I recently finished reading Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One.
It is a delightful book that is a love letter to everything geekish from the 70’s and 80’s. I highly recommend it to anyone reading my blog, but this post isn’t about the book itself. Instead it’s about video games.
Specifically early video games that stuck a chord with my role playing gamer’s soul and have stayed with me ever since. These games inspired my imagination in the same way that sitting at a table with a character sheet, dice, and lead miniatures still does. These are not computer role playing games, instead these are games that hit the same emotional triggers without attempting to simulate Dungeons & Dragons. These games do have common threads, most notably mazes, exploration, and evocative imagery.
In no particular order:
1) Joust – Joust is an arcade platform game from 1982. The game is for one or two players who can chose to either compete or work together. Players are knights in full armor, wielding lances, and mounted on a flying ostrich or stork depending on which player you are. Controls consist of a joystick for left and right movement and a “flap” button for flight. Using these controls you guide your knight around the screen and fight evil knights who ride buzzards. If your lance hits higher than their lance, you destroy the knight and release an egg. If you don’t capture the egg fast enough it hatches, revealing a more powerful knight who will mount a new buzzard and join the battle. The battle is fought on rock platforms hovering over two lakes of lava. Flying too close to the lava will cause a demonic arm to reach up and catch your mount, forcing you to flap as fast as possible to break free or be drug down to a fiery doom. If a round takes too long a nearly invulnerable pterodactyl flies onto the screen, hunting the players.
There is no story to the game and no ending. Like most early arcade games the challenge is to see how long you can last and how high a score you can build up. What captures my imagination about Joust is the surreal imagery. Flying mounts are nothing new to fantasy, but Joust adds a unique twist by its choice of birds. Knights flying on flightless birds is something far removed from J.R.R. Tolkien or Anne McCaffrey, it’s more in line with Lord Dunsany’s imagination.
Ideas from Joust have rolled around in my head since the first time I put a quarter into the machine, though I’ve never put them directly to use in a gaming universe. Though occasionally a bird mounted adventurer has shown up and an evil order of buzzard-riding knights has been included in a few world designs that never made it to the table.
2) Berzerk - An arcade game released in 1980, Berzerk is a science fiction game where the player is navigating through an endless maze of electrified walls and killer robots. Once again there is no story and no ending to the game, but the stark imagery evokes a sense of exploration and tension. The game also boasts sound effects that were impressive for the time period, including voice clips that sounded like the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica that would frequently taunt you, especially if you leave a map before destroying all the robots.
“Chicken, fight like a robot.”
Berzerk is a simple game, even by the standards of 1980, but it connected with some themes that were common in a lot of 70’s science fiction. It’s a fatalistic struggle pitting a runner against endless legions of implacable robots, running through deadly corridors in a vain attempt to find a way out.
“Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”
3) Wizard of Wor - Hitting the arcade in 1981, Wizard of Wor is another maze game, this time fusing science fiction and fantasy. Like Joust, the game is for one or two players who can work together or against each other. The players control what appear to be space marines armed with laser rifles who enter the wizard’s maze. The maze is filled with monsters who can turn invisible and shoot energy bolts. If the players do well they are faced with the insect-like Worlock, who attempts to kill them or escape the maze, and then the Wizard of Wor himself will appear. The Wizard moves quickly and teleports at random, making him a dangerous enemy.
Unlike Berzerk, the maps of Wizard of Wor are self-contained and there is less of the fatalistic tension involved. Instead this game feels like you’ve been drawn into a tournament, each maze being a challenge issued by the Wizard to test your skill.
4) Mountain King - Jumping from the arcade to the consoles we have Mountain King, released in 1983 by CBS Electronics for the Atari 2600.
The Atari 2600 is, to say the least, a limited console. Ground breaking when it first came out, competitors like Intelivision and Colecovision quickly outpaced it in terms of technology. Still the Atari console dominated the market for years due in no small part to the proliferation of games available to it. The best of these are able to push the Atari to impressive levels, providing games with more depth than one would expect possible.
Mountain King is such a game.
