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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 6 of 11 Next

9. Wetrix

Zed Two never really made any games other than Wetrix, and games like Wetrix. Yet sometimes an awesome graphics effect can go a long way.

Developed by Zed Two.

Designed by John & Ste Pickford (source: GameFAQs).

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

Wetrix’s ruleset is a masterpiece of multiplier scoring. Every lake the board has multiplies scores by an additional factor. Having ducks multiplies that by two. A rainbow? Multiplies all that by x10! This turns up the juice on the game’s fairly low scoring, but to get the highest ranks even that isn't nearly enough.

Watch for:

Bombs that fall in ice don’t explode, but are stuck there. They’ll go off eventually, but... not right away.

This one’s a bit challenging to get information on, since there hasn’t been a lot said about it since its release on the N64, the first game by then-hopeful startup Zed Two. It’s a cool game, but not really all that exciting a concept I suppose.

The player is in charge of a square patch of 3D land in the middle of a void. Water drops are constantly falling all over it, producing microscopic flows of water. Once water appears on the board it is accurately modeled and ripples convincingly, splashing when objects are dropped into it in a manner that players of Wave Race 64 will find familiar.

When water flows off the board it’s added to the player’s failure drainage meter, and when the meter reaches the top the game’s over. The player’s job is to stop that by happening by placing pieces, falling through 3D space, on the land. Most of the pieces are uppers, which raise the land where they fall by one level. Uppers are of various different shapes, and they can fall unevenly; leaving a vertical impression of their shape across, say, a hill or valley. To do well, the player must use Uppers to wall off the edges, keeping the water inside.

The other most common pieces are water drops, which create an amount of water relative to their size where they strike. Once water enters the board, it generally doesn’t leave until it flows out, so eventually the basin will fill to overflowing; that’s where fireballs come in, which evaporate all the water contiguous to the spot they hit. Fireballs provide the primary scoring in the game, worth a large bonus when they activate depending on the water evaporated plus lowering the drainage meter by a like amount.

Other pieces include Downers, which lower land or water, Bombs that leave a hole where they strike causing leaks, and Ice Crystals which temporarily freezes the body of water they land in, making it unable to drain but also removing any bonus multipliers it may have provided.

There still more to this game. All the volume of land on the board is summed and that directly affects how full the Earthquake meter is, which prevents players from building endlessly. Having a lot of water grants a large score multiplyer, but the player is encouraged to not just make a big bowl but to compartment it into multiple lakes, and make them deep, which further multiplies score.

All these different, competing aspects make the design look like a bit of a mess. Several pieces exist just to make things harder for the player, because the game wouldn't be hard enough without them. Yet the game still comes together well. The player gets rated for having high scores, with some of the top ranks being ludicrously difficult to attain. Zed Two used their website to maintain a worldwide leaderboard for the game, with scores backed up using a password provided after each game which also recorded score and rank. The highest ranks were incredibly difficult to obtain....

How hard is it?

I'm sorry, did I say Monkey Ball's Master mode was the most difficult? There is one worse. Zed Two, the creators of Wetrix, put a hidden maximum rank in their 3D puzzle game, also called Master. The only way to earn it is to earn a billion points in a game where most players struggle to reach a million. Yet before ZedTwo's website went dark they recorded several substantiated reports of people having earned it. All of them had more free time than I did.

Design lesson:

Again, the Druaga Principle at work: if it's possible, someone will do it. There may even be an unlockable feature for reaching Master rank. Because of this, while Zed Two may be a memory, the game lives on.

Wikipedia's page on Wetrix.

GameFAQ's page on the game.

MobyGames' page on Zed Two.

10. One Man and his Droid

Alien sheep herded by robot drones through the tunnels of an alien world! An awesome Spectrum game that prefigures Lemmings in a way.

Developed and designed by Clive Brooker.

Length: Arcade. (Players can start on later levels using passwords.)

Cool fact:

Ramboids follow the structure of the level whether they’re on-screen or off, but only collide with other Ramboids if they’re on-screen! Shades of Mario’s Koopa Troopas jumping over kicked shells when no one’s looking....

Watch for:

If the player digs a horizontal tunnel the whole length of the scrolling, wrap-around map, he’ll discover that the tunnel will be off vertically by one character cell when he gets back to the start, an artifact of the way the game stores the map in memory and handles wrap-around.

There are two basic play modes to this one. The first one, which is fairly uninteresting except that it’s often quite hard, is sort of like Frogger without the chance of instant death. The player’s robot must navigate upward through a sea of “Ramboids,” those alien sheep. The field is much larger than one screen in size, and the screen scrolls upward to follow the player as he goes. The Ramboids move rapidly left and right in horizontal layers, and the player must enter his robot into holes in their procession. Periodically the entire board of Ramboids will decide to head down, usually pushing the player all the way back to start, and if a line shoves him off to the side of the board he’ll also be sent back to the bottom.

Once he reaches the top and enters the exit chute the real game can begin. The player’s robot is put into a scrolling, maze-like system of caverns. There are seven Ramboids of different types wandering around it at high speed. Also in the caverns are vertical chutes that connect the horizontal tunnels, and somewhere there’s a teleporter. The player’s job is to coerce the Ramboids into the teleporter.

But the player can’t pick them up, or even push them around. The only way to get them into the teleporter is by altering the level to cause them to go where he wants, which is how the game prefigures Lemmings.

The player can block passages with the droid's chassis (the Ramboids treat him like any other barrier), or by digging new tunnels. The tunnels are a little more than two droids in height and the player can fly while the Ramboids cannot, so he can fly above them and dip down to interpose himself in their travel at the point he wants. Once dug a tunnel cannot be undug, and each level is so large that it’s often difficult to visualize what the structure will be after the path is made, so this option should be utilized with care.

Of the seven unique Ramboids there are really two kinds. There’s a kind that moves left and takes any up shaft it finds until it hits a wall and goes right, when it’ll take any down passage it finds, and so on. The other kind reverses this pattern. Key to playing the game well is taking advantage of this. By blocking an up or down shaft the Ramboid will just skip past it, and take the next shaft it finds.

Compounding things are the fact that there is no “scanner” in this version of the game (the unreleased sequel, available from the developer’s website, does provide one) so the player has a hard time seeing what’s going on and figuring out exactly which shafts to block, and that he can’t just send any old Ramboid to the teleporter but must have them enter in the right order. Four or more Ramboids must enter it correctly in order to proceed to the next level.

How hard is it?

For some reason European developers, like Rare and Zed Two, seem less afraid of making games difficult. One Man and his Droid's herding sections are unique and innovative. But the Frogger-like sections are disproportionately challenging, and mostly devoid of strategy. In late levels the Frogger phase becomes insanely difficult. Further, in some levels the player must drill tunnels to complete them, yet drilling the wrong ones can make the level unsolvable instead. With no map, no scanner, and only one life, this is needlessly punishing.

Design lesson:

This is more a don't-do-it thing. OMahD's most interesting play, by far, is in the Ramboid-herding sections. The sea-of-walls phase gets obnoxiously difficult later on but one can't get to the herding game without passing it. The lesson, really, is to recognize where your game is fun, and don’t put stuff in there that gets in the way of that just because you think needs fleshing out. If the Frogger section came after the herding, it’d still be bad, but wouldn’t be quite so frustrating.

Wikipedia's page for One Man and His Droid.

Designer Clive Brooker's page for the unreleased sequel, available for download!

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