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Game Design Essentials: 20 Difficult Games
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Game Design Essentials: 20 Difficult Games

August 23, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 11 Next

7. The Tower of Druaga

Many people complain about games that can only be beaten with strategy guides, but they're usually easy enough that anyone can get through with practice. This is not the case with Tower of Druaga.

Developed by Namco

Designed by Masanobu Endoh

Length: Strictly speaking, Arcade. But no one gains the information they need to win over one game, so really, Short to Long, depending on how long one perseveres before seeking aid.

Cool fact: If you hate Gilgamesh’s slow walking speed then make sure to pick up the treasure in level 2, as it makes the game a lot more playable.

Watch for: Gil’s shield? It’s not just a graphic; it can reflect wizard spells. And when holding out his sword, the graphic of Gil holds the shield to the side. This is also significant!

The game is almost unknown in the U.S., yet in Japan it was a sensation. It may be help us to better understand the differences between the two audiences to try to determine their reactions to this particular game.

U.S. audience impression:

My hero, Gilgamesh, must ache his way painfully slowly through level after monotonous level killing unexciting monsters through the means of holding out his sword and walking into them. Eventually I encounter a level with an invisible exit or an invisible key, or I find an item that makes it impossible to use my sword, or the level’s dark or something else happens that makes it impossible to play. To hell with this.

Japanese audience impression:

My hero, Gilgamesh, must figure out the secret trick on each level that makes the item appear. All the things that I first hated about this game, the hero’s slow walking speed, the difficulty in using the sword, the darkness and invisible exits and keys in later levels, are remedied by finding the right items. Some of the items are bad and shouldn’t be collected (one can figure that out only by getting bitten by them). By the end, it seems I must have certain items, which must be collected throughout the game, just to win. It’s a stiff challenge, but I can do it!

I think the difference can be rendered down to willingness to jump through hoops. This does not necessarily reflect badly on Japanese players, for all video games amount to leaping like a trained poodle when you get down to it, but they do seem a lot less ambivalent about figuring out some secret rigmarole than U.S. players.

But no other game takes that to the extremes that Tower of Druaga does. What first appears like a slow-moving D&D-ish game is actually about these secrets. One is tempted to call them riddles, but honestly, riddles give clues, while Tower of Druaga has none! It doesn’t help that the tricks get harder throughout the game, meaning if the player is fatally screwed-over by, say, picking up the Evil Gauntlet, to get another attempt he must start over, because once collected items can’t be uncollected! In effect, miss a required item or pick up a bad one and even if you’ve otherwise played perfectly to that point, your game is over. It is a game that either demands spending credit after credit in order, at best, to find a fatal mistake on each one, or that requires collaborating with other players or looking up a FAQ. Imagine how bad that must have been before the internet!

One gets the feeling that eventually Japanese players awoke to this, for you don’t exactly see an avalanche of games with this infuriating quality these days.

How hard is it?

Take the thinking behind the Seals in Solomon's Key and the Snakey Displacement Technique in Lolo and apply them to the entire frickin' game. Congratulations: you just invented Tower of Druaga!

Design lesson:

While overall I think Druaga's difficulty is harmful, it conclusives proves that, no matter how obscure you make the puzzles in your game, if it's humanly possible to beat it, someone will. How Druaga does it is not just to set obscure tasks to accomplish that can only be discovered by lucking upon them, but to make such a wide variety of them that everyone is utterly stumped by some. Druaga is so extreme in its game winning criteria that players more or less must communicate between each other to win. It is a game that not only expects players to talk among themselves and consult FAQs, but requires it.

Wikipedia's page on Tower of Druaga.

Strategywiki's page on the arcade version of Tower of Druaga.

GameFAQ's page on the game.

KLOV's page on the game.

8. Monkey Ball, a.k.a. Super Monkey Ball

Putting that monkey in the ball may have been a whimsical masterstroke, but don’t let it fool you. This game is hard.

Developed by Amusement Vision (part of Sega)

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

Finish all the levels in a difficulty in one life, or Expert on one credit, and you get to play the Extra levels for that difficulty. Finish all the Expert and Expert Extra levels and you get to play Master. But somehow, I don’t think you’re going to succeed at that....

Watch for:

The way the ball bounces. It’s important! There are levels where you must learn to control bounces to make it to the goal. This is where the fact that, when you push the stick, you move the level, not the ball, comes into play. If you think about it, tilting the level means moving it around a pivot point. The ball’s location is that point! If the ball is in the air, you can actually affect the path the ball takes by taking advantage of this.

First let’s get this out of the way. The monkey doesn’t affect the game at all. Some players prefer to pick Baby, the smallest monkey, but it doesn’t change the physics, only how easily they can see the spot the sphere touches the ground. Also, forget the party games. Monkey Bowling and Billiards might be cool, but ultimately the reason to play Monkey Ball is the levels.

Your ball resides on a platform, in 3D space. If you tilt the joystick, the platform tilts, and the action of gravity will cause the ball to roll. Somewhere on the level is a gate; if you roll the ball through it, you complete the level. Sometimes there’s warp gates, but they’re usually more trouble than they’re worth. If you get through all the levels, you win the game.

That is the entire game. You can hit a button to change the scale of the map, and that’s it. There is nothing more to it than this. If the game didn’t have an awesome physics system backing it up it’d be nothing.

But it does have incredible physics. What Monkey Ball proves, really, is that if you take modeling the real world as your aim you will never run out of level ideas. The ball bounces realistically, and there are levels where you must bounce the ball over gaps, or even skip over holes. There are levels with spinning platform elements you must try to stay on. There are levels with pinball bumpers that try to knock you off. There are levels with thin platforms. There are levels with “pop-up” walls that give the monkey a nasty bump. There are levels where you must maneuver atop a horizontal, spinning cylinder. There are levels where you must hold the stick so that you roll down the side of a vertical wall, instead of just fall, and roll off a curve at its foot to get enough speed to jump into the gate. This is just for starters; there are far more levels than this. The people who made them up must have had a blast, and the amazing thing is, they’re all fair.

How hard is it?

There are four difficulties to this game. Beginner is easy. Advanced is a fair challenge. Expert is for sadists. Few who don't read game sites even know the game has a "Master" level. Possibly the most well-guarded unlockable ever put into a video game.

Design lesson:

If you're going to make a super hard game, make it fair. No one thinks Monkey Ball is unfair. There is no randomness. Everything that happens is a direct result of the player's actions, and there are no hidden portions of the level waiting to destroy the player. It's not like a boss enemy with secret attacks the player couldn't possibly survive the first time seeing it. It's not only possible to reach and finish Monkey Ball's Master levels, but it could be done on one's first try. Winning the lottery is more likely, but it's possible.

Wikipedia's article on Super Monkey Ball.

GameFAQs page on the game.

KLOV's page on the game.

Speed Demos Archive, strangely, has nothing on Super Monkey Ball, but there is a minimalist site with videos from the game. Of special note are the videos of the ultra-elusive Master levels.

Pictures scavanged from KLOV and

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