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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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