It’s Not About Yellow PaintFebruary 17th, 2024
Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth released a demo and... there are yellow painted cliffs, reigniting a conversation that keeps coming up every few months. Now, I have no exact opinion on it's use in FF7R. It seems to be explained in universe (it's a temporary route, purposefully marked), and marking paths is hardly a sin. Hinting at the so called Golden Path is a fundamental aspect of level design. This isn't about FF7R.
... But oh god did it unfortunately choose that yellow paint that has come to symbolize a type of hand holding that has been wearing on players over the last decade. It has started to feel similar to the ancient Old Man Murray "Start to Crate" system, judging a game on "How long it took to see a crate", representing the point where "the developers ran out of ideas".
This standard wasn't exactly fair and neither is judging a game on using yellow paint. FF7R is probably fine, because again, this isn't about FF7R. It is, of course, not even about the yellow paint. It's about what the yellow paint represents.
It's Not About Leaving the Player to Struggle
A lot of people have responded to this pushback saying of COURSE modern games have to do this. They have to appeal to everyone. People didn't spend $60 dollars on a game just to get lost. Companies have to do this to make money you know!
But they don't have to. People will quickly point to Souls games, and while that works, those games always seem like they don't count. The exception, no matter how much they sell. You can't actually learn from them (even if you obviously can)... but I'm going to talk about Nintendo. Nintendo has played around on all fronts of tutorialization. Nintendo has many different kind of designers working for them. They can fall into bad habits like all of us but they tend to be ahead of the curve. Even going back to Super Mario Odyssey you can see what they chose to and what they chose not to communicate. You get your magic hat. It tells you to use it immediately. On the side of the screen is a video of human hands, doing the motion to throw your hat. The game wants to make sure you know how to use this basic ability.
... But then it doesn't tell you what to do with it. It doesn't even tell you what it does. It just surrounds you with things that can interact with this ability. It creates a space for play. You're here to play the game, right? "Oh here is a ledge that is too tall? Try catching this frog" ... and then what? Like obviously you know, and the game isn't even trying to make you feel clever for using the ability to jump without being told. You're not being told what to do because there isn't any rush. You'll jump up when you're ready. Because you're here to play... right?
Nintendo games will do things to help stuck player, to nudge them along. They'll use, like everyone else, basic level design to guide you around, but the goal usually isn't to get you to go The right way but to show you all the places you can go so you can play.
... And Dark Souls isn't much different. We might want to pretend the game is negligently unconcerned with our enjoyment but it is merely doing as much as it feels it needs to do to encourage play. Getting lost is part of the play, so you are given enough room to get lost. But discovery is also an important part of the experience so there needs to be enough things to entertain yourself finding before you stumble onto the right path. The game isn't indifferent to you, it's trying to enrich you and give you what it sees to be a good experience.
It's Not About Tricking Players into Thinking They're Smart
A type of response I saw from a lot of fellow game designers who didn't immediately dismiss the issue went kinda like this... "Okay look, players don't mind being lead around! They just don't like when it's obvious! They want to be lead around! So we have to trick them better so they think they're clever."
The painful thing here is that the general idea isn't wrong. The framing though... it bugs me. It bugs me a lot. People would accuse me and I Wanna be the Guy of adversarial game design, but honestly, no. I think this is adversarial. Not having a fun, playful relationship with the player, but looking at the player as an obstacle between us and our intended experience.
A designer friend of mine, Zara, said "Maybe it'd help if we didn't see players as a particularly stubborn breed of dog" and I feel like that's how a lot of designers look at game design. Like we're magicians, trying to fake emotions and accomplishments. We will lead the horse to water, and we will make them drink their $60+ worth of game. Nobody thinks they're smart for finding the ladder... and sure, they might feel dumb if they can't find the ladder. But we all feel dumb when we don't feel like we're trusted enough to even try.
If we design our games with the assumption that the player is an idiot, then they will feel that resentment when we hold their hand.
Enrichment, Agency, and Overly Paternalistic Game Design
As a kid, did you ever plan on doing something useful without being asked? Taking out the trash, or doing the dishes unprompted? Being proactive, showing thoughtfulness? ... and as you walk out of your room to do to the thing, a parent turns to you and goes "Hey, can you take out the trash?"
Maybe it's not with a parent. Maybe it's a boss, or a loved one. Regardless, no one in this situation is doing anything wrong but gosh does it feel like something was taken away... Worse, it often isn't as enjoyable as it would have been if you just went out and did it without them saying anything. It has been turned back into work. Repeat this too often and a person might feel like no one thinks they're capable of making the right choices on their own. They lose their feeling of agency.
Game Designers force this situation a lot in modern times. Overly aggressive popups, color coding, 'helpful' partners who bark the solution to a puzzle at you while you're just looking around for a moment. Waypoints for everything, markers for everything. All of these things good in their own context, useful design elements when appropriately applied, stacked upon each other until the game designer becomes a hover parent trying to ensure the perfect experience. You must be protected from yourself. What if you get lost? What if you don't know what to do?