You control an explorer equipped with a flashlight and impressive jumping powers who is delving into a vast series of caverns. Your objective is to collect 1000 points worth of diamonds, which come from small but plentiful deposits in the walls or hidden treasure chests that are only revealed by your flashlight. Once you have enough diamonds you will hear the faint sounds of Hall of the Mountain King playing. The music gets louder as you approach the Flame Spirit, a flickering fire placed randomly in the caverns that you need to look sharply to spot.
Having collected the Flame Spirit you need to go to the temple hidden near the bottom of the map and give the Flame Spirit to the Skull Spirit. This lets you climb up and collect the Crown, which triggers a more elaborate and faster paced rendition of Hall of the Mountain King to begin. You now have to race all the way to the top of the highest mountain where the Eternal Flame is, all the while dodging the Cave Bats. If you are caught by the Cave Bats or if the music ends before you reach the Eternal Flame, the Crown is returned to the temple.
Oh, and there’s a very loud giant spider on the lowest level of the caves that will web you up, then return and eat you if you don’t break out fast enough.
All this in an Atari 2600 game. I really hope the programmer got a bonus.
Despite the limited graphics the scope and nature of the game makes you want to explore the world. The hidden objects and haunting music convey the same emotions that a role playing game evokes when dungeon delvers venture into lost and lonely underworlds. Thoughts of Tolkien’s Moria and the great spider Shelob come easily to mind.
Mountain King also has either a bug or Easter Egg that can be stumbled on while exploring, where by using the right combination of jumps you can fly high into the sky and discover a realm of shifting ladders. Once there you can walk and climb around until you decide to leave or, more likely, the ladders vanish beneath you, sending you falling back to the ground.
5) Adventure - I have spoken of my love for Adventure in the past and rather than rehash it here I will encourage you to read my post in the archives. Adventure holds a special place in my heart for many reasons, not the least of which is how the game offered more pure exploration challenges than other games of its era.
While it did have a basic narrative, told through the game manual rather than in-game, the story is so simple that it leaves plenty of room for our imaginations to spin further tales. The hidden White Castle was the most compelling mystery to me. The Black Castle represented evil and the Gold Castle good, but what did the White castle represent? Why was it hidden beyond the dark Catacombs? And in the sealed room there is a doorway with no opening on the other side. This was probably a glitch, tied to further rooms that never made it into the final design, but to my imagination it was a portal to somewhere else, perhaps a dimension where the builders of the White Castle fled long ago. Or where they were banished to.
6) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – Released in 1982 for the Intellivision game console, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was the first video game to bear the official seal from TSR. Given that exalted status you might think that the game would do a decent job at emulating the mechanics of AD&D, but you would be wrong.
By 1982 there were already several computer games that attempted to emulate the tabletop D&D experience, such as Telengard and Moria. These games featured statistics, spells, and inventory elements that are still staples in computer RPGs to this day. Conversely Intellivision’s game took a more arcade-style approach. Players control an archer wandering through a world of forests, rivers, defensive walls, and dungeon-filled mountains.
Entering the dungeons puts the archer in a randomly generated maze that reveals itself through exploration. Sometimes you’ll hear a nearby monster but it won’t awaken until you uncover its lair, which gives the game a “Fog of War” mechanic and adds to the sense of discovery and tension. Items can be recovered from the dungeons that will aid you in getting around the game world such as keys for the gates, axes for the forests, and more arrows for your bow. Your ultimate goal is to reach Cloudy Mountain, where the pieces of a crown are guarded by winged dragons.
Much like Adventure, Advanced D&D is a game about exploration more than participating in the designer’s story.
These games have a common simplicity about them, both aesthetically and in presentation, and most involve exploration. Even when there is a narrative the story is little more than a framework and there are still plenty of mysteries to ponder. What happened to the Mountain King? Why are you facing the Wizard of Wor? Why are knights riding birds and jousting over lava? These questions have no answers.
Or it would be more accurate to say that they have many answers, because we come up with our own stories.
These games provide a spark to kindle our imaginations and let our dreams run wild. It’s this quality that sets these games apart, both from other games of their era as well as later games that do incorporate a complete narrative. That’s not to say it makes these games better, but there is a different nostalgic connection to these games because the stories are, in the immortal words of TSR, products of your imagination.