Welcome to another week of Five of the Best, a series where we celebrate the overlooked parts of video games, like hands! And potions! And dinosaurs! And shops! They're the kinds of things etched unwittingly into memory, like an essential ingredient of a favourite dish you could never put a finger on. And I want to spark discussion, so please share memories as they flash into your mind. Today, another five. The topic...
Health pick-ups! Oh how very specific - but I need to be. I'm not talking about health systems but the things you pick up to heal yourself. Used to be all games did it this way, but then Halo came along with its recharging health and all of a sudden everyone wanted the same. Now that feels like the norm.
But there are old-fashioned health systems out there (and they'll probably take offence at being called old-fashioned, so I'm sorry, I don't mean it in a bad way!). I still see Overwatch health packs when I close my eyes at night, and potions, which I've written a whole Five of the Best on, are a dime a dozen in RPGs. They're still out there, still crucial to how we get through games.
Here's to their health. Here are Five of the Best health pick-ups in games according to me. Don't forget to share yours below.
I know, I know, I've gone mainstream, but the bandages in Fortnite are great. It's not the first game to use them and it won't be the last, but the risk-reward idea of patching yourself up, and it taking time, works wonderfully. Do you leave yourself vulnerable while you quickly slap on a bandage - probably a conforming bandage? Yes I have done my first aid training, actually, very polite of you to ask.
It's an even greater risk if using a medkit, which heals more but takes longer to apply. It's also quite bulky - imagine carrying that around. And I wonder which things from the kit you actually use - seems like an awful lot of waste. Maybe a Burnshield dressing, making sure you've put your Nitrile powder-free disposable gloves on first. No of course I'm not just copy-pasting things from the St. John's Ambulance website!
But my fav health pick-up in Fortnite is the legendary Chug Jug. It just sounds so solid: "chug jug". It looks so solid too, like a keg nicked from a frat party. No wonder it takes 15 seconds to down it. But when you do: full health and armour. The ultimate (very filling) risk-reward.
The Legend of Zelda
Sure, those red potions are pretty great. Those red potions are A-okay. Down on health? Hope you've got a red potion! Fabbo.
But you know what's really cool? A fairy in a bottle. A fairy just waiting in a bottle. It's cool to capture them. It's cool to go into battle knowing they're in there. It's cool to uncork them and watch them sort of spin around you, giving you a proper toot of health to keep you going, maybe even a revive.
Zelda is a series where the little things are extremely evocative, of course. The clink of rupees in a bag somewhere, those funny burr guys that cling on and slow you down. But the fairy in the bottle might be the best little thing of the lot. Unlike the boomerang, a fairy in a bottle never loses its luster. Just put some holes in the top okay?
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
My son asked me the other day, "If vampires drink blood, what do they eat?" And you know what? I couldn't answer it. I don't even really care what the answer is. It's the question I like - how delightfully childlike, how penetratingly simple!
We all know vampires drink blood, you see. But still, there's a thrill when you get to do it, to be the vampire. A helpless victim, a graceful swoop, a bite. Lovely stuff. And Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines was the game that realised it for me (I am very excited for the upcoming sequel).
But it wasn't just the necking I remember, it was the blood packs. They're just so wrong! Pouncing on people is quite romantic in a vampire way, but pinching blood packs from hospitals and doctor's surgeries? That's outrageous! Yet there I was, minutes into the game, ransacking refrigerators to steal a vital lifeline from the needy. What a bloody monster!
(Incidentally, go and give blood.)
I was going to write Quake 2 (multiplayer) because I was raised on it, much like how Mowgli was raised by wolves, and I can still hear the bassy duh-dum noise the health packs make when you pick them up, but actually, Doom does them better. Well not better, exactly, but it does more with the same sort of system.
Health pick-ups are essential to your route through a level. They're almost like the flags skiers fly through, in that you beeline for them. Doom is a game about arena survival so you have to know where health pick-ups are, or you die. Sometimes I felt like they were the only thing I could see - me, frantically charging for one, tailed by an army of hell's worst. It's not unlike the feeling of being the ship in Geometry Wars, always only a hair's breadth from the swarm.
Doom embellishes this health pick-up system in a couple of ways. It adapts the power of pick-ups based on how well you're doing, so if you're nearly dead, pick-ups heal more, so it subtly keeps you alive but only ever by the skin of your teeth. Doom also uses health to incentivise gory kills, its showboating moves. They force health drops, you see, encouraging you to risk performing them. And all of this mixed together ensures health packs in Doom are much more than a rote necessity - they're an integral part of your gameplay plan.
(Incidentally, Doom Eternal - the follow-up - is due out 22nd November this year. Can't wait!)
Beyond Good and Evil
One of the many little things that made Beyond Good and Evil feel like a place as much as a game were the health pick-ups. Feeling low? Enjoy some Starkos or - if you're really peaky - a thing of K-Bups. I say a thing of K-Bups because the game is wonderfully vague about what they are and what they come in. These matte purple globes: are they fruit or are they some kind of candy? Is that a shell that might splinter and crack and reveal liquer? And oh yes, is that a box or a sack they're in? Can it be recycled?
The thing I really like about K-Bups and Starkos is not just that they keep you in the fiction when you're looking for a health top-up. It's that lots of games have looked around for food solutions to health pick-ups, but Beyond Good and Evil has looked a little further. No chicken dinners or hamburgers or what have you. K-Bups and Starkos talk of small family restaurants in back alleys, of special markets you have to be in the know to find. They speak of a world of food, of food specifics, rather than a placeholder that stands in for something bland and basic.