Ancient history is one of my stronger subjects and the study of times long past is fascinating to me. For video game ‘ancient’ history, the end of this period would be ushered in with the release of the behemoth that was Commodore’s ‘64’.
As any retro game fan/computer historian will tell you, the Commodore 64 broke ground when it came to having a computer in the home affordable for everyone. Roughly, the C64 was about ⅕ the price of the contemporary Apple Mac, it was able to do colour and was sold with video game peripherals. Its affordability, capabilities and eventually huge software range would make the C64 the first true mass market computer. It was a very important piece of hardware, as the video game industry had crashed in the USA back in 1983. The C64 filled the gap, by providing a mix of games and office applications. A household could feel that they were buying more than some video console fad.
My experiences with the Commodore 64 ran well into the 1990s and I often found myself wanting to use this older machine, and not my much newer Amiga 500. Perhaps it was an early wish to be more ‘retro’ on my part, but I remember being slightly disappointed when Dad told me he’d decided to get an Amiga over the older Commodore. As you, dear reader, would be aware, this was not a choice either of us regretted.
So it was that my C64 playing would be limited to at my cousin’s, and at a school friend’s house. All in all, I think I’ve spent less than 20 hours playing on a C64, which is not very much at all! Sadly, about 10% of that time would be consumed with waiting for games to load. Yeah, it’s slow.
Two fantastic games I remember were Platoon and Impossible Mission. They had in common a very high level of difficulty! Although Platoon was released on the Amiga, as was the Impossible Mission 2, the C64’s version had a special charm. The step from C64 to Amiga is similar to that of the NES to SNES. The crisp chiptune sounds were generally traded in for a higher quality but still rudimentary set of digital effects. It’s hard to explain, but although the Amiga and SNES are technically far superior, the result is often less lovable.
Pit Stop 2 was also fantastic, although I always blew out my tires and only rarely could I beat my cousin. I have mentioned this before, but the Epyx games on the C64 had some fantastic covers, some of the best of all time in my opinion.
I may end up buying a C64 in the mid term because I feel like I missed out on this formative part of video game playing history. I had better make sure to get a disk drive version or the loading times will have me pulling my hair out!
She sits at the top of the high places above the city. She is restless and determined. She girds her loins with strength. Her feet stay not in her house. She moves in every direction and into every corner. Her evolutions are wonderful, her spirit untiring. How comely are her footsteps as she moves diagonally, one step after another, from square to square!
-12th century Spanish Hebrew text,
This game has been with me my whole game playing life, likely one of the first games we got from my uncle upon purchasing an Amiga. I mean, Chess is one of the oldest games, so why not make it one of the first you own on your new computer box?
The BC AI was always difficult to beat (more on that later) and it could be relied upon for a challenge. Since I am an only child, this was very important! What set BC apart from other Chess games was its animation.
When moving a piece, they walk around like people. No bases, no sliding along the board, just straight walking. Pawns are little Squires, Knights are literally armoured knights and so forth. The most interesting piece in an aesthetic sense is the Rook. Rather than simply use a moving tower, the developers decided it should become a hulking rock monster, resembling a golem. Many Pawns have met their doom at the hands of this monster.
This brings me to BC’s crowning achievement, the combat. When a piece is taken a brief (sometimes not) animation takes place, representing the combat. Rooks smash, Knights slice and Bishops can often show their crafty side with a ninja like display with their crosier. The King, in the rare occasions when they take a piece, show a variety of tricks, from a box of magic powder to a 16th century style pistol.
Fittingly, it is the queen who is the most entertaining. A powerful sorceress, she shoots fireballs and can shrink her opponents to a more manageable size. It is also hinted that the queen is a dragon. What a twist!
However, I feel this game provided a great disservice. By making some of funniest and cleverest animations for when pieces are taken, Battle Chess made the game more about setting up moves, eg Pawn takes Queen. and not playing and learning the real game of chess. Maybe I am just bad at looking more than one move ahead.
To make sense of the title, Battle Chess was one of the earliest games that Silicone and Synapse went to work on, making a version for windows and the Commodore 64. They would later call themselves Blizzard.
Tributes, homages, nods or call backs are a risk. When a homage is done well, it reminds you of past greatness and good times, without bludgeoning you over the head with it. Cinema naturally does this both expertly and poorly all the time, but so do video games. Good homages can be very subtle and are often missed. This is generally a good sign, because obvious is almost always bad. Remember the Star War Prequels and their constant references of the original trilogy? Ugh.
A cute homage came to my mind when I was leaving the train as I was heading in to work. This particular train had a few carriages covered in graffiti in the way I like. They made the outside colourful, with some nice big letters. I hate vandalism and the like, but I loved this. Graffiti in games has sometimes been controversial (especially when games get banned for allowing the player to create it, but not for cutting off people’s heads), but it isn’t super common.
