Answers to 15 More “Unanswered” Metal Gear Questions

I wish I had seen this video back when it was first uploaded, which was around the time I was compiling questions for my own smart-aleck-y list of answers to “Unanswered” Questions in Metal Gear. Alas, the timelines just didn’t work out that way. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago the video butted into my Related Videos feed, and now that I’ve seen it, I feel like addressing it. (Or, at least, address the parts I haven’t already, in my previous post.)

I invited folks to leave new questions in the comments for the previous post, but I don’t have the most popular blog in the world, so I don’t even know how many people saw it. (Most of the feedback I get for blog posts comes from my Discord channel, and most of that was “Brick please stop talking about Metal Gear, we are begging you”.) The only actual question I ended up getting there is the first one I’d like to tackle now, because it’s an example of another eye-rolling class of question that’s kind of unfair to even ask. To wit:

How did the Cyborg Ninja get to Shadow Moses Island?

The for-real answer to this question is, “Somehow.” He got there somehow. Solid Snake arrives by submarine, Liquid Snake arrives by Hind D, Otacon flies there a decade later in the Nomad. The point is, people get there. The island is reachable. The actual logistics of each individual character’s journey — including scientists, soldiers, terrorists, FOXHOUND members, intruders, spaghetti western-loving quadruple agents, and Cyborg Ninjas — just don’t matter much.

To me, this is a disingenuous question. Someone seeking to untangle the plot isn’t going to get bogged down with minutiae like this, for the same reason we don’t wonder who does Rey’s laundry, what restaurant Cipher and Agent Smith are eating at, how many different sorts of carrots Farmer Maggot grows, or what the thread count is at the Galdin Quay hotel. Someone seeking answers in good faith will wonder why the Cyborg Ninja went there, or who the Cyborg Ninja is, or what the Cyborg Ninja did upon arrival. And we know all those answers, because they’re a part of the story.

But why care how he got there? He got there somehow, is what’s important.

“Snaaaaake! I took an Uuuuuuuber!”

And now, on to the clickbait listicle video! A few of the questions therein were addressed in my first post, so I’ll just skip over those.

Why didn’t Solid Snake or any of the hostages ever recognize George Sears?

Big Boss and Solidus Snake aren’t actually identical.

During Metal Gear Solid, George Sears is president of the United States. He is forced to resign after the Shadow Moses Incident. A few years later, during Sons of Liberty, it is revealed that George Sears is really Solidus Snake — third clone of Big Boss. However, Solid Snake doesn’t seem to notice the resemblance at all. Is that weird?

Here are the best visuals we have for what Solidus and Big Boss look like when they get old:

Left: Snake. Right: Also Snake.

To my knowledge these are the most recent graphical renders of each of these characters, at an age where Solid Snake would know them. (Big Boss has newer renders, but of a younger version of himself, which Solid Snake wouldn’t be familiar with.)

The first thing to address is… ah… these men don’t look exactly alike! Despite having the same genetics, Solidus only sorta resembles Big Boss; their features are different enough that they could be different people. So the easy answer to why Snake didn’t see George Sears on CNN or whatever and be all “Hey that looks like Big Boss!” is the guy on CNN didn’t look enough like Big Boss for Snake to jump to conclusions. If you’re in line behind a guy who kinda looks like Joe Pesci, you don’t later tell the story about how you met Joe Pesci at the gas station. The reaction would be more like, “Hey that looks kinda like Big Boss, if he were ten years younger, and clean shaven, and had both eyes!”

There’s also the fact that Snake spent most of George Sears’s presidency hiding off the grid in the Alaskan bush, probably not watching much CNN.

But okay, why doesn’t Solidus look like Big Boss, if they’re supposed to be a perfect genetic match? And the answer is, Solidus is not Big Boss’s perfect genetic match. Big Boss was a human man who aged naturally over many years. Solidus was genetically engineered to age rapidly. (In the shot above, Solidus is only 37… about my age!) This, combined with any physical alterations they added to the mix, plus whatever effect you get from cleaning him up and putting him in a nice suit, produces two men who look similar but not identical.

As for why the hostages in Big Shell don’t recognize him… they’re hostages. They’re wearing blindfolds and Solidus doesn’t interact with them directly at any point. Even if one of them happened to catch a glimpse, they have Snake’s problem from the other direction; there’s no indication an average citizen in 2009, however-many years into the Patriots’ lockdown on information, knows who Big Boss is or what he looked like.

Where was Solidus during The Phantom Pain?

The Patriots had him.

The video’s next question after this is “where was Grey Fox?” which I covered in my 30 Questions post, but these “where was so-and-so” questions all have the same answer: they were wherever they were, and where they were wasn’t here.

The video’s Grey Fox question gives the game away: people wonder where Grey Fox was, not because there’s some burning hole in the story that needs addressing, but because Grey Fox was cool and influential in that one chapter. So why oh why isn’t he in this other chapter? It’s a Pure Fanboy question (and, of course, I have deep respect and sympathy for other Metal Gear fanboys). It’s not a stupid thing to ask, it’s just that there’s not an answer and isn’t going to be, because the answer wouldn’t affect anything.

The wording in the video is something like, “Grey Fox did important stuff in this story, so it would make perfect sense for him to do important stuff in this other story.” Yeah, okay, but it also makes perfect sense that maybe he didn’t do important stuff in that other story. Kojima can only write it one way. It’s fine to wish it was written another way because you dig on some Grey Fox, but that’s not the way it went.

You can see the silliness of this question by asking a reverse version of it. Where was Quiet during Metal Gear Solid? She doesn’t die onscreen, she isn’t mentioned later in the chronology… what happened to her? We know the answer is something like “Phantom Pain was a prequel, and Quiet hadn’t been invented yet.” And we leave it at that. We don’t trouble ourselves with an in-universe version of the question because one simply isn’t necessary to make the story work.

We can of course speculate. It’s possible Quiet retired from military life and opened a flower shop in Bruges, and nobody bothered her ever again. Or maybe she slipped on a banana peel and fell into the ocean and dissolved, and Venom wiped the resulting sludge all over his face in a dramatic cutscene. Point is, she wasn’t at Shadow Moses. And Solidus wasn’t on Mother Base.

As with any absent character, we can infer what Solidus was likely up to in the early 1980s. He’s younger than his brothers, but aging faster, and we know from Sons of Liberty that by the late ’80s he was “old” enough to be a twisted father figure to Raiden on a battlefield in Liberia. The whole point of Solidus’s existence is to be a military and political tool for the Patriots, and we know he eventually fills that intended role, at least for a time. During the early ’80s his apparent age is probably in the mid-to-late teens, and he’s probably spending his days receiving the harsh training that would eventually carry him to Liberia, the presidency, and Dead Cell.

What happened to Diamond Dogs after The Phantom Pain?

They died, disbanded, and rebranded themselves, in some combination.

D-Dog got to keep the helicopter.

From our perspective, because our protagonists were the dudes in charge of Mother Base — and it certainly does look super impressive — the Diamond Dogs were a special and influential player in world events during the 1980s. Our perspective is biased, though. In reality, Diamond Dogs was just one of many mercenary armies dotting the globe. They were a blip on the map.

This is the in-universe reason for The Phantom Pain‘s PvP element. When you infiltrate another player’s Mother Base, what you’re actually doing is attacking a rival PMC in order to steal their soldiers and intel, disassemble their nukes, and piss in all their flower pots. We don’t know how many such groups there are. Probably lots and lots.

We also get a very grim depiction of what life is like for the men of these PMCs, both from Big Boss himself (especially during his various speeches in Peace Walker), and eventually from the creation and manipulation of the War Economy in Guns of the Patriots. These men drift from battlefield to battlefield mostly in a haze. When one group breaks up — as Diamond Dogs inevitably must — the component parts end up somewhere else. They join other PMCs, to fight in other battles, and that is the story of them. EVA has quite a lot to say about this during her big “war is bad” exposition during Guns.

In practice, most of the Diamond Dogs hardware and personnel probably ended up at Outer Heaven, which is where Venom Snake eventually plants his flag on soil. Outer Heaven wasn’t just another PMC, it was a new nation, which is why the US government took such an interest in it. But that’s a story for another time.

What is the VOL2 tape? Is there a VOL1 tape?

It’s an easter egg.

The tape in question is collected during a non-canon side op in Ground Zeroes called “Classified Intel Acquisition”. Once collected it appears on the menu as “Classified Intel Data”. There’s only one track: “Data Cassette (Do not use in music players)”. Of course, inside Ground Zeroes the only thing you can do with tapes is listen to them in your music player, which just results in about five seconds of static.

Now, the first couple Metal Gear games were released for an 8-bit computer called the MSX, which was able to read data from cassette tapes. Some cheaper games came on cassette, but Metal Gear and its sequel came on sturdier, more expensive cartridges. In fact, Metal Gear 2 uses MSX cartridges as a plot element, when some important data winds up encoded on one. There being precident for this kind of chicanery, some enterprising hackers figured out how to boot the static from Ground Zeroes in an MSX emulator. The result is the phrase “VOL2” followed by a bunch of garbage code.

