The Top 5: Game Mechanics

Hello Gamer Horizon fans and welcome back to another weekly edition of The Top 5! This time around, we’ll be talking about our favorite game mechanics of all time! Now, this could range from anything between the infamous double jump to something more game specific like the Portal Gun. What will the Gamer Horizon crew list as some of their favorite game mechanics in video games? Well, by no means, don’t let me keep you from reading! Here they are!


5. Fatalities in Mortal Kombat

While not necessarily something that affected gameplay in the game, Fatalities in Mortal Kombat are so ubiquitous to the franchise that if anyone ever saw something brutal happen to someone at the end of a one on one fighting game match, people would immediately think, “Fatality!” Nothing is more gut wrenching and more brutal than giving your opponent a brutal beating at the end of the game after a long, hard fought match in Mortal Kombat and I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Boon and company were thinking when they added this to the original game. And while Mortal Kombat 3 showed the kooky side of Fatalities, I’m very happy to report that the most recent Mortal Kombat returns the series to more serious Fatalities. Well, that’s if you don’t count Babalities of course…

4. Free flow combat system in Batman: Arkham Asylum

You’ve got two buttons: Attack and Counter. That’s it. And not only were there only two buttons, but the way that Batman animated and tweened into the next move was so smooth that you’d think that you were pressing a different button. But no – the game only beckons you to press the Counter button whenever you see a prompt onscreen, at which point, Batman would seamlessly catch the punch or kick and deliver punishment to said bad guys. This system was elaborated upon in Batman: Arkham City, but I felt that it went off the deep end with some of the nuances they introduced with the gameplay. Still, the simplicity and elegance of the combat in Batman: Arkham Asylum is something that many games have attempted to copy but only seldom succeed in.

3. Aim-Down-Sight in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

The beauty of being able to snap to an aiming mode just by aiming at a general direction of a soldier in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare made the controls of the game feel so right that it’s tough for me to even play any first person shooter that doesn’t have this option. Granted, the option to do this seems like someone turned on aiming “easy mode,” but that never made the game too easy for my tastes. The ability to slow down your aiming by virtue of going into this mode added an additional level of adjustment that console shooters needed in order to fine tune their aim.

2. Sphere Grid System in Final Fantasy X

From a purely gameplay standpoint, I probably had more fun trying to figure out how to maximize my character’s stats in Final Fantasy X than anything else. Of course, we saw an iteration of this character customizability in the Gambit System in Final Fantasy XII, but the Sphere Grid was different in that characters started on different parts of the grid, designating their initial affinity towards being more magic heavy or more attack heavy. This ensured that anyone looking at the Sphere Grid would immediately identify what parts of the board were focused on different things, like where most of the curative spells were and where the physical attack bonuses were located. Imagine my dismay when Final Fantasy X-2 was announced and they got rid of this awesome system in lieu of the Dresspheres. Yech. Still, I consider the Sphere Grid system as one of my favorite gameplay implementations in the Final Fantasy series, and I long for a game to implement something similar to this.

1. Social Link System in Persona 4

If we’re to consider a perfect blend of gameplay with adding color to the narrative, my favorite all time game mechanic would have to be the Social Link system in Persona 4. You might be saying, “But the Tales games have had a similar mechanic for years! Why Persona 4?” The reason why I feel the Social Link system works best in Persona 4 is that, for the most part, you felt that you were getting to know almost every single person in Inaba. The small, sleepy nature of the town, coupled with the notion that you’re a student living in said sleepy town, added to the relative realism to the game and made you really appreciate each character’s presence. Not only that, the Social Link system is crucial if you wanted to fuse different Personas together and whether or not you wanted your party members to be smarter during combat situations. I can’t think of any other system similar to the Social Link system that’s seamlessly integrated into both the narrative and the gameplay in any of the games that I’ve played, let alone had so many wonderful memories with it thanks to a wonderful cast of characters that complemented my gameplay experience.

Persona 4 GoldenAnother Top 5, another mention in my list for Persona 4: Golden. I’m serious, guys – it’s a really good game!


5. Stored Checkpoints as used in Defense Grid: The Awakening

Checkpoints are obviously nothing new to gaming. They have made difficult action games more approachable, platformers less frustrating and now they have found their way into a genre that sorely needed them: tower defense.

