Category Archives: Level Design

Retroing It Up With Oracle of Ages

The situation that I’d been referring to earlier is kinda sorted out, at least for now. So I’m back to a little bit of gaming. Sadly the only computer I have easily available to me right now is a tiny little netbook, so continuing the whole Morrowind thing is out of the question right now. In fact, most PC stuff isn’t really an option.

(Image originally from Zelda Wiki)So, instead, I decided to blow the dust off my old Game Boy Advance SP and play some Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons. I’d never finished the games, and I’d enjoyed what I’d played of them. Arguably my favorite Zelda game is Link’s Awakening, and the games are pretty much an extension of that game right down to the sprites and tiles; and since I prefer the 2D to 3D Legend of Zelda games anyway, the completion status of those old Game Boy Color games had been something that I’d want to look into.

(Next one may well be Minish Cap, though THAT one I can play on my DS if I want to. The Oracle games? Yeah, they’re Game Boy-only.)

You could argue that they aren’t “real” Zelda games, since they were made by Capcom “Flagship” subsidiary on Nintendo’s behalf. People do.  It isn’t something that I’d ever thought about, and for the first while replaying Oracle of Ages I’d dismissed it entirely. It’s Zelda! You’ve got Octoroks, you’ve got Moblins, you’ve got Sparks, what more do you want? I went through that first introductory dungeon, booted around outside a bit, finished the first real dungeon, booted around some more, travelled through time a bit, ran through the second dungeon, and had a grand ol’ time in the finest top-down Zelda tradition. Didn’t even have to deal with any of that repetitious gimmicky nonsense that mars the DS games.

Then I got to the boss of the second dungeon and had the whole “not Nintendo” thing just LEAP out at me. Hoo boy. In a game that I generally liked, this one stood out like a sore thumb.

First, it’s a side-scrolling jumping-style boss. That’s, um, not Zelda. Sorry, Zelda II aside, that just ain’t Zelda. I’m pretty sure that Link’s Awakening had that sort of thing, but I certainly don’t recall that any of the BOSSES were side-view battles. Link’s just not made for that sort of thing; the jumping is fine when you’re leaping over pits and whatnot, but there’s no fine control. It’s like playing Rastan or something.

In fact, if anything, it’s something like a Mario or Sonic boss. (Which makes sense, considering his name is “Head Thwomp“. What the hell is a Thwomp doing in a Zelda game?) You have to jump onto these floating platforms that are rotating around the boss and huck bombs into the opening on top of the the boss’s four spinning faces. Once you do, the rotation slows down and then stops; if you get the right face, you do damage. If you don’t, he goes nuts and tosses fireballs at you. Toss enough bombs in, and you may eventually win.

This fight sucked.  It sucked badly. It was nearly impossible to predict which face was going to come up, and little indication of any sort of correlation between which face was showing when the bomb got in (IF it got in; Zelda’s timed bomb mechanic didn’t exactly work well here) and the face that’d ultimately show when it stopped spinning. Maybe it was the same face. I couldn’t tell. I didn’t have time to sort it out; since this was such an early boss, I only had a few hearts, and so there was little room for error. As a LATE boss, this guy might make sense, since you’ll have some leeway to work things out. As it is, poor little Link will probably get roasted by those fireballs before most players even get their head around what the hell this thing is DOING in this game.

So, yeah, I died. Didn’t think much of it. It’s a Zelda, right? They get you RIGHT back to the end boss with ease if you die. No worries. Except, well, not this time. No, Flagship didn’t get that right at all. I had to cross over pretty much the entire dungeon, re-fighting a WHOLE lot of baddies, just to get to that fight. It didn’t even save the state of some of the fixed barriers related to the level’s whole mine cart system. They were reset to their original state, so it was necessary to go and do it all again. It took longer to get back to the boss than it had to die to him.