In one of The Phantom Pain‘s thirty endings, we get to see what might be VOL1: the cassette Venom Snake has that’s labeled “Operation Intrude N313”. That’s the code name for sending Solid Snake into Outer Heaven. The implication here is that Venom’s tape is the mission data for the first Metal Gear game, and the tape Big Boss recovers in Ground Zeroes, VOL2, is the data for Metal Gear 2.

But it can’t possibly be, because there’s no way the planning for Zanzibar Land could have ended up at a Cuban black site in the 1970s, ten years before a computer that can read it even makes it to market. Metal Gear is crazy, but it’s never dipped into time travel.

The VOL2 tape is just a macguffin. It only exists to justify your running around in that one side op. It was just a neat place for Kojima to hide a little wink for fanatical players to discover.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the “VOL2” thing may not even be true. I haven’t verified it myself, others have reported not being able to boot the data at all, there doesn’t seem to be any video of the data being booted, and the only reference to VOL2 I can even find on the internet outside of the listicle video are some reddit posts discussing it. (The video doesn’t even seem to know why it’s called the VOL2 tape, or at least, doesn’t mention it.) Reports indicate that the “VOL2” text is followed by lots of garbage data, so it could even be coincidence that the static, when converted to MSX data, just happens to output something legible for the first four characters. The whole thing might just be an urban legend. Either way, it doesn’t need an in-universe explanation.

How do we know the Ground Zeroes side ops aren’t canonical?

Big Boss only visits Camp Omega once: the Ground Zeroes main op.

In the side ops, Big Boss visits Camp Omega again and again, to accomplish various tasks. In one he sits in his helicopter and sprays the whole base with a machinegun. In another he erases a bunch of Metal Gear game logos. In another he extracts Hideo Kojima himself, who is held in the base as a prisoner. Some, like Classified Intel Acquisition, are plausible in-universe adventures; others clearly aren’t.

The crucial tell here is, at the beginning of the main op, it’s Big Boss’s first visit to Camp Omega. Kaz’s briefing as Big Boss climbs the cliffs up to the site make it pretty clear neither of them have been there before in person. So we know he didn’t complete Classified Intel Acquisition before now.

As soon as Big Boss leaves with Paz and Chico, he arrives back at Mother Base during Skull Face’s attack. During the commotion Big Boss is wounded, and enters his nine-year coma. So we know he doesn’t complete Classified Intel Acquisition later, either.

The only other read, if you’re willing to really stretch, is that Big Boss went back to Camp Omega at some point in the 1980s to complete these side ops during or after the events of The Phantom Pain. The problem with this read is it would have to be Big Boss, and not Venom Snake, since the man doing the infiltration doesn’t have any forehead shrapnel. But it couldn’t be Big Boss, because Kaz doesn’t work with Big Boss any more after Mother Base is destroyed.

The side ops are fun little missions, and some of them even make sense as canon if you take Ground Zeroes in isolation, but they’re not a part of the series chronology.

Are all easter eggs non-canonical?

This gets real muddy real quick, but basically no.

Some easter eggs are clearly just for fun: Snake demonstrably did not run around Shadow Moses in a tuxedo. Others are fun, but also fit in-universe: EVA probably did have breast augmentation done as part of “charm school”.

Metal Gear likes to dabble in magical realism, so when Snake tells Raiden his bandana gives him infinite ammo, and then fires thirty thousand rounds at ninja attackers in the following scene, I’m willing to take his word. When something like this happens during the course of natural gameplay, or is directly called attention to by one of the characters in-universe, we can probably put it down as having happened, even if what happened was weird.

On the other hand, it’s really hard to believe that Snake has a “Making of Metal Gear Solid 4” podcast on his iPod. I mean, who carried an iPod around in 2014!?

There’s this intuitive understanding of video game storytelling where it’s not necessarily true that every bit of gameplay “actually happened”. If you spend an hour punching Emma in the face, you wouldn’t consider that part of the story’s canon. It’s just Some Dumb Thing You Did. Kojima is really, really good at finding those spots and acknowledging them, though; if you do punch Emma in the face, your codec team knows you did it, and will yell at you for it. The codec team reacting makes it “more real” than if they hadn’t, and it becomes part of “your” Sons of Liberty story, but it’s still not part of the shared canon across all players. (E.g., when you boot up Guns of the Patriots, Otacon won’t be like, “Hey Raiden, remember that time you spent an hour punching my sister in the face?”)

So maybe, when you point a camera at one of the Beauties and she wiggles her butt at you, it’s because the Beauties canonically wiggled their butts. Or maybe it was just Kojima winking and saying, “I knew you’d try that, you perv.”

“I knew you’d try this, too, and the authorities have been notified.”

How did the Philosopher’s Legacy end up with Ocelot?

He took it.

The Philosopher’s Legacy is a colossal amount of money in Colonel Volgin’s possession during Snake Eater. Anybody who’s anybody in Groznyj Grad is there to get their grubby mitts on the Legacy, in the form of a microfilm containing its location, and turn it over to their respective government. Lots of stuff happens, but it all shakes out with Ocelot telling his boss, the director of the CIA, that the Legacy is “safely with us, in America’s hands.” In that same conversation, he says only about half the Legacy made it back, and speculates that the rest must still be in the USSR, with the KGB.

Every reference to the Legacy after this point involves it coming to Major Zero, and being used to establish the Patriots. The nuts and bolts of where the money actually went requires delving into Portable Ops, which many players (including me) do not consider canon. In that game, Ocelot explicitly recovers both the KGB and CIA halves of the Legacy, and turns it all over to Zero.

While Portable Ops isn’t canon, I think we can safely assume those particular events played out more or less as they were depicted. This sort of duplicity is exactly the kind of work Ocelot is suited for, and he was well-placed in both the KGB and CIA at the time. Betraying both for a new organization that benefits himself and Big Boss sounds right up his alley.

Do Ocelot and The Boss know they’re related?

No.

The Boss is Ocelot’s mother. In The Boss’s long sad story about giving birth during the landing at Normandy, the baby she lost to the Philosophers grew up to become Ocelot. During Snake Eater neither character gives any indication they know about their connection, and while The Boss is mentioned quite a lot by other characters later in the chronology, never by Ocelot himself. So that’s the answer: no, they don’t. (Or, the more complete answer: no, probably not.)

The more interesting aspect of this question is, to me, that neither of these characters are the type to have behaved any differently if they had known. The Boss wasn’t going to jeopardize her mission in Groznyj Grad because she happened to be reunited with dear old Sonny Boy, and Ocelot just flat out doesn’t respect authority. Most likely there’s no family reunion scene because neither of them knew, but it’s possible one or both of them knew, and didn’t act.

Where was EVA between Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots?

Wherever she was.

No, Brick, come on, this one is actually important!

Okay, fair enough. We actually know quite a lot about EVA’s timeline between the two games she appears in, but we have to put it together from several different sources. The only direct evidence we get about her fate following Snake Eater is from the ending crawl. In 1968, she “disappeared without a trace in Hanoi”. A few lines later, in 1972, “the sons of Big Boss are born.”

At the time Snake Eater came out these looked like two disconnected events, but as of Guns of the Patriots we know that EVA is the mother of Big Boss’s sons. So it follows: when she disappeared in Hanoi, she disappeared into Patriots custody, for use in Les Enfants Terribles. This project caused a schism in the Patriots; it was the event that caused Big Boss to break away. EVA was conflicted; she didn’t want to work against Big Boss, but she also cared about her sons. (She tells Snake, “Your father never wanted you… but I wanted you.”)

From here the games lose track of EVA until she turns up again in Guns, as the leader of the Paradise Lost Army, working against the Patriots.

EVA never worked directly with Big Boss during his private army years. There was some contact — she sends him a bunch of tapes about The Boss in Peace Walker — but as far as we can tell they never met again face to face. However, Ocelot also wasn’t working directly with Big Boss during this time; he was still ostensibly a loyal Patriots agent. It’s not until Skull Face blows up Mother Base and draws Zero out of hiding that there’s any indication these characters still share a personal connection. It’s at Zero’s behest that Ocelot look after Big Boss’s double, as an extra security measure.

One more important clue: when EVA lay dying on the Volta, she makes one final emotional appeal to Liquid Ocelot by using the first code name she knew him by: ADAM. She even gives him an apple, just to drive home the ham-handed imagery. This is the only time during Guns when a character addresses Liquid Ocelot as Ocelot instead of Liquid. She’s asking, is the Ocelot I knew still in there? And she dies before she gets the answer.

Remember, the man Ocelot is masquereding as at this point is her other son, who she wanted. That she’d try to appeal to Ocelot, rather than her own son, is very telling. She had a connection with Ocelot, before he disappeared into Liquid.

From all of this we can extrapolate EVA’s timeline. She was working closely with Ocelot for many years, though covertly. Ocelot was still inside the Patriots; EVA at some point breaks away. They kept working together to get hold of Big Boss’s remains and bring down Cipher. You can picture EVA receiving a secret tape (well, probably a CD or a thumb drive by this point) with Ocelot saying, “Hey, this Big Shell nonsense is going to be a real cluster. Don’t get close, I got this.”

At some point, she forms Paradise Lost.

I don’t think it’s really important to pin down when this happens. A secret covert organization devoted to fighting another secret covert organization nobody knows exists? Makes sense there are no breadcrumbs. Cipher and the Patriots have lots of fingers in lots of pies. While Ocelot was working the direct military conflicts — the sort of thing Solid Snake and therefore the player would be involved in — Paradise Lost was doing different sorts of work. Rescuing VIPs, shuffling and hiding finances, planting and acquiring secret intel, maybe keeping tabs on Huey Emmerich’s kids.

Eventually Ocelot is “lost” from EVA’s perspective, and at that point she’s the last one left still fighting the Patriots. It’s not until now, maybe 2010 or so, she needs to become more involved militarily. She recruits Raiden and, eventually, makes contact with Solid Snake.

So, where was she between Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots? She was wherever she was, doing whatever she could.

Why was Shadow Moses left unattended for so long?

This is a very, very interesting question that gets right to the heart of a lot of the themes of information control the series likes to drone on about. I’m actually surprised — and a little impressed! — that it showed up in someone’s clickbait video.

And it was left unattended because they knew they’d want to make this scene a decade later.

After the events of Metal Gear Solid, Nastasha Romanenko, a loose end the Patriots failed to tie up, published a tell-all book entitled In the Darkness of Shadow Moses: The Unofficial Truth. This is an accurate recounting of the Shadow Moses Incident. You can read the full text off the main menu in Sons of Liberty, where it serves as a story recap. When it comes to Shadow Moses, the truth is out there.

So tell me, what did you just think of when I said, “the truth is out there”?

One important distinction between the Metal Gear universe and our own is, over there, there exists a shadowy illuminati organization that controls everything the citizens think and feel. It’s rare that the Patriots goof enough that the public gets any wind of their machinations. (Indeed, these incidents tend to be the scenarios we play through!) But even events that are too big to cover up can be spun, and nobody is better at doing that than Cipher. Remember: the Patriots’ goal isn’t to suppress information, but rather to control it. They don’t need to erase Shadow Moses, they just need the citizenry to not believe it. As long as they paint Romanenko’s tell-all as sensationalist conspiracy claptrap, well, job done.

How would you feel about a movie called Obama’s Birth Certificate: The Unofficial Truth? (That movie kind of exists, by the way.)

Shadow Moses was left unattended because the only public account of what happened there wasn’t credible. And besides, we don’t actually know it was left unattended. Maybe Cipher had a dude out there in a yurt whose job it was to catalog all the comings and goings. Maybe black helicopters showed up in 2013 to disappear the film crew of the In the Darkness Netflix documentary series.

How did the Patriots AI give orders to people?

Agents. Until nanomachines were invented, anyway. Then, nanomachines. Except those people that don’t have nanomachines. For those, the AI uses agents.

How do nanomachines get installed?

A needle goes into your skin, and the nanomachines are injected, and now you have nanomachines.

These two questions, taken together, fall into the category of “So wait,” for me. “So wait, the Patriots really have basically infinite resources?” Yeah, that’s really what’s up. If the Patriots want you to do a thing, you’ll get your orders somehow. If they want you to have nanos, you’ll get nanos.

There are numerous examples of the Patriots AI establishing control over people without them ever knowing it. Meryl Silverburgh spends an entire game doing their bidding, and she doesn’t even know they exist. Raiden goes into live fire on an anti-terrorist infiltration op because a voice in his head tells him to. Solid Snake lets a doctor give him an injection of what he thinks is an anti-freezing agent, but is actually a revenge-fueled nanovirus.

The Patriots AI is an infinite computer brain that lives in space, has been in constant development for 40 years, backed by an all-powerful world-spanning organization with unlimited funds, whose very mission statement is to control everything. Eventually it’s not even possible to fire a gun unless the AI says it’s okay. The logistics of these day-to-day tasks are just trifling details.

The AI is imperfect, and by Sons of Liberty it has also gone crazy, but it’s still functionally all-powerful.

Why does the Patriots AI allow Liquid Ocelot to rise to power?

Because it can’t not.

The AI isn’t equipped to deal with Liquid as he’s amassing wealth and power. Imagine coming home to find your kitchen burned down, and asking your goldfish why it didn’t put the fire out even though it had all that water right there.

The Patriots AI is infinite in resources and global reach, but it is stupid. At the end of Guns Big Boss describes the AI as being an “oppressivly uniform system”. It’s capable of doing only what it was designed to do: control information. That’s an incredibly powerful tool, but as of SIGINT’s death in Metal Gear Solid, nobody is weilding it anymore. The AI is left unsupervized, and its code eventually mutates into what we see in Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots.

Liquid Ocelot takes advantage of the situation, but he didn’t create the War Economy. The War Economy is an abberation, a mutation in the Patriots AI that allows it to propogate itself and bring people under its control faster and more efficiently than the old method of controlling information.

The AI can’t take action against Liquid without damaging its own plots and systems. And the AI can’t — literally is unable to — take action that would damage its own plots and systems. So it’s stuck, if it even sees what’s happening.

However, buried somewhere deep in the AI is a vestigial line of code left over from Shadow Moses, that looks something like:

if Liquid.uppity
  deploy(solidSnake);

Which is exactly what happens. The AI starts turning a wheel somewhere, and before you know it Roy Campbell is touching down in a helicopter with an assassination job on offer. And that wheel touches another wheel which touches another wheel which ensures Drebin and Meryl just happen to be in the area to offer valuable support.

The AI can’t prevent Liquid’s rise to power because last time Liquid rose to power, nobody prevented it. It has no frame of reference. But someone did stop Liquid once he attained power, and so the AI just does the same thing that worked last time: it sends in Solid Snake.

How is the Arsenal Gear crash covered up?

The clickbait video lists this as the #1 question Metal Gear doesn’t answer, but I can’t really figure out why, since to my knowledge this doesn’t actually happen. The cover-up, I mean. The crash definitely happens.

It’s true we don’t know what the public’s reaction to the Arsenal crash is. But then, we generally don’t know a lot about what the public is up to in the Metal Gear universe at all. We are told repeatedly that the events of the games — even the big, flashy public ones — get swept away by some “official story” that everybody buys, and that’s really enough of an explanation. The public believed whatever the Patriots AI wanted them to believe re: Arsenal, because that’s something the Patriots AI is able to do.

They did cover up this awesome boss fight, though.

In Sons of Liberty, Otacon explains that Ocelot sold the technical specs for REX on the black market, and now every “state, group and dotcom” has their own Metal Gear. In such a climate, it would be shockingly easy for the US government to sell its citizens on the idea that, yes, we really do need something like Arsenal to protect us, and yes, terrorists stole it and crashed it into New York, so yes, now we need even bigger and badder Metal Gears to combat this new threat. This is, in fact, almost exactly how the War Economy ends up operating in Guns of the Patriots.

That’s the end of the Metal Gear questions, for now.

If you have a burning question of your own, or even better, if you have another dumb clickbait video for me to dissect, point me in that direction. And as always, thanks for reading!

Denmark is Basically Antarctica

Denmark is Basically Antarctica
That Podcast We Did

 
 
00:00 / 50:22
 
1X
 

Brick & McClain discuss Discord Nitro, the Artifact of Enigma, Telltale and Rockstar, tired old Christopher Lloyd, the quote-unquote media, provisional ballots, and maps of the Shetland Islands.

Return to Return of the Obra Dinn

I’m happy to report that my second playthrough of Return of the Obra Dinn confirmed three things for me:

1) The entire game is solvable through observation, logic, and deduction. There is no point where identifying a crewman or their fate requires any sort of guesswork.

2) The game is even better when played like that than it already was, which is to say, “very plenty good”.

3) If you’ve already solved some percentage of the game through guesswork, like I had, playing the remainder of the game “fairly” doesn’t make you feel like you missed anything. In essence, you’re going back and playing what you skipped the first time.

This is good news! It doesn’t fix the critical flaw of the game — that it naturally guides you towards making guesses and then confirms those guesses magically — but given how difficult it would be to solve the problems this flaw creates, and given so few adventure games actually take measures to dissuade brute forcing, maybe that’s okay. The main point is, I was afraid the ease at which guesswork solves the game meant guesswork was the game. And that’s not the case.

Whether you’ve solved Obra Dinn already or are going into it your first time, you might want to apply what I’ve learned to your playthrough.

The Mechanism

I said in my critique that Obra Dinn has some mechanism by which it knows which crewman you have enough information to identify, and which you don’t. Here’s how the game does it:

The sketch you start the game with blurs out all the crewman’s faces. This is the game’s shorthand for “you don’t have enough to go on yet”, and will tell you that explicitly if you try to name someone. (It doesn’t actually stop you from naming someone, though.) Once you have enough info to pin someone, their face in the sketch comes into focus.

