Dead Pixels: Equinox

(where Michael deconstructs discontinued franchises, and puts forth ideas concerning hypothetical sequels.)

equinox-box

Overview

I know what most of you are thinking right now: “What the crap is Equinox?”. Released in 1993 as a sequel to the NES classic Solstice, Equinox failed to generate much buzz upon hitting the market. Players derided its intense difficulty level, occasional glitchiness, and unusual gameplay mechanics. It was quickly designated as a sub-par entry into the Super Nintendo’s extensive library, and soon faded from the gaming scene all together.

But a few players managed to overlook some of the game’s quirks to see it for what it really is: a unique, isometric, puzzle-platformer unlike any other game released in its era. Is it unpolished? A little. A bit too hardcore? Definitely. But Equinox is a severely underrated title that the gaming community certainly needs to take another look at.

I put Equinox near the top of the list of games I’d love to remake. I think with a little polish it could become a very engaging franchise; one that could bring totally ripped wizards into the 21st century.

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What To Keep

Isometric View
I can probably count on one hand the number of games that use the same isometric art style as Equinox. Although unpolished, it immediately adds a sense of depth and immersion for the player and differentiates it from other games from the same genre.

screenshot-equinox-1

Puzzle Focus
It is tempting to replace some of the puzzles of Equinox with more action-oriented elements, but I believe that would be a major folly. The intricate puzzles of the original game were one if its greatest triumphs. Players should be encouraged to solve puzzles, make maps, and get lost in the sheer vastness of the game without becoming too distracted by superfluous add-ons.

Art Style
Equinox is a superbly sprited game; an especially impressive feat considering the rareness of isometric pixel art at the time. Each dungeon possesses a unique art style – ranging from spooky ghost ship to abandoned laboratory – and the world is brought to life via a vibrant art style. In an era where games have embraced the “brown and more brown” colour palette, it would be nice to see a resurgence of bolder artistic design.
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What To Drop

Insane Difficulty Level
The era of masochistic gameplay (Battletoads, Contra, etc) is essentially over. Players no longer want to have to replay large portions of a game due to a simple misstep or an awkward jump. Equinox was notoriously unforgiving in that regard, and I doubt players would be too saddened if the game removed a few spikey death traps and discarded pixel perfect jumping challenges.

battletoads-wind

Linear Gameplay
Dungeons in Equinox have to be beaten in a linear manner, with broken bridge obstacles preventing any chance of doing otherwise. Opening up the world a bit and allowing the player to explore somewhat freely (a very zelda-esque experience) would lessen the railroading factor and give the player a greater sense of agency. It would also allow for variant game play-throughs of the game, increasing replay value.

Invisible Blocks
Sometimes Equinox’s game designers got a little mean-spirited, and decided to hide the solution to a puzzle in an location the player couldn’t see. This was a real dick move, and the developers should be keel-hauled for it and it has no place in any potential sequel.

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What To Change

Combat
Although fairly well implemented, Equinox’s combat system is a tad dull and repetitive. Weapons all have the same basic effect (shoot in a straight line) and offer no variety in battle. Your only strategy is to strafe and spam your enemies into submission as you search for progressively more powerful versions of what is essentially the same weapon.

Implementing different weapon types would help out this problem a lot. Think of the possibilities! Our buff protagonist could flay nearby foes with a sword, skillfully fling a boomerang around barriers, fire a bow vast across distances, or mash enemies and obstacles with a mighty hammer. If we wanted to take things a step further, we could even incorporate these weapons in to puzzles!

equinox-screenshot-2

Game Logistics
The physical elements and rules within Equinox are finicky at best. Platforms hit-boxes extend farther than they logically should, and many puzzles rely on sudden and subtle changes in direction while leaping through the air. These quirks (and many others) make many challenges in the game frustrating and unintuitive.

How do you fix this issue? Set a consistent set of physical rules for the game, let the player know what they are right from the get-go, and don’t introduce challenges that require pixel-perfect reflexes. For example: platform edges should be distinct and easy for the player to gauge, and the protagonist’s burly shadow should be extremely visible while in mid-air. If a jump is missed it should be due to player error, not player confusion.

Isometric View
But Mike, I thought you loved isometric views?! I do, but they are not without their faults. The key one being lack of visibility for 1/4 of the game world, which ties into the invisible block point I made earlier.

screenshot-equinox-4

The obvious solution? Make the game world rotatable in a style similar to Final Fantasy Tactics. This expanded view would reduce confusion, and could encourage new types of puzzles that force the player to view a problem from all available angles.

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Final Thoughts

I have a real soft spot for isometric games, and Equinox was among the first that I ever played. It’s not a perfect game – or even a great game – by any stretch of the imagination, but it oozes with potential and occasionally gives flashes of the amazing game it could’ve been. I’d welcome a new entry into the series with open arms

Do any of you folks out on the interweb have thoughts about this game? If so, let me know how fair you think my assessment is and tell me about any changes you would make to the game yourself!

2 Comments

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  • Oh man. I only played Equinox once, but do I remember Solstice and its hundreds of rooms and insane puzzles and… ugh… having to drop or ascend through pixel-perfect isometric jump sequences, with instant kill monsters everywhere…

    • SO HARD. I’m a big fan of difficult games, but you got to draw the line between “acceptable challenge” and “tedious murder room”.

By Michael