Read part one here.
I’m cheating a little bit here, as several 3rd generation consoles were released in 1982. I think it’s fair, though, to call 1982 a “transition year.” So with that qualification in mind, here are the rest of the “not quite outstanding” games of the last year of the 2nd generation.
Wow, it’s amazing how innovative 1982 was. Brace yourself, for we’re in the long haul on this one.
3D Monster Maze |Sinclair ZX-81|
Although the Apple ][ and Commodore PET were popular in America around 1982, the computer of choice for the English was the Sinclair ZX-81, then later the Spectrum. 3D Monster Maze was one of the first successful British games and spurred sales of the new Sinclair machine as it was a demonstration of how a skilled programmer could squeeze a visually-intensive game out of such a primitive machine. 3D Monster Maze was able to produce such great graphical fidelity because its graphics were actually text-like characters arranged in different ways.
3D Monster Maze has no victory; you have to just last as long as you can. When you start the maze the monster is stationary but once you take a couple of steps it starts chasing after you. The game lets you know how close it is but not in which direction. The tension is often palpable. When the monster finally catches up with you a game over screen shows its teeth and a message invites you to try again.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain |Mattel Intellivision|
This was a great game. To be honest, the only reason I didn’t write an appreciation article for this game is that the controls are a little too complicated. Other than that, it’s gold. Compared to Adventure on the Atari VCS, this game comes away the winner every time. AD&D doesn’t actually have anything to do with the board game, other than being an RPG and therefore inspired by it.
AD&D has you traveling through a land and you’ll spend most of your time going through caves and tunnels, fighting spooky creatures. You’ll only be able to see a couple inches in front of you and you reveal more of the cave by walking into it. Even if you never play this game, I highly recommend you at least watch a gameplay video (mirror) of it.
Alien Garden |Atari 800|
27 years before Thatgamecompany took us through fields in Flower, the “thinking man’s” company Epyx gave us Alien Garden, widely considered the first “art game.” The player controls an alien embryo as it floats through the game world, eating crystalline flowers that help it grow, and avoiding other poisonous flowers. There is no instruction at all in the game and if you want, you can completely disregard your goal and be content to just float around, looking at the crystals.
Alien Garden also stands as one of the first examples of a non-combative game. There is nothing to fight or defend against. True, the poisonous crystals can kill you–but only if you choose to touch them. Read about Bernie DeKoven’s contributions to this game and others here.
B-17 Bomber |Intellivision|
I’d say that the primary distinction between console games and computer games back in the day was genre/style. Consoles were good at providing fast-paced arcade-like experiences with responsive controls but computers adeptly handled large amounts of text and slow-paced gameplay. This meant computers were ideal for adventure games and strategy games in particular. What was cool about B-17 Bomber was that it had elements of strategy in it, and felt like a computer game on a console. Every mission starts off with you looking at a map of Europe and selecting your target. You get to choose how many bombs to carry, with each successive bomb reducing your potential flight distance. Completely fill your cargo bay and you’ll be lucky to cross the English Channel.
Once you get off the ground the game switches to inside the cockpit where you have to fly in first-person mode and fight off enemy aircraft then drop your payload. B-17 Bomber also included synthesized voice via the Intellivoice peripheral. The voice actually sounds pretty dorky, but back in 1982 it had the novelty factor going for it. Too bad no one actually bought the Intellivoice.
Black Widow |Arcade|
Black Widow was a twin-stick shooter created by Atari. It is a vector game with bright colors (remember the multi-colored vectors introduced in Tempest?) and pretty intense gameplay. Black Widow stars a titular spider who has to fight back bugs encroaching on her web. The gameplay is often compared to Williams’ Robotron: 2084, with the primary difference being that Black Widow isn’t boring and terrible.
