Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Newbie-Friendly Games

This week my son has been a bit sick - right between being too sick to go out and play and not sick enough to just try to sleep it all away. Short story, we've spent a couple of days just playing indoors and after a while the idea to play some video games popped up. I let him choose freely and he tried some Mega Man and Decap Attack among other things. He didn't get passed the first enemy in Mega Man but got a bit further in Decap Attack, almost to the end of the first stage. Watching him struggle with different elements of these different  games, as I have seen him do with games like Yoshi's Story as well, it got me thinking to what makes a game more or less difficult, or more or less newbie-welcoming for lack of a better term.

I am mainly talking about more classic "character-controlling"-games where you move through a level trying to avoid obstacles and enemies, I guess you can call it platforming games. I am curious on a personal level because I consider myself quite shite at platforming games and only end up having fun with the more lenient ones. I know nowadays there are games that are actually aimed at "newbies" or people with very limited skills, time and/or experience with gaming. Nowadays there are countless games in which it is, for example, impossible to have your character die (I think for instance the LEGO games belong to this group). And with the surge of mobile-games things have gone to an even more accessible level. But what was it like 20 years ago?

Nevermind that it's a dead guy throwing his own head...

I am part of a video game group on Facebook and I decided to ask the members the question about what classic games they thought would be accessible to a child nowadays. The response was pretty big and I got suggestions with everything from Turtles in Time to Toejam & Earl to Rocket Knight Adventures. I hadn't really clarified the age of the child, and there is obviously a big difference between someone who is 4 and someone who is 9 (which might explain why someone suggested a fairly difficult game like RKA). But I think a newbie is a newbie and will struggle with similar things regardless of age. We're talking about someone who has the interest, but maybe lacks the motor control, cognitive awareness and experience with general gaming rules.

Now, my son is barely 3 so he's obviously on the most basic level of gaming. Watching him play is fascinating, because he learns quickly, but what lacks him is the ability to do things simultaneously (mostly because his small hands can't grab the controllers properly) and the cognitive awareness to react in time. He also just doesn't know some of the rules of gaming that I at least take for granted - lava and pitfalls will kill you for instance. In fact, just that the fact of dying is something to be avoided is something he hasn't grasped or at least doesn't care for, yet. He will gladly fall down a hole a hundred times (and why not, there's no law you can only play games a certain way!). He also lacks the ability to distinguish what on the screen is bad for him and what isn't (admittedly, so do I in some games) and has to trial and error his way forward. But I imagine this is what an adult with no prior knowledge of video gaming would struggle with as well, at least to some extent. When he plays I try to avoid telling him what he should do, but only tell him what he can do, and let him experiment on his own. It can be frustrating to watch sometimes since I am primed to tackle the game a certain way and he definitely goes outside of those perimeters, but as long as he is having fun it's all good.

Since I didn't really grow up with video games myself I have little personal experience of what it was like trying to grasp the games of 20-30 years ago. The few games I did play I was truly very bad at and never got far, but since I didn't own them myself I have no idea if I would've kept at it and eventually gotten better. That is what happened eventually, but I was in my early teens at that point already. A lot of people in the FB-group suggested that back then there wasn't much option, you had to keep whacking your head against the brick wall or not play at all. Of course, this will slowly allow you to get better at all of the above things - rules, reaction time, awareness, simultaneous button mashing and so on. But I also believe some games were so relentless that you hardly got anywhere before you were stuck and that didn't allow you to learn much at all. The bf told me he could never get passed the first stage of Revenge of Shinobi until he was an adult, so I guess that game only offered a very limited learning curve. So back to my original question then - what games were the best at easing you into and allowing you to learn these things 20-30 years ago?

I guess he lacked these skills. Noob.

After watching the son struggle with different games I got a general idea of what was "required" of a game to be more newbie-welcoming. For instance, some games have enemies pretty much straight off the bat that are also fairly difficult to hit. Mega Man is a perfect example. You move three steps and you immediately get a flying enemy that swoops onto you (assuming you choose Cutmans level which is the preselect).

That segways straight into the next difficultly - the amount of different movements you need to master early on to be able to move on. Is it enough to just run and occassionally jump, or do you need to be able to run and attack at the same time? Do you need to jump over pitfalls? Climb ladders? Jump between narrow platforms? Jump between narrow platforms while avoiding enemies? Cutmans level is another good example here, because not only do you have a swooping enemy attacking almost immediately, but you also need to jump or climb to move further into the level.

No one likes swoopers.

And a lot of this also boils down to how much reaction time you are allowed. That first enemy in Mega Man wouldn't be so difficult if it moved really slowly (and if it didn't swoop! I mean wth).

So let's look at some of the suggestions that were given to me and see how their respective first stages (or early parts) stack up on my newly minted newbie-friendliness scale from 1-10, where 10 is "No Sweat" and 1 is "No Chance";

  • Sonic - My issue with Sonic is the control, it's sluggish and unpredictable. I know Sonic fans think it's awesomely rad, but for someone trying to learn controls for the first time this is just an unecessary hurdle to get over. Otherwise a fairly friendly game. The fact that you can simply jump on enemies to kill them is a very nice touch. 7/10
  • Toejam & Earl - I haven't played this much myself, because frankly I think it's quite boring. But nevertheless, the first couple of stages of T&E are very newbie-friendly as they basically only require you to walk around and look for stuff. The game progressively introduces the player to new elements and no doubt becomes pretty tricky by the end, but until then I think it looks like a great game to get started with - if you have fun with it, unlike me. 8/10
  • Spyro - I'm not sure how much you'll be able to accomplish if you don't grasp the goal of the game, but it does allow you to run around fairly unhindered and just have fun and explore and there is nothing bad about that. 7/10
  • Yoshi's Island - I consider Yoshi's Story to be one of the most newbie-friendly games out there, it's predecessor Yoshi's Island is a whole nother story however. The first stage has some fairly difficult platforming to get passed and I know it only gets harsher from there. 3/10
  • Ecco the Dolphin - Yet again a game where the goal isn't too obvious (it's not just "get from left to right") and eventhough you can just swim around for a bit there isn't much to do unless you get good at avoiding enemies and obstacles. 4/10
  • Donkey Kong Country - The first stage isn't too fast paced at first and doesn't have too many pitfalls, it does however have many and differing enemies. Then it gets pretty difficult half way through where you have to climb ropes and get thrown across the screen. And we all know DKC overall is nothing for the faint of platform-hearted... 3/10 
In the end, Yoshi's Story still stands as the by far most newbie-friendly platforming game I have come across from pre-2000 but my quest continues (with my son as a guinea pig, as long as he's up to it). Any suggestions?

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