Sunday, November 18, 2012

How to Judge a Game

Hey y'all.  So I was thinking, and I decided that if I had to vote for the greatest game of all time, it would be Donkey Kong Country 2.  This game has awesome gameplay, graphics, and music.  The controls are simple and the experience is fun.  It's a game anybody of any age can really enjoy.

But then it occurred to me that this may not be an objective opinion.  After all, I haven't played all the games in existence.  So how do you judge a video game and whether it is good or bad?  Well, the most objective way possible is to go through all the characteristics of a game and judge it by each of them.  Let's start with...

1. Graphics

Now, I'm an old fogey as far as game graphics go.  I like bad graphics, and in fact one of my favorite set of graphics is Star Fox SNES.  If "good" graphics were the only judge of what makes a good game, then automatically all the old games are out.  So you can't just judge a game by what level its graphics are at, but rather other characteristics.

- Do these graphics fit the game style?

By this I basically mean that you can't do a five minute cutscene with 8-bit graphics, and you don't need the X-box 360 to have a simple, fun platformer.  Also, graphics can be used to create specific gameplay.  For example, the isometric graphics style of Super Mario RPG is what allowed the programmer's to create Geno's forest maze.  That maze was simplistic and yet possible only with an isometric outlook, making it really unique, and quite frankly no game I've ever seen has ever made anything similar.  Also, the limited graphics and sound possibilities of the SNES allowed programmers to create really fun pantomimes for Mario to act out.

Oh, and there's also a Kirby game that looks like yarn.  Therefore, the gameplay uses yarn to give Kirby play options.  That's another example of using graphics to have fun.

So basically, are the programmers taking advantage of the graphics to make appropriate puzzles and storytelling?

- Are these graphics artistic on their own level?

Pure and simple, do you like to look at the screen?  Is it appealing on its own?  This category is less important than the first, but when you play a game for a couple of hours, you'd like to look at something that doesn't make you want to stab your eyeballs out.  Search Man's stage in Mega Man 8, for example, has colors that trigger vomiting in me.  No, it's not quite that ugly, it's just that horrible brown color that reminds me of throwing up.  Yeah.  Game developers, stop using yellow-brown.  Ew.

2. Plot.

Out of all the characteristics of a video game, plot is the least important.  A game with bad plot can be rescued by good gameplay (most of the time), but a game with bad gameplay can't be saved by a good plot. I know that's weird coming from a writer, but it's just how it is.  I wish all gaming companies would remember that gameplay is always more important.  Some games have almost no plot whatsoever, like Super Mario Bros. 1-3, Mega Mans 1-6, the first Metroid game, and well, about 90% of all NES games.

Even SNES games and higher require only a little plot.  King K. Rool stole Donkey Kong's banana horde, Bowser captured the princess again, Andross wants to destroy the Lylat system, etc.  It's the same with other systems too.

The trouble with plot is that it can very easily put a sour note on the game, especially in modern games where everyone expects cutscenes and twists.

- Does the plot fit the game series?

Like graphics, you can't say story is bad just because it's not on an advanced system.  Like I said, having an 8-bit cutscene where we find out why Bowser kidnaps the princess all the time would be inappropriate.  Pantomime Mario RPG style probably wouldn't work all that well on the playstation 3.  Well, unless they're going for comedy or something.  So you've got to judge the plot by the graphics and gameplay, rather than by how much of it there is.

A negative example of this is Sonic '06.  Sonic is a goofy style of game whose lead character is a super fast hedgehog with an attitude.  His game style is silly and colorful.  It's a betrayal of the series for the story of '06 to be serious as a Final Fantasy game, or have a forced love story, philosophical questions, and a plot that includes gods and doing science experiments on it.  The Sonic series doesn't have those things, and doesn't need them.

Likewise, Star Fox is a fairly simplistic third-person sci-fi shooter game where you fly around, making it a betrayal of the series for Star Fox Adventures to be this: a magical fantasy game where you wander around on foot with no gun.  Star Fox is a mercenary!  Give him back his dang gun!

- Does the plot make sense?

