Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Am I Still A PC Gamer?

I started my gaming career on my dad's old 8086 as a child. It really wasn't a game, per-se, that I would play, but we had a 5.25" floppy that contained the training program for the computer. As a young child, the flashing ASCII pixels were exciting and fun, and may as well been an actual game. I "played" that training program countless times. Later, I was given an Atari and NES as a kid, but my true love affair was always PC games. Theme Park was one of my favorites, as well as games like System Shock, Duke Nukem 3D, Descent, Fallout, and any number of the LucasArts adventures (Yup, most of those would be Mature rated games nowadays).

As game developers have been shifting towards console games, instead of PC games, due to sales and less piracy I have also made the switch. I had a Sega Genesis - the next console I bought was a Microsoft Xbox, 2 years after the console was launched. The reason? All the damn good developers were abandoning my beloved platform!

Now, I don't believe the PC gaming industry is dead by any means. I think, like always, it's showing us where the market will be in 5-10 years. That market will be massively multiplayer and filled with virtual worlds and microtransactions, it seems. However, I play PC games less and less. I still buy a game on the PC if it seems like it's the best fit on the platform. For example, Call of Duty 4 was played on my PC, not my Xbox 360. I'm now playing Crysis on the PC.

I'm finding myself wishing these games were on the console in some respects. Sitting on the couch, however, is more comfortable than this office chair. The vibration of the Xbox controller... I find myself wishing my mouse vibrated now! I couldn't believe it - I actually thought, maybe I should hook up a 360 controller to my PC to play Crysis (It supports it out of the box, though I don't have any idea if they have vibration). My TV and speakers are way bigger and better (Though the TV is at a lower resolution, since I run at 720p and most of my games I can play at much higher resolutions on the PC).

I own all three consoles right now, and play each of them when there are games out I want. I still play and plan to play plenty of PC games, but slowly I have a feeling that I am being converted to primarily a console gamer and a secondary PC gamer, which is the opposite of the rest of my life. Luckily, a lot of my complaints about console games have been slowly solved. They are more sophisticated and complex, which is why I gravitated towards them initially. Console games were for "stupid" gamers when I grew up. They were for the people who couldn't handle real games. This is no longer the case. I matured and stopped being ignorant. Also, consoles games did actually become less dumbed-down.

Has this happened to anyone else? Do you find your primary platform switching over time? Am I just growing up, or does this go in cycles (After all, two years ago I was playing World of Warcraft all day and ignoring all other games)?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Grand Theft Auto III

- This week, with the release of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV imminent, I look back at its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto III.

Design Lesson: The ability for landmarks to sufficiently guide the player around the game world dramatically decreases as the size of the world increases.

Grand Theft Auto III is considered by most to be a landmark in video gaming history. It was one of the first, and certainly the most successful, 3D open-world action game at the time of its release in 2001. By moving away from the 2D world of the previous games and moving to full 3D, Grand Theft Auto III ushered in sets of new interactions that could not have occurred in a 2D setting. It also ushered in a complexity in navigation, which would not exist in a 2D setting.

The game world of Liberty City spans three large islands, with each island having multiple districts, such as Chinatown and the Red Light District. Each district has a number of distinct visual landmarks to help navigate you. Seeing a familiar, distinct landmark in-game (such as a casino or airport) is a fantastic way to orient the player to their surroundings and help navigate them, all the while sensually immersing them in the game. In fact, landmarks are a large part of how we navigate in real life (at least for those of us without fancy GPS navigation systems in our cars).

When you consider that the three main islands of Liberty City connect to each other at one point each, it becomes even more important to know one's location when trying to get to a new area in the game. Getting lost can be frustrating and take up valuable time. So the landmarks should fix the problem, right? They should help orient the player and get their bearings straight when they are lost, no?

Not quite, unfortunately. The landmarks help to an extent, especially the ones near high traffic areas such as your safehouse and main mission givers, but the world is just far too large to navigate just from landmarks. Think about driving around a new city. It's usually not hard to figure out the major highways and how to get to and from your house. Everything else, however, takes a while to learn. In games, we don't have time for the player to take a while to learn. If we frustrate players early, they may never come back and play the game.

