Magical Drop III: Achieving Flow in the Arcade

December 16th, 2016

Filed under: Game Development

This was my post for a discussion forum in an online course I’m taking, titled: Designing Gamified Learning Environments. The prompt for this discussion was: describe the engaging gameplay elements, experience, and other engaging factors of any game of our choice. Edited a little bit to correct some errors in structure.

Magical Drop III is an arcade puzzle video game for the Neo-Geo platform, a proprietary platform created by Neo-Geo for shipping multiple games in one cabinet. Magical Drop III was one of two I played religiously as a child in the local laundromat, the other being a horizontal “bullet hell” called Blazing Star. What always drew me to Magical Drop III over Blazing Star was the intense flow I would achieve while playing, such that I willingly lost many, many quarters to its difficulty.

The core gameplay is as follows:

  • Move left or right
  • Grab orbs of a like color from an ever-lowering ceiling
  • Throw them back upwards such that the orbs form vertical lines of at least three

These matches clear orbs from the board, and any touching orbs of the same color at the time are also removed. Player movement is not automatic when the joystick is held, requiring the player to push the stick in the desired direction each time they want to move one column over. The same principle applies to grabs and throws; each grab takes all orbs of a like color, meaning that in order to grab more orbs the held orbs must be thrown or the player must move.

My favorite mode was the Adventure mode, in which the player would advance through a game board space by space to reach a goal. Each time the player lands they must survive 60 seconds of gameplay with varying conditions, and depending on how many fire drops they get they can advance farther on the board. Here’s a video of it in action (video by Luna PrincessNinjato):

Recently at the local NJ GamerCon, I came across the game in their free-to-play arcade! This time the flow was unreal, unbroken by the need to put in more money to continue, or the trip to my mother to borrow some more quarters. What I began to notice as I conversed with my fiancee, who looked on in curiosity as I played, was that I lost the conversation until the stage was over and my brain could pick it back up again…completely (sorry)!

The main elements that pulled me into intense flow during stages were the controls interacting with the conditions and feedback coming from each stage. The sequence of pushing the stick a certain amount of times, quickly pressing “grab”, pushing again, then quickly pressing “throw” to organize the pieces was punctuated by the distinctive noise of the cabinet’s plastic, creating auditory feedback in sync with the visual feedback of making matches and causing chain reactions. The time limits added an extra element of urgency that pushed my constant checking of the game UI even further, which informed my movements with the controls, resulting in a feedback loop that locked me in and didn’t let go until the stage was over.

Aside from the visual cues, the sound effect playing every time one second passed, and the physically involving controls, a major drive in my engagement was the final goal: the space at the end of the board. Even when some stages were tough, even when it seemed impossible to proceed, knowing there was a clear goal to achieve ensured I stayed engaged with the experience, to the point where it was late and I didn’t want to leave until the goal was reached. Adding to that was the space counter at the top of the screen between stages, telling you how close you were to the end. I couldn’t leave till it hit “0”!

If anyone ever gets a chance to play Magical Drop III in an arcade, I HIGHLY recommend it. The game in that form is a truly engaging experience for something so cutesy and seemingly laidback in appearance. Not many games I’ve played outside of that one (and believe you me, I’ve played my share) have given me such a feeling of audiovisual-physical engagement…except maybe Child of Eden with camera-tracked motion control; that spiritual experience is a whole other post.