A GIMLET-like system was out of the question. There’s just no way to rate games of all genres based on a set of gameplay factors. How, exactly, would you compare Zork to Pac-Man? It would have become even more untenable when comparing games across multiple years, as gameplay features that simply didn’t exist in the early 80’s would become crucial to certain genres over time.
I also don’t really care for precise numeric-based systems for such subjective ratings. When one game scores 97% and another 92%, what does that really mean? Is it really necessary or meaningful to say, as PC Gamer did, that Deus Ex is 4% better than Thief: The Dark Project, but 1% worse than System Shock 2? I’m satisfied that they’re all terrific games, and don’t see how I could rank them like that.
After thinking about it for more than a year, and several failed experiments, I’ve put together something I’m happy with. I call it Ahab GABs, which stands for Good, Average, Bad. There’s a bit more nuance than simply putting the games into one of those three categories.
Good + Harpoon“Good” games are games that elicited actual enjoyment from the gameplay, and not just through novelty or historical interest. They aren’t necessarily faultless – I can tolerate a lot of faults in a game if it offers something interesting to make up for it – but a game only enters “good” territory if I feel I can consciously recommend playing it nowadays.
Whales that score “Good,” that are significantly higher quality than other games with this score, may be awarded a harpoon to indicate their exceptionalism.
AverageAverage games are either games without enough of a draw to elevate them into “good” territory, or otherwise “good” games with enough faults to harm my enjoyment of them.
Within this category, games may also be above average but not quite good, or below average but not quite bad.
BadGames without redeeming values, or games with enough flaws to cause me offense. I felt no further delineation among bad games was necessary.
Rating the first three-dozen gamesHere’s my attempt to retroactively rate all of the games that I covered, prior to the 1979 phase of Data Driven Gamer. Most of them are not whales, and none get harpoons.
SpaceWar and Computer SpaceSpaceWar really impressed me with its forward-thinking design, sophisticated physics, and high-resolution graphics, all in 1962. 1962! I can’t unequivocally recommend it or call it good, but rank it Above Average for sure.
Computer Space is up there with Pong in terms of historical importance, and is crying for an accurate emulator. The PDP-1 simulator at Mass:werk where I played SpaceWar also runs a Computer Space remake which is reasonably faithful, but isn’t the same thing. I have played the real thing at ACAM, several times, and can’t really call it anything better than Average.
Pong, Breakout, etc.Pong’s predecessor Table Tennis and its variant Tennis on Magnavox Odyssey are just Bad. This system is so non-functional that I hesitate to call it a video game. Pong may have been influenced by this, but I feel like Nolan Bushnell must have looked at the Odyssey and said “what if it was good?”
And Pong is certainly functional, but I struggle to call it good. The gameplay is simple and easy to grasp, but frankly it was one of the least interesting games that we played during our DICE session. Part of the problem was that I never found a good control option. Keyboards, joysticks, Atari paddles, and even real hardware just felt jittery and inaccurate. I rank Pong Below Average. It might rank Average if it controlled better.
Of the other DICE-emulated games we played, Indy 4 was far and away the best, and the earliest game I deem Good. Driving felt good even on a keyboard, and was even better on a steering wheel played on real arcade hardware at ACAM.
Space Race and Gotcha were fun multiplayer games, as was Rebound, especially once we played it with Atari paddles. Rebound just controlled better than Pong did, even though we used the same controls and the same emulator, and the gravity-bound 2D gameplay was just more fun than Pong. Clean Sweep also played very well with the paddles. All of these games rank Above Average.
Crash ‘n Score and Jet Fighter were mechanically fine but lacked a compelling draw. Breakout suffered from finicky controls and much too high a difficulty. I rank them all Average.
Anti-Aircraft was just boring. I rank it Below Average, alongside Pong.
Night Driver and Datsun 280ZZZapAtari’s Night Driver is a technical accomplishment, but I didn’t find it much fun. The very similar Datsun 280ZZZap beats in in graphical bells & whistles, but is too easy and simplistic. Night Driver is Average, Datsun 280ZZZap is Below Average. The unplayed game that inspired both, Nürburgring 1, remains a tantalizing mystery.
More MAME’d arcade games of 1975-1978Space Invaders was the best, a bona fide classic, and an easy Good ranking. Midway’s Gun Fight was the next best, a fast and fun shootout, which I rank Above Average.
