Saurian Dash (or “Saur” as he is often known) has been a visible presence in the action game community for years. His work on Bayonetta: The Official Guide (Future Press) set the platinum standard for both quality and skilled play.
Saur’s tutorial videos for The Wonderful 101 helped introduce many fans to the depth of the game’s system, and take their skills to the next level.
Today, we chat with the man himself, to learn what began his love of action games, and the systems that form their core.
1. How did you get into action games?
I got into action games late; but when I did it completely changed how I viewed gaming forever. The game which brought me round was Viewtiful Joe. Here was a game with a deep and open-ended combat system which seemed to be built as a means for the player to express creativity. This system is then pitted against opponents and obstacles which were designed from the ground up to interact meaningfully with the core system. The course was fixed, but the method for dealing with that course was completely down to the ingenuity, skill and inspiration of the player. You play like you have a huge audience watching and the game constantly entices you to improve; the focus is not simply on getting the player from A to B, the focus is on getting the player to play “Viewtifully”.
2. How did you first learn about PlatinumGames?
I was very saddened by the closure of Clover Studio, so you can imagine my delight when I saw the Bayonetta reveal trailer. The spirit of Clover Studio did indeed live on! I couldn’t wait to play this new game and it was like a dream come true when I was asked to write the Combat System, Enemy and Boss strategy chapters for Bayonetta: The Official Guide (Future Press). The work I did on the Bayonetta guide massively expanded my knowledge of this type of game and led to all kinds of other work both inside and outside game development studios. It was the first time I ever had a complete game system inside my head; I finally understood the sheer amount of work that goes into a game system like this and how brilliant the designers at the helm must be.
3. What is your approach to a new action game? Do you aim for high scores from the beginning, or start to build strategies after a leisurely first playthrough?
I tend to take my time and make sure that I have an understanding of the game system before I move through the game’s stages. The first thing I get used to is the player system; which actions can I perform? Which actions can I interrupt? Which actions leave me locked in a recovery animation? Once I get used to moving the character I will often play the opening stage over and over, gradually learning more about the game system as I go. During this initial phase I believe it is very important to look closely at each enemy type the game introduces; I take note of their attack signposts and explore my options for dealing with those attacks. These are the enemies the designers are introducing to the player first, so they must represent the foundation of the relationship between the player and enemy systems. Once I have an idea of how the core game system works and how this applies to the structure of battle, I then begin to progress through the game’s stages in a casual fashion, always with the intent to return to tricky sections to learn them properly later.
I treat my first playthrough on Normal as an introduction. This session is simply a means to get acquainted with the game system and to note how the designers want to test the player. Once I have a good idea of how the game system works and have seen all the enemy types the game contains, I then move on to a “Score Attack” style of play. This is where I try to achieve at least Platinum rankings on Normal mode before moving on to Hard. I tend to throw all narrative progression out the window at this point. I play stages in no particular order; if I discover an interesting enemy encounter I end up playing that encounter over and over for hours.
Recently I spent over a week fighting Khamsin (the final boss of the Blade Wolf DLC) in the “Revengeance” difficult level of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Initially I was drawn to this fight simply because of the hype atmosphere of the encounter, but repeatedly fighting this boss completely changed the way I played the game. I noticed that my Heavy attacks were unsafe; I could not freely cancel Blade Wolf’s (LQ-84i’s) animation into an Evade at the precise moment I needed to. I was over-committing to the animation of certain attacks which quickly led to my demise. I then switched over to using Light attacks primarily; it turned out I could instantly cancel a Light attack animation into an Evade. This made learning to Evade Khamsin’s attacks much easier. I could concentrate purely on correctly reading the boss’s attack signposts and Evading at the correct moment while using Blade Mode to cancel and repeat my combo string.
I then realised that Blade Wolf differs from Raiden in that you can Blade Mode cancel all of his Evade animations as well as his attack animation! This fact led to a technique where I would cancel my current action with Blade Mode, execute an Evade to dodge an attack, but cancel that Evade with Blade Mode once the hit frames of the attack pass by. This enabled me to press my attack sequences far further than I ever could before; I was landing far more hits against the boss because I was trimming out the delay frames of my Evades. This exercise completely changed the way the game felt and how I played it. I have also just recently been having a huge amount of fun repeating a particular Secret Mission in The Wonderful 101; last night I had another mechanical breakthrough after spending a few hours exploring this fight.
This is what I love the most about these games: the more you put in to them, the more you get out. Most of the questions you need to ask the game system will not come to you until after you have reached a certain understanding of the system. You come to a particular situation where you hit a wall; you then ask a question and the game answers you. Platinum’s games are tuned to accommodate a very high skill ceiling and continue to surprise and delight the player after many months, or even many years of play.
