Hidden Gems of Game Design: Volume 15

Unearthing gems with The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, and Creatures GBA

Hidden Gems of Game Design: Volume 15
Source: SUPERJUMP.

There are plenty of amazing games that go unnoticed and are not played widely, for one reason or another. Maybe it's a diamond in the rough, or the marketing wasn't there, or it could be a game ahead of its time. For this monthly series, I've asked my fellow writers on SUPERJUMP to pick a game they think is deserving of a chance in the spotlight. Let us know your favorite hidden gems in the comments

Josh Bycer

The Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human (2016)

Source: steam

The Metroidvania and platformer genres are always a popular combination, but I do like it when I see a Metroidvania that isn’t all about jumping. The Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human (TAALH) is a somber exploration of the Earth in the far future. An astronaut returning from a deep space trip finds themself back on Earth to find that the entire planet is now flooded, the sea has claimed everything, and humanity is long since dead. Modifying their spaceship into a sub, they must explore the vast ocean of the planet to try and understand what went wrong and maybe find someone alive.

For people who love the exploration and environmental storytelling of a Souls-like, then TAALH is going to work for you. Every area you visit has the ruins of the buildings in the background, while you can find news reports that highlight the events that led to the destruction of the planet.

Boss fights are when this peaceful game gets a bit chaotic, source: Steam

Exploration is all handled by your sub as you try to fight or run away from the various aquatic lifeforms. Boss fights come in the form of mutated fish that you must defeat in order to find new parts as a means of upgrading. The upgrades in TAALH will add offensive and defensive abilities to your sub, with one of the most important ones being the means of performing a quick dash to avoid damage. If there are any issues with the game, among them would have to be the difficulty level. There are some boss fights that are almost impossible to beat without the right upgrades, namely the all-important dash ability, which can be done in any direction. Because enemies can just run into you to do damage, you’re going to be taking a lot of hits at the start as your sub is just too slow to avoid things normally.

The game nails the storytelling of a Souls-like as you wander the oceans not trying to save the world, but just trying to piece together what happened. And as things continue to get hotter in the real world, the messaging of this game seems to be stronger now.

Like any good Metroidvania, the world itself is open to you for the most part, and it is possible to stumble into areas and boss fights you aren’t ready for. While it may not be the longest Metroidvania out there, the atmosphere and unique setting certainly make The Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human worth diving into.

Andrew Johnston

Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim (2000)

Source: Steam

Some games follow an interesting path to becoming franchises. Majesty started out as an original product by Cyberlore Studios, a studio that was then known more for its work on expansion packs for games made by other companies. It became their signature product, getting tepid reviews but selling quite well, especially given the size of the PC games market at the time. A planned sequel was scrapped when Cyberlore lost its publisher, and they subsequently gave up on mainstream games in favor of making products for corporate training.

Almost a decade later, Paradox Interactive, of Europa Universalis fame, suddenly acquired the IP. They released a sequel in 2009, which was the first in a series of games all set in Majesty's world of Ardania. Warlock II, the last of those games, came out in 2014 and the series has been dormant ever since.

It's a shame that Paradox didn't do more with Majesty's gameplay because it is just the kind of novel idea that the PC market was once known for - and the kind of thing the market probably needs right now. Majesty is famously (or notoriously) a game that has the user playing an RPG from the perspective of the person giving out quests. That shouldn't be compelling, but it absolutely is.

Majesty is usually described as a real-time strategy game. It has all the elements of the genre - the player manages resources to construct buildings, research upgrades, and recruit units which are then used to complete various objectives in a world where time is always marching forward. Said units run the gamut from D&D staples such as fighters and wizards to ascetics following a range of deities, all possessing a range of attributes and personal skills. The key difference is that the player has no direct control over those units. Once recruited at their guilds, they wander about of their own accord, doing whatever they feel like - whether that's exploring, hunting monsters, or stealing everything in sight.

Source: Steam

The player isn't totally bereft of ways to control their heroes. One can offer bounties to encourage the heroes to accomplish certain tasks, while also slipping them some pocket money they can spend on healing potions and gear so they don't die as fast. Money doesn't equally motivate all heroes - some are guided by a higher purpose or passion and will pretty much do their own thing, while the greedier ones will eagerly chase coin into the jaws of certain doom.

This is where loyalty comes into play. There are other heroes in the world (this is mostly a factor in multiplayer, though some single-player missions have independent kingdoms and guilds) who will pursue the bounties set by other sovereigns. This means that your own heroes can be turned against you if you don't take steps to keep them in line. The most disloyal and money-hungry heroes can even be turned against themselves. There's something funny about watching a pack of rogues destroy their own guild hall because you paid them to do it.

The loyalty aspect means that Majesty isn't the best multiplayer experience, something that many contemporaneous reviews pointed out. However, it does make for a unique single-player experience, which is helped by the variety of quests on offer. The levels (which, except for a few locked ones, can be played in any order) range from typical fantasy quests tasking the player with killing a powerful monster or retrieving an artifact, to more unusual missions that have the player rescuing the king's heir from elven extortionists or trying to satisfy the demands of a wizard who has cursed the kingdom with feeblemindedness. There are enough enemies and clever gimmicks to keep the game fresh until the end.

Majesty was never going to be everyone's cup of tea, which is why it was surprising that it did as well as it did. The market would be better if more developers were willing to take such risks.

Antony Terence

Creatures GBA (2002)

Source: Tradera.

Two decades ago, I could raise and develop an entire alien society on the 16.8MHz processor of the Game Boy Advance. The sheer complexity of this game baffles me today just as much as it did when I was a kid. It’s interesting that I picked Creatures right when Andrew picked Majesty. Because just like in Majesty, your Norn colony in Creatures can’t be directly controlled by you.

You take up the role of Scrubby the fairy who controls a colony of Norns in the world of Albia. Norns start off absolutely clueless so it’s your job to teach them what to do and what not to. You do this by rewarding particular behaviours while punishing other actions. Positive and negative reinforcement is how you “teach” Norns.

Your actions tie in directly with the environment, with poisonous mushrooms and evil Grendels to watch out for. While this could have been incredible with unique environments, Creatures barely lets you do anything besides feeding Norns and making them have children.

This task of managing Norns doesn’t end with one life cycle. Newborn Norns gain attributes and traits from their previous generation. Even information and personalities have a chance to be transmitted this way. Having a list of your Norms with stats like Hunger, Sleep, Pain, Boredom, and Exhaustion, felt scary as a kid. With every sentence, this reads less like a GBA game and more like a simulation game on the PC.

Source: Amazon.

It’s no surprise then that the game isn’t great on a Game Boy. While the game’s interactive elements did bring the world to life, giving commands and reinforcing behaviours in the Norns felt like a massive chore. The most I did was teach a pair of Norns how to kick a volleyball at each other. The GBA port of Creatures was no visual spectacle either and its sound design was annoying. Multiple button presses to interact with an object before reinforcing a behaviour meant that you’d hear the same noises over and over again.

While this title doesn’t have much going for it, Creatures is a remarkable achievement for a handheld gaming device back in the day. It’s worth a lazy afternoon on an emulator if only to see how the game handled the AI of its Norns and how their traits were passed down across generations. I’d also suggest trying out the PC version which is miles ahead of this one, sold half a million copies, and even bagged award nominations back in 1996.

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Thanks for reading, come back next month for another entry and more great hidden gems to check out! You'll find all previous Hidden Gems stories here.

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