Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Super Smash Bros. Brawl: Melee Stages

Several of the stages in Super Smash Bros. Brawl are exact copies of stages from Super Smash Bros. Melee, carrying on a tradition started when Melee included three stages from the very first Super Smash Bros. game. However, I can't help but feel disappointed in how they went about bringing back past stages. Instead of simply re-using a handful of stages from Melee in their original form, I would have preferred it if the developers had completely remade stages using the improved graphical resources of the Wii and had kept more true to some of the stage traditions of the first two games. As it is, it feels like Brawl has abandoned too many of the classic stages of the previous games.

One big reason that I don't like the treatment of the Melee stages is that they feel far too cut off from most of the game. To start with, they are placed on a second stage-selection screen, which makes them harder to get to and remember than the new Brawl stages. Furthermore, none of the Melee stages appear in the games Classic or All-Star game modes. The older age of the appearance of the stages also contributes to their segregation from the rest of the game. The game designer's probably left the stages as they were because they wanted to retain a nostalgic quality from Melee for these stages. That unfortunately didn't work, because there are significant differences between the Melee stages in Brawl and their original incarnations in Melee itself, particularly in the real of stage boundaries and camera behavior. So instead of feeling nostalgic about these stages, I am constantly reminded about how they are only flawed emulations.

I think that it would have been much better if the developers had followed the other examples of how Melee converted stages from the original Super Smash Bros. game. Several stages in Melee were re-imagined or updated versions of stages from the first game, including Corneria, Brinstar, and Green Greens (three of the Melee stages in Brawl). Corneria in particular is a complete duplicate of the Sector Z stage from the first game; the only differences between the two is that Corneria has a different background and slightly updated graphics. Similarly, Brinstar is directly based on Planet Zebes, albeit with a modified platform layout and new interactive element (although the central gimmick, rising levels of lava, remains the same). Green Greens is directly based on the original Dream Land stage in that it features the classic Kirby boss Wispy Woods using wind to sow chaos on the battlefield. Furthermore, the Mushroom Kingdom stage in Melee uses a lot of the same design elements that defined a stage with the same name from the first game. So Super Smash Bros. Melee reimagined and updated stages more often than it simply re-issued them.

I think Brawl would have been better off if it had given the Melee stages this same treatment. Instead of emulating the Melee Corneria stage, inferior graphics and all, it could have updated the look of the stage based on the appearance of the Great Fox from Star Fox Assault, the most recent game it has been in. Brawl did do this for a few classic stages; Battlefield, Final Destination, Yoshi's Island, Pokemon Stadium 2, and Port Town Aero Dive are all re-imaginings or faithful recreations of previous stages using Brawls full graphical capabilities. Since the developers had the resources to create a massive single player adventure mode, there was no reason they couldn't have rebuilt the returning Melee stages completely.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Super Smash Bros. Brawl: Scores

My brother and I have been playing a lot of Super Smash Bros. Brawl lately. We finally got around to seriously pursuing the task of collecting all of the character trophies. This has been giving me a lot of opportunities to try and play through Classic mode and All-Star mode to see if I can get high scores. However, in doing so, I have noticed one big problem in Brawl: the scores that the game hands out have no direct correlation to a player's performance. If anything, the game rewards a poor performance better than a really good one.

In Brawl, the player is given a score in Classic mode based on two factors: how much time is remaining on the clock, and how much damage the player did to his opponents during the match. If the player does a lot of damage to his opponents, he will get a higher score, and if the player wins the match quickly he will get a higher score. Unfortunately, these two factors work somewhat in opposition to each other. If the player wants to rack up a high damage score, he needs to deal a lot of damage to his opponents before knocking them out of the ring, but doing so requires time. So it is generally impossible to get both really high time and damage scores. In order to get a good score, the player needs to aim for some sort of equilibrium between the two, which involves fighting using an artificial style instead of a normal winning strategy.

In other words, Super Smash Bros. Brawl's scoring system doesn't reward the player for fighting a near-perfect match. The problem is even worse in All-Star mode, where time isn't a factor and thus the only way to score points is by doing damage to an opponent. Recently, I managed to K.O. an opponent in All-Star mode in one shot only a few seconds into the match, a near picture-perfect victory. However, I only got a tenth of the score I would otherwise get, since I didn't do any damage to my opponent at all before walloping him off the screen. And this has been a general trend: in my attempts on Classic mode where I felt like I was struggling or doing poorly, I often got higher scores than the attempts where I defeated my opponents easily.

The entire point of a score in a videogame is to serve as quantifiable evidence of how well a player did. If the scores a game hands out have no correlation to a player's performance, than those scores are completely meaningless. Under this light, the scoring system in Super Smash Bros. Brawl fails completely. The only place way it gives any direct indication of a player's skill is by halving the player's score if the player uses a continue, but since the original score is faulty, this only allows for a very crude estimate. Simply listing how many continues the player required would have been more accurate.

Brawl's scoring system could probably have been improved radically if it had continued the system of handing out bonus points that was used in Melee. While the bonuses were often arbitrary in Melee, they often did give a good sense of how well a player fought. Furthermore, since special bonuses can be custom-designed for specific situations, they can be designed to better fit a wide range of match types than a simple scoring scheme based on only one or two factors. The special bonus titles handed out in Melee were a lot more entertaining in of themselves too.

Persona 3 FES: Boss Battles

One thing I have always liked about Persona 3 is its boss battles. Because there is a boss guarding each major checkpoint in both Tartarus and the Abyss of Time, as well as a number of story battles, there are quite a few of these in the game. The quality of these battles can vary greatly (some are fun, others boring), as does the difficulty (some boss battles are a cakewalk, but others are unfairly punishing), so there are some issues with consistency, but as a whole these battles add a lot of challenge and excitement to the game. They take an incredibly solid core combat system and push it to its limit, making them far more tactically engaging and fun than typical fare.

However, any praise I may give the boss battles of Persona 3 doesn't apply to the various Full Moon bosses and other story battles. For the most part, these battles are far too easy, since if you have reached the target floor in Tartarus that month, then the Full Moon boss is too weak for your current ability level (as a rule, the bosses you need to clear in order to make that target are stronger than that month's plot boss). Also, these bosses tend to overly rely on unusual gimmicks that eat up their turns, so they are usually only challenging if you accidentally stumble into the "bad" way to fight them, and are otherwise poorly designed. For example, one boss is split into two parts, one of which can revive the other, but while they are combined any damage is split between then evenly. As a result, by the time one of them is weak enough for the revival ability to matter, the one with the revival power is just as doomed as the other. In addition, there is no particular advantage for them when they are combined, so their entire gimmick of combining and separating is just a liability that adds little to the fight. Some other boss battles, such as those against enemy Persona-users, simply lack either complication or challenge, even though they are some of the most important to the plot. As a whole, many of these battles are disappointing.

