on the series, and pretty sophisticated. Again, though, it just doesn’t go all the way — which keeps the game from really making its point as solidly as it might.

Aonuma’s Reflections On Zelda

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Check out the comments section on the original article. Seriously.

On Thursday Aonuma candidly, and with self-effacing humor, spoke of his period of aimlessness and mistakes that began with the release of The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker, the way in which they reflected the Japanese industry as a whole, and how they led to Nintendo’s shift of focus over the last few years.

( Continue reading at GamaSutra )

It’s-a Heem! Again!

So far, New Super Mario Bros. isn’t as annoying as I expected. Kind of flavorless, yes. Well-made, though. Some nice ideas in here.

I like how they’ve stripped down everything except the mushrooms, fire flowers, and turtle shell — and then refocused the game so it’s basically all forward momentum. There’s plenty of stuff to dink around and find; that’s kind of peripheral, though. The overworld map pretty much drives the point home: it’s a straight line from the first level to the final castle, with only the occasional tangent to access an alternate route or a special item. The levels themselves are much the same. And the way the secret routes and items are hidden is nice and old-fashioned; reminds me of Mario 1 and Sonic 1.

Likewise, the focus on Mario’s size-changing is interesting. In past games (except Mario Land), there’s never been much point in being small. Here, not only is being small occasionally of value; you can also be smaller than small. And to trade it off, you can be bigger than big. Conceptually, it’s definitely got its stuff together; this is kind of like how Gradius V focuses on the Options. In execution — well.

The problem, as Toups pointed out earlier, feels like a lack of confidence. That seems to be an issue with a lot of Nintendo games these days. A shame. I mean. With more confidence in its own ideas, Wind Waker could have been really amazing. And again, whoever conceived of this game was a really clever person. You want to revive an imporant series, you break down what defines it and you build upon that. In this case, you focus on Mario’s growing/shrinking ability and on forward momentum; ditch all the suits and playground design and as much clutter as you can get away with, then slowly build back up with an eye toward the central themes.

Even the level design is often quite snazzy. Same with the very limited treasure hunt aspect, and how that ties into the world map: spend the coins however you like, whenever you like; go back and dink around to find the other coins whenever you feel like it. No pressure to complete everything; to the contrary, the game’s constantly pushing you forward. Yet it allows leeway if you want to explore. Again, sorta reminds me of early Sonic. Heck, Mario even runs like Sonic now.

Partly because of all that, I really wish this thing felt less generic. Less… cardboard. Whereas Gradius V and OutRun2 almost supplant Life Force and OutRun, this comes off more like a tribute game than something important in its own right.

EDIT: Actually, I want to say it reminds me a lot of a milquetoast follow-up to Super Mario Land. You’ve got some of the same ideas in it: better use of Mario’s size and working it into level logistics; more thematic enemies, and levels with memorable one-time quirks. I keep expecting the fireball to work like the Power Ball, and bounce all over, allowing me to collect coins. Instead, it just creates coins. (Not sure of the in-game logistics there. I think the Mario Land model would have fit better.) What Mario Land has that this doesn’t is a bizarre and quirky personality of its own, allowing it to stand as a response to Super Mario Bros. rather than just a new take on it.