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LONG BLOG

OkändOnsdag 7/2017

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Another month, another set of... well, not-so-forgotten games this time.

This month's theme was offensive or controversial titles now, then, or imagined. On one hand, we have a case of video games viewed as a part of the cold war propaganda. A game that was widely cloned in the 1980s and the premise of which could be seen as 'problematic' for the past 16 years or so. And a game that is by no means unknown for people who played video games in the 1980s.

An unknown game can hardly be controversial unless it really is a storm in a teacup. That doesn't mean I didn't try: I was ready to include Death Race (Exidy, 1976) in the list, but after finding out a ten-year-old GameSpot article on video game controversies where Death Race is the very first on the list but none of the others here are, I chose to pick something else... an even poorer alternative, Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior

Below in release platforms, "8-bit microcomputers" does not mean "all 8-bit microcomputers", just enough that listing them all would be very prone to both errors and result in long lists.

Of the games discussed in this blog, Prince of Persia and the Blitz clone are the only ones I've played enough to warrant a mention. Barbarian? Maybe 15 minutes in late 1980s isn't quite enough?

July 2017 old games

Fury of the Furries (Kalisto/Mindscape, 1993); Amiga, CD32, MS-DOS, Macintosh

(Amiga longplay video by Lemm at World of Longplays)

Fury of the Furries introduced us to Tinies, a bunch of furry balls with feet, not much unlike Dust Puppy from User Friendly or Kirby without slip-on shoes. The Tinies have different abilities (swimming, grappling hook, digging, ...) that the player and the player can change the active Tiny with another like in Trine. The resulting game is a puzzle-platformer, again like Trine.

This coincided with Namco giving Pacman a new spin. Year 1994 saw not only Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures but also Kalisto's Pac-In-Time, a game that on most platforms is close to being a reskin of Fury of the Furries. The SNES version of the game was a new game, but the others, MS-DOS included, had much more in common with the original title, and I've seen it called the North American release of Fury of the Furries.

The game itself was reviewed moderately well, the average of the reviews of the Amiga OCS (Original Chip Set) version at Hall of Light giving it median score of 80%.

The reason I included this game in the list is the name of the game. I understand the word "furry" has become loaded since then. In any case, I am not aware of any controversy around this game, outside of me now acting holier-than-thou; hence the "imagined" qualifier earlier.

Raid Over Moscow (Access Software/US Gold, 1984); 8-bit microcomputers

(C64 longplay at DerSchmu's Youtube channel/C64 Gamevideoarchive)

Raid over Moscow is a case I'd refer to when talking about censoring games, since it touches also the idea of propaganda games.

If you look at the world map, you see Finland right next to Russia, or in older maps, Soviet Union. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the word "Finlandization" took root in West Germany and elsewhere. In brief, I'd say it's about the process of leading to the state of being nominally independent but trying one's hardest to avoid annoying a (larger) foreign power to the extent of this significantly affecting foreign and domestic policies.

Add to that the Soviet part of the allied control commission after World War 2 and you got a chance for a good start to remove material deemed anti-Soviet from public libraries etc. and censor future media. As an example, while George Orwell's 1984 was not banned (as it was in the Soviet Union), a segment referring too clearly to the the Soviet Union was not included in the translation. The copy I have from 1999 was advertised as the first uncensored Finnish translation of the title. The previous translation was from 1950.

The Soviet Union was no stranger to being involved in domestic Finnish politics, but at least no fruit companies or troops were involved.

In 1983, the US president Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative that the press took to calling Star Wars. The Soviet Union wasn't happy about the program, far from it. There seems to be a good amount of discussion over the effect SDI had on speeding up the fall of the Soviet Union, but that's probably better left outside this cblog/site.

That's the scene for year 1984. Then Raid Over Moscow comes along: a game that tasks you to defend the US against a Soviet missile strike by launching a plane from a space station (shades of SDI and militarized space here), fly to the launch sites to destroy them, then continue to Moscow and blow up a nuclear facility at the Kremlin. And a computer magazine in Finland reviews the game in early 1985, opening with a sentence I've translated below:

This is an exciting game of national defense in which you need to attack the Soviet Union from your space station before their rockets reach their targets in the US.

The reviewer goes on to rate it 4/5. (Eurogamer retro-reviewed it in 2007 and gave it 5/10.)

The left-wing politicians raised a stink. The Soviet Union raised a stink by unofficially contacting the ministry of foreign affairs regarding how such a game could be sold in Finland. Over a video game and its review written by a 15-year-old assistant. Even my quick-and-dirty verbose translation of the whole review into English was barely 200 words long.

Insert your favourite animation of proverbial ka-boom here. Thankfully, there was no literal explosion. Not even prosecution for treason.

Eventually, the game was neither censored or banned with kind help due to outdated legislation. The Streisand effect hit, placing the game on top of the charts for several months. There may not have been the Internet, but there sure was a public broadcast company whose TV show originally raised the topic of the game and its review.

How different is this from recent videogame censorship-related controversies? You be the judge of that.

If you're interested in reading more about the controversy and the background to it, there is a book chapter written in 2014 that covers this case in English. You can read it at least here, including the reason why I mentioned prosecuting for treason earlier.

I can only assume that if you're from one of the former eastern bloc countries, you probably have more harrowing stories than this to share. 

