Game Informer's Top 100 RPGs

June 19th, 2017 7:51 AM
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In the 1980s, role-playing games, or RPGs, were my favorite genres of computer and video games. The hours of character development and narrative created a much richer fictional world than the era's action games. Perhaps due to their inability to translate to arcades, RPGs were a niche genre, and so I hungrily played any I could get my hands on.

The decades since have seen an explosion in the popularity of RPGs, or at least the willingness to serve that niche — so much, that the cover story of issue #290 of Game Informer is the staff's picks for the top hundred RPGs of all time. To have had that many to choose from in the 1980s would've been staggering, though Game Informer admits that the definition of RPG has become nebulous, now encompassing such modern titles as Mass Effect 3, Destiny, Horizon Zero Dawn, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Fortunately, Game Informer acknowledges the genre's roots by including several Apple II games on their list:

The criteria for the staff's selection were not disclosed, so it's hard to say whether these games were acknowledged because they were fun to play then, are still fun to play, or are important to the evolution of gaming. Wasteland, for example, is noted as being the pre-cursor to Fallout; Wizardry is "often cited as the first party-based RPG"; and for The Bard's Tale, "Some players may still have their hand-drawn graph paper maps tucked away in an old box."

Regardless, with so many franchises, platforms, publishers, and developers at play, it's impressive that the Apple II got so many mentions. But any listicle is bound to be contentious, and no one will fully agree with the choices or order of games. For example, Game Informer has probably never played one of my favorite Apple II games: The Magic Candle. With a jobs system in which player characters could learn crafts and trades, earn money from town jobs, and even split the party, it was an innovative and ahead of its time, being released three years before Final Fantasy V, which is often hailed for its job system.

What Apple II RPGs would you have included on this list, and why?

Plangman on IndieSider

March 14th, 2016 11:03 AM
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Candidates for my biweekly IndieSider podcast can be difficult to come by. The show looks behind the scenes at the development of indie (self-published) computer and video games, of which there are many — the indie tag on software distribution platform Steam currently lists 7,391 titles, with more being added every day.

But I limit IndieSider to games that I like, so as to avoid an awkward conversation with a developer of "Why does your game suck?" I instead look for games that offer original experiences and progressive gameplay in genres that I like: action, adventure, puzzle, narrative. There's then an evaluation period where I test a game to determine if it'll be a good fit for the show.

The latest episode of IndieSider features a game that bypassed that evaluation entirely. No game has hit my sweet spot as neatly as Plangman, which caught my attention in the first two seconds of its trailer:

A platform game with the puzzle elements of Hangman and featuring what appeared to be the runner from Microsoft's Olympic Decathlon as the protagonist? Was this game somehow made for me?!

I was quick to get developer Ehren von Lehe on the phone for episode #39 of IndieSider. Through Facebook and Juiced.GS, I thought I knew almost all the major Apple II players out there. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Ehren's interest in the Apple II is as alive and well as any retrocomputing enthusiast. Plangman was inspired by watching his daughter play with his own Apple II, recently taken out of mothballs. The playable character is based on Captain Goodnight, not the Olympic decathlete. Ehren mentioned an Infocom documentary also played a role. Aha! Another fan of Jason Scott's GET LAMP. When I added that Jason had been the keynote speaker at an annual Apple II convention, Ehren asked, "Is that KansasFest?" It was almost as if Ehren and I had been members of the same community for years and had never met!

The resulting conversation can be heard in this audio podcast:

or this video

It's not unusual for my gaming pursuits to introduce me to people who got their start on the Apple II and who remember the platform fondly. It's unprecedented for me to encounter in that course someone who's actively keeping the Apple II alive through modern software development. If you want a retro aesthetic in a new game, I highly recommend you check out Plangman.

