We’ve all heard the saying, “everyone’s a critic.” It’s true, just about anyone can tell you when something’s bad; some can even tell you why it’s bad, but for some strange reason, very few ever take the time to determine how to take something bad, terrible, or simply unpolished and make it shine. Welcome to Spit Shine, a new blog series where I attempt to do just that: find the flaws in games that are good, bad, or anywhere in between and spitball ways to fix those issues while building upon what already works. In short, I’ll be refining games, not redesigning them from the ground up.
I’ve mentioned it before, but here in the last year or two I’ve started frequenting used game stores. I’m not entirely sure why, but there’s something about stumbling across an old classic or hidden gem that I never got to experience when it first came out that I find immensely satisfying. And let’s not forget the warm and fuzzy feeling of getting said games for a good price!
One such game is Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe, an ultra-stylish, side-scrolling beat-em-up for the GameCube. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I think it was probably for the best that I waited until I was an adult to play it. It’s fobbing hard! That said, it’s an enjoyable kind of hard: it gives you a myriad of over-powered abilities but only hints at the best way to use any of them. It takes almost the entire game to figure out how and when to use each of your powers, which makes you feel all the more accomplished once you do. This game’s a good example of being tough but fair…except when it comes to the boss battles, those just plain suck. Read more Botched BattleViewtiful Joe ›
Super Mario Odyssey is out and—surprise, surprise—it’s good. As expected, Mario’s as athletic as ever, with a myriad of moves and abilities that not only elevate his already impressive jumping skills but greatly extend his lateral movement options, as well. One of my personal favorites is Mario’s new ability that allows him to curl up into a ball and roll along the ground like some sort of armadillo or hedgehog or something. It’s like some sort of…spinning dash!
Wait a second…Great Gunpei’s Ghost! Super Mario Odyssey is the best 3D Sonic game ever!
Between the rolling technique and how Mario can preserve his speed through precise platforming, there are portions of Super Mario Odyssey that feel like the classic, momentum-based 2D Sonic gameplay in three dimensions. This is especially noticeable in timed segments such as the Koopa free-running missions where obtaining and maintaining Mario’s forward momentum by achieving fluidity of motion is essential. Much like classic Sonic, Super Mario Odyssey has a great sense of flow, which is something most 3D Mario titles can’t really boast.
There are portions of Super Mario Odyssey that feel like the classic, momentum-based 2D Sonic gameplay in three dimensions.
What is Momentum?
Okay, so before we can understand how Super Mario Odyssey achieves such an excellent sense of flow, we need to know what momentum is. In physics, momentum is the product of an object’s velocity and mass. In terms of video games, this means games that feature momentum-based mechanics have a few elements:
The protagonist has mass.
Mass implies the character has inertia.
Inertia implies the character does not instantly accelerate and the character does not instantly decelerate. Moreover, the greater an object’s momentum, the more difficult it is to alter its course.
Some games that exhibit these traits:
Asteroids: One of the earliest examples of momentum-based mechanics. The player’s ship does not accelerate instantly, but gradually, and continues to move even after the player has stopped using the ship’s thrusters. Moreover, altering the path of the ship requires substantial effort at high speeds.
Super Mario Bros.: Mario accelerates quickly, but not instantaneously. He either jogs to a stop if he is running too fast or skids to a halt when trying to change direction.
Sonic the Hedgehog: Sonic carries a lot of inertia. He accelerates slowly and must either skid to a halt or let his momentum slowly peter out.
Momentum as a Resource
In platformers like Mario and Sonic, the majority of the game’s challenge comes from executing precise acrobatics to navigate through the game’s various stages and their respective perils. Not only does the inclusion of momentum-based mechanics give the characters a satisfying sense of weight, but it adds an extra element of challenge. Because the character doesn’t move at top speed right away, building enough momentum to cross large gaps, find secrets, and ultimately complete the stage is an integral part of the game’s challenge.
So basically, in games that utilize momentum and inertia as mechanics, momentum is not only useful, but also—to some extent—scarce. This essentially makes it another kind of resource to be managed, much like health, ammo, or money. If you don’t mind the forced metaphor (all for the sake of a really cool, if not somewhat pretentious sounding, title), momentum is the currency of movement in Mario, Sonic, and similar games.
