Regarding my 1001games project: There's only one deadline. I haven't hit it yet!
I'm a 90s gamer and Sega kid for life. I like platformers, adventure games and JRPGs. I'm not that into first-person shooters or sports games.
I spend more of my time playing older games than new ones. I do have a PS3 now, though, and I like buying games on PSN. I like the Wii and have a ton of games for it. I'm encouraged by some of the stuff out on Wiiware - to me, games like Bit.Trip Beat are more appealing than the "triple-A" titles coming out on the HD consoles.
Some of my all-time favorite games are Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Dragon Quest III, Heroes of Might and Magic III, The Curse of Monkey Island, and Dance Dance Revolution.
In late 2010 to early 2011, a friend and I played through all nine Dragon Quest games together in sequence, and I did a little writeup on GameFAQs. I was reading back through it and found it amusing, so I thought I'd post it here.
Dragon Warrior (NES)
Here's 120 gold, a torch, and a key to get out of this room. Thou art the descendant of Erdrick. Go save the world.
This is one of the first games I ever played. I first played it in 1990, when I was 5. My companion didn't get around to it until the GBC rerelease.
We got a late start due to playing the last chapter of Sam and Max Season 3. Named the hero One and we're off.
Progress: Not much. Grinded (Ground?) up to level 7, got the Copper sword, chain mail and a leather shield. Got the Tablet. Got to Rimuldar, but got killed.
*Always buy the club first. Nobody likes your style, bamboo pole.
*Thou hast done well in defeating the slime. 1 exp, 1 gold... this is going to take a while.
*"Watch thy hit points when traveling through marsh." "My what?" "Thy hit points." "My what?"
*You say inn, I say 25 gold to sleep on a single square of brick floor. Screwest thou, I'm going to stick with the free MP recharge at the castle.
*Skeletons wear pants?
Good old, grindy old Dragon Warrior. Watch those numbers sloooowly tick up.
*Went to Kol and got the Fairy Flute.
*Got some keys and did the Garinham tomb.
*Got the Half plate and rescued the princess at level 13.
*Did the swamp cave because it's there. Got a useless ring. With this jewelry, One can prove he's a real man.
*Got the Full Plate and did some grinding. Managed to find Erdrick's Token by guessing. Got it right on the first try.
*After several False starts, made the long trek to Cantlin and beat the Golem. Having already saved up the money, we bought the Silver Shield.
*Assembled the Rainbow drop and went back to Cantlin to buy the Flame Sword.
Currently One is level 15 and has the flame sword, silver shield and full plate. We're in good shape to move on to II next week.
Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:
*Soldier to King Lorik: Do you think that One might need this ancient technology used by Erdrick known as a... "bag?"
Lorik: Of course not. Did he, he surely would have asked.
*One has acquired a reputation in multiple townships and shrines as the local crazy for his habit of running laps around town for hours on end.
*King Lorik is living large. His throne is made of only the finest in cardboard boxes.
*I don't see what's so magical about keys that break after you use them once.
*Monsters have interesting fashion sense. Pink is in.
*Stairs, man. I warned you about stairs. Truly, they art a fearsome foe.
*"I doubt the Intelligence of these NPCs." "Intelligence? What's that? All I've got is Strength, Agility, Attack and defense, HP and MP."
*"Here I go... wish me luck." "Luck? What's that? All you've got..."
*Stairs, dawg. It keeps happening.
*They say it's a lake around Kol, but I say it's clearly a C. C is for Kol, and that's good enough for... wait.
*Hello Goldman. I've come for your Sachs!
*The princess is really creepy. You show up to rescue her and she throws herself at you, immediately insisting that you love her. There's no hope, One. It's already too late. You're just her puppet from here on out. I can see who's going to wear the pants in this relationship... "Aw, honey, I'm really too tired tonight." "But thou must!" "...okay."
*"65 north, 46 west to the castle... what units is this in?" "Loveometers!" "...CREEPY."
*In later games, Metal slimes exist to level you up quickly. In this one, they exist to PISS YOU THE HELL OFF.
Special Sunday Update!
Today was a Dragon Quest IX event in our area; we managed to put in a few hours of progress afterward.
*Got the Magic Armor because really, why not? Actually, we've done a lot of things for that reason. Dragon Warrior is Why Not: The game.
*Defeated the Axe Knight at level 16 and got the Erdrick's Armor. Thank you, Stopspell.
*At level 19, we braved Charlock Castle and retrieved the mighty Erdrick's Sword.
*We managed to put down two enemies who are so tough I regard them as optional bosses: the Metal Slime and the Red Dragon.
Currently One is level 19 and has the Erdrick gear and the Silver Shield. Now we are really set to get II well underway next Friday.
Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:
*Metal slimes are terrible piles of metal goo who laugh at your frustration. After many attempts, though, we were victorious! Our efforts were rewarded with the game-changing sum of... of...
...Somewhere, I can still hear laughing.
*Hauskness sounds like a good name for a holiday. It commemorates the time we defeated a Magiwyvern with just 1 HP left. Happy Hauskness!
*In absence of his recolored bretheren's axe and shield, "Knight" just looks constipated. Excellent move, Ex-lax.
*Tantagel Castle has death panels in the middle of its fountain. Sarah Palin was right!
We're back on track. Ain't no stopping this train.
*Grinded to level 20 and fought the Dragonlord. Lost because my companion decided to tempt fate by choosing "FIGHT" with 42 HP left. Fate, it turns out, is very temptable. And very contemptible. Screw you, Fate.
