Friday, March 15, 2013

Blue Robots Can Jump

Before We Start

    I found a really good article on the topic of 'Game Feel' on Gamasutra while prancing around the internet recently. It's here. Read it. It's very important to understand what I mean by that term, and the author is quite right that this 'hidden element' of game design, the most elemental particle of player experience, often gets pushed aside in the pursuit of other things. I very strongly believe, however, that the lasting appeal of classic games lies in the attention to this factor that their developers quite obviously paid. I am going to get very nitpicky in this post. I'm going to post videos and pictures, not just from Mega Man games but from other games, because the point I'm going to try to make is a little difficult to articulate.

    If you can, in any [legal]* way at all, get access to one of the original 8-bit Mega Man games, their modern successors (Mega Man 9 and 10, available on the Wii VC, PSN, and XBLA), or the absolutely marvelous 8-bit re-imaginings of the two non-8-bit Mega Man games, 7 and 8, do so. I will do my best to describe and show what makes the Mega Man games such a joy to play, but it will never be the same as playing them yourself. The last two are free and legal, so if you're money-challenged they're probably your best bet, especially if you can play them with a decent PC controller. I can attest that they duplicate the feel of the true 8-bit Mega Man games perfectly. Mega Man 8 can be downloaded here (you want 3.12b) and Mega Man 7 here (you want the link that says ver.final2). I can't promise how long they will be up.

*Obviously I have no way of controlling how you actually go about getting your Mega Man experiences, nor would I care to if I did. Emulators and ROMs are freely available, but I'm not going to help you find them and, again, I'm not going to officially endorse piracy on this blog. Your booty, your business.

Jumping in Platformers

    The most basic purpose of jumping in any platformer is to give the player a means to change the avatar's Y-position. But beyond that simple purpose lie a host of decisions - far more than one would expect, and this is due to a certain principle of game design that I have observed, which I will describe briefly here.

The Principle of Genre Resolution

    Originality is prized in game development, and while I believe that part of this stems from the psychological effect that playing hundreds and hundreds of games has on the minds of reviewers (on whose good graces so much of a game's success depends that it has more or less corrupted the entire industry of mainstream game journalism), it is certainly true that one of the things any game must do is differentiate itself from other games. But art is imitation, and the basic nature of games and the existence of natural pathways of human activity and cognition, which limit the basic means of interacting with machines, requires that games also resemble each other. This leads to the formation of certain basic kinds of games, which we call 'genres'. Now, plenty of people have commented on how miserably disorganized the common genre divisions of games are, whether to call for or propose changes or merely to comment. I have no interest in that; I merely want to make a minor observation about the relative demands that gamers place on games that fall clearly into well-defined genres and games that do not.

This is a game in a well-established genre. Can you even tell which
one it is?
This is not a game in a well-established genre, unless
'Product of a Diseased Mind' is a genre now.

    I call this principle I am observing the principle of 'Genre Resolution' because it concerns the amount of attention to detail expected of developers the more established the genre of their game is. A game like Katamari Damacy, which was wholly original*, can get away with a sloppier gamefeel, especially if it further characterizes itself with quirky aesthetics; players are absorbed by the freshness of the experience, and additionally have fewer standards by which to judge the game's qualities. On the other hand, a game like Call of Duty not only has to meet heightened player expectations about the elements it draws from the known classics it resembles, it also has to find ways to use them to create an experience different enough from their sources to be interesting. Just as an image must be more detailed the larger its canvas, a game must be more carefully realized the more populated (and popular) its genre.

* Actually, it was just the premise of the old Intellivision game Shark! Shark! realized with 3D graphics and tank-style controls and with the challenge lowered for a casual audience, not original at all. But we'll let them dream.

    Platformers were just beginning to come into their own as a genre at the time of Mega Man's release, and top-rate developers realized this meant they would have to put more thought into how they used the genre's elements to achieve their design goals. I would like to take a moment to look at some other platformers that came out at similar times, to show just how much variation something as simple as a jump can display, and to explain how different 'styles' of jumping worked with different design goals; this will help to contextualize my discussion of Mega Man's gamefeel.

High-Speed Obstacle Course: Super Mario Bros.

