As a kid, I was obsessed with video games. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about them, talking about them, and most of all reading about them. I would read any sort of literature I could get my hands on. I’d read game manuals over and over again, memorize strategy guides, and I even found a strange hard-cover book in the library with tips on how to beat over a hundred games from the Apple II era. And of course, I read Nintendo Power any chance I got. Just looking at the maps for the video games it featured felt almost as real as actually playing them.
But there was one section of old issues of Nintendo Power that sort of bothered me: the ‘NES Achievers’ section. Readers would write in to the magazine with their high scores, gaming accomplishments, and presumably some proof of their feats. It wasn’t the fact that these readers were receiving accolades for their video game prowess that bothered me, it was the accomplishments themselves. Some of them were easy enough to understand: Dragon Warrior – Finished. Tetris – 754,811.
Mega Man – 6,695,000
Even back then, this was really jarring to me. “Who plays for score in Mega Man?” I found myself wondering. It doesn’t even make sense – not only are the bosses’ point values completely randomized, but you can just collect the point pellets endlessly. In fact, if he’d taken his score that far, why didn’t he just spend a few more hours-
Super Mario Bros. – 9,999,950
Oh, come on, that’s not how you improve at Mario! That’s just abusing the classic 1-up trick and farming for points! That’s not even clever, that’s just being patient. Wait a minute, Cliffy B was involved in that nonsense?
Duck Hunt – 999,900
Really? I guess there’s no point in playing Duck Hunt anymore, now that no one can be better than that. I mean, is it “beaten” now or what?
Contra – 6,553,500
There’s not even that many enemies in the game! How many days did you leave your NES on with your turbo controller farming dudes for you?
Kirby’s Adventure – 1,010,800
SOMETHING IS WRONG.
Plastered all over a board for showcasing skill at video games are all these weird motivations that instead showcase grinding, bug abuse, and general weirdness. And what scores do make sense are held back by these arbitrary limitations like maximum score. Now I realize that the NES Achievers section was really more of a ploy to keep people subscribed and get people to buy and play Nintendo games, but in doing so I think it might have done some real damage to the way people understand video games. It really warped our view of what our actual goals are, and with how much humans love to be good at what we do, we ended up doing some really silly stuff. If only we knew what score was for.
What Score is For
Video game history has not been kind to score. A huge number of our early console games had vestigial scoring systems that had nothing to do with the actual goals of the games they accompanied – they just awarded arbitrary numbers for successful actions and spat out a meaningless score at the end. Even in the arcade era, where score was actually a measurement of ability, it also often required arcane and secret knowledge, exploitation of bugs, a non-trivial amount of luck, and almost always marathon sessions that lasted for hours. Meanwhile physical sports were doing sensible things like pitting players directly against each other, limiting the match length, and using tightly tuned scoring denominations. Why are these sensible? A predictable and reasonable time limit on the game lets players succeed or fail more on their strategy rather than enduring a game that, without an arbitrary kill screen, would literally go on forever. Controlling scoring denominations is important for its strategy implications alone, and for some reason video games have this habit of inflating scores with extra zeroes tacked on the end. And as for the question of direct competition, just watch King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Watch Billy Mitchell continually avoid Steve Wiebe’s call for a showdown. If two players were required for the game, Billy Mitchell’s absence would’ve been inexcusable.
Score in video games began as a series of bold, if unrefined, experiments, but it very quickly devolved into a broken, irrelevant mess before designers largely abandoned it entirely. So it’s no wonder that people today are still confused about score. The other day I had someone stop by my Twitch channel while I was playing Spelunky and ask “Why is he trying to get so much money?” There were a lot of other unspoken questions behind it: This is a platformer, right? Isn’t the goal just to get to the end? Why isn’t he just leaving the level? The historical library of 2D platformers hasn’t adequately prepared players for a title where score not only matters but actually makes sense. Yet, with close scrutiny, it’s obvious that score matters a great deal to Spelunky. Leading the very dangerous ghost over a gem increases its value significantly. Accessing vaults draws on your bomb supply and rewards you only with more money. Obtaining idols is dangerous and worth only money. There’s even money in Olmec’s chamber, which is the point at which items can no longer be bought, making that money truly useless for anything other than score. With a random configuration each game, no way to repeat levels, no way to endlessly farm loot, and only one try per game, it seems conclusive that scoring is the intended primary purpose of play.
