Friday, November 22, 2019

Ahab GABs about 1979-1980

Continuing my initial GAB post, here is my retrospective GAB ratings for the whales of 1979-1980 and their ancestors.

My first harpoons

Star Raiders is, far and away the best pre-1980 game I’ve ever played. An early title for the Atari computer line, this was a next-gen title compared to the VCS offerings, with exciting arcade-like action and gameplay depth beyond any arcade game of the day. Star Raiders is a good game, and I award it my first harpoon.

Zork I, released for the PDP-11, TRS-80, and Apple II in 1980, also gets a harpoon. I praised it enough in my posts about it, so this should go without saying - it's such a huge step up from Colossal Cave Adventure that it makes non-Infocom adventures look embarrassing, and for years.

Four ways to follow-up Colossal Cave Adventure

It's hard to appreciate now just how big of an impact Colossal Cave Adventure made in its heyday. I only ranked it Average, but that was with the knowledge of how much better such games would get in relatively little time.

Among the games I played for the 1979 and 1980 phases of Data Driven Gamer were multiple titles that had been directly influenced by Colossal Cave, and without any known influence from each other. Each of the four developers had a distinct approach.

The additive approach

When four MIT students crafted Zork for the PDP-10 from 1977 to 1979, they used Colossal Cave as a launching point and vastly expanded on the concept, improving the parser, the writing, the puzzles, and the worldbuilding. They weren't even considering what it would take to make it run on personal computers until later. It is unquestioningly a Good game, if unwieldy due to its extreme size. By my own rules, I can’t give it a harpoon as it is not a whale, but I’d consider it otherwise.

The subtractive approach

Scott Adams, whose 1978 Adventureland I rated favorably, was inspired by Colossal Cave to create something similar, but stripped down to accommodate the typically configured computers of his day. His 1979 title Mission Impossible ran on the same engine and specs, has a reputation for being the worst of the Scott Adams adventures, and it’s the worst of the three that I’ve played, but I didn’t find it intolerable. It gets some points for some then-innovative storytelling techniques and signposting, for exploring narrative beyond the simple treasure hunt, and like all Scott Adams adventures it’s short enough to not overstay its welcome. But the clever moments don’t make up for a dearth of content, and a completely linear solution sequence, which is not a good thing when one illogical puzzle can bring your progress to a halt. It’s not bad enough to offend, but not interesting enough to rank better than Below Average.

The graphical approach

Ken & Roberta Williams had played Colossal Cave and felt it needed graphics instead of lengthy prose. Of the three High-Res Adventures they released for the Apple II in 1980, The Wizard and the Princess is the longest and the best, but still only Average – it needed to have better puzzles for me to consider it in the same league as Adventureland. It’s also the one with the strongest resemblance in structure to their famous King’s Quest series, even taking place in the same universe as established by KQ5.

The other Williams' adventures of 1980, Mystery House and Mission: Asteroid are, frankly, Bad. Mystery House is inadequate as both a mystery and as an adventure, which would ordinarily put it at Below Average, but the irritations resulting from the parser and the struggle in just navigating the house pushed it over the edge. Mission: Asteroid is somehow even more badly polished than Mystery House, despite having very easy puzzles. They’re not the worst adventure games I ever played, and they’re not without redeeming values, but the annoyances are still their defining features.

The cross-genre approach

Rogue, which I played in as close to its original 1980 form as is likely possible today, isn't exactly a game one would think of as an adventure, being more easily compared to CRPGs, but it was nonetheless inspired by Colossal Cave, if for the thematic and exploration elements and if not for any mechanics, and there's no direct evidence that the PLATO CRPGs did anything to inform it despite some strong similarities to the dnd lineage. I rate it Good for its unprecedented depth and complexity, but with the caveat that you should not play it expecting to win. For the sake of completion, I did win, but only through a hefty dose of savescumming, and this lessened my enjoyment. 

