Armchair Arcade Issue #5 - November 2004

Welcome to Armchair Arcade's fifth issue!

Thanks for checking out the latest from Armchair Arcade. We're very happy to bring you our newest issue, which, unlike so many other retrogaming publications, CAN be judged by its cover--this one painted by our own Seb Brassard.

Obviously, a lot has happened since our last issue, so spread the word! For one, we've added a brand new feature with commentary on industry events and announcements of concern to all retrogamers - "Retrogaming News". If you'd like to join the reporting team, don't be shy--just apply!

We are also planning to introduce some new staff before the next issue, so expect much more starting with Issue 6. Until then, feel free to join our discussions at the "Forum", "System Matrix", and "Retrogaming News"! We'll see you there!

- Matt, Bill, David, Seb and Buck

Issue 5's articles:

The editors speak in this Issue's Hot Topic editorial: Emulation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Pt. 1 - Emulation vs. Original Hardware

Chasing the Dream: The Tribulations of a Bedroom Game Programmer
by Nickolas Marentes
This is the story of Australian Nickolas Marentes, a self-described "bedroom programmer" for Tandy computers. Marentes has provided us with an in-depth and very personal autobiography that is an absolute must-read for fans of vintage computer gaming. Enjoy!
[Bonus Article #3 - November 16, 2004: Part 2 of 2 Posted]

Armchair Arcade's Classic Review Radio Special
by Bill Loguidice
Bill reveals his multimedia side again with a series of audio shorts covering a variety of retrogaming topics. This is over one hour worth of intelligent retrogaming commentary from one of the community's most serious collectors and historians.

On Family Gaming
by Matt Barton
Videogaming isn't always about boys blasting each other to bits in massive fragfests. In this article, Matt explains why so many vintage games were ideally suited (and even designed) for whole families to play together. The article also describes the potential family appeal of Sony's EyeToy and the infamous DDR.

Dungeons & Desktops
by Mathew Tschirgi
We are proud to present the first article from Mat Tschirgi, whom we hope will make this the start of a long list of articles for Armchair Arcade. We think you'll agree after reading Mat's insightful comparison of select classic and modern console and computer RPG's. Thy quest awaits, warrior!

Bonus Article #1 - November 5, 2004: Konami GB Collection Vol. 1 (GameBoy Color, 2000)
by Mathew Tschirgi

Bonus Article #2 - November 14, 2004: Konami GB Collection Vol. 2 (GameBoy Color, 2000)
by Mathew Tschirgi

Bonus Article #4 - November 23, 2004: Konami GB Collection Vol. 3 (GameBoy Color, 2000)
by Mathew Tschirgi

Bonus Article #5 - December 8, 2004: Konami GB Collection Vol. 4 (GameBoy Color, 2000)
by Mathew Tschirgi

Armchair Arcade's Classic Review Radio Special

Audio Production and Articles: Bill Loguidice
Narration: Christina Loguidice
Special Thanks: Matt Barton for the Musical Theme to Armchair Arcade

Bill Loguidice

Download the MP3, 01:06:38.0, 11.4MB: Site1


01 - "Genesis vs. SNES: The 16-bit War". For The Rider News. By Bill Loguidice, Special to the News. Friday, November 19, 1993. [Approximate Start: 03:00.0]
Topics Covered: Sega Genesis and accessories, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and accessories, and the Sega CD

02 - "Portable Power: Games on the Go". For The Rider News. By Bill Loguidice, Staff Writer. Friday, December 3, 1993. [Approximate Start: 10:19.5]
Topics Covered: Nintendo GameBoy, Atari L y n x (model II) and Sega Game Gear

03 - "Going Where no Game has Gone Before". For The Rider News. By Bill Loguidice, "Game Time" Columnist. Friday, February 4, 1994. [Approximate Start: 15:52.0]
Topics Covered: Philips CD-I and Digital Video add-on, Panasonic REAL 3DO (FZ-1), and Atari Jaguar

04 - "The Blue Blur with Attitude Returns" (Published version) or "Sonic 3, Genesis" (Original version). For The Rider News. By Bill Loguidice, "Game Time" Columnist. Friday, February 18, 1994. [Approximate Start: 22:47.5]
Topics Covered: Sonic 3 Sega, Sega Genesis)

05 - "Portable Fun: Mutants and a Creampuff". For The Rider News. By Bill Loguidice, "Game Time" Columnist. Friday, February 18, 1994. [Approximate Start: 28:43.5]
Topics Covered: Kirby's Pinball Land (Nintendo, Nintendo GameBoy) and X-Men (Sega, Sega Game Gear)

06 - "'Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy' over Ren and Stimpy". For The Rider News. By Bill Loguidice, "Game Time" Columnist. Friday, February 25, 1994. [Approximate Start: 33:08.5]
Topics Covered: The Ren & Stimpy Show Presents: Stimpy's Invention (Sega, Sega Genesis), and Quest for the Shaven Yak starring Ren & Stimpy (Sega, Sega Game Gear)

07 - "The Return of the Dragon". For The Rider News. By Bill Loguidice, "Game Time" Columnist. Friday, March 4, 1994. [Approximate Start: 37:54.0]
Topics Covered: Dragon's Lair (ReadySoft, Sega CD)

08 - "Play Ball!". For The Rider News. By Bill Loguidice, "Game Time" Columnist. Friday, March 25, 1994. [Approximate Start: 41:46.5]
Topics Covered: World Series Baseball (Sega, Sega Genesis)

09 - "Short Shots". For a newsletter project. By Bill Loguidice. Unpublished, approximately from the 1994 - 1995 timeframe. [Approximate Start: 45:29.5]
Topics Covered: Miscellaneous commentary - Kingdom (CD-I), Thayer's Quest (Arcade), EGM2, Halycon, LaserActive, Electronic Games, CD-ROM, Nintendo GameBoy, Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear, NEC Turbo Express, NES, Atari 7800, "cheats", NBA Jam (Arcade, Game Gear), and Adventure (Atari 2600)

10 - "Congo Bongo, ColecoVision". For a newsletter project. By Bill Loguidice. Unpublished, approximately from the 1994 - 1995 timeframe. [Approximate Start: 56:26.5]
Topics Covered: Congo Bongo (Coleco, Coleco ColecoVision)

11 - "Tarzan, ColecoVision". For a newsletter project. By Bill Loguidice. Unpublished, approximately from the 1994 - 1995 timeframe. [Approximate Start: 01:01:51.5]
Topics Covered: Tarzan (Coleco, Coleco ColecoVision)

Chasing the Dream: The Tribulations of a Bedroom Game Programmer - Parts I and II

Author and Multimedia: Nickolas Marentes
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice and David Torre
Special Thanks: Matthew Reed of the TRS-80 Emulator Web Site
Comments: Visit the author's Website or send an e-mail to
Emulation Notes: Game ROM/image files have been provided within the article for four TRS-80 Model I programs. According to the author, presently, the best emulator to run these files is called TRS32, which is for Windows. The emulator is shareware and payment provides extra features such as hard drive and high resolution graphics support. These features are not needed to run these games. The emulator is almost 100% faithful to a real TRS-80, save for a small issue with timing where the title pages for these games seem to stay up for too short a time. Otherwise, the games run perfectly. Click the following system name for the required TRS-80 Model I and Model III system ROMs. While additional ROM/image files are not provided here, please note that none of the Color Computer emulators presently run Neutroid 2 correctly because they don't support the semigraphic video mode that that game uses. The games for the Color Computer 3 do not run correctly on any emulator except MESS. For these and other downloads, as well as to purchase some of the actual software, please visit the specific page on the author's Website.

My name is Nickolas Marentes, and I live in Brisbane, Australia.

In 1979 I was introduced to computers. This event would become a major turning point in my life and set the stage for an ambition to become a videogame programmer. This is my story.

I have been an avid computer hobbyist for over 25 years. Over those years I have worked on many personal projects with the goal of creating successful computer products. This article will concentrate on my primary interest of videogame programming.

I have designed this article to be read sequentially from the first project to the last so you can see the progression of events, ideas and decisions that I made as time went on.

As I detail each project, you will read about my dreams and desires for each project, the challenges I experienced during their development and the inspiration and motivation behind them. I will show you how I achieved everything on a shoestring budget using very limited development tools. I will cover the post product development stage which involved documentation, packaging and marketing, all of which I had to do myself.

Those were days in which it was easier for one person to create a small software company operated from a bedroom office to create and market a few videogame programs. Today, the games are far more complex and software houses employ many people and cost up to millions of dollars to produce.

I enjoyed doing each of these projects, and I am grateful to those who supported my efforts by purchasing my products. This article is my way of thanking them for that support.


Nickolas Marentes
Nickolas Marentes

I started with computers back in 1979 when I would drop in to the local Radio Shack/Tandy store after school to play with the TRS-80 Model I that was on display. In those days, computers were new and the store manager had no idea how to use one so having a kid sitting at the computer writing programs was a good way to demonstrate the product.

"See, even a kid can use one!"

Character from Rupert Rythym
Character from
Rupert Rythym

It was a mutually accepted scenario; he didn't have to worry about the customer finding out that he barely knew how to turn the thing on so there was always a chance of making a sale. I had the opportunity to type in my BASIC program listings that I would write up during classes at school and as a bonus, I got to show people how smart I was. An ego and an education in one package, what more could I want?

The first TRS-80 was known as a Level 1 BASIC system with a whopping 4K of RAM. That's right "K". I got so good at writing very tight multi-statement lines, that a page of code had no defined line breaks or indentations, the screen was just one solid block of text. After about six months, I had reached the limits of that machine. I had squeezed every ounce of RAM and speed that I could draw from it, and I felt that I couldn't be topped.

Then one fateful day, I went from fame to lame in the blink of an eye.

There was this other kid who came into the store every now and then to tinker with the machine. Like me, he didn't own his own computer, but, unlike me, he didn't spend his free time programming "Star Wars - Shoot the Tie Fighters" type games in BASIC. You know the kind I mean, the ones that used ASCII characters to represent Tie and X-wing Fighters.

Tie Fighter = IOI
X-Wing Fighter = >O<
Vader's Fighter = (O)

He comes in one day, loads up a cassette tape of T-BUG — a monitor and debugging program for entering hexadecimal machine language code — and executes it. The piece of code he had created was only a few bytes long and all it was meant to do was to clear the screen to all white. In BASIC, I had devised ways of creating strings of solid block characters and printing entire lines to fill the screen. I was particularly proud of the fact I could "white out" a screen in under two seconds. But when this kid hit the ENTER key to execute his short piece of machine language code, it did an instant "white out" with no noticeable screen drawing!

I had met my match and from that day forward, I knew that I was destined to learn Assembly language programming. I knew that this was the secret to creating arcade quality videogames. I began to have visions of creating a software empire and creating some of the greatest games seen by mortal man! I was going to be rich, but more importantly I was going to be famous! A legend! A god!

TRS-80 Model I
TRS-80 Model I

After a few hours, the gas in my head wore off and I realized that before I could even start my trip "to the other side," I had to get myself a computer.

So, how was I going to convince my parents to part with $850 and buy me that shiny new battleship grey Level 2 TRS-80 with 16K of RAM, cassette data storage and sexy monochrome monitor?

I did what every kid did in such a situation...

...I told my parents that it would help with my worked!

I immediately got to work. This TRS-80 had a more advanced version of BASIC than the one I was familiar with in the Tandy store. My machine also had 4 times more memory! Yep! I was gonna be the guy to light the world on fire with the most powerful TRS-80 on the block, all 16K of it! Okay, 16K ram may seem a bit on the small side today, but I definitely did have the most powerful TRS-80 on the block, possibly even the entire neighbourhood! You see, there weren't very many people with their own TRS-80, let alone their own personal computer. Back in those days, there was a lot more choice. There were TRS-80's, Apple II's, Commodore Vic-20 and 64's, Atari 400 and 800's, and Sinclair ZX-80's to name but a few.

They were the good old days of the home computer industry. It wasn't just a matter of what game was the best, it was also a matter of which version of a game was best. For example, there was a version of Zaxxon created for almost every system available at the time. Some versions stood out as being better than others due to the skill of the programmer as well as better hardware capabilities of the host computer. A skilled programmer of one version could push the boundaries of systems with more limited capabilities to create a better version of the same game than that running on a more powerful system.

It was also fun to challenge other users about their choice of computer.

"Is that a graphic pixel on your TRS-80 or did you stick a disk label on your screen!?"

"I can load a program faster from tape than you can load it into your Commodore 64 via disk!"

"Hey look! If I blink my eyes at the right speed, I don't see the screen blanking on your ZX-80 anymore!"

So after mastering the new Level 2 Basic and learning a bit about Assembly language by studying a magazine listing of a pong-like game written in Assembly language, I decided to show everyone what my TRS-80 and I were capable of.

I started a small software label under the name Supersoft Software which was later changed and officially registered as Fun Division. It was a small "cottage company" which I primarily ran by myself along with some help for a short time with a friend who contributed a TRS-80 game he called Moon Scout which was a clone of arcade Moon Patrol.

During the period from 1982 to 1984, I wrote seven commercial quality games on my TRS-80 Model I, all developed using a cassette player for data storage, no disk drive! If you have never used a cassette player for data storage, then you haven't experienced the sheer adrenaline rush that can only be had when waiting over 10 minutes to save your latest source code updates only to see it all crash into a heap because of a minor error that you missed. Arrrgh!

By 1984, the TRS-80 was showing its age so I decided to move up to something newer with high resolution and color graphics. Since I was already familiar with the Radio Shack/Tandy line, I did not want to waste time learning a whole new system so I chose to go with the Tandy Color Computer (CoCo) complete with 64K RAM and dual floppy disk drives. Although it wasn't as graphically impressive as many of the other competing systems on the market at the time, it had two important attributes. Firstly, it had what is considered to be the most powerful 8-bit CPU, the Motorola 6809. It was powerful because of its extensive instruction set and advanced interrupt handling. Secondly, the Tandy Color Computer had a large distribution channel via the many Radio Shack/Tandy stores, a fact that I hoped to exploit for my future Tandy Color Computer games. In 1986, Tandy released the Color Computer 3 with improved graphics, more memory and faster speed.

Tandy Color Computer 3
Tandy Color Computer 3

In 1992, Tandy decided to discontinue the Color Computer, so I decided to move on to the Commodore Amiga. Due to lifestyle changes, I never did create any software for the Amiga, but in 1997, the bug caught me again and I returned to the Tandy Color Computer. Via Internet Newsgroups, I found that a dedicated group of faithful users still existed. These were people who believed that the full power of this small computer had yet to be fully realised. It was also a way of bringing back the past and meeting with old friends to once again talk about their favourite 8-bitter.

I got to work and created several new games and achieved some important projects before finally calling it quits at the end of 2002.

What follows is a game by game account of my dream to become a successful videogame programmer.

Stellar Odyssey Packaging
Stellar Odyssey Packaging
Stellar Odyssey Title Screen
Stellar Odyssey Title Screen

Stellar Odyssey (1982, TRS-80 Model I)

I made up a name for my new software company called Supersoft Software (I later changed the name to Fun Division because I found that another company in England was already using that name) and wrote my first game, an adventure game called Stellar Odyssey. It was written in BASIC with a few machine language subroutines to speed up the graphics. For those who remember, it was modelled on games like Temple of Apshai and Rescue at Rigel from a software company called Automated Simulations, later renamed to Epyx. The best way to describe the game is that it was a combination of Rescue at Rigel crossed with a Scott Adams adventure...but with better graphics, sound and an easy to use command entry routine.

Here is the story pretext I created...

"Cruising through the tranquillity of space, you are awoken prematurely from suspended animation by the ship's on-board computer. Trouble lurks for the ship has stopped, power is low and the rest of the crew's tubes haven't opened yet. You must explore the craft, being cautious of any dangers that may exist so as to bring your mission back in control."

Pretty exciting don't you think? It sounds like the story intro to just about 90% of the space adventures at the time!

I had developed a simple command interpreter with a limited vocabulary of basic verbs. These verbs were accessed by the single press of the first letter. The following noun if needed, would be typed in full. For example, pressing 'G' would bring up the verb 'GET'. Then a noun such as 'PISTOL' would be typed in full.

Stellar Odyssey Game Screen 1
Stellar Odyssey Game Screen 2

The graphics were neat, too. When the command SPRINT is issued, your character actually walked, fully animated in monochrome low resolution graphics to the next 'square'. Likewise, when you fired, your character actually pointed his pistol and fired a bullet across the room. Very impressive — at least to me.

After completing the programming, I had to prepare it for sale. I had to draw up my own package artwork and duplicate my own tapes, write my own instruction sheets (printed on a small Tandy plotter printer), and sell it to anyone I could via user groups and small advertisements in local TRS-80 magazines. It sold for $10AU per package, and I still have my sales receipt books with my first software sale dated December 8, 1982.

These early sales only amounted to about 20 copies sold. I didn't sell enough to make me rich, but I was a kid and everything I earned was good pocket money. Besides, I was addicted! I wanted to sink my teeth into a 100% Assembly language game!

