regarding the perfect situational compound videofriction
a writtenthing about castlevania, by the milliseconds
by tim rogers
This week, a reader of my Formspring asked me a question regarding compound videofrictions. My 2,000-word answer details what I think to be the superlative example of what professional action game designers who look exactly like me often call “situational compound videofriction”: Richter Belmont’s back-step in Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for the PC-Engine Duo.
First, the question:
One of the goals I remember you setting for Ziggurat was to incorporate several great frictions with a single press of the button – sticky, crunchy, swishy and electric. Does the grab in Ristar do this? If not, what (non Action Button) games do?
The grab in Ristar is interesting. However, I don’t like it too much.
This might get complicated.
The perfect videofriction, as I explained in The Frictionary over on Kotaku, was the Z-jump move in Super Mario 64. However, that action uses two buttons — and why shouldn’t it? Other wonderful two-button frictions include: popping the clutch and letting up on the gas in an automobile with a manual transmission. The Z-jump is in excellent company.
Since I wrote that piece, my brothers and I were able to synthesize three better videofrictions, all of which use only one action button. I won’t disclose what they in the interest of secrecy. I can, however, hint at the elements of their construction.
In Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the player can walk backward by holding the whip button and pressing the directional pad in the direction opposite the direction the character is facing. The reason this technique is important is that it allows the player to dodge enemy attacks without turning around — turning around, you see, takes several milliseconds. If the player has just completed an attack action (either by landing it or missing it!) and is looking toward the next few turns of the conflict, the player will maintain a grip on the action button.
Rondo of Blood requires the player to “spar” or “box” with many enemies — moving in and out, dodging, attacking, ducking, stepping backward, sliding, or defending (by whipping a projectile out of the air).
The sequel to Rondo of Blood, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, replaces the back-walk action with a quick back-dash. The back-dash is a elaborately elegant action: with one press of a button, the player character shifts his position backward horizontally by a precise distance.
Press the button and quickly release, and you can halt the back-dash partway. However, holding the button indefinitely does not output an indefinite back-dash: the back-dash goes from Zero to Finished with relatively little button hold time. The player need only press with emphasis for the back-dash to be carried out to completion.
The back-dash is an excellently polished, nuanced action. It’s the most essentially “Castlevania” action in Symphony of the Night: “Castlevania” is, let’s remember, the game in which the player’s weapon was a whip instead of a sword. Press the action button, and the character’s whip lashes out to an exact distance. The effectively deadly area of the whip’s range is just outside the player’s muscle memory — at first, anyway. After a while, Castlevania forces your brain to figure it out.
Symphony of the Night doesn’t have a whip — it does, however, have that back-dash. Mastering that back-dash is a key to learning to play the game on a hard-core, boss-rush-ably high level.
So: a back-dash transforms the character’s horizontal position about three times faster than regular movement. The reward is that you can quickly dodge an enemy attack. The risk is that you can back-dash so far so quickly that you fall into another enemy attack.
When you play Symphony of the Night like a champion, you end up in all sorts of sticky-swishy weird multi-fronted boxing matches.
Unlike in Rondo of Blood, turning around costs you no time at all in Symphony of the Night.
So you’ll end up manually clicking a directional button to change your character’s facing direction, simply so your back is facing the direction in which a parabolic projectile is moving.
Say there’s a skeleton throwing bones. He’s just thrown one at your back; as far as you can tell, it’s going to hit you. However, you don’t want to move toward the skeleton, nor do you want to jump.
You turn around so you are facing the skeleton. You do a back-dash, putting you well out of the range of the bone. You turn back around. You attack the air, knocking an axe-knight’s axe out of the air. You turn your back again; you back-dash again to dodge another bone! Now you turn around, slash an axe knight in the head, and land. The axe knight steps backward and throws another axe. You jump over it. You land, change direction, and back-dash to avoid another skeleton bone. You land, duck, and slash the axe knight’s low-thrown axe out of the air. You turn your back to the skeleton, back-dash *toward* it, under the arc of its thrown bone, turn around, slash him dead, slash an axe out of the air, approach the axe knight — you’re having fun, and you’re feeling pretty cool!
That’s just a compound collection of electric / sticky videofrictions. That’s how it feels when you put it all together.
At the core of that tiny situation is ducking: ducking feels great in Symphony of the Night — partly because of the cheesy graphical trail effect that follows the character as he ducks.
Rondo of Blood, however, feels even better, and with less complexity in its individual situations.
As I mentioned earlier, you can back-walk in Rondo of Blood, and this movement is at the core of everything that makes the game great. Castlevania games are very much about horizontal movement, which is why the occasional parabola (the throwing axe sub-weapon or the skeleton bone projectile, for example) is such a spectacular, unexpected intrusion. Back-walking allows the player to avoid parabolas without changing direction. It’s also a slow, deliberate action; sometimes the player will be too late, and feel hopeless, and so the game earns a reputation for being “punishing” — whereas Symphony of the Night, with its light-as-a-feather character and back-dashing, certainly does not feel punishing at all.
