Sunday, January 04, 2009

Select Difficulty

While I was home for the holidays, I had the good opportunity to fire up my old NES. Between that, and two recent discussions on video game difficulty, and I thought I had some good blog fodder.

Shamus points out in his video that a lot of "hardcore" players, or at least those of us with a modicum of skill, grew up learning to play on the old NES. We had a lifetime of scaling difficulty, both in game quality and control scheme complexity, to get to where we are, so people who are just joining the party are right to feel overwhelmed by the mess that is modern video gaming.

There's something to be said about the part pertaining to new players. There's a reason games like Bejeweled and Chuzzle are so popular. While there was a time that you would sooner admit to being a chronic bed-wetter before telling girls you played video games, these days it's really easy to convince women to play a game of Wii Sports, Mario Party, Mario Kart, Rock Band, etc.

Still, I find the former more interesting. I think there's a lot of nostalgia that goes into saying, "Video games in the NES era were perfect! We learned to game in a beautiful harmony!"

I think it's many of those older games which paved the way for today's games, which feature crushing difficulty and what Shamus likes to call "Do it again, stupid" (DIAS) syndrome. DIAS is the state where the game presents you with a challenge with little room for error. When you fail, you have to repeat the challenge over and over until you get it right. Sometimes failure sends you back to an earlier point in the game, which leads to a frustrating situation where you might have to play the same 10-20 minutes of a game over and over because of one part you can't get past.

Here's a few examples from the games I picked up this past week:
This game is considered one of the best games for the NES, even one of the best ever made. While the game is quite fun, I would argue that most people only ever beat it by "cheating" with the Warp Whistles, which no casual player would have known about. Playing the game normally takes something on the order of 6-8 hours, and there's no save function. Many of the levels contain puzzles which would be nearly impossible to solve without access to game guides. Others feature situations requiring such lightning fast reflexes and time-critical moves that only someone well-versed in the genre is going to tackle it. The point being, this is a hard game.
If you were eight years old and played this game, it was like a slap in the face. I'll post this link, with a warning for foul language. You controlled the turtles one at a time, going through levels to rescue Splinter from Shredder. Sounds like fun for someone who watched the cartoon every day, right? Except the game was filled with labrynthine levels, rare health pickups or power-ups, and swarms of enemies too big to avoid and too strong to kill quickly. Since you could freely switch between the turtles, you technically had four lives. However, some of the turtles had attacks which were nearly useless. You could "rescue" a turtle who lost all his health, but figuring out where those locations are was a feat in itself. Very few people who played this game ever made it to the end, and even fewer managed to topple Shredder when it happened.
Okay, I remember this game fondly as well, but I never finished it in my youth. Once again, the complexity of some of the jumping puzzles, as well as the difficulty of the enemies, made it nearly impossible for an unskilled player. Most levels featured a robot which was difficult to avoid and stole half your health if it touched you. Some of the bosses were only within reach of most players (including me) due to a cheat involving the pause button, a feature removed in future installments of the game.

So, a lot of the older games are difficult. So what? My point is that there are games of crushing difficulty from every era. We may remember those games fondly in retrospect, but most of us put them down in frustration at one point or another. We kept up with the hobby because of the games that were within reach of our skill level. Those games can still be good today, and I think it's worth keeping in mind the things which made those games good when looking at the newer games. A game can be easy enough for new players without simplifying it too much. Sure, games like Nintendogs convinced a lot of people to buy a DS, but they can still be challenged by, and enjoy, games like Phoenix Wright.

Not that anyone's asking my opinion on game design theory. I can dream, can't I?

Oh, and no discussion of difficult video games of the past would be complete without pointing you to the Angry Video Game Nerd (again, be wary - he uses lots of foul language).


Andrew F. said...

It's funny that you mention Phoenix Wright as an "easy enough" game for new players. It's true that the elements of gameplay aren't overly complex (bonus points for being playable using only the stylus), but some of the leaps of reasoning that players are expected to make in order to advance are so tremendous that for a lot of people it will turn into DIAS. You'll be at a point during a trial where you need to present something from the court record to show a contradiction, but after racking your brain you can't figure it out, so you're reduced to trial and error--and you get a guilty verdict and have to restart from the beginning of the chapter if you get it wrong too many times.

Obviously this can be remedied by taking five minutes to look up the solution in a FAQ, but a lot of players won't have internet access while they're playing (say, on a long car trip) or won't know that FAQs exist at all. (Others are too stubborn to resort to a guide and would rather puzzle over the answer for days or weeks at a time, though this may just be me :).This is neither the first nor the worst occurrence of DIAS in an adventure game, but it's a blemish on what is otherwise a very accessible title for new gamers.

Hal said...

I'd disagree, but I encountered a few points in the series like that. Call it "adventure game logic." If you ever played any of the old Sierra point-and-click adventures like Quest for Glory or King's Quest, you know what I'm talking about.

The good part, at least, is that those moments don't really enter in until you are already familiar enough with the mechanics and principles of the game. I don't remember hitting such a wall until the last case in the first game. On the other hand, a lot of games you'll play today are crushingly difficult from the get-go. I played Gears of War 2 for the first time on New Year's eve, and it was insanity.

-Murphy said...


That is all.