How this works is, many crewmen have x clues you need to find to deduce their identity. These clues are peppered throughout the various memories you unlock as you play. If a crewman’s clues are in, say, memory #3, memory #12, and memory #26, that crewman’s face un-blurs once you’ve unlocked memories 3, 12, and 26.

Other crewman don’t have clues as such; you have to infer who they are through process of elimination. (The game tells you this.) These faces become un-blurred once you’ve identified those men who, once pinned, should leave only space for the one you’re looking for.

Whoops

This does mean, if you’re blitzing the game unlocking each new memory as soon as you can, the game mops up its clues as you progress. Say you’ve found memory #5, but not memory #6. A crewman whose clues lay in memory #5 will come into focus once you see that memory; this is your indication that memory #5 is important to that crewman. If you don’t check your sketch for new faces between memories, though, you can lose that piece of information. Once un-blurred, the face remains un-blurred for the whole game, and you can never again pinpoint exactly when someone “opened up”.

This isn’t a terribly huge problem. The search space for all crewman across all memories is large, but isn’t so vast you can get lost. The game offers lots of good tools for narrowing your focus to just the things you want to look at.

One way to make this a little more elegant may have been, upon penciling in a new memory for the first time, making a little dramatic show of each crewman whose face becomes un-blurred. Draw direct attention to when each man becomes solvable, to guide the player towards factoring these key moments into their gameplay loop, rather than just running from memory to memory.

This would be a minor change and some players might still prefer to just blitz the memories. They’re the most exciting part of the game, after all. The game still works fine as it is and it’s not possible to land in an unsolvable state.

Rules

Here’s how you apply this knowledge to your (next) playthrough. Play the game with these self-imposed rules in place:

1) Don’t place any information you’re not certain is correct, and that you can back with evidence or logical induction.

2) Make careful note of which crewmen become un-blurred during each new memory you find.

3) If you find someone new, resist moving on to the next memory until you’ve placed those men you should already know.

4) At the completion of each chapter, scrub the sketch to see if any background faces became focused that you missed, and apply 1-3 above.

Or, you know, just play the game however you want and find enjoyment wherever you can in this crazy, mixed-up world. Thanks for reading!

The Critical Flaw of the Obra Dinn

This post contains no spoilers for The Return of the Obra Dinn, but I do detail some specifics about the nuts and bolts of the core gameplay loop.

I quite enjoyed my time with Obra Dinn. Steam reports the game took me about ten hours to solve, spread across two long-ish play sessions, immersed in the only fully 3D 1-bit world I’ve ever explored to a cacophony of strings and brass. It’s an enthralling story of monsters, betrayal, and grand adventure on the high seas. From a strictly artistic standpoint, this game is worth the asking price.

I don’t buy games for strictly artistic reasons, though. I buy games to play games. And this is where Obra Dinn has a critical flaw.

The flaw isn’t that it’s a… (groan)… walking simulator. Yes, all you can do in this game is walk around and look at things. Yes, your world interactions are limited to opening doors, waving your pocket watch around, and entering data into your 19th century spreadsheet. This is what separates it from more conventional adventure games; there aren’t any puzzle boxes or strange ciphers, there’s no inventory, no branching dialogue trees, no key-and-lock. It’s neither Monkey Island nor Myst. The actual experience of playing Obra Dinn is much like poring over an artistic puzzle book, clues hiding on every page, designed so that you just “know” you’ve solved everything, because there’s only one way the solution can go.

“My magic pocket watch will help determine who left this gross old skeleton here!”

I’m groaning about nothing, probably. At time of writing, Obra Dinn doesn’t even have “walking simulator” listed as a Steam tag. Although Obduction does. So maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what the term’s supposed to mean. Point is, gameplay that happens in the blob between your ears is still gameplay. And Obra Dinn has that in spades.

The goal of the game is to correctly identify the face and fate of every lost soul aboard the ill-fated Obra Dinn, armed with only a crew manifest and a sketch of daily life aboard the ship. To this end you have a magic pocket watch which, when pointed at a dead person, transports you to a motionless snapshot of that person’s death. One frozen moment in time, with powder and blood spray and sea foam hanging in midair, where you’re meant to wander about and add to your growing book of deductions.

You’re doing detective work. Magical detective work, sure, but still a far cry from plugging a date you’ve read off a plaque behind a breakaway stairwell into a dentist chair to load up a specific star chart. You have to notice things about the snapshots you explore. You have to build a timeline, carefully place who’s who and what’s where. You have to trace ballistic trajectories, sometimes be-tentacle’d trajectories. And slowly, over time, your deductions and logical guesses will start to bear fruit, as you check names off your list and match them up with their tragic fates.

The game warns you that, sometimes, you have to make inferrences based on partial information. Just as an example: there are only four women aboard the ship. Two are identified by name, and that’s your lot. I spent a lot of the game waiting for a second clue to split the other ladies apart, before having a sudden “aha!” moment and realizing the clue I was waiting for was in front of me all along. I plugged in my deduction, and was right on both counts. A clever and illuminating moment! The important bit — the bit that makes me clever here — is that while it was an inferrence on my part it was a deductive inferrence. I logically decided which woman was which, and knew I was right before I placed them. It wasn’t a guess.

And this brings us to the critical flaw at last: I could have guessed. And gotten it right. And then I wouldn’t have felt clever at all, just… well, unsatisfied. Guessing isn’t fun, but it’s how I solved a decent percentage of this game, just as I imagine most players will. Across all players, Obra Dinn is probably 30% guesswork by volume.

“I’m gonna guess… the kraken did it.”

Obra Dinn isn’t so mean as to require you have every soul bagged and tagged before allowing victory. Instead, when you have three people correctly marked, the game “locks them in”. This is two very important pieces of information: one, it’s the game telling you point blank, “Hey, here’s three you got right!”. Information puzzles need checks and gates like this, it’s nothing new. You know you have three pieces of information right in Myst when you plug the three symbols you got from those dentist chair star charts into a machine and it does something good.

The other piece of information you get, though, is, “Everything else you have penciled in is wrong!” And this is a lot more information than the game should probably give you. (It’s certainly more information than our intrepid watch-weilding insurance agent would have, in-universe. Muh ‘mersion!) Part of the thrill of this style of game, for me, is the realization that I’m on the wrong line of reasoning. It’s the creeping sense of bewilderment that sets in after playing with a dentist chair for an hour, abandoning what I thought I knew and setting out to scour for more information. You never get that in Obra Dinn, though, because the game explicitly tells you what you’re wrong about, constantly.

Adventure games are always open to brute forcing eventually. If you only identify two of the three needed star charts, you can figure out what the last one is just by running down the remaining possibilities. That’s in Myst, of course, but it applies to other adventures as well. In Monkey Island you can get unstuck by rubbing every inventory item over everything in the game world. This isn’t fun, by the way, but it’s how everyone plays Monkey Island because it becomes the most efficient way to progress, very quickly.

And you can play Obra Dinn like that. There are four women, three Russians, three midshipmen. If you can’t figure out which is which, just keep swapping their names around until the game tells you you’re right. The way this worked for me, in practice, is I’d scour the ship for clues of whatever deduction train I was currently following, and when something clicked I’d go in and switch around all my Russkies and Chinamen. Instead of locking in three well-researched souls at a time, I’d lock in one plus two mostly-lucky freebies.

“Can you hurry up and switch us quick? All I have is a pair of 3s.”

So this sounds like a failing on my part. It’s not, for two reasons. First, you kind of stumble into this “strategy” by necessity. You have to pencil in guesses sometimes, because you have enough information to apply a name to, say, one of three faces, but not enough to definitively pin someone. Maybe there is more information out there, some obscure clue to find, but the game doesn’t let you find it because it turned your “maybe” into a “close enough!” without your consent.

And second, well, I still ended up doing a lot of really tricky detective work. By the end of my voyage I was down to following individual crewmen through their timelines, one snapshot at a time, building a mental map of where they were in relation to the action of every scene. This was quite taxing, but also very rewarding. The freebies weren’t really freebies so much as, like, a BOGO sale.

But the guessing is still a critical flaw, because it meant the game ended before I was really done with it. I felt like I had reached the second layer of required detective work in Obra Dinn, and only identified the third. If the game hadn’t been so diligent about locking in stuff I hadn’t started focusing on yet, I would have had to dig deeply into that third layer. It would have entailed correlating timelines across multiple characters and groupings of characters, and who knows what enjoyment I may have found there? What little character moments and plotlines and details?

This would be a very, very hard problem to solve. If the game did make you fill the information in for all crew before checking your work… what then? Well, there are a few details I know I would have gotten wrong, that I only knew were wrong because the game didn’t lock them, and had a great amount of fun going back to check what I missed. There’s a big difference between looking at a scene, looking closer, and looking really close, and I’d never have done the latter unless I knew I was in a failure state. I was also happy to get the little encouraging victory moments as I progressed, getting a little closer to my goal with each investigation. If I’d had to take the game as one giant lump I would have probably plugged away for ten hours, been unsure about a lot of my deductions, and then gotten many of them wrong anyway. And then I’d be writing a post about some neat-looking but really stupid game I’d played.