Hinting through level design is not new. It's ancient technology. Super Mario Bros' coins, Donkey Kong Country's bananas, every aspect of Doom's level design always tries to give you some idea where you should be going. Dark Souls does not lead you to grope blindly. Buildings convey their importance in the distance. Lighting cues help guide you. Even enemies can be a way to funnel you were you should go. The thing is though... Most of these old things aren't 'compulsory'. They are used to set the expectation. To get you to try new things. Mario will use coins to get you to jump places to do things you don't even expect to happen. Oh, what, I can break out of the ceiling? And I only noticed because I tried to get some coins? You are taught what to look for, and then you are allowed to find it later on your own. Games like DKC, or something like Super Metroid create a relationship with the player. These hints get played with, subverted, omitted, and inverted, all to slowly expand the problem space in your mind to help you have enriching play.
A lot of modern, condescending game design fails to create enrichment. It's about going on the ride. It's the overly scheduled trip to Europe your friend planned that has an itinerary down to the hour. Homie, we're not going to Europe again for years! We gotta MAXIMIZE. But by maximizing, you miss the real experience. You miss the lazy morning in Paris, wandering around until you find an espresso place. You don't look at the reviews, you just go in. You have an authentic, human experience. Could you have gotten better coffee? Could you have planned to take a bus at 8:45 over across the city to have coffee at the 3rd best reviewed espresso place in all of France? Sure, but are you here for the coffee, or are you here for the experience? It is the down time, the space between the notes that make experiences special. You don't get that when your character is telling you what you should be doing every 10 steps in whatever current grey goo ubisoft game is out right now.
People worry about games now being made for stupid people. Dumbed down for idiots. I don't like that kind of disdainful thinking, judging peoples intelligence by how they interact with mainstream videogames. No, instead, we make games for the uninvested. Games for the people who want the sampler plater of the current zeitgeist. A child, with an brain not yet fully developed, will get through these games. They will look up answers. They aren't getting every release. It isn't about intelligence. They are getting through these games because they care more, and they have been doing this since home consoles were a thing. Meanwhile, most of my peers are more concerned with avoiding FOMO.
Do players get stuck on the simplest things? Absolutely. But no one buys a 60 dollar game and gives up on it because of some easy problem that can be solved with a google search. They give up because they have 3 other 60 dollar games waiting to be played. I am left wondering if game devs are more concerned with fun experiences, or avoiding negative ones. That when you don't finish their game, you at least remember it fondly. That you come back for the DLC. That you consider the sequel. If you have to make too many decisions, you might make unfun ones, so they keep you on a tight gameplay loop.
It's not the made-up mythical "stupid gamers" (we all get stuck in silly ways and no one should be ashamed of that) bringing things down for everyone. It is our peers, who care more about being current than taking in an experience. Because we'll all get through whatever game ultimately catches our interest, no matter how obtuse it gets. But game devs can't count on that, so they keep you moving. It's Speed, with Keanu Reeves. Drop under 50 MPH and the player gets bored and moves on to the next Call of Duty game. Players will buy a game but don't play it with respect, instead turning a lot of their playtime into some weird cultural obligation, like watching the next marvel movie.
Game developers have a problem too. A huge problem is that watching someone get stuck is a thousand times worse than being stuck. This isn't just a developer problem, look at any twitch chat while someone is playing Dark Souls. Now imagine you made the game and you're watching. It's torture. My friend who conducts testing has to tell game devs to stay hands off. No interfering with the test!! The urge is there though. Every spot must be sanded down because watching someone get stuck for even a minute is worse than having a grain of sand stuck in your eye. But testing has it's limitations. It can help you see how intuitive a menu is, or how well new players can understand your mechanics, but you can't recreate the moment of a bunch of people buying a new game and talking about it. Or recreate the focus and stubbornness of someone who has been waiting for this game for five years. It's the same reason you get a lot of weird stories about successful movies having bad test screenings. You cannot simulate your release audience. But you can polish a game until all texture is gone, and the experience is like a line at disneyland. Well designed, impressively built, highly detailed, but still... a vapid experience, cosplaying as a richer one.
Players don't respect the games they play enough to let themselves get stuck, and designers don't trust them enough to get stuck. This is the end result of a relationship built on disrespect, condescending parents speaking down to their disinterested children, who are so used to being micromanaged that they've gone numb. Testing can tell you a lot of things, but not what years of disrespect will cause in the player base.
It's not about yellow paint, it's about the fact the modern AAA space has forgotten how to have a dialog with the player. It has forgotten how to enrich and has instead decided to only try and wow. Most players don't even notice. They're so far behind in their backlog that they want content that can go down easily, not because they're not capable, but because they're overwhelmed. Culture moves so fast.
The yellow paint is just a reminder. Another unneeded reminder to do the dishes.
Nostalgia vs Having an Active Relationship With Your MediaDecember 15th, 2023
If you've worked with raspberry pi emulators or retro gaming handhelds you notice a common theme pop up a lot in comments and reddit boards. Setting up these devices can be a hobby unto themselves. Curating roms, downloading logos and screenshots, scraping data, picking themes, tweaking and customizing until... you realize your done. Maybe you should actually play a something.
