Archive for the ‘50/50 Games’ Category

[50/50] Computer Game #10: “Bomber”

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

Computer Game #10: “Bomber” (1989)

One of the first success stories for the Mac was a little thing called Hypercard. It was a database program that allowed you to embed images and sound, and one very clever programmer named Rene Vidmer used it to build a series of best-selling games set in WWII. Using only a few dozen static images, very simple animation, and stereo sound, he created simulations of the Battle of Britain, U-boat raids in the Atlantic, and tank battles in Europe. The best of these (and the only one we played) was called

BomberPutting you in the captain’s seat of a B-17 bomber, you picked your plane, picked your crew and plotted your path over war-torn Europe. You had to watch your elevation, watch your formation, and watch very carefully where you were over the target.



It was effective because, frequently, very little would happen in a game. The drone of engines in your earphones would lull you into relaxed state when suddenly one of your crew would shout out “Bandits! 3 O’clock!” You’d have to remember that was the starboard gunner and click on him to fend off the German fighter planes attack you from the right.


A game was 25 missions long, and each run became longer and more difficult (just as in WWII). As compelling a historical simulation as Bomber was, the only way to lose was to fly too high and black out from lack of oxygen. If you crashed or were shot down, you and most of your crew would somehow make it back to the airfield and continue the fight.


So to make it more accurate and interesting — to myself and my office mates — we decided that a game was over if you were shot down over enemy territory. Since you spent much of your time in the air over enemy lines, this immediately made the game much harder. And to up the stakes, I named every crew member after a close friend. Now it wasn’t Lt. Able getting shot, it was Lt. Rusty or Sgt. Allen.

It turned Bomber into one of the most intense gaming experience I ever had.

[50/50] Computer Game #11: “Myst”

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Computer Game #11: “Myst” (1993)

MystCoverOne of Steve Jobs biggest mistakes was downplaying games on the Macintosh. He and Apple wanted the Mac to be a “serious” machine, and because games were for kids, they poo-pooed add-ons like joysticks, or aggressive support for game programmers. Mac’s superior graphics were supposed to be for important things like art & business, not silly games.

Of course games, as it turned out, would become one of THE biggest businesses, and the driving force for PC hardware and software development. That was driven home when Myst — originally a Mac-only release — became the biggest selling computer game of its time. CD-ROMs had been available for computers for years, but high prices and slow speeds made them unappealing to consumers; “Myst” actually helped drive sales of CD readers and became the ‘killer app’ the industry had been looking for.

On top of that, it truly was a new genre of game — the interactive puzzle mystery. It’s ambiance and logistical challenges could pull you in for hours, as you are given a strange book that can transport you to any time or age — but only if you first solve the mystery of the abandoned island you find yourself on. There are no missions, no levels, no blowing anything up: exploring the island and figuring out how everything works (and what happened to the people there) was the whole game.

Myst is so popular it outlived the CD-ROM (and the compact disc!) and is now available for smart phones and tablets. There are even animated 3-D updates of the original, but part of the charm is the (now) simple yet beautifully rendered graphics. And no matter which version or platform you choose, be sure to wear headphones while playing — the moody sounds and music that surround you are key to getting lost in this imaginary realm.

“Myst” really is all that, and 20 years after its release, it is still an almost mystical experience worth pursuing.

[50/50] Computer Game #12: SimCity

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Computer Game #12: SimCity (1989)

250px-SimCity_Classic_cover_artMy own roof leaks, I hate mowing the lawn, and I can’t balance a checkbook, yet somehow I was the successful mayor of “Margaritaville” for over a century. OK, ‘successful’ is a relative term. I could never keep those ungrateful ingrates happy, even when I gave them the stadium they wanted, and the original downtown was always too dirty thanks to coal burning electric plant next door to the city park. We built a new downtown, but that got trashed by Godzilla. It also had a tendency to catch fire. But my simulated metropolis lasted for well over 100 years. And while software designer Will Wright went on to build a real-world empire with SimCity, with numerous sequels and updates so graphically detailed you can look in the windows on the denizens of your City (don’t even get me started on the insanity of The Sims), there is still something charming about the bitmapped simplicity of the original city simulator.


[50/50] Computer game #13: “Spectre Supreme”

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Computer game #13: “Spectre Supreme” (1993)

6968245506_377bae96dfOnce LANs (Local Area Networks) became commonplace in the early ’90s, it was finally possible to link up computers in the same room and play live head-to-head. While the Macintosh suffered from a dearth of games compared to what was available for PCs, we did have one classic to ourselves: Spectre. Widely considered the grandson of “Battlezone,” Spectre was a sci-fi tank game played on a TRON-like grid. And when “Spectre Supreme” came out, you could play against your friends on the LAN.

Around this time I spent a year working for a tiny design firm. It was just the two of us, the owner and me, and at the end of the day, we’d boot up “Spectre Supreme,” he in his office and me in mine, and spend an hour or so hunting each other down in cyberspace. It was the most productive we were all day.

[Photo via amatecha … for about a decade, computer game companies put a lot of effort into designing the boxes the game came in, and the Spectre series (Sumpreme, VR, etc) were notable for how elaborate and beautiful they were. Strange but true.]

[50/50] Computer Game #14: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Computer Game #14: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (1989)

Romance_of_the_Three_KingdomsWhile you could play against a single opponent from the earliest days of Pong, games that allowed you to take on a multitude of friends were a rare thing. Back before there were fast modems, LANs, and real-time strategy software, the only way you and your buddies could play a computer game together was via the hotseat. Each gamer would take a turn in front of the same computer while everyone waited in the next room, usually talking trash and how they were going to wipe out your army next turn. All of your plotting, scheming, and attacking would have to planned and executed quickly, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear diabolical cackling come from the person in the hotseat — either that or copious swearing, when they realized you had just wiped out their army the previous turn.

The best of these hotseat games was “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” a rich, dense wargame set in 3rd century China. For all the limitations of the hardware and software, you (and up to a half dozen other players) could still recruit hundreds of historical characters in your bid to take over ancient China. You also had to make sure your followers were happy, your fields full of rice and your people safe from flooding. With the right group of gamers, like we had a couple of afternoons on the Amiga in a friend’s basement, it could be a chaotic, challenging and hilarious session. RTK was so successful it is now in its 12th version, and is available on the iPhone, playable against anyone anywhere. While no doubt faster, it probably doesn’t give you the same experience at the hotseat, with your friend cackling in the next room as he burns your crops.

[50/50] Computer Game #15: “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

Computer Game #15: “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Hitchhikers_Guide_box_artWay back in the year 1984, when personal computers were the size of small goats and had the power of pocket lint, computer games were essentially bits and bloops that implied something more than represented it. There just wasn’t enough memory or power in the hardware of the day.

The fastest way around this limitation was by using … text … just words. Simply describe the scene and let the player fill in the details. Infocom made millions selling a dozen or so of these text-only games, wherein players typed in what they wanted to do (“Get Lamp“), and proceeded to have grand adventures exploring dungeon mazes, vast kingdoms‚ or a whole galaxy, all by typing in a few words or phrases.

“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — first a radio show, then a book, then a TV show, then a computer game, thereby entirely by accident becoming the first transmedia success story — became Infocom’s all-time best seller by tapping into what made “Hitchhiker’s Guide” so successful in the first place: Douglas Adams’ adroit use of language. Each iteration of H2G2 followed the hapless protagonist, Arthur Dent, on a improbable adventure across the universe after Earth is destroyed, and the computer game proudly continued this tradition in suitably maddening fashion.

Best yet, because the game was text-based it wasn’t limited to the latest operating system, meaning  — unlike virtually all other computer games that are eventually left behind as upgrades abandoned them — it could still be played on today’s computers. And even if you didn’t buy a copy back in the day, the BBC offered a free, updated version of the game to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original.

[50/50] Video Game #1: “TRON/Discs of TRON”

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Video Game #1: “TRON” (1982) / “Discs of TRON” (1983)

“That’s two games,” I can just hear you say. Actually, it’s five — they were all supposed to be in the same cabinet.

1 tron 1 tron_tankTRON was designed to be a marketing tie-in to the 1982 Disney movie of the same name; ironically, the video game made more than the film itself — or so the story goes. TRON is one of those rare gems: a polyglot of challenges that is greater than the sum of its parts; a smash success that can still be occasionally found in working condition today, three decades later, and a game that’s better than the movie it was inspired by. As I wrote in an Indy Week review of TRON a few years ago:

tron_berserk“It may have been the video game, in fact, that helped secure the film’s long-term reputation. Driven by a booming 8-bit version of Carlos’ ear worm of a soundtrack, the arcade game was challenging and addicting and everywhere. Even today you can find functioning machines collecting quarters in bars and the rare surviving arcade. The video game wasn’t just a product tie-in, it was considered an extension of the movie and had elements that didn’t make the final film, but which were part of the official story — an early form of cross-platform pollination now known as ‘transmedia.'”

