February 26, 2009 8:00 AM |
['Pixel Journeys' is a monthly GameSetWatch column by John Harris discussing games with unusual design attributes that have lessons to teach modern game designers. This month, an awesome Atari Lynx oddity.]
One of my favorite things to do, when scouting around the breadth of video and computer gaming, is to collect exceptions. It's habitual, and more than a little annoying to me.
What exactly do I mean by this? Every time I see some blogger or columnist say some game aspect is unnecessary, obsolete, or even unwanted across the whole of gaming, I immediately search my memory for an exception that will prove the commentator wrong.
I often do, then post an insufferable comment to that effect. And often, if I find one, that exception turns out to be something essential to one game or another's design. This is why I'm reluctant to give hard-and-fast edicts of what game designers must do, for it's really easy to be proven wrong.
This may be because video games are such a uniquely varied and far-reaching medium. Whether they live up to their potential is a question that I will not answer now, mainly because I don't wish to depress the reader or myself too much when I have a happier subject to cover.
But the most inventive games can be truly unique, unique to an extent that they can cause the player to forgive many other things that might otherwise be seen as faults, even make those faults over into advantages.
Yes, I insist, this is so. A good example is the relatively obscure game Todd's Adventures in Slime World, developed by Epyx for the Atari Lynx and designed by forgotten genius M. Peter Engelbrite, a game that proves, once and for all, that a side-scrolling exploration game need not steal all its play from Metroid in order to be any good.
Slime World was seen as something of a showpiece for the Lynx's connectivity features, which allowed up to eight players to compete or cooperate in certain games. The Lynx had very few games that supported eight players, but in Slime World was one of them, and it remains a highlight of the system's small library.
Renovation released a Genesis port with worse graphics that only supported up to two players, but even with the game population reduced to such a low number, the game still manages to shine. (Really, The Genesis version has worse graphics! The Lynx version may be the best-looking game for the system.)
I've mentioned Slime World before, in the article 20 Open World Games over on Gamasutra. The game serves as a rather striking contrast to the game that's often held up as one of the best games of exploration around, Super Metroid.
Both games are two-dimensional games set on an alien world, with an automap and lots of secret passages. The methods the player has for moving around the world are the core of the play; many times a given area can only be accessed using a particular move. Checkpoints in both are frequent and death is (mostly) more of a delay than a real obstacle.
But despite all these similarities, the games are vastly different. Samus' powers in Super Metroid are slowly built during exploration of the game world. While dying forces the player back to his last save, it's infrequent enough, and save points sufficiently common, that this is rarely a factor. On the other hand Todd's abilities are reset to zero every time he dies, and death is frequent.
Super Metroid's Zebes, for all its supposedly being a hostile environment, is relatively fair in that there are no instant death situations, and with thorough exploration the player will usually be more than capable of overcoming whatever challenges he faces.
Slime World couldn't be more different; instant death is everywhere, and in fact there exists an enemy, called by us the "Snapjaw," that can kill the player instantly, without warning and with no escape, when he walks upon the spot in which it is hidden. It's a sudden, unavoidable death trap, something that game designers are told to avoid at all costs.
Slime World has them, and what's more, it makes them work: the player will be dying all the time anyway, and checkpoints are so frequent that usually the player won't have to go through one or two rooms to return to the scene. The only way to kill a hidden Snapjaw is, in a multiplayer game, to have one player purposely die while another blasts it.
The only way to avoid one is to be hyper-alert to clues left by the designer: bare spots in a field of items, the one spot in the room that doesn't contain a visible enemy, the bottoms of slime pools, strangely empty rooms, and so on. And if the player avoids one he won't know it; they only show up when activated, at which time it's already too late.
So here is a game with stiff jumping, a low frame rate, slow speed for an action game, a cramped screen, tricky controls, and the most treacherous enemy in all of video gaming. And yet, I and friends have willingly spent many hours exploring Slime World, finding its many extremely devious hidden passages, searching tunnels, finding treasure, shooting enemies.
We have observed a curious temporal-warping effect when playing it, in that a period of game time that a player perceived to be about thirty minutes often ends up being hours passed in the real world. This does not happen during bad games.
The low speed and frame rate contribute to a more leisurely pace, generally, than other games. This fits the play well because, in most game modes, the finding of secret passages and treasure is its own reward. There is enough cool stuff going on in a typical Slime World chamber that just seeing it for the first time is a reward. To this end, the game puts secret passages everywhere, EVERYWHERE.
The extent of its mazes is shocking; I'm not aware of there being a complete map for this game in existence. It makes the bulk of Super Metroid look downright puny, and unlike that game, Slime World is far more willing to hide huge sections of its game world behind those secret passages that the player may never happen upon even after multiple completions.
One thing that Slime World seems to do poorly at first, but turns out to work quite well, has to do with the way Todd jumps.
A good bit of the challenge in the game comes from making pinpoint jumps onto ledges, platforms and walls. When a random section of floor can kill the player immediately, being able to make these jumps reliably is important. Todd is able to make three kinds of jumps: a normal jump, a high jump and a long jump. Once in the air, the player cannot alter his course, ala Castlevania.
This means he can't flexibly adjust his trajectory in mid-air, and dissuades him from making long, arcing leaps into unknown territory (which, considering the Lynx's small screen, there is apt to be a lot of). But it also means that, once he leaves the ground, his destination is set, which adds regularity to the jumping mechanism. An important early skill to gain when playing is a sense for how far a long jump will take Todd, and how high a high jump will go. This becomes an integral part of some of the puzzles, where the player, desperate to avoid a Snapjaw on the floor, must navigate around it through a series of carefully-judged wall-climbs and leaps.
