Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 3

For my second SMB 3 post, I took a look at worlds 2 through 8 and picked out 30 stages that exemplified clever level design. World 8 is the last standard zone in the game, but I decided to write one more article detailing SMB 3’s hubs.

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The unique piranha nodes lead to stages filled with venus fly traps and an end-level treasure.

Hubs are an old videogame trope, but in SMB 3 they are much more involved than in previous incarnations.

Each hub in the game has its own visual theme and unique layout, e.g., World 7 is a scrolling archipelago, while World 8 comprises multiple skull-filled maps. These areas are not only littered with standard level nodes, but also contain unique stage-icons such as quicksand pits, tanks, and piranha plants. Offsetting these challenges are shops and sporadic minigames that provide bonus rewards.

All these elements — and plenty of additional ones — turn the overworlds into individual mini-levels that are also connected to the main gameplay stages. Here are 10 examples of how that’s done:

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L.A. Noire’s Interrogation System

Throughout L.A. Noire the player investigates crimes largely by questioning suspects, witnesses, and medical/forensics experts.

The advance facial animations are used to gauge a rough accuracy of the given testimonies, and, combined with the pre-existing knowledge of the crime and the player’s own intuition (often boiling down to simple prejudices, which I’m sure someone else is already writing a post about) the player chooses a response.

L.A. Noire does a great job of setting the mood.

This is done with a half-circle of shortcut buttons: truth at the top, doubt on the middle-left, and lie at the bottom. Truth assumes the interviewee’s story is correct; lie confronts them about its validity, often requring the player to present a piece of evidence that contradicts their statement; and doubt hovers somewhere in between the two.

Mass Effect used a similar streamlined dialogue system with its spoked-wheel interface. BioWare wanted a very cinematic feel for the game, including its dialogues, so this made perfect sense.

The Mass Effect wheel was a pretty elegant solution to a dialogue interface.

The player didn’t need to read through a long list of possible responses, scroll down to his preferred one, then listen to his character speak it back word-for-word. Instead, the desired option could be selected instantly based on a keyword or a short blurb. The locations of these often followed a simple pattern, and a few extra choices were included to allow the player “good” and “evil” reactions.

Some people were not satisfied with this approach as they found that Commander Shepard would periodically say things they did not expect. I never had this problem, but maybe that’s because I assumed Shepard was a pre-existing template I was occasionally steering with my own preferences.

Albeit a bit more clunky, the dialogue tree worked well in Dragon Age.

BioWare’s other game at the time was Dragon Age, and it used a more traditional dialogue-tree system. This also made perfect sense as the game placed greater emphasis on creating a player avatar and defining him/her through interactions with other characters. Such an approach required much more granularity in the dialogue options, e.g., “What heirloom?” might have been OK as a single choice in Mass Effect, but in Dragon Age it had to be split up into multiple, well-defined choices:

  • How long has this heirloom been in the family?
  • What is its history?
  • Who was the heirloom’s last caretaker?
  • Do you think it’s wise to worry about such things while we’re in the middle of a war?
  • I’m sorry for your loss, but we have to move on…
  • We’ll get it back even if it means going to the ends of the world!
  • We’ve all lost our favourite trinkets at some point; get over it.
  • If we come across it, you’ll be the first to know!

And so on.

Of course L.A. Noire stars a strictly defined character, so on the surface it seems more suited to a simplified Mass Effect system than a complex Dragon Age one. However, its dialogue scenes are not casual, open-ended conversations.

They’re interrogations.

These interrogations require detailed information, observation, and a bit of luck to properly resolve. There’s no back-tracking or second guessing, and navigating the system with the vague options of truth, doubt and lie can be a bit frustrating.

For example, if Detective Cole is interviewing the wife of a murder suspect and she tells him that the murder weapon isn’t hers, that might be the absolute truth. After all, the firearm is registered to her husband, and the gun-store clerk confirmed his identity.

If I select “truth,” though, it might permanently close off that topic of conversation. Since the gun is a pivotal clue to the case, I want to get all the information about it that I can.

He seems like he’s holding on to some extra information, but I’m afraid of pushing him as it might result in Cole leaning across the table and repeatedly punching him in the face.

