For Our Consideration

Metroid Prime 2

Feel The Pain

“Bad” design can make for a more interesting game.

By Peter Malamud Smith • October 7, 2013

There’s an immortal passage in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in which a schoolteacher describes the intense feeling she gets from beating her students: “I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.” It’s a ghoulish confession with a frightening idea at its core: Sometimes the strongest connections are formed by pain.

That idea struck me recently when I was replaying Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, a 2004 Gamecube game that I find more memorable than its acclaimed predecessor because of the pain it inflicts—even though actually playing it makes me want to strangle someone.

Metroid Prime 2

Metroid Prime 2

Eleven years after it came out, Metroid Prime still enjoys near-unanimous critical regard, and with some reason. Fans expected the worst—in 2002, “American team makes Metroid into a first-person shooter” was a bloodcurdling notion. But Texas-based Retro Studios pulled it off by hewing closely to the template established by Super Metroid on the Super NES: a smoothly-paced adventure that deploys new secrets, new terrain, fair challenges, and genuinely useful new abilities on a regular schedule. Retro replicated the fluid progression of Super Metroid and artfully brought the series’ 2D structure into 3D world.

Few critics were quite as thrilled about Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. It’s now remembered as the black sheep of the series. For instance, TJ Rappel, the guy who founded the biggest Metroid site on the internet, gave up halfway:

That graphic I slapped up on the front page reads “TJ vs. MP2.” To put it bluntly, MP2 won. […] I do feel kinda guilty […] I should be all about Metroid and everything, I guess—but I really just was not having fun playing MP2 and made the decision that my time would be better spent playing games I actually enjoyed[.]

If you play Prime 2 for more than an hour, you’ll understand where Rappel is coming from. It’s not even that Prime 2 is hard. It is significantly harder than the first game, but more than that, it’s exhausting. Punitive. A slog. One third of the game takes place in a swamp, but it might as well be the whole thing.

Looking for a new twist on the formula, Retro borrowed the dual-worlds mechanic from The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past. There are two parallel dimensions, the Light Aether and the Dark Aether. In the already dense world of Metroid, this also means double the backtracking. That in itself wouldn’t be such a problem if Metroid Prime 2 equipped you with the robust arsenal of earlier games. After all, on some level, backtracking is one of the essential pleasures of the Metroid formula. You get more powerful, and then you get to go back and smoke the enemies who gave you trouble before. It gives you a satisfying journey from weakling to demigod.

In Prime 2, you get new weapons, but A. they run out of ammo, and B. they kind of suck. That means you repeatedly fight the same enemies in the same places. A buddy of mine, using some advanced taxonomy I don’t quite grasp, has divided these characters into “fuckulons” and “space assholes.” Either way, they take dozens of hits, tend to turn invisible/invincible, and often have attacks that paralyze you or fuzz out your vision. You generally can’t run past them, either. They seal the doors.

Does this sound like fun? No. It is the opposite of fun. Yet I must confess: On some perverse, miserable, why-am-I-doing-this-to-myself level, it hits me like Addie Bundren with a switch.

Metroid Prime

Using the ice beam in the original Metroid Prime

Can “bad” design decisions make a game “better” in some sense? If “better” can include “more interesting,” maybe they can. Here’s the same question, inverted: can good design make a game less interesting? The original Metroid Prime hits all the right beats. It rewards you when you feel you deserve it. It ticks off all the classical motifs: woodland area, fire area, ice area, ruins area. It never sticks you in one sector for too long. It’s colorful. Getting around is a smooth pleasure.

Prime 2, on the other hand, somehow always feels like you’re on the far side of creation from where you need to be. I can’t think of another game that better captures the feeling of, “I want to go home, but it’s 3:00 in the morning, I’m on the wrong side of town, and the buses stopped running four hours ago.” Yes, that is a shitty feeling. But in some ways, it’s a more memorable and distinctive feeling than the feeling of “I am playing an immaculately designed video game” that Prime gives you.

Overall, critical acclaim will favor games that are designed “correctly.” In this context, “correctly” means the game’s relationship with you is essentially sane and just. It’s hard to argue with that as a basic principle. Yet there’s a wider range of potential relationships that a work can have with its audience. And sometimes the feeling of safety and security offered by a sane and just game universe can undermine other pleasures.



You don’t have to range far to find another example in video games. Consider the original Metroid. Conventional wisdom would have it that Super Metroid is the masterpiece and Metroid is the rough-around-the-edges first attempt. It’s glitchy, meandering, and full of red herrings, repeating bleak corridors to nowhere. (The memory limits of NES cartridges in 1986 forced the developers to reuse a lot of territory.) But in contrast to its successor’s polish, Metroid’s general falling-apart feeling make the whole experience feel more sinister and Lovecraftian.

The more a game makes sense, the more it reveals the creator, reminding you that you’re not actually alone exploring a dangerous alien planet. For example, let’s say you drop down a long shaft to get the Bombs, and then you have to use them blast a new path back to the surface. That makes a lot of sense as a design ploy—it teaches you how to use your new item. But it’s a little too convenient, isn’t it? It makes the game feel a little more like an intricately constructed puzzle box, and a little less like a sinister, overwhelming world of chaos. It tips the hand of the creator. The first Metroid does this a couple of times (with the Ice Beam, for example); Super Metroid does it almost every time. It makes more sense and is more “correct” as a design in one sense, but the game also loses something subtle in the tradeoff.

It’s not exactly fun to muddle around in the middle of nowhere in Metroid, any more than it’s fun to drag your sorry ass across miles of bad road every time you want to get anywhere in Metroid Prime 2. But you’ll not soon forget it. That’s not to fault Super Metroid or Metroid Prime. (Frankly, nor is it to suggest that I ever want to play Prime 2 again.) It’s just to say that as game budgets increase and designers face more pressure to smooth out players’ experiences, they’d be wise to remember that too much sanity and justice can be dull. If they really want to leave a mark on you, games may have to risk bewildering you or even pissing you off—approaching not with a gold star, but with a ruler to the back of the hand.

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127 Responses to “Feel The Pain”

  1. PugsMalone says:

    This game had a really troubled development. From the wikipedia entry: Producer Kensuke Tanabe later revealed that the game was just about
    thirty percent complete three months before the strict deadline Nintendo
    had set for a release in the 2004 holiday season.

