Blue Ryu: Notes on Video Game Difficulty

ninja-gaiden-think-clearly-crop

Ryu prepares to face the dreaded mémoire…

Was about to go to bed but played through Ninja Gaiden (1988) instead.

I understand that games of the era were relatively limited. Their engines were simple, so once the basic moves and physics of the game were established, the challenge for the game designer was to keep the player interested. Backgrounds could change color, music tailored to each level’s atmosphere, bad guy sprites given new skins. But the player was still performing the same actions in roughly the same order for the entire game.

The masterpieces of the platform genre (Super Mario Bros., Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man 2, Duck Tales) succeed by creating worlds charming enough to make the gamer forget or ignore the repetition of his actions. All these games have solid foundations, but I wager that if you replaced Simon Belmont with a custodian, his whip with a broom, and Medusa’s head with a giant, flying dust bunny, your memories of the game would be decidedly less vivid.

Ninja Gaiden is considered a classic. It gets mentioned in the same breath as the titles above by gamers (and less so by game reviewers and historians), but I wonder if its most salient quality is now merely nostalgia, which is just as blinding of the critical faculties in video games as in other art forms. I played Ninja Gaiden as a kid and thought it was the bee’s knees, but, well: now it’s dreadful!

First, we’ll recount what the game has going for it.

1. Ninja — Being a ninja is the coolest thing in the world. (Hey, annoying meme enthusiasts: Ninja Gaiden vs. Sid Meier’s Pirates!) I dressed up as one for Halloween probably around the release of this game. I can still recall the thrill I felt pretending that retrieving candy from a dish on a porch required the same stealth and strength as assassinating a corrupt minister. (The Tenchu series is one of my favorite game franchises.) In Ninja Gaiden, you do use a katana and can throw shuriken, but ninja method and mythology are otherwise absent. Gameplay involves running along a street or jetty or jungle path in broad daylight and slashing at street punks, soldiers, cats, monkeys, and the de rigeur maniac in a hockey mask. The exception is…

2. The Wall Jump — I’m not sure if Ninja Gaiden introduced this popular platform maneuver—where you push off from one wall to land at a higher point on a facing wall—but it’s one of the game’s constituent features and is admittedly very ninja. The designers didn’t get too creative with it (as they would in the game’s near identical sequel), but the wall jump is both fun and useful in the game. Bravo. This leaves us with the game’s most celebrated aspect…

3. Cutscenes — Again, I’m not sure if Ninja Gaiden was truly the first game to have such dramatic cutscenes, but they’re often cited when defending its legacy. The dark storyline is what originally distinguished the game from dozens of other titles, and it has proved enduring in the popular next-generation sequels.

But I’m getting sleepy so let’s talk about why the game sucks.

Ninja Gaiden runs out of ideas in the first 30 seconds of play. After you’ve dashed down the street, slashed at a greaser, crouched to slash at a dog, found a power-up and done a wall jump.. that’s pretty much it. Later you can also fall down pits.

A good game keeps your interest by presenting novel challenges and choices. Even if you’re working with the same material, you’re forced to find a new way to use it. One of my favorite games ever is Mega Man 2 (1988). Mega Man, only able to jump and shoot, is more physically limited than Ryu. Mega Man is wholesome, sexless, and his cutscenes are limited to perfunctory equipment updates from Dr. Light. And yet: Mega Man 2 is exponentially superior.

It’s a question of style over substance. Each level in Mega Man 2 offers something new. Things not only appear different—the game’s character and level design are a thematic marvel—they also force you to react differently: surfaces are slippery or sinking, new enemies profit from their environment, and depending on the order you’ve chosen to defeat the bosses (and acquire their special abilities), sections of each level can be more or less challenging.

Ninja Gaiden, on the other hand, offers nothing new: no new items, no new maneuvers, no physically radical environments (think of Contra), not even new bad guys—the same toughs who chase you through an urban American ghetto leap out at you from behind statues on the top floors on an ancient demon temple! There is no progression, nothing to alter the mode of play you adopted in the first half minute of the game.

This is not to say that the game does not challenge. On the contrary! It’s notoriously difficult. (How did we beat this as kids? Did we beat this as kids? I barely beat it tonight using save states.) But the difficulty is dastardly.

