That first game I played of 1981, Defender, was also one of the best. Ruthlessly difficult, and yet fairer than most, Defender is notorious for an average novice playtime of ten seconds, killing off most of its players before they can even come to grips with its complex controls and objectives. With practice, I felt I gained a mastery over Defender, lasting longer and having more control than in most Atari games. Defender is generous with lives and weapons, failure always felt like it was my own fault, and yet maintains high difficulty even with proficiency.
Ms. Pac-Man was the other arcade-style game of standout high quality. Pac-Man is classic for a reason. Ms. Pac-Man makes it fresh all over again with more mazes, faster play, and aggressive ghosts that aren’t afraid to make you feel overwhelmed.
Wizardry and the games leading up to it took nearly two months to cover. I spent about one month playing the PLATO predecessors to Galactic Attack – Sir-Tech’s first game, Galactic Attack itself, and then Wizardry’s PLATO predecessors Moria and Oubliette. Wizardry itself took me two weeks to finish, and afterwards I went into the most in-depth data and mechanics analysis I’ve ever done for a game before.
Wizardry itself, in spite of a minimal presentation and a rushed feel in the second half, is easily the best CRPG I’ve played on Data Driven Gamer yet. The dungeons are well designed and fun to explore, character development is complex and satisfying, combat is nail-bitingly tactical, and feels well sized for the amount of content within. Gamers with even mild archaeophobia might prefer to play this game on a system other than the Apple II where it was first conceived, where niceties like improved interface, fewer bugs, more graphics, and automaps are available, but even if it had never been ported or remade, I would still regard it as among the best games of the era.
During this phase of Data Driven Gamer, I started using a rating system, and posted retroactive rating digests titled “Ahab GABs.” Moving forward, I will rate games in my initial posts about them, but for now, I will post my final Ahab GABs, right here.
Defender, Ms. Pac-Man, and Wizardry were the best games of the year, and I award them harpoons in recognition of this. Of the others, read on.
Arcades in spadesI played 24 arcade games in my 1981 phase, plus two non-arcade games that feel like they belong here.
I already mentioned that Defender and Ms. Pac-Man were top dogs, so no further discussion is needed.
Konami’s Scramble and Super Cobra, two very similar games released very close to each other in time, are fun, if technically unimpressive shmupoids, closer in style to Gradius than Defender. Donkey Kong is legendary, though I found it too unfair to qualify for a harpoon. Galaga is often considered better than Galaxian, but I like it about the same, for reasons both similar and different. Gorf is a strange hodgepodge of space shooter minigames, but they’re (mostly) good ones and I enjoyed it. Stargate is like Defender, but crazier. These are all Good games.
Nintendo’s Space Fever is a decent Space Invaders clone, with three game modes offering some variety, but the best of them is the one that plays most like Space Invaders, so I can’t really rate it as high. Similarly, Super Missile Attack, an unauthorized gameplay mod of Missile Command, is fun but only subtlely different from the base game, and I couldn’t rank it as high as the original when most of what makes it fun was already done by Atari in the first place. Sierra’s Crossfire, though not an arcade game, plays like one, and while it’s fun, performs well, and is innovative enough to stand out, plenty of actual arcade games of the era are better and just as accessible today. SNK’s Sasuke Vs. Commander is the least ambitious of its early games that I played, but the most polished and the most fun. All of these games rank Above Average.
I had no strong feelings about Konami’s Kamikaze and Frogger, or Nintendo’s Sheriff. QIX is interesting but I always felt success came at the mercy of the QIX’s random movements. Tempest is utter chaos. Exidy’s Circus is an interesting twist on Breakout, but not really better or worse. Venture feels like it would be better as a console game, as its exploration-based gameplay doesn’t lend itself well to a fair difficulty curve, and fighting its jittery monsters quickly got annoying. Nintendo’s Ball is another arcade-like game, albeit much simpler, and was fun for a few minutes but obviously isn’t meant to suck up hours of your time. SNK’s early games Ozma Wars and Vanguard offer interesting twists on their genres, marred somewhat by technical jank. These games all rank Average.
Atari’s Avalanche was a bit like Breakout but worse, despite controlling well. Radar Scope was like Galaxian but worse. Exidy’s Robot Bowl was trivial, and Targ was massively unfair. These games rank Below Average, and Robot Bowl is borderline Bad, saved only by its short playtime and its lack of anything that caused offense or annoyance.
