I was able to cover the 1970s section in just one post, but in the 80s, gaming really took off, so from here on out, posts will cover at best one year. 1980 (the "dark mists of time" according to the text) was a big year for gaming; any year Pac-Man came out would be.
0011. Battle Zone (Arcade)
Battle Zone, a tank simulation, used vectors to create a wireframe, first-person 3D effect; many other games would use this same effect, most notably the Star Wars arcade game. It was an astonishing effect for the time and it actually still works pretty well in a minimalist sort of way.
Playing this was a trip. In a unique way, I really got drawn into its surreal, black world. As simple as it is, it works - I believe that's a volcano in the distance. After slowly rotating and gunning down a series of enemy tanks, I thought I was doing pretty good. I was, in fact; I scored 15000, enough for an extra tank. Just as I was celebrating that, however...
These strange things drop out of the sky and turn the strangely serene experience into chaos with a cacophony of noise. They head toward you in a hurry and you have only a second or two to shoot them before you get the cracked screen of failure.
Again I found myself laughing, at my own shrieks of "what the hell was that? What hit me?" This game deserves its spot for being the first on the list to totally immerse me in this manner.
0012. Defender (Arcade)
Holy crap do I suck at this game! After going through about $1.50 worth of plays, I was shocked to discover there was such a thing as levels when I beat the first one.
Defender is the first game I would not describe as simple. There's actually quite a bit going on here; you don't just shoot the aliens, you actually defend (hence the name) the people on the ground. The best way to score points is to shoot an alien that's abducting one of your people, catch that person as they fall, and return them to the ground for a pair of 500-point bonuses. Defender is an early example of the side-scrolling shmup, and you can turn around as well as fire, use bombs, and randomly teleport. The latter should only be done as a last resort, though - if you teleport onto something you die instantly!
The game has these erratically-moving alien buggers that kill me every damn time. I'm glad I didn't put real quarters into this. Next.
0013. Eamon (Apple II)
Eamon is the first text adventure on the list. For the uninitiated, text adventures are a genre in which there are no graphics; instead, you type commands into a parser and are rewarded with lines of text describing the results of your actions. Eamon is a little different from most; while most text adventures are really elaborate puzzle games, in Eamon you have stats, equipment and a turn-based battle system. The parser is also extremely limited to a few specific commands, and it doesn't understand complex use of even these commands. It's also the only text adventure I've ever played with loading times, and they're considerable.
The reason that Eamon makes the list is that it's more of a platform than a standalone game. The Eamon "master disk" contains the "main hall" where you set up your character as well as a beginner's dungeon, but when setting out for adventure you can swap in a disk that contains a module for a different adventure. You could write your own Eamon adventure and there are over two hundred of them in existence. There's even a "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" disk, though sadly I couldn't get it working.
The text has personality and a good sense of humor. A sign in the main hall says "sign up at this desk or else," and if you ignore it, you immediately get a sword in the back. When you enter your character name, the registrar mumbles about having better things to do than look up stupid names all day. I can see people really getting into this, back in the day.
I beat the beginner's dungeon on my second try - on the first, I read a magic book that turned me into a fish, causing me to promptly die. There's a hermit character who will usually fight you, but I found that by leaving the room and heading for the nearest monsters, he'll follow you and join your side, making things a lot easier for the rest of the dungeon. Unfortunately, unlike most text adventures, you can't really initiate a conversation with an NPC - there's no "talk" command (there is a command that lets you "say" things, but I never had any luck using it to communicate). I beat up some rats, a treasure chest mimic and a pirate, and earned a magical sword. I was able to carry my equipment and stats over to the next module, a disk called "FutureQuest," where I encountered The Author, "armed only with a sharpened pencil." I attacked him and got brutally killed.
There's definitely a whole world to discover with Eamon, but I found things a bit too frustrating. You can drop or break your weapons, and if your weapon breaks and you don't have a backup, you're screwed. Many of your attacks will miss as well. There's no saving, and when you die you have to start completely from scratch, which is SO lame. Still, it was a neat peek into what was probably an entire childhood for some.