*Grinded to level 21 and defeated the Dragonlord with loads of MP to spare. Got the super special awesome shiny ball and it made everything groovy.
*Apparently, One is Conan. I mean seriously, "If ever I am to rule a country, it must be a land that I myself find"? And this story shall also be told...
Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:
*These imperial scrolls must get boring toward the end...
One: "I killed an Axe Knight. Then, I killed an Axe Knight. Then, I killed another Axe Knight. Then, I killed... NOT an Axe Knight! Naw, just kidding, it was another Axe Knight. Then I went and got my ass handed to me by the Dragonlord."
Lorik: "...Dearest daughter, remind me what thou seest in him?"
*I'm used to final boss inner sanctums being all dank and dark, but Dragonlord's is rather bright and cheery. I wonder who does his interior design.
*The climactic confrontation!
Dragonlord: I have waited long for one such as thee.
One: Oh,really? Gee, that's nice of you. I mean, I've been working out... been thinking of going into male modeling maybe?
Dragonlord: No you weirdo. I mean for you to join me and rule half the world.
One: Oh. Huh, that's actually a pretty attractive offer. I mean, Lorik gives me 120 gold and his crazy daughter, you give me half the world... Okay Sparky, deal.
Dragonlord: Thou art... wait, what? Really? You will? I... don't know what to say. I had it all planned out, I'd say join me, you'd say never, we'd fight... Okay, this actually works out a lot better. Thanks.
One: Psyche! *draws sword*
Dragonlord: Wha.... Thou art a dick!
One: Man, that was easy. What a wimp, no wonder you were hiding down here AAAAHHH!
One: ...man, you're fat. No way those stubby wings could actually take you off the ground.
Dragonlord: Those cardboard boxes that make up my throne... they're filled with Twinkies.
And so, One saved the world from the Dragonlord and went off to be dominated by his wife into founding three kingdoms. He enjoyed life a lot more after he figured out that he could let his wife do all the ordering people around, and spent a long retirement relaxing and having other people beat up slimes and such for him. The end.
I thought I might post these here one game a day (except 6, which I didn't do much of a writeup for). Of course, if people think this sucks and posting it here is a terrible idea, then I won't clog up the cblogs with it. Let me know.
1983 was the year of the famous North American video game crash. Going into the year, there were many competing consoles; by 1984, they were all gone. A glut of consoles, overall poor quality of games and high profile duds like E.T. and Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 (Atari rushed them out the door, making the bewildering assumption that there would be no connection between quality and sales) combined to torpedo sales and drive many companies out of the business. Retailers decided that video games had been a fad, which would make it difficult for the NES to break into the market a couple of years later. The industry would recover, of course, but the effects were far-reaching; most noticeably, consoles, up until then mainly made in America, became a Japanese business. There would not be another truly successful console from an American company until Microsoft's Xbox in distant 2001.
With the American market in shambles, it seems like a good time to talk about Europe.
One thing I've noticed repeatedly on the Internet is that "Retro gaming" means something totally different to people from the UK than it does to Americans like myself. Consoles didn't catch on there for a few more years, but home computers were marketed aggressively under the premise that buying your child a computer instead of a video game would be better for them and help them with school. Maybe it did, and these early computers encouraged people to learn to code (some programs would be distributed just as source code, usually in BASIC, which you would have to enter manually), but these computers were also the de facto game consoles for a generation. I'm not saying 80s home computing wasn't popular here in North America - noted successes included the Apple II and Commodore 64 - but the nostalgia gap is plain to see.
The Commodore 64 was popular in the UK as well, along with a system called the BBC Micro and others, but I'll be focusing on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It's the easiest of the systems to emulate, and seems to be the focus of most of the retro computer gaming tributes I've seen. Now, I've been putting (PC) so far for simplicity's sake, but until the 90s, PC gaming was not the unified platform we now know it as - games had to be ported between these platforms. The Spectrum's games came on ordinary audiocassetes - yes, really, you could theoretically even broadcast one on the radio, tape it and play it in your system. This made games very easy to copy, which might have contributed to the downfall of the Spectrum a few years later. Also, the use of audiocassettes caused long, long, go-make-yourself-a-sandwich long loading times.
0048. I, Robot (Arcade)
Oh man, this game is awesome! How did they make it way back in 1983, and why isn't it more famous? This is a 3D game with real, filled-in polygons; talk about before its time. The brightly colored polygons create a strange, wonderfully abstract environment that makes this feel more like a puzzle game. The object of the game is to paint all of the red blocks blue by walking over them while avoiding enemies and obstacles and minding the giant eye at the end of the stage - if you jump while it's open, you'll get blasted. Between levels, you travel through a field of objects that you'll have to shoot to avoid crashing. There's actually a lot going on in this game, but once you get the hang of it, it couldn't be simpler.
I, Robot also has a very unusual feature - when you start your game, you can choose "Doodle City - The Ungame" to paint an abstract picture instead of playing the game, using the game's various polygonal objects as brushes. The attract mode advertises this feature - "Tired of video games? Burned out on mass destruction? Forget the game. Relax in Doodle City." Yeah, this game actually has quite a wit to it. In the demonstration, a giant face says "The law: no jumping." Your robot says "Oh yeah? Why not?" while jumping around. The eye shoots it and says "That's why."
This game is amusingly creative and way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful and few units are confirmed to exist today; thank goodness for emulation. Check it out.
