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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 9 of 23 Next

Major Havoc
Designed by Owen Rubin

A lot of what we've come to think of the platformer genre can be traced back to this classic-era, pre-Super Mario Bros. game. Prime innovations introduced here are the ideas that jump height should depend on how long the button is pressed, and that jumps can be controlled while already airborne.

Of course, in real life we all jump more like Simon Belmont in Castlevania -- without any in-air control. Both adjustable-in-the-air height and off-ground horizontal control are unrealistic, added to games to make them more interesting to the player.

They add player agency when none would be expected both to make up for the limitations of the controls (there is no button marked "jump strength") and to allow player reaction speed to make up for failure to look ahead. They make platform games more immediate.

The game also includes multiple routes to each goal, and at the end a Metroid-ish escape-the-base timed section. It uses a Defender-style scanner to show players both an overall map and the location of off-screen threats. In early rounds it shows the player the way using tutorial arrows.

It even includes a form of difficulty levelling: if crashing into a enemy kills the player, on the next trip through that level, the enemy will be gone! This is better than what many recent games to feature "adaptive difficulty" do, invisibly reducing the number of foes, making them dumber, or decreasing their health without telling the player, in effect lying to him about how much better he's getting. At least here, you can see the thing that killed you last time is no longer around.

Another interesting aspect of play is the multiple "modes" for the game. Between platforming areas there are shooter sections. After clearing the space level there's a landing challenge before the platform area begins. There's even a miniature Breakout game playable on the control panel view screen between boards; while only playable for a few seconds each level, the board carries over between levels, and clearing all the blocks is worth an extra life.

So many awesome ideas made it into Major Havoc, and work well there, that it's a real shame that the game didn't do well, its sales curtailed by the crash.

Of random interest.... according to Digital Press' page on the game, the game contains the credits of its creators, but hidden in a very hard-to-find place. In the base levels, try as you might, you'll never be able to find a way to escape the maze and fall out of the level, but there is a very rare bug that causes the player to fall through a wall. If this happens on the outside of the board, he'll fall down through space and encounter the names of the game's staff.

Here's a cool bit of trivia. Sonic the Hedgehog is often regarded as the first platform game to have an "idle animation," where if you don't touch the controls for a few seconds your guy stands and looks at you, tapping his foot. But Major Havoc has a similar idle animation, rendered in its Vectorscan way.

Could it be that the Sonic folks were familiar with Atari's arcade game? It's actually likely: Mark Cerny, designer of Marble Madness, is credited as a developer on Major Havoc and is also a friend of Yuji Naka of Sonic Team!

Link: Major Havoc designer Owen Rubin has a website.

Article Start Previous Page 9 of 23 Next

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