0014. Missile Command (Arcade)
Missile Command used a trackball in the arcade, but using a mouse to control the cursor in MAME is actually an even better method of control. The book calls this game a Shoot 'Em Up, but I disagree. If you fire wildly in the manner standard to a shmup, you will quickly lose at Missile Command. You have a limited number of shots in each of your three missile stockpiles, and you have to protect your cities from the incoming missiles. It's necessary to anticipate where the incoming missiles are going to be because yours don't move instantaneously either. It's really satisfying when you manage to catch a group of missiles and set off a chain reaction of explosions.
I'd also like to note that the big yellow explosion and giant "THE END" when you lose is a bit unnerving - probably more so in the 80s when the Cold War was still going on. Maybe Missile Command is an early example of the apocalypse game.
0015. Rogue (Various, originally UNIX)
The nice thing about the selection of hugely important, landmark games is that it's generally possible to find them reproduced on the Web in some sort of Java emulator or reproduction. This is how I played Rogue.
Rogue has the simplest graphics possible: text. You are an at-sign, enemies are letters (B for bat, S for snake, etc.), gold is an asterisk and so on. The object of this game is to retrieve the amulet of Yendor from the deepest level of the dungeon, but since a million things can kill you your chances of actually doing so are laughably small. I managed to get to level 3 on my first try and that felt like a big victory, to be honest. I got killed by an ice monster - when it froze me, I couldn't fight back.
If you have the patience to really get waist-deep in this thing, there are apparently some interesting spells and equipment to be had - my favorite spell is "Genocide," which can only be used once and removes one type of monster entirely from that instance of the game.
This early RPG is notable for being the first game to use procedurally generated (or "random") levels. Each time you play Rogue, the layout of the dungeon and its contents are different. To this day, games like this are still known as "Roguelikes" in recognition of this 1980 classic.
0016. Tempest (Arcade)
Tempest is a uniquely abstract game. You, a claw-shaped ship, move along the outer edge of a vector-based tunnel with perspective and shoot the strange shapes that rapidly come out at you. The surreal world this creates is uniquely engaging - there doesn't need to be a reason for any of it, it doesn't represent anything, it just is. It gets really wild, too, having to keep up with the relentless advance of spikes that grow out from the center and approaching enemies that flip from vector to vector.
Sadly, Tempest is a game that is really impractical to play without its original dial controller. With it, you can strafe the entire board with great speed and fluid ease; without it, your movement is clunky and you're soon overwhelmed. I quickly gave up on trying to control it with the keyboard, only making it to level 5. If you ever see one of the original cabinets, you should definitely give it a shot.
0017. MUD (Online)
The MUD or Multi-User Dungeon is the first online multiplayer video game. A MUD can support hundreds of users simultaneously, making it the ancestor to today's MMORPGs. Way back when, users would dial into the network with their 1400 modems in order to pretend to be wizards and warriors.
MUD is a multiplayer text adventure; like a typical text adventure, you play by typing commands such as "look at statue," "attack pumpkin" and "north." You have stats and equipment, though, more like Eamon. You can "watch" the actions of others in the same room with you and may fight, trade with or talk to other players.
When I started planning this blog, I thought I'd have to skip MUD. Surely nobody was running them anymore in 2011, and if they were the communities would be so insular by now that they'd hardly welcome a newbie poking around. I really ought to know by now not to underestimate the Internet's ability to support obscure niches and nostalgia. There are in fact several highly active MUDs today; I joined the Discworld MUD, which is based on the awesome series of books by Terry Pratchett.
Joining the MUD was very easy - you can download a client or just use a java client in your browser. The guys and girls of the Discworld MUD were very friendly and welcoming to a newbie like me, and the newbie area you start out in teaches you all the basics, not assuming you've ever played a MUD or text adventure before. Once I got out of the newbie area and into the game proper, I was absolutely flabbergasted at the sheer scale of the game. I spent over an hour just walking from one end of one city to the other, and there were a number of amusing and colorful descriptions of the locations along the way ("This street isn't as packed as the others, but it's still fairly busy. Well, actually it isn't busy, but it's more comforting to say that it is. Solitude brings thoughts of whether there is someone behind you with a knife; in Ankh-Morpork, there probably is"). I watched as a high-level swordsman fought in the street and slayed two trolls, a merchant banker and a mean bounty hunter. When it was all over, I applauded; he bowed to me.
