Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Black Onyx: Wizlite

A total party kill under the cemetery

I had been slightly misinformed in making my previous assertion that in The Black Onyx, dead means dead. It seems to be the case that if a party member falls in combat, there's no way to get them back, nor anything you can do with them except to delete them from the roster and roll (or recruit) a replacement.

But... in the event of a total party kill, The Black Onyx is surprisingly lenient. Whereas Wizardry saves their status as dead and lost in the dungeon, possibly beyond reasonable hope of recovery, The Black Onyx simply boots you back to the title screen as if you never started the session, and you can just reform your party, minus any experience or gear acquired during said session.

I began such an ill-fated session by recruiting an Utsuro townswoman, only to find at a physical checkup that her stats were dreadful, so I kicked her out and rolled some new replacements who all fared better.

I needed money, clearly, so I tried bullying townspeople, who posed no threat to my party, but not one encounter dropped a single gold coin. Most of them just ran away. And so, I went into the dungeon at the cemetery, where an encounter with kobolds granted everyone a modest amount of coin, but soon after we got slaughtered by a band of adventurers in barbarian-like dress.

Restarting, and discovering that my party was still available in the roster, I took a new approach. I rolled 20 new characters and took them all to the doctor's, five at a time, and kept the ones with the best stats. Even with this approach, none surpassed Betty, one of two survivors of the original team, who had a mediocre-seeming 12 strength and 13 dexterity.

With this new team, I went shopping and prioritized armor over weapons, and while our longevity improved, money remained a problem. You need cash to heal your wounds, and encounters often don't drop any, and what's more is that there doesn't seem to be any way to transfer gold or have one character pay for another's medical bill. If one guy is broke, you have no way to restore his HP until you fight enough rewarding encounters to pay the doctor.

Combat is a bare-bones system. Each round, you either attack, run, or talk. Talking seems like a waste of time, and running is a desperate action that often fails, giving every opponent a free hit on your party, which is something you really don't want to happen if you're considering running. With fighting, each party member selects one of the five opponents at the front, and the only tactical consideration is deciding how much to concentrate or spread your attacks - having all five attack a monster that can be killed in one blow means you waste four hits, but it's better to kill one monster than to wound five.

I'd restart and reload whenever someone died, knowing this isn't like Wizardry where you can't do that, but eventually I had enough profitable expeditions to get everyone leather armor, which greatly improved our survivability. We were starting to gain levels too, which come with stat boosts. By level 3, stats were reaching numbers as high as 25, and combat in the cemetery wasn't challenging any longer. I moved on to the multi-level citadel dungeon.

The first floor wasn't challenging either, with, as far as I could tell, the same encounters seen in the cemetery, nor was the layout very interesting, being largely a linear, somewhat winding corridor, with small empty rooms attached here and there. One neat detail was that in the southeast end of it, a 2x2 square of impassable darkness aligned perfectly with the coordinates of the black tower seen in town, suggesting a foundation buried deep within the earth. Apart from that, though, there were no features at all except walls and doors. Walking around this led to the stairs going down to the second floor.

The second floor still had unchallenging combat, but the gold payoffs were much more rewarding, which was important as the doctor's bills were scaling up with the character levels, now costing $6 per HP. Each trip I made yielded enough gold for multiple equipment upgrades, making the enemies here even less of a threat.

All of those skeletons didn't stand a chance.

The layout wasn't really any more interesting than the previous ones, just bigger and more maze-like, and without the strict n grid structure characteristic of Wizardry and Ultima dungeons. Then again, without a Dumapic spell, this was perhaps a good thing.

Floor 3 proved a big, if uneven difficulty spike. Combats were lethal just as often as they were trivial, with Hellen, whose HP lagged behind the rest of the party, falling the most often. Monsters' tactics were no different from before, they merely hit harder, and the worst of them, a cobra, was always found solitary but could one-shot Hellen if she was unlucky enough to be targeted. So I farmed floor 2 for awhile, discovering that cash-granting encounters were found in specific tiles, sort of like in Wizardry, and that loading a saved game (which can be done anywhere) resets these encounters. Once the party had hauberks and spears (which upon buying will discard your shield), floor 3 was doable, and the cobras typically went down in a single combat round.

Floor 4's combat was not significantly tougher than 3, but it finally introduced some tricks to make navigation and mapping a challenge - teleporters and one-way walls. The entrance room is an 8x9 rectangular room divided into four quadrants, two of which are open floors, and the other two are small mazes. The southeast quadrant holds the black tower's distinctive base and is surrounded by one-way walls, allowing easy egress, but no entrance except by a single yellow door on the west edge of its otherwise one-way perimeter.

Outside the quadrant, just to the west, facing north

Inside the quadrant, still facing north

The southwest quadrant is a winding corridor of money-yielding combats that loops back on itself, but the northeast quadrant leads to a long series of hallways with four teleporting junctions, three of which teleport you ahead or backwards, and the final one takes you to a new, confusing maze of one-way walls. The stairs downward are found here by solving the maze, but a northern exit takes you through a short corridor with pointless teleporters which all go right back into said corridor, then through a grid of six connected rooms, and an easier maze of one-way walls which exits through a one-way door back into the winding corridor connected to the entrance's southwest quadrant.

The most challenging combats here were against other parties, who are non-homogenous, being equipped with dissimilar weapons and armor. I found it effective to concentrate my attacks on the weakest NPC first, going by armor type first, and HP bar second, in the hopes of diminishing their ranks as quickly as possible, which often caused the rest of them to flee. Sadly, these encounters almost never dropped gold.

After mapping out floor 4 and going all the way back to town, everyone reached level 6 and had around 3,000 pieces of gold, which, after healing, I spent on Hjelmersson's finest, and then spent the change on drugs.


