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    jp's GameLog for Varth: Operation Thunderstorm (Arcade)

    Tuesday 26 August, 2008

    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. :-)


    Back when I used to invest heavily in arcade machines (one 20c at a time), the difficulty would would directly translate to the highscore table. Most of the time you would only play once, as the amount of time and reward (from the highscore table) is maximized. Every now and then I'd continue on, specifically if it feels like I'm about to crack the current 'problem'. The continue in that sense is really to experiment at the deepest level you have reached, purely so that you can go deeper into the game next time you play it from the start.

    Possibly an overlooked part of the design of arcade games is that no-one is expected to play and play and play until they beat it in one sitting. You are expected to play until you have lost your lives, spend time thinking about the game AWAY from the game, then retry with possibly new strategies. The eascalating difficulty level does limit your options at the top level, but it is more of a puzzle than an overal strategy at that stage. I can still remember boss fights from R-Type and the specific sequence required to beat them. You are rewarded for 'figuring out' the puzzle by a new level and a higher place on the high score table.

    once we had an arcade that allowed you to pay $5 for a whole morning of gaming. You could walk up to any machine and play for as long as you like. At first this was a godsend as you could really dig into a game and keep continuing your way through regardless of strategy, but finishing the game felt hollow. Death didn't have the consequence it had before (loss of money and loss of leaderboard points) so a lot of the games felt cheapened to the point I would never play them again. I got my cookies from seeing all the content without the pain of experiencing the countless hours running and re-running the challenge over and over. It's not the end game that counts, it's the experience of getting there.

    PC games are totally different, where the consequences of actions and the journey are still part of the framework, but not nearly as mandatory as feeding your hard earned pocket money in for just one go.

    Tuesday 26 August, 2008 by VRBones

    Yes, having played some of the other games in the Capcom compilation game I've been surprised by two things:

    (1) How "little" content some of the old arcade games have. (the ones you can finish)
    (2) How inconsequential some of the games feel when you can simply "continue" your way through.

    That being said, HOW the continues are designed does make a huge difference. (as my experience with Varth shows)

    Monday 8 September, 2008 by jp
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