There’s always the “doubt” option, as in I doubt she’s telling the full story, but I have no idea how Detective Cole will react to it. He might console her with a soft tone and ask her if there’s anything else she can remember that might help the police prove her husband’s innocence. On the other hand, he might start screaming at her about obstruction of justice and how her sleaze-bag of a hubby will never survive prison.

It’s impossible to tell what the player character will do, but that could be remedied with more detailed conversation options (and perhaps more conversation options in general). As things stand, I’ve repeatedly found myself taking the wrong conversational turn not because my assumptions about the case were incorrect, but because I failed to properly convey them to the game.

Now this might seem like a major complaint, and although it’s significant, it doesn’t ruin the experience. The interrogations don’t always have to be successfully resolved, and a few sparse hints aid their traversal.

Take it easy, Cole! All you’ve got on the case is circumstantial evidence!

I also commend the developers for sticking to their guns. There are no extra HUD meters that break the suspension of disbelief, and the dialogue sequences largely rely on the script, the actors’ performances, and the technology behind them. The results are quite immersive, and actually much more intense than the checkpoint-rich action sequences.

I just think the game would’ve benefit from more information to accompany the delicate and often volatile interrogations.

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The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon

Videogames are filled with conversations. These range from simple barks to deep and varied dialogue trees, but they’re fairly prevalent regardless of implementation.

And it makes sense, too. People like stories, and stories are built on characters.

Despite this fairly natural desire for dialogue, games used to be pretty devoid of conversations. This struck me as particularly odd in RPGs where groups of people set out on a quest to save the world. After all, one would assume the journey would foster some banter and comradery.

Cutscenes eventually filled the void, but it took a while for another mechanism to catch on: letting the player manually choose to speak to his followers.

Planescape: Torment was one of the first titles to do this, and its discussions on the Circle of Zerthimon remain one of my favourite examples of player-initiated dialogue.

Introduction

“No wonder my back hurts; there’s a damn novel written there.”

Planescape: Torment opens up with its scarred protagonist, The Nameless One (TNO), waking up in a morgue. A talking skull quickly floats by initiating a conversation.

The “cant” is a bit alienating at first, but it adds another layer of immersion to the setting.

We soon find out that Planescape: Torment is not afraid of being verbose. Dialogue is plentiful and it’s buffeted by descriptions, creating entire paragraphs that read like a novel. The Planescape cant — 19th Century British slang — adds further colour to the text.

Morte, the talking skull, informs us that TNO is effectively immortal as he resurrects each time he dies. The caveat is that he risks losing his memories whenever this happens, which is exactly how the game begins.

A Meeting at the Smoldering Corpse Bar

“Here? This is the Smoldering Corpse, though the person smoldering ain’t dead yet.”

TNO’s only clues to his past are rather vague; all he knows is that he’s missing a journal and should seek out a man named Pharod.

A motley crew at the aptly named Smoldering Corpse bar.

Sigil is a wondrous city, but in some ways it’s not that much different from a typical fantasy hub. To get a few quick answers, the easiest solution is to visit the local tavern.

The gruesome Smoldering Corpse bar is filled with all sorts of interesting characters, one of whom is noted to be observing TNO. His name is Dak’kon, and he’s a withered old githzerai who wields a shimmering glaive.

Talking to Dak’kon reveals that his weapon, a karach, is shaped and sharpened by his mind. The karach represents a zerth, a follower of Zerthimon, but Dak’kon’s blade is somewhat degraded due to a spiritual crisis. The githzerai dwell in the ethereal world of Limbo, forging their surroundings from clear thought, so this is a fairly significant issue.

Unfortunately Dak’kon cannot answer TNO’s immediate questions, but when the conversation ends, he offers to accompany us on our journey.

Getting to Know Dak’kon

“This is his gallery. He says that he *knows* you as his canvas. He shows respect to your strength with his admiration.” Dak’kon is silent for a moment. “Then he insults you by giving you his pity.”

The initial conversation options with Dak’kon are limited, but talking to other githzerai in his presence reveals more about him. We pick up on the fact that Dak’kon’s sullen disposition is a result of what’s seen as a terrible disgrace by his people.