My maps:


Floor 1

Floor 2

Floor 3

Floor 4

Friday, September 24, 2021

Game 284: The Black Onyx

This early version title screen animation was removed from later revisions.

Entering 1984, and my first game played out in the sticks of MetroWest, we go from Wizardry III to one of the very first Wizardry clones.

Developed initially for the NEC PC-8801 by expatriate Henk Rogers, The Black Onyx was, according to Wikipedia, the first successful JRPG, and introduced RPG conventions to the Japanese market almost two years before Wizardry was localized by ASCII Corporation. Black Onyx is credited as a direct influence on Hydlide, a maligned but historically important action/RPG hybrid, and Rogers' company Bulletproof Software would later go on to introduce Tetris to Japan, and be partially responsible for its the seminal Gameboy version.

A game with this kind of significance makes for a fast-track candidate as a discretionary whale, and as luck would have it, I can actually play The Black Onyx thanks to a translation patch by a LordKarnov42, who notes that the game was coded in BASIC, making it trivial to replace the games' text strings. This patch is based on a later revision dubbed "v5.0" which runs on the 1985-era PC-8801mkII and uses its FM audio chip for music and sound effects, which were not available to the previous PC-8801 hardware revisions.

Reportedly, there were features in very early builds that had to be removed due to memory limitations, including a magic system, wilderness exploration, and arena battles. Rogers intended to add these back in via expansions, but only followed through on the cut magic system with sequel/expansion The Fire Crystal, which has not been translated. Vestiges of these features remain in the game in the forms of an inaccessible temple, impassable city gates, and an off-limits arena.

I used the emulator M88r2, and found the required configuration to be simple once I had the requisite ROMs - the game disk must be in drive 1, the user disk must be in drive 2 (the game may not boot until you insert the user disk), and emulation mode should be N88-V2.

A Wizardry-like utilities menu

Character generation is short on stats but long on hair styles.

PREPARE TO DIE, I am warned.

As the manual isn't translated, I don't have a lot of context for why we're here or what we're trying to do here, but LordKarnov at least provides some instructions on controls and hints. We're in Utsuro, the game's "town" level, which is a level in itself, and a gateway to two dungeons, only one of which is necessary to explore in order to win the game. The concept of an explorable town level was done before in Oubliette, which Wizardry condensed into a series of menus.

Encounters with townspeople are handled as random encounters, in which the outcome is usually peaceful, but are frequent enough to be irritating nonetheless. In a system I find anticipates Shin Megami Tensei and its successors, you can talk to them (and the occasional zombie), and they usually just run away, but if they don't, you can try to extort them for money, or even try to recruit them into your party.

A friendly party dispenses some advice.

A less friendly one doesn't. Combat, without any magic, isn't very tactical.

The similarities to Oubliette's town grew as I explored it. Features I discovered included:

  • The town gates, which for now only prompt you to save and quit.
  • The bank, where individual characters may deposit their gold and withdraw later.
  • A yellow door marked Arnold's Pub, in which some rowdy NPC's attacked and then fled.
  • Another yellow door marked "Grub," with nothing of interest behind it.
  • A small citadel north of the gates marked DO NOT ENTER, complete with gargoyles. I entered anyway, finding nothing inside at first, but later discovered a secret door leading to stairs going down.
  • A well north of the citadel.
  • A floating wall section near the well with the words "The Wall" written on both sides of it.
  • Utsuro Inn, with four empty bedrooms.
  • "Tom's Grog," with nothing functional here.
  • A cemetery area, where a hole in the ground can be seen in the northern region.
  • The temple, closed.
  • A jail with four empty cells. Not so different from the inn, in practice.

The east side of town held a market with multiple shops. My party had a combined $516 to spend there.

  • A shield merchant, offering shields of incrementing size for $30, $270, and $2,430 each.
  • An armorer with five classes of armor ranging from $40 leather to a $10,240 tabard.
  • Arn arms dealer, selling nine weapons from $10 knives to $2,560 battle axes.
  • "Niels Hjelmersson," who makes $40 chain coifs, $320 winged helms, and $2,560 horned helms.
  • A bankrupt tailor.

To the southeast, a hospital offers some services.

  • A surgeon heals wounds cheaply at $2 per hit point.
  • An examination room reveals players' stats for $14 per character, which include level, HP, strength, and dexterity.
  • A pharmacy that sells mysterious bottles for $35 each, and drugs for $55 each.
  • Empty bedrooms in the back.

Further south, lightning crackled around the ominous dark tower seen in the title screen.

I found no way in, but a door found nearby teleported me to the citadel.

The town as fully explored as I could, I healed up at the hospital and bought weapons for my party, leaving nothing left for armor. There doesn't seem to be any way to pool your party's gold - everyone just has their own gold supply, though you can have one party member buy a weapon for someone else. Weapons are equipped immediately when purchased, and reflected in the player sprite.

I headed down to the cemetery to explore the hole, and got promptly set upon by a pack of wolves.

The wolves tore us apart, killing everyone but Harry and Betty, and didn't even leave behind any gold to help pay for the hospital bills. And unlike in Wizardry, dead means dead here.

My map of town:

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Game 283: Galactic Revolution

Now featuring sound effects so annoying that even the manual refers to them as 'the sound of geese passing gas'!

The third game in Doug Carlston's Galactic Saga, Galactic Revolution now gives your revolutionary protagonist a name and backstory. As Julian du Buque, a Spartan soldier, strongly implied to be the retroactive hero of Galactic Empire and Galactic Trader, you must lead a revolution against the tyrannical Talawa and once again conquer the universe, but sheer military force is no longer your only weapon. Through policies and military victories, your reputation among the factions that control each planet ebbs and flows, and where favorable factions hold power, planetary loyalties may shift to your side. Where they don't, local policies can dramatically shift the balance of power. In addition to Talawa, you also have a third party, Jan Swart, head of the mysterious trader's guild Broederbund, who you may form an allegiance against Talawa with, but the ultimate victory may only go to one side.

