Monster World IV Bits

monsterworldiv title1 Monster World IV Bits

Arsha and her sidekick.

Monster World IV is something of a semi-official sequel to Wonder Boy 5: Monster World 3. It’s a cutesy, large-sprited side-scroller in which the player takes on the role of a young girl named Arsha.

The game is mostly a linear platformer with some rudimentary puzzles and RPG elements, but its highlight is the cute little sidekick Pepe. It’s easy to initially assume that Pepe will help you fight the various enemies you encounter, but he never actually attacks anyone. Instead, he can be used to help Arsha traverse the game’s environments. This might not sound like a big deal, but the there’s lots of variety here:

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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Bits

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a non-linear FPS developed by Ukrainian studio GSC Game World. Thematically and conceptually it’s based on the novel Roadside Picnic and the movie Stalker, but gameplay wise it’s a mishmash of various genre conventions.

xr screen 04 1280 S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Bits

The "electro" anomaly frying a random soldier in Pripyat.

It’s also very much a hardcore game that’s difficult to play because of its mechanics and its dreary atmosphere. Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here:

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The Greatest Collectible of All Time

supermarioworld coinarrow The Greatest Collectible of All Time

One of the famous coin arrows in Super Mario World.

In-game collectibles are a staple of platformers and play a big part in various videogame genres. They help to fill out maps, provide points bonuses and aid the player in overcoming the game’s challenges. They also flesh out the setting, sometimes even being used as part of its architecture, e.g., the coin-arrows in the various Super Mario games.

finalfantasyvi clockelixir The Greatest Collectible of All Time

Apparently all clocks in Final Fantasy VI are secretly powered by elixirs.

Collectibles seem to speak to the kleptomaniac side of our personality, encouraging us to take all that we see. In console RPGs, it’s common to break into people’s homes, rummage through their belongings, and generally pillage the entire world that you’re trying to save.

And why not, really? After all, as players we want to be rewarded for exploring. It’d be awfully dull going from one empty room to another, so letting us interact with the game as if it were an episode of Supermarket Sweep might not be such a bad idea.

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The Trap Door Bits

thetrapdoor3 The Trap Door Bits

The multi-purpose trap door.

The Trap Door is an old claymation TV series that also got a videogame treatment. It’s particularly noteworthy because it came at a time when videogame genres were not that well defined. This resulted in some unique mechanics transplanted directly from the show.

The highlights:

  • The game contains only basic movement, and the ability to raise/pick-up or lower/drop-down various objects.
  • There’s no inventory or in-game menus of any kind.
  • The game is split into multiple missions, each one involving creating a different meal for “the thing upstairs.” Making these meals involves navigating a handful of screens that comprise the castle and utilizing the various bizarre items and monsters at hand.
  • Only a single item can be carried at any one time, but items can also be flipped upside-down. This often results in other items falling out, which can themselves also serve as containers for other items, and so on.
  • Raising/lowering a lever opens/closes the titular trap door. You have to open it to let certain monsters out, and quickly close it to keep others in. If something is standing on the door while you open it, it gets launched into the air.

    thetrapdoor4 The Trap Door Bits

    Your overlord has the oddest cravings...

  • Although the monsters that come out of the trap door directly relate to your current quest, they’re still randomized and give off a feeling of wonder — you never quite know what to expect next.
  • Part of the HUD is a constantly growing meter that represents your overlord’s impatience. When it reaches the top in easy mode, the mission is switched (each mission requires making a different dish), but on the hardest difficulty you simply get the game over screen.
  • Certain objects are too big to be picked up, but they can be pushed around the environment. Properly positioning them is part of numerous puzzles and goes hand-in-hand with the context-sensitive process of dropping items (they can be placed back on shelves, dropped into other items, thrown into the trap door, etc.).
  • Jumping down the trap door kills you.
  • Picking up the talking skull will cycle through a series of clues dealing with the current mission.
  • Monsters can travel from screen to screen and even interact with one another, i.e., the ghosts — for some reason — will hunt down the worms that you use as ingredients.

    thetrapdoor6 The Trap Door Bits

    Sending up a finished meal.