Cosmic Bomber (1982, TRS-80 Model I)

Cosmic Bomber Worksheets
Cosmic Bomber Worksheets

I began planning my next game. I knew it had to have fantastic fast graphics and sound, so I had to write it completely in Assembly language. I also wanted it to be an original game idea so I took a cue from the marketing world...I stole some ideas from two other games and called it something else!

I combined the last stage in arcade Phoenix, the Mother Ship scene where you had to shoot your way through the bottom to destroy the alien within before the ship closed in on you plus a few characteristics of arcade Space Invaders. I called it Cosmic Bomber, and I was legally clear!

Again I came up with a cheesy story pretext...

"The screen flashes at you "Bomber craft in range" and you prepare yourself for battle. The Aliens are back to destroy you but this time, it's you against the Mother Ship. You must penetrate through the bottom of the craft to kill the alien gunner within. But be careful, for the alien is loading his bomb racks and once they're full, they begin dropping and exploding on the ground, at the same time, the bomber is coming down to land and invade Earth. Beware the bomber craft's escort ship hovering above firing high speed missiles at you. Earth is depending on you comrade so give them all you've got!!"
Cosmic Bomber Packaging
Cosmic Bomber Packaging

Wow! Don't you just feel pumped after reading that?!

Just as with Stellar Odyssey, I drew up my own package artwork and photocopied it onto colored paper, recorded my own cassettes straight from my TRS-80 and wrapped it all up in the same zip loc bags used to wrap kids' school lunches in. I was looking like a pro!

I sold to computer club members and sent a few flyers to customers of my Stellar Odyssey. Again, the money wasn't anything to shout about but was okay pocket money for a school kid with visions of greater things to come. Alas, this is the part of the story where I unveil blunder number one. I have no idea how I let this happen but somehow, I lost the game, source code and all. After completing the game, I went straight into my next game idea that I had been brewing during the development of Cosmic Bomber. I was so focused on the new idea that I must have overwritten the files for Cosmic Bomber. Cosmic Bomber sold less than Stellar Odyssey so maybe I treated it like an unwanted child and it ran away?

Neutroid (1983, TRS-80 Model I)

Neutroid Title Screen
Neutroid Title Screen

After sweating through the silent corridors of an alien vessel in Stellar Odyssey and saving the planet in Cosmic Bomber, I was now ready to turn up the heat! I wanted an adrenaline rush and I wanted it to be louder than any other TRS-80 game! No more aliens and spaceships. Neutroid was to create a surreal environment at the atomic scale.

The inspiration for Neutroid was from an interview of Tim Skelly in the October 1982 issue of Videogames. Tim was the designer and programmer of arcade Reactor, a game played at the atomic level. With Neutroid, I loved the abstract idea of playing with atomic particles especially when the player didn't actually control the particle itself. Instead, the player controlled the environment around it in order to guide the Neutroid particle to a desired destination and outcome.

As usual here is the story pretext...

"In Neutroid, you are at the controls of a small atomic particle accelerator or synchrotron. In it, Protroid and Antitroid particles appear. Bonus energy regions, high energy walls and deflector rods exist. The aim? Control the movement of an atomic particle called a Neutroid within the synchrotron and neutralize all the orbiting Protroids before your Neutroid becomes energy saturated. Your Neutroid starts off slow and in a low energy state but as it gains energy, its speed increases till it finally reaches the high energy state where controlling it requires a high degree of rapid strategic thinking and lightning fast reflexes."

I can't remember what I had taken to dream up a story like that but I hope the stuff has been banned!

Neutroid Instructions Screen
Neutroid Instructions Screen
Neutroid Game Screen
Neutroid Game Screen

The game itself starts slow and as time passes, it collects energy and begins to accelerate. The pace picks up to the point where fast reflexes and the ability to plan ahead using your peripheral vision is needed to keep everything in check. To add to the tension and atmosphere of the game, as much TRS-80 style sound effects as I could create were pumped through the 1 bit sound system. The TRS-80 didn't have a dedicated sound chip and the only way to output sound was by toggling the cassette output port on and off (Editor-BL: Sounds were produced by modifying the sound output for loading and saving programs to cassette tapes. To listen, you used an amplified speaker plugged into the cassette output port.).

With Neutroid, I felt I was starting to develop games which began to approach the then king of TRS-80 Model I game programming, Bill Hogue of Big Five Software. Bill's games were regarded as state-of-the-art and were very polished. I had set myself a goal of creating games like Big Five so I had decided on a few "standard specifications".

1) All games must cycle through an animated title and instruction screen.
2) The use of sound tables to create more complex sound effects. NO BEEPS!
3) Double buffering of video to reduce flicker, screen stutter and redraw effects.
4) All keys must respond instantly.
5) Professionally designed and animated graphic objects and characters.
6) Great gameplay!

But how can good objects be created on a low resolution display such as the TRS-80 Model I with its 128x48 resolution?

Neutroid Packaging
Neutroid Packaging

No matter how low resolution the graphics system, it can still be made to look great if it is well designed and animated correctly. With good animation, the low resolution is de-emphasised. I remember drooling over the higher resolution graphics of other systems such as the Apple II, but few Apple II games excited me because the overhead of higher resolution graphics made the animation of lower priority. Many games avoided too much character animation in order to simplify the coding and keep a reasonable frame rate of play. Games from Big Five Software and another duo, Wayne Westmoreland and Terry Gilman proved my theory every time.

Neutroid's best feature also proved to be its worst. The concept of atomic particles in a user controlled environment proved too abstract for most and was proven with lacklustre sales. I felt it was a far better game than many other "successful" ones but I guess I had fallen into the trap of being too innovative. People will cry for new and innovative ideas but when it comes to parting with hard earned cash, they prefer to spend it on something familiar and guaranteed.

Well, Neutroid didn't make me a millionaire either, again only selling about 20 copies. I needed to find a more familiar game scenario yet still satisfy my desire for something new and challenging. I had to change my motivation of "me, me, me" and start satisfying "them"...and me!

The Gladiator (1983, TRS-80 Model I)

The Gladiator Title Screen
The Gladiator Title Screen

The Gladiator is a futuristic version of the Roman fighting arenas. Your goal is to survive each round of fighting in an arena enclosed in an energy barrier. Outside this barrier are cannons that track your movements and fire at you. You need to destroy them by puncturing a hole in the energy barrier with your Tobo Sphere and then send it into one of the four cannons. Inside the arena are combat droids. As you progress through each round, you will be placed against a higher level combat droid. These droids mutate down to a previous level with each direct hit of your Tobo Sphere until they are finally destroyed.

The inspiration for The Gladiator was the Walt Disney movie Tron starring Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner. The movie was a bit of a flop for those expecting another "cutesy" Disney movie, but the die hard computer nerds of the day fell over backwards for it, and today it has become a cult classic. The sound in this game is awesome! After playing it again after so many years, I was blown over by the sound, especially considering the limited capabilities of the TRS-80. I honestly believe that it left many of the games on the other systems of the time for dead. The action was also frantic, carrying the tradition I started with Neutroid.

And now we interrupt your reading pleasure with another story pretext design to stimulate the bowels...

"The scene is a 21st century coliseum and the Gladiator is beamed into the centre of the arena. But the sword and shield has now been replaced by the Body Field and Tobo Sphere and where the Gladiator once fought with dangerous animals and other skilled combatants, he is now involved with the deadly ZENUS-5 series of muto-combat droids and tracker cannons. He prepares to cast his Tobo knowing that he is outnumbered and that his opposition is determined to have him down. Only speed, skill and quick wit will carry him through the events."

Mark my words, one day Ridley Scott will do a futuristic remake of his movie Gladiator based on this story line!

The Gladiator Instructions Screen
The Gladiator Instructions Screen
The Gladiator Game Screen
The Gladiator Game Screen

This game follows on with the philosophy of Neutroid but takes out the abstractness and replaces it with a human character versus mutating battle droids. It contains the same concepts as Neutroid, lots of complex sound, fast and frantic action, and a need for quick decision making.

As all the games prior to this, all programming was done using a cassette based TRS-80 Model I. I had to load the Editor/Assembler via tape (3 minutes), load the Assembly source code into it (up to 5 minutes), key in my latest additions and corrections (which were hand written first), then save the new source code (up to 5 minutes), and finally save a compiled binary (2 minutes) after which I could load the binary into memory (2 minutes) and any graphics and sound table data (2 minutes) to see it run....or fall in a heap if there were bugs. Very time consuming, but at the time, I hadn't experienced better, so it really didn't bother me. The time waiting for data to load from the 500 baud cassette was used to write more code or work out a fix for a bug.

The Gladiator High Score Screen
The Gladiator High Score Screen
The Gladiator Packaging
The Gladiator Packaging

I did have one drama during this development period. I only had a 16K TRS-80 at the time, and I had run out of memory to hold the Assembly source code, so I split the source into two separate blocks. One contained the common subroutines while the other contained the main game code. Somewhere along the way, one of the blocks on the cassette became corrupt and unreadable. Luckily, I always kept two rotating copies of the code so I fell back a version and just had to retype the missing parts of the code.

The Gladiator was a great game even though it was hard to master. It required a mastery of the arrow keys on the keyboard used to move your character around the arena. Sales were an improvement over Neutroid with sales of around 30 packages and I felt I was starting to have some success. The package art that I drew bears a resemblance to the electronic warriors in Tron which as I mentioned, was the inspiration for this game.

I was proud of The Gladiator. It was a good game with some neat animation and fantastic sound effects. People were starting to see the quality in my games. If I could have had a US distributor for this game, I believe it would have been a big seller. Alas, living in Brisbane, Australia and no such thing as the Internet then, all marketing was confined to clubs and mail outs of my newly created software catalogue to all my past customers. I guess I was on the wrong side of the planet.

Stellar Odyssey Part 2 Title Screen
Stellar Odyssey Part 2 Title Screen

Stellar Odyssey Part 2 (1983, TRS-80 Model I)

A sequel to the original Stellar Odyssey was something that I always had planned to do. With my new experience in Assembly language after creating Neutroid and The Gladiator, I felt that I could do a few improvements to the original Stellar Odyssey as well as further the main story line. It was not necessary to have completed the original Stellar Odyssey to play this sequel.

In Stellar Odyssey Part 2, you began from the Earth rescue craft that found you in the previous adventure. But you soon discover that things aren't right and you begin your quest that leads you to the alien's base where you must confront the evil alien superiors...all three of them, Yargon, Kilto and Cajole.

Keep yer gut in, here comes a story pretext....

"After escaping from the aliens' battle cruiser, you are instantly beamed to the safety of the Earth rescue craft. But an eerie silence surrounds the craft as it floats inert in space and the flight crew are nowhere to be found. Prepare yourself for the final conflict as you confront the evil alien superiors, discover strange devices and explore the alien landbase."

Stellar Odyssey Part 2 Game Screen
Stellar Odyssey Part 2 Game Screen

This storyline would make a great B-grade science fiction movie. It may even be corny enough to be a box office hit!

Stellar Odyssey Part 2 Packaging
Stellar Odyssey Part 2 Packaging

I tweaked the command interpreter of the original a bit and made the entry window a bit more stylish with a flashing cursor and some sound effects as you typed. As in the first Stellar Odyssey, the verb command was displayed by pressing the first letter and the player typed the full noun.

In the original Stellar Odyssey, any objects around your character were just described in the text window like a normal text adventure, but in Stellar Odyssey Part 2, they are graphically shown. The animation was also slightly faster and the sound was improved. As with its predecessor, Stellar Odyssey Part 2 was written as a hybrid, BASIC with Assembly language subroutines. It was a relatively quick program to put together, not needing to load editor/assemblers all the time as with the full Assembly language games. Overall, this game was more polished than the original.

Sales were moderate for this one, since many people who had bought the original Stellar Odyssey came back to buy this sequel. I also found some people buying both simultaneously. I was beginning to get cocky with my artwork as I began adding better detail. They were starting to evolve from something that looked like it was done in pre-school to something approaching the quality of...primary school. At least it was getting better.

Donut Dilemma (1984, TRS-80 Model I)

Donut Dilemma was my best TRS-80 Model I game. It is a platform style arcade game like the popular Donkey Kong in the arcades that featured nine different and progressively challenging levels.

Donut Dilemma Title Screen
Donut Dilemma Title Screen

The inspiration for Donut Dilemma was my family's donut kiosk that we owned at the time. We had this donut making machine where you filled one end with dough mix and fresh hot donuts would come out the other. The dough was automatically dropped into the hot cooking oil, complete with hole in the middle, via a synchronised plunger. A conveyer belt system would then slowly push the donut across the oil as it cooked one side of the donut. Then, halfway across, it would flip the donut over so as to cook the other side. Once cooked, another conveyer belt would lift the donut up and out of the hot oil and into a rotating dish for the donuts to cool. They were picked up, sugared and packed into a paper bag for human consumption.

Occasionally, something would go wrong, usually in the part that flips the donuts over, and the donuts would get all messed up. Seeing this one day, a revelation hit me. Why not do a game based on a donut factory where everything has gone wrong? And who should be the starring character of this "donut dilemma"? Why of course my father, Antoni!!

Yep! It's that part of the article again...

"Angry Angelo has raided Antonio's Donut Factory sending the entire complex amuck! Donuts have come alive and are jumping around in wild frenzies. Machines have gone out of control throwing cooking fat, dough and icing sugar everywhere. You must help poor Antonio climb ladders, jump platforms and ride elevators to reach the top floor and shut down the factory's power generator which will restore law and order. But hurry for time is running out!"

This story just smells of success don't you think?

Donut Dilemma Worksheets
Donut Dilemma Worksheets

As in all my games, all graphics were designed on TRS-80 grid paper. No animation utilities back then! All the levels were designed on this grid paper and then I wrote the code to recreate them. The basic graphic blocks would be drawn up and stored into memory using a short BASIC program that I wrote and the code would then transfer the graphics to the main screen. All graphics were double buffered. I would set aside an area of memory as a copy of the video display memory. Here I would draw up all the graphics for the next frame and when done, copy this page to the main display for viewing. This cycle would repeat itself for each frame. This provided a clean update of each frame without seeing any graphics being drawn up. One problem was the unsightly screen interference of the TRS-80. The TRS-80 could not display video while data was being written to the video memory, so when this happened, an ugly black "tear mark" would appear on the display. Unfortunately, the TRS-80 had no way to synchronise the video beam so that screen updates didn't occur while it was drawing the display, so all games suffered from this. This problem wasn't rectified until the TRS-80 Model IV.

Donut Dilemma Game Screen - Level 1 - Ladders & Platforms
Donut Dilemma Game Screen - Level 1
Donut Dilemma Game Screen - Level 9 - Power Generator
Donut Dilemma Game Screen - Level 9

Sound effects were all generated by my usual method of creating sound tables as I had done for Neutroid and The Gladiator. The way this was done was to write short BASIC programs that created the sound effect data that I wanted. The sound routine would simply read a byte from these tables and send it straight to the sound port (cassette port). In order to prevent the game from freezing while it played a sound effect, I made the routine only play a short number of bytes at a time and then return to the rest of the code. On its next pass, it would play the next block of bytes and return to the code. This would repeat until the entire sound table was played. In the meantime, another sound table could be triggered and the table pointer would shift to a new table. This didn't allow for two sounds to occur simultaneously, but it did ensure that when a new sound was to occur it happened on cue. There were no interrupts on the TRS-80 available to setup an interrupt driven sound routine, so this was the best I could do. By adjusting the number of bytes played on each pass through the sound tables, I could adjust it so that complex sound could occur without creating any animation stutter.

Donut Dilemma Screen - After All Nine Levels
Donut Dilemma Screen - After All Nine Levels

Donut Dilemma was one of the few (maybe only?) games on the TRS-80 that played music in the background during play. The music wasn't great, but it was a feature I hadn't seen on any other TRS-80 game. Of course, we all know how annoying background music can be while playing a game so an option to disable the music but keep the standard sound effects was included.

Donut Dilemma Packaging

If I could have marketed the game properly in the US via a big distributor like Adventure International or even Big Five Software, I believe it could have wiped the table in sales. But alas, I was just a small fry operating on a limited budget (nothing) far away from where the real action was, so again all my sales were restricted to club meetings and catalogue mailings to past customers. I felt that this game had so much potential that I put a small paid advertisement into a major computer magazine. This got me a few more sales and to date, Donut Dilemma was my best selling TRS-80 Model I game.

Escape Zone (1984, TRS-80 Model I)

Escape Zone Title Screen
Escape Zone Title Screen
Escape Zone Instructions Screen
Escape Zone Instructions Screen

Escape Zone was my first "shoot-em-up" style game. It was a style I had been avoiding up to this point, not because I didn't like this type of game, but because there were so many of these already written for the TRS-80. It seemed like the easiest genre to write for, and I had figured that another would not stand out among the crowd.

But what kept nagging me was the feeling that I could do something a bit different. I wanted a game with great firepower, big explosions and lots of sound, so I began Escape Zone.

With Escape Zone, I took elements from classic arcade games such as the firepower of Defender, the multiple stages of Scramble, the vertical scrolling of Street Racer (Atari 2600) and the swooping aliens of Galaxian.