The Wargaming Scribe covered this before I did, and I am playing this at his recommendation.

Starting off, each side has the following vital stats:

Du Buque:

  • Credits: 10,000
  • Arms: 40
  • Troops: 20,000
  • Ships: 200
  • Manufacturer reputation: 10
  • Military reputation: 85
  • Peasant reputation: 0
  • Trader reputation: 65
  • Government reputation: 0
  • Worlds: Sparta



  • Credits: 100
  • Arms: 500
  • Troops: 1,000
  • Ships: 60
  • Manufacturer reputation: 0
  • Military reputation: 50
  • Peasant reputation: 70
  • Trader reputation: -40
  • Government reputation: 90
  • Worlds: Galactica Bok Ootsi Twyrx Alhambra Eventide Javiny Drassa2 Novena



  • Credits: 30,000
  • Arms: 100
  • Troops: 200
  • Ships: 1,000 
  • Manufacturer reputation: 80
  • Military reputation: 0
  • Peasant reputation: -10
  • Trader reputation: 99
  • Government reputation: -20
  • Worlds: Yang-Tzu Llythll

Independent worlds:

  •  Kgotla Zoe Utopia Farside Viejo Moonsweep

I have the second-strongest army, but with my credits could quickly become the strongest; if I could buy 100 arms packages, or secure an allegiance with Swart and combine our arms, all 140 would be usable to equip 140 legions.

Tawala's is the strongest, able to equip 60 legions right away, but he lacks the currency to buy more. With nine worlds, though, and a bureaucrat-friendly disposition, it would not be difficult to raise money through taxes to buy more ships, and then to recruit more troops to fill more ships. Every legion needs 1 arm package, 1 ship, and 10 troops.

Swart has the weakest army thanks to his lack of troops, and few worlds to recruit more from, but no shortage of money or ships.

I am liked by the military and also by the traders, but not as much as Swart, who is also liked by the manufacturers. Tawala is liked by peasants and bureaucrats.

The game started me off on Galactica, which is under Talawa's control. Since I couldn't really beat his army, I fled to Llythll, where Swart and his weak but rich army held power. On the way, I purchased 10 arms, which was the maximum allowed given my industrial power. The game still has that infuriating interface quirk of automatically completing your number inputs after a few idle seconds, and backspaces aren't allowed.

Space travel in Galactic Revolution now takes one turn no matter where you are going, and your entire armada follows, unless you choose to leave behind a blockade, which isn't an option in singleplayer.

On Lythll, Swart didn't stand a chance.

It cost me most of my invasion force, leaving me with 7 legions, but it's worth it. The military victory alone boosted my reputation and tanked his, making it that much easier to Finlandize the galaxy.

Next, I reviewed Llythl's local power balance.

Wrong capitalization seems to be rampant in my TRS-80 misadventures.

Once you control a planet, you have a selection of ten policies which affect the local power balance as well as your galactic reputation with the factions. Some policies also affect your ability to build, tax, and recruit. If a planet's power balance was friendly to your rival and you don't do anything to change it, then control will probably revert back to them when you leave, so the first order of business is to make sure this doesn't happen! Understanding the numbers game here makes the game so much easier that the manual actually encourages not fussing over them, but I think we all know I don't play that. WGS already made a chart detailing the result of each policy, so I won't replicate it here.

To find out your sway over a planet, take each faction and multiply your reputation by their local power, and then add the five products.

Doing this for everyone, we get:

Manufacturer Military Peasant Trader Government
Llythll 30 20 0 40 10

Du Buque 10 88 3 65 0
Tawala 0 50 70 -40 90
Jan Swart 74 -10 -20 93 -26

Local support Total
Du Buque 300 1700 0 2600 0 4600
Tawala 0 1000 0 -1600 900 300
Jan Swart 2220 -200 0 3720 -260 5480

The rule for who holds power in the absence of a conquering army is that if nobody has over 4000 points, nobody has control. If anyone does, then whoever has the most points is in control. Swart leads with 5480, so I reviewed my options to see what would put him behind and me ahead.

I could try to hurt his lead with the traders by implementing anti-trading policy, but the traders like me too, so perhaps there's a better way. As it turns out, the Land Reform policy is perfect. It hurts manufacturers, which favor Swart, and helps peasants, who hate him. This does help Tawala, who is favored by peasants, but not nearly enough.

Manufacturer Military Peasant Trader Government
Llythll 20 20 20 40 10

Du Buque 7 88 8
65 0
Tawala 0 50 70 -40 90
Jan Swart 74 -10 -20 93 -26

Local support

Du Buque 140 1760 160 2600 0 4540
Tawala 0 1000 1400 -1600 900 1700
Jan Swart 1480 -200 -400 3720 -260 4340

Llythll flipped to me.

I then implemented a few more policies to enhance my galactic reputation in the hopes of flipping some more planets.

  • Reduce tariffs - Favored by peasants and traders, disliked by manufacturers and government.
  • Cut government - Favored by manufacturers, peasants, and traders. Disliked by government.
  • Workers' health - Favored by peasants and government, disliked by manufacturers and traders.
  • Abolish draft - Favored by peasants and traders, disliked by military.
  • Lower taxes -  Favored by manufacturers, peasants, and traders. Disliked by military and government. Weirdly, this policy lowers your tax collections on all planets, not just the one where you enacted it. You can only do this so many times.