If the story battles are disappointing because of an over-reliance on gimmicks and low difficulty, the battles in Tartarus may swing too far in the other direction. These battles are just straightforward battles against normal-looking enemies who don't make use of anything but normal attacks and ordinary elemental immunities, but they make use of these attacks and immunities in amazingly creative ways in order to provide difficult challenges. Unlike normal enemies and story bosses, you can't analyze a Tartarus boss's strengths and weaknesses, so they need to be determined through experimentation, adding a sometimes frustrating but often fun part of the battle (something resembling the Megaman "which weapon works?" game). In addition, these enemies play with the idea of what it means for something to be a "weakness". Rarely, they just have a normal weakness, which lets you abuse the "One More" and "All-Out Attack" abilities to defeat them quickly. Other times, they don't have a weakness at all, and you need to rely on critical hits in order to get All-Out Attacks. At other times, an enemy has so many resistances that the one thing they are not resistant to can be exploited as a "weakness". In some battles, the enemy has a weakness, but their attack power is so unfairly high that your only choice is to knock them all down and forego an All-Out Attack in order to leave them on the ground, slowly eating away at their health while keeping healed. A few bosses protect weaknesses behind active defensive spells like Tetrakarn and Makarakarn, which reflect physical or magical damage. At least one boss bends the idea of "weakness" so far that it actually takes almost no damage at all from the element it is weak to, so you are forced to make a decision between dealing damage and knocking it down. Many more rely on eating up player actions through status effects. Most of these tricks are used by normal enemies, so these boss battles are really nothing more than scaled up normal fights, but the raw offensive power of these bosses, which can destroy even a good team in only a few turns, combined with their large hitpoint totals, forces the player to carefully balance offense and defense in an efficient strategy in order to even survive, let alone win. Unlike far too many other games I have played, these battles really reward (or even require) good tactics and strategy, and their high difficulty adds a lot of excitement.

Of course, one issue about these boss battles is that they can sometimes be a little too brutal. Bosses that have no weaknesses and constantly attack with "Megido" spells (powerful attacks that hit all characters and have no element, meaning there is no defense against them) are unbelievably frustrating and far less fun than others. I suppose this is because there is literally no other way to beat such enemies other than to have raw power or get lucky. An important aspect of other bosses is that it is possible to prepare for them. Against enemies that use Fire attacks, you can bring Junpei and Koromaru (who resist Fire attacks), equip Fire-resistance items, and equip a Persona on the hero that resists Fire, which helps even out the battle against these foes. Against an enemy that uses Charm attacks, you can bring Personas that are immune to Charm and items to resist Charm. If an enemy has a Lightning weakness, you can bring Akihiko and equip a Persona with Lightning attacls. Unlike other games, doing this kind of preparation doesn't make the battle easy; it just makes the battle possible. This is because a lot of these abilities are restricted to the point where you can't just give them to every character, giving the team an incomplete defense that helps, but is still vulnerable. One of the strnegths of this game is that most boss battles are won or lost in preparation, and because of this the few bosses that you can't prepare for are simply overwhelming and unfun.

Anyways, the reason I delayed in making this post for so long is because I wanted to see the bosses in The Answer before making final conclusions, and I am glad I did so, because the boss battles of the Abyss of Time are even better than the Tartarus bosses. A major limitation of Tartarus bosses is that they come in homogenous groups. If you are attacked by a group of bosses all at once in Tartarus, you are guaranteed to fight a group of three identical enemies (all bosses other than the last one in each section are like this). This is more interesting than fighting single enemies all the time, but it is nowhere near as interesting as the non-homogenous boss groups in The Answer. In addition to making the "what is it weak to?" game more important, this adds prioritizing targets to the realm of strategies the player needs to consider (I never used the "Assign Target" command once in the main game, but it is important in The Answer). You have to choose between attacking weak enemies (who might get replaced by a bigger enemy's summon skill), killing a larger enemy, trying to kill them all evenly, killing the healer first, killing the status-effect monster first, etc. Often, even figuring out which enemies are the easiest to kill can be tricky. All of this makes good tactics even more important, and makes these battles very fun. What is more, The Answer doesn't seem to contain any unfair bosses that can't be fought with good preparation and strategy (with maybe one exception, but it doesn't use Megido), making the whole thing a lot more fun. I have not enjoyed battles like these in a console RPG for far too long.

Before I finish up, I want to make a special mention of The Reaper. That was one of the best optional super-boss battles I have ever seen. It was both incredibly difficult, but because tactics play such an important part of the game I managed to defeat it about 20 levels before I probably should have thanks to a good strategy and a little luck. That kind of thing is what I consider to be the best possible sign that a game is giving the right type of challenge.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Are Casual and Hardcore Good Distinctions?

For the last couple of years, the biggest buzzwords in the videogame industry have been "casual" and "hardcore", which have been used to both describe general kinds of gamer, and the games that those gamers play. Supposedly, hardcore gamers are the people who spend most of their leisure time and disposable income on videogames, while casual gamers are those gamers who only play games occasionally. However, are these terms really accurate or useful? Despite how commonplace these terms are today, I can't help but feel that they serve more to obscure than to illuminate.

A big problem I have with these terms is that "casual" is really just another way of saying "not hardcore". Hardcore gamers are quite visible and well known in the videogame industry. Hardcore gamers supposedly make up the majority of console videogame players who have been playing for the last several generations, and their main genres include the major standbys of the last decade or so: FPSs, RPGs, and other games with complex plots and mechanics. The word casual sprung up in the last couple of years to describe the large influx of new gamers from the last several years who seem to ignore the big name games that the hardcore audience enjoys and prefer simpler games. The implication is that casual gamers and hardcore gamers are two completely separate markets.

However, I can't help but feel that there is a lot that is very misleading about the use of the casual like this. For example, the RPG genre is usually considered to be a hardcore genre. Yet, I have heard a lot of different stories about how a lot of people who generally don't play a lot of videogames are big fans of the Dragon Quest series of RPGs. Furthermore, I recently noticed on the Wii's Nintendo channel that Street Fighter II: The World Warrior is considered to be a hardcore game. Yet, back in the 90s, Street Fighter II introduced a lot of people who never played fighting games before into the genre. We also see examples like the Super Mario Bros games, which are typically rated as being Casual games despite their huge popularity among hardcore gamers. So it is nearly impossible to make a meaningful or clear distinction about the two groups.

The only common baseline about the difference between casual and hardcore games is that casual games are simpler to play than hardcore ones. Yet, this difference is really just a difference in how accessible a game is. Something that the industry seems to commonly overlook is that some games in a genre are more accessible than others. For example, most Dragon Quest games have much simpler gameplay and character customization than other RPGs. Someone new to RPGs could probably pick up and learn how to play Dragon Quest IV much faster than a game like Final Fantasy Tactics, which is so complicated that it has one of the most extensive tutorials in videogame history. SImilarly, it is much easier to learn how to play Street Fighter II than it is to learn how to play Guilty Gear X2. The talk about Casual and Hardcore games as different things obscures this fact.

Furthermore, much of the talk about casual and hardcore ignores that there are many different kinds of hardcore gamer. Nowadays, features like leaderboards, achievements, and the like are commonly added to games in an attempt to appeal to hardcore gamers. However, I am the kind of gamer who has never had any interest in those features, despite being a hardcore gamer by any other metric. The term "hardcore gamer" really describes a wide range of types of gamer, and many of these gamers have very opposing interests and play-styles. So it is impossible to design a game or game feature for hardcore gamers, which in turn means that the term "hardcore gamer" is not really useful from a game designer's standpoint.

The entire reason I started writing this article is that I stumbled across an article about the CCG, Magic the Gathering, written by one of its senior designers, Mark Rosewater. The article talked about how the Wizards of the Coast R&D team divides up their player base. From a quick glance, it is easy to assume that all Magic the Gathering players can be roughly divided into casual players who play the game occasionally and don't spend much money on it, and the hardcore players who show up to tournaments and purchase cards by the box. Yet, the designers of the game don't split up their players along these lines. Instead, the designers categorize their players as having one or more of three profiles: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Roughly speaking, Timmy players enjoy winning with big creatures, Johnny players enjoy creating and fine-tuning distinctive decks with special tricks, and Spike players just enjoy winning, by any means necessary. Some people also believe that there is a fourth kind of player, who play the game because they like the art and stories of the game. Now then, none of these categories really correspond to the concepts of casual and hardcore, since it is understood that there are both new, low-skill, low-dedication and experience, high-skill, high-dedication versions of all of these archetypes. However, these profiles are much more useful to the R&D team since they can actually design cards particularly for one of these groups.