0049. Archon (Various, ZX Spectrum played)
Playing with a ZX Spectrum for my first time, I have to note that the controls are very difficult to get a handle on, as the keyboard lacks arrow keys. Anyway, Archon is a crazy version of Chess where the pieces enter a real-time fight upon coming to occupy the same square. Different pieces have different stats, which are affected by the square they're on. Besides being an interesting take on Chess, Archon also feels like a precursor to the strategy RPG genre, which also features moving pieces on a grid and initiating battle upon contact with opposing pieces.
0050. Star Wars (Arcade)
The original Star Wars arcade game is definitely one of the most memorable movie license games. Instead of trying to cover the whole movie, this game focuses on the most exciting scene - the attack on the Death Star - and reproduces it admirably, in 80s first person wireframe glory. You've got to play this one in the original cabinet - it provides an actual cockpit for you to sit in, making the experience really feel real. A beepy version of the Star Wars theme and some amusingly lo-fi digitized voice clips from the movie add to the atmosphere. It's a lot harder to play with a keyboard than the original flight yoke, but I still successfully blew up the Death Star at least once. I really have to hand it to this one - it's common to be watching a movie and think "this part would be a really cool video game," but rare to be proven absolutely right.
0051. Chuckie Egg (Various, ZX Spectrum played)
Yay, another platformer. I gotta tell ya though, ZX Spectrum control layouts are BIZARRE. This one wants you to press 2 for up, W for down, O and P for left and right, and mystifyingly, M (???) for jump. Mercifully, this game lets you redefine keys, so I set up the more familiar WASD for a more comfortable experience.
This game is really fun! You run around collecting eggs and birdseed while avoiding the big birds climbing around the ladders. Your jumps are low - a more human arc than the superhuman leaps we're accustomed to - but long, and well-suited to getting from platform to platform. Jumping is actually fun in this game, which puts it above most of its contemporaries, where the act is a painfully precise chore. I have to admit, though, through more than five attempts I beat the first two levels flawlessly each time, and just as reliably lost all my lives on level 3. I just can't master the jump onto the moving platforms there.
0052. Dragon's Lair (Arcade)
Dragon's Lair was the first (or at least the first of note) of the FMV games, which bypassed limited hardware by simply playing cinema-quality video off of a LaserDisc or CD and scanning to different scenes depending on whether the player has pressed the right button at the right time. Barely interactive, these games nonetheless were popular for a time, and it's not hard to understand why - in the early 80s, the gorgeous visuals of a game like this must have been truly amazing next to the primitive graphics of contemporary arcade games.
A lot of the terrible FMV games that dominated consoles like the Sega CD were not much of a movie in addition to not being much of a game, but this isn't true of Dragon's Lair due to the involvement of talented director Don Bluth, fresh off of his breakout masterpiece The Secret of NIMH. This game has charm, wit, majesty and fear. Each room is a clever new trap, and the player is rarely more than a second or two away from death. In fact, the various death scenes are actually a large part of the game's entertainment value. Its popularity spawned followups Space Ace and Dragon's Lair II, ports to countless platforms from the Sega CD to the iPhone, and near-totally unrelated versions for platforms with no capability whatever to handle the central gimmick (the NES, for example).
If you want to play the actual arcade version on a PC, there is an emulator for LaserDisc games called Daphne, named after the bubbly, slutty princess from Dragon's Lair (Bluth: "The elevator doesn't go all the way up, but she serves a purpose"). My games ended before long as I couldn't pin down the timing. I ended up watching a YouTube playthrough, which is extremely entertaining; I recommend it. If you want to actually play the game, my research has found that the best port is "Dragon's Lair Trilogy" on the Wii, which apparently has excellent timing and features optional move prompts to make the game far easier, and I'll bet more fun. I'd be tempted to pick it up myself for $30, if I weren't broke.
0053. Gyruss (Arcade)
Like Tempest, this shoot 'em up is played on the outside of a tube; in this case, however, the tube is not visible and the objects look like spaceships instead of abstract vector shapes. Like that game, this one is better with its original controller; however, this game isn't as broken as Tempest when using a keyboard. Actually, it's still quite fun. Every few levels you pass a planet as you get closer to Earth, starting with Neptune. On my second try I managed to get almost to Jupiter and scored over 40k points. This game also features Galaga-like bonus levels where you shoot down streams of enemies; it's easier to get them all if you get the double-shot powerup in the levels by shooting a special enemy that looks like a fuzzy orange ball.
0054. Mad Planets (Arcade)
When you hear the name "Mad Planets," you probably think it refers to the setting, but this game is way more nuts than that. Instead of spaceships or vaccuum-dwelling aliens, your enemies in this game are actually planets. They try to crash into you and fling their moons at you in crazy arcs. You have to shoot their moons and then blow the planets up; it's brilliantly insane. How come nobody else has ever done this?
Unfortunately, we have another game here that's next to impossible to play on a keyboard. You can turn your ship to aim in any direction with a spinner, which is difficult to approximate with buttons or keys. If you ever see this uncommon cabinet, you should give it a look - it's amusingly odd.
0055. M.U.L.E. (Various, NES played)
M.U.L.E. was the first game to be developed for Trip Hawkins's new game company Electronic Arts. It was released for the various 8-bit computers of the time (Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit) and ported to the NES in 1990, which makes playing it way more convenient. Hurray!