Cutting government and lowering taxes are pretty much the best thing you can do for your reputation. Everyone likes this except for the army, which starts off high and can be impressed through conquest, and the bureaucrats, who are nearly unpleasable anyway. Net result was +28 reputation with peasants, +15 reputation with traders, +1 reputation with manufacturers, -8 reputation with military, and -10 reputation with government.

Sure enough, some worlds flipped without me needing to be there. Zoe, Eventide, and Viejo were mine, expanding my empire to five worlds, yielding 1,000 credits at my reduced tax rate. I bought 60 arms packages, more than replacing what I had lost but not quite enough to take on Tawala, and moved on to Yang-Tzu, where I finished off Swart's last stronghold.

I enacted the same policies as before, except this time I raised taxes. This time, I figured, I needed the cash to fight Tawala. My standings with peasants improved quite a bit, more than enough to make up for the hit taken with the fickle manufacturers. Even my reputation with the traders saw a net gain.


More worlds flipped; Ootsi and Kgotla paid me their taxes, giving me 2,400 credits to fight Tawala with, and I spent every penny on arms, giving me enough to equip 131 legions. I headed straight to Galactica, where I beat Tawala's army.

It wasn't even close.


The usual rounds of policies neutered Galactica's overbearing bureaucracy, and curried favor with peasants and traders.

Bok, Alhambra, Farside, and Moonsweep all joined. Only five worlds remained to conquer, all of them strong with the government.

I moved to Twyrx, destroyed token resistance, and after land reform and cutting government, there wasn't really anything else worth doing; my reputation with the peasants and traders could be raised almost no further, and anything that pleased one of the other three factions would piss off at least two others.

Javiny and Utopia joined next. Only Tawala's Drassa 2 and independent Novena remained.

I went to Drassa 2, destroyed Tawala's token resistance, and reduced tariffs to loosen the bureaucrats' influence and solidify my dominance. Utopia and Farside rebelled, but a quick visit to each to humble their bureaucrats and manufacturers with corrective policy fixed that.


GAB rating: Below Average. Unlike Galactic Trader, Galactic Revolution isn't totally broken, and has some interesting ideas, but it's unsatisfying as a singleplayer game. The AI puts up no resistance apart from passive defense, and spreading influence is just an optimization puzzle once you understand how the numbers work.

There is a multiplayer mode, which neither WGS nor I had the chance to try, but I honestly can't see it adding all that much. The only means of interacting with other players is through planetary conquest, which offers far less depth than the superficially-similar Galaxy (or Carlston's own Galactic Empire for that matter) given the near removal of logistics and impossibility of attacking more than one planet per turn, and the challenge of balancing/optimizing your influence in the galaxy is done without the other players' active competition. I suspect that in a two-player game, whoever attacks first wins (provided the attack is successful), while a three-player game discourages aggression, as attacking the second player means the third may finish off the weakened victor.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Intermission: 1983/1984

Above is an MDS map of the games I played for the 1983 phase of Data Driven Gamer. To keep it readable, some connections have been removed (e.g. Donkey Kong's sphere of influence is wider than the graph suggests), and Jumpman and its complicated web of predecessors have been excised entirely.

It's been over 400 days since July 2020 when I started this phase with Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, and I can officially say that the blog will never catch up to the modern era now that it takes more than a year to retrospectively cover one. I suppose on one hand I'll skip more games as I start to reach eras that I'm more familiar with, but on the other hand, the games are already getting longer. 1983 took me nearly twice as long as 1982 despite having covering about the same number of games.

Reviewing the Ivory Deck, 1983 had more good games than ever - 16 compared to 11 from 1982. However, the number of great games declined; only M.U.L.E. and Alley Cat got harpoons.

I remarked last year that the biggest trend of 1982, as far as my whales were concerned, was the rise of third party console games. Arcade games, though still significantly represented, were losing ground. In 1983, arcade games continue to cede ground as it becomes clear that their golden age is over. Only 14 of my 45 whales had arcade origins, down from 19 out of 44 in 1982. Of the 16 games that I rated "good," only 5 were arcade games.

Commercially, it was third party console games that picked up the slack, continuing the trend of the previous year - a trend that wouldn't last another. Video game revenues of 1983 were in the billions of dollars. Atari 2600 alone went from having 116 releases in 1982 to 209 releases in 1983, and the Intellivision and ColecoVision's libraries had even more dramatic expansions in terms of percentage increase. Even the underperforming Atari 5200 went from 10 releases to 31.

My whale coverage does not reflect this trend at all; we went from five third party games by Activision, Imagic, and Parker Brothers, to only five, four by Activision. First party whales shrank even more; Atari, once an indomitable force in both the arcade and home console scenes, produced just a single whale on their own flagship platform in 1983 - Ms. Pac-Man. At least it was good this time.

I made a chart tallying whales of 1982 and 1983 on a platform type basis, further broken out by region of origin.

Platform type 1982 count 1983 count
Arcade 19 total
15 Japan
4 NA
14 total
9 Japan
5 NA
Computer 15 total
12 NA
1 Japan
1 UK
1 AU
24 total
17 NA
3 Japan
3 UK
1 AU
Console 10 NA 7 total
6 NA
1 Japan


The big trend we see in 1983, with regards to whales, is a higher volume of computer games. This increase isn't driven by adventure games or RPGs, but by platform games, of all things. 1982 only had Miner 2049er, a decently designed but overly unforgiving Donkey Kong-style platformer. 1983 had seven computer-based platformers, and it seems impossible to imagine that Miner 2049er wasn't an influence on the majority of them.

I also made a chart of computer game whales, broken down by genre.