There are fewer enemies than would probably be expected of an arcade game, but they keep you busy despite a lack of sheer numbers. This is made more intense by the fact that you can’t kill certain bugs; you have to get them to destroy each other. If, however, you manage to destroy an egg before it hatches, you’ll have one less bug to deal with. Interestingly enough, there is one bug that assists in destroying other bugs, but this results in fewer points earned, which could end up hurting you later on when you need those points for extra lives. All of these ideas work together to produce a very engaging game.
Cosmic Ark |Atari 2600|
Cosmic Ark holds the honor of being the first sequel on a console, being the successor of Atlantis. Cosmic Ark was created by Imagic, a company made up of Atari employees who left once Activision paved the way for third-party developers. It follows around a mothership that has to go from planet to planet, capturing two of every native species (one per planet) and then shooting back asteroids while flying to the next planet. While on the planet, the away shuttle has to deal with planetary defense systems, which carries with it a very uncomfortable implication about what exactly this ship’s motivation is for snatching away these creatures.
I think the most interesting part about this game is its graphics. Not only are the objects huge and fluid, but the star-field in the background was actually created by exploiting a bug in the 2600 hardware. You can watch my gameplay video of it below. I accidentally set FRAPS to record microphone input and a couple times you can hear me yell “Come on!”
Dragonfire |Atari 2600, multiple|
Another classic created by Imagic, Dragonfire was a fantastic action game in which a knight fights a dragon to get its treasure. There are two different stages: the first is on the drawbridge, where you have to run across while dodging the dragon’s fireballs (similar to the confrontations with Bowser in Super Mario Bros.) and the second is a top-down boss fight in the dungeon.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dragonfire is that it was made available as a download through CVC’s GameLine service. An engineer named William von Meister conceived of an internet service that would allow customers to download songs using cable companies as the Internet Service Providers. Predictably, the music industry didn’t like this idea and threatened to sue; cable companies withdrew from the deal and von Meister now had a service without content. He moved on to games and created GameLine. Several dozen games were available for download. The service utilized an over-sized silver cartridge with a phone jack. Users could download a game for a fee, and the game would be playable for 5-10 days before needing to be re-rented. GameLine was very successful until the video game crash of 1983 pulled the rug out from under it. If not for the crash, GameLine would have expanded to providing news and email, among other things. Here’s a July 1983 article about the service.
Dragonstomper |Atari 2600|
Now this was an RPG! PC gamers– those sweaty, neck-bearded geeks– are always prattling on about how the complexity of the PC allows for full-featured and complex games that just aren’t possible on consoles since they’re limited by controllers. What they don’t realize is that there’s a difference between complexity that’s optional, and that which is forced on the player. Super Mario World requires you only to hold right and jump, but you’re more than welcome to find secrets and do all kinds of crazy crap (mirror). Nobunaga’s Ambition, on the other hand, is not a timeless classic–I’ll give you a guess as to why.
In the early 80s one of the many genres PC had that consoles didn’t was the RPG. By 1982 we had many staples along the lines of Ultima, but on consoles the best we could come up with was Atari’s Adventure. Luckily Starpath Entertainment came along to change that. Starpath created a peripheral for the Atari 2600 called the Starpath Supercharger, which read cassette tapes and fed the info to the Atari. This allowed for much, much larger games than a cartridge alone could allow and Starpath were able to create some truly amazing experiences with it.
Dragonstomper was an RPG with a large open world and multiple ways to achieve your goals. Starpath got around the problem of the 2600 only having one button, by having menus you could navigate to use items, etc. Dragonstomper is a very under-appreciated title, especially considering how immensely innovative and approachable it is. You don’t need to be an expert RPG master to play it. Just plug in your controller and you’re set. Four years before Dragon Quest made the RPG accessible to a mainstream audience, Dragonstomper was paving the way.
