Monday, 31 December 2012

Super Mario Galaxy and How It Saved My Soul

As you may be aware, there is a whiff of controversy surrounding games journalism at the moment.  Some fella got his picture taken with some crisps, and then a young lady threatened to sue a Scotsman - it's all very dramatic.  Anyway, in order to join in with the burning, purging wind that is sweeping through "people who write about games" I have decided to be transparent about my own motives from now on.

I hate Nintendo.

Look at them.  LOOK AT THEM.  (Especially the one on the right.)
I hate them, I hate their cutesy wutesy ways, their stupid plumber, their Miis, their insistence on friend codes and their complete inability to design any character that isn't some kind of messed up woodland animal in shorts.  I hate the way they sell themselves as master innovators whilst simultaneously releasing the 6th version of Super Mario Bros and I hate the way that they have diluted the brave, strong spirit which kept gaming pure with their ridiculous pandering to the masses.  Nobody should have to see Harry Redknapp clutching a pretend tennis racquet and playing pretend tennis with his family (who is that guy second from left anyway?) but this is what Nintendo have done.  This is what they have embraced.  They've become something so inoffensive that it offends me.  They make my skin crawl - it's all so wholesome and happy and cheesy and they all love each other and there are no wars, nobody suffers and it's all done in primary colours with plinky-plonky music and just..... ugh.  (He looks Australian, maybe he's their Australian friend or Harry's accountant or something.)

Now hate is a strong word.  It means a deep, abiding and almost physical dislike of something.  It's a primeval force, it has its own power and, if harnessed correctly, can feel like a burning, holy flame inside of you.  However, when left to its own festering devices it can also be intensely damaging, eating you up from the inside - like a parasitic worm, or those flies who lay their eggs in spiders.  You've got to keep an eye on your hate levels, they require careful monitoring, and in my case those flies are hovering pretty close.  So I decided to do something drastic.  Something out of the ordinary, something that to another man may sound trite but which, to me, represented as much of an ordeal as climbing Everest would to an octogenerian tetraplegic - I decided to play a bit of Super Mario Galaxy. 

Kill or cure - right?

Now, I'm not stupid.  I realised that this was going to be difficult, hazardous even.  There was a chance that I may have come away from it with some kind of sense of hope or, at the very least, humming a catchy tune.  I needed a wingman and there was really only one choice - my 3 year old son.  I had tried, oh god had I tried, to inculcate some decency in him.  He had learned how to use a mouse by running around pre-cleared levels in Torchlight II.  He knows what Minecraft is, and has destroyed many a promising castle, but once he had experienced the brightly coloured wonderland that is Nintendo I had lost him and his world had become full of moustachioed plumbers.  I didn't want his world to be like that.  Certainly not when he's 3, he can do what he likes when he's older, but I was desperate and I needed help.

So, we settled down together to play Mario.  This is probably how Harry Redknapp felt when he first gripped that pretend racquet with Jamie.

"Daddy!  Get the star!  Daddy!  Get the star!  Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!  DADDY!  GET THE STAR!  TALK TO THE PURPLE MAN!  TALK TO THE PURPLE MAN!  What did he say Daddy?  What did he say?  WHAT DID HE SAY?!?!?" 

This was going to be tricky.

But gradually, despite a few tantrums along the way (and that was just me) I came to a dawning realisation - maybe, just maybe, my prejudices and preconceptions had been wrong.  Maybe, just maybe, underneath its sickly sweet exterior Super Mario Galaxy is really a truly great game because, actually, it does a lot of things that great games should do.

