How Games are Judged
This page can be looked at as a manifesto. A statement of demands, if you will. A delineation of what I expect to find in each game I play, and how it affects the score if I do or don't see it. I have a reputation for being relatively harsh in my grading of games, though I can't see why: A large chunk of my ratings are in my manufactured "Average" level of between 62 and 71%, and more games rise above that watermark than fall below it. Besides, I don't try to blast games just for the sake of blasting them. I don't hate any game in my collection (not even Hydlide); I just feel disappointed when lackluster titles had a promising concept but poor execution.
The above was a wordy, long-winded, and unnecessarily poetic way of saying "This is how I rate my games."
To start, I feel a need to remind everyone that these ratings are a matter of opinion. That is, it's perfectly valid that your outlook on a game doesn't jive with mine. I doubt that I'll ever be able to win you over, much as it's unlikely that you'll win me over. However, there's a reason I gave Metroid a 64%, and hopefully this page will help explain that reasoning, as well as my reasonings behind other scores.
A maximum of 36 to 42 points, depending on genre, will be available to each game that is rated. Ratings are divided into two categories: Technical and Aesthetic. The Technical scores are based on elements directly programmed into the cartridge. There are three Technical criteria upon which I grade: Visuals, Audio, and Play Control. Inversely, the Aesthetic facets are those that involve the game itself, and exist outside of the game's source code. In an effort to favor a game's creativity over its programming accuracy, there are four Aesthetic elements that recieve scores: Plot, Challenge, Thrill, and Longevity. Each category is worth up to six points.
The Visual category is based on the game's graphical qualities. Color depth, fluid animation, detail, and conveyance of atmosphere are considered praiseworthy in this field, whereas screen flicker, slowdown and "color ugliness" are frowned upon.
I'll be perfectly frank: if I were weighting these scores to produce an average more in tune with my tastes, Visuals would be the weakest score out of the seven. I simply don't think a game's graphics are truly important in the grand scheme of things. In fact, I'd probably be more lenient to a game with low marks across the board than one with low marks in all but the Visual grade. Perhaps this arises out of my hatred for the next-gen consoles, but a game that gets a 6 in Visuals but 3's on the other scores shows that the programmers focused only on the most unsubstantive of qualities, leaving the others to rot. A game that gets all 3's shows that at least they were even-handed in their programming; they just failed miserably at it.
Here's what each score is likely to mean in the Visual field:
6: Visually breathtaking. Every effort was made into creating beautiful, awe-inspiring graphics, and it shows.
5: Very nice-looking. A few problems, probably in detail or atmosphere, but not bad at all.
4: The graphics serve a ultilitarian purpose: You can see where and what everything is, but there's no extra bells or whistles.
3: Somewhat bland. Usually poor use of color or lack of detail is the reasoning behind a 3 score.
2: Fairly sloppy. Either scenery is stamped, enemies have no animation, or the background consists of one solid color.
1: Ugly. Does everything wrong that's mentioned in the 2 score, and then some.
I'm no longer making the claim, as I had made before, that "Music is an integral part of my lifestyle." Such a statement implies that I own hundreds of CDs, one of which is always playing at any given moment at home. That isn't the case for me. So while music isn't a big part of my lifestyle, it is an important part of my game-playing experience. I will never play a video game in silence.
The Audio score focuses mainly on the game's soundtrack. I'm looking for tunes that add as much to the atmosphere as the graphics should above, with distinct and catchy melodies and conveying a sense of emotion, so that when someone at the VGMA posts a butchered version of it, I have reason to be disgusted.
A game's sound effects, for the most part, will serve only a negative purpose in this rating. However, games do need incidental sounds, and I won't penalize a game for merely having them. What will cost a game points, however, is when the sounds wantonly intrude on the music, especially if said music was pretty good and not meritous of interruption.
The Audio scores will often translate as such:
6: Magnificent. The music conveys mood perfectly, and has me humming the melody days afterward. Beethoven couldn't do it better.
5: It has a good beat and you can dance to it. Well done as a whole, but only memorable in a few spots.
4: Some hits, some misses. Either that, or the incidental sound effects are starting to get in the way of the music.
3: Inane, but not unbearable. Nothing really stands out in the way of music, and the effects may be a bit irritating.
