Monday, September 6, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. RPG Elements

The whole Scott Pilgrim multimedia blitzkrieg worked far better than it really should have. Yes, the movie flopped, but quality-wise it was completely fantastic, because the people that made it had an understanding of why people loved the comic. The same goes for UbiSoft's downloadable video game, which makes no excuses for being an updated version of River City Ransom. It's appropriate, given that Scott's universe is largely inspired by this particular game, and also welcome, because not even the original Kunio-kun developers have ever done it properly, instead compelled to remake the numerous sports related games that no one seems to care about (except the dodgeball ones, but those new ones haven't turned out all that well.) Other than the technical glitches, most people seem to like it, with the major criticism being against the RPG mechanics. I've even read some people say the game would be better off without them. Nonsense, I say -- for the type of game this is trying to be, they are essential.

This is because, from a design standpoint, the sidescrolling beat-em-up -- or the belt-scroller, if we're gonna be all hip -- just isn't very good.

That's not to totally write off a huge part of gaming history, or say that we were all fooling ourselves when we put quarters into TMNT: The Arcade Game. No, they're still FUN, because smashing stuff in Final Fight is pretty gratifying even twenty years later. But they're very, very hard to balance if you're going to play to win and not just put quarters into them. The 3D nature of the movement makes it hard to line up attacks. The size of the characters, combined with their sluggish movement and the nature of close quarters combat, makes defense maneuvers difficult. And the chaotic nature of the enemy attacks make it hard to predict their movement anyway. There is some technique required for crowd control, but even that grows nearly useless in a typical boss fight, wherein your opponent is clearly overpowered. And none of that takes into account that they're just really repetitive -- without any platforming or any other activities, it's literally the same action repeated thousands of times, which is usually not helped by the limited movesets. Even the most advanced games grow weary by the time the finale rolls around. It's widely acknowledged that these games tend to live or die in co-op multi-player, not only because it's more fun to bash heads with friends, but because the multiple characters allow you to tip the scales of balance through flat-out attrition.

Knowing that it's hard to be "good" at beat-em-ups -- and you can't make them too easy without being boring, or too hard without being frustrated -- the designers of Scott Pilgrim used RPG elements in an attempt to balance everything out by minimizing the need for player skill. In that way, the difficulty of the game is inversely proportionate to how long you've spent playing it. I know that sentiment sends terror down the spine of the "play games to 1 cc them" crowd, but if you're playing Scott Pilgrim that way, you're playing it wrong.

That might sound like it's meant to waste the player's time, but think of it like this. If you're making a old school style beat-em-up, you can (A) make it an hour long game with infinite credits, like many recent arcade ports, and have people claim that it's too easy and disposable, (B) make it like an NES game and give limited continues, forcing people to replay earlier stages over and over in hopes they get better and don't just give it up, or (C) implement a barrier that artificially slows down progress but gives the opportunity for the player to improve their stats and play over levels at their leisure. I'm not a huge fan of forced grinding, but the way it's presented in Scott Pilgrim mostly works, in large parts because the graphics and music is brilliant, and the core action is fun enough that it feels gratifying without getting too repetitive. I don't think I played a single level more than twice before I beat it, other than occasionally visiting some old stages for fun.

It's still got issues, though. When you stick RPG elements into an action game, you get a conundrum with your "starting point" at level 1 - do you stick your character in neutral state, that is, with skills on the level to a game without RPG elements, or do you nerf the character and weaken them, forcing them to climb the ranks to get skills you would otherwise commonly start with? Scott Pilgrim picks the latter route, and I'm not a fan of that. The first stage or so is really slow, because you're slow, and you don't have many skills, and it's not a lot of fun. It gets astronomically more enjoyable once you level up, but that's an awful way to start a game, especially when you're depending on sales from a demo.

Scott Pilgrim's other mistake is that leveling up is so haphazard that it's easy to turn the game into a complete cakewalk and become completely overpowered. This also happened to be the same exact issue with River City Ransom, so the developers must not have felt it was a concern, but it feels weird to beat a boss you've encountered for the first time in a handful of seconds.

It's not quite as well done as Castle Crashers, a game which Scott Pilgrim owes its very existence to due to its extraordinary success, but while it could've used some adjustment, it's still another fantastic example of how you can take an old-school arcade-style game and update it to a modern console mentality, and have it appeal to more than just a handful of people.