Genre 1982 count 1983 count
Adventure 5 total
4 NA
1 AU
6 total
5 NA
1 Japan
Arcade 5 total
4 NA
1 UK
6 total
4 NA
2 Japan
Platformer 1 NA 7 total
4 NA
3 UK
Strategy 2 total
1 NA
1 Japan
2 total
1 NA
1 AU


Here, "arcade" is a catch-all term for action games that aren't platformers, and "strategy" is a general miscellaneous category encompassing 1982's Strip Poker and Sokoban for lack of better options. I counted Archon as an arcade game and M.U.L.E. as a strategy game, even though both have elements of both action and strategy.


Arcades in decline

For the first time, arcade games were not the biggest category of the year. What's more is that few of the arcade games I played felt cutting-edge; only Star Wars and Spy Hunter really felt like they were pushing technology in ways that hadn't been done in years past.

Five of the 14 arcade games scored "good" ratings, which is a pretty good ratio. Among them were the aforementioned Star Wars, Jr. Pac-Man, Gyruss, Mr. Do!'s Castle, and Mario Bros. Curiously, no two of these have the same developer!

Elevator Action was the best of the rest with an "above average" rating, innovative and deeper than it looks, but not a  lot, and didn't have enough excitement, longevity, or wow factor to "elevate" it to a good rating.

Congo Bongo, Mappy, Crystal Castles, and Tapper were forgettable experiences, and Spy Hunter's annoyances canceled out much of the goodwill that its slick presentation generated. "Average" ratings were had by all.

Two games got below average ratings - the controls-busting Track & Field, and the slow, strange 10-Yard Fight. But the only flat-out bad rating was had by Donkey Kong 3, a surprise bomb from Shigeru Miyamoto himself, an ill-conceived attempt to make Donkey Kong into a static vertical shooter that just feels awkward and unfair.

Consoles undercounted

Of the 20 best selling games of 1983, 19 are console games. This list has very little overlap with the console games I did play, which consists of only seven games, not counting the early Nintendo arcade ports or Portopia Serial Murder Case.

We started with Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2600; one of the rare coin op conversions that makes whale status as a port, and it was good, in stark contrast to the infamously terrible Pac-Man port from the year before. On the Intellivision, Beamrider grew on me with replays, getting my recommendation as well.

Keystone Kops and Famicom Baseball just ranked average, eliciting no strong feelings from me at all.

B.C.'s Quest for Tires, the other best-selling game that I actually played, ranked below average, offering minutes worth of gameplay and frustrating mechanics to pad things out. The Activision Decathlon got the sole "bad" ranking, but made for an interesting comparison to Track & Field.

Adventures Multinational

Infocom was once again the dominant force in this year's list of adventure games, but was joined by Portopia Serial Murder Case, a discretionary whale of some significance to Japanese video game history. I had to play the 1985 Famicom port rather than the PC-6001 original, as only that version had been translated.

Infocom maintained its track record of quality. Suspended and Planetfall were the best, with "good" ratings, attaining them in different ways - Suspended being the most unusual of Infocom's games, structured as a big mechanical puzzle, and Planetfall being more of a ludonarrative experience. The Witness, Enchanter, and Infidel got above average rankings, each one worthwhile, but not quite enough to get my universal recommendation.

Portopia, though, fell flat with a below average ranking, being very short and linear, with far too many instances where you must exhaustively revisit locations to find the arbitrary trigger action needed to move the plot forward.

Computer action games

Though they were rarely the best sellers, it seems like home computers were the place to get rich and original gameplay experiences. Interestingly, no one computer dominated this list.

Oil's Well and Digger were my favorite games in this category, even though neither one was all that original, the former being a souped-up take on Anteater, the former a competent derivative of Mr. Do! made on the platform least suited for it.

Archon well-embodied Electronic Arts' commitment to making deeper games than what you'd typically see at the arcades with a blend of arcade action and chess-like strategy, but the strategy element is thinner than it ought to be and keeps me from putting it in the "good" tier.

One-on-One likewise imbues sports games with depth and realism, but I didn't find it much fun to play. Antarctic Adventure looks nice but lacks lasting value. Both got "average" ratings.

Thunder Force, another Japan-only discretionary whale, was just plain bad, and it's not surprising that Thunder Force compilations tend to disregard it.

Computer platformers

As I mentioned, this was the defining trend of 1983. Three of these games were ZX Spectrum titles, two were on Atari, and the other two multiplatform but primarily for the Apple II.

Alley Cat was my clear favorite in this category, earning a harpoon, but Lode Runner was also good  despite being much longer than it should have been. And Ultimate's Jetpac was a solid arcade-style platformer, certainly the best of its British peers.

Jumpman, out of all the games this year, bore the closest resemblance to 1982's Miner 2049er, and had tons of creativity and variety, but bugs, cheap deaths, and cheap deaths from bugs kept it away from a "good" rating.

Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg, the two other British platformers, both suffered from unwieldy controls and overall felt lacking compared to contemporaries.

Lastly was Hard Hat Mack, the worst of them, with bad controls and only three levels, none of them interesting to play.

I have to note there that most of these platformers offered an experience you couldn't get in arcades. Alley Cat, Jumpman, and Manic Miner were driven by stage variety and set pieces. Lode Runner by puzzle-heavy gameplay and a level editor to boot. Jetpac by a theme of constructing a rocket ship rather than simply blasting enemies.


Before the advent of realtime 3D graphics, there were basically three styles of RPGs that worked, and anything that veered too far away suffered for it. For lack of better terms, you had Ultima-style RPGs, Wizardry-style RPGs, and Roguelikes.

We had exactly three CRPG whales this year (one discretionary), one for each of these categories.

None attained "good," but Ultima III was the best of them as well as the most forward-thinking. The overworld/town/dungeon structure is a tried and true formula, but Ultima III is really the point where it feels like an established formula, and the vast majority of RPGs can trace their ancestry back here.

