1981 featured some fantastic arcade releases, including household name classics Galaga, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man and Frogger, so it's appropriate that this year in the book is almost entirely arcade games. The one exception is an important one, though, as Richard Garriot's Ultima launched, without a doubt, the RPG genre as we know it today.
0023. Galaga (Arcade)
Today, in the sadly few arcades that still remain in the United States, you're likely to see the 2001 20th-anniversary cabinet that collects this game and Ms. Pac-Man, two of Namco's most enduring classics. This game has serious staying power and still holds up remarkably well.
With Galaga, Namco took their smash hit Galaxian and improved upon it considerably. Abandoning the rigidity common to shmups before (and really, it's not hard to see the difference in the genre pre- and post-Galaga), the enemies swoop in in graceful swirling arcs, affording you the opportunity to rapidly take them out by sitting in just the right spot. Even after entering their formation, they constantly abandon it, diving in complex, scooping dive bombs and firing a flurry of shots. This game also features bonus stages where you can score huge points by taking down as many of the carefully constructed patterns of enemies as possible.
Another cool feature of Galaga is the enemies that use a tractor beam on you. If you get caught, you'll lose a life as the screen displays "FIGHTER CAPTURED," but this actually presents an opportunity. If you shoot down the enemy that captured you, your previous ship returns to you, and although you don't get the lost life back, your ship becomes a dual, wing-to-wing pair of ships that fire two shots, a must for conquering the bonus stages. Using this clever trick, I managed a respectable 44000 points on my first try.
0024. Donkey Kong (Arcade)
The game that put Nintendo on the map, Donkey Kong was truly revolutionary. At a time when the only significant character in gaming was the rather abstract Pac-Man, Donkey Kong gave us Mario (Jumpman at the time - he'd get his name in 1983's Mario Bros.) and the titular big ape. Both had a really unprecedented amount of personality; DK would beat his chest and lose his teeth upon being defeated, while mario would get a little halo upon death. And then there was Pauline, an early example of the ubiquitous damsel in distress. It might all seem pretty standard today, but that's because Donkey Kong did it first.
Donkey Kong was also a huge step forward in terms of gameplay, being one of the earliest games to feature different levels that are totally distinct from one another instead of being basically the same thing with minor variations. There are four levels in Donkey Kong, although they're not presented in order from the start (it's more like 1,4, 1,2,4, 1,3,2,4). One level, which features direction-changing conveyor belts and ladders that raise and lower, has been missed by most modern gamers since it was inxeplicably omitted from the NES port that's been endlessly rereleased. Probably Donkey Kong's greatest contribution to gaming is the jump. Apart from moving and maybe shooting, the jump is the single most important action to gaming as a whole, and you see it first here, allowing Mario to barely clear a relentless series of barrels and tiny gaps.
This is one of the most challenging classic games - it's very unforgiving, requiring precise placement and timing of jumps, and there's an emphasis on moving quickly in order to get a high score. That score attack remains competitive today, as documented in the film King of Kong. I just managed 37,700 points in several tries, at least managing to reach the "lost" level not present in the NES version. Despite the high difficulty, Donkey Kong is a lot of fun; I could play it for hours.
This game has some interesting origins - In this interview, http://us.wii.com/iwata_asks/nsmb/vol1_page1.jsp, Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto reveals that Donkey Kong was originally intended to be a game starring Popeye, the sailor from Max Fleischer's classic cartoons. A huge fan of Pac-Man, Miyamoto wanted to implement a similar tables-turning mechanic with Popeye becoming able to fight back after getting a can of his famous spinach. For some reason, however, the license fell through, the spinach became the hammer and Popeye became Mario (who got his famous moustache because it was the only practical way to distinguish his nose from his mouth in such a tiny space). Imagine that: the world-famous Mario was born of a dropped Popeye license. It's crazy how history works out, isn't it?
0025. Qix (Arcade)
Here's a game that's been remade so many times it'd be difficult to gather together a list of all its clones. Have you ever played a game where you draw lines across a playing field in order to partition off part of said field, a task complicated by having to avoid enemies or obstacles moving around the area? If so, you should know that it was a Qix clone. My first was a Texas Instruments graphing calculator game called Jezzball.
