Best Games - Battlezone
It’s the late 1960s. Saturn, Titan, Vostok, and Proton rockets have been launching from both sides of the cold war. The official word is that they have been carrying probes, satellites, astronauts, and cosmonauts. These are science focused spacecraft. The mission is exploration and the betterment of mankind. lies.
The premise of the 1998 remake of the classic 1980 vector tank game Battlezone is schlocky scifi alternate history at it’s best. It posits that the space race was a cover for a covert war fought across the solar system for an alien metal called scrap.
Scrap has the ability to self assemble into all manner of space tank, space factory, space turret, and other space stuff. All you need to do is send out mobile resource collecting vacuums to suck it up in quantities sufficient enough to build new things.
The game is played primarily from a first person perspective, either on foot, or from the inside of a space tank. It would be easy to mistake Battlezone for a first person shooter, but it is a strategy game at its core. You manage your bases, defenses, and troops from on the ground. Issuing orders, building units, and setting waypoints is all handled from inside your tank.
What struck me immediately, was that there was no grid system, no suggested locations for any of the more mobile units. The strategy section of this action/strategy game is about as freeform as they could make it. I would regularly use moon craters and martian canyons as environmental cover, drawing enemies into a prearranged crossfire. Being flexible and using the terrain to your advantage is the key to victory in Battlezone.
The usual point of view for a real time strategy game is from high overhead allowing the player to command and organize their troops board game style. Since Battlezone is played almost entirely from the point of view of a unit on the ground the way you issue orders to your units is unique, and seriously hasn’t been improved upon in the last 16 years. Battlezone uses an incredibly elegant hierarchical menu system that you operate with the number keys. You get shockingly fast at wrangling your troops using this system, and what small amount of micromanaging that you lose by not having a birds eye view, you can make up for with your own tanks combat abilities and movement speed.
Just driving the hovering space tanks around is a pure joy, which is good because driving around is what you spend most of your time doing in Battlezone. You drive over here to tell this unit to follow you, then you drive over there to tell another unit to hold a position. You drive over to one of your other units to order the pilot to switch space tanks with you so you can drive out with a faster, smaller tank. You park that smaller tank in a crater so that it’s hidden when you jump out on foot to go spy on the enemy operations from a high cliff. Then you use your sniper rifle to take out a few enemy pilots while you’re up there. You jump down and hop in one of their newly driverless space tanks, and you drive that back to your base.
Battlezone is space tank driving, strategy thinking fun. There has never been another game quite like it, and it did things that have yet to be improved upon. It’s one of the best games.
Best Games - Artillery
Artillery is one of the most basic physics equations given new form as a game. Artillery is one of the oldest computer games and new games based on the model of Artillery are released at a metronomic rate. Scorched Earth, Gunbound, Worms, Angry Birds. They are all descendants of Artillery.
The overhand, targeted, throw is a fundamentally human trait. With very little practice, the overwhelming majority of our species can pick up some junk they find on the ground, instantly calculate the weight and balance of the object, raise it above their head, and strike a target several meters away with force and accuracy. Computing parabolic flight, compensating for wind, and predicting the aerodynamic properties of projectile is built into us. Enjoying the activity of throwing things is inherent. Artillery is throwing things, abstracted into turn based strategy on a 2D plane.
Artillery also meets all of my criteria for both a game, and a computer game. It is a solvable, pattern based system where enough of the the calculable information is obscured, or random, that a balance of consideration and intuition is required. There is a specified purpose. That’s it really. That’s a game. Play it on a computer, or better yet, against a computer, and it’s a computer game.
Artillery itself, may not be the most memorable game ever, but the legacy of Artillery, the long and storied history of throwing stuff at other stuff video games, makes Artillery easily one of the best games.
Best Games - Pengo
When I was a kid I would go over to a friends house to play games on his Commodore vic20. I would arrive under the pretext that we were going to play street hockey. Most of the time we actually would play street hockey, because hey, street hockey is fun. The entire time we were playing there was a tune playing in the back of my mind. It was popcorn, and it goes like this.
During the 80s there were about seven thousand computer and game systems that you could port your game to. A lot of games were written for dedicated arcade hardware that could easily cost 10 times what a home computer sold for. The code and hardware were so closely tied in a lot of the arcade machines that the circuit boards were usually one offs. A massive, expensive, collection of chips, wires, and printed boards would be used in one game and that would be it.
Due to this level of specialization, porting a game from the arcade to home computers was more often than not, a ground up rewrite. You might have noticed that the video above was of a game titled ICE and not Pengo. If you could ground up rewrite a game faster than another developer, or better than another developer, and you couldn’t, or didn’t, get actual legal approval to do any such thing, you would put it out under a different name. That’s just how it went. Once in a while a developer creating a clone of a popular game would have the decency to change the art or music as half lidded shrug toward copyright law. Cymbal Software, the creators of ICE, were about as brazen as you can get. This was the version of Pengo I would play at my friends house.