4. How would you describe the various skills action games demand?
I believe the type of game design I enjoy the most started with Viewtiful Joe. Here is a game which looks like a traditional side-scrolling fighting game, but instead it turns the entire concept into something wildly different. The “lesson” of Viewtiful Joe I feel was “planning”: you don’t simply react to hazards and you don’t simply run up to enemies and start hitting them. Instead, you visually confirm the enemy set, formulate a plan based on your knowledge of those enemies and then execute that plan in the most stylish (yet efficient) way possible. The “plan” I speak of is the blueprint which dictates the correct way to do battle in the game, derived from the scoring system. The scoring system is the backbone of the game; it leads you into playing in a specific fashion to not only score more points but also deal damage more quickly.
The game system in Viewtiful Joe was like an invisible hand which guided the player towards creating a structure out of what initially seemed like chaos; it wasn’t simply about playing, it was about playing well. The Wonderful 101 takes the concept of planning and structure introduced in Viewtiful Joe and spins it into something far more free and dynamic. It blurs the boundaries between the different aspects of the scoring system which results in a game about “management” and “multi-tasking” as opposed to just “planning”.
In The Wonderful 101 you still have the same three aspects of the scoring system to consider: the combo timer, combo score and the combo multiplier. However, this time around all three aspects blur into each other, causing various aspects of the combat mechanics to merge together as a result. Look at the first aspect of Viewtiful Joe’s system as an example: to dodge an enemy attack to inflict a Stun you had to make a “binary” decision regarding which direction to dodge (up or down). In The Wonderful 101, however, the basic act of inflicting a Stun is done via the Team Attack button and full combo potential is only enabled once an enemy enters this state. Repeatedly hitting an enemy with Team Attack will cause more and more of your Wonderful Ones to cling onto the enemy and begin attacking it. Once a certain threshold is met the enemy will become stunned. This is not a binary decision with an instant result; it is a gradual “analogue” process which is independent of the main character’s animation. You are free to perform other actions during this process to manage other aspects of the scoring system as you prepare your target. In fact you are free to manage any part of the scoring system or any part of the enemy set as the situation dictates!
An excellent example to illustrate the way the three aspects of scoring merge together is the Unite Gun. You will notice that the Unite Gun fires not bullets but Wonderful Ones; as soon as a Wonderful One clings onto a target it signifies that you are now locked-on to that target. Pressing the [A] button at this point will trigger the Leader character to instantly zip over to that target’s location. But what happens when you fire loads of Unite Gun shots, causing many heroes to cling onto a target? You stun the enemy! Each Unite Gunshot increases the combo multiplier by x0.10 (higher than the base weapon multiplier value of x0.04), and if you manage to increase the combo multiplier beyond x2.50 your primary weapons (Unite Hand and Sword) gain a huge power boost. So the “simple” act of shooting an enemy is both your Lock-On and your means of inflicting Stun to enable a high scoring combo. It allows you to quickly increase the combo multiplier beyond x2.50, and encourages you with a boost to attack power so that you can kill the enemy even faster! All of these actions can be (and usually are) performed while you manage threats from other enemies. A great Wonderful 101 player is a person who is skilled at managing many things at once, and the game gives the player all the required tools with which to do so!
All of this is coupled with a brilliant new way of presenting the “entity” of the player character. Up to this point the player character has usually meant a fixed point of reference, but The Wonderful 101 plays around with this concept. The “character” the player controls is more like a “potential” instead of a fixed point, and as such you need to think about the way you interact with the game world and enemies in a new and different way. I love the way the player entity transitions seamlessly from being a spread out potential and then a single point, all depending on the current action.
Bayonetta is another game which I feel demonstrates the same level of brilliance with regard to finding new ways to present established concepts. If you look at other action games there are distinct boundaries between different types of action. We never once questioned the notion that melee attacks, gun attacks and evasive actions were separate and unique items which could be triggered at will but never mixed. Bayonetta presented a character which blurred the lines between these separate actions and established the genius mechanic of Dodge-Offset, which allowed the player to mix any and all evasive actions into just about any attack animation.
These new ideas regarding movement and attacking were more than enough to establish Bayonetta as something unique, but I do not believe this is all there was to it. Bayonetta also asks you to consider a completely new way of thinking about 3D space: the brilliant Wicked Weave system. With Wicked Weaves (the action of projecting physical attacks through dimensional portals) you can inflict melee attack hit reactions at just about any distance. This causes the player to come up with completely different ways to deal with enemy sets compared to other action games; the fact that Bayonetta does not need to be near an enemy in order to physically attack it adds an utterly new dimension to a long established concept.
