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Adventure Games on Modern Platforms

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the graphic design and evolution of games! Today we’ll be examining the modern action-adventure title, where the player takes control of the hero, whom is always a force to be reckoned with.


Think of any story of a mighty hero, an unstoppable warrior who carves a bloody path through their enemies, staring down the face of doom and not breaking a sweat. That is what we’ll be exploring in the modern action-adventure title. These games capture the imagination with the help of advanced graphic technology, three dimensional spaces, and epic, sweeping story lines. In each of these, the player takers control of the Big Damn Hero, whom, regardless of form, is always a force to be reckoned with.  Some of them introduce new twists on older elements of gaming, while others choose the path of extreme ostentation. We’ll be exploring these titles—Ninja Gaiden, Prince of Persia, Devil May Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Metal Gear, Castlevania, Darksiders, and God of War. 

Ninja Gaiden (Xbox, 2004)

The famous ninja Ryu returns in this remastering of an old franchise. Ninja Gaiden (confusingly given the same name as the NES title) follows once more the story of Ryu, a ninja warrior killed and resurrected to seek revenge for his slaughtered clan and reclaim the Dark Dragon Blade.

This game is filled with high-speed action, which one might hope for in a title where you play a ninja. The in-game avatar of Ryu is highly responsive to the controls; he jogs forward when going from one area to the next, his sword sheathed and the length of his headscarf flowing behind him. In combat, he’s a whirlwind of sword slashes, kicks, high jumps and spins. Each slash of his sword is followed by a streaked reflection to emphasize the speed and power. He also sports a few acrobatic movements like wall running, front flips and back flips, and dive rolls, all of which are blended seamlessly into combat. Outside of combat, Ryu can use his maneuvers to reach items or objectives that are tucked away in high spaces [ 1 ].

As will be common with many modern action titles, Ninja Gaiden has a very simplified HUD. It shows Ryu’s health, special move power pool, ammo count when a ranged weapon is equipped, a combo count when a combo is active, and an additional health bar for a stage boss when one appears. On the Karma screen, this game’s inventory screen, we can find all of Ryu’s equipable weapons, his special moves, or Ninpo, his consumable items, score information, and the level map. This is a big change from the original NES title that tried to cram all of that into one screen, and this installment benefits from the change tremendously.

Even from the upscaled graphics of the 16 bit “collected” edition, Ninja Gaiden as a franchise is nigh unrecognizable today.

Another staple of the modern adventure game is the cutscene, and Ninja Gaiden has many. At this time in gaming, cutscenes were relatively short, giving the player just enough information about the story and the game world to keep them interested, while at the same time providing a break in the action for some recovery. This, unfortunately, is where Ninja Gaiden suffers. While the visuals are quite stunning for the technology of the day, the voice acting is very bland and stiff. Indeed, these scenes might have been better served as still images with text, a la the first NES title, rather than what they are. However, these do not detract from the overall game in terms of graphic presentation.

While there aren’t a ton of intractable objects or power ups, this is more than made up for by the presented visuals of the obtainable abilities and items. Shuriken fly fast, streaking through the air with pinpoint accuracy, as do the variety of arrows that Ryu shoots from his longbow. The magical Ninpo attacks bring flame and lightning to bear in stunning displays, devastating all enemies in his path. Even Ryu’s special sword combinations look and feel very satisfying to execute. And, true to the style of speed and fluidity, Ryu swiftly kicks open item chests, which is both a nice style choice and an interesting jab at other adventure titles that feature big, grandiose animations for simply finding new items.

The enemy variety in Ninja Gaiden is decent, showcasing enemy ninja, armored troopers, and demons, demons, demons! In that respect, having game enemies that consist mostly of otherworldly enemies allows for a lot of creative imagery, as well as variety in the dangers they each pose in combat. There are fast, skittering bug-like monsters that must be deftly avoided and countered; hulking behemoths that strike slowly but hard and take a lot of damage to bring down; there are flying fiends that harry Ryu from a distance with magical attacks while their allies engage him in melee. Each section of combat brings its own visual feast, and these inform the player of their capabilities as well as potential strategies for victory. This design element carries over to the stage bosses in a big way, as Ryu faces off against guardian spirits, tentacled monstrosities, demonic reflections of himself, a tank and a helicopter in the same go, and even a massive dragon! Not only this, but each boss’ stage setting will interact with that boss in different ways, requiring the player to think quickly and adapt in order to defeat them. This broad variety in enemies makes the overall game incredibly exciting to play.

While I didn’t grow up as a fan of Ninja Gaiden, it’s easy to see the appeal in this game. Who wouldn’t want to zip around as a super agile ninja, slaying demons left and right with your enchanted blade and spells? It’s just plain fun! On top of that, the game’s graphics aged quite well. The biggest gripe one might find here is the overly sexualized love interest female ninja, and how she eventually amounts to another damsel in distress. Still, if one can put that aside, one can still find a good time in Ninja Gaiden.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Xbox, PS2, Gamecube, 2003)

This franchise experienced a long hiatus between its old installments and its modern iterations. Originally a platformer on the Apple II, the new Prince of Persia series had a lot of catching up to do in terms of game play, visuals, and style. The game itself follows the story of the Prince (no name, not the artist formerly known as), who in the course of warring in the name of his father, obtains the Dagger of Time, an artifact that allows the wielder to use the Sands of Time to manipulate time itself, albeit to a limited degree. Tricked by an evil Vizier into releasing the Sands, which transforms the populace into monsters, the Prince must collect the Sands of Time to restore his world to the way it was [ 2 ].