What’s more, Dak’kon is purposefully hiding things from us.

Fell’s grotesque backstage gallery consists of TNO’s moulted skin.

In the Weeping Stone Catacombs, TNO comes across a severed arm that once belonged to his previous incarnation. The arm can be taken to Fell’s parlour to ask the Dabus about the tattoos that adorn it. If Dak’kon is chosen to translate Fell’s rebus dialogue, TNO can detect that the seemingly honourable gith is actually lying.

When confronted, Dak’kon states that he will not say any more in the parlour. The issue can be pursued later on, at which point we discover that Dak’kon has actually traveled with one of TNO’s previous incarnations. This revelation leads to the rather unique Xachariah subquest that sheds more light on TNO’s own past.

Learning the Circle

“*Know* that I am not a teacher in this, but *know* that I can serve as a guide.”

When TNO asks Dak’kon about his magic — the ‘Art’ — the gith replies that he does not know how it manifests itself in humans. However, if TNO were able to use it, he could learn more of it from Dak’kon.

This is achieved by completing Mebbeth’s sidequests and becoming a mage. While a mage, TNO can study under Dak’kon, and also switch classes by talking to him.

“To learn, you must *know* the People. To *know* the People, you must *know* the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon.”

The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon is a device composed of a series of interlocking stone carvings. It’s a clockwork bible of sorts that Dak’kon carries with him wherever he goes.

Examining the Circle as a mage opens up a dialog box. Each level of the Circle tells a different tale of the githzerai race, its genesis, mass enslavement, and eventual rebellion. It reveals the rise of Zerthimon and the eons of suffering him and his people endured. The Circle teaches how the zerth came to learn and master themselves, and how enslavement became their greatest anathema.

“Endure. In enduring, grow strong.”

The full transcript of the Circle’s teachings can be found here, although it doesn’t contain Dak’kon’s and TNO’s commentaries.

Reading and learning the Circle comes across as a ritual; TNO must unlock each layer himself — as shown by Dak’kon — and talk to the gith after each session to discuss it. If TNO’s wisdom statistic is high enough, the proper lesson can be gleaned. This rewards the party with some experience, and a unique spell disk for TNO that magically slides out of the artifact without diminishing its weight or content.

Discussing the Circle in front of the Tomb for the Planes, it’s finally revealed what plagues Dak’kon with doubt: he fears that Zerthimon was just a puppet of his enemies.

This pattern goes on for six lessons until it’s revealed that Dak’kon himself does not *know* the full Circle.

Teaching the Circle

“You performed a great service for me. In so doing, you enslaved me.”

With the sixth layer, both TNO and Dak’kon receive a new spell. To unlock the seventh and eighth layers, TNO’s intelligence must be high enough to work the mechanism, and his wisdom high enough to understand the lessons themselves.

This is a nice transition of student-to-teacher, and ultimately rewards Dak’kon with some permanent stat increases. These in turn affect the karach blade, empowering it with each increment.

The lessons of the Circle also lead to the truth behind Dak’kon’s and TNO’s past.

The ruthless “practical” incarnation originally found Dak’kon close to death in the world of Limbo. He desired the karach blade, so he ensnared the gith in a devious trap. By constructing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon and speaking of its lessons, he showed Dak’kon a glimmer of hope to his spiritual ailment. In exchange, Dak’kon promised to follow TNO until his death, effectively becoming bound to the immortal for all time.

Although purely text-based, this was one of the most moving moments I had ever experienced in a videogame.

This enslavement constituted the greatest sacrilege for the zerth, yet it was the only salve for Dak’kon’s moribund soul. By completing the Circle, we finally brought him the resolution he so desperately craved.

Conclusion

“*Know* that there is now nothing left that I may surrender except my life.”

Although still bound to TNO, completing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon allowed us to strengthen Dak’kon’s body, mind and spirit.

The process also facilitated character development and character progression. It was meaty, and deep, and unfolded gradually as the game progressed. It sparked numerous discussion that are still ongoing to this day, and it’s held up as a prime example of what made Planescape: Torment such a compelling title.

And it was all for a completely optional character.

