Friday, May 27, 2011

A Brief History of Western Action RPGs

The action RPG is a genre that could thrive first and foremost in Japan, where influences of personal computer games often resulted in new interpretations on game consoles, thus benefiting a healthy melange of genre traditions. Mixtures like that were initially fewer in the West, due to the consoles and arcade games being marked mindless quick entertainment by an elitist home computer crowd for real deal hardcore simulations and RPGs, which were the domain of computers with lots of memory (for the time) to store all those stats. Yet early on there were a few attempts to adapt what was originally inherited from tabletop war games to a more responsive and involving model, and with the slow demise of slow-paced turn-based gameplay eventually ARPGs would catch on as a main stream genre also among Western developers.

The rise in popularity of the genre in modern times may deceive from the fact that it has truly ancient roots, and there is much confusion and oblivion about the actual early innovations. So, following up on our Brief History of 2D Fighting Games, we'll have a look at what was going on with the ARPG genre in the US and Europe over the decades. (I know a lot of you will be yearning for a parallel feature on Japanese games. Such a thing is bound to follow some day, but don't hold your breath just yet.)

Of course I am likely to be eaten by a grue for all the omissions and games I simply didn't know about. Everyone's got their own definition of what belongs in the genre, too, so please be nice when you point out to me all the games I've idiotically left out/falsely included. Please also note that I originally put this post together late in 2010, but ended up not posting it for a number of reasons. I haven't really followed the genre since then, so this is a history for the time until 2010.

Adventure (Atari 2600)

  • Adventure is released for the Atari VCS in 1980. Yeah, it doesn't have The RPG Elementz(TM), but that doesn't mean it was not an important antecede for the Action-RPG genre. For the first time in an action game, players got to do adventurey stuff, exploring dungeons, finding keys and weapons. Probably exerted more influence on Zelda and the Japanese ARPG tradition than the western one, though, directly or indirectly.
  • Most of the very early computer RPGs have their roots in Dungeons&Dragons applications for big university mainframe computers, so it's hard to work out a timeline for them, but from 1980 to 1982 a lot of them have been ported to home computers, as well as some new, original games. Automated Simulations' (later Epyx) Dunjonquest series and The Sword of Fargoal, as well as Daniel Lawrence's Telengard still played out pretty much like "normal" RPGs with a time limit to your moves.
  • Dungeons of Daggorath did similar for the 1st person crawl (although it had a really interesting feature of a heartbeat sound indicating your level of fatigue and damage and at the same time giving a greater sense of urgency).
  • Also from Automated Simulations, Dragon's Eye combines boardgamey exploration with what can only be described as a fighting game with an ATB battle system, as little sense as that seems to make on paper.
  • The first batch of official Dungeons & Dragons games is released for the Intellivision, but only Treasure of Tarmin vaguely resembles an RPG/Adventure experience.
Dragon's Eye (Apple II)

  • Gateway to Apshai, an offshoot of the Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai RPG series, is the first ARPG proper world-wide, predating even the Japanese genre forebears Dragon Slayer and Hydlide. Combat takes place in real-time with reliance on player skill, although there are also stats to be leveled up (which happens mostly automatically without offering any choices for the player), and there is a lot of loot to find in the dungeons. This being a pure dungeon crawler, only NPC interaction is missing from the modern standard formula.
  • Dandy by John Palevich is the progenitor to Gauntlet. It gets later remade as Dark Chambers in 1988.
Gateway to Apshai (C64)

  • Gemstone Warrior, SSI's first dabbling with the genre, is more of an action adventure by today's standards. The player once again explores dungeons and kills monsters in real-time and searches for treasures which amount to the score. There's item management and a limited supply of ammunition, but no experience system.
  • Icon: Quest for the Ring by the small and unknown developer Macrocom plays like a simplified Gateway to Apshai, but surprises with astonishing CGA techniques that avoid the typical ugly 4-color scheme and make for one of the best looking IBM-PC games of its time. According to a developer interview at MobyGames, the game was popular as a demo for graphic cards in Japan. Could it have been a direct inspiration for Zelda?
  • Also into adventure territory falls Knight Lore, which explores the isometric perspective (and later influences the use of the perspective in Adventures/RPGs in general, as well as Solstice and its successors in particular, which in turn inspires Landstalker and its sequels).

  • Origin Systems creates Autoduel, the first racing RPG. Eat that, Squaresoft's Racing Lagoon.
  • Also published by Origin Systems is Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony. The game takes place in a vaguely far eastern fantasy setting, with a focus on martial arts training and a fighting game style combat system. The characters awkwardly walk around as profile pictures and the combat controls are horrendous, but the concept is nonetheless unique and interesting.
  • Gauntlet is released the same year. Though also not quite an ARPG in itself, it is save to assume that without Gauntlet, there would be no Diablo (and in consequence neither most other WARPGs we know today).
Auto Duel (C64)

  • Gemstone Healer, sequel to Gemstone Warrior.

  • Conceived as an RPG for dummies, David Joyner's Fairy Tale Adventure might be the first western game that fits all modern ARPG definitions without fail, finally causing some steam for the (nowadays) classical top-down ARPG in the west.
  • Dungeon Master brings 1st person real-time RPGs en vogue. With a fighting system based on intervals slightly resembling the later Final Fantasy ATB, it is also no "true" ARPG, though. Aside from a sequel, tons of games follow its formula for combat, among them Bloodwych (1989), Eye of the Beholder (1991), Black Crypt (1992), Lands of Lore (1993).
  • Macrocom delivers a follow-up to Icon with 7 Spirits of Ra. The game takes place in ancient egypt.
Faery Tale Adventure (Amiga)

  • Times of Lore (Origin Systems). The NPC interaction is as complex as you'd expect from an Origins game at that time, there's no character generation but a selection of three pre-built heroes, and the combat is fully realtime action. Might or might not be the first game with jiggle animation for the female protagonist.