Final Fight is a great game that featured a run down, graffiti covered city as its backdrop for THE classic side scrolling beat ‘em up. The most memorable level in Final Fight is the vandalised, train. The train has many breakable barrels which seems strange… perhaps the subway transported bourbon? The barrels don’t spill any liquid when broken, so I guess we’ll never know. Regardless, the game and that level in particular are a wonderful vision of a punk, drugged up, vandalised dystopia.
Six years after Final Fight’s original Arcade release, Yo! Joe! was released. This is another fantastic game and one of my Amiga favourites. Two graffiti artists wind up exploring a mansion, and then uncover some grand, magical conspiracy. It’s a one or two player action platform game, with some great controls. You can grab ledges (Prince of Persia style) and use an array of weapons. The larger weapons don’t allow you to grab ledges, so some strategy is needed. It also features a chainsaw that you spin wildly while wielding, but it needs its own fuel to run (it’s amazing).
The homage? Yo! Joe! has a mini level toward the end of the game that is a graffiti covered train. It is a particularly difficult, since there are no platforms and the enemies use a lot of throwing weapons. However, it’s a cute nod to video game history, as is their inclusion of an iron bar as a weapon, much like Final Fight did.
What’s scary is that there was seemingly a long time between Final Fight and Yo! Joe!, but… Yo! Joe! is now twenty years old. While in the last few years, retro game fans and non gamers alike have been very keen to commemorate the 8/16 bit era, gamers and developers alike were already making their own tributes, two decades ago.
That’s the theme running through these articles, I’m getting older.
Yesterday I had two pleasant surprises.
I had been in the market for a new magazine of the video game variety. Given that most video game magazines are a bit pointless (weeks out of date) and full of ads, the relevance of magazines, particularly in the ‘tech world’ is questionable so it is important that a good games magazine fills a niche.
Retro Gamer is one such magazine I’d been thinking about buying, but I hadn’t been able to find it. One trip to Mag Nation later solved this problem, and delivered me a bonus. The copy of Retro Gamer I picked up featured my beloved Amiga 500 on the cover. It was a nice surprise and I felt like I was buying the right mag.
The article featured a list of games that are rare finds for the Amiga, one of which I own! Apparently this terrible Mega Drive conversion, Last Battle, is worth some money simply because it is rare. Who knew, eh?!
I am not sure when I bought it. I was pretty disappointed with it upon purchase. My tolerance for mediocre-to-bad games was quite high in my youth, but this wasn’t something I was going to put up with. The game is repetitive, dull looking and frustratingly difficult. I got about 2/3 of the way through its punishing hard levels, but I gave up.
Still, I knew there was a reason why I never, ever trade or sell any game. Ever.
I should be able to retire off this one!
Here is Final Fight on the Amiga. A MUCH better game!
My perfect game will never be found. If it were created, it’d be the end of my productive life. I would work only to feed, clothe and house myself. It is, therefore, to my advantage that such a game does not exist. It’s a nebulous term, ‘perfect’, thrown around like so many World At War hand grenades. I mean it as a game that’s perfect for my needs and wants.
Huge games in my life have been well documented in previous posts, but the games that come close to ‘perfection’ are a very different group. These games tend to be ones that stay with me for a long time, or come back periodically. One such game is Colonization, more properly, Sid Meier’s (<3) Colonization, which I am currently playing.
As close to a perfect game that I am going to get Colonization, has near unlimited re-playability, great variety of practical strategies and an excellent interface. The click and drag method of organising your colonies is so intuitive, that the game is still completely playable, nearly twenty years later. It handles exploration, trading and warfare all very well despite the very basic interface. This game is a more focused offshoot of Civilization, but I have always thought Colonization succeeded in the end game, where Civilization was lacking.
Colonization has you running your colonies as trading outposts until you’re able to declare independence from your mother country. The King then sends waves of soldiers, dragoons and ships to blockade and take back your colonies. The game transforms from a trading/exploration game to a basic but competent war game. If you plan and anticipate where the blows will come you can win your freedom, but it is rarely easy.
The end game of Civilization is almost always a foregone conclusion. You are either in an overwhelming winning position or you’re probably not going to win. On all but the hardest difficulties, you’d roll over your opponents as your modern armour plows through their spearmen and archers. Colonization never suffers from a predictable end game, except that it will be a worry!
So while I continue an unending search for this ‘perfect’ game, I will probably find myself twenty years in the future still playing Colonization.
That isn’t such a bad thing is it?
Being deliberately inflammatory isn’t something I’d want to do (I’ll save that for my upcoming political/historical blog). With recent tragedies, constant news coverage and a nation beside itself with grief, something jogged my memory.
