Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Intermission: 1980/1981

Looking back at the games I played for 1980, the thing that stands out to me the most is just how few pre-1980 ancestors I played. Ancestors are always important predecessors to games on the whale list which did not achieve whale status on their own. Typically, I play ancestors to represent the early and less notable works of a developer prior to their first big hit, such as with the assortment of early Atari games I played leading up to Breakout, or less often, to represent a game with strong direct influence, such as SpaceWar and Table Tennis.

Some of the developers represented here were already introduced during the first phase of Data Driven Gamer.
  • Atari had four 1980 whales, whose earlier works already have ample and perhaps excessive representation.
  • Pac-Man, which I opted not to play, was a smash hit by Namco, which I already introduced with Galaxian and Gee Bee.
  • Wizard of Wor, created by Dave Nutting Associates and published by Midway, was the earliest whale by either company. I had already played two of Dave Nutting Associate’s earliest releases, Gun Fight and 280 Zzzap (both also published by Midway), not as ancestors to any Midway game, but as surrogates for the lost arcade games Western Gun by Taito and Nürburgring 1.

Then there were developers whose first titles were already from 1980.
  • Berzerk was the first video game by Stern Electronics, and so is already the ideal game for introducing the company.
  • Ken & Roberta Williams’ first games were the graphic adventures Mystery House, Wizard and the Princess, and Mission Asteroid, all in 1980.
  • Rogue was the first release that any of developers had worked on. Rogue’s developers later formed the poorly-acronymmed A.I. Design Systems, whose sole gaming products were Rogue ports to non-Unix systems.

Of all the 1980 games I played, only Zork I had a pre-1980 ancestor by the same developers which I hadn’t played yet, which was of course Zork.

The other circumstance for recognizing ancestors is when an earlier game is a major influence. Colossal Cave Adventure, which was one of the first games I played (as an ancestor to 1978’s Adventureland) is a known influence on multiple 1980 games. There was the direct lineage of Adventure->Zork->Zork I, of course, but also to the graphic adventures of Ken & Roberta Williams, who cited Colossal Cave Adventure as their chief influence. Atari’s Adventure was more or less conceived as a graphical remake of Colossal Cave. Rogue’s developers cited it as a major influence, along with 1973’s Star Trek, and did not acknowledge any other games despite having many superficial similarities to mainframe CRPGs of the time.

During this time,I’d also been giving a lot of thought to the idea of a ranking system. I don’t have one, and I’m not sure if I need one, but it feels a little weird to call this project Data Driven Gamer and not even bother quantifying how much I liked the games I played.

On one hand, some games are, in my view, clearly better than others. I’ve often said that Zork is a total improvement on Colossal Cave Adventure. Among the 1980 Sierra games I played, Wizard and the Princess was the best, and I’m inclined to call Mission Asteroid the worst of the three. All are inferior both to Colossal Cave Adventure and Adventureland, let alone Zork.

But how would one go about comparing Zork to Pac-Man? A GIMLET-like system would not work, as these games are good for wildly different reasons. If I were to designate separate categories, with separate scoring systems for each, how would I go about designating these categories? And if, say Pac-Man got a 60 on one grading system and Zork got a 65 in a completely different one, would it make Zork the better game? Or could Zork’s 65 only be compared to other games within its category?

Even within these categories, ranking is a difficult exercise. The Zorks would logically go in the same category, and if I had to compare Zork to Zork I, I think I’d say I enjoyed Zork I more. It is a tighter, more polished game, with a better parser and fewer bad parts. And yet, Zork is the more complete game, with a truly sprawling and interconnected dungeon, some brilliant puzzles that didn't make it into Zork I, and an epic endgame. Zork I, in comparison, is a very fun little treasure hunt with terrific writing and some good puzzles, but doesn’t stand on its own as well unless you play its sequels, which means dealing with the bad puzzles that got cut out from Zork, and some new bad puzzles too.