In Defense Grid: The Awakening—my absolute favorite tower defense game—checkpoints are placed once every few waves of enemies, but that’s not why it’s on this list. What makes it so awesome is that with the press of a button, you can immediately roll back to the previous checkpoint, and better yet, if you press the button again, you can go back to the prior checkpoint and so on, all the way to the beginning of the stage. Every single checkpoint is stored and remembered, just in case.

In practice, this allows a player to get an idea about the next set of enemies, and if things go sour, rollback, or if things go REALLY sour, roll back even further. This system deemphasizes many of the weak points inherent in the genre, such as the frustrations of failing a long level, or just barely missing a goal of some sort. And like all great systems that make games easier, it can be completely ignored by advanced players seeking a challenge and masochists alike.

I hope more tower defense games adopt this checkpoint system because I sorely miss it in other games.

4. The Portal Gun from Narbacular Drop and used in Portal

Portal seems to pop up on a lot of these lists as though it is zooming through them via some sort of connected series of circular teleportation objects.

Well, here is it again, and why not? It’s an excellent game with a brilliant mechanic, thanks to the developers of Narbacular Drop who were hired by Valve. They went on to make Portal which wrapped their concept up in a nice package, complete with great writing and an unforgettable vocal performance by Ellen McLain as GLaDOS.

But production value notwithstanding, it is the core concept of allowing a player to place two objects on separate surfaces to move between them that made these games so great. Well, that, and some very clever puzzles which take full advantage of the mechanic. I know everyone’s waiting for Half-Life 3, but I’m looking forward to Portal 3 even more.

3. The AI Director from Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead made zombie games fun again, but it simultaneously revitalized the entire cooperative first person shooter genre. I believe the reason for its success is the AI Director, a clever bit of software that determines the placement of enemies throughout each of the stages, as well as certain special effects. It’s more than just plopping down a bunch of enemies at random though, it makes its decisions based on what the players are doing, how it believes they are feeling (how stressed they are) and in the way most suitable for creating a fair challenge. The result is an exhilarating game that is different every time you play it. While the AI Director is busy placing zombies and infected characters around the world, another director is controlling the game’s soundtrack on an individual basis for each player. Everything comes together brilliantly, both in Left 4 Dead and its sequel, and it would not surprise me at all if—like Counterstike—people are still playing this game for years to come.

2. Active Time Battle system as introduced in Final Fantasy IV

Imagine yourself as a game developer in the late 80s or very early 90s trying to figure out how to make RPGs more fun and exciting. You’ve been using the same old turn-based system for years, and though it has worked again and again, providing plenty of depth and entertaining gameplay, the system is starting to feel stagnant and needs something to spice things up. To make things even more urgent, your genre is niche compared to the likes of platformers, action and sports games. What can be done to push RPGs into the mainstream?

Well, we all know the answer to that: Final Fantasy VII. But remember, this is the late 80s or early 90s; full motion video and true cinematic storytelling are only a pipedream at this point. No, it would have to be something else; something that might appeal to a broader audience so that they could enjoy everything RPGs had to offer.

The answer was the Active Time Battle system, a mechanic which injected a real time element into fighting bad guys in RPGs. It first appeared in Final Fantasy IV (the North American Final Fantasy II) on Super Nintendo. In Final Fantasy IV, enemies could attack the player while they were making decisions, and each character could only take an action as often as their ATB Gauge filled up, which was determined by a speed stat—though in Final Fantasy IV, the ATB Gauge was hidden.

The result of this was that every fight was much more exciting than in a traditional turn-based system. When a character was injured, you had to hurry up and heal him or her, because the enemy might strike the finishing blow at any moment. And the faster you could move through the menus, the better.

It wasn’t quite enough to win over the most dedicated action game players, but those interested in a story driven experience that also wanted a bit of excitement were drawn to Final Fantasy IV and the many games that followed that utilized the same battle engine, including Final Fantasy VII, of course.

The Active Time Battle system would remain a staple of the Final Fantasy series all the way until Final Fantasy X finally changed things up. And though I love the battle system in Final Fantasy X, I also enjoyed the triumphant return of the Active Time Battle system in Final Fantasy X-2, which many would argue contains the best version of the system out of all of them.

