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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 22 of 23 Next

Designed by Dave Ralston 

Perhaps Atari's last great game, it's my vote for the best-designed video game ever made.

Arcade games had genres from nearly the beginning. Pong-like games were the first genre. Shooters, driving games, maze games and beat 'em ups were well-recognized genres of their respective times. There have always been genres, but the introduction of the modern fighting game, inescapably traceable to Street Fighter II, marked a sea change in the arcade industry.

For a long while, just about the only games that were profitable were fighting games. When the mainstream abandoned arcades, manufacturers intensified their focus on the one demographic that never really left them: adolescent males.

Rampart was released the year before Street Fighter II hit. Arcades were never quite the same places after that.

This was the beginning of the end for Atari Games. It stuck around for some years, and even had some big hits. Even near the end it produced interesting, popular games like San Francisco Rush and Gauntlet Legends. But its old tendency to release game after game, each wildly different from the each other and what was already in arcades, ended right about here. Rampart is probably the last popular game it produced under this system.

But what a way to go! Unlike many other Atari Games games, Rampart has style everywhere, crisp graphics for the time, memorable sounds and music, and some of the best gameplay ever seen in arcades.

It's even an appropriate swan song for Atari Games' Bloody Clever period, seeing as how it combines play from Missile Command with a bit of Tetris thrown in. While the game is abstract as anything Atari made, for puzzle games, abstraction is at least expected.

The object of the game is to defend your island from an invading fleet of ships. Each level is a part of the island's coastline. To some degree the player can choose the order he plays them in. Each part of the island has castles on the land. Around one of the castles is a wall, and inside the wall are some cannons.

The game is divided into phases. The most action-focused phase is one where the player aims with a crosshair, firing at enemy ships from the cannons. Ships move around and cannonballs take time to travel through the air, so leading the target is necessary. Meanwhile, the ships shoot at the walls around the player's castle using their own cannons.

After a while the battle ends, and the truly challenging part begins. In a timed phase, the player must rebuild an unbroken wall around a castle using a sequence of quasi-random puzzle pieces.

Anything other than plain ground will block a piece from being placed, so large pieces are worse than small ones, and empty land is easier to build through than the mess of single wall blocks the ships usually leave behind. To continue playing, the player must have a castle by the time the clock runs out.

This surround-the-castle gameplay is amazingly elegant. There are actually several castles on each map, and to stay in the game the player can capture any one of them, but only cannons that are inside walls work in the next battle.

The player gets additional cannons after the building sequence has ended for every castle he captured, but the more cannons that get placed near each other, the more area the player will have to surround during the building phase to utilize them.

Surrounding more area provides more room for cannons, but it takes a lot of experience to know how much space the player should aim for. It's easy to overreach and have a long, unbroken wall that's just short of closing in a castle when time runs out.

As the game progresses, more kinds of ships show up. Some drop off enemies that move around getting in the way during building, and others have shots that can make a spot of ground impossible to build on for three turns. But really, that's pretty much it.

Rampart is easy to pick up, but the challenge has been honed to a razor's edge. Even very good players find they sometimes get screwed over by the random pieces. As the game goes on, pieces get more complex and harder to fit into a Swiss cheesed wall.

As the game goes on, the building pieces get more bulky, making them harder to fit into place. The holy grail of Rampart pieces is the single brick, a one-by-one square that can be slotted in nearly anywhere, buts get much rarer as the game goes on.

Ships have a knack for hitting walls where a single brick is the only thing that could fill a hole, enough that high-level Rampart play is much about keeping walls away from the water and other blocking objects as much as possible, in order to prevent the enemy from creating that hard-to-fill hole.

Article Start Previous Page 22 of 23 Next

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