Escape from the Mindmaster |Atari 2600|
Another amazing title by Starpath, this 1st-person maze game blew the competition out of the water. The premise is that you, a human, are trapped in a maze along with several other sentient creatures by an alien. This alien wishes to test your intelligence and you must solve the six mazes to beat the game. Starpath’s technical wizardry results in the maze scrolling smoothly and multiple objects being drawn on screen at once without stuttering. Escape from the Mindmaster is such a great game that I came this close to writing an article on it. I even recorded a video, which you can watch below. Please excuse my idiocy- I never play as well when I’m recording.
Haunted House |Atari 2600|
Here is a different example of getting the most out of a primitive machine. In the case of a horror game it’s not so much the control that has to be simplified, but the graphics. How do you scare a player when your console has access to a mere 128 colors and just as many bytes of RAM? Atari’s answer was to embrace the minimalism and create a spookier version of Adventure. There are three items in the game, of which the player may only carry one at a time. The player must escape the haunted house while carrying the urn.
The house is dark and can be illuminated for a short time by lighting a match. The player has an infinite number of matches but they only stay lit for a few seconds and only illuminate the immediate area. If a monster/ghoul enters the room, a howling wind blows out the candle. On higher difficulty levels, the walls are completely invisible except when a match is lit. I just love “Game Informer’s” review, where they wrote “It may not have the visual razzle-dazzle or chilling moments of the genre’s recent entries, but it did teach a generation of young gamers the word “urn”, filling in that treacherous gap between “vase” and “carafe”.”
How good are you at jousting on the back of an ostrich? What do you mean, that’s a crazy question? In the world of Joust, that’s the most normal question there is! Joust was extremely popular for its ludicrous fun and was the first platformer that many Americans ever played. In it, you joust with AI-controlled jousters on vultures and the rule is that if you are higher in elevation, you win; otherwise, you lose. This was meant to be a departure from other games at the time which were obsessed with shooting–none had such a novel concept. The Joust cabinet
contained AA batteries so that high scores and settings would be saved when the machine was unplugged. I hope that the engineer who thought of that received a raise.
There’s a lot more I would love to say about this game but there’s not enough room so I would encourage you to look it up on your own. Here’s the Wikipedia entry to get you started.
Moon Patrol |Arcade|
Moon Patrol is often, but incorrectly, cited as the first game to include parallax scrolling. That honor goes to the 1981 arcade game Jump Bug, which is most notable for being a mediocre clone of Donkey Kong. Moon Patrol was the first game to prominently feature parallax, though, as you drive a rover across the lunar surface and watch the landscape breeze past. The object of the game is to traverse the surface while avoiding rocks, pits, and other obstacles, while also shooting down enemy aliens.
The problem with the gameplay comes in the pattern memorization necessary to proceed. The first few levels are OK, but the difficulty quickly ramps up. Before long you will find yourself having to jump over a pit with enough precision to land on a tiny bit of ground before immediately jumping over a second pit, and making sure that you go far enough to clear the boulder on the other side. Not to worry though; if you get a game over you can just continue where you left off–for a quarter, of course. What I dislike most about Moon Patrol is what it represents. Games were starting to rely on luck or trial-and-error in order to suck quarters out of frustrated gamers (Dragon’s Lair, anyone?) in the 80’s equivalent of micro-transactions. Where was the outrage from hardcore gamers? An unskilled player could dominate the high score list provided he had enough money.
Oh, well. The game is decent, I suppose.
Oink! |Atari VCS|
Another interesting title from Activision, Oink! puts you in charge of the three little pigs whose houses are being blown upon by the wolf. The object of the game is to continuously build up the walls of your house as the wolf is destroying them. This is an arcade-style game, meaning there is no way to win; the only object is to hold out as long as you can. There are three game modes: one single-player and two two-player. The second game mode has the two players alternating, and in the third mode one player controls the pig and the other player controls the wolf.
Aside from this, I think the box art is just spiffy. Those poor little pigs. Those poor, little, delicious pigs.
