In the first post of this series, I praised Tribute Games’ much-maligned Wizorb for being a high-quality recent example of a cheap, challenging, arcade-style game. This week I would like to recommend a game which you may not have heard of. It is also in the arcade style, but it is much more challenging and much more cheap. How can it be much more cheap than the $3 title Wizorb, you ask? In fact, this game is completely free. Not free-to-play or freemium, just plain old free. It goes by the name of Super Crate Box, and it is available on Steam right now in exchange for no money.
Super Crate Box is an arcade action game that pits your pixelated player-character against hordes of marching foes, but with one amazing gameplay twist, explained below. The game was developed by Vlambeer, a Dutch team which has risen to prominence in recent years with games like LUFTRAUSERS and Nuclear Throne. And like those later titles, Super Crate Box is a tremendous time-sink, a great challenge, and a lot of fun: now, on to discussing that interesting gameplay quirk.
The basic elements at play in Super Crate Box are familiar to any arcade-game player: you’ve got your fragile player-character with an arsenal of firearms, your immense quantities of disposable enemies, and a centrally located score counter. So how did this tiny game with done-to-death elements get to stand alongside Minecraft and Nidhogg as a finalist in the ‘Excellence in Design’ category of the 2011 Independent Games Festival?
The answer lies in the gameplay, i.e. in the way those basic elements are implemented. Rather than having the score counter tally the number of foes vanquished, the score ticks up once each time the player picks up a weapon crate. This simple variation on the conventional arcade action design opens the door for a completely different set of challenges and moment-to-moment motivations.
The most obvious change that is necessitated by this twist is that the player can not abuse any one strong weapon or set of weapons to reach the unlock or high score thresholds. The player must constantly trade the held weapon for a different random weapon from the unlocked arsenal, and put to good use whatever is found within. One of the best consequences of this is that the game forces you to learn how to make use of weapons toward which you initially react negatively or dismissively—for myself, short-range weapons like the katana and the shotgun had something of a learning curve.
Meanwhile, the enemies which traverse Super Crate Box‘s static screen from top to bottom will not stop appearing until there are enough to crowd the platforms entirely. Because the enemies can kill the player-character with a single touch, they must be cleared to continue the crate-acquisition. There is even a flying enemy to ensure that the player can not hide anywhere safely. And just to add an extra layer of difficulty and tension, any enemies that reach the bottom of the screen will hop through a flaming portal to the top again, emerging enraged and moving at a greatly increased speed.
Each round of Super Crate Box quickly becomes a frenetic search for balance between crate-gathering and enemy-clearing. Sometimes I would try to dash between several crates before using a fortuitous drop to clear the screen; at other times I would make some small use of each weapon for clearing in between crates. The pace of the game is such that these decisions can not be as carefully planned out as they sound here.
The real lesson to be learned from Super Crate Box is that a gameplay innovation can be simple and yet brilliant. As long as the primary objective is to build a game that is fun to play, and which has scalable arcade-style difficulty, a game built around a unique mechanic as cohesively as Super Crate Box is constructed can yield amazing results. And of course, in my estimation, it helps that Super Crate Box has stellar pixel art, a style of art for which I have previously discussed my deep respect.
For those players, like myself, who enjoy playing the game so much that after several hours they come to find the usual difficulty a breeze, there are actually two further echelons of difficulty, both offering an even more absurd score-based challenge than the slew of score-based unlocks in normal mode. Vlambeer’s Super Crate Box is a tight, cohesive game, and it’s legitimately available for free. So if you like simple arcade games or challenging indie titles, start uncrating.
Simple Arcade Innovation: