Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dynamite Headdy: Starting off on the wrong foot

at 4:59 PM
A game's introduction is like a poem. Short, to the point, and written with the understanding that no one is going to read it. It is one of the most troublesome challenges game designers face - nay - the troublesomest. Also I have no idea if that's true. Yet the question remains: how do you tell the player why this game is great, while simultaneously bringing them up to speed on what's going on? How do you quickly draw them into the world and its mechanics without boring or completely overwhelming them? Do you hold their hand through a series of baby steps, or do you push them into the deep end and let them sink or swim? It's a Goldilocks problem: give them too little and they won't see what's special, but give them too much and they won't absorb any of it.

A good writer would start you off with an example of a game that nails this. I'll cheat my way through this paragraph with a list; since Dynamite Headdy - a game illustrating what not to do in an introduction - inspired this piece, Dynamite Headdy is the game I'm going to write about. If you want a great opening segment, look to Super Metroid, Mega Man X, Dark Souls, or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Actually it would be pretty interesting to read a comparison between the hilariously steep learning curve of XCOM: UFO Defense with the great tutorial level in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Until someone writes that, you get to read about Dynamite Headdy! Fuckin yeah!

If you don't know Dynamite Headdy, this'll be an absolute treat. It's a Sega Genesis cartoon mascot game! The most celebrated genre of all time! That belittling sarcasm will seem ill-cast when I mention that Headdy is the work of acclaimed studio Treasure Ltd., creators of Guardian HeroesRadiant Silvergun, and . Now I've got your attention! Treasure! These guys excel at two things: speed and boss fights. Despite their finesse when it comes to mapping out an action sequence, the Treas-boys rarely manage to pull off the whole enchilada. Their lack of polish is somewhat charming in under-cooked gems like Alien Soldier and Sin & Punishment, but it often serves as a barrier to entry. Case in point: Mischief Makers. Ah shit, I don't want to write about that garbage. Case in point: Dynamite Headdy. It's a solid shooter with tight mechanics and a bevy of rewarding boss fights. But no one could be blamed for tossing it into the trash heap after the first fifteen minutes.

"Wow, Greg. Don't you feel like an idiot for hating this game for years, ignorantly missing out on a strategic action romp set to killer rock tunes?" No, me, I don't. Know why? Because Dynamite Headdy does everything in its power to obscure its value from the player, hiding behind a misleading exterior that feels almost like a rude bait-and-switch. Remember how I once said that a platformer is something a little more complex (or a little simpler) than "a game that looks like Mario and has jumping"? Well, Dynamite Headdy is why. From afar, Headdy looks like it falls right into step with Sonic, Rayman, and all the other platformers of the mid-'90s. The engine could certainly serve well in one. It's even been erroneously categorized that way by many critics and historians. But it is not a platformer, because it does not revolve around varying and evolving platforming mechanics. The player will need to navigate here and there, and there is certainly a platforming level and even a platforming boss fight, but this is first and foremost a combat game, challenging the player to defeat a vast array of enemies in order to survive and progress. More specifically, it is a shooter, meaning that it allows the player to aim and project damage away from their vulnerable avatar (I will break this down further at a later date).

Now this is starting to make sense. Of course it's a shooter, right? That's what Treasure is known for. So, beyond its looks, how is it so easy to confuse Dynamite Headdy for a platformer? Gunstar Heroes looks ambiguous from screenshots, but as soon as we pick up the controller we know we're going to spend the next thirty minutes running and gunning. Yet Headdy pulls a fast one. Let's start from the beginning. The first level is a sort of auto-running cinematic in the vein of Sonic 2, which at first obscures that the player is even in control. Check it out (gameplay starts at 2:03):
This can be forgiven, as many games start with a kinetic blast from a cannon to get players' blood pumping. It's a trope that's only become more prevalent as time goes on. This dumps off into a short boss fight which is too quick to really register, serving more as a character introduction than a gameplay showcase.

From here we enter tutorial town. Headdy is again ahead of its time in busting out an actual in-game tutorial in an era when most games expected players to check the manual or learn on-the-job. Nonetheless, this segment is brief and misleading (though thankfully, for replayers like myself, wholly optional). It teaches the player three things: what power-ups are (which won't be news to gamers and is completely overwhelming due to the game's huge glut of varied and somewhat pointless weaponry), how to grab hooks (also not really necessary, as Ristar and Castlevania IV organically introduced the same elements), and that attacks can be aimed in eight directions (yet again pointless, as the hook-tutorial teaches the same thing). Understandably, this will probably lead the player to believe this game is going to be about grappling to hooks and using power-ups. Kinda weird, as these feel like (and do end up being) sideline elements, but okay, let's move on. We can skip this part anyway.

Stage 1 proper begins about five minutes into the game, and this is where Treasure decides to really fuck with us. The first six minutes of this video:

So it is Ristar? The environment is a few screens talls, enemies patrol and die with one hit, and platforms map out a few linear paths. There are even a few collectibles scattered about. Headdy jumps and slings his way to the right in search of an exit. Then there's a boss battle.

Then there's another boss battle. Then a flat scrolling stage with only a handful of jumps. Then three more boss battles. Then some puzzles. Then two more boss battles. Then a shmup level. Then another boss gauntlet. So why was the first level platforming? I don't mind throwing some in (later on) for variety's sake, but it's a borderline lie to open with ten minutes of it. Especially when it's the game's weakest suit.

The master of all fuck yous in an intro - and this may sound like a nitpick, but is empirically terrible design - is to start off with something the player will never see again. Even within the bad choice of starting a boss-game with a platforming stage, Headdy one-ups this with a lie about the platforming. Go back to that last video and watch the first two platforms again, the orange-and-blue ones with oranges hanging from the bottom that zip toward Headdy when he grabs them. These provide the first defining moments of real gameplay, when the player is forming his idea of how to interact with the game for the next thirty minutes. It is in these moments that we say "oh, that's how this works". So whatever we see in these moments holds a whole lot of weight. Why would you throw in some shit that is neither interesting, eye-catching, nor will ever come into a play again? The player is now constantly expecting platforms to zip around like this - but they don't! Come on Treasure, what purpose does this serve? It's not even a fun rug-pulling, it just provides an "oh. What the hell was that all about?" Fuck you.

When all is said and done, that intro level is the only real platforming Headdy contains. There's a lengthy environmental-puzzle section strung together by platforming in the middle, but it's more about flipping switches and mobile machinery. Most of the game is just boss battles. Luckily, they're good ones - I'm not sure anyone is better than Treasure when it comes to boss fights. As such, I really recommend checking out the game, but make sure to give it some time to sink in. A lot of frustration is to be blamed on the truly moronic welcoming party.

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