  • One of the trap door creatures hops around and is used to squeeze juice from a vat full of eyeballs. Another one breathes fire and can be tricked into boiling a cauldron of slugs. Another one still will fly around and will need to be stunned by launching something at it using the trap door. Once hit, it will become stunned and will lay an egg onto a frying pan, a key component of one of the dishes.
  • A drop-weight in one of the rooms can be used by manipulating a lever — this allows the player to crush objects and kill rampaging monsters.
  • Once all the dishes are done, you have tidy up. This actually involves throwing every item in the game into the trap door and getting rid of all the creatures! Your skull buddy is not exempt from this either, screaming “wheee” as he gets catapulted into the air and “owww” on his way down.
  • At the end of The Trap Door, you’re paid by having “the thing upstairs” lower (using the same dumbwaiter you used to send up food) a safe. To open the safe, you need to crush it with the drop-weight, adding a nice element of interaction to the game’s conclusion. Raising it all the way up, though, will destroy the safe and its contents!

Creativity and Handicaps

Many creative fields employ workshops where the attendants take part in various types of challenges. These tasks are usually meant to hone one’s skills, but also to explore specific concepts. What’s interesting here, though, is that people often find themselves liberated by these constraints.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon that gives a little insight into how we think and create. What it suggests is that when the world is our oyster,  it’s a lot more difficult to come up with a good idea. The possibilities are endless, and we simply have a hard time starting off.

By limiting our choices, we slices away a lot of the unknown. What we’re left with is a challenge with a goal, and to conquer it our brains go into a problem solving mode. It’s not be the most romantic conceit, but it can result in some surprisingly creative work. I was mulling this over while looking at various 2D, raster-based indie games I’ve played in the past year (pictured below):

Some of these titles perfectly exemplify working with limitation, e.g., let’s see what we can create using a limited palette and a small resolution. Others take the opposite route by removing handicaps and going directly against the status quo of a long standing tradition, e.g., let’s see what we can create when don’t have to worry about tile-based maps and sprites whose dimensions must be multiples of 2.

Putting this into practice, I decided to give myself a challenge: create two relatively fun-sounding concepts, one based on a handicap and the other on the removal of a constraint.  I chose the Atari 5200 and its limited palette for the first task, and the Nintendo Wii and its ability to simultaneously render hundreds of sprites for the second task.

As I was finalizing these goals, my brain was already busy analyzing the possibilities…

1). Atari 5200 entry.

For my first challenge, I envisioned a stealth-based action platformer, with a clear focus on camouflage. With only 4 colours to work with, I planned on using black to outline various features and fill in the background, while a different colour would be used for foreground elements. A third colour would be dedicated to the main character and the HUD, and the final colour would be used for enemies. This would create a very clean look and provide significant contrast between the scenery and its mobile inhabitants.

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The focus of my first concept...

The player’s goal would be to run, jump and ambush his opponents while traversing variously themed environments. Through the use of some clever transparency and stippling (or even dynamic alterations to the character’s palette), the player’s avatar would seamlessly blend in with his surroundings, allowing him to deftly take care of his foes.

2). Nintendo Wii entry.

The second challenge’s plethora-of-sprites concept immediately made me think of a casual, top-down strategy game. I imagined controlling — or rather influencing — a large swarm intelligence reminiscent of boids. This would be the player’s army, relentlessly marching forward and battling other swarms in its path.

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...and of the second.

The control scheme would be very minimal, relying on a few basic gestures that would dictate movement and various attacks and maneuvers. The challenge would stem from adjusting to the rival armies, constantly responding to their actions while accommodating for environmental stimuli.

Neither one of these ideas might be that new or unique, but neither one is wholly generic. They also both exemplify how useful it is to add or remove a handicap in order to kick-start the creative process.

If you were faced with the same challenge, what would you create?