Metal Gear Acid

Metal_Gear_Acid_CoverartThe exclamation mark carries quite a bit of symbolism in the metal gear series. It’s got an entire wikia entry! But then, what doesn’t in video games these days.

The menu page of the PSP entry, Metal Gear Ac!d, uses the exclamation point as a cursor, but not like how you’d imagine by that description. The period in the mark acts as the cursor itself, and as you move down the points in the menu it pulls down a long black block above it. When moved to the bottom of the menu, you have what appears to be an exclamation mark.

Aside from the imagery they’re pulling from, it’s an eye-catching way to communicate to the user such a simple element of UI design. I hate when menus have only two selections, and the way they denote which option you’re selecting is just a change of color – move from one selection from the other too many times and you’re bound to forget which color is your selector!


The exclamation point cursor also quickly draws your eyes to exactly where you are. You know you aren’t selecting anywhere near the large black bar, and empty space isn’t meant to catch or draw your eyes. I wonder how many milliseconds faster (or slower if I’m wrong) a human’s eyes are able to find what they’re selecting because of the extra help.

Even if it isn’t slightly more drawing or helpful than a regular cursor, it’s certainly a thoughtful piece of design and a fun nod to the Metal Gear exclamation point.


Fortress of Fear: Wizards & Warriors X

46218_frontWizards & Warriors X is one of those ‘so bad it’s good’ pieces of media. There’s all kinds of little details about the game that tickle me in just the right way. All I can do while playing is smile and marvel at how many ideas were shoved into this game and then be sad at how many of them fail. Just watch the first minute of this Longplay to get the gist of the game’s tone.

That’s a nice opening theme! An exciting melody opens it up; a catchy drum and bass line get you in the mood for some wicked awesome dark fantasy at the Fortress of Fear! Then the screen drops down and kind of bounces when it hits the bottom while a spooky jingle plays… and then…

Oh… oh that loud music it… it’s painful to listen to!

Gone is the melodic layered tracks from the intro screen. As soon as the game gives you control you’re assaulted by someone pounding away at the keys on their harpsichord.

Maybe the music is bad but the graphics, they’re kind of cool! Everything looks animated and cartoony. The sprites are big and detailed and the hero looks like he has a lot of animations. But who is that? On the box it showed us an angry barbarian type. Look at him! So majestic… This ain’t no Simon Belmont. No, this here’s a Fabio or Arnold caliber Barbarian! But uh… in the game we’re a knight. A knight whose feet kind of flop around when he jumps and lands. Like all he’s wearing are socks.


The enemies are pretty cool though! We got bats! We got giant snakes! We got… other guys who walk around and are maybe monsters! When you strike ’em down little “POW” and “ZAP”s appear. He’s got an electric sword obviously.

These ‘visual sound effects’ are crazy detailed too! The enemy explodes into a comic style sound bubble and then that disintegrates with a shimmer effect. That’s like 4 frames of completely different animation just to provide a death effect.

Developed by Rare, Wizards and Warriors naturally has a British feel to it. I don’t think they were going for a humorous tone, but it almost comes across that way. Things just feel off, but in that way that British humor is known for. The cartoon style drives it all home. Everything from the music to the visuals to the designs of the characters are flashy and kind of jolting.

Comedy comes from proper timing. If Wizards and Warriors isn’t meant to be funny then it’s accidentally hitting a lot of great timing cues. The way the opening music is so nice and moody is juxtaposed against the horrible plinky music that plays instantly as you’re given control. The monsters make whining nasally sounds as you hit them multiple times only to end in a flash-bang of comic-style sound effects that fizzle away in a tiny fireworks show. Jumps are floaty and huge. If you fall from too high you literally crumple onto the ground in a detailed animation. It’s not a death animation, it’s just there because.

Rare’s previous entries in the series have nothing close to this game’s tone. I can’t make any critical assessments about what the heck is going on with this game, but my hunch is the tone is just a happy accident that keeps me smiling through an otherwise pretty shoddy platformer.