I think that the videogame industry is missing something by just focusing on the terms casual and hardcore. They are simply not as useful of terms for designing games as some of the terms used by Wizards of the Coast for the players of Magic the Gathering. I think the game industry is going to need to develop a much more nuanced image of gamers as a whole.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Persona 3 FES: The Answer

After a few months of distraction, I have finally got around to playing through "The Answer", the bonus epilogue story for Persona 3 that was added in the FES version. It has been a lot of fun getting back into the game, but I am surprised at how much a few changes can make to the game experience. The Answer has no passage of time, no Social Links, no Persona Compendium, none of Elizabeth's requests, and even no need to worry about character condition. The only goal is to reach the end of the new dungeon, the Abyss of Time, and every other distraction is simply gone. It makes the game a lot more focused, which matches well with the fact that The Answer is supposed to be a shorter extension to the main game, but also makes it a lot more repetitive. If it were not for Persona 3's great combat system and tactical variety, it would get boring.

Of all the changes between the main game and The Answer, one of the most notable is the fact that the story is now told from the perspective of former teammate Aigis, rather than the original protagonist. Using a different main character is necessary because of the story, but Aigis is an interesting choice. Based on the story of the main game, I would have expected Junpei or Yukari to have taken on that role. However, with the story being told in The Answer, it makes a lot sense for Aigis to take the lead, so it works well. I am glad that they gave Aigis the ability to use multiple Personas, just like the main hero did, since otherwise the game would be nearly impossible, but I wish that I didn't have to lose Aigis' Athena Persona in doing so. Giving Aigis a reliable fallback that leveled up with her would have helped differentiate her as a new main character a bit more, and would have helped balance out the fact that she can't make use of a lot of the tricks that made the original main hero so powerful. Of course, being able to ambush Shadows with a gun is nice, and I don't really mind the loss of Aigis' Orgia Mode thanks to Metis joining.

Metis is certainly one of the aspects of The Answer that I was not expecting. I knew that the character existed, but I had no idea that she would join the team, and I am glad she did. She has similar abilities to Shinjiro (heavy emphasis on raw power and physical skills, uses and axe), as well as access to multiple kinds of elemental magic and status attacks, which makes her very distinct from any other available character, adding something fresh and new to the game experience (which was very much needed). The fact that she uses Strike-damage Axes and Rods helps balance the weapons out a bit (since otherwise only Akihiko would have one), and the introduction of another user of wind and ice means that all four attack elements finally have two different people to use them. Rather than being a replacement for Aigis, Metis balances out the team perfectly in her own unique way, adding a lot. Also, her Neo Orgia Mode works beautifully, since the added ability to have free skill use and longer timer balance out an ability that was already too heavily limited by reduced control and limited time, turning Orgia Mode from something I forgot exists into something I regularly use in battle. Finally, mechanics aside, Metis is simply a good character who brings a new perspective to the characters and story that makes the small bursts of plot throughout The Answer more fun.

Another thing I was not expecting in The Answer was the fact that the Abyss of Time simply does not work the same way that Tartarus did. In Tartarus, bosses were always found immediately after shortcuts that let you freely move between that floor and the entrance (where you automatically healed and could save), so you could always fight a boss at peak condition. However, in the Abyss of Time, you need to defeat the bosses in order to reach the equivalent shortcut, which means that attrition brought on by fighting through the previous floors stays with you for the boss fights, so if you had to ditch a character on a previous floor, or your main healer has no SP left, defeating the boss may be impossible. Fortunately, boss fights come with some warning and you can save beforehand, so you don't need to worry about getting ambushed by one or having to fight your way down to one again because you lost, but it still adds a new element to the game that changes things up and adds to the challenge. It is not as hard as it would have been if the main game had this set-up, since there are much fewer floors to climb in each section of The Answer, but it does make me worry about saving SP a lot more than I used to.

Thanks to all of these changes, and my desire to finish this up before Persona 4 comes out, I have actually been getting through The Answer very quickly. It took me well more than 120 hours to clear the main game, but I cleared half of The Answer in only around 12 hours. This is mostly because The Answer is more focused and shorter than the main game, but it is also because the added focus has pretty much removed my desire to do anything but progress forward. In the main game, I constantly wandered aimlessly and worked hard to clear every optional objective and keep my whole team leveled up, but I don't see any reason to do that in The Answer. There are no side-objectives and Metis balances out my favorite Yukari/Aigis/Junpei team so well that I do nothing but progress onwards with that one team. It goes by quickly, but that speed is the one thing that keeps The Answer from becoming annoyingly repetitive.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sin and Punishment

I finally got around to downloading Sin and Punishment onto my Wii's Virtual Console yesterday. I have been curious about this game for a while now, but I don't think I was really prepared for what I was getting into. Certainly, I was not expecting the game to be so short. I downloaded the game yesterday and played through it for an hour or so, and restarted this morning (because I wanted another chance to make sense of the story) only to find that my original stopping point was more than halfway through the game, and I beat the game on my second session of playing it today. Normally I do not really mind short games, but in this case it seemed incredibly unsatisfying.

I suppose a large part of reason I dislike the length of this game is because it really limits what would otherwise be a really interesting story. Sin and Punishment's story is pretty complicated, involving an evil military force, an enigmatic "savior" with twisted schemes, rampaging monsters, a growing romance between the two main characters, and the monstrous power of the "blood of Achi" that links all of these together. However, this entire complex story is thrown at the player in a game that only takes two hours or so to beat, and suffers for it. The game doesn't even really have any kind of proper exposition, and the plot starts with the complete destruction of the rebel group the heroes are part of at the hands of the "Volunteer Army", a force that is hunting down a monster leading another group of monsters (a monster that seems to be a former lover of the Army's leader before she transformed into a dog thing), before the heroes decide to go steal a military transport for some unexplained reason. Also, the entire first stage of the game seems to be a dream sequence. The game progresses at such a rapid pace that the leader of the Army was explaining that he received his power from Achi before I even realized that this "Achi" person was the girl who was following the main characters around the whole time (I was around a third of the way through the game at this point). The ending of the game might be even more truncated than the beginning, since it feels like it suddenly transitions directly from a normal stage (which is pretty much just running through some fields) directly into the epic final battle (against some kind of evil Earth?), leaving a lot of the plot completely unresolved. There is simply too much going on in too short of a game. In addition, the game isn't really helped any by the often-incomprehensible dialog (I think this may just be poor sound quality on the voice-acting) and lack of English subtitles (seriously, every game with voice-acted cut-scenes needs subtitles).

Complaints about the story and length aside, this game is pretty good. It combines a classic rail-shooter with a free-moving character to a surprising degree of success. As the stage scrolls automatically, you can run from side to side or jump while freely targeting anything on the screen. The controls are a bit unintuitive (I had to switch from the default controls to an alternative just to keep myself from jumping when I meant to step right), and far too often the movement of both the character and the targeting cursor seems sluggish, but for the most part it works well, and a lot of my problems probably stem from the fact that the controls were designed with the N64 controller in mind, not the Wii Classic Controller. One thing that is certainly a problem, though, is the lock-on firing mode. In that mode, it can sometimes be pretty hard to actually lock onto a target, and once you do the slightest touch of the control stick will break the lock, pretty much defeating the point of having a lock-on mode (and what is more, some sources say that the lock-on mode does less damage than the free-shooting mode). Also, it would have been nice to have some visual indication of whether or not an enemy is in range of the sword attack.

