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The Making Of Klax

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Tetris became such a hit that soon every company was attempting to make its own falling blocks puzzle game. One of the most successful attempts was Klax by Atari Games, which gave the template an interesting twist and added plenty of over-the-top spot effects.

Towards the end of the summer in 1989, Hide Nakajima, the then-president of Atari Games, decided he wanted a puzzle game for the ATEI (Amusement Trades Exhibition International) show in London. The catch: the ATEI was four months away. “I raised my hand,” says Mark Stephen Pierce, who by that time was a few years into his 14-year stint at Atari, which he initially joined as an animator and designer to work on SuperVette (later renamed RoadBlasters). And so began the story of one of the most enduring action-puzzlers of the Nineties, which, while never surpassing the game that inspired it – Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris – nonetheless managed to lodge itself in the collective consciousness of gamers and find its way on to myriad platforms.

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Level complete. You clever person you.

With Hide’s request arising because of the staggering popularity of Tetris, it would have been easy to rush out a borderline clone, rather like Sega had done with the derivative Columns. “But I went back to my cube in the lab and spent some time over the next few days drawing shapes that looked like they might be in puzzle games,” says Mark. “Rather than blatantly copying Tetris, I tried to come up with a mechanic that was different.”

In the broadest sense, Klax’s underlying concept remains similar to that of Tetris. The basic premise is to create order out of disorder. However, the way this is done is distinct from Pajitnov’s classic, despite some superficial similarities. The game presents you with a five-column conveyor belt, along which different-coloured tiles ‘march’ ominously towards you. You catch tiles on a paddle before they plummet over the edge (referred to as a ‘drop’), and dump them one by one into a five-by-five well.

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You’ll be giving specific tasks to achieve at the start of each new wave.

Blocks are eliminated by matching three in a line – a ‘Klax’ – and a certain number of Klaxes are required to progress to the next level (although later levels also require specific challenges to be met). You have a limited number of ‘drops’ and should you go over this limit, it’s game over. But to help you in your task, you can hold up to five tiles on your paddle at any one time (which adds an extra layer of strategy to the game), along with flinging the uppermost block back halfway along the conveyor belt.

The inspiration for Mark’s idea actually arrived from outside of gaming, as he explains: “It came from the genesis of an idea and animation I made while developing MacroMind VideoWorks, the predecessor to PC and Macintosh multimedia authoring environment Macromedia Director. The game was loosely based on a sketch from a television show where the character had to deal with a conveyor belt in a bakery, correctly adding various things to baked goods!”

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Klax came out on a large number of systems. Here’s the Atari 2600 version.

Although Mark notes that the condensed development time meant decisions had to be made quickly and that they therefore weren’t always entirely considered, the various gameplay components weren’t decided on at random. After playing around with shapes for a few days, Mark realised that with an odd number of columns and stacks, it’s possible to make vertical, diagonal and horizontal ‘completions’, hence settling on five columns and a five-by-five well. Also, unlike Tetris and Columns with their solitary single falling piece, Klax not only increases in speed as you progress through the game, but also the number of tiles simultaneously in play escalates – a gameplay component Mark refers to as “the pressure of a relentless rain of death in the form of something coming from above that must be dealt with”.

Once Mark had settled on these basic ideas, putting things together from a programming standpoint fell to the talented Dave Akers, the engineer Mark had worked with on Escape From The Planet Of The Robot Monsters. A crude mock-up was pieced together over a weekend on an Amiga, played with and dissected, and the mechanic was judged very plausible. From there, it was a case of moving Klax from the Amiga to an arcade board and expanding it, ensuring players would have something new to discover should they stick with the game for any length of time.

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Manic difficulty is just that!

Unlike with most puzzle games, graphics became a consideration. Most previous entries in the genre had been relatively barren from a visual standpoint, but to hold a gamer’s attention in the late-Eighties, there needed to be at least a splash of aesthetic goodness. Therefore, the game’s background occasionally changes, offering some new visual interest. “I drew all the graphics, using a tool I developed at Atari called RAD,” explains Mark. “When I got to Atari in 1986, they were using these big drawing tablets hooked up to VAX computers. Since I was used to the Mac and VideoWorks, and since it was the dawn of the PC graphics card, one of my jobs at Atari was to develop a PC-based paint tool.”

Although never quite meeting his goal of re-creating what he’d done at MacroMind with video, the resulting tool nonetheless offered the features required for him to create Klax’s imagery. Of all of the aspects of the game, it’s the graphics Mark is least happy with. “Given the chance to go back, I could do a better job on the graphics,” he says. “But then what I did was down to the limited time we had, and perhaps also the capabilities of the hardware.”

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Even the Game Boy Color got in on the act.

Audio was, for Mark, more successful, and the game is peppered with sound effects and speech. Usefully, each tile makes its own movement noise, enabling seasoned players to pick out what colour tile has most recently joined the conveyor belt, without having to look. More bizarre are the screams of dropped tiles and the ripple of applause upon completing a round. “Like everything in Klax, the audio was very impulsive,” admits Mark. “I had a vision of a crowd watching, like at a golf tournament, and so we grabbed some people from the office and recorded gentle clapping and ‘aaaahhhhh’ noises.” And the scream? “The scream is me!”

As alluded to earlier, gameplay elements also ensure Klax offers a sense of progression. Rather than the game just getting faster, goals are sometimes added to the mix, tasking the player with creating diagonal, vertical or horizontal Klaxes. “The tile order is table-driven, with one-hundred waves, and I tuned each wave with a table of arguments that Dave and I devised that could set the colour mix, speed, and so on,” reveals Mark. With people hooked on the basic challenge from day one, there was always an audience to test on, and Atari had a statistics package for measuring playtime, difficulty and session lengths, ensuring the game was suitable for mere mortals.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the game’s rapid turnaround, and the fact both hardware and software needed to be developed within four months, Mark remembers Klax’s gestation being smooth. “Everything just seemed to flow,” he says. “Throughout, we watched people play, learned what worked and took it from there. It was one of the most productive and free-flowing few months of development I’ve ever had.”

You can read the rest of our Making Of Klax in issue 52. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

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