Wednesday, September 11, 2013

More Random Thoughts


    Yeah, so, kinda funny how for some reason listening to Mega Man X-related musical arrangements always leads me to sudden revelations about that series' gameplay, huh? This time the album in question was Mega Man XA, a fan album containing a variety of tracks from various well-known games of all genres rearranged in the sample set from the SNES Mega Man X games and framed as the OST of a fictional game in the franchise, presumably eponymous.

    It''s okay. It's free, so it's certainly worth a download and a listen, and it's far from bad. Always nice to  hear those old synth sounds again. But I don't think the framing device really works; Mega Man X games always had, at least on the SNES, a very distinctive style of composition called 'metal', and these tracks just don't sound like authentic music from those games even with the chiptune makeover. But that's a flaw in the framing, not the music itself, and it's reasonably enjoyable.

    I had more fun speculating about the non-existent game itself, though - what might the Maverick bosses (all named in their stages' track titles) have been like? Their stages? What twists on the classic mechanics might have been present? What would the Japanese original names for the bosses have been? (My bet is Venom Viper would have been Poisontooth Viperon and Burning Lion would have been Burnout Lionhand, but you are all free to your own lesser opinions.) Music does that to me creatively.

    Anyway, this train of speculation naturally led to general thinking about the mechanics and design choices of the series as a whole, and I got to thinking about how they might have fitted Zero into the game, since 'fitting Zero into the game' tends to be a perennial problem.

For one thing, the poor guy has an awful habit of dying
all the time. Puts a real damper on his employee attendance record.

    Now, I understand that Keiji Inafune always liked Zero better and wanted him to be a playable character from the very start. That's cool, I like Zero, too, and multiple playable characters can - can - add a lot to a game's depth. But, as I've said before, I think the PSX-era Mega Man X games botched this idea horribly, resulting in watered-down gameplay with little in the way of extra content or depth in return. So, I got to thinking a bit about how Zero might have been worked into an SNES-style Mega Man X game in a way that fulfills three conditions:
  1. X must still be the primary character. This is his series, after all, and though he's always been a touch bland in his personality, it is his name on the marquee.
  2. Zero must be a fully playable character. No one-shot cameos or gimmicky mini-game sections - we want him to be fully designed and to play a key role in the player's main experience of the game.
  3. X and Zero must retain their own very different and distinctive play-styles without watering the gameplay down to accommodate both of their shortcomings. We want the stages to be just as tightly designed as they were in the first and second games of the franchise.

    What I came up with, remarkably quickly (it was very late/early and I couldn't sleep, you see), was this: instead of making Zero either a one-time summon the way Mega Man X3 did or an alternate and fully independent playable character the way the PSX games did (very badly), I propose to my imaginary development team that we redesign the stage dynamics to incorporate both characters in complimentary and distinct roles.

    Each Maverick boss's stage should use the following formula: the player begins by controlling Mega Man X as he makes his approach to the boss through the stage via the usual mechanics. Sometime around the mid-point, when the player has gained an idea of how the stage's obstacles work, Mega Man X will come upon an obstacle or enemy he cannot defeat directly (sort of like Vile in the Highway Stage of Mega Man X), and call upon Zero for backup. The player will then switch perspectives to Zero, who will begin a different approach with the goal of eliminating the obstacle that stands in X's way. Zero will go through his own separate part of the stage, designed specifically for his unique mechanics, and at the end will remove the obstacle or mini-boss blocking X's progress. Zero will pass the stage back to X, who will resume where he left off and progress through the rest of the stage until the lead-up to the Maverick boss's chamber, where the player will have the option to proceed with X or call Zero to fight the Maverick.

