Friday, March 27, 2020

Games 166-167: Early Broderbund

Doug Carlston’s Galactic Empire and its follow-up Galactic Trader were moderate successes by the standards of 1979 personal computer games, and had been distributed through multiple channels, rather than by the exclusive publishing deals that dominated the industry not long after. In 1980, concurrent with the release of Galactic Revolution, he and his brother Gary officially founded Broderbund Software, initially with the purpose of self-publishing Apple II conversions of the Galactic trilogy, which later became a tetralogy with the Apple-exclusive Tawala’s Last Redoubt.

The brothers soon met with Japanese Apple II developer Starcraft, and struck a deal to license and distribute their games in the US. Their arcade-style games seem like a clash of style, completely unlike the text-heavy, data-heavy management sims comprising the Galactic Saga, but late in 1980, one such game became Broderbund’s biggest hit yet, occupying a high slot in the software charts well into 1981.

Apple Galaxian

There’s little reason to play this unauthorized computer conversion today, in an era where the categorically superior arcade version has been long playable in MAME.

I couldn’t find a way to play this game with the keyboard, or find any manuals online. It appears to default to paddle controllers, and works in a strange, non-intuitive way. The paddle position determines your space ship’s position, but doesn’t directly control its movement as in Pong or Breakout. Rather, it’s as though the paddle controls where you want the ship to be. Turn it a little bit to the left, and the ship moves a little bit to the left and then stops. Turn it all the way to the left, and the ship will keep moving to the left until hit hits the left edge of the screen. Turn it back to the center, and the ship will move right until it hits the center of the screen, and then stop. In all cases, the ship only has one movement speed – turning the dial faster does not move your ship faster. This system feels like a clumsy alternative to keyboard controls rather than a one intended for the game, but I simply can’t find a way to play with the keyboard.

Joystick controls are even worse! You hold left to move left and hold right to move right, as expected, but release the joystick and your ship will return to the center of the screen. To be fair, I suspect Apple Galaxian doesn’t natively support joysticks and this is just the emulator’s way of emulating paddle input with a joystick, so I won’t fault Apple Galaxian for this, but bottom line is you don’t want to play this game with a joystick.

Controls aside, hitting the enemies is considerably easier than in the original game; they don’t oscillate, and the hitboxes just seem to be bigger, to the point where it’s not uncommon to hit two enemies with the same bullet. But this goes both ways; dodging enemy fire feels much more difficult, and with fewer enemies in the initial phalanx, it doesn’t take long at all before they get extremely aggressive. The net result is much harder than Galaxian, but I’m sure the crummy controls have a lot to do with it, and if there’s a way to enable keyboard controls that I just haven’t discovered, then it would be much more doable.

I find it a little astounding that such a blatant copy of a game, down to lifting its title, could have been a high profile commercial release even in this era so often characterized by ignorance and/or indifference to copyright laws. Was the Japanese computer game market simply too small for Namco to take notice? How did Broderbund manage to avoid Atari’s infamously aggressive litigation? And how did it not occur to Starcraft or Broderbund that plagiarizing someone else’s game so thoroughly might be legally actionable, or at the very least not cool? Doug Carlston allegedly claimed he had no idea of Galaxian’s existence, but I’m dubious. Not just because Galaxian had been out in the U.S. for the better part of a year, but also because ads like this existed:

Later printings were retitled “Alien Rain,” but did nothing else to hide this nearly wholesale asset lift.

Apple Galaxian might have been a strong selling title in its day, but it’s just not interesting to play when Galaxian exists. I give it no GAB rating and no number.

Apple Panic

Released in 1981, Apple Panic was both another best seller and another wholesale plagiary, this time of Universal’s Space Panic, sometimes described as the first platformer.

This intro currently does not animate correctly in AppleWin!

I spent a lot more time puzzling over the credits than I did playing the game. Who is Ben Serki? Google tells me nothing that can’t be gleaned from this title screen. What is Cosmos-Okayama? A Google search for that suggests a “Cosmos Hwy” running through Okayama prefecture.

Digging a bit deeper, I found an ancient Usenet thread claiming that when you beat level 48 (ha!), you are dumped to this message:

       START ADDRESS = $7000

So it appears that Apple Panic was almost certainly originally made in Japan, and one online source even credits it to Starcraft. This would make plenty of sense, but if so, why isn’t the name seen on the packaging as it is on Apple Galaxian and other later titles that they published through Broderbund? And either way, how did this game programmed by two Okayama engineering students wind up in the hands of Broderbund? Who is Ben Serki, and what does “Cosmos-Okayama” mean?

In any event, I didn’t spend much time playing. Certainly not enough to beat level 48 and verify the hidden credits screen myself.

I didn’t like Space Panic at all in the first place, and everything I disliked about Space Panic is even worse in Apple Panic. It’s ugly and controls even more badly, with the shovel controls frequently failing to do anything at all until your feet are exactly on the correct pixel where digging is allowed. Keyboard controls work natively, but use a weird feeling setup, one common in early computer action games, where rather than pressing and holding a direction to move, you tap a direction once to begin moving, and tap the space bar to stop moving. The AI seems even more erratic than the original, to the point where it’s very unlikely that one of the mutant apples will get you unless you walk very close to one on purpose or if you start the level right next to one. At the same time, waiting around for the apples to randomly wander into your pit traps is incredibly frustrating, and trying to play aggressively is just asking to be eaten.

Once again, I don’t find this game interesting enough to rate or number.

