Anyone who got into console gaming during the NES era is keenly aware of a few old annoyances. Thanks to the limited memory on the cartridges, sneaky ways had to be found to extend the play time of the game, like making them devilishly difficult. Limited hardware meant instead of capable AI, the computer had to remain competitive by cheating. Low emphasis on story meant that the game makers were free to make decisions that were difficult to logically justify, like having every living creature on the planet want you dead for no obvious reason. A lot of time has passed since then. Now we’ve got dozens of gigabytes to play with, enough computational horsepower to simulate a nuclear war, and sprawling cinematic story lines. One would imagine then that we would have rid ourselves of the artifacts of the low tech and artistically primitive past. For the most part we have, but this is the first in what I hope will be a series of articles focusing on the residue of the old ways, and today’s topic is a perfect storm of frustration that continues to irritate us all: pesky enemies.
One of the things I remember most about the first entries into the Ninja Gaiden series was the difficulty. Was that difficulty a result of clever puzzles, complex enemies, or meticulous level design? No. It was due to birds. Anyone who has played the game knows what I mean. You are a legendarily skilled ninja, sprinting across the tops of precarious cliffs. Every leap must be precise in both its timing and placement. You pick the perfect time, you jump… And then a hawk appears and knocks you to your doom. Note, we’ll ignore the cruelty and false difficulty of making an airborne enemy appear at a time when it is literally impossible to avoid it without knowing it will be there, but why exactly is our hero getting attacked by a hawk? Did Ryu Hayabusa make a hawk egg omelet between screens? You can say he’s encroaching on their territory, but the feathered menace seems fine with all of the baddies running around. Perhaps the brotherhood of evil ninjas and the birds of prey union are partners? I’d say that the birds have a personal beef with Ryu, but this is a game with an otherwise fairly well defined story. (Just look how often it is referenced/parodied/ripped off.) I’d like to think they would have shared that little tidbit. Ryu Hayabusa: driven by a mysterious quest from his father, and also hated by birds.
Now, I’m picking on Ninja Gaiden and birds, but swap out the game name and/or the creature and a dozen other combos are equally guilty. Maybe it is a flurry of bats that’s been pecking away at your health. Maybe that swarm of spiders is the source of your woes. Don’t even get me started on the Medusa heads in Castlevania. They all share a few features, though. They are numerous, either all at once or in rapid succession. They are weak, seldom hurting much or taking many hits to kill. They contribute to your death frequently and in indirect ways–like burning through ammo, knocking you off ledges, or distracting you from more powerful enemies. And they are nearly enough to make you quit playing the game altogether. In the old days they could have been forgiven. After all, we are talking about a few dozen kilobytes that had to give you fifty dollars worth of play value. But even as we got into the Genesis and SNES era we should have seen them taper off. Instead I’m grappling with murders of crows in the Resident Evil series, firing precious machine gun rounds into swarms of head-spiders in Doom III. Morrowind had cliff racers. Borderlands has rakks. Dishonored has rats. It is a blight on gaming, and developers and gamers both have better ways to be spending their time.
I propose a manifesto. If you are going to put pesky enemies in your game, here are the rules:
If ammo is scarce, give me a melee weapon that is actually effective against swarms. If this means Chris Redfield is going to be swinging around a tennis racket, so be it.
If ammo is not scarce, give me a shotgun and make it act like a shotgun. Every now and then you run into a game that treats a shotgun exclusively as as a “kill the big thing at close range” weapon, ignoring its real life application as a “kill lots of little things at medium range” weapon. If I point my shotgun at a flock of birds, you better believe more than one of those suckers is going to meet its maker, or at least go fluttering to the ground. Which is another thing…
If it is a ground based vermin that is likely to be killed when I step on it, kill it when I step on it. Seriously, who in their right mind would bend down and hack at spiders with a machete when you could just stomp on them?
If you are going to swarm me with any regularity, give me an area attack and give it knock-back. Torchlight is a franchise that loves to throw pesky enemies at you, but it never got on my nerves. Why? Because I could send out a wave of white hot justice to take them out en mass, and send any survivors hurdling toward the walls. I became the bait in a very entertaining trap.
I think if the game makers out there can agree to follow these simple rules, and learn that not every part of old school games needs to be kept in the mix, we’ll finally see the end of a plague that has been wrecking far too many games for far too long.