Smash Bros. for Wii U is easily my favourite game in the series, hands down. There was a moment when I was playing with friends, after six players were whittled down to two fighters with one life each We were an entire minute away from each other on Palutena’s Temple, this massive, almost over designed beast of a stage, so big it’s often hard to see yourself on it. We drew closer to each other, me flinging arrows from Pit’s bow, him dashing between floating platforms with Ike’s quick draw attack, until we met up on opposite ends of the bridge that connects the stage’s two halves. Our two anime champions stood off, both of us waiting for the other to make his move. My palms were sweating. I don’t know what he was planning, but I was expecting another quick draw, which I would counter with a deadly dashing uppercut, then follow him up into the air for an easy kill. Unless he countered, in which case I’d get flung a short distance and use my guardian orbitars to block a follow up hit. Then we’d be back to the anime Mexican standoff.
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Before we kick off this month’s Built to Play theme on Virtual Reality, let’s take a trip through the frightful history of consumer-level VR game technology, shall we? Now hold my hand, count to three, click your heels, and strap a computer to your face, because it’s time to go!
While it isn’t technically virtual reality, the Master System’s 3D glasses are the first example I can find of a game developer using dedicated hardware to push immersion. Or, more accurately back then, the promise of immersion to sell dedicated hardware. To be fair to these guys, Master System 3D is in full colour, trading out red and blue lenses for rapidly moving shutters. That doesn't make it any less a waste of money.
Every time I write the word "videogame", I get this weird squiggly red line under it in word. It means the word is wrong. It means videogame is not a word, even though I see it used on occasion over its proper alternative- video games. “Videogames” is a proper noun, versus “video games”, an adjective and a noun. So why the distinction? Both words mean the same thing, even if one technically doesn’t exist. Why have both words in the first place? Surely we should be able to just choose one at this point. Why do semantics even matter when talking about defining a game? At the risk of admitting how pretentious I am, it does matter to me, at least a little bit.
Let’s think about the term “video game” for a second. It’s two words, technically. Video, which refers to visual content, and game, something people do for amusement. So it’s a visual amusement, or specifically, a game where the visuals are on a screen. It’s a simple definition, and it doesn’t really offer too many problems. If it isn’t visual, it isn’t a “video game”. Taken on its own, game more commonly refers to an amusement played along set rules, usually with the possibility to win and lose. Video games pretty much always have rules by nature. Even in games like Minecraft, which lets the player do almost anything they want, they are still trapped in the confines of the world. There’s an internal logic to a game world, both from a narrative perspective, and a technological perspective.
Technologically, games can’t account for infinite possibilities. Programmers and game designers can only do so much, and that’s why you can’t develop superpowers in the middle of Call of Duty and start flying around, melting people with laser beams. Sure, they could have done that, but they put their resources and efforts into making a different kind of game. One where that doesn’t happen, and can’t, because the developers didn’t code that in. Narrative-wise, every world has rules. In Star Wars, Luke doesn’t suddenly defeat Darth Vader by turning into a giant and crushing him underfoot. The story has established Luke can’t do that. He has some pseudo-magical powers, but we all understand their limits. On the flip side, that means everything that does happen in a narrative happens for a reason, even your own personal narrative of playing the game, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
For now, we understand that any game does technically have rules. You can only do what the game allows you to. However, we run into a problem with that idea. Sure, the world has established rules, but what happens if I break those rules? Speedruns often involve clipping through the game’s architecture, or glitching out certain segments to make the game go faster. Link can’t usually pass through locked doors without a key, but Wind Waker speedrunners can make him slip right through. But they’re still playing the game, they’re just playing for a different goal, with different rules. That’s part of what makes video games so great, often, you can take an existing set of rules, and layer your own over them for a totally different experience.
So rules are a bust, at least in the traditional sense. You can’t just suddenly start playing a heavily modified version of tag while everyone is playing hide and go seek, you’d be breaking the rules. Sure, you’re playing by your own, but the existence of communally agreed upon rules means you’re not the playing the game everyone else set out to, and that means less to some jerk who really care about defining games by their rules. Video game rules are inherently malleable, since, at least in a single player context, there’s no one to tell you that you’re playing incorrectly.
What about win/lose states? Does a game have to let you win or lose? There is no traditional winning or losing in say, Animal Crossing, which goes on forever, with or without the player being involved. There are tiny win states when you pay off your loan, but those don’t end the game or anything. But what about a game you can’t win at all, like Pac-Man? You don’t “win” Pac-Man, you just go as long as possible. You do, however, lose Pac-Man. Not “can”, but “do”. You will eventually lose Pac-Man, because you can’t win. You can hit the kill screen, but that’s not a win state, it ends the game destructively, in an unintended way.