Phaser Patrol |Atari 2600|
Starpath cooked up the first of a series of hits with Phaser Patrol. This was their first game, and came packaged with the Starpath Supercharger to allow for a game much bigger than 4 KB. Phaser Patrol is a 1st-person space shooter where you have to explore all the sectors on your map and eradicate any enemy ships therein. Damage taken by your ship might just lower your shield, or it could also damage the onboard systems, lowering your combat effectiveness.
Phaser Patrol is a little rough around the edges and after an hour or so, tedium sets in. Still, it was a brilliant proof-of-concept and I’m sure many later cockpit-perspective space shooters learned from it.
I first learned about this game when I was playing Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, which has a mini-game in it derived from Pooyan‘s gameplay. I thought I would check it out and, man, I was not disappointed. You are a pig; wolves are coming by balloon to kidnap your family; you have to shoot them down. Each wolf has a balloon tied to his back and you have to pop it with a dart. Oh, I’m sorry. Did you think I meant “balloon” as in “dirigible?” You think these wolves are piloting zeppelins? Think again.
Shark! Shark! |Intellivision|
Here’s a good example of a company learning that demographics often don’t matter. Shark! Shark! was meant to be a cute little game for children and Mattel didn’t expect it to sell very well–they incidentally produced only 5,600 units. They were surprised to find that its high quality and originality attracted adult customers as well; Mattel quickly had to scramble to produce a second batch of cartridges.
Shark! Shark! was a single-screen game with a very simple premise: swim into fish smaller than yourself to grow, and avoid bigger fish because they’ll eat you. You also have to avoid the shark that occasionally swims onto the screen, but if you bite it several times in the tail it’ll die. This isn’t a lasting solution, though. The shark will come back later with greater speed and ferocity. At the same time, your growth into a bigger fish will reduce your speed and agility. At 100,000 points even the greatest players lose their fish at an alarming rate to the super-fast shark. A more general issue with the game is that the shark appears at the edge of the screen with no warning, and you can often die by rotten luck. If not for that, I think it would be a classic. Shark! Shark! was designed by Don Daglow, whose first computer game was Baseball in 1971, and Ji-Wen Tsao, one of the first female game programmers.
“BEWARE! I LIVE!” When you hear these words, you know that some serious stuff is about to go down. The titular Sinistar is one of the most interesting villains from any arcade game. The most interesting thing is that you won’t even see him until you mess up enough times! In Sinistar you fly a little space ship around and try to sabotage the efforts of the various builder drones that are mining crystals from asteroids and using them to build Sinistar. You need these same crystals to make sinibombs. There are a lot of drones, however (as well as the warships that are chasing you), and inevitably Sinistar is built. Once he is completed, he relentlessly pursues you while shouting things such as “RUN, COWARD!” A talkative fellow he is; a cuddly one he is not. Your only hope of survival is to release your sinibombs (that sounds delicious!) and hope that they hit him. 13 bombs are required to destroy Sinistar. If you are successful, the drones immediately try to rebuild him. Cool fact: Sinistar was the first (and as far as I know only) game to feature a 49-direciton joystick. Yeah, that’s right. Did you think Black Widow was cool for having 8-way sticks? Think again!
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back |Atari VCS|
Now here’s an example of a great licensed game. Empire Strikes Back was the first game by Parker Brothers, and the first Star Wars game. What makes it so brilliant is the nature of the adaptation. Rather than trying to make some sweeping epic out of the entire movie, they played to the strengths of the Atari VCS and adapted one scene to make an arcade-style game instead–one that closely resembles the seminal Williams game Defender.
In ESB you are in control of Luke’s fighter as he tries to repel a fleet of advancing AT-AT walkers. If they reach the base or you lose all your lives, it’s game over. There are different ways to play, some of which are riskier than others. The most excellent book Racing the Beam contains a section explaining some of the technical aspects. You should give it a read.
