Category Archives: Nintendo games

Changing up Combat: More Zelda Talk


One of my favorite Legend of Zelda games is Skyward Sword, something that quite a few players don’t necessarily share with me. There are a lot of reasons for this division, from the story structure to the graphics to the over-world system it uses, but I’ll be focusing on what I think is one of the biggest talking points: The motion control based combat.

What does this have to do with difficulty? The way Skyward Sword handled a mast majority of its difficulty is with motion “puzzles” formed around swordplay. Link’s sword is controlled by the wiimote and his shield by the nunchuck, and parries, lashes, and spin attacks were all mapped to actions. This allowed for a new kind of combat curve where players needed to learn how to angle and properly time their sword swings and blocks to get past an opponent’s guard, deflect projectiles, and cut objects. This buttonless attacking system threw people for a loop as they adjusted to how fast or slow they needed to move (along with a few technical difficulties for others), but after learning the basics, the way you can design fights truly opens up.


Standard enemies each became their own challenge, requiring fake outs, dodging, and guarding to defeat them, and bosses also evolved to match the flexibility of your sword.

The first main boss even acts as a gatekeeper of sorts, forcing you to master each direction you can swing in, and how to quickly change directions on the fly. And from there, you jump from standard duels between blades, to countering a giant scorpion’s claws, to even cutting a sea monster’s tentacles apart to hit it’s eye.

Some players found this sword system tedious or unreliable, but on a personal level, I really did feel immersed with what I was doing when I swung the wiimote. Like I had really earned that victory beyond just pressing A to hack at some monster. It was one step closer to actually holding the Master Sword, and I think that’s the kind of emotion that Zelda as a series really shines at, no matter what direction they take the controls afterwards.




Difficulty Scaling: The Legend of Zelda

When it comes to difficulty settings in games, the majority have options clearly labelled as some form of Easy, Normal, Hard, and other settings on a scale like that. The differences between them were usually just easier or harder versions of the regular content, vial altering the enemies or the puzzles faced by the player.

There are a few games that take difficulty settings in a slightly different direction than this linear path, and one series that has been implementing this is The Legend of Zelda.


An example of the methods they use to create extra difficulty in Zelda games is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Originally for the Nintendo 64 system, it was rerealeased multiple times over the years, and during it’s GameCube release, added a second version called the Master Quest. Ocarina of time-Master Quest was the equivalent of its Hard mode, something that hadn’t existed at all in the original game.


It flipped the entire in-game world’s map to a mirrored version, and then redesigned all the dungeons to have harder sets of puzzles and tougher enemies. But the most noticeable change was introduced in the final re-release for the Nintendo 3DS. in this version of the Master Quest, all damage taken from enemies is doubled. And when poor Link stars out with only 3 hearts, double damage can kill him in about two hits in the very first dungeon.

This sudden vulnerability really makes the player think during puzzles and combat. There aren’t nearly as many times one can use trial and error when it’s so easy to die. You’re placed on the defensive, using your shield and trying to do damage as efficiently as possible without risking yourself.

Later Zelda games like Skyward Sword and The Wind Waker (HD version) also implement this double damage system in what they call Hero Mode, where naturally occurring healing items are removed at the same time. This form of difficulty feels different to me because it doesn’t quite mess with the AI of enemies, but forces the player to take what was once a simple enemy more seriously by decreasing the mistakes they are allowed to make.

I don’t necessarily think this method is the best form of difficulty I’ve seen, but I do think it’s a slightly fresher application of what Hard Mode should be.


A Lesson in Early Game Difficulty

This post isn’t really going to be me pointing out a general trend in Video Game Difficulty, but an interesting difficulty spike that I recently ran into. Games start off easy and simple, and then gradually become difficult, right? Well that’s not necessarily true, especially if your resources are more limited than you expect.

I lost to the first Pokemon Gym in Pokemon White Version a couple of days ago. Not only did I lose to the first real obstacle in the game, but I lost more than once and tried multiple strategies before I won.

“But how?” you ask. “The first gym is built to get players used to gyms, so how can the very first one be that hard?” Sure, I was stubborn and only wanted to use a couple of Pokemon at the very beginning to cut down on grinding, but my main Pokemon was of equal level to the Gym Leader’s strongest one. The answer is a combination of a lack of plentiful EXP and the power of boosting stats at the right time.