Stella turns fourNone of the Atari VCS games of the 1981 phase were terrific, but the best of them was Missile Command, a surprisingly functional port of the arcade game. It’s still a downgrade, but complete enough that I can rank it Above Average.
Activision’s Fishing Derby was kind of fun if simplistic in typical VCS fashion, and Kaboom! was certainly an improvement on Avalanche. I rank them both Average.
Activision’s Boxing is Below Average, offering less room for strategy than typical two-player Atari games of the system.
Bookending this list is Atari’s other best-selling arcade port, Asteroids. Stripped down to the point of only passing resemblance, it has none of the fun or excitement of the original. It’s just Bad.
PLATO and Sir-Tech’s RootsI spent a lot of time playing the games on PLATO which had a strong influence on Sir-Tech’s early games.
Sir-Tech’s first game, Galactic Attack, kept me hooked until I was able to finish conquering the solar system, but it does suffer from excessive downtime spent waiting while your ship cruises between the planets, and isn't as strategically deep as it ought to be. I rate it Average.
I could not rate the PLATO games that directly influenced Galactic Attack, as they are multiplayer-only games. The RTS Conquest and ship shooter Empire III are completely dead online. On the other hand, Empire IV, which Galactic Attack most strongly takes after, still has an active multiplayer community. As of my initial post on it, it still plays every Sunday night, and I got a few rounds in, but the top players are so skilled and the learning curve so steep that I never felt I had a chance of experiencing the game as more than cannon fodder.
Of the two games that led up to Wizardry, Moria is Below Average; a depressingly large dungeon crawler with nothing much of note to discover in its repetitively designed 240-odd dungeon levels. Oubliette is tantalizing, a complete-feeling multiplayer RPG with a reasonably-sized dungeon, explorable town, and extensive tactics, monsters, gears, and spells reminiscent of Wizardry, but it isn’t balanced for solo play, and the multiplayer scene is gone. I can’t rate it.
Wizardry vs. Ultima1981 was the beginning of long-running duel between two classic RPG series. For many players, my former self included, Wizardry and Ultima are where CRPG history begins.
Ultima, sadly, lost this first round. The series holds a special place in my heart, and I’d rank this first game Good in spite of its shallowness relative to its breadth, but the bugs, uneven difficulty curve, and most of all, the slow, slow movement really hampered my enjoyment, and knocks my rating down to Average. A later remake and its more widely played DOS port would improve, but I am rating the 1981 original here.
Graphics are for suckersInfocom was once again in their own league. Zork II was undoubtedly the best adventure of 1981. No harpoon – Zork I was the better game, but Zork II is still Good despite some stinker puzzles. World design is varied and yet cohesive, writing is up to Infocom’s lofty standards, the parser is still incredible considering nobody else had yet figured out how to move beyond the standard VERB-NOUN interface, and some of the puzzles actually involve commands complex enough to take advantage of this.
Of the rest of the games, The Cranston Manor Adventure (the text-only version) was the next best, a faithful, if unimaginative Colossal Cave-style adventure, which benefited from a decent map layout but suffered from just a few too many annoying gameplay mechanics. I rank it Average.
Softporn Adventure was tolerable as an adventure but mostly failed at being funny, if that was even the intention. Cranston Manor (the graphical remake) was less annoying than its inspiration, but also less interesting, and coming straight from the original game, felt too familiar. I rank both Below Average.
The Demon’s Forge and Ulysses and the Golden Fleece are among the worst adventure games I’ve ever played in my life, but not for all of the same reasons. The Demon’s Forge has a completely arbitrary parser that needs you to guess the exact pair of words Brian Fargo happened to be thinking of at the moment and isn’t consistent, accepting “SEARCH BODY” and “LOOK COSTUME” but not “LOOK BODY” or “SEARCH COSTUME.” Puzzles are as obtuse as they get even when it isn’t the parser’s fault (though it usually is), and the graphics are bad enough to interfere with gameplay. Ulysses’ meager puzzle content is padded out with endless mazes, including one where breadcrumbing is impossible and you’ll be punished for using a map, it’s full of spiteful design such as thieves that steal your items if you wander into the wrong part of the map (one of them a seagull that takes everything you’re carrying), multiple unmotivated actions like bribing a guard who isn’t in your way or saying magic words at specific moments, and of course the fact that the lantern at the beginning of the game is neither useful nor required, even though you have to explore a cave in the midgame, and you’ll get stuck in an unwinnable game state if you take it. Needless to say, I rate both games Bad, and hope this is the nadir of my delving into the genre.