Sword of Fargoal |Commodore VIC-20|
Sword of Fargoal is a Roguelike created by Jeff McCord and published by Epyx originally for the Commodore PET, then later for the Commodore 64. The object of the game is to descend through a dungeon of about 15 levels, retrieve the titular sword, and return to ground level. Every level is procedurally generated and blacked-out; a level is revealed as you walk through it.
Sword of Fargoal is extremely difficult to finish, owing in part to the randomness of battles. Even if you “do everything right,” one bad battle can end the game. I really wanted to recommend this game, too, on the basis of its engrossing atmosphere, intriguing exploration-based gameplay, and easy-to-grasp concept. Ah well.
Many years later a remake of the game was produced for the iPhone. I don’t have one, but my mom does so I used hers for the video capture.
Taipan! |Apple //e|
If you’ve played Sid Meier’s Pirates, you’re familiar with the idea of buying goods at a certain port for cheap (or pillaging them from other ships) and then selling for a tidy profit at a rich port. Well, Taipan! is built entirely around this concept. You control a trading vessel in the Far East during the 19th century. The game is inspired by the novel Tai-Pan by James Clavell. The game has no story to speak of; you just keep running goods between cities and (it is hoped) keep getting wealthier/stronger. The only endgame conditions are getting your ship sunk by enemies, or getting bored after a few hours and quitting. Taipan!‘s influence outlasted its replay value, however, and trading games for many years after owed some part of their gameplay to it.
Typo Attack |Atari 800|
In my history of the 70s I remarked that Nolan Bushnell left Atari in part over disagreements as to the future of Atari; Ray Kassar wanted to move the company in the direction of home computers, while Bushnell wanted to remain console-focused. Well, Kassar eventually got his wish and Atari rolled out a series of 8-bit computers along with an advertising blitz. Now, what exactly is a home computer? We don’t use the term anymore, but it refers to a microcomputer that’s intended to be less powerful, less expensive, and less cumbersome than a standard “personal” computer. Now remember, back then you would be thrilled to have a computer with 64 KB of RAM for less than $2,000.
To market their new line of “home”computers, Atari briefly adopted Alan Alda as their spokesman. One of the advertisements he starred in was for Typo Attack, an educational game meant to teach finger placement. Take a look:
Atari and other computer companies of the day went to great lengths to showcase their products’ versatility. It wasn’t just a game platform–it was an omni-purpose machine! Typo Attack represented one of the many cornerstones for Atari’s 8-bit home computers.
I know it’s off-topic to show these ads, but I can’t pass up the opportunity. We’ll be moving on to 1983 soon, so this might be my only chance. Besides, these ads combine three of my loves: old commercials, video games, and Hawkeye. So here’s another ad:
Tempest excited gamers with its bright, colorful vectors. Well, Sega wanted in on that action and made their own colorful vector game, titled Zektor. As with most other games of the time, Zektor is a shooter. But what’s interesting about this one is that the gameplay comes in two stages. In the first stage, the gameplay is like a vertical-scrolling shooter, but you can fly freely around the screen a la Asteroids. You are flying toward a city to recapture it from an alien robot overlord. There are eight different robots, and they each challenge you to retake their city. You do just that. In the second stage of the game, you reach the city and face off against the boss. The gameplay here switches to that of Star Castle–the boss is in the middle of the screen surrounded by multiple shields. You have to penetrate all the shields and then hit the robot to destroy it. You then move on to the next city.
Zektor isn’t innovative, as it doesn’t really do anything new on its own. But what is there, is pretty cool.
Lastly, I wanted to include the title of this game. The game itself isn’t anything special, but Zzyzzyxx has a cool name, so I really wanted to type it here. What’s especially cool about Zzyzzyxx is that it’s coincidentally only two letters away from Zzzyzx, which is the name of a town in California. If you go south on the I-15 to LA from Nevada, you’ll see a sign for Zzyzx Road. The creator of Zzyzzyxx said he came up with the name by mashing together a bunch of consonants. He liked the way it looked and sounded. I do too.