Straying From The Script: When Games Abandon Their Genre

by Dan Ryckert on Jan 20, 2010 at 12:51 PM

Every once in a while, a game decides to steer clear of its comfort zone. Sometimes it works out and gives players a refreshing break from the action they've grown used to, but other times it becomes quickly apparent that developers are pushing into territory where they don't belong. For example, just because a team can make a great 3D action game, that doesn't mean their programming skills translate over to a driving section. Diversions like the carnival games in Zelda and the card games in Final Fantasy get a pass because they're not required to proceed through the story. When it's an unskippable section of the single-player campaign, however, it's crucial that these deviations from the formula work well. Here's a look at some good and bad examples of games that went off-script with segments of their gameplay:


Running From The Shagohod (Metal Gear Solid 3)

For over 20 years, the Metal Gear name has been synonymous with stealth-based gameplay. Many of the games featured brief spurts of all-out action, but none have done it in a manner as aggressive or entertaining as Snake Eater. After about a dozen hours of slowly sneaking around the forest, donning disguises, and pulling bullets out of your leg, the game explodes into an all-out assault of rockets and gunfire. Colonel Volgin gains control of the Shagohod on an airport runway, the game grants you with infinite ammo for all of your weapons, and then it's all about annihilating anyone who dares try to stop your escape. As it moves from the runway to the forest, it's almost reminiscent of the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi. It's rare that a game so focused on sneaking around pulls off balls-to-the-wall action this well, but MGS3's attempt stands as one of the best moments in the entire series.

Death From Above (Call of Duty 4)

When first person shooters try to expand beyond "look at that thing and shoot it," the results can oftentimes be disastrous (see: BioShock hacking, platforming in any first-person game that isn't called Metroid Prime, etc). However, Call of Duty's first look at modern warfare took us out of the shoes of a soldier on the ground and behind the sights of a devastating AC130 gunship. The resulting mission looks eerily similar to real-life footage of aerial attacks on terrorist camps, giving the mission a visceral feel that matched any of the action down on the soil.

Forklift Racing (Shenmue)

Considering that most of the "action" in Shenmue consisted of dodging soccer balls and buying toys from vending machines, a forklift suddenly felt like a McLaren F1 by comparison. You start your job as a simple dock worker, stacking crates neatly in a warehouse. After talking to some coworkers, you realize the crew likes to have a little fun on the side by racing their speed demons around from time to time. This was no Need For Speed, but it was a nice change of pace from the slow and serious nature of the rest of the game.

Chasing Jaws On Pontchartrain Bridge (007: Everything or Nothing)

Everything or Nothing wasn't exactly Goldeneye, but it was far better than it had any right to be. After all, it was a third-person Bond game based on an original script, and it featured Heidi Klum doing something besides standing and looking moderately attractive. The pieces were in place for another crappy licensed game, but somehow it turned into the best 007 game since the N64 classic. One section in particular that stood out was the brief but intense chase on Louisiana's Pontchartrain Bridge. Saving this stage from falling into the "Bad" section of this list was EA's wise decision to put the Need For Speed team behind the vehicle portions of the game. In this particular segment, recurring series baddie Jaws has stolen a tanker and it's up to Bond (Brosnan version) to chase him down with nothing but a shotgun, a machine gun, and a flame-spewing motorcycle. Blasting henchmen and ramping through highway signs was thrilling, leading to a dramatic slide under a semi truck and climactic battle with Jaws.

Returning To The Roots (Super Mario Sunshine)

This is an odd one, as the entire game of Super Mario Sunshine "strayed from the script" by giving Mario a jetpack for the majority of the adventure. However, this polarizing entry in the franchise featured several stages that stripped Mario of his F.L.U.D.D. device and made him rely purely on platforming ability to get the Shine. Many argue about the overall quality of Sunshine, but most everyone agrees that these were great stages featuring Mario doing what Mario knows best.

Test Your Might, Uppercut A Car (Mortal Kombat/Street Fighter II)

There's always a danger that a fighting game will get old, because their very nature almost requires repetition. Beat this guy so you can fight this guy. Beat that guy so you can fight another guy, so on and so on. Back in the early '90s, Midway and Capcom decided to spice up the process of climbing the fighting ladder by sprinkling in minigames between bouts. Mortal Kombat had you furiously tapping buttons to shatter materials of increasing density, while Street Fighter had you dismantling automobiles and breaking barrels with your bare hands. These sections didn't require the precise timing and combo memorization that the one-on-one battles did, but they served their purpose well by mixing things up between rounds.

