Sunday, December 24, 2006

Xmas Update

OK, so today would normally be the day I update (since it's been a week since the last update) but I'm not going to. Because it's Christmas. So a merry one of thems to the two or three people who read this and I'll come up with something later this week. Probably.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Future of 2D Castlevania

So, during the past few days I've been playing the excellent new DS Castlevania Portrait of Ruin and I'm pretty much done with it at present. However, I recently had a discussion about the future of these 2D incarnations of the Castlevania series on the forum I frequent.

Essentially, every "modern" 2D Castlevania - which is to say the Metroid-esque ones with the explorable dungeons, hidden rooms and new-area-enabling skills and weaponry - have been basically the same since Symphony of the Night. While various new innovations and game-specific idiosyncrasies have been introduced in the half dozen or so 2D games since SotN (an example would be the Soul system from the GBA/DS "Sorrow" series with Soma Cruz) nothing spectacular has been done with the core gameplay. This is no bad thing I'll hurry to point out, since the gameplay is nigh-on perfect and each new game has its own unique characters and take on the universal "defeat Dracula and his minions" storyline, it's just the whole affair can get tiresome without any big leaps made with the material. The 3D games suffer the same problem as well to a lesser extent (though their problems have more to do specifically with the translation to 3D).

Far be it for me to claim to have the solution, since Konami is staffed with creative geniuses far beyond my current ability, I just wanted to share an idea I had for the series for whomever reads this weblog. With this game idea, I wanted to turn the game on its head and use the familiarity of the Castlevania mythos to present an entirely different account of what goes on in Dracula's Castle when there are no heroes currently fighting their way through it. Specifically, I want a game that focuses on the role of Death, Dracula's closest confidante and ally.

The story would follow something like this: Dracula has been defeated and the castle is destroyed and sent back to the underworld in pieces. Death, as an immortal and omnipresent force of nature, survives the destruction as usual and goes about reconstructing the castle and reviving his "master" (the game never really explains if Death is a servant or just a friend of Dracula). To do this, he first employs a denizen of the underworld to find all the creatures and demons that used to live in Dracula's Castle (which I'll just be calling "DC" from now on in this update) and he chooses a tragic fallen soul from his kingdom for this purpose, one who just happens to be a dead Belmont.

Now, this Belmont (I haven't given him a name or era of birth yet) is a Belmont that was never required to fight Dracula in his lifetime but received the martial training just in case like all Belmonts. Somewhat bitter at being raised for a divine purpose he never got the chance to fulfill, he became a mercenary and did a few unsavory things in his career while being employed by various shady characters and eventually died on the job. As such, he descended to the Death-ruled Underworld (or Hell, I suppose) when he died. Death hires him to fulfill his original purpose of defeating DC and in return he can go to the Hero's afterlife that all the other Belmonts (and other game's protagonists) went.

DC, after being destroyed in our world, has sort of integrated parts of itself with the Underworld, which means half the map takes place in various classic DC sections (like the Entrance or the Clock Tower) mingled with the Underworld itself, which vary from hellish lava fields to fetid swamps and all the unpleasant types of places you'd expect the denizens of DC to live between Dracula resurrections. Monsters like Cave Trolls or Mermen don't really belong in a castle basement, but they do belong in the Hell swamps I just mentioned.

Belmont's Role

The purpose of the fallen Belmont is twofold: First, he has to round up all the monsters that escaped the castle back to their Underworld lairs and defeat them. Since defeating them in the Underworld sends their souls directly to the ruler of said Underworld to sort out (that would be Death), Death can then reassign their DC habitats and roles (see Death's Role, below). The second is to procure pieces of DC by severing all the bonds it made to the Underworld when it was destroyed. These will be puzzle-based, and may involve smashing crystals, defeating bosses, pressing switches and what have you. If he successfully "releases" that section of DC it will disappear from Hell and be sent to Death who will then recreate the whole DC with all the parts you send him (again, see Death's Role below).