Wizardry III, on the other hand, stubbornly refuses to advance its subgenre, content to just be another Wizardry dungeon pack. In spite of that, it's probably the best RPG of the year in terms of gameplay, and just goes to show how ahead of its time the original Wizardry was. A mixture of great scenario design and horrible grinding earned it an "average" rating.

Last there's Moria, the token Roguelike and discretionary whale. It was fun up to a point, but the amount of farming you have to do in order to get anywhere past that point is just unreal. The worst of the three CRPGs, but notable for influencing Angband, which is considered to be one of the major Roguelike branches.


Two computer games fall into the broad "strategy" category, and both of them are good.

Reach for the Stars, by SSI alumnus Roger Keating, absolutely blows away all of the wargames I played leading up to it and anticipates 4x classics like Civilization and especially Master of Orion, which is damned impressive given that it would take until basically the 90's for the genre to really develop further.

M.U.L.E., the best known game of Danielle Bunten Berry (also an SSI alumnus), successfully packaged a game of commodity trading into a fast-paced joystick-based party game. It was a harpoon winner and gets my pick for Game of the Year.

Moving forward into 1984, some trends and introductions to look out for are:

  • The video game crash hits North America hard, and the trend of declining console games will approach its lowest ebb in history. The Atari 2600, though nominally supported as late as 1992, sees its last game of note, and its competitors just fizzle out entirely. American arcade developers struggle to stay relevant, with only Atari having any real output to show for it, though their efforts do, at least, seem suitably "next-gen."
  • Meanwhile, Nintendo's Family Computer makes waves in its native land, setting the stage for a history-changing invasion in the years to follow.
  • We'll finally see some bona fide Commodore 64 games, by Epyx, one of the first developers to really drive the system, and some others.
  • LucasFilm Games debuts, and their first title isn't based on a movie license or an adventure game.
  • Datasoft is due for a retrospective as their first major hit comes out.
  • Famous British video game designer Mike Singleton produces one of the best-known games on the quintessentially British ZX Spectrum.
  • Also hailing from the UK, one of the most important and influential space sims has its initial release.
  • Roberta Williams releases her most important game of all time, which ironically owes its existence to one of the biggest hardware flops of all time.
  • Future Sierra employee Al Lowe gets a retrospective analysis.
  • Multiple RPG-inspired Japanese games will pave the way for The Legend of Zelda.
  • What will eventually become one of the most famous games of all time is created but languishes in obscurity for a while.
  • Microprose gets a retrospective of its combat flight sims released to date.
  • Capcom debuts and makes its mark as a major player in the arcade industry, challenging Konami's established presence.
  • Children's software companies The Learning Company and Spinnaker Software get retrospectives, having both produced notable games in 1984.

Moving forward, I am also raising the requirements for whale status, as frankly the 25-vote rule is starting to feel a bit too inclusive. From now on, any game with fewer than 30 votes may be excluded if playing it doesn't appeal. The 1984 games excluded include Frogger II, Golf, Tournament Tennis, and Flicky. I'm also going to skip Pitfall II: Lost Caverns and Marble Madness, as I've already played them to completion and a replay just doesn't seem interesting. On the flipside, there will be more discretionary whales than ever.

1984 could just be the biggest phase of Data Driven Gamer yet, a trend that I don't see stopping any time soon.

"D" and I have moved, but we still have a lot of work to do before we're truly settled in, and unpacking is just the beginning of our tasks. Expect a slower than typical post schedule for at least a few weeks.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Of Commodore 64 and ColecoVision

Data Driven Gamer does not, by any means, cover all platforms equally, or even in proportion to their popularity at the time. My methods for game selection are game first, platform second, but tend to create a bias towards personal computers as of late - a trend that I expect to become even more pronounced in the years to come - and so far, consoles other than the Atari 2600 have gotten pretty shafted, even considering that the Atari 2600 outsold all other contemporary consoles combined in the vicinity of 3:1.

This post was originally going to be my 1983/1984 intermission, but in it I digressed about undercovered platforms so much that it started to dominate the article, so I split it off into its own thing and developed it some more.

So, in this new unplanned post, I look at two strongly performing platforms of 1983 underrepresented by DDG, one of which surprises me by its lack of inclusion, the other of which doesn't surprise me at all.


On the Commodore 64

The 1983 phase of Data Driven Gamer saw much increased focus on computer games compared to previous years; 1982 had 15 computer game whales, and 1983 had 24. This is disproportionate to what was selling, but not entirely unjustified; like console games, computer games were selling in record numbers that year. They were also produced in record quantities - Mobygames lists a mere 209 Atari 2600 releases in 1983, the largest for any console, but the Apple II got 361, and Atari computers had 366. Even the quintessentially British ZX Spectrum, just over a year old, had 316 releases, up from 77 the year before.

But the real heavyweight system of 1983, by this measure, is the Commodore 64.

The C64 was undoubtedly a gaming powerhouse for its time. Its 64KB of RAM was an edge over the 48KB typical of Apple ][+ and Atari home computers of the day, though the inability to upgrade this further and its lack of legible 80-column text modes meant it could never be a real contender in the business world dominated by the far more expensive IBM PC's. Its real gaming prowess came from the VIC-II graphics chip, which allowed games to use powerful sprite and scrolling capabilities that anticipate the NES, and from the SID sound chip, a legend to this day. On the negative side, its floppy disk drive is nearly as legendary for its pathetic 300 byte/second read speed - though this was less of an issue among first generation games that were more likely to use cartridges or cassettes - and its immutable 16-color palette frustrated artists used to the flexibility of Atari's 128 colors.

Having only 70 releases in its launch year of 1982, the system was an amazing seller the following year, and had a whopping 548 releases, far exceeding any other platform. And yet, I haven't played a single one of them. Why not?

