Every Video Game Should Be A Metroidvania

The title is an exaggeration, of course, but “way more video games should be Metroidvanias than are” isn’t as pithy.

Now I’m not saying that most games should have the Metroidvania style action-platforming gameplay. It’s good that lots of different genres exist covering lots of different gameplay. What I am saying is that most genres of video game could stand to have a Metroidvania-style interconnected explorable world (and I’m using a lenient definition here that includes 3D games with interconnected worlds like Dark Souls). The game that’s brought this on is Yoku’s Island Express, a game which asks “what if pinball was a Metroidvania?” and the answer is “it would be way better, obviously.”

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Mirror Matches Are Hard (To Make)

I try to only have so many games installed at once, as part of my efforts to actually finish games and cut the list of ones I’d like to play/finish someday maybe down to a double digit number, instead of doing what I’ve done for years now, which is pick at games five or ten minutes at a time and inevitably end up going back to the same handful of familiar titles. It’s working, but the time estimates on How Long To Beat aren’t always particularly accurate. Sometimes it’s a disconnect between how I play versus how the average person plays. Sometimes what I view as “Main Story +” is closer to what the crowd thinks of as “100%.” And sometimes, as is the case of Going Under, the devs tell me that the game should be played without the handicaps and I take them at their word, which is apparently not what most people do. That, or everyone’s so much better at video games for me that the average completion time is half of mine. I could’ve called it quits on Going Under early, shuffled it off into my Regrets category on Steam, but I’m glad I didn’t. It has a good ending.

Not a mirror match, though, which is why its final boss was way harder than Transistor’s, the game I blasted through in one day. This time How Long To Beat was wrong in my favor. Seven hours? This game barely lasted five. I thought I’d play for two or three hours tonight, and by that point I was so close to the finish I decided I wanted to bring it home.

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What Is Assassin’s Creed Good At?

Having spent a bunch of time complaining about Assassin’s Creed: Unity (an infamously weak title of the series), it kind of raises the question: Why bother playing these games at all? It’s not like I’m trying to finish every game in my Steam library. I’ve left a lot of games off the list of incomplete games I’m trying to get through right now. So why didn’t I leave Unity or Syndicate off, especially since I’ve played both of them in the past (just never to completion)?

The answer is because they’re really good for historical tourism and making me feel like I’m in a place. The Far Cry games are also good at this. Really, it seems like it’s the only thing Ubisoft still knows how to do anymore. They made Renaissance Florence and Venice in Assassin’s Creed II and then Far Cry 3 had the whole “murder vacation in a tropical paradise” thing and then they made those two games but in new locations for ten years. And, honestly, I think the biggest problem with their method is that they kept listening to people who wished they were making different video games and making feeble, half-hearted attempts to do that. People complained that the Assassin’s Creed series was too easy, so they made it noticeably harder in Unity, but they didn’t spontaneously transform into FromSoftware or Rocksteady, so it’s really just the same old shallow combat they’ve always had but less forgiving. It’s not super creatively fulfilling to stumble across a formula that can work with minimal alteration across a massive variety of different settings, but it works, and I really don’t think there’s anything noble about turning your nose up to the sure thing.

Pokemon had the same gig going, and the bloom did finally come off that rose in Sword and Shield, but I would argue that a major reason for this is precisely because they weren’t willing to remain a 2D sprite-based game, one which could keep making use of all the assets they’d created for extant Pokemon in gens III-V. Instead, not only did they go 3D, they escalated to consoles, and their ever-expanding monster roster has now gotten ahead of their ability to design new sprites from scratch. Since their graphical arms race prevents them from using any of their old work, more and more of their focus is put into updating mons instead of making the new games good, and it shows. Not only that, but their ability to update the mons has finally been exceeded by the number of mons and scale of graphics, and now I can’t have Houndoom in Galar.

(It doesn’t help that Pokemon is unwilling to hold onto improvements like Z-evolutions, swarm battles, or contests, but that’s a different issue)

There are some game franchises which really do work just fine by just plunking the existing game mechanics down into a new setting, and the main focus for those game franchises should be a combination of making sure the new setting is properly evoked (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations’ Istanbul felt almost identical to Brotherhood’s Rome, and that was a problem) and in not fucking up the core gameplay the way Assassin’s Creed games are constantly, fruitlessly being harmed by tweaks to the combat and parkour systems that already worked fine in Assassin’s Creed II and didn’t need to be meddled with or burdened with dumb gimmicks that were obviously not going to be worthwhile additions even at the concept stage, like the hooked blade from Revelations that lets you grab ledges one foot higher than before or the zipline thing from Syndicate (major additional gameplay elements like the tower defense game from Revelations get to stay, because even though that one didn’t work, sometimes it results in things like the naval travel/combat in Black Flag).

