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Column: Keyboard Bashing

COLUMN: 'Keyboard Bashing' - Platforming on the PC: A Brief History

October 9, 2006 5:41 PM |

Commander Keen in: Goodbye, Galaxy!['Keyboard Bashing' is a new GameSetWatch column by Tales of a Scorched Earth's Andrew Smale which discusses the history, present and future of PC gaming.]

Before Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, before Unreal, another war was being waged between the future champions of the first person shooter. Both in their infancy, id software and Epic MegaGames were contributing to another burgeoning genre on the PC: the side scrolling platformer. Games largely remembered as trifling attempts at making the hobby accessible, they are no less important in the evolution of PC gaming.

The growing popularity of Super Mario Bros. and the home console saw PC gaming play catch up in the early 1990s. id Software's Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons arrived on the shareware scene in 1990, and was probably my first exposure to that form of software distribution. Publishers would issue the first "chapter" or "episode" on diskette, which would often be shared throughout the BBS scene. It was perfectly legal - the intent was to get the game into the hands of as many people as possible, and if they liked it enough, they could purchase the remaining episodes and see the rest of the game. You could almost call shareware the predecessor to the newly fashionable episodic content and digital distribution.

Commander Keen in The Armageddon MachineWhile Pharaoh's Tomb (1990) slightly predated Commander Keen as an Apogee published title, the disparity between the two platformers was incredible. Incidentally, George Broussard, the current figurehead behind 3D Realms and the Duke Nukem Forever project was the man responsible for that title. With Commander Keen id Software created a revolutionary smooth scrolling engine with only EGA graphics; the former seemed absolutely ancient in comparison.

The game starred a boy who built a spaceship out of old soup cans and spare parts in his garage, only to be marooned on Mars after crash landing to defend himself against the evil Vorticons and save the Earth. Wearing his brother's football helmet and wielding his trademark pogo stick, Commander Keen would find himself in two sequels: Goodbye, Galaxy! and Aliens Ate My Babysitter. It is rumoured that John Carmack's engine for Commander Keen was originally created to port Super Mario Bros. 3 to the PC; after the demo was rejected by Nintendo they created their own character and a series that would be PC platforming's most recognizable. It would also become the springboard for one of PC gaming's most influential developers.

The Venerable Duke NukemApogee Software's Crystal Caves would follow one year later, along with the start of another landmark PC gaming franchise: Duke Nukem. While he wasn't the wisecracking character made famous by Duke Nukem 3D (1995), the faster paced shoot 'em up gameplay had more in common with Turrican than Super Mario Bros. It was a big change from the jumping puzzles that were the core of Keen's gameplay.

This was simply the beginning of Apogee's foray into the side-scrolling platformer: numerous titles and their sequels would be making their way to BBS and store shelves, most of the "new" franchises such as Secret Agent (1992) simply being clones of previous efforts that used the same engine. Nevertheless, the PC platforming rush of the early 1990s saw the introduction of conventions of the first person shooter: Secret Agent was the first game I remember having to backtrack with colored keys in order to open their corresponding doors to advance through the level.

Apogee may have been the first to capitalize on this growing genre, but competition wasn't far behind. Epic MegaGames (they would drop the "Mega" in 1999 before the release of Unreal Tournament) released Jill of the Jungle in 1992, which contained its fair share of digs at contemporaries Duke Nukem and Commander Keen in a bit of friendly rivalry. While the game provided moderate recognition for Epic, it didn't achieve the same success as the Commander Keen series. Xargon was released a year later, and though it featured improved visuals over Jill of the Jungle, it suffered the same fate of being overshadowed by Apogee and id Software's established franchises. But this was about to change.