Analyzing the milliseconds of Rondo of Blood is exciting: the character takes time to crouch, he takes time to change direction, and he takes time to jump (his knees compress downward somewhat realistically before take-off) though moving backward is an available action immediately after a whip-crack ends, so long as the player keeps holding the action button.
If an axe knight has just thrown a high axe and the player has just finished an attack that missed, the skilled player will know that it is too late to duck. Here is where the game is masterfully tuned: walk backward just one step, and you’ve moved just far enough to have enough time to duck under the axe.
Here’s where you now have to appreciate the enemy designs! The axe knights’ axes always come back. That’s fantastic.
Of course, a pro-level player is never going to want to let an axe knight’s axe get more than a few pixels away from the axe knight.
Much of the friction of Rondo of Blood is psychological: we have to train ourselves to understand that the very tip of the whip isn’t its only effective area. Rather, its hitbox is deliciously nuanced; we often have more than enough distance to strike an enemy, even if the enemy is right on top of us. However, what we might not have is the *time* to execute the whip attack action.
Furthermore, some enemies have frames of animation during which the player is impervious to damage dealt from contacting them. In the first stage, eyeball-things drop from the ceiling. When they have just contacted the floor, they are a yellow sphere. The player can walk right through them. However, the surprise of seeing the enemy hit the floor will cause many players to stop. If you stop just long enough, the eyelid rolls open, revealing the eye; now you will receive damage if you contact the enemy.
The early Castlevania games, Rondo of Blood included, are about forward locomotion. Whenever you stop, that’s when challenges start to stack up relentlessly.
Eventually, as Stage 1 becomes Stage 2 and Stage 3, even more skilled players will buckle under the temptation to stop moving. This is where the boxing matches begin, and once-simple encounters become five- or ten-second staring contests. This is where you will experience the whole perfectly chaotic dance of mechanics for the second time.
The first time you danced, it was as an amateur yet too unknowing to whip an axe knight in the face before he presented his threat. Now, you dance as a master, and it’s fantastic — and it’s terrible, and it’s frustrating, and it’s fantastic again.
The mechanics which dance are . . . all of them. It takes time to duck, it takes time to jump, and it takes time to attack. It doesn’t take time to back-step — if you’ve already just attacked.
So that’s the perfect compound videofriction: progress to mastery of Rondo of Blood; now get deep into the game for the tenth or eleventh time. Make a mistake, and then recover: use the back-step to buy yourself around a hundred milliseconds; use those milliseconds to duck, jump, or attack; use that duck or jump or attack to buy yourself position; use your position to buy victory.
Rondo of Blood is complex to a degree that begs study to anyone developing video games with an action element; in just a handful of milliseconds, the player can commit to a series of actions whose repercussions extend many magnitudes beyond the initial investment.
That initial investment, put into the simplest terms . . . is the decision to *not* let go of a button.
And the attack that comes after the back-step is so satisfying. The friction stands up and leaps into the world outside the game: you release the button you were holding in order to enable back-step . . . and then you press it again, with finality, maybe following a single forward tap.
Right there — that’s it. That’s your one-button friction-buffet: press the button, gasp as the action finishes its course, keep the button held, tap a direction. Release the button, tap a direction, and press that button again. Technically, that’s two presses, though they’re presses of the same button.
It’s so finely tuned an action-game element, and it’s in there, incredibly, totally on purpose. Whereas the delicious stickily frictive Street Fighter II uppercut-then-fireball combo — the combo heard round the world, the combo that started all combos — was the result of a glitch, Rondo’s every minutely fine-tuned element is the result of a bona-fide feelmaster.
I had a good long talk with Shingo “Seabass” Takatsuka, director of the Winning Eleven games and Rondo of Blood level designer, about the back-step. He moved his hands a lot in his long, gushing exclamation of love for the mechanic, and finally settled on an Italian chef’s “molto bene” — with two hands.
“Rondo of Blood taught me to really, seriously think about sports games.”
And that’s why Winning Eleven — aka “Pro Evolution Soccer” — is the real sequel to Rondo of Blood.
Symphony of the Night’s back-dash is cute, sure. Though seriously, Castlevania fans — have you ever *played* a Pro Evolution Soccer game? Lord, they’re fantastic.
Now back to Ristar: I love the little delay on the camera movements when using the grab to climb or otherwise travel. I like the intentionally choppy stop-motion-y hand-over-hand climbing. The grab-and-head-butt thing, though, feels a little rough. Overall, it’s a cute game, and maybe I should give it another look.
Ziggurat, of course, will have huge insanity happening every time you fire the gun. We’re making a Castlevania-sized shooter, I tell you what.
Note: If you have any questions, please pose them to me on my formspring. I should probably get a tumblr as well — I’ll do that, soon.
If I don’t answer your question right away, maybe that means I’m thinking about it! And if I’m thinking about it, that means I might end up turning it into an article.
Feel free, by the way, to ask me questions which have nothing whatsoever to do with videogames.