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.
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.
Still, collectibles can become a bit of a burden, as was noted in this GameSpite article. Oversaturating levels with items makes them lose a lot of their appeal, and this approach can easily lead to ridiculous scavenger hunts. All of a sudden what was once a treat becomes a bullet point of a chores-list. What’s more, the rate at which items are generally collected is inversely proportional to the the amount of time spent in the map that contains them, i.e., the last ones are always the hardest to find.
Collectibles are also associated with rewards, which become increasingly less significant as their quantity increases. Too many rewards can make the game too easy, and unlockable concept art is a poor substitute for awesome powerups.
Mega Man 9 gets around this by providing a useful in-game store and two levels to most collectibles (a small and a big version), which themselves are directly connected to the player’s health, weapon ammo, screws count (the in-game currency) and lives. Items are scattered throughout the levels, but also randomly dropped by defeated enemies. This mechanics is accompanied by an algorithm working in the background to skew the loot-drops toward what the player needs most, i.e., if you’re low on health, you’re much more likely to get an energy cell. Also, the store items tend to either regenerate the player character’s statistics or help him get past some of the trickier parts of the levels (something that’s particularly useful in Mega Man as its maps usually present more of a challenge than its enemies).
My all time favourite collectible, though, would have to be the rings in the 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games.
At first glance, the rings are not that much different from the coins in Super Mario: they’re golden, they animate, they complement the levels, they’re worth points, and for every hundred you collect you get an extra life.
Beyond all that, though, they also serve as the your health.
As long as Sonic has at least one ring in his possession, he will not die from contact with spikes, enemies, projectiles, etc. Whenever he touches any of those hazards (while Sonic himself is not invincible or surrounded by a shield powerup), all the rings in his possession come spilling out, cascading over the map before flickering out of existence.
During this phase, the player can maneuver around in a mad dash to actually pick up the lost rings. Now there is a hard limit on how many rings come flying out — if you have over two hundred of them, don’t expect to get ’em all back — but generally speaking the amount is congruent with the number indicated in the HUD.
This mechanic allows the player to generally compensate for his mistakes, possibly turning an instant death into a slap on the wrist. It also makes boss encounters that much more manageable as the player can afford to take a hit or two, allowing him to observe and learn his foe’s various patterns. This isn’t as forgiving as it might sound, though. It’s fairly easy to have a single ring bounce off-screen and be lost forever, so it’s always in the player’s best interest to have as many rings on hand as possible.
But there’s more!
In the original Sonic the Hedgehog, completing a level with at least fifty rings in the player’s possession allowed him to enter a special/bonus stage (the details on this change from game to game, but the concept is always the same). Now not only are these psychedelic levels a treat in themselves, but they also allow Sonic to gain extra points, lives, continues and collect the Chaos Emeralds. If Sonic gathers all 6 of these, it actually alters the game’s ending.
But there’s even more!
In Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the concept of Super Sonic was introduced. This was a speedier, near-invincible version of Sonic with a new sprite-set that could be activated by collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds. Once they were in Sonic’s possession, all he had to do was get fifty rings and jump up to transform into Super Sonic.
While in Super Sonic mode, the rings in the player’s possession would get “used up” at a ratio of one per second. This prevented the game from becoming too easy (also reinforced by that fact that getting all the Chaos Emeralds was a pretty difficult task to begin with) and added a time-pressure element to the gameplay. Getting stuck on a boss battle just as the rings ran out could be lethal, but Super Sonic was also capable of dismantling bosses in mere seconds.
Later games would go on to introduce even more ring-powered extra stages — and these would also reward the player with new types of powerups — and the focus on collecting the Chaos Emeralds would be further emphasized. Not only would the Super Sonic endings be changed, but entire new boss battles would present themselves if Sonic successfully completed all of the bonus stages.
Overall, the rings in Sonic the Hedgehog represent numerous mechanics, but they also happen to be OCD-friendly, so to speak. You don’t need to collect them all, and you can experience all of the things mentioned above if you only pick up a portion of them. Collecting the Chaos Emeralds isn’t a one-time thing either — in each level you have at least one chance to enter a bonus stage. This is a far-cry from the tiring collectathons of today’s platformers, and if you see any rings floating around on screen, the incentive to grab ’em is always there…