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?

Richard Garriott's teletype D&D ported

June 30th, 2014 11:17 AM
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In March 2013, Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, aka the Tony Stark of gaming, announced his return to Ultima with a spiritual successor called Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. This computer role-playing game, which will be playable both online and off, is scheduled for release in 2015. But we don't need to wait until then to see Lord British return to his roots.

This April, Garriott released the source code for his 1977 game called D&D #1, a precursor to Akalabeth, which itself was a precursor to Ultima. The code is BASIC and was written for a teletype machine. But it wasn't solely the code's historical significance that motivated its release. As a promotion for Shroud of the Avatar, Garriott announced a contest to port this ancient game to either Unity or a Web browser interface. Winners would receive the equivalent of the $500 backer tier from Shroud's Kickstarter. As always, the snarky team at LoadingReadyRun has the details:

I marvel that this programming contest could be seen as a challenge. Admittedly, the original game, roughly 1,112 lines of code, dwarfs a similar game I wrote in in 1996, a mere 624 lines of Applesoft. But a game for a teletype machine has to be even more basic than one for the Apple II, and development tools such as Unity make far more complex games even easier to develop than a BASIC game was 35 years ago. How hard could it be to port, or even develop from scratch, a new D&D #1?

Turns out a straight port might not be enough to win; it's the flair each developer implemented that earned them recognition. Sean Fahey recently alerted me that the contest winners had been announced, and that across the two categories were 24 entrants and six winners. Mundi King produced the winning Web port, though I've not been able to get past the initial prompts, being stymied by passive-aggressive "WHO SAID YOU COULD PLAY" responses. I prefer Santiago Zapata's runner-up entry, which sports an authentic interface:

Richard Flemming won the Unity version, which can also be run in your browser but requires a plugin. Flemming called the original "1,500 lines of single-letter variable names, magic numbers, and spaghetti logic."

These ports are neat bridges between Ultima's origin and future—and a timely one, given Juiced.GS's recent cover story on the fiftieth anniversary of BASIC. Though I'm not likely to spend much time playing these ports, I'm heartened to know that a new generation has the freedom to enjoy Garriott's legacy across the ages.

If you want to hear Garriott speak further about Ultima, he was interviewed by Greg Kasavin and Felicia Day at this month's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

Lord British returns to Ultima

March 11th, 2013 9:02 AM
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Kickstarter has been a boon not only for indie developers, but for established game designers looking to return to the virtual worlds upon which their careers were founded. Shadowgate, Space Quest, Wasteland, and Leisure Suit Larry are just a few of the franchises that got their start on the Apple II and are now slated for a well-funded modern resurrection.

But none of these games carry the impact, the longevity, or the fame as the Ultima series. Lord British has heeded the call of the fans and is turning to Kickstarter to return to Britannia.

On Friday, March 6, at 10 AM CST, Richard Garriott joined fellow Austin gaming company Rooster Teeth to host a live announcement:

The punchline was Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, a new computer role-playing game that lacks the Ultima brand that Garriott can no longer claim, but which only his team owns the legacy to.

The announcement didn't need the full hour that the above video runs, but the extra time gave Garriott and hosts Burnie Burns and Gus Sorola time to reflect on how Garriott built this empire. Working in a computer store at the age of 19, Garriott began selling Akalabeth, making twice as much money in one year as his astronaut father. Garriott brought along several artifacts from those early days, including the Apple II Plus on which he developed Akalabeth. Highlights from that interview are in this gallery of screen captures from the above video.

As much fun as the reminiscing was, it wasn't hard to forget that it was a thinly veiled sales pitch. Garriott wants one million of our dollars via Kickstarter:

Donation levels include the $10 "Guilt Pledge" ("If you ever pirated an Ultima game or used an exploit to grief other players in Ultima Online, here's your chance to repent! For your $10 donation, you will receive a clear conscience and Lord British's undying gratitude") to the $10,000 "Lord of the Manor", which comes with one of 12 known copies of Akalabeth. For those of us with humbler wallets, $40 gets you early access (December 2013) to the final game (October 2014), while $125 will also get you a cloth map feelie — just like the old Ultimas!

It's been a long time since I've been a role-playing gamer, and even longer since I've done so on a computer instead of a video game console. Yet I didn't hesitate to fork over my money to Lord British. Some folks may not be sold on this heir to the Ultima empire:

But there's no denying that Garriott has earned a chance to return to his world. As Benj Edwards tweeted:

Ancient DOS games

August 15th, 2011 11:11 AM
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Thirty years ago, when multiple incompatible computer formats vied for dominance, there were as many cross-platform games as there were exclusives. Companies who could afford to port their software benefitted from a larger potential audience, resulting in Mac, DOS, and Apple II users having similar yet disparate experiences of games such as the Ultima series.

The modern benefit to such historical cross-pollination is that many classic Apple II games can still be enjoyed, albeit in alternative formats. For example, in the July episode of Open Apple, I mentioned a free version of Ultima IV that requires DOSBox. (Several listeners recommended I instead run the game using Boxer, a DOS emulator specifically for the Macintosh.)

For a more turnkey approach to reliving the classics, I recommend two online distributors who have made games such as Ultima and Zork available again: Steam, and Good Old Games (GOG). Unlike the remake of Ultima IV (or even ADG's non-profit remakes of King's Quest), Steam's and GOG's offerings are not free for the taking — but these commercial products are designed to be run from a modern operating system, usually Windows XP or higher but occasionally for the Mac as well. How else can you easily and legally enjoy the Zork anthology for just $3.59, or four classic LucasArts point-and-click adventures for $9.97, in a native, offline environment?

