As the resident retro gamer at Backward Compatible, I have a deep appreciation for the games of the NES. But a part of that appreciation includes the recognition that, for every good design element of retro games, there were also a few bad ones. Because I still regularly play old games, I am often reminded, at times painfully, of the flaws present in even some of my most treasured games from childhood. I also recognize just how spoiled I’ve become due to the conceits of modern games, and each time regain an appreciation for the patience and perseverance of my younger self in the face of what some might consider a glaring flaw of games during this period. Naturally, I refer to the concept of “Nintendo hard.” Often taking cues from quarter-munching arcade games, many games for the NES ignored the very different environment home consoles provide. Ironically, many of the games that bucked that trend and proved among the easiest of the era (although still harder than the average game today) were developed by Nintendo, as the company blazed the trail towards a more user-friendly and inclusive design philosophy.
Apparently, Australia didn’t get the memo.
So when a modern game tries to emulate retro design elements, including “Nintendo hard,” I find that many miss the mark on what made these old games so compelling. Granted, I have no problem with a ball-busting challenge, but designers must walk a fine line between providing a challenge and causing frustration. One way in which modern games have found this delicate balance is by providing several difficulty settings ranging from easy to, sometimes, hellishly difficult. The other way is perhaps the most divisive: checkpoints. One frequent complaint targeted at modern games is that checkpoints occur so frequently that all challenge is removed from the level, and thus there is no tension felt by the player, and by extension no sense of accomplishment upon completing it. However, it’s quite easy to go too far in the other direction by setting checkpoints too far apart or removing them entirely. If the difficulty proves too much, having to repeat a level over and over and over again can soon become a punishing experience instead of an enjoyable challenge.
Perhaps no other game epitomizes “Nintendo hard” better than Ghosts ‘n Goblins, which served as one of two major influences for Volgarr the Viking. And make no mistake: despite the 16-bit visuals, Volgarr the Viking takes its design cues from 1980s games; it is “Nintendo hard.” Like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, the player’s avatar, Volgarr, is a fragile hero, dying to only one enemy strike. The exception to this is if Volgarr has collected one of three powerups throughout the stage. Each time Volgarr is hit, he loses a powerup and, when his powerups are exhausted, he dies. Enemies prove to be, mostly, just an annoyance; the real challenge comes in the form of demanding platforming sections (or enemy placement at platforming sections). As the player progresses, he must learn how to overcome each challenge using both his wits and understanding of the game’s mechanics. Here is where Volgarr the Viking triumphs—challenges never really blindside the player so deaths never feel “cheap” or undeserved. Although sometimes rushed, players can overcome each challenge with careful planning and strategy, as opposed to fast twitch responses or stage memorization. Unfortunately, the sheer difficulty of the game means these challenges will often need to be repeatedly attempted before they can be overcome, with even the simplest mistake proving deadly.
Repeating a difficult section of a game until finally advancing beyond it remains a common, and rewarding, part of level design in video games. However, Volgarr the Viking rarely gives you a release from the tension you feel throughout the stage because not only does a new challenge immediately follow the last, the checkpoints are spaced so far apart (only one in the middle of each stage) that you must traverse the same frustrating challenges until finally reaching the spot of your previous death…only to, quite often, fail yet again. Checkpoints not only allow players a chance to relieve the tension of a challenging gaming experience, albeit temporarily, but they also break the level into smaller, more manageable “chunks,” helping players gain more practice on the obstacles they struggled with most while the memory of their last attempt(s) remains fresh. And, perhaps most rewarding of all, offer players a feeling of accomplishment for advancing beyond the previously insurmountable hurdle. In Volgarr the Viking, however, this sense of accomplishment comes crashing to a halt mere moments after the player feels he’s made any progress. I can’t help but conclude that Volgarr the Vikingwould be a much more enjoyable game, yet still just as rewarding, with the addition of just one more checkpoint in each stage.
