Month: June 2018

Idle pleasures: the best idle animations in videogames

Yeah okay, this isn’t about language. But communication, loosely?

I recently played a bit of Cosmic Spacehead, an old Mega Drive game, via the RetroPie. It’s a somewhat rare combination of platform and point-and-click adventure. Bing! goes my nostalgia-meter.

While I was happily playing, something struck me. If I left Cosmic for a few seconds – I mean, literally, count one, then two – he would yawn. This is quite irritating. I guess it makes sense in the faster paced platform levels (which ‘sew’ together the main adventure) – but surely the nature of a point-and-click requires a fair bit of stopping and thinking? Give me a sec, dude!

Anyway, this led me to think about different idle animations in videogames, and which ones are my favourites.

Fifth place: Sonic the Hedgehog – impatiently waiting for you

I couldn’t write this without mention Sonic’s signature foot-tapping. His sardonic expression with furrowed eyebrows really adds to it. And this makes so much sense for Sonic, who would probably atrophy if he stood still for longer than half a second (or, you know, get shot by a bee bot). Classic retro idleness.


Fourth place: Crash Bandicoot – splat ‘n’ shake

A detailed character like Crash lends itself well to idle states. There’s variation in this one, too, which puts it above Sonic. Crash might just look from side to side, or he’ll scratch his head, play with a yo-yo, tremble in the cold – or pick up a fruit, throw it in the air, watch it land on his face, and spin to get rid of it. Bravo.

Crash’s idle animation

(excuse the shoddy footage – Youtube couldn’t help me here)

Third place: Ristar – I’m so cute

This little dude has a different idle animation for each level, so extra marks for that. The best one has to be the snow level, where he builds a tiny snowman and beams with delight. I mean, look at the detail in that.

Interestingly, according to the wiki page, most of Ristar’s idle animations were removed for Western versions.


Second place: Earthworm Jim – not to be left to his own devices

Earthworm Jim boasts a variety of eight different idle states – and who couldn’t be impressed when he removes his head and uses it as a skipping rope? That’s imagination. Imagine being in the board meeting about that. I also snigger when he shoots himself in the face.

First place: Commander Keen – shout when you’re ready

This has got to be my all-time favourite, and is the first one I thought of for this article. It starts off fairly innocuous – Keen looks at his watch, puts his hands on his hips and shrugs. Then he gets so fed up that he sits down and starts reading a book, turning a page every few seconds. That’s just piss-taking at its best. The ultimate narky reproach for your procrastinating hands!

And then there’s the Easter egg in Commander Keen 4, which I only found out about recently. In the Pyramid of the Moons, leave Keen standing still on the moon carving and he’ll pull down his pants and show you his butt. Mooning on the moon, geddit? Apparently he only does it once, which might be why I’d never noticed that as a kid.


Video game terms and where they come from

I’ve been thinking about some of the common terms used in gaming and where they originate.

Definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary.


n. (in a video game) a scene that develops the storyline and is often shown on completion of a certain level, or when the player’s character dies.

Not so long ago I was surprised to learn that ‘cutscene’ was coined by game designer Ron Gilbert, when using the technique in graphic adventure game Maniac Mansion (1987).


Other earlier games used this ‘cutting away’ mechanism to tell bits of story, such as Pacman (1980), but Gilbert gave it a name that is now commonplace among gamers.

Cutscenes offer a way to tell chunks of story outside of the gameplay, providing a bit of respite and moving the story along. I personally like the feeling that I’m ‘looking in’ on what the characters are up to – particularly in games like Maniac Mansion where the antagonists are hidden away. This creates a nice balance between ‘being’ a character at the game’s mercy and having some ‘upper world’ omniscience over it.

Sure, some cutscenes are really long and drawn out – not all game designers use them in the best way – which is when the option to skip comes in handy. At your own peril though, of course, since a lot of cutscenes are designed to give important insight and facts to draw on later.

Cutscenes in the sense of cutting away from the main action are often used in TV now, too – such as in Family Guy, where the growing number of sidegags has become a joke in itself (Conway Twitty, argh).


Jump scare

Adopted from the film industry, ‘jump scare’ hasn’t made it into any official dictionaries yet. However, it’s one that’s widely known in gaming as a unexpected scary moment that makes you jump (pretty self-explanatory). For me, it evokes images from games like Five Nights at Freddy’s (2014) (or the Cluck Y’egger minigame I played more recently), where things (mutated chickens!) pop out of the darkness to frighten the willies out of the player. These kinds of games are built on jump scares – you’re waiting for one each ‘night’ that you play.


Before those, Resident Evil (1996) is often referenced as the first video game to use the technique. I’m not a fan of survival horrors, but I can see how jump scares fit into them.

Some critics deem the jump scare a cheap and easy technique, in comparison to long, drawn-out psychological horror. I guess it depends on your taste. I find I don’t appreciate jump scares as much as I did in my childhood – if I watch a horror or play something scary, I’m in it for the long game. I want to feel uneasy, confused or suspicious – not like I’ve just given myself whiplash.


n. (in a video game) a bonus which a player can collect and which gives their character an advantage such as more strength or firepower.

When you think ‘power-up’, do you hear Sonic’s triumph tune? I do. Whether it’s an extra life, growth spurt, speedy feet, invincibility, or temporary disabling of your enemies, there’s a large amount of satisfaction attributed to the power-up. Especially if you had to fight teeth and claw to get it.

Like the cutscene, power-ups are thought to have started in Pacman, a la those extra-big pellets that temporarily make the ghosts ineffective while you dash about collecting more, erm, pellets (and wiping out the ghosts). Power-ups are considered perks that are immediately applied, unlike special weapons or inventory items that are used later or in special circumstances.

The use of ‘up’ after another word is a Japanese language construct, meaning to increase the word that comes before it. ‘1-up’ is also a common term in gaming, usually meaning to gain an extra life (first seen in Super Mario).

It also made me think of power-downs in Mega Bomberman. These naturally have the opposite effect – reducing the player’s strength or upping the opponent’s (or both, argh!) How I used to hate picking up those slow-down ones, dragging my feet in a mad panic. I also remember power-downs in Prince of Persia. Woe betide the fool who drinks the red potion and loses a life (extremely precious in that game). The worst ones are those that trick you into thinking you’re getting a power-up (think poisoned mushroom from Mario) – serves you right for being greedy! Or obsessive, in my case.