Story pretext coming up! You've been warned...

"You have been held captive by the evil Dakors since they first captured your craft during a daring space raid. But the Dakors made a mistake of treating you just as any other human captive and so you manage to escape from confinement and have reached your escape craft. The Dakors are alerted to your escape and now there is no time to lose! Prepare to thrust your way out of the Dakors' command destroyer and into open space via a tight winding tunnel filled with deadly "Blipop" and "Bizzo" mines. Once in space, destroy the super-fast "Flipps", manoeuvre through the dangerous meteor shower and dodge your way past the "Reverso" crafts and "Putt-putt" missile ships into the safety of free space!"

"Blipop" and "Bizzo" mines? "Putt-putt" missile ships? This story line is so sad, it makes my skin crawl!

Escape Zone uses firing similar to arcade Defender. By that I mean that there is more than one laser blast at a time and instead of the fire being a bullet or "dot", it is a long laser line with a tail that decays as it moves away from your craft. Likewise, the game supports multiple explosions when enemy craft is hit, providing quite a nice fireworks display.

Escape Zone Game Screen - Zone 1
Escape Zone Game Screen - Zone 1
Escape Zone Game Screen - Zone 3
Escape Zone Game Screen - Zone 3

Another feature of the game is the demo or attract mode. If the game is left untouched at the game title screen, it will automatically move on to the instructions page and then start a demo game. During the demo game, I created the effect of multiple layers by having a static title graphic superimposed over the moving game graphics below--Sort of like a large "sprite" sitting there not being affected by the action behind it. It's no big deal, but I liked the effect.

Escape Zone Packaging
Escape Zone Packaging

Escape Zone was a reasonable seller, but I could see that the TRS-80 market was starting to decline. Looking in the American TRS-80 publications such as 80 Micro, the number of games being advertised was approaching zero, and I saw this as a sign that the games market for the TRS-80 was about to drop. By this time in 1984, high resolution color graphics were the norm, and it was only a matter of time before even the TRS-80 would be laid to rest.

Therefore, Escape Zone was to be my last TRS-80 Model I game. I felt happy having created seven good quality TRS-80 games over the years. I was happy having done a nice variety of games from adventure to arcade, from top view to platform to vertical shoot-em-up. I had developed some great graphics and sound routines for the TRS-80, but it always bothered me that my target market was so small. I knew I had to set my sights higher and aim for a larger market.

I began looking towards the future and started on my quest for a new machine...

Author and Multimedia: Nickolas Marentes
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice and David Torre
Special Thanks: Matthew Reed of the TRS-80 Emulator Web Site
Comments: Visit the author's Website or send an e-mail to
Emulation Notes: Game ROM/image files have been provided within the article for four TRS-80 Model I programs. According to the author, presently, the best emulator to run these files is called TRS32, which is for Windows. The emulator is shareware and payment provides extra features such as hard drive and high resolution graphics support. These features are not needed to run these games. The emulator is almost 100% faithful to a real TRS-80, save for a small issue with timing where the title pages for these games seem to stay up for too short a time. Otherwise, the games run perfectly. Click the following system name for the required TRS-80 Model I and Model III system ROMs. While additional ROM/image files are not provided here, please note that none of the Color Computer emulators presently run Neutroid 2 correctly because they don't support the semigraphic video mode that that game uses. The games for the Color Computer 3 do not run correctly on any emulator except MESS. For these and other downloads, as well as to purchase some of the actual software, please visit the specific page on the author's Website.

Editor's Note: This article is part II in a series. If you haven't read part I yet, we highly recommend you do so now!

Neutroid 2 (1984, TRS-80 Color Computer)

I finally decided that it was time to leave the TRS-80 Model I and move into the world of high resolution color graphics. I had to update to a new market, but a sense of fear and uncertainty fell upon me. I was quite comfortable with the TRS-80 with its easy to use blocky monochrome graphics and powerful Z-80 CPU, but all good things must end, so I began to look around at what was available.

The Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers appealed to me with their graphics and sound capabilities, but I knew it would be some time before I could create games that could compete with what was becoming available. I had to find a computer that was still in its infancy, yet had the potential to become a big seller.

The new MSX standard was coming out, and I liked the hardware architecture. I looked closely at two early MSX systems from Spectravideo and Sega, and I was impressed, but something inside of me said no. As time has now shown, my "gut feeling" proved right, and MSX didn't catch on very well outside of Japan.

Neutroid 2 Title Screen
Neutroid 2 Title Screen
Neutroid 2 Game Screen
Neutroid 2 Game Screen

Ironically, in the end, I went for a machine with lesser graphic and audio capability than most of the newer systems that I had evaluated. I chose the Tandy (Radio Shack) Color Computer (CoCo). The Color Computer line lasted until about 1991, outlasting many of the competing systems. I guess I was destined to be a Tandy man!

There were two things that attracted me to the Tandy Color Computer. One was that it had the most powerful 8-bit CPU, the brilliant Motorola 6809. The other was that it had a large distribution channel via the Tandy/Radio Shack company stores worldwide. Here in Australia there were over 700 stores country wide. I had always dreamed of tapping into that marketing. I figured that a game sold to Tandy Australia would guarantee 700 copies sold!

Story pretext...this one is verging on the realm of actually being good!...

"For centuries, man has strived for the ultimate power source. As fossil fuels become scarce, the need for a new, inexhaustible source of energy grows more and more.

But in a dimly lit laboratory, a professor is experimenting on a newly discovered sub-atomic particle. This particle has been named, NEUTROID and is causing great controversy in 'The Neutroid Project'.

A prototype power generator has been constructed. Inside this generator is housed a number of small lead/titanium boxes called Particle Vaults. Within each vault is a grid network along which Neutroid and Antitroid particles travel. Protroid particles and special maintenance units called Grid Chargers are adjacent. Monitoring of the particle vault is performed by external scanners creating a color coded image onto a standard color television screen.

In order to release the stored energy from within the vault, the Neutroid particle must be guided via electromagnetic fields into a collision with each Protroid particle at the same time avoiding the Antitroid particles which are attracted to the Neutroid's magnetic field. As the energy output of the generator increases, each successive grid becomes more difficult to complete. Therefore, lighting fast reflexes and rapid strategic thinking are a key element to the success of this experiment!

Science is counting on you professor! Complete each grid quickly before the particle vaults reach the meltdown state, else all is lost!


You have to admit, I'm starting to get better!

The Tandy Color Computer was quite limited in its graphic capabilities. In its highest graphic resolution of 256 x 192 pixels it could only display two colors. The choice was limited also, black and white with only a white border or black and green with only a green border.

The next resolution down was 128 x 192 in four colors. Again, a limited choice of colors - green, red, yellow and blue with only a green border or white, magenta, cyan and orange with only a white border.

You can understand why many of the games all had a similar look. In the US, a technique called artifacting was used to push a few extra colors in the normally black and white high resolution mode. The technique relied on the US NTSC video standard being particularly poor at color accuracy when alternating high and low contrast pixels are placed next to each other. This technique managed to coax a few shades of red, blue and yellow along with the standard black and white.

The problem with this technique was that it didn't work for the PAL video system as used in Australia. All we saw was an ugly striping effect of olive and purple that made the games look dreadful. I wanted to crack this limitation and I found it in the form of the Semi-Graphic modes. These modes allowed all eight available colors with a black border. The problem was that the horizontal resolution was dropped to 64 pixels and there was a color limitation that required each pair of odd/even pixels (byte boundary) to have the same color (or black).

I created Neutroid 2 to use this mode and designed the graphics to make best use of this limitation.

Neutroid 2 High Score Screen
Neutroid 2 High Score Screen
Neutroid 2 Packaging
Neutroid 2 Packaging

Sound was another area I wanted to improve on over other games available for the TRS-80 Color Computer at the time. Unlike many of the other systems on the market, the Color Computer didn't have a dedicated sound chip to do this and required the CPU to feed the audio data to the output port. The Color Computer generated sound using the same method as the TRS-80 Model I by toggling a voltage via CPU intervention on/off to create sound waves. However, it was a bit more advanced in that it could vary that voltage up to 64 steps instead of the two that the Model I had. In other words, it had six bits available instead of two for sound generation. I could actually make a sound fade off and create effects with more realistic sounds. This ate into the time required for graphics, but this was a challenge that I had largely overcome in the TRS-80 Model I and I included the same techniques on the Color Computer, but using its six bit capability I felt that this game couldn't fail, and I began dreaming of that luxury Porsche in my garage.....

Well guess what... It was a flop.

I got daring with Neutroid 2, taking out a half page advertisement in an Australian color computer journal called Australian CoCo. Nothing came of it, no sales. The only sales I made were achieved by demos at club meetings. Neutroid 2 seemed to suffer the same fate as the original Neutroid; the game was too abstract in concept — people didn't get it. I had to address this problem and get smart with my distribution. It was clear to me that the time had come to knock on Tandy's door, but first I needed a game that they couldn't refuse.

I was a game programmer on the edge and I was determined to succeed!

Donut Dilemma Title Screen
Donut Dilemma Title Screen

Donut Dilemma (1986/7, TRS-80 Color Computer)

I wanted a game good enough to be sold by Tandy in all their stores Australia wide, so I decided to port my best TRS-80 Model I game to the Tandy Color Computer and submit it to Tandy Australia with the hope they would add it to their stock line.

Donut Dilemma had the advantage of having a more familiar platform style of game play than Neutroid 2. Other successful games such as Donkey Kong, Lode Runner and Miner 2049er proved that this genre was popular internationally so I began programming with the hope that this game would finally offer me some success worth talking about.

Story pretext....

"Angry Angelo has raided Antonio's Donut Factory sending the entire complex amuck! Donuts have come alive and are jumping around in wild frenzies. Machines have gone out of control throwing cooking fat, dough and icing sugar everywhere. You must help poor Antonio climb ladders, jump platforms and ride elevators to reach the top floor and shut down the factory's power generator which will restore law and order. "

Kind of looks familiar don't you think? Yep! Ripped it straight off the TRS-80 Model I version.

donutcc/Level 1.gif
Donut Dilemma - Level 1
Donut Dilemma - Level 9
Donut Dilemma - Level 9

This was my first game that used a true high resolution color graphics mode on the Color Computer, and I was concerned it would be too difficult for me to achieve. Being accustomed to manipulating a mere 1K screen display on the TRS-80 Model I, I was wondering if the game would be fast enough writing it for the 6K screen display I was going to use. I ploughed on and hoped for the best.

Donut Dilemma Screen - After All 10 Levels
Donut Dilemma - Final

Following on from my desire to beat the color limitations of the CoCo, I devised a way of pulling more colors than was normally available. I couldn't use the US artifacting trick, so I began experimenting with the 128 x 192, four color modes to see if I could fool the TV to display extra colors here under the PAL video system.

I discovered that by placing horizontally alternating lines of magenta and orange that the television output (the Color Computer only had a TV output) would display red. Also, alternating horizontal bands of magenta and cyan would create a light blue. I created Donut Dilemma to use this new capability giving the most colorful display I had seen in a Color Computer game... six colors!

Later I had to remove this feature due to the new Color Computer 3 being released with an RGB monitor, which didn't allow this color mixing trick to work.

I added an extra level in the Color Computer version that was not included in the TRS-80 Model I version. Level nine was titled "Crumble Caper," and when the player first starts the level, it appears quite straight forward... except that as he/she steps on a platform, it begins to crumble beneath their feet and they only have just over a second to jump to another part of the flooring before they tumble to their doom. There is practically no chance to stand still! This is my favourite level, and it is not so difficult once one works out its simple solution.

Now here is an interesting story...

After completing the game and attempting to sell copies via the usual channels of computer clubs, I finally drummed up the nerve to send a copy to Tandy Australia's head office. I felt the game was good, if not better than many of the games they were already selling, but I kept my expectations low. In the past, all games except for a few educational titles were imported from Tandy Corporation's main warehouse in the US. That seemed to be where most of the decisions were made as to what became the product line.

It was around mid 1987 and Tandy had already released their new Color Computer 3 about 10 months earlier, an enhanced version of the older model that had been selling for 6 years. It had better graphics and a faster CPU. I had purchased one as soon as it became available. I was concerned that Tandy may reject my game due to a possible new focus of only considering games that utilized the features of this new model.

Donut Dilemma Worksheets
Donut Dilemma Worksheets

Then came the big surprise! I got a phone call saying that they liked the game and were interested in marketing it in Australia. The conditions were that I supply a complete package of color artwork, instructions and cassette tape. They also asked for a version enhanced for the new Color Computer 3. We made a deal that I supply both versions on a tape. They would buy it for $6.90AU a package and pay for the freight from my home to their warehouse.

Well, the profit margin wasn't huge, only about $3AU per package, but it was a start in the right direction, so I accepted. The first order to come in was for 1000 complete packages and I shipped them on the fifth of August, 1987. They even supplied an official Tandy catalogue number... CAT. NO. 26-9649. I was in!

Donut Dilemma Packaging
Donut Dilemma Packaging

Now here is the really interesting part. I later found out that the local magazine, Australian CoCo, was holding a competition in conjunction with Tandy for the best game submitted written for the new Tandy Color Computer 3. I didn't know about the competition. When I submitted my game to Tandy, it was soon after the competition had closed and they had chosen a winner. The winner got their entry added to Tandy's product line and more importantly, bundled with the Color Computer 3 in a special Christmas package.

My game missed the competition and wasn't written to exploit the new computer's features, yet they added it to the product line as well as the special Christmas package! It even appeared in Tandy Australia's annual product catalogue. That's what I call luck!

After the first 1000 copies, Tandy followed it up with another order and another order. In the end, 3400 copies were sold — a vast improvement over my previous attempts. I knew that my next step was to create something specifically for the new Color Computer 3.

I had a fire burning within and I was aiming for a checkmate!

Rupert Rythym (1988, Tandy Color Computer 3)

After the success of Donut Dilemma for the Tandy Color Computer, I immediately went to work on another game. This time it was to be a game specifically for the new Color Computer 3 to exploit the enhanced graphics and speed of this machine. There was no need to develop tricks to create extra colors. The new machine could display 16 colors selectable from a palette of 64. It had a higher resolution of 320 x 225 pixels (or 640 x 225 in four colors) compared to the old model's 127 x 192 pixels in four colors (or 256 x 192 in two colors).

And once again I chose a platform style game. I wanted to add more of a puzzle element to the game and came up with the following plot...

"As tired as he was, the loud ringing sound could not be blocked out by his phenomenal level of exhaustion. Slowly, he opens his eyes and pushing his remote percussion keyboard aside, proceeds to answer the phone.

'"Rupert! Wake up!" frantically cries Rupert's manager, Bill Boombox.

"Hardrock Harry, manager of Music Box Records has stolen all your musical manuscripts and plans to release YOUR song under HIS name!!! Your entire future is at stake! Get those manuscripts back! Fast!!" CLICK!

You must help Rupert infiltrate Music Box Records and collect all his stolen notes which are scattered throughout the complex. Ride the crazy elevators and beware of the security robots on patrol. After collecting all the stolen notes, you must work out their correct sequence before Rupert can perform his first live concert which will lift him to international fame and fortune!


You have to admit, that was a pretty good storyline!

Rupert Rythym has nice graphics. I used nice metallic shading on the elevator poles and platforms to give a slight 3D look and Rupert himself looks and animates great! There is a lot of sampled sound used in the game from Ruperts "Hey!" to the various percussion effects.

Rupert Rythym Game Screen - Level 0
Rupert Rythym Game Screen - Level 0
Rupert Rythym Game Screen - Level 1
Rupert Rythym Game Screen - Level 1

This game uses the same techniques I had been using since the TRS-80 Model I games. The sprite animation engine was almost identical in operation and while the graphics looked very clean, no flickering, no jerky movement and all the moving objects (sprites) glided over the background elements perfectly, it was a bit slow. I had opted to move everything by pixel-pixel movements and when using a graphic mode that takes up 32K, proving to be a burden on the graphics engine. I was also still generating sound by the old method that I had been using and this also came with a speed penalty. I knew I had to update my graphic and sound routines in the future to better suit this new computer.

My personal opinion of this game was that I could have improved the gameplay a bit more. I feel that I concentrated more on the puzzle element and didn't give enough thought to the arcade game element. Apart from the game having a bit of a slow feel to it, I believe that there is also too much "standing around" on each screen as the player waits for the moving elevator to reach his platform. In hindsight, I should have made the platform move immediately to the player's platform rather than let it carry on in its fixed pattern of movement.

And no, the word "rythym" is not how we spell the word in Australia as a US review once stated. That was a real spelling mistake on my behalf. I take full responsibility! There, I admit it.

Rupert Rythym Packaging
Rupert Rythym Packaging

My excuse was that "Rythym" is a commercial twist on the word "Rhythm" used as Rupert's surname, his "fame name" if you like. Well... of course that's a crock of @!#?@! but I figured a small politician style lie won't hurt and I may even get away with it... I did! Nick for president?