Sure, I beat him. But the whole thing stuck in my craw. Not so much the weird side-scrolling thing, but that return thing. It soured me on the experience, because it did something that Nintendo rarely does: it wasted my time for no good reason. That’s one of the reasons I really LIKE Zelda games; they don’t really make you backtrack much. One of the fondest moments in any Legend of Zelda game for me is getting through a whole bunch of barriers, getting a new item or key or whatever, and then finding myself right near the beginning again. Not only does it really give me a sense of completion and a sense that I’ve explored something, which is critical in any action-RPG, but it tells me that I don’t need to worry about having to redo things if I mess up. Having a quick route to the boss doesn’t seem like much, but it really does show care for detail and for the player’s experience, especially when you’ve got a save system as dodgy as the ones featured in Legend of Zelda games.

So I’ve moved on, and I’m on my way to the third dungeon. I’m hoping that this was just a minor setback; I remember enjoying what I played of Oracle of Ages, and am still looking forward to playing through the series again. But, yeah, I now get the whole “not Nintendo” thing. These aren’t mistakes that Nintendo would have made. They may be conservative, but they’re craftsmen. Even if they keep on milking their old franchises, you gotta give them respect for that.

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Harrowind: How the grand tour came to a grand end

Well, that ended pretty abruptly.

Yes, when last I chatted with you about Morrowind, I was talking about how the game had turned into a grand tour of all the different citie and whatnot, adn how I didn’t need to get off the beaten track much because the transportation systems were covering the bases. That ended.

See, one of the biggest factions in the game is the “Tribunal Temple”. They’re basically Morrowind’s state religion, dedicated to venerating the living(!) gods Almalexia, Vivec, and Sotha Sil. Their temples and holy warriors (called “Ordinators” are pretty much everywhere. Good people to know.

There’s a catch, though. Unlike the other factions which start you off easy, the Tribunal insists that you undergo a pretty epic pilgrimage to seven different shrines scattered across the continent. Fulfilling the pilgrimage was one of the reasons why I’d been DOING my grand tour, as most of the shrines were easily accessible using a combination of various travel tactics. Barring one, all were either in town or a stone’s throw from town.

It was that ONE, though, that showed me that the tour had officially ended. It was the Ghostgate, and it was a doozy.

See, one of the things you notice pretty early on in modded Morrowind is the Ghostfence. It’s a magical wall surrounding the central area of the continent, a blasted wasteland with the gigantic Morrowind volcano at its center. It’s an obvious high-level area, and once I’d figured that out, I’d comfortably forgotten about it as I was doing my tour.

Eventually my tour took me to Ald’ruhn, which is the town with the gigantic crab carcass and a bunch of very surly locals. As I passed through, I found a woman who said that she needed an escort to the Ghostgate shrine. She was obnoxious, but I can always use more money to train, so off I went, taking a path that circled around the big magic fence and got us to the road leading in.

My first lesson in how Morrowind really worked was delivered on the way around to the mountain road: CLIFF RACERS ARE ASSHOLES. Imagine a suicidally aggressive pterodactyl crossed with the swarming tendencies of Africanized bees and you’re only getting halfway there. Sure, they could be taken down with a good spear shot or three, but that didn’t necessarily help when they were going after the person I was trying to escort! That’s my training money you’re harassing, you pseudo-avian jerks! Piss off!

Fighting them off, along with a few ground nasties, eventually somehow got us to the road to the ghostgate. I’ll give both Bethesda and the modders credit: it is BLEAK there. There are complaints floating around on the Internet saying that modded Morrowind looks too pretty and green considering how brutal the environment is supposed to be. I’m not sure whether the coastal regions fit that or not, but once I got to that central area, it was all business, and that business is making me feel like I’d missed The Bomb going off while getting up from the computer for a sec. Bunch of assorted nasties on the way up there, too,including more of the ubiquitous Evil Birds.

We get to the Ghostgate, and I breathe a sigh of relief. My magic’s gone, my energy’s gone, my (meagre) stock of potions and whatnot are gone, but we’re where we need to be, right? Just have to head over to the Temple and find the Shrine and I’m done my pilgrimage and done my escort and can raise my Mercantile ability enough to be able to get a decent price for something for a change. I’d gotten tired of people gouging my lizardy hindquarters.