Jazz Jackrabbit tries to liven up the genreJazz Jackrabbit (1994) showed some originality within the PC platforming genre at a time when success was often followed with the reuse of engines and similar gameplay. The game's anthropomorphic characters and sense of urgency in the gameplay were evidently influenced by a certain blue hedgehog. The game featured the various planet-spanning adventures of a gun-toting green rabbit, on a quest to save his girlfriend from an evil turtle. If comparisons can be made between id and Epic and their console counterparts, Epic's Jazz Jackrabbit was to Commander Keen what Sonic the Hedgehog was to Mario. The game introduced a much brighter palette, and a level of speed and "edginess" to the character that reinvigorated the PC platforming genre, if only for a short while. An excellent sequel followed in 1998 (and will likely end up in its own column here), but by then Epic had released Unreal, and the battle for 3D engine supremacy had begun in earnest. Jazz Jackrabbit 3, a rumored sequel that was to take the leap into 3D, was subsequently cancelled after poor sales of its predecessor.

So what happened to Apogee Software? In 1994 the prolific publisher of shareware split into 3D Realms and Pinball Wizards for branding purposes, the latter label being used for one pinball title in the late 1990s only to fade into obscurity. It's safe to say that Apogee's only lasting legacy is 3D Realms and the Duke Nukem brand, as id Software and their early titles published by Apogee have clearly become a separate entity in the minds of PC gamers.

Like many gaming classics better served by nostalgia, Commander Keen was brought into console gaming's modern era on the Gameboy Color in 2001. Doing away with the expansive levels and free-roaming gameplay of Goodbye Galaxy!/Aliens Ate My Babysitter, this adventure took a more conventional approach, and simply adapted the Keen character to console gaming's platform conventions. Similarly, Jazz Jackrabbit appeared on the Gameboy Advance in 2002, only to have the character reshaped into some kind of spacefaring mercenary inspired by a well-known science fiction landmark. Both games may have been officially licensed products, but did little to maintain what made the original games so unique: originally inspired by console gaming, but still distinctly a PC gaming experience. In those early days of PC gaming, creating a recognizable and successful franchise was just as easy as copying someone else's. I wish I could say the same for PC gaming today.

COLUMN: 'Keyboard Bashing' - Abuse: The Lost Shooter

August 27, 2006 3:01 PM |

Crack dot Com's Abuse['Keyboard Bashing' is a new GameSetWatch column by Tales of a Scorched Earth's Andrew Smale which discusses the history, present and future of PC gaming.]

Crack dot Com's one and only published game was Abuse (1995), which was released to hype that called it "the Doom of platform games". Combining the precision aiming available to first-person shooters that use the mouse and the jumping and climbing puzzles familiar to platform games, its darkened atmosphere and dedication to fast-paced action garnered a page in PC gaming history. But was it for the right reasons?

Crack dot Com was founded by programmers Dave Taylor (formerly of id Software) and Jonathan Clark. The demo, while essentially a beta of the unfinished game, provided network play and an easy to use level editor in the package. The mouse and keyboard control scheme was enough to get people talking - what seemed like an odd combination for a platformer ensured the game would at least be talked about. The company found a publisher in Origin Systems shortly before they were absorbed by Electronic Arts, and the game was made available to the masses in 1995.

Linux had not reached the levels of acceptance it's at now, and the game was released for DOS and Linux concurrently making it the first published game to take this approach. The game's source code would be handed off for free two years later under the GPL. Crack dot Com disbanded in 1998 after going bankrupt, making all of the assets for what would have been their next game available to whoever wanted to download them. With no hope for an official sequel, Abuse would be relegated to PC gaming cult status.

Hm. These creatures look familiar. Except they're red.The premise of Abuse is that you are a wrongfully incarcerated man looking to escape a prison facility that has been conducting biological experiments on its residents. It's up to you to fight your way out, battling an assortment of alien creatures, robots and automated weapons. The influence of the Predator and Aliens films on the player character and enemy design is completely obvious. The game's environment was similarly inspired by these science-fiction landmarks. Though it's not like we hadn't seen run and gun platforming before: Turrican (1990) and Duke Nukem (1991) had already shown us the side scrolling key, switch and door hunt while blasting away at waves of monsters. Had the features of Abuse stopped there it would have been dismissed as an also-ran, at a time when the reigning genres of PC gaming were still being defined.