What’s Up With Spyro Achievements?

This is a weird, minor thing, but I wanted to tell somebody about it and I have decided to dump these weird thoughts into my blog. Sometimes they turn into longer, more interesting posts. Not this one, though, this one is short and weird and probably no one but me cares about its subject.

The Spyro Reignited Trilogy is, of course, three different games remastered together and released as a set. The original games did not have achievements. So you’d think that whoever it is that was making achievements for the trilogy would’ve been the same person or people making it for all three. But the Year of the Dragon achievements all have descriptions prefaced by the world they’re found in, which isn’t the case for any of the achievements in the other two. For example, Spyro 3’s achievement The Money’s In The Bag has the description “Sunrise Spring: Free Sheila the Kangaroo,” while the Spyro 2 achievement Buggin’ Out has the description “defeat 5 buggies while charging” – no mention of Canyon Speedway, the level where the buggies are located.

Have You Not Heard Of Me?

I’ve made it to the third Spyro game, which opens with Bianca, a sorceresses’ apprentice, stealing dragon eggs and Spyro chasing after her (Bianca is cute but the sorceress is ugly, so I assume the apprentice is getting a redemption arc). The opening cutscene dumps Spyro in the hub world, and I ran him around gathering gems for a minute before the apprentice showed up to warn me to just turn around and go home or her sorcerous armies would surely destroy me.

But, like, have you not heard of me? Spyro? The Dragon? Defeated the gnorc hordes across six worlds, killed Ripto in an aerial battle over an exploding volcano? Not ringing any bells? The third game’s Forgotten Realms (not those ones) are apparently pretty remote from the Dragon Realms where the first game takes place, and the second game takes place in Avalar, which is accessible only by portal and presumably is either extremely far away (making direct travel an impractical option) or a different world altogether, so my issue here isn’t that Bianca doesn’t recognize Spyro. It’s that Spyro doesn’t respond to her threats at all, leaving the impression that they should be taken at face value. But what makes Bianca and the Sorceress different from the last two supervillains?

Spyro 1 gets a free pass on this because Spyro is still totally unproven at the start of that one, so it makes sense that Gnasty Gnorc isn’t necessarily too bothered that, having successfully imprisoned all 80-ish other dragons in the world, he missed the spunky twelve-year old. Spyro 2 handled this better, though. The main villain Ripto is thrilled to arrive in a world without dragons, apparently the only creatures strong enough to defeat him, so the locals summon a dragon to fight back against him. Ripto doesn’t confront Spyro early on the way Bianca does (neither did Gnasty Gnorc, actually), but implicitly he takes Spyro seriously as a threat because he’s been set up to consider dragons worthy adversaries in general.

Now, Spyro 3 was not originally released as the third installment in a single remastered set. It was the third installment of an episodic platformer series, so this wasn’t necessarily the third Spyro game someone had played. Making too many references to previous adventures might’ve turned people off from playing the game as a standalone. But if Bianca’s going to show up to talk smack, and if she isn’t supposed to come across as in way over her head, she should be able to make some kind of show of force that establishes her as a threat to Spyro. Maybe she could do some kind of magic that gets the better of Spyro in the opening cutscene when she steals the dragon eggs (as it is, she and her minions steal them while everyone is asleep). This establishes for returning players that her powers are either stronger than Gnorc’s or Ripto’s, or just different from theirs, and either way that Spyro isn’t an easy favorite in the fight despite his track record, and for new players it’s just setting up the villain and the premise (i.e. dragon eggs got stolen) without making any direct reference to previous games.

Or alternatively, just don’t have Bianca show up to talk smack at all, but I assume this is phase 1 of a tsundere routine, so the game needs to have Bianca showing up and being very antagonistic to facilitate that.

The Eras of Star Wars

I’ve read a lot of Wookieepedia articles. I haven’t directly experienced a whole lot of Star Wars novels or comics, because there are enough of them that I’d never be able to make a complete survey of the field anyway, and as with most massive expanded universes, the general consensus is that most of it isn’t very good.

But I do feel like you can break Star Wars down into a few important eras (real world eras, that is, in-universe eras are also a thing but are not what this post is about), and that consuming the highlights of each era will give you a pretty good look at what Star Wars has been. These should be required reading/viewing/playing for creators helming major projects in the franchise. Even though most audiences have only consumed a fraction of these, a creator who balks at consuming a few dozen hours’ worth of content is showing the kind of contempt for other creators working in the same franchise that indicates they’re a bad fit for the job. It’s not so much that the information transmitted is vital as the willingness to honor the legacy of those who came before. If all copies of the Thrawn Trilogy suddenly evaporated into powder, you could probably get by just fine without them, but if someone is unwilling to read three books before creating a new installment in the same shared universe, that speaks poorly to their willingness to play nice with other creators in such a way as to create a sustainable shared universe.

