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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 7 of 11 Next

11. Phantoms of the Asteroid

A gigantic exploration game released two years before Metroid, containing fruit-shaped monsters, diabolical traps, and a heaping helping of mystery.

Developed and designed by Martin Ellis.

Length: Long to very long. It’s bloody huge!

Cool fact: Half the puzzle of this game is just figuring out what you're supposed to do. The instructions mention finding 36 "Uranium cubes," but after that? And just getting that far is not a simple task. And the game was produced long before automatic mapping was expected....

Watch for: A little clue to get you started. There are three kinds of deadly energy beams that block your way. Green ones flash on and off, while purple and cyan ones stay on permanently unless you do something about them. Cyan ones can be turned off for a limited time by stepping on a green pad (take notes, class), and the purple ones can be turned off for good by stepping on a purple pad. There is a purple pad very close to the starting location. That should be your first objective. (And afterward, don't step on cyan pads!)

The 8-bit computer revolution of the 80s and 90s is often ignored when it comes to placing the most important games that have seen the marketplace, which is a great shame. One of the more inventive publishers of these games was Mastertronic, a publisher of ultra-low-cost software in the UK and later in the US, who like the Electronic Arts of the time didn't make games in-house but released games made by other groups, in some cases individual programmers.

Although their games were sold for very small amounts effectively ($15 or less), they managed to produce a number of extremely inventive games during their history. One Man and his Droid was published by Mastertronic, and so was Phantoms of the Asteroid, which predated Metroid's exploration gameplay by two years, featured similar atmosphere, and had full scrolling to boot.

Now, trying to figure out which game really originated some feature is an exercise in madness, and one should not discount Metroid in the least just because Phantoms of the Asteroid did some things first. There were certainly exploration games before PotA as well (Pitfall! and Adventure, for example, and Pitfall II even had scrolling). My point here is that it is bad to be ignorant of any aspect of gaming. There are lessons to be learned all over the place, from pre-Asteroids arcade games through home computers to what-have-you on the PS3. Every game one is not conversant in makes one a weaker designer.

Phantoms did some things have still haven't been seen much elsewhere. There are step pads all over the place, of different colors, and the player is never told what any of them do. He has to figure that stuff out for himself, and sometimes their purposes are maddeningly obscure. The other big problem is that the player has three primary gauges, and if any of them runs out he either dies, or will die soon. It is very easy to get trapped in an area without sufficient fuel, oxygen or energy to make it to the next source of that resource, sometimes without even knowing that you're doomed.

How hard is it?

This is the other British 8-bit game on this list. These are here not because they're the hardest European-developed games, but as kind of representatives of their culture. This game is a prime exemplar of the idea that players should be given little in the way of aid, not because the developer hates them, but because everything the player figures out for himself is one more puzzle to be solved. There are colored step pads everywhere here, each color with a different function. The only way to figure out what they do is by experimentation. It's possible to hit one and screw yourself over irrevocably, only discovering what happened many saves later. It doesn't help that the game world is similar to Metroid's in scope, yet because it's free-scrolling it's much more difficult to map.

Design lesson:

Everything you tell the player shortens the game. Including a chart telling what different objects does means makes it easier, but also means the player has that much less to do. More recently player (and certainly critic) expectations have been to receive proper instructions, despite their continued reluctance to read manuals, but there is something to be said for making them figure some things out for themselves.

Gamebase64's review of Phantoms of the Asteroid.

12. Faster, Harder, More Challenging Q*bert

It's Q*bert... and it's harder. Also, more fun.

Developed by Mylstar.

Designed by Warren Davis.

Length: Arcade.

Cool fact: The original game had different rules for each of the first four levels, each with four rounds. FHMC Q*bert recaps those rules in the first level, then goes on to add more funky rules.

Watch for: There's more than just expanded rules here. There are a couple of bonus levels, and even a new character, Q*bertha.

Everyone knows how to play Q*bert I take it? Let's start with that. Change all the cubes to the target color to pass the round. Avoid all characters that are not green. Jump on disks to lure Coily to his death, clearing the screen in the process. Green balls freeze the board and make you invincible. Later levels, jumping on solved cubes unsolves them. Yada yada yada. All of this is the same.

Now, disks move around (they get a "burst" around them when they're about to move, and never move if you've just jumped to one). On the other hand, it's a lot harder to exhaust them now. The differing level rules appear throughout the game now, and there are new rules. Level 2, Slick and Sam make cubes unsolvable until Coily jumps on them! Level 3 has Q*bertha chasing you instead of Coily, and she messes up cube colors as she goes!

The other differences are more subtle. The original Q*bert, on default settings, awarded extra lives at 8,000 points and every 14,000 after. FHMC Q*bert awards at 10,000 then every 20,000 after, but that's not the worst part. The first game, you see, awarded 1,000 points for finishing the first round, and bumped that up by 250 more every round after. Eventually those round bonuses got to be quite significant, even compared to the 14,000 between lives. The updated game awards points based on time to complete the level instead, which starts at 2,600 on each level, but never gets above that. The first extra life comes at about the same time as in the original game, but later ones are much less frequent.

Q*bert got one sequel in arcades, the sadly forgotten Q*bert's Qubes, coming right around the time the crash hit. This game presumably would have come out shortly after.

How hard is it?

It certainly has a fitting name. This one never saw production at the time of its creation, but has been released by its developers specifically for use in MAME and in retrofitting old Q*bert machines. The original game was no slouch in the difficulty department anyway, suddenly going from laid-back enemy-avoidance game to punishing puzzle game once the player hit Level 3-1 and blocks could be changed away from their correct colors. In this game, those rules come in by Level 1-3, and there are plenty of evil new tricks in the levels to follow. Yet, overall, the game is more interesting than the original Q*bert.

Design lesson:

FHMC Q*bert never got tested in the arcade marketplace so we don't know how popular it would have been, but it seems more interesting than Q*bert because it's more complex. In a way, it plays like further levels of the original game, with boards in which Slick and Sam make cubes unsolvable and Coiley changes them back to normal, and one where a new chase character, Q*bertha, messes up the board while pursuing the hero. Meanwhile all the old color changing rules are still there, mixed throughout the boards. Not a lot of games need to be more complex, but Q*bert's initial simplicity supports it.

KLOV's page on Faster, Harder, More Challenging Q*bert.'s story on Q*bert, mentioning the FHMC version.

Retrogaming Times article & interview.

Article Start Previous Page 7 of 11 Next

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