Monday, March 8, 2021

Matter of Import 047: Sasuke vs Commander (Arcade, 1980)


Sasuke vs Commander is a 1980 fixed screen shooter from SNK. As in the last game we discussed – Indian Battle – the player controls a character, not a ship or a canon – you're a ninja protecting your Daimyo from enemy ninja.

In the first part of each stage you need to fire what I assume are shuriken up at flocks of ninja soaring from tree to tree overhead as they throw stars back down at you. First, there's a wave of red ninja, then a larger flock of green ninja that, for some reason, remind me of frogs.

As an interesting wrinkle, if you manage to hit a ninja they fall from the sky to hit the ground – and you will lose a life if they collide with you.

After eliminating both waves of ninja you're taken to a boss stage, where you have to contend with the powerful magic of a ninja boss – the first shoots gouts of flame, the second creates copies of himself, the third throws bolts... and then it's back to the waves of ninja again.

That's the flow of the game – it's challenging enough, and a unique theme in the games we've covered so far, and the falling corpses adds an unexpected element. Visually it's quite nice, too – the sprites are full color, if yet small, except for the larger bosses.

I give Sasuke vs Commander a B ranking.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Matter of Import 46: Indian Battle (Arcade, 1980)


Indian Battle is an old-west themed fixed screen shooter released by Taito in 1980. The player controls a cowboy with a rifle at the bottom of the screen, firing at waves of native american warriors who advance towards him, hiding behind rocks and cactus, moving from cover to cover while firing arrows and throwing tomahawks.

Occasionally a bird will fly by overhead, dropping an egg that hatches into a snake or scorpion if it hits the ground without being shot. There's also a native american that pops up out of the ground to anchor the player in place for a few moments.

As the player cannot fire horizontally – only up – the snake, scorpion, and grabbing native american cannot be shot, only avoided – along with the natives that reach the bottom of the screen, though those will quickly return to cover.

Each round lasts until you've shot 21 enemies, as noted by a counter on the left side of the screen. After you've passed, if you've done well enough there's a bonus stage where your cowboy attempts to lasso animals.

The basic mechanics here are the same – left, right, fire to throw your lasso – but your rope moves slow and takes a long time to cross the screen and return if you miss. This makes careful and patient aim a must if you want to capture them all before the time runs out.

The sprites aren't bad, but it's another monochrome game whose color is provided by an overlay. There is music – a version of "ten little indians" which is its own issues – but the game presents with all the sensitivity you'd expect from a Japanese team covering native american issues in 1980.

I give Indian Battle a C ranking – the gameplay isn't boring, but beyond the enemy moving from cover to cover it's nothing special.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Matter of Import 45: Heli Fire (Arcade, 1980)

 Heli Fire is a 1980 scrolling shooter developed by Nintendo. The player controls a submarine, firing missiles up at helicopters while trying to dodge torpedoes, enemy watercraft, and aquatic mines. The helicopters, in turn, drop missiles and depth charges towards you.

The goal here is simple – to wipe out each wave of ten helicopters before time runs out and their attacks become more dangerous, including dropping depth-charges that fire an unavoidable wave of missiles to destroy you.

Doing so while avoiding their vertical attacks, and the horizontal attacks from oceanic dangers, is quite difficult. Heli Fire is a challenging game, but not unfairly so – you need to learn to split your attention to remain a sense of situational awareness.

In terms of the visuals, the game is beautiful compared to those we've been reviewing recently – full color raster sprites and scrolling backgrounds that entice without distracting. It might not be up there with Star Castle or Wizards of Wor in terms of gameplay, but it's fun to play for a few rounds.

I give Heli Fire a B ranking.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Matter of Import 44: Kaitei Takara Sagashi (1980, Arcade)

 Kaitei Takara Sagashi is a 1980 Namco release that translates to Underwater Treasure Hunting. The player's goal is to lower a diver through shark infested waters to the seabed where a number of pots await. Controls are simple while diving – you descend automatically unless you hold the button, and pushing left or right allows you to fire your speargun in that direction.

Shooting the sharks is difficult, however, as both they and your spears are very narrow – it's easy to miss by a mere matter of pixels.

Once you hit the bottom, the controls become pressing left or right to walk over one of the pots. Once you've done so, your rope drops down again to push you into it – and here you discover whether the pot contains points or a sad death under the sea.

Once you find a treasure pot the boat begins to pull you back up, with the same controls as your descent. Make it up and you get the points; fail and they return to the pot so you can try again.

Once all non-trap pots have been collected you advance to the next stage, with a new pattern of sharks and treasure pots.

The game is, unfortunately, monochrome with screen overlays to provide color. It's simple in design, and not too difficult to grasp. Trying to get a handle on the sharks' speed and overall pattern does provide a bit of challenge, as does the difficulty in hitting them with your spear.

