51 Shades of Geek

Superman

SupermanThe Game: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a vaguely anthropomorphic heap o’ pixels with a red cape! Lex Luthor has hatched one of his deadly schemes to overthrow Metropolis – and, naturally, the world – starting with the destruction of a bridge in the city. Deal with Luthor’s thugs, save Lois, and put Lex himself behind bars – but keep an eye out for Kryptonite. (Atari [under license from DC Comics], 1979)

Superman adMemories: A product of the corporate synergy between DC Comics and Atari – both freshly acquired by the Warner Bros. empire in the late 1970s – Superman was one of the first attempts at a multi-screen adventure structure on the Atari VCS, something which would be honed more sharply with such games as Adventure and Haunted House (and trashed once again with top-heavy, overambitious later efforts like E.T. and the Swordquest series). Continue reading

Adventure

AdventureBuy this gameThe Game: As a bold adventurer trespassing a mighty castle in search of treasure, you face a twisty maze of chambers, dead ends aplenty, and colorful, hungry, and suspiciously duck-shaped dragons. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: The first game of its kind to hit the Atari VCS, Adventure scores a first in video game history – and not just because of its huge, sprawling maze.

Programmer Warren Robinett was a little disgruntled during his stint at Atari. He watched as his fellow programmers jumped ship, formed companies like Imagic and Activision, and struck it rich as the third-party software industry took off. Continue reading

Haunted House

Haunted HouseBuy this gameThe Game: Old Man Graves may be dead, but his ghost still haunts his spacious mansion, tormenting any treasure hunters bold enough to trespass in search of his fortune. The loot is said to be hidden in a golden urn, and while that seems like a conspicuous enough object to find, beware: bats and spiders will attack any who intrude on their terrifying territory. And even if you light your way with a candle, Old Man Graves may make a return (as in “from the dead”) appearance. If you survive long enough, you may make your money the old-fashioned way – you’ll urn it. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: An early experiment in expanding the horizons of games on the Atari VCS, Haunted House is among the best-remembered original games on the system, right up there with Adventure and Yars’ Revenge. Continue reading

Quest For The Rings

Quest For The RingsThe Game: In the opening screen – the mists of time, so the rulebook tells us – two players pick their characters’ classes. Warriors are sword-wielding strongmen, wizards can cast spells from a distance, phantoms can walk through solid walls (but not lava formations), and changelings can become invisible when they move. The two intrepid adventurers then set forth on a quest to retrieve the ten rings of power from randomly selected dungeons and filled with randomly selected horrors. (Magnavox, 1980)

Memories: According to the rulebook, a third player (whew, is anyone else beginning to figure out why these games never caught on?) – acting as a dungeonmaster of sorts – selects the combination of mazes and monsters to challenge the players, based upon their position on a map (the aforementioned gameboard). Continue reading

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons CartridgeThe Game: Your quest begins as you set out from the safety of home to look for adventure in mountainous caverns. When you wander into the dungeons and caverns, your view zooms in to the maze See the videoyour adventurer is exploring, complete with treasures to collect and deadly dangers to duel. (Mattel Electronics, 1982)

Memories: Combining sword-and-sorcery – traditionally the territory of paper-and-dice role playing games – with video game action has been one of the more inspired mash-ups to come from the golden age of video games. As combinations go, it was almost inevitable – with Dungeons & Dragons being more geeky than mainstream in the 1970s, it was an activity with which game programmers – another geeky crowd – were likely to be acquainted. With all of that crossover going on, it was therefore inevitable that someone, presumably whoever had deep enough pockets to license the title and game elements, would eventually produce an official video game. Continue reading

E.T.

E.T.The Game: In something that would best be described as a very vague homage to the Steven Spielberg film of the same name, E.T. allows you to guide the intrepid (and cute) extra-terrestrial on a quest to find Reese’s See the TV adPieces and transmitter pieces (with which one can, presumably, phone home), while avoiding the threatening (but cute) doctors and FBI agents. If you get into a scrape, the helpful (and cute) Elliott may be able to pry you out of a sticky situation. You may then resume your pointless quest until, inevitably, you wind up withering away at the bottom of one of the many pits in the game. (Atari, 1982)

Memories: A few phrases pop into my head when I think about this game, among them: “waste of time,” “cheap licensing cash-in,” and “was there ever anything nearly this lame for the Odyssey2?” As many have noticed, the vast majority of the effort poured, or dripped as the case may be, into E.T. was spent on the opening title screen. Pretty impressive stuff for the 2600, but the game was much more satisfying if one never got past that title screen. Continue reading

Pitfall!

