I am currently making a run 'n gun platformer, in which the player dies instantly when they get hit. I'm curious how to make this feel fair. I'm aware of putting checkpoints frequently enough, allowing the player to retry almost instantly, and merciful hitboxes. But I'm curious to know how I should go about level design? Run 'n guns are much different from sanic-speed wall jump platformers like meat boy.

You see, games like Hollow Knight let you learn how to avoid taking hits early in the game by giving easy challenges. If you get hit by something unexpected in Hollow Knight, you can always focus and gain some health, and it wouldn't feel unfair. If that happened in my game, that would feel unfair.

Since I'm designing a Megaman-X like game with a boss at the end of each stage, how am I supposed to go about teaching the player how to dodge fast moving projectiles that you would only know how to dodge after seeing how they act?

And yes, there is going to be a first level before you can go play the other ones in whatever order you like.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You may find it useful to look into antepieces, where an obstacle or enemy is introduced in a safe environment to give players a chance to practice with them, before being used in a manner where failure means damage or death. Even if all damage is death, using them remains a viable way to give a player a preview so they know what to expect before forcing them to do or die. Alternatively, invincibility powerups might be used to let the player preview something before having to do it for real. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 18:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm aware of the safe environment thing, but the invincibility power-up is a really good idea. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$
    – user124517
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 19:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Coming in from a different genre, Geometry Dash may also be an inspiration for how to do "one-hit-and-you're-dead" thing well without frequent checkpoints. \$\endgroup\$
    – Peteris
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 22:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you played the game "I wanna be the Boshy"? It's a silly, meme-filled, fan-made game, but it has gotten a certain cult status. It's a one-hit-and-you-are-dead kind of game, but it is made to be deliberately annoying and ruthless. Play this game, and learn what is done to make it seem "unfair", and you can do the opposite. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eff
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 8:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Its a 2d platformer shooter so i think your enemies shoot too? In that case build 'natural' defenses for short time hiding to make the player rest and plan the next steps, as well as calming down after a rush \$\endgroup\$
    – user121243
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 11:40

4 Answers 4


That's the trade-off to this kind of game play design, the player is expected to die many times to learn mechanics and Boss abilities. To make those deaths palatable to the player I have a few ideas:

1) nothing can be random, everything must have a pattern that can be learned. There is nothing more unfair than dying to an attack you've never seen before and will probably never see again.

2) hit boxes should be precise and dependable, don't make them "merciful" because then the player will feel out of control, and the player should always feel in control.

3) reaching a checkpoint should be a Big Deal, make reaching checkpoints exciting and use them to pace the game so the player won't get fatigued playing nonstop. Think of Checkpoints as a pacing mechanic, not a fairness mechanic; the fairness comes from game play and not the rest stops in-between all that playing.

4) alternate easy progress toward a checkpoint with skill+learning challenges to reach the next, let the player feel good about playing better. If the player has immediate feedback like that then new challenges feel fair because they know that it can be learned, just like they did before!

5) bosses should be a Huge Payoff, and you might consider adding a scoring system to encourage players to go back multiple times to achieve special conditions and raise their performance scores. While the player may die a lot it feels fair if they are working towards an extraordinary goal.

