Sequential Access: Essay Nybbles

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Sequential Access: Essay Nybbles

Author: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Buck Feris and Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice
Scans: All images come from the author’s private collection
Special Notes: This first series of five short essays has been inspired both by the author’s recurring thoughts and interactions with others on popular newsgroups and forums over the years. In relation to Armchair Arcade, the author would like to thank the other editors and regular forum goers such as Fractalus!, crcasey, majortom, Rowdy Rob, Mark1970, Dragon57, mrCustard, davyK, PoloPlayr, ryuhayabusa, PearlJammer, OldSchoolGamer, joe_jet and classic gamer for making discussions on the Website so interesting and informative. The author encourages everyone looking for a mature and stimulating discussion environment to check out Armchair Arcade’s forum.

ESSAY 01 - Exploring Emotions and Sophisticated Themes in Videogames
In 1983, magazine ads for the newly formed Electronic Arts asked, “Can a Computer Make you Cry?” In 1984, magazine ads for Infocom’s Planetfall, offered, “How to Make Friends on Other Planets.” What do these two early advertisements have in common?

Scan of Infocom’s advertisement for Planetfall from Family Computing magazine, August 1984, Volume 2, Number 8

Both ads make the assumption that computer and videogames then and in the future would have the ability to make us think, care and feel. Based on what’s been made available then and now, I’d say for the most part, this assumption was wrong.

Think of this as a call to arms to game designers everywhere. Let’s cast aside for a moment the business or profiteering aspect of the industry, which often dictates what gets made. Let’s assume that even if a developer’s hands are tied – for instance they’re asked to make yet another first person shooter – (wait for it) set in space – where the player kills zombie mutants (I’m giving this idea away for FREE), the designer has enough creativity to make it the best damned first person zombie shooting game set in space ever. How could this be accomplished? One answer lies in Planetfall.

Planetfall was a text adventure (Interactive Fiction or IF) that made you laugh, made you think, and yes, made you cry. I think 20 years after the fact I can give away the surprise. Floyd, your mischievous robot buddy and faithful in-game companion, dies. This made many players cry because the game made you take an interest in that character. He wasn’t just a generic character programmed to spew canned responses. He was programmed to simulate a personality, and it worked within the context of the well-designed game world. While some will argue that being a type of interactive book, such a game has an advantage over graphical adventures. I say nonsense. When was the last time one of your favorite television shows made you cry, made you identify with a character, made you feel for a character? How about a movie? Visuals or lack thereof are obviously no indicator of a creator’s ability to tug at the heartstrings or make you relate to a character’s angst. Even the right type of music can make us feel happy or sad. Since a modern game can incorporate some of the best elements from books, music, movies and television, and mix it all in with compelling gameplay, shouldn’t videogames then logically be at the forefront of thoughtful art in media?

This emotional advancement cannot be accomplished through non-interactive cut-scenes either. Gaming should not be about watching, it should be about doing. Newer games like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3, show there is as much doing and flexibility as ever, but do these games also evoke emotions or explore sophisticated themes? Not necessarily. It’s a problem that should be addressed by at least a few mainstream games if we ever want to get more out of our favorite entertainment experience than we have for the past 25 years.

Scan of the manual cover for Sword of the Berserk: Guts' Rage from Eidos for the Sega Dreamcast

There are the proponents of Japanese-created role-playing games, like the latest Final Fantasy titles, who will contend that these embody a lot of what I seek. I agree that if you can stomach the Final Fantasy world you will find an exploration of some of the themes I speak of, but titles like these are so stylized that its overall message is often lost on people like me, and key story elements still take place through non-interactive cut-scenes. I can’t help but think there’s a better way.

