Apr 30, 2008

A critique of Galaga

Galaga is a top-down shooter game released in 1981 originally for the arcade and continues to have a following today (27 years later, at the time I’m writing this article). This game is a derivative of Galaxian, and to a less direct extent Space Invaders.

This game’s control scheme is extremely straightforward – there is a joystick and one button. It is also noteworthy that the player can only maneuver the avatar left and right, there is no vertical control. A player can understand all major control mechanisms the first time they play the game.

Galaga follows very consistent structures throughout the entire game. The player usually comes to expect certain patterns and the game which can give a feeling that the game is “fair”.

There are only 4 enemies in the entire game (I believe), and their behavior doesn’t change dramatically throughout the game. Blue and Red bad guys explode after one hit. The Boss enemies (Green and yellow) die after two hits, but change color after one to give the player feedback on their status.

There is only one ‘power up’ in Galaga, which is probably the most famous feature of the game. The boss enemies can capture the player’s ship, which the player can win back by careful play – giving the player control on a double ship.

The implementation of this design feature is unique in that when a player gets this ‘power up’, it is as much a liability as it is an asset. The avatar shoots two shots at one time, but also is twice as large – making it an easier target. There is also the possibility that the player will accidentally shoot his own ship, loosing a life in the process.

The levels follow a recognizable pattern: The enemies fly onto screen in a predetermined formation, sometimes firing or attacking. Then they fall into a pattern at the top of the screen. Lastly they take turns coming down to attack individually or in small groups until all enemies have been vanquished.

Each leveI becomes slightly more difficult with the exception of the bonus levels. I believe that every 4th level is a “challenging stage” which is a bonus level where the avatar is not attacked – dropping the intensity for a while.

Feedback in this game is extremely fast and clear to the player. There are audio cues for firing a shot, for hitting a target, as well as the beginning of a level. All enemies are seen on screen at one time, so there is continuous visual status on progress within the level.

It is interesting that the game has had such longevity despite (or because of) its ultra simplistic user input and general predictability.

Apr 22, 2008

Resident Evil

Resident Evil was one of the first and most prominent survival horror games created for the Playstation.

I want to launch with an exploration of the control scheme for the game. The user inputs that were chosen for character movement were heavily criticized for being ‘unintuitive’. [Indeed it took me 3 or 4 attempts at playing this game before I finally figured out how to shoot the pistol]

The game uses an unconventional mapping for character movement - the ‘up’ button moves the character forward, and the ‘left’ and ‘right’ buttons rotate the character. I believe that this mapping was chosen to anchor one consistent direction to the up button. Because the game has dramatic camera angles that change orientation in almost every room, it is functional to be able to hold down one button and continue progression in a consistent direction.

In order to shoot a weapon the player needs to hold down the L1 button while pressing a 2nd button on the keypad. This is also an unconventional choice but serves the useful function of not wasting ammo by accident – because this is a game with limited resources.

The limitation of resources is not only a gameplay mechanic, but adds a level of emotional tension. Most players experience a sense of anxiety as their resources diminish. The amount of times that a player can save is also a commodity. This inability to easily leave the game world beautifully mirrors the core of the story – that the characters cannot escape the house.

The flow and content of the game is fairly predictable, but balanced and well executed. The player can find various keys that unlock different types of doors. This mechanic is straightforward and in most instances the game does nothing to mask this element.

At certain junctures there are puzzle elements which are necessary for progression. This is a bit curious in that the puzzles are not a core element of the game, yet do not add substantial depth.

The visual aspects of this game do give substantial depth, however. The backgrounds are pre-rendered, which allowed them to be created with far more detail than its real-time contemporaries. That detail allows each part of the mansion to look unique, and helps the feeling of reward when a new area has been unlocked. Each room is displayed from different camera angles, giving a dramatic aesthetic.

Apr 11, 2008

A critique of Katamari Damacy

Katamari is certainly a unique game, and many people have had different feelings about the game.

The first thing that I want to point out is that this game is a direct descendant of Pac Man – a game also built by Namco many years before. The primary focus is on collecting things and avoiding baddies – unless the game is in a state where you can consume enemies.

Much like its ancestor, this game is extremely focused on simple core mechanics. There are no power ups to manage in Katamari, and user control is absolutely consistent within levels. This allows the learning process to be fairly straight forward, slowly refining the skills that are introduced early on.

The visual and auditory feedback is continuous, letting you know how much you are picking up with satisfying pops (and the occasional scream from a sumo wrestler).

One of the things that make the mechanic of collect distinctive is that the relationships between your character and the environment are not absolute. An item that serves as a barrier early in a level will usually become something consumable later in the level.

Also an animal that causes you harm (or at least inconvenience), can be rolled into your ball later on. This potentially taps an undercurrent of the human compulsion for revenge.

I would guess that this relative relationship between things would make level design extremely challenging. How do you place a level wall that is also an item to be collected? I can almost imagine the items needing to be placed in a fractal sort of arrangement.

The game has an extremely simple but unique Art style. This item simplicity has a couple of secondary implications for the game:

1. They can be created faster, allowing for more things to be built in the same amount of time, and
2. They have a lower polygon count so that more items can be shown on screen at on time.

Both of which contribute to a larger variety of items that can be seen and interacted with throughout the game. If there were only a handful of items that could be picked up, the game would feel significantly different.

The multitude of items and their (seemingly) unusual placement give the game a powerful sense of absurdity. The game has a sense of humor, but does so without telling any jokes.

Ironically, the story elements of the game are fairly serious. The relationship between the main character and the father character is strained. But in a subtle way. There is not any major event that plays out for the sake of drama. His quiet disapproval of an incomplete mission adds some emotional weight to the game. Somehow this is accessible in a personal way that more epic stories are not.

Emotional content aside, the concept truly uses the media of games in a powerful way. It allows the player to experience something that they cannot in regular life in an interactive way. You would NOT have a similar experience if this was described in book or movie form.