  1. ---
    ..not even the original Kunio-kun developers have ever done it properly..

    Have you not played the awesome, awesome GBA remake? It's not a port, it's a remake with all of the moves from Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu, more bosses, up to I believe three other allies to fight alongside you, and a create-a-character mode. And it's pretty much the best thing ever.

  2. We're talking the River City Ransom EX game, right? Wasn't too bad, but a new game would've been nice, and that one that took place in feudal Japan didn't quite scratch the same itch.

  3. Good read, I personally disliked the game's over reliance of rpg elements as it makes the game more about stats than skill. I think you cover that issue well. Your comment about the genre not being good is interesting to me. I wouldn't say the genre itself isn't good. It's just that most developers just aren't creative enough to do the genre right. So they just follow previously established norms. That's the problem with the industry as a whole, people who can't think outside of the box

  4. That GBA game has the most god awful saving system known to man, the worst user interface ever, and good god, you could tell the game was half assed. Just look at the graphics, they're uglier than the 8 bit sprites! The game didn't even have multiplayer, could the developers have missed the point more?

  5. I think that, once developers could use actual 3D instead of the sorta 3D of beat-em-ups, it evolved into stuff like God of War and Dynasty Warriors, which is why you don't see many classic beat-em-ups anymore, unless they're specifically going for the style, like Scott Pilgrim here does.

  6. This is kinda funny because I was just playing Scott Pilgrim when I read this article. I agree with your sentiments that the genre just isn't that interesting or "good." But as you mentioned, I think the modern beat-em-up is embodied through Dynasty Warriors, Devil May Cry, God of War, etc. It seems like now that we've got true 3D, developers have many more techniques to forestall the boring gameplay.

  7. Beat-'em-up and run-and-gun games are largely a byproduct of arcades. When you have to pay for continues, you can only progress so far. You are then left with the three options you mentioned in the article when you port the game to a console.

    I think the Maximo method of continues is a viable option. The player has to collect a certain number of coins or points to receive a continue and the number keeps going up as you use more continues. It would encourage players to develop his or her skills and not require the player to be weakened initially.

  8. Been too long since you've written an evaluation-styled piece Kurt. Really enjoy reading your proper critique of video games. Keeps me coming back to HG101 and helps give me direction with my own writing too. ^_^

  9. Having played the demos of both Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim, personally, I think the former is more enjoyable.

    SP has more depth, but CC knows what made those classic games fun to play.

  10. Though I will give SP props for forcing players to play with others in person. That's part of the appeal to these games.

    Also, great graphics and music. But CC's no slouch there either.

  11. How does the rpg elements solve repetitiveness and dullness?
    Instead of learning enemy patterns and practicing crowd control and reflexes, you just need to punch enough enemies until you get the free win ticket?
    Am I the only one here who sees the solution as EVEN MORE REPETITIVE?

    And I have to object to your complaints of the genre. At least if we look at the finest it has to offer (which we should).
    After all, isn't the arcade Alien vs Predator by Capcom a 2D action masterpiece?
    It's got speed, each of the characters have lots of unique moves and every battle is exciting and lethal. I would certainly not say no to a new game like it, even with the same degree of difficulty.

    Maybe you guys should try to play for something more than the ending? After all, while arcade games where designed from a money making point, THEY ARE FAIR!
    I personally resorted to credit feeding in emulators and compilations in the past.
    However, about half a year ago I was inspired to play arcade games with only 1 credit.
    I would play them to the limit of my own skill, and honestly, it's the most fun I've had with games... EVER!
    Even though I have beaten almost no games like this yet, but I keep getting closer each time I try. xD

  12. @Anitti
    My point is it is VERY difficult to actually be GOOD at a classic beat-em-up. It's not impossible, but I sure as hell don't find it fun. It would have been an awful idea for a console game that's trying to aim at a wide as audience possible, most of whom don't care about 1ccs and just like smashing stuff to rad graphics and awesome music. I am in with that crowd!

  13. @Discoalucard
    Ah, didn't think I would be responded to. Thank you for having the patience to read such a long post. And apologies for not being able to keep myself short with what I want to say. m(_ _)m

    Anyway, point taken. Different people find different things fun. It's not the 1CC itself that brings me enjoyment though. It is the knowledge that any mistake will bring everything to an end, forcing you to start from the beginning. It makes the experience more tense, more exciting for me.