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Don’t Force Me To Be Shocked

During Knights of the Old Republic, when you’re on the Sith ship Leviathan, Darth Malak confronts you and reveals that you’re Darth Revan. There is no dialogue option to say that you’d already figured this out, just two options which are both essentially identical ways of expressing shock and disbelief. I realize that if you give someone a dialogue option to say “yeah, I know” then a lot of people are going to pick it even if they didn’t actually figure it out, but so what? Let them feel cool pretending they’d worked out that Revan is the only person who appears consistently in every vision, and that both of the other two people who’d appeared in them are accounted for. It’s a singleplayer game, so a player who values honestly roleplaying disbelief will pick that option, and a player who just wants to be the coolest kid in school (or who actually did figure the twist out in advance) can do that.

Particularly from the perspective of a replay, it’d be fun to be able to play as either having figured it out, having figured it out but bluffing Malak into thinking you knew all along, or having actually known all along, with the Jedi brainwashing having completely failed and you’ve just been playing along until you’re in a position to reclaim control of the Sith (or maybe you consider the Sith Empire a failed experiment and want to destroy it, whatever). None of these options require a whole lot of expansion of dialogue trees. You’d need to alter Carth’s dialogue in the immediate aftermath, but as long as you don’t allow the player to openly admit to planning on resuming control of the Sith Empire (but you can still openly admit to wanting revenge on Darth Malak) Carth can plausibly remain in the party. And the only reason you even need Carth to remain in the party is so that the conversation on the Rakata Prime beach goes the same way, but I’m not sure that’s even important (I’d have to look at the script and see if anything he says can’t be set up just as well without him).

If you’re wondering when the blog is going to run out of KotOR posts, I would’ve moved on to Batman by now, but my plan to alternate between the Lego version and a more serious version of the same universe was foiled because it turns out the PC version of Arkham Asylum has some kind of memory leak issue that didn’t affect the last computer I played on but is affecting this one, and doesn’t seem to be solvable, so instead of Batman it’s just Star Wars forever now. I am trying to figure out if I can get a joystick to play X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, though, because it turns out some of those games don’t even have a mouse and keyboard option. I know I used to have a joystick fifteen years ago but I don’t think I brought it with me when I moved out, and I’m nervous that if I buy a cheap $20 one it’ll be too cheap to be usable. But also no way can I afford a $100 joystick for one game series when the Traveler’s Guide series is off to such an uncertain start. We’ll see.

The Three Pillars of Star Wars

Knights of the Old Republic does a good job of moving through the three pillars of Star Wars, where most Star Wars games and other spin-offs tend to get stuck on just one or two. I don’t think it was intentionally designed this way, but the three pillars are showcased by the three main leads of the original trilogy: Han Solo is a smuggler, Princess Leia is a rebel, and Luke Skywalker is a Jedi.

While I call them “smuggler,” “rebel,” and “Jedi” for short, don’t get too hung up on the labels. What these three pillars really represent are three different facets of the setting and the kinds of conflicts they emphasize. Han Solo is a smuggler, but the pillar he represents also includes bounty hunters, crime lords, and scavengers. Some rogues have a heart of gold, but everyone is at least a little bit scummy. This pillar is where morally grey conflicts and anti-heroes are most at home.

The best example of a property with a one-pillar focus on this is the Mandalorian’s first season. The Jedi and rebel pillars certainly aren’t absent, but the Jedi, Imperial remnants, New Republic X-wing pilots, and so on are viewed from the perspective of a Mandalorian bounty hunter. This also demonstrates that a one-pillar focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you know what you’re doing. In fact, when the second season expanded to the other two pillars, it damaged a lot of the Mandalorian’s identity and focus. If season two was the last season, then this was a good decision. These tie-ins worked really well in the moment, and there’s no point conserving a resource (in this case, the Mandalorian’s focus) that you have no intention of spending later. If the Mandalorian is going for a third season, though, I fear that season two might’ve set it up for mediocrity.

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Humble Bundle Giveaway

Fairly regularly I’ll buy a Humble Bundle that has a couple of games I want, and end up with a copy of a game I already have. So I’m listing them here, and you can leave a comment or go to my Discord or something and tell me if you want one. I’ve actually got a ton more games I’ve never heard of buried in my library, but I’m limiting myself to just games that I’ve actually heard of and expect someone might want. I’ve bolded the ones that I think are especially amazing.