Other things the Belmont can do is power-up his stats and weaponry (he won't have Vampire Killer down here btw) by finding the souls of various other humans in the Underworld and purifying them somehow. Based on what sin they performed to wind up in Hell, a linked stat increases. I thought it would be neat to categorise them by way of the seven deadly sins, and attach a sin to each statistic: Gluttony would be Health (since food replenishes health), Wrath would be Strength, Sloth would be Magic Resistance (stubbornness), Greed/Avarice would be Luck (Luck increases money and item drops), Pride would be Constitution (being prideful means you're less likely to be hurt, I guess), Lust would be Magic Power/Intelligence and Envy would be.. MP, I guess, because it's a green-colored bar? OK, so it's not a perfect system, but it would still be a pretty cool way of levelling up. Things like ATK and DEF would still be regulated by STR and CON stats, plus whatever equipment the Belmont is wearing.

Talking of which, any equipment you find will also be sent to Death after the Belmont is done with his tasks in the Underworld and will be placed in DC when it reappears in our world. The equipment in the Underworld can be found the same way as any other Castlevania game: either from monsters or found hidden somewhere. There won't be a shop, of course, but fulfilling certain monster totals may convince Death to bequeath you an item (sort of like PoR's Quest system). However, finding a lot of good equipment will benefit the Belmont more than it benefits Death since finding a strong item will mean the currently living Belmont can find it and use it to defeat evil. So even though you may end up providing Death with a lot of defeated monster souls for your valuable piece of equipment, finding that item might be worth having to fight more monsters to the living Belmont.

Death's Role

After the Belmont section of the game is done, you'll have a screen detailing how much of DC has been recovered and how many of the monsters and items have been found. It's then up to Death (i.e. you) to piece together what you have of DC, assign all the monsters to their posts (if the right monsters in the right quantities have been found) and finally scatter all the equipment around. Although Death has to follow the rules of the castle (no putting the biggest and most dangerous monster right at the gate), he can still win if many of the monsters have been found and not enough equipment has been provided. This section is mostly for show, since anything you did to effect the game's outcome was done in the Belmont section. I just thought it was neat to allow the player to be the one who puts DC back together again. The computer will do a simulated runthrough with a computer-controlled protagonist to check the difficulty and if you successfully "killed" the current Belmont during his adventure you get Death's ending, which involves bringing back Dracula and taking over the world. The fallen Belmont still gets sent to Heaven for his work, but he's reviled by all the heroes in there for helping Death and Dracula conquer the living world.

If the fallen Belmont was successful enough in collecting as much equipment in the game as possible while minimizing monster acquisition, your descendant will win instead and you'll get Belmont's ending, which involves the destruction of the castle and all your hard work and the Belmont receives a warm welcome when he arrives in Heaven.

There's also a third ending, for finding all the items (full equipment list) and all the monsters (full bestiary); finding all of just one will only give you one of the two endings above. The third ending I'll leave secret for now, but it may allow the player to play as the living Belmont going through the reconstructed DC, using Vampire Killer if he wishes.

While essentially the same game (wouldn't want to wander too far from the formula), there's plenty in this new version to give the series a little more originality, especially if you're trying to get Death to win. The bits of the map which partly integrate Hell with DC should somewhat resemble Silent Hill's transitions into its "otherworld", as you pass from the ornate fixtures and sometimes warm interiors of DC into the hellish landscapes that comprise Death's kingdom.

So, I dunno, it should be fun to see how the other half operates.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Design Licenses #7: Total Recall

OK, so this idea sort of came from a completely different direction than simply watching the 1990 Paul Verhoeven movie and thinking I could come up with something better than the several negligible license games that came out for it on the consoles of the day (which I guess would be the late NES/early SNES period). Instead, it came about from a discussion I was having about where the next entry in the GTA series (Grand Theft Auto for the uninitiated) should occur.