Qix has a weird, robotic atmosphere. The predominant sound is a low buzzing, and the main enemy is this spiraling neon-lines effect that looks like it came out of an early-90s screensaver. What really gets me, though - and I am appallingly bad at this game, barely clearing the first level in several attempts - are these sparks that trace quickly around the edges of the playing area, making it possible for you to die even when you're not currently drawing a line. This is a cerebral game that could probably be a lot of fun if you're less hopeless at it than me.
0026. Scramble (Arcade)
With full-color displays now standard, developers (Konami in this case) continued to make interesting color choices. The uneven purple and green alien landscapes seem to undulate as you fly past them in this side-scrolling shoot-em-up; it feels kind of like being inside a lava lamp.
This game has you attempting to invade an alien base (the title screen bears the tagline: How far can you invade our scramble system?). There are six areas; when you die, you have to restart from the beginning of the current area. In addition to having to dodge or shoot enemies, you must keep an eye on your fuel, which you refill by shooting little towers marked "FUEL." These are hard to access, though, because you usually have to fly very low to shoot them, risking a crash.
I'm as tired of writing about how I suck at various arcade games as you probably are of reading about it, but facts are facts, and despite a number of attempts you couldn't get me to admit to under torture, I never got past area 2 of 6 of this game.
0027. Stargate (Arcade)
Stargate is a sequel to Defender. Uh oh.
According to the text, the developers decided to follow up the extremely challenging Defender by making the sequel even tougher, adding types of aliens designed specifically to cripple strategies that were effective in the original. It's all miles above my head, though - for me, a quarter in this game is a quarter soon wasted. Stargate is very similar to Defender, but with more alien types added and a few extra features like a warp hole that sends you to the other side of the map. It's hard for me, personally, to get into a game that I can't make much headway in, but to those with the patience and skill I'm sure this game is quite addictive.
0028. Venture (Arcade)
Venture is an unusual arcade game due to its extremely limited graphics. It's made up of lines and simple icons, invoking the same kind of "just pretend these are graphics" deal between producer and player usually made on the Atari 2600. Your character, Winky, is a little red smiley face with a parenthesis that is supposed to be a bow and arrow. If you can look past the laughable graphics, however, there's an interesting game here.
Venture is an action-adventure game where you collect treasures. You start out on a greatly zoomed-out "world map" showing the rooms you can explore on this level. You enter the rooms, take the treasure inside and hurry out - if you spend too long in any room, the invincible alien things from the world map will come in and chase you down. When you've collected the four treasures on a map, you move on to the next level; there are 36 treasures in total.
This game is really engaging; you want to grab that treasure, escape, and see what's next. Each of the 36 treasure rooms has its own design and its own type of enemy or obstacle. For example, there's a "wall room" where you must avoid crushing walls in order to retrieve a diamond and a "serpent room" where snakes guard an apple.
Unfortunately, this game can be as frustrating as it is fun. The enemies in the treasure rooms wobble about in a state of quantum indecision, ensuring that your shots almost never hit and making it a better idea in most cases to simply dodge the enemies while getting the treasure and getting out as quickly as possible. Another bad note is that every once in a while, you'll come out of a room and immediately run into an enemy on the world map, dying without even having a chance to dodge or see it coming. Still, I recommend giving this game a try; it's fun and an interesting relic that predicts games like Zelda.
0029. Ms. Pac-Man (Arcade)
Ms. Pac-Man started out as a ROM hack. By reverse engineering the original Pac-Man, a small company called General Computer Corporation hacked it into an enhanced game called Crazy Otto. American distributor Midway liked this game so much, they purchased the rights and turned it into Ms. Pac-Man. To me, this kind of response makes infinitely more sense than the typical way companies treat hackers and makers of fan projects like criminals today. Just think, if they'd responded that way back then we wouldn't have Ms. Pac-Man, one of the greatest arcade games ever.
Ms. Pac-Man does the unthinkable: it takes a game that is for all intents and purposes perfect and makes it even better. It has three mazes instead of Pac-Man's one, and features improved ghost behavior and bonus fruit that bounce around the maze instead of sitting in a spot you'll never go. There were other attempts to spice up basic Pac-Man (Jr. Pac-Man, for example), but they diluted the experience with unnecessary, unfun additions, screwing up the all-important core experience. Only Ms. Pac-Man refined that experience, and that's a singular feat of game design.
