Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why I love Mega Man (and Rogue Legacy, and Zelda, and Metroid)

This morning I was playing the excellent indie platformer Rogue Legacy, and something occurred to me - there's one way in that Rogue Legacy is like one of my favorite series, Mega Man. It's that both have steep difficulty curves early on, which level off as you progress, with occasional spikes throughout the game.

See, in Mega Man, you start off with pretty much nothing. All you have is your wimpy (except in Mega Man 5) mega buster, and maybe a few special moves like a slide or a Rush Coil. You have to claw your way to the top of the robot pack, defeating robot master after robot master, growing stronger all the while, until you're finally ready to take on Dr. Wily. It can be insanely difficult early on, especially for someone new to the series, and I'd have to say that the game actually gets easier as you progress - at least until the final stages when you confront Wily!

In Rogue Legacy, you again start off with pretty much nothing. 100 HP, 100 mana, only a few classes to play as, and no special equipment. Throughout the game, you can find and buy upgrades, which you get to keep even after your character dies and you start a new one (hence the "Legacy" in the title). The game, like Mega Man, is brutally difficult at first, but once you get used to the controls, and upgrade your HP, mana, classes, and equipment, it becomes... well, only moderately difficult. (There's actually an item you can equip that depowers enemies at the cost of reduced gold drops!)

So why do I enjoy these games so much? Is it because I'm a masochist? Well, no, I'm not a masochist. (At least, I don't think I am!) I think it's actually because there's a sense of accomplishment that comes from pressing on and finally defeating the initial challenge of the game, making my character powerful enough to tackle the rest of the game. Then when I get to the grand finale, and the difficulty ramps up again, I can really appreciate how much I've progressed.

To take an example from one of Jirard "The Completionist" Khalil's favorite games (and one of mine as well), in Mega Man X (which he does an excellent review of in his first episode of his YouTube series), at the beginning you as X are pretty wimpy, and have no hope to defeat Vile (though to be fair, he was riding in a mech...); you're saved by Zero, who says that someday you may be as strong as him. Well, sure enough, at the end of the game, Zero gives you his weapon (which lets you charge up any weapon you have captured from a boss, which is totally awesome)... but then Zero gets into another fight with Vile, and blows himself up to destroy Vile's mech so you can take out Vile himself. And sure enough, the fight with Vile is challenging, but not impossible. It's awesome to be able to fight for Zero, just like he fought for X in the beginning of the game, using all the new powers you've acquired throughout the course of the game!

Another series which has this sort of inverted difficulty curve is the Zelda series. In some of the games (such as the original Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time, and Wind Waker), you don't even start with a sword! Of course, there's not much actual danger at that point (except in the original Zelda), so that doesn't really count. But once you start exploring, you'll find yourself confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, such as those annoying centaurs that shoot deadly sword beams at you and take way too many hits to kill in the original game. Eventually, though, you'll find some item that makes you start to wonder if you've somehow become God incarnate, because it makes dealing with the lesser challenges a complete cakewalk. Master sword that does 4x normal damage? Check. Blue ring that halves all damage taken? Check. Double hookshot that lets you zip around the sky level like Spider-Man? Check. Once you have these items in hand, you realize that maybe it's time to take on some of those obstacles that previously seemed impossible - and what do you know, they're not so hard after all!

And then there's Metroid. You start with 99 max health, a wimpy blaster that (in the original at least) doesn't even shoot all the way across the screen, and no advanced weaponry like missiles or bombs. But when you get to the end of the game, you can have over 1000 health, a wave spazer plasma ice beam that freezes and/or obliterates multiple enemies at once, 100 missiles, bombs, a dozen or so each of super missiles and super bombs, and the screw attack. Yeah, the screw attack. Seriously the most overpowered item in all of gaming. (Except in Metroid Prime 3; there it kinda sucked.) It lets you literally jump through enemies to kill them, as if they were balloons waiting to be popped. And you still get health and missile pickups! Oh, and did I mention you can use it repeatedly in midair, allowing you to kill lots of enemies at once, or just air-climb up to high platforms? And yet still, all these weapons aren't quite enough to defeat Mother Brain (at least in Super Metroid) - you still need the hyper beam!

Come to think of it, the inverted difficulty curve isn't all that uncommon. It's especially prevalent in roguelikes such as Angband, where progress is measured not just in terms of character stats and equipment, but also in terms of player skill, as characters are expected (as in Rogue Legacy, which draws inspiration from roguelikes) to die like Chicagoans vote - early and often! Permadeath games in general, such as The Binding of Isaac and FTL, don't necessarily qualify, though, as they usually get much harder as the player progresses to compensate for the lack of length. I included Rogue Legacy because your accomplishments carry over from one game to the next, making future playthroughs easier, and Angband because the difficulty curve, while sloping upward, does so gently, what with the game's ridiculously long length; the real difficulty comes from mastering the game's mechanics and strategies. Not that games with upward-sloping difficulty curves are less enjoyable than games with downward-sloping curves with the occasional spike; each style has its own unique charm!