Welcome to my new blog series, 1001games. And yes, that's one thousand and one, not 9 in binary. You see, a while ago I got this book, 1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die
, edited by Tony Mott. I really admire this thick tome with its super-high-quality presentation. The glossy screenshots are glorious, and the writing is thoughtful. I don't agree with all its selections (and you'd better believe I'll be bitching about the ones I disagree with), but it's overall a very solid set of games with loads of all-time classics. What really drew me to it, though, was the sheer number involved. 100 games? Yawn. A thousand
? Now we're talking. I wondered what I should do with it, and my girlfriend said I should start a blog where I play all of the games. I think that's a great idea, so here I am.
Right from the start, I am approaching this project as a noble failure; I won't be able to cover all of the games in the book. Some games are impossible to play anymore - how is one supposed to play Ultima Online, this many years after its servers were taken down? Others, I simply lack access to and don't think I'll be able to gain it. I don't own an Xbox, 360 or PS3, and I doubt I'm going to get one of any of them for the purpose of this blog. My certain failure doesn't get me down, though - actually, it excites me. I mean, with failure assumed, what's the downside? So join me as I fail. I will try to cover as many as I can, which will be interesting since many games I'd ordinarily have zero interest in are covered.
Yes, that header was made in MS Paint. If you like my writing and have any sort of design skill, please save me from myself.
The section in the book devoted to the 70s, when gaming was in its infancy, is very short, so I think I can cover it in one post. The 90s were really "my day," but I'm certainly acquainted with these vintage classics.
0001. 1971 - The Oregon Trail (Apple II)
It really surprised me that the original version of this game came out in 1971 - I had always thought that the 1985 Apple II version was the original. Nevertheless, that version is the easiest to access (I found a site where you can play it in your browser!) and even the text calls it "the canonical version," so that's the one I played.
I've always regarded this game as tremendously overrated. I found it boring as a kid, and I've thought that people have fond memories of this game simply because they got to play it at school. However, having actually played it for the first time in many years, I have to say that it was kind of fun. The color graphics, though amusingly primitive, are actually pretty damn impressive for an Apple II game. What really made me laugh were the shrill beeps of the computer's internal speaker soundtrack - that takes me way, way back. I even had to "switch floppy disks."
I remembered this game being a lot harder than it actually is. If you play as the Banker - easy mode, I admit - buy plenty of food and a few wagon parts, and take the safest option possible at river crossings, it should be no problem at all to arrive with everyone healthy and lots of time to spare, as I did on my first try.
I did the manual river crossing once just to get that part of the experience, and it is actually really easy in this version of the game - you just go left or right, it's as simple as a game and watch. Hunting is totally unnecessary, but I did that too - I laughed until tears came to my eyes at my own frustration as I slowly turned toward the darting animals only to have my shots inexplicably blocked by a leafy plant. No matter how much you shoot, you can only carry back 100 pounds anyway.
The Oregon Trail isn't very educational, but to my surprise, it isn't a bad little strategy game, either.
0002. 1972 - Pong (Arcade)
Atari's Pong isn't the first video game, the first arcade game or even the first game in this book, but it deserves its fame nonetheless for its inestimable role in introducing video games to the world. It was the first arcade game most people encountered, and later, with all the countless home pong system, it lead the charge in the introduction of the video game console.
Pong is simple but effective - you hit a ball back and forth, and you can affect its trajectory by the way you hit it with the paddle. What's really interesting is the length I had to go to in order to play this. MAME abandoned Pong long ago because it defies traditional emulation - there's no ROM and no CPU, just integrated circuits on the board that create the monochrome graphics electrically. The online versions available are all "off" in one way or another. Finally, however, I stumbled across a cool project called DICE, or the Discrete Integrated Circuit Emulator (http://adamulation.blogspot.com/). This guy painstakingly emulated all of the chips in the Pong architecture, and also added support for other, similar games.
As for the game, both me and my girlfriend are incredibly bad at Pong. I think having the original dial controller would help, as it provides much more precise control than the keyboard controls we had to use.
0003. 1976 - Breakout (Arcade)
Breakout is such a clever concept. You take Pong, turn it on its side and add a bunch of bricks that the player must break with the ball. This simple concept is both fun and frustrating - how can you angle the ball to hit that last brick? This game, of course, gave rise to Arkanoid and its countless imitators. The display is still monochrome, but this game was among the first to utilize the trick of putting strips of colored film over the screen to make things more colorful. This means that the top row of bricks is orange, for example, but so is the ball when it gets up there.
Once again, the original dial controller is vastly superior to the keyboard I had to use, but after several tries I was able to clear the bricks. Achievement was so simple back then.
0004. 1977 - Boot Hill (Arcade)
Boot Hill, featuring a gunfight between two blocky, monochromatic cowboys, is the first arcade game my Dad remembers seeing at his local bar. In the actual cabinet, mirrors reflected the display onto an enormous full-color painted background, but in MAME I had to settle for black and white.
This is actually a solid, exciting game. Wagons and cacti move up the middle, providing cover. You get only six bullets per round, so you have to be mindful of your shots, which you can angle off the sides of the playing area, making this, as the text notes, technically another variation on Pong. This has a feeling of combat, though, making it a progenitor of two-player competitive experiences like the Worms series - games more of finesse than power. I played against the computer, which actually works pretty well.