Still, controls aside, I am amazed at how well the game designers at Treasure were able to use the basic system to provide so many different game experiences. The most common and basic type of area is the classic rail-shooter, where you are either running forward or standing still while there are a lot of enemies to shoot in front of you (in this case, running back and forth is used to dodge attacks and obstacles). In some cases, such as parts of the training mode or the "rescue Achi" boss battle, the game practically becomes a "rail-platformer", in which you have to quickly move to dodge pillars and jump to climb walls and clear chasms. At other times, all of the enemies move into the same 2D plane that the hero is running around in, and the game begins to feel more like a conventional 2D game (other than the cursor and the fact that enemies appear in the background and foreground). I do think that the game is at its best while the player is moving forward automatically as a rail-shooter, rather than as a 2D game, though, and I really question the decision to make the entire last level in the 2D style.

Overall, I would say that Sin and Punishment is a game that needed to have slightly more refined controls and quite a bit more length to help flesh out the story and give more time to expand on the different possibilities the game had to offer. I would have loved to play through a full level as "Monster Saki"...

Megaman 9: In the Image of the Old

I downloaded Megaman 9 on virtual console yesterday, and I have been playing it quite a bit since. I have already managed to defeat all eight Robot Masters, and have made a couple of attempts on Wily's Fortress. There is something very nostalgic about playing a game deliberately made in the image of games from twenty years ago. The similarities go well beyond graphics: Megaman 9's gameplay is firmly based on the early Megaman games. However, there are also clear signs in the gameplay that Megaman 9 is not an actual NES game, and draws upon innovations and developments made in later entries in the franchise.

One way that Megaman 9 does strongly resemble the games it was based on is in its stage layout. All eight main stages in Megaman 9 generally scroll from left to right as the player advances, with occasional stretches of having to climb or descend vertically. There are no large maze-like structures, alternate rooms, or separate paths branching off from a central hub, which are all somewhat common level design features in later entries of the franchise. There are also no stages built around an unusual form of transportation (first appeared in Megaman 6, but popularized by X4). So the overall flow of the stages feels just like it did in the original games. One design element in particular that gave me a strong sense of nostalgia was having to jump down into pits in order to advance onward, going through a single intermediary room before reaching a new horizontally-scrolling area. I haven't seen something like that in any of the recent games.

Perhaps the biggest way that Megaman 9 emulates the original series is in its enemy AI, particularly in the way bosses fight. As the Megaman series advanced, bosses tended to have more attacks, more distinct weaknesses, and much more complicated AI routines. Megaman 9 returns to the era when many bosses just ran back and forth in their room, jumping and spamming their one weapon (ironically, these kinds of bosses are much harder to fight than smart ones). Unlike in later games, none of these bosses change their attack patterns and capabilities based on their remaining health or if they are hit by certain weapons. Finally, the only sign that a weapon is effective is that it does more damage than other choices, unlike in later games where a boss would often have a special damage animation.

However, there are a couple of ways in which Megaman 9 is clearly a later installment of the Megaman series; most notably, the addition of the shop and special challenges. The shop is clearly at odds with the 8-bit design of Megaman 9, since only Megaman 7 (SNES) and Megaman 8 (PSX, Saturn) have previously had shops. However, the addition of the shop itself is pretty, minor; it is the presence of bolts (currency) in the stages that really stands out. In particular, the sound made by game when Megaman picks up a bolt is not one of the sounds found in the original 8-bit games, which actually threw my brother off a couple of times (once, he thought I had picked up an extra-life instead). Of course, the challenges also stand-out as being new, since they are a completely new addition to the series.

A less obvious, but much more significant, difference can be found in the presentation of the game's story. The opening cinematic of the game is itself much longer and more involved than is typical for an old-school Megaman game. What really stands out though is the presence of several cut-scenes that occur as Megaman vanquishes the Robot Masters, in which Megaman recovers pieces of the defeated Robot Masters to be analyzed. This kind of sequence first began to appear prominently in the series in Playstation era. Furthermore, the game's story also involves the morally ambiguous fact that robots get shut down and dismantled after a certain term of service, a plot element that is much more similar to entries in the X and Zero series than the normally happy and carefree original series.

Overall, while Megaman 9 embraces the design of the earliest Megaman games, there are still tell-tale signs that it is a later product of the franchise. So Megaman 9 really represents a really interesting hybrid of the new and the old. With the apparent success of Megaman 9, I am curious if other franchises will be given this kind of retro treatment.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Megaman Starforce 2: Giga Class Cards

All battle cards in Megaman Starforce 1 and 2, like the battle chips from the Battle Network series, are organized into three categories: Standard Class, Mega Class, and Giga Class. Of these, Giga Class battle cards are the most powerful and rare in the game. A player can normally equip only one Giga-card in his folder at a time, and the Giga-cards can only be found near the very end of the game. Unfortunately, despite their rarity and overall power, the Giga Class cards in the two Starforce games have been disappointing so far. While they have power, they just are not very visually impressive or cool enough to match all of the hype built into the concept of the Giga-class cards.

A big part of the problem is that many of the Giga-cards in the Starforce games are based on the attacks of the various bosses from across the game. The problem is that all of the more than 40 Mega-class cards are exclusively based on boss enemies too. For example, Taurus Fire has a set of three Mega-cards named after him that execute a spreading fire attack that does various amounts of damage, ranging from 100 to over 200 points, based on the specific Mega-card. However, there is also a Giga-card called Ox Tackle in both Starforce games that is also based on Taurus Fire. This card executes a linear charging attack that does around 500 points of attack. This just seems weird though, since both of these attacks are fairly basic attacks used by the same boss. If anything, Taurus Fire's spreading fire attack feels a lot more like his ultimate attack, particularly since there is nothing flashy or impressive about watching Taurus Fire shoulder charge an opponent.

In comparison, almost none of the Megaman Battle Network Giga-chips were based on regular bosses. Instead, Giga-chips were based on the most powerful and distinctive enemies in the series: the optional super-bosses Bass and Serenade, the various final bosses, and Megaman's powerful rivals Protoman and Colonel. So while a Giga-card would be historically appropriate for a character like Rogue (who both channels a lot of Bass and Protoman's style and is the most powerful enemy in Starforce 2), it makes a lot less sense for a minor throwaway villain character like Blizzard Yeti to be associated with a Giga-card.

Another problem is that the list of Starforce Giga-cards contains a lot of really bland choices such as Aqua +50, a battle card that increases the power of another Aqua element card by 50 points. While this card can be very useful in certain situations, it completely lacks any kind of style. There were support type battle cards in the Battle Network series, but those were cards like Folder Back, which had the unique effect of restocking the player's folder (allowing the player to repeatedly use powerful combos), and Hub.bat, which was not only based on a long-standing plot element from the series but also completely supercharged the user's stats.

A problem particular to Starforce 2 is the lack of a version-themed Battle-card. Ever since Battle Network 4, the player has usually received a Giga-chip/card that was based on the particular version of the game as part of the plot. For example, a player going through Megaman Starforce 1 version Leo will receive a Leo Kingdom GX Giga-card as part of the plot. I have always liked this tradition, since these Giga-chips have often been the coolest and most thematically appropriate Giga-chips of them all. In Starforce 2 though, the player gets a bland boss-themed Battle card in place of one of these.

Here are a few ideas on how to improve the Giga-card selection in future Starforce games:
1) Drop the boss-themed Giga Class cards. Rogue gets an exception.
2) Make the three Admin cards from Starforce 1 recurring. They were cool cards that are based on characters that are still out there somewhere.
3) Create more Giga cards that work off of the themes of the various games: constellations in SF1 and ancient civilization in SF2.
4) Make the cards based on the Final boss into normally available Giga-cards instead of rare tournament prizes that regular players never get to see. Version specific Le Mu cards that used Le Mu's vulcan, sword, or drill arm attacks would have been very cool.
5) Create interesting and flashy cards like the Phoenix/Death Phoenix pair from Battle Network 6.

Getting Giga Class chips or cards often takes putting in hours of work in a game's post-game section. The end reward should not disappoint. So every Giga card should be cool and exciting.

