The Mechanics of Movement in Games

The Mechanics of Movement in Games

The Mechanics of Movement in Games is important!

The year is 1996, you’re playing Tomb Raider on PlayStation, and you need to jump between 2 platforms. What do you do? First you have to line up the jump by walking to the edge. Then you have to give yourself a run up. You then sprint to the edge of the platform and hold the jump button knowing that Lara will leap after exactly 2 more steps, then in mid air you have to hold a different button to reach out and grab the other platform. You must keep this button held as Lara Pulls herself up on the other side. That’s a stark difference to the way Lara moves in her more recent games. She now has a media acceleration and an ultra-responsive jump, so you don’t need to run up anymore. You can move her in mid air, so you don’t need to line up the jump. She automatically reaches out for platforms and grabs them, so you don’t need to press another button.

To some, the old way will seem clunky and frustrating. The more modern controls, which were brought in when Crystal Dynamics rebooted the series with Tomb Raider: Legend, a much more palatable and accessible. Of course there’s a lot of truth to that. Tomb Raider 1 operated on an unrealistic grid system. It was designed for a digital input, and it was the result of a developer’s first unrefined grasp at working in a 3D space.

I think we also lost something in the transition to the ultra-simple traversal controls we see in games like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted. The old system demanded expertise. You became a master of the controls, like how you learn to subconsciously flick-trick in and out a very grind and manual in Tony Hawks. You had to act deliberately and with intention, like dare I say it, Dark Souls. In Tomb Raider leap across a giant chasm is almost as terrifying and rewarding as it would be in real life. Whereas that exact same jump in the decade later remake Tomb Raider: Anniversary is so bereft of challenge that you barely even register that it happened.

“The old system demanded expertise. You became a master of the controls…”

The slow decline of mechanical sophistication in Tomb Raider is traversal. From adding annoying automated movements like monkey bars, to removing the need to hold grab, to removing the need for a run up, looks even worse when you compare it to the way the Franchise’s Combat has evolved. We’ve gone from wildly firing at bats, to doing stealth kills, making head shots, taking cover, readying arrows, making and throwing bombs, destructing enemies, pulling down structures, and juggling different ammo types. These mechanics make Combat and Tomb Raider dynamic and interesting. You have to consider your options and figure out which strategy to use on which enemy. You can improve your abilities by through upgrades and just practice. You need dexterity and to remember complicated control schemes, and it’s rewarding when you successful kill a bunch of baddies. Traversal has become practically automated. Jump at the colored ledge, hold her direction, press jump, hold her direction. Surely we can do something more interesting than this.

Thankfully we can. A number of smaller games show us that movement can still be as deep and involving as like murdering a dude. Perhaps the most obvious example is first person parkour game, Mirror’s Edge. This game is all about movement, and you have so much control of the way protagonist Faith moves through the world. She has acceleration on her run so she can jump further after she has built up speed. She can tuck mid-jump to clear high fences and roll when she hits the ground to avoid fall damage. Her large repertoire of moves gives you more options when moving through a space. In this alley section you can run up the stairs like a damn chump or you can bounce off the wall, and climb her up here, and volt over this bar to get to the same place in far less time.

For the most part the Assassin’s Creed Games heavily automate movement. The most recent entry Syndicate, you don’t even need to climb up buildings anymore as Evie Frye essentially pinched Batman’s grappling hook from Arkham City.

I’d be remiss not to point out the grasp mechanic in Assassin’s Creed II. While in mid air, Ezio can reach an arm out mid-jump to snatch at nearby ledges and ropes to avoid a nasty drop, or to take an alternative route. Experienced players can use this to give themselves more control when exploring the city’s rooftops.

Ubisoft’s experimental game, Grow Home, has got this great climbing system where the two triggers are used to grab with your two robot hands, and you must do that carefully and rhythmically to climb up these massive plants. As you get higher and higher, and nervously wobble along these thin branches, it gets genuinely quite tense. Compare that to climbing this massive tower in Tomb Raider 2013, which you heroically scaled by holding up on the analogue stick. Lara might look terrified, but trust me you won’t be.

One of the reasons Grow Home works is because hero BUD is animated in real-time instead of using pre-canned animations. That’s the secret behind the mad flash game Gurk II, because this game is all about building momentum as you tense your muscles to lunge yourself towards the next handhold. The shirtless ginger climber must be able to bend and flex in all sorts of directions. The game also benefits from an absurd control scheme, where you have to hold various letters on the keyboard to clime. Developer Bennett Foddy told Wired that he intentionally made players “Grip the keyboard just like you would cling to the cliff”, and says his games tap into “A kind of neurological magic which makes you feel like you are the character, rather than just controlling a little guy on the screen.