Let’s begin with the Prince himself. While his design brings no particular scrutiny, being dressed in offshoot historical Persian military garb, if you are playing on the console versions, you will notice an odd slowness and stiffness to his movements, particularly in combat. This is due to the console frame rate being capped at 30 FPS. This is not present on the PC version, though it is clear that even at 60 fps, the Prince’s normal running animation is a bit off. Compare this to God of War, released that same year, or Ninja Gaiden, which was released only a year after and ran on the same technology, and one is left to wonder why such an important return franchise title was left so poorly optimized. It does not make the game unplayable, but it is a definite drawback. The Prince also lacks in variety for his move set, his only weapons being his sword and the Dagger of Time. While this design choice isn’t necessarily bad, as focusing on one weapon or one set of weapons can make for greater depth in those, this game does not take full advantage of that. All that being said, it’s the platforming and puzzle solving sections of the game that really shine, as these are the places where the Prince feels most fluid and acrobatic. These sections also make great use of the Rewind/Revival power of the Dagger, allowing the player a few attempts at a particularly hard section of platforming without having to start all over again. The visuals of success and failure in these sections are both gratifying to see and experience, as being able to see one’s missteps reversed in time is quite memorable.

Prince of Persia and Castlevania have received similar treatments on the Playstation 2.

The game environments are quite nice, which is something one would hope for in a game that is primarily focused on platforming and puzzles. You’ll navigate the Prince through several sections of classic Arabian architecture, each location rife with walls to run on, poles to swing from, heights to scale and traps to avoid. Puzzle sections are visually intuitive, and with a little experimentation the player can solve each one without their hand being held (with the notable exception of the guard unnecessarily shouting throughout an early puzzle).

The Sands of Time HUD is simple and streamlined, as with most games of this genre. You can see the Prince’s health, Sand Tanks (for the Revival power), Power Tanks (crescents next to the Sand Tanks), and the Time Circle. All of these can be upgraded throughout the game by finding special power ups, such as finding the hidden Fountains of Life to increase the health bar, and Sand Clouds to increase the amount of Sand Tanks. Understanding the Time Circle is slightly less intuitive than the rest but can be learned quickly enough—it represents how far back in time one can rewind using the Revival power, and how long enemies can be frozen using Time Stop, the maximum being 10 seconds. This circle slowly refills, which keeps the player from rewinding or freezing too far or too often. As a whole, the HUD does its job of informing the player of their current situation.

In terms of enemy visuals and variety, Sands of Time is slightly lacking. You’ll be facing off against small hordes of gradually introduced foes, and while the game does feature 11 types of regular enemies, none of them are particularly striking in presentation, being common tropes of Arabian attire with a zombified twist and offer little in terms of combat challenge. Attacks are slow, even from the faster enemies, and most are easily defeated by the much faster and more agile Prince. Only when the hordes become much larger is combat challenging, if still a bit stale, and the enemies still don’t provide much of a visual feast. And boss fights, well, there’s really only two: the former captain of the sultan’s armies and the Vizier. If you came to this game looking for epic boss fights, you’d be sorely disappointed. While these battles are a bit challenging in their own right, it’s clear enough from the combat sections of the overall game that these were not polished nearly to the level of the puzzles and the platforming.

I recall when this game first came out, and how excited one of my close friends was to play it. He was a big fan of the franchise, and both he and I were interested to see how the new game would work. While I did not get a chance to play it then, he had assured me the game was fun, but the combat could get boring. He wasn’t wrong, even in retrospect. There are plenty of reasons to like Sands of Time, despite the flaws it comes with. It’s not quite my style of game, and the combat does indeed drone on, but there is some fun to be had here.

Devil May Cry (PS2, 2001)

A newcomer to the adventure genre, Devil May Cry is the story of Dante, a half-demon son of the legendary demon known as Sparda. A mysterious woman named Trish finds Dante and informs him that Mundus, the demon emperor, is about to return to the over-world. Dante holds Mundus responsible for the deaths of his mother and brother, and immediately takes off to Mundus’ castle to put an end to him [ 3 ].