I was aware of the arcade version of Pengo, but the only versions I had played at the time were the ones that were re-creations for the Tandy computers, Atari Computers, and of course, the Commodore vic20 and 64. They were much thinner clones of the original game. Still, I could tell that there was something more going on with Pengo than your standard maze chase game.
All through the early 80s maze chase games, like Pac-Man, were common as dust bunnies. At first glance Pengo seems to be yet another in this genre. I’ve even read it referred to as a maze chase more than once. Of course if you play it you will find that the Pengo shares very little with Pac-Man. First off, the maze isn’t really a maze at all. Pengo’s movement isn’t really restricted in any way. If there is a block in your way, just push it and it will slide until it collides with another block or the edge of the screen. If another block is behind it, smash it and walk right through. It’s not really a maze if you can make your own path. Pengo is action, puzzle, and strategy all at once.
That’s the really fascinating thing about Pengo. All of it’s levels are randomly generated, so while you can create strategies, there are no patterns for winning the game. Planning, and reaction matter in equal parts. The game is a series of interlocking systems that you have to learn and exploit to be successful. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there are many examples of unconstrained, systems based video games, like Pengo, from the early 80s. Pengo may be the earliest example of random level generation where the environment is actually a gameplay element. I could be wrong about this too, but I couldn’t find any other strong examples aside from Rogue, but in Rogue the levels are fixed in place after they are generated, and not really subject to player manipulation. For it’s time, Pengo is pretty unique.
While doing some research on the game, I came across this gem. It seems that some folks have been reverse engineering the original game code to port it to different platforms, emulated and otherwise. While doing this conversion work one guy came across a bug in the original maze creation algorithm. I could go into all sorts of nerdy rambling about how he found that the code is self modifying so the program is actually changing itself as it runs so that the programmers can pack everything more efficiently into the limited memory and processor cycles available. Suffice to say, if you are the sort of person that would be interested in such a thing you should read this.
Otherwise you should probably just watch these really cool videos of mazes being randomly created.
And just in case you missed it, here is Pengo and Popcorn again!
Best Games - Beyond Castle Wolfenstein
Everyone played that 3D shooter. You probably had a shareware disc or a disc with a handwritten label that said Wolf 3D. The one where you ran, gun outstretched, through squared off tunnels shooting nazis all the way. Wolfenstein 3D was great wasn’t it. Beyond Castle Wolfenstein isn’t that game.
We played Beyond Castle Wolfenstein in school. We would stay in recesses and huddle around the computer. This was not a school sanctioned activity. Our school did have an apple IIe or IIc in all the classrooms, so this was really just the students making the best use they could of the resources at hand. Maybe a few teachers in the entire school district had half a clue what to do with these machines. The students knew exactly what to use them for.
The disk was one that some kid had brought from home. Probably a twelfth generation copy, not even the distant vapor of legitimate retail lingered around it. No box, no manual, no nothing. We were flying completely blind. Every time we would take a fifteen minute run at the thing, we would learn new controls, and discover new secrets. Learning that you could crack locks if you didn’t have the combination was revelatory. As was finding that you could hold up a nazi guard with an unloaded gun just so you could steal his bullets.
It was Beyond Castle Wolfenstein and a trip to the school library that taught me who Eva Braun was. Before that game, I had never heard of her. While playing the game we discovered so many of her coats and diaries in locked chests and closets, I figured she must be worth looking up. Along the way I also learned about operation valkyrie, and figured out that they character you play in the game is likely a german resistance fighter, and not an intrepid allied soldier like some of the art would lead you to believe. So maybe it was somewhat educational after all.
Going back to the game now, the mechanics are thin, and the content is unique but sparse. What you do see though is the beginnings of something else. The road is pretty straight from Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, and it’s predecessor Castle Wolfenstein, to Metal Gear. This is one of the first stealth action games, even though it’s light on both. Beyond Castle Wolfenstein is the prototype on which one of gamings most enduring genres is built. That alone makes it one of the best games.
Best Games - Robotron 2084
Robotron starts at 780kmp/h and then presses down on the accelerator. Some games give people seizures. Robotron gives you epilepsy first and then gives you seizures. If you already had epilepsy, boom, now you have double epilepsy. Robotron destroys the tendons in your left wrist and then offers you a second joystick for your right. Berserk has 7 robots on the screen. Robotron has 47000, and they ride jet skis. Geometry Wars has lots of graphical style. Robotron uses a colour pallette only fully visible to birds. PAC-MAN has a glitchy kill screen. The kill screen in Robotron is a prison shank swiping at you from the coin return. Dark Souls is hard. Robotron is calculus written in diamonds. The Last of Us has a dark, heartbreaking story. Robotron makes you the protector of the last human family, then forces you watch as it kills them in 7 seconds. Robotron kills you 3 seconds after that. Also, it took your money. The audio for Robotron was recorded with a 2 string bass, played by a nail gun.