It was the controls that secured the place of Abuse in PC gaming history. It marked an evolution of the control scheme for the side scrolling platformer. No longer were you limited to shooting up, down or at an awkward angle while running - the "freelook" available through using the mouse allowed complete control over the player's aim. What's more, you could actually run one way and shoot in the other - perfect for those overwhelming firefights in Abuse's many darkened corridors. Also similar to the FPS standard was the focus on weapon acquisition: Abuse had a large arsenal of weapons available, modeled after their first-person counterparts - including a lightsaber-like laser sword. So what happened to this sub-genre? Was it simply an isolated case of experimentation before the rise of the graphically intensive first-person shooter?

Examining the mechanics of the first person shooter since its ascent to PC gaming's most prevalent genre, it has shown no real maturation beyond the formulaic hallway navigating run and gun switch hunt. Instead, the genre has developed in terms of presentation: better graphics, better sound, more epic setpieces and cutscenes. The basic principles have stayed the same: kill anything that moves.

This increasing reliance on graphical fidelity made "gimmicky" side-scrolling shooters almost unnecessary, or something that would be better suited for console gaming. With Abuse, its potential for genre trailblazing on the PC was basically a matter of timing. The highly modifiable Doom was still on everyone's mind, and the fully 3D engine of Quake was just around the corner.

Beautiful low-res explosions.The view offered by Abuse made jumping puzzles easy, providing a logical challenge to progressing through a level. Its assortment of powerups (such as the Jetpack) added some flair to getting past these obstacles. Ironically, jumping puzzles remain a staple of most FPS games, despite their impracticality.

Most importantly, Abuse lacked an identity. Focusing on the control scheme only avoided the fact that it wasn't much more than what was offered by the standard shooter. This prevented long-term association with the title from the PC gaming community. What would you even call the game? A precision-shooter-platformer? Abuse was beyond categorization, and as such probably contributed to its lack of success in inspiring any followers aside from the hardcore fans that aimed to create a full-fledged sequel.

Abuse showed what a first-person shooter would be like as a side-scrolling platformer, but despite its critical acclaim failed to produce any notable descendents. Abuse would end up as one of those games we all played, and remember well, but ends up more of a title you mention when working towards something else. Abuse would be absorbed by the pages of PC gaming history, a victim of the constantly changing tastes of gamers and the company that produced both a cult classic and one-hit wonder.

Editor's Note: Since the release of the game's source code, there have been numerous projects started to revisit it either through creating a sequel or simply porting it to modern-day PCs. The original DOS game can be found on many abandonware sites (such as The Underdogs), while Win32 versions are available via the fRABs (Free Abuse) project, or Jeremy Scott's port. I have had more luck getting the DOS version to work, because the aspect ratio of the Win32 version doesn't work very well with modern hi-resolution monitors.

COLUMN: 'Keyboard Bashing' - Remembering The Fate of Atlantis

August 16, 2006 8:59 AM |

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis['Keyboard Bashing' is a new GameSetWatch column by Tales of a Scorched Earth's Andrew Smale which discusses the history, present and future of PC gaming. This inaugural column looks lovingly at a classic LucasArts title.]

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992) was the seventh LucasArts game to use the venerable SCUMM engine. It fell in between Ron Gilbert's influential The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) and adventure game fan favorite Sam and Max Hit the Road (1993). It could easily be considered among the hallmarks of adventure gaming, at the peak of LucasArts' influence on the genre.

It is also the best game I have ever played.

I can install it again as if it was the first time, and still get the same enjoyment from it. I can honestly say that it's like watching a favorite movie - but a movie that actually is as good as I remember it - and enjoying every moment spent re-solving the game's challenging but intuitive puzzles and listening to the wonderfully crafted dialogue. I'd even call the whole thing "cinematic."

In game criticism's search to find itself, the term "cinematic" is thrown around quite a bit, as if it was the only way to describe a game's presentation. Combining an appealing visual aesthetic with an engaging storyline keeps the player involved, who will return to the game simply to find out what happens next. As games approach levels of visual realism only dreamed about 10 years ago - with the hardware to produce it seemingly driving the industry - has the definition of "cinematic" changed?

It has, but only unwittingly. Back when there was nothing better to compare to, computer games were often described with the same terms they are now. But looking through my old copies of Computer Gaming World and PC Gamer is downright embarrassing to see what games the descriptor was attached to. A game can be cinematic without obsessing over excessive amounts of visual detail or immaculate sound, because it's about supplying a package.