  • Hero's Quest: So you want to be a Hero (later renamed to Quest for Glory because of legal issues with Milton Bradley's board game) at one hand was a typical Sierra adventure, but also featured different stats and classes for the characters, which have a huge influence on how the game is played, as well as action based combat.
  • Hillsfar is more like an RPG/Mini Game compilation. Arcade style combat takes place only in the Arena.
  • Windwalker is the sequel to Moebius and fares much better thanks to icon-based mouse controls.
  • Also: Gauntlet II.
Quest for Glory (DOS)

  • Darkspyre by Event Horizon Software could be seen as another antecede for Diablo, albeit with fixed dungeon layouts.
  • Origin's Bad Blood is similar to Times of Lore, but shifts gameplay even more towards action-adventure and is set in a postapocalyptic future where one of three mutant spies is sent out to investigate and avert human war plans.
  • In The Keys to Maramon, a spin-off of the The Magic Candle series, the player gets to chose between four characters and then has to protect the town of Maramon against invading monster hordes. The game features a day/night circle: At night all shops are closed and the fiends start storming in.
  • Quest for Glory continues with its first sequel, the main character can be imported in good, old-school RPG fashion.
Bad Blood (DOS)

  • Two games based on Norse mythology are released that year. In Dusk of the Gods, Event Horizon builds upon their groundwork laid with Darkspyre, while the Britains at Core Design put themselves on the genre map with Heimdall.
  • Conan the Cimmerian hails as the first licensed ARPG not based on a pen&paper or tabletop game. For combat the game switches to a fighting game-style 1-on-1 sideview.
  • Another licensed title, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was adjusted to tie in with the Costner movie just in time, leaving an unfinished feel about the game. Released for Game Boy and NES, it is the first console exclusive western ARPG.
  • Gauntlet III: The Final Quest (Won't be mentioning any more episodes of Gauntlet beyond this. With the genre as developed and defined as it is by now, the series just doesn't cut it anymore.)
Dusk of the Gods (DOS)

  • Ultima VII makes first (very slight) concessions towards a more action-oriented combat by introducing realtime.
  • The big attraction of the year is Ultima Underworld, though, with its real-time rendered 3D world, predating even Wolfenstein 3D.
  • Event Horizon bring a direct sequel to their 1990 debut, called The Summoning, so in this year one of the last great 2D dungeon crawl ARPGs (for a while) meets the first great realtime-3D dungeon crawl ARPG.
  • Sierra releases Quest for Glory III.
Ultima Underworld (DOS)

  • Ultima Underworld II is released, but doesn't stray much from the paths laid out by the first game.
  • Event Horizon in the meantime explore more adventure-esque paths with Veil of Darkness (which in a way anticipates their much later game Sanitarium). This is their last game before closing and reforming as DreamForge Intertainment.
  • In Hired Guns by DMA Design a team of 4 cyber agents infiltrate futuristic complexes in real time over 4-splitscreen, similar to the Dungeon Master formula. Quite a stressful task for a single player, so the game also supports multiple players simultaneously. (For comparison, the first big Japanese multiplayer ARPG, Secret of Mana, was released the same year).
  • Only one year after the third part comes Quest for Glory IV.
Hired Guns

  • Warren Spector, formerly of Origin System, changes the world with System Shock and its genius mixture of RPG and FPS elements.
  • Probably through influences from Japan, western developers by now also seem to discover the console-style ARPG for themselves. SSI's Al Qadim: The Genie's Curse would have worked just as well on the Genesis or SNES
Al Qadim
  • Interplay for once releases an ARPG that isn't a straight port of a computer game, but adjusted to what they deemed suitable for the platform - J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Volume One for the NES has (other than shared source, art and music) little in common with its PC counterpart, which is a traditional turn-based RPG. With a party of up to five, each of which can be controlled by a human player, it has the highest simultaneous player count in an offline ARPG ever.
  • Blue Sky software delivers a console title as well, Shadowrun for the Genesis (while the SNES game is more like a traditional RPG in that, though realtime, player effort has little influence over the combat vs character stats).
  • King Arthur & the Knights of Justice shares many features with an ARPG, however it lacks a levelup system.
  • Heimdall 2 is also much more console-like than its predecessor and becomes an important title for Commodores Amiga CD32 console.
  • The main Ultima series now makes is full jump to a point&click based action RPG with platforming sequences, much to the dismay of old time series fans.
  • The Elder Scrolls: Arena in turn manages to build a bridge between the concepts of Ultima Underworld and classical fantasy world exploration.
System Shock (DOS)

  • As great a year 1994 was, the more dreary appears the slump in 1995. The only western PC title that comes to mind is Entomorph, which features an interesting setting but proves quite insignificant, gameplay-wise as well as on the market.
  • Things look a bit better on the console side. Squaresoft America sets up a development team to create Secret of Evermore, inspired by Japanese game mechanics (namely a combat system taken from Secret of Mana; but on the other hand also an ingredient-based magic system that resembles that of more recent Ultima episodes) but with an audiovisual design meant to cater to American gamers specifically.
  • Lucasarts creates Big Sky Trooper. The unique Sci-Fi action RPG falls under most people's radar for combining overly cutesy graphics with complex mechanics.
  • Ocean's Addams Family Values follows closely in the footsteps of The Legend of Zelda.
Big Sky Trooper

  • The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall is likely the biggest RPG ever, in terms of sheer world size. YMMV once again whether it is an action- or a "true" RPG. My mileage says I won't mention any more main series entries, as now the demise of the turn based RPG in the west has begun to set in, and real-time combat loses its role as a distinguishing factor between the subgenres.
  • Most of all, 1996 is Diablo year (though some sources claim it was released in January 1997. We Europeans got it a bit later, anyway, so I wouldn't know), marking the end of the big RPG draught. The vast majority of western ARPGs to come will be influenced by Blizzard's megahit in one way or another. Love it or hate it, deny its RPG status, whatever: Diablo is the most influential game for the genre of the whole decade.
Diablo (Windows)

  • Lands of Lore II is released, other than the first game a pure ARPG with lots of FMV sequences and digitized graphics, filling 4 CDs.
  • Faery Tale Adventure also makes its comeback with part 2: Halls of the Dead.
  • The Elder Scrolls: Battlespire ditches the huge overworld and NPC interaction of its predecessors, so it almost plays like a straight action game.