Dante himself looks a bit like a goth rock teenager with white hair, a red leather overcoat and matching pants. Carrying a massive sword and brandishing his twin hand guns, he’s tailor made to look bad ass. This stylistic choice in appearance is quite deliberate, as Dante is very much a rule breaker and challenges perceived authority at every turn. In combat, Dante moves fluidly, and the player is able to unleash a large variety of attacks—though not right away, as combinations need to be unlocked via collecting Orbs from fallen foes. While subsequent titles would feature a bigger array of weapons, the original has Force Edge, Dante’s starting sword which later becomes Sparda’s sword, Alastor, the sword used throughout most of the game, and Ifrit, a pair of gauntlets that set Dante’s fists ablaze and allow him to mix it up hand to hand. For ranged weaponry, we have Ebony and Ivory, Dante’s starting pistols, a Shotgun, a Grenade Gun, a Needle Gun (underwater only), and the Nightmare Beta. This limit in weapon variety is not much of a drawback, as Dante still has a slew of special moves and attacks for each melee weapon and can seamlessly integrate his guns into combat for increased combination potential. It’s quite the satisfying spectacle to land the various weapon combinations, sending enemies flying through the air, juggling them with blade or bullets, and slamming them back down to earth for the finishing move. This game also introduced what would become a staple of later action-adventure games—the Devil Trigger, a power that allows Dante to temporarily transform into his demonic form, and giving him enhanced abilities and special moves. This demon form also changes in appearance depending on the equipped weapon. With Alastor, Dante becomes a winged blue demon, able to fly and launch bolts of lightning at his foes. With Ifrit, he becomes a demon wreathed in flames, and his attacks can create an explosion of fire. With the awakened sword of Sparda, Dante takes on the appearance of his legendary father, a multi-winged black demon, and can launch powerful energy blasts (though this form only occurs during the final boss fight). With this much visual variety in the main character alone, it’s no wonder that Devil May Cry was such a breakout hit.

In terms of environments, DMC does have a lot to offer, despite taking place in one location. From the dusky entrance hall of Mundus’ castle and the inner corridors highlighted with gothic architecture and demonic imagery to the outer palisades and battlements with a backdrop of mountains, a seemingly endless fall, and various courtyards and underground chasms, DMC doesn’t skimp on its stages and settings. While this game’s backgrounds do suffer from a bit of rough texturing, it’s not too noticeable and doesn’t take much away from the overall visual experience.

Once again we turn to the HUD. DMC, as might be expected, has a streamlined HUD, which only appears during combat, or when the player picks up orbs. It showcases a life bar, Devil Trigger meter shown as sequential runes rather than a traditional bar, a combo indicator when a combo is active, and an orb indicator when more orbs are collected. There is also an additional life bar at the bottom of the screen for stage bosses. This follows the pattern of most adventure games, and there’s not much fault to be found in it. The inventory screen also does its job well, having sections for unlocked moves, equipable weapons, useable items, the stage map, and the save file. Everything here is arranged in a simple and easy to understand format, allowing the player quick navigation through these menus so that they can get back to the action.

Now for the enemies: throughout the game Dante will battle a slew of devils throughout his journey through Mundus’ castle, and each one has a visualization and set of movements unique to itself. The puppet-like Marionettes, in a motley of theater troupe attire, lumber forward, but sometimes glide on their other-worldly strings, spinning or throwing their weapons. The Sin Scissors and Sin Scythes are phantasmal, banshee-like entities that, as the name implies, wield massive scissors or scythes and attempt to cut Dante’s life short, phasing in and out of walls as they laugh. The Shadows, demonic cats, transform their bodies into a spear and lunge at Dante. That’s only four of the slew of foes! Each enemies’ visual presentation is unique enough to be interesting, but also familiar enough that they don’t feel out of place or unintuitive. The player can understand each enemy quickly, thanks to its visualization, and it doesn’t hurt that each one is entertaining in its own way. The bosses follow in a similar fashion, and while there are only five, each one has its own style of combat and its own level of challenge to overcome. This, paired with their interesting visual representation, makes each boss fight interesting and memorable.

I didn’t get to play DMC 1 when it was released. My first experience with the franchise was DMC 3, and found it to be an incredibly fun and insanely challenging game. Going back to this franchise’s roots showed what I had hoped it would: that the first game was still quite fun. It is slightly dated graphically, even with the HD tune-up it’s recently received, and it certainly isn’t as difficult as it’s 3rd installment, but still provides a challenge, and hours of entertainment. 

Assassin’s Creed (Xbox 360, PS3, 2007)

While this game does indeed belong in this genre, it almost feels like switching gears to talk about Assassin’s Creed. There is action and adventure, to be sure, but our lead does not rely on supreme strength or otherworldly power to succeed. In this game you play as Desmond Miles, a captured man made to enter a machine called the Animus in order to relive the DNA memories of his ancestor, Altair. His captors hope to use this information to retrieve an ancient artifact known as the Apple of Eden, which holds some mysterious power.