Firstly, it gets the difficulty level exactly right -  and this was made clear to me when I played it with my son.  One of the simplest ways that it does this is by giving its players plenty of lives. These come from a variety of sources; attached to "letters" from other characters in the game, or as a reward for collecting 50 of the ubiquitous star bits that litter the environment. On some of the more difficult levels it gives you one right at the start, which you cannot fail to collect if you wish to do so. This means that the consequences of dying are minimised and players are encouraged to retry levels in order to succeed. As I have said previously, what is important in a game is not dying as such, but what is lost when you do.  In SMG the player is usually returned to the last checkpoint reached (which is unmarked in this game, but is shown with a flag in the sequel.) If the player loses all of their lives then they are returned to the spaceship base and have to restart the level from the beginning.  The number of lives the player has really only tells them how many chances they have to complete the level that they are on - there are no consequences further than that. So if, for example, you want to hand control over to a small child who insists on repeatedly jumping off the first platform they encounter until you just can't take it any more, then you should remind yourself that it doesn't really matter.

On some early levels, and certainly on the spaceship which serves as your home base, it is impossible to die. This is perfect for getting used to controls, for trying out new things or for stopping incipient meltdowns without jeopardising progress. On the other hand some of the later levels, or the prankster comets, give the player a challenge worthy of games such as Dark Souls. Where SMG does well though, is that it allows players to choose the level of challenge that they wish to experience because once the player has progressed a little way into the game they are given plenty of choice on how to proceed. There are barriers to this (some worlds are only accessible after a certain number of end-level stars have been collected) but it is perfectly possible to complete the game without finishing every level. This enables the player to pick and choose their challenges and means that, if one world is proving difficult to complete, they can still progress by going to a different world instead and trying that. The game doesn't really care which order you complete the levels in, it only cares about how many stars you have collected in total - and the worlds vary a great deal in their layout. Some are wide open spaces with easily avoidable enemies, whilst others are strictly confined and full of the lava, moving platforms and bombs with angry faces that you would expect from any Mario game. The player is free to pick what to do next and is able to try a more difficult level before moving to an easier one in order to make some progress if they grow frustrated.

And this leads us on to another aspect of SMG which is genuinely great.  It provides the player with a wide variety of ways to play the game.  Yeah OK, these pretty much all involve Mario but this IS Nintendo we're talking about.  He can be turned into a giant spring, a rolling boulder or a bee.  He can shoot flames, freeze water or fly - and many other things besides.  He skates and he swims and he rides around on Yoshi.  He races various other people, flies birds and chases penguins and, if you get bored of that, you can do it all over again as Luigi.  The gameplay changes from level to level and often even within the same galaxy.  It breaks things up extremely well and means that, if the player gets frustrated trying one thing, they can go somewhere else and try something completely different.

Not only this, but we haven't even mentioned the comets yet.  Comets appear above different galaxies once certain conditions are met and change the way those levels work.  They can have a variety of effects - some impose a time limit, others leave Mario with only 1 life, while others make him race a version of himself.  Some of these challenges can be extremely... um.. challenging, and it's lucky that the game can be completed without beating any of them if you so wish.  However, they provide yet more variety to an already diverse feast and that is no bad thing.  Everywhere you go in SMG there are secrets to discover and hidden areas to explore.  Lumas (the resident star creatures) will TRANSFOOOORRRMM! into different new worlds when fed enough star bits and there are lots of areas hidden away within levels for the intrepid player to find.  In fact there are a total of 242 stars to obtain in the game, while it can be completed after finding only 60 or so.  This isn't anything unusual for Nintendo, one of the great strengths of their games has traditionally been the amount of hidden stuff to find, but SMG feels even more epic in its scope.

And that's it really.  There I sat, with my son shouting almost incoherent commands into my ear (interspersed with "It's alright Daddy, it doesn't matter" when I fell off a disappearing platform for the 50th time), while my whole worldview changed around me.  Let's make no bones about this - Super Mario Galaxy is in many ways the perfect videogame.  You may, like me, resent the primary colours, the characters and the whole Nintendo mythos - but it doesn't really matter.  Because, underneath it all, the game is structurally the equal of any game ever made.  The mechanics of it are so perfect, so tight and well-designed, that everything else is trivial.

