Sakurai, Part 2: Designing Complex Games

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Let’s imagine video games as theme park rides. Many of the intense ones have a height requirement in order to protect young kids from getting hurt. In a similar fashion, most video games, in order to get much enjoyment out of them, have a “height requirement” in skill. It’s true that many games teach you and guide you along, but even then you still need some skills to get started. This is called the skill floor.

For example, my wife tried playing Celeste, but didn’t finish it because of its high skill floor, even with assist mode turned on. Most games lower the skill floor with just a low difficulty option or a tutorial section; however, this runs the risk of watering the game down. It could become the equivalent of the Dumbo ride at Disneyland; sure everyone can get on, but most park goers probably won’t enjoy it.

Back in the day lots of retro games had high skill floors thanks to their arcade heritage. Players needed to have the patience to build up their skill before they could make much progress. These games felt rewarding to master, but it also meant dealing with frustration in the beginning hours.

Making an approachable game like Kirby was certainly ahead of its time; on paper it would mean a game would be fun the whole way through. However, Sakurai ran the risk of Dumbo-fying the game, and admittedly I have that exact criticism for his first game, Kirby’s Dreamland. In future games, however, Sakurai was smart enough to make his characters’ movements capable of interacting with each other. The controls became a tool box that allowed players to string moves together and opened the game up for more advanced techniques. This is called having a high skill ceiling. Putting a low floor and high ceiling together, his games became renowned for allowing both newcomers and veterans to enjoy a game starring a pink, round vacuum.

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Moving from Dreamland to Kirby’s Adventure, Sakurai added Kirby’s now-signature move: the copy ability. It gave some much-needed depth to Kirby’s inhale mechanic. More experienced players could experiment with different copy abilities and find an attack style that they preferred. For me, I enjoyed Cutter for its range and loved the Sword’s sweeping arc. You could also forgo the copy abilities altogether and just defeat bosses by spitting their minions back at them. Adventure also had more levels than Dreamland, with a steeper difficulty curve at the end. And it pulled back the curtain of Kirby’s cutesy world, showing that dark cosmic entities are the true villains. King Dedede was just a pawn the whole time.

In Kirby Super Star, Sakurai had the D-pad modify Kirby’s attacks. With the right copy ability and the right skill, Kirby could dodge on a dime or rush through a string of enemies. Sakurai also expanded the length of the game yet again by cutting up the game into smaller short stories, each one being more difficult than the last. The Great Cave Offensive and Milky Way Wishes were actually quite difficult to complete, especially when facing the last few bosses. I actually got a game over before I could get their patterns down.

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In Super Smash Bros., the movement combinations expanded the skill ceiling to incredible heights, both literally and figuratively. Smash Bros offered wide and tall spaces to fight in, giving a higher emphasis on positioning, momentum, and trying to read the opponent’s next move. The game transcends physical skill and becomes a game about overarching principles and theories, like any true sport. I don’t want to get into minute details, but I want to give a few examples to show just how deep the water goes:

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  • A Smash Bros. match starts out in the neutral game, where neither opponent is on a ledge or at any high percent. In this phase it is important to learn your opponent’s patterns while also trying to hide your own, as well as give false/ambiguous moves to fake out the opponent. When you get an opening, it’s time to combo (attacks you can quickly string together) and rack up damage.

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  • However, you can also defend against these moves. You can obviously shield to block an attack, and from there you have limited options to counter your opponent. The defender has to make an unexpected move (roll instead of grab, or jump instead of roll) while the attacker has to anticipate which option the defender will take.

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  • Eventually one player will pressure the other into a high percentage and play will start gravitating towards the ledges. Again, it’s the defender’s job to know their options and make an unpredicted move while the attacker tries to anticipate the defender, edgeguard, and finish them off.

Also, just as Sakurai uses simple, popular characters for beginners to pick up, he uses the more obscure characters like Captain Falcon and Ness for “advanced players.” These characters are more risky and take more practice, but their strengths and play styles prove to be just right for some players. And of course, these characters are the ones you have to unlock, meaning players have already learned the basics and are ready to try these more complex movesets. Regarding the difficulty itself, he incentivized players to try higher difficulties for more rewards. The man really thought of everything.

In Kirby Air Ride, the combination of so many controls in just one button allows the player to quickly shift their focus towards shortcut finding, drift timing, gliding, and other ways to maximize their speed. The City Trial mode adds in some RPG mechanics where you search the city for stat boosts for your vehicle before using it in a competitive minigame. And similar to Super Smash Bros., Air Ride starts out with a well-rounded star that’s useful for learning the basics before allowing you to unlock more technically advanced vehicles.

Sakurai took a similar path for Kid Icarus Uprising, this time with weapons. The game begins with a well-rounded staff meant to teach the basics, but there are a variety of unlockable weapons that modify the shooting mechanics. I ended up liking the orbitars best, as they let me dodge and counter attack with a large area-of-effect shot.

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Additionally, Uprising has a “difficulty cauldron” that allows the player to return to previous levels at a higher difficulty and unlock hidden challenges and rewards. Some light RPG mechanics are present as well. Pit can find permanent upgrades in a level and fit them into a tetris-like inventory before going out on the next mission. And just like in Smash, Pit’s movement will affect the attacks of his weapons. Sometimes it’s ideal to retreat and make weaker shots, while in other situations it’s better to charge forward and get a stronger blast into the opponent.

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In conclusion, Sakurai (thankfully) made his controls and mechanics able to interact with each other, giving the player movement options and combinations that allowed his games to grow into complex affairs. In all his games he guides the player to shift their focus outward – from mere skill execution to strategic thinking about timing and positioning. Each of his games are incredibly satisfying to learn, develop skills in, and master. You always feel like you’ve earned your place as some kind of champion by the time the credits roll.

Our next topic is goes hand-in-hand with complexity, but from a different angle: next time we’ll cover the gameplay variety that Sakurai includes in all of his works.

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