Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games
May 30, 2008 Page 19 of 23
Skull & Crossbones
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Skull & Crossbones is a forgotten game. Not one of Atari Games' bigger hits, it's difficult to control and requires lots of money to get to the end, unless the player learns the twitchy swordfighting scheme, and even then it's easy to feel screwed over. Up to two players take to the seas at once in attempt to defeat an evil wizard.
The game alternates between ship levels, where the player boards opposing vessels and defeats pirates and enemy captain, and island levels, which have considerably more variety in dangers. Ships are generally easier, and provide extra health pickups, but islands have more treasure.
I mentioned the annoying control, and I really should elaborate on that. Player control consists of a joystick and two buttons, Turn and Sword. The players' pirates can attack in either direction from either facing by using the joystick in conjunction with the Sword button, but can only defend forward.
The game's attract mode illustrates how players are supposed to defend from sword blows and attack enemies high and low and using backstabs. Tapping Sword and forward or back at the same time performs reaching attacks, while holding the button down and moving the joystick up or down guards in those directions. That's how it's supposed to work, but the jerky animation and weird, laggy walking make it difficult to utilize this knowledge effectively in the game.
One of the things Skull & Crossbones does well is style. It took what is a fairly simple swordfighting game and gave it a thick coat of Pirate Paint, and this is best illustrated by the treasure hoard screen. Here, the player is given a more tangible measure of their success than just a score. At the start of the game the player begins with an empty hold on their ship, which is shown at the bottom of the screen between levels.
As the player collects various pieces of treasure by digging it up and finishing levels, it's not just added to the player's score, it's moved to the hold screen, where it piles up over the course of the game. The amount of loot varies according to how dedicated the player has been at digging it up and which path he's taken through the game, with harder difficulties being longer but providing much more booty.
When the Evil Wizard is defeated, all the treasure the player has collected during the game is displayed, from magic crowns to mere piles of coins, while initials are entered. It was a nice touch.
Unfortunately, collecting that booty is a bit problematic. Throughout the island levels are scattered Xs on the ground that the player can dig up by standing on them and pressing Sword. Once the digging begins, it happens automatically; the player can move on and kill enemies while invisible mates, I presume, do the digging. After a length of time proportional to its worth the treasure will be dug up and the player can collect it by walking over it.
It's an interesting mechanic because like most arcade games, each level in Skull & Crossbones is timed. The player has far more than enough time to get to the end if all he does is kill enemies, but digging up treasure takes extra time, and if time runs out the player's health shifts into Gauntlet mode, emptying one unit per second.
The game encourages players to be greedy to fill the hold screen, and messages after each level tell how much wealth was missed, but the game's one-way scrolling is eager to move Xs off-screen unless a pirate is standing at the edge blocking it, so in the end it feels like being nagged over something the player really has no control over.
The difficulty system could stand a little elaboration, being unusually flexible even by Atari standards. At three points in the game, the player is asked to choose a difficulty. All difficulties go through the same areas, but if easier routes are chosen the player gets abbreviated versions of all stages, enemies have less health, and they telegraph their moves further in advance.
Once a hard difficulty is chosen at a route, easier difficulties are removed from later selection screens, and if the players pick hard at the first choice they're locked into hard mode the rest of the way. (They are rewarded for doing this, however, by being able to find treasure that provides invincibility during much of the boss rush in the final level.)
Skull & Crossbones has many cool ideas in it, but in the end the spastic movement just makes it frustrating. Other, more polished games that were much easier to control were populating arcades at the time. Konami's fondly-remembered, oily-slick Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out the same year. Sitting alongside its responsive action and smooth animation, Skull and Crossbones must have seemed grossly inferior.
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