Hi! I hope you're having a good day! Today's little big blog is a different topic altogether. I'm gonna be talking about the many ways in which games of the NES, SNES, Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 chose to define their structures, how those choices affected how long they tend to be, and how it did incentivize more and more replays of the same content. I'll also be talking about the joys of SPEEDRUNNING, how some games are meticulously crafted jigsaw action puzzles in real time and how some are WAY better than others at eliciting more and more replays out of it's players.
I'll be using examples found in the following games, and many more to follow as needed, because I'll be drawing parallels between them all and shoving 10 of those the start of the article with god knows how different images is just BAD layout/design. These will be the LAST ones I'll be covering, so think of them as the end goals of the points I'm trying to make, okay? Good? Let's rockman, then.
The platformer by default, is not a genre whose games have a necessity to be very long, nor necessarily should they be, for you see this is a genre that lives and dies by how well put the core mechanics of it's movements and actions are effectively contrasted by a level which befits the appropriate current level of challenge they should ask and present to the players at the current stage and time. Quality over quantity, at all times, as it should be. It's elements must be well placed, finely paced and remarkably tuned to better develop, utilize aaand demonstrate the heights achievable by the mechanics at play and eventually the intents it wishes to convey and how those affect the way a player should and/or could feel.
A paramount if not stellar example of the standards one should follow when designing a level of this genre should and must always be Super Mario Bros 3, for you see, this is the game that effectively built and improved on all the core preceipts estabilished and proposed in Super Mario Bros 1 for the real first time. Super Mario Bros 2 Lost Levels could be seen more like a level pack than an outright complete new floor on the building it was built. It was a sequel, but not to the extent of abilities and skills brought upon the table by the game that went on to follow.
Super Mario Bros 3. Released in 1988 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Developed and Published by Nintendo, reached North America in 1990.
If Super Mario Bros 1 was an achievement in platforming, this was the genre's crown and royal gems all in one package!
Thus began... Super Mario Bros 3's reign as that era's King. You could run, jump, bounce and now even FLY faster and higher than ever before, for the enemy placement was calculated, the distances measured just so right enough that you couldandshould chain jumps, bouncing through waves and waves of enemies just to land in that one particular Koopa, run, grab it's shell and kick it away to defeat a myriad of goombas!
When it happens, it's like watching a circus play in motion, a show of skill, demonstrating more than ever the mastery you've committed to acquiring as it's main actor and leading hand! Subsequently, the genius behind the play, the game itself, working it's invisible author hands which meticulously crafted levels that allow AND propel you forward to have the freedom and powers to do such things.
You wanna feel good? Try speedrunning a level in World 4, in which all the enemies are giant sized and easier to land on, go on! It feels amazing. It's like figuring out a puzzle, except all pieces are moving and YOU are the solution.
With that in mind, let's look at some release dates, just so we know how OLD this winning formula actually is, starting with one of gaming's grandpas, the one and only gray box of love, the Nintendo Entertainment System!
A console so adorable, fashionably colored and boxy that I wish more modern consoles would follow suit.
But you see, one should also never ever forget the structure in which a game is laid out and had changed over titles. For the first time in Mario History, there was an open map! And you could freely choose the order in which to play the levels or even skip them! Want some extra power ups? Here, try the Koopa House Minigames, maybe you'll get a live? Maybe a powerup you can store for use later on? The menu now lets you do so, so why not? And wait, there's more? A secret warp flute that lets you skip ahead THREE ENTIRE WORLDS? Hallefreakinglujah, this was a Platformer to beat all Platformers, with all the freedom and choice it could realistically have at the time!
As a certain gory fighter would go on to say... "CHOOSE YOUR DESTINY!" Except that gory fighter's destiny was to be buried in microtransactions, bold choice, let's see if it pays off in the long run.
The only things usually holding you back this time were the ability and lifes required to beat a chosen level and move forward, maybe grab a key, maybe fight the Hammer Bros to go on, but wait, what's that? A PUZZLE LEVEL?! OH GODS, NO! NOT IN MY PLATFORMER!
