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Of Metroid and Mastery

How Dark Souls echoes the sophisticated design of classics like Super Metroid.

Article by Bob Mackey, .

More than any other games this generation, From Software's Souls series of RPGs stand out for their emphasis on rewarding the player's degree of personal experience. Sure, character experience still matters -- as the fruits of grinding for levels generally do -- but anyone who's taken a second spin through either Demon's or Dark Souls can tell you how much smoother these games go down with the combined forces of knowledge and confidence on your side.

Not to mention that traversing through these exceptionally difficult games once again can really throw the old you into a miserable light, especially when you reach in minutes what originally took hours (or days, or weeks). Make no mistake, that's exactly what From wants: Once you learn the many rules of their numerous systems, you're better equipped at level 1 than you were at level 30 or 40 of your first playthrough -- mentally, at least.

So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the fan bases of the Souls series and classic gaming seem to overlap significantly; we oldsters remember when games wouldn't let us budge until our pattern-memorization and reflexes could meet the challenges presented. Of course, some games took this idea a little too far, and have aged poorly as a result: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link placed an emphasis on its protagonist's increasingly complicated move set by forcing the player to cope with some incredibly tough enemies from the very first dungeon -- with failure sending our hero aaalll the way back to the starting point of his journey. While I can respect what it sets out to do, Zelda II feels way too much like a test of endurance, and one I could never meet -- and really, does anyone like fighting all of those damned Ironknuckles? (I'm expecting to hear "yes" from a very loud minority in the comments.)

These little guys are how developers did in-game tutorials before stumbling upon techniques to make them as intrusive and condescending as possible.

With classic games that don't offer much in the way of difficulty, the sense of personal mastery comes in much smaller -- though still very significant -- forms. Take Super Metroid, for instance (and you really should, if you have a Wii U): I've been playing through it for the first time since its original Virtual Console release. This time, I'm taking advantage of Samus' most useful innate ability, the wall jump. While she can do some amazing things thanks to the many power-ups littered throughout Zebes, Samus comes equipped with a wall jump ability -- though this fact won't sink into most players' skulls until they're stuck in a point where using this skill becomes necessary to progress. And while I'm sure the instructions describe this move in detail, the game itself shows you through the actions of some furry alien dudes who've taken it upon themselves to teach Samus.

Even then, wall jumping can still be difficult: In my earliest playthroughs of Super Metroid, getting out of this pit stood as a "never again" type of moment -- there would be no more talk of these so-called "wall jumps" and the amount of swears they made spill from my still-innocent month.

You think you know how to use the cape? No you don't. Not unless you can get every single one of these coins without touching the ground.

When running through Super Metroid became a thing I did every few years, eventually, the precise timing of wall jumps just clicked in my brain; unlike similar moves in Mario, Mega Man, and the like, getting Samus to kick herself off of a wall and higher into the air requires precise timing, and paying careful attention to her sprite. But once you can pull it off effectively -- and realize wall jumping is something you could have been doing for the entire game -- the envrionments of Super Metroid become a sort of playground for the player's skilled acrobatics. This time around, I kept wall-jumping in mind from minute one, and found myself reaching points the game didn't intend for me to see until certain power-ups paved a path. And this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's been following the many, many Super Metroid speedruns out there that this seemingly straightforward game can be turned inside-out by players adept at using Samus' skills wisely.

Mario games tend to be much more accessible than Metroid, but one installment offered a power-up that demanded the same amount of player skill as Samus' wall jump: Super Mario World and its incredible cape. Simply put, there's a reason why the developers make you play through an entire set of levels before you can get your hands on it -- you're just not ready yet. I've often referred to Super Mario World's cape as the European sports car of power-ups, as it offers a significant amount of power and speed, but only to those who can master its touchy nature. Even though the game does its best to explain the cape's unorthodox controls, it takes quite a bit of experimentation to learn just how versatile this tool can be. In fact, it seems that Miyamoto and his crew understood that a lot of people just wouldn't know how to handle the cape, so no levels force you to use it for this purpose -- and Mario World offers other flight options (like blue Yoshis) for players who want to take to the skies via much friendlier means.

