Runners-Up of 1985

1985 was a really boring year in video games. That can be attributed to the video game crash, which didn’t really end until 1986. For the same reason, most of the games mentioned here are computer games. As is always the case, there are a few gems to be found among the riff-raff.

The Bard’s Tale |Apple ][|

Tales of the Unknown: Volume I- The Bard’s Tale was the best-selling CRPG of the 1980s and the first game outside the Wizardry series to pose any serious competition to the Ultima series. The main innovation was the Bard himself, who played melodies in order to cast spells. This concept was expanded by LucasArts’ LOOM later on.

The Bard’s Tale was a dungeon-crawler and had the same first-person perspective as other dungeon-crawlers. Unfortunately, the constraints on CPU power meant that the window could only take up about a fifth of the screen. I don’t think that that compromise was worth it…. A bigger display may have been helpful because the dungeons are insanely intricate and, even with pen and paper, are frustratingly difficult to map out. That, I think, is the game’s biggest problem. When compared to later games, the gameplay of TBT wasn’t anything spectacular. It’s nonetheless important for its role in CRPG history.

Don’t Buy This: Five of the Worst Games Ever |ZX Spectrum|

Normally I only write about great games in the “Runners-Up” feature, but occasionally I highlight games that are just important or noteworthy without actually being good. Case in point, this game. Back in the 80s amateur game designers could send their games to the publisher Firebird Software and the best games would be published. It was a great setup not only for Firebird, who had a plethora of games to choose from, but also for countless would-be developers who simply didn’t have the resources to self-publish. If their game was selected by Firebird, their game could end up on store shelves all over the UK. It was a dream come true. Unfortunately, this meant that Firebird received hundreds of really bad submissions. Five of these were so bad that Firebird decided to openly mock the birdbrain submitters by publishing their games in a compilation called Don’t Buy This. Firebird actively encouraged consumers to pirate the game so that the submitters would receive no royalties for their egregious programming misfires. With that in mind, here’s a copy. You can run it with ZX Spectrum 4. (mirror) Believe me when I say that you have to play it to understand how bad these games are. Not even the video below does it justice.


Skip to 1:54.

Mercenary: Escape from Targ |Atari 8-bit Computers|

Mercenary is an open-world 3D game, the objective of which is to escape the titular planet Targ. There are several ways to do this and the game leaves it up to the player to decide. One of the strongest points of praise given to this game is the open-ended gameplay. The 3D graphics are vector wireframes, similar to Battlezone. This has the unfortunate consequence of making the world sparsely populated. A scrolling ticker provides supplemental information to the player, such as “Palyar ship attacking” and “He is not too pleased.” The sequel, Damocles, included a few polygons in addition to the wireframes.

The Pawn |Sinclair QL|

The Pawn is a graphical text adventure that in a way is a parody of the genre. It pokes fun of many adventure game conventions and tropes, with one character actively campaigning for the removal of mazes from text adventures. (Zork III, anyone?) The game itself was pretty good, but more than that, the game’s graphics and music were especially well-received. The Amiga version took full advantage of the Amiga’s soundchip to produce impressive music with digitized instruments.

A lesson that the designers failed to learn, however, is that making fun of video game conventions doesn’t grant you permission to include the same flaws in your own game. The Pawn includes some fiendishly difficult puzzles and riddles that you have to read the included book in order to solve.

Samegame |Fujitsu FM 8/7|

Samegame, pronounced sah-meh-gah-meh, is the seminal tile-matching game. The object of the game is to click on a group of blocks, which would cause all blocks of that same color to disappear as long as they are touching each other. The puzzle aspect lies in the necessity to plan how you make the blocks disappear. If you clear the blocks the wrong way, you’ll end up with a single block at the end of the level, and no way to get rid of it because you can’t make individual blocks disappear–only groups. Samegame was so popular that it has been ported to more than 30 different platforms and has been ripped-off probably just as many times.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar |Apple ][|

Ultima was the premier series of CRPGs (Computer Role-Playing Games) throughout the 1980s. Created by Richard Garriott, who went by Lord British, the first trilogy of Ultima games presented fairly standard dungeon-crawling gameplay, but the second trilogy made a sharp divergence into a more tactical and story-driven experience. The concepts behind Ultima IV were conceived in response to criticism over the lack of morality in the previous entries. In the second trilogy, the “Age of Enlightenment,” the player takes on the role of an avatar who must master eight virtues throughout the game. The player must answer a series of questions that each present a moral dilemma. The answers the player gives will affect the avatar’s traits. Ultima IV was one of the first games which did not feature a tangible evil-doer as the primary antagonist.

From a rich and full-featured game world to a plethora of additional materials, including a thick manual and a map, Ultima IV had plenty going for it. It’s a shame that the game is clunky and un-intuitive at times, because it’s the sort of game that I wish I could fully enjoy.

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