    This formula would be an improvement over the ways that the series actually handled Zero's involvement in four ways:

  1. X and Zero would be working as a team. The games' plots make a big deal about how X and Zero are a great 'team', but the gameplay almost never reflects this; I think Mega Man X and Mega Man X3 are the only games in the main series that even attempt to show it (I don't count gaiden games like Mega Man X: Command Mission), and the first did not have a playable Zero while the second was just kind of lame all-around, a bloated, directionless mess of a game. Every other game in the series has featured either X or Zero doing things, with only the most token and half-hearted attempts to pay any more than lip-service to their friendship or teamwork. This idea, on the other hand, would allow the two comparable screen-time while showcasing them using their complimentary strengths to accomplish things neither could do alone.  [EDIT: I never played through Mega Man X7 or Mega Man X8, so I don't know how those games handled it. I couldn't stomach trying them after the incredible debacle that was Mega Man X6. Sorry.]
  2. Every playthrough would force the player to play both X and Zero, while still maintaining X as the clear protagonist and Zero as the backup, fulfilling the series' original intent as a feature of gameplay.
  3. X and Zero would each get to make full use of their skills and abilities in stage areas designed specifically for them, instead of having to compromise on bland shared challenges.
  4. The need to have distinct sections of each stage with their own distinct gameplay goals would allow for, and even encourage, far more varied and carefully designed stages - the varying possibilities for things to block X's progress would allow much more freedom in crafting challenges for Zero beyond 'go here and kill this Maverick'. Since the Mega Man Zero games featured exactly this kind of design (questionably executed in some areas, but still present), I am certain the development team would have enjoyed the chance to mix things up while still maintaining the classic formula, and this is just the way to do it. It would be a real expansion of the game's structure without discarding anything about the original formula that worked.

    So...yeah, that's about it. If anyone out there is thinking about making a Mega Man X fangame (preferably in the SNES style), this one's a freebie. Hop to it.

Monday, September 2, 2013


    After reading over my last post, I realize that in my excitement over resuming updates I allowed myself to become overly verbose, so I'll correct that with my promised DragonCon post.

    Too crowded, not enough game panels. No Project M was played. Enjoyed my own costume. Took pictures and will add them later. Tired now, still debating whether or not to do a Fire Man's Stage analysis or just skip to the good stuff. Happy Labor Day.

    Updates will continue at some pace.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Mega Man I: Fire Man's Stage Breakdown


    This stage is either the best or the second-best designed in the game, in my opinion. It isn't overly long or short, it keeps its threats both focused and varied, it is well-paced, and it doesn't end with another Big Eye. Call me petty if you want, but I despise that enemy and the way this game uses it and its big stupid telephone-shaped face. >:[

    It's not without flaw, but it's a strong offering and would, along with Bomb Man's stage, become a model for later games - and rightly so. Take special notice of the nice logical touches to the graphical design, by the way - the lava flow that begins just before Fire Man's room flows down the vertical area leading to it and into the reservoir which takes up the entire bottom of the stage. Though it's far from being 'realistic' in any strict sense of the term, you get the impression that the developers had a clear sense of place for this area unlike, say, my favorite punching bag Cut Man's stage. I'm sure glad I embarked on this analysis or I wouldn't have ever known how much I don't like that stage.

Part 1: Refrain


    This is one of the major reasons I like this stage. Look at this: the developers have neatly folded this area on itself to increase its length without needless padding. In doing so they also accomplished three worthwhile things with elegant simplicity:
  • They restricted the player's jumping capabilities, limiting his options for defeating the lower two Screw Bombers (here represented by the green dots); since jumping over the shots of the two mid-height ones is extremely difficult, he must instead time his shots to destroy them before they have a chance to fire. This is still not unfair because beginning underneath all the Screw Bombers gives him a chance to see their behavior clearly even if this is the first stage he is attempting.
  • They made good use of the diagonal and vertical shots of the lower right Screw Bomber, since the player must run over its position before he can get a shot off on it.
  • They forced the player to use ladders early on in threatening situations, which will become a major theme of the stage in later areas.
    This efficient and attractive design philosophy will mark the entire stage, with a few notable exceptions.

