Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved
Based on: Smash TV having a baby with Asteroids in the cold light of a vector monitor. Or something. I dunno
Article by Johnny Driggs | June 8, 2008
I'm going to level with you: I had a very different premise in mind when I first sat down to write this article. I was going to lament the demise of the arcade and discuss modern attempts at reviving its spirit through retro and neo-retro games, especially through services like Live Arcade. I was going to snark about how the term "arcade" has been misattributed to a style or even a genre of game, when in fact it was never anything more than a distribution model.
Then I was going to write about how Geometry Wars, while superficially similar in style to what we'd recognize as an "arcade game," would not make an effective arcade title as it doles out death too easily and does not punish players when it does so. A customer at an arcade would get fed up with Geometry Wars rather quickly, as death (and the necessity to insert more coins) comes so easily. About how those players who do manage to stay alive are never rewarded with any progression in the form of levels or a significant ramping up of difficulty. Players at home don't care about restarting over and over again, as it doesn't cost them any money, and don't care about making progress, as a game like this meant to be a short diversion accessed from your home console instead of the destination of a trip to the arcade.
Then I saw some high-score videos.
Well, damn. Turns out there is progression.
And here I always thought you reached those astronomical high scores hinted at in the game's Achievements simply by bullheadedly avoiding the same concentration of enemies long enough for the point total to accrue. My weaksauce skills have failed me yet again, and were it not for some rudimentary research I would have been burdened with a woefully inaccurate article.
It did get me thinking, however, about difficulty and that tricky "hardcore/casual" dichotomy that's become such a popular topic for gamers in recent years. Some people still see it as an either/or proposition, as though there isn't any crossover between Wii owners and those who trudge their way through Halo 3? on Legendary. We know they're wrong, but there's still the idea of how games position themselves on this spectrum. A lot of games are unabashedly allied to either extreme, but quite a few try to have it both ways.
Guitar Hero and Rock Band? are probably the best examples of this generation to have it both ways, and both do so using the most rudimentary of methods: Selectable difficulty levels. Prevailing from start to finish in "Through the Fire and Flames" on Expert is the stuff of which willy-waggling videos on YouTube are made (which isn't to say that you actually look cool wailing to that song) while the first handful of songs on Easy shouldn't pose much of a threat even to your mom (not to slight your mother's gaming skills). Rock Band is the ultimate expression of accommodating all possible skill levels, as it allows up to four players ranging from virtual virtuosos to bass-on-Easy plunkers to contribute simultaneously during the same session. And it's all thanks to a concept that been around since the A/B difficulty switch on the 2600.
Geometry Wars appeals to all ranges of proficiency by hiding its more "hardcore" portions behind the requirement that players progress beyond a certain point -- though it does so in a slightly unconventional way. To take a modern example, Super Mario Galaxy features an extreme range of difficulties in its challenges, all of which are graduated in a familiar level structure. Though the difficulty is gradual, the player is aware that the difficulty is ratcheted up with each challenge. At some point, most players hit a roadblock where the skill required outmatches their abilities, leaving a concrete point of reference with which to evaluate their competence -- that is, the number of stars they've collected.
Geometry Wars' difficulty curve is more fluid. It eschews the idea of levels altogether, which sounds like a more arcade-like experience until you remember perennial games like Galaga? and Pac Man? still require you to a clear a swarm of enemies or maze before progressing. The progression is so fluid, in fact, that some players (like, say, me) don't even realize it's happening. It's almost as if there's two games going on at once. For most players, Geometry Wars is simply a diversion where opportunities to die are thrown at you several times per second, only you don't mind because it's so fun and you can always squeeze in one more game. We remain unaware of what lies beyond our capabilities, and are happy to survive a few seconds longer than we did last time. For high-score mavens, though, the portions that kill the majority of players serves as an opportunity to stock up on extra lives and bombs and to build up one's score multiplier for the real challenge ahead.
And it works. Geometry Wars may appeal most to that niche of gamers who thrive on ridiculous challenges, but it didn't become one of the best-selling XBox Live Arcade games by appealing to them alone. Unlike its Japanese cousin the danmaku (bullet hell) shooter, it doesn't require OCD-style rote memorization up front. Danmakus wear their newcomer-unfriendly challenge on their sleeve, turning away neophytes at the door by preventing them from making any progress unless they play by the sub-genre's demanding rules. Geometry Wars eases players into its hellish teeth, doling out difficultly gradually and never dangling anything more than a few less-common enemies just out of reach of casual players. Sure, you might die all the time, but with no self-evident measuring stick to compare yourself to, you're left to think you're doing well on your own terms. The experts know the truth, though, and they're only too happy to demonstrate, if you'd like.
And no, I didn't just write an entire article to rationalize how I suck at the game. Shut up.