Are the pots containing death traps unfair? Absolutely. As far as I can tell they shuffle every stage and show no hints as to which will kill you.

I give Kaitei Takara Sagashi a C rating.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Early Mainframe Games


Second post in a series on early video game history. Watch the video above, or just read the notes below:

  • While it was the first mainframe game to spread beyond its creators, Space War was by no means the last. Like spacewar they were all written at the few large institutions that could afford the machines, and coded in machine language for that specific make and model.
    • Sadly, system administrators would purge their systems of unauthorized programs on a regular basis, to preserve resources for the institutions' legitimate business, so it's impossible to know how many early games have been lost forever... but a decent enough handful were remembered well enough to be recreated and ported to higher-level languages and more modern machines. 
    • It's important to remember as we go on, that most of these mainframes didn't have the CRT screens of MIT's PDP-1, so long after Spacewar most of these games were instead played with peripherals like the teleprinter, a device developed in the 19th century for use with telegraph that had been adapted as an mainframe computer's output device - users typed in commands, and received printed responses on the same paper. 
  • 1964's The Sumerian Game was, if anything, even more of a pioneer in the industry than Spacewar! before it. It is generally recognized as the first economic sim, the prototypical city building game, the first edutainment title, the first game with a narrative, and the first game designed and written by a woman.
    • Initially designed as part of a study into the use of computer-based simulations as teaching aids in schools, it was written and designed by fourth grade teacher Mabel Addis, and coded by IBM programmer William McKay in the Fortran language on an IBM 7090 - a vacuum tube machine then worth almost $3 million.
    • Inspired by the game Monopoly, Addis wanted to create a game that could help teach children economic theory while avoiding the current overuse of Greek civilization as a historical framing. She instead went back to the city-states of ancient Sumer to put players in the throne of the kings of Lagash over three successive - and more economically complex - reigns.
    • In each of the game's rounds players would be appraised of the city-state's population, farmland, and grain, and be asked how much grain would be distributed as food, planted, or stored. Subsequent rounds report on the results of these choices, as well as random events like technological innovations, droughts, or grain spoilage.
    • In the second and third sections of the game, complications were added, like deciding how much population to allocate to farming or manufacturing.
    • An expanded version of the game in 1966 added an advisor character who would interpret the events of the game for the player, along with taped audio segments and slideshow presentation - the first video game cutscenes.
    • As this was an educational study, gameplay audiences were extremely limited - each version of the Sumerian Game was played by thirty students in a single session. If that were the end of it, the game would be no more notable in the history of game development than other single-institution projects and tech demos of decades past.
    • However, in 1968 DEC employee Doug Dyment had the game explained to him by a woman who'd seen it, and decided to recreate the game in the newly developed FOCAL language on one of DEC's PDP-8 minicomputers.
    • While nowhere near as large as the 1070 or even the PDP-1, the 8 still cost nearly twenty thousand dollars in mid-60s money and weighed 250 pounds - still yet not anywhere near a consumer product.
    • Titled King of Sumeria and only replicating the first grain-focused phase of The Sumerian Game, Dyment rewrote his version to focus on the far more well known Sumerian king Hammurabi. Dyment's game grew popular in the programming community during the 1970s, with versions of it being a popular first project for hobbyists trying to pick up the skill.
    • A third evolution of the game came in David H Ahl's adaptation of the game into BASIC, a language capable of running not just on mainframes and minicomputers but personal computers as well, and featured in his 1973 book BASIC Computer Games.
  • 1968 saw the development of the text-based simulation game Civil War. The game recreates fourteen battles of the war, with the player taking on the role of the South set against the computer's North.
    • What control the player has over the outcome of each battle is limited to how much to spend on food, pay for officers, ammunition, and which offensive or defensive strategy to employ. 
    • As with the Sumerian game, Civil War is mostly known through Ahl's BASIC Computer Games, and is credited within to L. Cram, L. Goodie and D. Hibbard, three students in Lexington High School, Massachusetts. Ahl's version adds a two player option, which was carried over in Creative Computing's 1975 port for the Commodore PET.
  • Lunar was another PDP-8 program written in FOCAL, this one in 1969 by high school student Jim Storer, and soon ported to BASIC - three versions of which were included in Ahl's book. This game, obviously enough, created the Lunar Lander genre in which the player controls a primitive craft's thrust and vector while trying to land on the moon.
    • While later arcade and graphical versions were released, the earliest programs are textual and turn based... in Storer's original, the player only decides how much vertical thrust to apply during each ten-second turn, based on current velocity and fuel stores.
  • In 1971 high school senior Mike Mayfield was teaching himself how to program at a computer lab at the University of California. There, he encountered Space War! On the lab's PDP-10 computer. Having gained access to the lab's more powerful 32-bit SDS-7 mainframe, Mayfield set out to create a version of Spacewar! For the machine.
    • The difficulty here was that the SDS-7 at the lab, while more powerful, lacked a vector monitor - instead it housed a teleprinter for input and output. 
    • After brainstorming with some friends, Mayfield came up with the idea of a game based on Star Trek that would print up a map of the galaxy and local star system. The player controls the USS Enterprise as they fly through the galaxy, seeking to eliminate as many Klingons as possible within the game's time limit.
    • Every object in the game - stars, starbases, the player's ship, and klingons - are represented by text characters in a grid, printed out each turn. The game grew very popular, and was ported to different systems and enhanced by programmers throughout the 70s - most notably Bob Leedom's version for the Data General Nova 800 minicomputer, which saw an overhauled user interface and expanded gameplay options, coming to be known as Super Star Trek.
    • Development continued well into the era of the video game industry, including commercial variants including Apple Trek for the Apple II+, Atari's Stellar Track for the 2600, and Trek-80 for the TRS-80.
  • English Major Don Daglow found, in 1971, a PDP-10 minicomputer set up in the dorm at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
    • Seeing game development as another form of writing, Daglow became one of the more prolific creators of early mainframe games, and would work in the industry into the 1990s, creating such classics as Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical massively multiplayer online game.
    • His first game, though, was 1971's Baseball - the first interactive baseball game, in which players could manage the team mid-game. The game was text-based, and Players could make decisions as the batter or pitcher - to walk, steal, bunt, and so forth. Daglow would continue development of the game all the way into the 80s, culminating with 1983's Intellivsion World Series Baseball.
    • In addition to a variation of Mayfield's Star Trek, Daglow also wrote an unlicensed computer adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons called Dungeon, that included top down line-of-sight displays and automapping.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Matter of Import 43: Lupin III (Arcade, 1980)

