Monday, July 13, 2020

Automated Simulations and the road to Jumpman

One of the things I've enjoyed exploring for Data Driven Gamer is the links between games. Several of my posts covering the earliest years of gaming's history explored some complex, non-linear webs of continuity in three dimensions; the company, the talent, and major influences.

Some of the links between Taito, Midway, and Atari.

In 1982's lineup, most of these links are pretty straightforward. Wizardry II is a successor to Wizardry I, made by the same people, and without any obvious links to previous games except for those that influenced the first one. 1983's Gyruss was developed by Konami programmer Yoshiki Okamoto, who did Time Pilot the year before, and its lines of influence can be traced fairly linearly back through Galaga, Galaxian, and Space Invaders. Ultima II follows Ultima, Zork III follows Deadline and Zork II, Popeye follows Donkey Kong Jr., and so on. The lines get slightly more complex when looking at third-party Atari developers Activision and Imagic, but only slightly, and most of the rest have straightforward pedigrees.

With a few of the 1983 whales, things start to get complicated again. Until now, I have yet to play 1979's Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai despite being considered a fairly important title by most sources on the subject of CRPGs. It's a bit surprising then, that while there are two upcoming whales of 1983 that move me to finally play this game, neither are RPGs. These games are Jumpman, by Dunjonquest publisher Epyx, and Archon: The Light and the Dark, by Epyx's co-founder and two other former members who had contributed to the series in some capacity.

A condensed version of the history - in 1978, D&D buddies Jon Freeman, a boardgame designer, and Jim Connelley, who had just purchased an 8KB Commodore PET, found Automated Simulations and create their first game, Starfleet Orion, by the programmer/designer division of labor that we've seen so often before already. In 1979, their focus shifts to the TRS-80, as Starfleet Orion and its sequel Invasion Orion are ported, and is the lead development platform for Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai. It's a success, and in the months to come, they release two more Dunjonquest games "The Datestones of Ryn" and "Morloc's Tower," and are marketed as "MicroQuests" indicating smaller adventures. In late 1980, a proper sequel Hellfire Warrior comes out, along with a spinoff series titled StarQuest. In 1981, both Temple of Apshai and Hellfire Warrior receive expansion scenarios titled "Upper Reaches of Apshai" and "The Keys of Acheron," as well as an action-oriented monster movie-themed game Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!

All of these games use a variant of the old Apshai engine, and Freeman feels development is hamstrung by Connelley's refusal to move on from the aging TRS-80. These games have all been ported to more advanced systems, and the Atari computers do the most to enhance them with its limited support for tiled graphics, but their potential is clearly held back by Connelley's TRS-centered development cycle. Freeman leaves and founds Free Fall Associates with his wife Anne Westfall, credited as a tester for multiple Automated Simulations titles, and Paul Reiche III, credited as the designer of The Keys of Acheron. In 1983, they release Archon.

Automated Simulations continues to operate without them, and releases several more games of no consequence to this blog, until in 1983, they release a Donkey Kong-inspired platformer, Jumpman, under the "Epyx" label, which is such a big hit that they permanently drop their old title and are henceforth only known as Epyx, and their RPGs and strategy games take a backseat to action and arcade games. Ironically, Jumpman was developed principally for the Atari 400 computer, and does not even run on the TRS-80.

This graph can get even more complicated when one considers that Archon was published by Electronic Arts, who also published a few more major titles of 1983, including M.U.L.E. by Dan Bunten, who previously worked for SSI.

Not pictured: SSI's backlog. We'll get there later.

This non-linear continuity creates a dilemma for my blog, but maybe not a terribly consequential one. The time has come for me to play the early backlog of Epyx, including Temple of Apshai, but do I play them as a retrospective leading up to Jumpman, a breakout title for Epyx that none of the Dunjonquest talent were involved in, or for Archon, an Electronic Arts game made by Dunjonquest's creative contributors? Either way, I would play the other title later. Ultimately, I've settled on Jumpman, simply because a brand-name focused retrospective is more consistent with how I've done this in the past.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Game 200: Gyruss

What, if anything, does "Gyruss" even mean? On first glance, it might just be another nonsensical G-word like "Galaga," which Gyruss obviously takes most of its inspiration from. Or could it be an alternate spelling of "gyrus,"a Latin word that Wiktionary defines as "a circular motion," which is cognate with other words that concern spinning like gyroscope and gyroelectric?

