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    jp's Varth: Operation Thunderstorm (Arcade)

    [September 8, 2008 01:14:24 PM]
    Ah, the bliss of ignorance.

    I'm not at level 24 and determined to put this game down. When I last wrote I was happy that I had just defeated an extra tough boss. Now I'm fighting it again. It seems that the last levels of this game are essentially re-treads of all the other bosses you've fought earlier. A bit of a disappointment if you ask me, though it's possible that the bosses are a little bit tougher this time around, I'm not entirely sure and I'm not curious enough to want to find out.

    What I did find interesting is that at the beginning of each of these boss-challenges redux you get to play a special kind of bonus stage. A bonus stage is usually a prize or award for the player, something special and fun to engage in as a break from the typical gameplay. It's also usually safe, as in you can't lose. This isn't the case in this game. You can die during this extra stage, what's different about it is that it's a stage that is seemingly designed to prepare you (the player) for the upcoming boss challenge by letting you get powered-up as it where. Sort of like some FPS games that have an area littered with weapons, ammo and health right before an important boss fight. However, in Varth, you only get to play that level if you die, so if you're really good and can cruise through all of the boss-challenges, you'll never know that it was possible to play an additional bonus stage designed to get you back up to strength in power-ups and weapons.
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    [August 26, 2008 03:47:53 PM]
    I've decided that it doesn't really matter how well I understand this game. I will never be too successful at it if my reflexes aren't up to snuff (clearly, they're not). That said, I'm happy to announce that I was (after countless continues) able to defeat a really tough boss challenge (Stage 15 - Steel Golem)!

    Having played this stage more than a few times, I began to wonder about how shooter designers navigate the tension between providing a really tough challenge to play and giving the player a fair chance. From my perspective (that of a person who isn't particularly good at 2D shooters like this one), I confess that there are times when I might as well close my eyes, push buttons like mad, and hope for the best. There is simply too much going on at any given moment on the screen for me to be able to adequately parse and react to.

    So, what does it mean to make a shooter harder? Shooters are essentially about dodging bad things while destroying bad things. Raph Koster has a neat little discussion of how 2D shooters evolved in his book "A Theory of Fun" (pages. 78-79). In it, he discusses how shooters evolved from the perspective of gameplay. For example, changing the nature of the space where the game occurs, changing the cardinality of gameplay (ex: move only left/right to move in 2D, etc.), and so on. However, he doesn't say much about how the difficulty of shooters has changed (over multiple shooter games) or even within a single game.

    So, how does a games difficulty change? If the essential defensive) player activity is dodging, then you simply add more stuff that needs to be dodged. Thus, you end up with "bullet hell" (or bullet curtain) shooters where the entire screen is practically covered with bullets and the player's choices become extremely limited. In its extreme, you have to perfectly execute your movement so as to always be in the only safe place on the screen. In other words, you go from more choice (in terms of where do you want to be) to less (you have to be in the only safe place).

    This means that, as the game becomes harder, it also becomes less strategic in the sense that you have less choices to choose from at any given moment. So, I began to wonder what elements were there in this game that provided strategic choice? (and which ones seem to appear in shooters quite regularly?)

    (1) Powerups

    In Varth there are three different types of weapons that can each be "upgraded" to more powerful. They differ from each other in their strength as well as range/reach. The laser, for example, fires a narrow, yet potent beam while the "scatter" fires a weaker but very broad shot. Powerups have been around for a while (first introduced in Galaga), but what's interesting is how there are powerups that are "non-strategic" while others are. Non-strategic ones are those that you'd be an idiot NOT to pick up, while strategic ones are ones in which you really have to decide whether or not you want to, say, drop the laser for the machine gun. Varth's powerups seem to be kind of strategic..I'm not entirely sure yet if it's a good idea to ALWAYS pick them up, or not.

    (2) Power bombs
    Essentially a "super attack" that kills everything on the screen. Best used when you are really, really, in trouble. In Varth, the powerbombs anhillate most (but not all) things on the screen. Interestingly (and I didn't realize this for a while), powerbombs regenerate (refuel?) so that, if you can wait long enough, you'll be able to use them again. I think that in this game, power bombs are quite strategic. I've found that not only must you decide when to use them for (best/most) effect, but that you're also negotiating the tension of how late to use them so that there is time for them to recharge and earn you the end of stage bonus (for unused bombs).

    (3) Shields
    Some shooters provide the player with configurable shields. Ie, an element that protects you and that you can control to a certain extent. For example, you can change it's placement or behavior. In Varth you can choose between two settings: rotating and full-frontal. However, you can't change this in mid-game (as far as I can tell), making them less strategic than they could have been. I've been playing with both, and learning it really does make a difference!

    I think that it's pretty intersesting how modern 2D shooters all seem to incorporate some notion of the above 3 gameplay elements in order to make bullet hell manageable. :-)
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    [August 14, 2008 08:16:35 PM]
    This game is on the Capcom Classics Collection Remixed. Rather that write about it in that GameLog, I've decided to write about it separately.

    I've probably spent a little over 5 hours playing this game. During the first 3 I was simply trying to get to the end of the game (thanks to infinite continues). I couldn't. The challenge of beating the boss was simply too much for me. (after a continue you start at the beginning of the stage) By mistake, I selected the "don't continue" option and ended up starting over from the beginning.

    Although I was initially disappointed, I realized that I had unwittingly given myself the chance to see how good (or not) I was at this game. After all, I had gotten pretty far and some of the levels weren't that hard at all (usually the ones without a boss to fight).

    I wasn't able to clear the second stage!

    If I had written about this before, I would probably have said that I felt I was beginning to understand some of the nuances of the game, the importance of the different options, some of the strategies to use when playing (ie, when to use the smart bombs, etc.) and so on...however, all of my expertise didn't really translate into making decent progress at the game. So, while I feel I have a better understanding of how the game works, this hasn't really led to improved skills at playing the game. (or maybe it has? I don't know how far I was able to get the first time I played...maybe I never cleared the first stage?)

    I hope to write some more about the actual game soon...
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    jp's Varth: Operation Thunderstorm (Arcade)

    Current Status: Stopped playing - Got frustrated

    GameLog started on: Monday 11 August, 2008

    GameLog closed on: Tuesday 9 September, 2008

    jp's opinion and rating for this game

    Sometimes there's simply too much going on! Definitely a hard, challenging, and old-school shooter. It's fun and has some interesting subtleties, but I just couldn't get past stage 24!

    Rating (out of 5):starstarstarstar

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