tron_breakoutTRON effectively paid homage to early video games, with its take on “Tank,” “Berzerk” and “Breakout.” Add in the unique light cycle duel, where you had to race to draw walls around your AI opponent, and that made four-games-in-one. When development problems threatened to derail the title, it was decided to drop the 5th game, Discs of TRON, and release it as a stand-alone a year later once the bugs were worked out. (Speaking of bugs, a programming error — made no doubt in the last-minute rush to get the cabinets to arcades in time — caused the ‘Breakout’ portion of the game, where the player has to blast thru a rotating wall of color blocks, to suddenly veer off the left of the screen. This bug was never corrected, and later ports of the game still have error.)

Each of the four challenges weren’t, by themselves, great games. However, you would have to win a round in all four to get to advance to the next level, and you never knew which one was going to pop up on your screen next. This sense of anticipation — or dread; the tank level was exceptionally fast, hard and mean — helped seal TRON’s reputation.

1 tron 5

Discs of TRON sadly did not share in its companion’s success. By the next year the movie had come and gone, and the video game industry was in the midst of its first great collapse. Few copies of Disc were produced (in fact, my brother and I didn’t even know it existed until several years later, when we found a booth in the back of that boardwalk mecca of games, Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, MD.) For what it lacked in distribution, Discs of TRON made up for it in experience: thanks to its enclosed design, the gamer had to step inside a booth to play. Surrounded by digital stereo and enveloped by the blue glow of the control panel, it effectively isolated the player and made it very easy to believe you had been pulled inside the game. Discs of TRON was also a great deal of fun to play:

So there you have it. My favorite video game of all time. Would I buy one to restore if I had the chance? Probably not — there’s still something deeply satisfying about the surprise and joy of walking in someplace and unexpectedly finding an old TRON unit waiting to steal my quarters.

End of line.

[50/50] Video Game #2: “Tempest”

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Video Game #2: Tempest (1981)

tempestIs Tempest the most relentless video game ever created? It is certainly the most intense vector graphic title ever designed — pretty good considering it is composed of a handful of lines and basic shapes. And yet this simple set up reduces players to pure reaction, unable even to catch their breath between levels. All you have to do is shoot the pointy opponents sliding up the walls of a pit, and clear all the obstacles in your path before you plunge into the abyss.

In other words, it was exactly like high school.

Originally envisioned as a “3-D” version of Space Invaders, Tempest quickly mutated and surpassed its digital ancestor in every way, especially speed. As you danced on the edge of a dizzying vanishing-point perspective, slings, arrows and things were flung at you in quick succession. Just as soon as a pit was cleared of moving targets, you were fired like a bullet through a gun barrel to the next level (better hope you blasted all the spikes in your way, or your trip would be a short one). Each level the shape of the pit became more elaborate, and the objects flung at you more deadly. No music, no cute cartoon characters, just pure digital rush.

[50/50] Video Game #3: Marble Madness

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Video Game #3: Marble Madness (1984)

mm1You are a marble. All you want to do is roll downhill and cross the goal line before time runs out. In your way are killer slinkies, acid amoebas, mean black marbles, and bottomless cliffs in an existential landscape. Essentially Marble Madness is a surrealist version of that wooden marble maze game everyone seemed to have as a kid. You could also race against another player, which (if you’ve been reading this blog at all) you know means you could KNOCK YOUR BROTHER’S MARBLE INTO THE ABYSS!

At a time when fighting and shooting games were all the rage, Marble Madness was a joyful outlier, a simple race against the clock over a not-so-simple landscape. The bright isometric grid, absurdist maze and idiosyncratic soundtrack guaranteed it was exactly the sort of game you’d expect me to go crazy over. The arcade version used a heavy trackball instead of a joystick, giving this abstract video game a visceralness other titles lacked. (Despite being exported to home consoles, smart phones and emulators, this lack of a heavy trackball meant the ports were always a pale imitation of the original experience.)

It was also unique in that the game ended when you finished the last race. It should be noted, though, reaching the final level was extremely difficult, and in spite of all the quarters I dropped in this pit over the years, I never managed to get to the final maze. It remained maddeningly just out of reach.

[50/50] Video Game #4: “Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator”

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Video Game #4: “Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator” (1982)

Star_Trek_-_Strategic_Operations_SimulatorLet’s just put it this way: my brother and I own a copy of this game.

The 400 lb. arcade version.