Scan of Rocky Special Edition (MGM) on DVD

Finally, I leave you with something perhaps a bit unusual. By my casual count, from 1983 to the end of this month, there will have been at least five different Rocky games produced for systems like the ColecoVision, Sega Master System, GameBoy Advance, Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox. All of these games over the past 20 years have only been about boxing. Was the original Rocky movie, the 1976 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, about boxing? Yes, it had wonderfully choreographed boxing in it, but it also had wonderful characters and an interesting story. You cared about the good natured, but deeply flawed boxer, Rocky Balboa. You cared about the cripplingly shy love interest, Adrienne. You disliked but understood Adrienne’s loser brother, Paulie. You were fascinated by but rooted against the arrogant champion, Apollo Creed. The list goes on. By the time the fight takes place at the end of the movie, you have an emotional interest in the event’s finale. It’s telling that in the final scene of the movie, the announcement of the fight’s outcome is downplayed (muted) in order to focus on the embrace and words between the battered Rocky and the hatless Adrienne. So again, was Rocky really just about boxing? Since we’ve had at least five Rocky boxing games, maybe the designers of the next one will try to tap into what the movie was really about.

For our industry to truly advance and be taken seriously, the production of at least a few games that explore sophisticated and emotionally charged themes is the least we should expect. Maybe then, other popular media like movies will start to be compared to games, rather than the other way around.

ESSAY 02 - Defining Videogame Eras
With the System Ranking Matrix, I rate the relative capabilities of the various computer and videogame systems released through the years in the United States. While I feel it does its job well (and will get even better over time with feedback), a lot is made in casual discussion of eras, or time periods when certain systems or types of technology ruled. What is lacking when these discussions take place is an agreed upon definition of what these eras encompass. Here is one attempt. Separate definitions of computer, arcade and handheld eras will be topics for another day as I will now focus solely on defining videogame (console) eras, as follows:

PONG ERA (1972 – 1977, Paddle and Ball Games) – This era began in 1972 with the original Odyssey and lasted right through the introduction of the first programmable (removable cartridge) consoles in the late 1970’s. These pong systems were self-contained devices that played a pre-set number of games. There was little that could be done with bars and moving blocks (“balls”) and most games were of the "deflect and don’t miss" variety.

ATARI/CARTRIDGE ERA (1976 – 1986, Shooting Games) – This era began in 1976 with the release of the first cartridge-based system, the Fairchild Channel F. However, the system that defined the era and videogames in general was Atari’s Video Computer System or VCS, which later came to be known as the 2600. In the beginning, these systems were barely more promising than the Pong systems before them, but by the end of 1984, the potential of these systems was made clear, with many of the game genres we know today first introduced, like shooting, racing, flying, maze, adventure and first person. In fact, technology that never saw the light of day because of the arcade and console industry crash of 1984, like save game battery backup on the ColecoVision or cartridges with eight times the typical capacity for the Atari 2600, only became evident years later. The first arcade-to-home translation, Taito’s Space Invaders (Atari), classified as a shooting game, set the tone for this era and was among the most often released type.

NES ERA (1987 – 1990, Side-scrolling Platform Games) – This era, post-crash, began in late 1985 with the return of console videogames to the US following the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In the beginning, these systems would feature nothing more than better arcade translations, but ultimately would lead the way for modern consoles. Examples include requiring a license to publish games, releasing console-style role-playing games (RPG’s) that introduced Japanese cultural influence in design, battery backups and large cartridge capacities. With Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., the influx of 2D scrolling platform games began, and is what ultimately set the tone for this era.

GENESIS ERA (1989 – 1993, 2D Refinement) – This era began in 1989, with the introduction of the Sega Genesis, and to a lesser degree, the NEC Turbo-Grafx 16. This was the era of more—more action buttons, more graphics and sound, and larger cartridge capacities, building heavily on the advancements of the previous era. When Nintendo began releasing its last few games for the Super Nintendo (SNES), such as Rare’s Donkey Kong Country, it is clear in hindsight that this was to be the peak of sprite-based 2D gaming.

CD ERA (1992 – 1995, Vast storage and FMV) – This era began in 1992 with the introduction of CD add-on units for the Genesis and Turbo-Grafx 16, right through to systems like the 3DO Multiplayer, and stopped right around the release of the Sega Saturn. The defining characteristic of this era was, in comparison to cartridges, the virtually limitless storage capacity of the CD media that was often underutilized for actual gameplay. Instead, developers mostly used the extra space for things like CD-quality sound within the same type of games available on cartridge and the ever controversial Full-Motion Video (FMV). Nevertheless, as with the introduction of removable cartridges, the release of a new type of media into gaming would have important repercussions for future eras.