So as you could probably conclude at this point the game would be GTA with a dystopian vision of Mars as the setting, and would loosely follow the plot of the movie with various missions and requirements needed to be fulfilled before moving onto the next part of the story, usually involving the vehicular or on-foot mayhem that defines Grand Theft Auto.

In a nutshell, the story would start on Earth for a tutorial series of missions, involving Douglas Quaid (the protagonist that Arnie plays) visiting the Recall company for a "vacation" memory implant only to find out his memories are fake and ends up fighting off his work buddies and wife (all of whom are actually agents of the game's evil conglomerate owner Cohaagen sent to monitor Quaid) and escaping to Mars. At which point the game would give you a few hints on where to go next and who to look up and then leave you to it, in classic GTA style. While the game's top priority is to help the mutant Resistance of the movie and escape Cohaagen's henchmen (including his top man Richtor), you could also align yourself with all manner of corrupt organisations, crime families or citizen militias of the oppressed people of Mars for prestige, cash or what have you.

The Mars of the movie is basically a large, mostly underground structure designed explicitly for mining the planet. As such, most "roads" are in fact tunnels from one area to the next, involving corporation structures, living spaces and mining areas. The actual living habitats vary from shanty towns and slums (which is where the mutants live and where most of the action takes place) to the richer built-up areas for important Cohaagen personnel and other wealthy citizens. There exists also a further series of underground caves left behind by an advanced and ancient alien race in which lies the device that will give the planet of Mars an atmosphere which will come into play much further into the game's storyline. Another device (literally, in this case) are the gadgets that Quaid apparently left for himself in a briefcase, should the future Quaid ever figure out that his life on Earth was fabricated. These involve all manner of stealth technologies and weaponry for him to use. More of this futuristic technology becomes available to him as the game progresses.

Now there are several considerable-sized problems with this idea, beyond the simple fact that you're combining a movie/book license with the major video game series that is Rockstar's GTA (see an earlier blog entry of mine on how I feel about borrowing an existing game design/idea). The first is GTA's popular radio station line-up, a mainstay of the series since the original GTA 3 and invariably the reason why every new GTA game since has been based in a different decade
(original was based on the cusp of the 21st century, Vice City was the 80s and San Andreas early 90s) is so the player would have a new era's worth of music to listen to. Since the game is based in the nearish future, the only music stations you could have would be the "classic" stations playing several decades-old music.

The second concern would be the popular fan theory of the movie, which is that everything that occurs throughout the entire movie is simply part of Quaid's "Secret Agent on Mars" vacation memory implant which he gets from the Recall company at the start of the movie. Everything weird occurs shortly after this implant is received (or rejected by Quaid's mind because of his secret memory wipe depending on which theory you follow), including the discovery that his entire life on Earth up to that point was an elaborate sham. Though this could be turned around if we set it up so the player can discover enough "evidence" that the whole thing is an implant-induced dreamworld, sort of like a secret ending if a series of hidden requirements are met (like discovering enough weird computer glitches throughout the cityscape and taking photos of them).

Best part is that most of this idea can be salvaged if the Total Recall connection falls through and GTA still decides to go ahead with a "Mars" edition. Likewise if the GTA system becomes unavailable the game can drop all non-plot-related missions and massive areas to explore and simply concentrate on following the story of the movie with a 3rd-person shooter angle. It would still be awesome to have both though. Geht yo ahss to Mahrs, indeed.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Addendum: Hammerspace

OK, since I was a day late this week (swamped with Xmas-related stuff) I'll be doing two updates. Well, one and a half, since this entry will go on further about the Hammerspace idea I wrote about last time.

I was hoping to knock up a few sketches of the in-game interface for this one but I got lazy. As I often do. So instead I'll describe some more of the levels and collection devices/tools and also reaffirm some of the game mechanics.