Perhaps you could add a third criteria. You pick the names and causes of death from drop-down menus in your spreadsheet; maybe if I’d have had to prove I knew whow was who by pointing to specific evidence, and then lock it in, the guessing problem would’ve be averted. There already is some mechanism by which the game determines whether you “know” enough to determine a person’s identity… but you’d need a dropdown with hundreds of keywords to provide enough red herrings that the list itself doesn’t provide clues. And then I’d still probably just read the whole list anyway, and correlate it with keywords I’d recognized around the ship, and attacking the game from a list of keywords doesn’t sound any more fun than guessing.

“Wait, they all died of old age?” “Yeah, it was a very old ship.”

Yeah, hard problem. But I hope somebody solves it someday, because The Return of the Obra Dinn was a really memorable C+, and I’d love to see this concept turned into an A.

Last detective game I said that about was L.A. Noire, and nobody’s solved those problems yet either. Maybe detective games are just hard to make.

Thanks for reading!

Not Familiar With Podcasting

Not Familiar With Podcasting
That Podcast We Did

 
 
00:00 / 1:26:19
 
1X
 

Brick & McClain discuss Elon Musk, endless open-world games, mandatory voting, debt, Disney Channel commercials, Stephen King movies, and Disenchantment.

Mega Man X is Really Hard to Fix

Mega Man fanboys and fangirls the world over have only just sloppily consumed Mega Man 11, we’re already screaming out for seconds. Except instead of Mega Man 12, the sequel we’re all crying out for is Mega Man X9. The formula seems easy enough: give us a Mega Man X sequel using MM11‘s engine, polish it to a mirror sheen, and sate everyone’s appetite until the Legends or Star Force crowd wakes up. Should be easy, right?

I think rebooting Mega Man X is a much more complicated question than Mega Man Classic, though. And I’m a what-for with a brain and a blog, so now you have to hear all about it.

Here’s the key difference: the Classic series is comprised mostly of iterations on the same core concept: start with eight robot masters, each with a themed weapon, end on a few fortress stages. Innovations came in the form of small gameplay elements which mostly became series mainstays: utility items, the slide, the charge shot, Auto’s shop. When the series got lost and needed a reboot with Mega Man 9, that was easy to do because most of the weighty barnacle-mass had accumulated in one of the many spin-off series. You don’t really have to do that much trimming on Mega Man 8 to get back to something recognizable and fun.

Mega Man X, on the other hand, has the same problem as Sonic the Hedgehog: it’s tried so many experiments, and added so many gameplay systems, that you will never get the fanbase to agree on what the “core” MMX experience even is. Just as a taste, a lot of people seem to like Axl, despite him only being in the two worst MMX titles. (And the RPG, which… well, they made an MMX RPG. I feel like that just accentuates my point.)

Step one in any MMX reboot, therefore, is to just accept that some fans are going to have to go unsatisfied, and will hate the game no matter what just because ________ isn’t in it. Never mind that ________ was a bad idea in the first place, or was poorly implemented, or doesn’t jive with the style or tone of the reboot. Someone out there wants nattering navigators and rescuable reploids, and they’ll boycott if they don’t get them.

For my part, there are five elements that I consider absolutely crucial to Mega Man X, and none of them have been in every single title. Full disclosure: I have not played MMX7 or MMX8, though I am familiar with them through YouTube videos and over a decade’s worth of fanboy tears. Here’s what we need:

1) Mega Man X is fast. The Classic series is all about individually-measured platforming, aiming, and weapon-selection challenges, doled out one room or corridor at a time. X, however, has the dash and wall-kick moves, which open up a lot more physical space the player can cover a lot more quickly. The best X levels are all about gaining and maintaining speed, along both axes, while leaving a trail of explosions in your wake. This is why X1 will never be my favorite in the series; because the dash boots were not standard equipment, the first eight stages were designed more like Classic levels, with stop-and-go jumping and shooting challenges. Fun to play, but not what I came to expect from the series. Conversely, too many of the later sequels were built around frustrating level gimmicks that didn’t feel fast, fun, or challenging.

2) Mega Man X has two player characters. X has weapons, armor, and ranged supremecy. Zero has mobility, a laser sword, and lots of ways to control space. Zero cannot be DLC, or tied to some in-game resource, or unlockable on game clear, or any other such nonsense. He needs to be on the menu from power on, and every level in the game needs to be built with both characters in mind. As awful as X5 and X6 can be sometimes, I still find myself revisiting them more often than, say, X1 or X3, simply because Zero is so central to the experience for me.

3) Mega Man X has stage gimmicks. Yes, I know what I said earlier, but bear with me. For every terrible stage idea this series has had, there has been a good one that flavors the dash/kick/explode gameplay, rather than detracts from it. The minecarts in Armored Armadillo, the submarine that chases you through Bubble Crab, the speed-based grading scale in Cyber Peacock… these are fun ideas that make memorable stages outside of just platform and enemy placement. Focus on good ideas that are fun to play but don’t stray too far from firing, dashing, or wall-kicking. Most stages should have a little extra Something, but that Something need not be a goddamn Nightmare Effect.

4) Mega Man X has hidden stuff to find. Heart tanks, sub tanks, armor capsules, ride armor chips, what-have-you. This was the key thing that set the original MMX1 aside from the Classic games that came before it; Mega Man only cared about getting to the end of each level, X needed to actively scour each one. This is another thing the most obtrusive level gimmicks really hurt. When your whole stage is a jet bike course or giant robot gauntlet, there’s no cool ways to hide new toys.

4a) Mega Man X gets a little stronger with each thing he finds. As a corrolary to the above, players should get an immediate and noticable effect for finding each new hidden thing. Some of the later X games only let you use armor after finding all the pieces, which mainly means you can’t use any armor at all until the end of the game, and so to offset that they just start you with the full armor set from the previous game, which is dumb because it undermines the whole goddamn point of having armor pieces to begin with! Argh!

5) Mega Man X has meta-bosses, and a reason to fight them. I don’t know a proper name for them, so I’m calling X2‘s X-Hunters, Bit and Byte from X3, and Dynamo from X6 “meta-bosses”. These are generally optional boss fights who are a smidge tougher than the standard eight Mavericks, and stand in the way of full game completion. Hunting down the meta-bosses is a cool side challenge that adds a bit of dimension to the game and, if you’re the sort to care about such things, a bit of story as well.

So, is my list much different from yours? Yeah? Well that’s just tough, isn’t it? And it shows how much steeper this hill is to climb than Mega Man Classic was. With X it’s not just a matter of “return to form”, as with MM9 or MM11. There are a lot more sharp edges to be mindful of.

But okay, this is my blog, and let’s pretend Capcom has tasked me with drawing up the Mega Man X9 blueprint. Here’s what it looks like.

12 Levels, no bullshit
We’ll have eight Maverick stages, one optional meta-boss stage (which unlocks if you meet certain conditions, and is required for the good ending), a teleporter hatch stage that doesn’t count as a stage, and three Sigma Fortress levels. Every stage will be an honest-to-goodness stage that adheres to these two design principles, etched in stone and violated only on pain of death: no stage shall take more than four minutes to speedrun, and no stage gimmick shall deny the player their ability to fire, jump, dash, or wall kick.

Yes, it’s Sigma again.
I don’t care how MMX8 ended. Let’s not mess with success. Sigma is mean and cool and everyone knows him. You don’t get the fanbase back by not including the villain everyone already likes.

X and Zero Tag-Team
Sorry Axl, but you’re weird and confusing, and we don’t need anyone muddying the waters. Instead, X and Zero are the heroes, and the player can hot-swap between them anytime they want. Each bro has his own health bar, and there will be no stages or boss fights that require one bro or the other. (That is, “X only” and “Zero only” runs should be possible.) The logistics on who gets the benefits of sub tanks, where weapon energy goes, and what happens when you fall onto spikes will have to wait for some playtesting feedback to finalize.

Two armor sets, mix-and-match-able.
We won’t start X with any armor, but neither will we force him to wait until he has a full set to wear any. We’ll have two full armor sets — one piece hidden in each Maverick stage — and give X the option to apply a new piece immediately upon finding it, or not, as he wishes. We’ll let him switch armor pieces on the R&D screen (press L1 at stage select). Additionally, we’ll give him a Giga Attack usable only if he’s wearing four pieces of a matching set. Some back-of-envelope ideas:

Falcon Armor

  • Legs: Hover in place, or air dash left, right or upwards.
  • Helmet: Toggle a stage map overlay, and flash when a secret is nearby.
  • Buster: Small charged shot, pierces walls and armor. Can charge subweapons.
  • Body: Can equip one extra Part. Damage charges Giga Attack.
  • Giga Attack: Full-screen invulnerable air dash.
Gaea Armor

  • Legs: Stick to walls. Spikes deal damage, rather than kill.
  • Helmet: Dash and air dash damage enemies and destroys breakable blocks.
  • Buster: Ridiculously huge short-range blast. Can charge subweapons.
  • Body: Halves damage. Reduces knockback. Extends i-frames. Damage charges Giga Attack.
  • Giga Attack: Short term full invulnerability. While active, contact damages enemies.

