I was over at the Polygon forums and saw a post from (what I assume) youngster asking where they should start if they want to play older games. Basically they were looking for suggestions and while many people gave the defacto console classics, I suggested my personal favorites, and that got me thinking about why I love those games. Sure, many of them I owned so they fill a special place in my gaming history but I think many of them taught me more beyond gaming. We all have games from our youth that do this, regardless which gaming generation you’re from, these are mine. And with a little luck this will be an on-going series over the next several weeks.
In this lesson: Strider (NES)
When I bought Strider I had no idea it was an arcade game. At that time I wasn’t aware that most of the NES games I had were ported over from the arcades, and frankly, that didn’t matter. Strider had some cool box art that promised future ninjas killing Communists with a sword, which cannot be a bad thing. Strider was a platformer which was the genre of the times but I was pretty tired of the Mario fare that I had been dealing with since the beginning. Strider looked to finally deliver the action I wanted. However, Strider had one fatal flaw – poor communication.
This wasn’t Mario
I got Strider at an annual expo in my town, you know, the “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” type of expo. Every year I took what money I had saved in hopes of buying the next great Nintendo game to add to my collection. It was one of two times I had a chance of getting a new NES game in any given year, the other being Christmas. All the games at the expo were used so they were cheaper, usually hovering around $20 and that fit well within my budget. However, back then you often had to take a chance with any and every game you bought and this was no different. There was no demo or trial. All I had was the box art and screenshots on the back. Strider fit the bill so I plopped down my $20 and went home happy. Then the sadness started.
I don’t remember Strider being a particularly difficult game but proved an impossible challenge at first. I understood slicing down bad guys and collecting the pills they dropped. Why pills? I don’t know but whatever…you had to collect something, right? But then part way through a level there was a super-high ledge that you couldn’t reach with your normal jump. I could see the bad guy standing on the other side but I had no way of reaching him to continue.
I thought maybe it was a glitch in the game so I restarted. Same thing. I thought maybe there was a secret door somewhere that I needed to find. No luck. I kept on jumping thinking maybe one attempt would yield success but it never did. I was angry. Here I had just paid some hard-earned money on a game that is supposed to be awesome (in my head) only to get a game that is either broken or just too hard. If had to guess as to when my first “rage quit” was, this was probably it. I gave up for now with hopes things would be better tomorrow.
Well, tomorrow came and they weren’t any better but something did happen by sheer luck. As I smashed the jump button over and over in hopes of reaching the unreachable platform, my Strider character did an extra jump!
Woah! Wait, what was that?
What just happened?
How did I do that?
This was the spark of hope I greatly needed. Something different happened after what seemed like hours of swearing and button mashing. I kept trying to repeat my happy accident and after awhile I finally did get to the top of the ledge. Turns out my new friend Strider can jump from wall-to-wall. This was new.
The art of wall-jumping
Wall jumping might be a normal convention these days (and has been for decades) but at that time I had never seen it in a Nintendo game. I was used to Super Mario and his limited jumping ability. You jump up and that’s all. No bouncing from one side to the other. That was just crazy, right? Maybe for Mario but not for a ninja.
What didn’t help Strider with this problem is that the game didn’t show you anything different when you were able to wall jump. The character on screen didn’t change or denote that you could do anything so how was I supposed to know? I don’t know. I guess my random button mashing was the only way to find out. And from that point on whenever there was a super-high platform I knew to wall-jump. (However, wall-jumping in Strider is poorly implemented anyway)
Unbeknownst to me then, Strider taught me a great lesson that I bring to my career everyday – communicate what you can and cannot do in any situation. You can’t assume people know what to do with your creation. You can’t assume assumptions or conventions. I’m sure the wall-jumping mechanic was used in the original Strider arcade game so they just copied it over, but what’s to say I played the arcade version? And what’s to say I played Ninja Gaiden or one of the other games that also used wall-jumping? (Although, Ninja Gaiden handled it correctly)
Always give people feedback when they do something, positive or negative. Always give them a response. Treat every action like a question and always give an answer. It doesn’t have to be a long-winded answer, just something that tells them they’ve done something.
So thank you, Strider. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t regret trading you in for Astyanax.