There are many reasons for it being easy to get lost, but the one as it applies to Grand Theft Auto III is information overload. The game slowly introduces you to all of its areas, which is an ideal way to teach the player of new areas. However, it's far too much information to process at once. It's easy to forget about landmarks or confuse exactly where a landmark means you are spatially.

I would forget exactly what street the gun store was on repeatedly, thereby ensuring I would spend five to ten minutes trying to locate the store that was a block away from my starting point. I would remind myself to remember where the gun store was for next time, take a mental note of where I am, and then the next time I was to return I would remember. Except, I usually ended up forgetting. Damn my stupid brain!

The game offers solutions. One is a mini-map, which tells you where your current objective is. This helps for navigating general direction and help pointing you to new areas of the game. The problem is, if the objective is far away, it only appears at the edge of the mini-map. Also, the objective is only for the current mission. If you are looking for a certain area in game that isn't specifically your goal for the current mission, too bad.

Another problem with the mini-map is that it doesn't tell you where things are relative to one another. I know that the baseball stadium is by the shoreline, but where is the gun store in relation to the baseball stadium? That is far more difficult to grasp spatially, and by the time you figure it out, you're probably close to being done playing the game.

Enter the second solution: the names of districts appears on the screen as you pass into them. This, in theory, should teach the player what districts connect to each other. While it succeeds at that, to an extent, it's still not enough. While I may know that Chinatown connects to Red Light District right away, it took far longer to understand that it connected by traveling north.

So, up comes a third solution: a map of the entire city, top-down, with all of the key locations identified. If you can at least look at an entire map at any time, then it should be a lot faster to learn the layout of the city. This should solve all the problems.

Except, the full map comes as an insert in the game manual and on the back of a poster inside the case of the game; it does not exist in the game. Relying on out-of-game materials to play a game effectively is a poor choice. You can't be sure the player knows about them or hasn't lost them. By using an out-of-game map, I cannot know exactly where I am in the game world at any time. Instead I must look at the mini-map and extrapolate enough data to pin-point my position.

There is no reason that the game could not have at least had a full map of Liberty City in one of its menus. This would allow the player to see their current position, figure out where they are trying to go, and make a mental map. It would relate things spatially that are distant, making macro navigation far easier. The best part is, it's simple to implement.

Liberty City is full of identifiable landmarks that help guide the player, but the city is just too large to navigate without some support. Had the game been the size of one island, this wouldn't be an issue. Within five hours of gameplay, you would know where everything was and not have any trouble navigating at all.

However, the game itself would suffer from a smaller city, so the decision was made to have a large, expansive city. The game needs to support that expansive city with the tools to the player to be able to explore that city without major problems. It's okay to include mini-maps and full maps in your game if it will empower the player to be more successful at the game and alleviate some of the frustrations. As game worlds grow, this navigation complexity will grow and become more and more important to solve.

Bonus Lesson: Just because it's the last mission in the game, doesn't mean you have to make it ten times harder than any other mission in the game.

Seriously, Rockstar, you are killing me. I spend all weekend working up to the finish of the main story missions and then you drop that final level on me. I really wish games wouldn't do this.

The end of a game doesn't have to be a push-over, but levels that take hours and hours to complete are just annoying. The end of the game should appropriately scale with the rest of the game. The second hardest level in the game should be close to the hardest (last) level in the game. It didn't feel like this was the case in Grand Theft Auto III. The final mission felt substantially more difficult than any other mission.

New Design Lesson 101 on Gamasutra - Grand Theft Auto III

Gamasutra has posted my latest 'Design Lesson 101' column - this week we look at Grand Theft Auto III. I will post the full contents of the column up tomorrow on this blog (Gamasutra has a one day exclusive right now). Also cross-posted at GameSetWatch.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Look Mom, I'm On Gamasutra!

Simon Carless, editor at Gamasutra and GameSetWatch, has decided to put up the Design Lesson Challenge series of posts I've been writing, onto both Gamasutra and GameSetWatch. This is very exciting for me, as it gives this blog some more exposure as well as helps me continue to formulate my thoughts and ideas on game design. I'm grateful for the opportunity and hope to meet everyone's expectations. Also, big thanks to everyone who reads these posts, has linked to them, and passed them along to others. Without you, this opportunity doesn't happen.