... And then you'll see threads of people talking about the same thing.
Hey, have any of you guys actually played anything? I mean I messed around with mine and loaded a few classics, but now that I'm done, I... don't know what to do with it. I feel like I had more fun setting it up than playing with it.
Now, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the process more than the end project. A garage carpenter doesn't necessarily make a chair for the pleasure of sitting. They can make it for the pleasure of making. Sitting can be a bonus. The part of this that is the problem is... the kinda sadness that comes out after when you're not prepared for it.
You'll see this with nintendo themed "man caves" or other gaming rooms where having the games... having the right screen and the right connectors, isn't enough... having the games of your childhood aren't enough. Gotta collect more, gotta try and get everything. Satisfaction isn't playing a new game, satisfaction is "New in Box". The hobby switches form. The hobby is no longer playing video games. The hobby is paying tribute to the memories of your past, the aesthetics of video games. What they can't force themselves to play anymore was still, at some point, formative and important to them. They can't let it go. The music, the pictures, the symbols of these old game still resonate in their heart.
So instead of actually playing, they construct shrines of worship to the warm, comfortable memories of their youth. This is, of course, nostalgia.
I hate on nostalgia a lot but there isn't truly anything wrong with it. In most realms, it doesn't matter. The people whose love of Star Wars hasn't grown in decades can still watch the movies they like and enjoy them. A few hours, a few times a year, relaxed on a couch. Gaming, on the other hand, takes some stubbornness. It takes some skill. Effort, even if mild effort. Investing the increasingly scarce resource of time. It's frankly more than a little understandable. The problem is when that they don't recognize any of this and when they go back... there is nothing but a weird emptiness and some frustration. For those who don't even realize they've grown out of gaming entirely, gaming becomes an endless line of frustration and backlogs with a few scattered high points. We don't know how to manage nostalgia in the gaming space.
Hell, by we, I feel like I only speak to fellow Millennials. Those of us who have been on the content treadmill, where gaming advanced so quickly year by year that we never had a moment to collect our feelings. Deeply influential pieces of media in our lives got let go off within years or even months because the next thing was that much crazier. Whenever I look at the release timeline of the 90s I feel like I'm going insane. "All those things couldn't have happened that quickly."
We call things retro and they feel retro because our whole timeline was stretched by the insane technological race we grew up in. We'll argue up and down if something is truly retro, comparing time and design styles but... I don't think I've ever seen a zoomer refer to a game as retro. Some games are... merely old. These new gamers exist, seemingly, at the end of time, free to pick from the fruits of the past. A lot of them aren't too technologically savvy, but those who are use emulators end up using them more freely and explore more deeply than a lot of my peers. The peers who don't "because it just doesn't feel right". On their couch, in their pajamas, on a sunday, playing on a fuzzy CRT. They're not burdened by our memories. They're us, picking through our parents vinyl. Their childhood memories aren't being rushed out the door for the next thing like ours were. They're... kinda free?
But we exist in this same time too. At the end of time. The freedom to reach back to the past at our leisure has been there since NESticle came out in 1997.
I'm not even sure who I'm talking to. While I personally know too many peers who have fallen into this nostalgia trap, most of them don't follow me in places like this. And not every zoomer is some super media literate history hunter either. Most aren't. Most people aren't. But my interactions with these groups and how they contrast each other keeps rattling in my head. I'd much rather talk to a 20something about the SNES than someone of my age group. Because if a 20something is playing old games, they probably have a cool attitude and curiosity while... many of my peers cling to past like a childhood blanket they've long outgrown. They don't need to throw the blanket away -- it's a precious memory. But they also need something to actually cover them. They don't realize they're freezing to death.
I said on twitter (those threads are... here, here, and here) that if your favorite NES games now were the same as they were 30 years ago then I don't want to talk to you about old games. Not that you're hurting anyone, not that you're taste must be bad, but... 30 years is a long time. The games might not change, but you will. If your opinions haven't changed in any major ways (even if it's as simple as 'I played mother 10 years ago and it's in my top 5 now!') that implies that... you haven't had any active growth in your tastes and opinions. At least in this area.
Which is fine! We can talk about something else! Not everyone should care about old games, but too many people who say they care have let their emotions stagnant for decades. They say they care because gaming became their identity and now they're stuck. Stuck regurgitating the same canon they are too incurious to stray from and that they themselves can barely manage to replay. You have to let the relationship you have with these games change. You don't have to throw out your blanket, but you can't rely on it to keep you warm. You've grown too much.
The biggest issue with those twitter threads was... accidentally implying that the change was the point. That you need to cast away everything you loved, painfully, to grow and to find the 'correct opinions'. Instead what I'm saying is... the change should be unavoidable. The relationship you have with your long term friends, the family you still have in your life, changes, year to year, decade to decade. You both change, and the context of your relationship changes. You feel like nothings changed, but the vibe now vs 10 years ago has shifted. You can't stay the same. At best things are similar. Heck, if it hasn't changed at all, something is probably wrong. Every interaction is a chance for tiny changes that enrich and build upon what was there before.
