Video games

Making the best of a bad situation

Gauntlet Dark Legacy isn’t the worst game I’ve ever played by a long shot. It’s actually a favourite of mine. But it’s a brilliant example of how bad elements of a game often take a backseat to the fun it provides. It’s aged a great deal since it’s release in 2000, and there are many elements of it’s gameplay that are broken and frustrating.

And yet somehow Gauntlet Dark Legacy is still easily fun, proving there are tons of things that can be learnt from any game’s worst moments.

The middle ground

We often forget that a game that isn’t entirely perfect to us individually can still be salvaged. This can happen if in the process of development someone has the presence of mind to develop a games “character” rather than it’s “pedigree” or if a game specifically allows the weaker aspects of it’s design to be skipped or avoided. While Gauntlet Dark Legacy is not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, it largely succeeds because of how flexible it is. Looking past the aging graphics and dated sound, other (terrible) games could learn a lot from it’s model. It has fun “tongue in cheek” feel that almost excuses it’s usability flaws.

Waiting at the first area gate.Buying a cherry and potion from the item inventory screen.

Learning to be constructive about gaming’s bad elements

Gauntlet is definitely one of those games you “get” or you don’t. It doesn’t always take itself completely seriously, and as such I find it remarkably easy to be constructive about it’s poorer moments. While I enjoy it a great deal, it doesn’t stand up to scuntiny as well as some of the other games I’ve written about. It feels like a retro game made new, but with this idea comes several of the frustrating aspects of the older games that inspired it.

The camera for example is one of the worst I have ever seen; not giving the multiple players on the screen appropriate warning about the enemies to come or off the screen. Everything but the immediate area is completely out of sight or hidden by a partially overhead angle. The voice acting and noises are hilarious and of dubious quality in places, they seem to crackle and struggle throughout the duration of the game, not helped by the aging visuals, which were slightly awkward at the time and have not aged as well as games from a similar era.

However Gauntet’s biggest barrier is it’s repetitive style of gameplay which means that once you’ve mastered the first level there is little variation in either enemy style, combat or simple look and feel.

So functionally at least Gauntlet Dark Legacy is a mess, any quite buggy in places. Somehow I still gain enjoyment and massive amounts of pleasure from it. It’s a textbook example of how gameplay problems can take a backseat with so much humour, personality and fun in abundance, and Gauntlet has all three.

A two player character management screen.Standing around next to poisoned food.

Finding the fun in an average or bad game

The thing that Gauntlet does best is it’s slick four player mode. The camera is restrictive, but it largely works. There are so few games of this generation that attempt to do this, particularly with the level of individual character micromanagement that Gauntlet allows; enabling everyone to manage their items independently and manage save states without intruding on the other players. Few things in this world are as pleasurable as a game that you can play with others in the same room, it’s a lost art and one that is thankfully making a small but obvious comeback.

It is also one of the best examples of pick up and play action that I can think of, very little information is needed to explain to anyone new to the series. Despite it’s massive flaws it is remarkably accessible to everyone as most gameplay is done with just three buttons and the more complex elements such as item collection, powerups and combos are all optional. Simplicity is something that most games often strive for and fall so far short of. I admire this game greatly for doing exactly what is required and no more. So many games try to take on big complex ideas or messages and limit themselves to a particular market by doing so. In it’s simplicity Gauntlet is a game for everyone.

Somewhere along the way we lost interest in finding our fun in average games. We’ve lost our way by striving for gaming perfection at every turn when there is plenty of fun to be had in the humble middle ground or worse. Gauntlet Dark Legacy is a great example of this, plenty to moan about, plenty to be happy about too. A happy medium – and a middle ground we should embrace more.

This post was part of Gamer Banter, a monthly video game discussion coordinated by Terry at Game Couch. If you’re interested in being part, please email him for details.

Other takes:

Game Couch: The Worst Game Ever

Silvercublogger: It’s all about integrity

Yuki-Pedia: Love, thy name is rage quit

Master Kitty’s World: What were they thinking???

Zath: What’s the worst game you’ve ever played?

SnipingMizzy: What is there to love?

The Game Fanatics: What is the worst game you’ve ever played?

gunthera1_gamer: The game I could have loved!

The Average Gamer: Gamer Banter: Worst Game EVAR!

Extra Guy: Battle Blaze – 700 pounds of ‘don’t do it’

Retro gaming

Metroid over mantra: forgetting gaming rivalry

I genuinely believe that gaming like many other aspects in life is affected by mood. Even as the most ardent gamer there are moments where I simply don’t feel like playing anything. I decided to make the most of this lack of motivation and play something truly out of my comfort zone.

