Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Undefined Laws of Momentum In Video Games

by Tom Dransfield

Let me just start by saying, I love momentum. Simply love it. Can't get enough; I use it nearly every day. And yet it seems like sometimes momentum is ignored, overlooked or otherwise sidelined in games, when it is in-fact so crucial for going into what makes a game truly excellent. Physics is hard to grasp, or so I hear, but this isn't necessarily about physics, at least not in the A over B = neutron bomb sense; this is all about the physics of satisfaction. If you want to ask yourself what it is that makes Super smash bros. Melee an out and out enjoyable, non-stop beat-em-up romp, the answer isn't the characters, zany items, nostalgia or even rubbing your stupid best-friend's face in the digitally rendered dirt with a world breaking smash.
In my mind, Ness looks like this after a sweet connection. His 'true form'
The answer is the inexplicable satisfaction that comes from making a great meaty blow connect with your opponent and seeing your former foe go flying across the screen. If you want a notable example of how important this is, you need only to look at Smash Bros. Brawl, a game that kept all of the same fun items, characters, powers and gameplay, but somehow managed to lose the enjoyment that comes from the physical momentum of the previous title.
But for some reason, that appears to be a common pattern within games that really get the physics right, they love releasing sequels that miss the mark completely. It's well known that the sonic series has really nailed and really failed at satisfying physics time and time again like they're grasping at slippery fish; sometimes even within the very same game - like Adventure or Generations.
"Yeah, speed platforming is okay, but I'd like to see more heavy, clunky robots and laser targeting" - No one

But it's easy to see why, the balance is incredibly hard to achieve, but once its there everyone can see it. You can pick up a game and within 30 seconds of running about say "this is it" or equally "this is not it". The games that do it right, really sparkle with an undefined quality, if you want a fun immersive city-wide romp, you can pick up Spiderman 2 and enjoy swinging between buildings freely like the wiry hero himself to the point where you almost feel the wind in your spandex. Alternatively, you can pick up infamous, and slowly crawl, shuffle, grind and climb your way around a city like a Zapdos with it's wings clipped. But this is what I've been building up to all article, the best single example of momentum done fantastically well.....are you ready?

I've looked everywhere and I still can't find my rose tinted spectacles. Oh here they are, on my face.
The answer is Jet Set Radio, a true gem of both wonderful stylisation and phenomenal gameplay. You weren't always fast in jet set radio, you weren't always graceful, often you'd trip, fall, get shot and just generally make a fool of yourself, but guess what, that's because you're not doing it right. The same was true that summer when you really tried to rollerblade, but for the pros, real-life rollerblading is a world of unlimited freedom and effortless movement. If you can't do it, the game won't just let you coast on by with some easy mechanics, but when you're good, oh boy is it good. The same is true of Melee and it's what makes that so incredible to play in relation to it's dumbed down sequel. When you become well practiced in these games, you become a true artisan of the physics, akin to a ballet dancer. Whether it's performing that connecting smash after rolling around your opponent twenty-odd times, or if it's grinding your way to victory in one of the torturously difficult race levels of JSR; getting good takes time, and your reward is perfectly flowing, flawless momentum.

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