Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
Inspired by an email sent to us by stakkalee, today’s question is:
“Fairness” is a more slippery concept than any of us would like to admit. Most of us claim to be fine with it when a game gives us a stiff challenge, even when the odds are stacked against us. Yet there often comes a point when a game crosses the line—when we throw up our hands and proclaim, “That’s not fair!” What’s the most memorable “That’s not fair!” moment from your game-playing past?
One of the more infuriating instances of perceived unfairness for me was Mario Kart 64. I played the hell out of Super Mario Kart in its day, so I became familiar with that game’s tendency to give plum power-ups (like a star that granted a burst of super speed) to players who were trailing. This keeps races closer, but in Super Mario Kart, driving skill still mattered the most. After a few days with Mario Kart 64, I realized that the balance had shifted. The items had become so powerful—including a spiky turtle-shell missile that hunts down the racer in the lead—and the imbalance had become so blatant that it was almost advantageous to hang back during a race in order to pick up a killer item. (If you’re in last place, you’re practically God.) This “rubber band” setup—so called because as a player strays farther from the lead, the game tends to pulls her forward like an elastic being stretched—is banal nowadays, but it was a shock to me at the time that Mario Kart 64 would reward lousy players so handsomely. Yes, it’s done in the interest of giving everyone a chance to win and thereby spreading the “fun” around. What I didn’t understand and still don’t understand is how it’s fun to win by virtue of Nintendo’s developers giving your sorry ass a piggyback ride. Mario Kart 64 is still an excellent game, but the prominence of its anybody-can-win bullshit was disillusioning.
Anthony John Agnello
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a fun game, the electronic equivalent of a really well made pizza. You can go anywhere on the planet, from the Spanish boondocks of Monachil to downtown Tokyo, and likely find an adept combination of hot dough, pizza sauce, and cheese. By the same token, there are thousands of games about jumping over bottomless pits, but Donkey Kong Country Returns satisfies more than most, with a zesty blend of sounds, sights, and stuff to do. The godforsaken controls practically ruin it, though. Many Wii games create challenge out of the inherent inconsistency of motion inputs, but none do so as gallingly as in DKCR. Many of the trickiest jumps in the game can only be pulled off by doing Donkey Kong’s little barrel roll before leaping. In the old Super Nintendo games, you did the roll just by pressing a button. In Donkey Kong Country Returns, you can only pull off the move by shaking the damn controller, turning a precision maneuver into a crapshoot. It makes a huge percentage of the game far more difficult than it would be otherwise. When I realized I couldn’t change the controls in the game, it was like biting into a slice of cheese that had grilled cicadas cleverly concealed as a topping. In a rare fit of common sense for Nintendo, they took the motion control input out of the new Nintendo 3DS remake of the game.
I expect a good computerized opponent to make smart moves. It’s programed to weigh the options with a speed and precision I’m unlikely to rival—especially when I’m playing my Nintendo DS while watching TV, commuting, or waiting for another game to load. When my enemy in Puzzle Quest: Challenge Of The Warlords—the Bejeweled-meets-Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game—grabbed a five-gem combo that I hadn’t spotted, I was frustrated with myself and tried to be more vigilant on my next move. This would be a fine strategy if the computer weren’t also cheating. The artificial intelligence makes moves that take into account not only the gems on the board but also the gems that will be on the board. Too often, one good move by the computer would cascade into another as just the right gems dropped into place, granting an extra turn to the monster I was fighting—all it needed to smash me. Knowing that the computer had an edge on me no matter how closely I considered the screen just made me pay attention even less.
I can’t think of a single time I’ve been able to get past the third opponent in any Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter game, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try. I would fault myself as an inadequate player instead of entertaining the idea that maybe these games were designed to take my quarters. I came to understand how unfair arcade fighting games were when I was at summer camp. On a routine field trip to an arcade, I watched a counselor sweep through Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. When he reached the final boss, the fight was unbelievable, and he scraped by to win the game…only to have the boss rise up and transform into its “final form,” which immediately killed my counselor three times over. There was a cinematic moment where this teenager—who I looked up to—slinked his arms down, pouted, and whined, “This is bullshit,” while surrounded by a bunch of kids. Indeed, counselor, that game was bullshit.
The one that bothers me most is more ephemeral, probably a figment of my highly developed persecution complex. When I play any of the NCAA Football games, it usually doesn’t take a lot of time for me to build a dynasty. Even with a difficult schedule, on a high difficulty setting, I’m a good bet to win. Still, every now and again, the game will feel rigged. Say, for instance, I administer a 63-0 beatdown of Michigan in their home stadium. Everything is working. They’re completely outmatched. I am all but unbeatable—the product of aggressive recruiting and belligerent playcalling. The next game has me matched up against a nominally lesser opponent—say, Purdue—and suddenly, the wheels come off. My star running back, well on his way to the Heisman Trophy, will fumble the ball for a third time right before a broken collarbone ends his season. Drew Toal III, the preternaturally gifted freshman quarterback, will suddenly become a slow-moving target for supercharged linebackers, and he’ll throw six interceptions by halftime. I might manage to stay in the game, but with the football gods aligned against me, I’m not confident. I have no evidence that the game schemes to force me into the loss column, but I know. Oh, yes, I know.