I always hated the notion of "wishing you could experience something again for the first time". To me, it always felt like wishing you could start a friendship again from scratch. My relationship with media is active. Each time I replay a game my experience with it grows. Our relationship grows. People say you only get to do something for the first time once, treating your first time like this precious, ephemeral experience that must be protected at all cost. But how can that compare to an experience developed over years or decades? Like sex, the first time has all the memories, but it's also usually some of the worst you'll ever have.
Every game you play, every movie you watch, every book you read is context and experience that changes, even if only minutely, how you feel about everything else. You don't have to replay something a million times, you can think about it after new experiences, wondering about how it re-contextualizes what you felt the last time you played. As you understand the history surrounding things, as you get better at judging, appreciating and naturally enjoying things with their context and historic place in mind... your opinions on other things will change. It's not that 8 year old you liked dogshit and now you like The Good Stuff -- you will probably like some good things less while developing an appreciation for things you used to hate. Hell, you might end up loving a few things that are objectively bad. But you'll be somewhere new, emotionally, exploring, and developing deeper, richer relationships with the things that are important to you. Nothing gets thrown away, it simply changes. Just because an old top 5 favorite game is now in your top 50 doesn't mean that relationship is gone or that you hate it. Things simply change. People change.
I make games that draw from old games... but I can't say I really feel nostalgia for these titles because to miss something, it has to go away. IWBTG isn't about games I loved in my childhood, IWBTG is about games I love. I didn't like NES Castlevania games until I was almost 30 and now I'm 40 making the same quasi-fan game I've been making for over a decade.
(If you think an opinion on a game can change a lot in 10 years, imagine how you feel about a game you started 10 years ago)
I still feel nostalgia. When I go to upstate New York, to my grandma's house I barely see, laying in the moss I barely get to touch, looking at the sights I barely get to see, I feel something. When I hear a pop punk song that meant the world to me in 95' that I haven't thought about in 20 years... hearing the opening notes when I'm not expecting it hits something deep inside me. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia. But if I love something enough to make it an active part of my personality, to make it a part of my whole life... I owe it a real, active relationship.
Inconsistency is Beautiful: In Defense of Fighting Game JankSeptember 7th, 2023
This is a repost of an article from my cohost, posted on august 23rd, 2023. People seemed to like it a lot though, so I'm reposting it on my blog.
Gonna babble for a bit and hope this is coherent:
I was weirdly saddened today reading Strive's patch notes. A removal of the character weight system. A younger version of me would be SO RELIEVED by this. "Oh god I don't have to memorize a million different combos"! Yet now, an older me, is oddly sad?
Now, I'm not gonna hate on or argue about Strive, or any other game. Plenty of games I like have equal character weights and consistent hurt boxes. I'd rather game designers do what they want to do, rather than pander to me.
(Granted, I do wish more people were pandering to me, but that's a me problem.)
... Instead I want to be more positive about the stuff. So much of this conversation gets caught up in arguments about gatekeeping and "git gud" "Baby Game" BS but not a lot of people really go into why they might like some of these arcane systems.
A nice and polite twitter follower, immediately after I tweeted my disappointment, asked...
Why would you want combos to fail randomly per character performed on
... which like lol, when you put it like that, it sounds super silly. But it's that framing -- a framing I've seen many times. I remember being on a forum... very appropriately, it was David Sirlin's forum
(thank god you can't name search on cohost)(edit: uh oh). Being the Sirlin forums, you expect a... certain type of person and player. Very big anti-execution crowd and I was like the only real execution defender (at least who was a semi respected member of the community and not a random SRK troll). I remember one exchange talking about GG combos and the comment "Well what's fun about just doing the same rote thing over and over again?"
"Well you're not? Like I'm adjusting my combos as we go, depending on how high they are and stuff"
"I don't believe you."
Now, this is mid 2000s. I don't think anyone now would deny that's a thing that players do... but I think it still highlights a way a lot of people still feel. Combos as this discrete thing, these bits of work you get through to get to the Real Game (that forum LOVED talking about the "Real Game"). You learn your combos, so you get to play brain chess.
But instead the whole thing is very fluid, especially in a system rich game like the older Guilty Gears. You never stop learning, and that combo you learn isn't a discrete unit. It's a lot of different smaller parts and that perfect hit you need to do your idealized BnB is actually kinda hard to land. You need to learn how to put these things together in different ways. Combos are less raw memorization, and more a matter of a little memorization, but a lot of developed intuition.
This is no surprise to anyone whose played a lot of really nutty fighting games. But the important thing is more the mentality of "Combos are a thing that you need to have, and you fucked up if you weren't optimal" vs looking then as an extra and not taking them for granted.
"... Wait, can I convert to this route off this hit?"
Often in games with open ended combo, you'll get a hit and you won't actually know what you can get off it. I recognized the situation 3 hits in.. what's the gravity scaling like? What's their character weight? This route doesn't work on her hitboxes usually, but I think it might because of the weird height I hit at??