The play is helped a bit by giving Todd four different kinds of jumps. Pressing the jump button by itself sends him about one Todd-height into the air. Holding up and jumping results in a leap of one-and-a-half Todd-heights. Holding left or right when pressing the button causes a fast long-jump that's actually faster than walking the same distance and good for covering ground quickly. And If he's latched onto a wall, pressing jump makes him spring directly away from the wall. Also, if he climbs down off a wall into empty space, he curves "inward."
Wall climbs are another important movement skill to pick up. Attempting to walk off of a ledge will instead initiate a climb down the side of the ledge. Jumping into a wall causes Todd to immediately cling to it. Those are the ways to climb walls: there is no "wall jump" button. Climbing is automatic and frequent, and nearly every wall can be climbed. Many of the enemies can fly, so being able to be more vertically-mobile like this is important for killing or avoiding them.
It's difficult to over-emphasize how ubiquitous climbing is. One of the most common types of secret passages is the hidden shaft, a spot in the ceiling that contains an invisible opening to a room just above. Their locations can be picked up with careful observation of the automap (they show up as one-block outcroppings), but to enter them the player must high jump into the right spot of the ceiling, causing the player to cling to the shaft wall, from which he can climb up into the room.
Some of the movement options, all except for the long jump, are depicted in this image:
This is from one of the first rooms in the Logic game, which emphasizes clever solutions as opposed to blasting enemies. This room is composed of an regular, alternating sequence of platforms. From atop each, Todd can either jump to either side, grabbing the side of the next platform up in the direction he's facing; press left or right to climb down, clinging to the side of his current platform; or from there climb down off the platform, which will cause him to curve in and attach to the side of the next platform down. (By the way, long jumps are useless here, as Todd's head will hit the platform above him.)
The dangerous thing about this room is that, although there are no normal enemies here, all along the bottom is a slime pool full of Snapjaws, and there are also hidden Snapjaws atop certain platforms in the room! The key is, after discovering which platforms hide snappers, to use the various jumping and climbing moves to avoid the tops of those platforms, and wind your way to a jet pack on the far right wall, which allows for aerial movement unmenaced by lurking green death and easy escape from the room.
It is the map's utility, since it reveals secret passage entrances, that makes finding secret passages fair and enjoyable; if they didn't show up on the map then the player could only find them by jumping into every section of ceiling. A big reason to play Slime World comes from repeatedly experiencing that moment of discovery: there are probably hundreds of secret rooms. Many are relatively easy to find, but there are just so many that it's easy to miss some. A few are much more devious.
There may be no other video game that has as many secret areas as Todd's Adventures in Slime World. This is worth illustrating:
The above graphic shows a small portion of the map of the Easy game, by far the simplest of the game's seven modes. In this mode there are few Snapjaws and the route is far more linear than in most of the other modes, but the chances of getting lost are still considerable. (The Genesis version is a little easier since it switches out the checkpoint sparkles with arrows to point generally to the way out.)
If you look carefully, you'll see that all of the secret rooms are tipped off by a one-block outcropping in the adjoining room. While there are other kinds of secret areas in Slime World, this kind, the invisible passage, is by far the most common. In this small section of the game, there are 12 of them. (They are more common in Easy, however, than in later modes, although there are still many to find.)
The area depicted would be a full level, or more, in most games. Given differences in character size, screen size, exploration speed and difficulty, among other things, it is difficult to fairly compare world sizes between games. But the game "feels" huge. Compared to the gold standard for exploratory gaming map size, Super Metroid, I'd say that this part of the map of Easy feels about the size of Crateria. But Slime World has many more, smaller, rooms, and more of them are secret. The Easy map, in Slime World, is basically an appetizer; most levels are much larger.
In addition, many of the modes have special rules only in effect for them. The Logic game takes away your gun, Suspense is an exploration race to find items that replenish a timer, Arcade must be finished on one life, and Combat, a favorite, is a sidescroller deathmatch for up to eight players.
What can we learn from Todd's Adventures in Slime World?
The most surprising thing about Slime World is that it's just about the purest game of exploration there is, and that it proves that such a game can work extremely well. It's that exploration itself, not character advancement, not collecting new abilities, and not seeing new sights, that is the point of the game.
There are lots of enemies to defeat, but they too are largely the same throughout the different modes, although the different game rules change the strategies players must use in dealing with them. The colors and background graphics change often in most of the modes, but the basic terrain, slime-covered walls, is mostly the same.
And unlike in Metroid-style games, the player gains no permanent abilities in the mazes, only tools that are used once then lost. Secret areas most commonly contain Red Slime Gems, which are worth tremendous point awards, full healing and invulnerability time, but these things are actually not that useful in terms of playing the game. Score only matters at the end, healing is common, and invulnerability in Slime World is a relative state; Snapjaws and red slime will still instantly kill a flashing player.
And yet, it still feels great to find those secret chambers. Part of it is that they're hidden with some skill, part of it is that Engelbrite was a very clever world designer, using the basic world pieces in such a great variety of ways that different sections of the game are recognizable despite the fact the same graphics set is used throughout the game.
And part of it is that the game is paced very well, with more exotic enemies and terrain types saved up for special rooms and challenges. There's the way that the tools the player can find are never necessary, but still very useful, and carry many hidden features and consequences.