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Game Design Essentials: 20 Difficult Games
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Game Design Essentials: 20 Difficult Games

August 23, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 11 Next

3. Cobra Triangle

Rare's arcade approach at its utmost, a supreme, and supremely-difficult, action game.

Developed by Rare

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

The route you take in the "race" areas determines what sequence of levels you get next.

Watch for:

It's a shooter R. C. Pro-Am with boats. That's damn near worth watching for by itself.

Check it out, it plays like R. C. Pro-Am, but it's not a racing game! It has boss fights! It has a Gradius-style powerup system! It has an amazing variety of action! And it's bone-crushingly hard!

Why did this game tank in stores? Why was this, which takes everything Rare's hit R. C. Pro-Am had and improves it off the charts, doomed to fail? The only reason I can come up with is that it's an incredible challenge, a game for experts. It remains the one NES game I've ever been reduced to using the slow-motion feature on my old NES Advantage to play. Dodging shots in boss levels is a trial in an Asteroids-controlling game with a big boat and a small screen, and the "Jump The Waterfall" stages make one want to smash things.

Yes, Cobra Triangle is a game that demands mastery. Nothing less will do. Despite that energy bar at the bottom of the screen a depressing number of things will cause instant death. But for those willing to put in the work, what you have here is one damn fine game.

The types of levels are:

Reach the Finish, of which there are two kinds: wide-open "race" levels where you're not really racing, and linear obstacle courses that require pin-point steering.

Disarm the Mines, where the player must drag mines from a holding pen into an area where they detonate harmlessly. Meanwhile enemy boats try to steal them back from you (they're good at it too) and other foes attack.

Rescue the Swimmers, which puts the player on point as guard against a fleet of enemy boats trying to carry them off. UFOs also join the attack here, and their missiles paralyze you for a couple of excruciating seconds. In this level, the player tries to wait out the clock instead of beat it.

Collect Pods, this is like a bonus round but with some obstacles. Ramps allow the player to reach power-ups floating in the air, but if you jump out of the river by accident it's instant death. This is generally a break from the other levels, though, and it also lasts until time runs out.

Fry the Monster, these are the boss levels. Unlike other stages, these don't scroll. Imagine what it would be like in R. C. Pro-Am if you had to maneuver around a single screen? Now imagine almost half of it is taken up by a highly-mobile enemy trying to kill you. The boss fights are also fairly random, and many times players will get through by the skin of their teeth.

Jump the Waterfall, which both sounds and is horrifying. There are multiple waterfalls in line (which is physically impossible, but hey, it's just a game), and all of them after the first have moving ramps that must be hit, and hit fast enough to make it across. And you have to maintain enough control to not leap onto dry land, which is just as deadly as falling into the gorge.

Bonus, which automatically scrolls although the player can still rotate and shoot. The idea is to shoot targets on the bank of the river. The more the player hits the faster he goes, and getting them all is worth an extra life.

Cobra Triangle is something of a black mark on my gaming record. Not only was this the only game to drive me to using slow-motion, to hit some of those more obnoxious ramps in the waterfall stages, but I never beat it.

How hard is it?

It's an arcade-like action game that's harder than most arcade games, because you can only continue twice! No one will be able to resist throwing down their controller during the Waterfall stages.

Design lesson:

The game is old school hard, and the difficulty serves the purpose it does in most of those games. Levels vary, but not enough that seeing what's next, the exploratory impulse, drives the player on. The game is played to improve, and for a high score, both ethics almost unheard-of nowadays.

Wikipedia's page on Cobra Triangle.

GameFAQ's page on the game.


4. Sinistar

That big floating head with a taste for spaceships is still among the greatest villains in gaming.

Developed by Williams.

Designed by Noah Falstein and John Newcomer

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

The game has theme waves, like Stargate, but most players flame out long before seeing them. The progression is: first wave, Worker Zone, Warrior Zone, Planetoid Zone, Void Zone, then back to Worker.

Watch for:

When you pick up a crystal when you're full on bombs, there's a message saying "Crystal saved for warp." But how does one warp? The information is nowhere to be found and it's possible that feature isn't in the game.

It’s hard to believe that so many of our most fondly-remembered arcade classics came out in such a small time window. There were video games before Taito’s Space Invaders in 1978, but almost all of them except for Pong lie forgotten now. From 1978 to the big crash in 1983, that’s just five years. Sinistar came out in 1982.

Five years from Space Invaders, which is so slow that the aliens don’t move all at once but “wave” in their motion, to Sinistar, with its gigantic universe, physics, and dozens of active aliens going about with tasks to accomplish. Then 1983 rolled around and the U.S. the arcade industry hit a wall. Japan wasn’t as affected, and Japanese manufacturers came to dominate the direction that video gaming took. Imagine what video games would be like if they went in the direction of Defender and Sinistar instead? These are games that took a simulation approach long before Grand Theft Auto.

The play is an interesting mix of high-speed action and subtlety. The player needs crystals from the rocks to get bombs to destroy the Sinistar with, but shooting a rock too fast will destroy it. They must be milked by making them vibrate, but not too much. Killing Worker enemies slows the construction of the Sinistar, but the player doesn't want to slow it too much, since the wave can only be finished once it's made, and the longer it goes on the more Warriors come out to harass the player.

The player can carry up to 20 bombs (obtained by collecting crystals), and it takes 20 crystals in the hands of the Workers to make the Sinistar. It takes 13 bombs to destroy it, and sometimes more as bombs can be blocked by collisions with enemies or rocks, and after the first level Workers try to repair the Sinistar when it takes damage. It's easy to get 20 bombs collected in the first level, leaving seven bombs for the next level, but it rapidly gets harder to collect them while the Warriors are shooting.

Time is extremely important here. There is no clock, but Workers fuss away building the Sinistar regardless of what the player’s doing, and all over the game’s universe. There are also Warriors in the sector, who harass the player if they find him but otherwise spend their time shooting rocks to make crystals for the Workers. The sector is so large that there’s no way the player can halt the Sinistar’s construction for long; he can only put a dent in it.

How hard is it?

After Stargate, Williams made this for an encore. What makes this difficult, interestingly, is not the title element. The Warrior enemies are a lot less imposing than the gigantic ship-eating menace, but they take out a much greater percentage of player ships.

The Warriors are so troublesome that Sinistar, while not more difficult than Defender, has inspired lesser heights of accomplishment. The high score for Sinistar is less than (a still extremely impressive) 800,000. There's a rumor, reported on KLOV, that the game’s difficulty was increased late in production by decree of Williams management. Arcade manufacturers were afraid games were too easy back in the classic era, so they risked wrecking what was already a difficult game to compensate for the abundance of leet skillz gushing around at the time.

Design lesson:

I've never made it past the third wave without setting the game to more reasonable settings, yet, like Defender, there are people who have racked up very large scores. And like Defender, the pure play of the game is enough to come back; the skill-measuring aspect is just a bonus.

Wikipedia's page on Sinistar.

GameFAQ's page on the game. (Not too useful this time.)

KLOV's page on the game.

Just for fun: Bob the Angry Flower's "Coffee With Sinistar" and "Return of Sinistar."

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 11 Next

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