Wednesday, November 2, 2022

My Top 5 Video Games from Before I Got Old (or One Last Talk Show Guest)

I've technically done a post about my history of video game fandom already, but I wanted to dedicate a post to my Top 5 Video Games from Before I Got Old. In other words, these are the video games that I enjoyed the most (or simply played the heck out of) before I really got into the 5th generation of console gaming just out of college. Up to that point, most of my gaming was done on 8-bit Commodore computers and then the 16-bit Amiga computer, basically skipping most of the 4th generation of consoles (with the exception of the NEC TurboGraphx). Most of my truly great gaming memories came from these Commodore home computers, with a few select arcade classics thrown in for good measure, and I played those games up until I got my first Sony Playstation (and beyond, obviously).

1. Ghosts 'n Goblins

The Commodore 64 (and all home computers, to be honest) was home to about a bazillion games that were clones of popular arcade games, of varying levels of quality. One of the first clones that I remember playing was a game called Snack Man, which as you might guess was a clone of the arcade classic Pac-man. It was a lot of fun, and in the absence of a way to play the actual game (at least for the moment) it served its purpose well.

But eventually I was introduced to the world of arcade ports to home computers. As with arcade clones, these came in varying levels of quality, but gained the marketing advantage of being able to be called the "official home version of the hit arcade game". One of the first ones that I was able to play on my Commodore 64 was the port of the Capcom classic Ghosts 'n Goblins. This is a platformer, where you play the knight Arthur (not that Arthur, but an allusion to him), fighting your way through waves of ghouls, ghosts, goblins, and demons trying to rescue the princess Prin-Prin who is captured at the beginning of the game. It's an extremely difficult game, but a lot of fun. The C64 version didn't have the color palette of the arcade original, nor the ability to have as detailed of character sprites. But it was incredibly playable, even though it switched a jump button for the up direction on the joystick (Commodore didn't natively support multi-button sticks). I spent many hours on this, even though I never managed to complete the game.

2. Arkanoid

One of the most cloned games from the era of the original Atari 2600 was the game Breakout. The concept was pretty simple: you control the paddle at the bottom of the screen, and attempt to keep a ball in play, bouncing it against a field of colored bricks at the top of the screen. Clear out all of the bricks and move on to the next level of colored bricks. The game went through a number of iterations as the concept was used in subsequent games.

One of the most popular of the Breakout clones was the Taito classic Arkanoid. The basic concept was the same, but the developers added a number of elements that elevated the game to greatness. Not only were you trying to keep the ball in play in order to clear out all of the bricks, but you also had to either evade or take out any number of enemies that would pop out of the top of the playfield and attempt to disrupt your progress. Fortunately, the player has been given a number of randomly appearing power-ups that help to level the playing field, so to speak, like expanding the bat, giving the player a laser to shoot bricks and enemies, or the ability to slow down the ball.

The game made it to home systems with a number of very competent versions, but while the arcade cabinet used a rotating paddle-style controller to play the game, most of the home versions had to make do with a joystick or gamepad, which made the game a bit harder to play. Hence, my preference for the arcade original here.

3. Phantom of the Asteroid

One of the nice things about the Commodore 64 was that, while most triple-A games ran over $20, and were usually out of my financial reach, there were a large number of budget titles available for $5 or $10 at places like ShopKo and K-Mart. While the quality of these games could very greatly, there was one line that was almost consistently high-quality: Mastertronic. Pretty much all of their games were extremely enjoyable, and many titles, such as Kikstart and Action Biker, went to become true classic C64 titles.

One of the first Mastertronic games I picked up was called Phantom of the Asteroid. It was a platform exploration game where you played an astronaut equipped with a jetpack, a gun, and a depleting supply of oxygen. The goal was to locate 36 uranium cubes on the asteroid, while you used colored pads to activate and deactivate various barriers, all the while avoiding or shooting aliens that would pop up. If you manage to locate all of the uranium cubes, you are given 5 minutes to escape the asteroid before it explodes. I managed to locate them all once, but was unable to escape the asteroid. I found out later in life that the original cassette tape version of this game allowed the player to save their location in the game. When it was ported to floppy disk, this ability was removed, which forced the player to complete the game in a single sitting, or pause the game and leave the computer on until the next play session (which I did on a couple of occasions).