From there you gotta bet on yourself. Take the easy knockdown? Try to extend to a damaging route? What are the stakes of the match? How much life do you have? Is it worth maybe eating shit just to find out? Those sorts of situational, high speed valuation processes, for some people like me, are extremely fun and with games like +R or Rev2, I'm still, after thousands of hours, guessing and developing my intuition. Every matchup has new things to teach me not only in neutral, but on what to do when I even hit someone.
I don't like character weight because I like dropping my BnBs, or because I want to make the game harder for new players, but because they always keep me on my toes and give me great moments where I am rewarded for my intuition. I like it because I can do cooler combos.
... What if input buffers made games harder?
I was playing one day with Lofo, a really incredible +R Dizzy player and a former (lol, recovered?) Sirlin forum poster who ended up a huge execution lover. One day we're talking about Rev2 vs +R and hit me with something that has been in my head for like 2 years. Something to the extent of...
"Yeah, I don't like Rev2's input buffer. I feel like it makes the game harder, because everything is more consistent... I... don't think I like input buffers?"
Which to me at the moment felt like an insane position. Like there was a lot of simplifications made to fighting games I didn't like, but that one seemed like a clear win. That just makes games better, right?
But Lofo kept talking, about things that are borderline impossible in +R that would be consistent in Xrd and how one of the things that keeps +R reasonable is that everyone drops stuff all the time. Not just in combos, but in pressure. There is always wiggle room... and then talking about mashing to tech.
Mashing to tech feels like a vestigial part of Xrd. It doesn't bother me much (I come from X2), but if you're trying to tech and there's a gap, you're gonna get it. +R, much less so. It's almost an analog skill check between you and your opponent. Your ability to mash, vs their timing during the hardest parts of their combo. Defender can piano, so there is a bit of an advantage
Then that got me thinking about ST. "It's fucked up that you need to do a 1f reversal to beat tick throws in that game."
... But you don't. You need to have better timing than your opponent to beat tick throws. Can they time to 1f input? If you're playing someone great, probably, but when you watch mid level play, most DPed tick throw attempts aren't usually reversals. That analog sense of timing is part of the game's skill expression.
This goes into why people didn't care about exact frame data back in the day or players playing "by feel". A move being +1 really didn't matter unless both of you have sick timing. We HAD the frame data. We had Yoga Book Hyper for ST. It did help. But it's influence was different because the play conditions are were different.
In modern games, a +1 situation is often pretty rigidly defined. We have buffers. Our responses will come out on he fastest frame. If my opponent is slow and my suboptimal option keeps winning, people will call that fake... because it is. The expectation is that verse most players, even low ranked players, people will get their moves out as soon as possible. Meanwhile in older games, you can't take that as a certainty even with the best players. They'll hit a lot of frame perfect inputs, but not all of them. Finding where your opponent is being sloppy helps a ton. No one is clean all the time even in modern games, but it's so SO much harder in old games.
I even think a lot about setplay characters. In older games 'perfect knockdown into oki that grants an auto timed safe jump' is actually super hard (or really lucky happenstance). Heck, this is also where GG's variable wake up timing stuff also comes in. You could do it, but it would be so hard that it can never be the expectation. Now safe jumps are so easy once labbbed that if you whiff a normal before doing your oki people will just assume it's a safe jump even if it isn't. You get stronger setplay because frame perfect repeatability, while not at all trivial, is extremely practical.
Buffers help turn is into robots and, depending on your taste, that can be a good or bad thing.
ALRIGHT THE TAKE AWAY
One thing that I've also thought a lot about is... new players seem to have an easier time getting into +R than Rev2? Part of this might also be the lobby system and speed to matches, but part of it is, in Rev2, even a mid level player can be pretty scarily consistent, but +R... Welcome to the scramble zone, lol. And like granted you can run into cryptids with 10,000+ hours of play time who will Burst Safe Sidewinder Loop you into the negaverse, but even THEY fuck up or get wilded out by weird interactions. And I say this maybe liking Rev2 more than +R.
In a weird way, making games easier, also makes them harder, because you make them more consistent for everyone... and when everything is more consistent, the game is more rigid and unyielding. You're not making an old experience accessible to new people, you're making something new, with it's own pros and cons.
Again, this isn't a judgment zone. I'm okay with Strive. I'm actively loving SF6. But a rigid games forces players to play it how it was intended. This can help new players learn a lot faster. Hell, such design has lead to games that have even taught me lots of stuff! I don't hate these games.
... But I miss that looseness. I miss how you can have a combo so hard that only like 2 people can do it reliably and just this really hazy, unclear idea of what's even possible. Infinite weird, crufty interactions between interactions. Feeling like I wasn't just playing my opponent, but exploring a rich, emergent design space.
Fighting games as a genre increasingly feel like they're (metaphorically) moving from "analog" to "digital".. and like most of those changes, there are usually more advantages and disadvantages, but, even with the new advantages... there are always gonna be people who miss how the old analog models used to feel.
