Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Best games forever

Here I have listed my favourite (mostly old) games. At the end of the post I'm babbling more about how I built the list.

30. Lemmings. 1991 (Psygnosis, Amiga)

A very organic, addictive puzzler, where both knowing how to solve the puzzle and the skill in execution mattered. One of the true originals. The sequels and 3D-versions were mostly crap, missing the point of the first game. I've never really felt a need to return to the world of Lemmings, though.

29. Neuromancer, 1988 (Interplay, C64)

A curious, ambitious game that attempted to recreate William Gibson's world on a small screen. The game had three layers: A Sierra-esque adventure in the real world, the text-based Bulletin Board Systems, and the RPG-style cyberspace.

To get out of the first jam, use the PAX and download 50 credits to pay the bar. Then go to Shin's and claim you got no money, you get your (lousy) deck for free.
Many graphic adventures were genuinely better than this, but something about the memory of playing Neuromancer resonates with me still. I was pretty crap in playing the game, though.

28. Tomb Raider, 1996 (Core, PlayStation)

Tomb Raider was a great experience, a truly three-dimensional game. It was one of the few games that managed to convey a feeling of vertigo. Also, having the wolves assault you was a scary moment. Sadly, the example of TR has paved way for some of the most banal game genres, and it is difficult to see in hindsight what was so special about it in the first place. Especially the controls might seem a bit clunky these days.

27. WipEout, 1995 (Psygnosis, PlayStation)

At a time when I was not generally very interested in games, WipEout was still able to draw me in. The combination of good music and fast 3D-graphics fulfilled the promise of new generation of consoles. It recycles the theme from Powerdrome (not on the list), but makes it enjoyable. I don't really care for racing games, but futuristic racing usually does away with the boring stuff.

26. Llamatron, 1991 (Llamasoft, Atari ST)

This chaotic re-imagining of Robotron is one of the most played Atari ST games I had. As much as I admire Jeff Minter's game designs, this is the only one that made the list on my terms. Minter can usually balance his games in a way that both the learning and addictiveness curve are closely related, giving credence to the "digital narcotic" epithet. If you don't "get" this, then you're unlikely to be impressed by Jeff's games.

25. Empire, 1988 (Interstel, Amiga)

A light, playable version of a very old Unix game. We played Empire endlessly in multi-player mode. The fog-of-war is what made it really interesting, as you could only see around the immediate vicinity of your own units. Heck, you'd need to send out patrols just to find the nearby islands.

Here's Deluxe Empire on iOS, which is not exactly the same thing, but anyway.
Invasions on enemy islands had to be carefully orchestrated with limited intelligence about the enemy's precise whereabouts. A fairly common ploy was to feint an invasion elsewhere while smuggling a few fully-loaded troop transports to crucial positions. Advance Wars on the Nintendo somewhat rekindled my interest into the genre, but it's this version of Empire that has left a lasting impression on me.

24. Alchemist, 1983 (Imagine, ZX Spectrum)

A very early Speccy experience. The mysterious atmosphere just could not be beat. The characters and their animation were just huge, at a time when most game critters were 16x16 pixels. The game is an action interpretation of the old text adventures, a genre which became a bit notorious in the 1980s, think Pyjamara and imitators. This early effort is better than most that came after. Alchemist has also just a tiny bit of combat/spell casting elements thrown in. The wizard could metamorphose into a flying eagle, which added much to the game. Admittedly, there was not much to do in the human form.

Left: Practicing some spell casting. Right: Transformed into an eagle, our Alchemist avoids a ghost

23. Knight Lore, 1984 (Ultimate, ZX Spectrum)

The graphics really blew minds back then with its three-dimensionality, and I was no exception. The gameplay has not stood the test of time so well, though. The monster movements are too random sometimes, and the gameplay slows down unbearably. Also, in hindsight, it's a bit annoying to have the character change into a werewolf at intervals, even if it did seem quite "deep" feature at the time.

Although there had been isometric games before, Knight Lore was the first to show real potential in this perspective angle. It influenced a huge amount of games: Fairlight, Movie. Batman, Head over Heels, Nosferatu, Strike Force Cobra etc, a whole genre that could be called "British isometric".

