All posts by bradshaffer

Mega Man X: Becoming Stronger

MegaMan X is truly one of my all time favorite games.

Sequel to the popular “MegaMan” game series for NES, MegaMan X was intended to be a new revamped version of an already popular game, and was designed for the Super Nintendo– which was a revamped version of the NES. So the shoe really did fit.

If I allowed myself to, I could rant about MegaMan X for days. I could write a book on it, I am sure of that. But to keep this relatively brief, I am going to discuss three major aspects of gaming that MegaMan X accomplishes magnificently; intuition, fluidity, and overarching theme.

When I say intuition, I am referring to a game’s ability to teach the player how to play, without having to resort to obvious tutorial levels, or warning signs before obstacles. When I play a video game, I don’t want to have to wait, I don’t want to have to read, and I don’t want to have to be talked down to in order to proceed. In MegaMan X, Capcom (the developers) respect the player by placing them in situations that force them to naturally learn how the game works. For example, let me explain to you how the tutorial level works. You press “Game Start” from the menu, and are immediately placed into your standard platform game. First thing you notice? There is a wall to your left, and blank space to your right. So the first lesson is immediately given to you; you move from left to right in order to proceed.

So, you proceed to the right, like they knew you would. As you walk to the right, you will be approached by a spinning wheel with spikes on it. He is your first enemy. Now, you can clear this enemy one of two ways, you can shoot it to death, or the easier way– which would be to jump over it. It is at a pretty small height, so it is pretty clear that the intention is for you to jump over it. But as you keep walking past this enemy, you run into a taller baddie. This guy you can only beat by shooting. However! His attacks travel across the ground. Again, encouraging the idea of jumping. Really, each levels design is made to encourage jumping and shooting. That’s mostly what this game is.

Finally, you proceed past this baddie, and run into your first mini boss. A big flying moth looking robot who you can only hit by jumping and shooting a whole bunch of times. He is really easy to beat, you just jump and shoot. But after you beat him, the floor collapses and you fall to the bottom of a pit. This is one of the most fascinating parts..!! This pit is designed such that as you fall, you see a gap in the floor on the right side, and are inclined to fall towards the right.  Naturally, the average gamer will brush against the right side of this pit and discover MegaMan X’s famous mechanic, the wall kick!  You can press the directional button against a wall, and keep pressing jump to kick all the way up a wall.  You cannot pass this part of the game without learning how to wall kick.  There is no sign or label to teach you these things.  No fairy in a bottle to follow you around and tell you that you need to wall kick.  This game uses INTUITION to teach you how to play!  And that is just SO much more fun.  

Next up, fluidity!  When I talk about fluidity in a game, I’m talking about how well the game holds together with its own rules.  How prominent glitches are, and if they are gamebreaking.  How well you can control the character using the rules of the game and provided buttons.  MegaMan X’s demonstrated fluidity perfectly.  This game featured two very original movement techniques; the wall kick, which I’ve already mentioned, and the dash.  Dashing is just when you press right or left twice, and you dash that direction.  You can also use a button instead of pressing directional twice.  But this dash can also be combined with jumping for a higher, farther, and faster jump.  You can shoot while doing this.  You can dash jump off of a wall kick… this also incorporates the intuitive nature of MegaMan X, because the game leaves these advantages for you to discover.  It’s like figuring out your own cheat code.  I remember being about 10 years old when I figured out how to dash jump, I couldn’t believe it!  I would ALWAYS die trying to jump over gaps, and just miscalculating the distance and falling to my death.  Naturally figuring out the dash jump is just such a cool little secret left behind for the player.  It’s an experience that absolutely cannot be communicated through another form of media.  

This is getting a little long, so let me close things up with the overarching theme in MegaMan X.  Simply put, this game is all about getting stronger.  At the end of the introduction level, MegaMan has to fight a boss that he cannot jump over, and seemingly cannot harm either.  This is a fight that you are actually FORCED to lose.  Right when you are about to die, this crazy looking red version of yourself shows up out of nowhere, and scares the boss away.  So now you, the player, are looking at this red MegaMan (his name is Zero) and all you can think is WOW he is way more powerful than I am, I wish I could do that!  Zero proceeds to tell you that you aren’t at your full power yet, and that you will have to beat the 8 robot masters to reach your full power.  So, that is the game. There are 8 levels, each with a boss at the end.  When you beat that boss, you get that bosses power.  In each of the levels, there are also other powerups hidden that will make you stronger.  More health, armor upgrades, weapon upgrades, etc.  By the end of the game, MegaMan literally LOOKS different.  He is all decked out in new armor, he has a fancy helmet and blaster, new shoes and more.  You reach the final stages knowing that you don’t just look more powerful– you ARE more powerful; you have reached your full power, and you’re ready for round 2 with that first boss.  