Taking a look at our protagonist, Altair is a trained assassin, raised in a place called Masyaf, where his assassin brotherhood originates [ 4 ]. He wears a set of flowing white robes with a pointed white hood, as is traditional for his order. His movement is unlike any other main character; he walks with his shoulders back, in more of a march than any kind of relaxed step. He runs swiftly and is able to perform many acrobatic and parkour-style maneuvers, leaping from one small object to the next, running up walls and scaling surfaces that normal folks wouldn’t dream of attempting. In combat, Altair is swift and deadly, not relying on supernatural powers or overbearing strength, but a great amount of skill and dexterity. Throughout the game the player will unlock various moves and additional weapons for Altair to use, consisting of swords, daggers, throwing knives, and his signature hidden blade, which is always strapped to his left wrist. As the name might imply, the game is focused on assassinations of key targets, and Altair is always up to the task. The air assassination is one of the most satisfying visuals in video game history, where after careful sneaking and planning, the player can leap down on their unsuspecting target and finish them off with a single blow. Altair also has a special power called Eagle Vision, which allows him to identify foes and assassination targets easily. On the whole, this game took the older standards for an adventure hero and took them to new heights.

The game’s environments are based mostly on historical locations, being set in the time of the Third Crusade. The player will explore Acre, Damascus, and Jerusalem, as well as some roads in between. Each location is a recreation of those cities at that time, and while they may not be 100 percent accurate, they are sure to include important historical landmarks, such as the Sinan Pasha Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and the Hospitaller Fortress, as well as historic information on each when they are discovered. As the game explains, Altair likes to climb to the highest possible spots in any given location to get a bearing on his surroundings, and this treats the player to breathtaking views of the cityscapes as well as expand the map to include those areas he can see. Despite this being historical fiction, it really does give the player the feeling of being back in time.

The HUD in Assassin’s Creed is simple and easy to understand. It displays current Synchronization—which is our health bar, equipped weapon, a small map of the combat maneuvers assigned to each button, and a small radar. There is no display for enemy health either in or out of combat; rather the player must rely on the visual representation of the enemy to determine how much punishment they can take. Those in light armor only take a few slashes of the sword, while knights in full plate are mostly immune to regular attacks and require the player to perform the counter attack maneuver to damage at all. Of course, all fall to the hidden blade in one blow when an assassination maneuver is executed.

Speaking of the enemies, Assassin’s Creed has both variety and simplicity in their design. The player will face off against members of the Templar order, soldiers of Saladin, and various city guards. There isn’t too much difference in the way enemies attack, but as mentioned previously, certain attacks won’t be effective against heavily armored foes. Despite middling differences in foes, the combat is entertaining enough visually, with flowing combinations, counter-kill attacks, and an ingrained sense of urgency, as Altair is always outnumbered. In terms of boss battles, this really isn’t that kind of game, as the focus is more on assassinating targets and making quick getaways, but it does feature two, one against the Templar leader Robert de Sable, and the other against Altair’s master, Al Mualim. The battle against de Sable is set inside a ring of King Richard’s soldiers, who ordered that de Sable battle to the death against Altair after his crimes were exposed. It’s a simple enough fight, but both exciting visually and vindicating upon victory. Al Mualim’s fight behaves a bit more like a traditional boss fight, as he wields the Apple, and uses its power to confuse and misdirect the player, creating copies of himself, disappear from view, and periodically freezing Altair in place so he can monologue. It’s quite the interesting visual spectacle, showcasing just how far gaming technology had come at the time.

I played Assassin’s Creed not long after its original release, and it made me fall in love with this franchise. The smoothness of play, the attention to historic detail (the fictional parts aside), the graphic fidelity, the soundtrack, just everything in this game comes together in an amazing synergy. Air assassinations are incredibly satisfying and even just messing around in a town can lead to a lot of fun. I’m one of those types of players who would get into combat with the city guards just to see how long I could last against them and to try out different instant-kill moves with the different weapons. I enjoyed this game as much then as I do now.

God of War (PS2, 2005)

Another game filled to the brim with epic action, God of War brings us the story of Kratos, a Spartan warrior chosen by Ares himself to be his harbinger of war. While the power granted to Kratos made him unstoppable in battle, it also caused him to kill his own wife and son. Vowing revenge on Ares, Kratos sets out to kill the God of War himself, in whatever way he can [ 5 ].

Kratos himself is a stern and grim figure. He wears a simple long red skirt and sandals, his body a pale white with red tattoos. While Kratos is a mortal man, he is both an accomplished warrior and is empowered by the Blades of Chaos, magical weapons given to him by Ares. These twin short blades are bound to him by mystic chains wrapped around his forearms, and he uses these chains to perform ranged attacks with the blades in a whirling dance of death. His combat style showcases a flare for brutality, as Kratos often grabs enemies to pull off their body parts bare handed. As the game progresses, the player can unlock additional attacks for the Blades of Chaos, increasing the versatility of these deadly weapons and providing a gore-filled feast for the eyes at the same time. Later on, Kratos also gains the massive Blade of Artemis, giving him even more brutal variety in his combat. There are also several magical attacks that are unlocked throughout the game, allowing for more destructive potential, as well as having their own visual styling. There is the Rage of Poseidon, a massive electrical surge that spills forth from Kratos’ body. The Head of Medusa, obtained after killing the famed Greek monster, can turn enemies to stone. The Bolt of Zeus, which creates yellow bolts in Kratos’ hands that he can throw at enemies from a distance. Finally, the Souls of Hades, which generates souls that attack independently from Kratos, weaving into combat with devastating effect. With these weapons and powers, the visual spectacle of Kratos is easily greater than that of any legendary Greek hero.

