Devlog 34 - Level 4-1, Water Mechanic

Published: May 20, 2022

I spent this week working on the first level in world 4, which introduces the water zone mechanic. Here's a video of the entire stage in action:

Water Zone Rework

It's been a long time since the water mechanic has made an appearance! I initially prototyped this almost an entire year ago, where it looked like this:

The water zones slow down the scrolling rate to 50%, and also make jumps take two beats instead of one. I was also contemplating having the water sections feature triplet-based rhythms.

I liked the idea of the water zones since they seemed intuitive and provided an interesting changeup, but I wasn't sold on the triplet idea, and the beat grids being spaced closer together made things difficult to read. More importantly, I was worried about the chart design space of this mechanic -- since the jump length is increased and scroll speed decreased, the water sections tend to have less notes, not more, which ostensibly makes them easier, not harder.

The new version of the mechanic that I landed on isn't actually too different from the original one. The scroll rate now only slows to 60% (maybe subject to change) to avoid making readability too difficult, and I've done away with the triplet rhythm idea (which is fine, since triplets are already covered by my speed zone mechanic).

The visual representation is also more or less the same, but I've tweaked the blue tinting to something that looks more vivid and cleaner overall. The "waves" on the borders of the water zones are actually done via fragment shader using a sine function. Each water zone actually has its own camera as well, which is used to draw to a render texture, which is then shifted via a similar sine function to give a slight "ripple" effect.

One key change I made with the visuals was to have two separate layers of blue tinting rather than one. I was having trouble because using a more-saturated blue tint was causing the player character and obstacles to look too faded out; I realized the solution was to only tint the gameplay elements slightly (25%) and then use a stronger tint behind that that only applies to the stage backdrops.

Probably the biggest "difference" in the water zones compared to a year ago isn't really a change at all: I've simply found some more interesting chart design aspects of the water zones that seem promising. Here's a small snippet where I use one-beat water zones to accentuate two short flight paths:

On a pure mechanical level this isn't particularly difficult, but the way in which it comes together with the music seems really interesting and satisfying to me. We'll probably get to see even more interesting combinations (rolling spike enemies + water zones) in future levels across this world. Despite the water zone limitations, I managed to have a higher note density for this level than any other level besides 3-5, so it looks like I might not have to worry so much about difficulty with this mechanic.

World 4 Music Theming

Going into world 4, I knew that I wanted to try utilizing pentatonic scales as a musical style choice, but I wasn't entirely sure how I wanted to differentiate the world instrumentation-wise. My previous attempt was straight 9-bit chiptune, but I wanted something a bit more distinct (I really like how world 2 turned out with its "airy/lush" instrumentation to set it apart).

I decided to try and bring in some plucked east asian instruments -- here I've got a shamisen and a yangqin:

These instruments provided a nice textural flavor, but I wasn't confident in their ability to cut through the mix to provide the focal lead melodies, so I fell back on some of my usual chiptune leads for that. However, I also wanted to be sure to bring in this pan flute patch which fit right in:

I'm attempting to lean more into grace notes and similar embellishments in the melody writing here, to fit with the overall vibe.

Next, I needed to figure out what to do with the drums. I was initially thinking of fast drum n bass-style percussion (probably doesn't work at quite this tempo), but I ended up with something like this instead:

The main drum pattern is made of fairly ordinary tight drum sounds, but I'm using half-time drum fills with different elements -- a bigger, more reverbed snare, triangle wave tom rolls, and a ride cymbal -- to accentuate the water zone patterns. I'm liking how this is working out, so I'm going to see if I can continue to have this emphasis on "drum pattern changeups" throughout this world.

Level Graphics

A couple of things to note about the visual design for this world/level:

First, I knew I wanted to have the sky color be bright, to contrast with all of the dark backgrounds from world 3. I've had the idea to draw pyramids for world 4 for a while, so I put those in as well.

Somewhere along the line I started feeling like world 4 should sort of have a "mystical" or "arcane" vibe to it, since it features these blue and red (water and speed) columns. I ended up drawing these simple "floating octahedron" things and have them scrolling in parallax. Very simple, but it definitely looks a lot different than anything we had from world 3. I like how everything has more "depth" because of the shading, which constrasts to all of the more "flat" graphics from the previous world. The ground tileset for world 4 also features diamonds, to go along with this theme.

Something else to note is the clouds, which are actually all the same color, but translucent and overlapping (which causes different shades to come through). Transparent layers are something I've used a little bit in previous levels, but I'm thinking that I should try and experiment with them more across this world to fit with the overall "mystical" vibe and accentuate the feeling of depth.

During the high-energy sections of the song, I switch out the sky color so it looks like a night sky, which to me gives a sort of "alien planet" look. This wasn't something I planned on initially at all -- I was simply playing around with the palettes and realized that I had an extra color slot available and could use it for the background to achieve this effect.

I like how the sky is dark, but the pyramids are still bright, which is different than in world 3 where most of the background layers were all dark. This is something I'll also be trying to keep in mind as a thematic throughline for future levels in this world, if I can.

That's it for this week! Level 4-2 will be next on the docket, and will probably be another water zone-focused level, (then level 4-3 can introduce the speed zones, which are more challenging).

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