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Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games

January 14, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 7 of 21 Next

6. Magic Sword

Many items, Bubble Bobble-like item functions, and surprisingly deep strategy

Published & developed by Capcom

Designed by Y. Ohnishi, T. Sadamoto and Y. Okamoto.

Reason for inclusion:

Sorta like Bubble Bobble with barbarians, a hack-and-slash platformer with a lot more personality and depth than it has any right having.

The game:

Magic Sword is an inexplicably awesome little arcade game. It's a fantasy hack-and-slash that doesn't take itself too seriously, and feels more like a relative of stuff like Pang and Rainbow Islands than contemporary Capcom fantasy games King of Dragons and Knights of the Round.

Those two games are actually brawlers, more like Final Fight than D&D. Magic Sword manages to feel more genuinely adventurous because, mostly, of the wide variety of secret things to find. The game's "helper" character system plays a role here. Helpers are assistant characters who follow the player and generally copy his movements. They work a bit like options in Gradius, but the player can only have one at a time, and they can take damage. As the player makes it through the tower's 50 levels, he encounters various doors with different kinds of locks on them. Opening a door uses up a key but makes available the contents -- usually a helper and a item. There's actually not a key shortage per se, and the early levels give the player an essentially infinite supply of each type (but finishing a level with extra keys is worth more points, and more bonus health).

The keys add an element of resource management to the search for treasure. Most of the doors are plainly visible, but opening all of them costs the player a key if he has one to spare. Inside there are a variety of items and helpers, but the player doesn't know what unless he's memorized them on previous playthroughs. (Some even contain enemies.) The helpers have different strengths that make them better suited for some areas than others: some have powerful melee attacks, some fast distance attacks, some magic that's strong against undead enemies, and one, the Thief, locates hidden objects for the player. A couple helpers are themselves secret, appearing only in a few places or from special means, and are fairly high-caliber discoverables for this kind of game.

The thing that makes the secrets in Magic Sword particularly impressive is the amount of coding that went into them. The helpers each have their own subroutines and effects upon the game for finding them. The big tradeoff for including truly secret secrets in games is: why waste manpower including content that will only be seen by a small percentage of players?

One reason is that it randomizes the game. If players can't always find a useful object because he doesn't know what makes it show up, or doesn't even know it exists, it increases the diversity of experience, and ultimately makes the game more replayable. Different players end up facing different challenges. Beating a boss with a Lizardman is easier than with a Thief, but the Thief will show hidden chests that may provide their own advantages, which could be just a useful in the boss fight.

Another reason is that it makes the game feel more mysterious. Most games these days are laid out on a linear track without opportunity for meaningful deviation. Deviation could come from providing alternate territory to explore, like in Mario games, or it could come from varying the resources available to the player.

Design lesson:

Although the enemy and item positions are generally hard-coded, there's enough randomness in Magic Sword, enough changes to the game situation made possible by whatever helper or item he has, that in practice it's really quite replayable. This way, the implications of the pre-made levels vary according to the player's helper and carried item, where the player can only have one of either of those things at a time. It's a style of game design that's relatively uncommon anymore, yet can greatly extend playability if done well.


Article Start Previous Page 7 of 21 Next

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