The MUD combined the lore of the books with a great deal of creativity on the part of the people making it. I really got a kick out of the variety of guilds you can join (think classes more than WoW-style guilds); you could be a wizard, wielding powerful spells that can be difficult to control, or you can be a witch, practicing magic based more on persuasion, making people think you have magic powers, and brewing special tea. The head witch said that witching was usually for women, but that I "might make a pretty good one" if I could get past the problem of my gender.
I can see why the MUD still has some allure today; it's like a collective gathering of human imagination - not only the imagination of the MUD's creators, but the imagination of the players as the world takes shape in their minds around the lines of text that scroll before them.
0018. Pac-Man (Arcade)
Pac-Man is probably the most famous video game of all time; its only serious competition is Tetris. Kids today may find it hard to believe - nobody seems to think much of Namco's old mainstay, these days - but Pac-Man drove the world nuts. Even today, it's extremely engaging - gripping that joystick for dear life, thrusting it into the turns, trying to get to them just ahead of your pursuers, producing an audible "thunk, thunk, thunk," and of course, frantically eating everything in sight.
Pac-Man was influential in its gameplay - many maze-type games followed, and the "prey temporarily turns predator" mechanic produced by eating a Power Pellet that lets you turn the tables on the ghosts was imitated both directly and subtly and still reverberates through gaming today. I mean, this is the genesis of the power-up, right here. Even without this exciting element, Pac-Man would have been a hit, but with it it was the coolest game of its time. Even in the 90s, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man remained arcade fixtures.
Even more influential than any aspect of its gameplay, however, was the character it brought to gaming. Pac-Man was the medium's first mascot - in the games that had come before, your avatar was not important. The spaceships, tanks and paddles were means to an end. Pac-Man was different; he was so important that the game was named after him. Even the ghosts got names. Pac-Man also introduced the cutscene, as every few levels the player would be treated to an amusing little skit. That little yellow pie chart was world famous, and the precursor to Mario, Sonic and all the rest.
Since the ghosts move in predictable patterns, true Pac-Man mastery revolves around the memorization of patterns to move in. I was never on that level, and I'm kind of rusty at even the inferior, reaction-based brand of Pac-Man I do play. After several attempts, level 5 (Apple) and 25000 points were the best I could manage. I wanted to keep going, though; this game is fiercely addictive.
Pac-Man is a work of genius that's on the short list of games anybody who considers themselves a gamer REALLY must play before they die.
0019. Phoenix (Arcade)
Phoenix is another space shmup, but it's well ahead of Space Invaders or Galaxian in terms of complexity. The main addition is a shield that protects you against all attack for a second or so. The implementation of the shield is great game design that adds a lot of depth. The shield takes several seconds to recharge, so you can't use it carelessly. Also, using the shield immobilizes you for its duration, so if you aren't careful, you can end up getting yourself killed by being stuck in the wrong spot right when the shield wears off. Finally, when enemies dive-bomb you, you can use the shield as a weapon, taking them out as they crash into you.
This game has a different atmosphere than most of the other games I've played so far. Instead of pumping you up with cheerful or frenetic tunes, this game creates an uneasy, alienated atmosphere with plodding, melancholy classical music. The high-pitched screeches of the enemies can also be unnerving, and the bloody (well, red at any rate) explosions they make and the shrapnel-ridden deaths you meet look freaking real for such a graphically simple game.
After two waves of pretty standard Galaxian-type enemies, you face two waves of enemies that start as round eggs. Those you don't manage to shoot hatch into big awful winged things that take multiple hits to kill. The fifth wave presents perhaps gaming's first boss. It's a skinny little alien protected by a great big mothership and another wave of standard baddies. You have to shoot a hole through the massive bulk of the mothership in order to take out the boss alien with one well-placed shot.
Video game bosses mean a lot to me. My childhood was filled with them, their patterns weaving threads of frustration and victory across long afternoons. Faced with what could well be the first, I knew I had to beat it.