Jimmy Maher of Digital Antiquarian wrote much on the subject of Commodore's total war against Texas Instruments which killed off the TI-99/4A, took out Commodore's own VIC-20 as collateral damage, and damaged an already struggling Atari in the crossfire, setting the C64 up to become the dominant gaming system in North America for the next few years, and the most popular home computer of 1983.

In an email exchange, Maher says he feels that the C64, despite having an incredibly successful year in terms of units sold, didn't really come into its own as a gaming system until 1984, when the full effects of the video game crash were in effect. Epyx was among the first studios to really push it as a gaming platform - until then, the allure of the C64 had more to do with the prospect of just having a home computer. The gaming abilities weren't as aggressively marketed, and likely not as appealing, as its low price and then-luxurious 64KB of RAM.

But I wasn't quite satisfied - after all, the C64 had over 500 games that year, more than twice that of the Atari 2600. I took a look at the list on Mobygames to find some patterns.

What I found is that among the big ticket U.S. publishers, the Commodore 64 was the most supported platform in 1983, but none of them favored it, or tailored anything for its abilities. Its strengths as a gaming machine are well understood today, but in 1983, Atari and Apple computers were seen as more powerful and more established. It seems like major developers weren't yet sure what to make of it, and largely used it as a proving ground for their back catalogs. Budget publishers, especially in the U.K., where cheap cassette-based software was the fashion of the day, were more apt to bet on the C64, but the shovelware nature of these games means that few of them stand out today, and the rare (ha!) exceptional performers tended to be ZX Spectrum games.

Here's a partial list of C64 publishers in the US, in rough order of prolificity.

  • Commodore Business Machines themselves. Most of their titles fit into one of a few categories.
    • Conversions of Midway's coin-op games. The best of these was probably Wizard of Wor. All of these used cartridges rather than floppy disks, which meant a 16KB size limit. 
    • Conversions of VIC-20 and PET games.
    • Original C64 cartridge games by CBM. International Soccer is probably the most remembered of these early titles.
    • Original C64 cassette games by Commodore's UK division.
  • Cursor Magazine, a publisher of PET BASIC games on tape, ported a big back catalog to C64 BASIC, which was essentially unchanged. Perhaps vedder finds this to be an interesting exercise, but it's irrelevant to me.
  • Spinnaker, a U.S. educational software developer, supported C64, Atari, Apple II, and IBM computers, though it's not clear to me what their platform of choice was. We'll be talking about them more in the 1984 phase.
  • Adventure International ported their back catalog, mostly Scott Adams' classic adventures, to the C64.
  • Avalon Hill ported their BASIC games to the C64 but did not release anything original for it. Telengard is probably their best known game, and features enhanced graphics and sounds on the system.
  • Epyx, who would soon become one of the first major C64 houses, ported games including Jumpman, Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!, and Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai and its expansions. All of these took advantage of the C64's unique graphics and sound abilities to some extent. 
  • Sierra's support for the Commodore 64 was eclectic, including ports of computer-style arcade games Crossfire, B.C.'s Quest for Tires, and Oil's Well, plus Frogger, which they had previously ported to Atari, Apple, and IBM. The Hi-Res Adventures, Mission: Asteroid, The Wizard and the Princess, and Ulysses and the Golden Fleece were ported too, but not Mystery House or Cranston Manor. Ultima II was also ported by Sierra, but not Ultima I. Ultima III, which was never licensed to them, would be ported by Garriott's friend Chuck Bueche (aka Chuckles). By 1986, Sierra would abandon the C64 almost entirely.
  • Infocom ported its entire catalog of Z-Machine adventures from Zork I to Infidel to the machine and releasing them almost simultaneously. The virtual machine-based approach made this simple to do; all of their games were either made for the Z-Machine v3 or had already been upgraded to that standard. The Z-Machine only had to be written for the Commodore 64 once, and afterward, all of their games were already compatible. But as the C64 only supported 40-column text display, and as the games were heavily dependent on its slow floppy disk drive, it wasn't quite the optimal platform for these games.
  • Sirius Software, once a relatively major computer game publisher, supported the C64 with ports, but clearly favored Apple and Atari. 1983 was their last year of operation; they'd go under following a royalty dispute.
  • SSI, like Avalon Hill, would port their BASIC wargames to C64, but create nothing original on the platform.
  • Broderbund's Choplifter, Lode Runner, and David's Midnight Magic, among other Apple-oriented games, received C64 ports. Broderbund also received the computer game publishing rights to Star Wars, and the C64 was among its recipients.
  • Hayden Software, a developer best known for its chess program Sargon mainly supported the Apple II and ported nine titles to the C64.
  • Electronic Arts' policy at the time was to make the Atari 8-bit their primary platform and to port to as many computer platforms as it made sense to, but in practice, their games targeted the Apple II nearly as often. Every game they released in 1983 supported the C64, but none were made specifically for it.
  • DesignWare and Educational Information Systems were two U.S. educational software companies who developed mainly for the Apple II but supported the C64 incidentally.
  • Synapse Software, developers of Alley Cat, was the largest third-party Atari computer software publisher, and well known for their consistent qualities and dedication to the platform. They ported many of their Atari games to the C64, but Alley Cat, strangely, wasn't among them.
  • Atarisoft, the arm of Atari responsible for porting games to non-Atari systems, ported several old arcade games to the C64, including Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Defender, and Centipede. All of these had been previously ported to Atari's own line of computers in-house. I think it would make for an interesting article to compare the Atari and Commodore versions of these games, though I don't plan on doing this personally.

Of the games that were actually made with the C64 in mind, the most notable were both made by musician & programmer Paul Norman through Cosmi Corporation; Forbidden Forest, and Aztec Challenge, a remake of an Atari game. Neither comes close to whale status.