Coincidence or not, Gyruss fits a reductionist description of Galaga projected in pseudo-3D, with the playfield viewed from below, the "top" of it appearing to stretch far into the distance of deep space, and the plane of action folded around into a cylinder. The aspects lifted from Galaga are numerous; enemy ships gradually enter the playfield in sweeping formations, and those which you don't shoot down on their first pass hang back in a slightly pulsating phalanx formation until they've all entered, and then they attack. A special target can be shot to give you a double-firepower upgrade (and unlike Galaga there is no downside and it is crucial that you collect this as soon as possible). There are even "chance stages" that serve as exact analogs to Galaga's "challenging stages," with 40 enemies worth of formations harmlessly moving across the screen in predetermined patterns. If Galaga's flat playing field had simply wrapped itself around from left to right and the alien's attack patterns altered to utilize this, it would play largely the same as Gyruss, and perhaps better as some shooting precision is lost in the faked projection.

But there's something to be said for presentation, and Gyruss' 3D perspective, illusory hyperspace-motion starfield, its stereophonic soundtrack, an electronic-rock interpretation of Bach's Toccata and Fugue that might be the earliest example of in-game music that I've enjoyed listening to, do a lot to make Gyruss feel fast paced, exciting, and fun.

The "tube shooter" format invites comparisons to Atari's Tempest, but I find that in practice the games have little in common.

One addition I appreciated here is the stage progression, where you're warping from Neptune to Uranus and eventually all the way to Earth. Stages aren't hugely distinct from one another - you'll have seen every basic enemy type in the game by the time you reach Neptune, and later rounds just add different colors, attack patterns, and more aggressive AI, but it still lends a feel of desperately racing across the solar system toward home before it's too late, and that sense of progress toward a goal is something completely lacking in Galaga where the stage numbers simply go up to no real end point until you lose your last ship.

Gyruss does seem to be easier than Galaga - despite the increased difficulty of hitting ships with somewhat imprecise 3D hitboxes, enemies don't fire nearly as aggressively, it's much simpler to collect double firepower and doing so won't sacrifice lives or make you easier to hit in turn, and the few obstacle types aren't a big deal. Once you reach Jupiter, though, it starts getting dramatically harder. Enemies on the way to Mars come out fast, release their shots so closely that you can't reasonably react in time, and will dive in wide, swooping arcs prone to colliding with you. At this point you're better off avoiding the initial attacks and just sniping at them in the distance.

I never quite made it to Earth, and part of the reason was that I eventually got bored of replaying the easier phases in order to reach the later ones. From checking a longplay on Youtube, nothing special happens when you do. You get another chance round, and after that it's three warps to Neptune all over again, but with continually increasing speed and difficulty.

GAB rating: Good. Gyruss might not be the deepest or most technically sound space shooter of its time, but I had a blast while it lasted, and for the cost of a quarter per play, it's a success in my book.

The international arcade game industry shrank somewhat in 1983, and although Gyruss was a success, it didn't have the same power to move units that designer Yoshiki Okamoto's previous hit Time Pilot had. Afterward, depending on the account, he was either downsized, fired, or quit after an ultimatum. But by 1984 he joined a new studio called Capcom, where over the next 20 years he directed or otherwise contributed to multiple games in some of the biggest video arcade game franchises of all time.

Gyruss itself was ported to multiple gaming systems over the next two years including the Atari 400 and Commodore 64, and perhaps most notably to the Famicom Disk System in 1988 where it received several gameplay tweaks and additions including a plot structure, boss fights, and additional weapons.

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