Game Design Essentials: 20 Open World Games
September 26, 2007 Page 5 of 11
7. Super Metroid
Takes the ideas introduced by Metroid and refines them to a sharp edge. Arguably more influential than the original game.
Published by Nintendo
Developed by Nintendo R&D 1
Designed by Gunpei Yokoi, Yoshio Sakamoto and Makoto Kanoh
Platform: Super Famicom, SNES
Super Metroid is widely regarded as the best in the series, and one of the best games ever made. The game is loaded with secrets of both the normal, find-the-powerup variety, and of cleverer types. Even the bosses have secrets: Phantoon is not overwhelmingly difficult to beat if normal missiles are used, but hit it with a powerful super missile and it goes nuts, flailing around the room invincible for some time. Draygon, the boss of the Maridia area, has an amazing secret way to beat it: high up in the room is an open electric relay with a stream of electricity bridging the gap. Jump up and grab it with the Grapple Beam. Samus will take some damage while attached, but when Draygon grabs her he'll take far more, and die very rapidly!
Also of note, the game plays out, in large part, as a labor of love for fans of the original game. One of the first areas the player explores is the opening Brinstar areas of Metroid, which haven't been made over to reflect the more powerful system; while the rest of Zebes has received a tremendous graphical makeover, the areas that are supposed to represent the original game have boxy, low-color tiles similar to those on the NES. The game's final sequences play out a lot like they do on the NES, too....
Super Metroid is a game many people rave over, but few do a good job of explaining what it is about it that's cool. It's like they play it, and they know. But what is it that fascinates them? I've yet to see someone convincingly put it into words. Well, here goes.
Super Metroid, if not the very first, was among the first open world games to offer a mapping facility to the player. Before this it was mostly a feature used by particular forward-thinking RPGs like Might & Magic. Automaps in exploration games are common now, and every Metroid-inspired Castlevania provides one. Super Metroid's shows the outlines of the rooms, the locations of save rooms and refills, and even provides dots showing the locations of items. But it doesn't show everything. Not coincidentally, the displayed borders of the rooms matches up with the visible walls of that area, often coinciding with scrolling boundries. If a secret passage extends through the wall to a hidden chamber in a corner of the room, the screen often won't scroll into the chamber until the passage has been found, and only once the room has been entered will it appear on the map.
The developers also learned important lessons, concerning frustrating secret areas and stuck players, from the original game. Now there are many types of special block other than just destroyable. There are shot blocks, missile blocks, super missile blocks, bomb blocks, power bomb blocks and speed booster blocks.
In the hands of lesser designers each block type would simply be equivalent to a lock, with its proper means of destruction being its key, but they saw the shallowness of that approach. Instead, "low" level types, like missile blocks and bomb blocks, can also be destroyed by their high-powered counterparts, and many passages (especially speed booster ones) are hidden in ways that make them difficult to be broken with their matching weapon. This idea would be improved upon in Metroid Zero Mission to great effect. Special block types are normally not visible, but using bombs, super bombs or the X-Ray Scope can reveal them.
Finally, there's the matter of graphics. Open world games place special stress on their graphics, since each area must seem unique if the player isn't to get them confused. The sameness of the passages in some areas of the original Metroid is probably one of its greatest flaws, although it is likely an unavoidable one considering the time it was made. And a lot of the fun in any adventure is the mere thrill of seeing new things, especially if they were difficult to reach or feel like they aren't supposed to be there. Urban explorers get the same kick out of abandoned buildings and sewer systems. Super Metroid's graphics are more than adequate for this task.
But the space between bosses and powerups never feels like empty graphics. Lots of ordinary rooms are still quite challenging, many areas contain secrets to find, interesting one-shot enemies are scattered around, sub-bosses like the infamous Crocomire are interesting both to fight and to look at, and the maze itself is an interesting enough puzzle. When people play a game like this and complain about "getting lost," they may consider that a flaw in the design instead of a puzzle intended to challenge them. Is it really good design or bad? The answer lies, perhaps, in the expectations the game sets up in the player's mind.