The same win/lose problems come up in playground games. You don’t win jump-rope, for example. You just go as long as possible until you lose. So at the end of the day, games by nature have to have a win or lose state. Even most playground games technically have win or loss states, because they are, by nature, multiplayer experiences, and it’s hard to have those in the real world without forcing a win in some way. So the “game” part of “video game” differs from its traditional definition. Malleable rules and non-traditional victories that don’t involve another player make up the backbone of video games. The “game” portion of the word is different than the one we based it off of. Why not come up with a new word for these kinds of games?
Merriam-Webster says that the first known use of video game was in 1973, which makes sense. That’s one year after Pong, and right when video games were hitting it big in North America. They were still simple enough that they could sort of be defined as anything. It was easy to call it a game, because that’s what it was, and it was played on a TV screen, so video. There. But there’s a weird issue here, both words come from other mediums. Video referred to video screens, like computer monitors and TVs, while game was referring to the fact that, at the time, video games were a lot like games that already existed. Pong was ping-pong, everyone knows what ping-pong is.
It’s actually a lot like movies. The word “movie” comes from “moving picture”, which means movies are just a series of images flashed before your eyes. Kind of demeans the experience right? Aren’t movies supposed to be about combination of the acting, the music, the directing, the cinematography and everything else? I mean, if movies are moving pictures, then are .gifs movies? Are viewmaster reels? Movies are also called films, but that just refers to the thin layer of chemicals spread on photographic plates for developing film reels. Defining a medium by its physical presence isn’t the worst idea in the world, but it does offer some issues when it comes to video games, which are becoming increasingly digital, and began life as discs and cartridges. Can we just call an NES game a ROM? Is that the same as calling a movie a film? I don’t really have the answer, but common sense says we don’t because no one else does.
The best way I personally have to define a video game is by saying that it’s interactive entertainment. You watch movies, you look at art, you listen to music, but you play games. That verb distinction is important to me. It changes how I experience the medium, how I ingest it. You look at art, because it does not move. You watch a movie, because you have to observe the motion. You listen to music, because you use your ears. You play a game, because your actions have influence over the experience. That’s the distinction, and that’s the definition I like. The win or loss matters only when you start dissecting the “game” part of the word, and that's for another time.
It’s hard to be mad that we use a word. We’ve been calling them video games since the ‘70s, and we won’t really stop anytime soon. Video game rolls off the tongue a lot better than “interactive entertainment”. And it’s truly incredible that we’ve come to the point where calling something a “game” defaults to a video game, rather than a board, card, or playground game. I’m not looking to change the way we write the word out, it’d be silly to. This isn’t a crusade, I just prefer videogame over video game. As a proper noun, the word has a transformative power that pushes it just a little further from its two parent words.
Sure, it’ll always be stuck there, since most video games are still games in the traditional sense, and almost all have some visual element. That’s why keeping that parent word DNA at the fore is still important. I don’t think the word even separates the conversation. Personally, I don’t want to let games that are less visual, or less game-y get brushed off as “not a video game”, but honestly? That doesn't happen that often. I think I just want to combine the two words, make them inseparable, as their own concept. A proper noun that shows that these aren’t like two other mediums. That video games aren’t a combination of video and game, but something greater. They can’t be viewed in the same lens as movies, nor like traditional games. They’re inherently comparable, but that’s because they’ve evolved from them. They’re something bigger than video games They’re videogames.
And also, I’m pretentious. But that’s a given.
We at Built to Play wanted to give you a little sampler of five games in the collection that we feel are some of the more historically interesting ones available.
In 1981, Atari employee Todd Frye was asked to develop a version of Namco’s arcade hit, Pac-Man, for the Atari 2600. Atari figured that even though their hardware was released in 1977, and wasn’t designed to display more than three moving objects at a time, Pac-Man was simple and gameplay-focused enough that they could get away with what they assumed would be an ugly, but functional port.
They were wrong.
Programmer Todd Frye was given about five months to make the game, which he quickly realized was almost impossible. For one thing, Pac-Man was running on arcade-level hardware that was 16 times more powerful than the 2600, and because of executives trying to get as much money out of the game as possible, Frye was told to design the game on a 4 kilobyte cartridge, rather than the larger, but more expensive, 8 KB counterpart. Frye ended up changing the game’s trademark power pellets to yellowish wafers, and drawing them, along with Pac-Man, every frame. To get around the three moving objects rule, Frye had the four ghosts flicker on a four frame rotation, with only one being visible every frame. On an old CRT monitor, the afterimage could trick someone into thinking they weren’t flickering that often, but on a modern computer monitor, the effect is headache-inducing.
It all resulted in a game that is recognizable as Pac-Man, but not nearly as good, and certainly a disappointment to Pac-Man fans who were eagerly anticipating a home version. Atari, expecting the game to be their biggest seller ever, printed 12 million copies, about two million more games than there were sold Atari 2600’s at the time. The game sold seven million units over the course of the system’s life, a little over half of the initial estimate. Unsatisfied buyers returned the game in droves, leaving Atari with not only the 5 million left over, but hundreds of thousands more copies sitting unsold. Pac-Man is often cited as one of the games (along with E.T. the Extra Terrestrial) that led to the videogame crash of 1983, because it drove consumer confidence in Atari straight into the ground.