Game 166: David’s Midnight Magic

At last, an original game! Sort of. It's a pinball video game with a table design based very strongly on Williams' now classic Black Knight.

Photo found on Pinterist, sourced to

I've mentioned before that I'm not really a pinball fan, that the tables all feel kind of samey to me, and that pinball video games don't really provide what I'm looking for in a video game. Nevertheless, this was one of Broderbund's biggest titles in their early days, so I played it.

The game requires paddle controllers, which kind of makes sense. There's a pinball-like action button on the side of each controller, used to activate the flippers, and the right knob controls the launch plunger. I don't know how the Apple paddles feel, but my Atari paddles have a squishy feel to the buttons, not at all like the clicky action felt on real pinball tables, and the fact that the buttons are both on the left sides makes it a bit awkward to hold both at the same time with easy access to the buttons. Playing for a long time is fatiguing. On top of that, this setup is not congenial to shaking the table, which requires freeing one hand from a paddle in order to hit the space bar.

GAB rating: Average. As we'll see pretty soon, pinball simulations on the Apple II were fashionable in 1981-1982. I'm not the ideal gamer to critique these games, but this one was functional but basic feeling. As a sim, it doesn't try to do anything that can't be done on a real physical table. And as a sim, it falls short of replicating the feel of a real table. Flipper action feels a bit mushy, the physics model seems to lack momentum and precision, and everything about it just feels kind of okay.

Game 167: A.E.

Another Japanese computer game published by Broderbund, this one was, along with Choplifter, one of Broderbund's best selling products of 1982. Developed by Programmers-3, famous today as Compile and best known for the Puyo Puyo series, Gary Carlston claims he had to talk them into releasing it commercially; they had discarded this project thinking it not good enough to sell.

The back cover states that "A.E" is Japanese for "ray," as in the type of cartilaginous fish. The word I think they're referring to would be more conventionally romanized as "ei," but "A.E." works as a rough English-friendly phonetic pronunciation of it.

A one page manual provides a backstory and gameplay instructions.

Scan provided by Mobygames

It's actually kind of nice to see that for once, the stakes aren't that high.

A.E. comes on a double-sided disk, and the first side apparently is only used for the slickly animated title screen (and for booting & copy protection).

But I only see two programmers.

The second side contains the game (plus a nonplayable demo mode if you boot from it), and it plays  like the bonus rounds from Galaga, with one huge gameplay difference. Your shot does nothing on impact, but it explodes, Missile Command-style when you release the fire button, destroying anything that flies into its blast sprite.

The other standout feature is the elaborate backgrounds. You just didn't see things like this outside of adventure games - even arcade shooters of the time used repetitive tile backgrounds and not one-off artwork like this. They're not just static backgrounds either, and the first stage makes the most use of the pseudo-3D perspective. The A.E. emerge from the horizon, fly far off into space, come back closer, fly behind the towers, and loop around to the front, before swooping down close to you and flying right back into the horizon again.

Sometimes, though, the backgrounds clash with the action, making it hard to see what's going on. This led to a lot of deaths.

What even hit me? A.E? More like B.S!

There are eight stages that progress farther out into space as you drive the A.E. away from earth, and each is beaten by clearing three waves, eliminating all of the A.E. before any of them can exit the screen. This is basically impossible to achieve without knowing their flight patterns ahead of time. They fly very fast, you fire very slowly, forcing you to lead them, and even if you know exactly where they are going it feels very difficult to precisely control where your shot detonates, leading to a lot of near misses. The A.E. don't return fire nearly as aggressively as Galaxian/Galaga enemies, but when they do shoot, it's often at close range, which is where you'll have the easiest time hitting them, but also have basically no chance to dodge a shot, if you can even see it!

To finish the final stage, at which point it loops back to the first, I had to use save states at the beginning of each stage so that I could see and memorize its patterns without having to restart from the beginning each time I failed. I did, however, manage to beat the eight stage on my first try, which I am quite proud of, even if I did lose all of my lives there.

I've edited out my countless failures in this video to keep the runtime well under the hour and a half it took me to finish the game.

GAB rating: Bad.

I started hating this game around stage 3, and the more I played it, the more deeply I hated it. Programmers-3 might have been wrong to think that this game wouldn't sell, but their mistake was underestimating what the public of the time would buy, not in undervaluing the quality of this product. It looks interesting, even striking, though I'd could hardly call it pretty, but there's about five minutes worth of gameplay here, padded out by an unfair difficulty overcome through rote memorization and tolerating a lot of unfair deaths.

So far I haven't been loving Broderbund's early efforts. Apart from the Galactic games, which have their own issues, all of their best-selling titles were poor imitations of arcade-style games, with A.E. doing the most to distinguish itself from the real thing, but not enough. Even when considering that the real thing would cost 25 cents per play, it's hard for me to think paying $45 for an inferior version of an arcade game would have been a good deal. To get my money's worth from any one of these computer games, I'd have to play it 180 times! No thanks. Choplifter's next - hope I like this one better!

1 comment:

  1. The Apple paddle is just a potentiometer and an A/D converter which gives you an 8-bit reading. An Apple joystick is really just two paddles mounted at right angles, and canonically it's self-centering (certainly all the ones I ever used were, but there might have been non-centering versions).

    So what you're seeing with Galaxian is a strange software design choice to--as you identified--use the value read from the paddle as the position to go to. And with the joystick, it only uses the X-axis, and since the stick is self-centering, your ship will go to the middle if you release it.


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