week 8 / dark void zero case study

before I talk about the actual gameplay, a little information about the games fictitious back story.

here`s a quote from the games wiki page

“In the year 198X, the PlayChoice-10 was the first arcade cabinet to feature two interactive screens. Capcom soon began developing a game to make use of this advanced technology. This ground breaking title was called: Dark Void. Unfortunately, the PlayChoice-10 was discontinued and the project was cancelled. In the year 20XX, Capcom found the project buried deep inside its vault. Its concept inspired a new adventure of the same name. But… the original game… locked away for decades… is now back from the void…”

many retro enthusiasts who learned of this, actually tried to track down the so-called playchoice-10 cabinet and were disgruntled to learn it was all fake. but personally I think it`s hilarious. the parent game (dark void for the HD systems) is a more straight-faced, generic shooter so this seems like the perfect outlet for the property to let loose and have some fun. initially it was promoted as an april fools but eventually found itself being fully developed. and is now making it`s way to platforms such as ios, eshop and steam.

other ocean developed the game, they go into a lot of detail about the creation of the game and the back story here.

as for the game itself, as soon as it starts up. we are treated to two logos. on the top screen is the standard resolution `capcom` logo against a white background and on the bottom is the `other ocean` logo, stylised as a NES graphics, complete with a starry space backdrop and 3 frame sparkles for the stars in the distance. the capcom logo deters from the style slightly.

then there’s the standard white block text against a black background talking about Nintendo and copyrights and that boring stuff. the text is appropriate, it`s a readable version of the bit.trip games font.

next up is one of the titles most memorable moments. the background of both screens flash blue and black, and it asks you to “blow the dust from the NES cartridge to continue” and as soon as you blow into the mic, the graphics of a NES cartridge titled `dark void zero` descends off the bottom screen and a startup sound is heard.

it`s only a silly little fun thing, but is the sheer essence of marrying nostalgia to new technology.

then the title screen starts with it`s excellent theme tune. this song is what started off the whole idea. the composer for the HD version of the game, created this 8-bit version of the main games title theme, and the guys at other ocean heard it and it set things in motion for the games creation. the original orchestrated theme is also excellent and the powerful melody translates well.

here`s the orchestrated original

and the 8-bit rendition

the title screen features the game’s logo proudly displayed on the top screen and the protagonist posing on the bottom. it still has the space background and sparkling stars. even before the game starts, the mood has been set fantastically.

after choosing a difficulty from easy,medium or hard. the opening cut scene starts. a sombre theme plays as still images are slowly unveiled, revealing the watchers (the antagonists of the title) and their nefarious plot to control earth through the use of portals. some scenes include some minor animation and overall it`s servicable, brilliant by NES standards, but you can tell they took some liberties with the systems colour palette. the colors are diverse and very well-defined all the way throughout the title.

the cut scene further cements the mood with a no frills explanation of why your shooting aliens. (a scientist gives you the equipment to do so) and then bam, your dumped dead center in a large, metroidvania-esqe map to collect various shiny objects, key cards and weapons.

so the storytelling is a lot more conventional and straightforward than the bit.trip series. but it`s refreshingly straight to the point.

on first play, the controls are supremely smooth and intuitive. despite the use of only 2 buttons, it gets away with it thanks to 8 directional aiming and a jet pack which you will probably never turn off. (pressing jump twice activates it)

in true metroidvania fashion, the jetpack is not unlocked straight away, after traversing to the bottom of a mountain and defeating a few select enemies you find is conveniently sitting in a ledge surrounded by lava. good to see that silly little modern thing called `logic` doesnt seep it`s way into this nonsensical retro throwback.

using the jetpack gives the game a wholly unique feel. the shooting is reminiscent of standard contra, but using the jetpack to move around projectiles and attack enemies from various angles gives the game a very empowering feel. the environments also benefit as a result, they are designed with a lot of vertically in mind and are fun to traverse and explore using the smooth jetpack controls.

metroidvania might not be the best term to describe the exploration however, there is some minor backpedaling in the levels, but it`s dictated by discovering different coloured key cards then it is equipment. there are a few equipment based instances however. there are force fields in the game which reset whatever upgraded weapon you have and force you to discard your jetpack. these area`s add a lot of tension as your essentially taken down a notch untill you make it to the end of the instance and find a replacement jetpack and better gun.

despite being the first level it`s no pushover. there are a lot of tightly designed minefields and electric barriers for you to navigate (using the jetpack) and cramped corridor shootouts which require you have a quick trigger finger too.

the first levels enemies include an assortment of on foot soldiers who once defeated have `watcher` leeches escape from the destroyed suit and continue to attack you. this happens at random so it`s good at keeping you focused and not shoot every enemy in `auto-pilot` mode. amusingly the on foot soldiers can’t aim diagonally but it took me two playthroughs to discover this. they eventually equip jetpacks and also take to the skies in an attempt to bring you do. there are a lot of mines,turrets and flying enemies to boot, making sure the vertical traversal is always as exciting as the on foot segments.

aside from mildly open-ended exploration, the game does a good amount to mix up the flow and pacing. not only is there the aforementioned instances where you make it through a tough linear path to gain your equipment once more, there`s also trap rooms where the doors shut and you must defeat the waves of enemies to progress.  it`s a little bit brainless but it`s used sparingly thankfully.

one thing to note about the so-called `exploration` it`s made that much harder by respawning enemies. the game is rather punishing in this aspect. you barely need to move off-screen to have an enemy respawn. most times you can actually catch a glimpse of the enemies teleporting in on the edge of the screen. this is one of the factors that kind of killed my drive to seek out all the collectables in every level, the constant badgering from enemies ensured I never lived long enough to find everything.