  • Now the era of "Diablo clones" begins: Ancient Evil, Dink Smallwood, Hexplore (the latter featuring a voxel-based 3D engine and a party of four exchangeable characters).
  • Tomb Raider's mark on the industry also becomes clear: Bethesda Lara-fies their Elder Scrolls series with Redguard, the French RPG sovereigns at Silmarils bring Asghan: The Dragon Slayer (the Action-Adventure genre should start to return the favor the next year with Drakan: Order of the Flame).
  • After a long pause, the Quest for Glory series is concluded with its fifth and final installment.
  • Interplay releases Descent to Undermountain. Using the successful Descent engine and the even more successful AD&D license, the game is a huge disaster, often quoted as the most bug-infested retail game ever and/or the worst RPG ever.
Hexplore (Windows)

  • Ultima's main series turns 3D with Ascension, but after endless revisions from the groundup isn't the game fans wanted, they call it pejoratively an "action adventure". It also ships with lots of bugs, and receives many fan mods to fix its several flaws.
  • Lands of Lore III is released and considered the weakest title in the series as well.
  • More Diablo clones: Revenant, Darkstone, Clans.
  • The year is saved by System Shock II, once again the best thing since sliced bread.
  • Another mention deserves Silver, which combines Japanese-style inspired RPG flair with beat 'em up fights and mouse gesture special moves.
Ultima IX: Ascension (Windows)

  • Diablo II is released, and it would have completely rejuvenated the hype around its predecessor, hadn't it been going strong consistently over all the years, anyway.
  • Warren Spector continues to explore new grounds with his cyberpunk thriller Deus Ex, which gives more meaningful plot decisions into the hands of the player than any game before.
  • Also: Summoner for PC and consoles, Nox.

  • Piranha Bytes apparently takes any concepts that are salvageable out of the trainwreck that is Ultima IX (figuratively speaking), patch it all up with what they carried over from their pen&paper passion, and somehow make a great game out of that. The new German RPG prodigy is called Gothic.
  • No end to Diablo-inspiration in sight: Vampire The Masquerade: Redemption and Throne of Darkness (in a samurai setting).
  • But 2001 marks also the beginning of console hack&slay shovelware with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, an attempt to cash in with the biggest name in non-action RPGing at the time.
  • Also: The obscure Euro-only title Technomage that dreams of being Japanese; Dragon Riders: Chronicles of Pern, based on the fantasy novels by Anne McCaffrey.
Gothic (Windows)

  • With Divine Divinity by the Belgian Larian Studios and Dungeon Siege by Gas Powered Games, the Diablo worshippers start to create something more meaningful with their time.
  • Gothic gets a sequel, which manages to excel the expectations set up by the first game.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, oddly enough not based on the recent movie, but the book
  • Only one month later EA brings The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This one is based on the movie, and other than the aforementioned one a straightforward hack&slash game.
  • With Arx Fatalis appears a spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld.
  • Also: Summoner 2, now only on consoles.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

  • With the current console generation, "RPG Elements" (meaning: stats that grow over the course of the game) start to crawl in into all genres, distinguishing between "proper" Action RPGs and action games with RPG elements becomes more and more difficult. For example, Deus Ex: Invisible War is more linear than its predecessor and relies even more on player skill rather than stats, causing many to file it as an FPS.
  • More Hach&Slay with Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

  • Even more Hack&Slay: Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II, Fallout is selling out with Brotherhood of Steel, Everquest gets a console hack&slay spin-off with Champions of Norrath, The core RPG cult classic Bard's Tale gets a remake that in no way pleases old fans, either, but can at least win a new niche audience with sarcasm and snide. And not to forget Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone, Knights of the Temple: Infernal Crusade and X-Men Legends (some of which also got sequels I'm not tracking any further).
  • More stuff to shove down the throats of point&click ARPG fans on the PC comes with Sacred and Beyond Divinity.
  • With Sudeki tries another game to emulate Japanese aesthetics, with mixed results.
  • The most significant entry of this year is Peter Molyneux' latest baby Fable with its good&evil mechanics and a visibly developing main character, despite keeping about 5% of the promises previously made by its creator.
  • The underdog gem Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, by the troubled Troika Games, is one of the most RPG-ey games (in the classical sense) games to date. Unfortunately the developer shall soon go bankrupt, leaving the game unpatched with loads of bugs. Maybe the most extensively fan-patched game.
Sudeki (Xbox)

  • Bioware, by now known as the saviour of the WRPG, tries their hand at the slightly pretentious Asia-Fantasy story Jade Empire, fittingly with a martial arts beat 'em up fighting system, most likely their least loved game ever (maybe with the exception of the Sonic handheld RPG), although that of course still isn't too bad in Bioware terms.
  • Sequels to Dungeon Siege and Champions of Norrath (dubbed Champions: Return to Arms). In a similar mold fits Fate by Wild Tangent.
  • Sigma Star Saga (WayForward Technologies) for GBA mixes an RPG with Shmup stages.
  • D.W. Bradley, of Wizardry fame, makes a short and unfortunate comeback with Dungeon Lords.

Jade Empire

  • Gothic 3 ships as the most bug-ridden game since Ultima IX and completely forfeits the series' reputation. Publisher and developer part ways to set in motion their individual follow-ups.
  • Dark Messiah of Might and Magic revives another of the big ancient PC RPG series in a new subgenre. Console version/remake follows in 2008.
  • Also: Titan Quest.

  • CD Projekt from Poland land a surprise hit with The Witcher, based on the most popular Polish fantasy novel.
  • Less surprising but even more hit is Bioware's Mass Effect.
  • Hellgate: London tries to combine Diablo's collecting mentality with the FPS genre, but can't even dream to repeat its role model's success.
  • Been awfully long since the last norse setting. Cyanide Studios from France try to rectify this with Loki: Heroes of Mythology. Another French title, Silverfall, is a typical fantasy hack&slay for PC and PSP.
The Witcher (Windows)

  • Fable II is released and fulfills about half the expectations people had for its predecessor.
  • Fallout 3 brings an old core RPG fan favourite back in form of an FPS/RPG hybrid.
  • Also: Two Worlds by Reality Pump from Poland; Sacred 2.