    The gimmick with the light and dark worlds didn’t work nearly as well as it did in LttP. One of the cool things about that game’s world is that every part of the light world had an equivalent in the dark world. In Metroid Prime 2, the dark world had plently of parts that were just blocked off by tentacles.

    I thought that the original Metroid Prime was a slog after you got into the Phazon Mines. Something about the later parts of that game just didn’t click with me.

    Still, Echoes was pretty much just a road bump compared to Other M. That game couldn’t have been more sexist if Adam had made Samus wear an apron and nothing else.

    • neodocT says:

      The worst thing about Other M is that I actually sort of enjoyed playing it. I mean, the story is horrendous, and there were several lousy choices going on (use of the D-pad for 3D movement, few powerups, even fewer original powerups, little exploration, those scenes where you had to find the exact pixel to move on, etc.), but I did think the gameplay mostly worked.

      And it’s a shame that the story was so bad in this one, because the sci-fi geek in me thinks the idea of a series of story-driven Metroid games had potential.

      • Marozeph says:

        Other M is a guilty pleasure for me. You could probably write a book about everything wrong with that game, but somehow it clicked for me. Maybe i’m just a sucker for shameless fanservice (Baby Ridley! Metroid Queen!)

    • JohnnyLongtorso says:

      I got almost to the end of Metroid Prime, but I gave up in the room with the infinitely-spawning Metroids. I looked it up and it appears to be the last part before the final boss. Oh well. I didn’t get very far in Prime 2 or 3. The whole series was really frustrating to me, between trying to platform in first-person and having to use the auto-lock on because Nintendo spent three generations of consoles before relenting and giving you two thumbsticks.

    • evanwaters says:

       Another thing that I heard was that they had to have the multiplayer element (half-assed though it was), and that took time and resources away from developing the main game.

    • DrZaloski says:

      Oh god, please don’t remind me of Other M. That game just makes me sad whenever I hear about it.

  2. neodocT says:

    I’ve always said that I prefer bad games with really distintive and interesting choices than good, bland games. But Metroid Prime does get the upper edge here for being a good game with good design choices!

    And, as much as I like Super Metroid and its general awesomeness, it’s the orginal Metroid that I spent countless hours on, farming life from stupid pipe bugs in order to kill the bosses, and never being quite sure where the hell I was. Even with maps it was confusing. But finally beating Mother Brain without resorting to Justin Bailey was absurdly rewarding, I guess. I only wish I could have beaten the game within the time limit!

    Honestly, having the original Metroid as a bonus in Metroid: Zero Mission completely killed my productivity for months.

    • Sarapen says:

      If a game is bland, how is it good? At best I would think a bland game could only be mediocre.

      • neodocT says:

         I mean more in the line of the Uncharted series, Pokémon, or so many racing and fighting games. Or Darksiders, which I’m slowly making my way through right now.

        I can’t say these games are outright bad, and I personally think they’re definitely well made enough to warrant more than a mediocre, but they’re simply not as vibrant and captivating as a Suda51 game, or even Other M for that matter, which can often justifiably be called bad games, except they are so damn strange and interesting that you can’t help but think about them.

        Sometimes these games are a mess, but they’re cool, oddly shaped messes that you can’t stop staring at.

        • TheInternetSaid says:

          Ha, that’s exactly how I feel about Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine.  It’s kind of half-assed, but I recently had a couple of dreams that featured levels from the game.  It wormed its way into my subconscious.  

          Other M is almost offensive after the Prime trilogy.

    • Dikachu says:

      I remember loving the shit out of the original Metroid, but it’s one of those games I just can’t go back to… I know how much better games can be now.

      I had the exact opposite reaction to the DS remake of FF IV, though.  That game was perfect as-is, and they had to ruin it with shitty polygon-based characters.

  3. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    The pain of Metroid Prime 2 is something of a literal thing as well, as my hands twisted into curled thalidomide claws after hours of locked-on strafing.

       The three a.m. analogy is so perfect and apt for hub or open world video games. You begin with a safe staging area and venture outward. You enter a new area trepidatious, uncertain of what’s waiting. But then you explore a bit. Maybe get your ass kicked, but deconstruct the reason for your ass-kicking and familiarize yourself to that enemy. You effectively nest the environment, making a once intimidating quadrant comfortable. So now when you delve deeper into the world, this once anxiety-producing area has become the safe staging area.
     It’s game world gentrification. By the time I completed Metroid Prime, all the intimate, local Skree divebomb spots were Starbucks.  

  4. Unexpected Dave says:

    To me, a big part of good game design is not being afraid to let your players feel frustrated, lost or hopeless at times. 

    • neodocT says:

      Absolutely. If you’re never frustrated, you’ll never get that special joy from overcoming a challenge, either. You’ll just feel numb about it, which is my biggest criticism against the Uncharted series.

      • PPPfive says:

        I would argue that the Uncharted series is meant to wash over you, like, to reuse an incredibly tired comparison, an Indiana Jones movie, whereas Metroid and it’s ilk want to make you feel lost and paranoid, like, to reuse another incredibly tired comparison, Alien(s)

      • Tom says:

        Uncharted games frustrate the shit out of me though not in the challenging way. I die frequently in those games mostly due to the terrible visual language.
        Give me Shadows of the Damned any day.

      • Drinking_with_Skeletons says:

         I could put up with Uncharted if it was better written.  Uncharted 2 has a ton of plot points that grated against me immediately; the game wanted to be Indiana Jones but dead-ended somewhere between National Treasure and Scooby-Doo. 

        Meanwhile, the gameplay is a lot of trial-and-error shooting against stupidly numerous enemies and a lot of trial-and-error platforming while combating poor visual differentiation and indifferent controls.


      • GaryX says:

        I thought Uncharted 2 was pretty great, personally, and hit the right balance of the AAA game as movie blockbuster. I’ve never played the first, and while I have the 3rd, I haven’t played it much. 

        • Bad Horse says:

          I have been grappling for a while with why I liked Uncharted 2 so much and was so meh on 3. Probably you can only get the shock and awe factor once.

        • Dwigt says:

          Uncharted had Neil Druckmann as a contributor. Uncharted 2 had Neil Druckmann as the lead writer. Uncharted 3 had zero Neil Druckmann.