2: I'll opt for my BNL CDs, thank you very much. Music adds little to the experience, and/or the sounds are really annoying.
1: No emotion, no inspiration, no beat, no nothing. Not even horrible effects can drag a score down this low.
Probably the most technical of the Technical scores, as this is the area in which the programmers have full say in how things are to be done. Play Control is essential to the enjoyment of a game, as it becomes a far less fun experience when you can't rely on your hero to perform the commands you wanted him to.
By and large, I'm more lenient on the grading of Play Control than any of the other scores. It takes some massive screw-ups to get a score below 4. However, there is one caveat: 99% of the side-scrollers I've played have the A Button doing the jumping and the B button doing the fighting. If a game doesn't have this, I score an automatic 1 in this category: I don't want to be relearning everything when I play a different game.
The rundown of scores and their meanings is as follows:
6: Spot on. Everything happens when it should, hit detection is perfect, and recoil is kept to an absolute minimum.
5: Quite accurate. Perhaps a few misfires, mostly in terms of recoil, but it doesn't hinder the gameplay.
4: Somewhat accurate. The character might be jumping a bit too far back upon taking a hit, or actions aren't as intuitive on the control pad as they should be.
3: Minimally accurate. One's foot may be going through the platform, or the overall feel may be a tad slippery.
2: Somewhat unmanageable. Recoil is excessive, or the player may be somewhat unresponsive to your commands.
1: Totally unmanageable. Either the buttons are reversed or the character handles so sloppily you may wonder if he isn't trying to sabotage the mission.
A good storyline is essential in all video games. We need to know who the hero is, who the villain is, what the villain's after, and why the hero wants to stop him. Those four rudimentary elements must be present for the player to feel any sort of motivation to aid the hero. And even then, the concept of plot may have to be taken further.
Needless to say, some genres lean more heavily on their story lines than others. That will be taken into account as I rate these games. RPGs are not going to be able to get away with the same "Here's the good guy, here's the bad guy -- off you go!" mentality that shooters use. As for games that don't even have a plot, well, we'll deal with those in a bit.
Also, while I'll try to avoid doing it in the other grades, the Plot score is one where I unavoidably must compare a game to those released before it. Since plot is a completely creative facet of the game, I'll be looking for creativity in how the story is laid out. In other words: "Defeat the bad guy and save the princess" is an acceptable plot in 1985, but would need a lot more oomph to work in 1991.
One final personal bias of mine - I'm heavy into heroes that have some sort of ability to transform into different things. If a game has that, it's rare that I'd even give it a 4.
Anyway, the meanings behind the Plot ratings may follow this scheme:
6: An epic. Melodrama at its highest level. Either that, or the good guy's a werewolf.
5: You'll certainly feel an attachment to some of the characters, although the concept in itself may have been done before.
4: An adequate explanation of the characters and motivations. No more, no less.
3: The idea has lost its freshness, or they've left some gaps in the story.
2: Bland, overdone, no reason to root for the hero or against the villain.
1: I've only given one 1 before, and that was because of what seemed like a concerted effort at it.
Exempt: Sports games, puzzle games, and game show conversions that have absolutely no storyline will be exempt from a Plot score, and thus have 6 scores instead of 7. However, if a game on one of those genres does make an attempt at a plot, it will be graded for one.
If I had to put myself on a scale as to how good I am at playing the NES, I'd have to say I'm relatively average. If anything, I'm lower than average. So while I'm not going to be able to cruise through any game in a day and a half, I'm not going to get stumped by every game that comes along, either. This puts me in a good position to grade a game's challenge. For the most part, I'm looking for a game that requires minimal ability to get into, reasonable ability to excel, and considerable ability to complete. However, any player should be able to beat the game if they put enough time into it.
The higher a game's score is, the more accessible that game's challenge is to the pool of gamers out there. A lower score indicates a learning curve that either doesn't provide enough difficulty for the experts or gets too prohibitive for the novices. Other elements such as password or battery saves, ability to the continue, or adjustable levels of difficulty are also taken into consideration. Long-winded games need an opportunity for the player to stop and take a breather, and return without losing too much progress. Having three different modes of challenge also helps, as long as the Easy mode really is easy and the Difficult mode really is difficult.