(Hat tip to Javy Gwaltney)

DuelTris's Steve Chiang makes it big at Zynga

September 23rd, 2013 10:34 PM
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Game Informer has proven an unlikely yet excellent source for insights into Apple II celebrities. The monthly gaming magazine covers the electronic entertainment industry that consists of Windows, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, and iOS games, among others. But their regular back-of-the-book feature, "Classic GI", delves into the history of Apple II games such as Maniac Mansion and companies like Activision, while interviews go direct to the source with gamers who got their start on the Apple II, like Steve Wozniak.

In June 2012, the print edition's monthly interview was with someone named Steve Chiang. I found that curious, since there's another Steve Chiang in the Apple II world: DuelTris, a 1992 multiplayer Tetris variation with an excellent soundtrack and power-ups that enhance, rather than muddy, the gameplay, was developed by DreamWorld, an Apple IIGS software company consisting of Steven Chiang, Dave Seah, and James Brookes. But this interview was with someone who was big in the modern, not retrocomputing, game industry, so I chalked it up to coincidence: perhaps it was a common enough a name that Game Informer had found someone else in the industry who shared a name with the developer of one of my all-time favorite Apple II games. (I've been wanting to set up a DuelTris tournament at KansasFest for years!)

Steve Chiang
Who might this Steve Chiang be?

Wanting to learn more about this unknown figure, I scanned the article's margin for his professional timeline:

  • 1983: BONDING Chiang meets Jason Andersen, who would go on to co-found Tiburon. The pair bonds over games
  • 1990: FIRST STEPS In the summer. Chiang and Andersen begin working on a paint program for the Apple IIGS called Dream Graphics
  • 1992: INDIE PUBLISHING The pair release the finished Dream Graphics and sell around 5,000 copies
  • 1994: WEAPONLORD Chiang follows Andersen to Visual Concepts and helps create the ultra-challenging cult SNES/Genesis fighting game Weaponlord
  • 1995: NEW BEGINNINGS Chiang leaves Visual Concepts to join Andersen and John Schappert's new development studio, Tiburon
  • 1996: BIG BREAK After Visual Concepts fails to deliver a PlayStation version of Madden NFL 96, Tiburon is given the chance to turn its college football game into Madden NFL 97
  • 1999: PRODUCING HITS Chiang ships his first game as a producer, NCAA Football 2000
  • 2002: MANAGING GROWTH Co-founder John Schappert departs to EA Canada, and Chiang earns the title of general manager at EA Tiburon
  • 2007: THE SPORTING LIFE As senior vice president and group general manager of EA Sports, Chiang oversees all development of sports games
  • 2010: THE SOCIAL SCENE Sensing a chance in the market, Chiang departs Electronic Arts to work for Zynga as president of games

That's right: it's the same Steve Chiang, an Apple IIGS shareware game programmer, who went on to become president of games for the company that makes FarmVille.

For an Apple II programmer to "make it big" is not unheard of — just look at Bill Budge, Brian Fargo, Jordan Mechner, or any of the other developers John Romero interviewed for his KansasFest 2012 keynote speech. But it strikes me as unusual to see a game developer advance up the corporate ranks, as opposed to continuing to make games.

What could've led Chiang to change his career path? The answer may lie with us. From the DuelTris documentation:

Registration

There are two ways to register your copy of DuelTris.

  1. Send a $15 check or money order to the address below. In return, we will send you a version of DuelTris with preferences and high scores enabled.
  2. Send a $20 check or money order to the address below [redacted]. In return we will send you the Limited Edition version of DuelTris, which includes the fully functional game, plus a special 3.5" disk case, similar to a CD jewel case w/ a full color insert and printed instructions.
  3. All registered users will be entitled to future versions of the game.

    If enough people send in their registration fees, I'd be interested in adding more features to the DuelTris, such as joystick support, modem support, tournament mode so you can set-up round robin tournaments, saving of each person's win-loss record, better computer logic, etc. I'd also be very tempted to start another 2 player game. Otherwise, I'll stick to commercial software.

If only we'd paid our shareware fees, we might never have gotten FarmVille! (Or maybe we would've, except for the Apple II.)