Part 2: Thema



    I love this section. Seriously. This is the sort of section that makes the Mega Man series great. With the exception of Tackle Fires popping up from the lava near the pillar marked 1, there are no threats but the Fire Pillars, which go up and down regularly. The first screen is designed specifically to stop a first-time player short and make him wait a moment, since jumping into the Fire Pillar will obviously knock him back into the lava and get him killed. This gives him a chance to observe the full behavior of the Tackle Fire enemy, which is a perfect match for the Fire Pillars as a hazard - they fly up from the lava in groups of three then drift back down from the top of the screen toward the player, posing a serious hazard if the player chooses that moment to jump and interfering with vertical movement while the Fire Pillar does the same for horizontal.

    All the jumps here are quite easy, and the timing for the Fire Pillar is simple. If the Tackle Fires come too close, the player can safely retreat to the previous screen, and only move forward when he is confident. It perfectly introduces the major hazards of this stage and gives the player a chance to observe them safely and get a handle on their behavior before tackling a forgiving but still real challenge, which is followed by a reprieve in the next two screens where he can choose to risk damage from more Fire Pillars for a couple of Small Life Energy drops at 2 before dealing with the double-threat at 3.

    But wait, there's more! The Big Life energy at 1 also hints toward a feature that will become important for sequences later in the stage, and also in Wily's Robot Factory! It's not a very good hint, but it's something - the top of the Fire Pillar at 1 is the closest thing to the tantalizing Big Life Energy at the top-left of the screen, and a clever player who has beaten Ice Man and experimented with his new Ice Slasher (and who wouldn't have?) to observe its freezing properties might very well try to freeze the Fire Pillar, upon doing which he would discover that it turns blue and becomes solid, forming a safe platform. So the developers worked a sneaky tutorial on an advanced(ish) mechanic into an already very densely and expertly designed tutorial screen while still keeping things so under the radar that most players don't even realize they're being taught.

    Yeah, I feel safe saying that this is probably the single best-designed screen in the entire game. I could probably write an entire blog entry solely about it...but there will be plenty of chances to do that for later, better games because this kind of dense, informative design quickly became a hallmark of the franchise. So, moving on.

Part 3: Episode



    This screen is less good than the first screen of the last section, partly because this new hazard, the Fire Bolt, never appears again in the game and is also virtually identical to the Electric Arc from Elec Man's stage. Though, to be fair, the absence of ladders here does make them a little less annoying than their voltaic cousins, there are still some problems. To aid in illustrating these problems, I have labeled the three Fire Bolts in the game with completely random and non-allusive placeholder names.

    The previous screen places a large obstruction which the player must either go over or under to proceed. The former requires that he have either the Magnet Beam or Ice Slasher, and will deposit him on the platform from which Tom fires. From there, it is a simple matter to time a jump onto the platform which cuts off Dick, then back up to deal with Harry. The player has ample time to observe the timing and the placement of the platforms virtually guarantees that he will jump off Tom's firing block, which is important.

    On the other hand, going under the earlier obstruction will lead him to Dick's firing block. This is problematic because of one major difference between Fire Bolts and Electric Arcs: whereas Electric Arcs are totally harmless when not firing, Fire Bolts retain a tiny ignition flame directly to the right of their firing block which damages Mega Man if he touches it - a nice touch of realism, but problematic from a design perspective, since here it means that the player has no way to avoid taking damage from Dick because Tom's firing block prevents him from jumping.

    Fortunately, there is no real danger here unless the player is at very low health, since the platform below Dick will catch him, but punishing a player with unavoidable damage simply because he has not beaten either of two other stages yet goes against the non-linear philosophy the developers seemed to be striving for. Yes, as we will see, the game is not quite as baldly non-linear as it appears, but a plain damage-gate is poor form, and it and the two others that this stage features go a long way toward establishing this stage's reputation for punishing difficulty, which I do not feel it otherwise deserves. Okay, so maybe I named that one 'Dick' just a little allusively.

