Tag Archives: level design

FGC #417 Mega Man 11

Here comes a Mega Man!So here’s why Mega Man 11 is an excellent videogame, but an awful Mega Man game.

Good videogames are good teachers. Whether you’re a veteran of gaming culture or a random scrub that was just handed a controller, if you’ve ever played a videogame, you first had to learn that game. And while there’s always going to be some overlap between disparate games (Super Mario Bros. and Bioshock both, technically, have jump buttons), every game has its own rules and tricks that must be memorized. Heck, right from the get-go, most videogames ask you to do something you’ve been doing for years, like walking forward, but all sorts of buttons and levers must be employed to do this simplest of tasks (or, well, at least one button). As such, any game worth its salt takes the time to teach the player “the basics”, and then gradually ramps up the difficulty as the adventure progresses.

Yes, this is all a basic way of saying “Level 1-1 is easier than 8-1”, but I like hitting a word count sometimes, okay?

Mega Man games are their own little universe, however. Somewhere out there (or right here), there’s a poor child (who is now an adult, and me) that fired up Mega Man 2 for the first time (because Captain N was a cool television show), was greeted with the ability to choose his first level (unlike every non-Duck Tales NES game ever), and immediately chose Quick Man (because head-boomerangs are awesome). This ended incredibly poorly, as this poor boy (who is literally writing this article) was forever scarred (not really) by immediately and unmercifully dying repeatedly to the instant death lasers of Quick Man’s stage. And an attempt at the deadly platforming of Air Man’s stage didn’t go much better! It wasn’t until Flash Man’s stage that the poor boy discovered that one of these stages could end. Mega Man 2 Crispypossesses no tutorial or opening stage, so, without trial and error, the instant death of spikes is initially equally as threatening as a common mettaur. It is only through trial and error that these lessons are learned, and if you chose the hardest stage to start, well, hope you have the patience to discover the rest of the game isn’t nearly that punishing.

Mega Man 11 tries something a little different.

Mega Man 11 does not include an introductory stage, so, once again, you are given the choice of where exactly you would like to begin your Robot Master rampage. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to showcase Acid Man’s stage. Why? Because it’s color-coded.

The theme of Acid Man’s stage is “chemistry”. Or… maybe something to do with how liquid changes colors? Ugh, you know what? It’s a water level. It’s the water level of the game. The end. Water levels in Mega Man games are always interesting (if not fun), as water makes Mega Man move slightly slower, but with an incredibly high jump. And you can get your sealegs pretty easily in the opening, blue areas of Acid Man’s stage.

Acid!

Look at that! There might be a few hazards around, but life is better down where it’s wetter in the opening bits of Acid Man’s lab.

Acid!

Things escalate by the middle area, though. It’s still pretty easy, but instant-kill traps are more prevalent. Yes, they’re effortlessly avoided, but the very fact that your adventure could be over in a hit is now going to be the new normal. Will things escalate for the Blue Bomber? We’ll find out, right after this break!

Acid!

Yay! Mini-boss! These things are apparently required by law now, and we’re lucky that this beast only pops up once in this stage (other stages seem to feature “a big guy” twice, once ala carte, and once with some extra stage hazard added). Unfortunately, since this device only has one chance to shine, it’s kind of a bullet sponge, and feels like it overstays its welcome by about half. Does this mean we should use the new Power Gear? Probably! But good luck timing/aiming that sucker properly.

Acid!

Now we get a checkpoint, and Mega Man 11 really kicks into gear. We’re still in the yellow area, but either thanks to the close proximity of the respawn point or the fact that we’ve now entered flavor country, there are a lot of spikes around. You must either know the exact arc of Mega’s signature water jump, cheese your way through with some invincibility-through-damage, or die. Yes, Mega Man will be teleported back to life nearby, so it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s clear at this point that the kid gloves have come off the robot kid. And should you survive…

Acid!

Now we’re in the thick of the “old school” “you gonna die” “exploding robots forever” challenge of Mega Man games of yore. There are spikes everywhere. Entire rooms are just instant death traps, and, even with that brand new Speed Gear, you damn well better know exactly how Mega Man controls, or you’re dead. It’s not the end of the world, these are challenges you can complete, but…

Acid!

Never mind. This is bullshit. Don’t make me do this! Don’t make me perfectly navigate some wall of spikes, or jump up through a vertically scrolling area that may or may not have a ceiling full of instant death (okay, the ceiling is, obviously, completely fatal, but the question is how close is that ceiling). This is the closing rush before the finale, but it doesn’t have to be this bad. I would kind of like to see that Robot Master I selected.