What does this mean for the posts on this blog? Well, first, the name of the posts are being changed to 'Design Lesson 101' to match what they are called on Gamasutra and GameSetWatch. Second, all 'Design Lesson 101' posts will be exclusive on those websites for 24 hours. I will post a link to them as soon as they go up and then cross-post it here after the 24 hours are up. All other blog posts will continue as normal. The posting schedule may not be right on Monday, as is the case right now. I will still be finishing a game in a week, until the first 10 weeks are up, and writing up the column, but it may be a couple days before it's posted. After the 10 weeks are up, I'll move to bi-weekly, as weekly is extremely tough to do.

You can read the column at Gamasutra or GameSetWatch (sister site).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Artistic Vision vs. Gameplay

After playing No More Heroes recently, I thought long and hard about many of the decisions that were made by the developer. Mainly, the over-the-top violence, the weak open-city gameplay, and the breaking of many gaming conventions to openly mock the player. To think there were all just design decisions is rather shortsighted, in my opinion. I feel every single one of these decisions was made to push an artistic message, at the sacrifice of gameplay at times.

Is this okay? Yahtzee doesn't think so. Gameplay is king, right? That's the point of the game? When would having a less fun game be the right thing to do?

I think it's actually ok to have an artistic message or idea to convey that hinders gameplay, as long as that message/idea is supported by gameplay in some way. If we want to be a mature medium, sometimes it's ok to say "gameplay isn't the most important thing". This won't fly with the establishment, however. It's going to be tough to do this, especially in the mainstream market of gaming. It's almost like Suda51 sneaked the art in, and was then criticized by everyone for it, since it hurt the gameplay.

The problem is when we market our games as pure entertainment. If every game is marketed and treated the same, we expect the same. If you were told the game you were thinking about buying was an "art game", and you didn't want to play that, at least you were given the information up front. We need to start doing a better job as developers and a community at saying, "There is something behind the scenes of this game that is bigger than the game itself". We need to start taking chances and allowing the customers to tell us if they believe that art is important to the future of gaming. There are risks, but it's imperative for the maturation of this industry.

What do you think? Is it ok for artistic vision to hinder gameplay? Or should gameplay always be the most important thing?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tecmo Super Bowl - More Than Just Nostalgia

Tecmo Super Bowl is a NES game based on the National Football League that was released in 1991. I was nine when the game came out, and I have many fond memories playing it as a kid. I didn't play it for that long, however. When I got to college, everything changed. I bought a used NES and a handful of games, including Tecmo Super Bowl. All of a sudden, my dorm room would be filled at all hours with friends playing competitive games for bragging rights (and beers). Later, I brought my NES to work and would play games with coworkers over lunch. The same sense of competition occurred in that setting. Tecmo Super Bowl is just damn fun, even today.

Over the weekend I went to a local bar to play in a 64-person Tecmo Super Bowl tournament. When I played in the tournament, I was again reminded of how it was in college. The vast majority of the players were in their 20s - my generation. We all grew up playing the game and we still loved it. Many players played the game online, using emulators, against other players. They knew the best plays to choose for each team, which roster substitutions to make, which players to utilize on defense. In other words, they were way better than me. Yet, I enjoyed the tournament all the same and wasn't dissuaded by the skill level of those around me.

I started to think, why is there such a community left around Tecmo Super Bowl? Why haven't these people gravitated towards Madden? Is it just nostalgia? Or is it something more? I think nostalgia has something to do with it, but the beauty in Tecmo Super Bowl is its simplicity. The game has two buttons, not dozens like modern football games. It is simple to pick up and play with anyone. It's easy to catch up to the skill of above average players. There isn't that much strategy involved to get to that level. To become one of the best is certainly far more difficult, but not impossible.

There is something else, though. The randomness in the game helps it out. It's impossible to know exactly why a player fumbled a ball or dropped a pass. It seems like dumb luck - most likely it's a dice roll behind the scenes, based on the stats of the players involved. There is a sense of overarching skill needed to win at the game, but that skill has a sense of randomness that makes it so any player could win a game. I almost beat a couple people way out of my league over the weekend, because of this luck. It was exciting, even though I lost all three of my games.