But it might not be too late. If we all send our DuelTris registration fees today to Chiang, c/o Zynga, maybe we'll rekindle his love for the Apple II. I wonder how many of those Limited Editions he has kicking around the office…?

(Hat tip to Open Apple)

Game Informer interviews Steve Wozniak

July 22nd, 2013 10:34 AM
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Four months ago, Game Informer's print magazine featured an interview with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. and inventor of the Apple II. I shared on this blog what little of the print-only interview was also published online, that being Wozniak talking about his love for Tetris.

Game Informer has now released the entirety of that interview online, with a 2,000-word transcript and several additional videos. Appropriate to the magazine's scope, the conversation focuses largely on Woz's gaming history, from how he created Breakout for Atari to what he thinks of Apple's future in the gaming industry.

Reflecting on the early days of game programming, Woz demonstrates his usual humility: "Hardware games — I'm sorry, it's not like software… I was one of the greatest designers ever; I was working on the iPhone 5 of its day — the hottest gadget product in the world."

More important, the above video once again reaffirms that the Apple II was designed to feed its creator's gaming habit:

I built paddle hardware into the Apple II deliberately for the game of Breakout. I wanted everything in there. I put in a speaker with sound so I could have beeps like games need. So, a lot of the Apple II was designed to be a game machine as well as a computer. That is the way to get it to people, to get people to start buying these machines.

Why are games so important? Easy: "Your life is all about happiness — that's how you judge it. It's not how successful you are, or how many yachts you own, or that kind of stuff — it's how much you smile."

By that standard, I wonder how happy a life Woz would feel Steve Jobs had?

The full, 48-minute interview is available after the break.

Read the rest of this entry »

Watch Steve Wozniak dominate at Tetris

April 15th, 2013 11:05 AM
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Steve Wozniak is said to have created the Apple because he wanted to play arcade games at home. But the Apple wasn't Woz's only game machine; he was highly addicted to the Game Boy, Nintendo's handheld that came packaged with the puzzle game Tetris. For as long as the official Nintendo Power magazine printed gamers' high scores, Woz reigned supreme as Tetris champion.

Now you can watch him tell the story himself as he revisits his favorite game. The digital edition of latest issue of Game Informer magazine features a video of Steve Wozniak getting his Tetris on while he recounts his encounters with the game and his evangelization of the Game Boy to world leaders of two decades ago.

From Woz's repeated exclamations of "Uh, oh — I'm in trouble here!" and the lack of direct screen capture, it's hard to tell if Woz is still the Tetris master he was in his youth. But it's nonetheless fun to watch his boyish amusement with the world continue to shine.

Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia

May 27th, 2010 11:27 AM
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Tomorrow sees the release of the film Prince of Persia, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Although the latest of many video-game-to-movie adaptations, it marks perhaps the first time an Apple II game has been translated to the silver screen — an honor not yet bestowed upon Choplifter, Lode Runner, or even Castle Wolfenstein.

Despite not all video games making for great movie material, I've been encouraged by the constant presence of the original game's creator, Jordan Mechner, throughout this project. When interviewed in the December 2008 issue of Game Informer magazine, he reflected:

With Prince of Persia, I've had the opportunity and the challenge of recreating the character and story anew, not just once but several times, since the first Apple II version 20 years ago… Each of these projects gave me the chance to work with a great creative team in a new medium—a triple opportunity that in my Apple II days I could have only dreamed of.

Around that time, Mr. Mechner published a wealth of historical data about the evolution of his original vision and game. For a game designer to extensively document his creative process, retain that information for decades, and then make it available to the masses is ever historian's dream. In addition to his handwritten notes from the era, he also uploaded several videos of his younger brother David that he rotoscoped to serve as the animation for the titular prince. Observe this source material:



Now compare it to an early draft of the art that would appear in the final game:



For the Apple II to have played host to such a early depiction of realistic motion is an honor. It warrants at least a cameo by Jordan or David Mechner in the film. What better an Easter Egg could there be?

(Hat tip to Juiced.GS Volume 13, Issue 4 [Mar 2008], pages 18–19)