The environments here range from semi-historic recreations of ancient Greece to the mythological and supernatural. Each location is brought to life in stunning graphic displays, be it the classic Greek architecture of Athens, stinging sands and desolate wastes of the Desert of Lost Souls, the ancient crumbling Temple of Pandora, the sprawling hell-scape of the Underworld, or even the glorious Mount Olympus. Each location looks and feels like it is straight out of the Greek myths that this game is based upon, and while it takes liberties with the source material, the designs of these locations greatly enhance the visual representation of the game.

The HUD of God of War is simple and effective. In combat, it shows Kratos’ health, magic, collected orbs, and the equipped magic power. On the bottom right is the Spartan helmet icon, which shows Kratos’ remaining charge on his Rage of the Gods ability, which functions much like the DMC Devil Trigger (told you it was copied!), giving him limited duration invulnerability and increased damage.  During boss battles there is an additional display on the bottom of the screen for boss health. The inventory screen is where the player can spend the collected orbs to upgrade Kratos’ weapons or magic powers and provides explanations for the unlocked abilities and combos. 

The enemies in the game come straight out of the same classic Greek mythos. Right from the start, Kratos must battle the massive Hydra, a sea serpent of epic proportions. Throughout his journey he will be harried by Ares’ Legionnares, Harpies, Minotaurs, Sirens, Wraiths, Cyclops, Centaurs, and Gorgons. All of these enemies reflect their depictions in the mythic tales, but more fearsome and formidable than even described in those ancient poems, each presenting their own combat challenge, several of which have visual Quick Time events for their final take down. The bosses are just as daunting and visually stunning. The Hydra, as mentioned earlier, is massive, and threatens to capsize the boat on which Kratos journeys across the Aegean. Medusa, the Queen of the Gorgons, who is both fast and wields the deadly power of her Stone Gaze. Pandora’s Guardian, a great undead Minotaur, armored and raging. Finally, Ares, the massive and impossibly powerful God of War, who unleashes his full fury against Kratos. In each battle, the player must utilize not just Kratos’ skill at arms, but also the environment, as these battles can span to multiple sections of a stage, each section requiring different skills and environmental objects be used in conjunction to finally defeat these legendary foes. Each boss battle is designed to look as epic as possible, and it’s no exaggeration to say this is accomplished well.

Back in 2005, I had never seen a game as mind blowing in its combat and presentation as God of War. The way it sets up the story, to be one show-stopping moment after another delighted my younger self beyond all possible expectations. In a more modern age, God of War can still bring back that feeling. There is, of course, a problem with rampant sexism in this game, particularly concerning the “sex” mini games contained in it. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect a teenager to put down as a “great game feature,” but it’s just super cringe worthy. If you can get past those particular parts of the game, you can still enjoy God of War—not to be confused with the brand-new title of the same name. If anyone in game development is reading this: please stop doing that.

Metal Gear Solid (PS1, 1998)

While Metal Gear Solid maintained a tenuous link to its past, it has arguably more kinship with the new contemporary God of War, at least on the PlayStation and PS2 iterations.

An older title in comparison, Metal Gear Solid is nonetheless a strong showing in terms of adventure games. Picking up an older franchise from the NES days and taking it into the realm of 3-D, MGS is the story of Solid Snake, a secret operative of the agency known as Fox Hound, and the best of the best. Snake’s mission is to infiltrate Shadow Moses Island, a military base in the Arctic, where former Fox Hound members turned terrorist have taken over and threaten a nuclear attack unless their demands are met [ 6 ].

Snake’s design is simple, as the technology of the time allowed for only so much. He wears a specially designed sneaking suit that keeps him warm, even in sub-arctic temperatures, as well as allowing him freedom of movement so that he can stealthily infiltrate enemy positions. He also wears a signature headband that stays with him throughout the continuation of the franchise, an aesthetic choice of Snake himself, which is one of the few visual indications of his own personality. Snake either jogs or sneaks along, and occasionally crawls through tight spaces or under the view of enemy soldiers, giving the player a look and feel of a secret operative. Snake can remain undetected as he systematically takes out enemies with choke holds or a silenced pistol. If forced into combat, Snake is an expert at close quarters combat or CQC, allowing him quick melee take downs. He is also a good marksman with any of his various weapons, able to fire accurately while on the move, or take cover behind corners, popping out to shoot when the time is right. Considering the gaming hardware of the time, this game’s protagonist has a visualization that screams, or rather, hides and whispers, stealth operative.

The game’s locations consist of several areas of the Shadow Moses base, and most have interactive elements that can help or hurt when trying to sneak around. Snake starts out in the submarine port after a successful underwater infiltration, and quickly makes his way up to the main courtyard, where snow falls steadily causing Snake to leave footprints that can be tracked by enemies. There are also spotlights that must be avoided, at risk of putting the whole base on alert. Once inside, the player will encounter security cameras that can be ducked under or disabled with a chaff grenade, though the explosion may attract soldiers. There are metal grates that create more noise if Snake runs on them, so they must be walked or crawled over slowly. The base locations vary from the outdoor cold and the indoor metallic storage areas to a weapons foundry, communication towers, and an underground hangar for Metal Gear itself. It’s not a very brightly colored game, apart from sections of snow, and gives the visual feel of a military base quite nicely.