What does it do well?
Providing a large, varied, interesting world, riddled with secret areas and tricky puzzles: these things are the essence of an exploration game, and while it didn't create the genre, Super Metroid provided necessary refinements that brought it forward. The Metroid Prime games, although taking place in three dimensions instead of two, all arguably take more after Super Metroid, with its purposeful rooms and caverns, boss reward areas, and point-to-point travel, than the far-less-linear Metroid.
Exploration games live or die, not by their boss fights or powerups, but by how fun the game makes the mere act of navigating corridors and seeing the sights. If you don't think such things are entertaining then you may not want to develop one.
The design of an automap can make or break these games. If the player can see everything he needs to know without going there and looking, then a large portion of the incentive for exploration is gone, even if the player has to go there to obtain them. Open world games work best, by far, when the world isn't just space between powerups and bosses. I can't emphasize this enough: make exploring the world interesting for its own sake!
But how to do that? Well, I can't tell you everything.
8. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
The beginning of a massive revision of the series, and still possibly the best Castlevania game we've seen.
Developed by Konami
(Find designer and developer)
Platform: Playstation, Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade), PSP (Rondo of Blood)
Symphony of the Night didn't just introduce the Metroid paradigm to Castlevania games, complete with automap and horizon-expanding powerups, it also introduced the series tradition of having a "fake" ending, found after beating an apparent final boss, and a "true" one, obtained by performing some trick before beating it, which reveals a second portion of the game.
The GBA and DS Castlevanias make varying amounts of hay over this feature, but it was Symphony, way back on the original Playstation, that took it to extremes, offering an entire second castle to explore.
Symphony of the Night is still regarded by many as the high-point of the series. Its clever sprite-work, intricate map design, imaginative abilities, and use-once puzzles and tricks are also found in the DS games, and are still excellent, but their impact is less since we've seen their like before by now. And for some reason, Symphony seems to have a super-abundance of these things.
The atmosphere is also unsurpassed in this installment. The games are called Castlevania after all, and ever since the first game, with its progress-plotting map between levels, the series has striven to make the castle itself seem like an actual place instead of just a sequence of rooms. The object of the game is not to defeat Dracula, who is just the head of the beast; it is to defeat the castle. That's why the ending always shows it crumbling! When the series made the transition to free-roaming exploration that essential fact became much more prominent. The castle seems more like a real place when you can travel through its corridors at will instead of being forced through in sequence.
In recent installments the developers seem to have tired of designing gothic corridors and staircases over and over, and have attempted livening it up with, for example, the painting worlds in Portrait of Ruin. This could be seen as a mistake. Exploring an European city, a circus, or a rustic mansion may have been fit into the story by the scenario writer, but they suffer from discarding the game's strong sense of place. The result was that, while the castle still has a few puzzles and secrets to find, it seems like a greatly reduced world with the emphasis placed on the paintings.
The castle in Symphony of the Night, on the other hand, is among the most interesting of the whole series. It's laid out believably, its crumbling sections hide an interesting array of objects to use, and there's also the interesting sense that the player is returning to it. His character is Alucard, the half-vampire son of Dracula himself, who not only has lived here before but also fought against it in an earlier game. Perhaps that makes it fitting that this is the first game to permit its free travel: Alucard has come home.
What does it do well?
As far as game secrets goes, the game's second castle ranks high up there, fully the size of the whole first part of the game! The decision to make it just like the first but upside-down is a masterstroke. It's economical in that art assets for the second half didn't need to be created, nor does it take up any more CD space as the flipped tiles can be made with a simple hardware effect. Yet it's still interesting to explore because, as with many open world games, the first trip through tends to be cursory. And since "down," the one direction with any special meaning in a side-scroller due to gravity, is flipped, exploring the areas provides interesting new challenges, as do the different monsters in the inverted castle.
Action games are about fighting, and the maps are a setting for the fighting to happen. Exploration games are about place, with the fighting being what you do there. Let us meditate on this wisdom now... ommmm....
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