Waaaait, what do you mean it was built and designed with all of the current mechanics at play in mind and thus was non intrusive, only asked that you to hit the brakes for a bit and think of the level not only as an action set piece but a mechanical puzzle comprised of smaller moving parts? And without changing the intent and even capacity in which Mario's actions where purposefully designed? Well...In the words of an egocentric dinossaur, mind the crass language... F***ING GENIUS. And this was 1988! We had reached levels of peak game design in 1988! You gotta hand it to Ol' Shiggy, he knew how to make Marios, aaaand PIKMINS but that's a story for ANOTHER DAY, moving on then!
Buuuut what of it's competition at the time? This was the same time and age that Castlevania was getting it's bearings, Megaman was years away from becoming one of the true greats, Metroid was in it's infancy and still not quite there and Ninja Gaiden was impressing everyone with it's sweet looking Ryu Hayabusa looking sick slick in the closest thing the NES could call "cutscenes"!
Ninja Gaiden. Released in 1988, developed by Tecmo.
Please do, Ryu, we are all waiting for you to come back, honey, we truly desperately are.
Castlevania. Released in 1986, developed by Konami.
Whipping it good, but not quite whipping it with Mario yet!
But you see, even back then all of those 4 games, even if sharing a similar structure, were quite different in the priorities they chose to have! Megaman gave you the option to choose your difficulty level by trial and error, picking the easiest stage/boss and then subsequently using his power as a new tool in the kit and challenge yet anooother level/boss and so on, making it as easy or as hard as you could wish!
Choose your poison! Or weapon! Because you'll be getting one and proceeding to bloody murder the next in the list with it's boss specific effective damage! "True masters only do megabuster runs" Which I mean stop being a tart and play it however you want, man.
Castlevania/Ninja Gaiden were fairly similar and straightforward, focusing on brutally hard and mostly short levels with devious placement enemies and even harder bosses. Metroid IS quite the ODD one here, focusing on exploring every inch of an entirely open world from the get go, making players finally go left to gain abilities to then go right explore more and more until there's no space pirate standing, the only thing making you stop being the abilities you still had to get and finding the direction in which to use them.
The greatest idea at the time, but still not the greatest of it's kind.
The 2D platformer at it's core, was still mainly and mostly focused about reaching the end of the level alive, maybe beating a boss, maybe getting some extras and nailing an extra ending or something, but all in all, fairly simplistic, but also not to be seen as a FLAW, something not broken doesn't need fixing, just some good maintenance and oiling will do. But as one can see, many designs to draw from already, and this was the late 80's still! Things only got better.
As time moves on, technology increases, so does the wants and desires of regular consumers, which meant games needing to get bigger by any means they could, by which I mean beating you over the head with a spiked 1 ton hammer of mostly bullshit difficulty at times, as was common for the NES was and should NO longer be the norm, but we moved on from that, you say! And yes, at least truly good games already had.
We're in the SNES era now! And... Well, realistically? Super Mario World was yet another mechanical revolution for the series, but I'm done talking about 2D Marios, especially when we got Super Metroid and even freaking Demon's Crest to examine. For these, these were truly game changers of such times and held the torches to guide generations to come. It's high time we dwelve in the 16-bit kingdom that followed, introducing the one and only, not so good looking as it's younger brother... The Super Nintendo Entertainment System!
Released in Japan in 1990, it reached North America one year afterwards, on the 23rd of August of 1991.
Not as good looking as the NES, the Japan/European versions have far more color and flair to them, but the controller kicks ass! Being comy to this day.
With the additional buttons offered by it's controller, so came more and more options a player could have at all times, more options of control schemes, more choices and possibilities. I'll be focusing mainly on two games of this generation, those being the affore mentioned Super Metroid and Demon Crest, two of the VERY best games on the entire system and one of my favorites. No, Metroid is not the one, burn me at the stake if you so wish, because we'll be talking about flames all right... Ever heard the tales of Firebrand, the Demon General? No? Pony up then, time to learn, human, time to learn.
Demon's Crest. Released in 1994, developed and published by Capcom.
Things I love about this game: Everything besides this realistic creepy box art.
I urge you to watch this game's introduction, just to have a taste of it's aesthetics and sprite art to come in the following paragraphs, this is one of those so fancy shmancy forgotten gems that everyone should try at least once.
This is one of those games I could do an entire article talking about, and maybe I will at some point, but as of right now, the important bits you have to know about this game are...
