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Astrolabe 22: What can Nintendo learn from Elden Ring?
In case you missed it: Nerdist debuted the cover for my upcoming book about the history of Japanese RPGs, Fight, Magic, Items, and it. is. GORGEOUS. Check it out!
Difficulty doesn't have to be a toggle
So, like half the internet, I've been obsessed with Elden Ring lately, pouring over 100 hours into it since it's February release. Still, it feels like I've barely scratched the surface, and I spend most waking moments thinking about it. I'm enthralled.
"But, Aidan, I thought you didn't like hard games that rely on trial-by-error combat and death as a mechanic?"
Well. Yeah. I did write about that, didn't I?
This is what Metroid will always be for me: an exploration-focused experience where curiousity is rewarded, and obstacles are overcome by searching the environment for more resources. Mercury Steam—and Nintendo by proxy—has decided to make Metroid a series that focuses on combat-mastery. It’s appealing to a core audience that loves speedruns, multiple playthroughs, and the thrill of beating a boss after dying 15 times, but it’s not for me.
When Nintendo released Metroid Dread last year, I was disappointed to find it too difficult to enjoy, and explained in that past issue of Astrolabe why I thought it went against the series's spirit of exploration. When Nintendo ended up releasing "Rookie" mode for Metroid Dread—bringing the difficulty more in line with previous entries in the series—I started a new game, and enjoyed the heck out of my full playthrough over the next few days. It ranks highly among my favourite Metroid games now, and is easily recommendable to all types of players. I never would've had that experience, or found that joy, if the original difficulty had remained intact and the game's second half had remained gated by an unfun progression system that rewarded "git gud" mentality over player exploration.
So, why am I enjoying Elden Ring so much? Creator Hidetaka Miyazaki's games—from Demons's Souls to his latest—are the poster children for challenging games, to the point I evoked Dark Souls in my criticism of Metroid Dread. I've spent a lot of time thinking about why Elden Ring works where Metroid Dread failed and it comes down to one thing: exploration.
In the days after Elden Ring's release, Twitter was awash with horror stories of its first major boss: Margit, The Fell Omen. He was tough—stifling newcomers and longtime fans alike with unpredictable attacks, massive damage, and ability to fight at close range or distance. Margit quickly became a meme, but in reality he was a well-intended lesson from Miyazaki on how to play Elden Ring: Take your time.
In their eagerness to progress Elden Ring's main plot, many players faced Margit far too soon, eschewing the game's enormous world and plethora of side quests in their race toward the finish line. On the other hand, I came to Elden Ring a few days late and knew all about Margit. So, instead of heading to Stormveil Castle, I explored. All over the opening area of Limgrave, The Weeping Peninsula to the south, and even parts of Liurnia, which you're not meant to visit until after defeating Margit and another boss, Godrick the Grafted.
By the time I accidentally stumbled into battle with Margit, I beat him on the first try. I proceeded through the next 100 hours of the game in similar fashion—avoiding the traditional difficulty walls by emphasizing exploration. Now at level 110 or so, I've beaten many of the game's major bosses. Here's a rundown of several high profile bosses and how many attempts it took me to beat them:
The point isn't that I'm great at this game. I'm definitely not. The lesson is the opposite: Elden Ring gives the player the tools they need to succeed against the game's innate difficulty. Even better, the solutions are optional and player-driven. Exploration is obviously a huge aspect of the Metroid series, but Metroid Dread is so streamlined players are given little opportunity to leave the critical path and power up. During my "Normal" playthrough of Dread, I spent an hour exploring and collecting missed upgrades after hitting a wall against the first boss, Kraid. I ended up with a dozen or so more missiles, but no more health than. Exploration didn't make me appreciably stronger or better equipped to take down the boss that was causing me grief.
I just had to "git gud."
Or stop playing.
In a recent piece called "Elden Ring has an easy mode, but many players aren’t brave enough to use it," Input's Steven Wright explores how Miyazaki has included these optional gameplay solutions for fine-tuning the game's difficulty compared to previous Souls entries.
You can burn mana to spawn AI helpers called Spirit Ashes in almost every boss fight with no penalty, and you can even find specific items to improve their stats, just like how you hire the blacksmith to sharpen your sword. There's also the Flask of Wondrous Physick, an early game pickup that grants customizable buffs, such as a few split seconds of infinite mana — which is the secret ingredient in many of the sorcery cheese videos you've seen online.
Regardless of how you feel about difficulty options in games like this — or how you define the tricky but vital business of accessibility — it's undeniable that Elden Ring offers players more options to sand down the sharp edges of its brutality than not only any previous Souls entry, but most "hardcore" games in general.
The key here is that the difficulty-relief comes through various systems that the player can toggle on/off at will and when needed. Want to cruise through the game? Explore widely. Upgrade the Mimic Tear Spirit Ash (a summonable AI-controlled companion) or Black Knife Tiche and let them do the dirty work against bosses. Radahn got you down? Summon friends or strangers to help you out. Struggling as a melee user? Change your build to support ranged attacks.