It took me eight tries, which felt kind of embarrassing. Some of those tries were really pretty awful. On my eighth try, however, somehow it all clicked. The best way to avoid the quick, head-on shots of the enemies is by methodically sweeping back and forth, firing like mad (unlike Space Invaders and Galaxian, this game allows you to shoot rapidly, like you know you always wanted to). Not only did I beat the boss, I did so without even losing a life. I then looped through the second set of waves and beat the second appearance of the boss, then made it to the third before finally losing. I scored 210,152 points - nearly ten times my best score in the first seven attempts. Again, maybe I'm not so bad at video games after all.
0020. Zork I: The Great Underground Empire(PC)
Zork, inspired by the first text adventure, 1975's Colossal Cave Adventure, is the first game by Infocom, a Massachusetts-based company now legendary for producing some of the greatest text adventures or works of "interactive fiction" as they are also known. Infocom released 35 such games between 1980 and 1989, five of which are on this list. A fansite called The Gallery of Zork refers to the 35 titles as "The Canon."
I've seen a fair few sources dismiss text adventures as obsolete, but I strongly disagree. No graphical video game can ever give you the freedom to act provided by a well-made text adventure. In other games, there are a certain number of stock actions that you use to interact with your environment. In the best text adventures, however, you can do just about anything you can think of - you're in a world of pure imagination, yours and the author's. Also, since you're reading, the storytelling potential is as high as it gets for the medium - it's like an interactive book. There is still a dedicated community of amateur authors of IF, as they like to call it, and they turn out some pretty good stuff.
The text of the book admits that Zork I "may be the worst possible place to start" in Infocom's canon, and indeed it may. It's a simplistic treasure hunt with some wonky puzzles and features a less friendly parser than later titles (requiring look at x rather than just look x, for example). Still, this list clearly gives lots of points for historical relevance, and this game is too iconic to leave out - the white house, your dear friend the brass lantern. The phrase, "It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue" (this is not an idle threat).
Zork is a game in which you enter an enormous underground series of tunnels, discovering the remains of an ancient underground civilization called the Zorkers. The object is to retrieve all the treasures you can find (in some cases solving pretty obtuse puzzles to get them) and put them in a trophy case back above ground. Probably the most annoying aspect of the game is a thief that wanders the underground halls, stealing your treasures and killing you if he catches you off guard.
Using a guide - I salute those out there with the patience and fortitude to gut their way through an arcane title like this unaided, but it isn't in me - I got pretty far. I didn't beat the game - if I insisted on doing that all the time, I'd never finish this blog - but I killed that goddamn thief, which feels as good as winning. To get to his lair you have to navigate a near-impossible maze; "This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike" is another oft-echoed phrase. This game, though lacking the complex story of later adventures, has quite a bit of personality and can be fun to explore.
0021. Warlords (Arcade)
Warlords is a four-player riff on Pong. Played in a "cocktail" table cabinet, players move a tiny shield-shaped paddle around their corner of the field, protecting their little fortress from the ball, which is actually a rolled-up dragon. As the game goes on the number of balls goes up, so it gets quite hectic. You can play as two teams as well as in a free for all. It's an interesting concept, but I never got within a mile of winning against the computer opponents. Yep, I still suck at Pong.
0022. Centipede (Arcade)
This is the first shmup to take things in a different direction than space and aliens; centipede takes place in a garden, your enemies the centipede, spiders, fleas and scorpions, a field of mushrooms your obstruction. When you shoot the centipede, it splits into multiple chains, and each shot segment leaves behind another mushroom. The shrooms get in your way and increase the speed with which the centipedes advance, so you have to balance between attack and clearing them away. There's also some nice risk/reward gameplay with the spider, who gives between 300 and 900 points depending on how close it is to you (and therefore how dangerous it is). Controlled with a trackball, Centipede allows you to move up and down a bit as well as left and right, which is important when the centipedes make it to the bottom. After a few tries I managed to snag the first 1up at 12000 points, at least.
The book mentions that Centipede was programmed by a woman, an interesting tidbit. However, it then goes on to spend the whole space devoted to the game arguing that it was the first to bring women into gaming, kind of an odd way to treat such a well-worn classic if you ask me. I find the argument not only overstated but false, as Pac-Man had already brought gaming a considerable female audience; my big sister used to draw crowds with her skill at that game.
This one was intense! Join me next time for 1981, featuring Donkey Kong, Galaga and Ultima I!