It has multiple endings based on progression of stages, number of secrets discovered, amount of bosses fought and a mostly "open world" level selection. It is structured as such that as soon as you leave the first mandatory area, you can fly almost anywhere and explore almost any area, you can backtrack as long as you don't trigger an event that forces you to run or fight. It has multiple upgrades based on Firebrand's Demon Form, his choices of Fire Breath, equippable Talismans and even skulls that work like money and are used to buy consumables items, spells, and stuff. Common at the time for games that weren't JRPGs, it uses a Password Saving feature, but come on, it's 2019, emulators are a thing and even Nintendo does save states so I won't tell if you don't.
This is actually a spin off of the Ghost's n Goblins series of arcade games that Capcom made before, it stars that red devil who probably killed you at least 1000 times there, yeah, you get to control that bastard, no he is not as strong here as he is there, not until you get some upgrades at least. But yeah, this game changes some things a bit, it's level selection screen is not a square selection choice, but instead a completely radical mode 7 world map like you would see in Pilotwings or Final Fantasy, except here? It's how you pick an area to explore and fight through!
They're completely built with the idea that you'll come back later on with more and more abilities to get the upgrades you couldn't before, in fact the game WANTS you to get it's true ending so much that it even gives off a VERY special password in case you 100% it, if you didn't have a hard time beating it by then, you'll be hard pressed not to try it's Super Ghost's n Goblins stage made just for you, you buff boy you. But abandon all hope all ye who enter, for this is a Red Arremer's nightmare.
Also, this game will always have a special place in my memory due to having one VERY creepy scene that I swear made me rip the cartridge right out of my Super Nintendo and lock it on a drawer for quite some time. Yeah, I'm a pussy, shut up. At least now you know about the game! And me being a pussy. f***!
Next on the list, the one game a lot of up and coming indie developers are trying to mimic and always surpass, the one where it actually got really freaking good, the one and only Super Metroid!
Released in 1994. Published and Developed by Nintendo.
Now this is where the chefs started cooking, while I prefer the controls later found on the GBA titles, it's hard to say this game doesn't deserve it's acclaim, doing almost everything that defines the entire subset of platformer genre that is metroidvanias FIRST and most importantly, doing them RIGHT.
Metroid has gone from being that one spooky game where kids get lost and call Nintendo's support lines to being that one spooky game where they shoot every freaking alien that comes their way now with a map, better directions, hints in the game's own attract mode and more! Sporting significantly improved visuals and a much much better control scheme, it was finally time for Samus to shine and spark like the Nintendo heroine she was meant to be. And yeah, Heroine, because this was possibly one of the first games besides it's predecessor to REALLY incentivize and promote the subtle arts of speedrunning, your reward is clothes! I mean less clothes, you literally get less clothes the faster you beat the game, yeah, JAPAN! Ya'll, JAPAN.
You see, the game was entirely designed with the concept that someone skilled enough could break some sequences entirely, utilizing hidden tricks/abilities, even being able of finding secret events, making you scour more and more areas without end while personally mapping out upgrades and points of interest. It REALLY wanted you to create a jornal and eventually optimize it so much to the point you could completely 100% the game in less than 3 hours and still have a complete blast. It wanted you to be the best you could ever possibly BE at it and rewarded you accordingly. With less clothes and a new fancy looking ending screen, but still... Japan, the 90's, give them a break will ya?
There was a set level/map structure, but bollocks to that if you had the wisdom and tricks to break open some of those completely and do it truly your way. Welcoming with open arms all styles of play, with an open map gated only by the abilities Samus has or the player figures out, never giving away secrets, but always hinting at them, from the start to end. This was the complete revolution and set a standard for an entirely new subset of platforming genres dubbed as metroidvanias, and I love it dearly for that! But it's high time we, with all those history lessons/reminders to get into the meat and bones offered in the next generation of consoles.
Enter the Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1.
Released in 1996. The Nintendo 64 boasted more raw power, but at the cost of disk space.
Released in 1994. Subsequently released in North America in 1995, less raw power, but easier to develop for, cheaper to produce games for and with at least 6~7x more disk space than the 64's Cartridges.
It was the 3D revolution! Platformers had to change, 2D wasn't so in anymore, 2.5D was, sorta, but if you wanted to be big and on the spotlights, get polygonal or get out. I already talked about Super Mario 64 before here, but this time I'll focus on it's changes in structure more than anything, because it served as sort of a basis for others to come at the very least.