        • Kevin Johnson says:

          Uncharted 2 had cooler set pieces that felt crazy and wild. People talk about the train level a lot, but to me the coolest thing was staging a shootout in a building that is collapsing, so you have to leap through the window into the NEXT building and continue the shootout! It’s that kinda wild insanity that Uncharted 3 completely lacked.

          Uncharted 3 could have had, for example, a wild shootout on the plane as it was crashing, some kind of extended Eraser type moment. But it was so brief and forgettable.

          ALSO, the thing where you couldn’t shoot the taller guys and had to fist-fight them? What the fuck was that?

        • GaryX says:

          @disqus_DbhlWklaoM:disqus Don’t forget that the building was collapsing because you were being chased by a helicopter, and it was shooting you. I showed that sequence to my brother; his mouth was open the in shock the entire time.

        • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

           Uncharted 3 had that level where you’re running around an ancient ruin while totally tripping balls, so it has that going for it.

    • huge_jacked_man says:

      Agreed, Dark Souls does all three and is the best game released in the past decade or so. The caveat is that the challenge should be fair – there is a thin line between a good challenge and artificial difficulty. 

    • DrFlimFlam says:

       It is rare for me to enjoy challenge, or defeat, or the video game equivalent of pain, since mostly I just game to enjoy myself, and I’m not very good at games, etc. etc.

      FTL is one of the rare cases where I accept the challenge and continue to spend 20-90 minutes trying to beat that boss one more time. The progress is agonizingly slow, but I can see how I’m almost there, how I’m incrementally better at beating the boss, how even late-game ships are torn apart like stale bread by the end.

      Metroid games are the ones I get lost in. I appreciated Metroid Prime for its aesthetic beauty, but as with many Gamecube games (Eternal Darkness comes to mind as well), it just wasn’t for me.

      • The Guilty Party says:

        Yeah, the problem is that people game for different reasons. I am not here for challenge and frustration and achievement. I’m for relaxing. A crappy, ‘painful’ game that is trying to teach me the joy of success? I will just put it down and go play something else.

        Or maybe the problem is ‘people have vastly different thresholds for challenge/enjoyment, so include a difficulty setting, you knobs’.

    • CrabNaga says:

      Exactly. The thing about Prime 2 is that even though you get yourself into a situation that feels lost or hopeless (such as the first time you step into the Dark World), the game secretly has your back. You’re led from one safe zone to the next, which are all very clearly shown with a glowy aura or a sparkly crystal. You’re led to believe that the Dark World is as big and sprawling as the Light World, when in reality most of it is inaccessible because pathways are blocked off, so you’re not about to go and get actually lost. By the time you have to do some actual exploring in the Dark World, you’re given a new suit that can resist most of the evils of the corrosive atmosphere. I think Retro did a very good job at giving you the illusion of hopelessness and being lost, without actually doing that to the player.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

       I disagree so strongly with this. Those feelings are how I know a game isn’t for me. The brief dopamine rush you get from overcoming a dumb poorly-done challenge isn’t worth the time you wasted not having fun beforehand.

  5. NakedSnake says:

    Interesting point, and a fair one. The games industry is built around creating “fun” games, when games as a medium have so much more to offer. I’m glad to see more games coming out these days that are designed to primarily elicit a certain emotion, and often a negative one at that. For instance auti-sim which is design to simulate autism, or Darfur is Dying which puts you in the situation of a Darfuri peasant trying to find water while avoiding Janjaweed rebels.

    For myself, I always thought it would be cool if a video game used alcoholism in the main character as a central premise. Maybe in an adventure style game or something. As the player, you’re used to being able to boss the character around. And things would be going well – you’d be making progress toward objectives. But then occasionally, you would slightly lose control of the character and they would have a drink. The character starts to disobey you. One thing would lead to another, and you’d regain control of the character after a blackout with everything worse off than how it started. Basically, it’s extremely frustrating losing control of the player character when you are playing a video game, and this game would give you a chance to connect that frustration to other situations of losing control.

    • Marozeph says:

      It’s kinda odd that there are very few games messing around with the concept of “losing control”. After all, the ability to control your character is basically what makes games unique, and the amount of control the player has can significantly change the flow of a game. Bioshock did something in that direction with the “A slave obeys”-scene, but apart from that, i can’t think of any game that really incorporates it.
      And yes, it’s nice to see that games start to move away from just being fun. Papers, Please and Gone Home managed to be engaging without being “fun” in the traditional sense and both were critical darlings that (as far as i can tell) found an audience.

      • Tom says:

        Going off the losing control and alcoholism thing, I’ve always thought it would be interesting seeing a game where drinking booze actually clouds your characters judgement.
        A lot of games these days let you drink booze which 9 times out of 10 results in the annoying blurry/wonky screen filter. It’d be cool to see a game actually take control out of your hand a little and do things you wouldn’t normally do (much like how people act when drunk).
        Some examples could be:
        – Firing a weapon or attacking without player input.
        – Overriding dialogue tree choices.
        – Suddenly swerving/braking/accelerating while driving.
        – Unresponsive or laggy controls.
        – Overriding player when purchasing items from stores (i.e. character buys beer nuts instead of new weapon).

        I dunno, seems like something that should be explored more especially considering how frequently it shows up in modern games.

        • dreadguacamole says:

          GTA 4 did it pretty well, I think, with hilarious Euphoria engine-driven stumbling while you were walking and swerving while driving. It didn’t go as far as to hurling insults at passersby (IIRC), which would have been awesome.

        • OldeFortran77 says:

          Dead Rising 2 lets you use alcohol to restore health, but if you drink too much too often your character stops in the middle of whatever he’s doing and begins vomiting uncontrollably.
          I keep thinking there’s a message in there somewhere but I’ll be darned if I can figure it out!

        • Gryffle says:

          The best “drunk sim” I’ve ever experienced in a game was in Red Dead Redemption. I don’t know about you, but whenever there’s the option to drink booze in a game, I immediately want to test the limits and find out just how much my character can put away. So I saunter into a saloon in Thieves’ Landing and order several gins. I’m shotgunning glass after glass of the stuff, expecting, yeah, one of those blurry filters to come up on screen or whatever, but no. What happens is much better. I stop buying drinks, and Marston sways backwards. I push on the left stick to get going, and spend the next 10 minutes fighting the controls as he stumbles around and falls on his face. I’m in hysterics because I’m just trying to get him to walk back to his room so he can sleep it off, but he can’t even cross the street without ending up face down in the mud. I’ve never seen a game make you so completely, paralytically shit-faced as RDR.