Robotron 2084 is Google’s end game.
Best Games - Alpha Centauri
I used to keep my copy of Alpha Centauri stowed safely in the bottom drawer of an end table, deep in the back, nestled under old papers and envelopes. This was for my own protection. Now it sits in the bottom of a box, stored under the stairs in the basement. This is also for my protection. Alpha Centauri is almost guaranteed to make me sick.
Civilization was a loose computer adaptation of the board game of the same name. I love, and have loved, the Civilization series on the PC. It is a solid strategic empire building game, a micro-detailed version of Risk. You have to be simultaneously aware of the global military mechanics, and, municipal level, social and economic dealings. You can, in equal parts, out fight, out negotiate, out research, or out spend the rest of the world. All these machiavellian interactions are set against a scrambled world history that borders on satire. Gandhi is often played as a loose cannon with his finger squarely on the nuclear button.
Alpha Centauri picks up where Civilization ends. Humanity has left the cradle of earth to seek a new home, the extra-solar planet Chiron. Nations lose all meaning and the small population of immigrants become divided by extremist ideology. Most of the gameplay and mechanics that make Civ a great game are still in Alpha Centauri, and some, like the custom unit creator are vastly deepend. Exploration, city management, combat and negotiation with other factions are handled similarly to previous Civ games.
What makes Alpha Centauri a step above the rest of the Civ series is the setting and the tone. Where Civ picks and chooses events from across human history, the story in Alpha Centauri is linear and evenly metered out. Where Civ will play events for satire, Alpha Centauri tends toward the deadly serious. Quotes and writing from history dot the Civ series, but most of the writing in Alpha Centauri is wholly original, and, more often than not, disquieting and poetic.
The Civ series alway boasted exploration and discovery, at least in the early stages of each playthrough. With the exception of a few barbarian tribes early on there is very little danger in exploring or expanding your territory. Chiron, simply referred to as Planet, is the harshest of frontiers. The crust of fungus that covers planet will push against your territories with increasing ferocity as you expand outward. Unthinkable terrors known as mindworms act as Planets native defence, overcoming your explorers with psychically projected nightmares before burrowing through their flesh and bone. Planet does not want you. It is made very clear that you are the alien.
As the game progresses, and the story unfolds, you discover that you are not playing a game of simple mechanics and management. Alpha Centauri is a playable novel with a rich narrative, and a lot to say about the awful nature of colonialism, extremism, and the human drive to dominate. It also has a lot to say about human endurance, adaptability, acceptance of being of the land and not it's master.
That story is what keeps me playing until the wee hours. It's that story that I can't put down. That is why I keep it safely tucked in a box in the basement. If I started playing it I know I would have to see it through. I know I’ll play it again, some day. Or three consecutive days. It will probably make me sick. That’s why Alpha Centauri is easily one of the best games ever made.
Best Games - Megamania
- through deep black empty
- drifting between stars and void
- space dice tumble down
Best Games - Bubble Bobble
Now, if you don't think this song is the greatest song ever, I will fight you. That’s no lie.
- Ron Burgundy
Unless someone can prove otherwise, I think that the music for bubble Bobble may just be the happiest music ever written.
There was a Bubble Bobble machine at the front of the candy store in my hometown. It sat beside a Jackal machine, or Top Gunner, if you’re a heathen. Since you could drive a Jeep over dudes and launch missiles at tanks in Jackal, Bubble Bobble didn’t get much love. But while you stood there fighting tyranny, or whatever it was you were supposed to be doing in Jackal, that Bubble Bobble machine was bleeding pure joy.
Everything in Bubble Bobble floats. The bubbles your little dinosaur creature exhales zip rapidly across the screen before drifting lazily upward. The enemy creatures you trap in those bubbles rock gently like leaves on the wind. Your jump follows a slow breezy arc, rising briskly and falling back down with a sleepy pace. Gravity is daydreaming.
Happy Music. Happy movement. Happy Game.
Best Games - Toy Pop
Step right up and try your hand. A true test of skill. This contest is not for the weak hearted or soft minded among you fine folks. What on outward presentation may seem to be a mere child's toy, actually hides a challenge of such intense cranial agility and digital subtlety, that it can cause strong men to weep and women to swoon. You sir. Yes you. You appear hearty. I measure you to be of ample will and temerity. Of course I could be mistaken. Am I? Tell me folks, does this gentleman seem of sufficient fortitude to you? Can he weather a true examination of his mental and physical faculty? Step right up and try your hand at Toy Pop.