E.V.O – The Theory of EvolutionMay 3rd, 2018
E.V.O: Search for Eden (Known in Japan as 46 Okunen Monogatari: Harukanaru Eden e) was a strange game. A lot of us have very fond memories of it, but it’s also kinda… bad. Just… shallow and really grindy. But by god was there some weird, quirky goodness to it. The game was charming in a way that made it easy (or… easier) to overcome its faults. I’d jokingly call it “One of my favorite games that isn’t actually any good”. But all the elements of Search for Eden came together to be greater than the sum of its parts. The Evolution (even though there wasn’t really any REAL decisions), the weird quirky writing, the strange alternative history aliens and bird men or whatever… the weird way it’d be sincerely sad or dark. It was one of those things where just… as an experience, it was really compelling. Even if grinding for EVO points was kinda boring…
For the last few years I’d been vaguely aware of 46 Okunen Monogatari: THE Shinka Ron, a PC98 game that was the predecessor to E.V.O: Search For Eden. But it was in Japanese and was a turned based RPG (which I have a hard time stomaching now) and was on a tricky to emulate platform. But as time went on, more and more weird screenshots would come out from it and I’d wonder “What is the deal with this game???”
Fortunately the fine folks at https://46okumen.com/ made a beautiful translation. Localized as E.V.O: The Theory of Evolution, the game is an expert translation that contains all the joy and weirdness of the SNES game. In fact, it’s… even more Search for Eden than Search for Eden. This is a strange game, taking the alternative history and weird tangents of Search for Eden to another level. it seems improbable to say, but I feel like we got the much more… normal game of the two.
The RPG nature works to this game’s favor. The writing and weird scenarios was a strength of Search for Eden. The RPG combat is… basic. Basic to both be a flaw and s strength. It’s pretty brain dead but, with text speed set to 0, grinding and fighting become… brisk. There aren’t really any boss fights either. There are no random encounters either. Enemies wander the world map and often disappear from areas after awhile. There isn’t a lot of friction to exploration and backtracking. All experience gained can be spent immediately on either Attack, Endurance, Vitality or wisdom.
The incredible part of the design is… it’s hard to do this wrong? In almost every game there seems to be ‘the suckers strategy’. “Oh never put points into wisdom!” or whatever. But everything is good, it’s just a matter of priority. Would the foes coming up be better with more strength or more health? Even wisdom which might be the least useful influences the power of your healing abilities which can be incredibly good. So while the game pushes you to be an all arounder, it allows you to influence yourself by which way you move on the evolution chart. When a stat is raised to its limit, you evolve and the limit goes up. So maybe you want to level up all your attributes, but you always max out attack, pushing you toward more damaging evolutions. Or more defensive or whatever. And they all seem viable. There are certainly better evolutions but the game is never so demanding that it matters. Instead it’s fine to mess around. Infact if you evolve off the chart (see the evolution chart picture) you can get odd “bad” endings.
The story is surreal. The translated manual includes timelines talking about Interplanetary wars with the Devil, the death of “The Fifth Planet”, Martian coups by Anti Devil Factions… all this while The Earth is still developing oxygen. Oh, also The Devil is hot and does the anime noble lady laugh. Seriously. The second sun, Nemesis, messes with evolution, Lunarians found and sink Atlantas. You can skip mammals and evolve into POWERFUL LIZARD MEN until becoming a gnome. It’s a weird, brisk experience that only gets tedious when you aren’t sure what the game wants from you… which almost always involves ‘talking to an NPC’. “But I wanna push this boulder” yeah okay you gotta talk to the NPC that will give you the idea.
It’s a wild game that goes farther and deeper than anything in Search for Eden, overlapping with sci-fi and fantasy elements as if they were just… normal. It’s funny when it needs to be funny, sad when it needs to be sad, creative in ways you won’t expect and… oddly affecting, emotionally, even when you barely have spent time with the characters in the game. Is it a shallow gameplay experience? Yes. But I hate jRPGs and I loved the hell out of this game so if you’re tempted… try it. I feel like you’ll know pretty quicky if it’s a game you’d like. For me though, this is the exactly the type of charming, obscure game I live to find, even if it’s a genre I don’t really care for. Just be sure to set Text Speed to 0.
King’s Field: The Ancient City
This is probably the most fondly enjoyed and remembered of the old King’s Field games… and in a lot of ways it is probably the best one, but there was something lost in transition, going from the PS1 to the PS22. The PS1 King’s Field had a strong, weird aesthetic. Even if that aesthetic was driven by their sheer ugliness and and console quirks, they had a look. Shadow Tower had a great aesthetic, period. KF:TAC has no aesthetic. It’s honestly amazing to compare the visuals of this game to Demon’s Souls, just to see what a big difference a little bit of ‘aesthetic’ can make. The game, if not for it's internal consistency, would be almost ‘asset store’ levels of generic. I would say monster design was never From’s strength in the early days (even with the iconic Head Eaters), but Shadow Tower as filled to the brim with the type of unique and interesting enemies that’d you’d see in later From games. Instead KF:TAC are is loaded with ‘elemental xenomorphs’, probably a low point in design for these games. Something about those designs and starting in an area filled with lava felt like they were trying and be cool and aggressive and have more flavor, but it totally fell flat for me. Some enemies are kinda neat, some areas look alright, but nothing in the game wows me. Only one point in the game was I ever like THIS LOOKS SCARY I DON’T WANT TO GO THIS WAY. The game was a consistent, flat tone most of the way through and made it abundantly clear to me how important those ‘wow’ moments are.