        • Halloween_Jack says:

          There’s a subtle drunk joke in Mass Effect 2; if you take the strongest drink available in the club on Illium, the bartender, Matriarch Aethyta, who is around a thousand years old, suddenly looks much younger. 

      • Drinking_with_Skeletons says:

        Reminds me of the point in Grim Fandango when you need to get the metal detector out of the giant kitty litter bin.  Manny flat out refuses to do the most obvious thing (reach or climb in) going so far as to laugh at your request.  It’s the only time in the game that I recall a complete breaking of the fourth wall.

    • Unexpected Dave says:

      I can think of a lot of games where the main character “disobeys” the player. Several point & click adventure games do it. Rincewind from the Discworld games is probably the biggest offender. He’s lazy, cowardly, and just an all-around jerk.

      In The Sims, your people won’t listen if they’re in a bad mood.

      When you give characters autonomy, it creates distance between the player and the character. When Rincewind refuses to man up and just kiss Nanny Ogg already, the player starts to see himself as an entity separate from Rincewind. (And technically you are the fly, I suppose.)

      If you want to simulate addiction while retaining player agency, the best thing to do is to use perception or rumble to make the player feel the same sense of anxiety as the character, and let the player make the ultimate decision to drink.

      • Bisyss says:

        There’s a Gamecube jRPG called Baten Kaitos and oh boy, if you’re looking for disobeying…


        One of the game’s concepts is that you aren’t the protagonist – you play a “Guardian Spirit” that guides the main character Kalas. He will straight up ask you for advice at numerous points, which can affect how often you get to pull off super attacks in battle.

        The plot is the usual “stop-the-evil-empire-from-summoning-the-evil-god-and-breaking-shit” affair but relatively early on, the game hints that one of your party is a traitor, sabotaging the group’s efforts. And as all the MacGuffins come together and the evil god starts breaking shit it’s revealed that not only has the emperor been double-crossed, but the traitor is… Kalas. He had been working with the villain since before the start of the game, wiped his Spirit’s memory to prevent them from stopping him and even manages to use the game’s camera to hide him giving a MacGuffin away. Of course it all works out in the end, but still; Holy Shit.

        • KingGunblader says:

           Oh man thank you for bringing up Baten Kaitos. Not only is a good example of disobedience, it’s an awesome RPG to boot.

          BTW, where do I pledge to the Baten Kaitos 3 Kickstarter?

      • Jeff Keele says:

         It’s also interesting when games use an “unreliable narrator” and basically lie to the player about what’s actually going on. I’m thinking of Eternal Darkness’ insanity mechanic that would actively try to mess the player instead of representing the character’s madness. Making it look like there was a fly on the screen,or that your character had died when he hadn’t, or making it look like save games had been deleted. “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” also had the game lie to you a few times about particular rooms.

        I think the most interesting take I’ve seen on it comes from a text adventure called “The Spider and the Fly.” You play as a secret agent who has been captured and is being interrogated. The game is you relating details of your mission to your captor. The twist is that there’s something that you’re specifically lying about and it’s up to the player to figure out where the omission/inconsistency is. 

    • neodocT says:

      The only thing I can really think of is Conker’s Bad Fur Day, where alcohol was both a game mechanic and a character motivation, a lot of the time.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

       I think if a game isn’t going to try to be fun, or entertainment, it has to be trying to say something in some other way.

      A game has to be entertaining, have artistic meaning, or both. Having neither just means it’s a shitty game (looking at you, Call of Duty series).

  6. Unexpected Dave says:

    You know what poorly-designed game left its mark on me? Star Control 3. Star Control 2 was a race against time, where there was always lots to do. In Star Control 3, however, progressing in the game requires blind exploration and a lot of waiting for plot events to trigger. 

  7. pico79 says:

    Hey, thanks for this: I’ve been a closet Echoes supporter for years, never really understanding how negative some people felt about it.  Yeah, it’s more despairing than the other Prime trilogy games, but I find it so atmospheric and tense that it’s the one I revisit most often.  Having to race in a panic through the Dark World before your light runs out – or for the love of god, those boss battles with NO safe zones, so your health meter is constantly dropping – reminds me of some of the better parts of Dark Souls, but with smoother gameplay.

    I also pretend that Other M doesn’t exist, and I must have dreamed it after a really bad night of drinking.

    • TheInternetSaid says:

      Oddly, Dark Samus (the final boss in Echoes) was easier than the Ridley/Metroid Prime bosses.

    • Tom says:

      I was honestly unaware there was any hate directed towards Echoes, I haven’t played Prime 1 or 2 in over 7 years but I can’t remember disliking 2 to any great degree.

    •  When I saw the cover art for this article I thought it was going to be yet another lambasting of Other M. I was happy that it was merely a look back at where Echoes went awry.

      For the record, Other M had one legitimate flaw (the BS authorization thing, especially the Varia Suit), some experimental game design that didn’t quite work as well as it could have, and the rest of it was the victim of giving an actual backstory and characerization to Samus instead of the one we had all collectively imagined and thrust upon her after being basically a blank slate for five or six titles.

      • Matt Koester says:

        3-D movement on a D-Pad can not be forgiven.

      • JamesJournal says:

        The sad thing about Other M, is Nintendo may never try something like that again. That company doesn’t need any reasons to play it safer

      • pico79 says:

        I can’t speak for other players, but I didn’t have a problem with the idea of a backstory/characterization for Samus: I had a problem with the thoroughly misogynistic backstory/characterization that reduced one of the most badass video game characters to a weepy mess with severe daddy issues.  All delivered in interminably long cut-scenes.

        Also the play control sucked.

        • stepped_pyramids says:

          For me, it’s as simple as this (contains SPOILERS for Other M):

          Samus has to be saved from Ridley by her former teammate Anthony, who calls her “Princess”. He dies (she thinks) in the course of this.

          Later, Ridley is killed in a cutscene by the Metroid Queen. Samus never has a chance to redeem herself.