This is a turn-based economic sim game where you can select an alien race to play as (each having certain advantages and/or disadvantages) and select the plots of land you're given for farming, mining or energy production by putting a M.U.L.E. (Multiple Use Labor Element, which at least in the NES version looks and sounds like a robotic mule) loaded up for that application on the plot. After each turn, there is an auction between the four players where you can buy or sell these three resources to one another or buy them from the store. Though you compete against the other players (which can be the computer, as they were in my play), there is a certain almost collaborative element because you don't want to totally shut out the other players from the resources they need - without all the players producing, there really isn't enough of the resources to get anywhere.
I couldn't beat the computer - honestly, I might have missed something in the rules, since I couldn't figure out why my plots were producing less than others. Incidentally, I'm still waiting for the first real co-op game in this list, which might be Gauntlet in 1985. Does anybody know of an earlier example?
0056. Planetfall (PC)
Planetfall is the first Infocom text adventure by Steve Meretzky, that company's most famous designer. His games have a pretty good sense of humor - in this one, for example, you meet a buffoon of an alien who blathers on about relations between your races ("he says that all humans look the same to him"), and he hands you a useless brochure. When you drop it, the description of the room you dropped it in says "Unfortunately, that stupid brochure is here." This game elicited quite a few smiles out of me.
In this sci-fi adventure, you (a low-ranking member of the Space Fleet, with standard-issue scrubbing brush) land on a deserted planet and have to find a way off. Along the way, you figure out that this planet's population was wiped out by a plague. Fairly early, you can activate a robot. He identifies himself and follows you around. Floyd is bouncy and manically friendly. He can be pretty funny - when you save the game, he says "Oh boy! Are we about to do something dangerous?" Some might think Floyd annoying, but I think it's nice to have a little company during yet another text adventure spent exploring a deserted world.
Meretzky makes it clear that he's a fan of Douglas Adams's science fiction works by including a towel in this game - if you examine it closely, you'll find the number 42 written on it, a reference to the book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Two years later Meretzky and Adams would collaborate on a text adventure adaptation of that book; rest assured it's on this list.
I got a bit stuck about halfway through this game and gave up, but I bet I could have beaten it with a bit more effort. This game does have some annoyances, however. Compared to recent amateur "Interactive Fiction," which in interest of the player's convenience allows "l object" for "look at object," this game insists on the full sentence. When I typed "look watch" it snapped back at me, "this isn't some primitive two-word parser. If you want to look at something, say so." Honestly, what is gained by making me waste my time typing a longer phrase? I know it's not much longer, but doing it again and again gets old. I don't really want to have to type "slide elevator card through slot" every single time I need to use an elevator, but in PlanetFall I certainly had to. This game also makes you eat and sleep every so often, which is a chore to keep up with and really doesn't add a lot but a drag, in my opinion. Sure, give the player these problems to solve once, but over and over? That's not fun. This is actually a pretty cool adventure with some interesting and funny elements; I just wanted to make it clear that it shows its age in certain unpleasant ways.
0057. Spy Hunter (Arcade)
This might be the most direct game ever. You're a car, and you shoot other cars. Hell, the same pedal that accelerates also causes you to shoot an endless stream of bullets from your front fender. You can also bump most cars to the side, although some have deadly spikes that come from their tires - as far as I can tell, staying directly in front of these is the only way to avoid getting killed by them. Oh, and the Peter Gunn theme plays the whole time. According to the text one of the bridges eventually stops short and you turn into a boat, but I never got that far.
This game is unusual for its time in that it has no lives. Instead, you have unlimited cars as a counter ticks down from 999, and just one after it gets to 0. Although the cabinet had a steering wheel, it's functionally identical to arrow keys. This game is worth a play if only for how awesomely blatant it is about its premise.
0058. Crystal Castles (Arcade)
The unusual sights of Crystal Castles are quite compelling - multi-leveled isometric playgrounds with buildings, elevators and tunnels. As the absurdly cute Bentley Bear ("Oh no!" he says in word balloon when he dies), you have the Pac-Man like goal of collecting all the red gems inexplicably covering every path. Unfortunately, this is another game that suffers from lacking its original controls. The arcade trackball made zipping along the paths easy. Without it, I wouldn't quite call the game impossible to play - you can give it a go with the mouse, and I made it to level 5 - but the awkwardness of control makes things pretty frustrating.
Unusually for an arcade game, this one ends after its thirty-seven levels instead of looping. This game is definitely a curiosity, but I'd hold out for the real cabinet to really play it, unless you own a PC trackball.
0059. Jetpac (Various, ZX Spectrum played)
Jetpac was the first game by Ultimate Play the Game, the English developer which would later become Rare and go on to make many highly-regarded games on Nintendo and Microsoft consoles. After wrestling with another perplexing ZX Spectrum control scheme (a number of keys are mapped to this game's four actions; the most usable combination I found was Y, H, M and ,), I discovered a really fun and exciting game. So many home computer games, especially platformers, of the early 80s are plodding, delicate affairs where great care must be taken not to miss what feels like a perfectly good jump; this is true even of good examples like Chuckie Egg. This is totally untrue of Jetpac, where you gracefully (and quickly!) drift through the air with solid physics, firing your laser with mad abandon. This game is fast-paced and exciting, and a blast once you get the hang of it.
In the first wave, you have to assemble the three pieces of your rocketship, then refuel it by collecting the pink fuel packs that drop at random locations. After the first wave, only refueling is necessary. Because parts and fuel drop onto your rocket simply by being carried directly above it, it's a good idea to spend most of your time on the top part of the screen, where it's slightly safer. Despite MJ Hibbett's reverence for "the thrill of getting through Jetpac," you can't beat this game. Indeed, it doesn't even have real levels - the only thing that changes when you successfully ride your rocket are the enemies. Having said that, I managed to get to wave 7 and score over 10k points. This game has been both ported and remade for the Xbox Live Arcade as Jetpac Refueled - check it out, it's a good time.