Now, on one hand, plots in games don't have to make as much sense as books or movies.  A game where a really fast hedgehog stops robots simply by jumping onto them?  Doesn't make story sense, but works well for a game.  I'm not talking about stuff like that.  As long as the plot doesn't interfere with the gameplay, it's generally fine.  Generally.

However, in the new gaming age, games have to make almost as much sense as a movie, especially if they're not comedies.  Characters have to be interesting and draw emotion out of the gamer.  So they have a harder time with plot, and it's in this modern age where plots can ruin games.  The gameplay of Halo 2 was apparently acceptable, but its terrible ending discouraged people from playing the game.

This happened even in older games too.  People hoped that Dark Seed 2's ending would make struggling through the game worth it, but in the end it was just a slap in the face to the persistent gamer that made it all the way to the end.

And that's why the best games are games whose plots step to the side and just let gameplay speak for itself.  For example, Silent Hill's cutscenes are short and even sometimes incoherent.  The game itself reveals the horror and plot better than ten minutes of talking heads.  Donkey Kong Country 2 explains its plot by having a room in the beginning with a note in it, explaining that Donkey has been kidnapped.  The path Diddy and Dixie take up the side of a mountain shows their progress far better than having the plot just told to the player.

This is in contrast with DKC3, where you only find out plot at the very end of the game, and it's told mostly through dialogue.  Heck, if you bought the game without a manual like my family did, then you only find out that Donkey and Diddy have been kidnapped at the very end of the game.  And if K. Rool had become an evil scientist, then why didn't he build any mechanical baddies?

So basically, as much as is possible, plot should be like a parent at a playground: off to the side, keeping an eye on things but not telling the child how to play.  Just like good parenting is evident in the child, good storytelling is evident in the gameplay, not being talked to all the time.  Well except you can have a perfect game, but not a perfect child.  Even the sweetest babies still drool, and all kids run around like silly goobers. Actually, I've noticed that happier babies tend to drool more.  I don't know why that is.

Er, back on topic.

- Are the characters interesting?

No matter what game you're playing, you have to play a character you like.  Mega Man is cute and spunky, Mario is goofy, and Sonic has attitude.  Also, side characters have to not make you want to shove things in your ears.  No little floaty orbs that insist you listen to them, or strangers begging for money, or giant purple cats obsessed with frogs.  Ew.

3. Music

Music may seem less important than plot or graphics, but it actually eclipses both.  Come on, Mario for the NES had 8-bit graphics and almost no plot, but everybody on the planet knows the level 1 theme song.  Everybody.  Likewise, Mega Man music is probably the main reason why the series is still enjoyed by nostalgic people of my age (I'll get deeper into that later).  There are so many old songs that will bring you back to the good old days, and unlike plot or graphics, music is capable of being good on both newer and older games.  They have a level playing field.

- Does the music stick in my brain?

Music grabs your subconscious like nothing else.  The better the music, the more it catches you.  For example, I watched a Let's Play of Mega Man 7 -- note that I've never owned it at that point -- and some days later Shade Man's theme just pops in my head.  I didn't remember where it came from at the time, but I knew I liked it.  Thus, music can be used as an edge to get people to play games or at least try to discover what game they were playing when they first heard the song.

- Do I want to listen to this when I'm not playing this game?

This right here is the most important question to me.  It may not be to other people (some think catchier is more important, for example), but it's a good question overall.  What games do you find yourself listening to the soundtrack later?

Notedly, sometimes this is different from what you think is your favorite.  For example, I say my favorite Mega Man OST is either 3 or 5, but when I get the hankerin' to listen to a MM OST, most of the time I search for JPhand's Mega Man 4 soundtrack.  So, apparently, I like MM4's songs better than I thought.

- Does listening to this song torture me or make me want to keep playing?

This is the simplest test, and probably the biggest deciding factor for whether or not a person likes a certain song.  Well, second biggest.  The biggest reason is gameplay.  If gameplay stinks, people are more likely to hate the music.  Not always, if the music is good enough.  But definitely sometimes.

4. Gameplay

I mention this after the others because it's the most important.  Everything else about a game hinges on this.  If you have great gameplay in a game, then it's going to take really crappy graphics, terrible music, and an annoying plot to make people dislike it.  Music is somewhat independent from gameplay, but plot and graphics are integral to it.  Gameplay has to either be quirky enough to make lower graphics work, and for higher levels of graphics it has to be creative enough to justify the uppage of pixels.  Plot bows to gameplay (in good games), and must allow for fun situations for the player to enjoy.