  • Borderlands is also borderline FPS/ARPG.
  • Piranha Bytes rises again with Risen, only not quite as high as they stood before Gothic 3.
  • Venetica embraces The Legend of Zelda, though not without a solid shift towards stat-based RPG, and pairs it with the gorgeous views of fantasy Venice.
  • Sidescrolling ARPGs never really caught on with western developers, but now there's Aztaka, which by virtue of being unique(?) in this therefore is the only indie game included in here.
  • Also: Divinity II, Torchlight.

  • Mass Effect 2, though sacrificing many of its predecessor's "RPG elements", becomes the most engaging RPG yet.
  • Arcania: Gothic 4 is likely to doom the series to mediocracy forever.
  • Fable III comes out by the end of the year.
  • The espionage RPG Alpha Protocol and Fallout: New Vegas stand in good old Obsidian (and Troika, as some of that company's former employees are involved) game tradition in that they waste a lot of potential with lackluster QA (more fateful with Alpha Protocol, less with Fallout).
Alpha Protocol

Thursday, May 26, 2011

GamesTM issue 109

Another issue; another blog entry. Actually, I’ve now decided to subscribe, since I don’t want to rely on my freelancing to guarantee me a copy every month. If you read EDGE or EGM every month, you’re doing something wrong. Those magazines suck, especially EDGE for not crediting its authors. GamesTM doesn’t either, but I will criticise them for it every issue as a result. After the last issue, which was written by porn stars, I’ve been told by the magazine’s editor (who isn’t Rick Porter, that’s just a pseudonym, it’s actually Ricky Gervais), that this month’s articles were written by sentient inanimate objects bought from Tesco!. And you can’t prove me wrong, because it’s not like the articles have credits anyway!

Contents. Click the pick to see it enlarged.
Written by: Tesco’s budget range toilet paper

Region locking feature. Now online, CLICK HERE.
Written by: a bottle of Southern Comfort (the mini sized bottles).
The online version doesn’t include the Nintendo boxout where James Honeywell is acting like a total and utter **** (there’s no way that C&T word’s being printed uncensored). So here it is, typed up by me:

“Handhelds, traditionally, have always been region-free, and with good reason. If you take your DS abroad then you should be able to do so safe in the knowledge that you can buy a game in that country and play it while on holiday. 3DS is the first system that takes this common sense luxury away from the consumer, and Nintendo’s justification is once again unconvincing. “People can still take their Nintendo 3DS and software to enjoy on holiday with them, this hasn’t and won’t change”, says James Honeywell. “We will communicate this to purchasers in interviews like this, on hardware packaging and in-box information in Nintendo 3DS hardware and software. This model has existed for DVDs for a number of years now so we’re confident consumers do and will understand how it works.” Now, how many people do you know that take a DVD player on holiday.”

Like I said. Nintendo = absolute *****. I hope everyone who thought of region locking the 3DS gets trapped in an office fire. If I ran a multiformat mag, I would have every 3DS game that was region locked receive 1 out of 10. Man, screw that bullshit.

Dragon’s Dogma. Made a nice cover but in-game looks horribly generic. I can’t even be bothered to read the feature. I’m bored of hi-fantasy, I want more sci-fi in games.
Written by: a wilted lettuce from the vegetable aisle

Minipreview. Love this page. Wish it had more pages.
Written by: a packet of Durex condoms (extra small).

Angels and demons, a look at morality in games.
Written by: rolls of flypaper – by 2 get 1 free!

Was looking forward to this feature, but was sadly disappointed. It says most of the criticism against Bioshock was due to its morality system. No, my criticism was that the mechanics were simple / the mechanics were dumbed down / the mechanics were for stupid people with short attention spans / the mechanics were geared towards casual console play. I hated Bioshock because it was a lacklustre, simplified trod through ineptly designed levels with insipid functionality. For hell’s sake, it didn’t even have an inventory! System Shock 2 on the other hand was laden with complexity and intelligence. Bioshock was like System Shock 2 after being lobotomised and having its testicles removed. No critic – EXCEPT ME – ever seems to make this point. I don’t care about its morality system, I care about the fact that it’s a game designed for simple-minded people with simple minds. Bioshock is loathsomely awful – I despise its mere existence.

The rest of the article is so-so. It doesn’t mention either the Zettai Zetsumei Toshi series, which featured the best morality system I have yet seen in the gaming medium, BAR NONE, nor does it mention Pathologic, which GTM reviewed and gave an 8 to. Pathologic has an excellent morality system – trapped in a town where people distrust you, it’s not about simply black or white choices. You can kill innocent people to help your own survival, but you must be prepared for the townspeople’s reaction. Ultimately though, whatever you choose, it’s for the greater good of stopping a plague which threatens an entire country. Sacrificing one man for his organs to research the virus is surely worth the price, right?

Instead the article talks about Bioshock, The Witcher, Fallout 3, Heavy Rain, KOTOR and a few other games. Maybe the author didn’t play Zettai Zetsumei Toshi or Pathologic?

Fez article. LOVE THE DESIGN.
Written by: a pair of men’s Y-fronts from the clothing section

Indie game review. This is why I love the mag. Not many other publications will give 2 whole pages to this kind of game.
Written by: a tin of dog food

Another indie review, from XBLA. Love the opening paragraph. Genius.
Written by: a bottle of Fairy washing up liquid

Guardian Heroes. Six pages, with input from Treasure. Sadly the amount of interview answers could have filled only half a page. It’s passionate, but a little lacking in insider information. Shame.
Written by: reduced price pork sausages (sage and onion)

Gala Networks Europe
Written by: a copy of Marquis from the magazine aisle.
I’ve only included this here because of the artwork used. Who doesn’t like a bit of elf-girl on elf-girl action, eh readers?

artwork from the Guardian Heroes article. Click for full size.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Update - 5/23 - Kindle Book Availability, KGB, Circuit's Edge, Cosmology of Kyoto, Polygon Magic Fighters, Dragon Blaze, Tecmo World Wrestling

(UPDATE: Book's back up for sale!) The great thing about print-on-demand is that it will never go out of print, at least as long as the publisher is still around, so you don't need to worry about it selling it or anything. The good news is that the Kindle version is now available - check it out at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Amazon DE. It's priced at $9.99 US, and should be the equivalent in local currency on the United Kingdom and Germany site, with the addition of VAT.