Taito's 1980 Lupin III game came at the height of the character's anime and manga popularity, though licensing issues – the French IP didn't enter public domain until 2012 – prevented its export to the US.

The arcade game fits into the maze chase genre. As Lupin you are to grab bags of money, evading an increasing number of guards and dogs, and bring them to a staging area. Grab all the bags and you're treated to a cut-scene of what looks like Lupin bringing the goods to his love interest – in some cut-scenes she chastises him to bring her more, in others she rewards his theft with love.

The maze in each stage is the same, and arranged around UI elements such as your score and "M.Energy." I assume this stands for "Mental Energy" and is consumed when you activate your panic button – a hyperspace like feature that teleports you from where you are to elsewhere in the maze. Sometimes it doesn't move you at all. Sometimes it throws you right where you want to be.

The figures in the maze come in three types. First, there's this guy with a stick. Inspector Zenigata, maybe? He'll chase you, move to cut you off, and generally try to make your day harder. The other guys – ordinary guards, I suppose – are a little more random and less direct in their pursuit of you. Finally, there are the guard dogs... they simply run back and forth, but have a habit of stopping when you need to pass through an intersection.

Touch any of them and you go to jail. Lose all your lives and you're treated to a losing cutscene of Lupin being sent to prison.

As a game it isn't bad, it's themed well enough for the show, and it's certainly playable. It uses screen overlays for color, which isn't great. I'll give it a C rating.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Matter of Import 42: Steel Worker (Arcade, 1980)


As a construction platformer, Taito's 1980 Steel Worker is a vast departure from the fixed screen shooters we've been looking at so far. In the game you control a construction worker who... actually, scratch that. You don't control the construction worker.

As in the later NES game Gumshoe or the much later Lemmings, the worker strides confidently forward, heedless of danger, while you do your best to create a path of girders to keep them from falling.

You have a selection of ten pieces down at the bottom, chosen with the joystick, and precious little time to pick the right one to complete the path to the midpoint structure and the endpoint. You also have a button you can press to get your worker to temporary walk back from the edge instead of dropping off of it, but a limited number of uses for it.

Complicating this is that you can only select a new piece while your worker is crossing the current one, meaning you can't work ahead... you can only try to be ready in time.

Even worse are the two gantries raising and lowering in the middle of the screen. Their touch is death, and you cannot stop your worker once he begins to cross the central platform – if you think his path will intersect with them, your only recourse is to use up one of your limited reverses on a prior section and hope you timed it right.

The game is clearly innovative, of a type as yet unseen in the arcade field... maybe a little much for 1980, seeing as it was never an export from Japan. The sound and graphics are disappointing – audio lifted straight from Space Invaders, with the monochrome display and screen overlay style to boot.

Still, as a standout pioneer it astounds me, and after I picked up its controls and the general concept of what I was supposed to be doing, I found it a lot of fun. I give Steel Worker a B ranking.