Make the guy in charge of Zero’s moveset play Guacamelee.
Instead of Maverick weapons, Zero earns saber moves for completing levels. The traditional Zero moveset includes an air dash, a double jump, a rising move, a dropping move, a powerful standing-still-in-one-place move with lots of forward range, and a couple other odds and ends. What we’re going to do is make those moves super fluid and easy to chain together, by making it possible to cancel one into another. Instead of a janky moveset with lots of wind-up and cool-down, as is the case with X5 and X6, we want Zero to deftly zoom around the screen like a colorful, deadly ballerina.

Maverick stages have three pickups each.
Since hidden stuff is so central to MMX‘s level design, let’s make sure there’s plenty of stuff to hunt for in each stage. When hiding items, we’ll adhere to three design principles, again, on pain of death. First, every pickup should be reachable with either character (although not necessarily without pickups or weapons). Second, pickups that require equipment to reach should only require one piece, so you don’t get past one barrier just to encounter a second one. And third, no stage should hide an item behind a barrier that requires another item or weapon from that stage to remove. (The “Duff McWhalen Gambit”.) These principles should keep the items hidden in a fun way that minimizes backtracking on replays.

As for what to hide, this is something I think X3 got very right (maybe the only thing it got very right!). Each stage will have one heart tank, one armor capsule, and one “toy”. We’ll make sure half the hearts aren’t blocked behind any barriers (so players will likely find them while learning the levels the first time), and that at least two armor pieces (say, the Falcon Legs and Gaea Helmet) are either right on the critical path or only just off of it.

The “toys” will replicate the kind of stuff you can buy in Auto’s shop in the Classic games. We need eight of these to spread around the levels. We’ll have two sub tanks (one of which won’t require any tools to reach), one weapon tank, and a Spare Body which slowly refills the energy of your idle hero. Then we’ll have three ride armor chips, since those were super fun in X3… say a big stompy one with drill arms, a flying one with machineguns, and an aquatic one that zooms around in water/lava/acid/purple kool-aid. Our last “toy” will be an item similar to Beat which, once per stage, saves you from dying in a bottomless pit.

Ten meta-bosses.
Whatever the story of the game is, it’ll involve eight X-Hunters (or whatever) that are trying to hunt X and Zero down. Since this is the ninth game, and we have eight past games to draw from, this is a no-brainer: we’ll use one Maverick each from the previous titles. If you grinned like a helium-filled fool upon reaching the Wily Archives in Mega Man 10, you already know why this is fun.

Each Maverick stage will have an alternate exit, similar to the crystal areas of Mega Man X6. (Only not quite that obnoxious to reach or clear.) Instead of the stage Maverick, this area will have a meta-boss instead. Defeating either boss counts the stage as “cleared” for purposes of opening up the Sigma levels, which is a nice way of saying killing all the Mavericks is optional. Beating an X-Hunter in a stage rewards you with a Rare Metal instead of a Maverick weapon. (You have to kill all the Mavericks anyway later in Sigma’s Fortress, and you can always go back to get any weapons you skipped, if you want.)

The X-Hunters should travel around the levels, like they do in Mega Man X2. Maybe there’s two X-Hunters out and about at any given time, and you can see where they are (but maybe not which ones?) on the stage select map. Put some randomness into this, so no two playthroughs are the same. Include logic to make sure at least one X-Hunter is always reachable with the weapons and tools the player already has. If you defeat all the Mavericks and open the Sigma stages before all the X-Hunters, they stop appearing and vanish with any Rare Metals they had, denying you the best ending.

Visiting an “empty” X-Hunter room, you’ll encounter Dynamo instead. Dynamo is a bit of a butt monkey, and you can fight him as many times as you want. The first time you fight him he drops a Rare Metal, for a total of nine. After that he just laughs at you and vanishes, because he’s an asshole.

If you beat all the X-Hunters (not counting Dynamo), you unlock a hidden stage containing an extremely challenging boss fight against Vile. There’s no reward for beating Vile, but doing so gets you the Super Best Ending. Somewhere in this stage, we’ll hide the silly Street Fighter move: a Hadoken for X, and a Shuryuken for Zero. Maybe you have to pick which hero gets this move, making your endgame a little different from playthrough to playthrough.

And just as an added full-clear bonus, maybe defeating Vile unlocks an alternate path in the Maverick refights level, taking you to an alternate room where the hatches contain X-Hunters instead of Mavericks. Just for the sake of variety. You’d still only need to clear one set of hatches to complete the level.

Okay here’s the bosses I want to see come back, which is really the entire reason I wrote this post:

  • Chill Penguin
  • Wheel Gator
  • Blast Hornet
  • Magma Dragoon
  • Axl the Red / Spike Rosered
  • Metal Shark Player
  • Splash Warfly
  • Bamboo Pandemonium

But I’m not married to this list. Whatever floats your boat. Not really even sure why you asked.

Alia turns Rare Metals into Parts.
If you stay on top of the X-Hunters, you’ll come away with nine Rare Metals. Each Rare Metal can be traded to Alia on the R&D screen for one Part. There are nine Parts total, and you can lock yourself out of some if the X-Hunters vanish before you get all the Metals. But that’s fine, because 1) locking yourself out of the Super Good ending is an MMX tradition, and 2) you won’t be able to use all the Parts at once anyway. Zero can equip only three Parts, and X only two (unless he’s wearing the Falcon Body). Since you can only use a couple Parts per hero anyway, and build them in whatever order you want, most players will have the Parts they want after a couple of stages.

Let’s say there are three each of Anyone Parts, X Only Parts, and Zero Only Parts. Obviously, the bros can’t both be wearing the same Part. Here’s some quick early ideas:

Anyone Parts

  • Hyper Jump: jump higher and farther.
  • Hyper Dash: dash (and air dash, if possible) faster and farther.
  • Hyper Recover: energy drops recover more health.
X Parts

  • X-Charge: X-Buster charges automatically while not firing.
  • X-Turbo: increase speed of shots, and increase number of on-screen shots from 3 to 5.
  • X-Saver: reduce energy needed to fire subweapons.
Zero Parts

  • Z-Extend: increase range of saber.
  • Z-Eraser: saber destroys shots.
  • Z-Flight: can jump or air dash one extra time.

And of course,
we’ll include an option to turn off all the voice acting, automatically skip all the cutscenes, and otherwise jettison all the obnoxious talky-talky you have to button mash through in most of the MMX games. These are games that are meant to be played over and over again, let’s not waste anyone’s time.

It’s possible I’m crazy, and don’t know what I’m talking about. I am, after all, a lapsed Mega Man X fan, who didn’t follow the series down its PS2 rabbit hole. Maybe an MM9-style reboot, which takes the series all the way back to X1, is exactly what the “true” fans want, and what the series really needs.

But I see this as a baby/bathwater situation. The latter X games are full of interesting ideas that didn’t get the polish they deserved, thanks to troubled development, slashed budgets, and maybe a smattering of just plain couldn’t-be-arsed. Hunting for parts and planning stage routes around meta-bosses are the kinds of gameplay that sets X apart from the Classic series. If Capcom wants to give X9 the same loving treatment Mega Man 11 got, I think they’d do well to keep that in mind.

One last note, before I leave you: I have a standing offer to Let’s Play Mega Man X7, as a blind run, as long as I don’t have to spend any money on the game. If you’re an insane person with too much cash who knows how Steam gifts work and wants to see me hurt myself, well, you know what you need to do.

Thanks for reading!

Mega Man 11

Mega Man 11 is a pretty excellent game, and I enjoy it muchly. But that’s actually a pretty loaded statement that’s gonna take at least one entire blog post to unpack. I’ll try to get the summary out of the way first before I get in my Guts Dozer and deep-dive.

If you like classic Mega Man games, you will almost certainly like Mega Man 11. The stages, boss fights, and weapons are all rock solid, and the game is bereft of the silly cruft that infected the series and all of its spin-offs. It’s oldschool Jump’n’Shoot Mans with HD graphics.

So that’s probably all most consumers need to know, but I feel like there’s considerably more going on here than just “they made an oldschool Mega Man and it’s good”. There’s five different angles I’ve been considering the game from, as I go through it again and again. The first, obviously, is what the game’s like in a vacuum. All other things being equal, is Mega Man 11 a good game? Well, I’ve already said it was. So that’s that done.

