Tuesday 18 December 2012

Pretty lights and explosions

Williams Electronics flyer courtesy of TAFA
People play video games for different reasons. Some like the intelectual challenge of puzzle and strategy games. Others want a respite from reality, and like to pretend they are elves in a fantasy world, or football players in a big green field... There are some however, who just want to shoot things and watch the world explode in a cloud of multicolor fireworks. To quote Batman's butler: 

«Some men aren't looking for anything logical. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.»

This became a possibility in 1980, when Defender came to the arcades. Defender is a game about protecting little humanoids from aliens who try to pick them up to eat them. If an alien succeeds, it subsequently mutates into an aggressive and hyperactive version of itself. If all the humanoids are eaten, the planet explodes and all the aliens become hyper and a lot harder to hit.

It is therefore smart to shoot them down as quickly and accurately as possible, and for doing so you are rewarded with pretty lights and explosions.

Defender cabinet and control panel
Defender was one of the first games to feature particle effects. The fireworks, explosions and laser patterns in the game were very impressive back in the early eighties. It was the first game with a world that extened outside of the screen, and the first to use horizontal camara panning or scrolling to navigate it. It had a scanner to show the positions of enemies and allies relative to the player, and as such it was also the first game to feature a mini-map.

Defender was also extremely hard, mainly because of its non-minimalist control system. As Defender is a 2D horizontal space shooter, one might expect that all you would really need was a joystick and a couple of fire buttons. Defender however, has one joystick for vertical movement, a button each for thrust, reverse, fire and an "explode-everything-on-the-screen" button.

The game was designed by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar for Williams Electronics. It was a great success for the company, and they produced and sold over 55 000 units worldwide.

The success was so formidable that the execs at Williams figured that if one team can make one great hit, a hundred teams should be able to make hundreds. They therefore started hiring all the aspiring game makers they could find, some with an above average interest in weeds and disco.

Robotron: 2084

Jarvis og DeMar weren't particularly happy with the new direction of Williams electronics, and decided to leave the company in order to pursue game design on their own terms. They founded their own production company called Vid Kidz in 1981, but kept their old employer as distributor.

In 1982 they made Robotron: 2084, another hectic, colorful and difficult game with an unusual control scheme and loads of explosions. In Robotron: 2084, your mission is to protect the last human family from the insidious robot army who has taken control of the Earth. You do this by blasting pretty much everything in sight.

As opposed to Defender, Robotron: 2084 is played on single screen levels, but they are tightly packed with enemies. In order to overcome the brutal odds, one must master the art of maneuvering and shooting in different directions at the same time. It is played with two joysticks, one for movement and the other for firing.

Back in time

In 1994, both Defender and Robotron: 2084 were revived in the form of the compilation package: Williams Digital Arcade. This was the first commercially available arcade emulator.

An emulator is a program that enables code originally written for one type of hardware to run on a different type of hardware without modifications.

Williams Digital Arcade made it possible to run the original arcade versions of Defender, Robotron: 2084 and Joust (another early Williams classic), on an Apple Macintosh. It was the start of what would eventually bloom into the modern arcade emulator retro gaming community. In the years that followed, several other emulators were created, making it possible to play many classic arcade games, from the oldies like Space Invaders to more recent classics like the Street Fighter series.

The arcade emulator scene today is mostly consolidated in the open source project: MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), which currently enables over 7000 arcade games to be played on modern home computers.

Beastly successors

Defender and Robotron: 2084 are games that have left large footprints in the gaming industry. Both in their own time and later. While they were new, they were an inspiration to aspiring young game designers who would later make their own marks on the industry.

One who was heavily inspired by the works of Jarvis and DeMar, was a young Brit by the name of Jeff Minter. If you grew up in the early eighties and had access to a home computer like the Commodore 64, you have probably played at least one of his games. They were usually hectic shooters with psychedelic graphics and ungulates in the title, like: Attack of the Mutant Camels, Llamatron, Sheep in Space and Metagalactic Llamas Battle at the Edge of Time.

Trance trance evolution

Both Defender and Robotron: 2084 have passed the test of time beautifully, especially from a game-play point of view. What still make them so fun to play, is that they ascend into a higher level of being when you play them enough to reach the point of "getting it". The feeling is a form of Zen, a hypnotic trance where rational thought and hesitation takes a backseat to reflex and intuition.

It is an aspect of what in psychology is referred to as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow. A state of mind where one experiences extreme levels of immersion in an activity which is challenging, whilst yet retaining a high level of control. For many years, Robotron: 2084 was my primary source of this Zen. In the last few years however, the Geometry Wars series from Bizzare Creations has taken over Zen inducing duties.

Geometry Wars combines the hectic twin stick shooting action from Robotron: 2084, with the cunning and agile enemies from Defender, mixed with the vector rendering and particle generation capabilities of modern gaming hardware.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is available on Steam and XBLA, but was originally an easter egg in Project Gotham Racing 2 for the original Xbox, where it could be played on an arcade machine in your virtual garage. A sequel, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, was released on XBLA in 2008, and is likely the last game in the series for a while, as Activision who acquired Bizzare Creations in 2007, disbanded the studio last year.


Arcade Games said...

Nice post, even if I hate wikipedia links :)

Sveinjo said...

Thank you :) Wikipedia links may not be the optimal way to go, but I find they remain relatively stable over time, so they are not the worst either :)

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