 Design Characteristics

    Super Mario Bros. provides its challenge in encouraging the player to move as quickly as possible through each board; the boards are without exception designed to scroll from left to right only, with no changes in horizontal position, and the only two non-contextual actions the player can perform are moving horizontally (with the option of increasing speed by running with the B button) and jumping. Mario's movement is Newtonian and his horizontal momentum is maintained through the majority of the actions the player can take.

Jumping Properties


    Due to the Newtonian* way in which player input changes Mario's movement, Mario is able to describe a wide variety of arcs, as can be seen in this image taken from the article I linked to at the beginning of this entry. However, these choices also carry some limitations to go with the freedom of expression the player enjoys. The designers incorporated these limitations just as productively as the freedom, using them to encourage the behavior to play the game in a certain way.

*By 'Newtonian' I mean 'changing by means of gradual adjustments to velocity rather than instantaneous ones', not 'according to real-world physics'. This definition will hold throughout my blog

    While Mario can change his velocity mid-air, the change is gradual and somewhat limited. Because of this, the player's mid-air control is effectively limited to making minor adjustments to control landing position rather than precisely controlling the full arc. The jump is for the same reason clumsy and awkward from a standing start, which breaks the flow of the game and feels unpleasant; on the other hand, forward momentum from running is maintained in a jump and on landing, making jumping from and into a run smooth and natural. The bonus height Mario gets when he jumps from a running start further reinforces this effect.

    Mario's style of jumping in Super Mario Bros. would go on to form the basis for virtually every platformer that would emphasize speed and momentum; in particular, the Sonic games expanded upon the speed-related elements of Super Mario Bros. control and design to create their own unique feel that would define their entire console in the 16-bit era to come.

Why It Works

    Everything about Mario's control - both the advantages and the disadvantages - works together with the game's stage design to encourage the player to treat each map like an obstacle course, to be memorized and completed in a single fluid movement. Consider the following:

  • Other than a few very minor details (like the height of Bowser's flames at the end of each Castle stage), the game has no randomization in the placement and behavior of hazards.
  • Mario has no non-contextual attacks except jumping on enemies, and since the jump is at its best when maintaining forward momentum, attacking enemies fits naturally into continuous forward movement.
  • The conditional direct attack, fireballs, can be performed with a single button press and also without interrupting forward movement beyond a brief release of the running button. The design choice to make both running and the fireball use the same button even encourages the player to combine the two, streamlining the process of running and quickly releasing and re-pressing B to destroy upcoming enemies.
  • The invincibility powerup also encourages speed by eliminating the consequence of touching enemies, and the only indirect form of attack, kicking shells, also encourages forward movement by destroying every ground-based enemy in its path and moving the same speed as a fully running Mario. It also rewards strong memorization of stage layout, since a rebounding shell can be very dangerous if not anticipated.
  • Virtually every non-water stage is designed in such a way that a skilled player who knows the layout can maintain forward movement with few interruptions, and many stages reward or even require the player's maintaining a run into areas where there is not enough ground to initiate it. The famously difficult double-jump in board 8-1 is a prime example.

It's right at the start of this map. A player coming to this jump while moving slowly and cautiously will scroll
away the ground he can use to accelerate, making the jump much harder than it would be if he simply kept
running non-stop, though of course that poses its own challenge.

Seeing It In Motion

    Here are some short videos I have taken of Super Mario Bros. stage play that should demonstrate my points for those who have not played the game themselves.

    Wait, are there people who haven't played this game? Holy crap, that's crazy. Those people need to get their lives together.

Spoiler: I'm not really very good at this game.

This one is to show how the jump is clumsier when
not moving full-speed.

High-Pressure Traps and Hazards: Castlevania

Design Characteristics

Stage 2-2. Modified from Source

    As you can see in the screenshot above, Castlevania's design is not as straightforward as Super Mario Bros.'. The developers' goal was to create a game that forced the player to slow down and make careful decisions under pressure - kind of the opposite of Super Mario Bros. in every way, in fact. Simon, the game's character, had limited attack options, enemies were more varied and numerous, and the stage design was torturous, forcing the player to stop often, retrace his steps, and look before leaping, even with foreknowledge of hazards from experience.