The NFL is successful, in part, because on any given Sunday, any team could win a game. Madden does not come close to approximating this when you play it. The very good players routinely destroy everyone else in Madden. This isn't the case in Tecmo Super Bowl. There is enough luck involved that all parties usually feel like they have a shot at winning the game. I certainly felt that way this weekend. I even proved it, by losing all three of my games by a mere touchdown. All losses, sure, but I didn't get blown out. Many of the people at the tournament told me how they played thousands of games online, in competitive leagues. I didn't even know there were online leagues. Yet, I wasn't that far off from a win or two.

I think this is a large reason why the game still has a cult following today. People enjoy that simplicity and the fact that the game doesn't require full mastery to beat upper echelon players. The game has a nostalgic factor to it, but it's so much more than that. It is about how anyone could win a game. I think this is what has led to the cult status of the game today. It's really interesting how the constraints of an older system, with less controller inputs and processing power to do complex mechanics, can actually be a better game than the full sports simulations that come out today. The operative word there was better game, not better simulation. To me, this is why the game is still very enjoyable to play today.

If you would like to check Tecmo Super Bowl out, it's available on VNES. Normal emulator legalities apply, so play (or don't) at your own discretion. I'd love to here what anyone thinks about the game, especially those of you who haven't play before.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Condemned: Criminal Origins

For this week's lesson I played Monolith's first-person horror game, Condemned: Criminal Origins. I learned a lot of things, including that I am really bad at playing horror games. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack during most of the game. In the future, for the purposes of this challenge, I am going to avoid horror games mostly. I have a hard time pushing myself to beat them in a short period of time, due to the intensity horror games produce. I also have a hard time not wetting myself. That's more information that you probably cared to know. On to this week's lesson.

Design Lesson: Combat in an action game should compliment the atmosphere and feel of the game being created.

Combat is the core of an action game. This fact necessitates the need for the combat in an action game to be the most important part of the game. The combat style alone can completely change how a game feels. Imagine Doom, but instead of futuristic shotguns or plasma cannons, you were using old-time muskets and black powder rifles. It would completely change the complexion of the game, just by the nature of how long it took to reload the weapons and how inaccurate the weapons would become. Not to mention, there would no longer be a rocket launcher. Doom is about fast-paced action, so the weapons support that style of play with their rate of fire, damage, and ability to kill multiple enemies at once.

In Condemned, the player uses melee objects that inhabit the world. You can rip pipes off of walls, pick up wooden boards with nails through them, and even use the back end of a shotgun to kill your opponents. There are pistols, shotguns, and rifles in the game but they have extremely limited ammo. I would estimate that you spend a good 85% of the time swinging melee weapons at your enemies over shooting guns at them. All of this is done in a first-person perspective, which is very different from most games.

What this does is create a very personal and visceral feel to the combat of the game. You must get close to your enemy to kill him. You must be able to see his eyes, touch his skin, and hear his breathing if you wish to kill him. The game creates a horror atmosphere by playing spooky sounds, putting you in low-lit, tight corridor areas, and having enemies sneak up on you. By making the combat primarily melee, Monolith reinforces that atmosphere by making sure even when you do meet an enemy, you must face him up-close and personal.

Being this close to an enemy has two major effects. First, your field-of-view is obscured more by the enemy, which potentially allows other enemies to sneak up on you to attack without you noticing. The fact that the levels include many tight corridors, make it difficult to maneuver and difficult to escape. This leads to very tense moments when you suddenly realize there is an enemy behind you. The second thing the close proximity of combat does is magnify mistakes made in combat. There is very little chance an enemy will miss in combat in Condemned if they swing at you and you are standing still. The player must then learn to block and counter attacks reliably, lest they die consistently. The result of this is that mis-steps in combat can have greater ramifications. There are many times where I was one-hit killed, with half health left, due to my inability to block the first attack against an enemy with a powerful weapon.

Both of these make for a more tense game. Constantly I was afraid of enemies and afraid of dying in the game. I would enter areas slowly, to draw out only a couple enemies at a time if possible, rather than a larger, unmanageable quantity. I would stop and turn at every little sound, fearing it was yet another enemy that sneaked up on me. The interesting part is that the game isn't that difficult. I didn't die that often, yet I was constantly afraid of dying. This fear of dying is more important to the game than actually dying itself. It's also far less frustrating. Had Monolith went for traditional FPS combat in the game, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as scary or tense (See F.E.A.R. for an example of that in action). The fact that the combat was melee made me feel the effects of combat, which were brutal, which helped reinforce that sense of fear within me. It reinforced the horror elements of the game consistently, which led to an enjoyable horror experience (If one can enjoy horror).