Left: A three-dimensional platform hell. Right: The poltergeist-type effects became more erratic as you transformed into the wolf, sorry, wulf.
Objectively, Alien 8, the sci-fi sequel, might have been the better game. As are Batman and Head over Heels. But Knight Lore had more style, it was the first, and there's also a kind of clarity to the gameplay that is often lacking from the seemingly more complex imitators.

22. Stunt Car Racer, 1989 (Microstyle, Amiga)

I nearly hate driving games. Ok I kind of liked Ridge Racer and Sega Rally. But this is one of the few I could be bothered with, really, and the only one that made a truly lasting impression. And even then it is about very strange kind of driving.

Left: Preview of the track. Right: Engaging a curve
Stunt Car Racer was perhaps one of the first 3D games that gave an intense sensation of "physicality". There's a visceral moment of recognition as it dawns on you that a jump is going to fail and the car will hit an obstacle...

21. Doom, 1993 (iD Software, Atari Jaguar/PlayStation)

This might have been more game-changing had I encountered it earlier. But I really did not play PC games in the nineties, I only got around to playing it on the consoles. At that time it was just another cool, well-balanced game.
(This is FreeDoom, really.)
20. Mercenary, 1985 (Novagen, C64)

I was just a sucker for large game-worlds which gave an impression of depth, even if they may not have been that complex. In Mercenary, you could walk, drive or fly different vehicles in a three-dimensional world. Under the planet surface there was a labyrinthine realm of rooms, locked doors and puzzling items.

That bunch of wires on the left is your ship. The bunch of wires to the right is an elevator that takes you underground.
What more could you want? Mercenary was surprisingly deep, as you could sort of "Yojimbo" your way between the two factions that were battling for dominance on Targ. Mostly in your imagination, though.

19. Laser Squad, 1988 (Target, Amiga/C64)

A really amazing tactical combat game, both as a multiplayer and a solo game. In the Assassins mission, you could blow the house to pieces with grenades and rocket launcher. This level of interaction with the game scenery, usually the most static thing in games, was really unheard of at the time. Also, the field-of-visibility added to the intensity. You could rarely be sure of the enemy movements, and especially two player games tended to become a matter of outguessing the other. I never really got into UFO/X-Com.

Left: Choosing weapons. Grenades and rocket launchers all the way! Middle: Reviewing the damage. Right: The Moonbase assault mission.

18. Rambo, 1985 (Ocean, C64)

This got a lot of nostalgia points here. The game may not have stood the test of time, if it ever was genuinely good. It is simply so short it is fun to wheel out occasionally, and the music adapted from the movie score is just fantastic.

The enemy movements and shooting is too chaotic and random to be interesting, and the weapons, ranging from knives to explosive arrows, were not really that different in effectiveness. The scenery could be blown to bits, which added to the interest, and the game was spiced up with some helicopter flying.

The Spectrum version struggles to be playable, but tried to compensate with a larger game-world (multiple helicopter camps for example), the atrocious MSX "version" has little to do with the concept at all.

17. Lords of Midnight, 1984 (Beyond, ZX Spectrum)

One of the first really epic games. The core idea is a wargame delivered from an excruciatingly limited first-person perspective. This gave the Lords of Midnight a level of intimacy not really achieved in map-based games.

Left: Your guys at the start. Corleth holds the camera. Right: Later on, your armies grow. All measures are given in text!
The plot hinges around recruiting military forces in a race to defend the citadel of Xajorkith from the armies of the evil Doomdark, at the same time looking behind the enemy lines for a solution as in an adventure game. This gives the campaign a narrative backbone that lacked from the sequel. The stylised, Tolkien-influenced visuals could actually be called graphics.

Is Utarg of Utarg bad enough dude to take on the evil Doomdark at the heart of his empire? Those are armies looming at the horizon.
16. Atic Atac, 1983 (Ultimate, ZX Spectrum)

Of all the Ultimate games (Jet Pac, PSSST, Knight Lore, Alien 8, Underwurlde, Sabre Wulf) this won out with the best nostalgia/replayability combo. Atic Atac is so fast and hectic and the game area contains enough variety to put most of the later imitators to shame. I know it employs the annoying British style of infinitely recurring critters, but somehow it almost works here.