Jumping Properties

Poetry in motion.
    Simon's jump is something of a throwback; he moves in a fixed arc, and the player has absolutely no control over Simon's movement or facing whatsoever once the jump has started. If the player jumps while walking, Simon jumps forward, and if he jumps while standing, Simon jumps straight up and down. Height is static; holding or releasing the button makes no difference.

    And...that's all, folks.

Why It Works

    Simon's jump doesn't really feel fluid or natural at first; as a matter of fact, the restrictiveness of the jump turns many players off the game before they get very far. It isn't until one plays a significant amount that the beautiful way in which it fits with the game's design becomes apparent - something games could afford when the medium was less saturated and competitive. A modern game likely could not get away with such a design choice, which was, notably, dropped when the series moved to the SNES; nevertheless, Castlevania's jump fits in just as well with its design as Super Mario Bros.' does with its.

    Once more, the success lies in every single element of the game working toward the same end. Although Simon's jump is very restrictive in being tied to a strictly fixed arc, that very restriction gives it a far higher degree of predictability than one that could be changed mid-jump, and Castlevania's gameplay hinges almost entirely around predicting things. Consider:
  • As with Super Mario Bros. above, the game has almost no randomness in the placement and behavior of hazards; however, unlike Super Mario Bros., the behavior of some of the hazards is independent of the player's progress through the stage: for instance, Bats and Medusa Heads, which appear on a repeating timer independently of the player's movement, adding reaction challenges that change from playthrough to playthrough as the player is forced to anticipate them in different situations.
  • Simon's walking pace is static and slow, which encourages the player to pace himself and move through each board slowly; the detailed, somewhat cluttered graphics and complex stage design reinforce this.
  • Simon's main attack, the whip, is limited in reach and runs on a delay of about a quarter of a second, forcing the player to predict enemy movements and space Simon's relative position in order to attack successfully.
  • The level design in Castlevania is varied and treacherous, punishing players who rush in headlong and rewarding those who move carefully and pay attention to details. See Anatomy of a Game's detailed and brilliant dissection of the game for a much fuller treatment of this.
  • Simon's sub-weapons, his only other means of attack, are mostly suitable for specific situations and require the expenditure of a limited stock of hearts, both of which demand foreknowledge and planning on the player's part in order to enjoy maximum utility.
  • Simon cannot initiate a jump during an attack, which forces the player to weigh the often laggy attack options against the quicker jump when faced with a rapidly approaching enemy. This is especially important when considering constant threats like bats and Medusa heads, where there is not always time or space to set up a good attack and judgments must be made quickly and sufficiently ahead of time to allow action.
    The point is, Simon's jump is not there to increase the player's options. The only reason the game gives the player a jump at all is because some way of altering Y-position is necessary for a platformer to work. Instead, the jump is used to limit the player's options in a way that makes the game's challenges more structured, and therefore satisfying.

Seeing it in Motion

    Here is some footage of Castlevania that illustrates how Simon's limited jump affects gameplay to create the kind of feel the designers wanted. The stage is 3-1, at which point the level design begins to be more openly aggressive and challenging.

I'm a bit rusty at this. Used to be quite
 the power player, though.

    You can see how gameplay becomes almost an issue of resource management; I can be only in certain places and put only so many attacks out, so I have to do things precisely. Notice the mistake I make at about 0:35; I should have thrown that Holy Water onto the platform before jumping down, knowing the Raven would be flying down into it. That would have left me free to deal with the ghost from the right before moving on to the Skeleton. Notice also how I do not even jump for the whole first part of the stage; since the jump is not there to increase my options and there is no situation demanding its use, I am actually better off staying on the ground for that whole sequence. To jump would have made me vulnerable to the Flea Men placed on the platforms above.

Open-Ended Exploration: Metroid

    I'm going to be up-front here with an opinion that may prove somewhat controversial: I don't think the original NES Metroid hold up all that well by modern standards. It hasn't aged gracefully. There's a reason why I didn't include it in my list of dominant platformer franchises on the NES; I don't think the influence of the game was truly felt until the 16-bit era, or perhaps even later. Even in its heyday, the game was somewhat off-putting.

    Metroid was impressive and successful in its time because it did more with the NES cart than most people thought possible, it expanded the gameplay possibilities of the genre, and it created a virtual world that was, for the time, unprecedented in its scope and realization. But it was soon surpassed in many of those areas, and if not for the earth-shattering genius and artistry of Super Metroid (which is in my opinion easily one of the five greatest games of all time), I strongly doubt the franchise would have survived. It certainly would not have reached the level of influence and fame it currently enjoys.

    In short, Metroid was ahead of its time in both the good and bad senses of that phrase; it introduced many important ideas and techniques that would not really come into their own until the technology caught up with the developers' goals years later, and suffered for it in the execution. I personally do not believe that the catch-up truly occurred until the SNES, at least on consoles.

Design Characteristics

    The central ideas behind Metroid are quite simple, but at the time they were fairly revolutionary in the context of a platformer game. They are: the re-use of virtual space in a non-linear fashion, progress through empowerment rather than linear advancement, and exploration as a fundamental goal of gameplay. Many of the design choices of the game reflect these ideas, but my principle of Genre Resolution comes into play here, as many of those expressions are also imperfect, due both to the limitations of the hardware and the inexperience of the developers in attaining them. At the time, the newness of the experience served to forgive the game its flaws and shortcomings for most players; today, the surfeit of so-called 'Metroidvania' games is not so kind to the progenitor of the genre. It falls short in the repetitiveness and bareness of its environment, the poor controls and subsequent impact of travel, and the uninteresting and poorly-balanced challenge of its encounters.

Jumping Properties

Samus jumping to her full (starting) height. Notice
the high number of frames, indicating
slow movement. 
    Samus' jump in Metroid poses some problems for my analysis. Again, I will be straight up: I don't really like it that much. I never did. I think Samus' movement in general is a weak point of Metroid, one that would not really be fixed until the exquisite controls of her 16-bit iteration, which were among the best any platformer has ever had. But meanwhile, on the NES, she feels stiff, awkward, and imprecise.

    The problem is, I really don't know how much of this was due to hardware limitations. Metroid stretched its hardware to the absolute limit, using layer upon layer of compression to pack the vast cave system of Zebes and the game's monsters, system, and other data into a mere ~100kb of space. So all kinds of sacrifices might have needed to be made, and I have no way of knowing; I can only criticize based on my actual experience. Just keep in mind that I am criticizing from a place of love and compassion.

A short hop; notice how much more slowly
Samus falls; this is because her upward movment is taken
from the faster bottom of the full jump
while the falling is taken from the slower zenith.

    The primary outstanding qualities of Samus' jump in Metroid are as follows:
  1. It was very high: even before the High Jump powerup (which increased it by 1.5x), Samus could jump about half a screen's height, higher than Mario even from a running start and much higher than Simon.
  2. It was very slow; not only was her horizontal speed cut during jumping by about 1/3 (my estimation, not precisely tested), her vertical movement was also slow - and especially coming down, as can be seen in the above picture. Samus had considerable hangtime - ~12 frames at the height of a high-jump, compared to Simon's ~5 and Mario's ~3.
  3. It was non-Newtonian in its horizontal movement; the player could control facing and horizontal movement freely, and changes in movement were instant.
  4. Finally, one strange feature was that if Samus jumped from a standing start, she jumped in a crouching position, but if she jumped from a running start, she would flip rapidly. The flip caused her to retain her horizontal movement without button input, though it could still be changed, and firing her gun would cause her to stop flipping. Its main use was in relation to a late-game powerup that made her invincible when flipping, and it has no real bearing on my current analysis.

Why it Worked - And Why it Didn't(!)

    Oh yes, I'm going there with this one. Samus' jump was clearly designed with certain goals in mind, and it met some of them, but in other areas I strongly feel it fell short (do you see what I did there). Here are ways in which the jump works well with the design goals of Metroid:

Included for reference, because you need to understand how BIG Zebes really was.  And how much
of it was vertical.