There was an old game I would see from time to time in my various Amiga magazines and it had an unfortunate name. It was a puzzle game featuring strange old men and moving tables. I think you had to get an explosive from one side of the table to an exit. Even for 1991, this wasn’t a new type of puzzle game and it is like Pipe Mania. More recently, this style of puzzler was copied by the Bioshock hacking mini game.
It is the name of this little game that got my attention.
I doubt the fine people at Silmarils could have predicted how unfortunate this name would be, twenty two years down the road. You live and learn I suppose. Silmarils would go on to make the excellent and beautiful Ishar series of RPGs. Cumbersome interface on those games though.
I have some amazing memories of my Amiga days. Unfortunately uniform stats didn’t exist, so I can’t go back and measure the hours spent on this or that game. If I could find out these stats, MicroProse games would have many hundreds of hours dedicated to them.
Primarily a strategy game developer, MicroProse was making just what I wanted to play. Their release history is literally a catalogue of the most influential games of all time. MicroProse games are among my favourites for many reasons, but primarily because they had a great sense of achievement and continuation in an age when the arcade game was still a viable medium.
Gunship, Silent Service II and Pirates! all had very different scoring systems. Gunship was one of my favourites because it awarded you medals, combat ribbons and promotions. Trying to keep your pilot alive while accumulating these was immensely satisfying. The original Civilization’s method of comparing you to a famous world leader has yet to be beaten. Doing poorly would result in comparisons to Neville Chamberlain or even… Dan Quayle.
I’ve always thought games during my peak Amiga years (1989-1996) to be more niche and with a steeper learning curve than the years after it, yet, I managed to figure out the controls to these games without a manual. As a ten-year old I piloted my AH-64 Apache through the jungles of Central America, destroying those dastardly FSLN forces, after some trial and error of course! I’ve always looked back and found surprising at how willing I was to figure out games from scratch. The pre internet days really gave me no choice in this matter!
Deciding to play these on Amiga emulators or through DOSbox is a tough choice. The Amiga versions are generally slower and less responsive, but have great sound and music. The PC versions run smoothly but sound very ‘tinny’.
I could go on about MicroProse, but I’d rather praise them on a game by game basis. I felt it was important to give the company as a whole some love.
After writing the article on Covert Action I sunk another ten hours into it. Some classics will never leave me!
It seems even Turkey has fans of Gunship 2000 and MicroProse!
The early 90s were a time of much ‘tumult’ for video games. Most readers would be familiar with the various controversies facing video games at the end of the 2000’s, but the issues of supposed alien orgies and all the nonsense about an R rating were but pebbles compared to the avalanche of criticism video games faced in their earlier days. Nintendo even went as far to censor all real violence from their games in this period.
Cannon Fodder represents the zenith of the Amiga, in both popularity and quality. Many of the games I had enjoyed on the Amiga, have aged poorly. Cannon Fodder is simple, attractive and has lost little of its appeal. It still has a crispness to it that has not faded over time. You’re given between one and six soldiers sent on missions through various environments. The soldiers are all prenamed (some famous, some are Sensible Software staff). There are many different objectives, but most often you must destroy enemy barracks and all of their soldiers. Your men accrue kills, receive promotions and increase in power, but are inherently fragile. Veteran soldiers don’t react any better to bullets than raw recruits.
Although it is still regarded as one of the best Amiga games made, before its release it attracted a large amount of criticism. It surprises me, in 2012/13 with so many people playing and being aware of video games that the media can get it so wrong. In 1993, video game players were a bit more rare and the media was even worse with latching on to hysteria. Cannon Fodder’s troubles began with its original box art. It portrayed a single poppy.
A number of newspapers, many politicians and the Royal British Legion (which is the RSL for Britain) called to have the poppy removed from the game’s cover. Amiga Power, who were reviewing the game at the time, were planning to use a similar poppy for their front cover and were brought into this controversy. These groups were extremely critical of Sensible Software’s (as yet unreleased) game, mostly centering on the game’s catchphrase “War has never been so much fun”. The usual cries of not respecting the war dead were made and due to this pressure, both the game’s cover art and Amiga Power’s review issue front cover, were changed. Stuart Campbell, Amiga Power’s editor, was apoplectic at this treatment. Legal threats were made, not for any reasons to do with disrespecting the war dead, but over the poppy image, which the British Royal Legion claimed as a trademark. Copyright law gone mad I tells ya!
These controversies did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the gaming public of the day, Amiga Power readers had followed the game’s development from very early stages. It was at the time Amiga Power’s highest rated game and topped the sales charts.
Cannon Fodder, unlike the majority of violent video games, honours its dead. Every soldier you lose in the course of the game (likely numbering over one hundred) will receive a grave. If they are decorated veterans, they will receive a more elaborate grave, not unlike real life. The irony is that Cannon Fodder is a game that shows how ridiculous war is. It combines some of the best top down arcade style shooting set in an exaggerated Hollywood style war setting. The light-hearted introduction song is also sharply contrasted by the mournful synth guitar theme played during the recruitment phase before a mission. The new recruits are shown lined up, behind them are the graves of those who have fallen confirming the game’s ironic position.