410 vs. Electronic Super Joy

ESJ Vs 140


Electronic Super Joy is like two pieces of bread. One has jelly on it and the other has peanut butter. Don’t think of putting them together. Not yet. Just eat the snacks. Good, right? Now, 410, is like taking those two pieces of spread-covered bread, and putting them together. Now we have a PB&J and it’s so much better! The great thing about games is it’s ability to take two separate mediums, like audio and game play, and combine them together to work in harmony, where one actually influences and affects the other, instead of just being two things that are both good and consumed close together. That’s the difference between 410 and Electronic Super Joy.

House or Electronic style music influences not just the soundtrack, but also the art style and a little bit of the tone in ESJ. Both are platformers with a similar style. They use bright colors and texture-less shapes to create the world’s environments. The graphics all invoke a style that matches their shared music root. But what set’s 140 apart, and I think above, Electronic Super Joy, is it takes that musical theme beyond a style — beyond just this other thing that is also good along with the game play — and it combines them, making the music a necessary part of the game.

Hazards in 140 affront you to the rhythm of the music. There aren’t enemies, but rather dangerous blocks or obstacles that end your game when you touch them or are smashed by them – think spikes or lasers, but a bit more abstract. All the obstacles come at you to the beat. Blocks pound in time with the drum track, deadly floors raise up every first note of the bass line, lasers fade and appear in time with the melody. In Electronic Super Joy, the music is just there. Which is all well and good, just like two pieces of bread with… well… you get the rest.


Element4LNarrators in video games are a trend in independant games. If you think about it, flavor text has always been a sort of narration in games and it dates back to really early RPGs. But the idea of a context sensitive voice to guide, enhance or even create game play is something newer. In a way, Element4L uses a narrative voice to enhance the presentation in a way that I’ve never seen before.

A physics based platformer, Element4l has you moving through levels by changing into one of four elements to navigate directions. Along the way, words will pop up on the screen to joke, cheer or, in a few cases, warn you about the next leg of the level. They’re really subtle. Jumping over pits might elicate a “That was close!”. Being shot out of a tunnel brought up the words “Fire in the Hole!”. But it’s not just one liners. There was even a part where this narrator made a joke about you being like frodo traversing dangerous territory, and then it went on to say “Oh… I guess some of you are too young to remember that. Harry Potter did some stuff too I think…”. So it’s got a personality to it, it’s more than a passive voice in the form of fading text across the screen.

Who is this voice though? The game designer I suppose. It’s a fascinating addition to an otherwise solid and pretty platformer. The game has enough components to it that it doesn’t really need any more hooks. And that’s the thing, this narrative companion on your journey isn’t necessary for the game. It isn’t even something that fits in with any kind of theme or style that the game has going. But somehow it works. It’s like a commentary track, something extra but it’s loads of fun to have.

The other interesting thing about the choice is how much work must have been put in to deciding where these words show up. Unlike my previous comparison to a commentary track, they don’t show up at the bottom of the screen. They’re constantly just off to the side, or above or below, the action. Whoever designed where the text would appear must have some experience in visual layout. The text is never in your way, but always readable even while in the middle of complex action.

Maybe the game was too quiet to not include the narrative text. You’re the only character, navigating through hazardous terrain, so there are no enemies. It add’s a lot of charm to an already nice game. And in the end you feel like you were adventuring with someone the entire time, only to realize it was just a friendly voice cheering you on.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

The_Legend_of_Zelda_-_Link's_Awakening_(Japan)The Game Boy is capable of displaying only four colors at once, and they can hardly be called colors; they’re more like shades. In my last post on The Legend of Zelda 1, I looked at how the designers used a handful of colors to create a vibrant setting – though with great reliance on the players imagination. Here, again, in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Nintendo wields an even smaller tool-set to create settings alive and analogous to our reality.

