One of the games I played this year in an on-going struggle to defeat my backlog was Vexx, an original Xbox platformer released back in 2003 by Acclaim. It’s a pretty obscure game at this point, too, so don’t worry if I totally lost you there. Here’s the Wikipedia page.
While Vexx definitely doesn’t rank on the difficulty scale alongside games like Super Meat Boy, it packs in plenty of challenge – most of which is optional to the player. Each world in the game has a number of wraithhearts to collect, some of which are simply found, and others that you’ll get after beating a specific boss or by completing a platforming challenge. There’s a set number required to unlock each level, but getting all of the wraithhearts in the game is totally optional.
But me? I decided I wanted to get all of the wraithhearts, and I set out to 100% the thing. There was no real reason for it. I just wanted to see how far I could push myself.
And, well… I pushed myself pretty far. For a game that offered no reward other than the feeling of basic satisfaction, I was pretty dedicated to getting every single wraithheart I could get my hands on. Eventually, I did – and man, was it satisfying.
More after the break.
It wasn’t easy. I spent upwards of two hours or more on some of the wraithhearts in the game. One challenge in particular featured moving platforms in empty space that, naturally, had to be used to get to the other side of the challenge stage where the wraithheart was. Moving platforms, simple enough, right? Well, there was a key difference here that complicated things – these weren’t your typical moving platforms. You couldn’t just idle your ass away while they moved back and forth – no, you had to keep moving with the platform, otherwise you’d fall straight off. This involved slowly pushing the analog stick in sync with the speed of each platform. Move too fast, and you’d speed ahead and fall to your doom. Too slowly, and well, a similar fate awaited. It was, by definition, balls-hard. I can’t even count the number of times I had to attempt that part.
On top of that, Vexx features a lives system that no one in their goddamn right mind would use in today’s games. You have a set number of lives, which like every game ever are depleted with each death. Run out of lives, and the game basically restarts and goes back to the menu, forcing you to restart from the beginning of the world you were on. Suffice to say, I can’t tell you the amount of times I saw the Acclaim logo. It was burned quite vividly into my retinas by the time the credits rolled.
Fortunately, the game saves all your progress when you game over. The only risk involved in losing all your lives is that you’ll have to start the process of going after a particular wraithheart all over again. Additionally, the game kicks you out of a world each time you collect one.
So dying in general became something I went out of my way to avoid like I no other game I had ever played. My hands tensed, my veins popped, and my thumbs shook nervously during some of the segments in this game, especially when I could clearly see a wraithheart within almost reaching distance. The intensity and pressure were immense at times – but whenever I touched one of those glowing purple hearts, all of the anxiety left my body instantaneously. I felt relieved, I felt accomplished, and I didn’t stop there to revel in my victory – I pushed on, and on, and on.
The hardest challenge of each world by far was the orb collection. In addition to wraithhearts, each world features 100 soul shards (I think that’s what they were called). They’re often in groups, lines, and circles – but the developers made sure they were also evenly spread within each level. But if you managed to collect them all, a wraithheart was yours.
Collecting all the shards basically meant going through each world and traversing each obstacle, enemy, and platform without dying once. Remember what I said about dying in this game, how it kicks you back to the menu if you get a game over? Well, at least for most of the other wraithhearts there were checkpoints. If you’re killed or fall while collecting shards, you’re back to zero. That’s right. Do it all over again. These are large worlds, too, mind you. Collecting all of the shards successfully took me close to an hour and a half for one run on some worlds. The shard challenge was the ultimate test of your abilities – could you go through the entirety of a level without dying? That’s why I almost always saved it for last.
I spent hours on this game without even realizing it. All I could think about was beating it – it consumed and compelled me like nothing I had ever played. Every moment I had during the summer (I was working back then) I would spend with Vexx. I played it late into the night without realizing, and my brother who slept by the TV I was playing it on yelled at me repeatedly to just turn it off. One night I spent more than several hours on one wraithheart in this especially slippery snow-themed level. I swore, I yelled, I listened to montage music, I drank, and eventually – I won. I collected all 81 wraithhearts, and I defeated Yabu, the final boss of the game. When the final killing blow came after over thirty or more tries, I jolted up, dropped my controller, and exclaimed with all the frustration that had been festering within me, “SUCK IT, BITCH!”
I might have done some pelvic thrusting, too.
