The Apple II legacy of Naughty Dog

September 15th, 2014 9:59 AM
by
Filed under Game trail;
1 comment.

This time last year, I blogged about Steve Chiang, an Apple II game developer who went on to head Zynga, one of the modern gaming industry's most powerful and prolific publishers. It's no surprise that someone of such humble beginnings would rise to such a position: John Romero, Richard Garriott, and Will Wright are among those who continue to build upon the brands they launched on our 8-bit machine.

But one Apple II game developer has never rested on his laurels, creating franchise after franchise that could not be more disparate. In 1984, when Jason Rubin and high school buddy Andy Gavin were 15 years old, they founded Jam Software, later renamed Naughty Dog — something Gavin's father declared would be "the dumbest thing you're ever going to do." Their first games were Math Jam, Ski Crazed, and Keef the Thief, all for the Apple II. Later, Naughty Dog created Crash Bandicoot, the unofficial mascot for the original Sony PlayStation; for the console's successor, they developed Jax and Daxter. After Rubin's departure from Naughty Dog in 2004, the company crafted such franchises as Uncharted and the Last of Us for PlayStation 3 and 4.

This month, Rubin's original studio turns thirty years old.

The above tribute video does not acknowledge the company's Apple II roots, but doubtless the lessons Rubin, Gavin, and Naughty Dog learned on that platform defined not just their careers, but their creativity. Many of today's franchises have ample access to RAM, storage, and processing power, yet they rarely show little innovation over the previous year's games. By comparison, the Apple II, though powerful for its time, was so much more finite.

"Working inside limitations forces you to hone the details down to the absolute essentials, leaving something incredibly clean and focused," said Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong. These are the limitations Rubin and Gavin worked within; as a result, Naughty Dog's games are never the same as last year's, except faster or prettier. Instead of beating a franchise into the ground, they have a dream, make it manifest — and then envision a new one.

To never stop dreaming: it's the Apple II legacy.

(Hat tips to Eurogamer's Jeffrey Matulef and CVG's Mike Jackson)

UPDATE (26-Dec-14): Naughty Dog has now released a 49-minute 30th anniversary documentary. Hat tip to Aira Quintana.

Choplifter HD first impressions

January 12th, 2012 4:45 PM
by
Filed under Game trail, Software showcase;
2 comments.

Nearly a year ago, I was anticipating a modern re-creation of Choplifter. The game, developed by inXile and published by Konami, is the latest sequel in the franchise created by Dan Gorlin with his original Apple II action game.

Choplifter HD finally saw release this week and is available at a $15 price point for PC, Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360. I grabbed the demo of the Xbox version and played it last night on what I presume was an inbuilt timer, completing 6.5 missions in the time allotted to me.

So far, I like what I see. The missions start of familiar: rescue soldiers and bring them back to base. But there are some clever variables, such as wounded soldiers who require medical attention and must be attended to before all others. Later missions require defending a particular point or containing a zombie outbreak.

Choplifter remains 2D, distinguishing itself from the nonlinear Strike series of helicopter games. But there are times when enemies can be in the foreground, and the chopper must be oriented to face the screen in order to shoot them. This cumbersome act balances the newfound control over the minigun, allowing it to be aimed in any direction separate from that in which the helicopter is moving. No more moving forward and fast just to attain a downward trajectory! There's also a "boost" function for evasive maneuvers, but it burns fuel quickly. Landing back at HQ will restore both your health and fuel; depots scattered throughout the level recover only the latter. Completing objectives earns you better helicopters, but they replace the old ones; there doesn't appear to be a choice of copters between missions.

I've played other games in the Choplifter series but remember the original best, so it was a pleasant surprise to note the excellent graphics and soundtrack in this reboot. The terrain varies from cities to deserts, each bustling with its own kind of activity. When you land, soldiers and hostages don't just disappear into your vehicle but will actually run around to either side to find an open seat. They shout such corny lines as "It's good to see you!" whereas a film crew might ask, "Get me out of here quickly — but watch the hair!" This attention to detail is noticeable, as is the game's quirky humor, reminding you that you're here to have fun, not reenact a war.

My time for gaming these days is limited, so I don't know if I'll be plunking down the $15 for the full game and its 80+ missions. But all other reviews are positive. I encourage retrogamers to check out this cross of old and new and enjoy the best of both worlds.