With Rupert Rythym, I decided to go upmarket with the graphic artwork for the packaging. This time, I drew a sketch of what I wanted the complete artwork to look like and paid a commercial artist to do me a nice black and white cover. I then just had to color it myself, add the game screenshot, Tandy Color Computer logo and catalogue number and it was done. As with Donut Dilemma, I had the covers color printed to ensure a high quality.

With my sales momentum generated by Donut Dilemma, Rupert Rythym was snapped up by Tandy Australia. This time, without the support of a Christmas computer package, it sold 850 copies to Tandy Australia. Still a respectable number and I could still keep wearing my "I'm not a failure" t-shirt with pride.

Space Intruders Title Screen
Space Intruders Title Screen

Space Intruders (1988, Tandy Color Computer 3)

With Space Intruders, I decided to go retro. Up until now, all my games have been original concepts derived from elements from other games. This time I have taken the classic arcade game of Space Invaders (actually Space Invaders Part 2) and jazzed up the graphics.

There were many Space Invaders clones for the original Tandy Color Computer over the years but none that I felt were anywhere near as good as the original. There were certainly none written for the new Color Computer 3 and that is probably because Space Invaders was a dated idea. I hoped that by giving the graphics an update, it may give it a new lease of life. Plus, Space Invaders is a simpler game to create and this would give me an opportunity to try some new routines I had been designing for the new Color Computer 3.

Story pretext...

"Enemy alien creatures have been identified entering our solar system, their destination, our home planet! Their goal, the total annihilation of our race. They must not be allowed to land!
As you position yourself at the helm of a giant particle beam laser cannon, you sense that sinister rhythm of the Space Intruders as they break through the cloud cover. You immediately unleash the awesome power of your cannon destroying them one by one as they descend towards the planet surface.

Suddenly a report comes to you from control headquarters. A gigantic alien vessel has also entered the solar system. Could it be the Alien Superior?!"

A bloated description that basically says, "Get the buggers before they get you!"

Space Intruders Comparison with Space Invaders
Comparing Space Intruders with Space Invaders

In designing the new graphics for Space Intruders, I wanted something that looked contemporary but still retained elements of the classic graphics used in the original arcade masterpiece. The new enhanced graphics still bare a strong similarity with the original.

Another reason I chose to do a less ambitious game was that I was exploring new ideas for graphics and sound engines. My old graphics engine created all the graphics "offline" in memory and then switched the displayed page to this offline image when a frame was complete. This time, I did everything on one screen. This was also due to the number of moving characters, 55 in all, that would have created a bigger slowdown than what I experienced in Rupert Rythym had I used my old techniques.

I also experimented for the first time with "interrupt driven routines." The idea was to set up the player's laser base object to be interrupt driven. The main program would only drive the alien invaders, sound and all missiles while a separate subroutine was called up at fixed intervals via a hardware interrupt that would move the player's laser base left and right. It worked very well, and the laser base moved silky smooth. I recall a few moments during development when the program would crash and everything on the screen would freeze or corrupt, yet the laser base continued to move smoothly left and right across the bottom of the screen. I liked this interrupt driven stuff and I had to find other ways of using it in the future!

Space Intruders Game Screen - Level 1
Space Intruders Game Screen - Level 1
Space Intruders Game Screen - Level 9
Space Intruders Game Screen - Level 9

I did add some extra innovation to the old game of Space Invaders. In the original, you can never win. You are presented with wave after wave of enemy invaders until you finally lose all your laser bases. In Space Intruders, there are eight waves of progressively harder rounds and in wave nine, the Mother Ship arrives! This part of the game is modelled on arcade Phoenix (sort of a return to my earlier game, Cosmic Ambush) and you are required to penetrate the base of the Mother Ship and eventually shoot the Alien Superior within before the vessel lands and invades Earth. Accomplishing this, you actually win the game!

Again, Tandy Australia marketed my game. Again I created a rough sketch of the artwork I wanted and a commercial artist created a final sketch. Tandy allocated a Catalogue Number and I arranged for tapes to be duplicated.

But I saw a disturbing trend. Tandy placed two orders, the first for 200 copies, the second for 100 copies... and that was it. 300 copies only. It was late 1988 and I was starting to suspect that the Color Computer was starting to run its round. There was still enthusiasm in the US, but here in Australia, it didn't seem so positive.

Understandably, Tandy was promoting their Tandy 1000 range of IBM compatible computers. Higher price tag, larger profit. But in Tandy's credit, they were one of the few manufacturers still selling an 8-bit computer while the rest of the market had moved on to 16-bit systems such as Commodore Amiga's, Atari ST's, Apple Macintosh's and IBM 286 PC's.

Space Intruders Packaging
Space Intruders Packaging

I decided that it was time to make inroads into the US market, and I found an opportunity via a new startup company called "Game Point Software." This was a company being run by a nice fellow by the name of Peter Ellison who was at the time selling some game software by the famous Color Computer games programmer, Steve Bjork. He was advertising for new games submissions to market, so I sent copies of my Donut Dilemma (Color Computer 3 version), Rupert Rythym and Space Intruders. He liked them and added them to his product line. He had new game packages made up and ran full page advertisements in The Rainbow, the largest Color Computer Magazine at the time. My games received positive reviews in various Color Computer magazines and sales were reasonable. I don't know the exact number of copies sold because we came to an arrangement of payment via a barter system. He maintained an account of the money collected, and I would request things like the purchase of some software or the subscription of certain magazines. I was happy with this arrangement because it made up for the blackout here in Australia of Color Computer products and information about what was going on in the Color Computer world. Sales were nothing like what I had achieved via Tandy Australia, but I felt that some sales were better than no sales.

Then, something strange happened. Game Point Software disappeared! It just closed up shop and vanished. It was very strange because I found Peter Ellison to be a very friendly, helpful and honest fellow, but something must have happened causing him to fold overnight. I never heard from him again. Oh well, that's how life is in the fast lane I guess... and there goes my US link.

Cosmic Ambush (1992, Tandy Color Computer 3)

After a short departure with a hardware project for the Tandy Color Computer 3 (a simple video digitizer) I returned to game programming. However, by 1992, The Color Computer market was not what it used to be. Here in Australia, the Color Computer had finally been discontinued. Access to the US Color Computer market was hard to come by with no easy access to Color Computer magazines for information. It seemed like a Color Computer blackout. I knew that my only chance lay in tackling the US market before the Color Computer was also discontinued there.

Cosmic Ambush Title Screen
Cosmic Ambush Title Screen

I therefore decided that my next game had to be impressive, it had to fit into a 32K ROM cartridge and I had to pitch it to the Tandy Corporation in the US. It was my last hope.

No Story Pretext!

I never actually created a storyline for Cosmic Ambush for reasons that you will understand as you read the rest of this page. The game was a vertical shoot-em-up which had you piloting a space craft (with a cool revolving gun barrel!) and defending various space fortresses from a variety of enemy attacks. Your space craft had a variety of weapons starting from a meek single shot gun up to multi-fire. Upgrading your weapons required you to hit the weapon upgrade targets that randomly appear, but a direct hit to your craft would downgrade your weapon as well as drain some of your shield energy. Various recharge targets are available for you to re-energize your shield. There were a variety of enemy craft each with its own unique combat style.

The major deciding factor for this game that determined how large the code could be, how much graphics and sound I could include and how the entire program is to be stored in memory was based on the goal that this game was to be marketed as a 32K ROM cartridge game. 32K was the largest size cartridge that could be used on the Color Computer 3 without resorting to additional circuitry within the cartridge. I had seen how many of the successful game sales were on cartridge and this was due to the decrease in software piracy by using a cartridge medium compared to a magnetic medium such as a floppy disk or cassette. With 32K as my limit, I wanted to create a game that appeared far bigger. I wanted lots of smooth scrolling graphics and sampled sound effects.

I had worked out a way of creating unlimited smooth vertically scrolling backgrounds. I had developed a new method for creating sprites. I also developed a new sound routine that used the Color Computer 3's programmable timer interrupt to provide two channel sound effects during the game with no noticeable interruption in graphic animation. I was planning on Cosmic Ambush to be the best "shoot-em-up" style game ever created for the Color Computer. But alas, trouble struck... big trouble.

Cosmic Ambush Game Screen
Cosmic Ambush Game Screen

Half way through developing the game, Tandy in the US officially discontinued the Color Computer. This meant that they were not stocking anything new for the machine. That was the final nail in the coffin for me, and I felt that Cosmic Ambush had no future... so I stopped development. I was quite disappointed, but I knew I couldn't blame Tandy. The time for 8-bit computers was well past the use-by date, but I guess I felt that the Color Computer 3 had not had its full potential tapped.

Six months went by when a friend of mine came over to my home and asked to see what I had done with Cosmic Ambush. I dug out the old files and loaded it up. I began demonstrating the game and my friend was very impressed with what he saw, but what caught me by surprise is how impressed I was! It's amazing how different things look when you haven't seen it for awhile.

I decided then and there that I was going to finish Cosmic Ambush, at least to a point of being complete enough to release as shareware. I thought that maybe shareware was a viable way of "selling" it. I had omitted various planned features in the game such as a scrolling starscape behind the scrolling background to create a parallax effect. I simplified the enemy flight patterns that were originally to be more like arcade Galaxian. And I didn't create any game instructions or package artwork.

Well, as shareware, Cosmic Ambush sold one copy at $7 US. That sent me a strong message... there was no future in game development for the Tandy Color Computer. I made Cosmic Ambush freeware and I packed up my Color Computer 3 and became an Amiga user.

I had owned an Amiga 1000 for a few years and was very impressed with it, but unfortunately, I never had time to do any actual programming on it. I had fallen behind with that machine and I knew it would take a long time for me to develop anything worthwhile that could compete with existing products.

It was the end of my Color Computer era.

Pac-Man Tribute (1997, Tandy Color Computer 3)

After leaving the Tandy Color Computer scene in 1992, I spent most of my computer time playing with Commodore Amiga's. I had an Amiga 1000 and then moved on to an Amiga 1200. I liked the Amiga's because they had, great hardware and an efficient, reliable and responsive OS, but I never programmed anything for them. When Commodore folded and the resurrection of the Amiga by another company was looking more like a myth, I jumped onto the PC bandwagon with a Celeron 300Mhz system. I hated Windows! It was the complete opposite of what the AmigaOS was except that it had a huge software base and was supported by so many companies with their products. It was clear that this was the future of home computing (over 90% market share!).

Pac-Man Tribute Title Screen
Pac-Man Tribute Title Screen

What was also clear to me was that the days of creating commercial software as a one man show operating from a bedroom were over. It was hard to make a dent in this market unless you joined up with a software company. I had also fallen far behind with current popular programming languages like "C" and was unfamiliar with game programming on the PC. Yep! I was an old dog that couldn't learn any new tricks!

So, I did what all "old dogs" do and that is search around for other "old dogs" to talk about the "good-old-days," and I found it in the form of the Color Computer newsgroup on the Internet.

I was surprised to see that there was still some life in the Color Computer. I discovered new programs that other Color Computer enthusiasts had written during my years of absence. I made some good friends and even caught up with some old legends from days gone past. I was starting to get the bug again, and I decided to create just one more game... just for the fun of it.

Story pretext, I'm not to blame for this one!

"You are PAC-MAN, a friendly-looking yellow circle with a little wedge missing. You travel through the maze, eating dots in your path and are pursued by four ravenous monsters. If any of them catch you, you're a goner.

There are four 'energizers', one in each corner of the maze. Hit the energizers and the monsters are rendered helpless and you can eat them, making them disappear for a few seconds.

If you eat all the dots on the board, you are rewarded with another board, in which the monsters have become smarter and stronger.


I think everyone knows this story and for those who don't... you missed a great era in the history of videogames!

I set myself an important design goal for this project. It had to look, sound and play as close to the original Namco classic as possible. I didn't want to do Namco the injustice of another poor clone and I wanted to do the Color Computer 3 justice by showing what could be achieved. The game had to run at 30 frames per second, the maximum frame rate of a standard TV or CM-8 RGB monitor (the monitor sold by Tandy specifically for that computer).

I should point out that at the time, I didn't have the MAME arcade emulator for PC or Macintosh. Instead, I recreated all the game graphics by redrawing them on my Amiga based on observing a real Pac-Man machine and what I could find in magazines. The sounds were sampled on the Color Computer off tape recordings made from a real Pac-Man machine.

Pac-Man Tribute Game Screen
Pac-Man Tribute Game Screen

I made improvements to my dual channel sound routines from Cosmic Ambush to the point where sound generation took up minimal CPU time. I improved on my sprite graphics routines to achieve more speed. I used the tallest vertical resolution I could muster on the Color Computer 3 of 320 x 225 pixels. I allowed the maze to take up this full height by moving the score displays to the left and right sides of the maze. This allowed me to create a screen aspect ratio that wasn't too far off from the original. I included all the animated interludes between mazes just as the original and also added the feature from the original where the Pac-Man moves slightly slower than the ghosts when eating dots, but gains a slight distance when it is taking corners. This is an important characteristic used by expert players of the original.

One area I could not work out from the original was the ghost character's intelligence algorithm so I had to develop my own. I spent some time trying to think up an algorithm that would give similar results to the original and this is what I came up with...

I created five "target" points on the screen positioned in the four corner areas and centre of the maze. Each of the four ghosts is given one of these targets points and they work their way to each of these. I set a timer on these target points and when the timer count reached zero, they would roll their positions into the next target point in the list. So, a target point pointing in the top left corner of the maze would shift to the bottom right after a time, then to the top right and so on. This kept each of the ghosts "patrolling" the maze without them bunching up together for too long.

As each ghost navigated the maze to reach its target point, it would check to see if the Pac-Man was on the same row or column position on the screen. If it was, the target point is altered instantly to point to the position of the Pac-Man. The ghost would then begin to close in on this point until the timer timeout reset the target point back to its normal cycle.

Pac-Man Tribute Packaging
Pac-Man Tribute Packaging

With this algorithm, the ghost movement is very similar to the original when viewed at a glance. I was happy with the results of the gameplay and that is how it stayed.

I kept my expectations low for sales of this game. There was no Tandy to sell through, no local clubs, no printed magazines (except CFDM, the disk magazine) and not a large user base. I had set a top end projection of 20 copies. To date I've sold 70, which is pretty good considering the conditions.

I sold almost all my copies to US customers. The local Australian Color Computer scene seemed non-existent. These sales gave me the confidence to continue with more Color Computer product development.

Gate Crasher (2000, Tandy Color Computer 3)

For a long time, it was being debated if the Color Computer 3 could create a true 3D game along the lines of the PC classics, Doom or Wolfenstein 3D. Many said that the Color Computer, as many of the early 8-bit machines, was too slow to do the necessary 3D calculations required to render each scene at a decent enough frame rate to make a fast paced action packed game.

Gate Crasher Title Screen
Gate Crasher Title Screen

But one man was able to provide a glimmer of hope on this subject, target=_blank>John Kowalski (). He had developed an algorithm that did the necessary calculations fast enough and created a demo program to prove it. The demo was called Gloom and in it, one could navigate around a 3D environment using a stock standard Tandy Color Computer and it ran at a good frame rate.

This impressed everyone, but there were many who felt that the final proof would be to create a full game. I decided to take up the challenge and Gate Crasher was the result. A Wolfenstein 3D style game featuring full 360 degree 3D environment, explosive two channel digital interrupt driven sound and five levels of the hottest action seen in a CoCo game for years! This game clearly proved that 3D gaming of this type is possible even on an old 2Mhz 8-bit computer.

Story pretext, this one is good!

"It is an era of high technology, an era of perfection, an era of the mind enhancing Brain Implant devices. Small microcontrollers implanted into the human skull acting as a "co-processor" to the brain. With this device, a persons abilities can be enhanced while disabilities removed. Millions of people worldwide have undergone surgery to have a device installed and reap the benefits of an improved lifestyle.

"He who controls the mind, controls the world."

But there is now evidence to prove that there is more to these devices than creating the perfect human. Leaked information has revealed that each implant has a means of remote control via the internet-providing low orbit satellite system also owned and operated by the same company creating these implants. This has been found to be used as a form of mind control allowing the CEO of the company to control things such as the outcome of an election, the buying habits of consumers, even to invoke death!

You are the Gate Crasher and it is time to crash this party, destroy all the computer data and defeat the evil CEO himself!


Gritty, prophetic and visionary all in one!

The biggest challenge for me in this game was making everything run at a decent frame rate. This was accomplished with the aid of John Kowalski's Gloom 3D environment algorithm as well as heavy use of self modifying code. Gate Crasher represents a milestone in Tandy Color Computer gaming in that it is the first true full 360 degree, free movement solid 3D action game of this type for this machine. The game uses an unofficial 128 x 96 x 16 color graphics mode. Even utilizing double buffering, each screen only takes up 6K of memory, reducing the workload on the CPU to update each display frame. A further optimized version of the dual channel interrupt driven sound routine used in my last game allowed explosive sound effects to be had without too much CPU overhead.

Yes this game had it all... the player's gun would bob up and down as he walked, you could hear your footsteps, your gun recoiled when it fired, security doors that could only be opened by cracking the color coded locks, the gun would make a cool reload sound when ammo was found and the evil CEO had a classic evil laugh!