I’ve floated around a lot of different ideas in my head, and none of them really stuck. One approach that seemed good at first was a simple number, where 0 would mean I did not like a game, 1 would mean I did, 2 would mean I liked it more than any 1, 3 would mean I liked it more than any 2, and so on, with no upper limit to how high the numbers could get. This idea came to a screeching halt when I asked myself if I better liked Space Invaders or Outlaw and I couldn’t decide.

Looking ahead at 1981, then, there are a number of previously-unseen developers coming to the fray, and a deluge of ancestors with them.
  • We have Konami’s first whale, and I’m still working on figuring out which of their earlier games I’ll need to play, as their early history is a bit obscure.
  • Activision, who released their first games in 1980, but none quite made whale status.
  • The literal and metaphorical 800lb gorilla Donkey Kong, and there’s an entire blog dedicated to chronologizing the early history of that particular monkey’s uncle.
  • The first Wizardry, which not only compels me to take a look at Robert Woodhead's one extant game prior to it, but also to go back to PLATO to see the games that inspired him and Greenberg.
  • Castle Wolfenstein by Silas Warner, whose break into game development began with creating PLATO games, including one that inspired Sir-Tech.
  • Sierra’s Crossfire, an unofficial remake of Exidy’s Targ, means looking back at Exidy’s early titles.
  • Galaxy by Avalon Hill means playing some rather impenetrable-looking BASIC wargames, as well as two of the earliest games by wargame auteur Chris Crawford, which were later published by Avalon Hill.

The year is rather front-loaded with arcade games, which typically don't get read as much as my postings on adventures and RPGs, but we are going to see Wizardry and Ultima, and I'm going to tear into their mechanics as much as I can. One arcade game I’m skipping is Atari’s Centipede. I used to own a cocktail cabinet, and I’ve scored 100,000+ points on it. I would not find a replay interesting or rewarding.

It’s honestly a little overwhelming to even think about. The 1981 list is already more than three times longer than the 1980 list. Granted, most of them are quick games that I’ll probably beat or exhaust in a single entry. The longest-looking title on the list is Wizardry, not quite comparable to Rogue or Zork, which combined took up nearly half of my play time on the 1980 list. The PLATO games I’ve selected may prove a bit of a problem to really delve into, as all of them were created with multiplayer in mind.

In the meantime, there are some games that I suspect are going to be troublesome to track down in their original formats, and so I have some questions.

Where can I find a copy of Kevin Tom’s original Football Manager for the Video Genie or TRS-80?

Where can I find a copy Tom Cleaver’s original Galactic Empires for the Apple II? This was released in 1979, and remade as Galaxy by Avalon Hill in 1981. A review in The Space Gamer 1980 suggests that this was a different game, and not simply a re-release.

Can any Nintendo game from before 1979 be emulated?

Where can I find Commodore PET images for Avalon Hill’s B-1 Nuclear Bomber and Midway Campaign?

Are there any copies of Labyrinth of Martagon, or any other Brian Fargo game prior to The Demon’s Forge?

Can any Exidy game from before Circus be emulated? In particular, how about Destruction Derby?

What is the earliest available version of Chris Crawford's Wargy I / Tanktics and Legionnaire? The earliest I’ve found were a Commodore PET image of Tanktics, and an Atari 8-bit game called Centurion which seems to be based on an early version of Legionnaire, but isn't the original.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Game 61: Wizard of Wor

After completing the lengthy, merciless, and chaotic slog that was Rogue, the next whale, and final whale of 1980, is a fast, merciless, and chaotic arcade game, and one I remember quite enjoying.

I had compared Berzerk to Pac-Man with guns, for its gameplay of endlessly running through mazes of dark blue corridors filled with malevolent characters, only that in Berzerk your goal is to kill robots with your laser gun rather than eat dots.

Wizard of Wor, which also came out the same year as Pac-Man, is even more like Pac-Man with guns. The corridors are narrow and prohibit any kind of free wandering, the monsters are fast and unpredictable, and there are even escape hatches on the sides of the screen.