Diving into the HUD, we are again treated to a simple and effective design. While undetected, the game has a radar display in the upper right, granted by a nanomachine injection that Snake gets before his mission. When detected, this radar turns into an Alert meter, showing how much time Snake must go undetected before the base is no longer alerted to his presence, which takes roughly six seconds despite the number display as 99.99. In some areas, this radar will be jammed, and the player will have to rely on regular visuals on screen to keep track of the area. There is also a life bar in the top left, though this is only displayed when taking damage or restoring health. In the bottom left is the item wheel, where the player can quickly scroll through the available items, and on the bottom right is the weapon wheel, which does the same for the various weapons. Displays for boss health or ally health will also appear under Snake’s life bar when the situation calls for it. The HUD has an elegant design overall, giving just enough information without being overwhelming.

Enemies in the game are mostly the same, being soldiers that either wear winter gear or regular camo fatigues. Most carry FAMAS rifles and follow regular patrol routes. While they are bland in design, they are no less deadly for it, as any amount of sustained gunfire will put a quick end to Snake. The real visual variety here comes in the boss battles with each of the former Fox Hound members. Revolver Ocelot, who takes after old Westerns, wears a long leather duster and ammo bandoliers, and fights with a Colt Single Action Army. Vulcan Raven is a massive, muscled shaman who battles in both a Tank and later in person with a mini-gun strapped to his body. The Cyborg Ninja ultimately becomes an ally, but first faces off against Snake with his enhanced sword and powerful exoskeleton, as well as stealth camouflage. Psycho Mantis is a powerful psychic who floats through the air, launching objects at Snake and predicting his movements by reading his mind. Sniper Wolf is an expert sniper and deadly foe with her long range rifle. Finally, there’s Snake’s estranged brother, Liquid Snake, who he faces off against several times in a Hind D, Metal Gear Rex itself, and finally in a fist fight atop the wreckage of Rex. Each boss encounter is vastly different, requiring that the player take advantage of the environment, as well as use the various weapons and items at his disposal at the right times, or else be crushed by these powerful foes. Each battle is a fantastic scene, playing out like a classic ’80s action movie, complete with dramatic monologues and explosions.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give special mention to the Codec conversations and cut scenes. There are literally hours of conversations to be had over the Codec, and first timers could easily miss many of them. The Codec screen itself is simple; the player inputs a frequency and hits the call button, opening up the conversation windows that display a simple, close up view of Snake’s face and the face of whomever he is talking to. There are simple animations for each person’s face, ranging from placid conversation to more serious expressions of anger, happiness, or sorrow. The game’s cut scenes use the standard game graphics, exaggerating head and body movements to indicate speech from each character on screen. They are also accompanied by real world films of military operations, as one of the central themes of the game is nuclear proliferation and the danger of the nuclear arms race. These films are used to enhance the serious nature of these conversations, and despite this being a work of fiction, they give a real sense of the urgency in which the game creators view the threat of nuclear destruction.

This game… it’s kind of hard to express how much more than just an action game Metal Gear Solid really is, and how its central themes affected so many who’ve played it. Not only the subject of nuclear proliferation, but the toll war takes on soldiers, what things they are forced to do to survive on the battlefield, and how some governments seem far too eager to throw their lives away. It is, of course, exciting to play a skilled infiltrator, ducking around corners and crates to stay out of sight, trying your best to keep the enemy unaware of your presence, but the entire Metal Gear Solid franchise of games would not be what it is without these core messages.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PS2, 2003)

While there were several attempts previous to this installment to bring the Castlevania series into the realm of 3-D, I decided to skip ahead of them, as they are mostly abominations unto gaming and should not see the light of day. Also, the earlier installments aren’t really up to tech speed with all the other games listed here. Thus we have Castlevania: Lament of Innocence for the PS2. This continuation of the franchise is actually a prequel, following Leon Belmont, another of the fated Belmont clan, out to slay not Dracula, but Walter Bernhard, another vampire who has captured his betrothed, Sara [ 7 ].

Leon himself follows the evolving visual tradition of Castlevania protagonists. He wears only light armor, accented by his red and white long-tailed coat. His pants, boots, and gloves give him the appearance of noble lineage, as does his medium length blonde hair and sharp face, clean of scars or blemishes. He moves swiftly, running forward in a determined rush to face the danger ahead of him. He is also able to double jump to great heights, allowing him to reach high up places, and giving him an aerial advantage in combat. He can quickly tumble through the air, allowing him to avoid enemy attacks and evade traps. He of course carries the signature whip at his side and brandishes it to good effect against his foes. Quick lashes, spins, and twirling thrusts of his weapon make him deadly in combat. As the game progresses, the player will unlock more moves for the whip, as well as several other whips with elemental powers of ice, lightning, and fire, adding to the visual display and destructive potential of his attacks. The classic secondary weapons also make their return: the throwing daggers that fly swiftly to their target, throwing axes that come out two at a time for increased damage at range, crosses that encircle Leon and act as additional independent damage, a crystal that activates an explosion of holy power, and holy water that creates a circle of flame to damage enemies over time. There is a new addition to this arsenal in the form of a magical gauntlet worn on Leon’s left arm, which allows him to deflect and absorb some enemy attacks and refill his magic meter. These combined maneuvers and weapons give Leon that classic Castlevania visual feel, making him a fine addition to the Belmont line.