The choice may surprise you; it’s an atmospheric classic that I’ve somehow avoided for years, but remarkably Super Metroid isn’t a obvious fit for me.

Getting over the old mantras

I now realise that Super Metroid a masterpiece of design, atmosphere and gameplay, but I have not always thought this. It will seem obvious to anyone that has played the game or grown up in it’s shadow, but for someone playing the series for the first time retrospectively it’s become a bit of a metaphor for all the games that I’ve chosen to ignore for whatever reason over the years. There are so many remarkable games out there that I will never have the time to finish, so I’ve developed an unintentional coping mechanism to rationalise my regret – “I wouldn’t like them anyway”.

I’ve always placed a number of games series in this category, for as far back as my memories go. I can’t even remember where the motivation for these decisions came from, they’re as clear in my mind as night and day. Old presumptions developed in childhood about a series or genre that I can’t quite shake even as an informed adult. Decisions I didn’t question until others expressed alarm at me never having played certain widely-acknowledged classics.

Using the beam cannon against an enemy.Discovering a creature in the tunnels.

Why does this happen?

Personally at least, most of the games this concerns are the remains of the legacy of growing up during the 1990s during the peak of the Sega/Nintendo marketing rivalry. This faction-based model for playing games is a old approach that I am still working back from. I am slowly revisiting the back catalogue of games that I denied myself as a child; and the Metroid series is one of them. As hard pressed as the Nintendo or Sega mantra seems now, there was some logic to it – it saved my parents the financial worry of buying two sets of consoles and two sets of games, and it saved me from realising there were twice as many games in the world to obsess over. I would have been overwhelmed.

It seems quite bleak looking back on my gaming history, but I was happy then in my little world of Sega, and I am even happier now that I am able to fully experience everything I missed many years later: free from assumption and prejudice. I am as bewildered and excited playing these games now as the eight-year-old I would have been back in 1994 when Super Metroid was released.

It is the weirdest feeling playing a game that I have obviously misjudged for years, particularly as I stumble to grasp the concepts and ideas Metroid develops that are completely new to me. It’s a testament to the timeless beauty and rigorousness of Super Metroid’s design. As such I am playing a game that I have subliminally known for years, I recognise almost every noise and score; and yet it feels new and oddly nostalgic – all at once – like an old, yet happy memory I had long forgotten about.

I am beginning to fall in love with an old “enemy”. Thank you to everyone who recommended it to me.

Game design analysis

The difficulty of Demon’s Souls

One of the most compelling reasons to pick up Demon’s Souls is it’s perceived difficulty. The game is supposedly as uncompromising and challenging as the games we grew up with – the games of our early childhood needed determination and above all imagination to play and complete.

In a nod to our gaming heritage, determination is the key requirement for Demon’s Souls; and if you “get” it’s carefully crafted design decisions, a unique gaming experience reveals itself out of it’s dark, foreboding gloom.

An unforgiving personality

Many games have a personality, successfully managing to disguise the fact that they were created from the minds of a team of developers, but Demon’s Souls sense of personality is particularly palpable. Primarily in it’s main theme; the insignificance of death. Your character is held perpetually under the thumb of the game, pinned into the swirling limbo of the Nexus (the game’s central hub). From there you are forced to meekly step out into five equally challenging worlds in your ethereal “soul form” to regain your body by defeating a boss.

In doing so you explore a crumbling world; a once great kindgom riddled with the dead and half-dead, as you avoid or kill the other beings and enemies locked into the ghostly spirit world with you. It sounds ghastly – as you step into the first world fresh from a bluntly ended tutorial – but Demon’s Souls magic is in slowly convincing you to the masterpiece of atmosphere it’s pulling you through.

Uzi's character takes down another person playing as a black phantom.The tower knight stomps down.

Joyfully the game is equal parts horror, puzzle, and action game. The first playthrough of an area will take hours, as you tiptoe along each path in terror, you will gain an understanding of how to master each level either alone or co-operatively with other phantoms. The controls are solid and as such you are infrequently annoyed with the game – only with yourself for making a mistake that cost you time and the chance to complete things. It’s a testament to how fair and balanced the development model of Demon’s Souls is, with every exploit, shortcut and time saving trick fully-intended by the developer.

Running through one of Stonefang's empty tunnels.A gold skeleton stands guard - while on fire.

A different approach

Demon’s Souls is also a community game which sinks or swims based on the frequency and reliability of the messages that others choose to leave you. It is the friendliness or apathy of the wider community which will decide whether you will be encouraged by another person, or spurned by those who seek amusement in the bleakest of worlds. Demon’s Souls true genius is in it’s ability to create empathy for another player experiencing the same (difficult) world, players are pushed to the point where they begin to understand the motivations of others who choose to play more dubiously.

