What I did on my holiday (Metroid II)

2007-10-22

On the dull wet days of my holiday I spent some time playing the ancient Game Boy title Metroid II:

metroid2-800.png

The figure is the map I created sitting in the Formule 1. Metroid II is a hard game. I usually consider the fact that I have to make a map as some sort of failing, I’m just never sure whether it’s a failing of me or the game. In any case there are two sorts of games: those for which I have to make a map; and those that I don’t.

Even some games that have an in-game map I’ve ended up having to draw a map for. Super Metroid has an in-game map but it is too abstract, making it difficult to remember which one was the room with the mysterious X feature, and doesn’t accurately draw in all connexions (such as secret passages) making navigation haphazard. Add to that the need to mark rooms that have been visited but which may warrant a subsequent investigation when Samus gains new powers: a paper map becomes almost essential. Wind Waker not only has an in-game map but the acquisition of sea charts, by which sections of the map are revealed, is an integrated and very satisfying part of the gameplay. I still had to draw map (Wind Waker whips me into a box ticking frenzy in a way that other Zelda games don’t quite manage).

I don’t think that a game in which you have to draw a map is necessarily a bad game. But I think you need to think very carefully before deliberately designing such a game. Many people will not draw a map, they will find your game too hard, and they will not play it.

There is a certain satisfaction from drawing a map (even if you have no drawing skills, like me), but there’s also a certain frustration that comes from it. The Metroid II map documents some typical frustrations: not knowing where to start on the page so having to go off the edge of the page and onto a new sheet (except I was on holiday so I was restricted to mapping using a single sheet, the back of the flight confirmation sheet); drawing at inconsistent scales so the map doesn’t join up when it should; inconsistent mapping conventions (I have mapped parts of Metroid II using a schematic system and parts using a topographical system); having to invent a set of symbols to denote various important features, then realising you need to elaborate that in a confusing way (for example, m could be Metroid, Missile Power-up, or Missile Refill); having to go back and document a whole load of features that you previously thought unimportant.

There is a large and important dark side to maps. The player can spend more of the game looking at the map than the game. And that means that in the eyes of the player the map has become more important than the game itself. Which do you think a game designer would rather the player look at? Doom, the seminal first person shooter, had a pretty traditional 2D plan map. It introduced the more novel feature that game continued even when viewing the map, monsters moved and could still attack the player. The player could move and navigate on the map screen too. With a little bit of practise the player could do entire missions on the 2D map screen alone, and in many ways it was more convenient. So why bother drawing all that 3D nonsense?

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5 Responses to “What I did on my holiday (Metroid II)”

  1. Gareth Rees Says:

    You are going to just love Phantom Hourglass.

  2. drj11 Says:

    Ah yes, I was going to say something in the article about how this might all be better in a game where you can draw on the in-game map. I look forward to it. Could be the final straw that makes me buy a DS.

  3. Gareth Rees Says:

    It’s not just that you can draw on the map if you want to; it’s that a lot of aspects of the game are designed around this ability. In fact, there are many circumstances in which you must draw on the map.

  4. Joe Blah Says:

    As an 8 year old kid I remember finding Metroid 2 extremely frustrating because of the lack of a map feature. It took me like a year of on and off playing of this game before I beat it, because I’d get sick of wandering around trying to figure out where to go. The monochrome graphics of the Gameboy certainly didn’t help either, it was hard to differentiate between some areas!

    • drj11 Says:

      For sure the “everything looks the same” aspect of Metroid II is a result of the limited tile/sprites of the Game Boy. But it does feel like the designer made a deliberate gameplay feature of it. Designing areas to look the same to make you uncertain as to whether you’d explored it or not.


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