Rusty Staples: The Old Palette Swap Trick
Gaming has certainly gone through many transformations over the years. Evolving from a few pixelated blocks to the third dimension, video games have truly undergone their fair share of rebirths. But upon each metamorphosis, wherein the casting of the previous generation is broken and thrown aside, a few snags happen; a few leftover pieces are still attached, sucking the life force of enjoyment from the host’s body. Unfortunately, these leeches seem nearly impossible to shake and will sometimes even be fed by the industry itself. These excruciating relics from days of old refuse to die with dignity, never letting go, even for the benefit of the whole.
Like the aged and beaten tacks stuck in an overused telephone pole on the corner of a busy street, these are gaming’s “Rusty Staples”.
The Origin of Palette Swaps
Back in the day when there were no such things as walkthroughs or save files and the memory on game cartridges was still measured in kilobytes, the necessary evil of palette swaps was looked upon as an amazing feat of genius – a brilliant workaround. When you encountered the “red bad guys” as opposed to “the blue ones” it signified the advancement to the stages of true masters; levels one could brag about at school, leaving your friends in awe of the places they had never seen. The kind of levels where the ships could even shoot… diagonally! Enemies took four hits to die instead of three. Levels where new secrets still lay hidden and patterns had yet to be figured out.
There was a time when the change of a color scheme meant actual variation in behavior or gameplay. Enemies didn’t just look different; they carried different weapons, moved in different patterns, and could really be called a “new” enemy. A swap was acceptable back then. It was almost a natural progression to see these minor changes later in the game. But now that discs have ample room for storage, these obtuse and unrefined blemishes on the face of gaming should be pinned downed and squeezed out like a massive whitehead on a fat kid’s forehead.
Contemporary Palette Swaps: Boring
Seeing a palette swap done in today’s day and age is like watching a rerun on TV – you’ve seen it before, you know how it ends, and the more you have seen it, the less interesting it becomes. By the time the “upgraded” swap comes around, you’ve probably seen its first form at least a hundred times and have grown, quite frankly, sick of looking at its ugly, often rigid, mug. You already know its pattern, you know how to defend against it, and the subtle change the newer version brings is often coupled with minimal differences in almost all aspects.
Take, for instance, the flans in the Final Fantasy series (seen above.) You’ve just got done fighting snow/ice/blizzard ones for the past two hours as you suffered your way through the Frigid Frozen Waterfalls Cave (or some corny, face palm worthy name that makes an obvious poke at what to expect in this area). Assuming you’re not in a vegetative state, nor missing three quarters of your brain, you undoubtedly can figure out its strengths and weaknesses in no more than five moves, and that’s a rather liberal allowance of stupidity. Given what you’ve learned and, hopefully, been able to retain, you will know precisely how to handle the various other palette swaps of the flan variety for the remainder of the game. Thus, the surprise and novelty of not knowing how to address the situation of the presence of a new enemy is stripped away, and will eventually leave you with a placid sense of disregard. Enemies will become commonplace and your perception of them will be dulled. They quickly become seen as a chore rather than a pleasure. So if the entertainment value is removed, what then is the point of its inclusion?
Now, I give the developers a lot of credit. I know it takes a lot of time to create each new character, animate them, create the various mathematical stats, and place them in the game at various locations. But there comes a point where laziness or time constraints becomes the primary cause of action. When there are over 15 different swaps of basically the same species in the game, perhaps it would be better to just create a new creature altogether.
The Curious Case of the Bunnit
And herein lays the crux of my bickering – Xenoblade Chronicles. Now, before you start to sharpen your knives and grab your pitchforks, I’m not saying this makes it a bad game. I’m only harping on one point. It’s just oversaturated with the same enemies. There are over, as I said before, 15 different versions of the Bunnit, a rabbit-like creature whose tail acts as a third arm and often wields various weapons. Now is there truly a need for such extensive reuse? Could they have not stopped at 10 and took the time to come up with an additional creature?
I can see the appeal to developers to go the route of palette swaps, but taking the easy way out takes its toll on the final product as well as their consumers. It ruins the thrill and cheapens the experience. A couple swaps here and there wouldn’t be so bad, but the extent to which Xenoblade was carried out to starts to get ridiculous.
Palette swaps are the vestigial tail of gaming anatomy. They serve no purpose anymore but can’t be done away with because the veins and nerve endings, better known as “time” and “money”, are still wrapped and twined within them. Perhaps one day they’ll forever fade from existence but for the time being, we all just have to put up with that flaccid appendage swinging about. And 15 different versions of the Bunnit.