When we observe video games and part of what makes them challenging is the limitations put on the player while still allowing him to execute the best possible solution to the problem faced within said games. A failure to met the requirements to complete a task or a challenge in a game should lead into an undesired result of character death, which then would enforce the player to do better next time with the skills he has acquired from the said challenge.
The problem with above is that very few modern games have situations where there is no need for evolved eye-hand coordination, and failure to overcome the situation usually results in the player being respawned early on. This is not to say that old games were diamond hard pieces that are insanely difficult to overcome, this is a rose coloured picture of the past. This is to say that these games hard harsher limitations on the player and required more intended approach than just forcing your way through. To further elaborate let’s use an example. The Flying Medusa Heads in Castlevania we’re highly irritating obstacle even thou they were relatively weak. Add a guard that compensates their weaknesses and you have a stage design that requires the player to step up their game in order to survive to the end of the level. A lost life means returning to an earlier check-point and going through it again. Same thing if you lose to the level boss in most cases. Compare this to eg. Bioshock’s stage design (for the lack of better term here) where the player is able to continue in each of those pods every time he isn’t up to the challenge. The player can do this as many times as he wants as there is no lives to force him tackle the challenge. There is a level of safety in there, if you will, where the player might lose something by losing, but not all of it. Often these pods are littered everywhere, so there’s no actual loss outside some resources.
Super Robot Pinball is a good and easy example of a game that has a harsh limitation on the player; his ability to play the game well enough. There’s three balls/ lives theå player has, and losing those means Game Over. In order to the keep playing and advancing at the same time the player needs to overcome new challenges whilst juggling between Missions and main tasks, ie. hitting bumpers and defeating Enemy units. Losing one balls means resetting a lot of things and cutting the score multiplier. There’s no midpoints either, and the save you make when you need to take a break vanishes as soon as you load it. There’s no holding back here; it’s do or die.
Against this we have eg. Metal Gear Rising. While a game that I do like, it holds itself back. There’s pretty high amount of checkpoints overall, but losing against an opponent mostly throws very near the losing point, and losing in a boss battle just takes you back to the closest checkpoint, which may be one phase in the boss fight. The comparison fails when we look at the game design of Rising, and that it’s far too loose in terms of stage design and enemy placement to warrant any lives. Checkpoints could be more sparse, and outside the final boss battle (including the Metal Gear), is pretty much a stage on its own, the boss battles could reset to the beginning every time the player loses.
Doom is another example of Do or Die. There’s no middle ground there. If you’re not good enough, back to the beginning and try again. This is the main reason I can’t get into modern FPS games at all. There’s Quick Saves, mid-saves and all this crap that keeps holding the game back and not coming at me at full force. I’m not surprised that younger people than me prefer online-multiplayers, because the players don’t hold themselves back at all; they’re coming at you with the intention of beating your ass down. Single player games used to be like this on the consoles and in arcades. There’s also something I frequently discussed with my friends was that while the a single-player game has one solution only, a multiplayer game’s solutions change from player to player. I can’t fault this logic, unless we argue that making a game’s AI opposition completely random would result in far more varying gameplay to the extent that human opponent can’t do. Of course, this would lead into people calling such a product either completely unfair or too easy depending how bullshit the AI randomiser could be. There is few examples of single player games that apply changes how it behaves according to the player, and the most prominent example of this by far is Zanac.
Zanac is a game designed to counter the player’s way of playing the game. Depending what weapon the player had, the game would pick up the enemy and sub-enemy types that would be able to counter the weapon. This wouldn’t happen instantly thou, as the game keeps account how many times the player ship shoots. With certain amounts the game lifts the difficulty a bit, and changes the enemy type to go with. The variety of weaponry thus forces balancing and managing shooting, changing weapons and pacifistic approach. Zanac and it’s sequel Zanac X Zanac are a rare species where the player can play extensive meta-game with the AI system if they are able get in-depth experience and information. Otherwise, the game will become quite challenging to those who mainly just stick with their favourite guns and go out in a blazing glory. While it would be possible to repeat every game in a similar fashion, the human variable here changes the game elements to a large extent. This kind of player-dependant challenge is not really seen in many genres outside shooting games, and even then only few of them use this sort of ranking system. In modern games only Cave seems to incorporate ranking systems in variety of successes in their products.
What I see as the largest difference between the game design is that perhaps the core itself is yet to mature. During the haydays of arcade every new machine had something new and tried to take away the thunder of their competition. There was a huge amount of evolution in two dimensional game design during the 80’s and early 90’s. With the advent of 3D game design, it too began to go through multiple evolutions… to a point. It could be argued that the three dimensional game design is yet to achieve certain point. To illustrate this with Zelda, compare the amount of active playing the player does in most 2D Zeldas, especially with Zelda 1 and 2, in comparison to 3D Zeldas. There is a lot of empty and non-active playing in Zelda, from riding Epona through an empty field of absolutely nothing to do outside one or two enemies or secrets to find in comparison to Zelda 1’s fields with loads of enemies and secrets in almost every screen. If two people spent an hour with Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda respectively, the amount of active playing would be higher with the one playing The Legend of Zelda.
Of course, this applies very much to console gaming, as PC gaming has been more lax in this regard. This is but one difference between PC, arcade and console gaming and we should embrace it more.
Single player games demand high skill in game design. Multiplayer games can be left for the player community sort it out, especially in modern online era, where balance and bug patches are easy to distribute. One player games demand from the very start meticulous approach in order to get it right, as the player skill against the computer will be taken into account. An enjoyable game offers a fair challenge, but also manages to make your blood boil and give you an adrenaline rush, be it single player or not. While there are those who see that lives are just an old relic from the arcade days, not using them in a smart way has been more damaging to the overall game design than not using them at all.
It would be sad to hear that with modern gaming no player tries to find multiple solutions to a challenge without outside influence. There are always multiple ways to tackle a challenge in games, if it’s properly designed.