5. How does the Unite Morph System from The Wonderful 101 differ from traditional weapon switching systems?
Up until this point we have accepted that switching weapons in an action game is a mechanically simple process; you either select the weapon from within a menu or cycle through various weapons via a button press. However, The Wonderful 101 presents a completely new way of thinking about the “entity” of the player character; through the Wonder Liner mechanic, the mass of Wonderful Ones you control actually become the special attack command, they become the weapon! It cleverly establishes a new style of special attack command, specifically designed for an analogue joystick as opposed to a traditional digital input device, and requires that the player use both analogue sticks at once. The Unite Morph command glyphs are like analogue omni-directional representations of traditional digital special attack commands; the Unite Hand is a 360 motion/circle, the Unite Claw is an exaggerated “Dragon Punch” motion and the Unite Bomb is a half-circle then forward.
As players of fighting games know, special attack commands require practice. They are tricky to perform at first, but with time and patience you develop your own unique style of command execution. The Wonderful 101’s Unite Morph system operates in the same principle. The Wonder Liner mechanic is a brilliant way of visually representing special attack commands, and enables the player to not only select many different weapons quickly, but also freely manipulate the power level and scale of the weapon via the exact same command input.
The Wonder Liner mechanic is an analogue system, so by drawing a larger shape and sacrificing the speed in which the Unite Morph command is entered, you increase the attack power of the Unite Morph you want to select, visually communicated by the game as an enlarged version of the Unite Morph. Not only that; the Wonder Liner mechanic allows for the “storing” of a Unite Morph command! Once you visually confirm that you have entered a valid Unite Morph command glyph (signified by a color specific to each weapon), you are free to move the character as you like before you press [A] to activate the weapon.
On top of all this you then have to consider that you have two attack buttons, Normal attack and Team attack. Unite Morph commands can be activated via either attack button, triggering either the Leader character to equip the weapon or the team-mates to automatically attack with that weapon. As certain Unite Morphs have additional defensive abilities, it enables the player to eliminate a threat with one aspect of the team while dealing damage with the other. An example would be when faced with armoured enemies equipped with lasers: you can equip the leader with the Unite Sword to automatically deflect the laser beam, then command your team-mates to attack the target’s armour with the Unite Hammer. As incoming damage is only counted if it is inflicted upon the Leader of the team, I really enjoy working out ways in which I can keep the Leader out of trouble while using the team-mates to do the dirty work!
What I find most mind-blowing about the best action games is that they present a logical progression through their mechanics. In other words, once you gain a degree of mastery over one mechanic, it enables you to ask a question which leads you to the mastery of another deeper mechanic. In the case of The Wonderful 101, the first time I came across this logical path was after I got used to performing Unite Morph commands consistently. I began exploring simple combos; a few basic standing hits into a Wonderful Rising (launcher) leading to a basic aerial combo. I began wondering how I could string the attacks of different Unite Morphs together.
It was at this point that I realised the implications of the Wonder Liner being independent of the player character’s attack animation. It turns out that you are free to enter Unite Morph commands during any attack animation; if you enter a command during an attack animation and press [A] you will instantly cancel that animation and ready the newly selected weapon.
Naturally, the next logical step was to try this technique with special attacks, which are input via the left analogue stick. I discovered that if you do a special attack – such as the Wonderful Cyclone – you can enter the directional command for another Unite Morph with the right analogue stick and then perform an additional special attack command with the left analogue stick before pressing [A] to activate the new Unite Morph. The result was a means to instantly switch from the special attack of one Unite Morph into the special attack of another Unite Morph (dubbed “Unite Mix” in my tutorial video.) This technique massively expanded my options for building damaging combos; I could now string many special attacks together in order to keep an enemy locked in a high-scoring aerial juggle.
Once I gained a level of mastery over the “Unite Mix” technique, I was then led to ask another question. Certain special attacks (specifically the Wonderful Stinger) can only be performed once in mid air. How then can I use more than one Stinger during jump? Turns out you can do that too! To begin, you enter the command for the Unite Morph you want to use (right stick), input the command for the Stinger (left stick), and launch the attack with [A]. During the animation for the first aerial Stinger, you can input the commands for another, and perform a series of Stingers going back and forth between different morphs! This is what I love most about these games, the more thought you put in, the more cool stuff you get out!
Come back this Friday for Part 2 of our interview with Saur, where we discuss the past and future of action games! While you’re waiting, take a look at Saur’s Youtube channel.
Continues to Part 2 of the interview.