Again, I could go on about this game for a long time.  It really is a work of art.  I feel that many games today have lost touch when it comes to clever design.  Rather than teach you through intuition, they give you an aggravating and tedious tutorial level.  And in their attempts to make things look pretty, the game becomes sloppy and prone to glitches.  If you want to try playing MegaMan X, it is available for free on various websites, I will leave a link here.  You should play it and pay attention to these things that I have pointed out.   I really believe seeing these elements first hand can change and mature a person’s perspective on gaming.  I know it did for me!

http://www.snesfun.com/mega-man-x Click here and play it!

Shovel Knight: Simple is Better

Take a look at this picture. LOOK AT IT.

That. Is the face of a brilliant game.

So! Thought it may not look it, Shovel Knight came out about a week ago, and I have been playing it non-stop. Recently I have found myself frustrated with modern gaming’s obsession with impressive graphics, and returned to my roots in platform gaming, hoping that I could find those game design elements I miss so much. Shovel Knight does just that. The story is pretty straight forward, and adorably silly. You play as the main character, Shovel Knight. SK together with his once fearsome partner Shield Knight were a great duo of knights, and fought evil together. They were also in love with each other, your usual relationship shtick there. He fails to save her or something like that, and she dies in action. I’m not much for the wishy washy stuff, but this fascinated me, as it was combining a serious motif with what appeared to be a completely ridiculous game. But as it turns out, they actually make fantastic use of this element. And not in your traditional dialogue driven sense. Just to offer up one example, in between levels, Shovel Knight goes to a bonfire to rest and sleep. While he dreams, you, the player, experience the bonus stage. The bonus stage consists of Shovel Knight dreaming. And in this dream, you are fighting a non stop onslaught of bad guys while Shield Knight falls from the sky, and you are supposed to try and catch her. You get more points for killing more baddies, and a whole bunch of bonus points if you catch her. But dear god, the first time you play that bonus level, it is unbelievably heart wrenching for what seems to be such a silly game. The constant spawning of bad guys makes it incredibly difficult to catch Shield Knight as she falls, and you really experience what Shovel must’ve gone through when he failed to save her. I found this to be very impressive.

But enough ranting, let me move onto the gameplay! Shovel Knight features your standard platform gameplay. You start on the left, and move on to the right, reaching new screens and new screens until you reach the end of a level. Throughout the level there are 6 check points, and if you die during the level, you will go back to the most recent checkpoint you have passed. You can move with the directional buttons, you can jump, and you can press a button to attack with a shovel. You can also press up+attack button to use whatever magical item you have selected. So, we only have 4 buttons here to be pushed. In the beginning of the game, you are NOT told what button does what. You hold the controller, and figure it out. Within 30 seconds of starting the game, I knew how it worked. However, there is one more thing you can do that isn’t as simple as pressing a button. If you jump in the air and press down, Shovel Knight points his shovel down while he is jumping. If you hit into an enemy with this “shovel jump” as I am calling it, you will bounce off the enemy, and bounce much higher than you would if it were a regular jump. You know what that means? Yes! Your combat is being actively combined with your movement!

So, this is a big deal in platform games, because it adds depth to your combat as well as your exploration. You can even bounce off an enemy and keep landing on other ones, using one jump to kill several baddies. This is surprisingly addictive because it always leaves a question for you when you clear a screen. Did I do that right? Did I just waste a whole bunch of magic? Oh man, I totally could have bounced across all of them and not gotten hit! I’ll just go back and try again. As the player, you are left always questioning your methods, and always looking for ways to improve your own approach towards a given scenario.

Moving on, the level design in shovel knight has really blown me away so far. There is generally two paths you can take on a given screen. Sort of like the high road and the low road. You can go straight forward, fight a couple of enemies, and get to the next screen– or you can take the more difficult route, which often means trying to bounce off an enemy to reach a ledge, and then jump up the ledge to collect a bonus treasure.