Maze Game: Escape from Castle WolfensteinCastle Wolfenstein is among the most famous games of the era, but I didn’t like it much, due to baffling controls, unforgiving difficulty, several strange gameplay decisions, and most of all, the tedious requirement of opening almost every footlocker in the castle in order to have a chance of advancing in rank. Credit is given for its innovations and legacy as one of the first stealth games, but overall I rank it Below Average.
Its predecessors Maze Game and Escape! fare worse. Maze Game is slow and lacks any interesting gameplay elements, while Escape! expands on the concept with an underdeveloped logic puzzle and random encounters that can ruin your game, which you can’t do much to influence or react to. I rank them both Bad, though seeing 3D raycasting on the Apple II is a cute trick for a little while.
Strategy on 16KLastly, there were six strategy games, all of them distributed on tape, all using 16KB of RAM.
The best of them was Chris Crawford’s Tanktics, which despite completely lacking graphics and relying on an external physical map for gameplay, felt the most like a modern wargame. The AI is pretty bad, and gameplay options limited, but I can comfortably rate it Above Average, with the caveat that thanks to the involved tabletop setup required, most people will not want to play this.
Football Manager is clean-looking and data-oriented, which are good things in my book, but short on options and therefore not deep with regards to strategy. Midway Campaign feels more sophisticated than it probably is, and outcomes are much more influenced by luck than your own tactical decisions. Galactic Empires and Galaxy are barely different games, better as multiplayer than solo, though I did enjoy playing Galaxy’s hardest scenario after I “fixed” the code to eliminate gunnery factor and fog of war. I rank these games Average.
B-1 Nuclear Bomber is definitely the worst of these games, not for any particular offense, but because it’s just so easy and trivial. It’s Below Average, and the thinnest veneer of sophistication and the absence of frustration keep it from sliding into Bad territory, but just barely.
That’s it for this final GAB digest. It’s interesting how mediocre most of non-arcade games were. Almost half of the 50 games that I rated were arcade titles. Of the 26 non-arcade titles, only two were ranked Good, only three Above Average, and of those three, two were arcade-style games for home systems.
Looking ahead at the lineup for 1982, it’s going to be an even longer phase than 1981, with about 45 whales, over a dozen introducing companies and their accompanying backlogs. None of these games are especially long – Wizardry II is likely to be the longest – but we’re not yet at the phase when personal computer games could offer substantially more content than their mainframe ancestors.
Some of the companies that will be introduced by their 1982 games include:
- Sega, one of the oldest arcade game companies in the world, for Zaxxon
- Imagic, for Demon Attack
- Cinematronics, a pioneer of vector hardware, whose 1980 game Star Castle inspired Atari’s Yars’ Revenge
- Sunsoft, a lower-tier arcade developer who would years later become a force in the third party console scene
- Irem, for Moon Patrol
- Parker Brothers, for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
- Data East, for BurgerTime
- Universal, for Mr. Do!
- Broderbund, for Choplifter!
- BudgeCo, for Pinball Construction Set
- subLOGIC, famous for Flight Simulator, but introduced here for Night Mission Pinball of all things
- Llamasoft, for Gridrunner
- Beam Software, for The Hobbit
A number of trends and firsts (for Data Driven Gamer) pop up in 1982 as well:
- A total absence of mainframe-originated games, unless you count Zork III (I don’t)
- The first games made for the IBM PC
- No fewer than three Atari games famous mainly for being awful
- Multiple Apple II pinball games
- The first personal computer flight simulator
- Arcade games with parallax scrolling
- The first official Star Wars video game
- Games featuring graphic nudity
- The first game made for Japanese personal computers
- The first Australian computer game
- A trend of games having exclamation marks in their titles!
I’ll skip one exclamation-marked game here; Pitfall!, as I’ve already beaten that game by finding all of the treasures within the 20 minute time limit, and wouldn’t especially care to do that again.
I have one question, looking ahead at the list. Can anyone recommend a decent steering wheel for MAME? I don’t want to spend a huge amount of money, and something like the Logitech G29 is just too much. The Microsoft Sidewinder looks good enough, and the price is about right, but how does it perform in games like Pole Position?