Left: Starting out near the end. You only need the key. Right: Meeting Dracula in the underground. Those graves you see are your predecessor's!
15. Boulder Dash, 1984 (First Star, ZX Spectrum C64)

Perhaps I'm thinking more of the Boulder Dash Construction Kit. Well, anyway: collect diamonds, negotiate around avalanches of falling rocks, avoid and destroy fireflies and butterflies.

Yet another blatant example of Spectrum-favoritism on the list. The C64 version was probably better.
I suppose Boulder Dash was the Minecraft of its time, a literal sandbox with a kind of rudimentary "physics engine". The icing on the cake was the Amoeba, which made for a really terrific and original game creature.

14. Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny, 1988 (Origin, C64)

The scope of this game was getting a bit too tough on the old C64. Still, it was extremely atmospheric. Yes, now with the added detail, Britannia had an explicit scale and it started to seem ridiculously small. At the same time, the previously very terse NPCs had become blabbermouths. The Avatar was led criss-crossing across Britannia on the hearsay of characters, only to come up with jokes or some incidental clue.

Left: Ultimas I-V featured first-person dungeons. Right: A dungeon room. Near the very end, in fact.
However, for its time, Ultima V was also an astonishingly nuanced experience. One might arrive at night, in a village, pathways illuminated dynamically with streetlights, hearing the dripping water somewhere outside the scope of your limited vision, villagers heading home to sleep, etc, etc. As the Avatar was now a persona non grata, much of the gameplay involved making way around in sewers, prisons and other shady passageways. As the Avatar regains his friends, the mystery of what happened to Lord British and who the Shadowlords are, unfolds.

Business at Britain. Selling loot is a viable career...

13. Damocles, 1990 (Novagen, Atari ST)

The proper sequel to Mercenary, Damocles offered an entire 3D solar system that performed like a clockwork. Mission: Stop the comet Damocles from hitting into planet Eris. This is a game that rewarded digging deeper. Although there is a fairly simple "follow the steps" type of plot that leads to a satisfactory solution, it is more interesting to explore the alternatives. Do I really need the novabomb? Why not use an equivalent amount of "dynamite"? Do I really need to destroy the comet itself?

The sun's not just a blob in the sky, it's the correct diameter for this exact calculated position in this moment in time. You can fly into it or even blow it up. Not impressed? Well it seemed cool back in the time...
Damocles had its own internal logic that was followed through to unprecedented depths. Did you have an antigrav that allowed you to carry all objects, such as the teleports? And what would happen if you teleported into a teleport that you were carrying? A situation accounted for. As the game engine was prepared for the destruction of a planet anyway, the author had gone all the way and made it possible to destroy any or all of the planets... The question is, how? The game could be beat in various, often hilarious ways. At other times, it could be simply dull.

Guess where we're now?

12. Airborne Ranger, 1987 (Microprose, C64)

Airborne Ranger may have gained bonus points due to my recent rediscovery of it. It came out at the same year as Metal Gear, and also involves stealth elements. The game is somewhere between a Rambo/Commando style arcade game and the more modern military FPS games. I feel this is a niche that has not been satisfactorily explored since.

Laying low at the trench, enemy approaching...
The ranger is delivered to enemy terrain. Ingeniously, the player first controls the airplane over the map from the opposite direction.  Weapon bags are dropped with only a limited understanding of how the terrain will unfold. Then the ranger will have to traverse the landscape northwards to his objective. Mostly this involves exploiting the trenches (which the stupid enemies fail to use), avoiding some bunkers and destroying others. The ranger is equipped with a carbine, a knife, grenades, LAW rockets and timed explosive devices. The ranger can walk, run and crouch. Some missions have set rules about engaging the enemy, which adds variety to the game.

Left: Equipping the bags. Right: Dropping weapon bags to the battlefield from the Osprey plane.

Impressive on the C64, the 16-bit versions (PC pictured here) missed any potential that could have been added. There are only maximum two enemy soldiers wandering about at any time, which limits the combat situations. Also, the soldiers may appear from almost any direction whatsoever, even if you believe that an area might be reasonably secured. This severely diminishes the need for strategic advancement.

11. Tetris, (1985?) (1987, Mirrosoft, C64)

Ok, we can have one image of Tetris. The Spectrum version, published by Mirrorsoft.
I think I'm more paying tribute to the overall Tetris games on various platforms (Twintris on Amiga for example) but the C64 version was the first one I really played. It had a really long SID tune which made that version preferably to many others.

