How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Strategy Guide

Stacks of Strategy Guides

My goal, whenever I approach any work of art, is to try to experience it the way it was meant to be experienced. I don’t text when I watch a movie. I don’t skip to the last few pages of a book to see how it ends before I start reading. I watch every episode of a TV show in order or not at all. Every artist creates their work with the ideal audience in mind. An audience that will always pay attention, that will pick up on all the necessary clues and exposition, that will immerse themselves in the work and analyze it, whether it’s good or bad. In my mind, if I want to seriously evaluate or appreciate a work of art, then I have to be as close to this ideal audience as possible. It’s this strict philosophy that’s kept me a sworn enemy of the strategy guide for years.

Video games are unique among games in that they can relay information to the player when the player needs it. Every step of the way, a video game can give out exposition, clues, hints, and sometimes flat-out answers to aid the player in progressing through the game. Over the years, game designers have become increasingly good (and sometimes lazy) at letting the player know where to go or what to do to make progress. They light up certain areas of the environment, provide dialogue that points out important items, or put a big yellow dot on an A.I. partner and say, “Follow.” The point is that a well-designed game will give the player all the necessary information and help they need in order to beat the game. That way, if a player fails, it is the player’s fault, not the game’s. If a game requires that I get outside help, like a strategy guide, in order to complete it, then it’s failed as a video game and it doesn’t deserve any more of my time.

At least, that was how I used to think.

Metroid (NES)

Just recently I decided that I needed to expand my video game vocabulary. Having missed out on the Metroid series all my life (excluding a favorable, but incomplete, experience with Super Metroid) and knowing its seminal place in video game history I chose it as the first classic gaming series I was going to tackle.

I began with the original Metroid on NES. My original plan was to play the game just like somebody would have experienced it back in 1986, no help and no guides. Nothing but my own skills and whatever information the game and the manual provided me. I quickly found myself lost, confused, and frustrated. My own map was no use when I couldn’t figure out which areas were difficult because it was an old-school Nintendo game, and which were difficult because I wasn’t supposed to be in them yet.  Some doors open with a single shot, but others wouldn’t open even when hit with a missile. After continually wandering aimlessly and dying, I was on the verge of abandoning the game all together. Frustrated with the game and tempted to use a guide in order to experience the game in any way I could, I came to a realization about strategy guides.

Most NES games are 0.5 megabytes. A Wii U disc holds 25 gigabytes. That's 51,200 times more information.

Most NES games are 0.5 megabytes. A Wii U disc holds 25 gigabytes. That’s 51,200 times more information.

In the early days of video games, the available technology severely limited the size and length of games. To compensate for their games’ relatively short lengths, many developers would make their games difficult to complete in order to extend the amount of time players had to put into them. Health pickups were scarce and enemies were plentiful. Necessary items and locations were hidden in a maze of environments requiring hours of wandering in order to find them in the correct order. This effectively extended the players’ time with the game but it also had another side effect. Players would use each other as resources in order to complete the game. One player might find the Screw Attack and tell their friends where to get it. Another person might figure out the order to best tackle the Mega Man 2 bosses and let their friends know. Tips, tricks, secrets, solutions, and strategies spread through communities of players all working on the same games. Yes, on average, games were harder then they are now, but players didn’t figure everything out by themselves. They relied on each other in order to win.

Without friends playing alongside me, where else was I supposed to get help from but a strategy guide? I relented on my strict strategy guide rule and looked up a map of item locations. Proceeding with my new-found wisdom and trusty guide, I made it to the first mini-boss’s lair. And then I died. And I died, and I died, and I died some more. And then I quit.

The moral of the story is that old games are hard, strategy guide or not. I still don’t use strategy guides on a regular basis (as I think there still is merit to experiencing the game on its own terms first) but I don’t beat myself up over them either. They serve their purpose. When it comes to reliving gaming’s golden years, they fill an important role that disappeared as gaming grew up and game design changed. Plus, how could anybody find any of the dungeons in Zelda without help? Seriously.

– Cam

Check out Blackman’N Robin for my posts, and come back every Tuesday for more.

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