Random Legacy: The Difficulty of Boss Patterns

I was recently gripped by some form of fever-madness. I’m not clear on exactly what happened, but I know that when I finally felt in control again I had done the unthinkable: bought some new video games. I had even added a few of them to Steam.

One of the games I bought was Rogue Legacy. I was inspired by watching someone else struggle through the game on YouTube. I saw some reviews that said it was a brutal and difficult game, comparing it to Dark Souls.

Well, I have never played Dark Souls, but if Rogue Legacy is what passes for difficult these then I fear for our future. Even when Rogue Legacy presents the traits of difficulty, it also gives the players so many tools with which to bypass any problems they encounter that it doesn’t seem to matter. There is a tricky set of spike traps in a room? Find a different path, or just reroll the castle till it’s easier. A boss is presenting a challenge? Keep rerolling characters till an optimal combination is found, or if things are too extreme, grind some more.

Then I found the remix bosses.

Where every other part of Rogue Legacy was dictated by RNG and gave the player the option to grind their way to victory, the remix bosses are static. When a player confronts a remix boss they are given a new character with set abilities and equipment. They get the same character every time, and there is no way to change it. They are given a task with rigid parameters and no way to get around them. These bosses should be a true test of skill, right?

Now that I’ve beaten them, I’m not so sure. Because they were still full of random elements.

When I was younger the games that were considered difficult were also very rigidly patterned. Contra, Metal Slug, and SHMUPS could all be tough as nails to 1CC, but they were the same every time. I remember playing my copy of Contra 3 at home whenever I had, say, 15 minutes, because I had the timings and patterns for the first 3 or so stages down well enough that I knew not only that I could beat them every time, but also how long it would take. Every play through after that was a small step closer to my ultimate goal: beating Contra 3 on Hard, which I eventually accomplished. Upon realizing my goal I felt like I had put that last puzzle piece into its place, and soon after I stopped playing the game. What else was there to do? It was the same each time I finally managed a 1CC of a Metal Slug game, or the few SHMUPS I could get my hands on.

I know those games could, and often did, infuriate players. They were considered chores by many, or even work. Maybe it’s just the type of person I am, but I found them to be relaxing. Games don’t make me angry, or even very frustrated. Back then I would happily put on some headphones and listen to a favourite album while I slowly worked my way through another set of boss attack patterns, making just a little more progress through the game. Some days that progress was getting past another full stage, sometimes it was only getting past another screen. Either way, I knew I was getting somewhere, and that eventually I would reach my goal as long as I memorized another room, figured out where to stand to avoid another attack, or which weapon to use on a miniboss.

My experience with the Rogue Legacy remix bosses was not quite the same. Sure, they had the same basic setups as those games I used to play, but they also have something else that those other games didn’t have, at least not to the same degree: random attack patterns.

Let’s take Alexander IV as an example. He is a giant floating skull that shoots out lines of magenta fireballs at irregular intervals. He is fought in two small rooms, walls and floors all covered in spikes, where the player has only a pair small platforms to stand on, but can freely teleport from room to room using a dash or a recall image. The object of the fight is to kite the boss around the stage, avoiding his attacks and the attacks of the smaller skulls he summons, until he presents an opening to get a few hits in.

The thing is, sometimes Alexander IV will float off screen and shoot fireballs from a position from which he can’t even be attacked, and sometimes he will float just above a platform, giving the player the perfect opportunity to stand still and get some hits in. There is no way to know what his pattern will be, and there is no way to trick him into doing what the player wants, like it was possible to do with bosses in older games. That means that sometimes an Alexander IV run will be relatively easy, as he masochistically sets himself up for attacks, and sometimes an Alexander IV run feels like a lost cause as he continuously floats just out of range.

Eventually, with enough time invested, the player will get the perfect mix of obvious patterns and their own ability to stay alive long enough to exploit them. But every time I beat a remix boss I was left wondering if I had really conquered it, or if I had just been lucky with its attacks.

When it comes down to it, the distinctions between a Contra-style difficulty and a Rogue Legacy-style difficulty only matter for personal preference. Not everyone wants to feel like they’re just banging their head against a wall until they break through, but I’m sure plenty of people wouldn’t want to feel like they’re banging their head against a wall until they get a lucky headbutt crit, either. Or maybe it’s all in my imagination and I’m just a jaded asshole.

Anyway, Rogue Legacy is a pretty good game. Play it if you have the chance and decide for yourself.

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