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LONG BLOG

OkändOnsdags 8-1/2017: Past Legends

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To cover forgotten games, choosing "famed game programmers" as a theme is an invitation to fail to find forgotten games. Even worse would be to cover the said creators, who are often covered by other sites, especially Eurogamer.

My solution? I'll try naming their less-known games and have you read the articles on the people behind them elsewhere instead of me repeating those stories.

As I was compiling the list for the games to cover this month, I realized how Europe-centric my coverage has been. I've had only one Japanese game so far and even that was what I'd call a mistake. Unfortunately, this isn't changing this month either.

Back when one person could do nearly all of the coding and then submit it for a company as a potential release, the game dev teams could often be small. Music was one thing that was often sourced from other people the publisher had at hand. But in developing games for arcades or home consoles where the games were on cartridges that had to be manufactured, I can imagine lone stars not being as common. Mind you, this is just my theory.

I thought of including Toru Iwatani, the designer of Pacman and Pole Position, in this list, but when I was checking the credits for the arcade release of Pacman, Mobygames listed Iwatani as designer only. Wikipedia tells the programmer was Shigeo Funaki, a name I'm pretty sure I hadn't heard before. Mobygames lists Pacman and Ms. Pacman as Funaki's other credits, and that's it.

Alternatively, take Hiroyuki Fukui as an example. He was a programmer on a number of famous Konami games that I could see according to Mobygames: Penguin Adventure (on MSX1, 1986). Metal Gear (on MSX2, 1987), Snatcher (on MSX2, 1988), even if 'just' a "subprogrammer". Especially the last three are famous games, but all known today best for the involvement of Hideo Kojima. And it was his name whose removal from the MGSV box caused a stir. Just to clarify: I semirandomly picked out Fukui to show how the designers are the teams' real superstars to the public. 

To further hinder myself, the programmers also needed to have left game development a good while back or appear to have done that. That disqualifies Yuji Naka, David Braben and such who are definitely not unknown for most modern gamers. Of the five people I will cover in August, I counted three of them having had their name on the front cover of the game box not unlike Sid Meier had on Civilization series. Yet I have to wonder if it's mostly because they didn't have a team rather than a branding purpose.

To avoid dropping a 3500-word cblog on your head, I split it in two. In this cblog you get the first three titles and the above introduction to the topic, and on the 30th of August you get the last two and me climbing onto a soapbox.

Old games of August 2017, part 1

Revs (Acornsoft, 1984) - BBC Micro, Commodore 64

 Image taken from a gameplay video on beforeiforget's channel. Those are other cars ahead of the player's car.

Revs, developed by Geoff Crammond, is an early racing game that distances itself from being an arcade racer.

Racing games of the early 1980s typically worked the way Sega's Hang-On and Namco's Pole Position did: faking driving forwards. Curves in the roads were done by having the car automatically drift outwards at a speed dependent on the driving speed. There was no reverse or turning around. Alternatively, some games were like Atari's Super Sprint, which viewed the track from a bird's-eye view.

Revs, however, was a fully 3D game with a cockpit view. You could drive in the wrong direction and you could spin around. The track wasn't even a flat plane but had slight elevation differences.

The second major difference was that the player could adjust the front and rear wing angles of an F3 racing car. Not just from a few preset options but telling the angles in degrees. Definitely not a sign of arcade racing.

There were limitations, and I've alluded to one already: the game originally had only one track, Silverstone. I tried to find a source other than Wikipedia to mention how part of the game's code was stored in the video memory, but failed. Assuming this is so, this is still an interesting counterpiece to Yar's Revenge (1982) on Atari 2600. Whereas Revs tricked the computer to render the "game code" stored in the video memory as blue pixels in the sky, the neutral zone in Yar's Revenge is actually the game's program code put through a visualizer.

Revs saw later refreshes, with ports to other systems that allowed more racing tracks to be included. Still, the game is old enough that I don't remember reading a review for it, but I recall it being referred to in a reverent tone in reviews for later games by Crammond.

Crammond's fame among racing game fans wasn't built on Revs alone. His later titles included Stunt Car Racer (1989) and most importantly, Formula One Grand Prix (1992) and its sequels, wrapping up with Grand Prix 4 in 2002. Remember how I said in June that we'd return to MicroProse? Stunt Car Racer and all Grand Prix titles were released under MicroProse's name... even if by the last one the brand belonged to Infogrames. Stunt Car Racer already had Crammond's name on the box cover (Sentinel (1986) didn't).

I never played Revs myself, but my friends at school had Stunt Car Racer and Formula One, and I got to play them (and fail) a few times.

True story: I almost bought a Formula 1 Grand Prix rerelease for IBM PC in the 1990s. I carried the empty box to the counter, where they'd put in the game CDs. As it turned out, the previous purchaser had mistakenly been given all remaining game CDs.

Another true story from the same store: Some years later I bought an "Xplosiv Top 10" collection with ten PC games like Virtua Cop 2, Panzer Dragoon, International Cricket Captain 2000, Sonic R, Sega Touring Car Championship and such. I went home and noticed they had put in the case the CD for International Cricket Captain 2000 alone.

Encounter! (Novagen Software/Synapse Software, 1983) Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST

 Image taken from a gameplay video on Alphasys's channel.