Essentially, momentum is another kind of resource to be managed.
Running with the fiscal metaphor, the value of this currency is different depending on the game: in Mario games, for instance, momentum is less critical in most situations than it is in Sonic games. That’s not to mention Sonic’s slightly slower acceleration and worse traction means manipulating his momentum takes more effort without the aid of outside forces or Sonic’s signature spin-dash—producing a greater scarcity of the desired momentum. This means that the plumber’s economy of motion has a higher saturation of momentum that has less demand than the hedgehog’s momentum, thus Mario’s momentum is generally less valuable by comparison.
With all of that out of the way, I can start unpacking what I meant by Mario Odyssey’s sense of flow. Flow—for the sake of this discussion, at least—means the smooth transition from one state of motion to another. Flow is important to games, even those that don’t heavily utilize momentum-based mechanics, though not in the way you’d think. People typically like flow, so when the player character takes damage, their flow is interrupted. This brief moment in which the player loses control and their character’s momentum suddenly shifts subconsciously communicates to the player that they’ve made a mistake.
Flow is the smooth transition from one state of motion to another.
This is why it’s typically not advisable to interrupt the game’s flow for something positive. Mario is a bit odd about this as many games do pause momentarily when the player snags a power-up, but the fact that the player’s momentum isn’t lost and instead continues a half second later may have something to do with why it’s not typically seen as an issue. But that’s really a minor nit-pick compared to the plumber’s more egregious violation of these principles: most notably the star-spin from Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel. Mario’s momentum completely stops as he lifts a short distance upward, leaving him with little ability to steer himself. This is awkward when combined with normal jumps, but it completely breaks any sort of flow when Mario is using a technique like the long jump. Mario goes from flying forward to barely having any lateral movement what-so-ever; it feels like running head-first into a wall, to be honest.
Super Mario Odyssey does away with this in two ways. First of all, Mario doesn’t lose much—if any—forward momentum when throwing Cappy. Secondly, Mario can immediately launch himself forward with his jumping dive maneuver. Between these two factors, it’s possible for a skilled player to utilize Cappy as jump-assistance without losing his forward momentum. As mentioned in this article’s introduction, this is used to great effect in the game’s timed missions and Koopa races, where Mario has to build up speed using the rolling maneuver and then hold onto to it through precise platforming and clever use of his aerial repertoire.
While Mario Odyssey is by no means a perfect game, the controls and Mario’s own acrobatic aptitude are spot on. In true Mario fashion, the mere act of moving is fun, especially when you get into a good rhythm and can bound across the game’s colorful locales uninterrupted. It’s also interesting to see Mario take a page from Sonic’s playbook and adopt a rolling maneuver that allows him to travel faster than he can on foot at the cost of control. Hopefully someone at Sega is paying attention, because that’s an idea worth stealing back!
P.S. In case you’re wondering, this is the actual greatest 3D Sonic game ever.
Note: The following article contains spoilers for Sonic Mania. For those interested in Sonic Mania, I highly recommend waiting until you complete zone 2, act 2 before reading further.
Sonic Mania is amazing. But you probably already know that, either from experiencing it first-hand or from the mounds of praise heaped upon it by the general public. It quickly became my favorite entry into the franchise when I picked it up for myself a few months ago. It’s the “back to basics” game Sega has been promising—but ultimately failing—to deliver for nearly a decade now. Heck, this game is so good, it can even include one of the most egregiously wrong design choices I’ve ever seen and make it one of the most charming set-pieces of the entire game.
And no, that’s not hyperbole, one of the game’s most memorable moments is flat out stupid by conventional game design standards. What moment am I referring to? The Chemical Plant Zone Robotnik fight.
Why It Should be Horrible
The boss of Zone 2 isn’t a boss in the traditional sense; instead, it’s a game of Puyo-Puyo Pop. That’s right, instead of fighting some wacky contraption, Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles faces Dr. Robotnik in a lethal game of Puyo-Puyo. No instructions, no fore-shadowing, just dropped into a game and expected to win.
