Thursday, July 2, 2020

Intermission: 1982/1983

After 7 months and 82 games, 44 of them whales and the rest important ancestors, the 1982 phase of Data Driven Gamer is complete!

There's a strong case that 1982 represents the peak of the golden age of arcades. Wikipedia's article on the subject mentions the year 60 times, over twice as often as it mentions 1981, and 66% more often than it mentions 1983. And having played 19 arcade games from 1982, they made up a big chunk of my 44 whales. More significantly, 5 of the 9 games of 1982 that I rated "good" and added to my ivory deck are arcade games. But taken as a percentage of games played, they are beginning to lose ground to other categories.

The biggest trend here is the rise of third-party console games. For 1981, I looked at two arcade game ports by Atari, and the rise of Activision. In 1982, we saw several games by Imagic, one by Parker Brothers, and one other which will be unnamed and never mentioned again, in addition to new offerings by Atari and Activision. Granted, even as these games begin to more strongly differentiate themselves from arcade titles, they can't compare for overall quality. Only Imagic's debut title Demon Attack managed a "good" rating, and all of the rest underwhelmed me. Two of Atari's first-party VCS titles were the infamously bad Pac-Man and E.T. We also looked at one Smurf game on ColecoVision which I didn't really care for. We skipped Activision's Pitfall, as I've already played that one to death so many years ago, but it must be acknowledged as one of the best.

Another trend, nearly as big, is the rise of arcade-style games on personal computers. Two of these systems, the Atari 400 and Commodore VIC-20, were designed to be arcade game friendly. But the far more prolific Apple II wasn't. Two of those Apple II games, Choplifter! and Night Mission Pinball, managed "good" ratings anyway. We also saw our first IBM PC game, Paratrooper, which was perfectly playable despite the early PC's apparent unsuitability as a games machine.

There weren't very many adventures this time, just five. Three were by Infocom, including the harpoon-winning Starcross. The other two were the graphical Transylvania, which I enjoyed for its very brief duration, and the partly graphical The Hobbit, which I tried so hard to enjoy and just couldn't bring myself to.

In the 1981 phase I had only played two RPGs; Ultima and Wizardry, and vastly preferred Wizardry. Likewise in 1982, there was only Ultima II and Wizardry II. Once again, Wizardry II came out ahead, but both games felt weaker than their predecessors, just for very different reasons. Wizardry II was built on a solid base, but its biggest issue was an imbalanced and excessively unforgiving difficulty where you can cruise effortlessly through most combats, and yet don't ever want to take risks because the potential for catastrophic failure is just too great. Ultima II's biggest issues stemmed mostly from poorly thought out gameplay mechanics, and from a vast for its time game world offering little reason to explore it.

Strategy games played a big role in the 1981 phase, with a selection of Avalon Hill's backlog leading up to Tanktics and Galaxy, but were largely absent from the 1982 phase unless you count Strip Poker.

I thought as part of this intermission I'd list the ten posts that I enjoyed writing the most. These aren't necessarily the games I had the most fun playing, but it helps.
  1. Sokoban. So many people know about Sokoban, to the point where the name itself is synonymous with block-pushing puzzle elements, but very few have played it. Doing this kind of investigation is a joy, and exactly the sort of thing that inspired me to start this blog in the first place.
  2. The Hobbit. No, I didn't ultimately like the game at all, but writing about the weird, weird things that can happen in Wilderland and diving into its mechanics was quite a bit more enjoyable than playing the game straight was.
  3. Early Sega. Sega was a big part of my history as a serious gamer, and their early video games is a lost chapter of history to me. I got to experience a good selection of early, innovative titles, delve into a few unsolved mysteries, and watch a 1960's montage of teenagers playing arcade games narrated by a condescending British broadcaster.
  4. Ultima II. Playing it? Not so much fun. Mapping it out? More fun, for me anyway. Puzzling over viable ways of crossing the early grind chasm (and concluding there's only one), and ranting about its oddball RPG mechanics and structure? Priceless. 
  5. Pinball Construction Set. Even though the pinball engine isn't the best on the platform, creating my own table and showing the process was quite a bit of fun. It's just too bad that MAME ate my work.
  6. Wizardry II. Much like playing Wizardry II, extracting and analyzing its data isn't quite as thrilling the second time around as the first time was, but still holds a familiar appeal.
  7. Mr. Do! I was not expecting Mr. Do to be better than Dig Dug, and at first I didn't appreciate it. Then something clicked, the chaos became fun instead of overwhelming, and not only managed a run that I'm proud of, but came to really enjoy this game. It's unlikely that I'd have given Mr. Do that chance if not for this blog.
  8. Xevious. In 1998, I played this a lot instead of Quake II. In the context of 1982, this feels years ahead of its time, both in visual style and gameplay, and thanks to this blog immersing me in games of its vintage, I feel I can appreciate it better than ever before.
  9. Deadline. Even though tracking the movements and activities of every character in this mystery turned out to not be quite as useful as I expected, I still had a blast thinking about the mystery even before starting the game, and continuing to think about it after the conclusion. "D," an avid reader of murder literature, still thinks Mrs. Robner killed her husband, and that in spite of the evidence that exploded their alibis and convicted them, Mr. Baxter and Mrs. Dunbar were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  10. Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom. Not Sega's finest hour, but still interesting to see such an early attempt at sprite-based pseudo-3D effects. I'm particularly happy with the way the GIF-work came out on this one.