Starting with Pokemon Black and White, EXP, or Experience Points, are no longer gained based on the level and species of the Pokemon defeated. Instead, the points gained are now altered based on how higher in level your own Pokemon is. For example, defeating a Pokemon at the same level might give you 500 EXP, but defeating one 5 levels below yourself will cause you to gain less. This drop continues until the gap grows large enough to make battles pointless. In theory, this is an anti grinding technique to try and get players to not just steamroll everything with one Pokemon. But before you defeat the first Gym in Pokemon Black and White, you are stuck in an area with finite encounters that are actually worth fighting.

Once you’ve defeated all the trainers available, your Pokemon will be stuck with fighting low level random encounters, which take far too long to realistically level up with. As an example, my main Pokemon at the time was pretty much stuck at Level 14 when I went to the Gym.

And this is where the Striaton City Gym’s strategy comes into play.


There are three potential fights in the Striaton City Gym: Chili, Cress, and Cilan. The one you will fight is based on who you chose as your Starter Pokemon. The game always makes you face the one with a type advantage.

This gym already puts you at a disadvantage, since their strongest Pokemon will have the elemental advantage against your starter Pokemon. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but because of the EXP problems you have before this gym, it’s difficult to raise more than one Pokemon and have them at a high level. You either get a diverse team and split the EXP, or stick with a smaller party and have less options. The game does give you a Pokemon with a type advantage against the gym for free, but it’s at Level 10, meaning it won’t do a huge amount of damage unless you train it. But the thing that really adds to the difficulty is one move the gym tends to use quite a bit: Work Up.


Both of the Gym leader’s Pokemon know Work Up, which boosts their Attack and Special Attack stats every time it’s used. Stat boosting and lowering techniques are powerful in the early game, because the player doesn’t have many attacking options, and once Work Up is used a few times, it’s very easy to get one or two hit KOed. The longer the battle goes on, the more dangerous it becomes. And since it’s nearly impossible to quickly defeat them without a lucky critical hit, the AI is nearly guaranteed enough turns to set up their stats.

And that is how I lost 5 times to the first Gym. What would be a fair fight becomes far more difficult just by restricting a few resources and giving the opponent something you don’t have access to. Later on, Gym Battles aren’t nearly this hard simply because you have more options to consider, making this very first gym one of the tougher fights. An unexpected Difficulty Spike.


Quick Time Events

Let me describe a potential game scenario. You’re walking though a dark cave, exploring it slowly, a torch in one hand and your other hand trailing along the walls. Just as you’re reading some ancient text carved into the stones, a big pop up prompt appears on your screen, demanding that you press a button before some random boulders collapse on you.


I’m looking at you, Tomb Raider reboot. What does that circle around the Y button even mean? What’s the timing? It’s a mystery.

Welcome to Quick Time Events, or to give an abbreviation, QTEs. A lot of them are completely unnecessary, yet some of otherwise fair, player controlled, games toss them in for the excitement. And then the player dies because they had zero idea they had to mash a button before an invisible timer ran out (and sometimes what exactly needs to be done isn’t even clear). This annoying variant has earned the name Press X to Not Die.

To make matters worse, many of these instant death QTEs occur in the middle of what seem to be cut-scenes, a time where the player is not expecting to have to do anything. Bayonetta games have a habit of doing these during action sequences, where one moment you’re watching her dodge attacks effortlessly, and the next moment, you have to mash your controller in less than a second or watch her get killed by a chunk of flying concrete. This kind of cheap difficulty doesn’t reward skill. Instead, it forces people to replay sections until they memorize the exact moment where they need to press a button, and that’s just repetitive and frustrating. Ironically, Bayonetta uses QTEs to increase damage on finisher moves, and they’re really fun to execute, yet still decides to do the Press X to Not Die variant within the same game. I’m honestly not sure why.

On the flip side, there are good ways to insert QTEs, like not killing the player if they fail it. Sometimes, they are used to unlock cool cut-scene visuals, extra story paths, or more score points. This way, all it does is reward players for getting it, and positively encourages them to replay a section at their own leisure if they don’t get it. A really fun example of good QTEs that benefit the storytelling are the ones you get in the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm fighting games.