1. Conditional Turn-Based Battle system from Final Fantasy X

The Conditional Turn-Based Battle system from Final Fantasy X is my favorite battle system out of every RPG I’ve ever played, and since RPGs are my favorite genre, this tops the list. Although it abandons the real time element of the Active Time Battle system, it adds a fantastic layer of strategy to the old turn-based system, resulting in some incredible battles.

The backbone behind this system is the Act List which displays a serious of icons representing the order in which characters and enemies can take their actions. How often a character appears on the list is determined by the speed stat, but there are other ways of manipulating turn order. Certain moves can slow down enemies, bumping them further down the list. Other moves are so fast that they can actually allow the character that used them to get another turn much sooner than they would have otherwise.

The system works brilliantly. Players can figure out when an enemy is going to attack, and set up defenses or cast heals appropriately. Alternatively they can focus their attack on the enemy that will be attacking next, and defeat it before it gets to act. While it may sound easy, the developers were sure to include a few incredibly difficult encounters throughout the game, and it was during those battles that the Conditional Turn-Based battle system really hit the mark.

The system also allows players to swap party members during combat, which further diversifies the strategic options available. You can keep your healer safely out of combat, and swap the character in a crucial moment. Or you can swap an injured character out for a healthy one. And as each character has certain strengths and weaknesses, picking the right character for the battle is also essential. One character (Wakka) is particularly strong against flying enemies for example.

I really wish that Square Enix had not abandoned this battle engine. As much as I enjoyed the systems that followed and appreciate how they tried something new with the Active Dimension Battle system (Final Fantasy XII) and the Command Synergy Battle system (Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2), I really miss the Conditional Turn-Based Battle system and the mechanics that make it work the way it does. I’m looking forward to playing Final Fantasy X again soon as part of the Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD Remaster, and the Conditional Turn-Based Battle system is a big part of why.

Final_Fantasy XThere really was an elegance to the way you did combat in Final Fantasy X, and I for one can’t wait to come back to it once the HD remasters come out.


5. The Gambit System – Final Fantasy XII

Final Fantasy XII is my all-time favourite Final Fantasy and the Gambit System is a huge reason as to why. Allowing  me to configure each character’s actions for battles so that each character would perform specific actions under specific circumstances was amazing at the time and still is today.  This was without a doubt the best combat system in any turn-based RPG ever. I became so good at it, that I could and did get into a combat scenario, put my controller down and watch my party fight and defeat almost any foe with minimal interference on my part. Intuitive and incredibly effective, I wholly stand by the fact that I completely avoided playing XIII because it wasn’t included.

4. Contextual cover – Tomb Raider

Cover mechanics are nothing new in shooters, but for me, I have never seen one better implemented and more intuitive than the one employed in Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider reboot. Instead of having to press a button to stick or unstick from cover, Lara will approach cover and automatically duck behind it. Pressing the aim button will pop her up and allow her to aim at a target and simply moving away from the cover will take her out. There is no stickiness or inadvertent going into cover that happens in so many other games that use the archaic cover system of pressing a button. This is something I hope more developers use over time.

3. The Gravity Gun – Half-Life 2

Easily seen as a precursor to the Portal gun, the Gravity gun gets this spot because it has more than just one use – use equally to solve physics based puzzles and decimate enemies as a projectile launcher. Using it for the first time was incredibly mind-blowing and satisfying. Hurling crates into weighted pulleys or using circular saws to dismember Headcrabs, there is no part of using it that isn’t fun. It was ingenious at the time, and it remains unmatched to this day.

2. ADS – Call of Duty

Aiming down the sights. You will have a lot of the PC elitists who think this is the worst thing to happen to shooters, and they might have valid reasons for thinking so, but to me the precision of pulling the left trigger to bring the gun up and aim down the sights, then shooting your target, with the right is a godsend in terms of controls. Sure, Infinity Ward didn’t develop the concept of ADS, but they perfected it. So much so that nearly every game with shooting, in first-person or third, uses the similar way of aiming.

