I have saved the universe from the Flood. I have searched castle after castle for a kidnapped princess. I have endorsed products on Citadel Station to make a buck. I have slaughtered robots, ninjas, goombas, Sin, aliens, and the Yellow Devil. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

No matter the outlandish story, each game brought fun. As I have reviewed classics like Contra and Blaster Master, I saw threads that connected the good games. Games like Hydlide, Sonic Shuffle, and Shaq Fu showed me the other end of the spectrum, the absence of good. What separates these games? Here are my five keys to good games.

  • Control Scheme

What I really wanted to place here was gameplay, but this term is too general. I boiled it down to the control scheme. How does your avatar/character control? Does the control fit with the game? When needing an example of good control schemes, look no further than Nintendo.

young kids super mario galaxyThe Wii gives some of the best examples of how this can succeed and fail. Wii Sports nailed the new controllers so that even the elderly could pick up the game and know how to bowl. WarioWare also demonstrates some of the unique ways to use controllers. Mario Galaxy nails control schemes perfectly as it uses the waggle and pointing for game specific purposes. None of it feels useless or contrived, simply an extension of the game.

Wii was also home to some of the worst control schemes that hurt otherwise interesting and decent games. Red Steel embodied this problem. Red Steel was hyped as being able to swing a sword and cut down enemies. Coupled with stylized graphics and motion-based FPS mechanics, it had the potential to excel, yet the control scheme did not work. Red Steel 2 attempted to build off of the hope for the first with a 1:1 connection using Wii Motion+. While it was improved, the game still controlled awkwardly.

A few examples of great control in a game are Contra, Wii Sports, Metroid Prime, Rocket League, New Super Mario Bros., Halo, Flower, and Mega Man 2. Each game’s control scheme deepens the gaming experience and effortlessly connects game and gamer.

  • Pace

Unless you are an Olympian you will not be sprinting a 3200. Going slow and steady for a 40-meter dash does not work either. You have to know your race and train accordingly to succeed. The more games I play, the more I notice pacing issues.

Many games begin painfully slow. Nothing says fun like tutorials for the first three hours. Final Fantasy VII is a great example. I began this game several times and never left the first city, Midgar. It was boring and super slow paced. Friends constantly told me it got better, but hour after hour Cloud plodded along at a painfully slow pace. I finally put in the time and the game drastically improved. Uneven and poor pacing can become a barrier to great games like Final Fantasy VII and doom lesser games.

sonic-the-hedgehog-630x414One of the best examples of uneven pacing is found in Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic demonstrates his speed with quick entertaining levels right from the beginning. He races and springs through the Green Hill Zone at break neck speeds. The rush brings joy and adrenaline. Then the Marble Zone brings the speed to a crashing halt as you wait, and wait, and wait for platforms and blocks to move. Spring Yard launches you back into action. Labyrinth Zone zaps even Sonic’s movement speed more in the water. Finally, Star Light Zone brings more races. Sonic never seems to know what it wants to do or be. Is the game about speed or slow careful platforming? If the game used the slow for difficulty in later levels it would make sense but it sporadically speeds up and slows down. While Sonic is a good game, it’s flawed pacing holds it back from true greatness.

A few examples of good pacing: Journey, The Last of Us, Xenosaga, Megaman X, Half-Life 2, New Super Mario Bros., Myst, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There are tons of other examples, but each one of these diverse games keeps the theme and gameplay at an even clip. Breaks in the action feel natural and well deserved.

  • Level Design

In retro gaming, level design is crucial to a successful game.  It is like a video game’s air. When level design works it goes unnoticed, but when lacking, the game suffocates painfully. Poor level design can impact the games theme and pace like in Sonic. Other games have repetitive and unimaginative levels that bog a game down.

Black MesaRecently, I have been playing back through Half-Life 1 (Black Mesa on Steam) and have been painfully aware of pace and level design. There are few enemies and a multitude of empty office rooms with nothing inside. Every area looks the same and gives no sense of progress. The game drones on and on like Ferris Bueller’s teacher. Another game that repeats itself like a background on a cartoon show is the classic Halo: Combat Evolved. In Halo’s level The Library you walk in through bland repetitive rooms. Get the Index at the end and then go through the exact same boring path on the way out. No excuse for boring your players with the same level twice.

Games that utilize backtracking in levels need several components to pull it off. Take the Metroid series which is built on backtracking. New items open up previously hidden secrets and paths. This forces the gamer to be observant and solve puzzles. To utilize backtracking each room needs to have distinct markers and textures. Metroid Prime perfectly executes this as each room has different layouts, themes (like ice or fire), and even unique enemies. The Metroid series also demonstrates the failure in this in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption as the dark world often looked nondescript.

The gold standard for level design is Mario. What keeps Mario successful is not its graphics or game play, but levels that utilize ever power up, ring challenge, and move Mario can make. Early games in the series hid power ups in invisible blocks or warp tubes in the ceiling. Mario Maker and LittleBigPlanet are great demonstrations of how hard it is to get level design right. As millions of levels are created by amateurs, few levels are intricately sculpted to bring the same level of entertainment as Nintendo and Media Molecule development teams.

nintendo-nes-game-cartridge-spy-vs-spyLevel design is also crucial in multiplayer maps. Levels, or maps in multiplayer, dictate gameplay and balance. Without a quality map it eschews games to certain player’s advantage or specific strategies. This quickly causes gameplay to become stale. Our playthrough of Spy vs. Spy demonstrated this as maps were unbalanced for spawns and could eliminate the other player simply based on their color. For great multiplayer levels look no farther than Starcraft 2 and the Halo series. Halo meticulously plans out their arenas so that there are multiple ways to access areas, get items, and coordinate with a team.