The in-game environments are what one should expect from any entry in the Castlevania series. Leon must traverse five different sections of Bernhard’s castle, with the sixth and final section being opened when these five are completed. Each part of the castle boasts the beautiful Gothic architecture that we’ve come to expect from this franchise. Leon will traverse the House of Sacred Remains, where the various crypts house the vessels for an undead army. The Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab, a workshop filled with ancient tomes and alchemical experiments. The Dark Palace of Waterfalls, which as the name implies, flows with stagnant water and aquatic life. The Ghostly Theater, a dark setting for whatever macabre plays may be performed. The Garden Forgotten by time, a place that might have once been beautiful, now overgrown and teeming with deadly flora and the Pagoda of the Misty moon, where Bernhard waits for the final confrontation. While each section is essentially inside the castle, they don’t feel overly repetitive visually thanks to their defining themes.

The HUD in Lament of Innocence is reminiscent of older Castlevania titles, albeit a bit more simplified. HP and MP bars showing health and magic respectively, as well as circled indicators of what main weapon and what sub weapon is equipped, as well as how much ammunition remains—and yes, hearts are still ammunition. There will also be a bar for boss health at the bottom during boss encounters. This all probably sounds familiar by now, and the reason being is that this general format works well, and there’s not much reason to change it. The inventory is much like all the others listed here, showing the various weapons and sub weapons that can be equipped, as well as various upgrades and abilities that have been or can be unlocked to make Leon even more powerful. There’s nothing overly fancy or complicated, just straightforward visual presentation.

When it comes to the enemies, it’s standard fare for Castlevania games with a fresh 3-D rendering. You’ll find zombies, skeletons, bats, animated suits of armor and weapons, evil spirits, hell hounds, demons, lizard men, flea men, fishmen, mermen (yes there is a difference), cyclops, ogres, and variations on just about everything I’ve listed so far. It’s a lot to take in. This much enemy variation means never getting complacent in combat, as well as having nearly 70 (yes, seventy) different visual cues to look for. Lament of Innocence definitely has foe variety in spades. Adding onto this the five mini-bosses and eight main bosses, and you’ve got just about all the stunning and terrifying enemy graphics you could ask for in any adventure game. 

When I look back at how well the earliest Castlevania titles played, and how much of a rough patch they went through in the beginning of the 3-D era of gaming, it’s a wonder the franchise could recover as well as it did. The beloved classics will always hold a place in the fans’ hearts, of course, but much like the fans of Batman, those Castlevania fanatics had to wait a good while before a decent home console release showed up again after the landmark Symphony of the Night. While Lament of Innocence is not a perfect game, it does successfully capture the original feeling of Castlevania, and certainly satisfies that vampire slaying itch.

Darksiders (PS3, Xbox 360, 2010)

Our final game of this entry, Darksiders is a fantastical take on the mythological prophecies of the end times. The player takes control of War, one of the Four Horsemen, who is accused by the Charred Council of prematurely starting the apocalypse and is given a chance to prove his innocence by finding the real culprits behind it [ 8 ].

Being that the game’s protagonist is a legendary figure, the embodiment of War itself, he is presented in a grandiose fashion. He appears as a massive man, heavily armored and cloaked in red. He wields a great sword called Chaoseater, which appears to have a wall of screaming faces down its center, framed in its wicked edges. War wields this massive blade with ease and deadly efficiency.  His large left gauntlet acts as a utility item, allowing War to grab onto ledges, as well as being the focal point for soul collection, the small glowing essences gathering into the central orb on the gauntlet. Though he is large, War is also quite swift, and in combat is able to quickly weave a path of destruction. Once more, as is common with this genre, War obtains new abilities and weapons as the player progresses through the game, increasing the available tactics in and out of combat. This game, too, has its own Devil Trigger copy in Chaos Form, which gives War increased damage and makes him briefly invincible.  In essence, the character of War is designed to fulfill the power fantasy of an unstoppable warrior and does so with gusto.

Game locations are on a fictional future earth, beginning in a ruined cityscape dotted with demonic corruption and leading into more fantastical landscapes. Each area is its own gauntlet of battles and puzzles, and it takes quite some time to progress through these massive locales. The Twilight Cathedral is equal parts fortress, church, and unholy demon-infested lava flows. The Hallows are long ruined subway tunnels, flooded and overgrown, but in some parts still functional. The Ashlands are so named for the ashes of the dead that cover them and accentuated by deep ravines made of abandoned buildings and highways. The whole of the landmass of this game has a lot more than I could realistically tackle here, including the smaller sections between each large map, but be assured its visual variety hits the feeling of a post-apocalyptic world to a T, and leaves nothing to be desired.