Pitfall!Buy this gameThe Game: As Pitfall Harry, you’re exploring the deepest jungle in search of legendary lost treasures, whether they be above ground, hidden strategically next to inescapable tar pits or ponds infested with hungry gators, or in the underground catacombs under the guard of deadly scorpions. (Activision, 1982)

Memories: Pitfall! – subtitled The Adventures of Pitfall Harry – was the first blockbuster title from Activision, a software house formed by four former Atari programmers. Activision consistently turned out addictively playable and – bearing in
See the original TV adSee the videomind the 2600’s graphic limitations – gorgeous games. After all, Activision’s core gamesmiths knew the Atari 2600 hardware better than anyone, and were able to avoid such common, erm, pitfalls as flickering sprites and big, clunky pixels. Continue reading

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Raiders Of The Lost ArkThe Game: You’re guiding a pixellated rendition of famed adventurer Indiana Jones as he embarks on his search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Meander through Middle Eastern marketplaces, obtain weapons and items of value, and watch out for snakes as you try to overcome a series of obstacles and hazardous environments, find the clues, and recover the Ark. (Atari, 1982)

Memories: One of the two movie licenses that landed on programmer Howard Scott Warshaw’s desk, the Atari 2600 game Raiders Of The Lost Ark is a near-perfect specimen of an adventure game on this console: it makes sense from reading the manual, but in practice, the way in which the game’s various settings and characters interlock and interact is almost abstract. Maybe this is one of those games where I’m just not getting the point, but I’ve always wondered why E.T. is held up as an example of what not to do with a 2600 game, and Raiders is held up as an example of a great game – to me, they’re almost identical. Continue reading

SwordQuest: Earthworld

Swordquest: EarthworldBuy this gameThe Game: As a lone adventurer, you wander through the labyrinthine expanses of an underground dungeon in search of a lost treasure. You must cross Frogger-esque screens of fast-moving logs, avoid rooms full of deadly spears which will only kill you just enough to drop-kick your sorry butt back to the bottom of the screen, and enjoy the full capabilities of the Atari 2600’s ability to generate varying frequencies of white noise. (Atari, 1982)

Memories: One of the handful of debacles that marked the change in Atari‘s fortunes, the SwordQuest series was a very heavily-hyped four-game saga which tried to break new ground in the adventure genre for the 2600 console. Sadly, it didn’t even get close to breaking ground, or even wind for that matter – the fourth title, Airworld, was never released. Supposedly, the winners of each of the first three games would compete for a bejewelled prize and the opportunity to reconvene for a tournament to complete the fourth game first and win a wildly expensive sword. Continue reading

Gateway To Apshai

Gateway To ApshaiThe Game: The player controls a weary adventurer weaving his way through a dungeon populated by treasures and deadly danger. Starting out with the clothes on his back, a short sword in hand, and adding what he can along the way, the player’s adventurer progresses through twisty mazes, vanquishes an See the videoincreasingly dangerous rogues’ gallery of foes, and tries to gather a wealth of treasure… but even opening those treasure chests may reveal traps. (Epyx, 1983)

Memories: The Apshai computer RPGs form a kind of holy trinity of early adventure gaming along with the Ultima and Wizardry series of games. Gateway To Apshai is actually a prequel to the runaway hit Temple Of Apshai, which debuted on Tandy’s TRS-80 computer before cross-pollinating to every other platform under the sun. Gateway is missing Temple‘s famously wordy descriptions of its on-screen chambers, and as such feels completely different from the earlier game. But in hindsight, Gateway is an important step on the evolutionary road for the “action RPG” genre – paving the way for The Legend Of Zelda. Continue reading

Tutankham

Tutankham for Odyssey2The Game: As an intrepid, pith-helmeted explorer, you’re exploring King Tut’s catacombs, which are populated by a variety of killer bugs, birds, and other nasties. You’re capable of firing left and right, but not vertically – so any oncoming threats from above or below must be outrun or avoided. Warp portals will instantly whisk you away to other parts of the maze (though this doesn’t necessarily mean safer). Gathering all of the treasures and keys will allow you to open the vault at the end of each level…which leads to the next, and even more difficult level. It’s like The Mummy, only much more entertaining. (Parker Brothers, 1983 – unreleased prototype)

See the videoMemories: As far back as 1983, the year that it released four other titles for the Videopac (Europe’s equivalent to the Odyssey2), Parker Brothers had been mentioning other games in development for the system. The Videopac had a wider user base in Europe than the Odyssey2 had in North America, so the support was there. Spider-Man and Tutankham were announced as upcoming titles, and never surfaced as commercial releases. As it turns out, programming was relatively complete on both games, and the EPROM chips holding the work-in-progress versions of each game eventually fell in to the hands of collectors. Appropriately enough, Tutankham was an unearthed treasure. Continue reading

H.E.R.O.