10. Star Wars, 1983 (Atari, Coin-op, C64, Amiga)

This may be the least-played of the games in this list. Don't get me wrong: the C64 and Amiga versions were put to good use. But it is the few goes at the coin-op (both cockpit and the stand-up version) that made a memorable impression that probably helped win me over to video games overall.

Despite the simple graphics, the 3D effect could be quite intensive. Flying in the death star trench, I would often physically crouch and stretch in an effort to avoid the catwalks.

Star Wars, the C64 version. Although the wire-frame graphics were quite slow, the overlaid sprite sights moved smoothly which improved the gameplay greatly.

9. M1 Tank Platoon, 1989 (Microprose, Atari ST)

Instead of controlling a single tank, the player commands an entire platoon of tanks plus other hardware. Crucially, the game was about positioning the tanks into beneficial "hull down" positions across the undulating landscape. If the mission was defensive, the platoons had to be quickly deployed to receive the ensuing enemy convoy. In offensive missions, landscape had to be "won over" one hill at a time. Smoke screens, missile and infantry units, air support and artillery added spice to the proceedings.

Left: Briefing on the then-innovative zooming map. Middle: Platoon prepares for hull-down position. Right: Scoring a hit.

Microprose games at their heyday were an ingenious combination of great packaging, informative manuals and very well balanced act between seriousness and entertainment. The product was not so much a simulation, but a game that condensed the essentials about the topic without being pedantic.

8. Saboteur!, 1985 (Durell, C64, ZX Spectrum)

I was surprised that I'd end up putting this and the next entry so high on my list. But giving it a bit of thought, I'm just being honest here. Saboteur! and Bruce Lee are games that I still actually play on occasions. They are quick to pick up, nostalgic, and not too difficult.

Here a ninja enters an industrial complex, searching for a computer disk to activate a bomb. Then it's a race to the helicopter. For such a simple game there's fairly lot to do, the characters are big and well-enough animated. The rooms are fun to explore and there are some basic stealth elements, too.

Left: Bruce Lee, Right: Saboteur!

7. Bruce Lee, 1984 (US Gold/Datasoft, ZX Spectrum)

Pretty much as it is with Saboteur!, I find the simplicity here appealing. Bruce Lee was in some of the first batches of games I played on the Spectrum. (I don't like the C64/Atari versions that much) It's one of the best combinations of platform and beat-em-up elements. Primarily I'd say it is a platform game, with some added fighting elements. Bruce Lee is ultimately very repetitive, but it's also so short it hardly matters.

6. Larn, 1986 (Public domain, Atari ST, Apple mac)

Of all rogue-likes I've tried out (Nethack, Moria, Angband, Omega) this one is the only one that is included in my list.

It does not have the ridiculous amount of bric-a-brac of the bigger games. The character simply wields a weapon, shield, armour and magic items. There's only so many items which can be expected to crop up in any game, and then some items that might not, depending on luck. The spell system is also simple, and most of the spells do something interesting and valuable within the scope of the game you genuinely want to find them. For example, the visibility is normally limited to the distance of one character, so "expanded awareness" and mapping spells are really welcome.

Left: Found a sleep spell, a rather silly affair. Right: I've identified a bunch of useful scrolls and potions. Time warp can extend current spell effects... or not.

In an easy-level game it can be expected that the player will eventually rise above the physical confines and threats presented in the dungeon. The coveted spell of "permanence" makes nearly every short-term spell permament. Eventually you become a god, walking through walls, invisible, double-speeded, immune, shooting lightning bolts left and right, casting any spell without penalty. Obviously this would be silly and game-breaking should it happen too early, but as part of the endgame it just seems satisfyingly fitting.

The dungeon and the volcano are two different locations that can and need to be explored. The dungeon is used to gain experience and equipment before daring an entry into the much harder volcano. Yet it's possible to enter the volcano even at the start of the game. Some interesting ways have emerged for exploiting this system: with a set of well chosen special items even a low-level character can sneak into the volcano, and with some luck come out carrying hilariously valuable objects. Even this aspect seems to be balanced: The approach is not at all guaranteed to succeed.