Blockade is the original Snake (or TRON if you prefer), but not the best. Its biggest problem is having a playfield too big for two players, and combined with a fairly low game speed, it takes a long time before you have to react. Super Breakout, on the other hand, was much too fast, as was the OG Breakout. Better controls and more gameplay options improved it some, but not enough. Both Blockade and Super Breakout were Average at best.
Starship 1 was just an odd game, with impressive sprite scaling and parallax starfield, but no real gameplay strategy or challenge. Below Average.
The VCS launchesThe Atari VCS launched with nine titles. I played five of them, plus three 1978 titles.
I enjoyed Outlaw and Surround the most, and rank them both Good. Both expanded on earlier arcade games, and improved on them with options that felt like meaningful variety rather than Atari’s usual filler.
Indy 500, evaluated based on its best game modes, is Above Average. The racing modes, sadly, aren’t good at all, though that may be because we lacked the appropriate controllers. Its Crash ‘N Score mode is better than the arcade game that inspired it, and Tag is fun too.
Combat feels like a tech demo for the system, using pretty much every hardware feature in the exact way it was meant to be used. Tank-Pong was the best game type, but I’d rather play any of the Above Average DICE games than replay this, and there’s no singleplayer mode, so I rate it Average.
Air-Sea Battle is like an expanded Anti-Aircraft, and just as boring. Slot Racers was a game I really wanted to like more, but it’s just too weird for its own good. In our play session, we never felt like we had a good grip on how to use the strange missile controls. Basketball, though I appreciate its competent AI, has unreliable stealing and blocking, which are its only meaningful player interactions. These games are Below Average.
Star Ship is Bad, and by far the worst of the launch VCS titles that I played. There are some ambitious and/or outlandish ideas, like attempting pseudo-3D sprite scaling on the system, and having a second player control things that would normally be computer-controlled, but nothing is executed well here.
Adventure TimeAdventure by William Crowther is clearly an unfinished game. Therefore, I’ll decline to rank it.
Don Woods’ version of Adventure, on the other hand, is surprisingly complete, and doesn’t at all feel as one would expect of the first game of its kind. This is a bona fide adventure game, with all the required elements, and few vestigial features, even if none of the puzzles are especially clever (barring killing the dragon, a puzzle so stupid it wraps around the zero boundary and becomes clever). But it’s also full of annoyances that lessened my enjoyment enough that I can’t rate it any higher than Average.
Scott Adams’ Adventureland is a short but enjoyable romp through an extremely condensed Adventure. What it lacks in epic size, it more than makes up for in streamlined accessibility and better puzzles. In spite of some irritating aspects, I rank it Above Average.
The follow-up Pirate Adventure is more polished and fairer than Adventureland, but without having a single interesting puzzle, I can’t rank it as high. Average.
DNDlikesPedit5 has a hilariously brutal difficulty curve, and I had fun with it once I had a reasonably strong character, but getting there involved hours of sending dozens of hapless characters to their deaths, which wasn’t fun at all. Thankfully, beating the game doesn’t take long at all, and each level you gain significantly enhances your survival rate, but you’re never truly safe. Average.
Dnd v5.4 is much more merciful, and was fun for a while. But the endgame was days of mindless grinding in preparation for a dragon fight that I really, really did not want to lose, and with no way to estimate its strength (all the game ever told me was that I had no chance), I simply grinded for HP and levels until I couldn’t stand it any longer. The days of tedium far outweighed the days of having fun, so I rank it Below Average.
Daniel Lawrence’s DND was overall quite enjoyable, being deeper and more complex than dnd or pedit5, and with maps full of interactive stuff, plenty of special encounters and monster fights, and a lengthy list of spells, most of them pretty creative. I do wish the maps weren’t quite as big, and that the teleporters weren’t so frequent, but it’s a cut above its predecessors and I rank it Above Average.
Lawrence’s Telengard, a DND remake initially for the Commodore PET, really suffers from a painfully slow speed. Combined with an ill-advised timer which skips your “move” if you wait too long (don't get distracted while waiting for the game to accept input, and you can forget about using turbo), and a seemingly endless dungeon size, it became intolerable. This game is Bad, and it’s a shame because I can easily see myself ranking it Above Average if it performed as well as DND did.
That’s it for the whales of 1976-1978 and their ancestors. Did people enjoy it, or find it a positive addition to the blog? If so, moving forward, would it be better to have periodic GAB digests like this, or to rate games in the initial posts? Would anyone want to see these ratings in table or Google Docs format?