Some people have inquired about other formats, like the Nook and Sony eReaders - unfortunately, the only way to get onto their store is through publishers like Smashmouth, who have an annoying 5 MB limit on documents. The Word document for HG101 Guide to Classic Graphics Adventures weighs in at 95 MB, because there are tons and tons of pictures - even the Kindle version is a bit under 20 MB - so that's a no go. I might sell ePub format or PDFs directly through the site, if there's any demand for it. Double good news is that all of the electronic formats have color graphics (color printing for a book of this size is way too expensive) if your device supports it.

People have also been asking me if any of the not-already-posted book content will be available on the site. The answer to that is...some of it will be. The longer articles - King's Quest, The Journeyman Project, The Chzo Mythos, Zork, etc. - definitely will show up in the coming months. But there are a lot of single and double page articles that I'm not entirely sure I can find a spot on the site without placing it together with larger articles. Like, maybe one day you might see the Bill & Ted article here if we do a big blowout on Bill & Ted games (there are more than you'd expect!) but otherwise a majority of those will probably stay exclusive to the book.

What I will be posting are some lesser known but very interesting, unique titles. I've put up three this update - Cosmology of Kyoto, which lets you explore the myths and legends of medieval Japan; KGB, a relentlessly difficult mystery set in Soviet Russia (with an amazing soundtrack), and Circuit's Edge, based off a series of George Alec Effinger novels, which is a sci-fi adventure game that meshes exploration with a first person dungeon-crawling style interface. This last one was published under the Infocom label, seeing how it has some traces of interactive fiction, but was actually developed by the famed Westwood Studios.

I particularly love featuring games like this, because they exemplify why HG101 refuses to attach scores to our articles - KGB is practically impossible to beat without a walkthrough, Circuit's Edge is less menacing but awkward to play (plus any game like this that only has a single save slot deserves to be punched), and Cosmology of Kyoto can only barely be qualified as a game. On most review sites, they would almost have to be given low-to-mediocre reviews based on their failings, but each still offers something fascinating, making them well worth playing, or at least reading about.

Also please note that while many articles have been reprinted from the site, they've all been fixed up a bit, and in a few cases, entirely rewritten. For example: The Legend of Kyrandia was featured on here way back in 2006 or so, but I decided to play through them for a fresher take and a more in-depth review. Malcolm's Revenge, the third game in the series, is 2/5ths of one of the best adventure games ever made, but the whole middle sections is maddeningly annoying. The Hand of Fate, the second game, is more consitently, though it reaches neither the same highs nor lows. It was also developed by Westwood, and they all have excellent soundtracks too.

At any rate, long time readers may remember how the past year or two was largely focused on adventure games, since I was focusing on content for the book. I don't want to alienate too many people that come here for reviews on different genres, so there's plenty of other content for this update. Last update we talked about a terrible wrestling game, but this update we talk about Tecmo World Wrestling, which I'd never played before but apparently uses the same cinematic-style cutscenes as Tecmo Super Bowl, Tecmo World Cup Soccer (which was secretly a Captain Tsubasa game), and, of course, Ninja Gaiden. On the shooter side, we also have a review of Dragon Blaze, which I'm pretty sure was the last title put out by Psikyo, who was quite prolific in the mid-90s. (May I also remind you that Deathsmiles IIX was recently released on the North American Xbox Marketplace as a digital download, and is well worth picking up?)

We also have a look at a number of 3D fighters put out by a company called Polygon Magic. I hadn't heard of these guys up until recently, when I did a write-up for a pretty cool cel-shaded fighter called Slap Happy Rhythm Busters, which was also developed by them. But they had produced other titles beforehand, including the arcade game Fighters Impact, and the PSOne fighter Vs., which actually was released in North America. And Your Weekly-ish Kusoge is Don't Buy This: Five of the Worst Games Ever, a collection of purportedly awful ZX Spectrum games which revels in audacity.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Zettai Zetsumei Toshi series 絶体絶命都市

I’ve been meaning to make a post like this since the fourth game in this disaster survival series was cancelled by Irem, soon after the disaster in Japan. I’ve had ZZT3 for PSP on my shelf for years now, and with the fourth game likely to never arrive, I thought it time to play it – especially since I already love the first two entries in the series. The first was known as Disaster Report in the US, SOS: The Final Escape in Europe and 絶体絶命都市 in Japan. The sequel was known as Raw Danger in both the US and Europe and 絶体絶命都市2 -凍てついた記憶たち- in Japan. The third game (絶体絶命都市3 - 壊れゆく街と彼女の歌) on PSP never left Japan.

Along with cancelling Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4: Summer Memories for PS3, Irem also put a halt to sales of earlier releases. Which really only constitutes the PSP game, since I doubt they were still printing the PS2 versions. Most people couldn’t understand this, and neither did I, until I started the game.

Note with tragic irony that Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3: Kowareyuku Machi to Kanojo no Uta takes place during the actual time the real disaster occurred in Japan (March 2011). Seeing the above opening screen it’s perhaps unsurprising Irem doesn’t want further sales of the PSP game. In addition ZZT3, like all the ZZT games, places the blame for the loss of life during natural disasters on corrupt government and unscrupulous corporations. So not only does ZZT3 take place during a time when Japan was really hit with a natural disaster, the poor rescue attempts are caused by bureaucratic red-tape and the destruction of the city itself the result of a greedy construction company not following building laws
(I'm talking in-game here). Again, tragically ironic considering the criticism some parts of the media made of the messages given out and the Fukushima plant's resulting problems. Taking these factors into account - the time the game takes places and its political commentary - it's plain to see that ZZT3 could ignite emotions if viewed out of context. Hell, I feel uncomfortable even typing this blog entry, such is its razor-like controversy. As for ZZT4, I have no idea, I've not played it.