Gate Crasher Game Screen 1
Gate Crasher Game Screen 1
Gate Crasher Game Screen 2
Gate Crasher Game Screen 2

The storyline setting for Gate Crasher is obviously futuristic. Set in the near future, the vision is of a world under the control of a powerful corporation head who has found a way to control the minds of the unsuspecting public by feeding them hope and an enhanced way of life in the form of a brain implant that he can secretly control.

In this game, you infiltrate the five level building of the corporation with the goal to destroy all information about these implants, but I have planted a little surprise on level five. Here you encounter the head CEO, the man responsible! He hides in his large office which is heavily surrounded by his "suits". Once you get past the suits, you get to fight the CEO himself... and the little bugger has a very familiar face. Look at the title of this game to get a clue.

A really cool feature is that when you destroy three or more suits in rapid succession, the computer lets out a "Woohoo!" to signify the adrenalin rush. Oh well, I have to do my part to promote violent behaviour in this modern world.

I was aiming at this game being released for the upcoming PennFest 2000, a Tandy Color Computer festival held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, that I was a co-organizer for. I knew the Color Computer market was getting smaller and smaller as time went on and I felt that most sales of this game would be had at that fest.

Gate Crasher Packaging
Gate Crasher Packaging

I was right. About 45 copies of the game have been sold to date, making it less than my last game, Pac-Man. Even though Gate Crasher represents a milestone for 3D action type games for an old 8-bit computer, the market has shrunk so much that I felt that my game programming days for this computer have come to a close. This was to be my last game for the Tandy Color Computer.

The End

Well, we've reached the conclusion of my story. I never did become a famous videogame programmer, but I don't feel that the last 25 years were a failure. I've had an incredible journey, learned many things, met many talented people, made many friends and shared my enjoyment of videogames with people around the world. I'm not rich but I have a stable job in the computer industry.

I hope my story has been an inspiration and a source of knowledge and awareness to others who may share a similar dream to mine.

Nickolas Marentes Signature

Dungeons & Desktops

Author: Mathew Tschirgi
Editing: Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice
Screenshots: David Torre
Online Layout: Matt Barton, David Torre and Bill Loguidice

You've got to learn how to see in your fantasy.

--Scatman John (Scat Vocalist)

The Role-Playing Game (RPG) is a beloved game genre featuring colorful characters, epic battles, unforgettable plots, and mazes worthy of a skilled cartographer. While today the most widely recognized RPG franchises are arguably EverQuest for the PC and Final Fantasy X for the Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2), both Computer RPGs (CRPGs) and Video Game RPGs (VRPGS) have been around for over two decades.

While there are certainly debates on whether CRPGs are better than VRPGs, and vice-versa, critics rarely discuss why some people prefer one kind of RPG over the other. CRPGs and VRPGs have offered wildly different gameplay experiences since their inception--traditionally, the former offer a difficult, combat-focused gameplay with plenty of stat-building, while the latter focuses more on strong stories and characters. Most new fans of CRPGs and VRPGs have neglected to play the classic games of the genre. Video games and computer games, much like film, have a rich history and it is through playing old and new games that one gains a greater appreciation of the medium as a whole.

This article presents a brief history of CRPGs and VRPGs from a gameplay standpoint; rather than present a series of capsule reviews, I will explain how gameplay has changed over time as well as compare the gameplay differences of single player CRPGs and VRPGs as a whole. I will not try to list and describe every single game in a particular series; instead, I'll only point out a few that represent significant innovation in gameplay.

Before things get started, I will give my definition of an RPG. An RPG is a game in which the player controls one or more player characters in order to complete an overall quest1. The game is won by solving puzzles, interacting with Non-Player Characters (NPCs), and gaining experience points by defeating enemies in turn-based or real-time combat to increase their characters' various statistics (Strength, Stamina, Agility, Intelligence, and so on.)

While presenting this article chronologically might make sense, in certain cases it would be very jarring--switching from a CRPG to a VRPG would destroy the very point that I am trying to make in evolutionary gameplay styles on various platforms (PC VS. Console). Therefore, I am going to discuss the CRPGs first, followed by the VRPGs, and will conclude with a comparative analysis of CRPG and VRPG game mechanics. Also note that because of the thousands of RPGs available2, I obviously won't be covering every single RPG ever made.

So, grab your broad sword, strap on your leather helmet, and venture off to the nearest dungeon--it's time to take a look at the origins of the CRPG!

Older RPGs seem to have a more complete world or sandbox that the player played around in, while many more recent RPGs just provide shards of the world.

--Feargus Urquhart, Designer of Fallout 23

It is worth noting that no CRPGs or VRPGs would exist without Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) tabletop RPG (1974). It offered a social gameplay experience. One player was the Dungeon Master, responsible for creating maps, planning out scenarios, and acting out the parts of the various monsters and NPCs the players would encounter. The other players spent a long time generating player characters before starting their campaigns and combat was decided via dice-rolling and the cleverness of the players' tactics. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of dice-rolling necessary for most actions, not to mention the various statistics to keep track of, caused much of the gameplay to be bogged down in mathematical minutiae.

With all the statistics to keep track of in a D&D game, it's no wonder that dungeon masters turned to computers to help keep track of things. It's also not a surprise that game designers decided to try to create the same sort of D&D experience on the computer. Playing an RPG on a computer was more convenient than meeting up with a bunch of friends once a week with odd-shaped dice, broken pencils, greasy pizza, and spilled soda.

It's a bit of a problem to sort out what the first CRPG was. Some would argue it is Adventure, the first text adventure game which involved the player going through caves collecting treasures via a text-parser interface. While Adventure is a good game in its own right, I consider it to be part of the Adventure genre; it is lacking in the stat-building and combat elements that CRPGs revel in. While there are a few characters in the game that players can fight, most of the game (as most adventure games in general) involves picking up various items in order to solve puzzles.

Certainly one of the most important CRPGs from a gameplay perspective is Richard Garriot's Akalabeth: World of Doom (Apple II, 1980) a prequel to the first Ultima game. After generating either a Fighter or a Mage character, players visit the castle of Lord British. Gameplay involves exploring various floors of the dungeon, killing whatever monsters Lord British commands. There are no other party members, but graphics change from an overhead perspective to a first-person perspective once players enter a dungeon. The game also forces players to buy food--if they run out of food, the avatar dies. While Akalabeth is very light on plot, the first-person dungeon crawling gameplay and the need for food are found in several early CRPGs.

Garriot followed up Akalabeth with the first game in a much-beloved CRPG series, Ultima I: First Age of Darkness (Apple II, 1981). While the dungeon crawling is the same as its prequel, now there are actual towns to visit on the overworld (still played from a third-person perspective). The quest itself is to visit different kings throughout the land in order to collect gems, ultimately trying to vanquish the evil wizard Mondain; oddly enough, near the end of the game playesr encounter a time machine and fight alien spaceships. The large overworld (an area in the game that represents a large sort of map on which the PCs walk; for instance, the PC would have to go on an overworld map to get from a town to a dungeon) actually gives the world some sort of personality, although the dungeon-crawling can get repetitive at times. Battles on the overworld map quickly became repetitive, boiling down to attack enemies over and over again until they were dead.

A screenshot from Wizardry. There are two small humanoids, one with a club, the other with a sword and shield. An information window states 'A small humanoid charges at hero and hits once for 3 damage'
Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (Apple II)
©1981 Sir-Tech

Around the same time gamers were introduced to the Ultima series, another franchise was started by Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead--Wizardry. Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (Apple II, 1981) featured gameplay that was only in a first-person perspective. Rather than just controlling one character, Wizardry allowed players to form a party of up to six player characters with a variety of different classes (the type of character the player character is; for instance Fighters, Mages, Clerics, and Thieves are all different kind of classes). From the starting point, players could sleep in the inn, revive dead characters, purchase equipment, and save games. The dungeons in Wizardry I were massive compared to those in Ultima; to have any chance of beating the game, players had to break out the graph paper and draw out maps of where they were going. While it sacrificed the epic overworld feel of Garriot's Ultima I, controlling a group of six player characters offered a more primal RPG experience not unlike a late night D&D session.

A screenshot from the text-based game Rogue. ASCII representations of rooms and a single ASCII happy face for an avatar.
Rogue (BSD UNIX)

While these two series were duking it out for CRPG supremacy, one cult classic popped up providing randomized dungeons in a real-time environment: Rogue (1983, BSD UNIX). Though the graphics were little more than ASCII characters, the randomization of the dungeons keep things exciting, as does the fast combat. Having a new dungeon with multiple floors each time players started the game gave Rogue something most CRPGs at the time lacked: replayability. Surprisingly, CRPGS would tend to shy away from this kind of gameplay until much later.

In this screenshot from Ultima IV, icons are shown representing Compassion or Justice. Underneath it, a question reads: After 20 years thou hast found the slayer of thy best friends. The villian proves to be a man who provides the sole support for a young girl. Dost thou A) spare him in Compassion for the girl or <img src='e107_images/emoticons/rolleyes.png' alt='' style='vertical-align:middle; border:0' />  slay him in the name of Justice?
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Apple II)
©1985 Origin Systems

While Wizardy was offering up huge dungeons, Garriot was working on incorporating plot into his Ultima series. With Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Apple II, 1985), character generation was a bit different. Instead of merely having players choose a class, the game starts with a lengthy introductory sequence in which players answer multiple choice questions dealing with ethical dilemmas. After finishing the battery of questions, players begin the game as the class that best reflects their answers. Not only did this tie into the whole virtuous plot, but it was also a more immersive way of generating a class than just "rolling" stats as in a traditional CRPG.

Though Wizardy offered large dungeons, it lacked the expansive sense of a world populated with towns that Ultima did. Fortunately, an RPG came along which combined massive dungeon crawling with a large overworld--Jon Van Caneghem's Might and Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum (Apple II, 1986). Offering more colorful and better drawn graphics than the Wizardry games, Might and Magic had a truly epic feel to it to complement its first-person perspective--something that Wizardry lacked, despite its dungeon-crawling addictiveness. It still featured the rather difficult gameplay from previous CRPGs--if players didn't create a decent starting party and buy the right equipment (or, sometimes, even if they did), the first band of monsters would slice the party to bits.

Though the CRPG genre was booming at the time, it was a bit of a surprise that an official D&D CRPG had not been released yet. SSI fixed this situation by releasing Pool of Radiance (1988), which was set in the Forgotten Realms setting with some novel additions to the genre. Controlling a party of up to six created characters, players explored towns and dungeons in a first-person perspective, but saw things from a third-person perspective during battle. Players could control where their characters moved in a battle, giving combat a unique tactical flavor--not only did playesr have to worry about who to attack, but also had to worry about where they could best move their characters. This style of combat is arguably a precursor to the later style of strategy-VRPGs, such as Shining Force and Final Fantasy Tactics. Pool of Radiance also offered several side quests, giving the game more replay value than other CRPGs of the time.

While most CRPGs offered a first-person perspective, they were all controlled via the keyboard. Doug Bell's Dungeon Master (Atari ST, 1987) offered mouse control in a CRPG for the first time, which changed the gameplay experience more than one might think. Although it's a dungeon crawl in the tradition of Wizardry, Dungeon Master allowed the player to click on the enemies during combat, attacking them in real-time. While this sort of gameplay sped things up, it also took away the more contemplative nature of turn-based combat, degenerating battles into a click-fest (battles were less about deciding the best order in which to attack the enemies and more about clicking the mouse as fast as possible in order to defeat them).

Around this same time, an interesting hybrid genre of CRPG was being created by Lori and Cori Cole, combining the combat of a CRPG with the puzzles of a graphic adventure game. Originally titled Hero Quest 1: So You Want to Be a Hero?, Quest for Glory 1 allowed players to choose between a Fighter, Mage, or a Thief character. The entire game was played from a third-person perspective, with simplistic real-time combat. Puzzles could be solved differently depending on what class was selected, offering tremendous replay value. This combination of the CRPG and the graphic adventure genre offered a unique gameplay experience that really hasn't been seen since.

The CRPG genre remained relatively dormant for much of the early 1990s. Games were still coming out, but nothing truly revolutionary in the gameplay department. It took a more action-focused CRPG to give the genre a shot in the arm: Blizzard's Diablo (Windows, 1996). Featuring a third person perspective controlled via the mouse, it allowed players to pick from three different classes to go on various quests in randomly generated floors of a dungeon. The randomizing dungeons of Diablo gave it huge amounts of replayability, not unlike Rogue. To attack monsters, players clicked on them repeatedly. Great graphics and an excellent soundtrack created an addictive game that sacrificed deep gameplay for some classic old-school fun.

Two years later a D&D CRPG with unique gameplay and a very strong story came out, blowing fans of the game away--Baldur's Gate (PC, 1998). The entire game was from a third-person perspective, offering gameplay that was real-time by default with Diablo-style controls. What made things different is that players could pause the combat at any time to issue commands to various player characters in their party, which was necessary during the majority of battles. The game had wonderful music and a deep plot with lots of side quests, drawing players deeper into the experience.

Now that we've taken a brief tour of the CRPG, it's time to switch over to the VRPG side of things. So let's go back into the wayback machine to 1980 and see how things began.

Older Console RPGs tend to feature epic, sweeping stories, a variety of experience/gameplay, list-interface combat, lots of equipment shopping, and less of a stats and treasure focus than CRPGs.

--Tom Hall, Designer of Anachronox4

Much like the CRPG, it is difficult to tell when the first VRPG was created. Some might consider Enix's Dragon Quest (NES, 1986) to be the first VRPG, but this would be ignoring all the consoles from the early 1980's. We will cover Dragon Quest in due time, but I think that arguably the first VRPG is a well-known title for the Atari 2600.

This game, of course, is Adventure (Atari 2600, 1980). Programmed by Warren Robinett, it featured a third-person perspective, giving players the opportunity to control a knight who has to work his way through various castles to collect a chalice. Featuring a few different kinds of monsters, it offered a simplistic take on the seminal dungeon-crawl experience. It was challenging because players were only limited to one item in your inventory, forcing them to make choices as to which items were truly necessary.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Intellivision, 1982) was the first time an official D&D experience was offered on a console system5. Featuring a quest in which players led three warriors through various caves in order to fight a dragon, it featured a small overworld with third-person perspective gameplay. As players explored the dungeons, new sections of it were revealed (not unlike the "fog of war" feature in many RTS games).

The sequel to this game was way ahead of its time: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: The Treasure of Tarmin (Intellivision, 1983). Featuring a first-person perspective, players explored several floors of a dungeon while picking up items, opening doors, and slaying monsters. The graphics were colorful and better drawn than the monsters in the early Ultima games.

A battle from the U.S. version of Dragon Quest, also known as Dragon Warrior. Four windows adorn the screen. The window in the center shows the enemy being fought, a Red Slime. The left window shows a list of player stats. The top window is a battle menu with the following commands: Fight, Spell, Run, Item. Finally, the bottom window is a battle log, containing the following: The Red Slime attacks! Thy Hit Points decreased by 2. Command?
U.S. Dragon Quest aka Dragon Warrior (NES)
©1986 Enix

It wasn't until the mid 1980's than a VRPG was released upon which most others would be modeled after: Enix's Dragon Quest (NES, 1986). Featuring character designs from Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball Z fame, it featured a large overworld, colorful anime style graphics, and a simple quest: rescue the Princess and slay the evil Dragon Lord. Gameplay was from a third-person perspective, except in battle where players fought monsters from a first person perspective in turn-based combat. To do different actions in the game, a window popped up in which players could Talk, Search, Equip, or other actions. This greatly simplified gameplay compared to an Ultima game in which players had to know over a dozen keyboard shortcuts.

In Zelda, Link is fighting a bunch of red creatures (Octaroks) who spit boulders at him.
The Legend of Zelda(NES)
©1986 Nintendo

During the same year that Dragon Quest was unleashed upon VRPG fans, another classic game was released: Shigeru Miyamoto's The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986). Featuring a third-person perspective and an extremely large overworld, players controlled Link, an elf from Hyrule who had to explore eight dungeons to retrieve the missing pieces of the Triforce. Controls were very simple and combat was real-time, allowing less of a learning curve than what was necessary for Dragon Quest. From the upbeat overworld music to the challenging puzzles (and rather poor English translation), it set the stage for later Action VRPGs. A big advantage The Legend of Zelda had over other RPGs at the time was its massive overworld of over 200 screens. This gave a truly epic feel to the game, as well as encouraging exploration, providing somewhat nonlinear gameplay.

A noted exception to the "Zelda formula" that most games in that franchise had was it first sequel, The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1987). Instead of the entire game being from an overhead perspective, dungeons and towns were played from a side-scrolling perspective, making the game feel like an action-oriented Super Mario Bros. at times. This was also the only Zelda game in which players gained experience points and levels. While it was fun, it certainly didn't have the classic Zelda feel and later games in the series didn't deviate much from the existing gameplay style of the original game.

