Runners-Up of 1983


1983 may have been the year of the second video game crash, but as we saw from the Appreciation articles, there was still quite a bit of innovation left in the industry. 1983 was, after all, the year of the Challenger space shuttle, Microsoft Word, and phones with touchscreens. Let’s take a look at the titles that brought a lot to the table, but fell just short of earning their own appreciation article.

Arabian |Arcade|

Japanese arcade flyer of Arabian.

Arabian was an arcade action/adventure platformer with quite a bit of variety to it. The first stage takes place on a ship and requires a lot of jumping, the second stage happens in a cave with low crawlspaces and vines, the third contains a flock of automated flying carpets, and the fourth tries to combine the previous levels’ challenges with ladders, stairs, flying carpets, etc. The object of the game is to collect all the letters strewn throughout the level to spell the word “Arabian” and advance to the fourth stage where you must climb to the top of the tower and rescue the princess. Or, I should say “hypothetically,” since the controls leave a little to be desired. I couldn’t get past the third stage before my patience was exhausted. Still, it’s a decent enough game and was very innovative for 1983.

The weirdest thing about the game, I’d say is its music. For some reason, the title music is Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo,” the intro music to each level is from Beethoven’s 6th, and the levels themselves have different classical tunes. I’ll never know why they picked these European pieces instead of something Arabian or Arabesque. I mean, heck, they could have used one of Chopin’s “Arabesque” pieces and it would have been a better choice. I wouldn’t really bring this up except that the jingle that plays when you get an item sounds middle-eastern–why couldn’t they do that for all the music? Oh, well. Sunsoft is a Japanese developer, so maybe the music just had to sound “foreign.” They sure succeeded, but at what cost? If you don’t understand, then just imagine playing Prince of Persia while listening to Abba. Actually, don’t.

Enduro |Atari 2600|

Enduro is another intriguing Activision title. It presents some of the best graphics and sound on the stock Atari 2600. The object of the game is to race past 200 AI-controlled opponents. The action is pretty good, although none of the opponents present any challenge outside of being in your way. The gameplay is a delicate back-and-forth between increasing speed and coasting, both around corners and around opponents. The main flaw with Enduro is that the track layout/progression never changes. If you’ve played it once you’ve played it a thousand times. One interesting thing about Enduro is that it takes advantage of the nature of a CRT to produce many of its effects. Playing on an LED sabotages the visual flair unless a filter is applied.

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Frostbite |Atari 2600|

Spurred on by the success of 1982’s Pitfall, Activision was in high gear by 1983. This band of super-talented individuals cranked out hit after hit for the 2600. Frostbite was certainly no exception for Activision, which of course meant it was exceptional for the rest of the industry. In Frostbite, you have to jump on ice floes to collect snow for building an igloo. You have to avoid dangers such as falling into the water and getting attacked by birds. The game has good, fast-paced action.

It was developed by Steve Cartwright who previously created Barnstorming. Fortunately Frostbite actually has a point to it and is fun to play.

Manic Miner |ZX Spectrum|

And now we start to see jolly old England begin to pick up steam. As the console market was failing, the computer market (both in the US and elsewhere) was coming into its own. Of course, most hits on the home computer back in ’83 were homebrew games, coming out of someone’s garage. Here’s exhibit A. Matthew Smith was one such visionary, who drew the pixel art and wrote the code himself at the age of 17.

The basic premise of the game is that you’re in an underground cavern and you have to work your way up to the surface–this requires making it through 20 hostile chambers. Aiding you are your ability to jump and run, and nothing else save your wits. Aye, your only chance at survival is the sharpness of your intellect and the quickness of your limbs. Why yes, I am really bad at it! Why do you ask?

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Manic Miner may have been a great game, but it was not a walk in the park, let me tell you. It was tough-as-nails. Manic Miner (and its incredibly popular sequel Jet Set Willy) are the games that retro platformers such as VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy are trying to emulate. Pixel-perfect jumps and perfect timing are essential in order to have any hope of winning. Even a slight mistake can end the game. Consequently, players were quite happy to discover a healthy cache of cheat codes such as level selects. Even today, many British gamers still have their favorite codes from the game committed to memory. I, however, did not use any codes for the below video, instead being quite content to let my failure speak for itself.

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Mario Bros. | Arcade

It’s taken for granted that Mario and Luigi are household names, a staple of our culture. But every legend has a beginning, and the beginning of this plumbing family was back in 1983. Let’s take a look at the Mario game that defined how we see this pudgy carpent– uh, I mean plumber.

That’s right. After dispatching with his poor pet ape, Mario was presumably traumatized and quickly dumped Pauline, then changed careers from carpenter to plumber. You know, because this is a child-friendly game, and nothing illustrates that better than PTSD. Of course, I’m inserting a serious interpretation into a story, so don’t take my explanation as canonical. I’m sure there are many other interpretations of Mario’s actions, one of which even suggests that Mario was arrested by the Toad police and chose to reform himself. Of course, if that were the case, I’m sure he would have shaved off his sinister moustache.

Like so.

So anyway, Mario decided to ditch the girders and lofty steel beams for the cold subterranean pipes. The only problem is: Koopas and crabs and all manner of beastie is trying to kill him! It’s easy to see why he mistreated Donkey Kong now…. Yes, the sewers are infested with all sorts of creatures and it’s up to the Mario Bros. to clean them out. Oh, did I forget to mention? Yeah, there’s a Bro. now. Aside from introducing the idea of Mario jumping on enemies to kill them, Mario Bros. also introduced a new character. As the title of the game can tell you, this character is Mario’s brother, Luigi. Luigi’s name has a double meaning to it. Not only is there an Italian name Luigi, which compliments the Italian name Mario, but Nintendo chose that name specifically because the Japanese word 類似 (ruiji), means “similarity” or “resemblance.” Luigi’s character sprite, after all, is just a palette swap of Mario’s.

For now, anyway.

The enemies are defeated first by knocking them onto their backs from below, then jumping on their exposed stomachs to crush them to death (again, we’re going for family-friendly here). The game can be played by either one or two players, with Player 2 (read: the younger sibling) controlling Luigi. Mario Bros. was influential on the medium for years to come and enthralled Americans even as the video game crash of 1983 brought the industry to a near-halt. Sadly, the actual gameplay of the original is lacking, though. The Mario Bros. handle like a couple of wet sponges and trying to jump is always an adventure in misery. Fortunately, Nintendo created a remake on the Game Boy Advance called Super Mario Advance. This cartridge contains the remake of Mario Bros. as well as a remake of Super Mario Bros. 2. This version is a joy to play–see for yourself:

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Needless to say, Mario Bros. became a hit and further cemented the status of Nintendo, already loved for its hit Donkey Kong, as a major player in the industry. Mario’s second game catapulted him into stardom and ports were seen everywhere! I really like this early commercial showing Luigi as a scaredy-cat, a full 18 years before Luigi’s Mansion.

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Atari must have been pleased with themselves for this ad, because they also comic-ified it for magazine usage. I find it somewhat annoying that I can actually hear Luigi’s actor singing that song in my head while I read. Mariooo, where aaaaaare yoouuuuuu? Ugh.

 

Mrs. Mopp |ZX Spectrum|

And here we have another hit from the UK. Mrs. Mopp was not nearly as popular as Manic Miner, but I would argue that it can be just as exciting. The developer Tina Billett may have been pulling from her own experiences when making this game. The protagonist is an overworked housewife who scurries about the house in an apron and frock, tidying up after her family before it all goes to pot. (Blimey, I’m writing like a Brit now!) You must guide Mrs. Mopp over to one of five tools and use it to pick up the corresponding items–mugs, glasses, bloomers, shirts, and dust piles. The items appear on the floor one after another and Mrs. Mopp has to run over and collect them. The order that the items appear in is always predictable, but their locations are random. This can be a problem because Mrs. Mopp cannot walk through items and you may find yourself boxed in. This keeps the game from being a true classic, but it’s still worth a play session at least once.

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Murder on the Zinderneuf |Multiplatform (home computer)|

I won’t say too much about this game, but it’s basically a murder mystery that takes place aboard the fictional dirigible Zinderneuf. You play as the detective who must solve the murder of a high-profile guest before the ship finishes crossing the Atlantic and lands. The game was programmed well, with little details really giving life to it. The ambient noise, for example, get louder the closer you move to the ship’s engines. The most important detail, however, lies in the game’s randomness. The killer is randomly selected by the computer at the start of each game, making for some long-lasting replayability.

