Weapon Imba & Breakable Powerups

What do you think about games where you lose your upgrades when you get hit?

So we got, Super Mario, Cave Story, Contra, Metal Slug, Zeldas with beam sword, and whatever else is up there.

Uhhhh. I don’t really know. It’s an additional punishment for getting hit. It makes a slippery slope where players who get hit are more likely to get hit again, since they can’t defend themselves as well. Apart from that, I don’t really have anything. It doesn’t really introduce an interesting decision, because players are already trying to not get hit. I guess it can be a way to limit damage boosting, but how many games are intentionally constructed around damage boosting, or are susceptible to undesirable unintentional damage boosting to the extent that they’d want to introduce a punishment for it rather than just reconfiguring their levels?

An obvious inversion is what if you gained powers for taking damage (a la metal slug 3’s mummy power I guess)? What if your powerups gave you more health or defensive ability, but made you less powerful until you took damage? Then it’s more of an interesting choice thing between risking death, but being all powerful and staying safe, but making things harder on yourself. Though it’s not incredibly interesting since you can easily optimize by just always selecting for the powerup when it’s available, and continuing to play with the powerup until you take damage, at which point you continue in all-powerful mode. It can be made more interesting again if you become vulnerable to new threats you aren’t normally in the more powerful mode, like maybe platforming is harder and you risk losing a life completely now rather than just taking a hit?

Another downside to losing your upgrades on hit is that it’s making the game easier for better players and harder for worse ones.

In Castlevania 3, I feel like the whip upgrades were really weird and superfluous. They drop randomly from candles and you kinda need 2 to be effective, so if you die you basically gotta get two random drops, that might take the place of more useful drops, before you’re fully functioning again.

Losing powerups this way can be tonally interesting, but I think it has a neutral affect on the quality of the game. It’s just kinda there.

When does blatant weapon imbalance make sense in a single-player action game? For example, every Ghosts n’ Goblins game has a bad weapon.

It makes sense when you have the game set up to essentially force players to cycle through weapons and it’s a part of the strategy to avoid the lame duck weapon (ghosts n goblins and castlevania), or to use it for as little time as possible, or if there’s some hidden way to use it that makes it really good, or the abilities around it really good (like allowing you to empty cancel some other function), or the lame duck weapon has a special utility that’s necessary for the other weapons (like, I suggested that the pistol in DESYNC have a function to gain extra ammo, and it does that now, don’t think I’ll get an example better than that).

It can be kind of the opposite of ammo limitations in a way. Really strong overpowered items like the BFG have limited ammo, so it’s about figuring out that one perfect point to use it. Every weapon has ammo, so part of the strategy of the game is figuring out how to keep your ammo stream up so you continually gain ammo, otherwise you’re forced to use the lame duck weapon.

In Ghosts and Goblins and Castlevania, it’s a game of recognizing the lame duck weapon and avoiding it. Not the coolest thing in the world.

As for games where weapons are more persistent, like say Dark Souls, there’s less point to having blatant lame duck weapons. Every weapon should ideally have some type of unique utility so as to make it balanced in an overarching way. Lame duck weapons in these games end up being more self-imposed challenge territory than an aspect of good design. That can be cool sometimes, but I think it only really pays off if the lame duck also has some unique gameplay factors to significantly vary it from the standard experience instead of just being the same thing but weaker.

On losing upgrades when getting hit, I disagree on there being no decision-making. I think you’re not thinking “big picture” here. Say there’s a specific point or boss that I’m having a hard time with, and I know there’s a power-up beforehand, I’d be more inclined to play well so I can have my upgrade for that difficult part. It might give me a bit of wiggle room to get hit or even have an intangible effect like instilling confidence. Then there are times where you might now want a power-up or you might want a specific power-up, so you’ll actively avoid them. Or you can use the powering-up/down mechanics to gain advantages like i-frames. And in games with scoring systems, maxing out your upgrades often means getting score bonuses for every subsequent power-up. I mean, without upgrades you risk having a static experience where you just repeat things until you get them. Yeah, the player is trying to not get hit, but power-ups encourage that to greater effect, if you will. There are also things like pacing and tension that power-ups contribute to.

I don’t think that’s a fair argument. A lot of those points are interesting mechanical developments, but they’re unrelated to the central idea of losing a powerup on getting hit. They could all still work in a system where you kept your powerup no matter if you got hit.

Obviously having upgrades is nice as is all these ways a player could manipulate or benefit from them, but the question is really about losing upgrades when you’re hit. I think by itself, that’s not an entirely interesting game dynamic. it just, as you say, encourages the player to really not get hit. It makes the game harder certainly, but I think it’s kind of a take it or leave it type of thing rather than something that augments or harms the strategy of a game. It can be interesting thematically, and significantly stress player skills beyond what they might normally be stressed, and that’s alright.

I noticed Metal Slug games are really grueling on this count. They provide huge bonuses for rescuing POWs and carrying tanks to the end of the stage, but you lose these bonuses if you die or get the tank blown up. Only the POWs rescued on the current life count, so to score the best, you need to never die.

I guess you can say they’re good because they suggest a higher standard of play to the player.

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