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Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 2

In my previous post, I took a look at the various level designs lessons gleaned from Super Mario Bros. 3’s first world. A lot of them naturally dealt with introductory tutorials, but I wanted to take a slightly different approach with this article.

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The elegant introduction of new mechanics is still present throughout SMB 3. In this example, the first appearance of a Chain Chomp is marked by two columns that indicate its range and allow the player to safely observe its behaviour.

SMB 3 is filled with great levels, so I decided to pick out a bunch of clever, fun or simply unique moments from the game that originated with its architecture. I skipped over a lot of possible examples trying to keep the list down to 30, but I think I came up with a good collection that complements the original post.

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Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 1

I recently decided to play through the All-Stars version of SMB 3 without using any Warp Whistles.

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SMB 3's playful title screen has Mario & Luigi messing around with a bunch of enemies and powerups. The sequence is fun to watch, but it also serves as a great preview of numerous game mechanics.

I suspect that the majority of people who replay the game are familiar with the secret and use it to skip to the last world. This also means zooming past a plethora of well designed levels. It’s been my habit as well, but this time I resolved to experience SMB 3 in its entirety.

A lot of small, geometric stages later, here’s an overview of what I found to be the most notable points in the first world:

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Segues

Videogames are filled with transitions: loading new levels, initiating scripted sequences, obtaining special powerups, etc. These are often accompanied by the familiar wipes, fades and cuts of the film industry.

The effects themselves mask pit-stops necessary for resource (re)allocation. The segmentation also creates a natural variety and lets developers work on separate parts of the game that are only later stitched together.

In short, these transitions are functional. However, they are not smooth.

segue, n.

  1. A quick and uninterrupted change to the player’s avatar or surroundings that often facilitates new gameplay.

The above definition is rather nebulous, but it’s based on a simple concept: a smooth flow keeps the player immersed. Segues do this by removing the awkward parts of transitions that break immersion, namely disorientation and helplessness.

Some of GTA IV's more hyperbolic praises were attributed to its seamless world and the ability to carjack any vehicle...

Disorientation can take place quite easily as the camera cuts to a different point of view, or a different scene entirely. All of a sudden the player is expected to parse the change — to keep up with the fast-forwarding presentation — while filling in the gaps. Humans are quite good at this, but it’s a somewhat taxing effort that’s easy to get wrong.

Helplessness is strictly rooted in ignoring player input. Videogames are inherently interactive, and taking away control to show a transition strips the player of engagement. Plus, it’s never fun to wait on a loading screen.

Of course many videogames are quite abstract, but for the most part the medium tries to simulate various facets of the real world. There are no “bumpy” transitions in everyday life — aside from maybe losing consciousness — so it makes sense to limit them in videogames as well. That’s not always possible, but if the choice is there, it should be an easy one to make.

...while Fable 3's most common criticism seems to be its anything-but-smooth hand-shaking minigame.

As hardware, technical design, and production methodologies have advanced, so has our ability to implement segues. Vehicle sections now take place in the same maps as on-foot action, level geometry gets dynamically streamed in, scripted sequences play out as the player explores the environment, etc. These are almost universally praised as they make for some very memorable moments, but smooth transitions have been around for a long while.

Here are just a few of my favourite examples:

1). Spy Hunter’s Boat Segments

Spy Hunter was famous for giving players the ability to drive into the back of a moving truck. This was done at full speed without any camera wipes, but it wasn’t even the game’s greatest segue. No, that honour goes to the car-to-boat segments.

These had the player race through a dockside garage only to emerge in a different vehicle without slowing down for a second. It wasn’t the most realistic transition, but like many moments in Spy Hunter, it perfectly emulated the craziness of action-movie sequences.

2). Metroid’s Morph Ball

The Morph Ball has been a staple of the Metroid series since the inaugural title, and has always been an excellent example a segue.

Turning Samus into a diminutive sphere is effortless and presents the player with an all new moveset. The morph ball’s abilities also grant the player new options for combat and exploration, and switching between the two modes is quick and easy (even in the somewhat underrated 3D sequels).

3). Lost Odyssey’s Intro

Lost Odyssey’s FMV opening depicts a dark and epic battle. As the presumed hero fights his way through the ranks of bizarrely armed soldiers, there’s a brief pause in the action. The camera pans around, and a menu pops up! All of a sudden the player is in the game, and it’s waiting for his input!

