Monday, 4 November 2013

Character Controls That "Feel" Good

Today I'm going to tell you the secret to making a good video game (or at least, one that isn't text/menu based). The trick is to make a game that feels good to play. The story isn't that big a deal, the mechanics are trivial, the graphics and audio are on the sidelines somewhere. Everything else plays second fiddle to having a game with good controls. Many people don't realize it, but subtle nuances in the way a character responds to inputs can make a huge difference on just about every aspect of a game. You've probably played at least one game wherein as soon as you picked up the controller, your character felt sluggish and cluncky and just wrong. From minute 1 you lose most if not all interest in the game. Even when a game does have good controls, subtle decisions as to how those controls work can change a lot about how the player will play that game.

I mention all of this because over the past couple days I've run into two games that are perfect examples of the effect that small control nuances can have. Specifically, the games I am referring to are Castelvania: Circle of the Moon and Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. Both games star whip-wielding members of the Belmont Clain, who have almost identical ability sets. Both are games on the Gameboy Advance, and thus have the same buttons available to them. What's most interesting though is that while both games have control issues, they are almost opposites in where those issues lie. In short, Circle of the Moon controls a lot more like the older Castlevania games - it's very slow and forces you to be a bit more premeditated about how you attack. Harmony of Dissonance on the other hand feels a lot more like controlling Alucard from Symphony of the Night - it's much faster, but the actual whip control is only so-so.

When it comes to controlling a character who wields a short ranged weapon, I am of the opinion that having precise control over your character is very important. Being locked into a jump arc sucks, especially when you are plunging headlong into the bad guy because you can't shoot him from the other side of the screen. Circle of the Moon manages whip controls pretty much perfectly. The whip is a little slow coming out, but this is a conscious choice that existed in all previous games in the series as well. It forces the player to be a bit more careful, and adds a bit of skill to whip use. Harmony of Dissonance adjusts the delay to the end of the attack, opting for a whip that's faster out of the gate, but doesn't feel anywhere near as satisfying to score hits with. More importantly however is that Harmony of Dissonance affords the player absolutely no mid-air control after your whip has been used. This means that if the enemy alters course after you jump or you realize your jump arc has you bumping into the baddie's big toe, you have no choice but to eat some damage. This one fact annoyed me more than anything else in the game, from start to completion. 

Another interesting comparison lies in the way dashing a jumping works. When it comes to dashing, Harmony of Dissonance is a hands down winner. Circle of the Moon requires the player to double tap left or right in order to dash, meaning that you frequently find yourself walking when you really need to run. This further means that you often will not jump as far or as high as you expected, as dashing increases the distance of both of these. On the other hand, Harmony of Dissonance has movement controls working quite well. At any time the player can hit R or L to dash right or left respectively, making it very easy to quickly move in and out of range of an enemy. What's more, you can dash in the same direction in very quick succession, making basic movement feel significantly faster, more involved and just all around fun. However, Harmony of Dissonance does not allow you to dash-jump, which is very strange and somewhat jarring. When jumping, you go the exact same speed through the air regardless of whether you were dashing or walking previously. This feels really strange when you spend some time dashing, immediately slow down when airborne, and then resume dashing when touching the ground. You lose all sense of momentum, and it feels like jumps don't go as far as they should.

Ultimately, the two games are profoundly different in a lot of ways, I just found these control differences really interesting. Circle of the Moon is significantly harder and contains many enemies and areas that feel downright unfair, and yet it's whip combat feels much better simply because you can better control your movement through the air. Running around Dracula's castle is significantly less bothersome and more fun because of how dashing works in Harmony of Dissonance, and yet as soon as your feet leave the ground things start to feel kind of gross and weird. In terms of skill set, Nathan Graves and Juste Belmont are almost identical, and yet controlling them feels almost completely different.