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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A Study in Video Game Genre Mash-Ups: Indie Game Recs

For most of what I can remember while growing up playing video games, it felt like the idea of mashing up distinct genres into a single game was somewhat frowned upon. And that’s not entirely unfair, in all honesty. Some larger studios especially often take a “throw it all in” approach that can leave titles feeling like a collection of unfocused or half-baked ideas. And even if they are pulled off somewhat well, it can still feel really confusing for players as to why, say, a Sonic the Hedgehog game needed a fishing game mode that clashes pretty severely with the main gameplay.

But just like every other design decision that a game studio can make, it’s just another tool in the toolbox, and it can be done well! The answer to those two problems seems pretty obvious, in retrospect: limit your focus to just what you feel you can do well, and only include the new elements if you can find a natural way to connect it to the game’s main idea. I want to focus today on some of the different approaches that games can take to pull off a natural feeling genre mash-up, specifically through the lens of a couple of indie games that have managed to walk that tightrope and come out of the experience with some brilliant games.

Experimenting with Genre: Yoku’s Island Express, Villa Gorilla
Yoku’s Island Express starts with a pretty basic idea for a set up: it’s a Metroidvania* with an enchanted tropical island aesthetic and filled with cute talking animals where you play as the island’s new postman, a tiny dung beetle. There are plenty of Metroidvanias these days though, so developer Villa Gorilla decided to add a twist to the formula. And sometimes, the most interesting twist on an idea you can do isn’t to append something new and complicated, but instead to remove something fundamental to the concept and then try and build it back up without that.

*Refresher: A 2D platformer with a focus on exploring a large map rather than traveling one direction in a straight line, where new abilities you find over the course of the game allow you to explore to new or previously-inaccessible areas. If that doesn’t tell you enough, see here for a more description.

Yoku decided to remove jumping from their Metroidvania, and for a genre that emphasizes exploring in four directions and using pits to impede progress, that meant there had to be some form a replacement to allow a full range of exploration. And that’s where the second genre in the game comes in: for their experiment, Villa Gorilla combines the Metroidvania with pinball games.

As wild as that sounds, it makes for a natural pairing; instead of a button to make Yoku and his rolling ball jump, you instead get two flipper buttons that correspond to various architecture around the island, with different screens creating small virtual pinball tables. Mastering the controls and finding the full set of hidden abilities leaves you flipping over large pits and rocketing to new screens above you with ease, just like in a game with a jump mechanic. It’s incredibly fun to learn and use, and it’s the type of combination you’re only going to get when developers approach things from a new and unique angle like this.

This is also the creative impulse that led to the creation of the wonderful Crypt of the NecroDancer by Brace Yourself Games, where the developers took a traditional dungeon crawler formula, but decide to add a timer rather than giving players infinite time to make their next move. That timer comes in the form of the beat of a song, making it a rhythm game hybrid. I’d go into more depth, but it’s a few years older than the three focus points of this article, and I might be doing a longer piece soon on their incredible follow-up that came out a few weeks ago.

Recreating an Experience: Battle Chef Brigade, Trinket Studios
I wrote about this one a while ago, but I really like it and wanted to go a little more in-depth. And it even got a big update that added a lot of content to it a bit ago, so it’s definitely still relevant!

The set-up to Battle Chef Brigade is the type of “new, offbeat approach to a familiar setting” that I love to see, and the type of thing that smaller media like indie games or comics excel at delivering. Simply imagine your standard epic fantasy world setting, complete with monsters, magic, knights, and all of that. Now, instead of a standard epic fantasy storyline, imagine what their cooking competitions are like.

Much like Yoku’s island world is built with architecture to imitate the pinball table parts it needs, the world of Battle Chef Brigade is lovingly crafted around this central hook, with a story centered around the kingdom’s highest order of chef-knights and one young apprentice’s hopes to prove herself and join their ranks. And just like the story, the gameplay is built around trying to bring this premise to life.