1. The Portal Gun – Portal and Portal 2

Valve’s developers are something else. Always thinking outside the box, they come up with fantastic ideas and build entire games around them. Thinking it was something of a novelty when it was included in The Orange Box, Portal wound up blowing me away with its writing a fantastic puzzle design. None of that would have mattered had it not had the amazing, mind-bending mechanic of the Portal gun. Using simple controls – each trigger creates it’s own portal, allowing the player to navigate the room and environment to reach the exit. Using portals in tandem with physics, inertia, and later with Portal 2’s gels, the Portal gun has so many out there uses that it’s easy to see why this is my number one.

To be honest, I probably could have filled up this entire list with mechanics used in the Portal games.

The Portal gun is probably one of the most impressive gameplay innovations in the previous generation.


5. Achievements

I’m classifying this as a mechanic. The presence, or lack thereof, of Achievements in a game has affected purchasing decisions more than anyone ever expected. What started as some kind of a thing on the Xbox 360 has evolved into a system that every platform except Nintendo’s (iPhone and Android have global achievements) offers. Many people want to play games to earn the achievements.

Some games do funny things with achievements. Dead or Alive 4 offered 0-point achievements for massive failures. The Stanley Parable essentially openly mocks the system with an achievement for not playing the game for five years. But people become entranced with 100% clearing games, and they try to earn every achievement possible. Designers can lead players to new or desired features or styles of play by offering achievements for them.

4. Super Jumps

In fighting game parlance, a super jump is done by pressing down before you press up. Your character will jump super high in the air.

Simple, really. But when it debuted in X-Men Children Of the Atom, it was crazy to see how high you could jump, how many hits you could do in a combo; bigger, better stuff. Super jumps were the most obvious thing to do, and it felt to be able to move freely around the playfield. A lot of novice players liked this mechanic because it let them get out of corners easily. And heck, since noobs like to jump all the time, now they can jump higher!

Super jumping indiscriminately is a great way to get yourself killed, sure. However, it opened up the rigid constraints of fighting games for many and let them express themselves the way they wanted.

3. Quick Reload

This wasn’t possible until modern machines with more and more RAM and internal storage arrived. But when you die in Halo, you’re quickly restored to your last checkpoint without need for a load.

This mechanic really came into its own with games like Super Meat Boy and Urban Trials Freestyle, where you die often. Instantly being able to reload and start again takes so much of the edge off that a normally frustrating game doesn’t seem so bad.

While not every game does this, it’s much appreciated to those that do. Loading times are a price that doesn’t need to be paid anymore. But now it’s more than just a convenience feature; it’s an integral part of the fun of certain titles.

2. Super Meters

Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo added a funny little orange bar in the corners of the screen. If it filled up, you could do a super move. Holy crap, Ryu could throw a fireball that hit five times!

Landing a super was a big moment in a fighting game, and could turn the tide of a match. Big, watchable moments like this were created because of this, and it helped turn fighting games into even more of a spectator sport. Now, with Evo watched yearly by millions, people stay on the hook for that sweet comeback Ultra, or other major play.

1. Recharging Health

Put this one under “Halo did it”, but nothing signifies the change between old school shooters and newer ones like the recharging health mechanic. In older games, you’ll be running low on health, desperate for a medkit, wary of any attacker that may come round a corner. Halo was the first game that I remember changing it up, with a shield component that would auto-recharge if left alone for a while.

So here we are. Most FPS now use this mechanic, and there is no going back. There are plenty of us that would clamor for the old days, but lowering the skill barrier of a game will undoubtedly make it more popular. The significance of this change, and the effect it had on the video game market, is the reason this gets number 1.

Halo ReachSure. They may have energy shields, but they don’t have Master Chief’s regenerative health.

And there you have it! I gotta say, we all had a fairly varied list of  favorites this week! Sound off on the comments below and tell us YOUR favorite game mechanics in video games and we’ll see if we accidentally missed any while we were deliberating our favorites!

0 thoughts on “The Top 5: Game Mechanics

  1. 5. MiiVer…., oops, that’s wrong, pointless mechanic,….

    Real 5. Trophies – Gives more reason to play the game.

    4. ATB in FFIV – Simple yet satisfying, unlike FFXIII, crap…

    3. Stylish Combo in DmC – Hacking and Slashing with style.

    2. Auto Block Gems (or gems in general) in SFxT – Finally I can go toe to toe to a tourney play, lol, maybe not…

    1. Air Assassination – Just very satisfying…


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