The Ultimate Ninja Storm series uses QTEs within story-line fights to add depth, scope, and choices to battles, making the player seem more involved with what’s happening on screen.

Playing story mode in these games lets you replay many of the high energy fight scenes in the Anime and Manga series, but instead of just making a ton of cutscenes that the player just watches, they insert controller commands to integrate the player into the moments. They have to power up the attacks, dodge, and parry. And the better the player performs, the more interesting the fight scene becomes in response. Stars gained during QTEs unlock secret battle cutscenes, and sometimes the player can choose objectives mid fight to perform to get certain endings or a better score.

Overall, I don’t really like QTEs. I feel like they drag you out of your game experience to punish you for some arbitrary reflex check. Unless more games make more effort to make them feel more integrated and fun, I don’t see much of a point to them beyond shoving in unnecessary game-play elements.


Fake Difficulty: The All Seeing A.I.

Continuing on the subject of fake difficulty in games, another extremely common version I see is allowing the game to cheat when competing against you. The “computer”, or A.I. controlled opponents, will act and react to you in a way a real human never could, using information that is supposed to be hidden to gain an advantage.

And one of the many blatant examples of this in Role-playing Strategy games is in…


This gets really obvious from generation 3 and onward, where the main series introduces the Battle Tower and Battle Frontier sections. Each generation after has its own versions of these, including a subway battle system, but they all follow similar rule patterns. You select a team of Pokemon to enter the challenge with, and you will face a set of trainers you must defeat in a row for points. Your team is healed every battle, but everyone’s Pokemon are temporarily set to level 50 for fairness. You are not allowed to change your Pokemon party until you won all 7 battles in each round, or you lost one of them. Now this is technically an even playing field… right up until the opponents start learning your team’s strategy after each match.

In an ideal setting, each trainer in a batch of 7 should have no idea what Pokemon you are carrying, so they can’t prepare for anything specific, just like you have to try and make a balanced team to cover as many weaknesses as possible. But if you pay attention as you win consecutive rounds, the trainers will begin to have Pokemon that yours are weaker to. As an example, if you have a lot of water types, you’ll begin to encounter a huge amount of Electric and Grass types to counter you. This gets very obvious in the Battle Subway system of Generation 5.


Pokemon Black and White Versions


The direct sequels, Pokemon Black 2 and White 2

After beating the main story modes, the Super Train challenges open up, with a larger variety of Pokemon that are fully evolved. And after building up a record number of wins, you will see this cheating behavior described above. Your Pokemon team’s setup can be very specific, such as a weather based strategy or using Pokemon disguised as others, but the A.I. will eventually start using strategies that would only be logical if they knew what you had. You can argue that it makes the higher levels more of an uphill battle, but blatant cheating like this makes the difficulty scale less of a hill and more of a vertical wall after a certain point. How can a person realistically hope to win if the opponent is built to make them lose?

A better solution to this is to make more advanced A.I. strategies as a whole. Instead of just mindlessly blocking the player off, use common tricks and combinations that players are capable of replicating. That way, the battle becomes a pure skill challenge instead of attrition.

Pokemon games have been getting better with their trainer A.I. systems as of recent games, using more items and clever combinations of Pokemon abilities and moves instead of basic type advantage attacks and stat boosting, but at the end of the day, nothing can really replicate the creativity of another person on the other side of the battlefield.



Fake Difficulty: Trial and Error Gameplay

So what is fake difficulty, exactly? What differentiates one kind of difficulty as more fair than another kind? And what counts as a player just complaining about losing?

Generally speaking, a game with a difficulty curve should strive to be hard but still fun, and always make the player’s game-play decisions feel meaningful to the outcome they receive. If the player loses, they should more often than not feel that they made an error, not that the game cheated them.

Fake Difficulty, as explained in more detail and with examples here on TvTropes, is when the player suffers because the game is designed in a way that hinders them in an unfair way. It makes their skill useless, or a mechanic in the game itself is programmed wrong or not well designed. This could be a badly chosen camera angle that makes things hard to see, a really difficult to judge jump in a platformer, withholding information that the player would logically need to succeed in a quest or mission, or sometimes just outright having more information than the player is given and abusing it.

One type of fake difficulty I’d like to explore in this post is Trial and Error Gameplay. And the most familiar kind that I’ve seen is when I play some Fire Emblem games.