Megaman Starforce 2: Post-Game

Just like with every previous entry in the Megaman Battle Network/Starforce series, just because you complete the main story of Megaman Starforce 2 doesn't mean you have seen everything the game has to offer. I beat the final boss over a week ago, and I have been playing the post-game since. While this may not be the first of these post game sequences that I have played through, it has certainly turned out to be an interesting one.

Every post-game in the series has been very different from the others. Battle Network 2 had a hidden dungeon area filled with a series of secret bosses that culminated in a second ending. Battle Network 3 had an extensive mass of labyrinthine areas, several normal secret bosses, two extremely powerful special bosses, and a whole series of special challenges that culminates in a rematch against an vastly improved version of the game's final boss. Battle Network 4 had... something I never qualified to see (thanks to a severely flawed game structure). They all differ greatly, and how much I have played through these different post-game sequences varies just as much. I almost completely cleared Battle Network 2's post-game (other than unnecessary 100% chip collection), I went very far into Battle Network 3's massive post-game, but couldn't beat BassGS and never saw the Serenade Time Trials, and I never really got into it for other games. A large factor in determining how far I made it was difficulty (such as the previously mentioned difficult BassGS fight, and the similarly hard BassBX fight in BN 6), but at other times there have been other factors involved. For example, I never even really started Battle Network 5's ambitious post-game simply because it forces you to acquire close to two-thirds of all the battle chips in the game in a very short period of time. These post-game sequences are always a lot of fun because of the focus on intense difficulty and big rewards, which helps balance out the sometimes too-easy main game, but they can be uneven in execution.

Megaman Starforce 2's post-game is probably one of my favorites so far. It is longer than Starforce 1's disappointingly short post-game, but much more manageable in size than something like Battle Network 3's post game. Also, unlike some, it paces out the difficulty properly so you don't have to force your way through an extremely difficult fight (like BassGS) in order to see large sections of it. Instead, almost the entire post-game is focused on a side-plot that is introduced right after you complete the game, progresses through a rematch with a powered-up "IF" version of every boss, and culminates in an appropriately difficult battle against a totally new enemy. The actual size of the post-game special area (the Alternate Future and Trans-Dimension zones) is much larger than ever before, which helps spread out the large number of new viruses better than before, making it easier to gather every standard battle card (a typical requirement for progressing through the post-game).

One particularly good feature of the Starforce 2 post-game is the way it has organized the "challenge gates" that are typical to the series. In most previous games, you had to pass through a series of doors that can only be opened by completing certain challenges, such as S-ranking every boss, gathering every card of a certain type, or acquiring every available transformation. These doors have typically been arranged so that you need to clear every one in order to reach the end of the post-game, but Starforce 2 changes it so that almost all of them are optional. Instead of unlocking them in order to progress, you unlock them to get special prizes, such as Giga-class Cards and powerful Abilities. In addition, a lot more of them have been added, including some with an incredibly high level of difficulty (defeat every SP boss in under ten seconds?!), transforming them from bothersome obstacles into fun optional goals.

If I have a complaint about this post-game, it is that the requirements needed to progress can be a bit too vague at times. The post-game starts by giving you a clue that leads you to the key needed to enter the post-game area, but how you are supposed to actually use that key is left vague, and is in fact very counter-intuitive, even if it is easy to do by accident. Much more notably, after defeating the boss of the Trans-Dimension you are instructed to find the 6 badges in order to find "true despair", but you don't get any hints on where to find these badges. The first five are easy enough to get (gather all Standard, Mega, and Giga battle cards, beat the game, and complete the Trans-Dimension plot), and are mostly gathered in the process of getting that hint, but the sixth isn't hinted at all. In order to get that one, you need to gather the first five badges and re-challenge the final boss, who has transformed into a much more powerful foe. This is not the kind of thing that you are likely to stumble across just by exploring the game world (particularly since I originally thought you needed all six badges to even fight the improved final boss), and I only found out about it thanks to looking it up at GameFAQs. This kind of poor hinting is something where just a small addition to the game can prevent a lot of frustration for the player, and the game mostly avoided the problem, so I was rather disappointed to run across it.

Other than that, my only other complaint is that the ultimate challenge of the game, the battle against RogueSX, is put in a bad place. In order to even reach this battle, you need to collect all six badges, defeat the improved final boss again, and fight RogueSX after the credit roll. Since you can't save between the boss battle and the RogueSX battle, it means you need to win one of the hardest battles in the entire game over and over again every time you even want to challenge RogueSX. Since it took me four tries to beat the powered-up final boss, and another four in order to beat him again and challenge RogueSX (a battle I quickly lost), I simply don't have the will to keep going at it any more. The entire thing is simply too tedious to bother with.

Still, this is the first Battle Network/Starforce game where I have even seen the improved final boss, let alone beaten it and collected all of the star badges, so I feel pretty happy with the game. The entire post-game simply had a much more graceful difficulty curve and more manageable challenges than any Megaman game before it, which made it a lot more fun.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lost Woods mazes

One of the later challenges in Megaman Star Force 2 is the Bermuda maze: a fog-filled maze where each room had four exits, but only by going through the correct exit can the player advance. This kind of maze, where the player has to follow a specific route to pass through a repeating maze, has been around since the Lost Woods maze in the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. It remains a very popular kind of puzzle, having appeared in numerous games, such as Devil May Cry 1 and 3, numerous Zelda titles, Brave Fencer Musashi, and many more. It is an iconic kind of obstacle that has a lot of advantages and gives game designers a lot of options to play with.

It is a really interesting kind of maze since it is nearly impossible for the player to guess his way through. Most of these mazes are created by simply warping the player back into the same room he just exited, so it is impossible to tell if you are making progress or not until you either stumble back outside or find your way to the exit. So, a Lost Woods style maze is really more of a puzzle than a true maze, since the game designer needs to give the player some kind of clue in order to pass through the maze. Because of that feature, this kind of maze can also function as a good way to limit the player's access to an area until the story has progressed to a certain point.

One way of handling a lost woods maze is to make it unsolvable until the player is given a solution at one point. For example, the original Lost Woods could only be passed through by going North, West, South, and then finally West again. The instructions are given to the player by an old man hiding out in one of the dungeons. As a functionally identical alternative to giving the player a set of directions, some games give the player an NPC (often an animal) to act as a guide through the repeating maze.

The problem with this kind of maze is that it can be bothersome having to remember the instructions every time you pass through the maze, particularly if the maze blacks access to commonly visited areas. However, this can be made less bothersome if you make the solution fairly simple. A good example can be found in the Mu branch of the Bermuda Maze in Megaman Star Force 2. When it was time to first take that path, I was given straightforward instructions on how to get through: up right, down right, down left, up right, up left. I thought that it was going to be pain to remember those instructions, but then my brother pointed out that the instructions masked a simple solution: all I had to do was turn right at every intersection in the maze. That made passing through the Bermuda Maze a very simple process on subsequent passes.

The second common way of handling a Lost Woods style maze is to build a clue into the maze itself. A good example can be found in the Room of Rites, found at the end of both Oracle Legend of Zelda games. In this maze, there are eight or so statues, whose eyes will point in random directions every time the player enters the room. If the player is just entering or on the right path, none of the eyes will point in the direction of the correct path. However, if the player wanders off the correct route, the eyes will randomly point in all four direction. By looking for this behavior, the player can find his way to the exit. Personally, I prefer this kind of Lost Woods maze, since it is much more mentally engaging than just following a list of directions.

A major pitfall to this second kind of Lost Woods maze is that the clue needs to be possible to figure out (a common problem of puzzles I mentioned before). In Lunar Silver Star Story Complete for the PSX, there is dungeon called Myght's tower that had a Lost Woods maze. At one point the player is dumped into a room with four exits, each of which is marked with a distinct symbol (sun moon, star, planet). As far as I know, there are no clues past those symbols. I ended up getting lucky and stumbling through the maze by moving randomly. A lack of solid clues like that can bring a game to screeching halt, leaving the player to run to GameFAQs in order to progress.

A particular feature of Lost Woods mazes that I haven't mentioned is that they can easily lead to more than one destination if the player follows an alternate route. This lets the developers get multiple challenges out of a single maze, which can be very useful.

All told, I fully expect this kind of maze to show up in videogames for years and years to come. It is both very simple in concept, but allows for countless variations.

Megaman Starforce 2: Mega Buster

At this point, it seems like the only aspect of Megaman Starforce's game system I haven't talked about is the Mega Buster, Megaman's "main weapon" that is seen in every Megaman game. Of course, calling it his main weapon in the Battle Network/Starforce series is a bit flawed, since it is classically very weak in these games. The Mega Buster/X Buster/whatever may be extremely powerful in some Megaman (the X series comes to mind, where it tends to overshadow the boss weapons), but in Starforce it is little more than a weak side-arm that you only use when all of your Battle Cards run out. However, other that a few flaws, Starforce has the best version of the side-arm style Mega Buster that I have yet seen.

One thing that works well with the Megaman Starforce and Starforce 2 Mega Buster is that it is easier to control than in older Megaman games. The Mega Buster fires at full speed while you hold the button and charges while the button is released. It both plays to the basic assumption of using the Mega Buster (that you are charging whenever you are not shooting) without asking you to wear out your thumb holding the button down, and lets you shoot rapid-fire at full speed without forcing you to rapidly button mash. Because you don't need to hold down the button to charge, you don't need to be paying attention to your secondary weapon while using your primary weapon, the Battle Cards, and you can freely mix the two types of attacks with little effort. Other than the fact that it can be a little hard to tell whether you have a charged shot ready or not, the controls work beautifully.

Another new idea in the Starforce games is the ability to add on additional properties to the Mega Buster so it can do things other than raw damage. Megaman Starforce had several "Mega Weapons" (equipable parts that change the properties of the Mega Buster, essentially a simplified version of the more flexible Megaman Legends Buster Parts system) that add a negative status condition (like confusion, blindness, or gradual HP drain) to an enemy target. Thus, you could turn your Mega Buster into either a powerful attack weapon or a tool that let you disable enemies until you could activate more Battle Chips. Megaman Starforce 2 adds on to that even more, by adding new kinds Abilities that let you turn a Mega Buster shot into a spread weapon or use it to transform battlefield panels into Ice panels, Grass panels, or the like. With all of these properties, the Mega Buster is a versatile tool that can be modified in many different ways to become an important part of game strategies in a way it never has been before, at least in theory.

An overriding problem with the Starforce 2 Mega Buster is that its different modifications come from different subsystems of the game that don't interact and often contradict each other in unusual ways. The Mega Buster's basic damage capabilities and ability to inflict status comes from the equipped Mega Weapon, but spread capability and ability to transform panels comes from Link Power Abilities. Tribe On form greatly modifies the very nature of the Mega Buster charged shot, altering the basic statistics of the Mega Weapon and, much more problematically, completely overriding the ability to inflict status or equipped spread abilities. As such, while you are in Tribe On form (the default state for the latter half of the game), you can't take advantage of a lot of the Mega Buster's more strategic features, even if you are spending Link Power or giving up a lot of attack power in order to equip them.

One thing that could be done is to remove the entire Mega Weapon subsystem. It existed in Starforce to replace part of the Program subsystem from the Battle Network games, but since Link Power Abilities were designed to be a much more thorough replacement for that system in Starforce 2, Mega Weapons are no longer needed; everything they do can be folded into Link Power Abilities. Also, the modified Buster attacks of the various transformed forms should have been designed to be compatible with the spread modifications, and the fact that status conditions don't work with Mega Buster attacks is simply a mistake.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Megaman Starforce 2: Side Jobs

Like many games, Megaman Starforce 2 contains a number of optional jobs that you can undertake throughout the game in order to earn better stuff. You take on these jobs by talking to characters while in Megaman form, and there is one for almost every character in the game. It is a pretty common kind of thing, but there are many elements of this system that just annoy me in this game.

For starters, simply taking on these jobs requires an unnecessary amount of time. In order to take on the job, you need to talk to someone in Megaman form, but to actually find out what the job is and what you need to do, you need to talk to that person as Geo. Since you can't just transform between the two freely, this can involve a lot of walking, and probably a few random battles. This system also means that you really have no idea about the specifics of a job before you actually take it on, which means that it is easy to get stuck doing a difficult job when there were several much easier jobs available in that same area. The most annoying thing about this is that the entire process simply feels redundant. It would have been just as easy to skip one of the steps (looking at the person's Star Carrier as Megaman or talking to the person as Geo), and let the player either actually start the job as Megaman or take on the job as Geo.

What makes that problem even worse is that you can only take on one job at a time, and you can't cancel them. As I just mentioned above, this leads directly to problems like getting stuck on one job and thus being unable to take any others on. It also means that completing several jobs can eat up a lot of time. For example, take two jobs that both start in Echo Ridge and require the player to visit Loch Mess (one of the longer distances to travel in the game, particularly when the route first opens). If you could take multiple jobs at once, it would be easy to take them both on, make the trip to Loch Mess once, and get them both done with. Instead, you have to take on one job, switch to Geo to start it, switch back to Megaman to make the journey, complete whatever was necessary in Loch Mess, switch back to Geo to finish the job, switch to Megaman to take on the second, switch to Geo to start it, switch to Megaman to make the second journey, spend another long trip to Loch Mess, complete the task, head back, and switch to Geo in order to finish. Regardless of what the actual task is, this simply requires too much of the player's time that could have been spent on something more fun.

Yet another problem of the side jobs in Starforce 2 is that they often don't give rewards to match the effort the player puts into them. Several times I have spent quite a bit of time on a job that only rewards me a Battle Card that I already have, or a minor cheap item that I don't need. Such jobs almost never give something unique or valuable. What is more, the few jobs that actually tend to give useful things are often the easiest ones that require the least time and effort, while the hardest to complete jobs will often give the smallest rewards.

Overall, this is one aspect of the game that I really don't have any praise for. Compared to much more interesting versions of the same concept, such as Elizabeth's Requests from Persona 3, or the Hunter's Guild jobs in the Arc the Lad games (something I need to write about another day), the jobs in Megaman Starforce 2 are simply bad.

The Megaman Formula

It is impossible to ignore the fact that all Megaman games follow a common formula. With very little exception, almost every core Megaman title follows the same structure: beat eight bosses in any order, steal their powers, then challenge the final dungeon, where Megaman has to defeat all of the bosses over again before challenging the final boss. With some variation, that formula has remained the same for all 24 core Megaman games (which includes the original series, X series, Zero series, and both ZX games). Yet, this formula has never diminished my enjoyment of the Megaman series. If anything, the Megaman formula is one of the key elements that makes the Megaman series so successful.

The basic formula of the Megaman series has quite a few inherent strengths that have helped make it so enduring. The basic premise of letting the player tackle the game's stages in any order allows for a lot of freedom. If the player finds one stage too difficult or frustrating, the player can just leave and return later with more experience under his belt and new abilities. The free selection of stages also gives Megaman games a high replayability factor, because a player can get a different experience out of tackling the game in a different order. Personally, I greatly enjoy the process of working out which bosses are easy to kill first and which bosses are vulnerable to which weapons. It isn't something that can be experienced in a linearly structured action game.