From a design standpoint, this looks like a bad idea on paper. As mentioned before, the player is given no instructions. Puyo Pop isn’t exactly the hardest game to understand, but the game assumes the player already knows how to play. There’s no pop-up for controls, no instructions on how to clear Puyos from the screen, nothing. If the player is familiar with drop-puzzles like Tetris or Dr. Mario, they may be able to intuit some objectives from the conventions of the format: namely matching colors.
That leads into the more pressing issue: genre shift. While switching between gameplay styles isn’t uncommon in video games, especially more recent Sonic titles, typically levels that dip into different gameplay formats only switch to genres of a similar nature. For instance, many side-scrolling platformer games include one or two levels that switch over to being a side-scrolling shoot-em-up. This is typically considered acceptable because the two gameplay styles have many similarities. Most notably, both are action games, meaning the skills needed to master them are almost identical. These skills include things like quick-reflexes, spacial awareness to assess threats and their proximity to the player, and prioritization of risks and rewards (such as power-ups).
Where switching gameplay styles gets frustrating is when the new style has little or nothing to do with the concepts of the core gameplay style. A pertinent example of such a gameplay switch is the fishing segments of Sonic Adventure. While many people speak fondly of the game those segments’ mechanics were based off of, Sega Bass Fishing, most people object to the inclusion of such mechanics in an action platformer. That’s not to say juxtaposed gameplay styles can’t be paired successfully, but that contrast typically has to be one of the game’s core principles with everything else designed around it (e.g. DS cult classic Henry Hatsworth).
Where switching gameplay styles gets frustrating is when the new style has little or nothing to do with the concepts of the core gameplay style.
Now compare that to Puyo-Puyo Pop. Being good at Puyo-Puyo requires players to plan on the fly. The player has to decide how to stack and group puyos in real-time to set up combos and react to his opponent’s attempts to interfere. I don’t have the background in Puyo-Puyo to know what exactly goes into high level play, but I can tell you it’s a very different game than Sonic the Hedgehog. This means that the player is expected to use an entirely different skill-set from what the game has been training him to use up until this point. Moreover, this is the only place in the game—outside of an unlockable bonus Puyo-Puyo mode, that is—that the player is asked to exercise these skills.
Why It’s Awesome
So why does this moment work? There’s several factors at play here. First is the design of Puyo-Puyo Pop itself. First of all, Puyo Pop is a fairly easy game to learn: the computer is playing it along-side the player. If the player doesn’t understand how color matching works, he can just observe the computer match groups of four or more puyos of a single color.
Secondly, this battle is pretty easy. So long as the player keeps the board mostly clear, Dr. Robotnik’s incompetence will do the rest of the work sooner or later. Putting the battle so early in the game was actually a smart move: the encounter’s low difficulty allows the player to get used to the new gameplay style while still fitting the game’s expected difficulty curve.
Third, Puyo Pop is good. Many times when a game dips into a different style, the auxiliary gameplay style is under-developed. The majority of the developers’ time and effort (hopefully) goes toward the core gameplay, meaning mini-games don’t get the time and polish needed to fully flesh-out the concept. The Puyo-Puyo battle gets around this by implementing an already established idea. This way the Mania team didn’t have to haphazardly slap together a new gameplay concept, instead they just had to copy something they knew works.
Many times when a game dips into a different style, the peripheral gameplay style is under-developed.
Now that I’ve gotten the minor stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the two biggest reasons this works. I’m sure many of you are grinding your teeth by now with how I keep referring to this moment as “Puyo Pop”. Chemical Plant Zone’s Robotnik fight is actually a callback to the Sega Geneisis/Mega Drive classic Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (which was technically just a reskin of a Puyo-Pop game, but whatever). This attention to detail and acknowledgment of the Sonic series’ history is a huge part of what makes this bizarre set-piece work. Who in their right mind would anticipate such an obscure reference?
Companies like Sega and Nintendo often reference their past works, but they tend to stick to callbacks that are easy for fans to recognize. Even when a reference is to something more obscure, it’s out of the way and can be easily ignored. Most designers would stick some puyos/beans in the background and call it good. The Mania team, however, decided to put that callback front and center by making it a part of gameplay. If the reference is half of the reason this moment works, the sheer audacity that the designers would even attempt it is the other half. The element of surprise and the obscene amount of creative whimsy this moment embodies is more than enough to make up for any of its “bad” game design.