    Anyway, after dealing with either Dick and Tom or else just Tom, the player deals with the somewhat higher-stakes Harry; the player must land on the small block directly underneath Harry's bolt in order to clear the gap, but if he does not jump back up quickly enough he risk getting knocked back into the pit below. If he is lucky he may land on the safe ground around the pit and be able to jump back, but it's a slim chance, and even then he must still risk being hit again. It's not the worst death-trap in the game, but it's a nice little escalation for a hazard that we will immediately thereafter never ever see again. I like words.

Part 4: Variation



    This area forms a nice counterpoint to the ascending area immediately prior, and serves to ramp down the tension just a bit before the stage becomes very intense. It is also the final area before the stage's checkpoint (which areas I have neglected to mention in the past four analyses because I couldn't think of anything interesting to say about them).

    The only hazards are the Fire Pillars at 1 and 2 and Tackle Fires coming up from the (seeming) hole at 3. The terrain makes it fairly simple to avoid them, but their real purpose is to remind the player of their respective behavior because things are about to get real very, very soon. They serve that role perfectly adequately, and the three Small Life Energy Drops placed in an easy-to-get nook provide a buffer to make it extra-easy to get through alive if you've gotten this far. The developers are coaxing the player forward, but it is really an example of Suspicious Video Game Generosity, as will become clear in the next section. This is not bad. Quite the opposite, in fact - it is some of the clearest and most sophisticated pacing we have seen in the game so far.

    By the way, that hole at 3 is fake. There is ground immediately below it, and even though it is in another horizontal section, the game registers it and it supports Mega Man. Needless to say, I never discovered this until very, very recently because as a child playing Mega Man I, who wants to risk death right before a checkpoint just to test something like that? The reason the developers left it was to provide graphical justification for the Tackle Fires, I assume.

Part 5: Crescendo



    This section forms the climax of Fire Man's stage, and it does quite a few things very right. The first can be observed taking up most of the bottom of the screen: the lava.

    Unlike in every other Mega Man game, lava in Mega Man I is purely aesthetic; it has no collision programming and this screen is identical to any other mostly-pitfall area in the game...except for the way it looks. But the lava is an animated tile, and the flashing, bright-orange graphics signify 'danger' in a clear and obvious way, lending a far more palpable sense of risk and stakes to this section that it would have had had they left it out. This is an excellent use of the NES's advanced graphical capabilities to enhance player experience, and since (as I pointed out several posts ago) the Mega Man series eventually showed some of the most impressive 8-bit graphics the NES ever had, it's important to note that their efforts began right at the start of the series.

    As for the design behind the graphics, it's just as solid. The player begins this section hanging on a ladder with nothing under it but lava; having had half a stage to get used to the behavior of the Fire Pillars, the player must now drop from the ladder and move right to land on the narrow platform without going so far right as to hit the first pillar at 1, or risk being knocked back regardless. Many first-time players likely die here, but the stage is forgiving enough to restart the player on the safe spot of the second narrow platform, so as long as he has extra lives remaining he is spared at least one difficult jump.

   Tackle Fires begin coming up as soon as the player enters the area, making the jump from one narrow platform to the next triply difficult - not only must he aim his jumps precisely to land at the far left of each and time the next to avoid the Fire Pillar, but he must pay attention to the Tackle Fires falling more or less constantly from the sky - or flying up just in front of him. The wide gap between the platforms at 2 becomes extra-stressful thanks to this constant environmental hazard. After a repeat of 1 at 3, which is not a flaw because it comes quickly enough to stay fresh and frightening, the brief climax comes to an end - and remains fresh in the player's mind as an incentive to stay alive for the following sections.