0060. Juno First (Arcade)
Juno First is an unusual choice for this list. It's a solid but not particularly remarkable shoot-em-up that isn't terribly widely remembered. Its most noticeable feature is probably the simplest faux-3D effect ever, accomplished by a series of dots that accomplish a sort of perspective. It is pretty cool to be able to see your enemies approaching before they actually enter the playing area. Another neat feature is a bonus item you can get that not only gives you an 800 point bonus, but makes all enemies worth 800 points for a limited time. Other than that, I don't have much to say about this one.
0061. Lode Runner (Various, ZX Spectrum played)
Hooray, another Spectrum game with a redefine keys option! However, I still suck hard at it. Bummer.
In Lode Runner, you climb ladders and collect gold. You can't really call it a platformer on account of a lack of a jump. There is an unusual mechanic in which you can make holes in the floor in front of you for your enemies to temporarily fall into, allowing you to then walk over their heads. You have to be careful, of course, not to fall into your own holes, and of certain floors that are indestructible.
The most interesting thing about this game is its built-in level editor. The game already contains an enormous 150 levels, but gamers made countless others. It can be really amazing what gamers put together when you hand them the creative controls, and to this day not as many games employ this element as ought to.
0062. Manic Miner (Various, ZX Spectrum played)
I know I keep complaining about controls, but you seriously use Q and P to go left and right in this game. WHAT?
Manic Miner, I understand, is one of the most nostalgic platformers for fans of the Spectrum, but due to the strange controls, unforgiving jump and tight placement of hazards, I can't get anywhere at all in it. It's too bad, because it seems remarkably advanced for its time, with elements such as conveyer belts and fall-away platforms. It's a bizarre game with strange color choices and weird enemies, which I guess is part of its charm.
I'm sorry to give such a beloved game such a terse treatment, but I'm out of my element here, having been born in 1985, and this is quite frankly one of the most difficult games I've ever played in my life. It took me a lot of tries to get to the second screen, and after a lot more tries I still never got to the third. If you want to laugh at me, try it yourself first, that's all I've got to say.
0063. Tapper (Arcade)
Tapper is a very early example of the now popular time-management genre, where a number of impatient customers must be juggled, a delicate balancing act. This is a lot faster-paced and simpler than the likes of Diner Dash, however, and much more fun in my opinion.
This colorful (gorgeous for its time, really - you couldn't port this to the NES without losing something graphically) game is sure to get a chuckle out of you. It's foaming over with personality - the griping customers, the self-satisfied bartender, the Budweiser logos everywhere (a rare example of desirable product placement - the game even says "THIS BUDS FOR YOU" when you win the shell game bonus round). You might know this game by its sanitized-for-the-kiddies version Root Beer Tapper, which makes a few graphical changes.
Like I said, this game is a lot of fun. You have to send beers to the customers before they reach the end of the bars. It's fast, but you've actually got to be careful not to send too many beers too fast, as some customers will send their glasses back for a refill, which can get overwhelming. Some will also leave a tip, which you can get for a pretty big bonus (as well as dancing cheerleaders) if you think you can spare the time. Seriously, play this game. It's a riot.
I spent a long, long time on this post. I don't know what made me think 16 games in one post was a good idea. 1984 will be divided into two parts. Please drop me a comment to let me know what you think of the series so far.
The other day it occurred to me what we mean when we speak of what a game is "about," and how it differs from the explanations of other media. I think that part of the reason that the discussion of games as art is so contentious is that games can't really be examined in quite the same way as other works. When we look at a comic book, a book or a film, what we see on the page or the screen is the work of art, plain and simple. With games, it's not quite so straightforward - what we see on the screen is only part of the game. The real heart of the medium lies in a curious limbo - it cannot be seen. The real center of a game is the player's interaction with it, making the whole thing a collaborative experience. The game isn't really a game until you start playing it. When we discuss what a game is about, then, we ought to be discussing what it is that you do.
Sure, games have traditional stories, and they're important to the experience. However, they're crafted of the materials of other media - pictures, animation, words. The story created by actually playing the game is a different thing, although in many of the best examples of video game storytelling the two are carefully interwoven, like in Braid or Dragon Quest V, to give a couple of examples. You can attach any background story you like to a falling shapes game - it's still fundamentally a game about stacking and clearing away, just like Tetris. It's fun to distill your favorite games down to this simple essence, often describable in a single sentence of the form "X is a game about Y." Ecco the Dolphin, whose story involves aliens and time travel, is fundamentally a game about being a dolphin. That's why people are drawn to it: the sheer experience of darting through the blue ocean, flipping high into the air, nosing through tunnels in search of air pockets. This is what really makes that game memorable.
In some cases, the two stories of a game can differ greatly, and the dissonance can actually create an captivating effect. Let's talk about the 1982 arcade game Sinistar, famous for its titular villain, a face-shaped spaceship that talks to you in a digitized voice, taunting you, "Beware, I live" and "Run, Coward!" Its ominous voice, combined with the spaceship coming after you at high speed and then eating you alive with a mighty roar, is genuinely frightening. The object of the game is to destroy Sinistar, but what is the game about?
Sinistar is a game about mining.