While the game was a lot of fun, one of the best things about it was the soundtrack, which was created by legendary video game composer Rob Hubbard. The man was a master of the SID chip, which was the chip used to create sound on the C64. There were times when I would load the game up and just listen to the theme for a while, it was that good.

4. Lemmings

In the late 80s, Commodore bought the technology for its next computer system from a small company, known as Amiga Corporation, by buying the company. It started with the Amiga 1000, and built upon that success by releasing follow-up systems the Amiga 2000, which was directed towards business users, and the Amiga 500, which was designed for home users who wanted the same experience but at a lower price point.

In 1992, I made the leap from my venerable Commodore 64C, which had served me well my freshman year of college, to the Amiga 500. This opened up a whole new world of productivity and, more importantly, gaming. Suddenly, I had access to games that could rival the games my friends were playing on their Sega Genesis and SNES systems. One of the Amiga's "killer apps" was the puzzle game Lemmings, by DMA Design and Psygnosis, the developers and publisher who would eventually go on to release the Wipeout racing series for Sony's Playstation systems.

The game was designed around the (false) premise that lemmings simply follow each other everywhere, even to their death. The titular characters start by falling out of a trapdoor in the ceiling of the level, and then begin to march on their way unabated until they reach an obstacle, or a ledge. Then, they either turn around or fall off the ledge, sometimes to their demise. The player has a limited amount of tools to assign to the lemmings to help them navigate the level, hopefully to the door at the end. The game is well designed, has excellent graphics that really showed off what the Amiga could do. The sound included excellent background music and high-pitched samples of the lemmings saying things like "Let's go!" and "Oh no!", which again showed off what the Amiga could accomplish when competently coded. And it was a great time-waster, as you spent sometimes hours trying to make it past some of the harder levels.

5. Jumpman

The last game that I'll highlight here was another C64 classic, this time by now-defunct developer/publisher Epyx, best known for games like California Games and Impossible Mission. Jumpman was a fast-paced platform game that saw you controlling the main character, Jumpman, defusing bombs placed around the level by terrorists. Once you defuse all of the bombs (by touching each one) you move on to the next level. Each level had an additional challenge, such as homing missiles that would go after you if you stood still too long, or bombs dropping from the sky, or robots that would hunt you down.

This game was one of the smoothest playing games that I had ever played at the time. The actions moving from platform to platform, jumping to ladders to ropes carrying you up and down all flowed together seamlessly, which made the game a joy to play. Very few games have risen to this level in my estimation since this game. A true classic.

Let move on from video games to this week's strips.

Strip 138/166 - Probably won't make a good musical

Playing off of the strip from last week, another "movie monster" take, this time Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The punchline, of course, is that Mr. Hyde ends up being FC, which in many ways can be considered Furble's alter-ego, although I can pretty much guarantee that my thought process wasn't quite that deep here.

Strip 139/166 - Night Talk comes to an inauspicious end

Funnily enough, this one was so subtle upon review all these years later, that I thought I had completely flubbed the strip, or something didn't get copied in the pasteup process. I missed the fact that Furble disappears from behind the desk ("Poof!"), thus setting up the punchline.

Interestingly enough, this ends up being the last Night Talk strip with Furble. We revisit the set one more time to close out the storyline, but we'll move on to new adventures after this. It was fun while it lasted.

Strip 140/166 - The school system on Furbulia is... interesting

The strips that are straight text obviously did not represent my best work, but at least this one was humorous, with a nice call-back to Night Talk.

Strip 141/166 - Political humor (again). Har har har.

Always trying to be topical, although I'm not sure what brought this one on, which is the problem with topical humor. Nice try. Maybe next time.

See you all next week!

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