luckily the game does`nt force this upon you. the map is used for highlighting primary objectives. I never got lost once in my time playing and it kept the flow of the game constantly going, the use of the top screen is perfect. it also displays information about secondary objectives, helping to keep the in-game HUD nice and clean. using the extra screen as a map is usually superfluous and lazy in some DS titles, but it`s a natural fit for this games design. there’s another reason to heap praise onto the use of a map. it thankfully points out which parts of the floor are lava, and (theoretically) warn you whenever you blindly drop down a tunnel, which side to land on. I have ended up in the lava countless times, but I`ve only myself to blame and i cant but laugh at my own stupidity.

the weapons in the game can feel a bit samey. the standard machine gun is fast firing and weak, the sound effect accompanying it also lacks `oomph`. all the other weapons seem to be variants of the whole, slow and strong design. only difference is some fire rockets while others fire energy shots. there are some power ups which spice up the firearms quite nicely. a spreader power up. it last for a short amount of time and your gun shoots 3 bullets at an angle like the spreader from contra.

(actually, there is one weapon i forgot to mention. there is a laser machine gun with an extremely fast rate of fire and large bullets. the only drawback is that it overheats, it reminds me of the covenant weaponry from the halo series)

of course, the spreader is contra is the best weapon in the game and no self-respecting player would use any other weapon. forcibly hogging the weapon spotlight and not letting the other weapons in the game be showcased. dark void zero`s approach to refit the spreader as a power up was a smart idea.

another power up which is basically a solution to machine gun favouritism (you`l see this a lot in modern shooters) it doubles the rate of fire for any weapon. also, a smart reinvention of an old standby.

there’s a good scene in the first level, when you make it all the way down to the bottom of a shaft to collect a keycard, and then the area is swamped with the humanoid enemies and have to fight them on the way up with your equipment stripped. it reminded me so much of 2D metroid games, they all have areas where you`l be climbing up a linear, vertical tunnel and you`ll be blasting away space pirates shooting you from above. i`ll give the games designers credit and say this was probably an intentional nod to an inspiration of theirs.

another great moment is the ending chase of the first level. once you collect all the key cards and your ordered by the scientist character to make your way to the `extraction point` (gotta love generic militaristic terminology) at the peak of the level, then enemies flood the whole way there, needing you to use some skillful jetpack maneuvering or thorough blasting. once you reach the point however, your warped to a boss fight.

playing up the games strengths (namely, the jetpack) it`s an aerial battle which calls for a lot of precision dodging and shooting.

after destroying it, your presented with a `mission debriefing` screen where the game tallies all of your bonuses such as time, enemies destroyed, secondary objectives etc etc. just like the bit.trip games, it includes local leaderboards with a three character limit for name entry. personally, this is an irritating throwback which makes it`s way into far too many titles. i`d much prefer online leaderboards with a decent character limit, it`s a more contemporary venue to show off your skills.

there’s a short cut scene to deploy more exposition between levels and then we`re dropped back into the action. the first level was a mountain region with a lot of open caverns to fly around in, whereas this level is more of as corridor shooter as it`s laden with those equipment-less scenarios and a lot more backtracking. the game consists of only three levels and this one feels the most filler-ish. it makes sense in terms of pacing. the first level grabs the players interest, the second adds bulk while the third ends it on a high note. with that said, the quality is only a marginal dip as the game on a whole is still,pretty fantastic.

it`s roundabout this level that`l probably discover the games checkpoint system. when i first played through it, I died on the first level and had to start from the beginning, I was terrified the game had taken old-school retro to an extreme fashion which would have been detrimental to it`s enjoyablity (and my sanity) thankfully, there are checkpoints at the beginning of every level so the title screen has a `continue` option once you beat the first stage. it`s a solid middle ground between the two extremes (no checkpoints versus generous checkpoints) and helps the game considerably.

at the end of level 2, you discover the boss is the exact same as previously. however, once you beat to it to the same point as last time it continues to fight and adopts new tactics and weapons. as i mentioned earlier with the level pacing, this second encounter is probably the weakest of all three. the third boss fight has the more spectacular attack patterns and finale, and the first one is obviously memorable since it`s the first time you fight it. i think it`s not unreasonable to have wanted 3 unique boss encounters instead of beefing up the same one. it can become repetitive. and it would hardly have been a huge strain to develop 2 more bosses, the game was developed in a matter of months with about a dozen people. but i digress, it`s a good boss fight regardless, especially the climatic third encounter.

the third level has a fun structure. there is a big central area with lots of small paths branching off in every direction. your objective is to collect key cards from the end of all these areas and return to input the `detonation codes` into the main computer. this game ooze sci-fi cheese at every opportunity it`s great. and then once you do, there’s the aforementioned third and final boss fight.

i think i`ve covered everything, there are some negligible differences between versions of the game. apparently the steam  version has multiple endings but i`m uninterested in the story. it serves as an amusing prelude to the HD dark void but that game managed to kill off what opportunity this franchise had. dark void zero is the perfect companion piece, and the games approach to marketing is the stuff of legend. hopefully other ocean can create more  amusing retro throwbacks to accompany triple a releases (maybe an old school rpg for elder scrolls? or an action/adventure game for uncharted) but maybe veer into 16-bit territory 🙂

points of interest

  • the indulgent marketing approach which would peak any retro gamers interest
  • the smooth engine. rock solid frame rate, responsive controls and flawless audio. none of the technical shortcomings were it a real NES title.
  • the balance of weapons. it`s as if contra went through focus testing
  • pixel perfect pacing. it mixes up gameplay elements from metroid and contra and even innovates and improves upon them, despite being grounded in 25-year-old framework
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2 thoughts on “week 8 / dark void zero case study

  1. Pingback: Dark Void Zero

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