    Oh, and in once more nice touch, the player gets a hint of the next area's hazard as he climbs up the ladder while gouts of flame spill from the chute to his immediate right. They are harmless here, but they serve the double purpose of explaining the lava flow and previewing the next screen. Can you tell I like this stage?

Part 6: Scherzo



    And then they go and spoil it all by doing something stupid like this doo-doo.  >:[

    This is the second bit of inescapable damage in the stage. I say 'inescapable' because even though it is technically possible to skirt through the gouts of flame that fall past the player's path at 1 and 2, it requires such frame-perfect timing that it is virtually impossible - far too difficult to learn to do reliably without putting in more effort than it's worth (it's easier, or so it seems, on 2 than 1, even if the timing is theoretically the same, but still very hard). By using the Magnet Beam to jump straight up to the top ladder above 1, the player can avoid both firefalls, but rather than being a nice way to skip some challenge if you have it, it ends up being little more than a punishment for making it this far without it.

Part 7: Refrain



    This area serves to ramp down the action of the stage while still providing enough active challenge to maintain engagement for the duration. It recaps the very first section, but with different enemies - namely Spines and Killer Bullets. The Killer Bullets begin attacking the player as he climbs the staircase at 1, while the Spines patrol the horizontal passages. Unfortunately, this is the third area with nigh-unavoidable damage in the stage, since unless the player has some means of killing Spines the horizontal areas at 2 and 3 do not allow the player to safely clear them with a jump. The spine at 2 can be scrolled into oblivion, but the one coming from the right at 3 is impossible to avoid. This is problematic, but in the face of all the excellent design decisions made in the rest of the stage I am willing to forgive a few mistakes.

Part 8: Coda



    This area is simple enough to need little explanation; it is a simple run-up to the boss door. Tackle Fires rise up from the holes near the start, but a player can easily avoid them by not stopping. The Big Weapon Energy at the top of the delicately balanced ladder to the left is a nice handout to any players who have made heavy use of the Ice Slasher during the stage, especially since Fire Man is among the hardest Robot Masters in the game to defeat without his weakness. The two Fire Pillars in front of the door are timed to make it fairly simple to run past them without taking damage, and since all collision detection stops once the player touches the gate, a short hop at the end makes it even simpler.

    Even as simple as it is, however, it makes for a far more satisfying and thematically appropriate end to the stage than just throwing a Big Eye into a room and calling it a day. Seriously, this stage and Bomb Man's stage feel much more complete and proper than the other four for that reason alone, even apart from their superior pacing and design.


    Fire Man's stage is, in my opinion, either the best or the second best of the stages in Mega Man I. It has more focused and well-planned hazards than Bomb Man's stage, but also succumbs slightly more to malicious design. Both are well-paced, just long enough, and visually interesting, and both would become models for future stage designs - Bomb Man's is the archetypal 'starter stage', with its low difficulty level and steady, tutorial-filled pacing, while Fire Man's stage is the archetypal 'challenging stage' with its stressful hazards and compact but intense design. Of the two, my personal favorite is probably Fire Man's, since the platforming is overall more satisfying to an experienced player.

    None of this is taking into account the Robot Masters themselves, of course. But that comes later, after my final analysis of this stage and some much more in-depth examination of Mega Man and the game's mechanical and enemy design philosophy.

Thanks for reading,
The Undesigner

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I'm Back!

Coming soon: Fire Man's stage, followed by some much more serious and in-depth analysis of Mega Man's movement and capabilities, their relation to stage design and enemy behaviors, and how the very first game both succeeded and failed in making full use of it all. Then, a quick pass-over of Wily's robot factory and the bosses therein, followed by moving on to the game that fixed Mega Man I's mistakes and cemented the formula the series would use for nine more games (including 9 and 10) with fairly little variance. During that time I will attempt to introduce some sophisticated new metrics that will (hopefully) reveal subtleties of Mega Man II's design. Mega Man I isn't enough of a masterpiece to warrant that kind of scrutiny; it's enough to use rough metrics here because the game isn't that detailed and serves mostly as an origin and draft for the rest of the series.