There’s a slight hitch here, but it’s barely noticeable and makes for a fantastic intro. Sadly, the rest of Lost Odyssey is a veritable catalogue of awkward segues.


What are some of your favourite examples of smooth (or bumpy) transitions?

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The Magical World of Final Fantasy IV

Every couple of years I find myself replaying Final Fantasy IV. Part of the reason is a steady stream of remakes coupled with a bit of nostalgia, but an even bigger part is that FF IV is actually a really good game.

Like many RPGs, FF IV is an abstraction of a fantasy world. Its planet is peppered with just a few notable locations, and each of its kingdoms comprises only a handful of houses. Beyond these somewhat awkward limitations, though, the setting is structured in a very interesting way.

It begins!

The feudal world is pretty standard, but it’s also infused with numerous traces of human religion and mythology. The summoned monsters include deities from Norse, Greek, Hindu and Arabic legends, and there’s even a couple of weapons made famous for being wielded by Arthurian and Japanese heroes. None of these elements are logically tied together, but they represent iconic touchstones of many cultures, ensuring that most people who play FF IV will find aspects of it that are familiar yet mysterious.

The game’s own original mythos also revolve around crystals and the moon, both of which contain a plethora of mystical associations. While all these elements might not make for the most original setting, they do create an aura of magic and intrigue that’s more universal than the series’ later focus on hyper stylized aspects of Japanese pop culture.

FF IV proved popular enough to warrant a a few small sequels -- a rare occurrence for the series.

FF IV’s world does not change based on the player’s choices, but its storyline fuels numerous large-scale events: Leviathan attacks and sinks a ship, dwarf tanks battle an invading force, the Giant of Babel wrecks havoc on the planet’s surface, etc. A further sense of life is added to the overworld through various modes of transportation: yellow and black chocobos, the hovercraft, and three different types of airships.

On a smaller-scale, the towns are filled with their own personal touches. The citizens of Agart ponder the legends of their subterranean ancestors while bomb shards are scattered throughout the ruined village of Mist. The towns are populated by a sparse cast of supporting characters, but each locations has its own distinct layout and overall feel. Many are also associated with individual dungeons and offer unique items for sale, promising exotic upgrades just around the corner.

Aside from facilitating a varied pace and providing background depth, towns also help to make the setting come to life. By physically travelling from one location to another, the player discovers the layout of the world and how to orient himself within it. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a much more immersive approach than a linear series of videogame levels. Simply put, the cohesiveness of the world anchors the player and helps to suspend his disbelief.

Finding hidden treasures in towns and dungeons is always fun.

The dungeons are also varied, but they don’t rely on dubious one-time gameplay gimmicks common to current day JRGPs, e.g., sneaking into a guarded compound. Since the game’s story dictates which characters are in the party at any given time, the treasures in each area are also conveniently synced with the player’s troops.

In addition, the dungeons contain lots of secret passages and some unique attributes — e.g., the damaging tiles leading to Feymarch that require Float to be cast on the whole party, or the Lodestone Cavern where wielding metal equipment brings instant death — but the greatest variety comes through in the battles.

And FF IV has a great battle system.

Rubicant, the gentlemanly boss, heals the entire party before entering combat.

Each character’s profession is reflected in combat, bringing together story and gameplay. Kain the Dragoon utilizes massive aerial attacks, black and white mages cast offensive and defensive spells respectively, Edward the bard-prince strums along songs of dubious usefulness, etc.

These abilities come into play against a variety of enemies, all of whom are imbued with a certain sense of personality. Some foes are resistant to magical elements, others counter physical attacks, and a few even inflict punishing status effects (like the swamp hag surrounded by giant frogs that cast toad at the end every turn, morphing the party into a group of feeble amphibians).

The Delta Sisters do a great job of teaching the player about the Reflect spell and how to use it to launch powerful attacks against other reflect-protected enemies.

