Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Discussion #1 - Power-ups

One of the many things that I will be doing for the Gaming Journalist Gazette will be general discussions. I will submit my opinions on the featured topics and I encourage discussion from the comments section of this blog. As I go along, I will be numbering these discussions to keep track of how many topics I have posted and I intend to bring up a variety of topics that will surely intrigue readers.

For my first discussion I would like to talk about one of the most basic things in a video game that has been around for a long time. We see it in platforming games and we know right away what their purpose is for being in the game. Having a character advance through a level is exciting, but imagine having to guide that character through a level without receiving any benefits during the action. Imagine trying to get through a level with a character that doesn't change its status throughout the entire process. Imagine trying to advance through levels with a limited health bars, and to be specific, let's say that you can only take 3 hits before you lose a life. You would have liked to have something to carry around that would enable you to advance further through a level but that just wasn't available in the game you played. That's a real bummer.

I am talking about the power-up. What does a power-up do? A power-up is a tool that enhances the gameplay experience for a gamer. A power-up is an addition to your in-game character that will help that character get through the stickiest of situations in a level. A power-up improves the status of the character and it gives the character a fighting chance to succeed. Power-ups happen to be the most common items that you can collect in a game and in most cases they will prove to be useful for what lies ahead later on as you go deeper in the game.

From my personal experiences, I have valued power-ups dearly. I have noticed that by playing many games I have needed the help of a power-up to advance past a level. Having my character remaining in its original state has given me a series of problems as I progressed through the game because the levels of difficulty have gone up. If I don't allow my character to improve by way of power-ups then it will most likely be very difficult for me to complete the game. There is a term that gamers use to define an experience where they try to beat a game as fast as they possibly can, and that would be called a "Speedrun", and having to beat a game in a speedrun is a great challenge in and of itself. However, not everyone in the gaming world is accustomed to adapting to speedruns. Casual gamers just want to have a good experience in playing a game and they don't feel the need to rush through it. This is where power-ups come in handy.

One of the reasons why the Super Mario Bros. series took off as well it as did was because of the power-ups that Mario and Luigi could collect while blitzing through levels. Mario in his original state was only that of a tiny Italian plumber and if he got hit once as a tiny plumber then that was the end of the road for Mario. He falls off the screen while posing for the camera in a "I'm sorry!" fashion. In the 1980's, it was still being considered a novelty for a character to have a power-up in a game and with the introduction of the Super Mario Bros. series on the Famicom (or the Nintendo Entertainment System), the idea of power-ups would be accelerated. Power-ups bring something interesting to the table for a game because they allow the gamer to pay attention to the environment of a level. Power-ups remind the gamer to look around in a level if the gamer ever gets in trouble.

In a single game power-ups don't need to be limited to just one item, and that depends on the type of game a development team wants to present. Games can have almost a dozen power-ups if they are all properly handled. Power-ups need to vary in use. Every power-up needs to be assigned a different role to play in a video game so that they don't blend in with each other. Sometimes power-ups that are too closely related to each other and blend in with each other will confuse the gamer, which is something that isn't needed for the gaming experience.

Referring back to Super Mario Bros. games, the Mushroom allows Mario to grow into Super Mario, effectively giving him another hit to take. The Fire Flower allows Mario to shoot fireballs at his enemies. The Super Leaf allows Mario to fly, sporting a raccoon tail and raccoon ears. The Hammer Bro Suit allows Mario to throw hammers at his enemies, which does remind gamers of the Fire Flower but retains a distinct difference in how the action of throwing the hammers is used. Sometimes the power-ups in Mario games don't need to be found by hitting a question mark block. The Goomba's Shoe (also known as Guribo's Shoe) in Super Mario Bros. 3 can be found by running past a goomba that is trying to attack you with the shoe. You stomp on the goomba, take the shoe and away you go, comfortably walking on deadly spikes with protection for your feet.

Of course, there can be a downside to power-ups in games and I mentioned one of the drawbacks with the case of power-ups blending in with each other too much. There are some games that provide power-ups that bulk up the character way too much, and as a result the game becomes much more easy because the character you are controlling after collecting a power-up would be an overpowered juggernaut who can rarely get hurt. Power-ups are meant to give the characters aid but they are not meant to serve as gaming steroids. Game development teams need to make sure that their playable characters don't become too powerful or else this could inadvertently hurt the overall gaming experience.

Also, power-ups don't need to have any immediate physical impact on a character. Mario is used as an example because the power-ups he collects immediately impacts him on the physical end. Pac-Man is a different example. Pac-Man only needs to gobble up a big dot to weaken his enemies so that they are unable to chase him down. His enemies that are otherwise colorful will all turn to a single color (blue) and they will try to get away from Pac-Man. The big dot is a power-up that doesn't improve Pac-Man himself but it serves as a stumbling block for his enemies, giving Pac-Man a fighting chance.

Let's use another example. Power-ups are not limited to just helping a single character. Power-ups can be used to help an entire cast of characters at the same time. Team-themed games, which in most cases would be Role-Playing Games, feature power-up items that are specifically used to not only heal one character but the friends that one character goes along with as well. Whenever a team of characters are in a major bind in the heat of battle, power-ups can be used to aid the entire team so that no member of the team gets left behind because of low health. Some missions in team-themed games require the entire team to stay healthy or else they can't advance. Power-ups in this sense can be used as a great strategic tool, making the gamer think a little bit more about his or her actions in the game.

I will wrap up my take on power-ups with this; Power-ups are necessary even if they aren't mandatory. Power-ups give the gamer freedom to explore a level longer and give the gamer a deeper perspective on the gaming world he or she is investigating. Power-ups should be a helpful aid and not a hindering gaming steroid. Power-ups are tools for the gamer to use if the game isn't progressing through the game as smoothly as he or she once thought. The amount of power-ups available for a character in a game only depends on how unique all of them are and how much they differ from each other. If there are about 12 power-ups in a single game but they all have different purposes, then there shouldn't be a problem.

I welcome a discussion on the power-up. Take care.

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