Yes, I am not, in fact, dead, nor have I forgotten about this blog or abandoned it. Between an upcoming move predicated upon my girlfriend's current location becoming dangerous, preparing for DragonCON (I will be making exactly one DC post with pictures), and trying to learn Java only to decide it's too much trouble and switch back to Game Maker Studio to whip up a simple platformer engine, something had to give, and it was this blog. I'm sorry to have disappointed all two of my readers. But updates will now resume, though I'm not going to make any promises about pacing.

Expect Fire Man's stage breakdown and analysis sometime before Tuesday. If I fail in that, it will likely have to wait until after DragonCON, since that begins on Wednesday. Our move starts immediately afterward, but once October rolls around I will have significantly more time and energy, which will (partly) go into this blog.

Two months. Holy crap.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mega Man I: Ice Man's Stage Analysis

Stage Divisions

Difficulty Chart

    In keeping with the established 'theme' of Ice Man's stage, it seemed appropriate to split, for the first time, my difficulty analysis. The two lines represent, respectively, the stage's difficulty without and with the Magnet Beam (and attendant powerups). This is, so far, the first stage I have played that is made dramatically easier with the use of powerups - not counting the bosses, of course, which I will cover later - and as such, it serves as an important first in the series. Namely, the first 'expert gate' stage, of which practically every single game will have at least one.

    Other than that, the only remarkable thing here is just how hard Section 5 really is. Because of the way Foot Holders work, even if an expert player goes through it without making a mistake, he still might not make it through without the Magnet Beam if their movements don't allow him to progress. It's the defining flaw of the stage, and in a way of the game: a good idea held back by flawed execution stemming, it would seem, more from technological limitations and a lack of experience (since these ideas were unexplored until this point) rather than incompetence.

Hazard Population

    Notable here is Section 6, which has quite literally no hazards, following on the brutal and unprecedented gauntlet of Section 5. Other than that, the only remarkable feature here seems to be how, despite its considerable length in screen-by-screen terms, the stage looks rather small and short when broken down by analysis. There are fewer ideas at work in this stage than in many of the shorter ones in the game, and that is likely why it seems to breeze by in play - over half of the stage's length is taken by Sections 1 to 3, which have virtually no challenge and take very little time to complete.

    Next time, we move on to the last of the six Robot Master stages, Fire Man's Stage. From there, I'll move to some more in-depth discussions of different aspects of the game, starting with the six Robot Masters themselves, then synthesize some of all that information back together into a coherent picture of the game from a design perspective before moving on to the Wily Stages.

Thanks for reading,
The Undesigner

Friday, June 21, 2013

Another Quick Apology

Once more, I have spent so much time getting up to speed on my coding skills and also working on sprites that I have sadly neglected my blog. I apologize, and will work to have an update ready sometime next week, probably early. In the meantime, here is a sprite that I have accomplished. Or, a single animation for a sprite.

So, um, yeah. There's that.  ._."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mega Man I: Ice Man's Stage Video Comparison

CORRECTION: I know there are three runs in the video, not two, as it states in the beginning text. This is because I was originally planning to show the death as part of the first run instead of dividing them, and forgot to change the text once I changed my mind. It isn't worth going back and rerendering and reposting the video now.

    Framed in light of the extreme difference in challenge depending on whether the player has the Magnet Beam or not, this stage forms the clearest example we've seen so far of the way the Mega Man games provide guidance to the player without forcing linearity. An expert player can, if he chooses, bull through this stage with nothing but the Mega Buster, and succeed. But a beginner player who finds this too challenging is free to explore other stages and collect powerups first to bring the game down to his level. It's an inelegant example, due to the frustrating nature of this stage's biggest challenge, but at its core the idea is sound, and the developers would promptly begin refining and perfecting it by the next game.