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    \$\begingroup\$ 1) I understand that. Random isn't something that can be thrown around wille-nille. However, if the player can react to it with a cue, such as breathing in before spitting acid or making a motion before charging. 2) By Merciful I mean in the player's favor. For instance, the hitbox of a projectile will be slightly smaller than what it looks like, but not too much. 3) Ok. 4) Ok. 5) Ok for the payoff, but I don't want some sort of scoring system as that would ruin the point of the game I'm making. Perhaps achievements for the game in all instead of single levels, like beating it < 1H \$\endgroup\$
    – user124517
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 19:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ One possibility is to add a recovery mechanic where one hit doesn't kill but severely weakens you and the second hit will kill you for sure. The early Super Mario games did this, where the mushroom in addition to making you larger, gave you the ability to take the first hit without dying. Sonic did something similar with the rings - get hit once and your rings go flying, but if you can recapture some of them before a second hit, you don't die. In either case, the first hit is a significant penalty without being an instant death. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 21:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not convinced about the recovery mechanic in that role, but it might be an advanced-levels puzzle to solve (i.e. Pick Up Powerup + Run Through Deadly Trap + Recover On Other Side). Or the recovery mechanic could be part of a Difficulty setting and turned off for Hard modes and above. Good potential tool to use to build out the game! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 22:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not interested in recovery that much as that would be more frustrating in the levels where there is a lot going on. Good idea though. \$\endgroup\$
    – user124517
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 22:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Nothing random vs. random with cue significantly changes the feel of the game. Imagine someone trying to speedrun the game. If there is nothing random, they can memorize the patterns and it's purely a test of memory and reflexes. If there are random attacks with cues, then sometimes they will get the "bad" result and have to restart the level through no fault of their own. Both decisions can lead to good games, but the decision should be taken very carefully. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 16:23

In addition to Patrick's answer:

  • Time it takes to retry needs to be short, borderline instantaneous. Take Super Meat Boy as an example. Compare with Teslagrad's 4 second death animation.

  • Time it takes to regain your progress should also be relatively quick. This goes along with Patrick's comments regarding checkpoints. Taslagrad is pretty good here, as you respawn at the entrance to the room you just entered and most rooms can take only seconds to completely transverse, no more than a minute at the high end.

  • No long term consequences beyond time lost. Don't penalize the player's exp or in-game currency. Such penalties lead to the player complaining about cheap deaths. For instance, in Teslagrad I found a particularly hard puzzle that kept repaving me facing towards the door I entered, and if I tried to start the puzzle without first turning around, I'd kill myself by miss-timing a jump+ability usage. Which cost me am additional 5 seconds as. I waited for the death animation to finish.

  • Put limits on the frequency, accuracy, and coordination skills required when building your puzzles or other challenges. The tighter the accuracy or timing the worse off your game will be, as those players that have issues (be they handicapped or just less skilled) will grow frustrated and rage-quit. This is particularly important when it comes to boss fights. "Do the thing 3 times, 3 times" is the biggest complaint I've seen about Teslagrad. Everyone rapidly figures out what they need to do, but actually doing it often requires incredibly precise timing or movement. The act isn't even that hard, its pulling it off 9 times in a row without getting hit that's the problem.

    • This is also why I hate Super Meat Boy myself. The slippy controls combined with the pixel-perfect jumping, frame-perfect timing is something I just can't do.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great additions, I agree with all of them. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 20:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ 1. Just got on this site after playing super meat boy, and I did mention that. 2. Okey dokey. New Game+ is something I will do to be punishing instead >:) 3. Ok. I don't have any lives/currency. Its just do level, beat it, play another, and dialogue after you beat bosses. 4. Once you reach a boss and die on it, screen quickly fades black and then back to fighting again. Also, I'm not sure how to compensate for handicapped due to the fact that my game is based around challenge(like meat boy) 5. I enjoy meat boy, but hey, can't please everyone. Thanks for the additions! \$\endgroup\$
    – user124517
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 22:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not all of the points apply to all games. Sonic is probably the closest example I can think of for a game where you lose "currency" when you get hit, but that's instead of having to restart the level. And even just a simple "skip this level" option can be enough: puzzle-platforms are best when the player can decide "you know what, this level's too much" and can try another one. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 2:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ 1. I think he meant lose currency when you die. For instance, if you fail to reclaim your loot before dying a second time, that loot is gone. Like Shovel Knight, Dark Souls, or Hollow Knight. I don't have any currency in my game either. 2. 'Skip this level thing' works in many cases, like meat boy. However, since I want challenge and this game is much similar to megaman X but you die in one hit, I don't think I'll be adding that in. Thanks for the advice though! \$\endgroup\$
    – user124517
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 1:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Shovel Knight, Dark Souls, and Hollow Knight are good examples, I just haven't played any of them, so they weren't games I could immediately point to. Anyway, at least I gave you some things to think about! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 2:15

The best thing you can do when dealing with situations like these is to study other games that share mechanics and systems with what you intend. Given your description, the two off the top of my head that I think you should most look at are Metal Slug and Contra. Both involve gun usage as their primary mechanic in a sidescrolling platformer environment, and both involve one hit and dead mechanics like you describe.