Okay, Sacred Stones wasn’t actually too bad in the Fake Difficulty department, but I just liked this image.

Not every game in the series does this horribly, but it does have a lot of instances where the player is often not warned about events that later happen, and suffer because of it. Like… reinforcements. Fire Emblem is a tactical RPG game, and whenever a unit loses all its HP, it will permanently be lost on the usual default setting (Classic Mode for the newest games). So when you make a move, you study the map carefully and do your best to think of every potential attack the enemy can make.

Enemy reinforcements are expected, but in some games on certain difficulties, they will come with zero warning. And then move in the same turn they arrive on the map, after you’ve already ended your own. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch an archer or other unit who isn’t very defensive die because they were unfortunate enough to be standing in just the wrong place to be stabbed by a cavalier that wasn’t there before.


Look at all those red dots compared to the blue ones. Now imagine if they all moved as soon as they suddenly arrived.

You could have been playing perfectly up until that point, but you are punished simply because you didn’t have the turn the reinforcements arrived memorized. It’s also impossible to predict on your first play-through, so the map because pure luck. Ironically enough, the games will often warn you through a dialogue cue that reinforcements are coming, so this mechanic is even more painful.


Fire Emblem: Awakening really loves doing this on Hard Mode and above, especially from really inconvenient directions that are often behind your army.

This kind of difficulty is only unfair because it does not give the player vital information beforehand, and so they may reset the game or have to press on with the death that wasn’t even their fault. This is not tactical, and so it feels fake compared to the actual difficulty the game already provides with smart enemy positioning and map design.

This difficulty tactic in Fire Emblem is the one I hate the most in terms of Trial and Error game-play, but there are even more kinds of fake difficulty to explore in other games.


Risks and Rewards: Mystery Dungeons

There are multiple ways to create difficulty in a game, but I think one of the simpler, more widely used methods is a very basic risk and reward system. To summarize the concept, a game will reward the player in some way (with items, exp, progress, etc…) if they take a calculated risk. That risk can be a death, loss of something, or anything largely detrimental in some way. Some games make this completely optional, and allow players to stay safe with other strategies, but many will force you in a roundabout way to takes that risk in order to proceed. This sort of thing is really common in dungeon based RPGs, and the main game I’m going to be using as an example is the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series.

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is a spin-off title of the main Pokemon games, only using some elements of it, but with a very different play-style and mechanics. The genre is classified as a Rougelike, defined by using procedural created dungeons to explore, turn based combat on a large grid, and a permanent death. The Mystery Dungeon subset of Rougelikes was first created by the Japanese company Spike Chunsoft, who produced and gave permission to create multiple series under that title. 

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, like other similar games, creates risk and reward scenarios by limiting save opportunities and resources. When a dungeon is entered, you are forced to take up a set number of characters, or in this case Pokemon, into the dungeon with you. These cannot be switched out for different ones until the dungeon is exited, which can only be done by reaching the end or having certain items. If your team is not balanced in strengths and weaknesses compared to the generated enemies, you will struggle the entire way through. And the main characters dying in Mystery Dungeon with no revival items means that you lose, and all of your money not stored away is lost, along with half of your valuable items.

Another limitation placed on the player is the small inventory. You can only pick up and hold a certain number of items while in a dungeon before you have to start choosing what you prioritize as most important. You can take items in with you, but if you find items within the dungeon that you like, you may be forced to use up or discard your supplies to keep what you stumbled on.This creates the need for developing a strategy and taking a risk by guessing what supplies you may need the most. You have to pack your bag efficiently and not just stuff it to the brim with healing items or weapons.

pmd image

In the very first pair of games, you only had 20 open slots in your bag to work with.

As a summary, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon’s difficulty comes from a combination of randomly created, and therefore unpredictable dungeons, a limited inventory for picking up new supplies, and forcing the player to create a balanced team with characters who have inherent flaws that must be worked around. Dungeons can’t be taken too slowly, or the player will get overwhelmed by enemies ganging up on them as they wander dungeons floors, or worse yet, run out of stamina and faint from weakness. You must move forward at a constant pace, but simply rushing ahead with no preparation will inevitably cost even more mistakes.

It might be a little hard to get used to for your first few dungeon treks, but you can’t get to the treasure without a journey first.

pmd image 2

The covers for Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness