I am a technician at the University of Virginia and freelance writer on the internet, most notably Gamnesia. I also write for my own tiny site, BitDetection, and am the amateur-est of game designers. Someday. Any game I can enjoy myself playing I will gladly play, genre is secondary, but I am a long-time Nintendo follower.
It is the little things that truly separate a good game from a great one. That extra layer of polish can drastically improve an experience and make it all the more memorable and enjoyable. The little things make words more immersive, play more pleasant, and an entire game stronger. One of those things is the menu.
I say “the menu,” but I really mean all of a game’s menus. Menus may not actually seem little, but we tend not to think about them much. Pretty much every game has at least one menu, even if it is only the title menu, but those menus are as much a part of the experience as anything else. They can feel clunky or smooth, their sounds can grate or satisfy, and they can slow down or streamline an entire game. Menus are the lifeblood of JRPGs, our adventure inventories, and our character builders. Without them games would be enormously different. Their prevalence has allowed developers to get them down to a science, but it is hard to call them perfect, even now.
The Pokémon series has always been built on menus, but to this day they have been slow and too many in number. Of course, the games need a lot to function, but the PC in particular has always been in need of streamlining. Moving Pokémon around on the touch screen was a step in the right direction, but do we really still need to choose between “deposit,” “withdraw,” and “move” to get there? It can be done in the pause menu, but it always disappoints me when I cannot change the position of my Pokémon’s attacks in battle as well. When multiple Pokémon faint during a double or triple battle, you cannot simply select the next two or three, you have to pick them and switch them with their fainted partners one at a time, which is not intuitive at all. For all the reasons I love the Pokémon series, not much has changed regarding its menu layout since Red and Blue Versions six generations ago.
It probably took as much time to organize these boxes as it did to fill them.
There is a balance that needs to be struck when creating menus. If they are complex, with several layers of sub-menus or large numbers of items, they should be fast. Players need to be able to traverse through their veritable mazes quickly, and they should be consistent enough or clear enough that a few trips through them is all it takes to memorize a path. For example, the item boxes in Monster Hunter get pretty full pretty fast, but one can get through them quickly, and since all the items have a pre-set order (assuming one uses autosort) and clear icon, it is not hard to fly through the item box to get a few things out or combine items. It is relatively complex, but the game sets it up so that players can waste no time digging for that extra potion. If menus are simple, they can be slower, especially if they hold a lot of information, but there are plenty of older games that I used to enjoy that I feel as if I now enjoy less because traversing the menus does not feel right.
Like everything else in a game, a good menu should have solid feedback, too. A silent, static menu, while functional, is a great way to make enemies. Sound feedback is cheap and easy, and some menu noises are so pleasant and satisfying that the simple act of scrolling is interesting. Of course, this goes both ways and some sadistic or tone deaf developer may decide shrill screams make for fun menus, which only makes players dread having to look at their inventory or change a setting. Animation is another great way to give menu feedback, but the tradeoff is that more animations means more time, which slows down the process of traversing the text and/or icons. Again I will turn to Monster Hunter’s item box as a good example, as not only does the game have great inventory and menu sounds, but the item box also has a subtle cursor animation when removing items. It only takes a couple of frames, it is not flashy or overly attention-grabbing, and it lets the player know their button presses did something. Perfect menu feedback.
I could go on forever about menus: cursors, layouts, colors, borders, fonts… They have as many parts as the rest of the games they are a part of, but for now I shall leave it at the largest of the little things. Menus are a big part of games as we know them, and for something so seemingly insignificant, those little menus can have a big impact on our experiences as players. Just like all the other little things.
On a whim, I recently picked up The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap after years of it waiting patiently in a protective case in a wooden box in my room with all my other old handheld games. Somehow I had remembered how much I enjoyed playing it the first time, but had no conscious memory of the game itself. It was a 2D Zelda game: There was simple sword combat, puzzle-filled dungeons, you could shrink real tiny to talk with the minish, and you had a hat with a beak named Ezlo. I had no recollection of the dungeon layouts, the puzzles, or many of the game’s secrets. Playing it again now, with so little memory of it, would be like playing it for the first time again.
I am sure you can see where I am going with this. While I cannot claim to have had a magical moment of clarity wherein I recalled the solution to every puzzle, the location of every piece of heart, or the trick to every secret, I have found, while playing The Minish Cap again after so many years, I hardly have to think to get through it. I am sure I played it multiple times, likely even multiple times in a row, knowing my younger self and games, but I went back into it with little-to-no conscious knowledge of the game outside of its simple story. That said, all the puzzles I have solved without a moment of thought or hesitation. All the paths and routes through the world map I have had little trouble finding and all of the enemies and bosses I have known the solution to without the need to experiment.
Green Kinstone Halves
Now, admittedly, Nintendo is pretty good about making the world map, bosses, and enemies relatively easy to figure out–it is often just a matter of having the right tools–even more so for those who have played many games in the Zelda series. It is part of what makes Big-N games feel so good and polished to play, and perhaps that is all there is to what is going on in my replay of The Minish Cap. After all, it is an exceptionally well constructed game, my only major complaints being the soundtrack, which gets somewhat repetitive and is not as memorable as many other Zelda games’, and that the game does an exceptional job of making sure I never have the right shape of green kinstones on hand when I need them. However, I have always been of the mindset that the 2D Zeldas are more difficult than the 3D ones, or rather feel that way because they are a different kind of game entirely with a different kind of difficulty. Yet, playing it again today, it all feels so automatic, as if it is little more than muscle memory. The kind of muscle memory that never goes away, like riding a bicycle is supposed to be, or swimming, or typing.
