Starfish and the Art of Game Design

It’s my assertation that titling your game “Densetsu no Starfy 3” (“The Legend of Starfy 3”) sets certain, possibly unrealistic expectations for your main character, particularly when he’s, well, a starfish.

Not to say that there aren’t legendary starfish.

Starro comes to mind,

and I can’t help but give Fuuko a little page space here.

However, echinoderms in general are not typically the stuff of legend, not even those obscure legends that get trotted out occasionally by anthropologists trying to write a thesis that nobody’s done yet.

That being said, I am given to understand that the Starfy series, while perhaps not of legendary status, is quite popular in Japan. It hasn’t been released in the US – either Nintendo thinks we’re just not ready for it, or perhaps they really don’t want to translate all the text.

Because, well, this is an awfully talky game for a platformer. Pretty much every level opens with a conversation between the main characters as they discuss the obstacles ahead and how they’re going to overcome them. Being the third game in the series, you also run into lots of characters from previous games. Not having played any of the previous games, the assorted cameoes were more-or-less lost on me, but that’s what you get when you start with a “3”

The plot, even not really knowing anything about our for-the-sake-of-argument-Legendary hero and his past conquests, didn’t take much going over. The game opens with your Arch Nemesis escaping from the – brittle, ceramic – prison in which you sealed him, presumably LAST game, and flying off to wreak havoc, after which you take control of the plucky young starfish who’s going to go bring him back.

I would add something about maybe trying to find a better place to stick your Arch Nemesis between games, but honestly, good guys are dumb.

In this quest, you are accompanied by a sort of grouchy clam thing who will serve as your mentor.

Also accompanying you, and new to Starfy 3 is Starfy’s kid sister, Starpi.

Not being familiar with the Starfy-verse, I wouldn’t have known that she was a new character if I hadn’t found the TV commerical for the game on Youtube.

It features Perfume, everyone’s favorite all-girl band that will be dropped like a hot rock as soon as the next set of idols come along.

I don’t say this to disparage them, I’m a fan. I have several of their albums and one of their performance DVDs.

Honestly, though, idols have a lifespan measured in mayfly years.

Getting back to Starpi, she’s the “Tails” of this game; a slightly-cuter character thrown in to complement the main character.

Because she needs more of a hook than just “the girl starfish”, she speaks Osaka-ben, fairly rudely.

This is actually kind of fun.

Anyway.

I have called this a “platformer” and the creators would take issue with this. Nintendo officially calls this a “Marine Action” game, which is really just a platformer in which you spend far more time than usual swimming.

The Starfy games have a solid reputation for being colorful, charming, cutesy, and above all easy.

Here’s the box art for Starfy. If you’re a bit sketchy on understanding the crazy moon-man language they speak in the land of Legendary Starfish, the bit of text in the upper left proudly proclaims that it comes with a “big, sparkly” sticker enclosed. That should pretty much nail the target age group for you.

Oh, and it should pretty well describe the average state of used games in Japan to note that the sticker was still present when I bought it for a whopping Y1000, five years after release.

I’m considering sticking the sticker on my laptop; it could use a big, sparkly sticker.

I like easy games. Honestly, I LOVE easy games. Sometimes, when I want a crazy challenge level, I’ll start a game and set the difficulty to “Normal” just to make myself sweat a bit before I laugh at my own foolishness and ratchet it back down to a level I have a hope in hell of defeating.

Starfy’s not just easy because your enemies have predictable patterns and don’t move too terribly fast, it’s also easy because the game itself is one of the best-designed games I’ve played this year.

Both characters you play during the course of Starfy have special moves. Jumps, double-jumps, glides, crawls, wall springs, floor slams, dashes, spins… You have different move sets for underwater and out of water, and you switch back and forth between land and water frequently during a level.

You’re controlling a pair of pretty talented and agile starfish here, is the point I’m trying to make, and the move sequences you can do with them are quite complex.

Even with all the things you can, and are expected to do, this game deftly avoids the Heavenly Sword frustration factor, a term which I will now define having just made it up.

Fair warning: I’m about to leap off on a major tangent here.

Your character in Heavenly Sword – well, your main character, the one on the box and all that – has several moves revolving around hacking, slicing, and chopping her enemies into oblivion.

To do these, you just mash buttons.

I’m good at mashin’ buttons.

She can also reflect enemy attacks back towards them. This is a little more complicated than just jamming the button for “hit guys with my swords”. It takes careful timing and attention to the sort of attack you’re being hit with, and you don’t actually ever NEED to reflect any enemy attacks during the course of the game so it’s something you can pretty much ignore after you do it the requisite one time in the tutorial.

Well, until you get to the very final boss fight, where all of a sudden, you can’t finish the game unless you’ve learned the proper timing for attack reflection.

It is perhaps unfair to single out Heavenly Sword in this regard, but it came to mind and it’s not like anyone is about to jump to its defense, unless of course you work for Ninja Theory, in which case you should stop reading blogs and get back to work on Heavenly Sword 2: In Which You Play The Entire Game As The Crazy Chick With The Bow.

Getting back to Starfy, Starfy’s not like that.

Well, it’s entirely unlike Heavenly Sword in almost every possible way. Nariko doesn’t speak Osaka-ben, for instance, and Starpi doesn’t have six-foot-long red hair. Also, Nariko wears SOME clothes, while Starpi is comfortable naked.

I just threw that last sentence in there to get more page hits.

But in addition to all the other ways in which the two games are complete opposites, they have a different philosophy to learning the moves of your characters.

Starfy’s made up of 10 “worlds” of four levels each, and every world comes with a new move or a new vehicle that you need to learn to get through the world.

Each and every one of these moves will be used, almost as soon as you get it, in a very low pressure environment, before you are able to progress any further in the level.

Shortly after that, you’ll have to use it again, but a little trickier this time, and then again a little trickier.

By the time you get to whatever boss you needed the special move to defeat, you’ll have used it enough times that it’ll be second nature – the game forces you to practice it, over and over again, so you don’t ever hit the wall.

You’ll also get periodic reinforcement of moves you learned in previous worlds. There’s no “you need to learn a wall spring to get through this world, and you’ll never use it again.”

Put simply, you’re never cursing the screen because you never needed to learn how to reflect attacks and you only actually did it like 5 hours ago when the game made you do it successfully once before it would let you out of the damn tutorial level and get on with hacking up hordes of minions.

So, to sum up, it’s cute, well designed, not frustrating, and generally entertaining.

So, of course, it also has a downside.

Remember Sonic the Hedgehog? Where you’d beat the game and then you’d get the annoying little screen where Robotnik was juggling Chaos Emeralds because you hadn’t Caught Them All ?

Well, when you finish Starfy, you find out that the only way to REALLY beat the game is to go back to all the worlds you’ve ALREADY been through, but this time you need to collect “Evil Crystals” from each one.

Even so, you still get a very flashy congratulations message about how you’ve cleared all the levels, and the end credits scroll, so the whole tedious fetch quest is completely optional.

That was good enough for me.

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