The currently most popular VRPG franchise also debuted in the late 1980's: Squaresoft's Final Fantasy (NES, 1987). With an overworld several times larger than Dragon Quest's, not to mention a more complicated story (restore the four Crystals by defeating the Four Fiends), Final Fantasy offered much more involved gameplay than other VRPGs of the time. It had turn-based combat like Dragon Quest, except that it was in a third-person perspective. Players started off by creating a party of four player characters, then started off on a brief introductory quest before starting on the main quest. Featuring a musical score containing around two dozen different musical compositions by Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy set the format that several VRPGs in the future would follow.

Though most VRPGs were very formulaic, one that managed to mix things up a bit was Dragon Quest IV (1988). Instead of offering one main quest throughout the whole game, the avatar plays through four different quests: the first quest as a soldier who had to solve the mystery of why children in a village were vanishing; the second quest as a princess who escaped from her castle, longing to participate in a fighting tournament, and so on. This gave the game more variety and it made the last portion of the game more satisfying: all the characters united in one large party to take on the evil bad guy terrorizing the land.

VRPG gaming was thrown for a loop with the release of a particular game for the Sega Genesis: Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention (Genesis, 1992). It offered more of a strategic take on the genre; combat was turned-based and players took turns moving each character in their party across the different maps, giving the game a feel not unlike chess. Moves had to be planned out in advance in order for players to succeed, and their characters only gained experience points when they hit an enemy. Balancing out the different characters was challenging, but helped give the game a new feel from other VRPGs at the time.

While several VRPGs were released, many of them did not innovate. Graphics went from sprites to polygons, plot advancement went from dialogue boxes to CG (instead of conveying the plot through brief animations with accompanying text, later VRPGs relied on long 3-D computer animated sequences that could sometimes go on for over thirty minutes!, but the core gameplay remained the same. It took an RPG for the GameBoy to introduce a new gameplay mechanic: Nintendo's Pokemon Red/Blue (GameBoy, 1997). What was different was who did the actual fighting--instead of the avatar, combat was performed by the various monsters (Pokemon) players collected. Each monster had different skills and experience levels, adding an addictive quality to the game; players could even view a roster in which they could see how many Pokemon they were missing. Several sequels, remakes, and spin-offs were made to the game, most of them being best-sellers.

The Diablo style of gameplay was converted to the PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, a spin-off of the CRPG franchise. Featuring good graphics, great music, and a variety of settings, it offered a different kind of gameplay for the VRPG; oddly enough, Blizzard had released Diablo for the PlayStation, but it didn't catch on too well. Although Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance lacked randomized dungeons and a cohesive story, it still made for a good "mindless" sort of hack and slash VRPG anyway.

A novel attempt was made to create a MMORPG (stands for Massively Online Role-Playing Game; they are typically an RPG that is played online, featuring various classes, quests, and thousands of different players they can talk to along with a world that is constantly updated through expansion packs) experience in a series of four games for the PS2: dot hack (PlayStation 2, 2003). A spin-off of a manga and an anime, it featured real-time combat and randomized dungeons from a first-person perspective. Combat was made more interesting than in Diablo because it limited control to two other party members. While it had an interesting plot (random players were mysteriously receiving seizures and going into comas from playing the online game "The World"), it progressed slowly over the course of four games. Still, it had a unique interface (aside from playing the game, players could "log on" to message boards to access new areas, and customize their "desktop" with unlockable music and movies) and wonderful music.

Who needs girls when you got RPGs?


The CRPG and VRPG genres have certainly progressed a lot over time, ultimately becoming more linear. The original Ultima throws players into the world without much direction, letting the player's avatar explore Brittania as they please. This contrasts greatly with Ultima IX: Ascension, in which the player's avatar is guided through a heavy-handed tutorial lasting around thirty minutes, long before the plot of the game actually starts. While this sort of linearity makes it easier for more casual gamers to dip their collective feet into CRPGs and VRPGS, it also robs them of the sheer freedom earlier RPGs provided.

This doesn't mean that all newer games are worse than old ones, however. While I still enjoy a few rounds of The Bard's Tale every now and again, the better graphics and sound of newer RPGs make them much easier for me to get into. I don't have to "suspend my disbelief" with gorgeous CG cut scenes of Xenosaga as I sometimes have to when battling the pixilated imps of Final Fantasy. Still, in this day and age when most VRPGs and CRPGs lead the player down a forced path of story points in such a formulaic fashion, it's quite refreshing to get into an older game where players are free to do almost anything they choose.

Ultimately, what does this all mean for the CRPG and VRPG genres? Are they going to turn into multiple choice collections of cut scenes with little interaction? Probably not; as much as some players enjoy being dazzled by a great story and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, it is ultimately the gameplay that keeps a gamer interested in his or her favorite game. You don't enjoy Wizardry just because of the stunning monochromatic orcs--you enjoy it because of the time when your characters were turning around a corner only to face a pack of banshees and barely survived to tell the tale. VRPGs and CRPGs will evolve in their gameplay style over time, but the fundamentals of battling monsters to get your avatars stronger will remain the same.

I truly hope upon reading this article that some of you dig through your musty collection of classic RPGs and play through a few of them again, perhaps having a different perspective than before. Also, for those of you who just recently started playing RPGs (and those of you who haven't), maybe you will be inspired to play through some of the classics and gain a new appreciation for modern RPGs.

If you have any comments on the article (was I as clever as a wizard or as daft as an slime?), send me an e-mail or post comments in the message area below.


1 Editor's note: This definition would seem to exclude RPGs without an overall quest or story-arc, though I suppose gaining experience or accumulating wealth might be considered "quests."

2 This statistic, as well as all the release dates for the various games in this article, come from the wonderful Website Moby Games. It's basically the equivalent of the Internet Movie Database for video games and is a great resource.

3 This is from an interview I did with Feargus Urquhart for E-Boredom.

4 This is from an interview I did with Tom Hall for E-Boredom.

5 Editor's note: This game was re-released as ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS CLOUDY MOUNTAIN Cartridge in 1983.

For Further Reading

While I did not quote directly from the following books, I did use them as reference when I was writing this article... Check them out if you would like to read more on the subject of video game history.

Borland, John and Brad King. Dungeons & Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic. Emeryville: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

DeMaria, Rusel and Johnny L. Wilson. High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. Berkley: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games. Roseville: Prima Publishing, 2001.

Hot Topic - Emulation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Pt. 1 (Emulation vs. Original Hardware)

Each Issue's Hot Topic features brief commentary from the Armchair Arcade editors on an issue currently in the news...

This issue's Hot Topic is
"Emulation vs. Original Hardware"

The next two hot topics will concern the emulation of classic game systems on modern PC's and consoles. This is a controversial issue for most fans of retrogaming, because the only way we can get access to certain classic platforms and machines is via emulation and unauthorized (and usually copyrighted) ROM files. Furthermore, there is the more important issue of playability--some argue that it's just not the same to play a retrogame via PC emulation. Perhaps an even bigger controversy surrounds the emulation of modern consoles on PC's. Many emulation advocates stop short of saying that emulating games currently in production is ethically acceptable.

In this Hot Topic, we will specifically discuss "Emulation vs. Original Hardware." In other words, what are the advantages of playing a game on its original hardware versus emulating it on a PC or other system?

Matt Barton, Editor: Let me offer some background before I try to answer this question. I grew up playing games on Commodore computers, starting with a Vic-20 when I was 5 and working my way up to an Amiga 3000 when I was 15. I never owned a console until my adult years, though I had plenty of opportunities to play Nintendo and Super Nintendo games at my friends' houses.

Now, it's important to realize that Commodore computers were vastly different from their contemporary IBM-compatibles (I still occasionally refer to PCs as "clones," though my thinking has changed significantly regarding proprietary hardware). The key difference between, say, a Commodore 64 and a IBM PCjr was the advanced gameplay. To put it simply, I could attach the exact same joystick controller to my C-64 that my friends used for their Atari 2600's. Furthermore, the C-64's and most Amiga computers could be hooked up to televisions instead of a monitor; thus, there really wasn't a huge difference (from a gameplay perspective) between playing games on these computers versus playing them on a dedicated game console.

Commodore 64c. Emulation for the Commodore 64 is quite advanced, but the unusual keyboard layout of the original system makes for some confusion.
Commodore 64c. Emulation for the Commodore 64 is quite advanced, but

the unusual keyboard layout of the original system makes for some confusion.

Now, another benefit of Commodore computers was an abundance of good games. All of the important arcade games were present in one form or another. Sure, we didn't have Super Mario Bros., but we did have Great Giana Sisters, which in my opinion is still one heck of a game.

Anyway, I feel that growing up with Commodore computers instead of game consoles has given me little ability to appreciate the merits of a good game console. There is nothing nostalgic for me in playing a game "on a real SNES," and I feel quite happy playing these games with ZSNES on my PC. As far as arcade games are concerned, I did have a problem at first—the PC joysticks just aren't up to the task. If you've ever tried playing Donkey Kong with a flight-stick style controller, you know what I'm talking about. However, I solved this problem by purchasing a dual X-Arcade controller, which is simply the best controller I've ever owned for any computer, period.

I have emulators on my PC for NES, SNES, Sega Master System (SMS), Genesis, Commodore 64, Amiga, Magnavox Odyssey, Atari consoles and computers, TRS-80, and, of course, MAME (arcade). Never in my life have I had access to so many games on so many different systems. I have at least a thousand games sitting on my hard drive that I've never even booted up! When I'm in the mood to play games on my television, I look to my Dreamcast, which I picked up for $20 at a local Electronics Boutique store. The Dreamcast has plenty of nice games, but I use it mostly for emulating (almost flawlessly) NES and SMS games. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the Dreamcast still doesn't emulate the SNES very well, but I don't really mind playing SNES games on my PC using my X-Arcade.

Coleco ColecoVision Expansion Module #2.  Turbo can be played quite easily through emulation, but is it really the same without one of the first console steering wheels?  On the plus side, emulation doesn't require batteries like the original module does...
Coleco ColecoVision Expansion Module #2. Turbo can be played quite easily

through emulation, but is it really the same without one of the first console

steering wheels? On the plus side, emulation doesn't require batteries like

the original module does...

About six months ago I happened by a flea market vendor that specialized in classic hardware. I bought an Amiga 1200 and several Commodore 64 accessories. I was entertaining the notion of tinkering around with these systems simply for nostalgic purposes. However, I started asking myself why I was bothering with these old systems. Was it really worth tracking down software and other necessary accessories when I could just as easily play all the games on my PC via emulation? I was also turned off by the "vulture" like collectors on eBay and the like; I didn't want to give my money to these people who were so determined to cash in on somebody else's nostalgia. Eventually, I decided to give up the collection and sold the 1200. The C-64 accessories weren't even worth what I paid for them ($20 for two 1541s and a tape drive), so they're still sitting here under my desk.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate that the machines themselves have historic value as well as nostalgic. If I were ever to visit Bill's home in New Jersey, I'd hope to spend at least a few hours (if not days!) browsing his massive collection and booting up a few classics just for the heck of it. As for now, though, I'm quite satisfied playing all these games via emulation.

Bill Loguidice, Editor: Since we'll be talking about the ethics of unlicensed emulation next issue, I'll make my comments for this "Hot Topic" under the hypothetical assumption that access to the software (ROM's, image files, etc.) for use in emulators on modern PC's and consoles is the same as using originals. In other words, in my hypothetical scenario, my actually owning the original software is the same as my pulling a virtual copy (hereafter referred to as a "ROM" for convenience) off a Website. Further, owning physical copies of original software - say a 5.25" floppy disk that contains either an original copy or a "cracked" (forcefully removed copy protection) copy of commercial software - will fall under the same classification.

Mattel Intellivision II with Intellivoice.
Mattel Intellivision II with Intellivoice. It's been notoriously difficult for even

official emulation to properly translate the controls of the system's unusual

controllers. Critics consider the use of alternate controllers a blessing, which

is really only possible through emulation. Speech volume is controlled directly

from the Intellivoice, creating an effect not possible in emulation.

From as far back as I can remember - the mid-1970's - I was into electronics and gadgets, specifically being fascinated with my mom's pocket calculator around age three. By the time I was five, I had long since graduated to my parents' Pong console from Sears, often begging to have it hooked up to the television. A few years later I bought my first Atari 2600 (a "woody" of course) with my Communion money, then soon thereafter, received my first computer, a Commodore Vic-20. Even though my parents sold off a lot of that original stuff, there was always more to follow, like a Commodore 64 and Coleco ColecoVision. It reached a point where selling the old stuff was no longer an option I would "allow" my parents to pursue (not that I wanted to do it previously). I began to not only want to acquire new stuff, but begin to grow my current "collection," whether I immediately realized it or not. Indeed, I have been an active classic game and computer collector since the mid-1980's, before there really was such a thing. Today, with a house and family of my own, I not only have most current systems - consoles and PC's - throughout the house, but an entire bedroom (my "workshop") dedicated to my current collection, which features dozens of systems with countless software, books and accessories (among other things). So that's where I'm coming from--there's something obviously inherently appealing to me about the physical item.

How do I express to someone the feelings the beep of a real booting Apple II disk drive elicits within? Or the clanking of a Commodore 64's disk drive as it tries to read a heavily copy protected disk? Or looking at a real GCE Vectrex monitor, in its true vector glory? Or that wonderfully aromatic "presence" my whole workshop has as I open the door and enter for the first time in a few days? Real nostalgia is a tangible thing. I prefer physical books to digital books, and yes, I prefer physical computer and videogame hardware to digital simulations.

Now, emulation on a PC or recent console has its place--it's convenient that it's accessible from something you presently use regularly anyway, with the added bonus of requiring no additional physical space; you can try a lot of different software titles you may never have access to; and the cost, often nothing, is hard to beat. With that said, emulation is nothing more than a bonus, an adjunct, to the real thing.

GCE Vectrex.  The Vectrex's custom vector monitor makes true emulation impossible.  However, emulation is considerably cheaper than trying to locate working Vectrex units.
GCE Vectrex. The Vectrex's custom vector monitor

makes true emulation impossible. However,

emulation is considerably cheaper than trying

to locate working Vectrex units.

Emulation not only can't duplicate the feel of another system's keyboard, it also lacks the ability to physically match the original's layout. Ever try to figure out which key on your PC's keyboard is mapped to what key on the system it's emulating? Kind of ruins the illusion, doesn't it? A computer mouse is not an equivalent of an Atari paddle controller. A modern console's gamepad is not a good match for an Intellivision's specialized controller. In short, emulation merely does its best to match the utility, not the reality or personality of the original. And speaking of personality, there's a reason why some of the most widely emulated games - the classic Infocom text adventures like Zork - still command such a high price when a complete boxed version goes up for sale. Original boxes, manuals and other goodies - especially for RPG's (Role Playing Games) and the aforementioned text adventures - often make a huge difference in getting the most out of the play experience. In fact, this ties in to what I conclude with in the next paragraph, which is the most damning case against emulation...

Simply put, you can never be 100% sure that what you're playing is actually how the developer designed the final product. If a game is for the Mattel Aquarius, for instance, you can always be sure that the programmer designed it for the actual Mattel Aquarius - with its "chiclet" keyboard and Intellivision-like disc controllers - not your 2004 multimedia PC with ergonomic full-stroke keyboard and digital gamepad. Further, you can never be sure that your emulator is not making some subtle change to the control, the frame rate, the sound, the visuals, whatever, that will affect your impressions. You can never have total control over all of the variables, be they the quality of the emulator's code, the type of speakers that you use, your display device, your controllers, whether something in the original packaging was important, whatever. The list goes on. With the software - ideally with the original packaging - running on the original hardware , you can be confident that a game will suck because it genuinely sucks, not because of some possibly unknown factor introduced 20 years later.

David Torre, Assistant Editor: I owe probably my entire drive to collect classic games to my discovery of NES emulators for the PC. Once I started building my collection of NES games and accessories, I headed over to my favorite emulation message board to declare that "the best NES emulation was the real thing." I received a near-universal backlash from some of the regulars, suggesting that in all my nostalgia, I had glossed over some disadvantages of playing on the authentic hardware: dirty cartridges and worn connectors that led to blinking screens, a tiny controller that was much too small for my adult hands, and no save states. Certainly these are problems solved by emulating this particular system on the PC, but is it worth it?

For a person who grew up loving this Nintendo system, it bothers me that each NES emulator has a slightly different color palette and not a single one of them seems right. You might not have to clean the cartridges when you load up a game in your favorite emulator, but what about that esoteric unlicensed game that uses a bizarre mapper and won't play? Are you really going to search for another emulator that plays that game correctly? Sure, you could use a save state after you make it through a difficult area in Ninja Gaiden, but is not the challenge diminished each time you do that? Emulators may be downright convienent in a lot of ways, but I feel that oftentimes the more someone gets into a particular platform, the less acceptable it becomes for that someone to accept anything less than the original.

Some people brag about having hard drives full of music, movies, and games--I'd prefer to have something I can touch. To me, a ROM is simply something that is intangible and abstract. I want a pretty box I can put on my shelf. Call me nostalgic, but wouldn't it be cool to have boxes for all your classic games hung up on the wall so it looks like a 1980's Toys "R" Us?