And yet in spite of all the tragedy and awkward parallels, I still feel that cancelling this series was a bad idea (and I have Japanese friends who actually live in Fukushima, so I don’t want accusations of insensitivity).

Apart from the fact that all three are fantastic games in their own right, conveying an exciting action adventure dynamic mixed with survival elements while being devoid of aggression on the player’s part, they also act as guides for real disaster events. ZZT3 actually has survival information provided by the Japan Disaster Information Support Network. This isn’t the kind of game you hide away and cancel, almost as if Irem were ashamed of it, it’s something people should embrace with acceptance and understanding. Edutainment has such a bad stigma, but if this is portraying real possible situations, with information from a know respected organisations, then it’s not too far to imagine that a Zettai Zetsumei Toshi game could save someone’s life one day.

In addition they also contain a great examination of human nature in a multiple-choice environment. In all games you’re regularly posed questions by fellow survivors, and you can either act like a jerk, jeopardising other people’s safety, or you can work together. And while you can still be a jerk and survive, those who behave like decent human beings always end up better for it. The multiple choice nature of the games is something exemplary, considering that Japanese games are criticised for never providing real choices, when for example compared to western games like Mass Effect.

If you’ve never played one of these games by Irem, then you should. The first two are available in English, and while the localisation was poor, and the games are inherently clunky, they’re still something unique and worth experiencing. There was a disaster game by a different developer on Wii, but it focused too much on gunplay and placing you in a series of action-film situations. The ZZT series is more thoughtful in its approach. I’m going to try to complete ZZT3, whereupon I should have a 100 or so screens for an HG101 article. Discoalucard I believe has the first two (I sold my copies years ago), and there are screens and videos of the 4th online. So together there’s probably a big feature for sometime in the future. MAYBE.

ZZT3 was never localised and there’s no fan translations that I know of (but damn I hope someone is working on it somewhere), but there is THIS GUIDE online, complete with translations for every dialogue section in the game. I actually printed it off and am playing with it by my side. Heck, maybe hackers could hook up with the guy to create a translation patch. My only other hope is that Irem comes to their senses. ZZT4 was almost complete, surely a more logical solution would be to publish it and donate profits to relief aid for victims of Japan’s tsunami? As it is they’ve essentially thrown away the hard works of countless staff over several years, taken a financial loss that could bankrupt them (Irem is a small company), and without actually benefiting anyone affected by the tsunami.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ultima, Wizardry, and issues of video game historiography

(I know parts of this post sound like a rant or an appeal, but really it isn't. I definitely didn't mean to slander the work of other writers, either. Even though I focus on pointing out factual issues with the cited articles, most of them are actually well written, competent pieces of journalism. Only when the whole world relies on them for a piece of information, the results can be a bit unfortunate. I actually intended this to be more of a reminder, partly to myself, to take care about how we deal with our sources and to document them, and—most importantly— to use good sources in the first place. But most of all, it is the diary of a never quite complete journey on the search for some definite answers.)

On my recent research for an article about the Wizardry series of games, I've come across an annoying issue. The computer RPG market in the Western world was for the better part of the 1980s dominated by the rivalry of two great series, Richard Garriott's Ultima and Wizardry by Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg. Therefore when writing about the one, one cannot but take into account and compare with the other, and it all starts with the first game in each series.

Wikipedia tells us (be quiet already, you badmouthers! I know you all use it, and even the one in a hundred of you that really doesn't has to live in a world full of wikipediots, as the site has long become by far the most used source of "education" around the globe.) that the game that became counted later as Ultima I "was first published in the United States by California Pacific Computer Company, September 2, 1980," while "In 1979, Robert Sirotek and Fred Norman created Sir-tech Software, Inc. to distribute the game, and it was released in 1981." The info box puts the release more precisely at December 31st, 1981, so more than a year later than its rival.

But let's take a look at the sources for both claims. The Wizardry article quotes Swords & Circuitry: a Designer's Guide to Computer Role Playing Games by one Jana Hallford. This was released in 2001, a mere twenty years after the fact. I can't argue much with the reliability of that book, as I don't have it and can't check its sources (which I personally doubt the Wikipedia author did, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt), but it should be noted that the quotation only includes the year 1981, with the December 31 date (which I intend "prove" wrong in just a few minutes) left unreferenced.

Wizardry for Mac

The Ultima entry is a bit more fishy: It quotes "'U.S. Copyright Office'. Reg. #PA-317-501. Retrieved 2007-08-08." The site linked apparently has been restructured since and that specific entry isn't searchable, anymore, but either way the quote could only ever have referenced a copyright registration, not a release date.

But this isn't another big rant about the workings and lack of reliability at Wikipedia. Searching the web and various print publications for more accounts, one gets a wild mixture of claims for 1980 or 1981. Wikipedia already beats most of them by actually stating where their date is coming from. The best one only ever gets elsewhere is Garriott's word in interviews, which also favors 1980. Yet I dare anyone who ever printed or posted this to find a single copy of the game with the floppy dated as such. The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History sure doesn't have one.

Cover of Softline March 1982

Then I stumbled upon this gem of an article: Forgotten ruins: The roots of computer role-playing games: Sir-tech. I loved this, not necessarily for its text body (because it happens to obfuscate facts with fancy writing and gets others wrong by merely glossing over the matter), but for its list of sources at the end. Here I learned—not being an US citizen and never having encountered the magazine in its time—that Computer Gaming World would be an excellent source for early home computer game history, and, just as importantly, that it was probably available online somewhere, as the web journalists who have the means and would bother to do actual research on physical old stuff surely can be counted on one's fingers. Turns out it is, indeed (more info to follow below).

