Monday, April 17, 2006

Games You Should Have Played - 1980

[Computer Gaming]

Greetings, sub-human reader-monkeys! I see you out there, waiting at your screens and repeatedly clicking "refresh" in the pathetic hope of an update! I am here, to answer your prayers and fulfil such pitiful hopes and dreams as you possess. Wipe the drool from your chins, and prepare to bestow upon me your unadulterated love and attention.

Today (or, more accurately, tonight) I'm going to begin to stimulate your brain cavities with the first of a series of articles that I'd like to name "Games You Should Have Played". Each article will focus on one year in the history of video gaming, and list out a series of games that I think are worthy of your personal time and consideration. Make no mistake - I'm making the clear implication that if you haven't played these games, you're just not as worthwhile as the people who have. The people who have played these games are laughing at you. That's them now, outside. Laughing.

I'm going year by year, but I'll warn you, this isn't a research piece. I am going to get release years wrong. I'm going to lavish attention on home console releases while overlooking their superior arcade origins. I'm going to mention facts that are inaccurate, or in some cases just plain fictitious. It's not that I'm not aware of the truth - it's just that I like to include these lapses to frustrate you, because it entertains me to do so. Really, it's all your fault.

We're going to get in the Wayback Machine and take a trip to 1980, a year when cherry blossoms filled the streets and human linked hands with human to promote a unanimous message of world peace. Scientists discovered Atlantis, Stephen Spielberg became the first man on the moon, He-Man was elected President of the United States, and the two greatest people in the history of civilisation were born - myself, and Pac-Man.

Sound familiar? I thought so.... let's fight our way through the crowds clamouring for the release of the Intellivision home gaming console, and check out the stand-out titles of this year.

1) Pac-Man (Arcade)
He's got a big mouth, he's always worried about mysterious threats that may or may not exist, and his entire life is the philosophy of consumerism. No, it's not George Bush Jnr, it's our lovable hero Pac-Man. 1980 saw the arrival of the first Pac-Man arcade cabinets in locations worldwide. Bewildered gamers at first had no idea who the circular yellow ragamuffin was, but before long Pac-Man was laying claim to the disputable title of "Most Successful Videogame of All Time". Players were challenged to guide the unstoppable ball of death around a neon maze, attempting to collect a set of dots scattered around the screen. Their efforts were frustrated by four ghosts (later given the names Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde) who chased Pac-Man around the maze - contact with any of the four meant death! Luckily Pac-Man could temporarily turn the tables on his pursuers by chomping one of four Pac Pellets located at the corners of the map, which allowed our butter-coloured hero to consume ghosts of all types and send their disembodied eyeballs back to the ghost-jail in the centre of the level. Gamers competed to see who could earn the best score, until eventually in 1999 Billy Mitchell answered the question by obtaining the highest score possible and making all further play of the game redundant.

2) Space Invaders (Atari 2600)
Yes, yes, Space Invaders came out in 1978, not 1980. But I'm not at this stage planning to cover anything before 1980, so I'm taking this opportunity to talk about the release of Space Invaders for players at home on the Atari 2600 (at the time known as the Atari VCS). Space Invaders is arguably the most important game of all time, being the first game to introduce a clear goal, by means of letting the player collect points and compete against a high score. The game challenged players to pilot a small spaceship located at the bottom of the screen against an oncoming wave of aliens which descended from the top. The player needed to fire projectile blasts at the aliens and eliminate the entire wave before the aliens reached the bottom of the screen and destroyed the player's spacecraft. The aliens, meanwhile, would rain laser blasts and bombs down on the hapless pilot. The further through the game the player progressed, the faster the aliens would move, and the harder the game became. Popular legend suggests the arcade version of this game caused a coinage supply in Japan until the Yen supply was quadrupled, and hey, a story that good HAS to be true, right?

3) Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (Apple II)
I take eternal pride in having played and completed this game on its native system in an age before online walkthroughs and FAQs. Sure, I may have done it some 8 or 9 years after it was first released, but what does that matter? This game came out in the same year as seminal text-adventure Zork (see below). Both games offered a richly detailed world, featuring an epic quest with a punishing difficulty. At the time Zork was probably better received, but considering that Ultima I featured a sprawling illustrated overworld, vaguely real-time combat, 3-D dungeon-crawling, and an open-ended quest, whereas Zork had... text... I think I'm justified in declaring Ultima to have been the more historically important game. Created entirely by Richard Garriott, under the pseudonym Lord British, and incorporating elements of his earlier game of the same year Akalabeth, it's still amazing just how far ahead of its time this game was. It still stands as a momentous achievement in gaming and would not be outdone for influence on the future of RPGs until a full decade later with the first installment of the Final Fantasy franchise.

4) Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (Apple II)
Actually, Zork came out on pretty much every system that supported a keyboard, but I played it first on an Apple, so hence the system tag above. This is really the birth of interactive fiction, right here. Zork was published by Infocom, and would become the franchise that Infocom were best known for. The game appeared entirely in text, featuring a description of the player's surroundings, and presenting a prompt for the player to input commands, such as "GO NORTH". Beginning outside an inauspicious white house, the adventure soon dragged the player into a vast network of underground locations on a search for the Twenty Treasures of Zork. In the course of your adventure you were forced to puzzle out a baffling array of near-identical rooms, face an endless number of situations which would instantly end your adventures, and always, always, keep in the light to avoid the franchise's trademark under-described bogeymen, the grues. Stirring stuff - and by "stirring", I mean incredibly frustrating. It's amazing what passed for fun back in 1980.

5) Rogue (Unix)
Actually, as it turns out, all this Pac-Man and Space Invaders foolishness aside, in 1980 consoles were for chumps. Your PC-equivalents were where the action was at, and if you were lucky enough to have one you could buy in to the birth of the electronic RPG genre. While Ultima may have had the graphics, and Zork may have had the style, if gameplay was what you were after it was bursting out all over the place in the form of a little bit of home-brew coding called Rogue. Originally written in Unix but ultimately ported to everything that had a keyboard, Rogue cast the player as a generic adventurer looking for his or her fortune in a randomly generated dungeon of infinite depth. You fought monsters, found loot, and gained levels - and the entire graphical interface was presented through the clever positioning of ASCII characters! The game ended up birthing an entire mini-genre called "Rogue-like games" which includes such gems as Hack and Moria and continues today through the excellent freeware ADOM.

6) Defender (Arcade)
Aw, come, on - Defender! What's not to like? Get this - when the rest of the spaceship-gaming genre is locked into the Space Invaders style of vertical flight, Defender throws the whole genre for a spin... by flying horizontally! Why don't we get innovation like THAT any more? No, wait, there's more! Not only are you shooting down metric tonnes of alien bad guys, but ALSO there's these little humans walking around. The aliens are trying to capture them, so you have to shoot down the capture-ships - but if you shoot one that's abducting a human when it's too high above the ground, the human starts to fall to his or her doom, and it's up to you to catch the little tyke and return him safely to the ground. Levels and levels of gameplay, right at your fingertips. Um.... actually, I hated this game. Those humans really annoyed me. I could never save the little buggers from going splat. But, you know, we still know the name 20 years on, so it must have been doing something right.

7) Mystery House (Apple II)
The Apple II, baby, it was the system to have. I've mentioned above the marvel that was Zork, and how Ultima repeatedly kicked it in the sensitive bits and laughed. Well, there was actually a mid-point between these two interface extremes (being "text" and "something that didn't make your eyes bleed"). The mid-point was called Mystery House. It was created by the Williams Wonder Twins, Roberta and Ken (actually, they probably weren't twins, because that would be... wrong), and it made a bunch of waves by being the first text adventure to... well, not be a text adventure. Simply put, it had pictures. Really bad pictures, but nevertheless, pictures. Roberta Williams drew them herself. Hey, not only can the woman nearly single-handedly pilot the adventure genre for years until LucasArts showed her how to do it right, but she can also draw! Give her a round of applause, everyone!

8) Wizard of Wor (Arcade)
Okay, it's a little like Pac-Man. No, wait, it's a lot like Pac-Man, except with guns. Heck, I'm sold already. But it gets better. You see, this was a two player game. "Pac-Man was a two player game!" I can hear you shout. Well, yes, I suppose it was. But as we're all aware, in Pac-Man you took turns, which largely consisted of a lot of back-seat driving while your friend lost all their lives. Wizard of Wor let you play at the same time. And you could interact! You could take your little guns (I think they were meant to be wands or bows or something), point them at your opponent, and let rip! You'd get extra points, they'd lose a life! Hours of fun for the whole family, assuming that your family is amused by killing their friends and laughing. Oh, the memories.

9) Tempest (Arcade)
Vector graphics. Is there any word more wholly irrelevant to today's gaming world? Back then in 1980 it was a big deal; if 3-D wireframes were your thing you were happy as a pig in mud. I'm forced to ask myself now whether anyone cares, and as I believe the answer is no, I'm going to treat the whole tech genre with the contempt it deserves by not talking about Tempest at all. In fact, I'm going to tell you what I got for Easter, which was a big chocolate egg full of M&M-style chocolate beans, and an egg-shaped container full of Ferrero Rocher choccies. Yum.

10) Berzerk (Arcade)
A guy DIED playing this. Died. One minute he was running through the maze, avoiding robots, going toe to electronic toe with Evil Otto, and the next he was 80kg of meat that we are prevented by social taboos from making appropriate use of. Also, the robots talk. Yes, with actual voices. "The humanoid must not escape!" That's... really all I have to say about Berzerk.

Well, as it turns out 1980 was in many ways a pretty slow year for games. Five top-quality games that will be remembered forever, and then I'm pretty much just killing time to get to number 10. Tempest? I mean, really, Tempest? *sigh*

Stay tuned for Games You Should Have Played - 1981, which I promise will be even more personally and morally insulting on every level. That's a cast-iron guarantee, people.

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