Looking at the lineup for 1983, there aren't a lot of obvious trends or firsts, as there were in 1982. Many of the companies represented have been introduced previously, and a few are bigger than ever - Infocom has five new adventures this year, and Nintendo releases the Famicom, a symbolically enormous videogame milestone. Origin Systems is formally founded and releases Ultima III, and of course Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead crank out a third Wizardry scenario disk. American arcade manufacturers take a backseat to established Japanese ones such as Konami, Namco, and Nintendo. Atari's VCS gets renamed the 2600 and its lineup, though overburdened with shovelware in real life, is scantly represented here by a few titles from Atari and Activision. Sierra On-Line returns in more of a publishing role, as does Broderbund.

Several other companies are either founded in 1983 or become relevant to this blog, including:
  • Epyx, whose first games came out in 1978, produced some of the earliest commercial RPGs under the "Automated Simulations" label. By 1983, the key members behind these titles split from the company, but arcade-style platformer Jumpman becomes a success without them, and Epyx discards the Automated Simulations label to focus on action computer games.
  • Free Fall Associates, founded by three ex-Epyx members, debuts Archon.
  • Strategic Simulations Inc., a developer known for its wargame titles, becomes relevant to this blog in 1983 as not one but two new studios are founded by its alumni programmers.
  • Strategic Studies Group, founded by Roger Keating and Ian Trout, whose debut title Reach for the Stars is considered by some to be the original 4x strategy game.
  • Ozark Softscape, founded by Dan Bunten (later Danielle Bunten Berry), debuts M.U.L.E.
  • Electronic Arts makes 1982's Pinball Construction Set a sleeper hit and quickly occupies a very large footprint in the microcomputer game world, with Hard Hat Mack as their first original title, and becomes the publisher for both Free Fall Associates and Ozark Softscape.
  • Synapse Software releases Alley Cat, a game more famous now for its IBM-published PC port than for the Atari original.
  • Ultimate Play the Game, better known now as Rare, releases the seminal and massively popular Jetpac.
  • Windmill Software, whose releases were, quite unusually for the time, exclusive to the IBM PC, releases Digger.
  • Chunsoft's landmark The Portopia Serial Murder Case is one of the most influential Japanese computer games of all time, and yet is barely ever played internationally.

Of these, Epyx and SSI both have significant back catalogs, which I expect to spend quite a bit of time exploring.

I will skip two 1983 games; Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. I actually like those games, despite being barely interactive cartoons, but they really don't lend themselves well to replays, and I've replayed them too much as it is to ever get any further joy out of them. As a side note, I'm annoyed by the fact that these games are not available in an uncropped 4:3 aspect ratio.

1983 is going to start off with a few arcade quickies, starting with Ms. Pac-Man, an early '83 release for the 2600 and a redemption for the previous year's shamefully bad Pac-Man. Past that, I'm most looking forward to retroactively playing the Dunjonquest games, Infocom's Suspended, Lode Runner, Ultima III, and M.U.L.E. I'm slightly dreading the long SSI retrospective, the allegedly unwinnable Oo-Topos, Activision's Space Shuttle, and quite a few sports games.

One question - does anyone know if Yuji Hori's Love Match Tennis has been dumped and made available anywhere? I'm guessing not, but would love to be wrong.

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