Monday, March 4, 2019

Intermission: 1979/1980

With Star Raiders as my last whale of the 70’s, this seems like a good time to look back at Data Driven Gamer so far. Eight months into this project and I’ve played and discussed 49 games, starting with the space shooter SpaceWar, and ending with the space shooter Star Raiders. In between were seven more games about shooting things in space, three games about landing from space, and one game about blasting off into space.

With this blog starting to gain some exposure, much of it from CRPG Addict, a lot from The Adventure Gamer, and a baffling amount from a camming community site, I’m very interested in constructive feedback from its readers, so that I can make this blog better. I don’t plan to change my overall goal; I have a list of whales, I will play them in a chronological order along with their most important predecessors, and not any other games unless I find out they were major influences on my whales. The goal of Data Driven Gamer is to encapsulate my perspective and experiences in playing these games into something that people would want to read.

What parts and aspects have you enjoyed the most? Are there times when I get too bogged down in unnecessary details, or do I perhaps belabor already well-understood points ad-tedium? Or are there things I should be spending more time and words describing, or aspects of some games that you’d have liked to read about that I glossed over entirely? Does anyone actually watch all those gameplay videos that I embed in every post about an Atari 2600 game with 20+ game modes? Leave comments below, or if you prefer, on specific posts you want to discuss. I read everything and don’t require registration or using a name, though this will help me identify you if you post multiple comments.

Anyway, the games I played during this first phase of the project can be neatly divided into four categories; mainframes/minicomputers, arcade games, consoles, and personal computers. Atari was the most prolific developer, had presence in three of these categories, and drew inspiration from multiple games in the fourth.

Mainframe games are where it all started, with 1962’s SpaceWar offering up a surprisingly complex and fun two-player death battle action game, a genre we’d more associate with late 70’s arcade games than early 60’s computer games, and indeed had inspired multiple 70’s arcade games in a direct manner. The rest of them were a lot more stereotypical of early computer games, offering turn-based gameplay, usually with text-only output, or in the case of those fancy PLATO games, non-animated graphics based around icons and lines. But being stereotypical doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of early computer game programmers. The PLATO network saw the birth of the CRPG genre, and the DEC PDP-10 saw the birth of the adventure game genre and of semi-wide releases of RPGs that the PLATO network inspired. These games did not make up the majority of my list, but did take up the majority of my time.

The mainframe sector of this early history of games is also the murkiest. The games and their histories aren’t well preserved at all, and are frequently enshrouded in myth and hazy memories. These games were not “released,” but were continuous developments, often over the course of years, were played on the same machines where they were programmed, and often discarded when those machines were retired. The machines are not easily emulated, and emulators that exist are not designed with gaming in mind. I played through Adventure by Crowther and Woods, not by emulating a PDP-10, but by playing ports to Windows and Amiga that seemed reasonably accurate. Multiple games here exist today only because their source code was printed out on paper and retyped, which I actually did myself in one case because the playable copies out there didn’t seem accurate enough.

On the other hand, speaking of source code, almost all of the mainframe games I played have source code available. Even one game I did not play, 1973’s Moonlander, had source code available, albeit in assembly. Source code is often the only reason that these games survive; it was the de facto format of distribution for early computer game, and helps understand how games were meant to work, even when the original playing environments aren’t feasible to use or emulate. But it confounds the preservation effort too, as source code can be modified by anyone, and often was. Who could resist tinkering with a computer game, adding in your own ideas and modifications, when the availability of the source code makes it so easy to? Consequently it’s difficult to deduce which parts of the surviving source were written by the original authors and which parts are feature creep. Paper printouts of the source may be the best possible record of these games, as we can be fairly sure they were not modified after the printing time.

None of those mainframe games are whales, but rather are notable predecessors to late 70’s personal computer game whales. It’s probably not a coincidence that the most poorly documented and inaccessible group of games had not garnered the required votes on Mobygames, even if so many were popular at the time, or had been made famous by developers who cited them as major inspirations.

Interestingly, none of the pioneering mainframe game developers ever entered the commercial industry, or really had any gaming accomplishments beyond the 70’s. The games are notable for inspiring genres, and influencing successful computer game developers, but they are not early works of successful developers or individuals. Don Woods and William Crowther, responsible for Adventure, never made any other games that we know of. Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood, who developed dnd, haven’t developed anything else, and latecomer contributor Dirk Pellett currently administrates and maintains the game on Cyber1 but hasn’t been involved in anything else. Daniel Lawrence has no gaming credits beyond Telengard. Richard Garriott, of course, found enormous success with the Apple II RPG market and beyond, but his early DND-1 title can hardly be called a pioneering effort.