Bonus Lesson: Even if you call a key a crowbar, it's still a damn key.

Condemned has many infuriating parts where you must have a certain melee weapon to progress. You will walk up to a door, it will say "fire axe required" and you'll be forced to go find the fire axe in order to progress. This leads to "fetch quests", where you go down some random corridor, because it's the only other way to progress. Once you fetch the axe from that corridor, you have to drop your current weapon (as there is only one weapon at at time in Condemned), pick the axe up, and go back to the door that requires it. This is the same as "find the blue key" from Doom. Except, now you can use your key to attack enemies.

The reason this isn't very fun is that you end up on a hunt for an obscure item, which must replace your current weapon, in order to progress. It forces back-tracking, which can be difficult with the game's level design at times, and doesn't provide the player with a very interesting goal. The weapons that unlock areas are also some of the slowest weapons in the game (but strongest), making them very difficult to use. I didn't want to replace my weapon often times, but was forced to thanks to the mechanic. Overall, having locked doors and just calling them something else doesn't solve the problem. They are still locked doors, that require keys. They still have all the same flaws as key cards did in the 90's. It's unfortunate, because they weren't necessary for the game at all.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Sam & Max Season Two

This week I tackled something very different than the last few games I've played: point-and-click adventure games, episodic style. I played through the entirety of Sam & Max Season Two this week, and remembered why I loved adventure games growing up and why the genre is so small now. I used to play the old Sierra and LucasArts adventure games all the time as a kid, and while I rarely got through them without some help, I always loved them. Playing adventure games now, however, shows how different of a gamer I am today than I used to be. I am far less patient and this is all too apparent when playing adventure games.

Developer Telltale Games is, for my money, the only company delivering true episodic content (Sorry Valve) right now. The first season of Sam & Max saw six episodes delivered, one per month. This time, Telltale has delivered five episodes (they are longer than the episodes last year) in the same time frame. What this does is give the player frequent, but small morsels of adventure content regularly, instead of one large twenty hour game. After trying to play all five episodes in one week, I'm convinced that this is the smart way to go about selling new adventure games. I'm also convinced it helps alleviate some of the flaws of adventure games in today's world of gaming.

Design Lesson: Consistent progress, including feedback, is necessary to avoid frustrating a player.

So here is the primary problem that I've realized with traditional adventure games in today's gaming world. If you are making consistent progress, then the game is too easy. You figure out all the puzzles very fast, you solve them, move to the next set, repeat, and then the game is over. This has a low barrier of challenge. Since most adventure gamers are more cerebral than the average Halo player, this is a bad thing for the market.

However, most adventure games are linear and puzzles are full progression blockers. So, for the game not to be too easy, it has to stop your progression as you think through a puzzle. The problem becomes that we are trained to get feedback on our progression in-game. When you play an action game and you get stuck at a boss, usually there is a boss health bar telling you how close you got to success. You may fail 10 times in a row, but if you are making better and better progression through taking down the bosses health, you are not nearly as frustrated.

Puzzles in traditional adventure games, however, are solved in your mind. There is no way for the game to understand how close you are to having figured out the puzzle. Since you cannot skip the puzzle, you are stuck. This is a binary situation. You are either stuck (too hard) or you are making progress (too easy). The majority of games today, especially challenge-based games that make up a large segment of the enthusiast market, live in-between those two states. Adventure games need to get you to jump between being stuck and making progress fairly quickly. Portal is a great example of this. There were times in Portal that I felt completely stuck, but I would usually resolve the situation within five minutes, making me feel like a genius. It's hard to consistently deliver puzzles on this level, unfortunately. There is a good reason Portal is such a short game.