PS1/POLYGON ERA (1994 – 2000, 3D Gaming) – This era began in 1994 with the introduction of the Sega Saturn, but really took off with the introduction of Sony’s PlayStation (PS1) in 1995. As with the NES ERA, rather than simply introduce new technology, this era introduced a new type of gaming: 3D. All the usual genres that were in 2D and used sprites, eventually found their way to 3D polygonal versions. This was still early technology with several problems like low resolution and poor in-game cameras, but it caught on in a major way with the buying public at the expense of 2D.

PS2 ERA (1999 – PRESENT, 3D Refinement) – This era began in 1999 with the introduction of the Sega Dreamcast, but is defined by the success of Sony’s PlayStation 2 (PS2). As the GENESIS ERA brought additional polish and sophistication to what was established by the NES ERA, the PS2 ERA does the same for the PS1/POLYGON ERA.

ESSAY 03 - Perceived Value in Gaming
What do I mean by perceived value in gaming? Value in this case means that you really appreciate the games that you have. For instance, one question that often comes to mind is, “Did games have more value in the past when you had to put a quarter in the machine to play versus now when you can play for free on an emulator any time you wish?” How about when you go to an arcade now and use a swipe card instead of quarters or tokens; you have little concept of what you’re spending with a swipe card so the games seem to mean less. Or how about classic arcade style gameplay that is now really only found in the mainstream in mini-games that are part of larger games; has this marginalization of simple gameplay forever tainted the appreciation and viability of stand-alone (non-Web) quick arcade-style games?

The simple abundance of gaming, the fact that we can emulate nearly every system ever made and have relatively easy access to every game ever produced (legalities aside) has to have an effect on us. As a child in the early 1980’s, I would have killed to have even a few of the thousands of arcade perfect games now available through the MAME emulator. Now that I have them, I rarely play them, due in large part to the fact that they’re always there and it costs nothing to have them (or as Buck Feris pointed out in his review of this editorial, the "saturation effect").

Finally, as a collector of classic and modern computers and videogames in his early 30’s, I have acquired a boat-load of wonderful equipment and software. Every year that passes, the more stuff I get. It’s my hobby and I love it, but I long ago passed the point where I’ll ever really be able to use it all. I’ve reached the point where the act of collecting is the satisfaction, not necessarily the act of using. Again, too much stuff.

In gaming as in life it seems, if something is too easy to come by, be it to play, use or always have, we inevitably appreciate it a little less than if we have to work for it and see the actual “costs” involved.

ESSAY 04 - Defining Past and Present Game Genres
Why past and present? Quite frankly, certain game types, while still alive through the efforts of thousands of active hobby programmers, are no longer available in mainstream retail outlets and thus don’t knowingly exist to large portions of the game playing public. With this in mind, I will do my best to describe, in alphabetical order, what has been and what is still available. Keep in mind, however, that one of the beauties of gaming is that many games don’t fit neatly into one specific category.

Action Adventure – The player goes on a type of quest that not only involves some puzzle solving and exploration, but also plenty of action. This does not involve statistics or significant character building. Includes Adventure, Quest for Quintana Roo, The Legend of Zelda, Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones and The Emperor’s Tomb, and Metroid Prime.

Action RPG – Role Playing (RPG) games that emphasize action over detailed statistics and character choices, but still involve player-character management and advancement, comprise this genre. Includes Gateway to Asphai, Gauntlet, Diablo, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath.

Adventure – Either using a parser, point-and-click or real-time interface, the player usually directs an on-screen character in overcoming puzzles and other challenges as part of a larger story in a graphical environment. Includes King’s Quest, Monkey Island, Full Throttle, Myst, Syberia and Lifeline.