Here's the scoop on the Challenge scores:
6: Perfect. Each level requires a little more skill than the last, but it doesn't go overbaord nor does it skimp.
5: Doesn't quite hit the mark - either the task is a little easier or harder than it should be - but the overall challenge is solid.
4: The learning curve may be spiking or dipping in spots, or the latter stages may not be matching up with the rest of the game.
3: The challenge level is starting to get a bit erratic. Either I've spent ages on this game without beating it, or only needed a day or two to finish it.
2: Either an immediate cakewalk or a near impossibility. More likely it's the latter than the former.
1: The programmers seem to have made this game for the wrong people. Either lobotomized squirrels or Jimmy Woods, depending on which extreme the game is on.
This is where the grading becomes more and more subjective, and more reliant on my personal experiences with this game. That's because both the Thrill and Longevity factors are my own opinions on the game's enjoyability. The Thrill score is based on immediate enjoyability, how fun the game is as I play it. Much as the Challenge rating was a matter of finding a middle ground, the Thrill score can be negatively affected if a game is boring to play or if the play sessions get frustrating (and I'm not talking the standard aggravation that comes from good challenge - I mean cheap hits, unfair advantages and the like).
Also similar to the Challenge rating is the favor of one extreme over another. I tend to prefer games where the thrills are mild over those where the gameplay overextends itself. Anger is not an emotion I want to experience in the midst of my gameplaying. If I feel a little bored here and there, I'll be much more willing to let it slide.
The meanings behind the numbers will usually work like this:
6: An absolute blast, from the moment I turn on the deck until the time I turn it off.
5: An enjoyable time is sure to be had, although not to the stunning degree of the higher grade.
4: Fun enough, but there may be some cheese-outs at spots.
3: Somewhat bland, or a bit overambitious. Either way, there's room for improvement.
2: I'm having fun only in selected spots, and most likely those spots are the only reason why I'm playing.
1: Playing this game is a trying experience. I might be trying to stay awake, or trying not to throw my controller at the screen.
The Longevity grade applies to the more long-term element of a game's enjoyability. That is, this is the grade that takes one's staying power into account. If I wanted to, I could subdivide this facet further into two separate considerations: motivation to complete the game once started, and lasting memory of the game. Being a college student who works more than 20 hours a week, my NES-playing sessions don't avail themselves too often, but when I do I usually play three or four games in quick spells, or one game at length. And while I can't play one game all the time, it'll help if I'm thinking about the game during most of those playing times.
This score will most likely mimic the game's overall score more closely than the other six. It stands to logic, really: I'll tend to play games that I view as being high-quality more often than games that rate lower, and the Longevity score will reflect that. Especially when the score is a 5 or a 6; I'd have to like a game quite a bit if I played it that much.
The Longevity scores will often line up like this:
6: A sentimental favorite of mine, and almost always a candidate for my next playing session.
5: Frequently on my short list of games I might decide to play.
4: Memorable enough to stay in my mind, and has a fair chance of getting plugged in when I look for a game.
3: When I scan my collection, I might give this game a fleeting consideration, but that's probably it.
2: It's not often I remember that I even own this game, much less remember to play it.
1: I played this game once, and that's enough for me.
And now, the grand finale. Now that we have all seven grades, it's now time to add them up and spit out the game's total score. As you may probably surmise, the score is a percentage of the game's seven (or six) point scores, divided by the maximum score of 42 (or 36, if the game was exempt from the Plot rating). That percentage is the game's final rating. Obviously, 100% is the most any game can get (although that has never happened before, and to do so a game would have to beat Final Fantasy III), while 17% is the absolute minimum (again, hasn't happened yet; the closest we've had is 29%). Still, here's a general opinion on each rating:
91% or higher: An all-around terrific game, and a must-own for every gamer.
83-90%: Very mildly flawed, but still a strong recommendation for this game.
74-82%: Well done, certainly worth looking for.
62-72%: Average in just about every facet, not bad but not terrific.
55-61%: Marginal in quality. Don't strain yourself looking for this one.
45-54%: Unsatisfactory as a whole, but does have its moments.
39-44%: No other way to say it: this game is really bad.
Below 39%: Abysmal through and through. Avoid these stinkers at all costs.
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