Last week I was having a coffee with @pctroll and we were discussing about a really bad game we tried and how other games, like Star Fox, did a better job communicating with the player.
It’d be better to play the level, but here’s a handy video of said level in the 3DS remake of the game:
Here are some of the most important concepts we managed to capture.
After some cut-scenes and introduction to the plot, the first level begins.
The first thing the player sees is an open sea and an enemy coming far away and from above; an easy catch. The player has been introduced to the basics of the game: an on-rail shooter.
After this (very) brief introduction, two other enemies (of the same type as the first) appear in the middle of the screen at about the same distance. They are perhaps as easy to destroy as the one before and teach yet another lesson: enemies can come in groups.
There’s a shift now, two new enemies appear very close to the player. They are, however, backwards and begin to rotate towards the camera, just enough time to be destroyed. Big lesson here: enemies can come from anywhere, so you must keep sharp.
The next wave expands upon the previous ones and presents two pairs of ships coming far away from each side of the screen. The group on the left is the first to shoot, instinctively making the player focus its attention to it. While destroying them, the second group attacks and falls back, giving the player the opportunity to shoot them down, not without leaving first something new on-screen, a power-up, that is layed out in the path of the player, making it an easy catch. Not everything in the level is hazardous.
Slippy (one of your partners) now enters the frame, trying to evade an enemy that locked him in. Your partners are not there for decoration, they will need help from time to time. Also notice that there are no other enemies on-screen as the player must focus only on this event.
Here ends the first third of the level. Fox now exits the open sea and is ready to enter the city of Corneria. This is no coincidence, this first bit was designed to teach the basics of the game; because it was a sea, there were no obstacles or any other kind of stuff the player could get distracted with. The focus was on presenting the rules of the show, everything at its due time.
The entrance to the mainland begins with a narrow path between mountains, with five enemies coming from behind, shooting in front of the player’s path; no real harm here, just a reminder that enemies *will* come from anywhere.
The first thing that can be seen upon entering the city is a big tower in the middle of the screen, which forces the player to move away from the center. Before arriving to this point, four enemies block the way of the player. The destruction of this wave presents the first silver ring of the game, an easy pick. And right after this, a little open gate appears with a ring inside, an invitation to pass through it as the player just say these things are like collectibles or something fun to pass through.
Now, the gates right at the left can be shoot and contain the second type of power-ups available: the bomb.
Further down the road, the same power-up shown at the beginning is presented again. But there’s a catch, it is placed right below a building that is incidentally being pushed down by a new type of enemy. The lesson tought here is that there are certain points in the level that represent a trade-off that the player must decide whether to try or not. Best case scenario, the item is recovered and the moving obstacle evaded; worst case scenario, the ship may get the item but is certainly hit by the obstacle (something that could destroy it if low on HP.)
Following this, more enemies will come from behind and a teammate and a visual cue onscreen will suggest to decelerate using the brakes. A building-pusher-enemy is also right in front to suggest that maybe the player should reduce its velocity. More obstacles fall, just as a reminder.
Another teammate rescue bit appears, this time it’s Falco. He appears suddenly into the screen so it may startle the player, who might shoot him as a reflex; same as with Slippy, there’s friendly fire in the game so you must better watch out.
Now comes the famous DO A BARREL ROLL!!!
Here ends the second third of the level and the player returns to the water. This time there are rock ring structures in it, somewhat reminiscent of the silver rings. Although there are a couple of water-sliding enemies, this is a piloting challenge to see who’s able to pass through all the rings. Whoever completes the challenge will unlock an alternate path in the level; hopefully it won’t be anyone playing for the first time (as the rings structures are no quite a piece of cake). Now, I don’t recall if this is 100% correct but, if my memory serves me well, following the default pathway of the level does include being surpassed by the would-be alternate boss, who goes above the cascade where the alternate path resides. It may hint the player that there are other things happening in the level that should require another playthrough.
Whichever the path the player chooses, it’s revealed that after a level comes a boss fight.
One last element I’d like to mention is the visual design of the game. Power-ups and rings have a completely different design from the obstacles, enemies or world decoration. They are meant to stand out and be recognized as something that desires to be reached.
Tadaa! The game teaches the player how to play using both implicit (game, art and level design) and explicit (onscreen messages, visual cues and radio chats) methods. And, more importantly, it did it without expecting the reading of a physical manual, a help screen on the pause menu or any other lousy way. The first and second thirds of Corneria contain teachings distinctively separated from each other and structured in a way to keep the focus on what’s important. In other words, there’s no need to rush the player into anything.
We also believe that not everything is great, there are some minor flaws that we consider wrong, but ultimately we have no way to check if they were done on purpose.
The first one is just as the level begins. The status window occludes a critical portion of the screen, making the first enemy almost invisible; maybe that’s why the enemy comes from over the screen.
The second one is when reaching the hidden position of the first bomb, nearly after entering the city. The issue here is that the player must shoot an obstacle; a new (and important) concept to the player that is presented in an optional path that could be taken or not.
Star Fox may not be the best game around but it’s certainly a great example of how to convey information and teach the player while trying not to be (so much) obnoxious or intrusive.
It’s great to be able to study and learn as an adult from what you enjoyed in your childhood :)