  • Zebes, the planet on which the game takes place, is vast, and more than half of it consists of vertical shafts. Because Samus had no means of moving in they Y-axis besides jumping, it was essential for her jump to be high, both to streamline the process of ascension via jumping up to platforms, and to allow the designers more freedom in the design of vertical areas (since a lower jump would have necessitated cramming them full of platforms, increasing the already claustrophobic layout of much of the game's environment).
  • Because Samus' jump is mainly intended for locomotion, and not for dodging or enhancing attack options (outside the above-mentioned invincibility-flip powerup), slowing the movement streamlined the challenge of maneuvering from platform to platform in mid-air, cutting out the frustration of botched landings.
  • Similarly, because platforming challenges were not a priority in the game's design, allowing the player to change Samus' facing and movement freely in mid-air gave the player enhanced freedom of movement at no real cost to the game's core challenge goals.
    That's why Samus' jump did work. Now for some reasons it didn't.
  • Though the slowness of Samus' jump did streamline the irrelevant platforming challenges that made up the majority of the game's layout, it also increased the frustration of moving over long distances, which comprised the majority of the game's duration, making the game something of a slog.
  • Also, the horizontal slowness of the jump made it rather ineffective as a means of bypassing moving enemies, which could be particularly annoying when Samus' highly limited attack options made it inconvenient or even impossible to destroy certain common enemies - an especially common issue at the start of the game, which made for a part of its notoriously high difficulty curve.
  • The clumsiness of Samus' jump, especially where the flip was concerned, undid much of the value it had in streamlining the platforming challenges by making combat challenges correspondingly difficult and frustrating.

Seeing it in Motion

    Metroid isn't very interesting to watch, so I'll keep it short. Here is some footage of me demonstrating how the height of Samus' jump made it practical for the game's largely vertical design:

Let the fun and excitement begin. Oh boy oh boy. Strap
in, kiddos.

The Long-Awaited Point: Mega Man

    I know I've taken a long time to get here, but I wanted you to have some idea where I was coming from when I say that it's important to understand the particulars of Mega Man's movement, and especially his jump, when trying to understand what made the Mega Man franchise so popular, successful, and influential.

Design Characteristics

    Mega Man was in some ways similar to traditional arcade-style platformers of the time, and in others very different. It consisted of stages that were primarily left-to-right smooth-scrolling, like Super Mario Bros., punctuated by some areas of screen-by-screen vertical scrolling. Progress was largely linear within each stage, and each stage ended with a unique and exciting boss battle, like Castlevania.

    On the other hand, along with Metroid, Mega Man featured some non-linear elements, and was one of the earlier games to dispense with many of the genre's arcade-related tropes, including a timer (which both Castlevania and Super Mario Bros. had) and points (Mega Man I was the only game in the series to use scoring). Also like Metroid, Mega Man used a password system to allow players to retain their progress in a playthrough, something unique to console games.

    But unlike either of the three games I have mentioned, Mega Man was primarily designed to give the player a feeling of freedom and empowerment. Unlike Super Mario Bros., Mega Man's stage design focused more on sequential challenges than on a continuous flow of motion, and emphasized flexibility of reaction over memorization and perfect execution; unlike Castlevania, the controls and layout were designed to be forgiving to allow more spontaneous play rather than punishing mistakes harshly to force caution; unlike Metroid, the controls were optimized for maximum fluidity and flexibility, and though Mega Man was certainly given controls aimed at making locomotion practical, they also felt good. They felt great. They felt fantastic.

    Let's look at why.

Jumping Properties

A basic forward jumping arc, full-height. Notice how little
hang-time Mega Man has, especially compared to Samus.
    Mega Man's jump was designed with three primary purposes in mind.
  1. To permit movement across complex terrain with as little interruption to the horizontal flow of the stage as possible.
  2. To allow Mega Man to change his Y-position quickly in order to line up shots and dodge enemy attacks.
  3. To permit rapid reactions to enemy movements and stage hazards, allowing skilled players to complete challenges on the first try.
    To those ends, the jump's outstanding qualities are as follows:
  • Mega Man has very little hang-time; he moves up quickly and then down quickly. While this can make dodging slow or large threats challenging, the occasions where this is necessary are rare. Most of the game is designed around quick, fluid movements, and the jump meets that demand exquisitely.
  • Horizontal facing and movement are freely changeable in the air, as much as is needed, with as much control as if he were not jumping.
  • The jump does not slow Mega Man's horizontal movement or affect it in any way, including the start and landing frames.
  • The jump's height is variable and upward movement can be canceled at any frame.
    Examining that list, the basic 'theme' of the jump becomes clear: it is designed to offer the player as much freedom as possible.

