Matthew Vroman


Game Designer

Clever Mechanics behind Super Crate Box

If you haven't heard of it, Super Crate Box is a brilliant freeware game made by Vlambeer, the same guys who brought you Radical Fishing and more recently, Serious Sam: The Random Encounters. SCB could be quickly summed up as Mario Bros plus guns, but it's so much more than that. The game is incredibly fast-paced and can be extremely frustrating when playing with a keyboard- but I don't want to talk about how many keys I've lost or screens I've broken. Instead I want to bring attention to two clever mechanics that are prevalent in SCB.

The Boxes

In the 'normal' game mode of SCB, the goal behind each level is to collect as many boxes as possible while staying alive. There's no time limit but after a few rounds you'll find out that patience isn't always a virtue. When you grab a new box your score increases by one and your current weapon is swapped out with whatever random weapon was spawned in the box. The randomness behind the weapon spawn is what I find so interesting about the boxes.

In many games, the power of your character scales with the world. As you face more enemies or increasingly fast-paced waves, your character gains more abilities or weapons to deal with them. Having both the world and your character scaling in power at roughly the same rate allows for an evenly balanced game play experience. Normally balance is good; balance is expected. But SCB is a hectic game reminiscent of old-school arcades, where the deaths quickly outweigh your pants full of quarters. With each box swapping out your current weapon for a new random weapon, balance is hardly preserved. You could have a mini-gun or bazooka for one-second and dual pistols for the next. Instead of your power slowly increasing inline with enemies, every situation throughout the game is different. What this means is that a good player needs to have situational awareness.

Each weapon requires a different style of play- and since the only way to score is to grab more boxes, a player cannot become a master of just one weapon or play style, they have to understand and utilize them all. Weapons such as mini-gun and bazookas can be used for cleanup and screen clearing. When you get a power weapon you might want to hesitate before getting that next box because you can never be sure what weapon you'll get stuck with next. On the other hand, if you grab the dual pistols or the disc gun (*shudder*) then you might want to get to the next box sooner rather than later. It's always cool to see how one seemingly simple mechanic can encourage such dynamic and constantly changing game play- especially in an arcade-style game that uses lots of repetition.

So how to succeed at SCB?
"Be water my friend" -Bruce Lee

You can't turtle the entire time and you can't go balls-to-the-wall aggressive either. What you do and how you play is completely dependent on your current situation, and that's what makes it great.

Safe Spots & Traps

The second thing I want to mention is more about level design than game mechanics but it does tie in a bit with the dynamic style of play reinforced by the boxes. On certain maps, SCB supplies the player with 'safe spots' or areas that enemies rarely or never visit. With the exception of floating skulls, a player can safely sit in a safe-zone and never be touched. At first these spots sound extremely appealing- but like each weapon, these spots can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing.

Take a look at the above image and notice that both of the safe spots are located in the corners of the map. If you have a power weapon then this is a great place to sit to cleanup a screen of enemies that has slowly been overwhelming you. If you don't have a power weapon then you quickly realize the safe spot is more of a trap then anything. In the above level, half the enemies on screen will run right past the safe spot, making it difficult to jump out and reach another box. What's worse is that as you take the time to learn the patterns of enemies streaming down, more are spawning and the ones that are still alive are speeding up. The safe spot that originally appeared to be a haven away from enemies can ultimately lead to an impossible escape and an inevitable death.

As mentioned in a prior paragraph, it's important to play based on the situation. The positioning of your character is just as important as the weapon that you have. While this 'safe spot' concept might seem like a 'duh' idea, it's cool to see how a spot on the map can quickly transition between life-saving and death-causing purely based on the situation.

I don't have much more to say about safe spots because it really comes down to knowing your situation, but I thought the above spot was in an extremely cool location. Instead of safe spots on the side of the map there is one small spot in the middle. Like the previous one, the only enemy that will actually traverse through that spot is the occasional floating skull, all others leave it untouched. What I like better about this spot than the side spots is the mobility options it gives you. Essentially if you become trapped in the side spot you really only have 1 way out. Technically there's 2 but there aren't many times where taking the lower route right above the fire would be beneficial. With the safe spot in the middle, you have 4 different escape options. The tradeoff here is that it's harder to clear a screen while sitting in the safe spot. With the side-spots you could blast a mini-gun or spam rockets until everything on your screen was dead. In this spot you have to be a bit more careful about recoil and enemy positioning. One wrong jump could easily lead to game over.

Below is a visual example of a safe spot and how it can quickly switch from a safe spot to a death trap:

Disclaimer: I'm terrible at Super Crate Box