Posted by: Junahu | October 1, 2012

Junahu “teaches” Game Design #3

Howdy hoes yet again! It’s this thing.. again. Technically I won’t be teaching you anything this time, merely espousing a bunch of examples… which is what I usually do anyway… Nevermind!

This time I’ll be rambling about something a little more universally understood than screen real estate and credit gates;

Collectables

Collectables! Those trinkets and baubles that have little incidence when collected individually, yet still paint a player’s whole outlook on a game.

Note that Collectables in this article are different to Plot Tokens (collectables used to advance the game itself) and Power ups (collectables that directly modify the player’s character in the game), though we will be touching on those too.

Hey there, it’s your Grunkle Mario!

The Mario Coin

Of all of gaming’s many collectable nik-naks, the Mario Coins are the collectable with the current lowest in-game value, which is a polite way of saying that they do nothing at all. True, 100 of these blingy gold pieces confers an extra 1up on the player, but those have fallen completely out of favor with the advent of SAVE features.

So, I’ll say it again, these things are utterly worthless.

The sad thing is, that this didn’t use to be the case at all. Within the original Super Mario Bros, losing all your lives ended your game, kicking the player back to the start screen. This intense punishment meant that extra lives had a much greater value, and the means by which you could aquire more, were extremely relavent. In fact, the allure of a extra life is liberally abused throughout Super Mario Bros, especially during segements in which the player could kick a koopa shell and then run after it while it slammed into multiple foes.

It was a deliberate facet of the level design is what I am saying, and coins also had this purpose. Almost no coin is ever simply laid out on the ground, jumping and brick breaking are required for the vast majority of them, and additional stockpiles of coins were hidden in special areas that required even more exploration, and dilligence. This aspect of exploration, however, is at odds with the game’s timer, a clock which kills Mario if it ever hits zero. The player is given an interesting choice, either explore the level and risk a time-out, or finish the level without any of the potentially life-giving goodies.

Super Mario Bros 2, while abandoning the idea of an in-game time limit and the “100 coins = 1 life” concept, still made individual coins more precious to aquire. It did so by exclusively hiding them in Sub-Con (a parallel dimension that could only be accessed via special, carryable, items), and by making them the currency that buys turns at the end-of-level Slot Machine. This machine is pretty much the only way to get extra lives, thus making the slot machine itself both super tense, and super rewarding. So, again, the coins had value in that they helped you avoid losing the entire game. Once the Mario series began allowing their games to save their progress, coins lost a lot of their value.

However, that wasn’t all coins could do.

Super Mario 64, encouraged the game’s overall tone of exploration and discovery, by generally hiding the coins away, inside blocks and enemies and in corners of the worlds the player would not immediately think of going. Getting extra lives and surviving wasn’t the focus of the game, so collecting coins was instead made relevent by gifting Mario bonus stars for the endeavor (Stars being the Plot Tokens that allow Mario to enter and explore other levels). Coins also acted to restore Mario’s HP, which added the dynamic of raking around for coins whenever Mario took damage.This HP restoring feature was reused and exaggerated in Super Mario Galaxy (1 & 2), by giving Mario far less HP to play around with, thus turning coins into a literal life or death situation.

Anyway, my point is, Mario’s coins used to hold a central focus in the Mario games by allowing the player to play more of the game when collected (either by gifting extra lives, buffering Mario’s HP, or giving plot tokens to the player). Player’s were motivated to collect every coin they could, because doing so truly benefited them.

[tl:dr NSMB2 is a goddamn crime against nature for not giving coins any value at-fucking-all]

Take a coin, and remove the middle bit. Done

The Sonic Ring

Argueably THE most iconic collectable ever created, Sonic’s rings are almost like a parody of Mario’s coins. The dynamic behind them means that Sonic absolutely always needs at least 1 ring, but there is little direct incentive to collect any more. Of course, Rings are very liberally placed all over the place, making it an actual challenge to NOT collect a bundle. Rings are simply cathartic to collect en mass, and their existance represents a safety net for the player

Unless you’ve never played a Sonic game, you’ll know what Rings do; they act as a buffer to stop Sonic from dieing when struck by an enemy or hazard. When hit, every Ring in your possession hurls itself out of Sonic’s body, bouncing away from him. You can recollect some of these before they vanish, but most of them will escape Sonic’s clutches. It adds a sense of loss to being hit, without ostensibly making the player actually lose anything. It’s an ingenious abuse of the player’s inherent greed, to add something of a sentimental value to the rings. Having many rings represents the player’s skill in avoiding damage, that is their ‘value’.