Making these in-game mechanics that can be utilized at will jives with Mark Brown's theories on how difficulty options should be granular and player-driven, rather than a toggleable difficult mode such as the one found in Metroid Dread.
This reared its head almost immediately for me when I booted up Metroid Dread, newly updated with the "Rookie" difficulty mode, excited to return to my half-completed playthrough.
Only, I couldn't.
Metroid Dread doesn't allow you to adjust difficulty on the fly. So, I had to start over with a new game, locked into the new difficulty. What had taken me five-and-a-half hours previously flew by in about two hours this time, but even that raised a new concern about Metroid Dread's all-or-nothing difficulty. I enjoyed the challenge of navigating the world on "Normal" difficulty—it was tense, but manageable. It was the bosses giving me headaches. In an ideal world, I'd be able to take the edge off bosses with a toggleable assist mode like the one in Celeste described in the video above or a mechanics-based system like Elden Ring.
Instead, Metroid Dread offered something that was either too hard or too easy.
Finding the right balance of options isn't about compromising the experience or creator's vision, but about improved accessibility for gamers along all axes of ability, experience, and taste. Despite Elden Ring's improved accessibility, Wired's Swapna Krishna argues it's still too difficult to be approachable by all gamers.
Many people believe the difficulty in Elden Ring is crucial to the gameplay, and that it creates a community around these incredibly hard experiences. I respect that—especially anything that creates a nontoxic community, because that can be hard to find. But I also can’t help noticing that a large swath of gamers, the “filthy casuals” as we’re often called, are pleading just to be included at a basic level—and being ridiculed and attacked for it. (I haven’t even addressed the plight of disabled gamers, who often need accessibility settings to be able to play at all.)
This isn’t entirely Elden Ring’s problem, or fault. The issue lies with a certain coterie of “fans” who find exclusion and gatekeeping vital to their experience. Including an easy mode doesn’t take anything away from the people who find satisfaction in a very difficult game. It’s not as if that mode will disappear. Yet they argue continually that wide appeal and playability options will somehow diminish their experience. It won’t.
As video games mature as an entertainment medium, their audience continues to expand. The kids who first played Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy VI on their living room floors are now adults with their own children. There's nothing casual about the fandom those players have created over their entire lives—but, if they're anything like 38 year old me, they don't have time anymore to bang their head against the same boss as a sacrificial lamb on the hallowed altar of "git gud."
Further to that, streamer Magnum Whisper urges creators to consider the disabled community. He said:
Games are for everyone, and whether it's adding a new difficulty mode or creating in-game mechanics that allow more players to enjoy traditionally difficult games, the key to continued growth for the medium relies on its ability to become as accessible as film, television, and music. Miyazaki understood that Elden Ring needed to be more accessible than his previous games, and as a result it's been an enormous critical and commercial success with huge review scores and more than 12M units sold. Accessibility is the future, and the the future is here.
Out & About
(Out & About is where I highlight my work around the web—some recent and some old favourites.)
The Pixel Art Revolution Will Be Televised | WIRED — www.wired.com How pixel art rose through 3D gaming's dominance to win the hearts of modern players.
Oh, boy, a whole bunch of new stuff since last issue. The major one I want you to read, though, is this piece for Wired about the ethos of pixel art, and the artists who are adapting it for modern games. I got to speak with some of my favourite pixel artists, and examine how the format has evolved since its early days before video games even existed.
"What Eastward does best is create a world that feels like the games we played growing up,” my brother said after the game’s September 2021 release. It joins Extremely OK Games' puzzle-platformer Celeste and Eric Barone's mega-hit farming simulator Stardew Valley (also published by Chucklefish) in a rapidly growing club of video games tapping into nostalgia with high-end pixel art graphics and a retro aesthetic. But while many of these games look like they could have been released on the Super NES or Sega Genesis, they offer more complex graphics and gameplay than those systems could ever handle.
But how does a quirky pixel art game like Eastward make such an impression in an industry obsessed with horsepower and realism? These games see pixel art as more than a relic of the past. It's no longer about technical compromise and limitations, but a flourishing art form inextricably tied to video games. Over the past decade, pixel art has experienced a renaissance thanks to the popularity of indie-developed games like Celeste and Eastward. Twenty-five years after Sony and Nintendo tried to kill it, it's proving popular not just for its nostalgic appeal but as a platform for modern gaming experiences.
Pixel art is near and dear to me, so it was a thrill to have the opportunity to speak with these world class artists about their craft.
15 Modern Pixel Art Games Everyone Must Play (Lifehacker)
LTTP—Live-A-Live (Super NES, 1994)
( LTTP stands for “Late to the Party” and is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!)