It looks like Donkey Kong at the beginning, but if you realize the depth of Mario's skills from the outset you can blow through the initial levels in no time flat.

1994's Donkey Kong for Game Boy adds even more moves to Mario's repertoire, though the misleading intro stages -- which replicate the original arcade experience before increasing the scope by magnitudes -- may have players initially thinking Nintendo dialed back their design to 1981. Beginners will take on the girders one level at a time, jumping barrels along the way, but those who've come to terms with Mario's versatility can simply handstand jump their way up to Donkey Kong within seconds. DK '94 doesn't introduce one of Mario's new moves at a time; instead, it drops them all in your lap from the beginning, and rewards players willing to learn more than just the basics.

While this concept of rewarding the player for mastering complex and often optional skills has gone out the window in favor of accessibility, some developers still regard their games in a very old-fashioned way. Platinum Games offers easier paths for players who don't want to devote the time necessary to master their games' complex mechanics, but players with an old-school mindset have found this developer's output incredibly satisfying to conquer. Even Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, one of their most mainstream titles, features a parrying system a whole lot of players just aren't going to understand -- I know I didn't until a certain boss forced me to learn it or face the shame of lowered difficulty. And I appreciated that the game actually demanded something of me, and opened up significantly once I met it halfway -- a far cry from the constant, patronizing encouragement of most AAA games that fear you'll put them down for any other entertainment choice that doesn't challenge you in the slightest.

As development grows even more expensive, this sense of insecurity can only grow larger; though I hope some developers will still hold fast to the idea of games as something to master, rather than an experience of gentle nudging from start to finish.

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Comments 16

  • Avatar for inkphantom #1 inkphantom 3 years ago
    I think it's funny that, even in a time where reviews/comments/discussions about the hand-holding and lengthy tutorials in recent games, developers STILL resort to these practices. Can we at least get a skip button or an opt-out feature? Terrific article, Bob.
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  • Avatar for BeeZee #2 BeeZee 3 years ago
    I remember getting stuck in that pit as a kid and thinking that the game had bugged and left me with no way out. I think that's a pretty valid fear, especially given how buggy the original Metroid was, and how slipshod a lot of 16-bit games still were at the time. In hindsight, Super Metroid's structure only really works because it's designed incredibly well, and because it proves this time and time again to earn the player's trust.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #3 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    @inkphantom I always liked the "after we've told you this once, we'll stick in a menu for you to practice if you want" approach. It's useful for those times when you pick up a game for the first time in awhile, but don't quite remember how to do something. Because the "we'll tell you this once, and never mention it again" version can cause problems in this scenario.
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  • Avatar for orient #4 orient 3 years ago
    Indies are really picking up the slack when it comes to this experiment-and-yee-shall-improve school of game design. I'm happy we're moving away from platformers *with a twist!*, but I don't want every indie game to be a rogue-like, either. Too many dungeons for me.
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  • Avatar for drdoctor #5 drdoctor 3 years ago
    If you want another modern game that does this, aka: dumping almost the entire skill set into your lap, check out Magicka. There's a totally natural skill curve that doesn't depend on gated leveling up or the like. Aside from a few utility spells, the whole game's arsenal is at your fingertips... so you can friendly fire gib yourself and your teammates.Edited September 2013 by drdoctor
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  • Avatar for Dogislander #6 Dogislander 3 years ago
    Platinum Games remains one of my favorite companies developing today. Bayonetta's dodge mechanic and Revengeance's parry system or so simple/deep and the level design and boss systems never feel cheap. Revengeance is one of the only action games I went back to for "hard" mode simply I loved playing with the mechanic so much.