If the reference is half of the reason this moment works, the sheer audacity that the designers would even attempt it is the other half.
The combination of good implementation, recognizability, and surprise factor all come together to make this one of my favorite game set-pieces in recent memory. While I love analyzing what works and what doesn’t work in games, it’s important not to get too entrenched in sticking to “good” game design. There’s a delight in encountering the unexpected that is all too often ignored in favor of “safe” design practices. Formula is good, but too much results in a game being formulaic.
This last June, Kirby: Planet Robobot was released state-side, quickly receiving praise from critics and fans alike. Needless to say—being the avid Kirby fan that I am—I jumped on it six months after the fact because I wanted to complete Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam first. What? Grad school doesn’t leave me with much time to spend on getting through my backlog, okay? Regardless, I’d say, without hesitation, that this is the best of the “modern-style” Kirby games that started with Return to Dreamland. Great music, enough of a plot to keep things interesting, lots of fan-service, and a gimmick that actually meshes with the core gameplay instead of being an intrusive pace-killer. And as with any Kirby game, it features new powers! And they…kind of suck, to be honest.
And as with any Kirby game, Planet Robobot features new powers! And they kind of suck, to be honest.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten the requisite suck pun out of the way, let’s talk powers. Kirby’s copy abilities were first introduced in Kirby’s Adventure, released in 1993 for the Famicom and NES. These abilities gave Kirby a single attack that imitated the ability of an enemy character. The concept remained much the same until Kirby Super Star in 1996 when most—but not all—copy abilities were given a variety of techniques the pink protagonist could perform based on what button combination the player inputted. Some abilities have traditionally had very few individual attacks, while others let the player revel in a vast array of possibilities. For the most part, entries in the franchise have followed one of the two aforementioned schemes, with the Super Star style being more prevalent as well as what the recent titles use.
So, let’s examine how the evolution of this system effects powers individually and each game’s gameplay as a whole.
Number of Attacks
As stated before, the number of available moves in each ability’s repertoire has increased from the copy mechanic’s introduction. In Kirby’s Adventure, each power only had one attack (though one could argue backdrop and U.F.O. are exceptions). This allowed players to easily pick their favorites and avoid those they didn’t like. This also, unfortunately, meant that powers easily got stale and that few, if any, abilities stood out as particularly fun. Strangely, I’d argue that the game made it work; since no one power (or at the least, commonly available one) stood out as “the fun one” the player wasn’t inclined to become attached to what he currently had, meaning he would be more willing to part with it, making for more dynamic gameplay.
Kirby Super Star changed this by assigning multiple attacks to most copy abilities. This drastically changed the dynamic as now each power became far less situational. Copy abilities on average had somewhere between four and seven attacks and a list of them was conveniently provided on the pause screen. I must commend the designers, as most of the abilities are fun to use with only a handful of duds. That said, the expanded move set does mean players are going to find some abilities more fun than others, meaning they’ll be less willing to part with them which ultimately discourages the varied gameplay Kirby’s Adventure had.
Then there’s the current generation of Kirby games. For brevity’s sake, I’m only going discuss the current gen powers featured in Kirby: Planet Robobot (and probablytotally not because I’m too lazy to switch cartridges on my 3DS or boot up my Wii). The number of moves for this new set of powers typically weighs in around eight to eleven, with a few of the attacks being variations of or similar in function to others. This produces a state of decision paralysis when trying to learn the new abilities, especially when two attacks are similar. For the majority of new abilities, I would look at the move list and think to myself, “surely there’s a proper time or context for this attack.” Unfortunately, there often isn’t, at least not that I can see. Notably, most of the older abilities are similar to their previous iterations, if not completely untouched. In my opinion, this makes the classics more approachable gameplay-wise as most of them are easier to learn with attacks that have a clear and easily understood purpose. The one new copy ability in the game I genuinely liked, ESP, happened to be the one with the simplest move set.
Copy Ability Versatility and Variety
So what does having a wide array of moves do for Kirby’s copy abilities? In short, more moves theoretically increases the versatility of the ability. If one move allows Kirby to easily dispatch a foe in front of him and another move defeats opponents above him, the player is equipped to handle two different scenarios. There are two main factors in determining a copy ability’s versatility: range and what I like to call “angle of attack”, with the presence of a defensive ability making for a third factor of nominal importance.
