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In Praise of the A Button

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It could be the context-sensitive buttons in Ocarina of Time or Resident Evil 4. Or maybe the ground-pound in Donkey Kong Country. You’ve probably experienced it throughout Super Mario Bros. and spent hours getting better at it in Star Fox. Indie hits and the best mobile titles understand it. Sometimes, even Nintendo forgets about it.

It’s the value of simplicity. It’s part of the vision for a game, and it’s used throughout the industry. In art, it can be choosing stylised visuals over highly detailed, realistic graphics. In music, it could be the use of memorable melodies. For controls, it is the ease of the player translating what they want to do into what actually happens.

First, understand that valuing this simplicity is very personal. Every game I’ve ever really loved has some kind of primal simplicity to its mechanics or narrative hook. While I am willing to bet that most people visiting a Nintendo website share this history, it is not a universal value for all gamers.

The most exciting aspect of simplicity, especially in Nintendo games, has been the limited vocabulary. Rather than just adding 20% to your movement speed or extra damage as you level up, the levels themselves evolve. You begin Mario by jumping, running and sometimes shooting fireballs – by the end, you still are – but you have been through, over and under an entire world. You understand the versatility of Mario’s jump and run.

Given all that, why should we praise simplicity in video games? It’s because the core ideas of a game are what last. We remember jumping and stomping goombas in Super Mario Bros. and shooting in Space Invaders. The most important interaction in the original The Legend of Zelda? Slashing objects with Link’s sword. In Metroid? Samus opens doors by shooting them because that’s what you, as the player, can do.

What do you do in the Assassin’s Creed games? In the first, you could probably reduce it to listening to conversations, jumping off of tall buildings and killing people. As the series has gone on, more and more has been added to its vocabulary, diluting its simple formula. No one even calls them stealth games anymore and their popularity is waning. Games in this vein have all been lumped into the vague “action-adventure” category and are approaching critical mass.

By contrast, shooters are going through a renaissance. Games like the latest Wolfenstein, Blizzard’s upcoming Overwatch, and most importantly, Splatoon, are returning to the primal simplicity of “move and shoot” and making massive waves by doing so.

In a completely different way, games following Half Life, or more recently, the Dark Souls series, have altered the delivery of story to avoid breaking your control of the character, and to reduce the external information (such as complicated lore) that is unnecessary for playing the game.

By returning to a Nintendo-like focus on player interaction, developers are freer to innovate in setting, story, characters, and new mechanics. Indie darlings like Stardew Valley or Undertale can be played with four directions and a few interaction buttons.

We can see the dangers of forgetting these lessons in Nintendo’s games too. The Wind Waker was a beautiful cartoon to those who loved it, while Twilight Princess tried a more naturalistic look and expanded into an epic adventure – a Lord of the Rings pastiche and gunslinging western in one. For its lack of focus, the latter game ultimately suffered in comparison.

Later, Skyward Sword became a running joke (pun not intended) for its “stamina lime”. Not to mention the recent backlash against the cumbersome controls of Star Fox Zero, where in the original and Star Fox 64 it only required one directional input and a couple of different buttons for various boosts and shooting.

Resident Evil is another series that, at its Resi 4 and REmake heights, was associated with Nintendo, and only ever needed one thumbstick: used for both aiming and shooting. When Resident Evil zigged away to the high definition consoles while Nintendo zagged with the Wii, each entry added more and more modes of interaction. This was ostensibly to make them more like action games but just resulted in Resident Evil 6: incredibly detailed graphically, but a controller-chucking nightmare with dodge rolls, two different types of crouching, arcane weapon switching menus and worse.

Shovel Knight, the best game of 2014 and filled to the brim with action and adventure, could be played on an NES controller and still feels more advanced than the bloated, fourteen-button annual releases from big publishers. Even in that year, the well-received Shadow of Mordor succeeded by simplifying the Assassin’s Creed style of play and adding more interesting systems that could be interacted with using a morerefined vocabulary.

All of this is to highlight how wonderful simplicity can be. Look to the Bravely Default games, whose turn-based battles are a welcome change to increasingly complicated JRPG battle systems. Look to Super Mario Galaxy and its successors, that achieved so much by trimming the number of moves that Mario uses. Look especially at Splatoon, a game that made shooters even more accessible by simplifying the controls. Finally, see the love showered upon the timeless art styles of The Wind Waker or Paper Mario as opposed to more “realistic” games that become dated as they age.

