Monday, February 8, 2010

Zen and the Art of Level Design

So as you may know, depending on who you are, if anyone is even paying attention, I am working on a Super Mario World romhack and... wait where are you going? It's better then a normal hack honest! Anyway I got lotsa ASM, some fansy gfx, custom music, a brand new character (my imaginary catgirl named Jiggles), and all sorts of odd ideas, but I continually strugle with the hack, mostly because I just can't get a good grip on a fundamental feature all hacks need... Good level design. Becuase honestly I am not to sure, even after all these years of gaming, how level design really works. Especially Mario-style levels.

Because let's face it, Mario levels have always been a rather random collection of blocks that still somehow is fun to play. When I was young, I was highly confused with Mario's jumbled ascetics. What with floating blocks and coins, random platforms with no support, and generally fantastic layout. But a lot of the levels were fun anyway. Still I couldn't help but be a little put off by it. As I grew up, and saw more artistic renderings and other media, it became something of a whimsical and strange modern Alice in Wonderland look, which was fitting as elements of Mario were indeed based on Alice in Wonderland, especially the size changing mushrooms. But there were still major awkward design elements that stood out. Things like floating "?" blocks and bricks in open skies for example. But more then that it always looked cluttered and blocky. This was mostly in other media besides video games, almost a joke... a little visual reference to remind the watcher of the game origins, not really in my eyes a serious attempt at a new style. And while it has become seen as a rather charming style by many, it's not something I really want to emulate that much.

Interestingly, while particular elements of this kind of thing are seen throughout platformers, most do it quite a bit more subtlety, either by having less open areas over all, or fixing areas closely to themes of more real world locations. For instance, Megaman. In sharp contrast to Mario, it was much more focused and consistent. When you went though an area, you often knew exactly what it was for, and it's layout had much more structure. Of course it's downside was it's environments were less interactive on a whole probably, but it did have many many set pieces and gimmicks to make up for it, but these gimmicks had limited use really. Then there was Metriod, which had a few special blocks and was focused on exploring a vast world, but suffered form sameness, and a bit more of Mario's non-logical layout. Then there is Doki Doki Panic/Super Mario 2, which has a noticeably non-Mario ascetic in many ways. Even though I love it more for it's gameplay then it's levels, it has a much more, in my eye, natural feel while still being fantastic in it's own right.

When I started my hack, I started doing things mostly in Mario's way simply because the set pieces are set up to use it, and some of my romhacking associates donated a few levels mostly in this style as well. But I am not sure I really want to use floating coins (which are now cookies, although sprite coins are still coins and do something else) or blocks you primarily hit from underneath. In fact I kind of want to move to a style more similar to Doki Doki Panic/Super Mario 2, in some ways, maybe with Megaman and Metriod elements, but my big problem is, I don't have a really good set of pieces for what I want to do sometimes, and I have no IDEA what I want to do some others.

But it's about more then just looks and ascetics, and I know that. It's also about gameplay and how it relates to the levels. Mario is almost a pure platformer where your cheif method of doing anything is jumping, jumping, and more jumping. So, naturally, most of the levels and enemys invovle floating things and jumping aerobics. Megaman is more of an action game, and so levels are set up more as a progression of fights then of aerobic jumps, even though the later is still there. Metroid is exploration based, and it's twisting levels with loads of secret passageways reflect this. Doki Doki Panic, is almost a middle ground between the three. There is less action then Megaman but a tad more exploration. The gameplay elements of riding and throwing things are put to use both as an action element and a platforming element, and although it has much much less exploration then Metroid, it still has some, if you want to look for hearts and alternate paths in some areas, and the final level is almost 100% exploration based. One of these things these games don't feature very much is puzzles. There are a few, and some mario hacks have alot, even though they strike me as less "puzzles" and more "find the obscure bug and exploit it to proceed".

As for my hack, I think I need to take a good hard look over the gameplay elements I have programed and what ones I have planned and what ones I have already programed, and deside what ones to ditch, and what ones to add for the sake of interesting levels. My Original plan was something rather more like Doki Doki Panic then Super Mario World even though I ended up doing some more Super Mario World levels so far. This is mostly because it has been sorta frustrating doing alot of the ASM hacking involved. Still I have done FAR more ASM on the hack right now then most anything else, to the point where I wonder if it it is even worth it. The fact is, my ASM is mostly in silly areas that really provide no practical gameplay elements to level design. For example, I made a full inventory system you can use at any time. But I never really planned a use for it besides "this seems like a cool idea". And it is a cool idea. But it has no real use beside storing extra power ups which the player can bye at a little store I made. Which is again a cool idea, but it doesn't help me build levels around it. Besides the idea of bombs to find secrets maybe, which is harder then it sounds to do because SMW's bombs don't interact with the level at all, so I would probably have to code in a new explosion routine or a new sprite for it. It's on my todo list, but given the insane about of things on it, I may never finish it, and until I do, I really can't build levels around it.

If I worked on it more I may get something more done, but at this point I lack the energy or concentration to do a lot of the little leg work involved. But that may change soon... I finally got my sleepy-time mask that helps me sleep today. I totally forgot about mentioning it until now. Maybe I will tell you (nonexistent) guys how I do with it tomorrow.

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