H.E.R.O.Buy this gameThe Game: As an airborne rescuer with a helicopter backpack and plenty of explosives, your job is to fly (and run) through a series of sinister caverns, retrieving hostages and doing away with such deadly dangers as poisonous spiders. (In short, you’re venturing into places that would have Pitfall Harry making a tar pit in his pants.) Oh, and make sure you don’t shoot out the lights handily installed in nearly every cavern, or you won’t be able to see the danger until you put your foot in it – and then even your helicopter backpack won’t help you. (Activision, 1984)

See the videoMemories: One of Activision’s most celebrated originals, H.E.R.O. is a fast-paced game with enough exploration and enough hair-trigger excitement to keep all kinds of gamers happy. In some respects it’s very similar to Pitfall II, only this time you get to blow obstacles away instead of just having to avoid them. Continue reading

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns

Pitfall IIBuy this gameThe Game: As famed treasure-hunter Pitfall Harry, you’re delving deep into the Lost Caverns, which are loaded with Incan treasures beyond compare – or so they say. But the vast subterranean chambers are also full of dangers – bats, poisonous frogs, electric eels, and huge chasms. Touching any one of these creatures will force you to retreat to the last base camp you See the videoestablished, and you’ll lose points every second until you get back there. The only way to win the game is to find your way back to the surface after recovering all of the treasures of the Lost Caverns – and to do this, you won’t be able to go back the way you came. (Activision, 1984)

Memories: This was the best game ever created for the Atari 2600, hands-down. Continue reading

Park Patrol

Park PatrolThe Game: Swimmers and snakes and turtles, oh my! Help patrol your beach by picking up litter and saving drowning swimmers while avoiding snakes, sharp sticks, and other obstacles. You’ll need to be quick on your feet (and in your innertube) to succeed! (Activision, 1984)

Memories: In Activision’s Park Patrol, you play the role of a litter-collecting park ranger. Your goal is to keep your lakefront property clean by picking up litter (cans and bottles). To do that you’ll need to use your handy-dandy motorized raft to pick up the trash floating in the lake, and run as quickly as possible to clean up debris lying on the shore itself. Continue reading

Friday The 13th

Friday The 13thThe Game: Find Jason Voorhees and destroy him before he slaughters your friends in this game based on the popular horror movie franchise. People will definitely die; the only questions are who, when, and by whom. (Dormark, 1985)

Memories: I can still remember the night I got Friday The 13th for my Commodore 64. My friends and I were big fans of all the big ’80s horror icons such as Jason (Friday The 13th), Freddy (Nightmare On Elm Street), and Michael Myers (Halloween). The thought of playing a videogame based off of one of those movies at that time was both exciting and a little scary for us young’uns. Fortunately for our young minds, the scariest thing about Friday The 13th for the Commodore 64 was the actual gameplay. Continue reading

The Legend Of Zelda

The Legend Of ZeldaThe Game: Link wanders the kingdom of Hyrule, attempting to defeat the minions of the evil Ganon and trying to gather the weapons, tools, and items he will need to free the kingdom. Most vital on his quest is the recovery of all the pieces of the magical Triforce, the most powerful force that can be brought against Ganon. But as each piece is recovered and each part of the quest is completed, the next leg of the journey is even more difficult. (Nintendo, 1987)

Memories: If Super Mario Bros. and the Donkey Kong series hadn’t already marked the arrival of Shigeru Miyamoto as a master video game designer, the deal was sealed with the arrival of The Legend Of Zelda, which was a game-changing entry in the adventure genre, to say the very least. Zelda was the title that finally blew down the door and gained wide acceptance for adventure games that couldn’t be finished in a single sitting. Prior to this, adventure games had a niche audience, but tweaking the conventions and expectations of the genre and putting it on a console instead of a computer made Zelda a winner. Continue reading

The New Zealand Story

The New Zealand StoryBuy this gameThe Game: You might think this will be the story of Captain Cook and British settlers setting in motion the fall of the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, interpreted as a video game, but…that’s not it. It’s the story of a walrus who See the videowaltzes into the zoo and abducts every Kiwi bird there, stuffing them into a huge sack and then leaving. One Kiwi bird escapes, and you have to guide him on his quest to free all the other Kiwis. (On the other hand, perhaps it’s metaphorical somehow.) Fortunately, you happen to be the kind of Kiwi bird who can fire a bow and arrow, use a flamethrower, and can fly a little hovercraft around maze-like vertical structures. Other animals try to outfox you, gravity is against you, and your little Kiwi has only three lives. (Taito, 1988)

Memories: This very strange little game from Taito seldom escaped from Japan until emulation and retro collections came along. Thanks to the latter, everyone can now enjoy this strangely compelling little game. Continue reading

Dark Chambers

Dark ChambersThe Game: You control a lone adventurer on a quest through twisty mazes and open battlegrounds, descending through the dungeon depths in search of treasure (and a chance to escape in one piece with that treasure in hand). Zombies, See the videoghosts, and monsters naturally roam through the dungeons as well, more than happy to attack any treasure-hunting interlopers such as yourself. (Atari, 1988)

Memories: Released on both the 7800 and 2600, Dark Chambers was an attempt to cash in on the “action RPG” genre that had recently been made popular by Nintendo’s The Legend Of Zelda. Atari’s arcade division happened to have a hot arcade property in that genre already, but since the arcade operation – now called Atari Games – and the consumer division were now two separate entities, Dark Chambers winds up being a “near-beer” version of Gauntlet. Continue reading

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