This is the first game on the list to get points for personality. When a cowboy gets shot, a funeral march plays as there's a really funny animation of the cowboy turning into a gravestone. Again, I'm reminded of Worms.
0005. Combat (Atari 2600)
Combat is a two-players-only game, and I didn't really have anybody on hand to play with, so I just messed around with it a little before moving on. In this game, tanks shoot at one another, shots that ricochet, pong-like, in some modes. A number of switches you could set on the console allow you to play on a variety of different fields or with planes.
I can imagine the strategy in this game getting pretty deep, and the competition fierce... the thing is, I've never been much of a competitive gamer. I prefer cooperative play, to the point where I frequently spend time with my friends taking turns at playing single-player games. It's a lot of fun. I know another person can provide a more invigorating opponent than any computer, but generally speaking, I just don't have the discipline for it. I've always preferred comrades to opponents; it's just the kind of guy I am.
0006. 1978 - Space Invaders (Arcade)
It's nearly impossible to mention a game more historically significant or influential than Space Invaders, the dawn of both the shoot-em'-up and the Japanese game industry. Without something like Space Invaders at the root, the landscape of video games would be unrecognizable. Everything from Mega Man to Halo shows the influence of this, the birth of twitch gaming. Hell, Taito's little alien critters are so iconic that they are frequently used to symbolize video games as a whole; now that's a cultural mark.
It's a simple game, of course. Rows of aliens step slowly toward you in a plodding zigzag, getting faster as you defeat them, accompanied by a single note per step - where did these aliens hire a tuba player, and why does he suck so bad? You can also shoot the occasional passing spaceship for extra points. You've only got one shot at a time, so aim is important, but more important is keeping a close eye on those enemy bullets so you can stay out of their way, constantly darting behind your rapidly crumbling cover.
The book recounts a tale to the effect that Japan had to mint more 100-yen coins because so many were spent on this game. I don't know if this is true or not, but it has a truthiness to it that really captures the spirit of the game's popularity and addictiveness. Space Invaders seized upon two basic human impulses with the kill-or-be-killed gameplay and the continuing desire to go for the higher score. In my short session, the best I did was a little over 2500 points - I'm not good, but I have to admit it's addicting. You could easily go on for hours.
0007. 1979 - Adventure (Atari 2600)
"Somebody get this freakin' duck away from me!" - Strong Bad
Ducklike dragons, a dot for a hero, and an arrow for a sword - nobody really misses the days when the programmer was the artist, do they?
Adventure, the direct ancestor of games like The Legend of Zelda, is the first game on this list that you can actually, honestly beat, and I did so in well under half an hour, and that's with me getting pretty lost in the blue maze screens - now that I know the way, I could do it again in three minutes. All you have to do is find the grail and bring it back to the start, and you've won. Slaying the dragons is optional, but it's a good idea and amounts to nothing more than poking them with the arrow-sword. Don't think you have any sort of inventory, though - your item moves along with you after you touch it, and you can only carry one at a time.
At the time this was a programming marvel, and it's the father of a genre as well as an amusing little romp. That all said, I'd have been pretty disappointed if I bought this at full price back in the day and beat it in 25 minutes or so. There is another goal to attain, however - one of gaming's first easter eggs, the designer's name hidden in a tough-to-access room.
0008. Asteroids (Arcade)
There's a certain joy to the serene minimalism of Asteroids. Everything is made up of just a few lines - that triangle? It's a spaceship! Those kinky rubber bands? Asteroids! Use your shooty gun to blow 'em up! Watch out for the UFO! Playing this on a real cabinet is an experience everyone should try - the bright streaks of light the graphics form on the screen are a cool effect even today.
The interesting thing about this game is the attention it pays to physics, as the trajectories of asteroid chunks are based, if you pay attention, on those of the larger chunk you split up as well as the bullet that hit it. Your ship's acceleration can also be carefully managed, although to be honest, I prefer to just sit in the middle and rotate like a turret, not moving unless I absolutely have to.
0009. Galaxian (Arcade)
Just a year after Space Invaders, the shmup had already come a long way. This game's full-color display is a real eye-opener after all the monochrome that's come before it, and it's even got real theme music. Instead of following a rigid pattern, the aliens here break formation to dive-bomb you in a difficult to avoid pattern. The scoring system is fun and deep for the time, with bonuses that reward high risk for taking out the back-row enemies first or knocking out an entire dive-bomb formation. The book correctly notes that Namco's follow-up Galaga, an all-time classic, is superior, but you can't hold that against this game, which is still a lot of fun.
0010. Lunar Lander (Arcade)
Lunar Lander is an unusual game. In a time when gameplay was simplistic, it had a rare focus on accuracy over fun. Using your limited fuel, you must adjust your lander's trajectory with great care and precision. A tiny, split-second adjustment can mean the difference between a successful landing and a crash.
This game is unforgiving and intense. It took me quite a few tries to land successfully - if you're coming down even a little bit too fast (you should barely be moving at all) you might get a result like "landed, but stranded forever due to broken gear." This game is not screwing around; stuck to slowly die on a lunar surface is its idea of mercy.
Forget making you sweat - Lunar Lander will punch you in the genitals.
I'm happy to report that after my first landing, I actually got the hang of this game and was able to successfully land on one of the tiny, high-multiplier landing spots. Maybe I don't totally suck at video games after all.
That's all for the 70s. Next time, we'll go through the arcade classics of the early 1980s.