Vexx is not a game about story – in fact, there barely is a story. There’s a total of five characters with speaking roles in the game (including Vexx himself), and what there is story-wise is simply an excuse to collect things. Vexx is, by definition, a platformer. It makes no effort to be anything else, and after a very brief, barely passable ending cutscene, I didn’t even care how mediocre it was. None of that mattered, because I had reached my goal – I had beat, no, completed the game.
As the credits rolled and I began updating my backloggery page, I sunk into the comfort of the couch behind my back and just took in the accompanied music. I’ve noticed that about games – I always seem to watch the credits all the way to the end if I really enjoy a game, and Vexx fell right into this category. As I watched the list of people’s names scroll upwards, I felt like saluting every last one of them – I felt so relieved, so satisfied, so happy. Kinda ironic considering the developers are the ones who had basically made the game so friggin’ difficult. If anything, I should have been saluting the guy who voluntarily made the walkthrough guide I had been following.
At the same time though, Vexx provided a challenge that was one of a kind. It’s not very often that I find a game challenging on a perfect, almost non-frustrating level. I mean, dying in video games kinda sucks, and endlessly dying sucks even more. But in a platformer like Vexx, death usually comes from mis-judging a jump or just generally messing up. That is to say, it’s mostly environmental. You hardly ever die from enemies, they’re simply there to slow you down. The real threat is the numerous gaps, holes, and floating platforms.
I think that right there is what makes challenging platformers so satisfying. In other games that simply define difficulty as “throw lots and lots of enemies your way,” games like Vexx force you to master your navigational platforming skills. It’s less about the game versus you, and more like you versus you. Confidence plays a huge role in platformers. Often, half the battle is just believing in yourself, and if you don’t feel confident about a particular level, it becomes trial and error until you’ve prevailed. I can’t tell you the amount of times I got past a particularly difficulty sequence in this game after simply putting the controller down and walking away for a little while.
I think largely, shooters aggravate people because sometimes it feels like the game is just overwhelming you with enemies in order to provide some ounce of challenge. Even worse is when harder difficulties go the way of the Uncharted games and just make the enemies more and more sponge-like, requiring more and more shots to kill. CoD games go a different route – they just make the enemies pin-point accurate on harder difficulties. In addition, Veteran mode becomes “It’s Raining Grenades mode” as the enemies will repeatedly try and send you running from your cover with onslaughts of seemingly never-ending grenades.
Halo seems to take the high-road approach and be fucking decent with its difficulty. Legendary seems to throw the same amount of enemies at you, only they becomes more lethal, forcing you to conserve ammo and retreat often. There’s also some bullet-sponging happening here, but at least it’s not to the level of Uncharted. The “sponge-effect” also scales with enemy types, so it’s not like grunts become super hard to kill. The elites, however, are a different story. On Legendary, each elite is like a mini-boss within itself.
I’m not saying shooters can’t do higher difficulty levels properly. I just think platformers do difficulty best because the challenge is purely static and environmental. Oh, and do know I’m talking single-player only here. Multiplayer is a totally different story.
Easily, Vexx is the most satisfying game I’ve beaten this year. The other game that was deeply satisfying was Xenoblade, but that was for different reasons. Mostly, Xenoblade was just satisfying because as I progressed I got to watch the story play out. I never found the boss battles especially satisfying, really it was more relieving than anything since the game is downright unfair towards the end. I spent all my gaming time of three days trying to beat one of the last bosses in that game, only to get stuck on another. It was a cheap difficulty more than anything – but that’s how RPGs are. It’s a numbers game – get your numbers high enough and you win, basically. Of course, you have to use your combat skills effectively, too. But mostly – as I learned by grinding out two levels so I could beat one of the final bosses – it’s just about numbers.
So while platformers can be quite infuriating at times, the challenge offered in games like Vexx and Super Meat Boy is undoubtedly my favorite kind of challenge. With predictable patterns in enemies and platforms, it just comes down to how well you can play the game – and isn’t that what games should always be about? Sure, it still hurts, but it’s a good pain – a self-improvement pain, if you will.
I’ll always be a big fan of mostly all game genres. Shooters are probably my favorite, since I’m all about immersion in video games and that’s typically what they do best, alongside being awesomely fun, of course. But platformers? They’ll always be the most satisfying, and for all the right reasons.