Furthermore, just because the Megaman series has had the same basic formula for over twenty years doesn't mean that the series has gone stagnant. From the get-go, there has been a lot of experimentation, elaboration, and incremental improvement done on the game structure. The expansion from six bosses to eight, hidden upgrades, introductory stages, mid-game story stages, mini-bosses, optional missions, mission objectives, side-quests, stores, more than one controllable character; almost every iteration of the series has added something to the formula. Certain games have also experimented with radical variations on the formula, such as Megaman X5, which added a time limit to the game, alternative means to reach the final dungeon, and multiple endings. Later Megaman games such as Megaman Zero also used a mission based structure that both stayed true to the original formula and allowed for more varied stage designs. So while the basic formula has stayed the same, it has also evolved considerably over the years.

Being formulaic also doesn't mean that Megaman games lack plot, characters, or fun gameplay. Over the years, the game designers for the Megaman franchise have learned how to write interesting stories that can be presented effectively alongside the game's structure. The Zero and ZX games in particular manage to tell good stories with fun characters without breaking down the basic formula of the series.

If anything, the formulaic structure of the Megaman series gives it certain strengths. The Megaman formula is familiar to anyone who has played a Megaman game. For me, there is an element of nostalgia when I play a Megaman game that harkens back to the days when I played the series as a child. There is something familiar and comfortable about the series. It is no wonder that the Megaman series has cultivated a strong following over the years that became very excited over the recent release of Megaman 9.

Even though the Megaman series is very formulaic, I don't see that as a bad thing. As a long as a series continues to incrementally improve on itself, staying true to its roots can actually be a strength.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Game Mechanics and Character Quirks

One thing that I am always glad to see is when game designers put in the effort to make characters, enemies, bosses, and NPCs more than just a collection of dialogue and basic statistics. One of the best ways to reinforce this is to give characters special statistics or AI routines that reflect their personality and individual character quirks. These kind of things can be small in the greater scheme of things, but can go a long ways towards making a character stand out in the player's memory.

This topic came to mind after I read some information on the recently released (in Japan) Super Robot Wars Z. In that game, every character has a bonus they give their squad-mates if they are the squad leader. One of the characters in the game, Kei, is a serious flirt and womanizer, so the game developers made his squad leader bonus a 20% bonus to damage when fighting men, and a 20% penalty to damage when fighting women. It is a small thing, but it suits his personality perfectly.

A similar example can be found in Final Fantasy 8, in the form of Raijin. When the party fights him in a boss battle, Raijin will generally not attack any female party member, thanks to a customized AI routine. This does a lot to reinforce aspects of his personality.

Another thing that I have seen done to great effect in various RPGs is giving characters specific characteristics or vulnerabilities that go outside the regular range of effects seen in the game system. For example, the is character in Wild ARMs 3 named Todd who has an Afro hair style. Todd also has the unique vulnerability that his afro can be lit on fire with any fire element spell, which causes him to lose hit points every round of combat. When I first discovered that quirk, I found it to be hilarious, and I still remember him for it.

A good example for traits like this in a non-RPG game is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. In various boss fights, the player can draw out various personality quirks and vulnerabilities from most of the bosses. It is possible to impress Ocelot if you perform fancy tricks with the Single Action Army revolver. It is possible to distract and annoy Volgin in any number of ways, such as by throwing certain mushrooms at him. And most famously, it is possible to beat The End by letting him die of old age. All of these characteristics do a lot towards making these characters feel fleshed out and real, as opposed to just challenges dropped in the player's path.

I think that adding in small details like this to flesh out characters in a videogame is an excellent means of making a game more enjoyable and memorable.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Megaman Starforce 2: BrotherBands Part 2 (Gameplay)

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, the mechanics behind the BrotherBand system make it so the player's own experience of the game matches with the basic theme of the Megaman Starforce games that having friends makes a person stronger. You just need to register a friend's copy of the game as a Brother over either a wireless link or a Wi-Fi connection, and you get some great benefits. The basic concept is simple, but it works elegantly. However, a lot of the details of this system differ between the two Starforce games, and many specific aspects of the system work better than others, so for the sake of having something interesting to write about I am going to examine some aspects of the system one by one.

The "On Air" System: This feature was only included in Megaman Starforce 1. It allowed a group of people who shared a BrotherBand to connect their games to each other wirelessly or over Wi-Fi so they were connected constantly during gameplay. In addition to allowing quick access to multiplayer battles, card trading, and the game's email system, this allowed special benefits such as free access to a Brother's Best Combo attack and improved power of chips that were equipped at the same time, making the single-player mode a lot easier. All of these benefits were very interesting, but the problem was that it could be very hard to coordinate, since it required two people or more to be playing through the single-player mode at the same time. Even organizing that with just my twin brother who I see all the time could get bothersome, and I imagine it was simply too cumbersome to bother with for many people, so I can see why this aspect was not implemented in Starforce 2.

Brother Cards: As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, one feature of the BrotherBand system is that you can access a Brother's Favorite Cards using a "Brother Card" that is created for each BrotherBand you form. In Starforce 2, these cards also allow you to transform. These cards are a bit unreliable, since the Favorite Card you get is chosen randomly, but they work well to make BrotherBands distinct from each other and important to battle.

Sharing Transformations: In both games, having a BrotherBand with a player using a different version of the game lets you use that version's unique transformation modes. Overall, this is a great benefit. I am pretty sure I already covered the rest of this system's details earlier, so I will move on.

Game Character Brothers: One of the notable improvements of Megaman Starforce 2's BrotherBand system over the original is the way it separates the "Game" BrotherBands from the "Real" BrotherBands. In both games, characters in the game can form a BrotherBand with the main character which gives very similar benefits to a BrotherBand formed with another player. In the first game, though, these Game BrotherBands took up the same limited number of slots that are also used for Real BrotherBands, which lead to some unnecessary problems and dilemmas. In Starforce 2, the four Game Brothers have dedicated slots, which leaves six slots completely free for Real Brothers, so there is no longer a need to choose between them. At the same time, though, they changed it so that Game Brothers no longer give the player Brother Cards, which I believe was a mistake. I can understand that they probably did not want Game Brothers to match or surpass Real Brothers, and wanted to prevent the player from utilizing an excessive quantity of Brother Cards (which may imbalance the Tribe On system), but there were probably better options that did not reduce Game Brothers to be merely sources of Link Power and nothing else.

Abilities and Link Power: This is another place where Starforce 2 brought nothing but improvement. In the original Starforce, special abilities that were mainstays of the Megaman Battle Network series, such as "Super Armor" (which prevents Megaman from flinching when hit) and "FloatShoes" (which negates harmful panels), were tied directly to the Game Brothers, so that they were in constant effect so long as the associated BrotherBand was still in effect. This was certainly interesting and appropriate, but there was no real trade-off being made other than the problematic dilemma of choosing between Real BrotherBands and Game BrotherBands. Megaman Starforce 2 replaced all of this with the Link Power system, in which every BrotherBand has an associated Link Power value that increases as the game progresses. This value is used as the maximum capacity for equipping Abilities that are acquired throughout the game. It preserves all of the important thematic elements of the original system, in which you gain power through bonds with friends, and also extends that to Real BrotherBands and adds a degree of customizability and need to make trade-offs, which makes the game that much more interesting.

