Difficulty, Yoshi's Island

Yoshi's Island is considered by a lot of people to be 'surprisingly hard'. I am of the suspicion that this is because it has an extremely forgiving 'health' mechanic. (I suspect, by contrast, that part of why people view its difficulty as surprising is precisely because of the extremely forgiving health mechanic) Yoshi's Island allows you to take as long as you like and get hit as many times as you like -so long as you never let Baby Mario stay separated from Yoshi for too long of a stretch. This means the game can be pretty generous with danger. So long as it isn't lava, spikes, or bottomless pits -all of which instantly kill Yoshi- any hazard is one a player can run headlong into, experience consequences, but still keep playing the level.

Most games immediately and severely punish mistakes, which means they have to carefully construct themselves so that a 'typical' player will only rarely actually experience mistakes. Games in which there are health pickups or other ways to 'undo' mistakes to some extent or another can extend the number of mistakes allowable within a level theoretically infinitely, but it will remain the case that the number of cases where the designers expect mistakes have to be kept within the bounds of the innate resistance+such power-ups.

To place this in concrete terms, let's look at the Donkey Kong Country games, which came out in a similar timeframe and are both platformers where beating the game and 100%-ing the game are different things.

In DKC games, you get two Kongs.

When you take a hit, you lose a Kong. If you're down to one Kong, that kicks you out of the level entirely and it's time to restart from the beginning, or maybe from the halfway mark if you reached the Star Barrel before you died.

There are DK Barrels that the player can use to get back to two Kongs when they're down to one Kong. If you already have both Kongs, DK Barrels are no more useful than a generic Barrel -you can't get a third Kong out of them. You can, to a limited extent, carry around and set down DK Barrels to give you more room for error, but this is always impractical and often is impossible, as sequences are often impossible to traverse while carrying an object. (Also note that taking damage while carrying a DK Barrel means you lose a Kong and the DK Barrel is dropped/destroyed without replacing the Kong you just lost) Returning to a DK Barrel to use it later is also usually impractical and sometimes outright impossible, depending on level design.

Taken all together, the Donkey Kong Country player has room for exactly one meaningful error (That is: an error the game actually punishes, as opposed to an error like not jumping quite high enough in a situation where you can just re-do the jump until you make it) at any given moment, as a second error will kick them out of the level. Each DK Barrel the player finds is one extra error over the course of the level that the player may make, though it will never allow them to make two or more errors in close succession -you can't find 3 DK Barrels, hold onto them, and make four mistakes close to the end of a level without dying as a result. The absolute best case scenario is that the player can return to previously discovered DK Barrels after making a mistake, which is not always possible in a level and even when it is possible is usually not reasonable as a course of action. More typically the player can simply hope that they find the DK Barrels with good timing -right after they've made a mistake.

In turn the level designers need to place the DK Barrels in a manner appropriate to this, and indeed design the level around this. Levels must be constructed such that a player new to the level can be expected to make a mistake about once between each DK Barrel, as anything else causes the level to become too punishing, limiting enjoyment and increasing the likelihood that the player simply hurls the controller through a window. (I should hope it's obvious that this is a Bad Outcome)

DKC's design represents a fairly typical design in many games, and I don't simply include action platformers here -for instance, many first-person-shooters (Particularly old-school ones) have a health mechanic that, though more complicated to accurately describe, amounts to the same principle. You have health, it goes down when enemies hurt you, and there are "medkits" that you can pick up to undo the damage, but only up to whatever your maximum health is. This is essentially the same thing as Donkey Kong Country, just with bigger numbers, more variation in the details, and more ambiguity. As such, an FPS using this system also conforms to the same principles of level design -the game must construct itself so that a new player of average competency will expect to take somewhere under their maximum health in damage from any given stretch of the game, with medkits giving the game more room to inflict damage on the player, but never to the point that it is extremely likely or outright certain that a player will lose health equivalent to their maximum in a single fight. (Unless it is expected that they will be able to pick up medkits within the single fight, but the principle still holds, it just makes a precisely accurate description more of a pain to construct))

This contrasts sharply with Yoshi's Island, where a player can commit an infinite number of mistakes in a level as long as the player never loses Baby Mario for too long in a row. The result most people would expect is that this would make Yoshi's Island easier than other games, and this isn't actually wrong, but it overlooks that in turn Yoshi's Island can place enormous demands of skill on the player and still expect even quite bad players to make it through a given level in a single play session eventually -by virtue of actually mastering the skills the level demands of the player, because they have room to make mistakes while trying to come to an understanding of what the level is actually demanding of them and how they can make that happen.

A game like Donkey Kong Country, however good it is, simply does not have that kind of room in its design to place extremely high skill demands on a very consistent basis because the player cannot be reasonably expected to flail their way to the solution before they give up in frustration entirely.

Another point to consider is how exploration-friendly each system is -the DKC-esque model is very exploration unfriendly, as it discourages players from taking unnecessary risks, only taking risks that are either necessary or essentially "free". (Such as when a health pickup is on hand and cannot be taken with them anyway and they cannot come back for it -might as well try then) This isn't necessarily obvious looking at the DKC games themselves, which love to hide secrets and encourage the player to go looking for them, but these games have to employ secondary measures like using bananas as signals that a seemingly dangerous decision (eg 'jump into pit') is actually a safe one. And even then, I speak from experience when I say that a player is still going to often hesitate to actually go looking for a secret when in the middle of a difficult level, for fear that it will cost them success at the level itself.

Yoshi's Island's approach allows players to open themselves up to considerably more danger on the off-chance there's some kind of payoff. Why not go checking out that side passage riddled with obnoxious enemies? So long as there's not any of the major hazards -and it's worth commentary that spikes and lava almost never show up outside of the castle levels- exploring is safe.

For those who might feel like Yoshi's Island is too easy and boring for their palate, have no fear: the game is designed with you in mind, too! It's possible to flail your way to the end of most levels and complete them, but your score at the end of a level is determined in part by your star total ie your health equivalent. While Yoshi will always 'regenerate' up to 10 if Baby Mario is on his saddle, to actually get a perfect score you need to end the level with 30. (Plus have found all the Red Coins and Flowers) If all you want to do is to get to the end? That's fine, flail away. If you want to master the game, though, you'll need to get good at minimizing mistakes. Indeed, the game rewards good scores by unlocking even harder optional levels! Which is a nice reward for someone who is already choosing to seek out a more challenging form of play. It's very clever.

In summary: the greater the punishment for mistakes, the more the game has to work to to make it nearly impossible to make mistakes. Conversely, the more forgiving of mistakes a game is, the more room the game has to place high demands on the player with a reasonable expectation that they can meet those demands.


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