What We’re Playing: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

SPScreen1 Man, I wanted to like this game. I still want to. I want to like this game SO MUCH. I want to tell you it blew my mind, and it’s awesome, and perfect, and that you should go buy it for yourself RIGHT NOW. And I STILL want to like it. So MUCH.

Unfortunately, I can’t. The fact that I will probably still end up buying it is a testament to how very, very close it comes to everything I wanted to be able to say about it. Sadly, the reality is that while it’s still a slick game and I’d like more like it, there are some really glaring, fundamental problems that only serve to frustrate and underline how close it comes. How very, very close. If it wasn’t so close to being amazing, I’d probably be a lot more forgiving.

Unfortunately, it is not to be. Sadness.

Also sadness, I had to take pictures off screen with a camera, and got very few really useable shots. Alas, for a better way I could actually afford right now. I wanted more examples.

A Glimpse of Paradise

SPScreen3 Scott Pilgrim does so much right that it seems strange that it has the problems it has(I’ll get to those in a minute). It has a great, timely IP what with the popularity of the comic and the upcoming movie. It picks the perfect genre for that IP—classic beat-em-up action is totally appropriate. It picks the perfect presentation for that genre. Going old school on the graphics is a good choice, and everything about the presentation induces a nostalgia trip back to the 16-bit era when these kinds of games were at their peak; the days of Streets of Rage and Final Fight and their peers. It borrows some of the favorite aspects of kings of the genre—River City Ransom especially is all over this game, which is exactly the way to go. And just look at that Super Mario Bros. 3 world map. Wow.

Everything, art-wise, is great. It all comes together nicely, characters look and animate great, and the soundtrack is spot-on, catchy tunes of an 8 or 16-bit variety. It’s excellent.

So Close, Yet So Far

I still wish I could end there and say it’s fantastic. I really do. The developers on this one did such an amazing job overall, and were clearly invested into the project and loved it, and I hate to have a big elephant in the room looming over it all.

But.

A bit of background: I was born in 1979, grew up in the 80s and 90s. I was a tech-savvy kid in a tech-savvy house, so I played games a lot growing up through the 8 and 16-bit era. This genre was one of my favorites, and I burned a LOT of time playing these kinds of games. Now I’m older, now I design games and study them. Somewhere in there lies why Scott Pilgrim causes me such trouble.

There are two pillars, in my opinion, on which the classic beat ‘em up genre’s gameplay is founded. The first is a feeling of crisp, fluid, responsive control. This is necessary for what are probably obvious reasons: the genre is centered around reactions, combo execution, adapting to enemy AI and changing tactics quickly, much like a fighting game. No surprise there. The other pillar of gameplay is excellent hit detection. The collision scheme used for detecting attack hits needs to be consistent, match the visuals, and provide enough “depth” that aiming attacks isn’t a problem.

My only problems with Scott Pilgrim, unfortunately, lay in BOTH these areas.

The control problem is twofold—first, the link between button and action is not as fluid as it could be. This is particularly true when trying to execute specific attacks, or chains of attacks. Repeats of the light attack button yield a short combo followed by a knockdown hit. Sometimes they also yield a single hit followed by the knockdown. How you get one instead of the other reliably and on purpose, I really couldn’t tell you. I had a huge amount of trouble dashing properly as well, especially if my plan was to attack twice then dash in the opposite direction to nail that guy coming up behind me. This is exacerbated by the speed with which the player moves. It feels like molasses. If you charge up and get into your flashing-yellow mode, you start moving faster—which only underlines how much better the game would play if that were the speed to start with. Similarly, one character—Ramona—does move at that speed all the time, and her play experience is just so much better for it. I’m not sure I could play another character.

This merges with the other problem—the hitboxes. For those unfamiliar with the term, we’re talking about the collision used to determine if an attack hits. This is, even more than the controls, my primary beef with the game. I had a lot of trouble getting positioned to hit enemies properly. A LOT of trouble. The hit area, first of all, is very “shallow”, meaning that if your target is just a little above or below you on the field of play, there’s a good chance you’ll miss. An added problem is that you can’t count on the visuals for positioning. Several attacks don’t reach as far as they look, and there’s a definite “dead zone” where you can be too close to hit anything. to top it off, some attacks actually score hits behind you when they don’t look like they should (Scott’s uppercut, for example). It all leaves one wondering exactly where one needs to be in order to hit a target. Not good in a game with fixed jump distances and other quirks that rely on reliable judgment of positioning. There is also an issue where the animations last just a little too long. There’s a gap between the point where you’re hitting something and you can execute your next action, like the hitboxes vanish several frames before the animation ends, and the animation has to end before you can attack again. This leaves a vulnerable gap you can’t escape from, and in a game where you’re usually seeing 2 or 3-to-1 odds, the AI punishes that apparent gap ruthlessly. I found it very hard to hit a guy in front of me twice and then use a back attack on the guy coming up behind me. Most of the time, the back attack wouldn’t animate before I got hit. That, of course, is assuming I was judging hit distance right in the first place. Hard to say.

In all honesty, these problems wouldn’t be so bad, if Scott Pilgrim wasn’t doing such an amazing job of being a classically-styled beat ‘em up. But it does, and with that comes a number of classic gameplay tropes that, when the gameplay is top-notch, are fun challenges, and when not, develop into serious issues. All the classic things are there: enemies that blitz onto the screen and attack suddenly, short warning for environmental hazards like an incoming bus, the classic power of jump-kicking superiority, the advantage of weapon use, juggling badguys helplessly against the corner of the screen.

The problem, is that were these are usually challenges, or—in the case of the last three—useful tools for getting out of tough fights, Scott Pilgrim’s otherwise mild gameplay problems turn them into major frustrations on the one hand, and super-necessary survival skills on the other. I found myself with a weapon in hand constantly. Not because I find beating people down with a street sign or their own compatriot amusing (I do), but because it was the best way to get a consistent hitbox with enough reach to do the job effectively. I jump-kicked all over the place not because the enemies were tough, but because I couldn’t guarantee a regular ground attack would hit them consistently. I’d juggle them in a corner for the same sorts of reasons. All of these are fine examples of the kinds of gameplay quirks that experienced players love about the genre. But they should not feel necessary, and they do here. When you can’t count on your skill with the game being translated to screen, you have to fall back on cheap, effective technique. And you do.

SPScreen2Summing Up

For all of this, I still want to be able to say the game is awesome. Because it is awesome. But it has a couple of largely technical/design issues that are holding it back and turning it into something it isn’t. the fact that it comes so close but falls short on fundamentals is very disappointing. I mean, just look at the game. It by all rights should be complete, unadulterated awesome. And it is, in every way but two areas that just happen to tear down the whole house that was so painstakingly built. All the attention to detail, all of the obvious understanding of the genre is being subverted into frustrations because a couple of key elements aren’t working so well, and it frustrates me, both as a designer, and as an experienced player, because the dev team so clearly understood everything else, and I just don’t entirely understand how it could have happened this way.

I will say this: if there were a patch tomorrow that fixed the hit detection and at least upped the movement speed of the other characters, I’d evangelize this game like crazy. It would be in my top ten, easy. As it is… I am saddened to say it’s just not the case, and it was so, so close.

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