Unrelated or not, one of the type-in games in an 1986 issue of the same magazine involved defending the village of Inari from a cruise missile strike by the US. Given how the whole municipality of Inari had 7,219 inhabitants in 1985 over the 15,055 square km (5,813 sq mi) area, I'm not sure what the programmer's intended message was.

Blitz (M.Elliot/Cascade Software, 1983); ZX Spectrum

(Gameplay video apparently reuploaded by zxspectrumgames4, originally by RZXArchive.co.uk)

Blitz is a game cloned so many times that I remember typing in a BASIC clone of it from a book I borrowed from the local library. Even the game I refer to here is not the original but based on an earlier VIC-20 game of the same name. Eurogamer had an article on that in 2012. (I'm seeing a pattern here -- whatever I choose to cover, Eurogamer has probably already done so. Kudos to them!)

One of these clones was on the Cassette 50 -game collection for ZX Spectrum. Remember Action 52 on NES and Megadrive? This is the same, except on C-tapes for microcomputers. You might want to watch Kim Justice's video on Cassette 50.

World of Spectrum has over forty titles from the 1980s listed as clones of Blitz on ZX Spectrum alone. The ZX Spectrum Vega I got has at least two of them already built-in. Even Llamasoft made a clone. And that's not counting all the clones on other microcomputers.

The reason Blitz is on this list is the concept. You fly a plane constantly losing altitude over Manhattan, trying to bomb the skyscrapers down before you crash into them. The game's opening exposition screen even tells you it's Manhattan and after 2001, planes hitting skyscrapers has been a topic better handled delicately. Curiously, at least the version I downloaded from WoS tells after a successful run that I bombed Berlin instead of Manhattan despite the opening screen speaking about Manhattan.

 Images taken in the ZX Spectrum emulator "Fuse".

Gameplay-wise, it's a one-button game that would work well on a touch screen. Unsurprisingly, there are a few clones on Google Play.

Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior / Death Sword (Palace Software/Epyx, 1987); 8-bit micros, MS-DOS, Amiga, Atari ST

(NSFW C64 Longplay video by Monty on DerSchmu's channel)

Sex and violence sell games. Even today, if you look at comments of people who played it, a fair number seem to remember the game's poster that featured the glamour model Maria Whittaker and Michael van Wijk (or Wolf, as people watching Gladiators would remember him).

The game itself is a one-on-one fighting game with swords and sprites larger than usual. You can actually decapitate your opponent, with a green goblin kicking the bouncing head out of the screen as he drags the rest of the carcass out of the arena. Note the word "bouncing". You probably imagine that happened like a physics engine would model it in a present-day game. No. It bounced like a basketball.

This time, a deeper look into the game is found on Den of Geek. Many interesting anecdotes there, such as how the game dev used rotoscoping to create the sprites, something Jordan Mechner had done with Karateka (1984) and would do again with Prince of Persia (1989) (see this blog post on him and these two games). And while I was writing this cblog, Eurogamer put out an article on the game as well. That's one reason I posted this under the "WellknownWednesday" label, but even without that article Barbarian is definitely not unknown to most people who played microcomputer games at the time. I would be surprised if the Streisand effect wasn't in action here as well.

The box scans I've seen on the internet tell of a poster included with the game. Given how easy and common copying games was but taking four-colour copies was not, I wonder if getting a hold of the poster was a good incentive to buy the game instead of just copying it. After all, one of the more common copy protection schemes of the time was to have a coloured sheet of paper with keyword/number combinations of almost identical colour, making black-and-white photocopiers useless.

To wrap up...

The games this month were hardly unknown at the time, with the possible exception of Fury of the Furries. With Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior, Eurogamer chose just this month to release an article on the game. That's the risk in determining the monthly list over a month in advance to fit a selected theme.

Another realized risk was getting cold feet halfway through the month. Talking about controversies easily spawns another unintentional controversy, so I have liberally censored myself in this cblog due to in particular the controversies Destructoid itself has been through in July. This even affected the list of games I used.

Of July's games, I had played just Barbarian and the copy of Blitz I had typed in... and I'm pretty sure it was among the best games of the games I found in whichever book it was in. The quality of type-in games really wasn't particularly high.

Theme for August 2017

For August, my goal is to introduce "(rock)star" game devs who no longer appear to be involved with games. I have four names lined up, but can I find one more? Stay tuned to find out. There'll be racing. There'll be a fast-paced Battlezone clone. There'll be a 3D game with "jumping rocket sled with rockets" game, if I can only find more info on it. And let there be bowling the way of golf! And... Eurogamer will again be linked to at least three times.

Feel free to throw guesses what these four games I've considered are in the comments.

(EDIT 2017-07-26 04:58: Changed the wording about Namco, Pacman 2 and Pac-in-Time to remove an undesired implication.)

(EDIT 2017-07-26 10:57: Further changed Namco trying to reinvent Pacman to Namco giving Pacman a new spin; fixed "list of games I included" to "list of games I used".)

(EDIT 2017-07-26 14:13: Limited Blitz to ZX Spectrum only, since the other platforms' comparable titles had different names and probably authors, too. Why do I find these things to fix only after publishing the cblog?)

(EDIT 2017-08-01 14:27: Added screenshots taken from the Youtube videos)

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About Flegmaone of us since 11:34 PM on 01.17.2015

Very much unprofessional writer, don't take anything I write without a truckload of salt.

On a hopefully long-term break from saying anything.