April 7th, 2013
My discussion on Wario Land: Shake Dimension‘s mechanics can be found here. You should read that first.
Shake Dimension has a scarce selection of enemies, most of which do a pretty feeble job at engaging the player. The ubiquitous pawn enemies, Bandineros, have less interplay than a Marumen and basically act as walking health refills. The rest are mostly simple variations on the same walk-left-to-right formula. None of the enemies drop spoils, so their interplay is one cycle shallower than Wario Land 4‘s foes and there’s no undercurrent of psychological stringing-along. If Wario grabs an enemy and shakes them, they may drop a clove of garlic or some coins. I guess the developers wanted to find a way to encourage the player to use the accelerometer-controlled mechanic, even though it interrupts the game’s flow (Wario can’t move and shake) and isn’t very interesting. The enemies all make the same strange monkey noise when you defeat them. Not only does the sound effect not suit their visual form, it doesn’t make sense that the individual enemies all make the same noise.
Most of the game’s rewards come in the form of money bags. Wario can shake these sacks to clear out the coins inside, causing a flurry of them to fill the surrounding area. The coins disappear shortly after they leave the bag, so the process of spreading them around only leads to frustration as there’s usually a few coins that fall either out of reach or too far from Wario to retrieve them in time. Holding the sack while claiming the coins is a bit cumbersome, so it’s preferable to find a quiet corner and let loose. If I were to repair Shake Dimension, I would drastically overhaul the money sacks, if not remove them completely.
Level Design and Game Progression
Where Shake Dimension goes from being good and reasonable to bad and frustrating is in its level design. Having spent 2 years analysing Wario Land 4 and its levels, the issues with Shake Dimension‘s set of stages became apparent almost immediately. They are:
The difficulty level in each world slowly rises before it’s reset at the start of the next world. Wario Land 4 does this too (as with Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins), but avoids the issue of the difficulty falling off a cliff every few stages by 1) making that cliff relatively short and 2) specialising each of the four passages around a different part of the game system. In Shake Dimension, the cliff is not only relatively high, but the worlds are relatively unspecialised.
Because of the dash attack’s new-found flexibility and how it’s deeply embedded into the post-fold by way of level design and side objectives, all of the post-folds, regardless of the type of folding, are about speed running. In Wario Land 4, the post-fold is—aside from a few levels—used as a time-pressured way of continuing the exploration of the game idea. Because Shake Dimension‘s game ideas are restricted to half a level, they tend to be shallower than they could be. To combat this, certain concepts are started in some levels and picked up in others, usually not sequentially. It’s this mixing and matching of odds and ends, combined with occasional Subwarine diversions, that makes the game’s narrative so incoherent.
The restricted-to-freer practice that defines Wario Land 4‘s education and variation isn’t as tight in Shake Dimension, so the game has a harder time of leading the player through the rigours of the level arrangements.
The level design and optional objectives work in tandem to offer the player a multitude of ways to scale the difficulty. There are two problems, though. Firstly, the player is usually only given one shot at accessing each of the secret areas and routes needed to fulfil the objectives. Given that, on their first go, the player doesn’t know what to expect from a level, it’s easy for them to overlook the indicators that lead to said secret routes and areas. Not being able to immediately retry therefore encourages them to manually restart the level every time they miss one of the many secret hidey holes. (Incidentally, the designers included such an option in the pause menu). Furthermore, Wario Land 4‘s “try again at the expense of more time” dynamic (that makes deciding what to do after failing an optional arrangement post-fold engaging) is lost. In Shake Dimension, when the player fails, they only have one option: press on. Secondly, most of the side objectives are set high enough that the only way to beat them is to access ALL the secret areas. Yet, since the player only gets one chance at reaching each individual area, reaching them all more often than not requires the player replay a completed level multiple times. This process of making the perfect run is heavily steeped in memorisation and trial and error
Since I started the first post summarising everything I’ve subsequently said, I guess I should end this final post with an introduction (there’s an allusion here to folded level design, I’m sure of it), or maybe just a mini-announcement. I’m nearing the end of my stockpile of notes, so that means I can start work on book #2. It’s a bit of a relief, actually. Although I think I’ve made a few good points over the past 2 months, writing short-form comments based on notes of games I finished months, even years ago is a real drag. I can’t wait to move onto something newer and more meaty, where I can really flex my skills. Of course, I’m always playing new games, so I’ll still be updating the blog with short-form observations. I’m aiming for a frequency of one or two articles a week, so actually not much will change, will it? Besides some “fresher” writing, I hope.
