Sunday, 3 February 2008

Grappling with mechanics

Video games are a media format limited only by the imagination; the creative possibilities are endless, new and exciting gameplay mechanics are always being developed within each genre to keep it fresh. Be it the power meter in sports games, the parry in fighting games or the timeless genre transcending headshot, games are always reinventing the ‘mechanical wheel’ to provide a fresh new angle on a dated gameplay element. One of the most famous game mechanics is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, the much loved ‘grappling hook’ mechanic is making a comeback, in large-part thanks to the revival of a Capcom classic. To ease my boredom and for nostalgia’s sake I have compiled the five most prominent users of the grappling hook mechanic, although they use it in a variety of forms each retain the same underlying mechanics, so here they are in no particular order.

The grappling hook mechanic was originally made most famous by Rad Spencer in Capcom’s timeless classic, Bionic Commando. Equipped with a bionic arm and awesome red hair Rad Spencer is sent to rescue a man named ‘Super Joe’, with only his arm Rad took on futuristic Nazi’s who had resurrected Adolf Hitler (or Master-D in the American release), using their evil-genius scientists. The mechanic involved Rad using his extendable arm to latch onto various surfaces, the grappling arm could then be extended fourty-five degrees to allow Rad to leap from platform to platform as well as pull himself up to the area his arm is latched onto. In addition to the arm’s navigational perks it could also be used to reel in distant items and on some occasions unwary enemy Nazi soldiers. The mechanic added a new twist to the platforming genre; the game replaced jumping with the swinging mechanic which could also be applied to combat, although the idea of replacing a jump with a swing sounds awkward the mechanic allowed for fluid and swift platforming which provided endless fun. Capcom has recently announced a new Bionic Commando game, developed for the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 the game and takes place after the NES game, the player will take control of ‘Nathan Spencer’ and will traverse Ascension city using the iconic Bionic Arm. As well as the sequel Capcom have also announced a remake of the NES Bionic Commando, entitled ‘Bionic Commando: Rearmed’, the game will be released on Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network and on the PC.

Arguably the most famous user of the grappling hook in video games is Link, protagonist of Nintendo’s flagship game ‘The Legend of Zelda’. The games usually see Link tasked with rescuing Princess Zelda, the princess come damsel in distress of Hyrule, typically from Gannon, an evil tyrant intent on enslaving Hyrule. Although Link’s main tools in his quests are generally his trusty sword and shield, he is regularly required to use his ‘hookshot’. The games place heavy focus on exploration; the various Zelda titles are by and large comprised of a number of dungeons to explore, at the end of which the player is rewarded with a new tool to aid them in the remaining dungeons. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998 and served as one of the earliest uses of the grappling hook mechanic in a 3D adventure game; the hookshot is given to Link by the Ghost of Dampe after beating him in a race. In a similar fashion to Bionic Commando, although primarily used to negotiate large gaps, the hookshot can also be used to ‘drag distant items towards you, or you can use it to pull yourself towards something’. While the hookshot has appeared in previous Zelda games they have done so on a 2D plain, the grappling hook mechanic in the subsequent 3D Zelda games have typically been extremely limited in terms of movement, nevertheless they have become synonymous with the Zelda games and its green tunic wearing hero.

Another of Nintendo’s iconic characters also has a grappling hook in her arsenal of weaponry. Samus Aran was first introduced to gamers in the 1986 classic, Metroid. Samus is a galactic bounty hunter equipped with a power suit; the power suit provides Samus with a plethora of weapons and other tools to support her in her hunt for the Space Pirates and parasitic Metroid. Created by Gunpei Yokoi Metroid is another trademark Nintendo exploration game, however whereas the early Zelda games used an overhead view the Metroid games were side-scrolling action exploration games. The Metroid games have come to be known for all having the same structure, the games usually start with Samus exploring a small planet or space station which proceeds to blow up, narrowly escaping the explosion Samus crash lands on an uncharted planet, coincidently Samus’ suit malfunctions which leads to her abilities being restricted. The player then takes control of the legendary bounty hunter and proceeds to explore the planet while restoring function to her suit and collecting upgrades. The grappling hook in the Metroid games were used almost exclusively on getting Samus through hostile terrain and to unreachable areas, the grapple hook remained purely for navigational purposes up until Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Corruption was the first iteration of Nintendo’s long running franchise to appear on the Wii console, the consoles motion sensitive controls and the interactivity between Samus and the player allowed Retro studios to utilise the grappling hook in ways the series hadn’t before. In addition to helping Samus reach energy tanks unreachable by the usual abnormally high jumps the grapple beam could now be used to rip amour away from well insulated opponents, easily the best fit for the grappling hook mechanic the Wii’s motion sensitive controls has given a welcomed new twist on the mechanic, Samus has never been so deadly.

The grappling hook mechanic is almost always seen in adventure or exploration games, which makes sense since it’s clearly most-suited for these purposes, however, it has been used in a fighting games (with good effect), the character using this technique is one of the most deadly fighters in any video game, no I’m not talking about D.Dark from Street Fighter EX, I’m talking about Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. Former member of the Shirai Ryu ninja clan Scorpion is resurrected and seeks vengeance on those who brutally slaughtered his clan. Scorpions trademark move is the ability to throw out a roped-spear into his opponents, he follows this up by dragging them over to him then opening a can of hellish whoop-ass on them. While it is not strictly a grappling hook it does have almost all of the same characteristics, Scorpion just decides not to use it to climb mountains, instead he likes to throw it at people and decimate their internal organs. Scorpion is without a doubt the most prominent fighter to use the grappling hook mechanic.

Spider-man, I don’t think there’s a need to say anymore…but I’m going to, while Spider-man’s grappling hook mechanic is not powered by a mechanical arm, gun or cybernetic suit it is probably the most useful and deadly. After being bitten by a radioactive spider Peter Parker is transformed into Spider-man, a man with spider powers including the ability to produce extremely strong strings of web which he then uses to swing from building to building, tie up misbehaving perps and generally harass the cast of regularly appearing foes. Spider-man has appeared in a number of videogames including three movie based tie-ins, a number of Marvel fighting games and dungeon crawlers and a comic adaptation.

The last user of this timeless mechanic is video games’ greatest anti-hero, Kratos. Kratos was a brutal and fearless Spartan warrior, after years of relentless conquering, Kratos finally met his match against the Barbarian army, in a last desperate attempt to crush his enemy he offers his life in servitude to Ares, the God of War, Ares accepts his offer and binds the blades of chaos to his arms, these blades serves as grappling hooks throughout Kratos’ journey to bring down Ares (oh yes, there is a lot of betrayal). Kratos uses this mechanic in both combat and exploration. The mechanic is used in combat primarily to chain attack combinations, after launching an enemy in to the air he can then use the blades to wrench them back down and continue to rip through the poor sucker. The navigational applications of the blades are fairly limited, at designated points in the game Kratos is able to latch onto certain points and swing from one area to another, this is given some depth through the inclusion of momentum, building up momentum lets Kratos travel further, while this is fun the most satisfying use of the mechanic is in the combat.

Honorable Mentions:

Wayne Holden - Lost Planet

Nero – Devil May Cry 4

Lara Croft - Tomb Raider

Rikimaru/ Ayame : Tenchu

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