Lord British’s juvenilia

Richard Garriott’s DND-1 is a complete mess. “Unplayable” is an often abused word, but if it can be applied anywhere, it applies here. Monsters kill you with endless hits, entire inventories vanish when you equip things or just because, monsters sometimes fail to spawn leaving the dungeon devoid of life, spells do nothing, invalid input can crash the game, etc. We may never know what the original PDP-11 version actually played like – Slashie’s web port claims to be authentic, but there’s no way to know which bugs are true to the original and which were introduced in the conversion process. In the end, this is the only way of playing DND-1 I know of, and it is a Bad game.

Akalabeth, though playable, is also a Bad game if played on the highest difficulty as I did. I’d be less harsh on it if Garriott had playtested it and capped the difficulty at whatever level provided a reasonable challenge, but the game encourages you to beat the hardest difficulty, and provides no tools for accomplishing this, except for ones that can only be used effectively by abusing the RNG, namely the Lizard Man transformation spell.

More mainframe madness

Lunar, which I rewrote in VB.Net finding no other way to play its original FOCAL-69 version, is ultimately a semi-interesting math problem that offers no replay value once the problem is solved and optimized. Average.

Star Trek, another game that took some reconstructive code surgery before I could run it, appears deep for the era, but really isn’t. Figuring out how to play was kind of fun, but once I understood how to reliably find and kill Klingons the challenge and replay value was gone. Average at best.

Arcades in the console age

Of the nine arcade games I played, five rank Good, all whales. Galaxian is a good game following in the footsteps of Space Invaders. Asteroids plays well on MAME, and seeing it in action on a real vector monitor made me love it even more, and wish MAME would try a little harder to replicate that look. Missile Command is relentlessly bleak and difficult, but that’s the point. Berzerk and Wizard of Wor are fun, mindless shooters, though quite different from one another despite strong superficial similarities.

Battlezone is Above Average. Points given for the presentation and performance. Points docked for the high degree of luck (or extreme devotion to identifying its patterns) involved.

Atari’s Lunar Lander is more replayable than its FOCAL predecessor thanks to an action focus and randomness, but without any real interaction with the environment, the appeal of replays is still limited. Average.

Namco’s Gee Bee is functional but a bit boring. Breakout was better. Atari’s Video Pinball, though it has advanced physics for its times, suffers from a boring table layout, typical of the EM tables of the day, and merely emulates such tables rather than do anything interesting with its video game configuration. Both rank Below Average.

VCS, round two

Of the four Atari VCS games that I played, Space Invaders and Adventure were the best. Space Invaders is a good conversion, despite having an absurd 112 gameplay modes, most of them poor. The simultaneous two-player modes are easily the best of them, and the only reason to play this when the arcade original is available. Adventure is often considered the best game on the VCS. I’m not sure that I agree, but I still like it. Both games rank Good.

I can only rank Carol Shaw’s two VCS games Average, despite some impressive technical achievements given what little she had to work with. Polo is still as good as launch title Combat at its best, more of its modes are worth playing, and there’s an actual AI to play against, even if it’s not all that competent. 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe is impressive for its strong AI, but there’s only so much to say about the gameplay.

I'm still looking for feedback on this rating system, as I just started using it. I'll have another digest ratings post for the games of 1981, but moving forward I'll probably just rate these games in the initial posts.


  1. It would be useful if you bolded the ratings in the text and/or made a table with your recommendations. A "Hall of Fame" page would be cool, too. I've seen that in other blogs and I like the concept.

    Personally, I don't think you need to be shy about highlighting your opinions. You've spent so much time with these games, and games in general, that your opinion is worth a lot more to me than some random internet reviewer. I know that reviews aren't the main purpose of the blog, but I don't see any harm in making your suggestions easy to find.

    1. I like the Hall of Fame idea, and just published a rough draft of one.

      Resemblances to Digital Antiquarian's hall of fame are not necessarily a coincidence. But I'm open to ideas on improving it (format, content, etc).

    2. 👍 I like that it’s not just a list and there’s a little blurb for game, and the year-by-year breakdown makes it easy to browse.

    3. I just renamed it "The ivory deck" (I worried too many people wouldn't know what a 'Pequod' is), added the best of 1981, and put it on the sidebar.

  2. I like the ratings system.

    We played Star Raiders for hours on the VCS. It was one of the better games there too.


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