Weeding through the early issues of one of the first magazines focused on this form electronic entertainment, I finally hit gold in issue 2.5 (Sep/Oct 1982), page 2: The mag's "List of Top Sellers (as of 30 June 1982)" contained two entries very interesting to my cause:

24,000 Wizardry (Sir-tech Software, Sept. 1981)
20,000 Ultima (California Pacific Computer Co., June 1981)

Not only do we learn that Wizardry outsold Ultima—at least in the beginning— their actual releases apparently were much closer together than Wikipedia & Co. would have one believe. Why does it matter? Well, aside from historic accuracy, it means for one that Wizardry itself could hardly have been influenced by Ultima. Even moreso as it was available in some kind of public beta state earlier that year, as High score!: the illustrated history of electronic games by Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson tells us (among others). It also means that whatever common traits Ultima and Wizardry had weren't necessarily "old news" to early players of the latter.


But wait, there's still Akalabeth, isn't it? The supposedly highly influental "Ultima 0," programmed by Garriott in 1979 and also published via California Pacific in 1980. According to 1Up, "Akalabeth sold tens of thousands of copies." To quote the aforementioned book High Score!, this figure stems from a statement made by Lord British himself: "They sold 30,000 units, and my royalty was $5 per unit. Something that had taken four to six weeks to create had earned me $150,000."

Now developer interviews are the most deer and valuable —and often the only— ressource video game journalists/historians can work with, and I wouldn't blame Garriott for intentionally falsifying figures, but the human memory is a fuzzy thing, begging to at least raise the question how much trust we can put on new answers about 20-30 year old questions. For all we know, he could have confused it with Ultima, or something in that manner. After all, the same man has been cited in another book (Dungeons and Dreamers: the rise of computer game culture from geek to chic) with a very different statement regarding the development time: It says: "Akalabeth was two years' worth of programming, but he had never meant it to be a real product," although it conforms with the sales figures.

How do I even come to question that statement? Well, for that we have to take a look at the complete list from CGW 2.5:
List of Top Sellers (as of 30 June 1982)
35,000 K-RAZY Shoot-Out (K-Byte, Jan. 1982)
32,000 Zork I (Infocom, Feb. 1981)
30,000 Temple of Apshai (Automated Simulations, Aug. 1979)
30,000 Flight Simulator (Sublogic Communications, Dec. 1979)
25,000 Raster Blaster (BudgeCo., April 1981)
25,000 Wizard & the Princess (Sierra On-Line, Aug. 1980)
25,000 Snack Attack (Datamost, Oct. 1981)
24,000 Wizardry (Sir-tech Software, Sept. 1981)
23,000 Ghost Hunter (Arcade Plus, Nov. 1981)
23,000 Gorgon (Sirius Software, June 1981)
20,000 Ultima (California Pacific Computer Co., June 1981)
20,000 Super Invader (Creative Computing Software, Nov. 1979)
20,000 Castle Wolfenstein (Muse, Sept. 1981)
15,000 Apple Panic (Broderbund Software, July 1981)
15,000 Scarfman (The Cornsoft Group, Aug. 1981)
15,000 Pool 1.5 (Innovative Design Software, April 1981)
10,000 Galactic Chase (Spectrum Computers, Sept. 1981)
9,000 Choplifter (Broderbund Software, May 1982)
8,300 Canyon Climber (Datasoft, June 1982)
8,000 The Warp Factor (Strategic Simulations, Feb. 1981)
6,000 Photar (Softape, Feb. 1982)
5,000 Pac Attack (Computerware, Sept. 1981)
5,000 Horizon V (Gebelli Software, Feb. 1982)
5,000 Dragonquest (The Programmer's Guild., Jan. 1981)
5,000 Asylum (Med Systems, Feb. 1981)
4,500 International Gran Prix (Riverbank Software, Aug. 1981)
3,600 Tax-Man (H.A.L. Labs, Oct. 1981)
3,500 Rocket Raiders (Artworx Software, Dec. 1981)
3,500 Apventure to Atlantis (Synergistic Software, March 1982)
3,400 Rear Guard (Adventure International, Dec. 1981)
3,000 Voyage of the Valkyrie (Advanced Operating Systems, Aug. 1981)
2,000 The Game Show (Computer-Advanced Ideas, Oct. 1981)
2,000 Stone's Reversal (Powersoft, Nov. 1981)
1,000 Swordthrust #1 (CE Software, May 1981)
1,000 Hi-Res Computer Golf (Avant-Garde Creations, Nov. 1981)
1,000 ZX81 Classics (Lamo-Lem Laboratories, Jan. 1982)
1,000 Super Stellar Trek (Rainbow Computing, Aug. 1981)

As you can see, the list goes as far back as August 1979, definitely before the commercial release of Akalabeth (but you can factor in the dozen-or-so homemade copies if you want, it doesn't change much). What also sticks out is the yawning absence of Akalabeth. Now this can mean two things: Either the game was omitted from the list for some reason or accident, or it didn't sell much more (maybe even less) than 1,000 copies, at least not until it was bundled with later Ultima games (which happened quite early. The legendary rarity of the original release seems to favor the latter theory. If anyone had ever bothered to ask for and print a copy of Garriot's royalty with California Pacific, we had a case, but as it is there stand his words, formulated decades later, against contemporary statistics. Although there still is no undeniable proof for either possibility, at least we now know that we don't know, and that's good to know, isn't it? At least it reminds to be wary when taking personal statements at face value when it comes to determine hard facts like release dates and sales figures.

The slime that would conquer the world

Of course, there remains the question to what degree video games journalists are, should and can be video game historians. If you're writing a 4-page restrospective on the Ultima series in a magazine, chances are you're not nearly paid enough to go through the same process I just did. In fact, I "wasted" two free days I should have spent working on my master's thesis for research old computer games. Although the mad historian in me wants to aks if one really should write an article about a game if one can't even get the release date straight, I'm well aware of how unrealistic that claim is. My own article on the history of video gaming in Korea contains more than one hundred footnotes over all its pages, and yet the whole thing is a horrible, shoddyly put-together mess. Some sources are much less trustworthy than others, the founding date of the biggest Korean game developer/publisher for the 1980s might or might not be off by 6 years due to a typo in an old magazine, and release dates are a wild mixture between official sale dates, (contemporary) reported sightings in stores by magazines, probable-but-not-secured announcements, in-game copyrights, even educated guesses. Surely, the proper way of dealing with it would be documenting the sources for all of those dates—but then I'd still be working on part 1 of the article, probably for a few years to come.