Since the story dictates the party’s makeup, the player is often forced to switch up his tactics. A single fighter with 3 mages must keep them all in the back row so they can safely launch their powerful spells, while 3 fighters and a single mage have to preserve MP for healing or make more liberal use of Osmose/MP restoring items. The items are also great as they represent a steady stream of collectibles that are actually useful in combat. They give each character something to do even when they’re facing a foe that’s immune to their innate abilities, providing some extra options for what would otherwise be boring battle scenarios.

The combat encounters are never puzzles with a single solution. The player can simply gain enough levels to overpower the enemy, but he can also utilize various strategies that might prove effective, e.g., the undead are extremely weak to phoenix downs/elixirs/healing magic, but they’re also susceptible to fire and can be dispatched with simple physical attacks. Of course daring players can simply choose to run away from standard encounters and only fight the bosses, but it’s a bit tricky to pull off.

A pretty obvious spoiler: you end up going to the moon!

The internal logic of all the items, spells and abilities is quite consistent and gives depth to the world, but it also shines through in other areas of the game. My favourite example of this is how often spells are cast outside of combat (especially considering the abstract nature of the battles and how separate they are from the rest of the game): Palom and Porom use the petrifying “Break” to turn into statues and save the party from a deadly trap, Rydia melts a blockade of ice once she gets past her traumatic aversion to fire spells, the citizens of Mysidia exact revenge on the protagonist by turning him into a pig and other “polymorph” critters, etc.

FF IV is a relatively simple RPG by today’s standards, but its overall structure still holds up. In fact, I prefer its setup to most current entires in the genre, but if you want to (re)check it out, I’d first recommend reading up on the various version differences. Whichever one you choose, though, you’ll get a nice little world to explore.

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The Dragon Quest IX Grind

The sentiment that Dragon Quest IX can be played for hundreds of hours is a popular one, so during my playthrough I paid close attention to how I used my time. As I expected there was no single activity that dominated my experience, but rather a combination of interlocking gameplay elements.

Character customization isn't too robust, but most of the aesthetic changes come via equipable items.

Since DQ IX offers such a plethora of content, I have not seen all of its facets despite finishing the main quest. With that caveat in mind — which makes some of the below points conjecture — here are my notes on why it takes so long to play the game, and why people might actually want to spend so much time playing it:

Levels

— Although Dragon Quest IX has a bit of “grinding,” i.e., fighting monsters in order to gain experience and grow stronger, it’s not a must for forward progression. Players are initially rewarded with fast level-ups, but that slows down pretty quickly. In fact, in my playthrough it wasn’t uncommon to fight two bosses in a row (and the enemies leading up to them), without gaining a level.

An interesting side note about levels: characters gain experience relative to their level, with highest-level characters gaining the most experience. Although not a big issue, this means that it takes longer for lower-level characters to catch up with the rest of the party.

— Each character has a job, i.e., a class, and each job contains a series of linear ability-paths. Each of these paths can be upgraded with ability points, and these points are sporadically awarded when a character gains a level. Abilities are almost exclusively integrated into the combat system and represent new and unique battle options (complete with flashy effects).

However, maxing out a character’s level will not reward the player with enough ability points to purchase all of his or her potential abilities. As a result, the player can choose to “reset” a level 99 character back to level 1 while retaining all of the earned skills. This allows the player to collect more ability points, but forces each character to max out his or her level multiple times before mastering a single job.

— There are a total of 12 jobs in the game, and each character can take on any one of these professions. Characters that change jobs retain all of their abilities, but are forced to start off at level 1. This flexibility allows the player to thoroughly customize his party, but requires a tremendous amount of grinding.

Money

— Money is gained alongside experience as enemies are defeated, but it takes a long time to accumulate a significant amount of cash. By the time the player has gathered enough money to outfit his party, the characters have usually gained enough levels to easily overpower the area boss even without the new equipment.

The online store is a new addition for the game's Western release.

It’s also worth noting that each character’s appearance is reflected by what he or she is wearing. This sort of aesthetic customization is important to many players, and DQ IX constantly facilitates it by displaying the entire party in both the combat and the exploration mode.

— Some stores offer precious alchemy ingredients that can be rather difficult to obtain in the wild. As a result, it’s often a good idea to purchase them despite their steep price.