Some might conclude from my tone that I'm downplaying the importance of emulation. I think emulation serves an incredibly important purpose--it ensures that games for obsolete systems can still be played even when every piece of original hardware fails. Of course, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to preserve the original hardware as long as possible. A lot of what makes collecting the real thing worthwhile is capturing more of the culture of classic gaming. A game by itself won't give you a complete image of that culture, but collecting things like magazines, manuals, patches and toys will certainly give you a better picture.

What's your opinion? We'd love to hear from you. Tell us your own emulation story below or register for our free discussion forums!

On Family Gaming

Author: Matt Barton
Editing: David Torre
Online Layout: Matt Barton
Special Thanks: Andrew Bub

Creative Commons License
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Anyone caring to browse the videogames on the shelves of their local Electronics Boutique can easily pick out the target demographic these fine products are designed to captivate: Young boys just shy of the age of accountability (somewhere between 12 and 42). Most modern games concern subjects that most of us two-legged jars of testosterone can handily relate to—football, martial arts, World War II, fighter jets, evil space mutants, and swords and sorcery. Games that girls and especially older women can relate to, though, are about as abundant as vegetarian options at a Texas barbecue. Chances are that if you happen to spot a female on a videogame box, she's nearly naked save for that "I want you, you big honking super ninja" expression on her pretty little pixilated face. If she's feminist enough to pack a weapon, she's still feminine enough to expose a sincerely generous décolletage and plenty of luscious leg while doing so. Of course, there are a few titles whose appeal extends beyond the male domain; there are those SIMS games, for instance, and we've all seen Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover sitting next to the "Learn Spanish" and "Design-Your-House" applications, though it's debatable whether this "make-up simulator" could accurately be called a game. There are also plenty of games for kids, including Vivendi's Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue and THQ's SpongeBob Squarepants: The Battle for Bikini Bottom. Yeah, I didn't think you'd be rushing out to add these games to your collection—these are the kind of games non-gaming parents buy for their kids because Doom 3 looked a little too scary, though it's debatable whether Doom 3 is truly more harmful to a child's developing psyche than a product called SpongeBob Squarepants.

A picture of Sponebob Squarepants.
Fun for the whole family?

© Vivendi International

According to the average modern gamer, there's certainly nothing wrong with the market—we've got good games for anyone bold and brazen enough to pick up a controller and hit a START button, even if all the non-boy games are as embarrassing as honeymoon flatulence. However, not all gamers are happy with this stinky situation. Despite the vast assortment of videogames and systems, there is still the occasional scruffy-looking nerf herder one finds stamping his foot in the middle of a Game Stop and raising enough cane to damage the sugar economy of Barbados. I'm talking about some guy in his mid-to-late thirties; balding on top, a little extra padding around the middle—okay, a LOT of extra padding—and two wide-eyed offspring, boy and girl, attached to each hand1. A woman standing just outside the store and suddenly very interested in a potted plant, might be his wife; she certainly looks embarrassed enough to be. "I said the family games," you hear her husband yell at the disgruntled clerk, "not this Barbie and SpongeBob bullshit! I want a game we all can play! The whole family! Is that too much to ask?"

What in the name of NVIDIA is this chucklehead so upset about?

As it turns out, our frustrated father of two isn't quite as deranged as some may think; at least not on account of his demand for a good, fun, family game. You see, videogames haven't always been so exquisitely classifiable into nice, neat marketing niches, nor have so many of them been marketed exclusively at those lucky enough to own a penis. Indeed, as most of us know who grew up in the late 70s and early 80s, when videogames first appeared on the scene, we gamers had to wait our turn—and yes, sometimes grandma stole an extra one. Junior wasn't the only one watching with eager eyes and twitching hands as Dad tried to figure out how to hook the Pong machine to the RF modulator. Indeed, often enough, Mom got impatient, pushed him out of the way, put the TV on the right channel (3), then sent old "Darling Will-ya" out to dispose of the accumulated cardboard boxes and Styrofoam packaging while she clobbered kids 1 and 2 in five straight matches of some pretty furious ponging. By the time Dad made it back in, his six-year old daughter was daring him to take her on, and he was scared.

If Junior had announced that the game was his and his alone; and that mom and sis ought to be out doing girlie things—well, I doubt old Junior would still be around to play Doom 3 today. Despite what injured pride he may have suffered by losing to his little sister, our good boy learned that it's better to pass a game paddle than be on the wrong end of a wooden one. Pong wasn't just for boys; it was truly fun for the entire family. Of course, the venerable old Pong game wasn't the only game that shares this quality. One of the most popular games of all time, and which 9 times out of 10 will be the only game in those bars and restaurants that still feel compelled to provide some digital recreation--Ms. Pac-Man--is still just as solidly entertaining for girls as boys. Indeed, many a young boy has been surprised by a mom, who, while never giving his latest Xbox graphics-festival a second glance, will promptly beat his best score if he dares show her Namco Museum on his GameBoy Advance. Ms. Pac-Man, like Pong, is far wider in its appeal that most games are today. The same can be said for nearly all classic videogames; anyone who's smart enough to leave a tip at a sushi bar knows better than to underestimate the skill of moms at games like Frogger, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Tetris. To tell you the honest truth, I still think my fiancée lets me win at Super Mario Bros., though I've lied to her repeatedly about my manly ability to boldly admit when I'm outmatched. It's just plain wrong to assume that these games are more fun or more suited to male audiences than female ones, and it's not necessarily a bad thing when your eight-year old niece can lick your best score at all of them.

Atari Ad.
This ad is targeted at parents and emphasizes family gaming.

Image scanned and cleaned up by Duane Alan Hahn from the F of i

What happened to games that had such wide appeal? Why are so many modern games targeted at a very narrow demographic of the population, and incapable of the sort of universal success enjoyed by the classics?

The problem, as I see it, is that game developers have found it easier to market games for specific audiences than for general ones. Perhaps one of the first questions an aspiring game-maker hears is, "Where would we file this title on the shelf?" Now, I reckon that most women want to play Medal of Honor and Halo about as badly as I want to sit through a "chick flick" like The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. A movie that's made specifically for women will probably not be much fun for a guy and vice versa, yet clumsy efforts to "add something for the opposite sex" are usually laughable and better off omitted—just consider the cringe-worthy "romantic" scenes in so many action flicks.

The truth is, not many guys want to watch a "chick flick," not many gals want to watch a "macho movie," and hardly anybody but your 8-year old nephew wants to see that sorry stuff that passes for modern "family films." The reason is simple: These films are made to appeal to a very definite and narrow audience; the "target demographic." From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to fit a film, book, or game into a narrow but well-established genre. The reason is simple: People are more willing to buy something that seems familiar to them than to risk money and time on something new. People already know Klingons, Romulans, and warp speed drives; why bother learning a whole new vocabulary? Fans of science fiction novels will probably be nodding at this point; it's a sad thing when the majority of readers and publishers are afraid to try new authors and the hottest thing going are behemoth franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek novels. If the bile rises in the back of your throat every time you see Star Trek: Voyager novels hogging the science fiction shelf at your local bookstore, you can appreciate what I'm talking about here. Since science fiction author Spider Robinson has already written a great rant on this subject, I'll refer to you him.

Only the very finest and brilliant directors and writers are truly able to attract the interest of a wider group—it's one thing for a filmmaker to proclaim a film is "fun for the whole family," quite another to keep said family attached to the edge of a movie seat during such films without recourse to SuperGlue. Yet, when a director really does accomplish this feat, we leave a theater as excited to tell our grandma as our kid brother—"You've just got to see Shrek." "Hurry up and see Little Nemo before it leaves the theater." "How many times have you seen Titanic?"

I told everyone that if we want to reach the mass market in this industry we're going to have to become part of the main stream and stop being such nerds. I recommended that they go home, meet their neighbors, get married, have kids and to stop spending all their time alone in front of computers. I said something pompous like "Only when our products come out of a deep connection with real-life will they resonate with the mass market."
--Dani Bunten Berry, creator of M.U.L.E.

While it's easy to pick out films that'll pretty much entertain the oxygen out of most chromosome-carrying members of homo sapiens regardless of age, race, or orientation, I challenge my readers to think of as many modern games in as many minutes. Now, I'm not saying that we don't have a lot to be proud of these days, but most of our most celebrated accomplishments, namely advancements in graphics, don't mean much to most "soft core" gamers, if by that term we mean people who don't have Doom 3 installed on their boutique-built holodeck. It's really hard for most of these hard-core types to understand why so many of us stuck out here in meatspace neither know nor care that their new VPU has "the most advanced pixel shader engine with up to 16 parallel pixel pipelines capable of an incredible 6 gigapixels/second fill rate in full precision!" Truth be told, if you've got time enough to figure out what all that means, you probably got more time on your hands than the average soccer mom—and chances are time's not all you've got on those hands.

The question that I'm trying to answer in this essay is why so many older games appealed to whole families, whereas almost every modern game appeals to a narrow demographic. This could easily involve a discussion about abstraction and avatars, but I want to focus on something a lot less academic—namely, the fun factor and the importance of solid gameplay. Generally speaking, we've seen the same specialization trends occurring in videogame production that we've seen almost everywhere else: There are more and more types of products and services for more and more types of people, but fewer products and services for everyone. What we lose in this transition, and what I hope we can still make some efforts to conserve, are those videogames that really can attract the interest of the whole family. My bias, which I will state most clearly for the critics, is that the world's best games, like the world's best movies, are always those that do manage to entertain a broad audience and are not limited to a specific demographic.

I'm limiting my discussion here to home gaming via computer or game console, since that's where the majority of family gaming took place during the 80s.

As a freelance game critic, who had just become a parent, I realized something: I play every game that comes out. I read most websites, most magazines, and am privy to super-secret press releases. But when I walk into Toys R Us, Best Buy, Target, and look at the games for the kiddies.... I have no clue what's good and what's bad. I realized that the game press has (almost) completely ignored the parents among its readership. For shame!
--Andrew S. Bub, Gamerdad

The Pong Years

The first home videogames were the Magnavox Odyssey (1972) and Atari Pong (1975). Both units seem almost ridiculously low-tech and simple today (the Odyssey wasn't even a digital device), but they were as exciting in the seventies as miniskirts—well, maybe not that exciting, but they were definitely instrumental in bringing the joy of videogames to American families. Soon afterward, a horde of Pong clones appeared, many carrying the familiar slogan: "Fun for the entire family." For once, the phrase was used accurately. Hundreds of thousands of American families spent countless hours sitting in front of televisions that had suddenly transformed into an interactive family activity.

Wizard Ad.
The box of an early PONG style game. Note the family gaming emphasis.

Despite the minor variations among the hundreds of Pong clones, the concept remains the same: "Avoid Missing Ball for High Score." Most Pong games are similar to tennis; players control paddles that move up and down to intercept a ball which bounces back and forth. The graphics are as simple as you can get—just blocks for the paddles and a small block for the ball. Sound is either non-existent or limited to a ping. Nevertheless, as primitive as this unit would appear today alongside a Sony PlayStation or a Microsoft Xbox, the game was a colossal hit and established a new industry that now trumps even Hollywood in terms of sales.

Why was Pong so successful? Well, to be honest, I think it's fair to admit that a large part of this unit's popularity was due to novelty value. This was a time when most people thought VCRs were just the grooviest thing ever, and just being able to do something with a television besides watching mind numbing sitcoms and Hawaii Five-O was nothing short of a revolution. Television had become something you could do as well as watch. If you can imagine a new device to turn your microwave oven into a personal teleportation device, then you realize just how exciting all this stuff was to people who'd never imagined such a thing was possible. Still, there's more going on here than just novelty value--Pong is a prime example of abstraction in videogames; what you get are big blocks, small blocks, and an illusion of motion—we might almost call it "naked gameplay." I choose the term "naked" very deliberately, of course, since I'm trying to convey the notion here of a game stripped of all ornamentation and obfuscation. With Pong, we miss out on antialiasing, anisotropic filtering, Phong shading, fog effects, texture lighting, and even parallax scrolling. Isn't it nice?

What you do get with Pong is something that's about as close to "pure gameplay" as you can get and not be out bouncing a ball or tossing a Frisbee. Pong is, first and foremost, an activity; it's not a virtual world and doesn't even pretend to be. In 1975, people realized that they could get all the stories they wanted just by watching television. People who bought Pong didn't do so because of the awesome screenshots on the back of the box. People bought it because it was new, unique, and, by God, it was fun to play. However, there was a single catch: Pong, in itself, is excruciatingly boring. You wouldn't want to spend ten minutes playing this game all by your lonesome. Watching lunchroom ladies scrape the burnt spaghetti sauce off the bottom of a ten-gallon boiler is a more fulfilling way to spend your afternoon. If you were to somehow actually play this game for a few hours by yourself and then look at the clock, you'd be reduced to tears as you thought about how worthless and meaningless your pathetic life had become, and rightly so. Pong ain't a one-player game.

Playing Pong with your family, on the other hand, is a different bucket of chips. You see, the fun is not so much what's happening on the screen, but what's happening to you and your family when they're spinning those dials on their paddles, their hands sweating, their eyes straining, their teeth biting down on their tongues. Is this game primitive? Hell, yes, it's primitive, but so is that silly human instinct to do something with our time besides working for the man. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the best graphics card ever made can't make a game fun. Pong, on the other hand, has more fun packed into a handful of 70s era microchips than most modern games can manage with gigabytes of hard drive space and Pentiums faster than the onboard computers of Nasa's Apollo spacecraft. But the fun is not in the chips, just as the fun of basketball isn't in the ball or the hoops. The fun of these crusty old videogames comes out when you're eight years old, and you just beat your dad with everyone else in the room watching. The fun is hearing your mom yell "Goal!" and smack you down just after you declared you had no real competition. Playing Pong, you start to realize something that's a good bit more important than the number of simultaneous colors displayable on a high-resolution monitor.

The true fun of videogames isn't graphics. It isn't a masterful story arc, a well-acted cut-scene, or even a cute bouncy character that's more recognizable than Mickey Mouse. The true fun of videogames is having the people you love most in the world gathered around a television set, all laughing, cursing ("shucks" or "shit" depending on your family's relationship with God Almighty), and about as damnably happy as you're ever going to be, even if you're too damn stupid to realize it until much later--When it's all gone, and the fun that once held your family together is just one more item sold at a garage sale, like some obsolete, wood-grained Pong unit that nobody wants anymore.

Family Gaming on Classic Game Consoles

As most game historians are well aware, a lot was going on in the videogame market of the early 80s. People soon caught on to the fact that all "365 Games" in their off-brand pong machines were just silly variations of the same game, and most of us were convinced that there were greater things on the horizon. The time had come for Atari's popular 2600 videogame system, which was soon followed by a wave of me-too units, all boasting how much better they were than the competition (and some were!). I don't want too spend time discussing the technical differences among all these systems, though; you've got Bill Loguidice's amazing System Matrix for that purpose. What I do want to focus on here is the simple fact that a great many of the games for these systems encouraged or even required multiple players. Now, while some of us were lucky enough to have a constant supply of friends dropping in for a few rounds of Combat, the rest of us relied on our genetic associates, namely Mom, Dad, and whatever siblings could be coaxed into having a good time.

A screenshot of Combat.
The pack-in game for the Atari 2600, Combat, does not allow solo play.

That is, of course, unless you want to play "blow up the immobilized tank."

Atari shipped its original 2600 game system with a humble little game called Combat, a title that required two players. Now, it may strike some readers as odd that a game system would ship with a game that couldn't be played by one boy alone in his room. Yet, that's precisely what Atari did, and Combat remains one of those strange games whose lasting appeal can only be blamed on that mysterious "fun factor."

Combat pits two players in a deadly battle of speed, accuracy, and strategy. The object is simple: Shoot your enemy. The other "games" on the cartridge are variations on this theme; players tired of tanks can fly bi-planes or jets instead. I preferred the tank level, however, since the walls provide a nice strategic element missed in the other levels. Like Pong, Combat is not a game that requires an instruction manual or a tutorial to play, nor does it ask for a significant time investment. The difficulty of the game is entirely dependent on the skill of your opponent, and only dead tank captains underestimate their moms and sisters. Other game consoles released around this time also included multiplayer pack-in games. The Intellivision (1980) shipped with Las Vegas Poker and Blackjack, which features a two-player mode, and the Colecovision's (1982) pack-in, Donkey Kong, offers the same two-player option as the arcade version. Nintendo shipped both its original and Super Nintendo systems with one or two player Super Mario games. To my knowledge, Combat remains the only pack-in game in history that required two players. Many games on classic systems allow for multiple players, and even though popular titles like Ladybug, Pitfall! and Frogger are typically described as "one player" games, short gameplay sessions made almost all games eminently suitable for a whole family of gamers. It's called "It's my turn, hand me that joystick."