So why do people like this game? Well, the consistent, flat tone is pretty good! The game looks generic, but the details are there. Care for the world is there. The map for the world is great. This is definitely a game where I did not need a map to get around most of the time, and when I did, the maps provided were… awfully flavorful and cool. You had what you needed to get around as required and basic navigation is simple. The “Central Tower” made for a great way to unify the map and the ways you slowly make your way down the tower felt less… contrived than Shadow Tower? Like all good Fromsoftware worlds, it felt like a place, not a level of a video game. Then you have all your interesting details. Zombie like enemies that release dark bugs as you kill them that scurry around the floor to hide… Heavily implied cannibalism… all sorts of warnings for traps with corpses and stuff. The type of stuff you’d expect out of a From game.
Combat is much better too. Enemies almost always flinch from attacks and the hitbox on your swings is huge. Larger weapons seem to have more range. Usually if you feel like you’re going to hit something, you actually do and the game gives you more than enough feedback to tell the difference. The old ‘circle and attack from behind’ strategy is not as braindead as it once was and not for any one reason. Enemies are designed with behaviors that let them move around quickly, or attack all around themselves. Sometimes you’re trying to find an in so you can do the old ‘circle and stab’ strategy, other times you’re moving in and out and actively dodging attacks (something that works far more reliably in this game than previous games), and other times you’re scrambling around. Having to do all this is probably part of the reason you’re walk speed and turn speed are a little weak compared to other games. Combat in KFTAC seemed the first step in Fromsoftware figuring out a combat system with actual game feel and it helps the game A LOT.
The game has some annoying bits. It has the KFTAC teleportation system, but now you can only teleport on certain spots and they’re often decoupled from save points or even warp ports and it’s like…. I GUESS this could be interesting but usually it’s just annoying? You have a blacksmith that repairs equipment for free but with a REAL TIME wait like come on wtf, game. Also upgrades! Lets wait 2 minutes and use a rare rock to raise an attack stat by -1-. This game might have the most irritating ‘start’ of a King’s Field game, and no i don’t mean MINOR-SPOILERS which no, I did not MINOR-SPOILERS. The mine cave and the poison and the limited healing that early in the game. It’s not hard, it’s just… not fun. Also I never got to play around with sword magic because it all required you to get to ‘level 3 experience’ with a weapon which… doesn’t seem like something that’d happen in regular gameplay? Seems like a bummer to me.
So would I recommend this game? It ranks somewhat over King’s Field 3 for me, but it’s probably one of the most accessible, tolerable King’s Field games. It’s a King’s Field game I could recommend to people who aren’t complete sickos. It’s a game that pulls back from the excess and high fantasy of King’s Field 3 and creates something more intimate like King’s Field 2, just without the same charm. And, let me be real, as much as I love King’s Field 2, KFTAC is going to be a more enjoyable game to far more people.
Shadow Tower: Abyss
The fact this game was never released in the US despite the localization almost being complete has to be one of the biggest crimes ever committed by SCOA. Man, the American side of Sony was such a pack of assholes during the PS2 era. When I started doing these playthroughs, the Shadow Tower games were the games I was least excited about. Now they’re my favorites. THIS GAME IS AWESOME and bless whoever made this horridly translated fan patch with weapons like “high swords” and “low swords”. It’s so awkward at times that it kinda rolls around into being cool, adding to the weird tone of the game.
I feel like there is a very visible story told by From’s first person RPGs about their development. KF2 tried to give KF1 a more tangible world. KF3, after the success of KF2 aimed for grandeur and lost some of it’s intangible ‘special’ quality. Shadow Tower was practically a ‘study’ game to do the opposite of King’s Field 3 — do a lot with a little. King’s Field: The Ancient City executed on all of these lessons but became aesthetically lost in this new PS2 era… Shadow Tower: Abyss is the game that both is From discovering how to execute an aesthetic on higher fidelity systems as well as being the game where they finally refine their combat past ‘acceptable’ to actively fun.
While maintaining the same survival-horror systems of the original, visually, Shadow Tower: Abyss is far different beast. Trading the bleak aesthetic of a proto-Demon’s Souls for a weird, alien… almost a primal, tribalist feel? The game has weird but awesome sound design — a strange blend of naturalistic and technological sounds put together in off-putting ways. A lot of enemies can be really easy to ID due to very distinctive sound design. The worst thing I can say about the aesthetic of Abyss is that it feels distinctly ‘early 2000s’. It’s the only one of the Fromsoft first person RPGs to have a "popular" aesthetic. But it is still awesome, weird, and constantly had me going “What the fuck is THIS place?!”. The monsters were strange and worrying — maybe not as strange as some of Shadow Tower’s weirdest, but Abyss is pretty weird. There is also the sheer anachronism of the game. The game takes place long after the original Shadow Tower, as you and a bunch of researchers go down it to explore and find the spear that grants wishes and turned the last protagonist into a king. Somehow you all end up at the bottom, but unlike the first game, have to work your way back up to escape. And you have GUNS. Guns with very limited ammo. By the midpoint of the game I am finding myself walking around in ancient magical armor, with a WW1 gasmask on my head, and when I see an enemy in the distance, I trade my double handed axe for a sniper rifle. It’s bizarre to open a treasure chest and see a revolver laying there as an object of reverence to whoever found it and put it there. You feel like Lord Humungus from Mad Max. An ancient demon wants to fight you, so you decide now is the time to spend some of your precious shotgun ammo, killing him in a way that, to him, would seem no different from being blasted by a magician. All the old Fromsoft games have this sense of nebulous time, but this one embraces it. You find an ancient tribal warrior who was killing bugs for probably thousands of years along with other researchers or my fav demon lady from the first game.
