Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Games You Should Have Played - 1983

[Computer Gaming]

We once again return to the Gaming Dungeon, from whence come my strange and demented visions of concepts too terrible for mortal minds to grasp. This time we're going to the year 1983. It is an auspicious year for science - Margaret Thatcher invents the chia pet, Jacques Costeau returns from the dead and speaks in tongues to his followers, and the Police invent stalker-pop with their hit single "Every Breath You Take". Commodore 64s are bestowed unto the masses, the trackball mouse is packaged with new computers, and a lucky few in Japan are unwrapping their first taste of a little machine that Nintendo likes to call the "Famicom".

Oh for those simple, innocent days again. As Atari leads the gaming industry into a near-fatal economic nosedive, and gaming executives begin throwing themselves from tall buildings, let's take a look at the stand-out titles of the era.

1) Dragon's Lair (Arcade)
It's a tough call to say that this was the biggest game in a year that also featured the Mario Bros arcade game... but, really, it's just Mario Bros - it's not like it was SUPER Mario Bros. Dragon's Lair is the clear standout in 1983. In an era of the 8-bit sprite, Dragon's Lair featured full motion video (FMV). And not just for cutscenes - the entire game was in animated Don Bluth-created full motion video. Every inch of it. Admittedly, interaction was on the short side - you pressed the right button at the right time, or you died. But you have to give it credit not just for pioneering FMV, but also for a bunch of other terms that are still being treated like buzzwords today - meaningful narrative, context sensitive actions... this was a game that was technically years ahead of its time, and deserves recognition as such.

2) Mario Bros (Arcade)
Unless you're a big fan of Mario or of classic gaming, this probably isn't the Mario Bros you remember - this is the arcade version. Only one screen of gameplay, no scrolling, with the aim of killing everything on screen. There's a good reason why the one we all love added the word "Super" to the start. But hey, two player simultaneous play, Mario gets named at last, the first appearance of Luigi, Koopa Troopas, fireballs, pipes, and the visual style that we've all come to associate with the fat little plumber. If the platformer didn't already exist as a genre, it does now. While everyone else is still trying to copy Donkey Kong, Nintendo have moved the state of gaming forward again.

3) Star Wars (Arcade)
I can't go near this one without making a variety of jokes based around the quote, "Pull out, Wedge! You're no good back there!" Anyway, you've probably seen this around, at least in films if not in real life. The cabinet itself came in a fairly distinctive sit-down version and is probably more memorable than the actual game. Star Wars basically recreates the attack on the Death Star sequence from A New Hope, casting you as Luke Skywalker fighting through waves of TIE Fighters in a vector-graphic starfield and eventually attempting the trench run to fire a photon torpedo down the exhaust port. Kind of pretty for its time, when the "fake 3D" of vector graphics was still a novelty. Certainly a precursor to a range of space flight simulators that were actually rather good.

4) Ultima III (Apple II)
Not my favourite of the Ultimas, but worth noting for its major departure from its two predecessors. Although it still features a lush top-down overworld, and compelling 3-D wireframe dungeons, the adventure is no longer the quest of a single adventurer, but the epic journey of a group of four companions, all of whom are graphically depicted on the battle area during fights. Moreover, the gameworld now had a cohesive design, with each accessible area of the world having a particular significance to progress through the game (as compared to the first two games which featured a wealth of irrelevant towns and dungeons, much like the occasional modern game *cough* Morrowind *cough*). A huge success for designer Richard Garriott and his company Origin, and vastly advanced the style and direction of the RPG genre, in which Ultima was still by far the leading name.

5) Mappy (Arcade)
Mappy, the Police Mouse. Oh, how I hate him. He thinks he's so clever, but one day his furry little ass will be mine. Namco made this, and I can only assume still owns the rights, so I can see no good reason why Mappy shouldn't appear as an unlockable extra character in the next Tekken or SoulCalibur offering, just so I can beat the little prat to within an inch of his authoritarian life. Oh... you want to know about the game? It's another of these Pac-Man style platformers - avoid the mostly indestructible baddies while collecting the loot. In this case the baddies are cats, and the loot is apparently stolen property, and the whole thing's set within a multi-story mansion, with the various floors presented in cut-away on a 2D plane. Can you say "search without warrant"? Enjoy life now, Mappy; yours will be all too short.

6) One on One: Dr J vs Larry Bird (Apple II)
A sports game... featuring licensed sporting personalities... and published by Electronic Arts. And with this one simple game, a market was born which would go on to make lucrative but unimaginative games by the bucketload, year after year, ad infinitum. Actually, the game itself wasn't bad considering the competition at the time. Basketball fun all round.

7) Impossible Mission (Apple II)
Actually this one came out first for the C64, but the version I played was the Apple one, so I'll use that so as to speak from experience. In 1983, Nintendo may have been inventing platforming in the guise of a little plumber called Mario, but a little company called Epyx were picking up the idea and running with it, in directions which Nintendo weren't even considering just yet. Impossible Mission requires you to explore multiple randomly-generated platform-filled rooms, avoiding robots and searching for pieces of a hidden password, all the while racing a fairly punishing time limit. It's been a while since I played this, but I remember the nameless secret agent hero as being a fairly nimble fellow for his time, possessed of a fair degree of skill in the jumping-and-doding department. Never did finish the sucker, though (unsurprising, as my last serious attempt was when I was aged seven).

8) Moria (Apple II)
I covered Rogue back a couple of years ago, and Moria is really only a re-release and update of that classic game, but still... I loved this game so much, I just can't leave it out. I want to hug it and kiss it and call it George. Someday I hope Moria will marry me and we can have little children rendered entirely in ASCII.

9) M.U.L.E. (Atari 400/800)
Fine, fine, I'll include M.U.L.E. I never played the damn thing, but Gamespot seems to think it's pretty hot, and the reasons they cite are compelling. Y'see, there are these Multiple Use Labour Elements (MULEs), which can.... well, it's about supply and demand economics, and.... ah, hell, read what they have to say for yourself.

10) Pinball Construction Set (Apple II)
Make your own game. Such a simple concept, but destined to have such massive impacts on the future of gaming, the most notable of which in the modern context is the very existence of Counter-Strike, the most successful online game of all time. Bill Budge and Electronic Arts got there first with Pinball Construction Set, which basically let the user make their own pinball table layouts, save them, swap them, and play them. Between this and David's Midnight Magic, the 80s saw me in a kind of pinball-themed heaven. And the sad thing is you've probably never even heard of this title.

And of course, I'll round out 1983 with a few honourable mentions - if you've played the ten games above, and you're hankering for more electronic cold-cuts from the best code-butchers around, take a look at my honourable mentions:
* Archon (early version of BattleChess),
* Planetfall (more Infocom interactive fiction, and beginning the tradition of including bonus souvenirs in game packaging)
* Spy Hunter (vertical shooter disguised as a driving combat game)
* Starship Command (because games written for the BBC Micro did matter, dammit)
* Tag Team Wrestling (I've always loved a good wrestling game; this was the first. More importantly, one of the game's wrestling teams, the Strong Bads, became the inspiration for a certain character we all know and love).

And... cut to credits.

What do you mean, we don't have credits? How do I finish the post? Click "Publish Post"? Where's that... oh, I think it's

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