Party Mix |Atari 2600|

This, I believe, is the first of its kind. It’s a compilation of minigames designed to be played by multiple players at once. It contains five games and was the first video game to include split-screen multiplayer. Party Mix was developed by Starpath for use with the Starpath Supercharger. This is the same company that created such innovative titles as Escape from the Mindmaster and Phaser Patrol. Some of these minigames unfortunately don’t have great controls, and I feel that Starpath were being too ambitious. I think their talents would have better been put to use making a full-fledged game than to try to make five smaller ones. Still, Party Mix is notable for what it tried to do. It is the great-grandaddy of all party games like Mario Party.

Pinball Construction Set |Multiplatform (home computer)|

OK, now this is a really cool idea right here. Pinball Construction Set was the first of its kind. It allowed you to design and construct your own virtual pinball machine and then actually play in it. It was created by Bill Budge, who had previously developed the Apple ][ hit Raster Blaster. Raster Blaster was a technological marvel because of the way in which it circumvented the Apple ][‘s severe technical limitations. When Trip Hawkins founded EA Games, he asked Budge to join the team. Budge agreed and started work on Pinball Construction Set. PCS was an instant hit when it came out; it was the strongest title in EA’s launch lineup, actually.

If you’re thinking that the box art looks like an album cover, you’re not far off. Hawkins wanted to give off the impression that EA’s developers were rock stars producing stylish works of art. Hence you can see Bill Budge’s name on the top of the cover in cursive, and the box art screams “1980s rock.” Man, EA was such a great game company back then.

TX-1

1983 was a ripe time for racers. The genre had always been pushing for more realism and in 1982 Namco’s Pole Position set the de facto standard for racing titles. Even after Pole Position II was released in 1983, the original continued to enjoy success and continued to be the influential title for others. The bad news is that Pole Position was more influential than it was good, and there was a lot of room for improvement. The good news is that this improvement came from a developer named Tatsumi, with TX-1.

Although TX-1 isn’t quite great enough to make it onto my list, I definitely believe that it’s worthy of an honorable mention. It improves on Pole Position in every way imaginable and is just downright fun to play. The basic idea is that you’re racing against a clock in a Formula One racer. There are other drivers, but the point isn’t to get first; it’s to stay ahead of the countdown timer. Each racer you pass will add to your score. You are aided in this endeavor with force feedback technology, a triple-monitor setup, a stickshift, and two pedals.

TX-1 was the first game to include force feedback with its vibrating steering wheel. Actually feeling the car respond to your driving adds a new level of immersion. You drive with both a gas pedal and a brake, the latter of which is necessary for sharp turns. TX-1 emphasized realism moreso than any other previous racing game, but was still arcade-y enough to strike a right balance between realism and fun. Aside from these pedals you also have a two speed transmission (which can also be helpful for sharp turns or sudden obstacles) and three monitors to take advantage of your peripheral vision. One monitor faces you straight-on, and the other two are at 30° angles so the display wraps around your head. This, to be perfectly unbiased, is AWESOME! You really feel as if the countryside is whizzing past you!

The countryside itself has ton to offer. Not only do you get a variety of vistas such as coastline, farmland, and cities, but you also have terrain that changes–the roads curve and twist, the ground slants and angles. There are tunnels strewn about and there’s an echo while you’re driving through them. The change in sound is subtle but welcome. I really appreciate attention to detail, and little touches like this really make me happy! Perhaps the coolest thing about TX-1‘s landscape, though, is its branching path. At each checkpoint you get the option of going left or right. There are in total four different endings to the course, but good luck getting there.

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My chief complaint with TX-1 lies in its difficulty. I’ll admit that I’m not the best player out there, but I just can’t finish a course no matter how hard I try. In the video above I had to flip a dip switch to give myself more time and I still couldn’t make it. The roads are just a little too twisty if you ask me. In a game like this, I don’t want to slow down every ten seconds to inch through a curve. It spoils the fun. :(

Nevertheless, TX-1 is a great game and a great example of how it’s possible to squeeze a lot out of limited resources. It’s a shame that the game is almost unknown today. In fact, I had to add the entry to MobyGames last year because no one else had heard of it. Well, I guess it’s good that I’m around then. John the video game guy. That’s what they’ll call me. After my trademark comes through….

 

Well anyway, that’s it for 1983. You can see that the console hits are relatively few this year in comparison to the home computer. For 1984 as well this will be the case. As the console market crashed in 1983, the home computer market really took off. Curiously, all of my appreciation articles for 1984 will be console games, but I’m sure a major reason for that is the computer market’s struggle to come into its own.

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