December 17th, 2016
Bowser’s Inside Story‘s battle system adheres to Nintendo’s clean and functional approach to game design (see earlier articles on narrative and level design). Attacks operate in real time and test a variety of different skills, while the turn-based structure organises the moments of action into clean, discrete chunks. This strong core is surrounded by levelling, equipment, and badge systems which both enhance and weaken the game’s key asset. In this post we explore what happens when functional design meets traditional RPG systems.
Stats and Levelling
BIS retains the levelling system of the earlier games. As the player defeats enemies they gain experience points through which they level up and increase their attack, defence, and other stats. Levelling up is necessary to counter the increasingly stronger enemies the player encounters on their journey. This connection between levelling and enemy strength sustains most RPG battle progression. And yet I don’t believe that it serves the genre—nor BIS—very well.
BIS’s battles hinge on the player’s ability to successfully attack and dodge enemies. We know this because if a player cannot achieve these actions, then they will lose. Assuming the player is levelling up their eyes, mind, and fingers (which they are by virtue of them defeating a stream of unique enemies), then what purpose does having statistically stronger enemies serve other than to artificially inflate the difficulty? More to the point, how does levelling enhance the attacking and dodging functions which are central to BIS’s battle system? The numbers on screen change, but the animations, hit boxes, tells, and mix-ups powering the core functions remain the same.
(I’m a bit worried that my proposition here is somewhat simplistic, but so far I haven’t been able to come up with a counter argument, so we’re going to roll with it for now).
I would be lying, however, if I were to claim that the numbers game doesn’t serve some useful (albeit limited) purposes. Levelling clearly communicates to the player their progress in the form of a digit, even though they have no barometer at which to measure, compare, and ultimately make sense of the number. The player can also use levelling as a means to increase or decrease the challenge as needed by either avoiding or grinding enemies. Unfortunately the leeway afforded by levelling systems can be exploited so as to decrease the challenge to the extent that the game is unable to “squeeze” the player and express meaning through its gameplay challenges.
By removing the levelling system and visible statistics (aside from HP and SP), more emphasis would naturally fall on variation within the battle system (variation between individual challenges = difficulty curve). Between the large range of enemies, different combinations of enemy types, the enemy mix-ups, differences between the Bros and Bowser attacks and dodges, and external elements such as Bitties, there’s more than enough variation to sustain the gameplay. The player would still have access to a variety of existing means of scaling the difficulty, such as buying healing items or finding more beans. Speaking of which, a lack of levelling would increase the significance of beans and encourage the player to partake in this worthwhile side activity.
The clothing (equipment) system is similar to levelling, but not quite. Multiple times throughout the adventure the player can spend coins on new clothing items which increase either the Bros.’s or Bowser’s stats. This routine adds another layer of artificial progression and does not support the core of the battle system. Purchasing goods itself also isn’t terribly interesting. Yet like levelling, equipment provides some wiggle room for less proficient players. Assuming enemy stats did not rise as the player reaches new areas (as mentioned earlier), I think it would be best if the clothes stores in the Mushroom Kingdom all closed shop.
Closing down the clothing shops wouldn’t actually have a significant effect as a great deal of clothing items aren’t available in shops. Rather, they’re strewn across the overworld in various nooks and crannies. In this sense, clothes are similar to beans, a reward for being observant and participating in extra tasks on the overworld. So while buying gear only serves to combat the artificial growth of enemies, finding gear makes the overworld portion of the game more engaging.
I would be remiss in not mentioning that a significant number of clothing items do more than simply prop up the stats of the avatars. Some items regenerate health, increase the chance of critical hits, potentially make the enemy dizzy after you jump on it, etc. Again, I can’t really fault this aspect of the equipment system either because such gear adds player-determined variation to the battles and encourages the player to experiment with different strategies and gameplay styles. Below, I have included some of my favourite examples:
If the wearer takes no damage during a battle, 1.5x coins awarded
Foes are 50% more attracted to attack the wearer
All enemies have HP, DEF, & SPEED increased by 50% and POW increased by 150%, but coins gained from battle increase by 50%
Special attack POW +30%, but SP cost doubles
POW Mush Jam
When wearer eats any type of mushroom (healing item), POW +20%
I just couldn’t go past the Softener Gloves:
Due to a coding error, occasionally raises enemy DEF by 25% rather than lowering it.
The examples above are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. The majority of non-stat-increasing clothing items are buffs and therefore aren’t terribly different to stat boosts at all. Where levelling was completely artificial, the equipment system is perhaps half synthetic (the routine of buying better gear and clothing as buffs) and half functional (clothing as collectables, clothing as adding variation and options to battles).
Badges are the third and final piece in the pie of systems which surround the core battle system. Mario and Luigi each have their own badge halves which connect together. As each character lands “Good”, “Great”, and “Excellent” (well timed) hits, their badge meter increases. Once both meters are maxed, the player can tap the touch screen to activate an effect. Mario’s badge determines the effect and Luigi’s badge determines the degree of effect. Unlike levelling and equipment, badges support the core functions of the game by rewarding the player for attacking and countering enemies. They also allow the player to customise battles so as to support their own playstyle. For example, I set the badges up so that after landing enough well timed attacks, I could heal half of the Bros’s SP. This meant that I had more opportunities to use the special attacks, something which I felt I needed more practice with.
The levelling system and some parts of the equipment system don’t support the core of what makes BIS’s battle systems so unique and engaging, and so they’re more like clutter than the potent force they are in more traditional RPGs. On the other hand, badges and some parts of the equipment system support the core functions of attacking and dodging and also enhance other areas of the game, such as the player’s engagement with the overworld. So depending on the implementation, traditional RPG systems can both complement and clutter a functionally designed core.