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Give No Quarter: The New-School Arcade Experience
by on 08/09/10 12:35:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Whether you were around to experience and enjoy arcade gaming's Golden Age as it unfolded or not, near everyone has played, enjoyed and appreciates the likes of Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Frogger, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Moon Patrol, Dig-Dug and all the equally unforgettable rest that make up that unique, special and one-of-a-kind era of arcade gaming history. What the recent proliferation of numerous, successful digital distribution outlets has demonstrated, however, is that people still very much have a place in their hearts (and budgets) for these kinds of elegantly simple, skill, challenge and high-score-based arcade games. And, I mean not the ports of the classics that were designed to dole out entertainment 25 cents at a time, but those new, modern arcade titles that ask players to give no quarter—those which offer, what I like to call, the new-school arcade experience.

iBailout!! is a new-school arcade experience. It's highly accessible, simply designed and exceedingly forgiving, yet still enforces consequential play. It may seem that final characteristic, consequentiality, is at odds with the previous three, which are all concerned with making things as easy as possible for the player, but this is actually the single most important trait, as it's the one responsible for infusing the experience with meaning.

Old-school arcade games' consequentiality was built into their very DNA as it was, quite literally, their business model—if that ghost caught up with Ms. Pac-Man for that final time, as finely accessorized as she is, the player's hard-earned money was going straight down the drain and that game, ladies and gentlemen, is over. The iPhone version of Ms. Pac-Man, though, allows continues and starting the game from any level previously reached on earlier playthroughs. Not only does this corrupt the integrity of a leaderboard and high score, but it effectively removes any sort of real motivation or excitement from the prospect of losing, which is essential to maintaining engagement in challenge, skill and high-score-based, Golden Age-style arcade games.

New-school arcade games extend the experience not through undermining their own ludic foundations, but through treating their players as they would like to be treated: Accessibly, simply and forgivingly.

Swiping is about as accessible and simple as it gets and that's the sole input required of players in iBailout!!. Further, the first two levels are as stripped down as possible in terms of challenge (only one enemy mob to contend with) in order to give even the least skilled of players a reasonable shot at achieving a couple quick, early victories—like Ms. Pac-Man, the Act I cut scene plays immediately after finishing the second stage and fully 1/3 of the narrative is offered up to pretty much anyone that shows up on time and sober (enough).

Inspired of Ms. Pac-Man as it is, the simple design of iBailout!! flows along the familiar lines of eating dots (stacks of cash), grabbing power-ups (assault rifles) and evading enemies (mobs of angry, torch and pitchfork-bearing American citizens). What raises it up to innovative homage, however, is the way the enemies function, whereby mob members populate in proportion to how much cash you loot, follow each other in single-file lines and, if that single-file marching mob is attacked perpendicularly on a martial law/power-up run, it splits and forms two separate and fully independent mobs. Such a dynamic means that the amount of individual enemy groups on screen and after the player at any one given time is strictly the result of player action and style. This makes for a deeper and much more tactical and strategic experience, though it never adds an undue amount of complexity to the design and maintains the inherent simplicity of the play as these dynamics function with or without the player consciously thinking of and adapting their play style to them.

Forgiveness, the natural complement of accessibility and simplicity, is an indisputable virtue in almost all games, but especially in one seeking to offer the new-school arcade experience. Within iBailout!!, forgiveness is central to the experience and very prominently utilized (it happens to be the key component of its satire and meaning too) through players being rewarded for their failures by being granted a one-time bailout upon their first “Game Over”. After losing all their lives, players are whisked to a bailout bonus round populated with golden parachutes that earn bonus 1-UPs at the rate of one extra life per every 20 golden parachutes eaten. With it possible to earn up to seven extra lives and return to the game exactly where they previously left off, players essentially have all the benefits of a continue without any of the drawbacks of reduced consequentiality (the bailout's an one-time offer) and this makes for a much more fun, exciting and naturally extended play session.

Bailouts are not the only way to earn bonus 1-UPs in iBailout!! either; there are also very liberal high-score and martial law/power-up run-based methods. Upon $5,000,000,000,000.00 cash looted (we use big numbers 'round these iBailout!!'n parts) players earn an 1-UP and additional 1-UPs are earned every $2,500,000,000,000.00 looted thereafter—these 1-UPs are usually earned around stage three or four and every couple stages from then on, respectively. Mowing down three or more entire lines of mobs on a single martial law/power-up run also earns players an 1-UP, with those timing their assault rifle power-ups just right able to earn three or more 1-UPs at a time (opportunities for these particular 1-UP bonuses occur much more frequently in later stages of the game where enemies are more plentiful; this especially adds a little something extra for the most skilled players, as it opens up more strategies and tactical maneuvers the deeper you go). The net result of such bountiful bonus 1-UP opportunities is that almost everyone walks away from a game of iBailout!! having earned at least a handful of extra lives, with highly skilled players racking up bonus 1-UP tallies in the low dozens.

