Tuesday, 28 December 2010

On Super Meat Boy & Difficulty In Games

So far I've spent about £13 on games in the Steam sale. For that I've gotten Super Meat Boy, Knights of the Old Republic and Batman: Arkham Asylum. I've also still got Mass Effect to play from the last sale, and I reckon there could be a few more things to come. I dithered on Knights of the Old Republic for a while, until I asked Will about it...

00:23 - Rosti: Knights of the Old Republic worth £1.75?
00:25 - Morbis: YES
00:25 - Morbis: ITS THE BEST GAME
00:25 - Morbis: I HAVE EVER PLAYED
00:25 - Morbis: IN
00:25 - Morbis: MY
00:25 - Morbis: ENTIRE LIFE

When you're being fantastic offered games at less than the price of a pint, heck, barely even the difference between buying a sandwich for lunch and just having instant noodles, it's pretty hard to turn it down.

Thing is, right now I don't really have the time to get into anything that's going to consume me in storyline or gameplay for hours on end. So I started off on Super Meat Boy, on the basis that it's a fairly basic platformer and I can dip in and out of it. It's also difficult. Really fucking difficult.

It's not the most difficult game I've ever played - that title goes to the legendary I Wanna Be The Guy by a fairly long margin - but I'm still finding it pretty tough going to get through. Even though I'm progressing at a phenomenal rate compared to how I did playing IWBTG, I'm finding it far more frustrating. I'm no stranger to ball-breakingly difficult games, if anything they're pretty much the only games I play, but there are aspects of SMB that annoy me.

The thing with IWBTG is that the controls are responsive and the gameplay is tight. You press a button, and your character does exactly what it is told. If you die, it's your fault because you didn't press the right button at the right time. Even when random shit flies at you, and there was no way you'd have been able to avoid it unless you knew it was coming, even when there are sections that feel impossible, the blame always lies on you and not the game. The difficulty is because sometimes you've got to be pixel-perfect with how you move, and absolutely spot-on with the timing for your button presses. And you can do that, because the controls are completely responsive.

Super Meat Boy, on the other hand, doesn't have that. You have so much fucking inertia and there's so little friction that the control is so much more difficult. You go for a long jump, you land on the tiny ledge, and then you slide right off the other fucking side because you don't stop properly. Other people may see things differently, but at times like that I don't feel like it's my fault. I made the jump, I landed on the shitty tiny ledge, and it was the imprecise gameplay that let me down.

SMB is still a decent game. Some of the levels are really fun, the gameplay is pretty good and I'm still playing through it and having fun, but damn the controls piss me off sometimes. I like things to feel responsive and precise, not slippery and sluggish.

It's why shmup games tend not to implement the laws of momentum in their control systems - it doesn't matter that you're a spaceship flying through air, you need the precise control or the game just becomes impossible (even more than it already is). Poor controls can make the difference between a game being challenging but fun, and just feeling unfairly difficult and frustrating.

I would say making a game truly difficult is an extremely difficult task itself, and I think there are very few games that manage to do it properly. Most modern Japanese arcade games manage it, mostly because they have to. With an arcade game you need to make it difficult so that people die and put more credits in, but you also need to make sure it doesn't feel unfairly difficult, or the player will just give up and won't play it again. If there isn't that element of challenge, that element of your death being your own fault, and the element of "I'll be able to do that section if I just have one more go..." then the game won't offer the same experience. It has to be hard but fair.

The main reason that I don't like playing Civilization at harder AI levels is that I just don't find it fair. I know it's possible to beat the AI on the hardest settings, but I don't like the idea that they are making it difficult by basically cheating. They can't make an AI good enough (which, to be fair, is not really their fault given the complexity) so they have to make up for it by essentially throwing some handicapping elements in there.

If anything it seems like most developers recognise the difficulty in making challenging games, and as a result just don't really bother any more. Most games I play nowadays seems to be fairly straightforward and I guess aimed at a different market. It doesn't necessarily stop them being fun, but I do think that it completely alters the aspect of it. Playing games isn't as rewarding as it used to be, and there's far less credibility in achievements. Some of the older Super Mario games (pre SM64) are fucking tough to get through, and the modern games like Super Mario Galaxy are far less demanding in terms of difficulty.

It's a slightly different focus of games being something to be enjoyed, rather than something to be beaten, which I guess isn't a bad thing, but I think it does dilute the market quality a little bit. Console games are console games now, as opposed to a decade or two ago, when they were mostly just ports of arcade titles. Kids these days don't experience the joys of having to play the first couple of levels over and over and over again, the eternal wondering of what level four actually looked like...

The only really irk I have with the fact that difficulty has gone down the drain is that there are still plenty of titles that offer 100% completion, it's just that completion now comes in the form of collecting shittons of items and other largely tedious and time-consuming tasks that I really dislike the notion of having to do if I want to truly beat the game. Completing most video games nowadays just means that you don't have a social life, when it used to mean that you didn't have a social life and you were fucking good at the game.

I guess I should complain less about SMB's deliberate implementation of frustrating controls onto the challenging gameplay, and be happy that the gameplay is at least challenging. It's not up to IWBTG levels of sadism and fantastic level design, but it's still a pretty good game, and I'm far from breezing through it. I quite like the leaderboard aspect of it too.

Also, as an aside, what the fuck happened to cheat codes in games for unlocking content? I have no issue with the idea of unlocking stuff, but it used to be that if you had friends round then you could just enter in a cheat code and you had everything unlocked for multiplayer levels. Now you actually require people to remember memory cards and save files and shit, or you're stuck to just the most basic tracks/maps/cars/etc. Who the fuck wants to play multiplayer Mario Kart Wii if you can't play Rainbow Road and the other good tracks? It's a real fucking pain in the ass.


  1. I considered picking up SMB, but decided against on the basis that I tend to find difficult games much more addictive than easier ones, and I really need to not spend all of this holiday gaming. Shame on you for not picking up Recettear, though (unless you already have it) ;)

    I agree with you for the most part, that challenging games are much more enjoyable, although I disagree that a well-designed game is one that makes you you play through every level up to and including the one that you've yet to beat. The early levels of a game are often dull and time-wasting if you're good enough to get to the later ones. I always have much more fun playing Shoot the Bullet than most other Touhou games, for instance, because it throws you at the most challenging thing you've yet to beat every time, rather than making you work your way through three boring and three fairly challenging levels, only to get killed by fucking Resurrection Butterfly or Red Magic or whatever and having to start all over again...

  2. Yeah, you've got a pretty good point there. Having to play through early levels over and over again is a pretty boring and bad thing. Having save points spread too far apart is also a pain in the ass.

    I actually dislike Touhou shmups compared to the Cave arcade ones, mostly because I find them way more tedious to play through. With Touhou games I have to play quite a long time before I get to the bits I actually find challenging, while with games like DoDonPachi I won't take longer than five or ten minutes even on a really good run. Having to play through tons of easy stuff (and not make stupid mistakes either) just to get to the hard stuff is a real chore.