The Fine Line Between Difficult and Annoying

Posted: November 4, 2013 in Current Gaming, Retro Gaming
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Whenever a discussion on difficult games comes up, a few names are always thrown out. Contra, Ninja Gaiden, and Mega Man immediately come to mind and are almost universally cited as some of the most difficult games ever developed. Yes, they are brutally difficult, maddening almost, but each time you fail, you feel as if you made the mistake, which is the key in identifying a game that is difficult through clever design versus one that is simply difficult due to poor quality or poor design choices. When you feel that the game is working against you instead of challenging you, that is a problem.

It’s a very fine line that developers have to toe in this area. If a game player ever feels that the game has cheated them in some way, then the line has been crossed. It’s extremely important for the player to feel that they made a mistake. Had they only jumped sooner, or thrown a particular weapon, or avoided an attack, then they wouldn’t have died. This is crucial as it is a learning experience and inspires the player to attempt that section again, this time armed with the knowledge they need to avoid the hazard they just succumbed to. When you feel you’ve done everything correctly and failed anyway, that inspiration to try again begins to wane, eventually causing you to just give up or move away from the game. The hoverbike level in Battletoads was my breaking point in that game. I haven’t played a Battletoads game since.

To best give an example of what happens when game design moves from difficult or challenging to annoying or unfair or even tedious, I’ve taken three similar games from the same franchise, a franchise highly regarded for having excellent level design along with challenging levels. That’s right, I’m calling out Nintendo’s mascot.

Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2
The Super Mario Galaxy games will never be held up as two of the more challenging games of this, or of any, generation, but quite a few later levels in each do feature designs that will challenge even the most seasoned game player. In my experience with both games, collecting the stars in these levels presented a worthy challenge and I enjoyed every moment (excepting the horrible motion controlled ball levels) of exploration.

A perfect example of a challenging level that didn’t leave me exasperated is a level from Super Mario Galaxy 2 titled A Stroll Down Rolling Lane.

As you can see, this level tasks you with controlling Mario, in the form of a rolling boulder, along a course filled with holes, jumps, and subtle directional shifts to obtain a star. I spent quite a bit of time on this level as I seemed to always over or under adjust at some point or just miss a jump. The important point here is that I never felt frustrated with the game for my mistakes. I always felt that it was my input that was off, not the game design. I could identify my every error and was certain I could correct it in my next run through. I enjoyed the challenge I was receiving from the game. I could see my ultimate goal, it was just perfecting my own handling of the game to reach said goal. Again, there was no annoyance or frustration with the game, just with my failure to respond to the game properly. I always felt that the fault was on me, not the game.

Super Mario Sunshine
Let me be clear, I don’t feel that Super Mario Sunshine is necessarily a bad game. It does have redeeming qualities and I have completed it. That said, it’s the only 3-D Mario game that I haven’t completed 100%. As I played through it, I experienced something unfamiliar for me while playing a Mario game: frustration. All to often, while attempting to obtain a Shine Sprite, I felt that the game was actively working against me. I understood what I needed to do, but the execution simply seemed unfair, be it because the actions seemed overly complex or something such as the camera was working against me. In the end, it resulted in the same feeling. Ultimately, I would give up on certain Shine Sprites because instead of finding a challenge, I was finding something closer to work or tedium.

I can cite a few examples, but the Shine Sprite in the above video is the one most ingrained in my memory. Let’s go through the steps needed to get this Shine Sprite:

1. Obtain a Yoshi. No biggie here, you can usually find him on a roof top.

2. Make your way to an island via a boat or through the sewer system. Made a bit more difficult as Yoshi disintegrates if he touches water because….well, I have no clue. Best just to use the sewer system.

3. Once you’re on the island, eat some fruit and wait on another boat. You must eat fruit as Yoshi’s gauge will constantly decrease and he will disappear if it empties because why not?

4. Ride said boat to small wooden stand holding a piece of fruit. Wait there for another boat. Keep in mind that this is actually a trickier jump than it should be due to Yoshi’s flutter jump and an awkward camera angle.

5. Continue to wait. No, seriously.

6. Hop on another boat and ride it to yet another island. Again, a trickier jump than necessary due to a moving boat, fluttering, and, again, an awkward camera angle.

7. Once dismounting onto the next island, spray Yoshi’s fruit juice on some honey looking substance that’s covering a pipe you need to go down. It will dissolve the yellow stuff and give you access to the pipe (only Yoshi’s fruit spray will dissolve this). You may now proceed down the pipe.

Now, these steps aren’t what get you a Shine Sprite, they are just the steps to get to a pipe taking you to a level that contains a shine sprite. In that level, you are on a raft in some kind of clear acid. You must use FLUDD to manuever yourself through the current picking up 8 red coins. Again, the camera makes this rather tricky at times. Oh, and if you miss one, there is no going back against the current of the water. You must die to reset except, if you die, you find yourself back outside the pipe, complete with the yellow covering that only Yoshi can remove. I did this one time. When I jumped in the clear liquid to get a coin I missed and died, I realized it was poison. There is no way of knowing this would happen, so I was a bit irritated. That irritation was elevated when I found that you don’t restart inside the level, but outside the pipe with the yellow barrier once again in place. I’ve never attempted to get that Shine Sprite again.

See, none of the above was fun…at all. Yoshi’s controls are a bit funky, the camera is not your friend many times, and collecting the 8 red coins is just icing on the frustration cake given that you have no room for error. And this is only one example. I recall a level where you must spray fish with Yoshi’s fruit juice to turn them into platforms. This wouldn’t be so bad except that, again, there is no room for error and the camera gives you no depth perception for your jumps. It is beyond easy to miss jumping to the next platform. Sunshine is also filled with platforming levels featuring rotating portions you must traverse (some of these reappeared in Galaxy). These aren’t so bad until you have to collect, again, 8 red coins, this time while racing against a timer. Just collecting the coins is difficult enough, putting a timer on this level just makes it sadistic.

How could a timer and coins not be enjoyable?

How could a timer for collecting red coins not be enjoyable?

To me, Super Mario Sunshine forgot to be an enjoyable game in many instances. All too often, gathering Shine Sprites became an ordeal, something more akin to work than a joyful experience. As I stated above, this was surprising for me as I had very rarely become frustrated in a Mario game before, but found it happening again and again in Sunshine. Super Mario Sunshine did manage to bring the challenge of previous Mario titles, it just forgot to bring along the fun as well.


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