You’d think a company as prominent and as old as Nintendo couldn’t release a game without anybody knowing, but you’d be surprised. The company put out a lot of unknown games in their heyday, from X to Devil’s World to Doshin the Giant. But I’m not going to talk about any of those games.
No, my focus is on Sutte Hakkun, a late-life SNES puzzler whose obscurity would make For the Frog the Bell Tolls blush. It’s a very well crafted game through to the end. I mean that literally: the end is when the game goes on a perfectionist streak that mars the “well crafted” part of it. But until that point, the game remains an enthralling, remarkably well designed puzzle game.
The game owes most of its success to a thorough understanding of what makes puzzle games work. They all rely on a well defined ruleset, and that’s exactly what’s on display here. Like a lot of puzzle games, Sutte Hakkun is simple if hard to explain. Playing as a transparent mosquito-snowman-creature, it is your duty to collect all the rainbow shards in a given stage. You do this by using your proboscis to arrange blocks and give them colors that make them move. (Perhaps a video would help.) Broad descriptions, I know, but in practice, the game is very rigid. Blocks only move this far. You can only jump this high. Your tongue can only reach this far. No exceptions, no workarounds.
Now I’m not holding strict rules up as an end in themselves. Still, it’s important to understand them because of how they shape the game. Not only do the rules make the game challenging, but they also make that challenge mean something. In a game like this, the difficulty is obviously going to come from a deep understanding of the rules. However, because those rules are so tangible, the game needs strong stage design that makes the best use of its rules while hiding the difficulty.
This is where Sutte Hakkun shines. With only a few elements to play around with, the game creates over 100 unique stages for you to puzzle out. Some focus on placement, some on timing, some on moving through the stage in a certain way, etc. The game knows how to pace itself so you don’t get bored too quickly. More than that, though, all this stage diversity shows how versatile the game’s ruleset is. Even the most minor change to a stage can completely change how you interact with it. I say this because that’s exactly what happens. One stage is exactly the same as the one before it, save two or three minor alterations. Yet because those alterations completely change how the stage plays out, they give the second stage a distinct identity from what comes before it. It doesn’t even feel lazy so much as it does ingenious.
Again, I’m not bringing this up for its own sake. Rather, I’m mentioning it to demonstrate just how strong the game’s design is. This is a very carefully designed game. Each stage always centers itself on some little quirk in the game’s mechanics that you didn’t notice before. So working from there, the game’s structure becomes apparent: you scope things out, experiment around, and stumble upon a few, “Aha!” moments that eventually translate into a completed stage. To be fair, I can see how that recipe can create frustrating moments. And I’d be lying if I said the game never has them. The final stages are especially rife with these kinds of problems. Yet that’s a separate issue I’ll address shortly.
Right now, it’s important to remember how the game structures its mechanics. While the stages pride themselves on concealing things from you, the mechanics never really do that. They’re clear and consistent, putting a cap on how frustrating the game can be. With fair rules at work, the game can be as challenging as it wants. In fact, challenge is in its best interest. The more esoteric the solution, the greater the reward you feel for completing it.
And that’s exactly what happens. Some of the stages are very difficult to complete. Even when you know what the solution is (which isn’t guaranteed, by the way), you still have to navigate the stage carefully and place your blocks in just the right way if you want to succeed. Yet rather than feel frustrated because you can’t solve them, you feel clever for finally doing so. It’s like the stages are hiding a secret in plain sight, and you were able to uncover their ruse.
Unfortunately, Sutte Hakkun doesn’t know when enough is enough. I know I said that the game gets better with added difficulty, but there’s a limit. While the game stays within those limits for most of the experience, it creeps outside them toward the end. Stages start to expect too much of you physically and mentally. They too frequently rely on pixel-perfect placement and twitch reflexes. Yes, twitch reflexes. In a puzzle game.
Why would the game betray its design in such a way? Timing is part of the game, but it’s not at the center of the game’s design. By designing stages that are so reliant on timing, all the game has done is alienate people who liked the game until that point. Not that it’s impossible to blend speed and puzzle-solving together. I remember Power Lode Runner doing a good job of that. Yet that’s because Power Lode Runner combine them from the start. Sutte Hakkun’s choice to delay mixing the two only frustrates otherwise great design.
I find these developments especially disappointing in light of everything that precedes them. The game’s design philosophy relies on tight control, which, unsurprisingly, is what makes the game so good. It’s what makes the stage design so intelligent; it’s what makes finally solving a stage so damn rewarding. So it hurts to see the game lose that control in its last moments. Those final moments represent a clumsy end to an otherwise fantastic game.