I know it happens with games. I only recall having two games when I first got my Nintendo 64 as a kid: Ocarina of Time and Donkey Kong 64, and both of those I have played so many times they truly are ingrained in my body and soul. I hardly need to pay attention when playing either of them anymore, and no amount of remakes of Ocarina of Time has changed that. The difference is that I can consciously recall those two games. I know every step, every block, every button, but not so with The Minish Cap. However, I did enjoy the little Game Boy Advance game, enough to have played it a couple of times and replay it again today, and perhaps that is all that matters for it to have been so committed to my subconscious memory. I loved the game, so even when my mind forgot, my heart never did.
As the briefest of introductions, this is the first in a series on the actual Bit Detection website about the little aspects of games that make their experiences that much better. I will be adding more of this series and more soon. Nice to meet you, I hope you enjoy it.
It is the little things that truly separate a good game from a great one. That extra layer of polish can drastically improve an experience and make it all the more memorable and enjoyable. The little things make words more immersive, play more pleasant, and an entire game stronger. One of those things is the title screen.
A game’s title screen is its greeting. Barring publisher and developer splashes, it is the first thing the player sees, and is certainly the first part of the game one sees. Back in arcade days, they had to be interesting to draw the eye of potential players and their small change. A good title screen was dynamic and showed off the game beyond it. Of course, games still intended for arcades still make use of these sales-pitch title screens, but most games on the market are intended for home play. The practical purpose of the old title screen has changed to little more than a medium meant to initiate play, and over the years they have become simpler and simpler.
Now, I do not want to imply there is anything inherently wrong with this trend. Most people do not spend a great deal of time on the title screen, and if a developer had to pick between using their time to decorate the title screen more or polish the game itself, I would hope they choose the game. Nowadays, the main practical purpose of the title screen is the title menu, which even in its most complex form is fairly simple. Whether to include a global options screen in the title menu is likely the only major decision developers have to make in terms of practicality these days. That said, a good title screen can enhance a game experience far more than one would expect for its simplicity. Intro videos reminiscent of those in arcade-based games make for an exciting way to start a game when one first starts it up. It feels like the intro sequence of a television show, preparing the player for what is about to come. Frankly, many Japanese titles, such as games in the Tales of or Persona series, even model their title intros after anime openings, complete with catchy music and custom animation. This may be due to the game and anime markets being so closely tied over there, but it certainly makes for some interesting pre-game entertainment. The title screen movies that play in Persona 3, Persona 3: FES and Persona 4 are brilliant, all made with a great deal of care and attention and accompanied by awesome music. I would sometimes simply wait on the title screen and watch them a while before starting a play session. They add a great deal of atmosphere to the games and their similarities to anime openings help to establish the modern Japanese pop-culture aesthetic that the series is so well-known for.
A personal favorite title screen of mine is that of Ocarina of Time, though I know I am hardly alone on this. Barring any bias one might have from the rest of the game, from the moment the player starts it up, Ocarina of Time has set the stage for the experience it aims to offer. The screen opens with sweeping scenes of Link riding about on Epona, fading the actual title and logo in only after the initial introduction to Hyrule field. Wait long enough and the camera will make its way to the entrance to Kokiri forest, where the game begins. The newest 3DS version does not even show the title at all until the player presses a button, which only makes the whole screen stronger, as the player is given the chance to see the whole thing without the title card blocking the view. Once the player does interact with the game, it behaves exactly as a normal title screen would, with the logo and iconic “press start” visible until the player acts again.
One of the greatest things a title screen can do for a game, however, is strengthen not the beginning of a game, but the ending. When one plays a game through all the way to the end, especially a particularly powerful one, more so than a sense of accomplishment is a sense of wonder and awe. As the player sits, after all the cutscenes and credits, past the final grades and closing remarks, if the game does not simply wait for the system to turn off (or program to close), it will fade back to the title screen. In rare cases, this moment can be made to feel all the greater with the right title music. A perfect example of this is Kingdom Hearts II. Its title screen is a fairly common affair as little more than a static image with relaxing music that cuts to an opening movie with enough patience, but its music is its strength. It is noteworthy just how peaceful it is, and that calm that it washes over its audience is exactly what they need after finishing the game. After all the action of an endgame, all I want to is stew for a moment and absorb the experience–to sit and reflect–and the song, “Dearly Beloved,” that plays on Kingdom Hearts II’s title screen is perfect for this. The game Journey, on PSN, does something similar, the transition from its ending to the title screen so seamless, one hardly notices the game has gone back to the title screen at all.
A title screen is such a little thing. A minor moment in a game’s entire experience, yet a quintessential part of it. A truly great title screen, though, can be as memorable as the rest of the game itself. From fun opening movies that catch the eye to passively setting the tone to empowering an ending, a title screen can make a good game feel great, and a great game feel greater still. We would do well not to neglect them.