Why It Works

    And believe me, it does work. But it's a bit more complex here than in the previous examples, which is why I wanted to open with some comparisons before moving on to Mega Man. The thing is that, rather than being designed to 'encourage' (read: force) the player to play in a certain way, Mega Man was designed to permit the player to choose from a number of perfectly valid strategies and playstyles in order to complete the game on his own terms. That is why I say the game was designed to give the player a sense of freedom and empowerment.

    Mega Man's controls in general were designed to streamline challenges without necessarily reducing them. The distinction between the two is this: a reduced challenge has had one or more of its elements either made more trivial or eliminated entirely, whereas a streamlined challenge has merely had its conscious profile reduced. Mega Man streamlines platforming challenges by allowing the player to make and then express decisions regarding jumps with a great deal of flexibility, reducing the amount of planning and attention necessary to complete them without necessarily making them easier. This explains why playing the game feels so much smoother and more natural than something like Castlevania. In truth, some of the Mega Man games are quite as hard as Castlevania. But they don't feel as hard, and this has a tremendous effect on player involvement.

    Consider the following:
  • The stage design in most Mega Man levels was, as you will soon see, generally designed to allow continuous movement except when there were larger encounters to be dealt with. However, because Mega Man games have no time limit and no penalty for waiting, and because the controls do not reward continuous movement, there is no pressure to do so. This gives players freedom without pressure to approach the stage at their own pace.
  • Mega Man's basic attack, the Mega Buster, fires shots that move quickly along a horizontal line and go through the terrain. Since they move quickly and have no range limit, the primary challenge involved is lining up a shot horizontally with the enemy's Y-position - something that Mega Man's quick and precise jump renders very simple once the skill is learned.
  • Mega Man has a great deal of health - not as much as a fully-powered Samus, but more than Simon, and much more than Mario. Additionally, health-up powerups are plentiful as random drops. Furthermore, the knockback Mega Man suffers from a hit is not as severe as Simon's. Because of this, it is often a legitimate option to sandbag several hits in order to simplify challenges, at the cost of making later sections of the stage more tense. This increases the player's options on the level of individual challenges, allowing him to prioritize. The major exception would be the instant-kill spikes, which are used to create high-pressure platforming challenges where the developers wanted to demand the player's attention.
  • All of Mega Man's basic actions can be combined with each other without interrupting each other in any way. Running, jumping, and shooting can all be combined in any way without any effect whatsoever on each other, as can be seen in this demonstration:
It took me a long time to figure out how to make this.
I just want you to be aware the things I put myself through
for you.

    Mega Man provided players with a sense of fluidity and ease of expression coupled with genuine challenge that was absolutely unprecedented at the time, but which has become the standard of quality for virtually every platformer since. When played today, the NES Mega Man games feel like modern games; they hardly show their age anywhere. And the reason for this is the care the developers took to cut as much as possible between the player's desires and the expressions of those desires in the game. That is streamlining, and the Mega Man games did it better than any other NES franchise; perhaps better than any other 8-bit games, period.

Seeing It In Motion

    Oh, you will. You'll see it plenty. Next time, I begin my playthrough of Mega Man I. It's going to be a fun ride.


  1. Fantastic post! Great point about streamlining, removing the barriers between what players want to do and the expressions of those desires. I think this is what people mean when they describe a game as having "tight" controls. The deconstruction of jumping was interesting as well, particularly with how it can be used to limit the player's options in a way that benefits the gameplay in certain design frameworks. It is surprising to see how radically the subtle properties of that mechanic can alter the game.

    1. Thanks, man. I kinda struggled with this one, and I'm still not sure I got all I really wanted to say out, but there are always future posts.

      I suspect people mean a lot of different things when they say 'tight' controls, and your point is probably true some of the time. In other contexts, they might mean something more along the lines of low amounts of lag and drift - take Mario vs. Luigi in Super Smash Bros., for example.