There are two main factors in determining a copy ability’s versatility: range and what I like to call “angle of attack”.
Range is self-explanatory; it’s simply how far the attack reaches. Short range attacks require Kirby to be near his target to be effective; long range allows Kirby to rain cute death upon his foes from a safe distance. Simple. Angle of attack isn’t much more complicated. Heck, I’ve already given an example of it in the previous paragraph. It simply determines where the opponent has to be for the attack to hit him. In the context of Kirby, there four basic angles of attack: upwards, sideways, downwards, and radius attacks—the last of which refers to attacks that strike in all directions (they’re common enough to warrant their own classification). Of the two, angle of attack has the most influence over an abilities versatility.
As I’m sure you’ve already figured out, the copy abilities in Kirby’s Adventure provide only one angle of attack of set range. High-jump attacks opponents above Kirby at close-range (though Kirby covers a long distance in the process), while spark attacks enemies within a short radius of Kirby. Kirby Super Star expands the role of most copy powers, allowing Kirby to make use of multiple angles of attack with a single ability. That said, most powers are still limited in range or angle of attack, requiring the player to plan around his ability’s limitations or find one more suited for the situation at hand. For the ones that do provide good coverage of all angles, they are usually rare or have some sort of drawback, like yo-yo’s long attack animations.
Here’s where my second issue with more recent copy abilities comes into play: they’re too well rounded. Most of the new abilities include attacks for every angle and often times multiple ranges too. Lacking weaknesses actually makes them less fun, not necessarily because it makes the game too easy (it’s Kirby; it’s always easy) but because they all feel very samey. Even some of the older powers have received similar revisions, like the unnecessary addition of an upward attack to the stone ability’s move list. Admittedly, this is a rather technical complaint and probably doesn’t apply to everyone.
Lacking weaknesses actually makes copy abilities less fun.
Refinement is a Subtractive Process
Despite most of its new powers not being particularly interesting, Planet Robobot actually does adhere to the limited copy ability design that I’m advocating, specifically the robobot powers. Each robobot copy ability has a very limited moveset, and as a result, each one feels unique. And just so it’s clear that I’m not being a nostalgia-blind curmudgeon, I like most the ideas for each ability (leaf and archer were long overdue), and I think if Hal streamlined the abilities so that they fulfilled a unique niche, instead of every niche, they would have some real winners.
For those familiar with my previous work, these points probably sound quite similar to my second article, The Streamlined Turnabout. While feature-rich games and mechanics are great (especially from a marketing perspective), continually adding ideas runs the risk of producing bloat. Much like cutting and polishing a diamond to make it shine, video games can greatly benefit from the occasional trim.
About the Author: Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming. He is currently studying for his masters in Computer Science at Oklahoma State University. His first Kirby game was Kirby 64, which led to a lot of confusion when trying to figure out how to make combo abilities in Kirby Super Star.
Nintendo is known for many things: innovation, quality, terrible third party relations, etc. Throughout the years, the company has cultivated a reputation as highly creative, exacting master artisans. It’s one of the many reasons they’re so beloved by fans around the world. They don’t just make games, they make worlds and characters that are instantly recognizable and overflowing with personality. Creativity is a fundamental part of their identity as a company.
However, in recent years they’ve garnered a reputation among some as a bunch of corporate stiffs who keep churning out the same-old-same-old that they’ve always been, like Activision with Call of Duty, Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed, or Capcom with…well take your pick. So what’s different? What makes the Nintendo titles of today “corporate cash-ins” instead of visionary, artistic masterpieces? If I had to give my two rupees on the subject, I’d say the issue isn’t that the games are bad or mechanically unsound, it’s that they lack personality.
So what even is personality? What makes it so important? What happens when a game doesn’t have it? Let’s take a look, shall we?
What I Mean by Personality
What is personality? Well, typically the word refers to the psychological concept of a collection of behavioral traits that determine how one sets priorities and reacts to different situations. Seeing as I’m writing about video games, however, that definition isn’t really of much use. For the sake of this article, I’ll just define it as the interplay between a game’s aesthetic choices (visual design, music, story, etc.) and its gameplay that give each game its identity.