April 2nd, 2013
To wit, Wario Land: Shake Dimension takes Wario Land 4, pairs back or removes the mechanics, transformations, and game elements to a sort of proto-Wario Land 1 state and then replaces all the nuance and dynamics that made Wario Land 4 engaging with gestures that don’t evolve beyond their base level application. That’s not to jump on the “motion controls ruin everything, boo, hoo, hoo” bandwagon. In this case, the gameplay concepts themselves aren’t expanded beyond the player shaking the remote to make Wario do a particular action. The folded level design also isn’t so crash hot either, and the game has a nasty habit of making it easy for the player to fail optional challenges (often listed as side objectives, for the compulsive) and then denying them a retry, something which encourages manual restarts. Shake Dimension is a bare bones Wario game to say the least. Let’s extend on this a little though:
Wario’s core ability set is identical to Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land, except that the player can turn the Wii-mote to angle throws and shake the Wii-mote to shake a held object or activate an Earthshake Punch. Shaking a held object can cause coins or other treats to come bouncing out of them. The Earthshake Punch has Wario punch the ground, stunning enemies and altering certain level elements. The mechanic’s similar to Wario Land 4‘s heightened smash attack (level 2 quake), but can be activated instantly and runs on a cool down meter.
The Earthshake Punch and shaking held objects aren’t very engaging mechanics: the player waggles the controller and Wario does the action, that’s it. Although the mechanics are intuitive, as the input matches the output (shaking), there’s no variability to the motion. So, Wario can’t not do an Earthshake Punch because the player didn’t shake the controller hard enough, for example. Furthermore, the player can’t charge the mechanics like Wario Land 4‘s smash attack (ground pound), frame cut like Wario Land 4‘s attack jump, or activate frame-specific moves like Wario Land 4‘s dash attack.
Many of Wario’s mechanics are allocated to specific game elements. It’s these game elements that make up the majority of gameplay concepts—as opposed to the transformations in Wario Land 4, which are extremely paired back in Shake Dimension. These devices make clever use of the Wii-mote’s accelerometer and are much more engaging than the two permanent, motion-controlled mechanics. The unibuckets, for example, accelerate sharply when the Wii-mote is tilted, so the player must work against this nuance so as not to oversteer (more examples in the image above). I’m not so convinced of the Subwarine, though, which is fiddly and unnatural. Best to leave the submarining to Mario.
When Wario enters a red, right-angled pipe, officially called a Max Fastosity Dasherator, he can dash attack. Shake Dimension‘s dash attack is modelled after Wario Land 4‘s, but there are two significant differences:
- The player can’t end the mechanic at will, Wario must hit a wall, instead.
- Wario can change direction mid-dash, resulting in a short skid which sees him moving in the direction he was travelling for a few pixels.
These changes put a stress on the player keeping the dash attack active over an extended distance, where they can make the most of its fast speed. The folded level design and reward-based sub-objectives play into this, hiding the best rewards where only a dash attacking Wario can reach, at the end of the post-fold. This is also true of the time-based sub-objectives, which can only be met by completing most of the post-fold with the dash attack. The ability to change direction allows for more latitude in the level arrangements and plays into the mechanic’s skid nuance.
As for the other differences between Shake Dimension and its predecessor:
- The throw mechanic’s charge time is shorter, to the point that you can’t do a regular throw.
- Wario slides down slopes on his stomach. The animation ends after a set distance.
- Wario can only swim on the surface of water, left or right.