The bonus treasure isn’t so important. Yes, it helps to have more money that you can use to purchase extra health, magic weapons, and such. But that isn’t why the player chooses the high road. The player chooses the high road because it is a challenge! This entire game uses its simplistic control scheme and brilliant level design to intrigue the player and challenge them at every turn. Another example of this is the system of checkpoints I mentioned earlier. When you reach and activate a checkpoint, you have two options. You can pass it and use the checkpoint as intended, or you can BREAK the checkpoint and risk losing your progress through the level if you die! Of course, you are rewarded with a nice sum of money, and if you break every checkpoint in the game you get a fancy achievement. But this is another case in which the player is being challenged, and then he has to decide whether or not he will step up.

Now, on my first run through (still working on it) I have chosen to take the challenge at every point that it is offered, but what if I didn’t? If I were to progress through the game taking the easy road every time, I would still have a blast. But I would also be left with extra value at the end of the game. After having beaten it, if I wanted to go through again with a new challenge, I could then choose to not use any checkpoints. This ability to set your own pace as a player is invaluable, and unavailable in most games outside of your typical “easy, normal, or hard” selection at the beginning.

Shovel Knight is a fantastic game that doesn’t need to rely on fancy graphics or technology. Do not be deceived by big gaming companies. Go indie. Play some kick ass games that are actually well developed.

Shovel Knight is available for PC and Wii U.  Go buy it!

Research Post 10

This article discusses how Google is considering buying Twitch for $1 Billion.

While this may seem insane to some, it will make perfect sense if you read the article. Twitch is a large venture, and they have an incredible amount of users. One point in the article mentions that Twitch is bigger than HBO GO, if you go by percentage of broadband taken up during peak hours. So on one hand, Google wants to pick up Twitch before somebody else does. But on another hand, it seems that Google sees the potential for spectator gaming. You could say that they are making a $1 Billion bet that spectator gaming will hit and become a big thing. Even just this level of confidence from a company like Google will likely get other players interested as well, and everybody will be pushing for spectator gaming to happen. It is almost like a self fulfilling prophecy.

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117858/google-may-buy-twitch-1-billion-why-it-makes-sense

Research Post 9

One of the largest players on the spectator gaming scene is Twitch.com

For those who don’t know, Twitch is a streaming site, where people will play games and show the footage live online, while people comment in the chatbox and talk to the streamer as well as each other. This article gives us a little bit about Twitch’s history, and shows us two different popular Twitch streamers. As shown here, these people actually make money by playing and streaming on Twitch. Sure, they might not be signing million dollar contracts and making Nike endorsements, but the fact that they can make a living playing a video game is still astonishing.

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/monica-guzman/2014/05/31/watch-me-win-at-blockbuster-twitch-gaming-is-a-spectator-sport/

Research Post 8

With the lack of a spectator focus in gaming’s history, we can look to competitive gaming scenes and see one thing in common with all of them; they are all produced by the players. Because there aren’t large companies sponsoring video game players (for the most part) these players have had to do everything themselves. From funding, to organization, to legal work– everything. This shows a passion for gaming that is unrivaled by today’s sports teams. MLB, NFL, NBA, these are all businesses. They make tons of money, and use that money to make more money. The passion in video gaming competitive scenes is unrivaled, and certainly these large sports organizations don’t hold a candle. This is more evidence that the eruption of a serious spectator gaming scene is inevitable.

Research Post 7

In an earlier post, I discussed a bit of the history of the Super Smash Bros franchise, and how Nintendo was less than encouraging of the competitive scene. They had even made statements regarding how the game was intended to be casual, and not high tier play. In fact, when EVO, a famous streaming tournament, was set to hold the largest Melee tournament of all time, Nintendo went so far as to pull the plug on the tournament, sending a cease and desist letter to EVO. To which fans responded very harshly, and Nintendo of course took back their actions.

As a result of this, I am thinking that Nintendo is becoming more open to the competitive scene. Casual gaming has always been their shtick, but maybe they are beginning to see the potential value of a world that loves watching people play video games. This year at E3, Nintendo hosted a live tournament to advertise their newest installment to the Smash Bros series, and they invited 16 of the most well known competitive players from the scene to come and be the first to play this game, and to stream it live on twitch!

I watched the tournament myself, and it was incredible. To witness the combination of casual and competitive play to a point where everybody was having fun…. I like to think this is what the future holds.

http://e3.nintendo.com/tournament/

^Here you can watch some highlights from the tournament