With video games always evolving as a medium and virtual reality upon us, it is important to praise the core values that make games that people love and games that last. With the Wii U on its last legs and the NX on the horizon, if Nintendo is still going to compete, they will also make an effort to return to their strengths in simplicity. After all, the tall grass in Pokémon doesn’t need to be photo-realistic, and Samus Aran doesn’t need her attacks mapped to ten different buttons.

  • Mitchell Akhurst

A button

 

Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Katrina Filippidis

    April 28, 2016 at 3:01 am

    Completely agree with this article! I always felt that assigning too many buttons to things is just cognitive overload, and on the flipside, you can have relatively few button designations but if they don’t make sense that’s bad for gameplay too. Here I’m referencing some of the older games that Angry Video Game Nerd plays where the buttons are so hard to figure out & gameplay is poorly designed. But when you get it right, less is definitely more.

    • Mitchell Ryan

      April 29, 2016 at 5:36 am

      Thanks for the response, I feel like it maybe speaks more to Nintendo fans or fans of retro games because of the minimalism that ex fact0r mentions. And a great point with the poorly designed controls.

  2. ex fact0r

    April 28, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    Some of your comparisons & comments here are completely out of left field. When did this “renaissance” in the shooting genre happen? Aside from Wolfenstein: The New Order, there hasn’t exactly been an influx of classic styled shooters recently. And how do you make a direct comparison between Wolfenstein and Overwatch? One is a single player only hallway shooter and the other is a multiplayer only MOBA+FPS hybrid. Qualifying Overwatch as simply a “move and shoot” game is a drastic underselling of the game’s depth, and quite frankly, just plain wrong.

    Shadow of Mordor is a simplified Assassin’s Creed? Shadow of Mordor has skill trees and more button combinations than any Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played (and I’ve played most of them…). Speaking of Assassin’s Creed, my most memorable and enjoyable thing to do in those games is using the hidden blade, which happens at the simple press of one button. As the games have gone on, the Assassin’s toolkit has grown, but I hardly call adding a weapon wheel to be complex. Funnily enough, ever since the series’ inception, the biggest critique of the Assassin’s Creed games has been that its open combat is too simple due to minimalist design (counter attack all day), so I highly doubt anyone is staying away from these games due to complexity.

    At the end of the day, I agree with the core of your argument (“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci), but there’s a huge difference between simplicity and minimalism. It’s rather irrelevant how many buttons are needed for a game. I’d argue that both Super Mario Bros and World of Warcraft have beautiful simplicity to them, yet one game has me pressing a couple of buttons while the other has me pressing dozens of buttons, frantically…

    • Mitchell Ryan

      April 29, 2016 at 5:51 am

      Thanks for such an in depth response! While I don’t necessarily think it’s all about minimalism, there is definitely a level of simplicity that isn’t for everyone, for the same reason that the frantic multi-button battles of WoW aren’t for everyone.
      As to Overwatch, you might be thinking of Battleborn — apart from the wider than usual choice of characters there is nothing MOBA-like about it. Like Blizzard’s games usually are (and it sounds like you agree when it comes to WoW), the simplicity of their vision is taking a well understood genre, in this case a team/arena shooter, and adding their special touch. I’d say that’s in the spirit of the Nintendo simplicity that I’m trying to laud.
      In any case, I’m glad to see that topics like this can encourage this sort of debate. While I might not be the one to write it, I can see an interesting story in here about the combat of Assassin’s Creed!

      • ex fact0r

        April 29, 2016 at 7:54 am

        I’ve been playing Overwatch since the early beta phase, and it definitely has a very large MOBA influence. Each character has 4~ unique abilities, including an ultimate, exactly like characters in MOBA games. And unlike practically all other big shooters (Halo, CoD, Battlefield, etc) there is a character select screen (ala MOBAs) where the team picks their heroes in an attempt to make a team of characters that synergize with each other while also getting a balance of tanks, healers, damage dealers, and supports (again, ala MOBAs). For years shooters have had basic classes like ‘sniper’ and ‘assault’, but Overwatch’s characters & their abilities, and the capacity for so many team compositions and ability combinations is so distinctly MOBA. As an avid MOBA fan and an Overwatch player, I think it’s impossible to deny the MOBA influence here 🙂

        • Mitchell Ryan

          April 29, 2016 at 9:47 pm

          This is really good, most of the preview content so far hasn’t described it like this. I’ll definitely have to come back and write something on the open beta. Perhaps a look at all the differences between Overwatch and Splatoon.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.

RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.

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Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.

The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.

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The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.

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