120 Stars, divided in many different worlds and gotten by so many means. So so many wahoos and oofs were heard/gotten by wall jumping like a mad plumber man.
With the lack of disk space available in the N64's cartridge came some problems, and from those problems came some pretty clever solutions too, so we got a good deal of it, thankfully! You see, this time around, the old board game structured world map was turned into a hub world, that connects one main area to all others, and those areas can have multiple objetives each, with changes depending on the selected goal and different enemy/npc setups and event triggers, making one level work like 6 or 7! How's that for saving cartridge space WHILE fixing at least three problems at the same time? Genius, that's what.
Thanks for all of that, Mario! Now... will you aknowledge that Demon Crest did the hub world thingy first? Yeah, I went there.
And yes, the quality of most objetives is still rather good across the board, with many objectives being only hinted at through the selection screen and the npcs/hint blocks across the zones, in one way, this is the start of a trend that has gotten uglier and uglier as time went on, but before we go there, let's talk Playstation.
The Playstation launched with one particular platformer, that being Rayman, the original playstation platformer no one really seems to remember, that was also loosely structured about upgrades being crucial for former levels secrets/upgrades, so we still hadn't seen much change there, but it caught up with the trends of it's time! That is until Crash Bandicoot hit the scene.
Focusing on a different breed of 3D platforming, Crash explored it's own brand of 3d platforming quite spectactularly.
Different from it's competition, the focus of replayability and longetivity here was not simply on gathering upgrades previously found in levels beforehand or getting every collectable! No! This time the focus of replay was complete absolute mastery the game. You had to be REALLY good, and I mean REALLY REALLY good at the game to have a MINIMAL shot of unlocking all of it's secrets, with some levels being locked behind marathons and marathons of time trials, completing levels without dying and getting all collectables, figuring out the best strategies and routes for the best times, this was yet again another beautiful flirt with the upcoming speedrunning trends that would come to follow as the years went and come.
In one hand you have Mario 64, with so many collectables you'll be likely to spend at least a couple of weeks or so getting all stars, and on the other, Crash Bandicoot, asking not that you beat the game but also MASTER IT. There's two extremes present here, both involving collectibles, but differing by time trials and world structures. Both games using a main hub world as a glorified level select screen with secrets sprinkled on top! But the lengths in which and how they would test players differ based on the chronometer. Crash pretty much tells you to be perfect if you want all of it's content, Mario on the other hand is satisfied with you gathering all it's stars, time being only a factor when asked, and that being no easy feat either! Two different games and franchises, similar but cohesive manners of structuring and designing the longevity and replay values in both.
Then we have middle grounds like Klonoa!
Klonoa is the definition of simplicity at it's finest, one or two simple core mechanics explored and utilized by all other aspects of the level at all times! Short, to the point, sweet and full of heart, the best combo.
Going old school, you can't really pick levels at your leisure, with 6 hidden villagers in every stage, and it only asks you to finish the level to move on! That is, until you beat the main story and unlock two different things, that being the ability to replay ANY stage you wish, to either try and rescue any missing villagers and/or set a time record. After rescuing all villagers? The game gives you a brand new stage and asks you to beat it as fast as possible while gathering the most gems possible, at this point forward every single stage goes from 'finishing it' to 'finishing it fast and collecting every gem!', like Crash and Mario, but far far shorter and straighter to the point than both, not going to either extreme, meeting both at the middle and doing both things at once!
Behold! The glory that is Klonoa's World! Levels designed to be smart instead of harsh, enviroments meant to be explored and enemies flung and thrown! How have I not known thee before this week is a mistery that I'll forever loathe.
Both objectives incentivising more and more high level play, both in strategies and time saving methods, one more nod to the future importance of speedrunning! Setting more and more precedents for generations to come to learn and appreciate the beauty that lies in mastering a game, it's levels AND mechanics! Replaying for faster, better, harder and ever so harder to achieve times and scores! And before I dive into the insanity that were RARE GAMES, Let's talk a bit about the 'not so well done' spectrum of things, shall we? Let's talk a bit about Kirby 64 - The Crystal Shards!
This is the face of death, do not fool yourself otherwise.
As much as I grew up loving the little pink ball of death that is known only as Kirby, his Nintendo 64 outing wasn't his best. The structure wasn't anything unusual, pick a stage, beat it, move on, the only big differences in extending and further incentivizing replays were three things.