Auto-Brothers: This is one of the additions made in Starforce 2 that I am not impressed with. Put simply, Starforce 2 lets you form a BrotherBand with an entity called an "Auto-Brother" that you name at the start of the game and is associated with the other version of the game that is loaded on the cartridge (so if you choose Saurian at the beginning of the game, your Auto-Brother is Zerker). This is an outgrowth of Capcom's change to putting multiple "versions" on the same cartridge, and allows a group of players to use the Tribe King form using only two copies of the game (or Double-Tribe using only one copy), so this system has a few very good benefits, but it suffers greatly because the Auto-Brothers themselves are incredibly generic characters that practically break the continuity of the game when they briefly enter into the plot. In my opinion, it would have worked a lot better if they simply gave the cross-version role to one or two of the Game Brothers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Megaman Starforce 2: BrotherBands Part 1 (Story)

I believe games should have strong central themes that gets integrated into their mechanics, and the two Megaman Starforce games are examples that only reinforce this belief. These are games that are built around the ideas of loneliness, friendship, and the struggle between the human need to be accepted and the all too real ease with which people can hurt each other and push each other away, and these powerful themes find a perfect reflection in the BrotherBand system. This system, which exists as both an element of the game's setting and an extremely important game mechanic, works as a bond that lets friends give each other additional power. People who haven't formed any BrotherBands are isolated, miserable, and often helpless against the evils of the world, while people who have many BrotherBands are happy and strong, and this applies equally well to the player as it does to any of the game characters. It may seem a bit simplistic and overly exaggerated at times, but it works amazingly well to create an endearing story.

One of the most important roles Brotherbands have in the game story is the impact their existence within the setting has on the way characters act and think. Everyone in the world of Megaman Starforce is absolutely obsessed with the idea of BrotherBands. It seems like every character talks about nothing but the BrotherBands they have formed, BrotherBands they want to form, their difficulties in forming Brotherbands, etc. As a result, the subject of the importance of friendship is brought up almost constantly throughout the course of the game. The player has no choice but to think about the topic almost every time he plays the game. The idea that friendships are important is made clear to the player from the very beginning.

The constant discussion of BrotherBands is taken to new levels in Starforce 2, where the addition of "Link Power", a numerical rating of the strength of a person's BrotherBands (which you can see displayed for every character in the game), adds whole new levels to the obsession. Among many other things, in that world someone can apparently get discounts on bus fares, VIP treatment at hotels, and preferred seating at theaters simply by having a lot of close friends. Because Link Power, a numerical value for the "power of friendship", is portrayed as providing the various material goods that many people associate with "being happy", the game is pretty putting forward the idea that friendship is the thing that gives people the things that make them happy. This is only expressed more strongly when Link Power is put forward as being more important than money in various parts of the game (such as the snow resort chapter in which a man who tries to get everything he wants with money is the villain trying to force a man with very high Link Power out of business). And of course, the player has a Link Power score as well, and building this value up is necessary for a lot of the fun things in the game.

With a world built upon BrotherBands and Link Power, it is no surprise that the villains of the Starforce games embrace the idea of loneliness. The villains of the original game, the FM-ians, are alien entities that take over the bodies of those who are consumed by loneliness. Every boss battle in the original Megaman Starforce is a battle against someone who has essentially been eaten away by their own suffering and turned into a monster against their own will. Thus, the FM-ians (and their monstrous weapon Andromeda) are essentially metaphors for the destructive effects of loneliness, as well as the terrible mix of emotions that both lead to that feeling and result from it, such as fear, despair, anger, jealousy, and paranoia. Megaman Starforce 2 continues the trend by including a villain (appropriately named Solo) who has rejected the world and hates even the idea of friendship, though I have not yet reached the end of the game so it is hard to say any more about him. In every case, loneliness is portrayed as the worst possible state a person can be in, something that eats away at the soul and leads nothing but hatred for the world, and worse still is the situation for those who reject what friendship is offered to them.

Surpassing all of these elements, though, is the basic story of the main hero, Geo Stellar, in his growth from being a lonely kid who has no friends to help him get through the misery of the loss of his father to becoming a hero who helps others and has many close friends to rely on. Having the main hero start out without any friends at all was one of the great decisions made by the game designers, and even greater still was the way they link progressing through the main plot to Geo's slow acquisition of BrotherBands (and strengthening those bonds further in Starforce 2, which is the reason the addition of Link Power to the BrotherBand system in Starforce 2 was so good). Still, the greatest aspect of Geo's story is that it isn't simple, straight path from "lonely" to "happy"; it is filled with ups and downs in which his attempts to open up and find new friends hurt him almost as much as they help. It portrays the act of forging meaningful bonds with other people as a terrible struggle (both directly and metaphorically), but one that must be fought and has great rewards awaiting at the end. This message, that it is important to open up and understand others despite very real difficulties, is the heart of the Starforce series.

It seems that I might have wandered a little bit away from the whole "story and mechanics are integrated" idea that I started with, but that assertion is still true. Just as Geo's story is built upon the idea that it is essential to have friends, the game mechanics are built around the idea that the player should have friends, and that having friends makes the player stronger. However, this post is probably long enough already, so I will focus on that aspect a bit more next time.

Rewards based on Battle Performance

In most RPGs, rewards from battle are usually handed out simply for beating an opponent. Most RPGs will reward the player with a fixed quantity of experience points and money based on what enemy he just defeated, with a completely random chance of finding an item after the battle. However, there are some RPGs that have experimented with rewarding the player based on how he performs during battle, which has produced some very interesting results.

This practice is actually fairly common among action games, particularly ones with some RPG elements. A good example is Devil May Cry, which rewards the player for maintaining a high style rating by rewarding the player with a much greater number of Red Orbs, which can be used to purchase items and equipment upgrades. Similarly, Drakengard rewards long attack chains with health restoring orbs and other power-ups. However, it is much rarer to see this practice among RPGs.

One such example can be found in the action RPG Megaman Battle Network. In every entry in the Battle Network series (including the two Star Force games), the player is given a busting rank at the end of each battle. This busting rank goes from one to ten, with a special rank of S for a performance better than a 10. It is based on a number of factors: how many times the player took damage, how quickly the player defeated the enemy, if the player deleted more than one enemy in a single attack, and so forth. Busting rank does more than just tell the player how well he fought though; it determines what prize the player receives at the end of combat. A high busting rank means that the player will have a higher chance of earning a powerful battle chip at the end of combat, while a player with a low busting rank can expect to receive a piddling amount of money. So, the game encourages the player to fight every random battle as efficiently as possible. As a result, common strategies in the Battle Network series involve trying to wipe out every enemy with a single opening move.

The PS2 RPG Ar Tonelico also rewards the player with different items based on battle performance. Every enemy in Ar Tonelico has four items that they may drop, based on the maximum synchronization level the party achieves during the combat. A player who fails to raise the synchronization level will only acquire the enemy's least valuable item after the fight, while a player who manages to raise the level to it's maximum will receive all four of the enemies' items after the fight. So, the player is strongly encouraged to put in the effort to maximize synchronization in most fights. Furthermore, performing certain actions mid-battle (such as casting powerful spells) rewards the player with Dive Points, which can be used to augment the powers of certain characters.

While Final Fantasy X stays true to the more established rewards scheme for the most part, it does give the player some rewards for doing well. If the player manages to do significantly more damage to a monster than it's max hit points, that monster will be Overkilled, and that monster will be much more likely to drop any rare items in its drop table.

I like systems such as these for two simple reasons:

1) These systems give the player something to do during regular battles other than mindlessly killing monsters. If the player is rewarded for killing monsters faster, then the player has the goal of killing every monster more quickly. This has the overall effect of making routine battles more intellectually engaging, and thus more fun.

2) These systems give the player the ability to strive after acquiring an item, as opposed to just relying on dumb luck. For example, someone hunting after a battle card in Megaman Star Force can rebuild his deck to take advantage of his target's weaknesses in order to increase his odds of getting an S rank and earning his prize. This allows for item hunts to be much more interesting than the mind-numbing farming that occurs if an item is just dropped randomly. It also makes the player feel that he earned his reward based on his effort, as opposed to mere good fortune.

I wouldn't mind seeing systems like these become more common in the future.