Check the next page to see the times a new approach didn't work out quite so well.


Remote-Controlling Helicopters With David Cross (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas)

More than any other game in Rockstar's top-selling franchise, San Andreas was all about making things bigger than ever before. However, one particular segment of the game was all about shrinking things down. Instead of climbing mountains or diving out of airplanes, Zero's objectives required C.J. to pilot miniature biplanes and helicopters through the most annoying missions in the entire game. Voiced by comedian and Arrested Development alum David Cross, Zero forced you to destroy vans and help out in toy wars before your RC vehicle got shot down, crashed, or (worst of all) ran out of fuel. It was definitely a change of pace from the early 90s gangster life, but the pacing and controls for these missions made you want to get them over with faster than America forgot about Coolio.

Asteroids...Thirty Years Later (Dead Space)

Before writing this entry, I did a Google search so I could watch a video of this section. When I searched for "dead space asteroids," the first headline I saw read "DEAD SPACE LEVEL 4 ASTEROIDS~!! OMG AM I THE OLY ONE WHO HATES THIS PART???? I CAN'T GET PAST IT ON MEDIUM!! ?" (sic). That quickly reaffirmed my belief that I'm not the only one that hated this moment. Visceral's well-received stab at survival horror was a tense, atmospheric, and oftentimes terrifying ordeal, and it remained solid almost the entire time. However, it appears that the dreaded "Action Game Turret Sequence Clause" managed to sneak its way into the legal paperwork. As soon as you sit down in that chair, all the atmosphere and dread that the game has done such a good job of building up gets sucked out of the room. All that's left from there is a generic "shoot the asteroids before they destroy your ship" sequence that has no place in a game like Dead Space.

Bayonetta Takes To The Skies (Bayonetta)

To say Bayonetta strayed from a "script" is odd, as it implies that there's a coherent script to begin with. Anyone who's played the game can tell you that it seems like it was conceived by the horniest and most Japanese people on the planet throwing darts at one board adorned with various biblical and Wiccan concepts, and another with all their sexual fantasies on it. Apparently a third board listed all their favorite classic Sega games to pay homage to, and the dart landed right in the middle of Space Harrier's section. Once you take control of the jet and start shooting missiles and performing barrel rolls, my first reaction was "oh cool, this'll be a fun little minigame." Five minutes later, and you're just wondering when it's going to be over. It's not that it's poorly executed, it's just a matter of a decent idea being stretched out far too long.

Exploring Desolate Moonscapes With The Mako (Mass Effect)

Trying to think of a vehicle section in an RPG that actually complements the gameplay is like trying to find human-sized breasts in a Tecmo game. Mass Effect is no different, requiring you to explore various dusty planets with a vehicle that handles like an ambulance with beach balls for wheels. Considering that Mass Effect is highly regarded for its narrative and deep RPG elements, the awkwardly-controlling Mako stuck out like a sore thumb.

For Pete's Sake (Earthworm Jim)

Earthworm Jim was never the most polished gameplay experience, but it did a good job of skating by on its charm and offbeat humor. However, no amount of humor can make up for one of the most frustrating escort missions ever made. In one level, the game changes from lighthearted action/shooter to a horrific babysitting ordeal featuring a temperamental puppy named Peter. He skips along at his own pace, gleefully marching towards his imminent death at the hands of numerous holes and spike pits. As Earthworm Jim, your job is to whip him anytime he's about to fall, which sends him flying forward through the air. Oftentimes, you'll have to whip him again in midair if the chasm is too wide. Fail to do so and innocent, carefree Petey turns into a snarling, PO'd beast who drags you back significantly far in the level. Earthworm Jim 2 made the Peter levels far more tolerable via their trampoline minigame, but it's not enough to erase the original awful diversion from gamers' minds.

Any Time Fox McCloud Steps Out Of His Ship (Starfox series)

The original Starfox and Starfox 64 are absolute classics, nearly flawless in their action-packed shooter design. After the 64 edition, it seemed obvious that Nintendo had a new, hot franchise on their hands. Remember when you unlocked on-foot mode in Starfox 64 and thought "Why the hell would I want to be running around when I could be in a sweet spaceship?" Well, apparently someone at Nintendo had the opposite reaction, because the series rapidly turned away from its shooter roots and focused more on the titular woodland creature running around alien planets like any generic third-person shooter. One series constant remained: Slippy has always been a massive pain in the ass.