  

Embodying various aspects of all of the first three new-school arcade experience characteristics (accessibility, simplicity and forgiveness), iBailout!!'s 1-UP bonus systems are the most illustrative example of how related each of these three traits are and how much they complement and reinforce each other. The extensive bonus life opportunities make it much easier to get over losing a life (forgiveness), which makes the game easier, hence more approachable (accessibility), which makes it more likely players will engage long enough with the game to automatically earn (simplicity) more high score-based bonus lives. A more forgiving game is a more accessible one is a simpler one. And, almost always, a better one.

With these three characteristics all concurrently being in play, an iBailout!! game can last anywhere from minutes to around an hour, depending upon practice and skill of players, more than elastic and adaptable enough to keep those across the skill spectrum's attentions. As the new-school arcade experience is one that is not engaged with at an actual arcade, but at home (or, in the case of mobile games, wherever the player happens to find themselves at the time), I think it only natural (though, not essential) that the promise of an extended play session be part of the deal for skilled, repeat players. Mind you, this extended play should never come at the expense of denying satisfaction in minutes, just that, for players whom really enjoy your game and desire more involving play experiences, this depth is ready and waiting for them to explore and enjoy.

As I said in the beginning, the rise of digital distribution is primarily to thank for providing the opportunity to bring the new-school arcade genre to life, as this kind of title just really isn't designed to sell at the typical retail price. Further, I submit these recent high-profile, digital distribution titles as other successful examples on offer to players of the new-school arcade experience: Canabalt, Doodle Jump, Pac-Man Championship Edition, Pix'n Love Rush, and Space Invaders Extreme.

Canabalt, at just a tap, is even more accessible than swiping, its strictly focused design of bare-bones platform jumping is elegantly simple and falling quickly enforces consequentiality and “Game Over”. While it ostensibly may not seem too forgiving, I think it can be honestly argued that the rapid ease at which players can restart and jump right back into the game for another go more than qualifies it in this regard.

Doodle Jump has players simply tilting their iDevices to guide their little green man to the most advantageous platform in reach, whereupon landing he jumps again automatically—it's difficult to say whether this is more or less simple and accessible than Canabalt or not. Again, as with the previous iPhone title, this is a game of strict consequence and there are no extra lives or second chances, but the quickness with which players can play again and continue their attempt at a new high score makes for some very forgivable ruthlessness.

Pac-Man: Championship Edition, with only the joystick needing be used, is just as incredibly accessible and simple an affair as ever it was and the great and very fun iteration of its classic design—recycling the action on a single stage through eating and resetting the dots, fruits and power-ups from one side of the stage to the other—handily updates, modernizes and speeds up the formula without unnecessarily complicating matters any. Also, how early and often extra lives are awarded (and how their gain and loss affect the tempo of gameplay) make Iwatani's latest work endearingly forgiving and perfectly embodies this key new-school arcade aspect.

 

Pix'n Love Rush, aside from being absolutely brilliant and easily one of the very best games of late to be found on the App Store or off, most definitely offers the new-school arcade experience in every one of the four key characteristics. Combo points multipliers (which trigger dramatic, retro aesthetic graphical shifts) function as life reserves in that the higher the multiplier, the deeper the layers of graphical shifts, where, at the deepest layer, players easily have around a half-dozen or so layers that they can fall back to upon making mistakes before “Game Over”--plenty of opportunity to go back into a deep layer again after making a mistake makes this system that much more forgiving, engaging and dynamic. Pix'n Love's inputs (moving, jumping and shooting) are easily the most complex and least accessible of this bunch, though, they're still very much focused and, even though they may be a bit too much for some to quickly become proficient, the ample forgiveness and retro charm make this mostly a non-issue for all new-school arcade intents and purposes.

Space Invaders Extreme is another quality update of one of the classics and, while it's definitely somewhat relatively complex, its depth and extra controls (various bonus rules, holding the shoulder button to pause power-up ammo usage, etc.) need not even be acknowledged to enjoy the game and great fun is to be had just from mindlessly blasting away, much like the original. It's also forgiving in that it's possible to earn extra lives throughout the course of the game and, in the DS version's “Ranking Mode”, consequentiality is strictly enforced.

 

iBailout!!, Canabalt, Doodle Jump, Pac-Man C.E., Pix'n Love Rush, Space Invaders Extreme and, if we're lucky, many, many more great games to come are the promise of the new-school arcade experience. It's a promise and genre that can exist and occur only within a form that's at least starting to undergo some maturation, which I think is, and this is just one way, the new-school arcade experience.

Accessibility, simplicity, forgiveness and consequentiality are the stuff of which arcade games of the 21st century and beyond are made.


Photos + pretty graphics: An Aaron Biggs Joint


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