The Quest for Good Platformer Mechanics Part 2: Fat Men on Ice Skates

Last week I made the very opposite of a bold assertion in claiming that the NES classic Super Mario Bros is the gold standard in good platformer mechanics. I also mentioned Tim Rogers and the “sticky friction” that so endeared him to the game; today I’d like to elaborate on that second part.

If Metacritic was around back in 1985 I’m sure you could pull up a whole swathe of reviews describing SMB’s controls as ‘intuitive’, ‘tight’ or ‘pixel perfect’, and these words could lead the uninitiated observer to conclude that Mario is some kind of Olympic athlete when in fact this is (barring certain unfortunate circumstances) patently untrue.

Mario & Sonic at The Olympic Games

Pictured: Certain unfortunate circumstances

You see, while I was working on my ePortfolio last August I had cause to go back and check, and it turns out that Mario moves not like a gymnast or an action hero, but rather more like a fat guy on ice skates. It takes him a bit of time to really get moving and even longer to stop. Each jump brings not only the possibility of over or under-shooting your target, but also of landing with too much speed and plummeting forward into a Goomba or a fireball or something. Does this sound like ‘tight, intuitive, pixel perfect platforming’ to you? Well, perhaps it should.

As you may expect from a game as highly-acclaimed as SMB, its primary mechanics are all in there for good reasons. Why does Mario move like a fat guy on ice skates? Is the timer on every level there solely to provide an anachronistic, arcade-ish scorekeeping system? Why, on a controller that has two primary buttons, is one of them dedicated mostly to making your dude ‘run’? (And why, exactly, would you ever want to release that button?) The short answer: Going fast is fun. The long answer has to do with difficulty scaling, the design constraints of platform games in the early 1980s, and malevolent cacti.

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The Quest for Good Platformer Mechanics

What should a good platformer feel like? If you wanted to you could stop and think about it for a minute, but fortunately you don’t have to because I am here today to argue that it should feel mostly like this:

A screenshot of Super Mario Bros

Pictured: What good platformers should feel like

Super Mario Bros was not the first platform game ever released, but it is probably the most important. It is the bedrock on which the contemporary ‘platformer’ genre is founded; it is the thing that made Shigeru Miyamoto a household name, and the key component in Nintendo’s magical money-printing machine. But enough navel-gazing: What exactly is so special about Super Mario Bros? What makes it work?

You may be familiar with Tim Rogers. He is a game designer and possible crazy person who writes multi-thousand word essays on Kotaku as well as the excellent Action Button Dot Net. And, in one of his Kotaku pieces, he succinctly explains (which is rare for him) the secret to Mario’s success:

If you asked a space alien from the future to play Super Mario Bros., and then play any of the other side-scrolling platform games of that era, and then report back to you with one sentence on what he perceived as the major difference between the two, he would speak gibberish into his auto-translator, and it would output a little piece of ticker-tape with the words “STICKY FRICTION” printed on it. It is the inertia of Mario’s run that endeared him to us. It didn’t have anything to do with brand strength or graphic design. Those things were secondary. It was all about the inertia, the acceleration, the to-a-halt-screeching when you change direction. You can feel the weight of the character. People never put these feelings into words when talking about games, though they really, really are everything.

Friction, for our purposes, is more than a Newtonian coefficient or counter-force; it’s an aesthetic. It’s the way things move relative to one another and how players interpret that movement to construct their understanding of the game world. When Rogers speaks of inertia, he refers to the way virtual pixels on a screen can gain real mass, movement and livelihood through their dynamics (that is, the manner in which they change). Super Mario Bros does not need high-quality sound effects or 32-bit colour to convey itself to us. It does not need a rumble pack or a motion sensor. We grow to understand it with each of Mario’s steps, leaps and falls.

I thought a lot about this as I first started developing the platformer-ish aspect of my portfolio. Frankly, it scared me a little. I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted the movement to work, but I knew that if the friction didn’t feel right the whole thing would seem cheap and flimsy. And so I started coding. I gave myself a few simple parameters to tweak, then a few more complicated ones. I wondered what would happen if the character could jump or climb stairs and ramps; perhaps if my dude felt good to control in a real Mario level it would also feel good running side-to-side through a less elaborate virtual campus? I followed this rabbit hole down into collision detection systems, the Box2D API, and ultimately a rather complicated software solution. I’ve put it here for you to play around with and, if you like, download and use for your own purposes.

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Problems & Solutions: Skyward Sword

Continuing last week’s theme of ‘game endings that I don’t like’, today I bring you an article about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It contains endgame spoilers including the names of principal characters and the mechanical details of one particular gameplay sequence, but I won’t ruin any plot twists; if you’ve played a Zelda game before, nothing in here ought to be news to you. Let me tell you what this article isn’t about. It isn’t about how good and/or cruddy the motion controls are, the standing of Skyward Sword relative to other Zelda games, or whether the franchise is ‘getting old’ or ‘formulaic’. Also, I promise it doesn’t contain a single word about Fi.

Instead, this post has something in common with my thoughts on Mass Effect 3 in that it points out ways in which the story diverges uncomfortably from the game’s mechanics, getting its aesthetic signals all crossed up. There is one segment, right before the final battle, in which the game doesn’t know how it wants the player to feel. The results are frustrating, hilarious, and also fairly instructive.

The Segment in Question

Unsurprisingly, we find Link in dire circumstances. Ghirahim (the bad guy) is preparing a magical spell that will steal Zelda’s soul, both killing her and breathing life back into a powerful demon king whose resurrection will bring about a proverbial “age of darkness.” The scene takes place in an environment already familiar to the player, on a huge spiral ramp leading downward and in towards the center of a big crater. Link is at the top; Ghirahim and Zelda are at the bottom. Ghirahim summons literally every Moblin he can muster to delay our hero’s progress down the ramp. An army of monsters charges upward from the center of the crater, in greater numbers than the player has ever seen before.

The Moblin Horde

Every day they moblin’.

So far, so good: The game has assembled all the pieces necessary for a dramatic climax. The imminent soul stealing spell creates the illusion of a ticking clock (let’s choose to suspend our disbelief here) and pushes the situation forward, while the army of monsters is hopefully enough to give us pause and throw into question what the outcome will be (remember that ‘drama’, in games, can be defined as the confluence of inevitability and uncertainty). We know that Link is both powerful and courageous to the point of near-idiocy; we suspect Ghirahim is afraid. We expect that Link will save Zelda or die trying, and we are prepared to help him do so. We believe that he can succeed against difficult odds; possibly we are even willing to suspend our disbelief for a moment and ignore the fact that it’s a Zelda game and of course he’s going to succeed. This is the narrative and ludic climax.

Whereas every individual Moblin was once tough enough to challenge him individually, Link’s sword is now so powerful that it can kill them in a single hit. Furthermore, there are stamina powerups lying along the ramp that permit Link to use his ‘whirlwind’ area attack repeatedly. In my playthrough, this encouraged me to lead Link down the ramp in an impressive swath of destruction, destroying multiple enemies per attack and generally being a badass. I must confess I actually began to feel a little bit like the divine wrecking ball Link’s character embodies throughout the narrative. I felt engaged; I felt excited! I half-expected Kanye West’s “Power” to start blaring in the background (as it should at some point in all good videogames). Alas, it was at this point that things started going sideways.

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