Sunday, 17 January 2016

Cool Game Design Moments: Kirby Wii 1-2

Quite often when I write a post, there's people who ask for it in a video form as they can't be bothered reading text. I could make some nasty comments about such an attitude, but they're probably the sorts of folk who would get the most out of what's been written in the first place. As a result, I'm going to be experimenting with some video content when I think it's appropriate. If you would prefer the regular text format of this blog, the video's script is below the jump.

As you may have noticed, I have played quite a few computer games in my time. I've played some terrible games, some great games and some thoroughly mediocre ones. Occasionally there's a small decision in level design, mechanics or aesthetics that really sticks out to me as clever. I'd like to start a series about such moments as I find or recall them. To start this off, I'd like to talk about a moment in the Kirby game released for the Wii at the end of 2011. Depending on your region, the game's title is either Kirby's Return to Dream Land, Kirby's Adventure Wii or 星のカービィWii. For simplicity's sake, I'll just be referring to the game from this point as Kirby Wii.
I own a PAL copy, for  reference.

There's a lot I could discuss when it comes to Kirby Wii. At some later stage I might do a full review. For the moment, I'll simply say that what the game lacks in innovation it more than makes up for in quality level design. HAL Laboratory had been making 2D platformers for 19 years by the time this title was finished. With that much experience behind them, their games often demonstrate a subtle understanding of the genre that makes this game a joy to play even though it's not terribly difficult.

One of the decisions that has stuck with me over several playthroughs is in Level 1, Stage 2. I'll be referring to that as 1-2 for the rest of this discussion. For some context, I'll first mention that the stage before it, 1-1, is the game's tutorial level. 1-1 introduces the controls, the Power Spheres to collect and even introduces the high powered upgrade puzzles that lead to hidden boss fights. I could probably make a whole video about how efficiently the game teaches its rules without artificially halting the action, but for today I'm just mentioning this level so you understand that 1-2 is essentially when the game actually begins. You've been told the rules and have demonstrated you understand them so now it's time to take off the training wheels and actually start playing the real Kirby Wii.
Look! No unnatural breaks in the action! You want to deal with the enemy, so the sign shows how to while you're moving towards it!

The first segment is hardly anything special. It's what I would consider a piece of bog standard level design for a sequel in a long-running platform series. It introduces one of the game's new powerups, the Leaf and has some nice verticality thanks to the ladder early on. There's ample health and a small path split so players can make their own route through the enemies en route to the warp star.

Even just letting a player choose to run under an obstacle can make them feel like you trust them to make their own decisions.
After the Warp Star is where the level begins to shine. First, it places some stars to the left. This subtly teaches players to frequently consider moving the opposite direction a level wants you to go. For seasoned veterans of, say, Mario romhacks this is simple best practice. Kirby games tend to aim for something children can easily play. That the game considers this an important lesson is a sign of how much HAL cares about strong level design.
Always start going left. Always check for invisible blocks at the edge.

Anyway, as you move to the right you can see a Cutter ability to pick up. Placing this as a pick up first rather than inside an enemy is a clever decision. Newcomers will likely be drawn to it in order to find out what it means. Experienced players will assume that since Kirby games are easy, this power up is clearly more important for solving a puzzle than the Leaf ability available in the previous screen. Either way, the Cutter is seen as a fixed point in the player's attention.
Wow! What's this?

The decision to grab the Cutter is justified almost immediately after by introducing the spider enemy. These simply drop downwards and can be defeated by any projectile not only hitting their body, but their web as well. Since the player has just gained the Cutter, they're going to inevitably discover this as they're trying out the ability. This experimentation is rewarded even better a short while later through the introduction of platforms hanging from the roof via ropes. Throwing the Cutter blade at these cuts the ropes, dropping the platforms. Positive reinforcement is employed here by having one platform drop to provide access to a 20 star pickup. There's even a Sir Kibble on one of these platforms to grant the player another Cutter ability if they lost the previous pick up!
HAL Laboratory are basically Pavlov right now. You're the dog.