Arcade games formed the largest category of the games played, but also had the shortest playtime per game, as they weren’t really designed to be long lasting or endlessly replayable. 23 of the 49 games that I played were arcade games, and 16 of them were by Atari. These games were generally pretty well preserved. The software was widely distributed on ROM chips, and MAME and DICE offer accurate emulation of the software and internal hardware, if not always an authentic arcade experience when the game had unusual controls. The earliest of these games ran on boards of discrete electronics, and as a programmer, the idea of emulating a game with no CPU just seems dirty, but DICE did the job.

Despite being generally well preserved, there were several notable arcade games of that I wasn’t able to play, having never been emulated, ported, and are possibly just lost to the ages at this point. In fact, most of the “unplayed” games I discussed so far are arcade games. I didn’t actually play Computer Space, but rather a meta-retro remake of it. Atari’s Tank, an important predecessor to Combat, is also unemulated, and I couldn’t play Indy 800, but had to settle for its little brother Indy 4. Taito’s Western Gun, which got remade by Midway as Gun Fight, isn’t playable. Nürburgring 1 is the most tantalizing of them all, a West German pseudo-3D racing game that seems to be the first of its kind, and must have inspired both Night Driver and Datsun 280ZZZap.

Arcade games were the only sector with international representation, mainly Japan, during this era. Not too surprising; home computers had only just been released in Europe and Asia by late 1979, consoles wouldn’t really take off outside the US until the early 80’s, and early international mainframe games did not spread beyond their place of inception or affect future games. Space Invaders and Galaxian are two early hits from Taito and Namco, but most of their earlier works are too obscure for Data Driven Gamer.

The console games list is dominated by the Atari VCS. There was only one exception, Table Tennis on the Magnavox Odyssey, and that whole system feels like an evolutionary dead-end, with more resemblance to board games than to the videogame industry that followed it. The Atari games are rather arcade-like in their design sensibilities, mostly following the convention that what you see on the screen is the game’s playing field, and many are loosely adapted from popular arcade games of the time, but Atari gave them some much-needed replay value by making their rules and settings customizable with a multitude of game modes.

A commenter said that emulation of the Odyssey isn’t accurate, and it does seem like the experience depends heavily on the system’s unique controllers and paraphernalia, but the Atari VCS library is preserved quite well and the system is emulated with cycle accuracy. Its games received wide distribution in cartridge form, and we can be certain that ROM dumps are accurate copies. I’m not a hardware purist, but for those who are, working 2600 systems are probably easier to find these days than TVs compatible with them, and most of the cartridges I’ve looked at are cheap.

Combat and 3D Tic-Tac-Toe were the only console whales. The rest were predecessors, chosen because they represented the first games by then-uncredited Atari employees who would later go on to create greater things. Activision’s “Gang of Four,” Larry Kaplan, Bob Whitehead, Alan Miller, and David Crane, had developed Air-Sea Battle, Star Ship, Surround, and Outlaw, respectively. Carol Shaw, who developed Polo and 3D Tic-Tac-Toe at Atari, would join them later. Slot Racers was the first game by Warren Robinett, who would later develop one of Atari’s best games, and then leave to found The Learning Company.

Finally, the personal computer games list is mostly composed of games inspired by ones on the mainframe list, only downsized somewhat to accommodate those early micro machines which were generally less capable. Scott Adams’ Classic Adventures series follow the Colossal Cave Adventure template but is necessarily terser, and bare-bones, but the denser and more mappable geography has its own charm to it, and the puzzles and narrative take on a personality of their own. Telengard is a stripped-down adaptation of Lawrence’s DND, with little to offer that its inspiration didn’t do better, but it’s still impressive how much of the essence of DND is recreated. Garriott’s Akalabeth, although an original design, is primitive and badly designed compared to the PLATO RPGs that came before it.

Star Raiders alone breaks this trend. As an early title for one of the first gaming-oriented computers, it features a blend of fast-paced, arcade-like action, with next-gen visuals compared to the consoles of the time, and with complex controls and gameplay far beyond the sophistication of contemporary console and arcade games. In that way, rather than being a condensed adaptation of earlier computer games, it anticipates what computer gaming would become.

