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.