Board/Casino/Game Show – Either based on a real-world or original board or casino-style game or television game show, these embody what we classically think of when we think of this play concept. Arcade elements often push a particular game into the Party/Mini-Game Collections genre. Includes Pensate, Chessmaster, Reversi, Yahtzee, Jeopardy, Omar Shariff Bridge, Twisted, Caesar’s Palace 2000, Wheel of Fortune and Trivial Pursuit: Unhinged.

Educational/Edutainment – These games emphasize learning over all else, but still qualify as compelling games. Includes Oregon Trail, Agent USA and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?.

Fighting – These games feature either scrolling or single screen environments where two or more combatants face off with or without weapons. Includes Jedi Arena, Bilestoad, Joust, Karate Champ, Double Dragon, Street Fighter II, Streets of Rage, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance and Soul Calibur.

Full-Motion Video (FMV) – These games allow a player varying degrees of interaction with pre-rendered video footage. This is not the same as overlaying regular graphics on top of video or a game with a lot of cut scenes—interaction with the video is the whole game. Includes Dragon’s Lair, Thayer’s Quest, Cobra Command, Quarterback Attack and A Fork in the Tale.

Maze/Chase – The player’s avatar collects or chases other objects, normally in a maze-like setting. Includes Pac-Man, Ant Eater, Radar Rat Race, Snake, Serpentine and Mouse Trap.

Party/Mini-Game Collections – These games feature a selection of mini-games usually inspired by other games. Often a player competes against other opponents to reach a finish line or goal, such as making it all the way around a virtual game board. These games are action-based in contrast to the Board/Casino/Game Show genre. Includes Beach Head, The Three Stooges, Mario Party, Fuzion Frenzy and WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Party Game$.

Platform – These are running and jumping games that either have single-screen or scrolling environments. Includes Pitfall, Miner 2049’er, Jumpman, Super Mario Bros., Megaman, Rolling Thunder, Crash Bandicoot and Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

Puzzle – These are pure problem solving games. The games may or may not be action-based, but are always stand-alone and not smaller parts of other games in other genres. Includes Lemmings, Tetris, The Lost Vikings, Bomberman, Bejeweled and Bust-a-Move.

Racing – The player’s avatar competes against other objects or time to reach a specific location as quickly as possible. Includes Night Driver, Turbo, Mancopter, OutRun, Super Mario Kart, MotoGP and Gran Turismo.

Real-time Strategy – Similar to Turn-based Strategy, the action does not stop to wait for the player to move. These games may include simple action and puzzle elements. Includes Rescue Raiders, Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Pikmin, and Full Spectrum Warrior.

Rhythm/Performance – The player has to respond in-time to either a musical beat or some type of on-screen prompt, often using some type of specialized controller. Includes Dance Dance Revolution, Um Jammer Lammy, Space Channel 5, Mad Maestro and Karaoke Revolution.

Role Playing (RPG) – The player directs one or more pre-made or created characters through a series of progressively more difficult challenges and situations towards an overall goal, all the time improving the character’s or characters’ in-game statistics and abilities. Includes Ultima, Wizardry, Phantasie, Wasteland, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, Pool of Radiance and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Sandbox/Free Roaming – These games may be part of other genres, but let you interact with the game world as you see fit, either in addition to or in lieu of overcoming pre-set challenges and goals. Includes Elite, Freelancer, Grand Theft Auto III, The Simpsons: Hit and Run, Morrowind, and Tony Hawk’s Underground.

Shooter/Shooting – The player’s avatar, usually visible on-screen, shoots at objects that may or may not shoot back. These games vary from the very simple to the very complex. Includes Space War, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pooyan, Demon Attack, Berzerk, Survivor, Gradius, Devil’s Crush, Wolfenstein 3D, Virtua Cop, Typing of the Dead, Ikaruga, Ghost Recon and Doom 3.

Simulation – These games simulate a real-world or other worldly machine, activity or environment, often realistically. The games may be purely statistic-based, incorporate physics, and/or have action elements. Includes Flight Simulator, Pinball, Indy Car Racing, Computer Quarterback, Micro League Baseball, Seaman and The Sims.