Even as it is, that article is an enormous time investment I'm still not sure I actually can afford to make, but who else is gonna do it? There is some great academic and semi-academic work done on the history of video games, but it's much, much to few and far between to really branch out into all relevant subjects, so the area is still totally dependent on the work of crazy nerds with the crave to spend all their free time to get trivial(?) facts straight.

Even though computer hardware rarely crossed borders, computer software proved to be much more flexible. A large number of Western games were ported to Japanese computer systems, with companies like Starcraft, Infinity, and Pony Canyon focusing almost exclusively on localizing English games. It was a rare time when large numbers of Japanese gamers were actively interested in Western games, an interest which has only just rekindled in the last few years. A little game called Dragon Quest famously arose out of a friendly argument over two Western games. As Koichi Nakamura has stated in an interview, "A game that I have fond memories of is Wizardry, which was popular in our office, but a co-worker of mine named Yuji Horii was hooked on Ultima at the time. Yuji kept saying we should make an RPG, but while I wanted to make a game like Wizardry, he wanted it to be like Ultima. We said to ourselves that we'd combine the interesting parts from both, and what we ended up with was Dragon Quest. So if it wasn't for Wizardry and Ultima, Dragon Quest wouldn't exist -- either in Japan or in the world."

For now it seems we have underestimated the influence of the Apple II hardware in Japan, as clearly Ultima, as well as almost certainly Wizardry, did have a significant impact on the Japanese programmer scene well before they were officially published on Japanese computers. But let's explore this thread further:

The Black Onyx

THE MAKING OF... Japan's First RPG by Edge magazine, which functions here as Black Onyx designer Henk Rogers' mouthpiece. The article states:
"Voted game of the year by the readers of Login magazine (the best-selling Japanese gaming magazine at that time), Black Onyx sold around 150,000 copies, not counting huge numbers of rentals. The game’s gigantic success paved the way for the other Japanese developers to bring their own RPG titles to market. The first Dragon Quest team went on the record praising Black Onyx as the influence for them investigating other western titles in the genre (specifically Wizardry). And so the RPG hacked and slashed its way into the Japanese videogame industry and consciousness.

Thus it attributes the sole agency in bringing RPGs to Japan to BulletProof Software. But this wouldn't be the history of video games, if we didn't have conflicting reports. Wikipedai on Dragon Quest: "In 1982, Enix sponsored a video game programming contest in Japan which brought much of the Dragon Quest team together, including creator Yuji Horii. The prize was a trip to the United States and a visit to AppleFest '83 in San Francisco, where Horii discovered the Wizardry video game series."

The quote this time goe to an (old? you can't tell with Gamasutra) article by HG101's own editor-in-chief, which... doesn't deal with that episode at all. Great, wrong citation. Hitting google brought me hundreds of regurgitations of the same story, but so far no hint at a possible source. On the other hand, it doesn't exactly sound like something someone would just make up, either. This is, however, possibly the most important question of JRPG history—as it would ultimately determine The Black Onyx' importance as a mediator of the genre.

Top-down: Dungeon, Ken to Mahou,
Panorama Island

Either way, the Enix guys certainly weren't the only ones who already had got wind of the new trend. The case doesn't look as good for BulletProof when looking at Japanese Proto-RPGs like Koei's Ken to Mahou (剣と魔法) and Dungeon (ダンジョン) (warning, link contains NSFW images) or Falcom's Panorama Island (ぱのらま島), all released prior to The Black Onyx and already clearly drawing inspiration from established Western RPGs. Falcom's game even boldly claimed its title as a "Fantasy role-playing game"), taking a bit of wind out of the sails for Roberts' statement: "The word had not got out; nobody knew what an RPG was and we were on the brink of collapse."

This is not to abnegate all importance of The Black Onyx: As the first hit RPG in Japanese, it certainly did a lot for the popularity of the genre in the far east, but judging by the clues, we very likely would have gotten Dragon Quest, anyway.

It's quite baffling how many essential facts can get muddled and misinterpreted so much in only 30 years. Makes me not want to know what it means to stand in the shoes of a "traditional" historian. Oh, wait, I do. Back to my master's thesis...

To make this post more useful for those interested in the preservation and documentation of video games history, here are a few invaluable contemporaries to the events they're dealing with:

Computer Gaming World Museum preserves the whole back catalogue of CGW issues, from 1981 to 2006, but also smaller collections of other early magazines. Please don't go overboard with the downloading, though, as bandwith limits are a concern. Everyone needs to read "Come Cast A Spell With Me" by Roe R. Adams III in issue 5.4, page 21.

The Giant List of Classic Game Programmers is basically a huge compendium of really old computer game credits.

The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History showcases original boxes, manual samples and even storage media.

Full archive of Sega Force, Sega Master Force and Sega Force Mega posted on the SMS Power forums.

The Wayback Machine I bet you all know already. Doesn't go back farther than late 1996 for obvious reasons and doesn't always work, but it's a great tool to scavenge through old ruins of former company homepages and the like.

Kultpower is a German magazine archive that doesn't offer full scans, but a number of single articles and tons of review scans.

Google Books is more useful than one would think, although it is often a real pain in the ass to get to the information you want due to copyright sillyness.

(Feel free to post more in the comments, of course. These are very focused on Western sources, would be interesting if there were any Japanese magazine archives worth mentioning.)

Finally, I'd like to close with a question: While most old Western games have similarly elusive release dates as described above, for Japanese games at least since the late 80s, most release dates are known to the exact day. Gamefaqs is full of them, so is Wikipedia. But how do we know them? I'm really curious were they are coming from. Is there a reliable database somewhere, or is it all just from the Japanese Wikipedia?