This has happened to me at least once in every Ace Attorney game so far. You have a piece of evidence that you know is pure “smoking gun” material. You have a witness on the stand who will totally incriminate themselves over it. But you can’t just present the evidence and say “Mr. Blakemore, isn’t it true that you wrote this letter?” or “Ms. Weiner, isn’t this your gun?” No, you have to keep pressing on seemingly innocuous statements and get them to say more seemingly innocuous things until eventually, hopefully, they’ll slip up and mention the very piece of physical evidence that’s been sitting at your desk the whole time. Then and only then can you say, “Aha! That thing! That thing proves you’re guilty, and here’s why!” The random series of inquiries leading up to this moment feel like the adventure games where you needed a banana to open a barn door, all because some developer somewhere thought it would be funny. The supernatural elements of Ace Attorney don’t bother me at all, but the fact that you can’t just point to a piece of evidence and say, “Hey, witness! Let’s talk about that thing!” conflicts with every procedural crime drama I’ve ever watched. And it makes the whole testimony feel like a grueling and unnecessary chore.
Ralph Nader’s keen takedown of suspicious refereeing from the 2002 Western Conference finals aside, I’ve been sympathetic but not totally convinced by the fans’ conspiracy theories that claim the NBA is rigged in favor of the league’s big-market teams and stars. But the fix is obviously in with Midway’s NBA Jam. When playing against computer-controlled opponents in pro-basketball arcade games—especially against some of the top teams—an invisible line can be crossed if you take too big of a lead. Suddenly, something snaps, and John Stockton shoves you easily to the floor like Bane tossing around Batman. Hakeem Olajuwon becomes a human brick wall and starts blocking every single shot you throw up. It feels like the conspiracy theories come to life, with NBA commish David Stern inserting himself into the code of the program, Matrix-style, to make sure that every game of NBA Jam is a close call. I’ve always loved NBA Jam despite this frustrating flaw, but it’s best played against human opponents.
Early adventure games are notorious for their unfair moments, but few are as comprehensively unfair as 1990’s King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! This is a game about exploration in which going to the seemingly empty tent on the left, instead of the one on the right, constitutes a fatal decision. It’s also a game about puzzle-solving that will not tell you you’re solving a puzzle before it drowns you for failing. But even those transgressions don’t prepare you for what the game does to you with pie. Early in the game, a custard pie can be purchased. King’s Quest V then spends hours imploring you to eat it. It looks delicious, the game says. It is the best pie you have ever tasted, the game says. There is even a puzzle where you are starving, and eating the pie will solve it. And yet once you’ve eaten the pie, you have already lost. Oh, you can continue playing, but eventually you will reach a mountain, and there will be a yeti there, and it will kill you because you do not have a pie to throw at it. Now you have to start the game over, because you did what the game asked instead of saving a pie to throw at a yeti. No one could blame you if you’ve spent the last 23 years mad about this.
Long before he made a name for himself biting peoples’ ears off and threatening to eat their children, Mike Tyson appeared in pixelated form in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! for the NES. A classic 8-bit adaptation of the sweet science, the game is all about fair fights, as your would-be pugilist Little Mac takes down one opponent after the other—that is, until the final bout, when you go toe-to-toe with the enraged Mike Tyson himself. Unfortunately, rather than give you a sporting chance, the game is punishingly unfair, with Iron Mike able to lay you on your ass with a single hit. That means you have to pretty much play the entire three rounds without making a mistake or getting hit once—no easy task considering Tyson’s five times your size, is almost too fast to avoid, and throws out random combo attacks. Tyson delivers a K.O. to both fairness and players’ patience.
The NES Ninja Gaiden trilogy is a masterpiece of antagonistic game design. It adheres to all of the infuriating NES conventions. Your character freezes up and bounces back a few feet when you take a hit. Enemies that blip into existence infinitely. But you know those games have it in for you when the birds show up. You see, the designers of Ninja Gaiden knew exactly where you would instinctively jump and when you would do it, and boy, do the sadistic jerks take advantage of it. Here’s an example: You’ve just fought your way through a gauntlet of bouncing boxers and ninja dogs. You’re out of the fray, and the only thing that stands between you and the next stage is a pit. You leap over it and—WHERE THE HELL DID THAT HAWK COME FROM?! The bird of prey swoops down and knocks you into the pit. It’s back to the beginning of the stage for you. This happens many times throughout the three NES Ninja Gaiden games, and unless you’re being very careful, your first time spanning one of these booby-trapped pits is going to end in bird-induced death. It’s hard not to respect the foresight that went into programming these flying bastards, but it’s a real jerk move.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the original NES came out just when the TMNT arcade game by the same title had become a staple in my life. The arcade version was a side-scrolling action game where you played as one of the Turtles and generally kicked ass. I naturally assumed the console offering would be the same thing, but I learned after the first three seconds that it was much less spectacular. Most of the game takes place in the subterranean sewers native to the Turtles, so things are dark, enemies come out of the shadows, and there’s not much room to avoid their assault. Also, your foes are extremely powerful from the start, which would be fine if the Turtles were able to employ a full range of angst-fueled weapon-swinging. Sadly, even the long wooden stick of Donatello offers little advantage, and level one became the only part of the game I ever saw. Now, there are hard games, and there are “unfair” games. The original TMNT arcade game was certainly hard. But the console version’s refusal to give you any sort of advantage over your enemies—be it a semblance of strategy, an alternate route, or perhaps yelling “Cowabunga!” to turn Michaelangelo into an amphibious tornado—is what drives it into the latter category.