911 Operator
Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Cultist Simulator
Destiny 2
Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham
Lego Movie Videogame
Love Letter (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
Monster Prom
My Time At Portia
Party Hard
Running With Rifles
Scythe: Digital Edition
Sonic Mania
Starfinder: Pact Worlds Campaign Setting
Tropico 4
Tropico 5
Twilight Struggle (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
Yooka-Laylee (x2)

How Chess Pieces Actually Behave

I’ve talked before on this blog about how I’ll play games as a quick break between chunks of work. Chess is really good for this, because 3-minute blitz games take approximately five minutes each, so it’s very easy to slip into my schedule. As a result, I have played a stupid amount of chess over the past two months.

Fantasy worldbuilding will sometimes have cultural chess variants where the pieces work the same but have different names. This makes perfect sense. Chess pieces get translated differently in different languages even in the real world. Bishops and rooks in particular tend to get renamed a lot. The rook is a ship in Russia, an elephant in India, a cannon in Bulgaria, and a chariot in Vietnam. The bishop is an elephant in Russia and Vietnam, a camel in India, an officer in Bulgaria, a jester in France, a standard-bearer in Italy, and a hunter in Slovenia. I’m guessing these names are, at least in some of these languages, giving way to “bishop” and “castle” in modern use because that’s what they look like in the Staunton set used by the International Chess Federation, but traditionally Indian chess kings marched into battle with a full menagerie backing up their front line.

When creating fantasy variants, they’re often plainly derived from the Staunton standard we’re all familiar with. At that point, why not just actually use Staunton pieces? Replacing the bishop in particular may be necessary if the setting you’re making a chess set for just doesn’t have bishops, but beyond that, I say either stick to the familiar in order to enhance legibility for the audience or else do it right by choosing new pieces based on their role in the game, not just making very slightly fantastical equivalents to the Staunton set.

For example, if you’re redesigning all of the pieces of your chess set for a D&D-style fantasy world, then your knights should probably be some kind of rogue. Rogues don’t show up in regular chess because they don’t show up on the battlefield. Whoever heard of bringing thieves to war in the real world? But in D&D-style fantasy, this is much less bizarre. A major use of a knight in chess is to jump over the enemy front line, slipping past an otherwise impenetrable pawn wall to sit in enemy territory, surrounded by enemy pieces, and yet not be threatened by any of them. Knights are sneaky.

On the other hand, knights and pawns are the two pieces that basically never get renamed, except in minor variations on whether they’re called “cavalry,” “horses,” or “riders.”

Bishops are very long ranged. They also tend to end up getting names that make them seem like upgraded pawns. Bishops capture the same way pawns do, just at longer range, and bishops blocked in by their own side’s pawns are referred to as “tall pawns” because they don’t do anything a pawn in the same position wouldn’t, guarding the two pawns diagonally in front of them and nothing else (well, they also have the option to retreat, but you usually don’t want to do that). This is why bishops are sometimes called officers, since an officer is a sort of upgraded level 2 infantry, and being some kind of archer would also make sense. In D&D settings specifically, a sorcerer would also make sense, since sorcerers can pop up anywhere, in any class background, so they kind of make sense as an upgraded peasant, and just like a sorcerer, a good bishop has lots of ranged attack options, but a bad bishop (like a Sorcerer with no spells left) is basically indistinguishable from a peasant/pawn. Bishops are also often some kind of animal like a camel or elephant, to go with the knight/horse, so if you have some weird fantasy animal you want to add, like a manticore or something, a bishop is a good piece to do it with.

Rooks are usually associated with something bulky. Elephants, cannons, ships, or heavily armored chariots. Rooks are really good at cleaning up pawns in the later part of the game, when the board is open and the rooks have had a chance to peel themselves out of the corner and develop, which I’m guessing is why they’re usually associated with something big enough to crush a hapless farmer. Some kind of giant or golem would be appropriate, if you want to stick to playable classes in D&D this is a good place to put a tanky Fighter or Barbarian, and you can also just let them be castles.

Queens are almost always either left as queens or replaced with some kind of vizier or prime minister. If you’re not using the Staunton set, you should probably change this one. It’s got some weird gender role baggage, and while it’s not cut-and-dry misogyny (the queen being the most powerful piece on the board – a development that happened after the piece transitioned from being a vizier to being a queen – is a strong counterargument to the idea that Victorian levels of misogyny were the norm back in the medieval era), that, if anything, makes it more annoying to deal with. Cut-and-dry misogyny is, at least, very easy to get across to an audience. The queen is powerful and maneuverable, so this is a great place to put something that is both strong and fast. A wizard makes sense in a setting where wizards are just better than everyone else, but less so in a D&D-style setting with class balance. A dragon or similar super-monster would also work. You can also use the vizier/prime minister, the lieutenant of the king.

Speaking of the king, for the same reason you shouldn’t use the queen unless you’re just using the Staunton set unaltered, you should probably refer to the king as the gender-neutral “sovereign.”