Heading into the Temple, though, yielded absolutely nothing. Not a thing. Sure, they had loads of shrines, but they were just the little ones you donate money to when you want some buffs. No bigger shrines. I look a bit closer at my in-game and out-of-game sources, including the quest text for that buff and what my escort partner ACTUALLY says, and I realize that “Ghostgate shrine” is a cruel joke. The shrine isn’t at Ghostgate. The shrine is inside the huge magic wall. I had to go inside, to the part of Morrowind that had  all the things that the Dark Elves were literally sacrificing their afterlives to keep bottled up.

Luverly.

Making it even better, as I step out of the Ghostgate, I find that a gigantic sandstorm has blown up. It looks spectacular, and nails down that sense of place that’s so important in games like this, but it also means that you can barely see ten feet in front of you, especially with the mods configured the way they are. I hadn’t the foggiest idea how I was going to find this thing, beyond a few vague descriptions.

To Bethesda’s credit, they also made passage through to the other side a Really Big Deal. The passageway between the two sides is long and tiny, and has buttons to activate the two sides separately, giving the whole affair the look of a medieval castle’s murderhole arrangement combined with an airlock—which is apropos, considering the horrible diseases that everything on that side of the wall apparently carry. I pass through, and the storm gets WORSE; instead of a sandstorm, it turns a bloody red. Red skies, red ground underneath, lifeless alien environment; the whole thing looked  like I’d stepped out onto the sands of Mars instead of the fantasy equivalent of a Quarantine Zone.

It was daunting. Even worse, I had no idea beyond some vague directions about where I was supposed to go. I knew I needed to go…northeast? Northwest? Something like that. I also knew it wasn’t too far from the gate. But beyond that, nothing.

So picture me and my charge, wandering through a red sandstorm, wondering whether we’ll be getting this incurable “blight” disease, wondering whether I was supposed to do this later, and nervously anticipating getting my innards examined by whatever it was that was running around in here.

I did get in a fight, but it wasn’t what I expected. It was a rat. Not “just” a rat: it was a “blighted” rat, so I knew I had to keep my distance. What I wasn’t expecting was that “blighted” rats would be unholy difficult to kill, especially when yet more Cliff Racers and some weird thing that I don’t even have a name for were also trying to claw my Argonian’s tender bits. By the time I was done, I was half dead, and my charge didn’t look like she was doing too good either.

Finally, we found the Shrine we were looking for. It was just a little thing. I’m still not sure how I found it; I think I may have accidentally passed it by and then circled back in the storm and the fight. I got to the shrine, paid my respects, collected my cash, and then teleported the hell out of there as another swarm of Cliff Racers made their way towards us. I still have no idea whether my escortee got out. She probably just disappeared; video games do that. Maybe she’s still standing there. I don’t know.

It was nice to finally have that done, and I was able to raise my rank in the Temple’s hierarchy by a few levels based solely on that pilgrimage . It’s also pretty neat to finally be playing Morrowind the way I play Skyrim, where I make a point of seeing the environment instead of just quick-travelling arounnd.

But there ARE limits. If I do get other quests that take me in there, I think  I’ll pass them up for a while in favour of the more straightforward stuff. And I think I’ll let the Temple be for a while. House Telvanni needs my help. More on that next time.

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Travellin’ Morrowind: or “If this is Tuesday, this must be Tel Mora”

Well, this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Not from Morrowind, anyway. I think I’m somehow on tour.

Okay, bit of context. As I’d said in previous postings, I’ve acquired (perfidy!) and modded Morrowind, and finally settled in to play the game properly. No problem. And, for the first little bit, it was exactly what I’d expected: wandering through the wilds of Vvardenfell, fighting off beasties with a big spear and somewhat-untrustworthy magic, and making my way to the (relatively) big city of Balmora. I met my rep for the organization that was apparently responsible for the main plotline, the Blades…and discovered that my all-important quest was “go get a few levels or something, kid, we can’t use you as-is”.