Using only four shades of gray, Link’s Awakening creates a couple neat lighting effects. It usually boils down to what color they make the floor! It makes sense – Zelda games being a top down experience, the ground takes up most of the screen, so the background is actually the ground. In the world outside, the ground is mostly white, with small patches of grass throughout. But the moment you walk into a forest, the ground becomes the lightest shade of gray, dimming the atmosphere and creating the effect that there are trees overhead.

linksawakening outside

Similarly, inside dungeons, dark to dim lighting occurs when a candle in the room is put out. Even cooler, some rooms will have two candles that, when not lit, will make the entire room almost black; lighting just one candle with cause the room to look dim with light gray ground, and lighting the second candle will restore the dungeon to it’s fully lit state, as portrayed by white ground.



Interestingly, caves in the game don’t become dim like the forest. Which is odd because caves in Zelda 1 were pure black underfoot, and in A Link to the Past the caves are definitely darker.

All these neat lighting tricks don’t create the same feeling of presence, temperature and setting that I described in the Legend of Zelda 1, but to do all this with just four colors – it’s pretty impressive to think how much can be done with so little.

The Legend of Zelda

zelda1coverWhen Dark Souls II came out in early 2014 there was a big kerfuffle over the lighting system being significantly different at release than what was shown in demonstrations months before. To many, it was a devastating change and a detriment to the final product. The change was necessary to make the game run smoothly – a necessity in Dark Souls, and most people understood and appreciate that – but still, there was disappointment to be felt by some who really enjoy games that can create a life-like and immersive world to play in.

Old systems don’t have ‘lighting systems’, or anything beyond displaying arranged colors. The NES was only able to display up to 25 colors on screen at a time out of a selection of 64 – give or take. There were lots of tricks and bypasses to pushing the NES’s limits, and the details of those are little too complicated for me to easily understand. The original Game Boy only had 4 shades of grey scale to work with. All this is to say, with such small tool sets at their disposal, how did the early games create such strong pulls of immersion?

Early games had to use game play itself to create the kinds of tension, tone and emotion they wanted to convey in their product. It was the player themselves who dictated all those elements by how they felt playing the game. And among the best games to utilize these principles were the Legend of Zelda.

As I said before, the NES had a very limited color palate to work with. And even that just shows what they were allowed to use, not how they were allowed to use it. The original Legend of Zelda created a strong sense of environment, at least between the overworld and dungeons.


The overworld is really bright and colorful. The ground underfoot is kind of a clay color – it looks sun baked. The shading under the trees or bushes is centered underneath, making it seem like the sun is at noon positioning where everything is at it’s brightest. They tried their best to make the water sparkle with little dots all over it.

An effect they establish early on in the game is going up and down stairs. Entering a cave is one of the first things you do, and you see link kind of sink down into the black hole in the side of the rock face. It really let’s you know that there is a world above and a world below. And that world below is quite different than what’s on top.


The dungeons in Zelda 1 are mostly comprised of just a single color spectrum – greens, blues whites etc. The tiles in the dungeons look cold and there really aren’t any shadows. And down here there’s danger and risk unlike what you find in the overworld. Your goal is to go deeper into the dungeon, and dying along the way kicks you back and makes you start over. Stress builds when you know you’re really deep in and you don’t want struggle to do it all again. Finally getting to the end of the dungeon has you obtaining a piece of the triforce, your prize. After you get the triforce the screen shutters to black and then opens up immediately to Link walking up the stairs at the dungeon entrance  into the overworld. You go from a stressful, cold, underground space to rising up into the warm sun-kissed world above.

The game play created the feelings of stress, and triumph; but the colors and visual style created the presence. They took simple concepts like cold, enclosed spaces to equate with danger, and warm open vistas to signal victory.

Since the beginning of the words ‘graphics’, game designers and players have equated ‘more advanced’ with more immersive. And maybe for some, that’s the case. But sometimes a little imagination can go a long way.