    However, forgetting people like me who enjoy this makes me sad, man. I mean, I really couldn't enjoy this game, and I really wanted to. It contains a lot of stuff graphically and thematically that I like so I am kind of pissed of that I'm unable to enjoy it.
    It's not just the leveling. It's also the battles, I think enemies take way too many hits and stay down way too long. And it feels much clunkier than any of the beat'em ups I love.

    Then again, reading what you wrote, does a lot of this change when leveling up?
    In that case they should have included an arcade mode (that is unlocked from the beginning) where you already have all skills and maxed out stats, but the enemies are faster, more aggressive and the difficulty curve steadily rising.

    Maybe it's not playable for everyone, but that wouldn't be the point. The point would be to make the game available to a second audience as well, the one that enjoys the threat of a beating, the one I belong to. That couldn't possibly be wrong, could it?

    Oh right... it costs money. Id buy the game and pay for that mode as DLC if it existed Seriously. The DLC could cost as much as the game does by itself and I would still probably buy it.

  14. @Antti

    For one, making the game hard by yourself isn't too tough, just play through the game without buying upgrades. It's both possible and hard as fucking nails. I think it'd be up your alley, as in the late levels enemies start being able to kill you REALLY fast. Your stats don't increase at all when you gain levels from killing mans, you just gain new moves, so this way, you're super fragile and the enemies super beefy.

    Also the sentiment, "it's not the 1CC, it's the knowledge that any mistake will be your last" is, I would argue, shared by almost everyone who 1CCs games. It's very rarely just for the sake of it. The reason most people go for 1CCs is that powerful feeling of tension that builds up as you get farther and farther in a game where you have to be perfect.

    On the article, I agree on a lot of points, but specifically I'd say that I'm all for how they handled giving you your basic skills. While the beginning of the game is certainly boring to people who've beaten it before, when I just started it was all kinds of fun with just the basic buttons, and new moves made leveling up extremely rewarding. If you're going through the game again, I'd recommend just using the money glitch and buying levels up to 16, if you're really missing your air recovery, strong down attack, etc.

    Honestly, I'm really glad this game got released, given the difficulties it went through. I paid less for this than for some other downloadable titles, and I've enjoyed this more by far.

  15. @Antti

    It doesn't take very long to max out a character, and I wouldn't be surprised if there's a code to instantly max out a character (so far there's a zombie survival mode, a sound test code, a "Start with the uberweapon that shows up in the last stage" code, a "replace all coins with critters" code, and probably more by now.) Although maxed out makes it a cakewalk. you'd probably want it somewhere in the middle maybe with some stat boosts and moves unlocked purely by game progression instead of stocking up on "Smashing Turnips" CDs. The game definitely gets a bit less clunky, although I'm still not happy about the ground recovery time, which is probably all so you can pick people up and beat other people with them. Some of the later enemies get up much faster, and you get attacks to use on downed enemies, and a decent number will attack on the way up if you're close. The way it scales though, some of the later level mooks can take more punishment than earlier level bosses, so you need at least some sort of stat advancement (and it's SOOO fun to go back and make really short work of the first three stage bosses. Beating Todd Ingram is actually a viable strategy for stocking up on extra lives after you've leveled up some.)

  16. "...the designers of Scott Pilgrim used RPG elements in an attempt to balance everything out by minimizing the need for player skill."

    Man, I had to read this sentence about three times because I couldn't understand how "minimizing the need for player skill" makes a game balanced. Adding the ability to boost stats and unlock moves does not balance anything at all, it removes all balancing period. Instead of the developers carefully balancing difficulty it's now the player's job to do so. Some will "balance" the game faster than others. It all depends on how much time needs to be wasted boosting stats according to a player's general ability at beat-em-ups.

    I can only give the game props for its awesome aesthetics and closely following the beat-em-up "consolization" model as seen in the ever popular River City Ransom. I'll stick to Undercover Cops, Alien vs. Predator and Guardians.

  17. @justin
    Oh, it doesn't actually WORK as well as it should, the game gets insanely unbalanced. But repeated play DOES eventually tilt the scales in favor of the player.

    There's no doubt the games you list are "better" beat-em-ups, but mimicking those would also be defeating the purpose of what Scott Pilgrim was supposed to be.