And no, apparently the yellowish squares aren’t Twinkies. What a gyp.
Luckily, the Collection not only features the 2600’s best selling title, but also its second best, David Crane and Activisions’s Pitfall!.
Unlike Pac-Man, it’s Pitfall’s gameplay that makes it so important. It’s often considered one of the earlier examples of the sidescrolling platformer.
Pitfall lacks the uneven terrain of other, later platformers, but has the same multiple levels of play, sidescrolling format, and focus on avoiding hazards that would eventually become the genre’s trademarks. It’s unlikely that the true origin point for platformers, Super Mario Bros. was inspired by Pitfall, but its early use of those concepts on system that could barely handle them is interesting enough on its own.
Crane managed to get multiple moving sprites on screen at once, without any flickering, and still fit the game on a 4 KB cartridge, a feat that made Pac-Man look even worse by comparison. He also made sure the game felt completely distinct from Atari’s glut of poor arcade conversions by giving players a 20 minute time limit. Arcade games usually lasted only a few minutes, to get players to pump more quarters into the machine. By giving players 20 minutes, Crane gave the game a reason to be on a home system, and started the trend of longer game experiences for the home market.
Akalabeth is brutal, confusing, difficult to get into and almost unplayable to people who grew up with the luxuries of modern RPGs. It’s also probably the reason that those RPGs even exist in the first place.
Richard Garriot programmed Akalabeth: World of Doom in 1979, while he was in high school. Eventually, the game found its way out of his hometown and into the hands of the California Pacific Computer Company, who offered to publish Garriot’s game, and give him 5$ for every copy sold. Three years later, Garriot would release his next game, Ultima, a spiritual sequel to Akalabeth.
Ultima is essentially the inspiration for almost every western RPGs, and plenty of eastern ones as well. Ultima and Wizardry, another RPG released that same year, are often cited as the two games that inspired Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, which in turn inspired every other JRPG. And all these games can trace their origins back to Akalabeth.
The game is mostly a curio now, since Ultima went on to do what Akalabeth tried to do but in a more playable state, but there is some charm left on those digital bones. Nothing says dedication like turning your restart option into a prayer for revival.
In the late
‘70s, Ken Williams wanted to start up a company for Apple II software
development. After poking around a catalogue, he and his wife, Roberta, found a
game called Colossal
Roberta felt like the game would work better with pictures, so Ken developed Mystery House, using 70 simple drawings she’d made for their story, which was based on Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. They sold the game in sandwich bags at local software shops, and it managed to break 10,000 copies sold, which was an unbelievable success at the time.
A few years later, they turned their little operation into a proper company, called Sierra On-Line, and worked on cranking out more and more adventure games. Text-adventure games were already pretty popular among hobbyists, but adding pictures and graphics made the genre more accessible, opened it up to new fans, and eventually, turned adventure games into some of the most popular PC games out there.
Sierra’s later titles like King’s Quest and Space Quest, Lucasart’s classics like Maniac Mansion and the Indiana Jones games, even Myst, all owe something of their existence to Ken and Roberta Williams, and Mystery House.
As an added bonus, not only is the game historically important, it’s also one of the few games in the collection that is still kind of playable! It’s a little obtuse, but seasoned adventure gamers might be able to enjoy the spookiness regardless.
Unlike every other game on this list (and most other games in the collection), Smurf is interesting specifically because it inspired nothing.
Released in 1982, the game has you control an adjectiveless smurf on his way to rescue Smurfette. You do this by jumping, double jumping, or ducking. That’s about it. You can’t defeat enemies (of which there are only two) and your most common hazards are some weeds that will kill you if you touch them. One can only assume smurfs (smurves?) are just that into garden maintenance.
The game can be beaten in about two or three minutes on any difficulty, it’s a bit of a joke. The interesting thing about it though, is that it was the first platformer with alternating terrain. Unlike in Pitfall, you weren’t just jumping over pits and hazards, but up and down onto ledges on different levels. It’s not any sort of major innovation, in fact, Donkey Kong did it a year earlier, but it wouldn’t be adopted back into sidescrolling platformers until the next year’s Maniac Miner, which probably didn’t draw anything from Smurf.
Smurf, like other games in the collection is mostly a curio these days, but it’s a distinctly weird curio. It’s a pretty bad game with early signs of innovation that just sort of evolved into a dead end. Uneven terrain in platformers became a “thing” with Super Mario Bros., which was in turn inspired by Donkey Kong. But Smurf did it first, for whatever it’s worth.
Also, that topless Smurfette glitch makes her gaming’s first sex symbol, in a weird way. Take THAT, Lara Croft.