You can go even further than that with the genuinely, quite brilliant, and utterly exhausting Rock ‘N Roll Climber for WiiWare, which has you gripping and releasing different buttons on the remote and Nunchuck, and then physically reaching out to scale a cliff. Once at the top you play some air guitar, obviously.

If you don’t want to go quite so literal in your climbing metaphor perhaps look to a different Ubisoft game, I Am Alive, where your character has a stamina meter that depletes when you climb up buildings. You expend more if you jump while climbing, and if you use up the whole meter you go into a tense last ditch scramble that leaves a lasting impact on your stamina bar. This like the grip meter in Shadow of the Colossus, makes you think more carefully about how you’ll approach climbing in the game.

What all these games do is prove that climbing can be challenging and a nuance. By asking you to consider things like momentum, inertia, and grip strength, they prove that traversal can actually be a mechanic that’s very bit as deep as combat. They also give you options. Where the route for a room in Rise of the Tomb Raider is often linear and prescribed, these games ask you whether you want to take the slow and easy route or the fast and dangerous one, and provide a tangible sense of reward when you pull off the tricky combination of moves, and perfectly-timed button presses that the hard road requires. Many of them use their controls to make you feel closer to the action on screen, and use real-time animation to capture the dynamic and analogue nature of scrambling up a wall.

If Lara Croft wants to trade in climb ring for killing, that’s her business. You do you, Lara, I’ll find my fun in the Challenge Tombs. For a second imagine the Tomb Raider Game with the physics of Mirror’s Edge, the tense grip meter of I Am Alive, and the hand over hand climbing of Grow Home, and just try and tell me that it doesn’t make you a little bit excited.

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Shovel Knight Is The Perfect Blend Of Old School Gaming Nostalgia

Shovel Knight Is The Perfect Blend Of Old School Gaming Nostalgia

Why Shovel Knight Is The Perfect Dose Of Old School Gaming Nostalgia

Some games are all about nostalgia. They remind us of the good old days, the days before microtransactions and military shooters and massive updates. Maybe we should thank or blame, depending on your experience, Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform where we give designers millions of dollars not to make new games but to make distinctly old ones, games like Bloodstained and Ukelele and Thimbleweed Park. I hope all of those developers have played this game, Shovel Knight. It was also a Kickstarter project generating some three hundred thousand dollars for its developer and perhaps more than any other game successfully tapped into this sentimentality for the past. I’m Mark Brown, this is Game Maker’s Toolkit, and here’s how Shovel Knight did it.

With his blue armor plating and the way he battles similarly shaped boss characters all with similar names, Shovel Knight is definitely reminiscent of Mega Man, but he doesn’t shoot lemons out of his arm. Instead, he’s got a short shovel swipe that brings back memories of Ninja Gaiden’s stubby sword. His downward plunge is reminiscent of DuckTales. Shovel Knight’s special moves are cribbed from Castlevania, most notably the throwing anchor that works exactly like Simon Belmont’s iconic ax. Levels are picked from a map, like in Super Mario Brothers 3, complete with these enemy encounters, and the towns, where you level up and talk to other characters, look like the ones in Zelda 2.

Instead of trying to copy a specific game from yesteryear, Shovel Knight borrows liberally from the entire NES catalog to make a game that reminiscent of 8-bit games in general. That’s smart, because when you’re trying to evoke the memories of one game or one series, you’re not only trying to compete with the actual game, but also people’s nostalgic memories of that game. That’s something else entirely. Old games look better, sound better, and feel better in our heads. We misremember the size of the worlds and the lengths of the quests. Our memory is rose-tinted. We remember the epic moments, but we forget about the grinding. We remember the thrill of beating a tricky level, but block out the one-hit kills that had us breaking controllers.

“Instead of trying to copy a specific game from yesteryear, Shovel Knight borrows liberally from the entire NES catalog to make a game that reminiscent of 8-bit games in general.”