Huh…that’s pretty vague, isn’t it? Maybe a visual aid is in order; consider the following image:
Clearly, these are all Mario games, but because each one has a unique visual style, even people unfamiliar with the franchise can easily tell that each one is a different game (Okay, technically you can get them all on one cartridge, but that’s beside the point). Furthermore, those who’ve played the games will tell you that despite each game staying true to the Mario formula, each game has its own unique mechanics and gameplay quirks that makes the gameplay feel different. That’s basically what I’m getting at when I say personality: a game’s unique look, sound, and feel. It’s why the first Paper Mario is cute and colorful while it’s sequel, The Thousand Year Door, is wry and occasionally dark, or how the claustrophobic corridors and eerie music give the Metroid series its trademark sense of isolation and unease, and so forth.
That’s basically what I’m getting at when I say personality: a game’s unique look, sound, and feel.
For the Want of an Identity
What happens when you have a mechanically airtight game that lacks the personality to set itself apart? You get the New Super Mario Bros. series.
When New Super Mario Bros. first came out on the DS, its deliberately vanilla presentation was—I dare say—welcome, considering it had been roughly fifteen years since Mario’s last new 2D outing. The aesthetic was familiar but modernized, making it a great choice for a game meant to be just that: a throwback with modern graphics and design sensibilities that epitomized what it meant to be “Mario”.
So what’s the problem? Nintendo made three nearly identical sequels, that’s what. Make no mistake, each game is excellent in its own right, but they’re all so ridiculously similar in terms of their visuals, gameplay, level themes, and music that they’re practically the same game! The New Super Mario Bros. series is proof that too much of a good thing is entirely possible. I honestly believe that if Nintendo had taken the time to give each game its own unique style—visually, setting-wise, musically, or otherwise—each game would be fondly remembered as classics, but because each game used the same “New” style, each one was more forgettable than the last. Ironically, between this and the lukewarm reception of Yoshi’s New Island, the word new has become Nintendo fan jargon for “safe” and “uninspired”.
The New Super Mario Bros. series is proof that too much of a good thing is entirely possible.
Making Okay Games Great
Alright, so an otherwise great game can lose its appeal without personality, but let’s be real for a moment, a game riddled with questionable design can’t really catch on just because of its personality, right? As proof of the contrary—and possibly of me secretly having a death wish—I present the 1995 cult-classic, EarthBound.
Are you still reading? Okay, good.
If I had to summarize the gameplay of EarthBound in one word, I would say it’s serviceable. As R.P.G.s go, there are certainly more streamlined experiences on the Super Nintendo. In terms of core gameplay, EarthBound is very traditional. There are some minor mechanics which distinguish the game, but they honestly don’t affect the overall experience that often.
On top of that, EarthBound features some questionable design. EarthBound‘s interface is archaic, even for the time it was made. Simple actions like talking to people or investigating an object (which are separate actions) take multiple button presses with the default controls. Admittedly, there is a way to automatically do all of that in a single press, but if you didn’t read the manual or hear about it from someone else, you’d never know it’s there, likely because it’s unintuitively mapped to the L-trigger. Aside from that, inventory management is downright tedious, with actions like trading items between party members—or just buying and selling for that matter—taking many more windows, confirmations, and button presses than needed.
EarthBound‘s interface is archaic, even for the time it was made.
The game also has some difficulties with difficulty. Simply put, the game’s difficulty curve is as wild as its enemy designs. The beginning is particularly rough, with grinding being a must. Things do get easier once the other party members start showing up (several hours in), but the game loves to throw curveballs at the player.
And yet, the game is heralded as a masterpiece, and for good reason! Ask any EarthBound fan what makes the game so great, and I guarantee you they’ll mention the game’s quirky atmosphere long before they talk about the mechanics. EarthBound is full of humor, thought provoking themes, and obscene amounts of heart. In a fitting twist, EarthBound defies the usual mantra of “gameplay first” and sells itself almost entirely on its personality. If the game was just another fantasy epic about orphans saving the world from the physical manifestation of darkness—or whatever—I highly doubt anyone would remember it. Personality is what elevates EarthBound above its mechanics and earns it the title of classic.
