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Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games

January 14, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 8 of 21 Next

7. Athena

Block-breaking, many items and functions and lots of secrets.

Developed by SNK

Reason for inclusion:

The game plays like a successor to Super Mario Bros. because of the huge number of breakable blocks that hide treasures inside them. Shattering them is key to success, but there are lots of weapons to choose from, and some of the best for killing enemies are bad for breaking blocks.

The game:

Lots of people are down on Athena on the strength of its horrible NES port, which is loaded with bugs, spotty controls and a brutal damage model that can kill a full-health player in a moment. The arcade game is rather more polished, although still very difficult.

Athena came out not too long after Super Mario Bros., and much of it feels like it was directly inspired by that game. Where Mario's blocks only occasionally contained important items, Athena's worlds are composed mostly of breakable stone, hiding a much larger percentage of stuff to find. At the start of a life the player has no means to break them; killing enemies provides the initial tools needed to do that. There are several different kinds of weapons available, and one of their prime distinctions is that each allows the player to destroy blocks in a different way: up close, within a limited range, from a distance, in horizontal lines, directly above or by destroying a large swath. Some weapons are better for breaking blocks than killing monsters.

Once the player can get blocks open, it's revealed that there are dozens of possible things to find, including different levels of armor, helmets, shields, weapons, and miscellaneous stuff, and they're all over the place. Unusually, among the good stuff, many blocks contain bad items. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels occasionally threw in a poison mushroom or booby-trapped Starman, but Athena blocks constantly provide armor and weapon downgraders, or poison, or time-downs, or inventory destroyers, or even obnoxious floating head enemies. Castlevania's dagger candles only wish they were this annoying.

Yet the presence of those items is what adds texture to the game. A danger with many kinds of video games is the "so what?" factor. What is it that distinguishes this level from all the others in the game? Mario does it with enemies, gaps and walls to overcome in different arrangements, hidden passages scattered around, and the availability of power-ups. The first Super Mario Bros. doesn't have that many different game elements, but the way they're arranged approaches art. Athena does it by limiting the blocks that can be broken depending on the power-up obtained: if you just have a yellow sword, which takes two swings to destroy a block, and the item you want is buried beneath five layers while an endless stream of horsemen attack from behind, it's probably not worth it to go for. There are enough different classes for these items that sometimes a very weak item is more useful than a very strong one, simply because it's better at breaking blocks.

The game also, by the way, has as convoluted a win condition as either Solomon's Key or Mighty Bomb Jack, except instead of just downgrading the ending, the last boss is actually invincible if conditions are not met. Which, you know, it would have been nice of the game to tell the player before actually fighting the last boss. (Hey, I didn't say the game did everything well.)

Design lesson:

The core of Athena lies in the way the player can break blocks, but he can't always smash the ones he wants. Sometimes a bad item helps to obtain a very good one, even while an average one would not.


Article Start Previous Page 8 of 21 Next

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