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Game Design Essentials: 20 Difficult Games

August 23, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 11 Next

5. Solomon's Key

The game has nothing to do with the Old Testament story, but it has everything to do with hurting. Entertaining puzzles and play, but ultimately requires reading a FAQ to beat it.

Developed by Tecmo.

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

There are "Solomon's Seals" scattered throughout the NES version's 49 levels. They are particularly well-hidden prizes, and there are eight of them. They are all found by placing a block in a particular place then removing it, with no clues to its location. Without all of them the player cannot get the best ending, and that's only the start....

Watch for:

There are plenty of other secret objects in the game as well. Most of them are worth vast numbers of points. There is an extra life in the third level of the game (NES version): on your first attempt on the level, place a block in the upper-right-hand corner and remove it. This requires that you do something about the sparks in that room, of course.

The most hidden rooms aren't just difficult to figure out, they contain what appear to be unbreakable blocks sealing in essential objects. Sometimes the appearance is fake, but sometimes you have to perform arcane tricks to make them vulnerable.

Solomon's Key is of the breed of block-action platform puzzle games. The difficulty all lies in the ways the player can place walls upon the landscape, and the ways he can use and manipulate them. In fact, it might be the first of the type. Enemies are often killed by placing a block, letting them walk on it, then destroying it.

The rules to this one: wizard Dana can make a yellow block in front of him, at his feet in front of him, and if he jumps in the air in front of him. He can jump one block high, and with two jumps can destroy a block overhead. Usually he can do none of these things with white blocks. Some enemies are killed by dropping them by destroying a block under their feet, in other cases enemies reverse direction when they hit one, or flow along the outside of placed blocks.

One of the things that makes Solomon's Key different from most puzzle games, however, is the occasional ways the rules are broken. Not only do a couple of secret rooms lie to the player about which blocks can be shattered, but objects commonly appear when you place and remove blocks over empty spaces, enemies appear out of mirrors constantly on some levels but don't on others, some items (including a few keys in the arcade version) can be changed into others using the block-creation button, and the bonus levels randomly scatter the prizes.

To achieve the best ending, the player must find all eight “Solomon’s Seals”, which are well-hidden objects that can only be produced by placing blocks in the right spots and destroying them, entering the secret “Page of Time” and “Page of Space” rooms and figuring out their obscure tricks, then visiting the “Princess Room” and figuring out yet another highly obscure block breaking trick, then finally going on to the last level and figuring out what the hell you’re supposed to do to perform its trick. Trick is the only word for these solutions; they cannot be figured out from logic alone. One is tempted to not call this kind of difficulty wankery, but it is true that there are obscure clues alluding to some of the solutions in the manual.

How hard is it?

Puzzle games often have a reputation as being extremely hard, and there are two that top the list. Solomon's Key is a game that few have won, and far fewer have gotten the best ending for. Some puzzles (I'm looking at you final room!) are essentially impossible without tremendous luck or a FAQ. By the way, much of the information in this entry comes to us courtesy of Tom Votava's excellent Solomon's Key FAQ. For all we know the arcade might have as many secrets as the NES version, but no one's written a FAQ about it yet, so....

Design lesson:

The game's difficulty and great variety of secrets make this a prime example of what I call a mysterious game, where so many awesome things lie hidden within that, for a while, it feels like a wonderful adventure. Call it the Bubble Bobble effect.

Comparison: Arcade vs. NES

Wikipedia's page on Solomon's Key.

GameFAQ's page on the NES version of the game.

KLOV's page on the arcade version of the game.

A fan site devoted to the game.

6. Adventures of Lolo, a.k.a. Eggerland, series

Start with Sokoban, take away the requirement to get boxes in the right spots but add in enemies, items, powers, water and all kinds of other things. The result may not be as elegant as Sokoban, but it has definite charm.

Developed by HAL Laboratory.

Length: Short to long (depending on Sokoban experience)

Cool fact:

There are a number of tricks that players must pick up in order to make it through these games. One of them: boxes can be pushed "halfway" across the tile grid, sometimes blocking two Medusas at once!

Watch for:

The Snakey Displacement technique. Argh!

HAL Labs’ pre-Nintendo rule-oriented puzzle game Eggerland, known as Adventures of Lolo in the U.S., is heavily inspired by Sokoban. Our hero’s primary ability is that he can push boxes, here called “Emerald Framers,” but unlike Sokoban this is only ever a means to an end. The object of each room is to collect all the “Heart Framers,” then getting the jewel in the now-open treasure chest somewhere on the level. Then the door to the next level opens up.

Also new to the formula here are the various enemies which get in the way or even attack the player. The blocks become more than a hindrance due to them, as they can be used to hinder enemy movement, block shots, or even obstruct some particularly lethal monsters’ line-of-sight. Some of the enemies also share these attributes, and there are times when one must block a Medusa with a less dangerous monster to have even a slight chance of completing the level. The player also sometimes obtains magic shots from picking up certain Hearts, and they become another resource for dealing with the foes.

The addition of monsters and collection goals changes the character of the game to being something quite different from Sokoban. Not enough has been added to the game to make it complex beyond the point of playability, especially since no level brings all of the developer’s toybox into play, but enough has been added to produce a huge variety of puzzle to solve. There are enough subtleties and gimmicks in the original ruleset that on the NES alone there were three games, the last one with well over 100 puzzles. Even the first game became quite challenging by the end, and Lolo III’s puzzles required a high frustration threshold to make it through.

In Japan, there were basically two types of Eggerland games. One of them was fairly standard block-pushing puzzle games, but the other type, unseen in the U.S., took the basic concepts and applied them to a large, screen-by-screen map with multiple exits from many rooms, and adding in even more types of obscurities for the player to scratch his head over than the hateful Snakey Displacement technique.

Oh, and what do I mean by Snakey Displacement technique? It’s another example of a puzzle game cheating, when theoretically they should play fair and introduce all the essential elements before they become important. To perform the trick: use two shots to destroy a Snakey, or other shootable monster, then push a block over its original space. Most levels this causes the monster to die permanently when it regenerates, but on a few boards it will instead appear elsewhere, usually in a place it would be impossible to put it otherwise. There can be up to three of these spots on a level, and there are puzzles that require that the player use this technique to complete them. Imagine what a player who had been staring at a puzzle for hours trying to figure it out would think when he learned an un-heralded gimmick must be used to solve it? At least Adventures of Lolo III had the decency to demonstrate it in a tutorial area.

How hard is it?

This is the other infamously difficult puzzle series. Unlike Solomon's Key these are more about figuring out precise solutions than coming up with a viable strategy. If you figure out the Snakey Displacement technique by yourself then I'm sorry, you're not a genius, you're just insane. (For the record: I did figure it out.)

Design lesson:

Puzzle games are about overcoming trials. The harder the trial, the better the player will feel after solving it, but also the more likely he'll give up and throw the game away. This is the secret behind the ascending level of difficulty in most puzzle games: not only the frog being boiled player being eased in slowly, but by the time he reaches the toughest puzzles he's invested so much time into it that he's unlikely to give up.


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