February 26, 2007 7:14 PM |
["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at one of the most commonly available PC puzzle games: Minesweeper.]
Though Microsoft claims that Vista will usher in a new age of PC gaming, the first thing it will do is usher in the old age of PC gaming. Despite hardcore clamoring for high-end graphics-card-melting titles, the only games that the majority of people care about are the ones they've been playing for years, the ones that are ready with no complications whenever the urge to do something other than work arises, the ones that are packed in with Windows—Hearts, Klondike, Mah Jongg Solitaire, etc. Of the common games that come with Vista, two are true puzzle games; FreeCell will have to wait until another time, because today I'm talking about Minesweeper.
Mining the Past
Minesweeper has its origins in the earliest mainframe games of the '60s and '70s. Wikipedia cites the earliest ancestor of Minesweeper as Jerimac Ratliff's Cube. But although Cube features "landmines," it's hard to consider this a predecessor of Minesweeper. In Cube, the mines are placed randomly and the only way to discover where they ends the game. You walk over a landmine and you die; you can't avoid the landmines or know where they are before you take a chance.
However, there are a number of very early "hide and seek" games about locating hidden spots on a grid. For example, in Bob Albrecht's Hurkle, you have to find a creature hiding on a ten-by-ten grid. After each guess, you're told in what general direction the Hurkle lies. Dana Noftle's Depth Charge is the same, but in three dimensions. Bud Valenti's Mugwump has multiple hidden targets, and after each guess, you get the approximate distance to each of them. Unlike Cube, these games match the general pattern of Minesweeper more closely: make a random guess to start, then start using the information provided by that first guess to uncover the hidden items. Of course, unlike Minesweeper (or Cube), the was no danger of "explosion," the only constraint was finding the secret locations in a limited number of guesses.
The closest ancestor to Minesweeper is probably Gregory Yob's Hunt the Wumpus. Although it used an unorthodox grid (the original game used the vertices of a dodecahedron, and a later version used Möbius strips and other unlikely patterns), the Wumpus evolved from its predecessors in many other ways.
Like the previous hide-and-seek games, the goal was to figure out where randomly placed locations were on the grid. But there was no time limit for exploration. Instead, like in Cube, the locations in Wumpus were hazardous: entering those rooms would put you at risk of losing. And most importantly, the only way to figure out where these hazards were was to be one space away. The key to solving Wumpus was getting as close as possible, backing off, and shooting your "crooked arrow" from a distance after definitively locating your prey.
When games like Quicksilva's Mined Out; Virgin Interactive's Yomp; and Conway, Hong and Smith's Reletless Logic appeared in the '80s, they looked like Cube on the surface: move from one point to another avoiding randomly placed mines. But in terms of solving, the games played more like Wumpus: move along safe areas, then put all the information to use locating the hidden dangers. Tom Anderson's Mines later added a feature that let you mark suspected mines with flags. And the stage was finally set for the Minesweeper to (ahem) explode onto the scene.