How is it as a sequel? Mega Man 10 is eight years old now — which means I’m like seventy billion years old — and I was real lukewarm on it. (Here are my thoughts on it from back when the game was new.) Mega Man 10 attempted to stir up the core formula by ramping up the boss fights. Whereas before you could generally just blast away with the proper weapon to kill any robot master, Mega Man 10 forces you to learn the fights whether you’re using the weakness or not. Some people liked this, I mostly didn’t, but it seems like Mega Man 9 ended up being the game from that era that everyone fondly remembers. The experiment was mostly worth trying, for people who love learning tough boss fights, but it broke something fundamental.

The first thing MM11 does is scutters the borked experiment, and tries something new. As well a sequel should. We’re back to absolutely demolishing robot masters if you come packing the proper equipment… for the most part. It’s not quite back to the MM6 days of walking in, pressing the fire button seven times, and clocking out. But it’s close.

The new thing is the Double Gear system. In addition to his charge shot and barrel full of robot master weapons, Mega Man has two new buttons: a Power Gear which charges up his weapons (in a different sense than his usual charge shot, I mean), and a Speed Gear which slows down time. He has a meter that fills while either gear is activated, and if you let it fill up entirely it overheats, shorting the system out and putting it offline for a little while. With some practice and good resource management, you’ll always have the gear you need when you need it.

The Power Gear works a bit like X’s buster upgrades in Mega Man X: fire a robot master weapon while your Power Gear is active, and you get a bigger, badder version of that weapon. This is a fun and flashy new toy, but it mostly has the same problem as X does: unequipped, it’s redundant with a system where you can already charge your shot anyway. And with a weapon, it generally just splits the weapon into more and less useful versions. Some weapons are better uncharged, some are better charged, and there aren’t a lot of interesting decision points here. In practice, the Power Gear mainly just adds two button presses to each shot; instead of equipping the Block Dropper and pressing fire, you press L2, then fire, then L2 again, so your Power Gear is active during the shot but isn’t running idle afterwards.

The Speed Gear is more interesting. Slowing or stopping time is not a new concept in Mega Man, but in the past it’s always been jankily tied to a weapon meter. At first it stopped time for as long as you had meter, meaning it was always empty when you were done with it; mostly only useful in the discrete stage areas it was designed for. Later they made each use shorter, but use less energy, but this didn’t work that well either, since a more universally-useful time weapon meant more enemies specifically made immune to it. In other iterations the time property was a charged effect on an otherwise normal weapon, but that mostly just turns it into the Purple Shot you use only on monsters weak to Purple.

The solution all along, it turns out, was twofold: it works because it is 1) divorced from a weapon meter, and 2) usable in conjunction with other weapons. It works best in short bursts, in situations where you need to pay close attention to precise positioning, or to squeeze in more shots of whatever weapon you’re using. It’s useful, it feels good to use, and it’s something which, six sequels from now, will make Mega Man 11 unique.

Everything up to and including the final boss is susceptible to the Speed Gear, but that’s not the praise it sounds like. A functionally-infinite time-slowing button has its cost, and the cost is the game designers saying, “Since we have this new Time Button, we can design some enemy attacks to be obnoxiously fast and impossible to dodge!” You’ll know which attacks these are, too, because the boss will flash blue just before they use them. This is consistent; a blue flash means “Speed Gear activated” for both Mega Man and his enemies (and a red one means “Power Gear activated”). My problem here is that the solution is always the same; use Speed Gear. You don’t get the fun of learning to interact with an interesting dodge pattern, because the attacks are too fast to dodge with human reflexes, and Speed Gear makes them too slow to be interesting.

So the Double Gear system mostly works, with only a few niggles. The important thing is, as a sequel, MM11 is moving the series forward without getting bogged down in 30 years of failed ideas. That’s mostly what I want from a series that only offers slight iterations on a core formula: I want new toys to play with, but I don’t want these toys to make the series unrecognizable.

How is it as a classic Mega Man game? This series is so old and stupid that “classic” has two meanings. On one hand it means just the original Mega Man games, of which MM11 is the newest installment. But in another sense it means just the earliest of those games, before the experiments and cruft started to set in. Most people would consider the first five games to be “classic classic” Mega Man, and that’s how I’m using the term.

After those first five games, which were mostly largely the same, the series spent a long, long time scrabbling around trying to find somewhere solid to build. The greater Mega Man series is a weird and confusing place where, in the deepest darkest depths, you’re messing around with equipment, power-ups, upgrades to power-ups, and something called cyber-elves (??). It wasn’t pretty.

And it wasn’t really Capcom’s fault. The big criticism back in the 90s was that every Mega Man game was just the same; it’s no wonder they started mixing in power suits and treasure hunting and motorcycles and leveling systems and Duff McWhalen knows what else. Mega Man 9’s job, back in the day, was to go all the way back to the last installment that got unanimous praise — Mega Man 2 — and just make that again.

That’s similar to the situation MM11 found itself in. Capcom made the game people wanted, then a sequel to that game that people only sorta wanted, then eight years’ of radio silence. MM9 was a trick that was only going to work once, though; “return to form” doesn’t really make sense if the previous return was only two installments ago.

Instead of just being a no-frills classic Mega Man game, MM11 is an HD version of a no-frills classic Mega Man game. The levels are bright and beautiful and in glorious widescreen, but they’re built with simple tiles and blocks. The animations are crisp and fluid, but not over-drawn. Many of the stages have gimmicks, but the gimmicks always serve to accentuate the jump’n’shoot, rather than interrupt it.

In general, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the design doc for MM11 started with, “First, design an NES game. Then, make it HD.” A de-make of this game would feel more or less at home in 1994, but the HD version we ended up with feels right in line with modern platformers like Shovel Knight or Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon.

How is it as a modern Mega Man game? And yeah, because of the aformentioned “old and stupid” I’m using “modern” to mean everything from MM6 onward. Throughout those awkward middle installments, the primary focus of the series shifted from solid, predictable run’n’gun to blatant gimmickry. MM6 started the trend with its power suits. MM7 added intro and mid-way stages, and only gave you four robot masters at a time. The idea, it seems, was to give a bit more of a difficulty curve; you take on the back half of the stages with the guaranteed weapons from the front half. By MM8 most of the core gameplay elements were completely changed, and most of the stages had vehicle sections or puzzle elements or forced weapon sections.

This was around the time Capcom got away from the classic series and started focusing more on cyber-elves.

While Mega Man 11 takes most of its cues from earlier games, polished in simpler times, I did note that a lot of its stage elements seem to come from those troubled middle children. Tundra Man’s stage, an ice covered excavation site, could be MM7‘s Freeze Man’s second home. Blast Man’s exploding playground feels like a fun version of Grenade Man’s frustrating gauntlet. Acid Man’s rainbow-colored chemical vats, whose properties change as you allow monsters to barf their payload into them, is a better take on Burst Man’s laboratory. There’s a forest fire level, a bouncy spring maze… heck, even the Wily Machine fires missiles you can stand on. Quite a lot of the game feels like someone at Capcom looked at those middle games, the ones that aren’t as well-remembered, and asked to take another swing.

The most modern-feeling elements of Mega Man 11 are the quality of life additions. MM9 and MM10 very pointedly didn’t have any QOL improvements, in their quest to pretend to be NES titles. MM10 allowed shoulder button weapon switching, a sort of janky half-improvement scraped from the Mega Man X games. MM11 still has shoulder switching, if you want it, but the real improvement is the weapon wheel. Eight weapons, eight directions the right stick can point in… you’d really think this is a no-brainer that should have been in every title from the PlayStation onwards. Instead of trying to remember how many clicks away any weapon is, and in which direction, a number that changes with each new weapon you pick up… you just remember “down is my Impact Dash”.

I’ve played Mega Man X a hundred times over the years, and I still need the menu to switch weapons. By my second run of MM11 I was using the weapon wheel like a pro. This change, along with dedicated Rush Coil and Rush Jet buttons, really incentivizes switching weapons constantly in every stage. No amount of dinosaur-chasing or snowboarding or platform-steering can compare, when it comes to actually feeling like Mega Man.

Finally, (finally!) there’s a kind of silly and awkward angle with which you could look at Mega Man 11: how is it when compared with Mighty No. 9?

This is an unfair question, but it’s unfair in an enlightening way. I didn’t back MN9, and I haven’t played it. I’ve seen streamers play the game to completion, and I followed the whole glorious shitshow of its development cycle, though. Story goes, during the years when Capcom was letting Mega Man lay fallow, some cheeky developers thought they’d step in make a game that was Mega Man in all but name. It got funded instantly by two generations of Mega Man fans, and then the finished product turned out to be a low-quality, cheap-feeling game with stapled-on gameplay systems that didn’t feel much like Mega Man at all.

Some people paid extra for boxes and instruction manuals, and the manuals didn’t fit inside the boxes. And something something pizza explosions on prom night. What a mess.

Why is any of this important? Because as bad as Mighty No. 9 was, I honestly don’t think we’d have gotten Mega Man 11 without it. Or, at least, we wouldn’t have gotten it in this state. If anything could be objectively mined from the spectacular failure of MN9, it’s that there were still enough fans out there craving the Mega Man experience. We’re experiencing something of a 2d platformer rennaisance at the moment, and someone at Capcom was going to want to get on this train eventually, but without MN9 as a pretty clear benchmark for “don’t do it like that”, I think MM11 might have ended up somewhere more along the lines of MM8: a pretty but bloated game, with cobbled-together design elements and voice acting you couldn’t turn off.