However the old platformer scoring paradigm continues to haunt video games. In 2013, a year after Spelunky’s Xbox release, WayForward Technologies released DuckTales: Remastered, a remake of the original NES title. In many ways, DuckTales was the same game as Spelunky. Both games use the acquisition of treasure as a measurement of score. Both games feature mines with giant rolling boulders, jungles with series of climbable vines, icy caves with falling hazards, a haunted castle with undead denizens and suits of armor, and an alien mothership with a full complement of cartoon extraterrestrials (for Egyptian temples, you have to look to DuckTales 2). In both games, players contend with largely the same cast of foes from snakes to spiders to bees to bats to man-eating plants, many of which share nearly identical AIs between the games. DuckTales even has a boss whose AI makes him sort of a proto-Olmec, although defeating it isn’t nearly so interesting.
And yet DuckTales has a glaring problem: its score cap. Ultimately, there is a finite amount of treasure scattered among its static levels. All of it is immediately accessible with no reason to leave any of it behind. Getting high score totals involves more memorization than skill. Levels that feature Launchpad McQuack offer you the chance to improve your score by replaying the level, a nonsensical solution to the score cap problem that does nothing to alleviate it, only raise it. So once you’ve collected all the treasure as many times as you’re allowed, improving your score beyond this calculable maximum is impossible – well, almost. Enemies will occasionally drop small treasures, so I guess you’re expected to spend each level’s timer farming enemies and hoping you randomly get a lot of extra treasure. I’ve previously written that one-time high scores are probably not as useful as a measurement of skill, but DuckTales doesn’t even manage to get one-time high scores right. This places DuckTale’s purpose of play squarely in the “completion” camp – treasure and score just don’t matter at all.
In a way, Spelunky “fixed” DuckTales’ scoring system. It’s like the designers realized that merely memorizing the locations of treasure within an unchanging level layout isn’t really a skill where ranking makes sense. They deduced that if you know where to find it, and it’s a simple matter to obtain it, players would easily max out score and break the system. So instead, the designers made a system where the location of the treasure is never known beforehand. It isn’t such a trivial matter to get it either, often requiring precious bombs and ropes. With only one life and extreme danger on all sides, getting all of the treasure in a single run is practically impossible. Now we’ve got a real scoring system! The skill ceiling is astronomically higher than that of DuckTales, so we have good reason to use it to rank people. Where a DuckTales leader board would be a congested mess of the exact same score, Spelunky’s has a broad spectrum of scores to denote differences in ability.
So when WayForward was working on DuckTales: Remastered, they had an opportunity to address a longstanding oversight. They had a chance to make score matter. See, it doesn’t feel right to just take treasure and score out entirely, because without it there’s really not much of the game left. With enough imagination, there’s all kinds of solutions to try out and experiment with. The Spelunky model is already a strong contender to fix score. You’re constantly being put in new situations and you have to decide what treasure is safe and what you have to skip. It’s much more interesting and tense than just mechanically collecting all of the treasure in the game by rote. If you instead prefer a solution that more closely ties to the existing DuckTales gameplay and levels, maybe you could try a model where you receive treasure exclusively from enemies, and the shorter the time between kills, the higher your score multiplier goes, resetting entirely when you take any damage. There’s many models we could use to correct the problem.
But WayForward did nothing. The scoring model, the obvious chests, even most of the treasure placement are lifted straight out of the original. Rather than being a source of tension for the game, something that informs and influences what you do and how you play, score is just this meaningless number that degrades treasure to an optional distraction. Instead WayForward went the cheap route by having players use treasure to unlock concept art and other things unrelated to gameplay, thus turning it into an extrinsically motivated chore. To their credit, they removed some of the silliest features like using Launchpad to replay levels and enemies randomly awarding treasure, but that’s basically polishing the clock face of a busted watch – it’s a bit nicer on the surface, but scoring is still completely broken.