If you're not sure which of these games to start with, you don't need to delve into old issues of Nibble to find what critics of the age had to say. Modern reviews are still being published at Web site Pixelmusement under the title Ancient DOS Games (ADG). Here's their review of King's Quest II:

They may not be identical with the Apple II games you remember, but these games are legitimate originals that have taken straight from the past to be enjoyed in the present. So… enjoy!

Academic Ultima

October 7th, 2010 12:20 PM
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Before my current job at Computerworld, I taught 11th grade tech writing at a math and science charter school. My fellow teachers had an open door policy that allowed me to observe their classes, and I developed a rapport with the computer science teacher. When an emergency called her away from class one day, she asked me to fill in but left me no lesson plan. Fortunately, I'd already installed both Adventure and VisiCalc for just such an emergency. The resulting lesson in computer history was reported in Juiced.GS, though I never did get the opportunity to explore Adventure with my students.

But other educators have had the opportunity to use electronic entertainment as a learning tool. Besides the use of interactive fiction in a classroom setting, as detailed in Get Lamp, Michael Abbott has taken a more ambitious approach to virtual adventuring by introducing his students to Richard Garriott's seminal role-playing game, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

In his blog, the teacher doesn't outline his learning objectives, other than puzzle-solving and note-taking. I hope his goals were not much loftier than that, because it seems these students disappointed him:

It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. … it [wa]sn't much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn't feel like so much work.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

That looks like a lot of reading!
Photo courtesy Blake Patterson.

I'm unsure how many of these obstacles were inherent to the game, and how many were symbolic of a generational gap. Today, I often want a game that immerses me within the first five minutes, and which I can put down after ten. That means either simple gameplay (in the case of classics like Pac-Man or Qix) or familiar gameplay (like Dragon Quest VIII, an RPG I played hours on end for a total of 80, but whose mechanics had remained largely unchanged since the franchise's origin in 1986).

I was not always predisposed against learning curves. I grew up playing and enjoying Ultima, but not on the Apple II. I was and am primarily a console gamer, and I played these games' Nintendo adaptations, which vexed me with none of the issues that these students encountered. I wondered how dramatically different the NES version had been that maybe it had eased my entry into Britannia. Sure enough, one blog commenter wrote:

… have you considered giving people the NES port of Ultima IV? It faithfully retains the ethical systems design of Garriott's original while reimagining the visual aesthetics and interface design according to the conventions of JRPGs. It was how I played Ultima IV back in the day, and it's still probably a lot more in line with modern RPG convention than the original PC Ultima IV.

But I'd wager that most alumni of Ultima IV experienced it on the computer, which apparently did not preclude its success, so surely its original interface was not insurmountable. More likely is the change in gaming mores over the decades. In the book Dungeons & Dreamers, authors Brad King and John Borland relate the detail and intricacy with which the developers of Ultima Online imbued their world. Ecology, economy, and more were devised to create a world that lived and breathed along with the players. When it finally launched — the world was shot to hell. Gamers traveled into the countryside, burning trees and killing animals. No plane could long host such chaos, so the developers had to go back to the drawing board. I suspect Mr. Abbott's students would likely have contributed to that headache.

Nonetheless, I hope the blog's conclusion does not spell the end of this exercise: "I love great old games like Ultima IV, but I can no longer assume the game will make its case for greatness all by itself." Just as we have courses in art and music appreciation, it's important to understand and appreciate the origin of Ultima and other video game hallmarks. Today's gaming industry was not born in a vacuum, and just as the bold experiments of yesteryear determined the future of the genre, they still have much to teach today's gamers and programmers about what works, what doesn't, and why things are the way they are. Finding a context in which to teach that lesson is, much like the games themselves, worth the effort.

(Hat tip to Richard Garriott)

Classic gaming inspirations, part deux

August 12th, 2010 9:38 AM
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Last month I blogged about classic gaming inspirations, a session I presented at KansasFest 2009. It's a pretty simple setup: I present to the audience a self-running YouTube video of an Apple II game, after which they watch me play a few minutes of a Mac game that's similar, with my narration consisting of comparisons and contrasts. Each year, I prepare to draw far more parallels than the time allows, which is great, because it gives me fodder to revisit the topic next year.

This year gave me the opportunity to address many of the games I'd planned for 2009 as well as add several new ones that have been released since then. I still focused on Macintosh gaming, but this year also listed at least one PC-exclusive game and presented no online Flash equivalents. Click the checkmark to visit the Web site that offers that game for download.

Apple IIEquivalentMacPCiOS
Lemonade StandLemonade Stand
ArkanoidPhoenix Ball
ArkanoidRicochet Infinity
AsteroidsMaelstrom
AsteroidsArgonaut 2149
RampartCastle Combat
Ultima IIIUltima III
Ultima IVxu4
Ultima VUltima V: Lazarus
AkalabethAkalabethApp
AdventureAdventure
Bubble BobbleBub & Bob
Dark CastleReturn to Dark Castle
King's QuestThe Silver Lining

As before, I ran the session without Internet connectivity or emulation; all Apple II games were represented using previously downloaded YouTube .FLV video files. Those files are compiled into this playlist:

I also captured a video of the session itself. It's available on Vimeo, but the sound isn't great — especially when the audience's enthusiasm for my topic requires me to ask if I can have my session back!


I still have more games to present next year, if anyone is interested. If you enjoy these sessions or have titles you'd like to see demonstrated, please comment here!