So, as I finally vanquished Bowser and my son whooped with joy "YES DADDY!  YOU DID IT! YOU BEAT BOWSER! CAN I GET THE STAR DADDY?  CAN I GET THE STAR?  CAN I GET IT? CAN I?  CAN I GET THE STAR? CAN I?  DADDY!  DADDY!  DADDDYYYY!!!" that was the realisation that came fully formed into my mind.  It was as if my previous self had disappeared, and I'd been reborn.  There may have been some kind of celestial choir, who knows, but as I handed the controller over to my faithful wingman to administer the coup de grace and collect the final star I realised... I couldn't hear the flies any more.

Everything was going to be alright.

DISCLAIMER:  I don't really think that about Nintendo.  Well, not much.  Sue me.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge - Lessons from the Past

"The Bane of Queequeg" is a stupid name for a blog.  It's OK, I know that's what you're thinking, it's hard to spell, it doesn't make sense and it alienates a large proportion of any potential readership.  I accept that, and maybe if I was starting again I would call it "Great Old Games" or "Drunken Ramblings" or "Badger Attack!"

Hmmmm... "Badger Attack!"...

This might just work...

Anyway there is a reason why this blog is called the ridiculous name that it is, and that is a game called Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge.  The "Bane" bit is obvious, but "Queequeg" is the name of the  first NPC you encounter.  He's loosely modelled on Queequeg from Moby Dick (in that he is some kind of sailor) but he sells items, and you can talk to him about things (like a captain and some treasure.)  He sidles up to you in as shifty a way as is possible for a graphic from 1990, metaphorically pulls open his jacket to show you a selection of dodgy watches and asks if he could "interest you in a bargain." 

This must qualify as one of the stupidest questions in gaming history.  You're a group of adventurers stuck in a musty castle with the ubiquitous giant rats (who always inhabit the early part of any RPG) constantly nipping at your extremities.  You're wearing the equivalent of suits made out of shattered dreams and you're reduced to trying to kill things by thinking really hard at them - of course you're interested in a bloody bargain!  Queequeg provides you with the first opportunity to sort yourselves out and he's the first friendly face you meet - I can forgive him that his name is hard to spell in Google.

Just like in Moby Dick.

Wizardry 6 is widely recognised as one of the greatest RPGs ever made.  It was released in 1990 and is a classic dungeon crawler; create 6 characters, walk into a castle, kill everything that moves that isn't Queequeg and collect treasure - whilst progressing towards your eventual goal.  This is hardly revolutionary, there are plenty of games where you can do that, but Bane sticks in the mind because of a few things.

Firstly it deviates from the normal fantasy milieu in lots of ways.  The standard Fighters and Priests are, of course, present but lots of other, much more interesting, classes are also available.  Valkyries, Lords, Bishops, Monks, Samurai and Ninjas are all there, waiting for you to use them.  You can wield katanas, you can dual wield katanas, you can use psionics, you can pick races such as a mook or a dracon, and they had khajit way before those johnny come latelys at Bethesda.  It uses enough familiar stuff to make any RPG player feel at home, but it also adds a touch of the exotic - something else to imagine and picture in your mind's eye.  I mean, let's face it, Samurai are cool aren't they?  And half dragon Samurai who breathe acid are even cooler.

Another thing that Wizardry does well are the puzzles.  Here it benefits from a healthy dose of "Old Game-itis".  Basically put Wizardry doesn't really give a stuff about you.  It doesn't follow conventions which are so ingrained in modern games that they have become.. well.. conventions.  Nowadays if you pick a key up then it will be used somewhere in the immediate vicinity.  If there is a locked gate then something nearby will open it, or somebody will give you a hint on how to do so.  This simply doesn't happen in Wizardry.  In this game progress-crucial items are hidden away in dark corners and you have to search to find them.  If you don't find them then nothing happens, nobody pops up to tell you anything, you just have to sit there and try to work out where you've gone wrong.  If you miss something early in the game (like, for example, something that a bargain-obsessed sailor might be selling) and are unable to get past a later obstacle then you have to go back and search the WHOLE GAME to find whatever it is you've missed, so that you can carry on.  And, not only this, but there are loads of obviously really important gates and doors that you encounter right at the beginning of your journey which you can't open for absolutely ages.  So you have lots of items which might or might not be important, and lots of doors which clearly need to be opened, but no way of telling how those match up - or even if they're supposed to yet.