There is the rub with adventure games, and Sam & Max Season Two. The first season was far too easy for me, and I finished the episodes in two to three hours each. I enjoyed the hilarious situations and dialog but wanted more challenge. Well, Telltale Games delivered more challenge and length this season, and now at times I felt over-challenged. There were a handful of times where I was hopelessly stuck. Being stubborn and refusing to resort to walkthroughs or even the in-game hints, I just kept thinking and trying things until I'd figure out the next step. This was frustrating, and there was a number of times where I just turned off the game for an hour. Had I not been trying to beat all the episodes within a week, the game would have been off for more than an hour. I was, without a doubt, frustrated. This was only exasperated by the fact that I was trying to finish the games in a short time period.

I'm not sure how exactly you give consistent progress in an adventure game without making it too easy. Non-linear puzzle solving may be the solution, and Sam & Max has some of that. There are times where three puzzles need to be solved and you can do them in any order. Those are the times the game shined the most from a game design perspective. You get to stop thinking about a specific puzzle, and try a different one instead. Another advantage from this is that sometimes you use an inventory item up solving the other puzzle, giving you one less thing to worry about for the puzzle that you are stuck on. Straight up linear puzzles can become a deterrent, since there is nowhere to go when you get stuck. The fact the game utilizes in-game hints is a good way to help people along, but you get plenty of people like myself, who just really feel like hints are cheating.

To me, this is part of the reason adventure games died off. All these other games started giving players these measures of progress, but adventure games didn't catch up. Another reason is that some of the best moments are the dialog's and cinematics - in other words, the mostly non-interactive parts of the game.

If we continue to give players in-game ways to tell how much they are progressing, they are less likely to get frustrated. These metrics can be on the macro level (How far are you done with the game) or the micro level (how far done are you with a specific enemy).

Bonus Lesson: Episodic gaming is good for games that don't have consistant feedback.

Since Sam & Max Season Two is unable to give the player consistent feedback, you'd think the game would suck or be frustrating. However, the short play time (About four hours per episode) helps mitigate this by quite a bit and makes for a very enjoyable game. The reason is that you see the progression to the end of the episode far more clearly than you would in a 20 hour game. This gives you some sense of feedback on how far through the game you are. Part of the problem for me, specifically, was that I beat all the episodes in a week. This forced me to go back and keep playing, due to a time constraint, that wouldn't have existed had I played the games purely for leisure. The fact that the episodes come out once a month helps that fact. Really, I should be playing the episodes as they come out, instead of in one big gulp. Had all five episodes been one giant game (ignore the fact that each episode's story/theme are very different), I think the game would be far less successful. So, Telltale Games made a great choice when they went episodic with this series.

Bonus Lesson #2: Pixel hunts are the jumping puzzles of the adventure world.

I remember playing a number of adventure games as a kid that put me on pixel hunts. There would be one obscure item that I hadn't found yet, and I would click all over the screens of the game to find it. Luckily, Sam & Max doesn't do this and that's another reason that the game works better. The funny side-effect of this is that when I couldn't figure something out before I felt like the developers were screwing me by hiding something I have yet to find. In Sam & Max, when I was stuck, I just felt like I was stupid. I usually felt even stupider when I figured out the solution. I'm not sure which is better, to be honest.

Did someone say birthday?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - No More Heroes

Another week, another design lesson. For those of you who are just joining this blog, the challenge is to play a game a week for ten straight weeks and post one game design lesson I learned from playing the game each week. No, I'm not late on this post, even though the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare post went up last Saturday. I beat that game before the week was through, and waited a day before starting No More Heroes for the Wii. On to this week's design lesson!

Design Lesson: An open-world design must have a set of interesting interactions in the world itself in order to be meaningful to the player.

What the hell does that mean? Well, in order to explain, I must first briefly discuss the mechanics of No More Heroes. A crazy, over-the-top 3rd person action game, No More Heroes pits you as the #11 ranked assassin in the US. Your goal? Become #1. The game has two primary modes. The first are the linear, story-progression levels. At the end of each level, you are pitted with a boss fight against the assassin you are trying to overtake. These levels play like traditional action games, with one path.

However, in-between these levels is where No More Heroes gets interesting. Since these assassin fights are officially sanctioned events, they require a fee to enter. Here we begin the game's "open-world gameplay" segment. In this portion of the game, you take on odd-jobs (mini-games) and assassinations (mini-fights) to earn enough money to enter the next fight. Additionally, you can train your character to become stronger, buy a new beam katana (the game's primary weapon is essentially a lightsaber), customize your character's clothes, and drive around the city on your motorcycle.