As I’ve stated prior, Nintendo’s struggled with getting personality right in their games of late. Some franchises—like Mario—are suffering from overexposure while others from Nintendo over-simplifying them in an attempt to be more accessible—thus removing the fun quirks that made them stand out in the first place. Fortunately, many of the Big N’s recent titles show that they haven’t completely lost their creative mojo: the urban, 90’s kid aesthetic of Splatoon, the jazzy sound and Geisel-esque environments of Super Mario 3D World, and the beautiful Ghibli styled world of the up-coming Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, to name a few.
Next to gameplay, personality is the most important aspect of a game. Even if a game has great mechanics, it will quickly be forgotten if it doesn’t have the charm and appeal to leave a lasting impression. Likewise, a game with a lot of character can convince players to look past many of its flaws and hold it as a classic. And while Nintendo sometimes screws up and turns out games that don’t feel like they had much heart put into them, let’s be honest: there’s something about Nintendo that makes us willing to look past such missteps.
About the Author: Glen Straughn is a life-long Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired to pursue a career in computer programming. Currently, he is studying to get his masters in Computer Science at Oklahoma State University. He’s an INTJ on the Meyers-Briggs personality spectrum, which in fiction is the personality most often associated with evil geniuses like Professor Moriarty.
Note From the Author: The game discussed in this article, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Duel Destinies, has been rated M for Mature (ages 17+) by the ESRB for the following: violence, blood, suggestive themes, and language. That said, this article focuses only on the game’s mechanics and should be appropriate for all audiences. Please use care and caution when deciding what games are right for you and your family.
I typically don’t play story-heavy games during the school year: they take a long time to beat and all of that pesky suspense and intrigue makes them hard to pull myself away from. So when summer rolled around earlier this year, I decided it was high time I got around to playing a game I’ve been meaning to tackle ever since it came out way back in 2013, Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies.
After slogging through other plot-driven games in the past solely out of pride (I beat games, not the other way around), I figured that I—a busy adult with things to do—simply had grown out of those types of games. As such, I went in to Dual Destinies with fairly low expectations.
It didn’t take me long to remember one crucial piece of information: I like the Ace Attorney series…a lot. This game is no different. While not the strongest entry in the franchise (clumsy writing in places, too much hand-holding, and not nearly enough Trucy Wright), Dual Destinies still managed to impress me, especially where I least expected it: the game mechanics.
The Ace Attorney series is no stranger to introducing new gameplay mechanics and gimmicks, but until Dual Destinies, I honestly can’t think of a game in the franchise that took existing elements and trimmed the fat. Overall, the game has the best pacing and flow of the entire series, which is why I think it’s the perfect candidate for a case study on how to streamline gameplay mechanics. Court is now in session!
Dual Destinies managed to impress me, especially where I least expected it: the game mechanics.
Opening Statement: The Investigation Phase
Cases in the Ace Attorney franchise are generally split into two distinct parts: investigations and court sessions. For anyone not familiar with the franchise, defense attorneys in the Ace Attorney universe are two parts lawyer and one part private investigator. They question witnesses, search for clues, and sneak evidence out of crime scenes when the cops aren’t looking, all to prove their client’s innocence. This portion of the job is represented in gameplay with what’s known as the investigation phase and plays much like a traditional adventure game in the vein of the Monkey Island series or Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. These segments of the game are often the longest, and fittingly, most of the trimming the game does is in these portions.
Defense attorneys in the Ace Attorney universe are two parts lawyer and one part private investigator.
Exhibit A: The Search Command
Like many adventure games, players in Ace Attorney games must search the environment to find items they can use, in this case evidence to prove their client’s innocence. The examine command brings up a cursor that the player can then use to click on objects in the environment to investigate them. Now, not everything the player sees in an area is going to be evidence (Phoenix’s office plant, Mr. Charlie, for instance), and when clicked these objects, instead of advancing the plot, will just trigger some flavor text wherein the protagonist and his plucky sidekick humorously palaver on about the object in question (#TeamStepLadder).
