Best Games - Bagman
1982 was a pivot point year for video games. Games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were still riding high. To any arcade operator or game seller, it would have seemed like video games were on an unstoppable upward trajectory. Arcades were making money. Atari and Coleco were raking it in with their home consoles. Even home computers, like the Commodore 64, were driving huge game sales.
There was a slight snag for a year or two after that. Honestly, no one could have predicted it. Atari was the biggest player in the industry by far, and they over extended. The floor fell out, and for a hot minute it seemed like video games might be just another fad. If you were designing an arcade game set to be released in 1982, you could be excused for trying to make something a little more ambitious. Something that no one was doing. Something that players wouldn’t be ready for. If you were making an arcade game in that heady environment, you might make something a little weird. You might make Bagman.
Bagman, or Le Bagnard, is an action platform game made by French developer Valadon Automation. In it, you direct an escaped convict around an old mine in a mission to gather up your stashed loot, stuff it in a wheelbarrow, and cart it off screen. It’s a very simple idea, and it could easily have been a riff on Donkey Kong, or a clone of Space Panic, but it’s not. It’s an entirely different sort of beast. Bagman might be the world's first systems based game.
Maybe that’s a stretch, but maybe it’s not.
Here are some things about Bagman. It’s a game played with a joystick and one button. With that stick and one button you can, climb ladders, pick up money, drop money, put money in a wheelbarrow, drop a bag of money on a guard from the top of a ladder, push a wheelbarrow, grab a mining pick, put down a mining pick, scare a guard with a mining pick, hit a guard with a mining pick, hang from a beam to avoid a minecart, ride in a minecart, garab a bag of money while riding in a minecart, and ride an elevator.
More than that, the state of the multiscreen mine is saved between lives. If you get caught or fall, all of the bags you have moved stay moved. It’s a small thing, but it also means that the game is built on independent systems that interact with one another in predictable and player influenceable ways. This was an extremely uncommon way to develop games at the time.
It’s sort of unbelievable that you can do so many, context-sensitive things in one game using only a stick and one button. Not only that, but so many of those actions combine and overlap. Bagman is one of the first ‘If it looks like you can do it, you probably can’ games. There are unique bits of animation and sound that kick off when you trigger most of these actions, but it’s really sort of amazing that you can do them at all. This was in the era of very simple arcade games that could be understood and played in seconds.
You might think that all this interactive complexity would make Bagman difficult to learn or understand, but it is just as intuitive as a game like Donkey Kong. Your goals are clear, and when you mess up, you know it’s your own fault.
So why then is Bagman not up there with Donkey Kong in the list of fondly remembered classics?
There are two reasons.
First, there might be a lot of ways to interact, but there are almost as many ways to get caught or killed. The game is incredibly difficult.
That difficulty is probably to the game's detriment. Sure, it probably gathered a lot of quarters, at least for a while, but that sort of variety of player driven interaction wouldn’t be seen again in a game for a few years. Had it been even just a little easier, more arcade goers would have played it, and more developers would have tried to copy it. Maybe that doesn’t make the best short term business sense.
Second, It’s too easy. I know I just said that it was too difficult, but, like a lot of systems based games that would come later, there are ways to exploit that difficulty. Exploiting games usually means being very patient and taking your time to do everything. If you are willing to pick up a bag, move it a few steps, put it down again, use the pick for a few seconds, and then start moving the bag again, you can finish the game’s, single level. If you are very patient and willing to play for somewhere between twenty to forty minutes, you probably will finish it. Your time playing might not be the most exciting to watch, but it will be full of near misses and well planned escapes. Depending on how much you like exploiting systems, this could be a bad thing, or a very good thing.
I think that we have seen, time and time again, that letting the player win is a good business strategy when making games. Letting them win in a way that is satisfying and makes them feel like they earned it is even better. We did get a Super Bagman, but it was more of a minor iteration on the theme rather than a full evolution. I wonder what an entire series of Bagman games might have been. What could have been done with that innovative layering of actions and systems during those early stages of the industry. I suppose we will never know.
Regardless, Bagman is one of the best games.