Take the mask! It's scaring away my best customers.When I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark as a young lad, I immediately wanted to be an archaeologist. Not because I was interested in history, but because it meant I would get to travel the world searching for ancient artifacts while trying to stay one step ahead of the Bad Guys. The Fate of Atlantis recaptured this feeling. You weren't supposed to be Indy; you were following him on one of his adventures. To this day I am convinced that in the right hands, a film based on this game would feel right at home in the Indiana Jones saga - it is so in touch with the mythos.

While made up of standard adventure fare like navigating dialogue options, puzzles, and the occasional pixel hunt, each are presented to be seamless with the surrounding storyline. The opening scene involves Indy looking through the archives of Barnett College for an Atlantean artifact, which is subsequently stolen by a Nazi spy to set the game's story in motion. What follows is an introductory sequence of sorts, where Indy must get in touch with Sophia Hapgood, an old friend who will aid in the search for the truth about Atlantis. It turns out Atlantis really does exist, and its location is buried in Plato's Lost Dialogue, an ancient text that was thought a hoax. Once the Dialogue is obtained, the game presents the player with some options.

Do you partner with Sophia, and hope that she can provide some valuable insight for the remainder of the adventure? Or do you fly solo, and go against Indiana Jones tradition? Perhaps silly puzzles aren't for you, and the road to Atlantis is paved with blood and lost teeth. Each path touches on key points of the story, but take slightly different routes to get to the Lost City, some of them exposing areas only available in a particular path. Like any adventure game, you can't expect too much freedom, but the presentation of The Fate of Atlantis doesn't allow you to dwell too much on it.

The superb voice acting and the great sense of humor shared by all of LucasArts' early adventure efforts added some depth to the experience. The dialogue feels naturally constructed, and carries over well between cutscenes and when you have the option to choose what to say. The iMUSE system, which was first introduced by the version of the SCUMM engine powering this adventure, controls changes in music when the action on screen changes. The game's artwork is practical for the majority of the game - it's simply recreating the films' familiar time period. The Lost City, once found, is successfully conveyed as an ancient place that was still capable of developing technological marvels. It's all fantasy, but it's completely convincing.

Step onto the machine, Jones.Part of what made LucasArts' classic adventure games so family-friendly is that your character could never die. In The Fate of Atlantis, Indy can die. There are few ways in which this can happen, but they are situations in which death is a perfectly logical outcome. Allowing Indy to mutter "over my dead body" to his Nazi counterpart in one scene results in exactly that. Once inside Atlantis, you have to sneak by the wandering Nazi guards that have control of it. If you walk by them, it triggers a simple fist fighting mini-game that you have to win, or Indy will die. The final confrontation at the heart of Atlantis involves navigating a very intriguing amount of dialogue options, one of them resulting in Indy's death. I really felt like I had outsmarted my adversaries once I beat the game. While not essential to the story, Indy's mortality adds a sense of danger to the adventure. It's not meant to be serious, because we all know the hero isn't supposed to die. It simply mimics the nature of the films.

While the game does not chronicle the hunt for a religious artifact - the basis for every one of the films - there is still something spiritual about the quest. Sophia Hapgood is shown as a performing psychic and renowned authority on Atlantis at the beginning of the game, with her Atlantean necklace clearly her most prized possession. According to her, the necklace allows her to speak with a long dead resident of the Lost City, a talent that ends up providing a bit of assistance along the way. Sophia's belief in the power of the necklace blinds her to the truth of what really went on inside Atlantis; in a crisis of faith she realizes that there was a reason the Atlanteans didn't survive their so-called advanced civilization. Once again we are taught that some things are probably best left undisturbed.

The Fate of Atlantis provides a glimpse of what the marriage of a well-known property and good storytelling can do to a graphical adventure game's overall effectiveness. It is also an excellent example of cinematic presentation, without relying on the ultra-realistic visuals that are expected of games developed in last few years that are so arbitrarily assigned the term. Indeed, The Fate of Atlantis is an adventure game for the ages.