5. Neuroshima Hex, 2005 (iOS, Board game)

The newest game on the list. The players take turns in placing hexagonal fighting units on a tiny board. Some tiles augment your other units or put the enemies at disadvantage. When the board becomes full, a battle begins and the tile effects are played out from the high initiative to the low. Some of the module tiles affect the said initiative, others boost the weapon damage or offer protection. After the batlle, the tile-adding continues until the next skirmish ensues, up until the enemy headquarters has been destroyed or the players run out of unit tiles.

Preparing to deal a hammer blow of triple damage on enemy HQ.

As space is limited, a generally beneficial module or unit might only fit here or there. The players also have to balance between the protection of their own headquarters and inflicting damage on the others.

The armies are also not equal, but often feature special units not found from the other armies. Some armies might be quick, mobile yet vulnerable, whereas some have heavy armor and long range units. And some might have a mini-nuke. Web units, sharpshooters, rocket launchers, pushers and spies add to the variety and surprising situations the players have to negotiate.

The map can become a bit daunting to compute on the board game version. But this is of course handled neatly by the computer.

4. Jet Set Willy, 1984 (Software Projects, ZX Spectrum)

If I were objective. I'd say Manic Miner is the better game, and the more playable of the two. But I'm not, and hence Manic Miner is not on the list and Jet Set Willy is. And in the top 5, no less!

The main motivation here is exploration. Solving rooms is rewarded with finding new rooms. This was sustained by the naive belief that I might not have found everything yet. Winning the game was nearly impossible and I could hardly even try.

What I think works in favour of JSW is that there is really no randomness. In fact, the rooms are programmed into recurring, absolute, machine-like patterns. This reinforces the idea that the player can become "good" in a particular room, learning the idiosyncrasies of motion inherent in the game engine. It's bit like a puzzle game with a high resolution grid, if that makes any sense.

(Jet Set Willy is so important to me I went so far as to make my own version of the game for the Amiga, called Top Hat Willy.)

3. Paradroid, 1985 (Hewson, C64)

Somewhere in space, there's this derelict ship, boarded by a bunch of crazed robots. Raiding the ship with humans would be a big no-no, as all the droids would just gang up and kill the meatbag. Instead, controlling a parasitic influence device becomes an exercise in upward mobility: resources of the host droid can be exploited to gain access to ever more powerful droids.

However, the higher-level droids put a larger strain on the influence device and have to be abandoned sooner. (The 476 was usually a good balance between power and longevity.)

Left: Traversing around. Middle: The droid capture sub-game. Right: Browsing droid data at a terminal.
Reputedly there was too little memory left for Andrew Braybrook to code in proper sounds and music. Even this necessity somehow turned into a virtue: the haunting bass-heavy bleeps and bloops are an integral element of the Paradroid experience.

If there's any problem it's that most of the host droid qualities are meaningless. It's even implied the droids don't look really like what they do on the game screen. The game spawned a 16-bit sequel, Paradroid 90, which tried to rectify some of these aspects. All the droids looked, behaved and controlled differently. It's not bad at all, but it's just not that memorable to me. For fans of the game, Freedroid for modern platforms might be worth checking out, too.

2. Elite, 1984 (Firebird, ZX Spectrum, Amiga)

In the depth of my heart I have to admit I did not maybe play Elite that much. But I do occasionally try out the Spectrum version, fly a few trade routes, practice docking, get blasted by space pirates.

Much like the Microprose games, Elite used the packaging and the manuals to fool the player into thinking the game was deeper than it really was. But who's to say the manuals and the packaging was not part of the game experience?

I'm partial to the Spectrum version, converted by Torus from the BBC original. I think they were able to improve the overall graphic design, and I always felt other versions looked a bit "wrong".

Left: Checking market prices at Lave. Middle: Selecting hyperspace target Right: Near the Coriolis station
Elite was something of an event back in the day. Not playing Elite would have been almost a social faux pas. This added to the myth and mystique of Elite. Again, it would be too simple to be cynical. Even if the game was not multi-player, all the kids who played Elite and discussed it at the school playground, were somehow travelling in the same galaxy.

These aspects are a bit difficult to replicate in any remake, spiritual successor or clone.

