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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 9 of 11 Next

15. Deadly Towers

A sadly maligned action-adventure that makes the player work for every scrap of progress.

Developed by Lenar

Length: Long

Cool facts:

- The "dungeon" areas are huge compared to the rest of the game, but generally you don't need to enter them, and if you accidentally end up in one early on, you usually die before you can find the way out.

- Most humanoid opponents, who typically appear in dungeons and towers, are best defeated by hitting them in the body. If you hit their head they take damage, but don't get stunned, allowing them to move out of the line of fire or get off a shot of their own.

Watch for:

For an early NES game, the game has a fairly lengthy backstory. Wait at the title screen to see it. The ending ties it all up nicely, too.

Some time ago, popular internet layabout Seanbaby of Retrocrush, he of formidable snarking skill, created a list of the worst NES games of all time, which was published both on Retrocrush and in Electronic Gaming Monthly. The contents of the list, of course, are his opinion, and mostly, his opinion is right on. But there are some questionable things on it. And the most questionable of them all is Deadly Towers, which beats out such things as Bible Adventures, M.U.S.C.L.E., and even Chubby Cherub.

Now, Deadly Towers is not a pretty game, although it looked okay at the time, and its monster art has a certain fitting hideousness to it. It is certainly not an easy game. It is a tricky game, with lots of invisible secret passages; it is a unforgiving game, as death can occur in a careless instant; and it is a inscrutable game, for the only hints you'll find are in the manual. But I am here to tell you, it is not a bad game.

Overlaid upon the basic quest structure are some, admittedly, frustrating mechanics. Myer attacks by throwing swords, but at the start he can only have one on-screen at once, and they move very slowly. Getting close to monsters allows the player to machine-gun them, but also increases the chance of getting hit. But then, most of the monsters you'll have to machine gun don't have a lot of variety to their movement pattern.

At the start of the game, Myer is painfully weak. Some monsters can kill him in a handful of hits, and if a hit knocks him off a crumbling ledge he dies immediately.

Part of the challenge of the game is finding the objects that make Myer a suitable match for the bosses. One of them allows two on-screen swords at once. Others decrease damage taken, make his shots more powerful, and increase throwing speed. Until those are found, even ordinary enemies will seem obnoxiously hard. That's just what these games were like back then. The novelty of actually being able to keep your stuff when you die was still fresh in designer's minds, so they were quite willing to kill the player for whatever reason could be found.

Games like this force the player to earn every scrap of his progress. When you start a new life, your health is back at 100 no matter how high your max health may be, forcing the player to kill enemies to get his health up to more survivable levels. Yes, that's bad. No apologies will be made for it. But The Legend of Zelda did this too, and compared to Metroid, which always starts Samus out with 30 energy, Deadly Towers is generous.

The final result of this heaping plate of difficulty is that relatively few players have finished Deadly Towers, but that makes it a major video game accomplishment. There is something to be said for that. Games are just not made this difficult anymore. The joke about Final Fantasy games is that one presses the 'X' button until he wins the game, but that's almost accurate compared to the hyper awareness one must develop to beat Deadly Towers. It is a game for which one must reach down and develop new ability to defeat. And once beaten, it is hard to give modern games so much respect.

How hard is it?

Walk over the wrong unmarked spot on the ground? Oh, what unspeakable sin you have committed! Your penance is to search for a secret exit somewhere within a gigantic death-zone filled with monsters who can just hate you to death. Yet take note: even in a game this hard, the player's tiny advances each game add up, and the game doesn't take any great hand-eye coordination to complete. With hundreds of plays and lots of patience most people can, indeed, beat Deadly Towers. By the time they do, they'll probably have spent longer at it than even the longest Final Fantasy games.

Design lesson:

More confirmation for Phantoms of the Asteroid's "make the bastard work for it" approach. The dungeons are the hardest part of the game, but the player must enter them to get to the shops that sell basic equipment. The towers themselves contain secret rooms and parallel zones that hide the best equipment and contain, proportionately, more lethal monsters, but are still much easier to complete.

Wikipedia's page on Deadly Towers.

GameFAQs' page on the game.

Speed Run Demos' page on the game. Highly instructive!

16. Mr. Driller

It looks like a plain old block-matching puzzler. At first! Really it's a bone-hard action game that would have been right at home in the late 80's.

Developed by Namco.

Directed by Yasuhito Nagaoka (source: GameFAQs).

Length: Arcade.

Cool fact:

More recent Mr. Driller games provide multiple characters. The rules are subtly different for each one. The robot can get crushed once without dying, the dog can climb two blocks, the Dig-Dug guy drills super fast, and so on. It’s interesting that the rules are flexible enough to support these kinds of rule variations.

Watch for:

The “undergrounders” scattered throughout each level are worth 765 points if touched. 765 is Namco’s trademark number! In both Pac-Mania and Pac Land, eating monsters beyond the 6400 score level is worth 7,650 points. In Marvel Land, getting the center of the bull’s-eye at the end of each level is worth 7,650 points. It’s used as a secret score award in many games!

The object of Mr. Driller is almost laughably simple. Drill down through a sea of blocks of various colors and shapes. No matter how large a block is, when drilled it’s destroyed completely. Blocks that are unsupported fall. Blocks that touch other blocks of the same color merge. If a merged block is 4 spaces or more in size it vanishes, as do such blocks that fall any distance. Scattered throughout are air capsules that replenish the player’s time limit. Also scattered are X blocks that are hard to drill and waste 20% of the player’s air supply if drilled. Other than that, there’s nothing. There are no enemies, and no great complications. You die if something falls on you, and you die if you run out of air. That’s it. The tension between these two sources of danger drive the whole game.

If you drill straight down, then you cannot be crushed. If you were able to go through collecting air and not worry about the blocks, then the game would similarly be easy. It’s the fact that each of the dangers pushes you towards the other, and constantly, that make Mr. Driller a blast to play.

Yes, constantly. Beyond the first three or so levels the game tightens the screws on the time limit. The player must constantly be drilling down, racing for the bottom grabbing whatever air he can along the way. If he doesn’t air runs out absurdly fast, often 2% or more per second. At that rate, an air capsule is only worth ten extra seconds. Further, air capsules start appearing encased on X-blocks, and it’s no accident that the penalty for drilling one is the same as the bonus for collecting the air. If X-blocks break from getting grouped into a unit of four or more then they disappear without penalty, and figuring out how to do that, while not getting crushed, is a major challenge.

It’s obvious from playing the game that it’s undergone extensive play testing. There is no easy way to calibrate how fast the air counter should deplete to keep that tension up. The game is only barely possible to complete 2000 meters in, but it can be done. That fact itself is rather amazing considering how impossible that seems to newbies.

How hard is it?

What first seems like a whimsical puzzle game by the makers of Dig Dug turns out to be hugely difficult. Most Mr. Driller games include modes that ask the player to dive 1500 and 2000 meters at a high difficulty level. For game completion, they allow the player to fudge a bit by letting him take in powerups, but if he does so he can't earn a high score. And some versions offer special rewards for doing this on one life!

Design lesson:

The other games have mega goals, things that players can optionally do but aren't told of. Mr. Driller, on the other hand, seems to expect players to eventually solve the 1500 and 2000 meter goals. The effect on the player is to say, in essence, "We here state that this thing is possible. With practice, you can get good enough to do it!" Whether that's a lie or not is uncertain, but I suspect that most people will give up on Mr. Driller long before then.

Wikipedia page on Mr. Driller.

GameFAQs' page on the Dreamcast version of the game. There are many sequels though, and some of them also contain interesting information.

Article Start Previous Page 9 of 11 Next

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