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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 10 of 23 Next

Designer unknown

Qwak is a fairly old Atari arcade game planned for release just a year after Asteroids. Functionally it's equivalent to Happy Trails (for Intellivision) and/or Junction, and/or Locomotion. It's barely known about because it's one of Atari's many discarded prototypes.

As with Quantum, it's interesting that this idea has been visited by so many different people. Start out with one of those sliding tile puzzles, the ones with the numbers from 1 to 15 and an empty space into which the player can slide adjacent tiles.

The game board is bigger than that, but instead of there being numbers on the tiles, there's scrambled sections of a path. There's a character somewhere on the board following the path, who it's the player's job to protect. The player cannot control him directly, but by sliding tiles around, he can make a continuous route for him to follow.

The player's job is to do just that, and guide the character to various destinations somewhere on the board, but he loses a life if the character ever runs out of path, either because he ran into the gap or a tile without a matching path.

Some versions of this game introduce time limits, multiple checkpoints, "jumps," enemy characters and other complications, but the basic idea is challenging enough. These games can be quite maddening, and Qwak is the hardest of all.

One of the unique things about this version is that the player is actually concerned with the fate of several characters, a small family of ducks (led by a swan) that floats through the game's rivers-and-waterfalls puzzle world. The player only need get one of them to the goal to pass the level, but more are worth extra points, and the excess ducks are meant to be the player's "lives."

This makes the game unforgiving, for the player ultimately has only one attempt to solve each board. If none of the ducks finds a route through, the game ends. Maybe the unknown designer intended this to add longevity, since each level has a fixed layout, but at a quarter an attempt it's not really fair.

There are some other things in there that make it even harder. Each level begins with only a few seconds before the ducks hit a fatal barrier unless the player fixes it immediately, but the game's tiles take a half-second to slide into place.

Because of this, there is very little time to spare on wasted moves. And often, the only tile that's near enough to keep the duckies alive is one with a fork in it, which causes the ducks to split up and then forces the player to keep track of multiple paths simultaneously.

So why did this game not make it out of prototype? The era of the game was that of the classic arcade, and while many more games then had puzzle elements than they do now, there were very few explicit puzzle games. And... it is hard. There were lots of hard games then, it is true. Defender was released just the year before, but Qwak's difficulty, combined with its limited player agency, seems somehow less fair.

(By the way... there's another Atari game called Qwak, which more people might be familiar with, which was released eight years before this one. It's a light gun more akin to Duck Hunt.)

Article Start Previous Page 10 of 23 Next

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