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Ah, mimics. Is there any video game moment more infuriating (or hilarious) than reaching out to pop the lock on a fresh, juicy treasure chest, only to have the damn thing sprout teeth and try to shove you into its suddenly waiting maw? Dating back at least as far as the first Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, mimics—monsters that disguise themselves as treasure chests or other common objects—are the ultimate joke of the dungeon-crawling world, a subversion of expectation that creates surprise, laughter, and rage in roughly equal measures.
But not all mimics are created equal. And in honor of Dark Souls III, one of the most mimic-heavy games to ever Trojan Horse its way into people’s homes, I thought I’d take a minute to look over the four traits that raise truly great mimics above their randomly appearing, uncreative, and boxy brethren.
This is the “Oh, you bastards” trait of mimic design. By now, every adventurer worth their salt knows not to trust a random treasure chest sitting out in the middle of a dungeon floor. But how many people look askance at pots, barrels, or even doors? The most clever of these non-traditional fakers is probably the Evil Door from Cave Story, which waits at the end of the game’s opening area. The Door telegraphs itself reasonably—more on the need for “fair” mimics later—but it’s still a nasty trap for first-time players, especially given the low Time-To-Mimic (TTM) factor that’s in play.
Meanwhile, Cave Story’s got nothing on the malevolent inventiveness of old-school D&D, which had creatures called “house hunters”—mimics that pretended to be actual buildings—among its wide cornucopia of hero-hungering fakes.
If you’re going to lure in a bunch of heavily armed, genre-savvy fish, you’re going to need the proper bait. And while a carefully arranged trap could be as simple as hoarding up huge piles of filthy lucre and slapping a “Free Money” sign in front of your waiting, toothy mouth, there’s one thing most players will almost always blindly barge toward: a save point.
This is one of those ideas that’s been around for a while—Chrono Trigger had save point enemies way back in 1995, and the Final Fantasy got in on the fun in FF12. The most devious fake save point might be the one in I Wanna Be The Guy, a notoriously difficult platformer/exercise in masochism. Like everything else in the game, the “EVIL” save point kills you in one hit, but it’s also the last save point in the entire game, ensuring that it’ll probably catch even battle-hardened paranoids at least once when they’re tempted in by the illusion of safety it provides.
Opening one chest and seeing a slavering mouth full of teeth is shocking; opening 10 is kind of a bore. (This is a lesson that Dark Souls III could have taken to heart.) The more times a game deploys the mimic trick, the less impact it’ll have, and the more rote that brilliant surprise will feel.
Cases in point: Shovel Knight and Super Metroid, each of which bait-and-switch the player exactly once with a treasure-related fake out. Super Metroid’s mimic is more shocking, if only because it comes so early. When Samus Aran grabs the bomb upgrade—complete with the anxiety dispelling “You got an item” tune that heralds a new addition to your arsenal—all seems right with the world. But then the door to the treasure room locks, the music swells, and the seemingly benign Chozo Statue that was just offering you loot stands up and goes on the attack.
Shovel Knight takes a goofier approach. The Relic chest in the underwater Treasure Knight level is revealed to be the literal lure of a giant angler fish. The subsequent chase through the underwater ruins evokes another video game ambush: the jumping, perilous escape from the Mecha Dragon in Mega Man 2.
Above all, a good mimic must be fair. That is, the player must have some reasonable way to avoid getting munched on, provided they’re paying proper attention. The ultimate in monster egalitarianism comes from a game that’s probably done more for the cause of mimic appreciation in the modern era than any other: the original Dark Souls.
The first mimic in Dark Souls—hidden in Sen’s Fortress, the game’s infamous “deadly house of traps”—is a master class in subtly hinting that something’s wrong. First, it’s sitting askew in the middle of the floor, unlike almost every other chest in the game. Closer examination reveals that its physical appearance is slightly off from regular chests, too, especially the subtle breathing. Most elegantly, the game’s multiplayer messaging system will usually be there to warn new players, as your fellow Chosen Undead have tagged the chest with messages like “Watch out for trap” or “Try attacking.”
Follow that advice, and you’re in for a moment of pure, horrified delight as the creature reveals its massive tongue and rows of teeth—made, in a super gross touch, from human fingers that it’s presumably bitten off—and stands up on spindly legs to kick you to death. Combined with the thrill of realizing you’ve avoided an almost certainly lethal trap, it’s the perfect showcase for what a highly effective mimic can do.