There are lots of characteristics of gameplay.  Like the basis.  This is just your foundation.  For example, is your game a side-scroller, a first person shooter, or a real time strategy game?  Does your character use weapons, or does he just jump into baddies?  Does he control minions or does he wander alone?  Does he have cool powers or fight like a boxer?  Now, you can't judge a game by any of these things, because that's a matter of personal preference, and can be good or bad depending on what game you're talking about.

But let's get into some things you can judge.

- Controls

The quickest way to ruin a game is to give it bad controls.  Whether this is due to glitches, bad button placement, or simply a dumb controller design, nobody wants to play a game that they feel they can't really play.  One example for me was Mario Kart Wii, which had many various vehicles to play, but all of them were extremely difficult to control until you get used to them, which quite frankly can take a while.  Some turn too sharp, and others too slow, but not a one gives the ease of control and quick learning that they had during Mario Kart 64.

- Glitches

Personally, I really like glitches.  One of my reasons for liking the N64, despite the fact it was sort of an unnecessary console, was that there were glitches galore.  You could actually do short cuts in Mario 64 by crashing in the right place and having Lakitu place you further down the track.  I remember hopping between two cliffs in Choco Mountain and suddenly falling through them into water.

Of course, the thing that makes a glitch good is its separation from gameplay.  At Choco Mountain, no one falls through the ground playing normally.  They have to look for the specific part of the wall to find out where it even is.  This makes finding glitches fun.  They're there, but don't interfere with the game.  No game is worse for interfering glitches than Sonic '06, which repeatedly has characters dropping through the ground or forcing them off cliffs for no reason.  And I love Mega Man, but in the first game it's darn hard to get past the green traveling platforms in Guts Man's level.  I'd kinda like to not fall through them, game.

- Originality

You knew this was coming.  Basically, is the game different enough from what you've played before to be enjoyable?  Funny thing is, originality is not always the most important gameplay aspect.  For example, there were 6 Mega Man games made for the NES that are all basically the same.  And I love all of them.  Even MM7 and 8 on the SNES were more or less the same as their predecessors, and I love all the games so much that I bought the anniversary collection without even having a PS2.  I have one now, I can assure you.

But by originality, I basically mean a gimmick.  What's the little piece of your game that makes players go, "Huh, that sounds really fun"?  For Star Fox, it's the multiple paths.  For Kirby, it's sucking in baddies and stealing their powers.  For Sonic, it's going really, really fast.  Some gimmicks, like the running fast thing, are long-living and will be enjoyable as long as video games exist.  Other gimmicks, like Sonic turning into a werewolf or Mario cleaning graffiti, are generally best left to one game.

So does the gimmick stink, or is it a promise of new gameplay?

5. Replayability

This is the biggest judge of all games.  Do you want to play it again?  If you did, what would you do or get?  In Silent Hill, you get new weapons on your next playthrough, as well as new endings.  In Super Mario RPG, you get to play side games, find a casino, and fight some dude named Culex (where is that from?).  In Donkey Kong Country 2, you get to find the bonus games to get the bonus worlds and then get the second ending.

But barring that, is the game enjoyable enough that you'll want to play the exact same gameplay over again?  Is the simple experience of the game immersive enough to keep the cartridge/disc in your game system?  Is the music wonderful?  Is the art fun to look at?  Is the story deep and compelling?  Those are the sort of questions you have to ask yourself as you judge a game.

1. Graphics
- Do these graphics fit?
- Are they interesting to look at?
2. Plot
- Does the plot fit the series?
- Does the plot make sense?
- Are the characters fun?
3. Music
- Does the music stick in my head?
- Do I want to listen to it when I'm not playing?
- Does it make me want to keep playing?
4. Gameplay
- Controls
- Glitches
- Originality
5. Replayability
- Does it have extras during a second playthrough?
- Is the experience fun enough for a second playthrough?

So yeah.  Those are the bits for judging a video game.  How does your favorite measure up?

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