Alchemy also relies on regular weapons, armour and accessories as base ingredients. Most of these can only be bought in stores, which further extends the amount of money needed in order to create new items.

— Nintendo’s virtual store is updated every week day with new items for purchase. These offerings are usually quite expensive, but many are unique to the store or simply hard to find in the game.

Since items can also be shared with other players, there’s an added incentive to indulge in pack-rat behaviour.

Sidequests

DQIX makes sure you can see all your characters in the overworld...

— Sidequests are not a “cheap” way of extending a game as they typically require manually scripted events. DQ IX contains nearly 200 of these, many of which are of the “slay this monster” and “bring back this item” variety. These missions can be fairly time consuming, especially when they require the player to finish off a specific enemy with a specific ability. However, this approach does add a nice bit of variety to the combat and encourages the player to explore some of its deeper mechanics.

— The rewards for completing sidequests are rarely revealed ahead of time, but they often consist of items not readily available at the time the quest is offered. Some quests even unlock all new jobs, so the incentive to complete them as they are encountered is always there.

— The availability of quests is often based on such prerequisites as previously completed quests and grottos, character levels, and even the completion of the main game itself. This results in new quests often popping up in old areas, encouraging the player to revisit old locations. The limit of 10 active quests accentuates this even further as completing all quests as they are offered is not always possible.

Alchemy

...and in the battles.

— Combining various ingredients into new items is the only way to obtain certain types of items. These are also tied into combat proficiency and character aesthetic, giving the player two strong incentives to “alchemize” as often as possible.

Unique alchemy recipes are found in each new area, encouraging the player to explore every nook and cranny and return to the alchemy screen on a regular basis.

— Various ingredients can be found in the game world, providing something new to collect virtually every time the player wanders out of a town or a dungeon. The frequency at which these items respawn and their respawn quantity varies, but not on a static basis.

From what I understand, the scarcity of ingredients is game-dependent, encouraging players to visit each other’s worlds (where some ingredients might be more common than in their own) in a co-op multiplayer mode.

If you want some of the rarer items, you'll be returning here throughout the game.

— Alchemy ingredients can also be obtained by defeating enemies or stealing from them, but this doesn’t happen all that often. However, since stealing from enemies is the only way to get certain types of ingredients, this is a must for completing one’s alchemy list.

— Some forged items cannot be used or equipped as they simply serve as unique ingredient for other alchemy recipes. This often creates a long string of alchemizations that require a large amount of rare materials in order to obtain some of the more powerful items.

Grottos

— Grottos are randomly generated dungeons that are completely optional but a large draw of the game. Each dungeon contains a handful of floors based on one of the core tile sets and a specific boss. These bosses are not found anywhere else, and can often be much more powerful than the final boss of the actual game.

Since grottos don’t actually contain that many treasure chests, the unique bosses (often taken from previous Dragon Quest titles) are a big incentive for exploring them.

— Grottos are not readily accessible and must be manually located by the player. Equipping a grotto map replaces the minimap with a small sub-section of the area where the grotto is located. This location is not highlighted in any way, and is only hinted at when the player walks close to it. Whenever this happens, an exclamation point appears over the protagonist’s head allowing the player to “investigate” the area and reveal a secret entrance.

X marks the spot, but the X can be pretty difficult to find.

Since the minimaps are not that detailed and the grotto maps represent a zoomed-in view, they can be quite difficult to discover even with the aid of online resources.

— Defeating the boss of a single grotto automatically rewards the player with a map to a new one. Bosses can also be fought multiple times, and each one has a small chance of dropping a fairly good item once defeated. This is not always a huge incentive, but it encourages the player to occasionally revisit a completed grotto.

— Once the boss of a grotto is defeated, its map can be shared with other DQ IX players. This asynchronous connectivity has proven quite popular in Japan (and occasionally in the West), especially with the maps that facilitate quick grinding.

Overall a large part of DQ IX could have been shorter and more user friendly, but the game does a good job of providing the player with incentives. In the short term, new items and abilities are always just around the corner. In the long term, full customization and numerous achievements provide extended meta-goals. All these elements are also strongly interconnected, and since there are so many of them, the player is always guaranteed a steady stream of rewards.

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