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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 15 of 23 Next

Designed by Mark Stephen Pierce and David S. Akers

After Tetris, Atari tried a couple of other arcade puzzle games. The most famous of them was Klax, a game with an amazing amount of style, with its "It is the nineties and there is time for...." slogan, T-Shirt offer screen, pop art aesthetic and tremendous array of backgrounds, which are there for no reason other than to be awesome.

Yet the game is interesting for other reasons too. It is fundamentally a Tetris-like game, yet it doesn't look like it at first. Instead of a bin with falling blocks, the player must catch colored tiles coming in off a conveyor belt, then drop them into an abbreviated bin. Both catching and placement are determined by the paddle's X-position at the conveyor belt's edge, so survival and intelligent play are a bit at cross purposes.

Once tiles are in the bin the game works a lot like Columns, in that the player is trying to get horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines of the same color. But the player drops single pieces instead of triples, and the bin is only 5x5 so careful thought is needed to avoid screwing things up irreparably.

The game also features combo scoring like practically every other post-Tetris puzzle game, but is unique in that combos are limited by the bin's small size. It takes a some thought just to figure out what kinds of combos are possible.

The game softens this a bit by letting players move and even drop tiles during the short delay while a Klax is being recorded, which are recorded as a combo if this produces another line of three. One type of Klax, the five-tile vertical, can only be made this way.

Klax gives the player lots of ways to mess up. The paddle can hold up to five tiles, and the uppermost tile can be thrown back onto the belt, but unless the player is careful there's a good chance it'll end up parallel to another tile, making it impossible to avoid missing one or the other.

The player is unusually beholden to the randomness of the blocks that come down, even more so than in other color-matching block games, because the bin is so small. There is no good way to keep more than six potential lines open at once, yet later levels can have up to eight different colors to sort through. In other such games wild pieces, that match any color, are an occasional bonus, but Klax players come to rely on them.

In order to do well at it, players must procrastinate in dropping in tiles, waiting to see if there are any other of that color coming in off the conveyor belt. Dropping in a single color when there's no guarantee that a second or third will come any time soon is a big error.

Waves often start with the player saving tiles on the paddle until at least a pair of the same color is visible. To activate a "secret warp," which requires constructing two five-tile diagonals crossing in the center, this tactic must be taken to extreme lengths.

One aggravating aspect of Klax is that the game, much more than other games of the time, makes its advancing difficulty too explicit. Klax is lost when the player fails to catch the tiles coming in; if he misses too many, the continue screen appears. To stay in the game, the player must always be putting tiles into the bin to make room on the paddle. Hopefully he's using them to make Klaxes to clean out the bin, but that's actually secondary to the tile catching game.

The problem is that the paddle movement speed is fixed (it's joystick control, not a dial), and the conveyor belt, if enough time passes in a level, eventually gets too fast for even a perfect player to keep up. This, by itself, is not really terrible; it's just another version of a time limit.

However, over the course of the game's 100 waves each is more difficult than the last, in the time-honored way of arcade games. And each wave also gets faster as it continues. But there is yet another factor at work. The game adds to this an effect called "ramping," by which the game gets faster at a steadily-increasing rate in addition to the increasingly difficulty of the levels.

Ramping only resets when the player expends a credit to continue, but the later levels are difficult enough, and so vulnerable to bad luck, that the player can easily lose anyway. Once ramping is added in some levels end up impossible, too fast to possibly catch all the tiles before the procession becomes overwhelming, unless the player expends a credit to get the speed back down.

Article Start Previous Page 15 of 23 Next

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