          And then we get a scene where the supposedly sympathetic father-figure character shoots Samus in the back so that he can go resolve the Metroid threat at the cost of his life.

          Finally, the ending is only resolved by Anthony showing up out of the blue. All of the real victories in the game are achieved by other characters on Samus’s behalf.

          And don’t get me started on that half-assed Deleter stuff.

    • GaryX says:

      I never really knew people disliked Echoes until sometime after I played it. I was maybe 16 at the time, but I got through it alright and didn’t find it that hard. The only part I remember being tricky was some kind of bird boss, and it took me awhile to deduce how to kill it.

      Sometime later, I would go on the internet and find people thought it was terrible. I loved it.

      Though, it did suffer from coming out so close to the first Prime. Walking into the Chozo Ruins is pretty much on par with walking into Hyrule Field for the first time in “Gaming moments that made me feel awe.” Plus,  you could shoot the birds in the sky!

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      I had a hell of a time with Echoes on GameCube, but revisited it on Trilogy and the whole thing was so much smoother.
       I think that may garner it’s own criticism, as being easier kind of undercuts the theme of essays such as this. But as @drflimflam:disqus  states so well up thread, I kind of balk at challenge in games. I just get most of my satisfaction from wandering around.
       But the other thing about Echoes, regardless of the version; it’s gorgeous. I love the art direction. The dark and light suits are the most expressive developers have gotten with Samus’ armor and the story of the Luminoth’s really evokes that desolate, broken sadness that Metroid executes so well at it’s best. 

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        As expressive as a cyan bodysuit and ponytail?

      • I think that Prime 2:Echoes is the weakest of the Prime series, but I’ll agree with you on what they did with Samus’s suit. The Light Suit is badass and feminine and aesthetically pleasing all at the same time—a real home run.

  8. Citric says:

    I think that a good-bad game has to somehow make you want to see what happens next. No matter how frustrating and stupid, one needs to want to keep going, either because they want to prove some ridiculous point or because there’s a glimmer of hope in the ruins.

    I think the most recent example for me would be the 3rd Birthday, which I tried because I liked the original Parasite Eve a whole bunch. The game is often frustrating, the story makes less than no sense – I finished it, I couldn’t tell you what happened in most of it, what I could tell you is so incredibly stupid that I can’t quite believe they were things that happened in a game to see retail release – and the fact that Aya tends to lose all of her clothes if an enemy looks at her (I might be fighting some sort of city devouring Patrick Stewart, now that I think of it. They’ve seen everything, she buys new puffy sweaters and distressed jeans but they’ve seen it all) and the fact that she seems to whimper like a kicked puppy when she notices she’s out of ammo, that should make me just put it down. But, when it’s working, and you’re flipping between guys – the gameplay mechanic is that she possesses various army dudes, though somehow people can still tell it’s her and AARRRGHHH SO STUPID AAAAAAHHHH! – shooting up a big beastie, it’s actually kind of cool. When it’s moving, when the various systems work, it’s pretty great. And then between those moments it’s awful, but at least it’s memorable.

    Naturally, there’s other stuff, sometimes bugs can be so funny they add to the fun – Saint’s Row 2 and 3 both have moments where the bugs somehow make things better, like the time cars just got trapped in the road during a mission and the streets of Steelport looked like the Ghost Parking Lot, or when during a follow mission the helicopter flew into a building and slowly turned over and then I won. Comedy is usually rooted in when things go wrong, so games that aren’t very polished wind up being extra fun because they can be funny, provided the bugs are amusing rather than stuff that just crashes a lot.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      My best friend and I had lots of fun exploring all teh weird ways in which you coud color outside the lines in the original Halo. It was part of what made the game so fun; the development schedule obviously had less time than they would have liked to funnel you down a certain path, so you could screw around a whole lot more.

    • Kevin Johnson says:

      That should be an inventory. Cool games utterly ruined by sequels/followups. (Metroid Prime 2 wouldn’t count, since I don’t think it RUINED Metroid Prime, even if it has its flaws).

  9. M North says:

    ‘Getting around is a smooth pleasure’ – No way. Getting to Phazon Mines in Metroid Prime is really sort of quite annoying.

    • Crusty Old Dean says:

      It always bugged me that harder enemies like space pirates and chozo ghosts would reappear when you returned somewhere a second time. It made the world feel less real and they were kind of a drag to kill.

      *Enemy music starts playing*
      “Yeah, yeah, I know – just passing through here…”
      *Hurries through room, gets shot in the back a few times*
      “Oh, this was the wrong door. Gotta turn back…”
      *Enemy music starts playing*

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        For a wrong turn master like myself, cleared rooms help remind me that I’ve been somewhere before. It’s super helpful.

        • snazzlenuts says:

          That’s why I also appreciate games that leave dead bodies around instead of having them disappear. I know where I’ve been by finding my trail of death.

        • DrFlimFlam says:

          @snazzlenuts:disqus, I like how in Skyrim, some dungeons are so big I have to start checking bodies for loose change, like Miracle Max, to know if I’ve been there.

        • snazzlenuts says:

          I was thinking of that exact scenario.

      • M North says:

        It’s true. I only recently played Metroid Prime for the first time and that stood out as being rather tedious. It’s an old-style school of design isn’t it. If I had to criticise Metroid Prime for one thing then it’d be that. I don’t know why but in games like Castlevania and Super Metroid it doesn’t feel half as annoying to re-fight enemies. Maybe we’ll put it down to the FPS-qualities. 

        • Kevin Johnson says:

          Yep, that’s an old-school rule where bad guys regenerate when you’re more than two-rooms away from where they originate. I used to hate it, but it’s less problematic once you get all the gear and can waste ’em in two hits.

      • DonBoy2 says:

        One design reason for enemies to respawn is so that go can kill them and get their pickups, to avoid a situation where you’re out of ammo and can’t get any more.

  10. dmikester says:

    I’m not really sure I agree with this article, though I appreciate the idea certainly.  But for me, bad game design is simply bad game design, and I’m acutely aware of it the whole time I’m playing.  There’s a difference between a game that’s an intense experience because of technical limitations versus simply bad design.  The game that leaps most to mind with the technical limitations making the game better is Silent Hill, where the fog was initially put there to hide bad draw distance, but it became one of the game’s signature features and adds a really scary element to the mix.  I also don’t think the original Metroid is an example of bad game design; they were clearly going for the paranoid horror feeling (just look at that intro and the music), and just didn’t have the technical capacity to make it as compelling and flashy as games of today a la Dead Space.  But then again, it also hit on a secret of the best horror, namely that less is more. 

