Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dammit, that pixel art deserves a better game.

A while ago Parasitus: Ninja Zero by a team called Heart Attack Machine caught my attention on the XBox Live Indie Game marketplace. The screenshots promised a great 2D action platformer experience a la Castlevania, with some gorgeous sprite work for an indie game. Unfortunately, the game was not that great. The controls were awkward and the pacing was off. The game runs very fast overall, feeling like those old Chaplin movies run in 30fps. Furthermore the mostly fine dot graphics (with some lazy elements here and there) were spoiled by superficial hi-res CGI effects. So after going through the trial I passed on buying the full game.

Now recently HAM put out a prequel to their first game, dubbed Invasion. It was clear that it used many graphics assets from Parasitus, but it at the same time it looked more polished, as if some of the more unfitting background elements were phased out. I was hopeful to see my complaints rectified, although the new game was in a different subgenre.

At the place of the swordfighting in Parasitus stands a run 'n gun experience. But the controls are just as bad, if not worse. The games have that weird uneducated jumping mechanics where the character stops rising into the air the exact instance one lets going the button. Also in Invasion one shoots diagonally up by holding the left or right shoulder bumper, respectively. Holding both fires straight up, but when you press the left bumper while running right, nothing happens. Worst of all, doing any of this may lock up the fire button for seconds, resulting in many cheap hits because you simply can't fire.

Then there's this:

Seriously? You put that in the same game with the best pixel work on all of XBLIG? Are you quite insane?! One good thing about Parasitus besides the graphics was the fact that it didn't try to tell much of a story (at least not in the trial). Well, their first game didn't do so good on the marketplace, so they probably looked at hits like Braid and thought: "Lots of text equals success!" Needless to say, the writing is as abysmal as can be, with more pathetic, forced innuendos than Magna Cum Laude, and the crappy mugshots kill whatever cozy Amiga atmosphere the CGI effects left over.

OK, I might be a bit hard on the games. After all, they're not actually that bad, just alright homebrew games, with really really bad writing in the second, but I guess really really bad is the standard for writing in indie games, anyway. It's just that they hold back one of the more competent pixel artists in indie gaming today, while fun and even publisher-backed "2D" games often have to be covered in drab shadow figures or insipid flat-shaded "newgrounds" shapes. So, how do we tell this artist what could be accomplished with a team that knows to design (and write!) a great game around those great pixels?


  1. aliens infestation on the ds, man that was a disappointment

  2. Find his name, get in contact, and then tell him to head over to TIGSource? That place is full of skilled coders, designers and musicians. Artists too, but I think he'd be welcomed.

    That Mugshot is one of the fugliest things I've ever seen.

    I also 100% agree with your criticism of modern publisher backed 2D. None of them want to embrace chunky pixelart, and that freakishly smooth-styled hi-res sprites just don't cut it. There is legitimate beauty in low resolution sprites. :(

    Also, to be honest, I don't know why the writing would be so bad in indie games. I don't think I've encountered it enough. Actually, now that you mention the problem, I wouldn't mind trying my hand at writing an indie game's script. Not for pay, just to see if I can do it.

    I recall games journalist Paul Rose wrote a game script, for Future Tactics, just to see if he could.

  3. I was also originally drawn to Parasitus because of the artwork, but the gameplay just didn't hold up.

    The writing isn't bad in all indie games (speaking as an indie game writer myself), but I've covered enough of them to see that it's definitely not the focus for most indies. It seems that the programmer or artist is usually the one doing the writing, rather than bringing in a dedicated writer.

    Gameplay is king, but the artwork and writing should enhance the game, or at the very least not detract from it.

  4. Sure not all indie games writing is bad, I've seen ok and good writing in indie games, too. But all too often indies have made me cringe before I even could start to play. The most beautiful ones are still those that just throw you into their world with no text at all. Or let me at least skip the dialogue. More than once I've booted up an interesting-looking indie game, but by the time I actually got to do something, I've lost interest and just quit.

    That's another thing: Not specifically in this case, but a lot of other games (not only indies) have a severe problem with verbosity. I'm not expecting Shakespeare from an indie game, but I come with the expectation that I can push buttons and make things happen. Unless it's old-school JRPGs or visual novels, I don't come to them with the mindset to read long backstories and expositional dialogues, and if they're written clumsily, it's all the worse for it.

    Humor is also very difficult (big problem in Invasion). I'd say unless you're a natural, good humor writing is the hardest discipline to pull of right, and the most destructive if done badly.

  5. Iji had a great story. Sometimes it's okay to put plot first and gameplay second.

    Heck, I think you always should, if story is at all a factor.

  6. My pet peeve is when a game "fakes" a low resolution for some of the graphics, while other graphics, text or special effects are rendered in the actual, higher resolution. This is all too common nowadays. It just looks incoherent. Generally speaking, a developer should settle on ONE height-to-width, pixel-to-screen ratio, and stick with it for EVERYTHING.

  7. Then you'd hate these two games.

    I'm still dreaming to see one day a genuine hi-quality hi-res pixel art game. Hi-res sprites don't have to look like Flash objects, you know.

    Case in point:

    The left one would make a fair-sized sprite in 768p while relying on old-school pixel art techniques. Just try to find someone who's willing to pay artists for pixeling & animating a whole game in that quality!