Acid!

Oh, there he is. Time to beat down Acid Man and call it a stage clear. Wow, nothing about this fight could be as difficult as the challenges that preceded it. Is that a problem? Maybe. But it’s not the problem.

The problem is that this level design is incompatible with the lives system of classic Mega Man titles.

Mega Man 11 emulates the traditional Mega Man style of defaulting to three lives to complete a stage, and, should you lose those lives, it’s back to the very beginning. This setup carried us blissfully through all of the NES titles (and a few X jaunts), and, while there may have been a problem with the system here or there (hello, damn Boo Beam Trap), it worked out well enough that Mega Man became a cherished franchise complete with this “handicap”. Even though Mega Man 11 showcases some new advances (like being able to replay Wily stages, or really excellent weapon switching), the “lives factor” wasn’t the worst part of the classic series (that would be the Boo Beam Trap, again), so that tradition should have worked out just fine.

It didn’t. It didn’t work out at all.

Lose all your lives, and it’s back to start. It is tradition, but it completely fails in a game that so rigidly adheres to the “graduating lesson” structure of every Mega Man 11 stage. Fail at the opening? No big deal, you start back right at the start. But fail in the middle, and you have to repeat the basics of the beginning all over again. Got past the miniboss? Well, that’s super, but you’re going to have to waste time on that bullet sponge again if you only got that far with zero lives remaining. And the final gauntlet areas? Awful, because these areas are literally designed to kill you quickly and often, and you’re going to boomerang back to the easy opening all over again if you lose your precious 1-up stock. And that makes it nearly impossible to clear the most dangerous areas, because, in order to practice the difficult parts, you have to waste time on the tranquil bits over and over and over again. By the time you return to your robotic remains, can you even remember what killed you the last time? Oh, right, it was those spikes. Back to the top.

And let’s not pretend this was always a problem with the Mega Man series. Yes, the lives/continue system was always there, but what happens on literally the second screen with buoyant water in the franchise ever?

Bubbles!

Sink or swim, Mega Man. Classic Mega Man stages are less about teaching the player new tricks, and more about tossing ‘em in the deep end right from the start.

Bubbles!

Or at least like ten seconds later. And, don’t worry, this kind of thinking did continue when classic became slightly less classic, as, lest we forget, the most unforgiving jump ever in the franchise is before its stage’s midway point.

Run the Jewels!

And, while my ruler might not be close enough at hand to give it a check, it seems Mega Man 11’s levels are longer than most of the classic stages. Which makes sense! When you’re ruled by the concept of gradually increasing difficulty through three-part stages that include a generous sprinkling of mini bosses, you’re going to wind up with a lot o’ level. And it means you’re going to repeat a lot of those levels.

And the saddest part of all of this? There was a modest solution to avoiding this mess built right into the Mega Man formula: Dr. Wily Stages. Take all those “final”, super difficult areas, and weld them together for the actual final areas. Make four Wily stages by combining the hardest bits of eight Robot Master stages. Simple! It’s happened before! It’s worked really well before!

So, in the end, Mega Man 11 winds up being a game that uses traditional videogame structure in a traditional franchise that does not work well with traditional structure at all. Mega Man 11 is a great game, it’s just not a great Mega Man game.

FGC #417 Mega Man 11

  • Look out!System: Available now for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. And PC! The only system actually seen during the game…
  • Number of players: Capcom refuses to acknowledge my requests for a Secret of Mana-esque Mega Man adventure featuring Bass and Proto Man, so just one.
  • Hey, why don’t you just crank down the difficulty, smart guy? If Capcom wants to claim one difficulty is “Normal”, then I’m going to assume that is the way the game is meant to be played until further notice.
  • Special Ed: Yes, I did have to pay a premium to buy the version with an amiibo, stickers, and a microfiber cloth (which I think is a kind of Final Fantasy equipment). If you thought you lived in a universe where I would not buy such a thing, then hi, welcome to GoggleBob.com for the first time!
  • Classic Rumblings: Electric beats ice, ice beats fire, fire beats… bomb? Bomb beats the dude with the blocks. This is the foundation of our universe.
  • Favorite Robot Master: I still think Bomb Man has the dumbest design. And, appropriately enough, Blast Man seems to have a similarly lazy visual design. But there is more to Blast Man than his dumb haircut, and this explosion loving pyrotechnic and his dedication to theme parks has won me over in a big way. You’re a blast, Blast Man.
  • Did you know? This is the first time a new “classic” Mega Man game has had a physical release on a Nintendo console since Mega Man & Bass. Am I talking about the original Super Famicom release or the aggravating Gameboy Advance rerelease? Yes!
  • Would I play again: I really like this game! It makes “lives” the worst thing ever, but the rest of the game is tops. I’m a lot more likely to play this again than Mighty No. 9, and, frankly, I think that says it all.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen to take Halloween off, so we’re going for spooky times with… Castlevania Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon! Yes, two modern-retro style games in a row! It happens! And maybe there will be skeletons! Please look forward to it!

