For any number of reasons, games set in space form the backbone of our medium. For the most part, they feature the kinds of narratives you'd find in a YA book with a cool space dragon on the cover, but sometimes, they strive to be a little more. Some games take that concept of space, which most people have never really interacted with, and finding the ways it intersects with a primarily interactive medium. Which is to say, sometimes games are about big, empty voids, and sometimes, they like to contemplate infinity, and maybe even mechanize it.
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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.
Cartoon mascot platformers were the genre of the mid ‘90s to early 2000s, but one day, they all suddenly disappeared, with onl a few stragglers carrying the torch into the HD era. Of course, with the death of the mascot platformer, many fan favourites were out of a job. Sonic and Mario are hanging in there, but characters like Gex, Banjo, and Kameo are still out there, looking for new work. Here are five forgotten mascots, who they were, and what they’re up to now.
Last Seen in: Bubsy 3D: Furbitten Planet- Atari Jaguar (1996)
Bubsy the Bobcat is best known for two things: his affinity for brain shatteringly awful puns, and Bubsy 3D, the shining symbol of why no one wants to go back to the early days of 3D platforming.
The first couple of Bubsy games are unremarkable, if strangely difficult. Bubsy is probably lesser known as the world’s only haemophiliac bobcat. In the first game, Bubsy only takes a single hit to kill, which is ridiculous for a platform game. Later games gave him some extra health, but by the time he wasn’t defeated by a sideways glance, he was in Bubsy 3D, and manoeuvred like a tank.
Bubsy 3D pretty much overshadows every other Bubsy game (and the terrible cartoon), but I don’t think anyone has ever complained about that before this very sentence. Bubsy’s SNES, Genesis and Jaguar aren’t absolute nightmares, though Hardcore Gaming 101 once referred to the leap from Bubsy 1 to Bubsy 2 as going from “’pile of junk’ to ‘’terribly mediocre.’”
Bubsy’s original creator, Mike Berlyn, didn’t work on the sequel, but made a triumphant return for Bubsy in: Fracture Furry tales. In a 2006 interview, he referred to the experience as “being like a re-animator. Bubsy was dead and buried. ”
For context, both games came out the same year, so it was a pretty short death. Of course, Berlyn’s reanimation was so bad anyway that Atari, the publisher of Furry Tales, suggested that Jaguar owners buy Rayman instead.
Where is he now?
Accolade, Bubsy’s owner, was bought by Infogrames in 1999, and is now technically part of Atari. Though they’d never admit it, Atari’s executives still have a plan for Bubsy. Deep in the basement of their secret development labs, a new Atari system is waiting to launch. The Atari Jaguar will be avenged by the Bobcat, the world’s first pun-powered electronics device.
Aero the Acro-Bat/Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel:
Last seen in: Aero the Acro-Bat 2- SNES/Genesis (1994)
Iguana Entertainment and Sunsoft’s greatest sin was not creating Aero the Acro-Bat, but being greedy.
Aero the Acro-Bat was a middling, if forgettable 1993 platformer for the Genesis and SNES. Aero was a bat with awful hair who worked as a circus acrobat. He did battle with an evil former clown, who wants to shut down Aero’s circus. Now, I’m of the opinion that all clowns are evil, and you don’t need to be an “ex-clown” to be villainous, but I’ll accept Iguana Entertainment’s optimistic world view. It was the 90’s after all.
Anyway, Aero beats up the clown and his sidekick, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, and saves his circus. And then everyone promptly forgot about the whole thing for about 6 months. Sunsoft then decided to adopt Aero as their company mascot, which meant they needed to raise his profile. Thus, the sequels were born.
In April 1994, Aero the Acro-Bat 2 was released, less than a year after the first. Also that month, Sunsoft put out a game starring Zero the Kamikaze squirrel, one of the first game’s antagonists. In November of that year, both games were ported to SNES. Within seven months, Sunsoft managed to totally saturate the market with Aero the Acro-Bat related games. They were oversupplying for a demand that didn’t exist.
Unfortunately, the Aero games aren’t that interesting otherwise. The villainous plot in Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel involves an evil (presumably French Canadian) lumberjack named Jacques le Sheets chopping down Zero’s forest home in order to print counterfeit money. Of course, the evil clown from the first game is behind it all, but the story really pulls at the heartstrings of Canadians who know what it’s like to be accosted by Quebec’s many evil lumberjacks. We suffer every single day.
Also, the evil plan in Aero 2 is called “Plan B”, which is some pretty heavy-handed political leanings for a game about a bat fighting a clown.
Where are they now?
Aero now lives on comfortably through some Game Boy Advance and Virtual Console releases. Zero on he other hand hasn’t been seen since 1994. There are rumours that he’s out there in the forests of Quebec, waiting for the day where he can finally take revenge on the flannel-adorned harbingers of his ruin. Soon, lumberjacks. Soon.
Last seen in: Conker: Live and Reloaded- Xbox (2005)
Conker might be mascot embodiment of whiplash. He first appeared in Diddy Kong Racing as a new, child-friendly mascot character from Rare. Is Banjo and Kazooie were for kids in middle school, Conker was for their younger siblings.