The problem with the open-world segment is that the world itself has nothing interesting to do. You literally drive from locale to locale, enter a menu or mini-game, do what you need to do, and then drive to the next locale. The reason Grand Theft Auto III succeeds in open-world design is that there is a set of meaningful interactions to perform in the city. You can engage in shooting sprees, jump your vehicle over buildings, take on taxi-cab style missions, and more. All of these things happen in Liberty City itself. In No More Heroes, all you can do is drive to a new place and take on a specialized gameplay built in that area. You cannot just do that on the fly, however. You must first accept the mission, then drive to the mission point, and enter the mission. If you fail, go all the way back to the mission giver, re-accept, and drive back.

In other words, the open-world of Santa Destroy (the name of the city in the game) is literally a glorified 3D menu. One of the few times the game takes advantage of its open-world portion is the last job in the game. Here you engage in a bike jump contest. You drive through the city, go off of a ramp that leads into the ocean, and see how far you can go. The further you go the more money you win. There are a couple of other jobs that do a good job of using the actual city in their design as well. One is cleaning up graffiti off of walls, the other is collecting trash. These sound far more boring than they actually are, but again that's three things to do in the city out of the dozens of options that are offered, that are actually meaningful interactions. The reason they are meaningful, is they use the city itself as the space to perform the mission in.

Everything else in the game happens outside of the city itself, in mini-levels (which are often re-used and just portions of levels you've already played through, thus saving the cost of creating new levels). The city is just a means to get to the new activities. In order for No More Heroes to truly succeed in its open-world portion, it would need to have assassinations that took place in the city itself. Maybe you have to track down the target and kill him in the streets. There could be more events like street races and bike jumps. Everything the game has you do for money could be done in the city itself. Even better would be if you could do many of these things out of order, without having to activate them in a mission accept screen somewhere. This would then play up the dynamic city aspect and make you feel like you are truly interacting with an open-world.

Alas, the set of interactions in the open-world segment of No More Heroes are not that interesting, and there-in lies the game's flaw. Since the open-world segment is so disparate from the linear levels, they need to stand firmly on their own. They do not. They stand as a flimsy excuse to lengthen the game and offer little unique gameplay. The mini-games were fun, but not amazing. They certainly weren't of the same caliber as the boss fights in the game, or even the fantastic ending. Luckily, the rest of the game is good enough to overcome these flaws.

Bonus Lesson #1: Boss fights alone can make your game great.

The style and combat is a lot of fun in the game, but No More Heroes truly shines with its boss fights at the end of each mission. I do not wish to spoil the game, but there are some genuinely hilarious and fantastic bosses, many of which make fun of the normal gaming conventions. Shadows of the Colossus is the game that truly taught me this lesson, but No More Heroes just reinforces it. I really enjoyed the game, but when I break it down to its individual parts, it's the boss fights that really carry the game (along with the humor and style).

Bonus Lesson #2: Lack of identifable landmarks in your open-world leads to navigation through the mini-map.

I literally naviagted Santa Destroy through the mini-map, as I would never know where to go otherwise. The only exception was the handful of locales right next to my starting motel that I learned exact directions to rather fast. Other than that, if it wasn't for the mini-map, I would never have known where the beach was. What this means is, all the work that Grasshopper Manufacture put into building Santa Destroy was mostly missed by myself, as I stared in the lower left corner to see when I needed to make a turn to get to my next area. This isn't helped by the fact that just driving around the city without any goals isn't any fun (Conversely, just climbing the city in Assassin's Creed was fun, and I did that without doing any mission gameplay for quite some time).

Bonus Lesson #3: No More Heroes has the best usage of the Wiimote I have played.

I haven't played all that many Wii games, in fairness, but during the game you get cell phone calls from a girl who plays a major part in the story. When the phone call goes off the Wiimote vibrates and then the sound of the phone conversation comes through the speaker of the Wiimote itself, not the TV or home theater speakers. Holding the Wiimote to my ear like a phone is, by far, the best usage of a Wiimote I have played yet. Sure, it only happens a dozen or so times in the entire game, but it is so worth it. I want to see more games steal this idea.

On to the next game!