British publishers are less interesting to me but were no doubt active on the system. Among the C64 early adopters were:

  • Supersoft released 16 tapes exclusively for the C64 and VIC-20.
  • Anirog Software also mainly focused on the C64 and VIC-20, with some ZX Spectrum support on the side.
  • Channel 8 Software absorbed Brian Howarth's Mysterious Adventure series and re-released them on just about all of the British microcomputers of the day, plus the Atari and Commodore 64 which were the most popular imports. They also released two Atari-inspired games exclusively on Commodore 64.
  • Intercepter Software focused almost exclusively on the Commodore 64 with 11 original titles.
  • Rabbit Software supported the VIC 20, C64, and ZX Spectrum with no obvious platform preference.
  • Alligata Software released 12 games, 8 of which were C64 exclusive. 
  • Mogul Communications had 8 new C64 games, some of which were VIC-20 ports.
  • Romik Software had releases on most of the British microcomputers, even the obsolete ZX81, but most of their releases were for the C64 and VIC-20.
  • dk'tronics was primarily a ZX Spectrum house, but did have some C64 and VIC-20 support, including a few exclusives.
  • Jeff Minter's company Llamasoft was principally a VIC-20 and C64 house, producing six C64-compatible games, most of them multiplatform.

On the ColecoVision

A copy of Computer Entertainer magazine's January 1984 issue lists these as the top 20 selling games of 1983:
  1. Miner 2049er (Micro Fun / ColecoVision)
  2. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 2600)
  3. River Raid (Activision / Atari 2600)
  4. Swords & Serpents (Imagic / Intellivision)
  5. War Room (Philips / ColecoVision)
  6. Q*Bert (Parker Brothers / ColecoVision)
  7. Donkey Kong Jr. (ColecoVision)
  8. Enduro (Activision / Atari 2600)
  9. Pole Position (Atari 5200)
  10. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 5200)
  11. Centipede (Atari 5200)
  12. Centipede (Atari 2600)
  13. B.C.'s Quest for Tires (Sierra / ColecoVision)
  14. Looping (ColecoVision)
  15. Time Pilot (ColecoVision)
  16. Donkey Kong (Atari 400/800)
  17. Super Action Baseball (ColecoVision)
  18. Pitfall (Activision / Atari 2600)
  19. Centipede (Atarisoft / ColecoVision)
  20. Nova Blast (Imagic / ColecoVision)


Not surprisingly, there are a lot of arcade game conversions here. What's more surprising is just how much ColecoVision you see here; over half the list, including the top game. Not a single one of the original 1983 computer games I played are present, not even Lode Runner, an absurdly strong performer by Apple II standards, which went on to sell millions in the years to come. The ColecoVision may have been a short-lived system whose entire existence was overlapped by the shadow of the much less powerful Atari 2600, but it still sold millions during its brief shelf life. It no doubt disrupted some of the Atari 2600's sales, which was still the biggest seller of the year, but was already starting to slow down.

I've always thought of the ColecoVision as a console that obliterated the Atari 2600 technically, but assumed its library to be dominated by second-string arcade ports, which never interested me as much as games designed ground-up for the home experience, and seemed doubly pointless in an era where MAME can emulate the originals. This list, however, doesn't show the system to be any more defined by coin-op conversions than the others; of the ten ColecoVision games, three are original, five are arcade game ports, and two are ported from other platforms. Of the ten non-ColecoVision games, six are arcade game ports.

I took a look at the entire ColecoVision release list of 1983 - not an arduous task as there are only 47 games on it, and categorized them in a similar manner as the C64 list.

Arcade conversions made up 21 of the 47 games.

  • Coleco themselves made most of these; 16, which include:
    • Donkey Kong & Donkey Kong Jr.
    • Sega's Space Fury, SubRoc, and Zaxxon
    • Universal's Mr. Do! and Space Panic
    • Midway's Omega Race and Gorf
    • Exidy's Pepper II and Victory
    • Time Pilot, Frenzy, Front Line, Looping, and Slither
  • Parker Brothers made three - Frogger, Popeye, and Q*Bert
  • Atarisoft ported Centipede and Defender

 Of the 26 other games, we have:

  • Four original Coleco games, including Smurf Rescue and Super Action Baseball
  • Four games by Bit Corp, a short-lived developer who came and went in 1983, also releasing four games for the Atari 2600 that year
  • Four games by Spectravideo International, two of which were conversions of games for their failed Spectravideo console
  • Three games by Sunrise Software, a then Coleco-exclusive developer
  • Three games by Xonox, a company best known for their "double-ender" Atari 2600 cartridges.
  • Sydney Development's Evolution and B.C.'s Quest for Tires
  • Various one-offs, including Nova Blast, Miner 2049er, and War Room.


I can't say anything in the list excites me terribly, though War Room, being its second-best selling game of the year and a ColecoVision-original title interested me enough to look at some gameplay videos to see what it's about. On the surface, it looks like a much-expanded take on Missile Command, set on an 8-way scrolling map of North America that you must defend from incoming nukes before they destroy too many cities, featuring some simple economic gameplay elements.

While the Commodore 64 flourished in the aftermath of the video game crash, Coleco's video game arm tanked, and their attempt to break into the home computer market with the Coleco Adam flopped hard. However, the hardware was remarkably ahead of its time, and there's tangible proof of this - the MSX microcomputer series' hardware was largely identical to the ColecoVision and served as a solid gaming platform for years to come. Sega's first console, the SG-1000, came even closer, and its final hardware revision (albeit one with more RAM and a new video chip), the Mark III, is better known internationally as the Sega Master System.


Next post will wrap up 1983 and introduce 1984, I promise.

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