Thursday, October 18, 2012

NiGHTS does plenty of other stupid stuff, don't worry

at 4:35 PM
Including:
-What the hell is going on at the beginning of each stage when you're the walk-around guy/girl and get hit by an enemy, every bone in my video gaming brain tells me "go chase them", not "ignore what's going on and go run into that dancing guys".
-Why are those blue orbs called chips and how long is it supposed to take to figure this out?

-Why are you even allowed to prematurely drop off orbs (chips) when you don't have enough to finish the stage? It offers no apparent benefits and serves to severely confuse what is going on
-It's a racing game but you want to take as long as possible to finish a course
-Did Nights just turn tiny?
-When you touch an enemy, sometimes you grab it and sometimes it grabs you (hurts you). Luckily when you're moving at 170 mph and the graphics are upscaled 32-bit 3D, it's SO easy to tell which is the safe and which is the sharp side of the enemy
-Who thought it made sense that when Nights touched an enemy, he would latch onto and slowly orbit it in a rigidly motionless position? It takes three and a half years to even figure out they're supposed to BE enemies because of this unresponsive, irregular behavior and their unceremonious introduction in seemingly random placement throughout courses.

This is mostly harmless silliness, if moronic enough to engender utter bewilderment on first encounter. It's the very bizarreness that makes the game memorable. However, two particular flaws stand out as outright poor design and take the fun factor down a couple pegs.

The boss battles exist in their own world of preposterousness, removed even from the rest of it. They're not necessarily built on bad mechanics (though yes, the mega-pirahna battle is atrocious), they just each have a completely unique set of rules that goes without any explanation from the game. Perhaps they could get away with this vague experimentation-oriented approach, IF exactly everything else in the world didn't contradict that. The fights are timed, they're scored based entirely on time, they're at the end of every normal stage, and dying (running out of time) immediately sends you back to the stage select screen. So you can kiss goodbye to those four A runs because the ten-second boss battle completely screwed it up.
"I never realized Gulpo was a parana(sp?), mainly because I've never had the game. How do you beat him?"
-MermaidNeko, 6 years ago to this very day

The second fault is universally present throughout the game and manifests in a few ways. It speaks of a product not properly or objectively tested, or not given enough time for completion. The entire novelty of NiGHTS is as a 2.5D flying game that has you zooming through interconnected paths threading a continuous 3D world. But this notion of navigating a 3D world in 2D is completely botched because the developers couldn't figure out how to or didn't think they needed to establish a concrete plane of existence for the player character itself.

Let's briefly compare to another pioneering 2.5D game, Klonoa. Klonoa is perfectly successful with this idea of interlooping paths and avid dudes might remember I called the sequel one of the best platformers (and hence games) of all time, thanks largely to its spatial execution. How does it succeed where NiGHTS fails? Easy, really. The game has ACTUAL paths. Klonoa walks on the ground, so you can always see where his next step is going to be. If he's about to veer off toward the screen or into the background, you know because you can see the footpath leading in that direction. NiGHTS doesn't have that, so it comes up with a substitute, an age-old mechanic used to designate paths: collectibles. Rings, stars, and orbs sketch out the general idea of where you're supposed to go, while leaving room enough for improvisation.
Here is a bird's eye view of NiGHTS, as seen by an actual bird. I've flattened the Z dimension into the page, as if we were looking straight down into a fishtank from above. This green rectangle represents an entire level (3D) and the colored curves are the "mares", or 2D rails, that Nights is locked to. The purple triangle dude is Nights, the eye and black lines the camera and its field of view, and the orange dots are collectibles. The dotted purple line is the apparent 2D plane Nights is traveling through. Notice that based on your perspective, you'd expect Nights to be picking up the rightmost orange, but he actually flies right by it. Then notice that based on his current trajectory, you're expecting him to fly into the orange on the yellow path, but actually he's about to turn and fly toward one that currently appears in the background
Where they fucked up is execution - it's the right idea, but it doesn't work AT ALL, and if anyone except the dev team had laid their hands on the game prior to release, they could easily have pointed this out. The collectibles in the entire 3D level are always visible, and nothing is done to distinguish foreground from back-, so you'll constantly find yourself asking "Can You Get to That?". Why do objects that I CAN'T collect need to be visible? Just hide them until I get to that part of the level! It's perfectly counter-intuitive design. First you put the rings there to show the player where to go, and then you put in more rings that the player can't get to, so it won't be clear where to go. There's also a big problem where Nights will take a ninety degree turn sometimes with no warning, making what appeared to be the background suddenly into the playing area.

Eventually memorization will take over for sight-guessing the paths, but this is cold comfort and virtually the definition of bad game design.

It's frustrating because you can tell they had the right idea and their heart on the right track, then they fumbled it so severely. It's not quite at the level of "if only they had the right perspective and time, think of how things could've went down..."; more like "this could've been a good game. Instead it's the mangled corpse of a good game."

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