Seriously, this is what you spend most of your time doing. To me it's one of the biggest cognitive disconnects in gaming. To get the Sinibombs you need to defeat Sinistar, you fly around shooting rocks to release "crystals" you collect to construct the bombs. Sinistar isn't in the game at all for a couple of minutes, so it's just you, the rocks, and some annoying little enemies that get in your way. It's tricky, but almost Zen-like really - you just keep hammering away at those rocks. Honestly, I think it heightens Sinistar's impact to look at the game this way - when it does show up, the game you've become familiar with is torn apart by a violent and terrifying force of nature. It's quite an impact.
I think in any discussion of the premise or story of a game, it's worth stepping back to examine what exactly you, the player, do. It's an angle that can be amusing and revelatory.
I wouldn't say 1982 was quite the year 1981 was for arcades, but what year was? It still featured some great classics like Joust, Dig Dug and Q*Bert.
0033. Gravitar (Arcade)
For me, the best way to describe Gravitar is "Asteroids meets Lunar Lander." Like Asteroids, you're a triangle-shaped ship with a forward thruster and a single gun; like Lunar Lander, careful manipulation of gravity and momentum is required. This game starts you out on a galaxy map showing the different planetoids you can visit; when you approach one the game zooms in, kind of like Venture. Each planetoid has a mission to complete - destroying all the planetoid-mounted turrets, usually. There are also little marked spots you can land on to refuel your ship. Once you've completed a planetoid, you can leave and return to the map to fly to another.
This game's extremely simplistic vector graphics work very well for it, evoking a kind of retro VR feel. It's pretty impressive how the game zooms in as you approach a planetoid. The orbital gravity mechanic is challenging and refined. The whole game feels like a precursor to later, much more complex galaxy exploration games.
The text says this game bombed in arcades, and I can see that happening. It has some problems - it's tough to make Lunar Lander-type trajectory adjustments when all you've got is a forward thruster, and the enemy turrets' fire is tough to see and tougher to avoid. I bet I'd have had a lot less fun if those had been real quarters consumed by my screw-ups. Still, this is a cool game. Check it out.
0034. Joust (Arcade)
Sure, Joust is weird. You're a little alien-looking dude jousting with other little alien looking dudes, and you're all riding birds. You're riding what appears to be a flying ostrich (or a stork for player 2), while your enemies are riding buzzards or maybe condors. After you defeat your enemies by colliding with them while being higher on the screen then they are, you have to collect the egg that's dropped or your enemies will re-hatch and be more dangerous than before. Also, you should take care to avoid the pterodactyls and lava. Yep, it's pretty weird - but the wonderful thing about video games is that it does not matter.
The text calls the game "better than it sounds" and implies its popularity was "surprising." Joust needs no such apologies or tepid defense; it's one of the great arcade games ever. Flapping, the game's central action, is so much deeper than simply sending you upwards. You can adjust the speed of your flaps or hold left and right to achieve a variety of precise movements, like hovering, changing direction, speeding up or slowing down. A useful move involves going up and pausing ever so briefly to achieve a little float, then flapping while holding a direction to charge at an enemy. Everything in the game is balanced - You need to go for those eggs, but going down can be dangerous. Being at the top isn't always best, either - you can play territorially, using the platforms to define a loose box to defend. As the game speeds up, the frantic jockeying for position is intense fun.
Best of all, this is the first game on the list to feature cooperative play. Co-op is my favorite way to play games - I even play one-player games with my friends, alternating turns with the controller. Now, the co-op here is kind of competitive, since you're going for score, and if you want to be a jerk, you can take out the other player for 2000 points. My favorite video game experience, though, is to work together with someone and feel the camaraderie of the common goal.
I played Joust way more times than I needed to to write this; it's just so much fun. I never got past wave 6, though. I'm an arcade owner's dream - addicted, but not very good.
0035. The Hobbit (Various, Apple II played)
The Hobbit, released for various home computers, is a text adventure based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic book, which I loved as a kid. This text adventure features graphics, which are drawn on the screen with agonizing, line-by-line slowness and feature amusingly awful color choices.
The Hobbit features a very impressive parser for its time, recognizing complex sentences with multiple actions separated by the word and. According to the text, it also follows the book very closely. I didn't get far, though, due to frustration with the AI characters who follow you around. They'll frequently take items you need to proceed from you, and although they'll sometimes give them back, I can't find a reliable way to get them to do so. To give you an idea of how awful of an experience this is, I was standing in front of a locked door when Gandalf took the key from me. I then had to wait one turn for him to say, "Fascinating, but I wonder what I could use it for?" and another turn for him to give it back to me. Argh! Also, since they act freely and on their own, your companions are capable of getting themselves killed, rendering the game unfinishable. Frustration awaits in Middle Earth.
0036. Choplifter (Apple II, Arcade played)
Choplifter, originally released for the Apple II, was ported to many systems, including, in rare twist, an arcade cabinet by Sega in 1985. I played that version for convenience's sake; it features greatly superior graphics, obviously.
In Choplifter you must pilot a helicopter past many enemies in order to reach the hostages. Then you have to land, wait for them to board, and go back and return them to your base. You've got to be careful not to shoot or land on the hostages, and if you're shot down when transporting them, they'll all die. This game is frantic fun, but punishingly difficult. Enemy turrets and vehicles fill the screen with bullets, and it takes next to nothing to bring you down.
0037. Robotron 2084 (Arcade)
Robotron was the first twin-stick shooter, assigning one joystick to the movement of your character and a second to directing a stream of fire. It might be hard to believe something that's become popular so recently dates all the way back to 1982, but here you go. It was a brilliant innovation, as the freedom to cover all sides allows the game to completely surround you with enemies.