Other examples of great level design can be found in: Shovel Knight, Mega Man X, Zelda: BotW, Grand Theft Auto Series, Half-Life 2, Overwatch, and Metal Gear Solid. These games, and many others, use every bit of their levels to enrich the experience of all who play.

  • Variety

Variety is important to backtracking games, but it goes deeper than that. While variety is important to provide landmarks and touch points for gamers to recognize and return to, it also brings a sense of newness as you continue in a game.

young kids mini metroMini Metro is a fantastic puzzle game where you build a rail system. Each map is similar in color palette, music, and objectives. The familiarity is nice, but after a few cities the challenges all feel rehashed. The next level is essentially the same, and the next, and the next. Why continue? Other games like Pokemon Go, fall into this same trap. Catch a Pokémon and now you have essentially nothing to do with it. Forget replay value, without variety there is little reason to finish a game.

Variety extends beyond simply how a game looks. The game needs to change up how it plays, sounds, and feels. Change too much and it throws off the pace and feel of the game. Change nothing and lose the players interest. Imagine if the original Mario Bros. never changed the music for levels or when capturing the flag. The beautiful bass tones that welcome you into a tunnel level would have been replaced by the repetitive theme song. This is the delicate balance that developers walk when creating games.

tnmt-3When Crosstix and I played through Chip N’ Dale each boss fight was identical. These fights became boring rather than climactic. Hydlide is horrible for many reasons but the lack of variety in music becomes almost torture to the point of insanity. Enemies also provide a sense of variety. Sending wave after wave of the same enemy in many beat em’ ups, like Golden Axe and TMNT, becomes monotonous. Shredder, simply changing the color of your Foot Clan soldier does not help.

A few examples of variety in landscape, enemies, bosses, and music are:  Metroid Prime, Super Mario World, Last of Us, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Shovel Knight, and Half-Life 2.

  • Difficulty

The final integral element for a good game is a balance in difficulty. Games must avoid two dangers, too easy and too difficult. The goal is the give the gamer a sense of satisfaction when they are able to beat the game. Conversely, games also fail if they become so difficult it frustrates a rational player to the point of throwing the controller through the TV.

One way many games achieve the balance is to make the regular story/mission an average or slightly below average difficulty. Then add a brutal challenge for skilled and determined gamers.  Final Fantasy VII is a great example of this tactic. The regular game is challenging, but very manageable. For the die hard gamers, Square added two ultimate weapons that even maxed out players struggle with. RPGs, like Super Mario RPG, often use the extra boss strategy to increase replay and interest. Modern gaming repackages these challenges as DLC, like Destiny.

A failed tactic used by many games to “increase” difficulty is to use time consuming requirements or fetch quests. Developers errantly get the idea that if they increase the amount of time required to finish their game then they must have made it better and more challenging. Amazing writing is required to making finding a random NPC entertaining.  While most RPGs use fetch quests, Xenoblade Chronicles takes them to the extreme. Pokémon games are another prime example. The battles are rarely challenging or skillful. The game simply becomes grinding endlessly to level up specific Pokémon. This is not challenging and quickly becomes tiresome. I have literally used Pokémon Gold to help me fall asleep because of this.

When thinking of games that are too hard we often go to bad games like Silver Surfer, Fester’s Quest, or other poorly made games. These games are difficult because they are bad, not bad because they are difficult. Take Donkey Kong 64 is a perfect example of its difficulty making it worse. DK64 was a fun game with lots of collecting, secrets, and interesting game play. Then Rare makes you beat the original DK and Rare’s Jetpac to be able to finish DK64. To make matters worse you must find coins to attempt to beat these games. Each time you fail these required mini games the return animation takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Adding the old games as an Easter egg is fine, but forcing players to play your old games is like putting in a Battletoads surfing level for “fun”.  This adds nothing to the game, drastically raises the difficulty, and takes away from the main gameplay and story.

Many gamers look at story-based games as too easy. Telltale games makes many “choose your own adventure” games that are easy because of their style rather than poor difficulty. Video games that are half movies might be easy, but they essentially are using the art form to tell a story. They want you to finish the story. Like the genre or not, the story is the centerpiece of the game.

Kirby games are a good example of how a good game can be knocked down via lack of difficulty. In virtually every Kirby game, it is easy to dominate the game quickly. Victory becomes inevitable and boring. The enemies offer little challenge and death is rare, if ever. Even newbies can speed effortlessly through the game. It is the lack of difficulty and challenge that limits Kirby from being anything more than a quick sugar rush, instead of a favorite meal.

For examples of games with a good balance of difficulty, look no further than: Batman: Arkham City, Mass Effect, Portal 2, Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, and my favorite Metroid Prime.

There you have it, five essential pieces to a great game. Disagree? Let us know in the comments what is crucial in a game for you.

Game On!