Now I will attempt to set up a distinction between good difficulty and bad difficulty in games. Qualitative difficulty is the kind found in Mega Man 2. It’s an inviting difficulty, a friendly master. When you lose to it, you think, ‘Of course. Perhaps if I had approached it in this way…’ And then you try again. If that strategy fails, you try another, and so on until you succeed, with the experience of solving that problem now in your arsenal. The Dr. Wily’s lair stages of Mega Man 2 are an example of this kind of difficulty at its best. They combine all the challenges the game has presented up to that point but introduce slight variations to keep the player on his toes.

Quantitative difficulty is the kind found in Ninja Gaiden. The levels certainly get more difficult. Indeed, Level 6-2 seems to be an extended fuck you to the gamer, a sadistic design team’s private joke. Quantitative difficulty does not demand any new mental connections to be made by the gamer. It simply takes one element of difficulty and augments it. If you were attacked by one monkey before, now you will be attacked by two monkeys. At one point in Ninja Gaiden, you are attacked by four monkeys at once (and another four if you turn back). Why stop there, designers? If avoiding and dispatching monkeys is the name of the game, why not ten monkeys? Twenty monkeys?

Quantitative difficulty is difficulty for difficulty’s sake. There’s no innovation and little appeal (we’ll get there in a second). Difficulty is certainly a welcome element of a game, but when instituted like so, it makes a mockery of the craft of game design and masks the superficiality of the experience.

(There is an awful game design moment that occurs throughout Ninja Gaiden—and other uninspired platformers—that’s begging for a name. Right in the middle of a jump from one platform to another, a bird swoops down out of nowhere and knocks you into a pit, killing you. And, even if you creep out to the edge of the platform and hit the bird, it regenerates immediately, so you have this inevitable, immortal, infuriating obstacle in your flight path. I want a term or phrase for that moment with which to condemn the game designers and to point out that they frustrated the gamer for no beneficial reason. ‘Well, they really X’d the Y on that jump,’ etc. Something iconic, preferably, in the spirit of ‘jumped the shark.’)

But Ninja Gaiden isn’t impossible. One might even argue that the sheer difficulty attracts gamers into mastering each nuance, bird swoops and all. I mean, watch this guy tear it up. (Start from 2:30. Four monkeys at 4:55.) He is obviously a skilled player. In his hands, Ryu moves like a ninja. But when video games are at their best (as art or entertainment), is this obsessive mastery really the kind of activity we want them to inspire? Did he enjoy learning the levels well enough to be able to play through them this fluidly? (I’m assuming the clip is authentic.) If he did enjoy it, why not double the monkeys? And when he’s mastered those, double them again.

Perhaps the difficulty of video games could become like unsolved math problems. Designers could create situations whose resolution might be impossible; the skill needed to avoid, say, 50 monkeys at once could be beyond human capacity… In fact, early arcade games might be entirely quantitative in their difficulty. After all, Tetris levels only differ in the speed of the falling blocks.

But does that necessarily make Tetris an inferior game—less entertaining, less artistic, less ontologically thick (as we sometimes say)—than more epic experiences like Final Fantasy XII (2006)? If we search for performing arts analogues, could games like Tetris : juggling while games like Ico (2001) : ballet?

I have to stop. As usual, I haven’t come to any conclusions (and I stayed up almost all night blogging) and got a little carried away at the end. You’ll have to occasionally put up with me riffing on themes that might eventually make their way into my thesis. I’ll conclude by reiterating a point on the progress of video games.

Unlike in other arts, where people generally seem to suspect that things were done better in the past, the quality of video games is undeniably linked to advancements in technology. Graphics are certainly impressive. However, I’m eager for artists to hurry up and render life perfectly in a digital world (achieving a sort of consummate mimesis) mainly so we can focus on what else digital environments can provide. I’m more excited about innovations in artificial intelligence that will allow for more profound interactions between the system and the user. Perhaps the pitbirds of tomorrow will find more creative and efficient ways to kill me.

I know that mediocre video games are still being produced, but when you compare the gameplay of your average Wii titles with even some of the most cherished NES games, you can feel grateful they don’t make ’em like they used to.

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~ by ohkrapp on January 26, 2009.

One Response to “Blue Ryu: Notes on Video Game Difficulty”

  1. good post. is there any room to talk about the game in Ender’s game? Someday maybe.

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