My wife and I had a Lady Bug high-score competition with another couple that lasted months. My wife and I would take turns running up the highest score we could in one sitting, then call up our friends and give them the score to beat. They would do the same and back and forth it would go for weeks and weeks. Ah, the good old days.
--Martin Parrott, AA Regular

Of course, games for early systems like the Atari 2600 were by necessity very simple, but one very important point I'm trying to make here is that simplicity does not also imply obsolescence. Unlike so many other game theorists and critics, I do not posit a "Timeline of Progress" for the purpose of showing how much better games became as engineers cranked out more sophisticated hardware. In my mind, Pong and Combat remain just as appropriate for family gaming today as they did back in the early 80s. These games are successful because they do not immerse players in a gaming world, but rather in a gaming activity. Indeed, as many retrogaming enthusiasts will be quick to point out, in many ways an Atari 2600 is still a finer videogame system than modern day consoles. Advanced graphics, sound, and animation may add to the fun and atmosphere of a game, but only in the way that shiny new uniforms and a magnificent ball court add to the game of basketball.

Playing ATARI games can be very good for kids (providing they've done their homework and cleaned their bedrooms). For one thing, it's time spent in the home, with the family. Increasing hand-eye coordination and developing a longer attention span. Learning how to be a good loser—and more importantly, a good winner. And finally, having fun while preparing for the future.
--Atari 2600 Advertisement

Family Gaming on Classic Computers

Many folks unfamiliar with gaming history find the concept of multiplayer computer games rather odd. That's because most modern PC games are designed for only one player, and there are several reasons for this. One is that modern PCs require a monitor, and the typical 17" model makes it difficult to see the action at a distance (say, from the couch). Anyone who's ever tried to huddle four people around a PC is aware of this problem. Another obstacle modern PCs pose to family gaming is limited controller options. Most PCs are equipped with only two input devices—a keyboard and a mouse. Usually these input devices are tethered fairly closely to the computer, and passing a mouse from player to player is impractical. The only solution is the "hot-seat," that is, to switch seats with the person in front of the computer. This game of musical chairs quickly gets tedious. Even if players own a joystick or joypad, there is typically only one of them, though the rise of USB ports may make it more common to see multiple joypads attached to the same computer. A third and perhaps more important problem is the expense of a good gaming rig; even though PCs have fallen in price, they are a far greater investment for most families than a game console. Add to this the problems of technical system requirements, fragile components, and tedious installation processes and you can understand why family gaming on modern PCs is a very rare thing indeed. In short, true family gaming with a modern PC is a difficult business.

Most of these characteristics are not shared by vintage computers, like the Commodore 64 or Atari 8-Bit computers. The Commodore 64 was not much more expensive than the game consoles of its day, yet sported quality arcade-style controllers and games available on cartridges (plug and play). Unlike modern PCs with their bewildering hardware and software options, most vintage computers all shared the same basic hardware and the operating system was almost a non-issue for most casual users; inserting a cartridge or typing Load"*",8,1 are certainly not difficult enough procedures to warrant the publication of a Dummies guide. Even though some games required quite a while to load from a data tape or disk, getting a game up and running was seductively simple.

However, perhaps the chief advantage classic computers like the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit computers had for family gaming was that they could be attached to a television instead of a pricey and much smaller computer monitor. Since the single television in most homes was located in the living room, many classic games for these systems were designed to entertain the whole family. Though there are countless games I could choose to illustrate this point, I shall restrict myself to one of my family's personal favorites, Ozark Software's M.U.L.E. (1983), which was published by Electronic Arts and ported to a wealth of systems including the Atari 800, Commodore 64, IBM PCJr., and the Nintendo Entertainment System.

M.U.L.E. is a fascinating game for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was programmed by a fellow named Dan Bunten who later underwent a sex-change operation to become "Dani Bunten Berry." Thus, depending on your personal philosophy regarding such changes, M.U.L.E. is one of the first classic games created by a woman. Let's not risk the irony being lost on our beloved readers: One of the truly classic family videogames was created by a transsexual!

A screenshot of MULE.
M.U.L.E. title screen, C-64 version. Note the variety of avatars.

This bit of trivia isn't the only thing that makes M.U.L.E. stand out. It's also one of the few multiplayer games that successfully combines arcade action and economic strategy. Like most truly wonderful and universally appealing games, M.U.L.E. is "easy to learn, yet hard to master." M.U.L.E. is a four-player economic strategy game set in the far future on an isolated planetary colony. Each round (12 total), players must choose property, outfit it with either a mule equipped for food (affects a player's time limit per round), energy (required for any mule production except for energy), smithore (used by the store for making more mules), or crystite (the only pure luxury produced by the colony) production. When this is accomplished, players scurry back to the pub to win money gambling, then sit back and wait to see their production results. At the end of each round, players enter "trading" mode, in which players can buy or sell commodities, either from the store or from other players. Scarcity determines the value of each commodity; if the colony is suffering from a food shortage, a player specializing in farming stands to make a bundle. Random events, like cosmic storms, pirate raids, or fires can seriously affect a player's chances of economic prosperity. Once a player learns the basics (buy and outfit mules, establish production, and buy and sell goods), the learning curve rises sharply. Should a player produce more energy or risk a crystite mine? Is it better to sell all that food now, or let the other players' supplies run out and thus cause a spike in demand? Some players seem to get ahead by hunting the mountain wampus, who hides out near one of the mountain ranges.

What's even more amazing and unlikely about M.U.L.E. is that it's almost as much fun to watch other player's take their turns as it is to play your own. The merciless time-limit ticks maddeningly towards the end of a turn, and it's downright pleasurable to watch your dad's mule run-off before he makes it to that property in the far right corner. It's also helpful to keep an eye on the results of the assayer's office; maybe you can claim that high-crystite property your mom discovered during her turn for yourself!

A screenshot of the C-64 version of MULE.
M.U.L.E.'s trading screen. The pacing of this game is flawless. Some parts

allow all but one player to rest, whereas others require everyone's input.

Like the other games I've talked about, M.U.L.E.'s appeal is certainly not due to its graphics. Even the NES version is surprisingly Spartan compared to its contemporary games. Strangely, efforts to bring the M.U.L.E. concept "up-to-date" with enhanced graphics have failed miserably. Does anyone remember Linel's Traders game for the Amiga, for instance? However, an independent game publisher named Gilligames has released a game called Space Horse which the author, Todd M. Gillissie, claims is inspired by its predecessor. Indeed, Gillissie approached Electronic Arts to enquire about securing the rights to use the M.U.L.E. title, but was not successful. The surviving members of the original M.U.L.E. team claim that Spacehorse is the best clone to date.

The Present State of Family Gaming

As the 80s blended into the 90s, we saw fewer true family games and more one-player titles, particularly on computers. There are at least three reasons for this worth exploring: One, videogames for home systems were abandoning their video arcade roots; two, games became more aesthetic and mechanical; three, videogame marketing began to focus mostly on boys.

The early home videogames were either ports of popular arcade titles or were "inspired" by those titles: Pitfall!, Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Space Invaders. The exciting stuff was happening in the arcades, and the first home consoles were efforts to bring that experience to the home. Now, what's important to realize about arcade machines is that they are designed purely to make money. That means getting as many quarters into the cashbox in as short a time as possible. To accomplish this, game makers tried to make their games difficult enough to keep playtimes well under five minutes, but simple enough to learn in just a few minutes or even seconds. A perfect example of this concept is Atari's Computer Space versus their far more popular Pong game. Computer Space was very difficult to learn and play and was a commercial disaster. As Nolan Bushnell put it, "Nobody wants to read an encyclopedia to play a game2." Pong was the complete opposite; it was incredibly simple and its instructions could be summed up as "Avoid missing ball for score." Result? Instant success. A final trait of arcade machines worth noting is their emphasis on competition, either expressed directly as player vs. player or indirectly with a High Score table. All of these factors: brevity, simplicity, and competition, are what made the early videogames so appropriate for family gaming.

Let's take the case of a mother of two. Now, how much time do you think mom has to dedicate to learning a videogame? Oh, I'd say roughly five to ten minutes. How long does she have to drop everything and play a videogame? Oh, maybe five to ten minutes. Of the three traits of arcade games, most moms are probably least interested in the competitive aspect, yet I seem to recall my own mother going on for weeks about her Space General rating in her favorite game, Gorf, which featured both short playing times and simple gameplay. Now, let us contrast a game like Gorf with Super Mario Bros. for the NES. Granted, Super Mario Bros. is not a particularly difficult game to learn, yet it is unquestionably more complex than Gorf. Players must learn not only how to move, jump, climb, and bash through walls, but also the difference in the various power-ups and enemies. Moving around and jumping with a +-controller is much more complicated than just moving left and right with a joystick or rotating a paddle. Already, we've managed to rule out many folks who just don't want to bother learning a whole new skill. Furthermore, an average game of Super Mario Bros. lasts far longer than a round of Gorf, particularly if the player is skillful. Can a busy mom set aside thirty minutes for a round of Super Mario Bros.? Finally, though there is a score factor in Super Mario Bros., the emphasis is on completing levels and eventually the game, not just racking up points. The significance of this fact is that mom will not be able to play briefly and come away without that special feeling of fulfillment that comes from a job well done3. Of course, let's not forget here that a game of M.U.L.E. can take up to an hour or even longer. The difference is that M.U.L.E. allows up to four simultaneous players (so no one gets bored and starts getting into trouble while mom is taking a turn). Also, the frequent breaks and convenient stopping points are perfect for quick chores, like changing diapers or microwaving dinner.

A screenshot of Super Mario Bros..
Super Mario Bros. for the NES. Simple, but not simple enough.

As games "advanced," they became more complex and involved. Learning curves rose along with graphical capabilities. Mega-popular games like Civilization, Command and Conquer, Bard's Tale, and so on required exponentially more time to play and learn than older classics. Videogaming went from "wham bam, thank you ma'am" to long-term relationships.

What price, complexity? Well, for starters, most of our beloved family members discovered they simply didn't have the time to invest in these new games. With the parents out of the picture, videogaming fell into the hands of those lovely little people who don't have to work for a living: Children and teenagers. Game consoles lost their function as a "family activity" and became dedicated babysitting devices. Far from bringing families together, videogames began tearing them apart. Gamers grew to love the digital delights that could only be enjoyed in electronic solitary confinement; games became something that parents "Just didn't understand." Games stopped offering multiplayer modes and focused on making those periods of solitary confinement more like the world outside. After games had reached the "breaking point" of complexity, game marketers focused their efforts at the only people who seemed to have an interest in buying these new, more sophisticated videogames: Small children and boys (why game marketers did not continue to target girls is something of a mystery, though I suppose we could argue that the average 13 year old girl is too busy with other interests, like boys, to fool around with videogames).

Now that the reality of family gaming had disappeared, gamers desperately sought a substitute in graphical realism. Now that the real Dad, Mom, and Sis were gone, boys sought replacements in the form of smarter artificial intelligence, realistic and detailed virtual environments, and story-based games. The lone boy left on the basketball court after everyone else was gone had found a way to bring back, however imperfectly, some of the thrill of the game with the help of his imagination and a few robots.

Nowadays videogames have become so far removed from family activities that many parents blame them for tragedies like the one at Columbine. Gamers work in isolation, glued to their televisions or PC monitors. The mega-popular Doom 3 makes this self-imposed isolation a selling point; play this game alone, in the dark, with surround sound encasing you in a world far removed from your own. The raw violence of the game is sure to win the condemnation of parents anyway; it's far better for Junior if he experiences this game by himself, far away from family observation or interference.

I seem to have managed to paint a pretty dark picture of modern gaming. However, the picture is not quite as grim as this. For instance, many of the most popular games are not one-player but massive multiplayer online games like City of Heroes and Everquest. Unfortunately, since these games require a dedicated computer and internet connection, I doubt that many families will experience playing them together. Most families can't afford multiple computers in the home, even if they did have the time to learn how to play these rather complicated games.

What about family games for third generation and contemporary game consoles? The Sega Dreamcast sported four controller inputs and several games that made full use of them; some that stand out in my mind as suitable for family gaming are Wacky Races, which unfortunately suffered from several technical flaws, Chu Chu Rocket, and Worms Armageddon. Gauntlet Legends has a nice four-player cooperative mode and cartoon violence, though I suppose it might not be suitable for everyone. The Gamecube and the Xbox also feature 4 game controller inputs, though a quick glance at the Electronics Boutique offerings for both systems indicates a dearth of 4-player family games. The few gems that stand out are Super Smash Bros. Melee and the Mario Party series for the Gamecube, and Kung Fu Chaos for Xbox. These games are suitable for family gaming; hopefully we will see more of them.

Probably the most exciting family gaming taking place today began, ironically enough, in the arcades: Konami's infamous Dance Dance Revolution. I doubt my readers will need much in the way of introduction to this game; stand-alone units are helping to rejuvenate quiet arcades all over the world, and the series has made quite a splash on the PS2 and the Xbox. Dance Dance Revolution and its many sequels and spin-offs has generated quite a buzz on the gaming scene, but, perhaps more importantly, is attracting the interest of those types of people long disenfranchised from videogaming; namely, women and girls. Of course, part of the reason for the game's success is its simplicity—players "dance" by stepping on pedals that correspond to the arrows displayed on the screen. Essentially, the game is one of speed, timing, and accuracy. Simply put, it's a "dance" version of Simon and almost as popular.

Eyetoy is probably the most interesting innovation for the past 5 years. DDR is another one. These are games that you can put on, and no matter who is over, they will be interested, even Grandma.
--Andrew Bub, GamerDad

Much like PONG, DDR is not a game about graphics or immersive game worlds. Instead, the fun of this game is located squarely in its gameplay; this is gaming as a physical activity, not a virtual environment. Indeed, though all versions sport nice graphical layouts, it's not difficult to imagine this game being a success if the graphics were limited to Pong-like graphics. This simplicity is essential for getting "non-gamer" types into the game; anyone passing by the game will grasp the essence of its gameplay. Parents like the game because it's good exercise; it gets the family off the couch and into a fun, competitive activity. DDR is one of those games that can help sell a game console to people who normally would never consider such a thing; it's a brilliant game that I wish I had thought of first. If you can't have fun with DDR, you take yourself way too seriously.

Another great family game is Sony's EyeToy for the PS2. The EyeToy is a small camera that sits on top of the television and records the players' faces, arms, legs, or whatever other body part they want to play with. It really does "put the player in the game." The first game made exclusively for the device, Play, is actually a collection of 12-mini games ranging from dance titles to silly kid's games. One game requires a player to keep a soccer ball off the ground using only his head while another has kids clean the fog off a bathroom mirror. Another title, Groove, is similar to DDR. The game plays tunes and asks players to move their arms or head to reach certain contacts (which appear above or beside the player's own image on the television.) Planned games include a family-style board game called Saru EyeToy and a baseball game. Most reviews I read of the EyeToy were overwhelmingly positive and corroborated Sony's claim that it was indeed fun for the whole family. Also, Konami's new Dance Dance Revolution Extreme for the PS2 offers support for the device. This might very well be a perfect marriage of two exciting family games.

Finally, Nintendo is due to release Donkey Konga for its GameCube system at the end of September. This game, which requires special "conga" controllers, allows up to four players to clap and drum together to help Donkey and Diddy Kong become famous musicians—or just jam out on some cool bongos. Much like the games mentioned above, Donkey Konga will primarily be a game of timing and rhythm. In the user comments on I noticed one enthusiastic previewer had remarked that even his mom loved the game. Perhaps Donkey Konga will help establish family gaming on the GameCube.

DDR, Play, Groove, and Donkey Konga all have one feature in common: They immerse players in a fun activity rather than a visually stunning virtual world or compelling storyline. My contention is that this quality is what makes or break a family game, and as game developers slowly begin to realize that solid gameplay sells more games to a bigger audience than solid graphics, I don't doubt that the videogame genre will soon start to sport more "universal classics" that almost everyone can enjoy.

The Future of Family Gaming

Though the times may seem bleak for good family gaming, our irritable young nerf herder may content himself with the fact that as the videogame market grows and expands, the chances increase that some enterprising company may decide the time has come to create and sustain a family gaming niche. The smashing success of Konami's DDR has certainly not gone unnoticed; who knows what innovative new products companies may release over the next few years? Aspiring developers would do well to read Dani Berry's list of "Good Multi-Player Design Elements," which includes such sage advice as "keep the features down," "use time-limits," and "allow personalization." Berry doesn't just provide advice, but also her rationale. I certainly can't offer developers better advice than Berry's; therefore, my sole piece of advice will be to study her list carefully.

Never before in the history of videogaming has the potential been so ripe for a truly wonderful family gaming experience. Videogame technology has made huge leaps since Pong, and there's no good reason why a modern family game shouldn't take full advantage of it. However, developers need to strongly consider the importance of accommodating up to four players at once (Mom, Dad, two siblings), short turn time, frequent breaks, and a very low learning curve. I would also like to see more games offering collaborative or team-play; why not let a family join together in accomplishing missions against the computer? Family videogames must find ways to reward players besides simply defeating opponents; working together is a valuable skill that deserves to recognition. And last, but not least, we've got to get away, at least temporarily, from the same old tired "macho" subjects that are so near and dear to us red-blooded young men. This means opening up some new subjects and themes for videogame exploration—subjects that have that broader, more universal appeal that is found not in the game itself, but in the experience of playing it with those you love.


1 I'm told that Brits call these characters "spods."

2 This quotation is taken from Steven L. Kent's The Ultimate History of Video Games, p. 34.

3 The original Mario Bros. game actually comes closer to being a true "family game" than its decedents.