His solo N64 game was delayed however, when the Game Boy Color game, Conker’s Pocket Tales came out and received mostly mixed reception for being yet another cutesy platformer. The N64 game was in development at the time, and was hewing too close to the Banjo and Kazooie games for Rare’s comfort. So, they pulled a 180.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day feels more like an Adult Swim cartoon than a game concept. Conker is an alcoholic squirrel who was kidnapped on his way home after a night of binge drinking. On his way back home, he deals with a quadripalegic weasel, Nazi teddy bears, an operatic mass of feces, and by the end, a xenomorph that crashes the game.
By the end of the game, Conker is pleading with the programmers to bring his dead girlfriend back to life (she was killed by a weasel mafia boss), and monologueing about how you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Finally, he drinks his sorrows away in the bar where the game began.
Strangely enough, even though Nintendo had a very close working relationship with Rare at the time, they didn’t publish it, probably because it’s pretty much the exact opposite of the family friendly image Nintendo likes to keep. Of course, that didn’t stop them from telling Rare to change a few things in the game. Specifically, Nintendo asked for Pokémon to be removed from some of the game’s cutscenes, and the removal of a joke making fun of the KKK.
That’s right kids, Nazi teddy bears, binge-drinking squirrels, and a quadriplegic named “Kriplesac” is a-okay, but making fun of the KKK is just too much.
Where is he now?
Conker’s Bad Fur Day got a remake for Xbox in 2005, but Microsoft decided to get stricter than Nintendo with the censorship, which drove most of its fans away. There was a sequel in the works, but it was cancelled when Microsoft bought Rare from Nintendo. Conker is mostly forgotten by Rare today, now that they’re all Kinect sports games and Xbox avatars all the time, but sources tell me you can still hear opera singing coming from a bathroom stall on the third floor that no one’s used in almost a decade.
Last seen in: Wild Woody- Sega CD (1995)
As the story goes, in 1995 Sega was looking for a competitor for Nintendo’s newest success, Donkey Kong Country. They wanted a game that could show off the Sega CD’s superior processing power, as well as have 3D graphics to rival what Rare was pulling off on the SNES. That same day, Sega’s executives were approached by the Number 2 Pencil Association of America, who wanted to make a game that would get kids excited about traditional pencils again, and leave gel pens and mechanical pencils behind.
Okay, that last part is a lie, but it’s the only reasonable explanation for why Sega would make a mascot platformer starring a pencil, of all things.
Wild Woody almost seems like he was designed to end up in the unfortunate mascot graveyard. For one, he has the world’s worst name. Wild Woody is catchier than Peter Pencil, but Peter Pencil also isn’t a euphemism for uncontrollable erections. Next comes the part where he’s a wacky, ‘tude-ified pencil. A PENCIL. I don’t think it’s the first case of a non-animal cartoon mascot character, but Wild Woody is definitely the first tool-based mascot platformer.
Worth mentioning are the prerendered 3D cutscenes, which, while more elaborate than Donkey Kong Country, are somehow orders of magnitude uglier than even Bubsy 3D. Trying to figure out what you’re looking at in the cutscenes is almost as challenging as moving Woody with the game’s stiff controls.
Woody still has the mascot-standard smirk, wild expression, and white gloves, but he also has an eraser on his butt which he uses to “rub out” enemies, according to the manual.
I’m starting to think Sega had an internal competition to see who could cram as many penis jokes as possible into one terrible game.
Where is he now?
Wild Woody has been (rightfully) forgotten by Sega, but one employee hasn’t let the torch burn out. Sonic, who still hates Woody for trying to take his place as Sega’s lovable mascot with ‘tude, made sure Woody was transferred over to the art department of Sega USA. Woody is being slowly whittled away, forced to draw pictures of Sonic until the day he dies.
Blinx the Time Sweeper:
Last Seen in: Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space- Xbox (2004)
Poor, poor Blinx. He suffered a fate far worse than being an anthropomorphized cat stuffed into a dorky turtleneck/hoodie combo and steel-toed boots polished to a mirror sheen. You see, Blinx was supposed to be the original Xbox’s mascot.
That’s right, that adorable, Mountain-Dew-green eyed face was to launch a thousand consoles. Probably more, if Microsoft had anything to say about it. Unfortunately, people were sick and tired of mascot platformers by then, no matter how forward thinking the time manipulation mechanics were (no seriously, it’s like a crappier Braid before Braid existed).
Blinx is a Time Sweeper, an employee of the Time Factory, a facility that creates, distributes and maintains time. Which raises a lot of questions. Why are cats in charge of manufacturing time? Also, if Blinx’s job is to produce and maintain time, why are his powers represented by the buttons on your remote control? I think a more accurate title would be Blinx the VCR Sweeper, who is really good at setting the clock on it. He knows which buttons to hit, trust me, it’s nuts.
Anyway, a bunch of pigs mess up time in a certain dimension, so the Time Factory stop giving them time, freezing them in place But then Blinx gets a call from a local princess, and decides he has to save her; even though his job description is being a time janitor, not macking on human princess from other dimensions.
Basically, Blinx is horrible at his job, so the clunky controls and weird difficulty his games are known for are an early example of ludonarrative integration.
And you thought I couldn’t be pretentious about a cartoon cat wearing goggles.
Where is he now?
Surprisingly, Blinx is still at Microsoft. His developer Artoon was absorbed into AQ Interactive, and Microsoft was only too happy to offer him a job at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Blinx is now sweeping the halls of the Xbox division, hoping one day they’ll make him into an avatar costume, or better yet, a gritty reboot.