Extra Game Mechanics:
* First of all, there will be enemies and other dangers around but any damage they do to you will be limited to sheer inconvenience, as opposed to including any kind of health bar or game-over system. For example, they could hammer you into the ground (wasting the few seconds needed to pull yourself out) or flip you halfway across the level or off a tall structure, which means getting all the way over there again. There'll eventually be a way of knocking them out and collecting them along with everything else.
* I'll be bringing back that event-based timeline from an earlier idea I had for creating instances where a really valuable or rare item will only be available for a certain section of the time limit: so, for instance, a cuckoo coming out of a giant cuckoo clock when there's exactly one minute remaining, and popping out 10 more times over the next 20 seconds before going back inside the clock. These kind of bonuses will sometimes have hints (like the fact it's a cuckoo clock and the minute hand is getting closer to the 12). Players can either spend their time waiting for these rarities on a second or third playthrough (if they want to add it to the overall collection) or they can plan their high-score-gathering route to be near them at the right time.

* The first stage will be classic Looney Toons, full of all the things you'd expect: giant cartoon mallets, "n Tons" giant weights, anvils, Acme products and so on.
* The second stage will be the anime one, with lots of anime-themed in-jokes depending on what we can get away with copyright-wise. More likely it'll involve non-specific giant robots and highschool girls with all sorts of other Japanese-y goodness.
* Third will be superhero-based, using the same kind of animation style as possibly the Batman or Justice League animated series. Big emphasis on vector-based art, you'll know what I mean if you've ever seen one. I'm hoping to have the entire stage as one big battle between various non-descript superheroes, leaving lots of carnage and equipment around to pick up.
* Fourth will be the Halloween stage, with lots of creepy goings-on. Not going to take any sort of Tim Burton route with this, but closer to those old Halloween specials but with many different areas of Horror being represented (trick or treating, slasher movies, Lovecraft, classic Hammer Horror - which would be very appropriate given the title of the game).
* Fifth would be the claymation stage, if one were possible. Instead of using actual claymation, I'm pretty sure you could make a reasonable facsimilie using cel-shaded graphics or something. I should really read up on 3D graphics.
* Sixth would probably be an Xmas stage, since we already have a Halloween one, so there'll be various Christmas related icons to collect (you could take a Christmas tree with all its decorations down in pieces).
* Seventh would be the space one, which will probably also be the penultimate stage. There'll be a way to become super colossal-sized (maybe by using a "2001"-ish Monolith?) and collect the planets themselves similar to the end of Katamari (since this whole idea is sort of an homage).
* Eighth would be the sort of bonus world that unlocks after getting a certain amount of points/objects overall. It would resemble an art tool program like Photoshop as a sort of weird meta-game reference. As well as collecting all the items inside the image, you'll be able to get out and start collecting things like the shading tool or the paintbrush. Some of which you'll be able to use (like the eyedropper tool to collect the color out of something). You may even be able to collect the cursor darting around the entire level, but you'll need to be fast or figure out where it stops in order to collect it.