1. Ultima IV: The Quest of the avatar, 1985 (Origin, C64)

I play very few role playing games. Possibly because Ultima IV spoiled me for life. In fact, most of the later Ultima games, although I enjoyed them, have been quite disappointing. Dungeon Master did little or nothing for me. I considered the inclusion of Final Fantasy VII, but all said I've never really felt the need to reflect on that experience nor return to it. Instead, I return fairly regularly to Ultima IV.

Left: In the town of Britain. Right: Starting your Quest near the castle of Lord British

Again the gigantic box, the cloth map, a metal ankh, two "leather-bound" manuals with superb illustrations and in-gameworld style of writing, won over the player. So yeah, two pages were spent for describing a simple "Z-Down" spell that transports the party downward in the dungeon coordinate system. But attention to detail such as this made the world more fleshed out and the game actions more worthwhile and not just plain rote.

In terms of roleplaying and strategy, Ultima IV is a bit messy. The virtue system is original and ingenious, but the game also enforces you to be "good" in order to succeed. Where's the role playing in that? Also, once you know a thing or two, the battles do not really pose a challenge.

Fighting with some orcs. The enemy party size would be proportional to yours, which seems a bit strange.

Much has been said about the moral quest as the centerpiece of the game. Although it is grand, I'm not that sure if it's the main appeal after all. Some of the "philosophical" themes had an impact on me, though. Yet it's the integration of these themes to exploration and sense of discovery that made them important, and not the ideas in themselves. You'd come across the hidden town of Cove and find the occupants pondering the essence of virtue, codex of the ultimate wisdom and the axiom. It's not just some secret pirate hideout, and because of the themes you feel more intrigued about finding the town and exploring it. At the same time, the field-of-view visibility, secret passages and switches in the dungeon rooms added greatly to the game.

The PC version. Note the black areas resulting from field-of-view. If you look closely, there's a secret passage in the northern wall. Sometimes the "corpses" speak too.
I'd say it is the overall balance of abstraction and detail that makes Ultima IV a classic, whatever the plot. The townsfolk talk, but little enough that it can be considered a summary of the discussion and not the discussion itself. Also, the player is not buried into ludicrous amounts of sub-quests, like in the later games. There's no pedantic time-keeping and waiting townsfolk to wake up. The scale of the world is ambiguous, hence it seems more like a world.


Well, that's it, an unashamedly nostalgic and personal look back into the games I have played. The list probably tells more of my age than about the games, really!

Good games that didn't quite make it:

Knights of the Sky, Maniac Mansion, The Great Giana Sisters, Nemesis (Gradius), Nethack, Commando, Underwurlde, Rainbow Islands, Rodland, IK+, Prince of Persia, Turrican II, Tekken 2, Bard's Tale III, Skool Daze, Virus, Frontier: Elite II, Head over Heels, Stonkers, Space Invaders (Atari 2600).

How did I build my list?

I wanted to make one of those "personal Top games" lists, but choosing the games turned out really difficult. Any way I looked my list, it seemed that the order was not really satisfactory or something was missing.

To aid me in my quest, I turned towards a bit more rigorous approach. First I created a spreadsheet, and made a long list of games I felt were at least somehow important to me. This long list included 85 games. Then I graded them in three ways:

I. Significance (1-5)

Was the game a life changing event that affected my thinking even outside the game? Did it alter my perception of games and shape my tastes and preferences to come?

II. Replay value (1-5)

The game may have been played intensely back in the day, but then dropped, never to be played again. In contrast, I still play some very old games for amusement. I wanted this to matter in my list. It might be unfair to compare epic, long games with arcade games, so I tried to be considerate.

III. Time spent (1-5)

I thought whether I genuinely spent "sleepless nights" over the game, or if I just played it a few times and thought "wow, that's cool" because of some gimmick or faux-complexity.

I had the spreadsheet compute overall points, weighting the three categories in different ways until I arrived with a list I felt satisfied with. I gave "significance" the most weight (x5), "Replay value" secondary (x2), slightly adjusted with the "Time spent" (x1).

Using the criteria, I could avoid inclusion of games that I felt "ought" to be there. Although I have great respect towards Populous, Sentinel, Carrier Command and whatever, I did not really play them that much.

The computed list was meant to be just a starting point, but in the end I did not change the order that much.