The future of video games is in perfect control

On January 16, 2011, in General, by Neil Stevens

Month old post, but circumstances kept it from showing up at Pundit League for a few weeks…

Have you ever played Castlevania? It’s a classic game that spawned a long and popular series that continues to this day. It sounded great, looked good, and engaged the players of its day. There’s just one catch: the controls were terribly frustrating. Simon Belmont jumps in a realistic way, which is to say he can’t jump very well at all for a video game character. Sad to say, this wasn’t an uncommon sort of problem for a game of its time.

What about Super Mario Bros. you ask? Well what about it? While the game’s controls were remarkably good for a game of its time, by modern standards that version’s Mario is tough to operate. Slower jumping and one-way scrolling severely limit your ability to operate in the game’s levels. Missing entirely is the now-standard Mario ability to get a big boost by jumping off of an enemy.

Two games today, one good and one bad, illustrate just how far we’ve come. There’s more to control innovation than new controllers.

The two games I think illustrate the new game control era might not be familiar to everyone. One is a Microsoft Windows-only release called I Wanna Be The Guy and the other is a Flash release Meat Boy (Meat Boy though has since been remade on several platforms as Super Meat Boy). The two games don’t have a lot in common except that both have the modern high level of play control I expect to see more and more.

I Wanna Be The Guy really isn’t a very good game, unfortunately. It lures in players with graphics and sound from beloved classics and a promise of difficulty. However the difficulty doesn’t come from making shots, jumps, and puzzles that take skill and practice to complete. No, the difficulty comes primarily from traps and gimmicks. Starting with death spikes rocketing from off the screen into your face, or the game’s trademark cherries that fall upward into the sky, the name of the game is memorizing how to spring and avoid every trap.

Seriously: I would not recommend bothering to try the game more than once. It really is just that bad. The game’s author claims that he spends time and effort fine tuning his screens to make a genuine challenge, but once you’ve played the cherry screen you know the whole gimmick is unpredictability. On purpose. I’m convinced if the game didn’t have Mega Man, Link, and Mike Tyson prominently featured, it wouldn’t have nearly so many videos up on YouTube.

But then why bring it up? Despite being a big katamari of gimmicks, it does give you decently good control over your main character. He has a gun with unlimited ammunition and a decent fire rate, and has double jumps from the start. At many points in the game you also get the opportunity to make wall jumps. Control has to be good if you’re doing to negotiate every gimmick in the one, true, memorized way, after all. And yes, you have a better chance of finding all the overworld heart containers in the second quest of the Legend of Zelda without memorization, than you do getting through I Wanna Be The Guy without foreknowledge.

On the other hand, there’s Meat Boy. Superficially the game looks just like I Wanna Be The Guy. In both games you control a small character in a big, pixelated world, avoiding obstacles bringing instant death, with unlimited chances to retry from predetermined checkpoints (IWBTG breaks things up into screens, while Meat Boy uses separate levels). Meat Boy trades in the double jumps for wall jumping off of any surface, and once you get adjusted to how those wall jumps work, you’ll be flying through the levels like a maniac.

Meat Boy doesn’t start out as hard as IWBTG, but that’s because the game doesn’t waste time with hidden tricks. What you see is what you get, and the game is all about practice and proper execution. I love it and I just wish it weren’t incompatible with Darwiin Remote, which works with most programs and even with other flash apps like Super Mario Bros. Crossover, but just fails with Meat Boy for reasons I do not understand.

I welcome this new era of precise, flexible controls and look forward to what new heights they will find in the future.

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