NB: The tools fall into two categories: Active and Passive. Active tools need to be selected and used by the player character to get any benefit from them, and sit in the hammerspace until needed. Passive ones are always active and tend to involve bonuses to time or carrying capacity.
* Ladder (Active): Having a ladder allows an easy way to get to an area slightly higher up than you are. You'll need a flat vertical service to place the ladder against though. There will be three levels of the Ladder too, with various heights.
* Trampoline (Active): Harder to collect but more useful than the Ladder, since it can be used anywhere.
* Giant Hammer (Active): The first hammer tool. Can be used to stun smaller enemies.
* 100-Ton Hammer (Active): Can be used to smash through obstacles or stun larger enemies (or pass them if they're too big).
* Earthquake Hammer (Active): The strongest hammer, which you'll find on top of a mountain (alluding to Thor's Hammer Mjollnir). Instead of having to hit things with it to stun/smash them, you can hit the ground nearby to knock them out with the vibrations.
* Time-Limit Boosters (Passive): Special clock collectibles will increase the time-limit by 30 seconds. They get progressively harder to find/collect. Since time-based events in the level are based on the remaining time (so something will only happen 30 seconds before the end, say) they won't be affected by boosts to the time limit. In fact, let's say for example one stage has a 5-minute time limit before any boosts are found. There could be an event-based item on that stage that appears six minutes before the end, meaning you'll need to collect at least three time-limit boosters and head straight for where the object appears to get it in time.
* Dark Matter (Passive): Not the astrophysical concept of dark matter per se, but rather the name of a collectible that will increase the size of the objects you can place inside the hammerspace. The hammerspace itself is considered to be infinite, so there's no limit to how many objects of varying size to squeeze in there, however the portal to hammerspace that our hero uses to store things in there is limited (perhaps to objects no bigger than a grapefruit, say). Dark Matters will increase this limit. Dark Matters are perfectly spherical black orbs hidden all over the place. I may decide to give them no physical presence in the world (since they're made out of the same extradimensional material as the hammerspace) so I could hide them inside other objects, so you'd only be able to find one if you collected or moved the object obscuring it first.
* Vacuum Attachment (Passive): Collecting this puts a small vacuum attachment at the mouth of the hammerspace portal and items of a certain size (say 20% of the current portal limit, see Dark Matter above) will be instantly collected from a small distance away.
* Black Hole (Passive): Collecting this monstrosity of space will power up the hammerspace and allow the portal limit to be effectively broken. Since the Black Hole has such colossal pulling power, objects of any size can now be coerced into the hammerspace portal (they'll do that kind of sucking-in thing that Black Holes do in cartoons). It also works as a stronger version of the vacuum attachment, pulling in decent-sized objects without you needing to go pick them up. The Black Hole will be one of the hardest objects to get, since it will suddenly appear at one point in the space stage and you need to find it before it sucks in too many planets and stars, becoming too big for you to collect.
* Eyedropper (Active): Using the eyedropper on an object (any object) will remove all color from it and store the color inside the hammerspace as paint. Though if you collect a desaturated object, it won't necessarily count as a separate entry on the collection screen (because that would mean a second entry for everything). Some colors are rarer than others (like gold or silver) and may only appear on certain stages.
* Tape Recorder (Active): Since the game takes a comic-like approach, they'll do that thing where the onomatopoeia actually appears in word-form (like a spiky balloon that says "BANG!" when a bomb goes off). If you're close enough to this sound effect and use the Tape Recorder, the onomatopoeia balloon will be collected and stored in hammerspace also. A lot of onomatopoeia can be generated by your character doing something (like landing on the ground hard or hitting something with a hammer) but there'll also be a lot that can only be generated by other objects (like a machine humming, or the superheroes in Stage 3 hitting each other with Zokk!s and Newt!s 60s Batman-style).

Friday, December 01, 2006

Game Idea: Hammerspace

So the genesis of this idea was to think of something that had the manic energy and sheer fun value of the highly acclaimed Katamari Damacy, a series I've only had the fortune to play when its second incarnation We Heart Katamari was finally released over here. Thank you once again Europe, for being spectacularly slow on the ball. Literally in this case.

The idea follows a cartoon character drawn in the "classic" sense, styled on someone like Felix the Cat or Bugs Bunny but entirely original otherwise, who discovers one day that the interdimensional pocket that all cartoon "props" derive from (the eponymous Hammerspace) is fresh out of deadly weaponry and random comedy items, and he goes on a quest to refill it before the cartoon world suffers from the lack of attention and funding by the "real world" that would ensue from an insufficient level of graphic cartoon violence in their animated entertainment.

A note on the name: Hammerspace is so named by Japanese animators to describe how cartoon characters can pick up items of varying size seemingly out of midair. The "hammer" that the name refers to is the hammer present in that old standard of Japanese comedy: "lecherous man gets punished by cute girl with a needlessly gigantic hammer", which she pulls out of nowhere to defend her honor with.