If you've played Battlezone (1980) -- the original or its ports, not the Activision or Rebellion reimaginings -- you have an idea that it wasn't a very fast-paced game. If you're like me and think the game is too slow to be enjoyable, you might like Encounter better. It's hardly an original concept, but the implementation is fast, fluid and judging by the review scores of the time, it's also quite fun. Its port to Amiga and Atari ST eight years later was nowhere near as liked, but Backlash (Novagen Software, 1988), which could reasonably be considered a sequel or at least a spiritual successor to the original, was a bit better, having been released a few years before ST/Amiga Encounter.

The creator of Encounter, Paul Woakes, founded Novagen Software. I made the mistake of confusing Novagen with Novalogic (Armored Fist, Comanche, Delta Force); don't repeat my mistake.

Novagen's catalogue of games could be summarized as two series: Encounter, which had three releases, and Mercenary (1985), which had three main games and in total three add-ons/expansions. Of lesser interest in this cblog, not actually developed by Novagen and without Woakes as the sole programmer, let alone the designer, is a 1993 game called "Legends of Valour: Volume I ~ The Dawning", which Todd Howard would say was an influence for The Elder Scrolls series (see the second video of GameInformer's interview and Rock Paper Shotgun's story on the game). As an interesting sidenote, the Finnish games magazine Pelit gave it a low score and commented on how a British magazine gave it a high score and how one of their staff's faces was in the game. Possibly just a coincidence.

The main reason Woakes was so well-known at the time was the Mercenary series. Starting on an 8-bit Atari microcomputers (not 2600, which was an older design), Mercenary could be called an open-world flying game with 3D wireframe graphics. Unlike Elite (1984) the game took place on a single planet. As has become my habit, here's Eurogamer's retro review into it and Mercenary retrospective. USgamer also published a piece on it as an early open-world game.

I have never played any of Novagen's titles, but I imagine watching a longplay of the Mercenary titles is like watching a longplay of the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion where everything the player does is tied to finishing the main quest as soon as possible. That's reason enough to not link to it myself.

As for Encounter itself... you'd do better to read this very in-depth review on the title and its ports than anything I could write. Plenty of interesting information there, including a mention how the C64 version used an early turbo loader. For a better idea of loading games from C-tapes, see 8-Bit Guy's video on them, and for turbo loaders, check the video 10:40 onwards. 

10th Frame (Access Software/U.S. Gold, 1986) - Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, MS-DOS

 Image from ZX Spectrum gameplay video on RZX Archive. This version was not, to my understanding, programmed by the Carver brothers. The C64 version looked and sounded far superior.

10th Frame by Access Software marks Bruce Carver's (1948-2005) re-entry to this cblog series. This time, though, he's accompanied by his brother Roger. But before we can talk about bowling, we need to talk about golf and the Carvers' bigger claim to fame: the Leader Board series.

The first Leader Board game is from 1986. A very much simplified golf game - no sand traps, no elevation differences outside the green, no distinction between rough and fairway to start with - but most of all, it was fun to play and a foundation to a very, very successful golf game series.

If you've watched Retronauts' video series on the NES games, you may have also seen the video on Golf (1984). As said in that video, Golf may mark the first time power and accuracy were handled in the game in a power bar, a mechanic used by most succeeding golf games. The retrospectives I've read on Leader Board didn't mention Golf as an example they followed, but the swing mechanics are similar.

Like Barbarian from last month, the golfer sprite was designed with rotoscoping. I'm really starting to think of rotoscoping as the 1980s equivalent of motion capture: to give human sprites natural-looking animations, rotoscoping was the obvious way.

And now we finally get to 10th Frame. Back in the late 1980s, it was a highly-regarded bowling game. The bowler sprites again look like they were drawn by rotoscoping and the way the ball was rolled was lifted from Leader Board. Understandable -- if you have a mighty good hammer, why not try treating everything like a nail.

In the end, this worked out well, the reviews were good and the game was ported to many microcomputers in Europe. Yet it ended up being the only game in the series.

I can only make guesses as to why. Leader Board series would have many sequels and by the time Access Software was bought by Microsoft, their golf series was known as Links. But even more so, it's easy to expand a golf game by adding courses. But bowling? Adding RPG-lite mechanics to sports games wasn't a regular occurrence until later.

I tried looking at which bowling games are considered the best today, and 10th Frame is either off the lists or very low. Maybe the game is too old to be remembered. Maybe they tried what they did with Leader Board and made a barebones version first and the later iterations that never came to be would've fleshed the game further. But since I don't know the intricacies of bowling, I can't be a judge of that. Or maybe the game just wasn't good in the end, despite the good reviews it got. Or it has just been left in the dust by later titles.

Back to Leader Board for a moment. Did you ever play Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure? Chris Jones, who played again the role of Tex Murphy, was a cofounder of both Access Software and Big Finish Games. Going by Wikipedia, TruGolf could be seen to be in part Leader Board's legacy. This may explain the "product placement"/reference of a TruGolf simulator in Tesla Effect.

And... cut!

That's three out of five games, none of which I've played. The next two game devs will again be from the British Isles as far as I know, but who did I miss from elsewhere in the world? Let me know down below and remember, the programmer shouldn't have been involved in gaming for, say, five years now... even though one of my future picks might break that rule.

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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.

I've been blocked on Disqus since late July 2015 (apparently Disqus considered my habit of posting what I thought to be relevant links and references as link spamming), so please excuse me for not partaking in the conversation outside posting Cblogs and Qposts.