That was new. All of a sudden there was NO main plotline to follow? Skyrim or Oblivion that ain’t. Heck, I can’t really think of an RPG that said “er, yeah, here’s a few bucks, go get some gear and levels and come back later”.

A bit nonplussed, I joined both the Fighters’ and Mages’ Guilds there, was bounced back from the Imperial Legion, and found out about the “Imperial Cult”, which is a faction supposedly tied to Skyrim’s various kinda-sorta gods. A few web sources implied that the Cult was a good way to start, and found out that the way to Morrowind’s Imperial capital of Ebonheart was best made by way of Vivec, Morrowind’s gigantic stepped-pyramid city.

I learned that I could port directly to Vivec from Balmora as a member of the Mages’ Guild. Great! That ability was one of the last ones you get in Daggerfall as a Mage’s Guild member, so it’s nice that it’s freely available now. I teleport to Vivec, get lost for a bit, and walk on over to Ebonheart. Joining the Imperial Cult was trivial enough, and I was given a few new quests. One was in town, but the others were in different towns. So I used a teleporter to get close, and then got on a boat, then got on a strider, to get to the town I need to. That led me to some of the OTHER factions, which gave quests in OTHER towns. So I used a strider, then used a boat…

…okay, you probably see the problem at this point.

Skyrim, at this point in the game, was already a bit of a dungeon crawler. Arena and Daggerfall were practically nothing BUT dungeon-crawlers. Morrowind, though, seems to be absolutely chock-full of quests and activities that take you from town, to town, to town, to town.  Sure, there are some that take you into dungeons or caves—I think—but most of it seems to be taking me from point A to point B, especially the beginner-friendly Imperial Cult stuff. So I’ve found myself on this grand tour of all the different towns and cities in the region, finding new destinations every time I reach one of my previous ones.

It’s weird, too, because it’s the last thing I was expecting. Morrowind is justly famous for not having any sort of quick-travel system beyond those boats and striders and mage guild teleporters. If you want to get somewhere outside of the town network, your options are pretty much limited to two feet and a heartbeat. You don’t even get that Skyrim-style destination marker, and dungeons aren’t marked on the world map at all. You have to remember where they are, or (more realistically) read it somewhere else.

I’m not sure if it’s bad or good. I don’t miss Daggerfall’s all-dungeon-all-the-time, but I do find myself missing the way that Skyrim gets you right into dungeon-crawling. I suspect that all this may be intentional, though, as a way of getting you around the island-continent and introducing you to all the different towns, cities, and factions in a way that I haven’t seen since Arena‘s whole Staff of Chaos thing. Oblivion, Skyrim, and Daggerfall never really do that.

Morrowind is also the sort of place you want to show off, too. Vivec is astonishing, in ways I’ve seen in no game made before or since, but so are places like Ald’Ruhn (built inside the shell of a city-sized emperor crab), the Canton-town of Molag Mor, and the stepped river-city of Balmora, and all those little towns and villages made out of a mix of familiar and alien building design.

Honestly, the first time I saw Sadrith Mora, it near took my breath away. The way that the home of the treacherous (and hysterically fun) Telvanni sorcerers is primarily made of gigantic, hollowed out, baroque towers of fungus just shows why people never really shut up about Morrowind, and why people put so much effort into modding it to keep it up with modern systems. My character ended up joining them just because it was EXACTLY the sort of stunning, impossible virtual environment that’s fun to hang out in. (Something that too few MMO designers understand.)

Skyrim is stark and beautiful, but I haven’t seen anything there that matches  Sadrith Mora, Ald’Ruhn, or Vivec. I doubt I will.

So, yeah, I can handle the tour. The dungeon-crawling and the main quest can wait. I’ve got an easy quest to deliver a skirt to an insane sorceress. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

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