Combat is great. It is extremely rare for enemies to not flinch when hit, and when they don’t it’s a big deal. When you hit things hard, they don’t flinch, they REEL. Limbs fly off. Chopping and shooting off limbs becomes part of the strategy. “Hey if I chop off this guy’s weapon arm, his other attacks are easier to deal with”. It also just feels GREAT. In the middle of a battle with an ancient knight, things were going against me and my equipment was breaking so I pulled out my shotgun and shot him, blowing off both his arms in a Monty Python-esque fashion. I blew up another giant demon with a PANZERFAUST. The intense resource management makes these moments fun and satisfying in a way that never gets old. Also unlike KF:TAC you move and turn FAST, and can use the analog sticks, moving around like a traditional console FPS. Enemies are more deadly to compensate, leading the most varied and fun combat I’ve experienced in this group of games.
It’s hard for me to even think of things to say… It’s… Shadow Tower but weird and great? It’s hard to even think of how to sell this weird gem. This is the type of game where if it sounds VAGUELY interesting I’d say ‘just play it’.
But I guess I can at least talk about its problems and disappointments. Healing and repairing is a bit more of a pain early on. Topping off equipment is wasteful — everything has a base repair cost no matter how damaged it is (unless it’s broke, then it’s even more). You have encumbrance in the game for your whole inventory. You can store items at shop crystals to elevate this but I felt it did nothing but make the game less enjoyable. I never felt like I was making interesting decisions on what weapons to take with me and on the rare chance I wanted to use an odd weapon for a specific situation, it seems like it would have been better if I had it in my inventory rather than have it unused in a box somewhere. The shops/healing places are more boring — just glowing crystals connected to menus, lacking the weird personality of their Shadow Tower predecessors. No weird naga-witch selling you swords. There are also way more cunes which is… fine, I guess? But it felt weird to max out my cunes at one point. I guess it was necessary with the need to buy ammo, but there was a charm to a currency where there was only 100 in the whole world back in Shadow Tower. The game gets a little monotonous with it’s gimmick levels. By the late game I was praying for an area where I just kicked the shit out of a lot of tough stuff but it never quite came. In fact, the end part of the game is the biggest letdown. It reminds me of playing through Demon’s Souls and finishing my playthrough on Stormking before killing True Allant. It just felt like there was no release. Just ‘hey the game is over’. At least in DeS you can save the last Boletaria stage as ‘the end’ but Abyss has nothing like that. The ending felt disappointed both gameplay wise and thematically. If I were to guess, there probably was going to be more to the boss and maybe more to the last area. The last thing you fight is basically an armored copy of Rurufon and her AI and it’s… not much.
I also didn’t feel like I had a sense of the tower in Abyss as I did in Shadow Tower. The maps themselves are WAY better but Shadow Tower felt interconnected. Abyss has a hubworld that you travel up and down by way of elevator which is…. really lame? The hub area looks cool, it never changes in a way that made me feel like I was making any progress. It didn’t change in Shadow Tower either but at least in that, I was literally moving down it. Abyss is a game in dire need of a good final act, something all the King’s Field games and Shadow Tower managed to do better. Not GREAT, but much better. But none of these flaws really deeply effect the joy of the game while you’re in the middle of an area, playing it. But keep in mind, when it’s time to end the game, the game wraps up fast.
A good point is that New Game+, which Shadow Tower also had, seems to be improved. Unlike Shadow Tower which was more “go back to the top so you can finish killing and finding everything”, starts the game over, sans some of the stuff you already found, but giving you more potions and ammo and new weapons. I don’t know if it ever gets harder like a Souls NG+, but I guess I’ll see, as I’m curious if the game is different in other ways the second time through (and I feel like such a beast by the end of the game that a second pass through the game doesn’t seem very time consuming). Either way I highly recommend checking out this game. The translation works fine if you can run burnt or HDLoader games on your PS2 and it emulates pretty well (Some texture flickers with hardware acceleration but I found it to usually be tolerable). I know there will never be a Shadow Tower 3 by name, but I aware the soulslike (even if they claim they’re done) that captures a similarly weird, alien look.
In closing, my tierlist, worst the best:
KF3 -> KFTAC -> Shadow Tower =/-> KF2 -> Shadow Tower Abyss