You're a halfback, not a soldier, but it doesn't feel right to call these "turns," "tries," "chances," or "men." No, these are "lives" at stake in Backbreaker's Tackle Alley, where 99.12 percent of its players have ended up "dead."
They're not "rounds" either, they're "waves," or sometimes called "levels," and up there is video of the last 31 of them in this very addictive hardcore mini-game, pitting your lone runner against a field of defenders, trying to reach the end zone in increasingly desperate circumstances. Oh, and there are no game saves. When you exhaust all your lives, tough luck; you get to start over from wave 1.
Why is this significant? The developer, NaturalMotion Games, says only 0.88 percent of all Backbreaker players have collected "Parting Wave," the 90 Gamerscore achievement that certifies completion of all 100 waves. And that's including NaturalMotion QA legend Phil Davidson, the only one in the studio to complete the game, and the guy who's playing in this video.
"'Everyone says, 'Oh, I died on level 65,'" says NaturalMotion's Rob Donald. "Died is such an arcade word. I've never heard that in a sports game before. But I guess Tackle Alley isn't really a football game. It's a bit of cheeky arcade fun."
NaturalMotion supplied Kotaku that video of levels 69 through 100, cut from more than 80 minutes of footage showing all 100 waves, and sped up so that this slice wouldn't take forever to watch. It's not so much a strategy guide, but an illustration of just how hellish the challenge becomes late in the game.
Wednesday night, I made it to wave 69 - which you can see ends with a defender in a zone stance (that is, waiting for you to come within range) at the bottleneck of two boundary lines you can't leave. Cognitive dissonance had me thinking this was it (when you complete wave 50, you get the "Half Wave There" achievement, indicating there's 100 in all.) There was just no goddamn way this could be beaten, and I was sure they made 69 the toughest board as a joke because, I mean, I was fucked.
"It was meant to be a complete diversion from the more realistic main game, a complete arcade challenge," Donald said. "Everything about it was meant to replicate the pressure and the frustration of playing a cabinet that you know is stacked against you."
Boy, they got that part right. I finally made it through wave 69, and it got worse. I died on level 76.
"As the levels progress you'll actually start to recognize that a lot of the waves are styled in that classic vertical shooter style of attack," Donald added. "You'll see the defenders start out in formation, run to the edge of the screen, then dive for you. Your player becomes a little helpless craft getting beat on. Jon Georgious, one of our designers, did the wave designs and he did a great job of creating that arcade feeling throughout 100 waves. That's not an easy thing. I genuinely don't feel there's any repetition in there."
Tackle Alley isn't just about completion, it adds a combo scoring system that rewards you for stringing together fakes and jukes, for showboating to the endzone, or for blasting through a defender without being tackled. Also there are targets on the field that add to your score if you run over them, but of course they take you further into harm's way. And you add to your "lives" by successfully completing a run.
Backbreaker's running controls are simple and responsive enough that, if you focus on basic juking and sprinting, with some spins, you should be able to make it past level 50 with not too much difficulty. But you'll also need a good internal radar, because a defender who dives past you isn't down for the count - he'll get up and pursue you from behind, heedless of the boundary lines you must observe.
So getting to the end will require some very advanced work - the back juke, the stiffarm, or the dive, which carry higher degrees of risk, and few have practiced or mastered.
"I don't believe that you can complete the game without mastering the stick control," Donald said. "It's all about flicking the stick repeatedly to execute perfectly timed spins,. That can only help you in the actual game. Phil is the only person in the studio who's managed to complete Tackle Alley and his stick skills are fantastic. It's like watching pros play Street Fighter."
All of that should translate to a better sense of running the ball in the real game, Donald said. "With Backbreaker's on-the-field view, you need to learn how to see the field all over again. Tackle Alley really helps," he said.
The console game is what you see above; there is a Tackle Alley version for the iPhone and Android that are broken down into multiple challenges of 10 waves each. "It's a bit of a different experience on the handheld," Donald says, explaining why players of that game don't have to start over on wave 1. "You have to be able to pick it up, put it down and still feel like you've done something. It becomes a lot more about playing in style to score maximum points, something that's harder to do on the consoles.
"On console, for me anyway, and probably for most people," Donald says, "it just comes down to wild-eyed survival."