This game is a frenetic spectacle, a retro-futuristic blur, all bright colors, flashing lights, loud noises and countless objects moving around at once. In addition to shooting enemies, you are to rescue humans by walking into them. This game is obviously designed to be fun as hell while separating you from your quarters with brutal efficiency, and it's effective at both. I got to level 6 and scored nearly 100,000 in a few tries, which I think is pretty good considering I'm shackled to an inferior keyboard scheme.
0038. Dig Dug (Arcade)
Everybody knows Dig Dug, right? It's one of the most invitingly fun arcade games of its time. It's not as brutally difficult as many of its contemporaries, at least at first. That is hardly to say it's easy, but it is more welcoming to the beginner than most. Still, it's more complicated than it looks, and as the levels advance it becomes important to manage tunnels and master the strategy of leaving an enemy partially inflated in order to turn and take on another. The enemies can converge on you in a hurry. And don't forget, when you're down to one enemy it'll try to escape. Beat it to the surface in order to claim those points.
You know, amidst all the bright colors and cheerful music it's easy to miss how disturbing this game's premise is. You're pumping your enemies full of air in order to make them burst from the inside out. Ewwwww.
0039. Miner 2049er (Various)
This Atari 800 classic got many ports: the Commodore 64, the Apple II, the Atari 2600, even the Game Boy and recently, smartphones. I ended up playing a bewilderingly inferior DOS port. It might not even have been official.
Anyway, this early example of the platforming genre might somewhat resemble Donkey Kong with its girders and ladders, but it actually takes some cues from Pac-Man. The object of the game is to "paint" all the platforms by walking across them, similar to Pac-Man's goal of covering all ground and eating the dots. On top of that, after collecting certain objects the enemies begin to flash and may be defeated simply by walking into them. Sound familiar?
This one starts out as simple as can be, but adds a few wrinkles as it goes on with slides and teleporters. The jumping here is a big step up from Donkey Kong; it's a lot easier to control and jumping between platforms doesn't seem so delicate. It's exciting for a 90's gamer like me to watch the platforming genre slowly emerge as its glory days approach.
0040. Moon Patrol (Arcade)
Moon Patrol is an interesting game in that it eschews the fast pace typical of 80s arcade games. It's not slow, exactly, but plodding and methodical. Your rover rolls along in a chill fashion, and you have one fire button that sends shots both forward, to take out obstacles, and upward, to fight the UFOs that hover overhead. You can jump to clear pits, and you must keep adjusting your speed so your shots will hit the UFOs and so you won't be going too fast and run into obstacles before you can clear them.
This is the first game to use parallax scrolling, a graphical technique in which different parts of the background scroll at different speeds. This technique would later become very popular on the Genesis and SNES. It's simple here, but still a cool effect. Also, this is the first game on this list to feature that brilliant arcade hook known as "insert coins to continue." You can keep going as long as you want, as long as you have the money. This would later become the standard way to relieve arcade gamers of their change.
Lunar Lander is an unusual kind of fun - you can clearly see the next problem coming, and the fun comes from the triumph of properly executed precision. I'm actually pretty decent at it - the game has checkpoints labeled A through Z, and I got to P without continuing on my first try, scoring nearly 20,000 points (When you get to Z, which takes quite a while, the game moves on to a more challenging course). On my second try, I made it to U without continuing; with another try or two I bet I could one-credit the first course. I wouldn't mind spending a bit of cash on this if I saw it in the wild.
0041. Mr. Do! (Arcade)
At first glance, Mr. Do! looks a lot like Dig Dug; you dig tunnels through colorful dirt in an identical manner, and you can drop apples on enemies the same way you drop rocks on them in Dig Dug. This is a somewhat more complicated game, however. Instead of inflating your enemies, you throw a ball that bounces through the tunnels and destroys one enemy if it contacts them. If you miss, however, your ball will keep bouncing around until you touch it again. Even if you hit an enemy, the ball is temporarily destroyed and you must wait several seconds before it returns to you, so you can't just throw with wild abandon.
There are two ways to beat a level in Mr. Do! You can collect all of the cherries placed without the level, or you can defeat all of the enemies. Put another way, you can play it like Pac-Man or like Dig Dug. You should also make sure to get the dessert in the center of the level for a big bonus. If you ever encounter Mr. Do!, you should get past the "it's a Dig Dug clone" first impression and give it a try. It's a fun arcade game in its own right.
0042. Q*Bert (Arcade)
Q*Bert might be the weirdest megahit in video game history. I mean, everybody's heard of Q*Bert, but what the hell is he? He's this weird fuzzy orange thing with a tube nose who swears with a word balloon filled with punctuation when he runs into an enemy. Just your typical video game protagonist, right? So you've got to jump from block to block in order to change the color of all of the isometric cube boxes while avoiding the many enemies. Things soon get a whole lot weirder, though, as things start using a different side of the boxes as platforms, breaking the isometric effect by making you picture it two ways at once and creating an impossible, Escher-like extradimensional figure. As far as I know, Q*Bert is the only 80s arcade game set on impossible geometry.
It's very difficult to avoid the many enemies that bounce around the level; success involves figuring out efficient paths to color all of the blocks. Oh, and I suck at this game, whatta surprise.
