Question of the Month: September 2018 edition — Later Levels

It’s time for a new Question of the Month, one which will see us attempt to answer a quandary that has been puzzling the gaming community since they were distracted by a three-headed monkey standing behind them. But first let’s find out who won August’s challenge! The winner Last month, Brandon from That Green Dude […]

via Question of the Month: September 2018 edition — Later Levels

Kim at Later Levels has posted September 2018’s monthly question, from Adventure Rules‘ Robert Ian Shepard:

You’ve been tasked with making the Ultimate Video Game, but there’s a catch – you can only piece it together from parts of other releases. You can choose separate titles for visual design, sound design, storytelling, and gameplay. What four games would you use to make the Ultimate Video Game?

A key point here is that the task isn’t to construct my dream game, but the ultimate video game overall. Therefore, I can separate my own tastes and interests in order to make a more general consideration of what that would be.

To begin with visual design, I’m selecting Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Released in 1997, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a retro throwback to side-scrolling 2D games. However, some 3D graphics are used at certain moments sparingly, like spells or simple animations. The result is a perfect combination: the 2D graphics are minimalist and simple, which create an atmosphere and provide information to the player without being overwhelming; the 3D is used sparingly enough to be effective during particular moments without seeming out of place. Plus, the dark, moody lighting creates a Gothic atmosphere that establishes an identity unique from other, more generic side-scrolling 2D platform games. Yet the shadows don’t look superfluous, integrated into the light naturally, the sprites appear to be animated with more frames than the average and the varying shades of light add more layers to the backdrop, which has no problem demonstrating its parallax. The reason that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is so popular still is perhaps because the visual approach was made more difficult to achieve than it needed to be but by being achieved is therefore all the better for it. You wouldn’t think that combining brooding shadows with a 2D side-scroller would work as a visual design, but Castlevania: Symphony of the Night proves that such a vast contrast can work. And the sprites themselves are more detailed than most, because they never set their own limits. Instead, they’re defined character designs that are rendered in that medium rather than being preset to that medium to begin with. As a result, the sprites in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are far superior to those of other games in the genre.
No wonder the now holds up more than its initially more advanced contemporaries. As a retro throwback, it was already dated, therefore dates better than most other games. It may not be the kind of game that I typically play, but even I want to hang some screenshots on my wall.

For sound design, I’m taking Final Fantasy VII. This game is generally considered to be the watershed moment for video game musical scores as the first one to prove that they can be taken seriously. The game itself busts out in numerous directions during the non-linear narrative, which provided the opportunity for the most important musical score ever composed for a video game. It fuses as many different styles and tones and the game yet is blended together with a consistent, unifying vision that brings it all round into one single thing. Now I’m a Final Fantasy virgin, so it says a lot that listening to Final Fantasy VII‘s most iconic tracks moved me. All of a sudden, I understood its complex emotions; its dreadfulness, gentleness, pump, drive, twinkliness, intensity and anxiousness.

In storytelling, I’m taking Chrono Trigger. Whereas video games are now either a linear story with little space for player experimentation or an open world game that is heavy on quantity and lite on quality, Chrono Trigger is the happy medium by funnelling those two distinct types into one game. Instead of exploring or advancing, you’re doing both at the same time. Essentially, the open world is changing depending on the player’s choices and the narrative is laid down in front of them as they go with little being on the table until it’s happening. Different time periods function as different worlds, with decisions made in one influencing the history of those that would chronologically follow. That means that each playthrough of the game means the potential for a different version of the story, in-which different things are learned about particular characters, who develop in different ways. The player’s choices shape the characters’ possibilities destinies, of which there at least 12 – and I thought Grand Theft Auto V having three possible endings was neat. There’s more plot in this game than any other game, yet it’s perfectly organised and structured. Time travel narratives have the potential to be the best stories because they use their own medium to unlock new possibilities. A time travel story being well-told makes it great by its own nature. And similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the NightChrono Trigger‘s transtemporal premise makes it timeless.

Finally, for game play, I’ll take Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. This may be if only for the controls’ responsiveness, which lends the game a sense of flow. Video game combat may appear spontaneous, but is, by nature of the medium, turn based – even if it doesn’t appear that way structurally. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is recognised for having unusually reactive combat mechanics that keeps the combat interesting throughout, rather than become a boring necessity. That, and that, as you level-up to a certain point, you can also change your style of gameplay, which keeps things fresh.
Other than that, I don’t really care much for gameplay so long as it doesn’t have any particular faults.

So there you have it. The game limbs I’m stealing for my own zombie game: the visual design of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the sound design of Final Fantasy VII, the storytelling of Chrono Trigger and the gameplay of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. If there’s one secret to success in the entertainment industry, it’s to recycle something popular that’s already been done before – and probably to much better effect, too.


On the same day this article was written, PlayStation announced that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is now available for pre-order on PlayStation Store.

Published by Alexander Sigsworth

Writing about Herobrine in The Characters That Define Us at Normal Happenings. Profile photo chosen for Gamers Blog Party: Summer 2019 at Later Levels. Known as the Purple Prose Mage at the Well-Red Mage.

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  1. A game with Final Fantasy VII’s score that tells stories like Chrono Trigger? Heck yes! I think it’s cool that you approached this as “everyone’s ultimate video game” rather than your personal one, as I think a lot of people took the other approach. I can certainly see how this would appeal to so many!

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