Now, in games prior to Dual Destinies, every location was searchable, even if there wasn’t any evidence there (I’m looking at you Wright & CO. Law Offices). This meant players were expected to search every area. Just because a murder occurred in, say, a public park doesn’t mean the player won’t end up searching an abandoned doctors office for clues on the whereabouts of the true killer’s lost shoes.
In games prior to Dual Destinies, every location was searchable, even if there wasn’t any evidence there.
Dual Destinies improves on this feature in several ways. First, the game limits use of the examine command strictly to crime scenes. This means that there’s only ever one searchable location for the player to worry about at a time, unlike previous games that let the player switch between searching multiple areas, each of which could change depending on event flags. More over, the game now has the courtesy to inform players when they’ve found everything they need, which too often wasn’t clear in previous titles. Lastly, Dual Destinies introduced the ever so subtle—but oh-so-useful—addition of having the cursor take the shape of a check mark if the object being highlighted by the player has already been investigated. Considering that many of the conversations triggered when clicking on something could be quite long, even with fast forwarding, this U.I. feature is something longtime fans can appreciate.
And to top it all of, despite the newly imposed restrictions there’s still plenty of that sweet, sweet flavor text.
Exhibit B: The Travel Menu
Locations in the Ace Attorney series are normally static, disconnected, one-screen “rooms” that the player travels between via selection from a menu. It’s about as utilitarian as it gets, and yet Dual Destinies still managed to smooth out the rough edges. See, for whatever reason, previous games in the franchise had a four option limit on the travel menu, meaning the player could only travel to four other locations from any given area. The way the developers got around this—quite frankly arbitrary—limit was to have each area have its own list of destinations. So, for example, if the player wanted to go from the detention center to the crime scene, they may have to travel to back to Wright’s Office, then to the front door of the building the body was found in, and then to the actual crime scene.
Of course, a sleek, afigimatiko-dynamic game like Dual Destinies isn’t about to put the player through all that for something as simple as getting from point A to point B! Enter the magic that is “scrolling”! With this space-aged technique, players now have the uncanny ability to pick any location from anywhere in the game simply by “scrolling” between options! (Restrictions may apply in accordance to plot demands.)
Exhibit C: The Notebook
Anyone who’s played an old-school adventure game can tell you that the worst thing that’s guaranteed to happen to the player at some point is getting stuck without any clear directions. This is why many modern games of all genres keep an objectives list or provide a character who the player can ask for advice at any time. Unfortunately, until Dual Destinies the Ace Attorney games fell into the old adventure game trap of not always giving the player clear directions on what to do next. To make matters worse, N.P.C.s had an annoying tendency to just up and disappear until the player triggered the right event flag. This led to the player constantly going back and forth after every event to see which N.P.C.s had returned to their post and who had new dialog options.
Dual Destinies introduced an extra section to the court record (basically the player’s inventory screen) for notes—which in this case is more of a checklist than a place for the player to jot down information. Any time the player isn’t sure what to do next, they can just open the court record, hit the notes tab, and be on their way. Admittedly, Dual Destinies’ plot is structured in such a way that the player rarely needs extra input, especially once you factor in the previously listed enhancements, but the handful of times I did need it, I greatly appreciated the fact that I could just hit a few buttons and continue the game instead of wandering around in circles for ten minutes.
Any time the player isn’t sure what to do next, they can just open the court record, hit the notebook tab, and be on their way.
What I hope to get across is how seemingly small changes eventually add up. Small U.I. improvements can help better communicate information to the player, which leads to less time spent on tasks that slow progression. Moreover, limiting when a player can perform certain actions—like investigating their environment—can keep them from getting side-tracked or lost. In Dual Destinies’ case, the end result is the first Ace Attorney game that didn’t have me at a complete loss for what to do next at any point. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, it’s not necessarily the best game in the series (my personal favorite is Apollo Justice), but I will say right here and now that it’s the best structured and paced, all because the developers weren’t afraid to make some compromises regarding many of the accepted, long-standing conventions of the series. I’ll miss you, dear glut of humorous flavor text, but I can’t deny the game’s pacing is better off without you.
About the author:
Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan and has been an Ace Attorney enthusiast ever since he first played Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney back in 2008. His love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming and is currently studying to get a masters in computer science. Despite his name and choice of professions, he is in no way related to Glen Elg.