Friday, April 21, 2006

Games You Should Have Played - 1985

[Computer Gaming]

My apologies if these giant and rapid posts are spamming your LJ feed, but I'd really like to get this series moving forward so that there's a lot of content in it to direct people to. To that end, I'd like to take you back to a simpler time; a gentler time; a time when the words "spamming your LJ feed" were a kind of dangerous gibberish that would see you comitted to an asylum.

That time is 1985. It is a year when we all wondered what Willis was talkin' 'bout, a year of innocence and optimism, a year in which a little company called Microsoft began selling a little product called MS Windows - and what could possibly be wrong with that? In America, thrilled consumers were unwrapping their first Nintendo Entertainment Systems and wondering what crazy kind of game could possibly need two joystick buttons. In Australia, street urchins were shining the shoes of rich coal barons by gaslight, and wondering what theses "electric games" they'd heard so much about were, and what "electricity" was anyway. And in my house in Perth, I was apparently the only person in the world to ever own a copy of Little Computer People.

So let's take a look back at what people were buying in that prehistoric age; or, in one notable case, what was coming pre-packaged with their NES and reshaping the face of gaming for years to come....

1) Super Mario Bros (NES)
We've been toying about with the "proto-platformers" in the last few installments of Games You Should Have Played - Donkey Kong, Pitfall, Ice Climbers... but this is where it really starts. Sideways scrolling screen, platforms suspended in midair, a variety of opponents with varying abilities, levels with different graphical themes, power ups, boss fights, new game plus mode... this is the first time many of these were seen, and it's certainly the first time they were all combined together. What's more, the game was packaged with the NES in America, meaning practically every owner of the console got to play it. As much as I personally find this game and its entire 2D genre largely frustrating and non-fun, there is a very good reason why this game took over from Pac-Man as being emblematic of the nature of video gaming, and remained so until the release of Doom. And by the way, thank you, Mario, but the princess is in another castle.

2) Bomberman (Arcade)
Actually 1983 featured a game in Japan called Bomberman that was released in the West as Eric and the Floaters, but that's beside the point. We're talking here about the one true Bomberman, in which you run around a maze dropping timer-activated bombs to destroy enemies and clear away blocks to allow you access to the exit (which takes you to the next level). If only the original had featured multiplayer it would have been perfect.

3) Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Apple II)
Look, personally, my favourite of the early Ultimas was the first one, but there's no denying that it's IV that made the series popular. This was ported to pretty much every system ever, and for good reason. It featured a revolutionary character creation system that assigned a character class based on your answers to a series of moral dilemmas; the gameplay itself, while still featuring lots of dungeon crawling and monster killing, set all this within the context of a quest for spiritual self-improvement littered with tricky moral choices. NPCs had multiple different things to say, depending on what you asked them about, and your party was filled out with actual predetermined characters (including Iolo, Shamino and Dupre, who would go on to be staples of the series). There's no question that in 1985 Ultima was still leading the RPG genre and defining its form and content for future generations of games.

4) A Mind Forever Voyaging (Apple II)
Considered by many to be the high water mark of commercial interactive fiction, this could probably be seen as the last hurrah of the genre before being subsumed beneath the emerging graphic adventures being created (mostly) by Sierra. No information about this; let's just say that I can say with certainty that you've never played anything like it before.

5) Little Computer People (Apple II)
(Uh, no, really, the Apple II's going to stop dominating the lists any year now. Really.) Little Computer People is a game well ahead of its time; it anticipates the now-popular genre of life simulation led by the eponymous The Sims. It would also fall neatly among the "non-games" that Nintendo is doing some very nice trade out of such as Animal Crossing and Nintendogs. The game's conceit is that within your computer lives a Little Computer Person, or LCP. The game sells itself as software which will allow you to meet and talk to this LCP; and indeed, loading the game results in a cut-away image of a house, wherein you can see your LCP (who has a unique name and personality in every copy of the game) as he cooks, cleans, plays card games, and types letters (among other activities). You can write him letters yourself, join him for a round of poker, or just generally watch him go about his day to day work. I don't have the opportunity to re-evaluate this game today, but at age 8 (when I got my copy in 1988) I can tell you I found it incredibly unique, original, and enthralling. You'd have to wonder how it would do today, ported to the DS and given a severe graphical touch-up.

6) Gauntlet (Arcade)
A true arcade classic. Simultaneously four-player action, a crazy pace set by a constantly depleting life bar (requiring frequent coin-input top-ups), and a real-voice announcer constantly yelling things like "Wizard needs food badly!". Punishing difficulty amongst genuinely addictive gameplay - a well remembered part of gaming history.

7) Bard's Tale (Apple II)
Generic dungeon crawling at its... er, most generic. Enter dungeon, kill monsters, take loot; rinse and repeat. The modern remake would have you believe the Bard's Tale franchise to be a deep rollicking yarn filled with wit and charm, but that's really only true if you consider "wit" to be dungeon crawling, and "charm" to be... more dungeon crawling. But what it did, it did well. It was considered something of a genre-leader at the time. Also kind of cool was that the game let you import characters from Ultima or Wizardry to use and play in Bard's Tale.

8) Ghosts 'n Goblins (Arcade)
Super Mario Bros was barely out when Capcom made its attempt to one-up Nintendo with their arcade platformer Ghosts 'n Goblins. The player took control of a knight with the highly original name of Arthur, who then proceeded to make his way through a series of sideways-scrolling levels. However, the game's frenetic action and demanding pace set it apart from Super Mario Bros and into a new "run and gun" style of platformer catering to high-speed action over the skillfully timed jumps and exploration of Nintendo's flagship product. Also, for the time, Ghosts 'n Goblins looked dang purty.

9) Gradius (Arcade)
An epitome of horizontally scrolling shoot-em-up action, Gradius was for its time innovative, graphically excellent, and a whole lot of fun to play. It had a range of different selectable weapons, and a distinctive and well-rendered soundtrack. Definitely a landmark in the whole spaceship-shooting milieu.

10) King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne (Apple II)
More of the same gameplay as the first in the series; but hey, at the time it was gameplay which represented the pinnacle of adventure gaming. It's entirely possible I'd have more love for the whole franchise if I hadn't already encountered Monkey Island before I sat down with these early installments... but I doubt it. Still, anyone aspiring to talk games should definitely have some familiarity with them.

Well, we've once more come to number 10. On the whole '85 was kind of a bleurgh year for games; a selection of genre kings shine brightly, but behind them there's not a lot of quality in the "runner-up" area of the field. Let's take a quick look at our honourable mentions:

* Commando: vertically scrolling shoot-em-up action, except instead of flying a spaceship or a plane you're just one guy on foot. That's like innovation, only not.
* Mach Rider: spaceship racing, including a track editor and a range of game modes. I actually never played this; maybe if I had I'd have a higher opinion of it.
* Hang On: if you liked motorcycle racing games, this was where it was at - pretty graphics, nice controls... but otherwise it was just another racing game.
* Clu Clu Land: what were Nintendo smoking back in the 80s? I mean, really?

That's all this time around; see you in the future for the games of 1986, wherein I may just need to make my list longer than 10 games, what with all the Legends of Zelda, Rampages, and Wonder Boys to be found. Let me tell you, it's an embarassment of riches. Take care.

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