Once more into the HUD! Yes, Darksiders copies the same setup mentioned so many times before—a life bar, special power/magic bar, a “Devil Trigger” indicator, main weapon and sub weapons equipped, and a boss health bar when it’s called for. The inventory screen also shares much of the same as with previous titles, allowing the player to switch between the various items and power ups that can be collected, and enabling them to customize the character of War in several ways: a solid and intuitive visual design by this point in adventure games.

Finally, we take a look at the various enemies of the apocalypse that foolishly seek to oppose the literal incarnation of War. The game features mostly hordes of demonic and undead foes, with a smattering of angels here and there, as pretty much everyone in the heavens thinks War is guilty of false starting the end times. The player will face off against many twisted and dark beings, such as the Abyssal Riders, cavalry of the demon known as The Destroyer, and a mockery of the Horsemen themselves; Grappleclaws, gigantic brutish monsters that resemble a cross between and Balor and a tiger; Wraiths that appear as pale imitations of the grim reaper, wielding mystical blades and shrouded in long, tattered clothes. There are many more denizens of the heavens and hells that War will face in this long, epic journey, and each one brings both classical flavor of the mythos of the end times as well as new twists on the old tropes. In addition to these, there are five epic boss encounters, first against the four chosen of Straga: Tiamat, the Queen of Bats, the Griever, a massive insectoid demon, the Stygian, a massive Ashworm, and Silitha, a monstrous demonic spider. Once these four are defeated, the way is opened to challenge Straga, the demonic general who defeated War during the false start of the apocalypse. There is one more boss, but that gets into spoiler territory, and I consider this game new enough at the time of writing to want to avoid that. As has become a staple in these games, each boss has unique interactions with their environments, and these must be used to overcome their massive power and defeat them once and for all. Each fight brings its own visual spectacle and allows the player to explore the full range of combat techniques and powers that can be obtained. At this point, these games have turned the graphic effects way past 11, and it almost becomes too much for the eyes.

As action-adventure games go, Darksiders is among the very best of the modern titles. It’s clear from the emphasis on over-the-top action that the developers learned a great deal from earlier titles like God of War. Of course, if you are playing as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse then you need to be incredibly powerful, and you’d deal with even more powerful threats. Apart from the action, I found the plot entertaining as well. It follows old tropes of deals with devils and betrayal, but it does them well, and it weaves together classical Biblical lore and poetry into an awesome new world lore.

Whew, that was a hefty chunk of games! I hope you’ve enjoyed this retrospective look into the staples of modern adventure games and their various visualizations. From the crudest 3-D renderings to the breathtaking and sometimes overwhelming graphics of today, these games stand out because of their attention to detail, emphasis on coolness factor, and sometimes their shameless approach into pure, epic displays of grandiose heroics, or anti-heroics. Even with their faults, each of these titles holds a special place in gaming history.

Images

  1. Ninja Gaiden. Tecmo. 1988. NES. Ninja Gaiden. Tecmo. 2004. Xbox. “Even from the upscaled graphics of the 16 bit ‘collected’ edition, Ninja Gaiden as a franchise is nigh unrecognizable today.”
  2. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.  Ubisoft. 2003. PlayStation 2. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. Konami. 2003. PlayStation 2. “Prince of Persia and Castlevania have received similar treatments on the Playstation 2.”
  3. God of War. Sony. 2005. PlayStation 2. Metal Gear Solid. Konami. 1998. PlayStation. “While Metal Gear Solid maintained a tenuous link to its past, it has arguably more kinship with the new contemporary God of War, at least on the Playstation and PS2 iterations.”

A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.

Resources

  1. Tecmo Staff. “Ninja Gaiden.” Tecmo :: 100% Games, Tecmo, web.archive.org/web/20070801013433/http://64.78.9.175/games.asp?id=2. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
  2. “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003).” Edited by Charly2.0 et al, MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, mobygames.com/game/prince-of-persia-the-sands-of-time. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
  3. “Metal Gear Solid (1998).” Edited by Grant McLellan et al, MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, mobygames.com/game/metal-gear-solid. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
  4. Steam Staff. “Devil May Cry HD Collection.” Steam, Steam, store.steampowered.com/app/631510/Devil_May_Cry_HD_Collection/. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
  5. Steam Staff. “Assassin’s Creed™: Director’s Cut Edition.” Steam, Steam, store.steampowered.com/app/15100/Assassins_Creed_Directors_Cut_Edition/. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
  6. IMDb Staff. “God of War.” IMDb, Amazon, imdb.com/title/tt0416779/. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
  7. “Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (2003).” Edited by Charly2.0 et al, MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, mobygames.com/game/castlevania-lament-of-innocence. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
  8. Steam Staff. “Darksiders™.” Steam, Steam, store.steampowered.com/app/50620/Darksiders/. Accessed 9 January, 2020.