Presently, I’m working my way through Volgarr the Viking slowly. I have to put the game down and walk away every hour or so to avoid punching a hole in my monitor. Volgarr the Viking, with its beautiful sprite animations and rousing soundtrack, is loads of fun in small chunks, but can become extremely frustrating as the deaths pile up. What should have been a perfect nostalgia trip to the early days of gaming—with all the positives and none of the negatives—barely misses the mark due to sparse checkpoint placement. If you have the patience of a saint (or better still, of a child), Volgarr the Viking may be worth the frustration it will no doubt cause. But be forewarned: it is truly “Nintendo hard.”
Two years ago, two huge Nightwing fans—taking cues from Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight film trilogy along with Rocksteady’s Arkham City—shot, edited, and released a live action short film called Batman: Nightwing vs. Red Hood in only three days. Jeremy Le, credited as cinematographer, costume designer, and sound designer, along with writer and editor Danny Shepherd, never expected the short film to become a YouTube sensation. When I saw the five minute short two years ago, I was initially impressed, even in light of the cheesy dialog and the amateurish, if ambitious, fight choreography. There are, after all, a surprising number of live action shorts featuring nearly every comic book character you can think of, and plenty that you may not even recognize (sorry King Tut fans, he’s yet to make an appearance). Some of these films even have backing from film festivals such as the Machinima Interactive Film Festival. But, admittedly, most come across as poorly conceived amateur projects that play it safe within the confines of the filmmaker’s meager budgets and fledgling abilities. For all its faults, Batman: Nightwing vs. Red Hood displayed an ambition that set it apart from the crowd. Perhaps this is what attracted the overwhelmingly positive response from comic fans around the web, eventually leading MG Studio to approach Le and Shepherd with an offer to help produce a Nightwing web series.
Although granted access to MG Studio equipment, Le and Shepherd recognized that they would need more funding to bring their vision for Nightwing: The Series to life. In need of $20,000 to fund high quality costumes, props and gain access to more exclusive filming locations, the newly dubbed Team Ismahawk turned to popular crowd funding site Kickstarter. Unlike most Kickstarter projects—particularly the successful ones—Ismahawk sought to utilize DC Comics properties without license or permission. Working around the need for licensing fees, Ismahawk planned to produce the film at cost, with all pledged funds going straight into production with no profit going to the filmmakers. To keep the budget down, Ismahawk recruited a small team of unpaid volunteers to help with everything from stunts and photography to, of course, acting.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $30,000 from nearly 1000 backers, Nightwing: The Series went into production. Planned as a five part mini-series with the first part premiering on YouTube this past Monday, Nightwing: The Series brazenly walks the fine line between non-profit project and copyright infringement. And yet, Team Ismahawk has not received a cease and desist letter from DC Comics or parent company Warner Brothers…yet. If Nightwing: The Series proves successful, it might encourage DC Comics to revisit the notion of a Bat-family series that does not feature the Dark Knight himself, something the company has only attempted once, with the short-lived series Birds of Prey in 2002.
As for Nightwing: The Series, the influence of MG Studio, coupled with a more mature Team Ismahawk, has produced an exciting, if somewhat light on narrative, first entry. Series writer and editor Danny Shepherd reprises his role as Nightwing. While he looked scrawny in the Nightwing vs. Red Hood short, here he has a more convincing build. It remains to be seen if Shepherd can pull off the trademark acrobatics of the Flying Grayson, however, as the first part focused more on the introduction of series villain Deathstroke (you might also recognize him by his given name, Slade). Here the improved stunt work shines through, as Deathstroke convincingly dispatches a ballroom of security guards on his way to assassinating a U.S. Senator. Although Nightwing only has a few short minutes of screen time, his costume reflects both the desire for realism depicted in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, as well as a respect for the color scheme and simplistic design of the comic book costume. Nightwing’s trademark domino mask is commendably a dead ringer for his comic book counterpart. The ending of the short teases the appearance of Barbara Gordon, a character best known to the public as the original Batgirl, but more affectionately remembered as the wheelchair-bound tech genius, Oracle, to comic book fans. Although once again serving as Batgirl in current comic book appearances, Oracle seems set for a supporting role in Nightwing: The Series.