Cannon Fodder’s sequels diluted the winning formula and I think Sensible software would have done well to avoid iterating on it. Cannon Fodder 2, released the following year, was very similar although it spoiled the semi serious tone by including missions set against aliens. Cannon Fodder 3 was released in 2012, developed by a Russian studio, apparently it wasn’t terrible. Like most other series, the first game is invariably the best. Cannon Fodder is no exception.
Loom is a game that has stuck with me, for all the right reasons. It has charm, an involving yet simple story and some wonderful visuals. It is also from 1990. That doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but the rapid approach of old age and senility tell a different story.
LucasArts had made several other adventure games before Loom, Maniac Mansion most notably. Historically Loom is a clear stepping stone between the earlier, more basic adventure games and the big hits that followed it like Monkey Island, right through to Grim Fandango. For a stepping stone, it has much love put into it!
Like Turrican II, this was bought late in the day of the Amiga. Games were being cleared from department stores and Loom was no different. I don’t remember why I bought it. I’m not sure if I had read anything about it before, but it soon found its way into my hands and then the car on the way home. The box was interesting, featuring a coloured visor needed to read the copy protection in the manual and a cassette tape. We played the cassette on the way home and it surprised us by playing the game’s prologue. The format was an audio play, outlining the background and a prologue to the game’s events. The play certainly added to the richness of the story.
Loom was different from LucasArts adventures before and after it. A minimalist UI only showed the protagonist’s (Bobbin Threadbare) magical distaff. Using this (and almost only this) you interact with the world. There is no use, take or look options as these actions are all situation dependent. I felt it made for a cleaner and quicker method of puzzle solving.
During the game, Bobbin meets two other young people, one from the blacksmith’s guild, the other a shepherd. I found out sometime after finishing the game that these two were to have games of their own. It was never really planned, as mentioned by the developer Brian Moriarty, but the idea was considered. Unfortunately Loom was not a hit for LucasArts so this would have further reduced the chances of a sequel. The games were tentatively titled ‘The Forge’ and ‘The Fold’.
It would have been great to follow-up with those games, but I don’t feel the same level of disappointment that I used to feel about similar things, even compared to my mid 20’s. I would get so frustrated that programmes like Firefly got cancelled or even that the Dreamcast’s life was cut short. It took a few years, but such trivialities don’t rile me nearly as much, but I would donate to a kickstarter if someone wanted to make those sequels.
Loom is a gentle, funny game that isn’t particularly long or hard. I was well written, funny when it needs to be, but turns very dark at parts. You can’t die in the game, or ever get stuck which is why I always preferred LucasArts adventures to what Sierra was offering at that time. If I wrote negative pieces, there’d be a lot of Kings Quest hate!
Last week, the computer industry lost one of its heavyweights. Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore International, died aged 83. Unlike Steve Jobs, who was taken decades before his full run, we can marvel at the gamut of Tramiel’s achievements, knowing (as far as we can) that he finished his work on this Earth.
Wow, I didn’t know this would turn into a philosophy blog!
Tramielwas a very colourful and divisive character during the earlier years of the Personal Computer. Born in 1928 into a Jewish family in Poland, he survived the Auschwitz death camps, but like so many others lost most of his family. After
working for the US Army repairing typewriters he decided to go into business for himself.
He’d founded Commodore as initially an importer of typewriters, then adding machines. However by the 60’s he’d worked out (correctly) that there was soon to be no use for these products and that Japan was too difficult to compete against in these areas.
While much is made of the rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, it was really Tramiel and Commodore who began the pricing war that made personal commuters affordable. ‘For the masses not the classes’ Tramiel once proclaimed and it is something he pushed very hard. A Commodore 64 was US$595 on launch, expensive but still within the reach of most Americans, West Europeans and Australasians. The Apple Macintosh, released two years later was priced at an alarming US$2,495, affordable by only the four richest Kings of Europe, if my knowledge of the 1980s is correct. Apple did not take part in the price war, but it ended up nearly ruining Commodore. However they were in a commanding position for the rest of the eighties having surged ahead of all of its competition.
The Tramiel pricing war finished off Atari in its original form, but surprisingly, he ended up acquiring it in 1984 as Tramiel had left Commodore earlier that year. He effectively resurrected his former rival and was running the company while Atari developed their ST, the BITTER rival to the Commodore Amiga.
So I will pour one out to this amazing man. While he was not present during the Commodore’s Amiga years, I doubt there would have been an Amiga without his vital input and drive. Affordable home computing owes much to this man and his aggressive marketing and shrewd business sense.