It's also worth mentioning the character, gaming's first female protagonist. A little lipstick and a bow added a lot of personality to the Pac-Man family. Ms. Pac-Man also features little cutscenes showing the relationship between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man - in a hectic world of eating and running, they find time for love. How sweet.
I'm actually a little better at Ms. Pac-Man than the original, oddly; I made it to the sixth stage on my first try. When I was a kid, we had one of those miniature handheld "arcade cabinets" of Ms. Pac-Man; I'll always remember the time I got to the twentieth screen.
0030. Frogger (Arcade)
Konami's arcade hit Frogger is damn simple fun. The screen is bisected into a busy highway and a river filled with turtles and floating logs, and as a frog, all you need to do is hop from the bottom to the safety of one of the five safe havens at the top, over and over. The two segments are an interesting contrast, focusing on positive and negative space - on the road, you hop on the blacktop and avoid the cars, but on the river you must do the opposite, jumping onto the floating objects and avoiding the river below. By the way, am I the only one bothered by Frogger's instant death upon landing in the river? He's a frog, for crying out loud! They are nothing if not prodigious swimmers!
Frogger is a game that looks like it ought to be easy, but a great many hazards make it surprisingly challenging. My vote for most annoying problem are the turtles that dip underwater, often when you're standing on them. You get points for finishing quickly and bonuses for escorting a lost fellow frog and for hopping into a cove while it has a fly inside.
It was fun playing Frogger again. When I was a kid, we had a shareware clone called "Revenge of Froggie" that I spent many hours on. It kept a running total telling you how many quarters you'd saved. Oh, memories.
0031. Gorf (Arcade)
Another space shmup, Gorf is a real oddity. It features five stages on a loop. The first level, "Astro Battles," is friggin' Space Invaders. They even use the same alien sprites! I am dead serious. The only difference is that you get a big, one-way shield that blocks enemy shots but not yours. After the second level, which features enemies with laser-line weapons, the third stage is an even more amazing ripoff - not only do they use the famous sprite from Galaxian, they go ahead and call the level "Galaxians." I have no clue how they got away with this. There's then a level where enemies come out from a vanishing point, and a boss called the "Flag ship." Each successful loop raises your "space rank," displayed on the lower right.
While its wildly varying and blatantly ripped-off stages are amusing, I don't really think Gorf ranks as a classic. The main thing holding it back is the fact that every time you hit the fire button, your current shot is canceled - this feels totally unnatural and is hard to get used to. The game lacks the polish overall of the games it rips off. I suspect it might have ended up in the book only because of the voice chip that insults you when you lose, but MAME sadly does not reproduce this element. It's too bad, because that sounds hilarious. I looked it up on Youtube, actually, and it is. The voice chip is the absolute worst imaginable, just barely managing to push out syllables that... sorta sound like speech? "Long live Gorf" indeed.
0032. Ultima I (Apple II)
The original Ultima is very difficult to play today. It doesn't hold up well at all, with the dated interface (hope you've memorized which keyboard key does what action), lack of direction, and difficulty. A successful play revolves around time spent entering a dungeon, fighting one or two enemies near the entrance, exiting and repeating. As dull as this is, if you try to bite off any more than that you'll die for sure. Speaking of biting, you also have to periodically buy food just to move around on the overworld. Doesn't that sound fun?
However, it's easy nonetheless to see why this game is on the list. The graphics, though primitive, allow for the creation of a huge world with a top-down, tiled overworld and first-person dungeons. Even while cursing the game's clunkiness, there's an amazing feeling as you realize that it all started here - this is the game that launched the RPG genre. Again, we see that this book places a lot of value on historical importance, and I can't say I blame them in this case. Even though actually playing the game is a chore, its impact is impossibly far-reaching.
Although I didn't get far in this game, I hear it gets kind of nuts. It starts out with a typical medieval setting, but by the end you'll be using a spaceship, blaster guns and a time machine to go after the final boss. Is that bizarre or what?
That's it for 1981, a banner year for arcades to be certain. Next time, 1982's releases include Dig Dug, Miner 2049er and Q*Bert.