Trying to backstab an enemy black phantom.A typical multiplayer screen with two summoned blue phantom.

There is a malevolent force running in parallel to your adventure, slapping the back of your hand as you make mistakes; a noise for a successful blocked attack, another for one that fails. This will infuriate you until you can eliminate your bad habits in combat and do better. So much of the gameplay is left unexplained, so you are left to make mistakes by dying in a trap, falling, or failing a one-on-one fight. You will fail moments continually with little encouragement until you either figure it out or do better. However Demon’s Souls makes you feel the master of your own destiny, you are left to explore and fumble through the game, growing in confidence as you slowly master it’s almost animalistic environment and begin to work out your own strategies to survive longer.

The red dragon flies over a vista of Boletaria.A typical equipment screen.

Demon’s Souls a usability nightmare at first glance

  • You can kill anyone

    Including any friendly NPCs in the game (accidently or otherwise). This can also prevent you from buying or using certain items or spells, or progressing certain story arcs.

  • There is no map

    Or mini-map or a guiding trail. Any exploration done in the game is done through trial and error or memorising the game’s landmarks and traps.

  • The menus can be cryptic

    It can be quite difficult to decipher the information in the menus, the icons that represent different types of damage are cryptic and lots of important information about how to increase damage using your stats simply isn’t in the game.

  • Little in-game help

    There is very little explanation of how to play after the initial tutorial, no way to review what you’ve learnt and no help with finding the key NPCs/locations.

  • There are no checkpoints

    So if you die in a particular area after a long, precarious journey through a level you have to start all over again.

  • The multiplayer features are quite buried

    It is quite difficult to arrange co-op play with friends without pre-arrangement using external voice chat and careful timing (or you risk your friends being poached by someone else).

  • Mandatory player vs. player

    If playing in body form (which is normal after defeating a boss) if you also decide to play online you may and will be invaded by other players attempting to gain their body form back by killing you. There is no way to stop this attacks other than playing offline or staying in soul form and no limit on how often you can be invaded.

  • Gets harder rather than easier as you fail

    Keep dying in a world in body form and enemies will become stronger, hit harder and drop less healing items. The game difficulty also increases with each new playthrough.

Killing the Flamelurker with a bow... as he was about to strike.Sage Freke says: I never expected to get out of there alive.

But there’s method in the madness

The choice to do this is a deliberate one. At the heart of Demon’s Souls is an experience which allows you to fumble, struggle – but learn. Very soon the style of gameplay struggle gives way to empowerment. Demon’s Souls is the wonderful exception to the rule – the boundaries set-up by the game are ultimately what defines it. This changes everything:

  • You can kill anyone

    So you become more cautious and aware of how precious the NPCs are, and value them more. Experimenting with killing NPCs on purpose depending on who you kill can effect the neutrality of the world, your character and open up newer and darker plotlines.

  • There is no map

    So you learn to memorise the level, and due to the excellent level design you are seldom left wondering where to go. This is supported by a set of solid controls and camera that mean that although you are frequently challenged by a level it feels completely manageable.

  • The menus can be cryptic

    So you learn through experimentation. Every enemy has a particular attack type, elemental or magical weakness, making the cryptic nature of the meuns more intuitive over time.

  • Little in-game help

    So you begin to learn the pitfalls and secrets of Demon’s Souls through the anonymous message system. There is a strong sense of community, fair play and support at the heart of the game, so it is other players – whether new or experienced – that become your main support mechanism.

  • There are no checkpoints

    But as you get more accustomed with the game you’ll be able to find and open the many helpful shortcuts and secrets more easily saving you battling through the same area over and over again.

  • The multiplayer features are quite buried

    So when you do manage to find someone else to play with, or you arrange to play with a friend the experience is remarkable, playing with others through a new area is one of the best ways to learn the tiny details of the game, or discover new strategies that may not have occurred to you.

  • Mandatory player vs. player

    As you play more you get more confident and this becomes less of a problem, particularly when you can invite two friends (or strangers) to even the odds.

  • Gets harder rather than easier as you fail

    And when Demon’s Souls really gets it’s hooks into you this is a blessing not a curse, with the confidence you gain through playing the game through once prepares you for the balanced upscale of difficulty.

Fighting five of Latria's prisoners in soul form.Standing before the Tower of Latria archstone.

Playing Demon’s Souls makes you realise the notion of a game’s difficulty is part design, part confidence in the player’s ability. In this game From Software presents you with a challenge, and if you have the optimism to look at the prospect of Demon’s Souls as an opportunity rather than a problem the experience will reward you tenfold.