  11. MrTusks says:

    Combat and skill leveling in Morrowind. All of those misses and failures with attacks and spells are infuriating, but the thrill of victory is all the greater when they connect. The abysmal load times also give you more incentive to survive.

    • JamesJournal says:

      Morrowind did have a far more chaotic leveling system. It was fucking weird and dense, but you could make nearly anything happen.

      In Skyrim, you just become more powerful and stuff

  12. Drinking_with_Skeletons says:

    It may be worth noting that MP2 is easier in the updated Wii version (which I realize is now a collector’s item).

    But yes, the game is much, much harder than MP1.  The first time I played it (Gamecube version) I spent days in the swamp.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so stuck in a game.

    Bizarrely, I figured out the scavenger hunt on my own in MP2 despite not understanding it in MP1; even with a walkthrough, I somehow never understood what the logic was for unlocking that final temple.  Yet I grasped MP2’s hunt, which was much more byzantine, as the clues were scattered throughout the light world, but the keys were hidden in the same room in the dark world, which often necessitated very circuitous routes to reach.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

       It’s a faux-collector’s item, but that’s a whole other rant.

      • Drinking_with_Skeletons says:

         There’s no good reason for Nintendo to keep these versions off of their virtual store.  I kind of get why Nintendo is so bad about releasing older titles; they know damn well they mostly just rehash their franchises, so they approach their downloadable offerings with the same limit-the-flow mindset as they make new titles.  It’s just that I think they’re wrong, and they’re missing an opportunity to provide the library that the WiiU, in particular, so desperately needs.

      • MathleticDepartment says:

        Yeah, I just happened to find one sitting on a shelf at Gamestop a couple of years ago and didn’t know it was sought-after until I looked into selling it

  13. doyourealize says:

    The revamped Super Metroid isn’t alone in that SNES conversion category. Many beloved games/series, Super Mario World and A Link to the Past come to mind, were an example of “better” game design after the move to SNES, LttP especially (to the extent that some have written that the Souls games are more successors to Zelda and The Adventures of Link than LttP). This probably came from game designers learning what works as much as the idea that now that there was more memory to make games, they didn’t have to make them superficially longer.

    Echoes didn’t have this problem. “Well-designed” games had been released and loved for quite a while, and bad design might be more a product of an errant desire to change things up than not knowing how to design a game. In Echoes‘s case, probably a combination of the former and just an all-around troubled production. I haven’t played it, but if it’s memorable, I think that means they did something right, even if a lot of it was wrong.

    One of my fondest game-playing memories was of playing Folklore for the PS3. Not exactly critically reviled, but certainly not loved either. Length was tacked on by basically making the player traverse the same areas as two separate characters. The mechanic of catching different creatures you could use to fight for you led to the game being jokingly referred to as “Folk-emon”. There was no way to replenish health mid-mission. The success of the Wii paired with the controller’s motion-control led to pressure to incorporate motion controls. The game did this by making some of the larger creatures absorbable only by “battling” using different motions with the controller. In short, a list of ideas that would tend to get labelled as bad design. Still, though, I was hooked to the game’s art and quietness. And the game’s final boss, a long and difficult fight, had me literally standing on the couch, waving the controller frantically to finally defeat it.

    I don’t know if it’s the bad design that makes the game memorable or if the game is memorable despite the bad design, but after writing this, I feel like going home and playing Folklore.

  14. COtheLegend says:

    While I enjoy the original Metroid Prime better, I also like Prime 2. i like the design of the Dark Suit, and, unlike the first game, I like that you get the Grapple Beam about half way through. I enjoy the challenge, but do think having the Light and Dark beams use ammo kind of tilts the deck against you in a way that isn’t very enjoyable. Also, a lot of players don’t look back fondly on it because while the graphics do a great job of setting the mood and environment, many areas are not pleasing to the eye, such as many Dark Aether areas.

    The quest to get the Sky Temple keys at the end, which mostly takes place in the Dark World, probably turns off many people from playing the game again. When I play through it, I usually stop after the Quadraxis battle. Also, while I enjoy the Torvus Bog, I think having a swamp and a desert region in the same game is a little too similar. The whole game literally feels like a fog until you get to the Sanctuary Fortress.

    I was very much looking forward to the Other M, and while I enjoyed playing through it and having several classic Metroid bosses return, I don’t think I would ever want to play it again. The boss battles got quite monotonous, as they were bascially different patterns of dodge-dodge-charge shot-run up and press A. I still believe if they tried another Metroid game with that style, while tweaking some of the flaws, the result could be very good. However, I got the feeling that Other M severely hurt the franchise.

    • GaryX says:

      Doesn’t the game also bring back the screw attack? I though that was cool.

      • Ryan says:

        It brings back the screw attack, but it’s a pretty janky screw attack—which you have to expect when translating something like that into 3D.

        Along similar lines, I think Prime 2 was the first Metroid where you could fall into a Mario-style bottomless pit.

        • GaryX says:

          Yeah, the made it more horizontal than vertical, if I recall, but I thought it worked alright.

          You might be right on the bottomless pit thing. I can’t recall any from the first Prime.

    • JamesJournal says:

      The main reason I was bummed about Other M is because it will surely discourage already rare experimentation from Nintendo in general. That’s tragic. 

  15. Dohja says:

    Isn’t there room for hard games that don’t tip the creator’s hand that are well designed and enjoyable? I’m thinking about xcom: enemy unknown.

    • Bad Horse says:

      XCOM is in a unique place for that, since the design is able to incorporate elements of chance. Chance in an action game is poor design. Chance in XCOM is the whole point.

      And let’s not forget that if you’re playing on anything less than Classic, the creators are making it easier for you in the interest of producing a fun game:…

    • JamesJournal says:

      oh XCOM , and the brutal, stinging bite of death. So many soldiers named after friends 

  16. Roswulf says:

    For me, the most intriguing case of bad game design as an asset is Eve Online. Because many elements of Eve are so poorly designed, whole organizations have been created to improve the gameplay experience. Eve’s tutorial system is dreadful, so huge player corporations are created like Eve University to fill the gap. To some degree, it is the design and maintenance of such organizations that helps to make Eve interesting (well, to me).