And like Berzerk, Wizard of Wor features voice synthesis, but Wizard of Wor sacrifices quality for quantity. Berzerk only had a handful of short phrases. The Wizard has more than 70 quips, but good luck understanding them, or even hearing them, as the Wizard’s muffled voice tends to get drowned out by the game’s music and sound effects. This isn’t strictly an emulation problem, as I discovered when playing on real hardware at Funspot. I reconfigured MAME’s speaker balance to emphasize the voice channel, but it’s still hard to understand.

It also seems like MAME recently changed the voice chip emulation, because it sounds quite different from how I remember. It sounds less like a Speak & Spell and more like a Voder, and the wizard’s cackles now sound like a raspy “ha ha ha ha” rather than “dot dot dot dah.” It's still not yet classified as having 100% audio emulation yet, but I'd like to think it's more accurate now.

Wizard of Wor also has two-player coop, which must be a real novelty for the time. Most two-player games of the era and beyond were either competitive or simply alternated players. I’ve applauded Atari Space Invaders for adding a fun coop mode, even if it’s actually meant to be competitive. It doesn’t quite avoid the competitive angle, as you’re awarded 1,000 points for shooting your partner. When you play solo, AI takes over the left-side worrior, and is somewhat competent in the early dungeons.

As an endless arcade game, Wizard of Wor doesn’t have any kind of winning condition, but it does have a concrete goal that I could consider “winning”; level 13 is always “The Pit,” a wide open dungeon without any walls at all except for the outer rectangular border. If I could reach it and beat it, then I’d have pretty much seen everything Wizard of Wor had to offer.

Alas, my best attempt ended on level 9, on a maze with lots of long and narrow passageways, which are deathtraps in Wizard of Wor.

To even make it that far, it was crucial to exploit a quirk in the game’s hitboxes. When your worrior is standing off-center from a cell in the grid, being touched by monsters won’t immediately kill you, but instead will push you into the next cell. If they touch you in the front, you’ll be pushed back a cell and will be in a prime position to blast them if you start shooting immediately. If they touch you from behind, you’ll be pushed forward, and they might just move on past you or even turn around and walk away, or they might just walk right into your new position and kill you.

Playing defensively was just as crucial. Your worrior is slow, and before long, the monsters will move really fast. You and they are both vulnerable when turning corners, so it’s better to force them to turn corners to reach you when possible. Long corridors are quite dangerous, because once you fire a laser, you can’t fire again until it hits something, and a long period of defenselessness carries a great danger of a monster flanking you, and monsters can shoot at you down the corridor too.

In time, I learned to recognize the handful of mazes, and to identify key choke points that I could hold defensively, corridors that enemies tended to funnel into from one end, and rarely entered from the other. Of course “rare” does not mean “never,” and I still lost some lives when monsters flanked me from both ends of a corridor.

After seven levels, you enter the “worlord” dungeons, which have a different pool of layouts and tend to have fewer choke points.

I couldn’t reach The Pit, but I did get to it with save states just to see what awaited me.

What a nightmare! There’s nowhere to hide, and seemingly no way to avoid being overwhelmed except to stay off-center on the grid at all times and to be lucky! And that video was my best attempt out of many.

I’d reached my goal with some cheating, but no retrospective of this game could be complete without playing two-player coop, so I enlisted “B” to play a few rounds.

We tried, a few times, to pull off a two-worrior defense, with both of us blocking off two ends of a corridor, but we had to accept that we’re just not coordinated enough for this. We'd struggle just to manuever our worriors into an appropriate corridor together, and even when we succeeded and started shooting outward back-to-back, a monster would eventually breach one of our defenses, and then get the other one of us from behind. We had better luck just covering parts of the map individually.

After Pac-Man, this may actually be my favorite arcade game of 1980. It's certainly the most chaotic, which isn't always a good thing, but in this case the chaos is what makes it fun. I really like the sound design, aside from volume balance issues and garbled speech, and really appreciate the co-op play, which is and has always been a criminally underused feature.

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