Little Devils

FGC #379 Fable 2

FABLE!Let’s hear it for the glowing “follow me” path!

Let me tell you something about myself: I play a lot of videogames. It’s true! And you know what is an integral part of any given videogame? Level design. World design. From Mario to Zelda to Doom, it doesn’t matter if your hero has the best ups or bazookas around, it’s all going to come crashing down if you can’t design a world for squat. And I have played through the best worlds! Super Metroid is an amazing bit of planetary architecture, and Super Mario Bros consistently features some of the finest individual stage design in the business. Final Fantasy worlds are deliberate, thoughtful affairs, and have been since the 8-bit era. While I’ve certainly trudged through some stinkers, it would likely not be an exaggeration to claim that I have spent over 20,000 hours exploring complicated, deliberately created fantasy worlds.

So, after all that, you’d think I’d have even the most rudimentary sense of direction. And you’d be wrong.

I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten lost on my way to the refrigerator. I’ve certainly gotten lost following basic MapQuest directions. And, while my friends and I have vowed to never speak of it again, I may or may not have been responsible for being lost for approximately six hours on the labyrinthine highways of Pennsylvania trying to arrive at a location a whole hour from home. I’m not a complete lost cause! I do have a surprisingly good sense of actual direction, like I could easily tell you which way is East right now (it’s that-a-way), but actually navigating a manmade road in a direction that facilitates “going east” is likely impossible. I need careful, slow GPS directions to find my way to any site I haven’t already visited 500 times, and, if my phone didn’t have an onboard directions app, I’d probably be posting this article from a remote cave in Nebraska. Life would be so much easier if I could just live in any found cave…

Get 'emThis, unfortunately, has translated into decimating my videogame map memory. Yes, I’ve memorized some games like one might never forget the contours of a lover (“You’re comparing Super Metroid to some manner of paramour again, aren’t you?” “You never forget your first.”), but my recent replay of Yoshi’s Island reminded me that I have the map sense of a naked mole rat (I am assuming creatures that are effectively blind are bad at maps, but please correct me if I’m wrong). I 100%’ed Yoshi’s Island back in the day, and, when I was done doing that, I did it all over again for at least three save files. Considering all the hidden secrets and damned contemptible red coins in that title, that would mean, just to accomplish such a task once, I would have, at one time in my life, have had to explore every last inch of Yoshi’s entire island. And I did it repeatedly! And, just a few (more than a few) years later, I can barely recognize the second world. Touch Fuzzy, Get Biz-ay is permanently seared into my noggin, but most any other stage is a mystery. And it’s not that my thumbs don’t know how to make Yoshi pull off acrobatic feats the likes of which shyguys have never seen; no, it’s entirely my own ailing memory for locations that hampers Baby Mario’s progress.

Reality or digital, I would have a hard time backtracking my way through a paper bag.

Fortunately, this works just fine for today’s game, Fable 2. For many people, the big draw of Fable 2 was its morality system and “interlocking world” or whatever Peter Molyneux claimed was the alchemical secret to the franchise that week. Basically, the Fable 2 world places a very significant emphasis on consequences for actions, so if you spit on a street urchin during the intro, suddenly your entire hometown is a crap sack for the rest of history. Alternatively, you could buy some bread with your last shiny penny, and suddenly the future is all rainbows and pony rides. As a bullet point on a game case, this is pretty interesting, however, in actual practice, it seems alternately goofy and disturbing. Look, I ate an adorable chick alive once, and now the entire world has been plunged into darkness under the heel of a malevolent cult? Dude, I’m sorry, I just wanted to see if it was animated (it’s not, but there is an interesting crunching noise). And don’t get me started on the problems with the Fable diet choices

ShinyBut for all the goofiness of the Fable 2 universe, I can’t fault the game at all, as it grants us the blessed golden trail. Set any quest as your goal in Fable 2, and a delightful little glowing path will materialize in front of your avatar. Follow this rainbow to a pot of gold! Or wander away, get completely lost in the middle of some godforsaken forest, and look down to find that trail is still there and ready to lead you home. The golden path makes it impossible to get lost, and, even better, always points you towards your objective. You can save, stop playing because you have a goddamned life, come back a month later after you’ve successfully rehabilitated your cat after he got into a dynamite fight with that one brown mouse, and there’s the path all over again. You can play half the game, quit for a decade, and restart with absolutely no need to remember what you were doing at all. Just follow the path, and you’ll be back on track in no time.

