Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Landstalker Wrap-up

Having finished Landstalker, my conclusion is that it is a game from another era. I mean, obviously, right, but other games from that same period, like Super Mario World still feel surprisingly contemporary. It comes down to things like the turn-around time from failing a challenge to retrying a challenge, the frequency and ease of saving the game, the opacity of the mechanics - small quality of life stuff that you don't even notice until it's gone.

I think there's a tendency in modern games (with the exception of a few deliberate throwbacks) to assume forward progress, to take steps to ensure that you're not unnecessarily repeating content. Landstalker doesn't do that. Even with save states, there were certain jumps and puzzles I had to repeat a half dozen times or more. And had I been playing the last half of the game "straight", working my way back up through the dungeon levels when I missed a jump, resetting puzzles by exiting and reentering rooms, backtracking through the entire dungeon when I needed to stop playing and go to sleep, then I almost certainly would have given up entirely at hour 20 and probably still have been wandering through Destel caves besides.

Which leaves me in an awkward position. I found Landstalker amusing enough once I started abusing save states (and before I needed to use save states at all). However, I really did abuse them. If I'd been merely aiming to simulate a more modern game experience, I'd have used them sparingly, at the beginning of each room, so that I'd still have to do the entire series of jumps and puzzles in one go, but I really did use them as a ratchet. Whenever it was safe to take my fingers away from the controller long enough to press F5, I'd do so, in the oft-successful hope of only having to repeat part of a sequence of challenges. I think, of all the platformers I've played in my life, only Braid has been so forgiving - and that used your ability to rewind mistakes as a both a theme to the story and a major gameplay mechanic.

So I don't know whether, if I'd played the game "honestly," I would have enjoyed it or not. What it is is a big, confusing maze of a game, where it's not always clear what you're supposed to be doing, and sometimes, even when it is clear, the thing you're supposed to be doing is so difficult that you can't believe that is really the intended solution. For example, there was this one jump you needed to do to get an extra Life Stock. It involved jumping on a switch, then immediately jumping, in the space of just a couple of frames, onto a platform that lasted less than a quarter of a second, and then jumping from that platform up to a treasure chest.  The window of opportunity there was so narrow that I felt certain I was missing a crate to hold the switch down, so I looked it up in a guide and, nope. All you had to do to get that thing was make a completely perfect jump with machine-like timing.

And you kind of have to respect that level of dedication to a premise. Someone, somewhere made a decision that the later levels of Landstalker would force you to be an expert at the game's mechanics, and they never swayed from that. It's got the sort of vaguely insular quality of a game that was made for its makers.

Which is exactly what one would expect from a game made before the internet, before the explosion in gaming as an artform, where it became required of all prospective game designers to have at least passing familiarity with the hundred other games most like their own lest they appear to be culturally illiterate.

But I don't think Landstalker could be made today, not even by the most nostalgic of indie designers. On the surface, it is a cute and colorful story about elves and sprites and sarcastic villains and ditzy princesses, but in it's heart, it is a game that needs to be attacked. You don't really play this game (at least, not after around the half way point), you go to war with it. And while there are plenty of modern games that proudly flaunt their unforgiving difficulty, these games don't present themselves as charming little Zelda-style adventures. The designers of today know better than that.

And the makers of Landstalker clearly didn't. Which makes it very interesting as a historical artifact, even if I would never dare to recommend it without caveat. When I started playing it, I was worried that I was motivated by nostalgia, but now that I'm done, I can say nostalgia is the best reason to play this game. It has a lot to offer on its own merits, particularly if you use save states wisely, but it's not going to illuminate or inspire unless you come to it looking for a window into the past. Landstalker offers a glimpse into a world where the essential gaming social contract has not yet been written. It's the sort of game you chip away at. The sort of game where you make notes about the puzzles, map the dungeons on graph paper, and play the same levels so many times they become like reflex.

Before I chickened-out, I was beginning to stretch gaming muscles that haven't been used in years . It was enough to convince me that I never want to go back, but still, occasionally, it's nice to be reminded where you came from.

No comments:

Post a Comment