Monday, February 10, 2014

NES Replay: M.U.S.C.L.E.

Developer: TOSE
Publisher: Bandai
Released: October 1986
Anyone who's played games for any length of time knows what "ragequitting" is. It's that moment when you can't take any more of a game, and you angrily hit the power button and yank out the disc/cartridge. A ragequit really sticks with you too. Just thinking about one is enough to make your blood boil.

M.U.S.C.L.E. caused me to ragequit twice, and it made me think: What's the anatomy of a ragequit? What causes us to shut off a game rather than keep pressing onward?

At its heart, a video game is designed to present us with a goal and the tools to accomplish that goal. They're goal-generating machines, essentially. The best games present reasonable goals along with tools that are uniquely suited to meet those goals.

We make an agreement when we play a game that we'll expect a certain amount of difficulty in exchange for our time, and there is a certain element of "fairness" that has to enter in to the equation.Some games, like Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden, tell you up front that the game is going to be wildly unfair to the player. Other games, like the Kirby series, tell you up front that you're not going to have a hard time. Now, if you flip that and make Dark Souls as easy as a Kirby game and a Kirby game as hard as Dark Souls, what happens? The person playing Dark Souls is bored, and the person playing Kirby is frustrated.

So, what's unfair? I would posit that one of the things that make a game is "unfair" when the opponents have access to skills, abilities and advantages that the player doesn't. For example, in Mario Kart, it's exceedingly difficult to hit an opponent with a blue shell right before they reach the finish line. The computer player, though, has no trouble doing it over and over.

Now, here's another wrinkle: Let's say I place a chocolate chip muffin on my desk. It's just your average muffin, nothing special. Between you and the muffin, I put a death-defying obstacle course with scythes, tigers and a rabid puma. Are you going to attempt to get the muffin? Of course not! It's just a muffin. It's not important.

Likewise, when a game's goal is minimal yet the difficulty is excessive, we quit. Why bother doing something insanely difficult for no good reason?

M.U.S.C.L.E. commits both of those sins. It's a typical wrestling game, where two fighters rassle for dominance. However, periodically a character who walks along the edge of the wrestling mat will toss a power-up into the ring that gives the player super speed and strength. The computer player inherently understands what angle and speed the power-up is traveling at and moves over to where it will be as soon as it's released.

Once the computer player gets the power-up, they rocket around the ring at insane speeds. They seem to be able to catch up to you and figure out where you're going to be, and once they hit you with one move, they do not stop. On the off chance that you get the power-up, the computer player avoids you like a plague rat, and of course you can't move at the same high speed as the computer player. To be fair, the NES didn't have a lot of clock cycles for AI. In mano a mano games, they had to cheat a lot to give the computer a fighting chance. That being said, there had to have been a better way to do things.

On top of that, if you win a match in M.U.S.C.L.E.... who cares? You're just going to have to fight again against some more wrestlers who are going to do the same thing to you over and over again. Why bother winning a match? It's the chocolate chip muffin on the other side of the abattoir: The reward doesn't match the effort you put in to get to it.

I've already spent a lot more time talking about M.U.S.C.L.E. than the original developers put into it, but this is a game that really angried up my blood. Maybe writing about it will be a catharsis. Let me check.

Nope. Still angry.

Final Rating:

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