The game's main premise (find objects lying around and collect them in the hammerspace) works with either a 2D or 3D environment, ideally suited therefore for any console. The game will be a standard platformer in most respects, with your cartoon hero having various powers and means to move around the stages and collect the objects to place in hammerspace, which you'll have access to being a cartoon character and all. Like Katamari, you can explore the level to your heart's content without worrying too much about health or damage, but instead keeping an ever-vigilant eye on the time-limit. Finding certain "tool" items while you're out collecting will allow you to use those tools to reach more items/locations hidden within the stage: e.g. you could find a pogo-stick, place it in the hammerspace, move to where a platform is too high for you to reach and bounce up there by removing it from the hammerspace and using it. There'll also be some passive tools such as a hoover attachment, which will automatically attach itselft to the hammerspace portal to suck up smaller objects as you pass over them (instead of wasting time collecting them singly). Since the hammerspace inventory is carried along with you after every stage it'll steadily increase its carrying capacity to fit all the new items in as you go through the game. This results in a larger hammerspace with a larger entry portal, allowing you to squeeze larger objects inside. This means you could replay an earlier level with a bigger hammerspace and could now collect more of the larger items in that stage (and net you a better score for that timed runthrough).

Graphically, I was thinking each individual stage could "borrow" an animation style and employ it, allowing for a different-looking bunch of objects per stage. So the first stage could be a classic Looney Tunes style landscape and the next could be a stereotypical Japanese anime stage complete with giant robots, cute schoolgirls and various bizarre background jokes involving cats. There could even be a semi-realistic claymation/stop-motion stage, but I don't know how easy that would be to pull off.

The majority of objects are just lying around waiting to be collected, and it's simply a matter of running over to where they are and picking them up. These are the simple objects (or "Class C objects") and having a collection made entirely of Class C objects for a given stage will net you a fairly crappy score. It would still allow you to effectively "pass" that level and unlock the next, however.

The Class B objects are a little trickier. These objects tend to either be part of a set (and collecting the whole set nets you a bonus), requires some disassembly (e.g. there's a giant sword held in place by various straps nailed to a wall, and if you can remove all the nails and straps you'll get the sword which will be worth a lot of points) or are generally hard to reach (like a group of valuable objects on top of a tall building which you have to climb).

Class A objects are the ones that will require various power-ups to reach or find. They'll be golden-colored and there'll be a set number of them per level. The usable "tool" items also count as Class A, and tend to only be given to you in either a special tutorial or are carefully hidden. They are the only objects you can remove from the hammerspace after putting them in, and you'll only need one of each since you'll be recalling the same tool each time you want to use it.

Finally, Class S objects will be unlocked as you reach the end of the game and the collection tools at your disposal become ever more powerful/abstract. These will include gigantic background items that would never fit in the hammerspace normally to, perhaps, bizarre items like thoughts and speech bubbles. You could even start to saturate the landscapes of some brightly colored stages after finding the appropriate tool, removing all their colors which will appear in the hammerspace inventory as that color's paint. Some stages may have unique colors in them, so you'd have to revisit them to find that particular color (for instance, there may only be one stage that has a purple-colored object). It'd be cool to get even more metaphysical than that, such as sound effects (leaping from a tall building into a pool for a big "splash!" and then collecting the "splash!"), background music (hope you like silence for the rest of the level) or collecting parts of the player's HUD so you can't see what's left of the time limit.
Since it is a cartoon world and all, I'd only be restrained by the technology of whatever console I was working with (or whichever programmers I'd be working with for that matter).

I purposely chose an idea like Katamari that could work in 2D because I'm not entirely convinced Katamari does actually work in 2D. I know there are instances of 2D Katamari games (and so many parody animated .gifs, usually involving Nintendo characters), but really the emphasis is on the katamari itself, a giant sphere that slowly increases in volume and expands outwards. Spheres don't really work in 2D. But even a simple 2D platformer with the scale of Metroid or Mario would still all sorts of different places to hide objects to find and collect, allowing this game idea to work.