And mixed in with this are some genuinely interesting puzzles.  I don't particularly want to single out Skyrim again but it only has one puzzle - that one with the different animal blocks and the big diagram on the wall detailing exactly what to do.  Compare that with this, which are the instructions telling you how to lower a drawbridge you find once you leave the castle...

*CAUTION* Safety detachment required prior to inchoate winder advancement. Do not activate coilwrap until a wait of 5 seconds post pump nascency, over safety interdigitation. Truss ascension may follow, but under no circumstance should fall extrinsic to pump and winder immurement. Final winder engagement induction for draw bridge facilitation.

Got that?

Modern games have perfected the art of giving the player a constant, gentle challenge.  They provide enough of an obstacle that you feel like you are making progress, but they also follow set rules that make everything pretty straightforward.  Look at the latest Deus Ex game, for example.  I have never seen so many high security complexes with easily accessible and extensive ventilation shafts in my life.  It's almost like somebody wants you to succeed.  There is a lot to be said for this approach and things have become much less frustrating as a result, but it also necessitates that game elements like puzzles become more sterile and similar (hence why fantasy vikings have started to leave the solutions to them on the walls right next to the doors that you're trying to open).  The player needs to know what is expected in order for it all to work, and the solution needs to be in reasonably easy reach because, if that doesn't happen, then they suddenly don't know how to deal with the obstacle that is stopping their progress and they become frustrated.  Wizardry 6 comes from a less polished age, but it actually requires some effort and concentration as a result and, of course, there are plenty of full solutions available on the internet if you decide to cheat.

And, it's not only the puzzles that require thought...

That, my friends, is the first level of the castle - drawn by my own fair hand.  Mapping is essential to making any progress, things are too confusing otherwise, and this was the last Wizardry game not to include an automapping feature.  Nowadays every game has one, but Bane is (just about) from a time when that responsibility was still placed on the player.  In a world full of green flashing arrows, or symbols on a map telling you exactly where to go, it provides a healthy, refreshing change.  There is no hand holding going on here, if you want to beat this game then you are going to have to work for it, and that will involve messing up a lot of graph paper and sharpening a lot of pencils.

To many, many people all of this will seem like a lot of hard work.  I wouldn't like to say that the general gaming population has got soft and lazy but I'm certainly aware that this sort of thing only appeals to a niche market.  I can't see many of the people who voted Grand Theft Auto V as the "most anticipated game of 2013" queueing up to try their luck with a 20 year old dungeon crawler where they have to draw their own maps.  (Rockstar are ripping you all off by the way, they've released the same game 4 times already.)  Wizardry 6 is not user-friendly, it's not polished by modern standards, it has its ups and downs and it can be frustrating and confusing.  However it also rewards effort, it rewards dedication and it gives the player a sense of achievement that just doesn't seem to exist in mainstream gaming any more.  Probably most importantly it shows us some of the things that we have lost in the past 20 years; a trust that the player is able to think for themselves, that they are competent games players and that they are able to cope with something challenging and thought-provoking.  I think it's a shame that this has almost disappeared.  It's hard to see how a game that promotes thought as much as this does could exist in today's gaming world.  It's too raw, it's too difficult and it just doesn't fit, but it illuminates very clearly how far things have gone in the opposite direction - and that maybe it's time to take a step backwards, just a little way.

If you want to try your hand at Wizardry 6 then it is available for free here
You will need a way to play it, as it is a DOS file.  If you have DOSBox then that will work.  Personally I recommend D-Fend Reloaded
This may look daunting but, in fact, it is really easy to use.  Guide here