Shovel Knight dodges most of that, because it isn’t tied to the expectations and baggage of a specific game, but it does have to contend with our cognitive bias of what retro games in general were like to play. To do this, it first takes everything that make those games so good: the strict focus on a single mechanic and imaginative level design that conjures up dozens of ways to explore that idea, the precision and consistency that comes from chunky characters and grid-like levels, the secrets and the bosses, the way these games taught you stuff through level design instead of tutorials, and the way they let you start playing in a matter of seconds.

But, it’s not afraid to throw away the stuff that sucked about those games. Most notably, the punitive death systems that were a hold over from arcade game design and a way to stop you finishing these games in an afternoon. You won’t find yourself running out of lives, or witnessing too many cheap hits, or re-spawning enemies. The game might knock you back when you get hit, which is what sent you to your death over and over again in Castlevania, but Shovel Knight quickly gives you air control to get back to safety. Oh, and you also don’t have to blow on a cartridge to stop the game from glitching out.

When fixing those issues from the past, Yacht Club borrows from modern games when it makes sense. The game’s got a system where you lose your money when you die, and you have to make your way back to where you failed to reclaim your loot, a system ripped straight out of Dark Tales. It makes sense. It gives your deaths meaning and introduces a layer of tension, without forcing you to replay entire levels or start from scratch. The checkpoints also let you pick your own difficulty which is a more modern way of thinking about challenge. If you break a checkpoint, you will get a big load of loot, but you won’t come back to that area when you die. A clever risk versus reward setup and proof that Shovel Knight isn’t just ripping off other games, but coming up with ideas of its own.

Here’s the one that’s going to get me in trouble with the commenters, but Shovel Knight is also more progressive than most NES games. Many 8-bit adventures were about saving your girlfriend or your sister or a princess from capture, and while Yacht Club does reference this, it flips it on its head by making Shield Knight strong and capable.


In essence, Shovel Knight is tricking you. It makes you think you’re playing an NES game without you fully realizing that you’re actually playing one without the limitations of that console. Nowhere is that more true than in the presentation of the game, because, hey, no NES game looked like this. The most obvious change is the switch to widescreen to fit modern TVs and hand-helds. It also has full parallax scrolling which is where the foreground and background layers move at different speeds to suggest depth. The NES only had one layer, so games like Shatterhand, Return of the Joker, and Sword Master used animated tiles and backgrounds with distinct horizontal lines to fake the effect.

Shovel Knight totally cheats by using multiple layers, like on a Super Nintendo. The game can also render loads of sprites on one horizontal line without flickering, there are more particles on screen than the NES could handle, the game’s got a higher color palette, and there are more colors per sprite and more palettes simultaneously on screen than were allowed by the hardware. The music is more faithful, but perhaps not to western ears. It mimics Konami’s powerful Famicom only via C6 sound chip gave the Japanese version of Dracula’s Curse three more sound channels to play with. Here’s how that compares to the US release.

Plus, Shovel Knight ignores the limitation that score sound effects cut through the music on the NES, as sounds and music had to share the same channels. This game cheats and plays both simultaneously. To most people, they won’t even notice these tricks. It looks and sounds faithful to the NES, because this is what retro games feel like in our memory. When you play a game like Mighty Gunvolt which is more slavishly faithful to the 8-bit aesthetic, looks a bit too plain.

Shovel Knight presents us with four principles for successful nostalgic design. It borrows from multiple sources. It takes the best bits of its source material, and isn’t afraid to modernize what didn’t work, and it presents the games with a familiar retro aesthetic, but with a rose-tinted filter. We can use this to see why other nostalgic releases did or did not work. Hyper Light Drifter borrows not just from a link the past but also Mega Man Zero, Miyazaki movies, and Diablo. It’s challenging and oblique like a good retro game, but has smooth analog controls and liberal checkpoints. While it has 16-bit pixel art, it has a unique color palette and more things on screen that any Super NES game would dare show.

Mighty Number 9, on the other hand, is just trying to be Mega Man. It takes everything from those games, not just the frantic boss battles and themed levels, but the frustrating deaths and limited lives. Its visual style is just, what is this? This isn’t anything. It was supposed to remind us of the best bits of Capcom’s Forgotten Hero, but ended up reminding us of all its worst traits, even the awful, awful, voice acting.

There is, of course, more to Shovel Knight than nostalgia. It’s built by ex-Way Forward developers who have years experience making 2D platformers. The level design is top-notch, and it’s charming and funny, without relying on memes or groan-worthy references. But above all, it’s a fantastic example of nostalgia done right.

Visit Mark at Game Maker’s ToolKit on YouTube to see more awesome videos like this!