Thursday, May 21, 2009

Classic Home Video Games 1985-1988

The publication of my second book is just a few weeks away. Today, the cover appeared on the publisher's website:

Here's a description of the book:

Introduced by Bill “The Game Doctor” Kunkel, one of the most important figures in all of classic gaming, Classic Home Video Games 1985-1988 contains detailed descriptions/reviews of every U.S.-released game for the Nintendo NES, one of the best, most popular video game systems ever produced. The book also contains detailed descriptions/reviews of every U.S.-released game for the Atari 7800 (revised, expanded, and updated from Vol. 1) and the Sega Master System, both of which maintain a loyal fan base to this day.

Organized alphabetically by console brand, each chapter in this book includes a description of the game system, followed by substantive, literate, fun-to-read entries (most 125-185 words in length) for every game released for that console, regardless of when the game was produced (meaning hundreds of games are covered). Each video game entry includes publisher/developer data and the release year, along with gameplay information and, usually, the author’s critique. A glossary provides a helpful guide to the classic video game genres and terms referenced throughout the work, and a preface provides a look at the industry at the time (and how it relates to gaming today), along with anecdotes from the author, a full-time writer who has been a devoted gamer and game collector since the days of Pong, Pitfall!, and Pac-Man.

Classic Home Video Games 1985-1988, which is the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984, also contains photos, historical information, and comparisons to arcade classics, computer games, and similar games for other consoles. Aimed at hardcore gamers, casual fans, and pop culture scholars alike, Classic Home Video Games 1985-1988 is must-reading for anyone interested in the history of the industry and the playability of its games, namely that fondly remembered era that gave us the Atari 7800, the Sega Master System, and the Nintendo NES.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Recently published in...

Video Game Trader #12, which contains my article "Doin' the Slide-'n'-Shoot":

An all but dead genre today, “slide-and-shoot” games were extremely popular during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pioneered by Taito’s legendary Space Invaders (1978), these types of games feature a ship (or other object) that fires upward at aliens (or other objects) while moving left and right along the bottom of the screen. Space Invaders single-handedly created a new type of gaming experience, and similar games began popping up in the arcades like zits on a teenage chocoholic.

Some of the better arcade games to come from this previously untapped fount of shooting goodness include Galaxian in 1979, Moon Cresta and Phoenix in 1980, and Galaga in 1981. Centipede (1980) and Gorf (1981) were also heavily influenced by Space Invaders, but those games, great as they may be, aren’t technically slide-and-shoot games since they let you maneuver your shooter around the bottom ¼ of the playfield, as opposed to restricting your movement to a straight horizontal line.

When Space Invaders finally hit the Atari 2600 in January of 1980, sales of the venerable system skyrocketed. This was the first time that a popular arcade title was licensed for use on a home system, and gamers everywhere rejoiced at the concept of playing an honest to goodness coin-op classic on their television set. With its 112 variations, rock solid gameplay, and household name, Space Invaders was a smashing success in the home, just as it had been in the arcades. The Atari 2600 would go on to have a plethora of excellent slide-and-shoot games in its library, including Atari’s Phoenix (1982) and Galaxian (1983), Imagic’s Demon Attack (1982), and Activision’s Spider Fighter and MegaMania (1982).

While the Atari 2600 is hands down the console to own when it comes to Space Invaders-type games, the Intellivision, a system known primarily for its authentic sports simulations (such as Major League Baseball and NFL Football) and in-depth strategy games (such as Utopia and USCF Chess), has a handful (assuming you have six fingers) of slide-and-shoot games, all of which deserve some notice. These include: Mattel’s Space Armada (1981), Astrosmash (1981), and Buzz Bombers (1983); Imagic’s Demon Attack (1982); Coleco’s Carnival (1982); and Activision’s Beamrider (1983).

A blatantly obvious Space Invaders clone (Mattel's lawyers at the time claimed that the copyright for Space Invaders was not properly protected), Space Armada is a clunky version of the aforementioned classic with only four rows of invaders and just two modes of play (Practice and Game). The controls could use a shot of WD-40, but the game is challenging (some of the enemies become invisible in later levels), and it’s cool to be able to play Space Invaders on your Intellivision, even if it isn’t the real thing.

Astrosmash is a smashingly good game that brings elements of Asteroids to the genre as you must blast away at a killer asteroid shower (in addition to bombs, missiles, and flying saucers). The cool thing about this game, aside from the fact that it is fast, furious, and highly entertaining, is that you lose points (or even a laser base) when objects get past your ship. Mattel’s M Network division released this game for the Atari 2600 as Astroblast. Although not as graphically sophisticated as Astrosmash, Astroblast does have an advantage in that you can play the game using Atari’s pitch-perfect paddle controllers.

Mattel’s answer to Centipede, Buzz Bombers features bees and honeycombs instead of centipedes and mushrooms. The bees, which are very nicely rendered, work their way down the playfield to the tune of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” You must shoot the bees before they reach the bottom of the screen or they will pollinate flowers, which multiply and restrict the movement of the spray can you control. A hummingbird will help you from time to time by removing some of the screen-cluttering honeycombs. Ammunition is limited, so shoot sparingly. Although there wasn’t much buzz about the game at the time of its release, Buzz Bombers is nevertheless very enjoyable.

Arguably better than the brilliant Atari 2600 version, Demon Attack for the Intellivision is similar to Phoenix in that after every few waves of winged creatures, you get to battle a giant enemy. In Phoenix, the “boss” character is the mother ship. In Demon Attack (Intellivision version), you’ll face Pandemonium, the flagship of the Demon Armada. This brightly colored flagship blankets the sky beautifully with its fiery grin, slanted eyes, and devilish horns. Regardless of which version you play (the game is available for numerous consoles and home computers), Demon Attack is an intense shooter that will please even the most demanding of gamers.

A nice adaptation of the arcade semi-classic, Carnival is about what you’d expect: a blockier, harder to control rendition of the original. Like its arcade and ColecoVision counterparts, Carnival for the Intellivision places heavy emphasis on the aiming and timing of your shots. Strategy is also involved as it is important to conserve ammo. You should shoot the rotating flags as soon as you can because they are hard to hit and additional targets will keep coming out as long as at least one flag remains. For extra points, you should shoot the ducks and other targets before they leave the top row. Although cuter and cuddlier than what most hardcore shooter fans are accustomed to, Carnival is an addicting game that will challenge and entertain most anyone.

Unlike Space Invaders and most other slide-and-shoot games, the ship in Beamrider cannot move in minute increments as it must always stop on one of five vertical beams on a grid. This element of design is a unique twist on the genre and, thanks to a fine programming job by creator David Rolfe, it doesn’t bog down gameplay one iota. It simply creates new challenges. Beamrider has a smooth learning curve, good controls, unpredictable enemies, and a nifty, pseudo-3D look. Like most games bearing the Activision label, Beamrider is a winner.

The Intellivision may not be the go-to system when it comes to slide-and-shoot action, but Space Armada, Astrosmash, Buzz Bombers, Demon Attack, Carnival, and Beamrider do comprise a fairly good representation of the genre, especially for casual shooter fans who don’t insist on owning ports of such landmark arcade titles as Galaxian, Phoenix, and Space Invaders. If, in 1980, Space Invaders had been released for the Intellivision instead of the Atari 2600, the history of console gaming would very likely be a much different story, at least in terms of “Doin’ the Slide-‘n’-Shoot.”