Sports – These games may include strategy elements, but always have a significant action component. The games usually mimic real-world sporting activities. Includes Pong, Hardball!, Track and Field, Madden Football, Wayne Gretzy Hockey, Fight Night, Speedball, Arkanoid, Ultimate 8 Ball, Ten Pin Alley, Virtua Tennis and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

Text and/or Graphic Adventure – Sometimes referred to as Interactive Fiction (IF). A type of game that places the player in a sort of interactive book, usually requiring the input of two or more words (an action directed at a target) to advance the game’s story. May be pure text or have multimedia elements. Includes Colossal Cave, Zork, Pirate’s Cove, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Amazon, Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, Gateway II: Homeworld and Eric the Unready.

Turn-based Strategy – Gameplay advances only in set phases or when a player makes a move. These games are normally quite detailed and take place on a map of some type. Includes Eastern Front, Star Fleet I, Computer Ambush, Six-Gun Shootout, Civilization, Colonial Conquest, Sim City, Caesar, Worms, Panzer General and Alpha Centauri.

ESSAY 05 - Classic Games, Music and Movies
I often compare computer and videogames to other media, like movies and music, and usually from historical or business perspectives. While games should never try to be like any of those other media – for instance, the whole "bring the movie experience to gamers" was nonsense when Full-Motion Video (FMV) was “popular” – the parallels can still be uncanny.

Scan of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – Original Uncut Version – Remastered (Artisan)

While dismissed by some who only wish to see in color, classic black and white movies are still given their due, with their own cable networks, regular airings on a variety of general television channels, classic film festivals, and more, including frequent press mentions and references. This appreciation of the classics seems to only reach a certain point though. Remember when colorization was supposed to be the next big thing? It reached a point where many thought the joke of colorizing the first part of The Wizard of Oz was going to be a reality! For the most part, though, this tampering with the classics in the 1980’s was rebuffed and turned out to be something of a fad. Today, except for digital remastering, the original films usually stay as they were first shot. However, this appreciation for classic movies seems to only extend from the “talkies” forward (roughly from the early 1930’s), as silent films are rarely even mentioned anymore, let alone given the same deference as their vociferous younger siblings (as Matt Barton pointed out in his review of this editorial, one reason for the "silence" regarding silent movies is that they're in the public domain and therefore have minimal commerical value).

Classic recorded music follows a similar pattern as classic black and white movies. According to most of what’s on the radio and available in stores today, popular music is really only worth a listen if it’s from the late 1950’s forward. Sure, there was plenty of recorded music before that, but apparently as dictated by the powers that be, little worth making a big deal about.

Scan of Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (Capitol Records)

It seems like the pre-PC computer and pre-NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) console eras are our equivalents of silent movies and pre late 1950’s music. It’s out there, it’s known to exist, there are even small devoted groups that still care, but its not really given the kind of larger attention or respect it really deserves.

Did you know that the Commodore 64 (C-64) is the best-selling computer of all time? Or that Apple II computers were produced from 1977 to 1994? How about that the first version of the best-selling Madden football series was produced for the Apple II? Facts like these simply aren’t widely known.

The box cover for the original The Bard’s Tale, Tales of the Unknown, Volume I (EA), for the Apple II

I can’t tell you how many times over the past few years when a classic computer game was referred to as a PC game, complete with PC screenshot, when the PC version wasn’t the original and no one cared about the PC port, which often featured poor 4 color graphics and grating single channel “beeper” sound. Of course PC can mean generic “Personal Computer,” but these references are rarely used in the generic sense. It seems that most magazines and television programs feel it’s easier to gloss over computer and videogame history than try to explain it. Perhaps it’s even a circular process – the mainstream ignores our industry’s past so the industry ignores its past when in the mainstream (as Buck Feris pointed out in his review of this editorial, even textbooks allow printed errors if a misconception is so widespread that printing something correctly would cause unwanted attention). Either way, it’s time for a change. Know your history and spread the word!