MN9 was supposed to be a snub at Capcom who, it was alleged, didn’t know how to make a Mega Man game anymore. Instead, it served as a bright and clear reminder of how the series got off the rails in the first place. In a roundabout way, all those Kickstarter backers eventually got what they asked for after all.

I don’t know where the series goes from here. I think Capcom could enjoy a second “NES era”, just using MM11‘s game engine to make a new sequel with eight new dudes every couple of years, for as long as people continue to enjoy platformers. Or maybe that way lies madness, and the cyber-elves would creep back in and poop all over everything. Or maybe this was a one-off fluke; now that MN9 has been shown up, the blue bomber is just going back in the closet for another eight or nine years.

But Mega Man 11 is pretty excellent. I’m glad to be playing it. Thank you for reading all these words I wrote about it!

And a Little Yappy Dog

And a Little Yappy Dog
That Podcast We Did

 
 
00:00 / 48:17
 
1X
 

Brick & McClain discuss West of Loathing, four million gold pieces, yuppie spawn, Chrono Trigger speedruns, loud girly hiccups, Jean-Luc Picard, child murder, and David Duchovny’s sunglasses.

A Tea Snob By Definition

A Tea Snob By Definition
That Podcast We Did

 
 
00:00 / 1:05:42
 
1X
 

Brick & McClain discuss a traditional hot toddy, sophisticated garbage can cuisine, North Korea, the webcomic donation buttons of yore, the Manosphere, multi-level marketing, wedding parties and some new pope.

Infusion and Hopoo Feather

I realize nobody wants to read my nitpick-y pontifications on Risk of Rain. But I am burning with the need to pontificate in a nitpick-y way, so this is what you’re stuck with.

Risk of Rain is a game about finding items. The more items you find, the more powerful you are, until you eventually have so many items that the game crashes. Veteran Risk players, such as myself, consider a game crash to be a legit win state. I have “won” this game many, many times, and I can state without reservation that the two most powerful items in the game are Infusion and Hopoo Feather.

Infusion, the best item in the game, grants a permanent +1 increase to your maximum health for every monster you kill. In Risk of Rain, you kill dozens and dozens of monsters on every level. If you find Infusion and can manage to survive with it for a little while, you’ll eventually have more health than any one monster can reasonably dish out. You’re never completely invincible in this game, but sitting at the 9999 health cap only misses it by an inch.

Hopoo Feather, the second best item in the game, grants your character a double jump, and each subsequent Feather you find grants another jump beyond that. If you have seven Hopoo Feathers, you have seven jumps. Mobility in Risk is extremely important. Most enemies can only damage you if you’re on the ground, so minimizing the amount of time you spend there is a pretty good way to extend your lifespan.

Even if you aren’t familiar with Risk, you can see how powerful combining these two items can be. So here’s the controversial opinion I disagree with: many Risk players feel these items are too powerful for Tier Two, and should be Tier Three instead.

Let me untangle that jargon for you. There are three tiers of items in Risk, which are generated randomly around the level for you to find. Tier One items are outlined in white, are the most common, and least expensive. These items form the basis of your character’s abilities, and their effects are sometimes so subtle you won’t notice them until you’re very familiar with the game. In a single run of the game you’re likely to find several of these in each stage.

Tier Two items are outlined in green, are more powerful on average than Tier One items, and are therefore rarer and more expensive. These are kind of your character’s “bread and butter”. Your gameplan for survival is going to be determined largely by which Tier Two items you find, and how early. In a single run you’ll probably find one Tier Two per stage; two if you’re lucky. Infusion and Hopoo Feather are both Tier Two.

Tier Three items are outlined in red, and are incredibly — sometimes game-breakingly — powerful. Their effects are big and flashy and obvious: a screen-exploding laser, a pair of boots that sets the ground on fire, a hand-to-god extra life. In a single run of the game you will probably only find one or two of these, total, though it isn’t uncommon to complete the game without any at all.

(There are a few other groups of items, which aren’t relevant here.)

Amongst accomplished Risk of Rain streamers and YouTubers, it’s common to say something like “Infusion and Hopoo Feather are so good, they should definitely be Tier Three.”

And I don’t agree at all.

On its face the argument makes sense: these are the two best items in the game. I rather doubt there’s much disagreement about that. Oh, you’ll find the odd duck who’ll make the case for Barbed Wire (a Tier One) or Brilliant Behemoth (a particularly flashy Tier Three), but those come with little asterisks that change depending on your character, your build, your artifacts, and how long you plan to loop. Meanwhile, Infusion and Hopoo Feather are good for every character, regardless of build, or artifacts, or any other factors. There are no weird edge cases where having fewer jumps or less health is beneficial.

I might actually be understating how good these two items are. Let me try another angle. Attempting to continue on down the list, identifying the third best, and fourth best, and fifth best item, and so on, you would very quickly get into subjective territory that would change from player to player. For my part, I would say the third-best item is the AtG Missile Mk. 2, a Tier Three item that has a chance to fire a big flurry of monster-seeking missiles every time you attack. This is a universally good item that synergizes well with every build on every character. You don’t even have to aim your attacks anymore, just swing/fire at empty air and eventually the missiles will show up and wreck shop.

I could, however, see the case for lots of other items being third-best. Goat Hoof is a Tier One that makes you run faster, and if you find a couple of them, the speed increase can be quite substantial. 56 Leaf Clover is a Tier Two which makes certain monsters drop items. Find one of those early, and you’ll be more powerful much sooner. Ceremonial Dagger is a Tier Three which makes purple knives fly out of monsters you kill, seeking out and killing more monsters. Frost Relic is so strong they had to nerf it because it used to crash (“win”) the game all by itself. Depending on your priorities, any of these items, or dozens more besides, are good candidates for third-best.

But no honest player would call Infusion and Hopoo Feather anything other than first and second. Maybe there’s a debate about which of these two is first, and which second, but if a player tells you anything else they either don’t know as much about the game as they think they do, or they’re trying to be edgy and contrarian. They’re Metal Blade. They’re !Mix. They’re Oddjob. They’re really that goddamn good.

They’re powerful enough to be Tier Three, but making them Tier Three would totally suck and ruin the items completely. Here’s why.

Tier Three items are rare, and powerful, and flashy… but they don’t really change how you play the game. Not in the moment-to-moment sense, I mean. With the exception of the Photon Jetpack, Ancient Scepter and maaaaybe Rapid Mitosis, your approach to how you push the buttons and use your abilities to clear monsters won’t change much upon your big Tier Three find. They certainly make the game easier, and more exciting, and you’ll never be unhappy to get one. But they don’t alter your fundamental approach to playing.

Many Tier Two items do have this effect, though. This sense of, “Oh neat, I found _______, this run is way different now!” Smart Shopper puts a lot more gold into the game, which alters the way you think about clearing levels and hunting for chests. Guardian’s Heart gives you a damage shield that can absorb one big hit for you, dramatically increasing your odds of surviving individual encounters. Leeching Seed heals you with each attack, shifting the risk/reward decision to fight or flee when low on health. Toxic Worm will have you initiating encounters from up close, rather than at range, even for projectile characters.

In other words, Tier Three items are rad for how powerful they are, but Tier Two items are rad for how fun they make the game. Plasma Chain is a kickass attack item, but it won’t make you rethink your approach to fighting monsters; the big damage chain is just a nice perk that happens automatically. But Chargefield Generator? That’ll make you rethink everything about how quickly to kill, and where, and where to stand while doing it.

Hopoo Feather changes the game in a dramatic way no other single item pickup does: you get a second jump. It lets you reach places you couldn’t get to otherwise, more easily avoid attacks from virtually every direction, and doubles the pace which you can climb up ropes. Infusion is a “lock in” moment, a clear delineation exists between “pre-Infusion” and “post-Infusion” in a successful run. For a few minutes after finding your Infusion you must play very cautiously and carefully. Wouldn’t want to lose this great Infusion run you’re on, after all! But after that you can play much more aggressively than you would otherwise, using your health as a resource to tank some big hits to give yourself opportunities to pile on lots of damage.

If these items were Tier Three, you wouldn’t get them as often, and the whole game would be much less fun as a result. I think they were placed in Tier Two for exactly this purpose: it’s more important that these two items find their way into as many runs as possible, than for any given Tier Three.

I don’t know how much of Risk of Rain‘s vast inventory is going to find its way into Risk of Rain 2. I don’t even know if Risk 2 is going to have tiers, or whatever. I suspect the basic structure of the game — search for and buy items, some items are more rare/expensive — is going to remain the same. If that’s the case, I hope the designers don’t take these streamers to heart who want the “best” items to be too rare to have fun with.

Thanks for reading this long post about feathers and whatnot!