    Because of the flaws in the original design, player-controlled emergent gameplay becomes more important to the shared gaming experience. That feeling of player importance is Eve’s greatest asset.

    Although it must be said that as intriguing as I find Eve, I will never play it, in part because of the bad design.

    • NakedSnake says:

      I wish that I had a couple of spare years of my life lying around so that I could devote them to EVE Online. But since that’s not going to happen, I’ll continue to just read about it when something awesome happens.

      • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

         Yeah, the descriptions of stuff that happens there sound awesome, but then I’ll look up actual gameplay and it’s just a bunch of complicated menus and tiny objects shooting light shows at other, differently shaped objects.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      Yeah, EVE is a prime example of great concepts combined with horrible execution.

      “Hooray, I finally found a corporation that engages in missions against large alien installations!  Unfortunately, I have to train skills for three weeks before I can join them!  And then, combat in a group is still just as boring as it is solo.  Screw this ‘game’!”

      • Roswulf says:

        Yeah, I think even the most devoted EVE players would concede that there’s no justification for the game design being quite THAT bad.

        Somewhere there is a happy medium between perfect elegance and EVE that fosters player engagement without being crushingly dull.

  17. hominu says:

    This is what I hate about modern games journalism.

    The idea that a game has ‘bad design’ if it frustrates you for longer than 30 seconds.
    I’d take the badly designed frustrating metroid prime 2 over the better designed glide through the whole thing metroid prime 3 every time

    • GaryX says:

      I don’t overtly dislike Prime 3 because the controls are great, but the actual game design felt like a step down. It’s the only time it seemed like Retro was trying to make a FPS and tried to bring over some of the scope and scale from other FPS to, what I think, was the detriment of the game.

    • Enkidum says:

      Isn’t that kind of the point of the article?

    • Afghamistam says:

      You are a man who doesn’t understand the distinction between “difficult” and “frustrating”.

      • Roswulf says:

        I’m not sure there is a difference beyond “failure that I enjoy” and “failure that I don’t enjoy.”

        Now obviously some specific sources of failure will be enjoyed by more people than others. But the line between difficult and frustrating is damn fuzzy and ultimately subjective.

        • The Guilty Party says:

          Yeah, but you can have non-failure frustrating. Like, having to kill a huge pile of mooks to get from point A to B, where there is little-to-no chance of failure. And then doing it again when you have to go from B to A. And then again…

          That is frustrating, not difficult. It is poor design, not some kind of challenge.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

       I said this above, but I disagree completely. Different people have different ways that they enjoy games. For me, I’d rather enjoy going through the story and exploring the world than spend an hour doing the same thing over and over again until I finally get it right.

  18. Roswulf says:

    It’s interesting to me how easily the discussion of bad design slides into a discussion about difficulty.

    A tangentially relevant digression:

    I’ve gotten heavily into Europa Universalis IV recently, and have been transfixed by huge fights over the game’s most recent patch along these lines on Paradox’s forums. To vastly oversimplify and misrepresent all sides, the most recent patch made the AI harder to defeat in war, and more likely to band together against an expansionist player. For some, this represented a game design fix- it was too easy to conquer the world as Switzerland, and a better AI is an uncomplicated good. To others, the “improvement” sucked all the joy out of a game, as they were forced to spend far too much time waiting for their neighbors to stop hating them and far too little time actually inspiring hate. A smarter AI is bad design, because it creates fewer opportunities for player action, especially as a small nation.

    In EU IV, there is a real split in the community about design goals. Some value the wish fulfillment of conquest more, others the quieter rewards of survival in a hostile historically accurate-ish environment. What is bad design to one group is good to the other. I’m agnostic (in part because my current game as Scotland sidesteps the continental European mess altogether), both in terms of which game I’d rather play, and which game represents better design.

    • needlehacksaw says:

      Yeah, the fact that people link difficulty and bad design so readily is interesting — all the more because it really only gets you so far.

      The best example for this are so-called masocore games from the I Wanna Be The Guy and Asshole Mario variety. Those games are frustrating, unfair, you will hate them at one point or another. And that’s their whole point. So they are doing exactly what they were designed to do.

      Calling that “bad” design just goes to show how broad words like “bad” or “good” (or, for that matter, “fun”) are welcome shorthands for watercooler discussions. But in most cases, they do not really tell you much about the game under consideration, and in general, they do not contribute much to the critical discourse anyway.

  19. Afghamistam says:

    Yunalesca: Who’s got me up high?

    Not only is the boss itself bullshit, but where the bad design kicks in is when you lose: Unskippable 10 minute cut-scene. Really angers up the blood.

    • Marozeph says:

      Unskippable cutscenes are the worst. FFX even did the “Ass-long cutscene before a difficult boss” multiple times, which always put me off replaying the game. Good thing FFXII introduced the option to skip scenes.

      • needlehacksaw says:

        I would agree that “a-lcsbadfb” is one of the cardinal sins of game design. It’s what made me stop playing Persona 3, even though I wanted to love it after having finished and adored Persona 4.

        (Well, to be honest, that’s not the only questionable design decision by far. Equally high up on the “I hated that”-scale are companions that can’t be controlled directly and tend not to heal you, even if they are totally capable of doing so. And the fact that once you have maxed out your stats, there simply is not much to do for you anymore during week-days, even though the game does go on for a long time after that… I mean, my memory might be misleading there, but I am pretty certain that studying does not work in the way of you reading a few books at the beginning of the semester, until you are officially smart enough, at which point you just go walk the dog until finally holiday season arrives.)

      • indy2003 says:

        The HD-remake of Kingdom Hearts had skippable cutscenes (which wasn’t an option in the original), so I imagine the FFX remake may very well have the same option.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      The BradyGames guide LIED to me about this fight. They said she would NEVER get everybody or something. She did.

      But I still beat her. Thanks, Auron!

    • Sarapen says:

      Jesus Christ you had to remind me. I played that game to the end because I’m completist to an idiotic degree but, honestly, what the fuck, game?

  20. Alex Coulombe says:

    Great article.