Because Sonic will almost always have at least one ring on his person, he is functionally immortal, a quality almost completely unheard of outside of the Warioland series. Any player could win, as in getting to the end of the level, but more cautious and skilled players were rewarded for amassing a lot of rings and KEEPING them. This was where the games’ deceptive difficulty lay.

In Sonic 1 collecting and keeping 50 rings all the way to the end of the stage is how Sonic accesses the Special Stages. These bonus stages contain Chaos Emeralds, and collecting all 6 within one playthrough of the game allows the player to see the “true” ending. Bonus Stages are also the only way to aquire continues (whereas collecting 100 rings in a level gives Sonic a life, keeping 50 rings until the end of the stage, then collecting another 50 within the bonus stage gives him what is effectively 3 extra lives). Because the game’s acts are presented linearly, and without saving of any kind, there are a very limited number of opportunities to enter a bonus stage, so missing out on one because you got hit and lost your rings has rammifications on how careful you’ll be with rings in the remaining acts of the game.

In Sonic 2, the importance of keeping rings was diminished by allowing Sonic to enter a Special Stage by jumping into a checkpoint within the stage whilst having 50 rings. It was still a challenge to accumulate that many without being hit, but being hit did not carry the same weight as it did in the game’s prequel. However, there still was a reward for keeping a large number of rings all the way to the end of an act (half of which contained boss fights at their end). Ending an act with 100 rings present would guarantee enough points to earn a free Continue. And unlike Sonic 1, Sonic 2 made those extra continues excrutiatingly neccessary with its final act, the Death Egg Zone.

Accumulating 50 rings also allowed Sonic to transform into his invincible Super form (once all of the bonus stages had been completed), giving him not only a genuine incentive to collect rings and enter the special stages, but also to continue collecting rings even after beating all of them. Super Sonic adds an additional iconic spin to ring collection by turning them into the fuel he needs to maintain his Super form. You lose 1 ring per second, and losing all your rings not only reverts Super Sonic back to regular Sonic, but leaves him vulnerable and ringless. This system encouraged players to rampage through levels and quickly make decisions on whether to make certain detours to collect rings, a system that is both dynamic and exciting.

Sadly, Sonic 3 & Knuckles (the messy ejaculate of the 16 bit Sonic games) rendered amassing many rings pointless with two very small changes to the game’s formula. Firstly, the dreaded sting of being able to Save your game’s progress and return to any completed level made accumulating continues (and lives to a lesser extent) pointless. Secondly, the Bonus Stages no longer had anything to do with keeping rings. Instead, merely finding a giant ring hidden in the act was enough. So collecting more than one ring was worthless other than for the nice feeling of having many rings. Of course, the wonderful ability to become Super Sonic remained unchanged, but was cheapened by the fact that the hidden giant rings give Sonic 50 rings for free if he has already found all the emeralds.

Sonic games after Sonic 3 & Knuckles cycled between using rings just as a health buffer, and using them as a currency, with only Sonic 4 reviving the idea that keeping a bunch of rings throughout the whole act should be rewarded.

I know this isn’t a REAL DK Banana. 😛

The DK Banana

I know this article is already rambling, but this is the last example I’ll use today. I promise

On the surface, bananas seem much like Mario Coins, in that actually collecting them is almost worthless. Like coins, 100 bananas gives DK an extra life. The Donkey Kong Country series is actually hard enough to make extra lives seem neccessary. However, there are a number of different ways to earn additional lives, and collecting 100 bananas is by far the least efficient way.

The DK Banana then, is not a collectable that impacts on gameplay to a significant degree. Yet it is still useful to have these things in the game, because rather than treat them as something the player needs to go out of their way to collect, bananas are used much more charitably. You’ll find a lot of bananas just lieing on the path you’d normally take, or dangling in midair in a manner that tells the player how high they should jump in order to reach the next platform. A few bananas are even used to help players discover secrets, such as having a single banana bizarrely placed at the bottom of a death pit, indicating a hidden bonus barrel can be found down there.

Essentially, bananas are used to show where the player is supposed to go, in a manner that doesn’t dumb down the level design or make things overly easy. It’s a system that quickly ingrains on the player the idea that collecting bananas is in fact the easiest path, which in turn makes them want to see bananas. Even though collecting them in and of itself has little value, the bananas are still valuable.

Even in DK64, the game which gave you about a half dozen different kinds of plot token to collect (regular bananas being one of them), still used bananas to draw paths through the stage, helping the player get accustomed to getting around each massive world. Super Mario 64 hid their coins, Donkey Kong 64 kept their bananas in plain sight.

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Responses

  1. But the NSMB2 coins have plenty of value! They give Nintendo an excuse to spam them throughout a bunch of amateur levels and make people think that the level design is deeper than it actually is!

    • :O Genius!


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