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Should sequels be harder than the games that came before?

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I've recently been playing through Crash Bandicoot 4, and honestly I have been absolutely getting my arse kicked by it. It's fair to say the developers took the comments of the N Sane Trilogy being "the Dark Souls of mascot platformers" to heart and strived to make an even harder version. Crash 4 is like a fan mod designed to make the original game harder, it still has all the fundamental building blocks but the difficulty has been ramped up to 11 under the justification that "only people who have played the previous games a billion times and know all the mechanical tricks would want this, so it's fine that it's so hard."

Now it's fair to say Crash as a series has always had some difficulty to it. The first game in particular has a lot of difficult moments. Getting gems requires not only getting every box, but doing so without dying, and the player is limited in how often they can save. Crash 2 & 3 meanwhile have 'Death Routes', harder pathways in levels that are only available if the player can get from the start of the level to the very end without dying. Crash 4 has it's own death related challenges. You will get a gem in each level if you clear it with three or less deaths, and will unlock bonus levels if you can reach a certain point in each level without dying a single time. But of note, the levels in Crash 4 are easily three times longer than the longest levels in other games, and are also that much harder in terms of overall design and obstacles, making no death runs significantly harder.

Crash 2 is easier than Crash 1, mostly because of the removal of the "no deaths in a level" rule for getting gems, and the ability to save the game more frequently. But that's not to say Crash 2 is an easy game, it still has some really challenging levels, but the difficulty comes from presenting a different challenge, not necessarily a harder one. The same is true for Crash 3 as well, it's on par in terms of difficulty with Crash 2, but the challenge is different. One of the hardest things Crash 2 asks the player to do is navigate a series of instantly-exploding nitro crates that are set up on ice, then stop at the end to hit a switch box and head back in reverse, this is found in an optional area of level 17, while one of Crash 3's hardest moments is in level 20 which routinely floods and drains, tasking the player with timing movement between chunks of high ground so they don't drown. It's not necessarily a harder challenge, it's a different challenge.

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From the start however Crash 4 is presenting harder versions of things done previously, and in longer levels, with new mechanics on top as well. Even the earliest stages requires the player to be able to perfectly time double jumps off of collapsing platforms that require the player to bring into existence at the press of R2 (while others will disappear at the same time), meaning the player not only has to clear a tough platforming section, but they have to do it while also keeping track of what platforms are currently solid and what ones are out of phase. And this would be fine for optional content, or levels that appear later on, but the player is literally expected to be able to do things like this from level 3 onwards. Yes, it too is something different to previous games, but it's not an equivalent difficulty. The game just assumes that the player has mastered the hardest platforming challenges in the previous games, and thus doesn't need to worry about how these combine with the new elements, meaning the game effectively opens up asking you to juggle tight platforming with other mechanics on top of it.

While I don't doubt there is satisfaction to be had in overcoming a hard challenge, the fundamental reason most people buy a sequel is because they liked the game that came before, and want more experiences of that nature, not necessarily harder experiences. The best sequels bring improvements, new mechanics, different level design ideas, and a whole bunch of new challenges, but usually of a similar scale in difficulty to the previous game. Crash 4 meanwhile is the platforming equivalent of starting a racing game sequel in a hatchback racing against supercars in an unknown course, or starting a fighting game as an entirely new character facing off against three opponents without health being reset after each one. It's not just escalation of previous challenge, it's escalation plus requiring mastery of something entirely unfamiliar at once that creates a massive wall of difficulty.

As this is the ultimate irony of the game for me. The sections where the game tests just the skills picked up from the previous games (such as the bonus levels unlocked with the tapes), are actually a lot of fun, because actually I am able to beat them. But when the main levels ask me to juggle that alongside it's new mechanics, it doesn't matter how good I am at the old stuff, because the mix makes those skills irrelevant. If these sections had been as hard as the platforming found in Crash 2 & 3, they would be manageable, but they've opened on par with the hardest things from those games and it just escalates even more.

And I know, complaining about difficulty is always met with "git gud", and there are people who have invested the time to reach full completion, and people skilled enough that the game isn't a hard slog to get through. It's just frustrating to me as I was looking forward to a new challenge based on something I hadn't seen in previous titles, not new and also harder challenge. Sure, I didn't want a cakewalk, but I also wasn't expecting to die over a dozen times on level 1 because the game decided to start harder than the previous games ended.

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