The state of these games’ preservation is a mixed bag. We know that Adventureland and Pirate Adventure were originally coded in BASIC and distributed on cassette tapes, and later recoded in assembly, which were the versions I wound up playing. Copies of these cassettes don’t exist in the wild. Jimmy Maher of Digital Antiquarian provided me with a disk image containing tools to record a cassette for Adventureland, but the code seems to have been typed from a magazine in the 80’s, and may not represent the original game interpreter. Antonello Molella dumped his PET cassette copy of Telengard and distributes it at his blog Archeogaming. This site seems to be the only source for this version of the game, but it represents a later 32KB release by Avalon Hill in 1981-1982, and not Lawrence’s original 8KB version from 1978. Akalabeth, which, as I type this, is being sold on eBay for $100,000, is only distributed as a cracked floppy disk image. We just have to take it on faith that the crackers didn’t accidentally introduce gameplay bugs while removing the copy protection, as is often the case with pirate copies of Apple II games. Star Raiders, again, bucks this trend, as it was released on a ROM cartridge and was widely distributed.

All of the personal computer games I played in this era are whales. This makes sense, as personal computers only just started to exist toward the end of the 70’s. For a personal computer game to be an important predecessor to a 70’s whale, it would have had to come out in 1977 or later, and by 1979 had a bigger follow-up or heavily influenced a game with enduring popularity to count as a whale. The only situation where that happened was with Scott Adam’s Classic Adventures, and the first of them, Adventureland, counted as a whale to begin with.

Looking ahead at the lineup for 1980, we’ll be revisiting the Atari VCS for a few games, one arcade port, one original title. There will be some arcade games, some seminal adventure games, and a roguelike, but there’s one major game from the year that I won’t replay; Pac-Man. I love Pac-Man as much as anyone, but if there’s any golden age arcade game that I’ve already wasted too much of my life on, this is it. I haven’t played a perfect game, or reached that glitch stage where the screen goes crazy, but I’ve scored a million points on MAME, and at that point I feel I’ve long passed the point of seeing everything the game had to offer by design.

Before moving on to the 80's, there's one more trip to the past that I want to share. Something big, and perhaps a bit self indulgent.


  1. I dunno about anybody else, but I was initially intrigued by the name "data-driven" promising deep dives into the mechanics of old games. A highlight was the post about how spells worked in DND. The discussion of optimal strategy in Space Invaders was kind of similar, but I think pretty well known. It's also interesting to me to think about what works and what doesn't in gameplay. Your series on the various modes of PvP Atari games and which combinations were fun or broken was a highlight of that genre.

  2. I'm enjoying the blog greatly! I've added it to Blogtrottr along with CRPG Addict and Jimmy Maher to get my fix of old games routinely.

    I did like your deep dive on Akalabeth greatly - it was very interesting to see the math behind how the game worked.

    I would say do pretty much as you please, the more interested you are, the longer you'll be enlightening the rest of us!

  3. Keep at it as you like it. I came on CRPG Addict's recommendation and stuck around for more of what you documented on DND with the list of skills and success data. I'd like to see more of that in the RPGs you play, especially for strategies rarely looked at, like how bad are debuffs in Final Fantasy games over the years (I instinctually feel they're never worth the action).

    I know there's a fascination with playing the milestone games, but eventually I'd like to find someone that takes the deep dive into the more obscure games. Growing up, I had a lot of games published by Datamost ( and Spinnaker ( for the Atari 8-bit and Apple II that don't have much if any coverage. A lot of them seem innovative enough to inspire someone, but maybe they were design dead ends.

  4. I echo the others' sentiment, and also came from CRPG Addict's blog.

    I most enjoyed the parts where you analytically quantified aspects of the game. Like the spell resistances in the Plato games. I do admit that I don't necessarily watch all the Atari mode videos when the modes are very similar to each other, but I think they're worthwhile for completeness sake.

    For the mainframe Star Trek, it would've been interesting to see you do the aiming calculations manually once. I mean, it is fairly basic trig, but the nonstandard angles adds a minor wrinkle.

    A suggestion, would it be possible for you to crib the Addict's recent comments plugin?

  5. I also came from CRPGAddict. I enjoy the deep data analysis. I especially like how you put things in context: "this game grew from this game, this game, and this game." Etc...
    "Data Driven" in your title Drew me in, but it is the Game Family Trees that kept me going through your backlog.

  6. I like all the game mode videos. I really like that you got a friend to play all the 2-player modes.

    I don't like you ripping the "AI" on Atari games. Sheesh, the thing has 256 bytes of memory, how's it going to execute a competent computer opponent? Same with bitching at Garriott for not making level 10 play easy enough. I just don't get this harshness at games failing to uphold modern ideas of games.

    What's a "whale"? Define terms before using them.

    I don't really see what's so data-driven about this blog. No spreadsheets?


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