Friday, December 29, 2006

On rating games

I was a bit troubled when I wrote up my Soul Blazer and Cybernator reviews by the scores I gave them at the end. Not that I necessarily thought the scores were wrong, but that I gave them both a 7, but couldn't really think of games that I would give an 8 to. This made me consider the numerical system I used to rate games.

There are basically two philosophies to how to rate games (and other things). One is to do a kind of checklist - does the game do this? Does it do this? Then, you tally those up and give the game a score. This is the method most major sites use for their reviews and it leads to relatively high scores. Since just about any game that gets published has a certain amount of QA that it goes through, games will rarely get a score below a 5 (on a 10 point scale) and 7 is probably average. Okay, I'm probably being generous by saying that this is the reason IGN rarely gives a score of less than 7.2, but this is what places like this say about their rating systems, anyway. It may just be rating inflation to ensure exclusives from publishes, but I won't go there.

The other philosophy is that the center of the scale should be average. On a 10 point scale, 5 means that a game is about par for what you will find on that system, with some spectacular gems and some stinkers. 1up and its paper counterpart Electronic Gaming Monthly have made a concerted effort to use this sort of rating system and many other gaming review sources are making an effort to move toward it, probably in an attempt to defray criticisms of ratings inflations.

The second philosophy is what I like. If you have a 10 point scale, you should be willing to use all 10 points on it. That means that games that work fine, but just aren't that special should be in the middle and everything else should go around them.

Knowing this, I sat down and thought about what each of the numbers on the 10 point scale I use (really 11 because 0 is an option) means to me and what games I have played would fall under those numbers. Here it is:

10. Outstanding
A game that scores a 10 is not perfect, but is a shining example of what games on the system can do. It should transcend the time and place of its conception and be as great to play today as it was when it came out. These games are gems. As examples, Dragon Warrior IV on the NES is about as good as a Japan-style RPG on the NES can be and indeed is still a great example of one of the best. Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising is an amazing strategy game that allows a multitude of tactics and never gets tiring.

9. Great
These games (along with the 10s) are ones I feel that everyone who owns the system should own. They are very well done, and examples of how to make games. They are prevented by being 10s by having some part or feature that works, but doesn't work great, such as a tedious portion or slightly off controls. This is the score I will give to Astro Boy: Omega Factor as that game just works so well and is such a delight to play, even though it does have some portions that aren't as great as others. The NES version of Bionic Commando would also fall in this category as it is a great, unique game that I will always replay, despite the fact that the adventure portion of the game could be a bit more polished.

8. Very Good
A game that gets an 8 is a game that I would recommend to anyone who has the system. The game isn't a 9 or 10, because I don't think it is so good that almost anyone would love it, but it has enough good stuff going for it that it probably belongs in your library. Kid Icarus is a NES game that I beleive falls in this category. It's got some really unique and fun play elements and puts them together pretty well. The original Castllevania would also get an 8 as while it has outstanding music and an awesome concept, the play control and challenge are just a bit off.

7. Good
Notice that we're at 7 and games here are still considered good. They still do most things well, but perhaps not well enough to distinguish themselves from the pack. Games that get a 7 are solid and worth playing, but not the first things you should check out. A game that I give an 8 or above to is a game I would recommend to anyone while at 7 I would probably only recommend the game if the person likes other games of that type. Aside from the games I have already reviewed with this score, I think Ice Hockey for the NES deserves this score as it is a solid, arcade-style hockey game with enough strategy to entertain two players, but you would never want to play it alone. Metroid II: Return of Samus for Game Boy is another example. It is a nice platform shooter with interesting weapons and skills, but the level design could be better.

6. Above Average
A game that scores a 6 has something that distinguishes it from other games, but only enough to make it interesting. Games with this score are fine to play and work, but you feel they could be better. Or maybe they have one great thing going for them and several mediocre or poor things too. Star Trek 25th Anniversay (the NES game, not the one for PC and Mac) would fall into this category as it's a decen action/adventure game that relies a lot on the license for the pull. The puzzles are pretty good, the action is okay, and the story is also pretty good. I'll also probably incur the wrath of a thousand fanboys by giving Chrono Cross this rating because, while the game had some of the best graphics and music the playstation could offer, the story was incomprehensible, the world was tiny and incoherent, and the battles and character customization were only okay.

5. Average
A game with this score is about what you'd expect for most games on the system. Either because it does just about everything okay, or because it does some things really well and some things really poorly. Besides Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix which I have already written a review of, the NES games Elevator Action and Mega Man 6 would get this score. The former is a competent arcade port of a game that can be fun but doesn't have too much to it such that you want to come back again and again while the latter is yet another rehashing of the Mega Man formula that still plays fine, but doesn't add anything.

4. Below Average
Here we come to games that do not live up to standards expected for games of the system. Many times these games haven't aged well, or just generally had something that didn't work quite right. The NES game Kung Fu falls into this category as, I suspect, would many launch titles that were playable when they were all you had, but don't stand up when better games come out. Another examples is Justice League: Injustice for All for Game Boy Advance. It has nice graphics (though strangely 3D-rendered), and fine play control, but the unique character abilities are rarely, if ever used and the game is short and easy.

3. Poor
Starting here, games tend to be flawed in some way. At this level, they are still playabale and you may even play them through, but they are missing something noticable. The Rescue of Princess Blobette for Game Boy is one such game, that while retaining the same basic gameplay of the NES original, lacks a plot or motivation to do much in the game. Pinball for NES is a slightly different example as it was a passable video pinball simulation that has just aged horribly as the physics are so poor.

2. Bad
While games that receive a 3 may still have something that warrants playing them through, once games receive a 2, you don't play them beyond initially checking them out. Or maybe they start out playable, but reach a point where it isn't worth your effort to continue. Gyromite for the NES is interesting as an oddity and one of two games that used R.O.B., but otherwise isn't worth playing. Having tried, playing with R.O.B. doesn't really work and while you can play with just controllers, it loses its challenge or fun. Another NES game, Star Trek: The Next Generation, couldn't overcome its flaws. The combat was poor and annoying, the mini-games to transport things or re-route power weren't that fun, and once you got to the mission where you fought the Borg ship, it just became frustrating to complete.

1. Awful
These games just aren't worth playing. Their play control is poor, or they aren't interesting. I can't think of any commercially released product that would actually get this rating, though I'm sure I've played some shareware games that fall under this or nowadays some flash games.

0. Unplayable
A game that gets a 0 is impossible to play - figuratively, if not literally. Generally games that get a 0 rating have some bug (or several bugs) that prevent any sort of meaningful play. Bionic Commando: Elite Forces for GBA had a crippling bug in many versions that would freeze the game upon encountering a truck (my copy did). The new version of Bubble Bobble for the DS also had a bug after a certain level that stopped the game and had to be reissued.

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