    Beyond that I just love their aesthetic choices. The level design and over the top action sequences with fantastic soundtracks...can't gush enough.
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  • Avatar for lethalsilicong5 #7 lethalsilicong5 3 years ago
    I've been unsure of which Souls game to play first, but your mention of Demon Souls being just as hard makes me want to play it first. Thanks Bob :D
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  • Avatar for zidanix #8 zidanix 3 years ago
    This is big reason why I'm getting the Wonderful 101. I want to be able to decipher a game by myself and not have to sit through hours of tutorials to learn a game. Let me play, developers!
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #9 Stealth20k 3 years ago
    I think many games can be interchanged here.
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  • Avatar for nickn #10 nickn 3 years ago
    All for accessibility. Every game is made to be finished by all. Oh and heaven forbid I forget how much each Zelda rupee is worth. Good read Bob. I appreciate that US Gamer puts out articles that aren't just plugging new releases.Edited September 2013 by nickn
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  • Avatar for lilierobica08 #11 lilierobica08 3 years ago
    Deleted August 4000 by Unknown
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  • Avatar for sam-stephens #12 sam-stephens 3 years ago
    "Demon's or Dark Souls can tell you how much smoother these games go down with the combined forces of knowledge and confidence on your side."

    I think this highlights one of the many promblems I have with the Souls series. The actual combat isn't all that difficult. No, the game just hides a lot of pertinent information from the player (along with a rather poor camera design and wonky physics/animations). Of course people are going to feel more confident when they know what they're supposed to do, so it's very frustrating when games don't provide the necessary knowledge tools for players to work with. That's why I think the Souls series has much more in common with the first two Metroid and Zelda games than the superior Super Metroid and A Link to the Past. Super Metroid gives the player plenty of information on where to go, how new abilities work, how they interact with the environment, and how they redefine previously visited areas. Playing Dark Souls II showed me how much those developers could learn from Super Metroid and refine their games.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #13 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    "And I appreciated that the game actually demanded something of me, and opened up significantly once I met it halfway -- a far cry from the constant, patronizing encouragement of most AAA games that fear you'll put them down for any other entertainment choice that doesn't challenge you in the slightest."

    Fighting those no-risk, no-input features on their terms, on their turf, not their own. The money is already theirs; it's almost as if they want to be F2P, and being at war with themselves is merely the raw metamorphosis pains of that change.

    "Demon's or Dark Souls can tell you how much smoother these games go down with the combined forces of knowledge and confidence on your side."

    "I think this highlights one of the many promblems I have with the Souls series. The actual combat isn't all that difficult. No, the game just hides a lot of pertinent information from the player (along with a rather poor camera design and wonky physics/animations). Of course people are going to feel more confident when they know what they're supposed to do, so it's very frustrating when games don't provide the necessary knowledge tools for players to work with. That's why I think the Souls series has much more in common with the first two Metroid and Zelda games than the superior Super Metroid and A Link to the Past. Super Metroid gives the player plenty of information on where to go, how new abilities work, how they interact with the environment, and how they redefine previously visited areas. Playing Dark Souls II showed me how much those developers could learn from Super Metroid and refine their games."

    Another who has a tunnel-visioned concept of "difficulty", and all the cognitive dissonance that spawns.Edited 2 times. Last edited July 2014 by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #14 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    Dark Souls is far more punishing and opaque than Super Metroid, but I get the overall sentiment of devs trusting the players more. The only thing wrong with the sentiment is that there aren't many of us to go around. Look at W101's performance and reception. Most people don't like being thrown in the fire. They start complaining about difficulty and awkward controls. It's an awful reality.
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  • Avatar for Exhuminator #15 Exhuminator 3 years ago
    Giving the player unsupervised agency is always best.

    The thing that bothers me most with modern game design, especially in the mobile space, is the "pay to win" stuff. Can't handle that boss? Pay $1 right now to instantly gain 5 levels! Can't beat this stage? Pay $2 right now to skip to the next one! And so on. How anyone in their right mind can support this sort of blatant exploitation is entirely incomprehensible to me.
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  • Avatar for Thad #16 Thad 3 years ago
    I've been playing A Link Between Worlds.

    I love it.

    But it sure pisses me off to no end that the Zelda series still feels compelled to tell me what a key is every single time I get one. You know, in case I forget.

    I've got a three-year-old nephew. He knows what a fucking key does. Maybe he could help write game tutorials.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #17 bobservo 3 years ago
    @Thad Yes. If you don't what a key does, you need to get some things sorted out before sitting down to play video games.
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