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River City Girls’ Boss Fights Punish the Player for Learning

I’ve started playing River City Girls and I mostly like it, but there are some really strange decisions around boss fights that came close to ruining the game for me.

The fights themselves are basically fine (at least the first two, which are all I’ve seen so far). You go up against a powerful enemy with unique attack patterns. They have a lot of health and they hit very hard, so you need to figure out their pattern and the best way to apply your own tools to get in sustained damage while avoiding nearly all of their attacks. They also change their patterns and become more dangerous twice - once when you’ve depleted a third of their health, and then again when you’ve depleted a second third.

It’s really not feasible to predict their patterns and vulnerabilities in advance - at least, I wasn’t able to. They have their own telegraphs but they can usually whip out attacks very quickly and you just have to learn through experience what their attacks are and what their areas of effect are. In short - I’d expect even very skilled players to die a couple of times in the course of learning each new boss.

If I’m correct, then dying to a boss isn’t necessarily a failure. It’s just part of the learning process. If that’s the case, then it’s bizarre how heavily punished it is.

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As a completionist, my thoughts about...

As a completionist, my thoughts about achievements are complicated. But here’s a simple illustrative anecdote.

I’ve been meaning to play Stick it to The Man for a while now, since I found out the story was written by Ryan North. I have it on my PS4 from when it went free on PlayStation Plus, which means it has trophies, which means I look up the trophy roadmap whenever I’m getting ready to play it. And thus far I haven’t managed to get past that step and actually play it. And Stick it to The Man doesn’t even have a particularly bad trophy list. There’s really only one trophy that sounds at all frustrating or unpleasant.

Then I saw the game was only a couple of bucks on Switch during the holiday sale. Switch doesn’t have trophies. So I paid a couple of bucks to buy a game I already have so that I’d have a version without trophies that I could just play and enjoy. I paid extra to not have trophies.

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Capsule Review: Effie

A 3D platformer that takes clear inspiration from classics in the genre. Its core is solid and satisfying but it’s held back by underdeveloped elements like tedious combat and a bolted-on open world area. The visual design may be the game’s best feature. It’s consistently strong, with a warm and inviting aesthetic.

Read more...

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In-Effie-ctive Surfing

One of my all-time favorite video game gadgets is the jetboard from Jak II. Apart from just being really cool, it made navigating the open world of Haven City much more interesting - it was faster than walking, capable of a variety of tricks and maneuvers, and got brief speed boosts from successful execution of certain tricks. This meant that even just going from one mission to another could be engaging as you practiced stringing tricks together along the way to maintain the top speed boost for as long as possible. This then paid off in the missions that required skilled use of the jetboard.

Effie is a recent 3D platformer by a small team that explicitly takes inspiration from genre classics including Jak & Daxter. It includes a “surfing” ability that’s superficially very reminiscent of the jetboard, as it involves taking your shield (which normally stays collapsed on your back), expanding it, and using it as a hoverboard.

But that’s where the similarities end. Surfing allows you to move faster, but it’s not really any more engaging than walking. You can’t do any tricks, and the only speed boosts are at fixed points in the environment spaced such that you’re not likely to be able to maintain max speed if you’re taking a direct route to your destination. You’re mostly still just holding forward, not practicing anything or getting rewarded for mastery of anything. Even the character’s body movements are bizarrely stiff while surfing, like there wasn’t time or budget to animate it properly (the rest of the game is much better animated).

It’s certainly possible the designers wanted to do more with surfing, but in the end it feels like it mostly exists to justify how wide open the game’s Red Plains of Oblena is - which in turn seems to be so wide open in order to justify the presence of surfing. The Plains’ points of interest are quite spread out and take a while to get between, which is improved by surfing but still not interesting, and this is also the only place you can surf. You can’t do it in the main levels, and the only goal that actually requires it is a fairly easy and dull ring course that’s one of the Plains’ points of interest.

It makes me really curious what the conversations were like during development. I can easily imagine grand plans for both surfing and the open area that there just wasn’t time or money to fulfill, and it would be difficult to remove either late in development (taking out the Plains would require restructuring the game, as it currently bridges all the linear levels, and taking out surfing would make the Plains incredibly obnoxious to traverse), resulting in the unfortunate half-baked state they ended up in. But who knows whether that’s what happened.

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Heavy Feet

Let’s say you were walking along and came to a platform suspended above deadly spikes. To proceed, you’d have to jump to the platform.

A platform suspended above deadly spikes.
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I wish it were standard practice for...

I wish it were standard practice for cross-platform games to allow sharing save files across platforms.

I played Dragon Quest Builders 2 on PS4, and now I find myself wishing I could relax by puttering around my end-game Isle of Awakening in handheld mode on my Switch. But I don’t want to play through the entire game and grind out all the Tablet Targets and scavenger hunts again on Switch just to get back to that state.

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Skill Tests are Delivered Experiences

Somewhere around 2007, I remember there being hand-wringing about how video games had started out as tests of skill and were transitioning to delivered experiences.

There had always been some variety in games, but the culturally-dominant games had once been things like Tetris or Asteroids or Space Invaders - games with strict failure states and no actual victory condition. The long-term hook was understanding and developing the skills required to do better and better on repeat attempts, so these games had high score tables. They were analogous to challenges like the high jump or 100-meter dash.

And as technology improved and games became more mainstream, the culturally-dominant games were becoming things like Half-Life and Uncharted - games where failure was a temporary setback and there was a clear victory condition. Here, the hook was the game’s atmosphere and story and characters and the goal of finishing the game, so these games had save files. These were more analogous to literature and cinema.

A lot of people weighed in on whether it was good or bad that games (as an overall culture force) were becoming more and more focused on delivering experiences. Some people were excited about the possibilities while others feared losing their favorite hobby. But in hindsight, the fact that the discussion was framed this way at all makes it clear just how twisted and limited our view had been by the prevalence of skill-test games leading up to that time. Because in hindsight, it’s obvious that games have always been about delivering experiences. “Mastering a skill” is just one small subset of the many, many kinds of experiences a game can deliver.

Back then, people were talking like there were two types of games - skill tests and delivered experiences - and the market was moving from favoring the first to favoring the second. But the truth is that the market was growing, branching out from the small area in experience space that had been staked out by skill tests, developing areas like “interactive storytelling” and “self-expression” and “relaxing escapism” and many, many more. Skill test games are still around, but now they can be seen as the niche they always were, since games themselves have grown beyond them.

The old perception of games as skill tests does still linger, but that’s not actually inherent to what games are - it’s more a consequence of the limits of the technology of the time and the social and economic structure of game arcades. It’s an accident of history that a lot of people my age grew up in a culture that saw games this way, rather than as (say) a vehicle for exploring emotional states or experimenting with identity or creating collaboratively.

The situation is improving as more people grow up with access to a wide and varied gaming landscape, but you still run into people who think that Gone Home is a failure of a game because it’s a bad skill test, when it was never trying to be a skill test in the first place. And things are a lot murkier with games that overlap niches and provide multiple experiences - some people will tell you that the only proper way to enjoy these games is to embrace their skill-test elements, even as other people plainly state they are only interested in the other elements and the skill-test aspects are an outright obstacle to enjoyment. And of course, the truth is that every game is an overlap that provides multiple experiences.