After an open roll call, I chose Square Enix's Live-A-Live for this issue's LTTP column thanks to its upcoming remaster. I've dabbled in it over the years thanks to a terrific fan localization from legendary group Aeon Genesis, but never gave it a proper shot. Like many of Square's JRPGs released at the tail end of the Super NES's lifespan, Live-A-Live experiments with structure and game play—in this case by offering the player a choice from seven independent scenarios, each with their own characters, stories, and settings.
This unusual structure was challenging for LTTP, since an hour would only afford about 20 minutes to any scenario, and playing only one of the scenarios would severely limit my overall experience and impressions. So, to compensate, instead of an hour total, I went and spent an hour with three of the seven scenarios: the robot Cube, the monk Xin Shan Quan, and the wrestler Masaru.
(All screenshots courtesy Fantasy Anime)
The first thing that stands out is the diversity of storytelling throughout the three scenarios. Whether its Cube's futuristic story set in a small, confined spaceship, completely devoid of combat, or Masaru's JRPG take on Street Fighter, each of the scenarios feels distinct in setting, structure, pace, and gameplay. Wandering through the recycled air and manufactured feel of a spaceship, and then being in the lush rainforest of China the next was thrilling, and each setting feels as well realized as the next.
The pixel art isn't anything special—hewing more closely to Final Fantasy IV's simplistic style, as opposed to the more complex pixel art of later generation Super NES games like Chrono Trigger of Trials of Mana, when the system really started to level up—but the artists did a wonderful job of creating well-realized environments with a huge range of texture, colours, and design. Equally, the legendary Yoko Shinomura provides the soundtrack, and her unmatched ability to work across genres is on full display.
Combat is... weird? In Live-a-Live's semi-real time system, combatants move about a grid-based field trading special moves with different range and status effects. To be honest, I never quite got a grasp on this beyond just using random moves, which speaks to Square's experimental nature during this period of their history.
Once again, though, the game's broad dedication to mechanical and aesthetic diversity shines through as characters are equipped with fun, varied, and setting-appropriate special moves and combat abilities. In Xin Shan Quan's chapter, for instance, the player collects various students for the martial arts master to train, opening a plethora of new combat abilities to explore over the course of the story.
The stories across the three scenarios I played were just as varied and fun as the rest of the game. Each one gave a little taste of what the Japanese RPG genre could become if and when it broke out of the traditional science fiction/fantasy settings dominating the genre (especially at the time). Being able to switch between scenarios on the fly—like you can in Treasure of the Rudras, another gem fan translated by Aeon Genesis—would've been nice, but given the relatively short play time for individual scenarios, it's not a big deal.
I've been meaning to give Live-a-Live a go for years now, and this experience has only made me more excited for the coming HD-2D remake. As much as I adore Square's flagship titles from this era, I also admire their experimental titles. But Square wouldn't start localizing its less traditional games until Final Fantasy VII proved a huge western appetite for Japanese RPGs and we started getting games like SaGa Frontier and Legend of Mana—both of which recently received remakes for modern systems. While Square's Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition was a huge disappointment, Live-a-Live's western debut proves someone at Square Enix still cares about legacy titles. It's about time western gamers get a shot at one of the Super NES's most creative and unique games.
Live-a-Live was released in Japan for the Super Famicom in 1994. It did not receive a western release in its original form, but will be officially available to western fans for the first time thanks to a HD-2D remaster on July 22, 2022.
Squire by Nadia Shammas and Sara Alfageeh
Oh, wow. Where to start with this one. When I found out Sara Alfageeh would be doing the art for my book Fight, Magic, Items, I immediately and eagerly preordered her first graphic novel, Squire. Her distinct artwork is a major reason why I was so excited to have Sara do the cover, and it absolutely shines throughout Squire's hefty 300+ pages. It's bright, vibrant, and full of personality.
Backing up Alfageeh's artwork is a fun, touching story from Shammas about coming-of-age, crumbling empires, and how our choices define who we become. It's well paced, with the stakes ramping up believably, has a wonderful world, accentuated by its beautiful art, loads of humour, and the final climax is exciting, heartbreaking, leaving loads of room for a sequel without feeling empty.
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
YouTube: I Beat the Dark Souls Trilogy and All I Made Was This Lousy Video Essay ( Noah Caldwell-Gervais)
Moral ambiguities: Review of Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham (Transfer Orbit)
Hidetaka Miyazaki Sees Death as a Feature, Not a Bug (The New Yorker)
What I Learned From Breaking Up With D&D (Tor.com)
Theater Kids and the End Times in Station Eleven (The Nation)
Michael J. Seidlinger on finding joy within the work itself (The Creative Independent)
Hayao Miyazaki movies: anti-anthropomorphism and gender lens (Sangita Ekka)
Whoo boy! Thanks to a heavy writing and revision period for Fight, Magic, Items, it's been a while between issues of Astrolabe! But, it's good to be back, and I can't wait to keep bringing you SFF and retro gaming goodies through the spring and summer leading up to the book's release! Thanks for reading, y'all!
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