0043. Xevious (Arcade)
Xevious is one of the most important games that few people have played. It marks the emergence of the modern shoot 'em up. Although Space Invaders and Galaga are classics, nobody makes games like that anymore. Xevious is where things get recognizable. Although the text isn't technically correct that this is the first shmup not set in space (what, did they forget about Centipede?), you might say it's the first one with a real setting at all. The space of the prototypical shmup is a featureless void, an excuse to pit you against your enemies in waves. Xevious has real levels that scroll vertically by, containing features like forests, roads, rivers and even a reproduction of Peru's famous Nazca Lines.
This game really set the standard for shmups going forward. Observing that players just fire all the time anyway, Xevious is the first game to allow you to continuously fire by simply holding down the button. With not quite as much focus required for that activity, the game adds complexity by giving you ground targets to hit with a secondary attack, which actually requires aiming. This is a mechanic that would be copied by a great many shooters to come.
Despite having so many firsts, Xevious isn't as bland as you might expect; actually, it has a great variety of enemies and obstacles. It's not only amazing for its time, but a real solid, classic shmup.
0044. Sokoban (Various)
Sokoban is one of the simplest games ever, and one of the most pure. You push boxes around a tiled, confined space in order to get them into the marked spots. That's it - no refinement or enhancement is required. There are no tricks in Sokoban, no gimmicks; there's only you and the boxes.
This simple format has produced some of the most bedeviling puzzles I've ever seen. The hardest levels will have you stumped for hours, wondering "How? How is this one supposed to be possible?" It helps to consider which moves make victory impossible by creating a situation from which boxes may not be extricated, but sometimes this just makes you feel even more stuck. And then you'll stumble upon a series of moves that seem to work, but just when you're getting confident, you'll learn that this path unavoidably puts one box out of reach. "But that means this is impossible - it has to," you'll think, your eyes beginning to water. It isn't, though. If only it were - then you'd be able to quit with your dignity intact. But the solution is out there, mocking you.
In desperation, you'll try the same moves over and over again. You'll wonder how you can get anywhere when you've been over every possible move a hundred times (this will not be an exaggeration). This isn't just your mind playing tricks on you; Sokoban is actually an excellent test of AI theory because it's so resistant to brute force solving. And when you do find the solution, your feeling of victory will be tinged with bewilderment - how was that possible? How did that move hide from you for so long? It's a feeling like that of Alice going through the looking glass, an uneasy feeling that you're standing on the precipice of another side to the world, dark and hidden and seemingly impossible.
Sokoban was originally released for a few 80s Japanese personal computers, but has been endlessly ported and remade. Find a version and play it; it's amazing. This game literally could not be improved.
0045. Tron (Arcade)
Hey, it's a movie license game. I didn't see Jeff Bridges in the VR world of Tron, but as I understand it the games are pretty close to the ones depicted in the movie, and I can imagine how cool that was. When I was a kid, every time I saw some made-up video game in a movie or TV show I immediately wanted to play it. A good example is the computer game from Big, which has been remade online.
Tron the arcade game is made up of four minigames; you must beat all of them to advance to the next level, where they all get considerably harder. The games include two where you're one of the oddly-clad guys from the movie, throwing discs, and two set in vehicles. The two non-vehicle games, which require you to enter a circle while dodging cyber spiders and to enter a cone by breaking through a spinning breakout rainbow that's coming toward you, are a bit awkward to be honest. The tank game is serviceable but nothing special. The star of Tron is definitely the cycle game, where you zip around leaving a solid trail and attempt to entrap your enemies while they try to do the same to you; it's kind of like competitive Snake (actually, Nibbler, the game upon which all Snake variants are based, is another 1982 release). It's fun and exciting, and I'd rather play a game consisting solely of it than this one.
0046. Time Pilot (Arcade)
Time Pilot is an unusual shmup in that it doesn't force scrolling vertically or horizontally; instead, you stay centered in the screen and can fly freely in any direction. All around, swarms of enemy planes attack; you must weave between their shots while directing a constant stream of fire at them. You can also score bonus points by picking up parachuters. Each level in Time Pilot represents a time in history - 1910, 1940, 1970 and the far-flung future of 2001. After destroying a quota of enemies, a boss will appear. After defeating this enemy (who is just a bit tougher than the regular enemies, actually), you time travel to the next stage.
This game is unique, fun and I'm actually OK at it. On my second try I got to the third boss and scored over 80,000. This one is worth a try.
0047. Utopia (Intellivision)
The Atari 2600 dominated what everyone for some reason refers to as the "second generation" of game consoles (I'm skeptical that the Odyssey, whose games were hardwired in and whose cartridges contained nothing but jumpers, and company really ought to be regarded as a separate console generation from later 70s consoles), but Mattel's Intellivision was a notable minor success for a few years before being wiped out by the crash of 1983. There were many consoles at that time, more than during any other generation, which is part of the reason why the crash happened, but I digress.
Utopia, developed by Mattel, may be the game that started the "God game" or "Sim" genre, as the text says. It may be. But to me, it's utterly incomprehensible. All I see are a bunch of unattributed numbers, a pair of oddly shaped islands and a pair of rectangular cursors (it's a 2-player game) that I can move around. When I try to do anything, however, including pressing ANY button or following the directions in the manual, which I looked up in desperation, I just get a loud buzzing noise. I'm sure there's a game here, but I can't find it. I know hardware resources limited how much you could explain in game, but some games from this era are just plain indecipherable to somebody like me. It's like a bunch of ancient runes. Then again, maybe realizing that players used to have to have an awful lot of outside-of-screen understanding going on just to play is part of the experience I should have as a gamer. Yeah, that sounds like a good cop-out.
Next time on 1001games: the year it all came crashing down in America, gaming went on in Europe and Japan.
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.
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!