It’s a glorious thing.

Sure, there have been naysayers over the years. Yes, the path absolutely discourages straying from the trail and exploring, and, should an area not contain a quest, it’s likely you’ll never encounter the location at all. Sure, the very concept of a “go here now” guide seems antithetical to a game that touts the importance of choice. And, the path absolutely drops the onus on the level (world?) designers that previously had to carefully design an environment that subtlety pushed the player forward toward new goals. In fact, this seems to be the number one problem with the path, as you can see its impact almost immediately. No more do there have to be trees that point forward or trodden paths that indicate your future goals; no, now it’s all a glowing path through a generic forest, and, turn off the path, and what hope do you have of finding your goal? Fable 2 was designed with the glowing path in mind, so it seems very little effort was put into making an actually “thoughtful”, forward progress-based map experience.

And all I can say is: welcome to my world.

WeeeeEarth, our dearly beloved planet, is not designed well. There are oceans right next to big piles of sand, and Mother Nature didn’t even think to stick a guardrail or two on her most dangling precipices. Humanity tried to tame this crazy wilderness, but as anyone that has ever driven a car in New York City will tell you, failed utterly and completely. In my own hometown, a place that doesn’t have to account for that many people or unusual geography, we have at least two streets that somehow loop in on themselves, and have thus trapped confused visiting relatives for decades. I don’t know if I’ll ever see my uncle again! And, sure, this is me, someone who once wound up in international waters in an attempt to walk to the local post office, saying this, but you have to admit that the average aerial city map looks less like the careful design of Miyamoto and more like someone haphazardly threw up a set of tinker toys (you never forget your junior prom).

So you know what? I can handle a game or two with crappy level design. The world has crappy level design, and I’m tired of pretending that Dr. Wily could build a fortress better than most urban planners. Give me my poorly designed Fable universe, and give me a glowing trail to follow through it.

And if you still think my glowy path is a bad thing? Then get lost.

FGC #379 Fable 2

  • System: Xbox 360 exclusive. It’s weird how rarely that happens.
  • Number of players: Two! You can have a friend pop into your world for extra mayhem. Have fun, lil’ buddy!
  • They’re all good boys: The other big selling point for Fable 2 was… a dog. Look, it was 2008, and a little furry AI buddy was the pinnacle of technology. And we were young and stupid. It was at least two of those things. Regardless, the dog was good fun and predictable in its plot function, but maaaaaybe a little useless in every other conceivable way. I’m pretty sure Sonic 2 Tails would have been a more welcome addition.
  • Branching Paths: And speaking of plot, this is a great example of a story with a resolution like I was trying to describe during the FF12 article: you can be good or bad, but, one way or another, you wind up saving the world all the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for altruism or revenge, the ending is still the same. Granted, other companies would eventually refine and master this kind of storytelling, but it’s always clever when a choose-your-own-adventure ends on the same page.
  • GlowyFavorite Combat: It was here that I learned to stop worrying and just love shooting things with gigantic magical guns. I rather expected I’d be more of a magic user, but when I leveled everything up, I found that I had transformed my avatar into some manner of na’vi. That is incredibly lame, so, for all future playthroughs, I just focused on the gun stuff, as “tall” was all I could tolerate. Yes, I choose my killing methods based on how they impact my appearance. How do you do it?
  • Did you know? There were some production problems with the Fable 2 Limited Edition. It was initially supposed to include a figurine and some trading cards… but they never materialized. As an apology, Fable 2 LEs were shipped with a voucher to download some Fable OST MP3s. That’s nice… except a number of LEs were accidentally shipped without the vouchers, too. Oops.
  • Would I play again: Path or no path, I really did enjoy Fable 2. It’s not my “game of the year” for 2008 or something, but it was certainly a lot more fun than… huh… literally every other Xbox 360 exclusive I can think of. Assuming we ever see a Fable 2 HD, maybe as part of some ridiculous collection, I’ll likely jump on it immediately.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokémon Moon for the Nintendo 3DS! We shall catch pokémon from here to the stars and back! Please look forward to it!

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