After the door we have the game's first cannon section. While not part of the particular point I'm going to talk about later, I'd like to again mention how good this game is at communicating ideas without text. The player is expected to work out the trajectory of the cannonballs in order to hit the switch that makes the rest of the level appear. They're also expected to work out that they can throw away held items by pressing 1 if they wish to reach the Energy Sphere. Given how few buttons the game has this isn't a very difficult task. You're still expected to work it out without the game stopping to tell you what to do. If the action has paused, it's because you stopped on your own.

The most notable part of the following tower climb is it provides the Needle ability. Much like the Cutter earlier, making this a pick up suggests that it's going to help solve a puzzle with some sort of reward. We've already seen this level reward puzzle solving with a cache of stars or an Energy Sphere, so we're drawn to grab it. The stage starts to show its hand a bit by ignoring this entirely at the top. The Energy Sphere is instead just slightly obscured by some foreground art. Nevertheless, we press on through the door...
Maybe we'll use the Needle in the next room...
...and are given even more abilities! 1-1 has a screen where there's two powerups upon entering a room as well. It was immediately followed by a boss fight. This is reinforced by a fight with a Gigant Edge. One of my favourite parts of Kirby boss design is how they need to work with not only every ability you may possibly have, but also satisfying to fight without any. This tends to lead to the stars you can suck and spit back at them dealing much more damage than power ups to compensate for having to wait. This also means skilled players can time dropping abilities with sucking the generic stars to make the fight end even quicker! Regardless of how you choose to win the fight though, Gigant Edge goes down in a climactic explosion.

I used the Beam because I was always jealous of Waddle Doos in the first game.
Aha! The third Energy Sphere is obscured by a platform tied to a rope! It's a bit of a shame we don't have any way to cut this down after taking the Beam ability for the fight. We can see if the Beam has any way to cut, but it appears not. Guess we'll just have to go through the level again with the Cutter!
Beams can't cut ropes, silly!
...except the Cutter doesn't work either. No matter how hard you hit buttons or how well you memorise the ability's move list, we just can't get through this wall to cut the rope! This is why 1-2 has stood out in my memory. Using the obviously provided Cutter previously gave us 20 stars. The Needle had no use, suggesting it might be useful here as well. It's not. In other words, by using positive reinforcement with one ability the game's fostered an expectation that the other will have the same benefits. In truth, we've been had. After exiting the level again the player has several options: keep banging their head on this puzzle or move on to the next level and tackle this again later.
Hold Up or Down to control the boomerang. Just not through walls, apparentally.
I'm a stubborn person so I go back through the level, looking for something else to cut the rope. After finding nothing and resignedly beating Gigant Edge again, I remember that he has a sword! I also remember that 1-1 introduced a Sword ability as well! It even had a big powered up one! Perhaps I can suck up the miniboss?
I can!

Now armed with a sword, I return to the rope and discover that it can, in fact, cut through walls! The great thing about the Sword is that this isn't the sole source of the ability. The first level provides ample Sword pick ups, allowing a player to return there if they haven't realised they can copy a defeated miniboss.
Whoa Kirby, just 'cause this sort of puzzle is World 7 material in Super Mario World doesn't mean you should get so mad!

Kirby Wii isn't a particularly difficult game. This was actually one of the hardest puzzles in the entire game. It's memorable in its own right because of the way the level hoodwinks you earlier. In the context of the game as a whole, this is an incredibly smart place to put such a puzzle. In truth, just about every miniboss provides an ability needed to get an Energy Sphere directly after. What's important is how having a harder puzzle so early into the game accommodates different play styles. For people who enjoy ignoring any puzzle that gives the slightest difficulty, there's plenty of other Spheres to find to reach the ending. For players who like to blaze through and solve remaining puzzles later, the act of using a miniboss' ability to solve a puzzle will be so ingrained from every other level that when they return they'll just grab the Sword out of habit. For players who refuse to move until they've solved this puzzle, the struggle will be so memorable that they'll be determined to grab every other mini boss just in case.

I've written before about how I consider the enjoyment someone gains from a task being tied to how well they can express themselves when doing it. Kirby Wii 1-2 stands out as such a strong piece of level design because although there's only one solution of gaining the Sword ability, it allows different people to use their own ways to work it out.

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