So the big question is if they could’ve fixed it, why didn’t they? It seems unfair to automatically assume they’re trying to avoid hard work and only cash in on nostalgia. After all, a huge amount of work went into updating the visuals, assembling the original voice actors to reprise their roles, and they even rearranged some levels that didn’t make sense. Design changes were made for the better, so WayForward clearly wanted to improve the game. So why stop short of doing something about score? Perhaps there is a case to be made for fidelity, for a responsibility to be 100% faithful to the original. I question that notion, however. If something was bad about the original, a remake seems like a great opportunity to fix it, and WayForward was already making design improvements, so we’ve already lost that 100% fidelity. Why not take that next logical step? Was it cowardice, a fear that fans of the original wouldn’t accept a more fundamental change? I tend to think not for one reason alone:
WayForward added a high score leader board to DuckTales: Remastered.
In a game with an easily attainable maximum score, based mostly on memorization, WayForward added a high score leader board. It’s a leader board with a very short shelf life – the moment someone collects all the treasure on the hardest difficulty, the game is over for everyone. That score can never be beaten. It’s no longer a measurement of skill. It’s just a list of people who’ve gotten all the treasure, and while that sort of thing maybe has some merit, there’s no reason to rank them against each other when their performance is totally equal. Why punish someone with a lower ranking just because he bought the game six months after release? This is a leader board that is every bit as problematic as the NES Achievers section in an issue of Nintendo Power. In fact, it’s probably more so because at least high scores in NES Achievers didn’t persist from issue to issue. The first guy to get maximum score in DuckTales: Remastered will be there forever.
So ultimately the reason that WayForward didn’t fix the problem wasn’t laziness or cowardice. They just didn’t know it was a problem in the first place – it was total ignorance. Otherwise why so starkly highlight the scoring system’s greatest weakness? They took a game system whose purpose was clearly completion, changed nothing, and then suddenly declared it competitive. Those two types of games are completely different from each other. Just because you have a score doesn’t mean players now have a rich competitive environment to play in. But all this apparently escaped WayForward throughout their entire development process. They tried to trick players (indeed, they probably even tricked themselves) into thinking the game could satisfy the purpose of competition, confusing everyone about score all over again.
Why Are We Still Confused?
One of the largest barriers to our understanding of what makes a good game of any kind is this lingering idea that we need to make games that appeal to everyone. I’m sure that at least part of the decision to add a leader board to DuckTales: Remastered was a desire to appease the competitive crowd, or what today’s game industry calls the “core gamers.” But slapping a jam label on a jar of pickles doesn’t mean you’ve got a jar of jam, and slapping a leader board onto DuckTales doesn’t mean you’ve got a competitive game.
See, there’s nothing wrong with linear, crafted levels. If you know what you’re doing, you can make a tightly balanced gauntlet or a series of clever puzzles. You can make something engaging because of how controlled and consistent that it is. I’m not really trying to disparage what DuckTales is. Rather I’m more concerned with what it is not. Here again we have an example of a game trying to wear too many hats. A static completion-based game has to do different things to be good than a game about perpetual competition. In fact, it seems intuitively true just from the words: a static, unchanging game is really the opposite of a game whose situations and strategy are perpetually evolving. You can make one or the other, but whatever you’re going to make, you need to decide what it is right away and own that purpose. Take it as far as you can go. Make the smaller parts serve the greater whole. And if we want to make games that appeal to everyone, first we need to stop trying to appeal to everyone with one product.
The really tragic part about DuckTales is that the most interesting part of play, the thing you’re doing the most, is the treasure collection score system, and it’s an entirely optional part of the game. The game just doesn’t care at all how much treasure you’re getting. Notice that WayForward had to motivate players extrinsically with all kinds of goodies to get them to keep playing. To me, that’s usually a red flag that the designers are relying too heavily on explicitly rewarding participation instead of the play being rewarding on its own. Without the unlockables, many players probably wouldn’t have bothered too much with the primary part of the game. It’s like the original, which rewards you with basically just JPEGs depending on your end total money, if you even realize they exist. It certainly doesn’t speak too well of a game system if you have to be given a cookie to even do it at all.
The history of the DuckTales video game is haphazard and awkward to say the least, and the primary reason for it was merely confusion about what the purpose of the game even was. And for every DuckTales you’ve heard of, there’s ten of Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth that you haven’t. The NES era was a highly experimental period of video game design, and everyone wanted to try out their new and crazy idea. We can commend their boldness and enthusiasm, but we should also be willing to identify where they went wrong. When we play a game, we need identify the reason that we’re here, our purpose of play.
And for all its weirdness through the years, Nintendo Power’s only purpose was to get us to play at all.