First being Star Shards, some which need VERY specific combinations of powers, this game allows you to mix and match between 7 different powers allowing a bunch of different combinations, it's neat, but balance is very off the mark.
Second, you have these cards that you can get by playing the jumping minigame at the end of each level, they don't unlock anything besides a biography of a random enemy every time. Third, the actually important one, collecting all star shards grants you the game's true ending with a new stage and an extra boss to fight, but it's rather short and bland, so not the best in general.
I say you want some of the best kirby you can get, play Super Star or either of the GBA ones, Amazing Mirror is a Kirby Metroidvania, and it works, and it freaking works!
And at last, we must talk about Rareware! Because you see, Rareware... Completely overdid it. When they weren't pumping out Perfect Dark or Goldeneye? They were making their own 3d platformers, except they went a littttle overboard. And by little I mean someone there must have said 'the players need more things to do, maurice, MORE!', and Maurice being a yes man never questioned why or whether they should... SHAME ON YOU, MAURICE, SHAME ON YOU.
For you see, Rare's first 3d platformer and still not degeneracy incarnate collectathon fest for the Nintendo 64 was Banjo Kazooie, released in 1998!
Being honest, Collectathons scare/bore me in some way I can't quite put it, I do say their games are incredibly charming and cozy though.
This was their first 3d platformer, they didn't go overboard here still, you already had a hub world that granted access to other levels, in which you collected more things to gain access to even more levels and stuff, but it was still rather adequate/moderate here to say the least, for you see... they went completely bananas soon after.
It's best part: THE DK RAP, also the multiplayer, yeah I played that, I'm a weirdo, be weirded out.
Released in 1999, sold alongside an Expansion Pak because someone there could never really figure out a memory leak bug out and it was easier to just bundle the Exp. Pak than waste god knows how many more months chasing one bug that could lead to even more bugs, so, don't blame them THERE, but... Good lord, where to start?
Ok, you can control different monkeys! You got a big big hub world! Same deal as before, sort of except this time around, EVERY monkey has it's own collectibles! And secret bananas! And you can only pick them up with a particular monkey at a time! And I'm going crazy trying to DESCRIBE how insane it is. Simply put, someone over at Rare had a real, real big love for collecting random things and made it so the collectibles had collectibles and it never stopped! End result being? The only platformer in existence that gives me the same existential dread and fear a MMORPG can, due to never knowing WHEN WILL IT END!
They clearly took it down a notch in the games that followed, both Banjo Tooie and Conker's Bad Fur Day significantly cut down on the collectibles upon collectibles they've had each game and were completely better for it. If there exists an example of putting clearly too much into one basket, this game would be it, as fun as it can be. Accessing all the content does require getting all those... things and they/it scares me well enough to the point I don't think I'll ever play it more than a couple of hours/random multiplayer session. It's not happening, dawg, no.
But these were just SO many ways in which a platformer's structure, both by need, by design and by wishing to just mess with the bases changed over the time. Were they done because the game needed a shelf/consumer life bigger than it could have? Because it was the only possible way at the time? Because someone at the team clearly had a hard on for collecting bananas? I can't say, because those things became standards for many and many other games to follow and improve and change on.
They don't necessarily make the games better or worse either, (except dk 64, eff that noise) but it sure did change things back then and it's sure to change things even forward from here, with more games coming out daily than ever before, looking to improve, expand and explore things nobody did before and more!
It's a digital wild west to live in these days, whether that's a good thing or a bad one, Is up to the fates and developers at war, being them the ever so brave brothers in arms at one time and fierce competitors of the digital wastes that is becoming the marketplace.
Thanks for reading, wish you learnt something, this was even bigger than usual, sorry about that, I try my best to keep them short, but I just have so many many things to say, you know? Also today's my birthday, but the ones getting a gift are you, what gift? The gift of knowledge, of course, you lovely bastards. Also picking the next game I'll be talking about, hopefully, one time deal, sorta. Pick the gun so I can shoot it's bullets, will ya?
Vote for the NEXT GAME HERE: https://www.strawpoll.me/17929094
And if you absolutely have to play any of the games cited here, can you make it Klonoa or Demon's Crest? I feel like those two could use the most love right now, thanks! Yes, going from fluffly bunnies to literal demons, I like it weird.