Which brings us to its unique combination of beat-‘em-ups and match-three puzzle games. As a fan of both of those genres, there generally just isn’t a lot of overlap in ways to combine them. But because of Battle Chef’s knight-chefs, there’s a natural connection point that prevents it from just being fantasy chess-boxing where you jump from one thing to another.

Your cookware is represented as the puzzle board, with the various ingredients taking the shape of the blocks that you need to match. Stirring those pieces around, keeping them in the ideal places, and combining them with complimentary ingredients all improve the meal’s taste, winning you more points from the judge. Where it differs from other tile matching puzzle games is that, as a combination knight-chef, you also go around collecting those foods that go into the dish: the puzzle pieces you get to drop into your frying pan/game board are the raw ingredients you win in the field from hunting various magical plants and monsters, which you take down via traditional beat-‘em-up fighting combos.

In addition to creating a multifaceted experience to imitate the feel of this fantasy role, that connection between the two halves allows for further depth of strategy that otherwise wouldn’t be present. Instead of sitting around and waiting for the I-block that you need like in Tetris, you can go out and find the level-two red piece you’ve been looking for (provided that you’ve been memorizing the ingredients that the monsters you fight drop, along with their movement patterns to avoid their attacks).

And even the balance of the two sides becomes part of the strategy; what’s the optimal balance of hunting time versus food preparation? Is it better to take one big trip and draw inspiration from the food you find, or multiple small ones looking for specific things?

None of this even gets into the game dipping its toes into other areas, like narrative games (the story mode of the game is really fun as well!) or RPG like elements (you can buy different cookware as you progress in the story that allows you to cook in different ways, but you can only take so many things into a showdown). But all of that works though because the central game loop is built around such a fun mash-up.

Building a Narrative: The Messenger, Sabotage Studio
This is a subtler one, since the two genres in question are “traditional platformer”* and “Metroidvania” and the latter is technically a form of platformer, but I think the gameplay shift is very noticeable given that Metroidvania is such a distinct subcategory, and it does have an effect in how the game goes, so I’m sticking to it.

*I wish there was a better term for this, but I’m not aware of one, so I guess this is the best I can do for now to describe a platformer like Mario, that focuses on travelling unidirectionally on a more or less fixed path without much exploring.
The Messenger starts with a straightforward setup, if somewhat unconventional in its specifics: you’re a ninja in a small village on a fantasy island that has been overrun by demons. When the long-prophesied hero from the west arrives, he passes off his scroll to you, telling you to continue his mission and take the scroll for delivery to someone on the east end of the island who can help turn the tide in the demon war.

And so, you set off, running perpetually to the right...err, “east” of the screen, trekking across the different biomes of the island, running into a variety of different characters, and picking up equipment to help you pass the new obstacles in each level. Still, there are weird things in the journey, like the numerous obstacles that you never get anything to deal with, or the Demon King’s castle being relatively far “west” in your journey.

And then, halfway through the game, you find the time travel mechanic advertised in the trailers, taking the game into full Metroidvania mode. There are certainly interesting ways this affects the gameplay, with your knowledge from the first half informing how you traverse the newly-opened-up world. In that sense, it does fall partly into the first category (removing the navigating involved in Metroidvania games from the first half does affect the gameplay, although that by itself feels slightly more limiting, in a way).

What makes it different (and helps make up for that initial lack of freedom and exploring) is that The Messenger also ties this shift into its story. That there is time travel, and that it affects gameplay, isn’t really a spoiler. But that shift has other effects that give the game a lot of heart and charm, and changes a lot of story expectations you build up in the first half. Character moments teased in the first half come back in the second. How the world and story works is affected. Jokes pay off.

Of course, The Messenger is hardly alone in this; plenty of stories in other media have followed this playbook. But as a game, The Messenger can also apply this formula to gameplay elements not present in other forms of media. Using things you learn in the twist, you can discover entire hidden levels, which really adds to the surprise and sense of discovery in the player. A lot of the character twists that come up accompany side quests to progress the game. It’s a bunch of cool little stuff like that, which really makes me appreciate the game even more. The two distinct halves almost give the feel of a game delivering its own sequel that recontextualizes the original, within the body of the original.

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