Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Metroid: Evolution

The latest Game Design Challenge, "Sidekick", required players to create a new sidekick for an existing franchise. The results came in today, and I must admit I'm a little surprised my entry didn't receive even an honorable mention. I'm not upset about it, nor will this stop me from entering future challenges... I'm just surprised.

In my opinion, there's a very fine line to walk in this challenge; either the sidekick is useless and serves no purpose, or they're overwhelming, dominating the gameplay and overshadowing the lead character.

A sidekick who just tags along and serves absolutely no purpose is simply a vanity item; witness Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. If there isn't a second player around, Tails' impact is measured only in the pixels he changes the color of. Tails only contributes to the game by flying a bi-plane and rescuing Sonic during the ending, both roles that don't really require him to tag along the entire game. He's also to blame for the torrent of sidekick characters who would find their way into the Sonic series, and that alone merits his exclusion. Cute little bugger though.

On the flip side, a good sidekick is one who enhances the gameplay, but not to the point of being too easy or different. If Robin could beat up every badguy, why would Batman even show up? A nice example of this is Super Mario Sunshine's FLUDD Waterpack, who enhances Mario's abilities to the point of making the game a complete cakewalk. Using FLUDD, Mario can miss a tricky jump, but use the pack's hover mode to float back onto the platform. The best parts of Mario Sunshine, at least in my opinion, were the Secret Levels where Mario is forced to clear mind-numbingly complex jumps without the assistance of his sidekick. With the Mario games being all about platforming, having a safety net to catch you cheapened the experience.

Beyond just making the game easier, inclusion of a sidekick runs the risk of changing the gameplay of the original too much. Super Mario Sunshine is another great example; instead of jumping around, gathering coins, and doing everything we consider to define the Mario games, Mario is instead tasked with using his new sidekick to clean things. It's not as bad as it sounds, because the whole concept of running around spraying water to wash oily paint off of things worked, to some degree... but it felt less like a Mario game because of it.

So, I approached my own entry with three 'sidekick rules' in mind;
  • The sidekick must have a function that merits inclusion.
  • The sidekick's functionality must not make the game too easy.
  • The sidekick's functionality must not change the core gameplay concepts too much.
So, it was with these rules in mind that I worked on my own entry, set in the Metroid series. What follows is my submission, in its entirety. I tried to keep the new sidekick useful in specific situations, but not so powerful or complex that it changed the amazing gameplay of the Metroid series too much or cheapened the experience. I hope you enjoy...

Set after the events of Metroid Fusion, Metroid: Evolution finds galaxy-famous bounty hunter Samus Aran captured by the Federation. In the opening act, Samus' Metroid-infused body is being tested in a zero-gravity research facility orbiting an unknown planet. Breaking free during a power fluctuation, Samus escapes the facility, picking up a companion; a Metroid cloned from her infused DNA. Able to communicate via their genetic bond, Samus and the Metroid make for the main research structure buried under the planet's surface, to recover the various parts of Samus' suit being studied there and destroy the Federation's research on her.

The player controls Samus' Metroid via the Right Analog stick, which allows total freedom of movement within the 2-D environment. Movement is restricted to the edges of the screen, and the Metroid cannot pass through solid surfaces.

The player can also press down or 'click' the right analog stick ("R3") to direct the Metroid's behavior, based upon its position within the game;
  • When floating over an enemy, the Metroid will latch onto the foe, draining their energy. This energy is redistributed to Samus' suit energy (health).

  • When floating over an upgrade or puzzle object, the Metroid can be used to pick the item up. The item can then be carried about, and dropped by pressing R3 a second time.

  • When floating near or directly over Samus, the Metroid will land on her shoulder and remain there until R3 is pressed again. This is useful when you wish to keep the Metroid out of harm's way.

  • When floating over Samus when she is in Morph Ball-form, the Metroid will lift Samus.

  • Clicking R3 at any other time will cause the Metroid to remain stationary until R3 is pressed again or Samus moves off-screen (in which case, the Metroid rushes back to her side.) This is especially useful if you need to use the Metroid as a stepping stone.
The most basic function of the Metroid is that of a shield; Metroids are resistant to all known weaponry (with the exception of ice-based weapons), allowing Samus to use the Metroid to block projectiles. The Metroid is also useful for scouting areas where invisible enemies may be lurking.

Because of their strong mandibles, the Metroid can also be used to carry objects that would normally be out of reach. This includes puzzle elements and equipment upgrades. Some items may emit radiation that damages Samus; the Metroid can be used to safely transport these objects.

The Metroid can pick up Samus when she's in Morph-Ball form, though only for a short duration. Obtaining the Gravity Suit makes this lifting easier. When picked up by the Metroid, Samus is protected from all damage; this can be especially useful to avoid enemy attacks that would otherwise be impossible to evade.

Samus can also use the Metroid as a platform, to gain access to higher levels or cross dangerous terrain such as acid or lava. As with carrying Samus, the Metroid can only support her weight for a brief period of time, though the Gravity Suit improves this function as well. The Metroid can even move while Samus is standing on it, functioning as a mobile platform.

Finally, the Metroid can be used as a weapon, latching onto enemies and draining their lifeforce. Because the Metroid and Samus share a symbiotic relationship, any energy the Metroid drains from enemies is automatically redistributed to Samus' suit energy.
Some enemies may be distracted or fight to shake the Metroid off, exposing weaknesses that Samus can target.

I'm not sure why my entry wasn't selected, even for an honorable mention. While these challenges are meant to be a casual, fun experience, I have seen a few portfolios that include winning entries as accomplishments, so we are talking about something helpful towards a career in design, even if it's a minor bullet point.

Because the judges aren't identified, there's no one to request feedback from, and even if there was, doing so seems a little whiny, to be honest. I can't imagine anyone would want to sift through these design entries twice a month and then respond to individuals on why their designs weren't selected. In other words, I'm left to try and find my own answers and draw my own conclusions.

However, rather than dwell on what I consider a 'loss', I'd much rather move on to the next challenge, which should be posted tomorrow. I've posted the entry here for two reasons; to link to it for my list of Design Challenge Entries and to have something to share in this space, considering my last post was in September. These challenges offer me an opportunity to make at least two posts a month, so there shouldn't ever be an excuse for long gaps between posts.

I hope you enjoyed reading the challenge, and if you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading.

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