- Wario can aim his throws with the Wii-mote. Snappy and responsive game feel.
- The Wii-mote’s d-pad is made of hard plastic with sharp edges (at least for a game controller), so it’s not as comfortable to control Wario.
This is a two-parter, so stick around for part #2 where I discuss Shake Dimension‘s enemies, rewards, level design, and progression structure.
March 29th, 2013
A few years ago, in the midst of a rail-shooter bonanza for the blog, I wrote a series of articles on Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles. Most of what I said in those posts is also true of its sequel, Darkside Chronicles, but there’s a few comments I’d like to make specifically about the second game:
- The most immediate point of difference between the two games is Darkside Chronicles‘s higher colour saturation. It can still look a bit drab at times, but at least it’s free of Umbrella Chronicles‘s nihilistic, nearly monochromatic colour palette.
- The other thing that becomes immediately apparent is the forced attempts of playing up the horror element. Let’s explore these one by one:
Shaky Cam – During the transitions between shoot-outs it’s nausea-inducing. During the shooting sequences themselves, it’s just obnoxious. Given that the hit boxes for enemy weak points are still quite small, the hit box for critical hits are tinier still, and the enemies occasionally approach from some distance, the shaky cam only makes it harder to aim accurately.
More Talky-Talk Sequences – More than the original game, the characters talk their heads off about the supposed horror of the situation. Since the sequencing of the shoot-outs, perspective control, mechanics, game elements, and interplay with enemies aren’t structured around creating scares (some good ideas on this here), there’s an odd and somewhat comical disconnect between the fear the characters are expressing and the fear the player is not participating in. I reckon that about 2 hours of my play time was spent inactive, waiting for the characters to shut up.
Sudden Attacks – One technique which is sure to guarantee frights, and Darkside Chronicles reuses over and over again, is sudden enemy attacks. Whether zombies pop out of nowhere or interrupt one of the game’s excessive dialogue sequences, the player is caught off guard and must quickly react. This cheap trick often frustrates as the window between seeing an enemy and them taking a bite of your neck is short, indeed.
Run Away Sequences – Sometimes the characters will spot a group of enemies and quickly turn around and run because “there’s too many of them!”. The player can take a few shots before the viewpoint is suddenly yanked away from them. Given that “too many” tends to be just as many as the player had face earlier in the level, these sequences are frustrating and illogical. If anything, these sequences only encourage reckless shooting.
- Each chapter is undertaken by two characters, one male, one female. The player can select one of the two Resident Evil staples prior to each mission. The viewpoint and gameplay is a little different for each. For example, one character being caught by a zombie while the other tries to shoot it off. This is a subtle, yet significant feature.
- Branching paths also add to the game’s longevity.
- The gun upgrades only work to unbalance and displace the selection of weapons. That is to say, what’s the point of having a shotgun when you can buff up the firepower of your pistol to be just as strong?
- Choosing your load-out, however, encourages the player to find an optimal balance between gun types and keeps a continuity going between levels. The player’s selection of weapons should be reset each story arc, though, as it doesn’t make sense that their cache of weapons can travel between different points of the Resident Evil timeline. This would also add a salvage dynamic to the initial chapters of each arc.
- Some enemies have protracted reaction animations in which they’re protected by invincible frames. The tofu mini-game epitomises this problem as, even though the animation is the same/similar to the zombies, the tofu squares have no physical features, so it’s difficult to tell when they’re about to sprint towards you and when they’re still recovering from a gunshot.
- Similarly, it can be hard to tell which objects are breakable and non-breakable. Amazingly, some windows break while others remain solid.
- This fight with William Birkim is horrible. Small hit boxes, invincible frames, and Birkin’s health bar has no relationship to how close you are to defeating him. Even when the boss’s health is whittled down to nothing, the player still needs to go through the sequence where they’re about to fall off the platform. This is a great example of how the designers betray form for the sake of contrived scares, much to the detriment of gameplay.
I played this game on Wii and would recommend a standard Wii-mote and nun-chuck setup.