    Without spoiling anything, the ‘too convenient’ argument presented here also goes a long way toward addressing my concerns about the finale of Breaking Bad.

    • For a show all about plans going awry and unforeseen consequences the BB finale’s final act was so easy (and even telegraphed multiple times, so it was hardly a mystery what was MEANT to happen) that I was quite baffled, like somebody was going to pull the rug out at some point and tell us it was all a dream. 

      Overall pretty happy with the end results though.


  21. Wishsong214 says:

    Part of why the Dark World doesn’t work as well in this game as it does in Link to the Past is the lack of freedom. You can only ever get to an from the Dark World by reaching preset portals. Link to the Past hindered your ability to get to the Dark World, but getting out was not a problem as soon as you had the mirror, which, if anything, opened up the way for many more interesting puzzles. Finding how to get somewhere you couldn’t go by getting to that same XY coordinate in the Dark World and then warping out felt more rewarding than the Echoes method of going through a portal and trying to find out what path the world has to get to another portal.

    That being said, I am a huge fan of Echoes. That could be because I found some of the zones to just be more interesting than its predecessor’s (while Phendrana is beautiful, it is another snow/ice level. Give me the dank and creepy vibe of Torvus Bog or the mostly-abandoned Sanctuary Fortress). Tallon IV felt like a standard world, with its forests, temple, lake, lava, snow, and mining levels. The wastelands, swamp, sewers, robot fortress, and world of darkness on Aether just felt a bit more intriguing to me.
    But both pale when compared to Corruption’s worlds.

    • I totally agree. Prime 3 was such a pleasure to play just for the environments. And because you traveled using Samus’s ship instead of elevators, it was a lot easier to revisit favorite areas or backtrack. The Space Pirate homeworld and Phaaze were just amazing to explore. Also the abandoned Federation spaceship. Aaah, the whole game is great.

      • Wishsong214 says:

         I could also go on for ages about how that game actually blended cinematic into the gameplay better than most games that I’ve played. The first Ridley fight where you’re falling the whole time? The assault on the Pirate Homeworld? The battles against your once-friends? It actually turned Metroid into a movie-esque game without…well, without being Other M.

  22. DJDeluxeSupreme says:

    Silent Hill and the survival horror genre in general are great examples of this strength.  They put you in the role of someone completely underpowered and present you with unfair and often frustrating challenges, which just made the games scarier knowing how easily you could die.  By today’s standards, the clunky controls of games like Silent Hill 3 or the original Resident Evil would be written off as poor design, but these games lost really lost something with improved combat controls.  I’m talking specifically about Silent Hill: homecoming, and Resident Evil 4.  RE 4 brought back the series, and was a good game, but it turned the series into an action rather than horror franchise.

    • TimeTravelParadox says:

      Yes, and my favorite of these is “Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth” which is very frustrating and features a “broken” shooting system. It’s not exactly a smooth day at the fair, but man does it make you feel on edge. High on morphine with a broken leg dragging yourself through a sewer (with a shoggoth creeping about below), armed with a shotgun loaded with one shell, and no ability to aim it accurately. And all the while fish people are calling out for you. It makes you feel truly lost and alone in a Lovecraftian nightmare, and the harder it is the more desperate you become. Maybe it’s not bad design so much as perfect design for what it’s trying to do.

      • Also notable is how you spend the first 20% of the game completely weaponless, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen. Lots of horror games will take away your weapons for just a level, but “Cthulhu” throws you right in with no way to defend yourself. You get good at running, sneaking, and cowering fearfully before you ever have the means to fight back.

  23. orborborb says:

    I prefer Metroid over Super Metroid for exactly this reason, but the world of Metroid Prime 2 actually felt MORE distractingly gamey to me with its color coded keys, extremely linear light/dark puzzles, and generally just the feeling of being trapped in a contrived zelda dungeon of corridors and top-down puzzle/combat arenas.

    • There’s also the issue of the Metroids being sidelined in their own damn franchise. A lot of it didn’t even properly feel like a Metroid game—the Space Pirates and Metroids felt like an afterthought and had barely anything to do with the main narrative. And the Ing were pretty bland antagonists; unlike the Pirates, they’re didn’t come across as EVIL, just kinda-ugly aliens doing what they do.

  24. whatahorriblenighttohaveacurse says:

    I’ll give MP2 one thing:  watching a speed run of it is one of the most interesting and weird video game videos I’ve ever watched.  MP1 had lots of exploitable issues like being able to jump out of bounds or jump way farther than the designer’s intended, but MP2 has hilariously broken glitches, such as one where you can actually skip losing all your abilities at the beginning of the game.  And once you get the Screw Attack, you can break the game at any morph ball hole.

  25. Pastyjournalist says:

    I remember a ton of the bosses in this game being damn near impossible – and taking about 30 minutes to beat them. 

  26. DrZaloski says:

    The thing that made Echoes still a great game was how beautifully the atmosphere was constructed. Prime had an absolutely fantastic atmosphere, and Echoes was able to meet, and in my opinion surpass, that atmosphere by putting such a dark, lonely feel to it. I didn’t ever really feel lost in Prime, I felt like I was exploring, adventuring! In Echoes, I felt like I wanted to get the hell out of this nightmare, and that amazingly kept me playing. There’s serious merit to that, to really formulate this love-hate relationship, something a lot of recent horror games (cough Dead Space cough) miss out on.

  27. Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

    This is EXACTLY why Dota works so well. Everything about it seems like “bad game design.” But it is fucking riveting. I highly recommend reading Quinns’ article on RPS that touches on some of this kind of thing. It’s great.

  28. Wishsong214 says:

    I realized a more universal application of this rule as well, one that many people miss. Everyone complains when a character is not likable in any story…but sometimes that makes the story what it is.

    The prime example that came to mind was actually the Legend of Zelda’s latest handheld entry, Spirit Tracks. One of the more negatively recieved Zelda games, one of the reasons that I’ve heard against it is that Zelda, as a character, is annoying. And I will admit that this is true. At the start of the game, she’s naive, cowardly, and sometimes a little bratty. Nothing like the wise, perfect princess that Zelda fans came to expect. And yet Spirit Tracks is one of my favorite entries in the series simply because, by the end of the game, I absolutely loved her character. Having her be a bit of a pain at the start is necessary to make her growth into someone fighting alongside you gives the game a better story overall.