This is a somewhat different entry from my usual video games stuff. Less Kaiju focused and instead focusing on an aspect of action game design in the context of classic Wii game Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. I hope you enjoy it!
Ever since the dawn of the home video game system, developers have been seeking out increasingly diverse and devious ways to hold players attention spans (often for the purpose of long-tail monetization). You see, when we transitioned away from the arcades and into the home console era, playing games shifted from spending a quarter for a quick burst of action to paying $60 for what you would expect to be a sizable, lengthy experience. The best genre for keeping people playing for the longest amount of time (and thus perceived value) is the RPG, and now every game worth its salt has incorporated RPG mechanics to pad out their game systems. No genre is safe.
For some genres, this is incredibly effective. Adding experience, loot and turn based battles to the puzzle formula is basically the only thing keeping match 3 puzzles alive on mobile phones (though that might be changing with the rise of esports).
However, when RPG mechanics begin trickling into action games, we start to see some questionable outcomes. This is because action games and RPGs are two genres that, at their purest, are utterly and diametrically opposed to one another.
In RPGs, players control an on-screen avatar who exists separate to themselves. This avatar performs actions and gains experience points to perform those actions better over time. The only way to take on more difficult challenges in an RPG is to level up that character avatar and increase its stats (strength, dexterity, health, defense, etc). This allows it to take more blows and deal damage more efficiently.
This is a process that happens, effectively, independent of the player. While there is some skill in combat and navigation, the majority of the growth happens to the avatar. Key to the appeal of the RPG is that you’re always making progress- even killing the weakest enemy gains you some experience so you can always feel like you’re moving forward. It’s like tending to a garden, where simply watering and leaving plants alone will allow them to grow.
However, as we know, action games are nothing like this.
At their purest, action games ask the player to develop themselves. You are given the toolset and you are the character. You can’t get stronger by levelling up through an arbitrary system, you must ‘level up’ yourself by mastering hand eye coordination, reaction time, pattern recognition, and resource management in real time. The best action games can be executed flawlessly- in theory. Progress in action games is limited only by the human player’s ability to use the static toolset supplied by the game itself.
If playing and RPG is like coaching and training a team of basketball players, then playing an action game is to play basketball itself. This is the beauty of great action games- you learn to play them like you would an instrument, and a beautiful mix of muscle memory and pattern recognition lead you into that oh-so-wonderful state of ‘flow’ that game designers love waxing poetic about.
However modern action games have shed the purity of their forebears. Where old school shooter and beat-em-up games like Contra and Streets of Rage gave you a static set of tools to master that you used for the whole game, their modern counterparts slowly give you more skills, more health, optional equipment, loadouts, loot and currency.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, and Doom 2016 all have these systems in some way or another and are fantastic action games. Stellar, frankly. But it can be said that these additional RPG systems are extraneous. In fact, these systems make it feel like the game has training wheels until it stops doling out upgrades. Why do I need to unlock moves in Bayonetta? Does this really contribute to the experience? Does the enemy and level design even really account for it?
This is where the refreshing purity of Sin and Punishment: Star Successor comes in.
Sin and Punishment: Star Successor might be the last ‘pure’ AAA action game. There are no upgrades, no stat increases, no experience points. Only a handful of skills to master and an absolute boatload of incredible scenarios for you to test them in.
The controls are elegant- aim with the Wii Remote, move with the nunchuk, dodge with ‘Z’ and use the ‘B’ trigger to both shoot and attack (hold for shooting, tap for a 3-hit combo). You can also hold the ‘A’ button for an auto-locking charge shot that can stun most enemies/bosses. The melee attack can be used to reflect projectiles, and they will fly to where your cursor is pointed, allowing you to target any enemy on the screen with a powerful reflected attack (that offers bonus points).
So essentially, move and shoot. The same basics as the original action game: space invaders. And Sin and Punishment brings the same intense action of the shmup/STG genre to the 3D space with the greatest success.
The story of the game follows Isa, a human, and Kachi, an alien as they try to escape the oppressive ‘Creators’ and their group of commanders known as the Nebulox. The plot has some commentary about what it means to be human (Kachi merely takes a human form because she prefers it), and self-determination, but is not explicitly tied to the action on-screen. It serves to give enough motivation to move through the game and accompanies an incredibly lush world.
The scenarios on hand in Sin and Punishment are stunning. From crumbling cities filled with swarms of creatures and mechs, to dark, haunted woods teeming with skeletons and yokai-inspired monsters. Sin and Punishment doesn’t pull any punches when it comes aesthetic appeal and even 10 years on it’s a gorgeous Wii game running at a rock-solid 60fps.
The enemy variety is incredible, too. I’m sure you kaiju fans were wondering when I’d mention it- yes, the game has several gigantic creatures to fight including a giant turtle with a volcano on its back, a massive eel, and a humongous space centaur. You never know what you’ll run into next.
And this variety and depth extends through to the gameplay.
Sin and Punishment keeps its player mechanics relatively simple, and instead fills its scenarios to the brim with all manner of fresh ideas. In one level you are on top of a moving train, meaning that if you fly you will lose inertia and fall prey to the monster behind you, this forces you to move along the ground and be strategic about how you advance. In another, security lasers limit your flight path, forcing you to dodge and weave as you fly through the space. In yet another the perspective switches to a sidescroller as you fight screen-filling robots in an ancient temple.
The boss designs are brilliant as well. One of them is a straight-up bullet hell fight, another has you playing a falling-block puzzle as you try to survive, and another unlocks the camera letting you freely circumambulate a tower spewing flame and bullets.
Star Successor exemplifies the joy of pure action game design. The talent and craft required to stretch a small set of mechanics across a multi-hour game is no small feat, and requires mastery of audiovisial, ludonarrative and scenario design. Star Successor represents action game masters Treasure operating at their peak. From a macro perspective, the entire game encourages you to learn and master every skill and tool available to you with enough variety and excitement to keep you engaged, cluminating in a final boss rush that crescendos with sheer bullet hell. From a smaller perspective each level follows a perfectly pitched pacing graph, introducing new concepts and gimmicks while gently increasing the challenge based on what you have learned beforehand. And on the total micro perspective, each action is paced and balanced to maximize the potential for depth and mastery. Simply aiming and moving at the same time, maximizing your charge shots, keeping up your bonus multiplier, and timing your melee attacks requires nuance and decision making. From the smallest mechanic to the grandest idea, this game is a carefully measured and balanced experience. Heck, you can even choose to play with a regular controller instead of a Wii Remote, and to address balance concerns the developers changed the DPS of the gun to account for quicker reaction times available to Wii Remote players.
Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is an absolute joy from its first minute to its last, and offers a brief glimpse at what pure action looks like with a big budget. I seriously doubt we’ll ever get shooting game with this much polish again, so savour it while you can.
I suppose I should also mention this is a sequel to the N64 game Sin and Punishment, which is fantastic in its own right. Maybe I’ll do a future blog post on that classic as well.