The Future, Fox?
This week, Zack Handlen treated us to a review of Nintendo’s new Star Fox game. With this game following the same story and format as the series’ most beloved entries (Star Fox 64 and the SNES original), Merlin The Tuna had to wonder if we could even call this a series at all:
Obligatory “nobody plays Star Fox for the plot” disclaimer aside, it seems like a bit of a red flag that the storyline is once again about James McCloud’s death and Andross’ return. This is a six-game series that has now done three different versions of that tale, and given that Star Fox Adventures was an unrelated game rebranded as Star Fox, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that we’re actually looking at three out of five.
So I guess what I’m saying is: Is this even a series? Repetition with these sorts of things isn’t unusual—Samus is always going to lose her powers and regain most of the same ones she had last time, Mario is always going to beat Bowser and rescue Peach, Mega Man is always going to fight robot masters and defeat Dr. Wily/Sigma—but this doesn’t even seem to give the pretense of being a new adventure.
With this in mind, ItsTheShadsy took some time to praise Star Fox Assault, the series’ GameCube entry:
I was going to post a comment about how almost all the criticisms in this review (unnecessary additional modes that don’t improve on the original gameplay) could apply to Star Fox: Assault. But on second thought, Assault really tried something different. I don’t think it succeeded, but it was at least a conscious attempt to push the series in a new direction. Turning Star Fox into Earth Defense Force might not have been the best way to go about that, since it didn’t play to the series’s acrobatic strengths, but it suggested somewhere else Star Fox could go. (I never played Command, but strategic war game elements are an exciting expansion of the games’ themes.) In contrast, Zero just sounds like a grab bag of ideas thrown into the air.
For as many things Assault got wrong, I was impressed by the risks it took in shaking up the stable of characters. Peppy retired, General Pepper was effectively dead, Krystal stepped up as a central player, Andross never appeared, and so on. The skeleton of the game was still similar, but it seemed like the series could sustain itself by rotating out the periphery. For something as formulaic as Star Fox, light serialization can go a long way toward keeping things fresh. That the story in Star Fox Zero is back to being identical to previous games reeks of broader creative stagnation. It’s troubling that the series is only allowing itself an extremely limited palette to play within, and based on Zack’s review, it sounds like that has bigger consequences.
The “Where does it go from here?” discussion reminds me of the troubles facing the Sonic The Hedgehog games. The original concept was executed brilliantly a few times. Anything trying to recapture the originals will always be in their shadow. But whenever a future game attempts some fundamental change, it’s usually either poorly executed or so divergent from the original DNA that it doesn’t connect. So if it can’t stay the same but is too brittle to evolve…what comes next? Does anything need to come next?
Up With The Sickness
Also this week, we had a new contributor, Alexander Chatziioannou, make his debut with a review of Hyper Light Drifter. The game is a challenging Zelda-like adventure through a gorgeously realized world, and its hero spends the journey battling an illness that has him occasionally coughing up blood and falling unconscious. While his condition may not manifest during fights and interfere with the action, it does create an interesting motivation for the character. It got Wolfman Jew thinking about the ways games could use persistent illnesses to shape stories, characters, and the way we play them:
I feel like we’ve spent some time recently discussing games that deliberately limit your power or success, so the character’s heart condition here is probably the most interesting thing about Hyper Light Drifter for me. This sounds kind of callous considering it has its origins in the creator’s own heart condition, but using medical conditions or disabilities or the like seem like smart ways to influence story and gameplay. Having some kind of constant that affects you in battle can add an extra wrinkle to combat, and games about terminal illness can use that to weaken the player character even as he or she becomes stronger in other areas. That could also help with a game’s difficulty by making it more dynamic, or causing the battle mechanics to be less of a grind by the end.
It’s also not unknown territory; there are games like Crysis 2 and Far Cry 2 (plus an endless number of Japanese RPGs) that do this as well, and Darkest Dungeon hits a lot of the same points. It seems like a simple way to mix gameplay with story and define a game’s heroes beyond glib invulnerability. I’m not even suggesting something like a game about illness—though more things in the vein of That Dragon, Cancer would be good, too—just as a way to spruce up more “traditional” titles.
CrabNaga provided some more detail on how the game handles The Drifter’s illness and pointed out the challenges of implementing such a feature:
There’s a fine line a developer walks when implementing something like this. You can have something that strikes at random, which a lot of players would decry as being “cheap” or “unfair,” but you could have scripted encounters where the debilitation comes to light in a particular encounter, which also sort of takes players out of the game when it becomes clear that the entire encounter is built around the player character having a debilitation (see Arkham City). In HLD, you only ever see it pop up in places where the character is entirely safe, so it’s a steady reminder of the character’s internal struggle without actually forming a potentially annoying or detaching obstacle. If the game had debilitation that was either perfectly telegraphed or based on the performance of the player, it might be a good way to handle this. The Hollowing mechanic from the Souls series is a good example.
Venerable Monk remembered a game that used illness similarly to Hyper Light Drifter:
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery had something similar, where each boss battle would leave you more wounded than the last. You start the game with five hit points and have to finish the last fight with just two. It’s also similar to HLD in that the main character has to stop occasionally to cough up some blood, and such coughing fits got more frequent as you approached the end of the game.
Though the narration kind of spells out the Scythian’s doom early on, it’s the way the game handles her health and physical condition that makes it clear she’s not going to come out the other end of her woeful errand. I’ve mentioned before that I love it when a story lets the audience figure out what’s ahead, and this is a great example of it.
As a side note, if you’re interested in hearing more about Sword & Sworcery’s depleting health, I’d recommend checking out this article on Gamasutra and, more interesting, this accompanying comment from Craig D. Adams, founder of Superbrothers and one of the game’s developers.
Elsewhere, needlehacksaw reasoned that Hyper Light Drifter is one possible manifestation of some people’s desire to see Zelda go back to its more challenging, obtuse roots:
It seems like the developers of Hyper Light Drifter read Tevis Thompson’s “Saving Zelda“ essay and decided to make a game out of it. Thompson argues that the Zelda series has lost a lot what made them great when they were stripped of the sense of discovery and mystery the first game had by emphasizing endless tutorials and markers instead of an open world, a minimum of explanation, and trust in the player’s capability to find their way.
Hyper Light Drifter feels like a thrown gauntlet. The story is only ever alluded to, there are almost no clear explanations on how the mechanics work—the game and its world are just there. Sometimes the effect is marvelous. I remember walking to the Eastern region first and somehow crossing it, but never feeling like I actually knew what I was doing. I came back later and could read the visuals and the level layout like a book. The game had taught me how to play it, and I felt connected.
Then again, it does something that is basically the contrary of a sense of discovery: It hides trinkets basically everywhere, but if often does not give you enough visual clues to find them. At some point, you learn that you should walk to every corner of the room, push against it, and swing your sword because sometimes you’ll find secret passages. This might be evocative of early Zelda, but I was surprised to find myself not enjoying it much. It felt like work. I had to do it so mechanically, so systematically that I felt like a drone much more than an actual explorer. The splendid visuals stopped being beautiful paintings and started being just pixels willfully obfuscating the view to secret (and optional) passages. And I just felt like, well, maybe not everything in Zelda was worth saving—or maybe, if you do try to save it all, you still should find better ways to do it.
That’ll do it for this week, Gamelogians. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!