Runners-up of 1980

The last year of the decade saw a wide variety of influential and noteworthy games. These are their stories.

Battlezone |Arcade|

Battlezone was a pseudo 3D game made up of vector wireframes. Because the player looks at the screen through a periscope manifold, it is often considered the first Virtual Reality game. In Battlezone the player takes control of a tank and drives around a flat plain firing at enemy tanks. The HUD included a radar showing the positions of enemy tanks. This game was one of the earliest to be subject of wild rumors. One such rumor insisted that you could drive the tank out of the valley, up to the top of the volcano in the background, and visit a castle inside the crater.

Like most other arcade hits of the day, Battlezone was eventually ported to console and turned out pretty well (mirror). In the meantime a different arcade version was commissioned by the military as a training tool. The lead designer Ed Rotberg initially refused to work on it, but finally agreed when Atari promised him they would never ask him to be involved with the military again after the project. Alas, only two of the machines were ever produced. One was delivered to the Army and is presumed lost; the other was found–of all places–by a dumpster near Midway Games’ office.

Rally-X |Arcade|

Rally-X is one of those games I really wanted to write an appreciation article on, so much so that I even recorded a video of it and its sequel. Rally-X has it all! For one thing, it was the first game to feature constant background music (whereas Phoenix (mirror) only played a couple short clips and then went silent). The whole game has a fun, cartoony look and feel to it. The car you’re driving is highly maneuverable and comes equipped with a device that emits smoke clouds to throw off your pursuers. It can be extremely satisfying to make three cars on your tail suddenly spin out as you round the corner to nab the final flag in the stage!

So what was the problem? Well, the game is nice for the first couple hours, but it gets old fast. A truly great game will be playable forever–I’ll keep playing Team Fortress 2 until they pry the mouse and keyboard from my bald, wrinkly head. Still, Rally-X is quite a bit of fun and not a bad way to spend an afternoon if you’re pressed for options.

Warlords |Atari VCS| PONG was Atari’s flagship product, many of their games in the ’70s were variants of the game or expansions on its concept. If you look closely at a screenshot from Breakout! you can see that the bottom half of the screen is just a ball and paddle. Warlords built upon the concept of Breakout! and made it competitive. In this crazy-fast party game, four players defend their kings (the figures in the corner) from each other. The object of the game is to bounce the ball through the other players’ castle walls and strike the king dead, while also deflecting the ball away from your own. Perhaps the best gameplay mechanic is that a defeated player can still move his paddle around and affect the course of the game. Simply genius!

Although the Arcade version came out first in 1980 and the Atari VCS port was released the following year, development of the console version actually started first. The VCS version was written by Carla Meninsky who was one of two female designers at Atari, along with Carol Shaw (who designed River Raid). Carla also worked on the award-winning Dodge ‘Em and an unreleased prototype of Tempest.

Zork | Apple ][

You are likely to be eaten by a grue. Such an admonition may not seem scary to you now, but when you’ve been immersed in Zork‘s world of text, you don’t need a description. You don’t even need graphics. You just need to get out of there!

Zork was the brainchild of three students at MIT, who first created it for the PDP-10 computer terminal, just like its inspiration Colossal Cave Adventure. At MIT “Zork” was a slang word meaning “unfinished software.” The creators meant for the game to be named “Dungeon” but reverted after receiving a notice of copyright infringement. Zork was later released on the Apple ][, Atari 8-bit computers, and the Commodore 64.

Despite lacking the modern luxury of advanced graphics that leave nothing to the imagination, a good text adventure still has the power to pull you in. Zork was definitely one of the better ones, even though you wouldn’t know it from their bland and unconvincing advertisements. Zork starts out ordinarily enough, with the only thing in sight being a mailbox. Look further, though, and you’ll slowly enter a world of adventure. Have a taste below.

Well, excuse me! How was I to know I would actually do it?

In a nascent industry without rules, the possibilities are endless. It’s very cool to see what could happen when an idea was complemented with a tremendous amount of free time. In 1980 alone, we saw games as vastly different as Pac-Man and Zork. The former fast-paced, bright and colorful, and unwinnable; the latter slow, text-driven, free and open, and having an end goal. What I hope will happen as you’re reading these game appreciation articles is that one game will make you better appreciate another. After playing text adventures, I think it’s amazing how much Adventure was able to do without the use of a text parser.

One sign of a great game is that it influences more than it was influenced. Zork was directly influenced by Colossal Cave Adventure but stood on its own merits, then in turn had a huge impact not only on text adventures but on other genres as well. Its advanced text parser, which could recognize more than two words in a command, raised the bar for all future parsers. The phrase “You are likely to be eaten by a grue” became quite popular, in the same vein as “You have died of dysentery” from Oregon Trail. The game also brought something else new to the table: there were 26 different ways to die. This, no doubt, struck Roberta Williams like a lightning bolt of inspiration. It’s the only way to explain all of Sierra Games’ cruel, almost sadistic affinity for killing you. How better to sell strategy guides? I mean, if you crossed the bridge too many times and broke it because you had the audacity to explore in an adventure game, it’s your own darn fault. Enjoy no longer being able to pass the game, sucker! Thanks for the $19.95!

Zork is difficult enough to pass without external help, but it’s possible. For whatever reason, whether it was because they thought a fair challenge was too uninteresting, or because they desired to sell guides, Infocom saturated Zork II and Zork III with dead ends and traps. Zork II for example had a carousel that would lead the player to a random room and in order to progress to the desired room without wasting hours of time the player would have to save the game, enter the carousel, then load the save and try again until succeeding. (Repeatedly loading a save file is called “save scumming.”) There was no way of knowing this beforehand, however. Zork III had a randomly-occurring earthquake that would prevent the player from finishing the game if it happened. It also had a maze that, well, let’s just say I pity those who tried it without any help. This was unfortunately a common complaint about text adventures (and graphical adventures) in general.

What was with 80s adventure games and mazes? The Mask of the Sun had an end-game maze that went on forever. This was, of course, long after you were supposed to pick up a flute, without which you can’t beat the game (or go back to retrieve it and try again). Geez, maybe these games weren’t popular because gamers wanted a game that didn’t despise them with the passion of a thousand scorned lovers.

Thank goodness those days are over.

Zork doesn’t have the same legacy today as its contemporaries, but there is still a small yet dedicated base of players who look fondly back on it, among them being the Brothers Chaps. A parody of text adventures called Thy Dungeonman appeared in sbemail 94 and was later made into a fully playable game. It’s just a funny knock-off, but still a good example of what a text adventure can do. Teachers have taken notice of this, using Zork as required playing in their classes. MIT also uses Zork, though considering they were the ones who created it I don’t think we ought to be too surprised.

Good Old Games is selling the Zork Anthology for only $6.00 here. If you’re economically challenged, Infocom actually offers Zork for free here. Er, perhaps I should have told you that first, before you bought it. Nah, that’s fine. It won’t kill you. Many browser-based versions are also available, such as this one.

Have fun!

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