Some things that you will notice in games like these is that because getting hit is so costly, there are almost no "surprise" attacks. Nothing moves fast unless there is a huge telegraph to go with it that clearly shows that you should move/jump/whatever so you don't die. You need to give people opportunities to see how things might kill them via a combination of telegraphing and make sure that the oncoming death is slow enough that they have a fair amount of time to react before it actually hits them.

Another thing games like this share is a lives system as opposed to a checkpoint one. Where death respawns you right where you died a moment or two later, usually with a little mercy invincibility to help you get through whatever just killed you. This allows you to use your number of lives as a kind of limited pool of mistakes available to you without breaking flow entirely. While this might not be strictly necessary, the ubiquity of it is something I would analyze for game feel, especially comparing with other popular "one hit death" games like bullet hells.

Finally, a critical piece is that how the game responds must be predictable! Successful play and flow in games like these requires understanding and abusing the mechanics of the game to enable deathless play. Randomness is not entirely out of the question, but things like enemy spawns, enemy AI, and bullet patterns should be very understandable and predictable so that skilled players can use that information to their advantage. Getting through a section because it was easier than usual or getting stymied because RNG hates you both feel bad when the mechanics imply it should be down to your skill.

  • \$\begingroup\$ 1. I'll be sure to look at those games when I can. Unfortunately neither are in the 3DS eShop virtual console. 2. I'll be sure to keep this in mind. 3. Eh... that WORKS but that feels more like health and perma-death. 4. Okey dokey. Thanks for taking the time to answer this! \$\endgroup\$
    – user124517
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 0:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ As an exercise, try watching this level of Metal Slug 2 and see if you can identify where it's teaching you how things work and how it's layering on the difficulty. The player clearly has played the level a number of times before so you can also see how player skill can take advantage of things like not moving close enough to trigger AI or rushing other units before they can become a threat. Also don't feel like you have to copy every mechanic, just be aware of why things might tend to go that way so you don't ignore needs they might cover \$\endgroup\$
    – Lunin
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 0:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Contra 4 in particular has a very well done easy difficulty mode for those not used to the demands of the genre. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark S.
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 17:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Upvoted for a reason that ain't just games. One major "how to be a writer" essay said about genres of literature, "If you want to write detective novels, read a thousand detective novels; if you want to write romance, read a thousand romance novels." Part of the answer was specifying which games would be best to study for your specific case, but the bulk of it is, "Learn from the classics in whatever arena you're working in, even if you are trying to do something genuinely new." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 21:22

Rather than one hit dead, short of strong bosses and special enemies, why not use injuries as a way to make things feel real. Injuries tend to slow player movement(jump lower, run slower), impede vision (blurry screen), hearing (gun shots sounds lower or louder depending) or any other the users other senses.

Or if you are definitely focused on keeping the one hit die, take lessons from Contra, frequent armor drops, lots of life drops, starting with lots of lives help. Though you have to create a good enough balance, that allows you to give the user just enough lives without the user feeling as if you are making the game too easy. User testing is a must for that option.

Another Idea from an older game I used to play, was a check point or auto save feature, when you make it to bosses.

Allowing friendly fire between enemy units: This allows the user to use explosions and other enemies fire to make the game a bit more forgiving, if they are talented enough to dodge missiles, shots etc. Which relates to predictability, another answer her discusses this a bit.

This one may be a bit far fetched, but adding vehicles (tanks, plans, cars, horses??) that can take a few shots before exploding at certain parts of the level, that may be littered with enemies.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Not very helpful, but thanks for answering anyway! \$\endgroup\$
    – user124517
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 1:26

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