The Virtual Art of 80’s Game Worlds
Sci-Fi-O-Rama presents an analysis and artistic appreciation of five pioneering 8-bit and 16-bit computer games.
The era is the mid to late 80’s, a period fabulously rich in gaming concepts and innovation as developers frantically sought to grasp, harness and subsequently wring every last nanogram of creativity from the available platforms of the day. Each title here contained – for the time – an array of groundbreaking ideas and technologies. What else connects them? well of course I played them way back when and thus they are in some way or another forever burned into the hazy mists of my subconscious.
I’ve been mulling over this one for a while but wasn’t sure quite how to start, hence the recent posting log jam. I wanted to compose an extended retro game feature, but not just to give a rose tinted review of gameplay or mechanics. Here then is a more focused look at the visuals themselves, what fascinated back then and what us still so beautiful and relevant today, 2012.
Hailing way back from 1989 we begin with this wonderful in-game animation, taken from Mike Singleton‘s seminal first person Action/Strategy game ‘Midwinter’. I actually covered the back story and game mechanics in depth a few years back, today the focus is the virtual world itself . This long forgotten classic (23 years old!) featured the implementation of many radical new ideas most notably it’s beautiful, fractal generated landscape, all 160,000 square miles of it. Upon this jagged stage of relentless grey and blue polygons the game would unfold, the above animation shows all of the objects to be found within this bleak digital realm.
This type of spinning model animation was not unique to Midwinter, as you’ll see below, but of them all this (for me) has the most resonance. Back them due to hardware restrictions, there was no texture or bump mapping – at least not in game – graphics could only run with a limited palette, though this was expanded by interlacing or dithering the colours. Seen above this is the checkered, flickering effect as two filled blocks dance between each other. There’s also a real charm with the basic tones of this palette too, earthy terracotta, golden yellows and shades of evergreen jumping straight off the jet black background. A final note and a total giveaway of the era is the speed in which the objects rotate, the simplest and smallest revolving far faster, whilst the emulated 8Mhz processor slows to shift the larger models.
I’ll summerise to say how the subtle, simplistic genius of the design today could easily pass off as abstract pop-art.
Read more about Midwinter at Wikipedia
First released in 1986 The Sentinel (US The Sentry) was an experience like nothing else, a brooding first person 3d puzzler with 10,000 individual levels. A digital mutation of chess and musical statues It’s compelling uniqueness has retrospectively led some to dub it ”the first virtual reality game’ . The objective of each level is the same, traverse and ascend a checkered, angular landscape by teleportation, to do this you must harvest energy by absorbing the worlds various objects. Atop of all stands the ever watching and rotating sentinel, constantly scanning for intruders to consume and destroy. To win you must survive long enough to be able to climb as high as the Sentinel himself, and thus be able to absorb even him . Though the premise may sound somewhat bewildering, gameplay is in fact relatively relatively simple to pick up, though undoubtedly difficult to master.
The Sentinel was developed originally on the 8-Bit BBC Micro by British programming legend Geoff Crammond, it was then subsequently ported across the board. I first played it on a ZX Spectrum, which due to the obvious hardware limitations plays at a slower pace than the Atari St Version demonstrated above, though this only serves to heighten the tension.
With it’s hard edged, selectively colored graphics, there’s something very alien and ethereal about The Sentinel; A voyage through a seemingly endless array of cold, stark and unavailing worlds, It’s eerie desolation matched only by it’s sweaty addictiveness. Truly timeless.
Above The Sentinel Rendered on the BBC Micro, also note the phallic overtones present in the game box art.
Elite (1984) Firebird
BBC Micro / Acorn / ZX Spectrum / Commordore 64 / Amstrad / CPCAmiga / Atari St / IBM-PC / NES
Here we have a game of truly legendary status, and really needs no introduction. The brainchild of Cambridge graduates David Braben and Ian Bell and originally launched in 1984 it’s 3d wireframe graphics enveloped the player in galaxy of space exploration, trading and combat.
As with a few of the other titles here, Elite is something I’ve mentioned on the blog before, firstly when I featured Philip Castle promotional Artwork and of related interest here is a link with some thoughts on Elites extraordinarily ambitious sequel ‘Frontier’ released in 1992.
The movie shoes the IBM-PC version of the games starting animation, this introduces the player to all of the in game objects, essentially the different types of spacecraft you may encounter. Elite was originally written for 8-Bit systems, and featured only black and white wireframe graphics, the upgraded 16-Bit version includes solid polygons, as you can see. I’ve compiled the clip to show the game running in different display modes starting with CGA, then EGA and finally VGA. Bearing in mind that PC’s back then were purely made for the office, CGA graphic mode was severely hamstrung and capable of only a very limited, migraine inducing palette, and you think thats bad, play the game with just the PC speaker for sound and you have a truly ghastly experience! Next up is EGA mode, capable of a more powerful range of colours, expanded by the same interlaced displacement of pixels mentioned earlier. Finally the VGA mode removes the interlacing and shows the cheese shaped objects in a gloriously garish neon spectrum.
Whilst graphically it all obviously seems so primitive today, this was once cutting edge stuff; showing all the objects gave the player a notion to go forth and explore, it’s a visual checklist for things to see inside Braben and Bell’s economically woven synthetic universe. Finally, one really neat thing here is the flickering star, I presume this is to simulate atmospheric heat haze, and not just a hardware limitation!
Above the games original box art, always loved this winged-crest-type thing, though I confess to this day I have no idea what it’s actually supposed to be. The design I presume was created by the afforementioned Philip Castle.
Read more about Elite at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elite_(game)
Battle Command (1990) Ocean Software
ZX Spectrum / Commordore 64 / Amstrad CPC / Amiga / Atari St / IBM-PC
Where as the previous titles can be considered classics, Battle Command slides casually into the ‘obscure and unremarkable’ category. Released in 1990 (yes I know the post title says 80s) the game is a loose sequel to the superb ‘Carrier Command’ whose war-games-esque kitsch cover was featured as one of the very first posts here at Sci-Fi-O-Rama. Battle Command is much more action orientated than it’s better known predecessor and seems to play out like an updated version of Atari’s legendary ‘Battlezone’. I say it’s “seems to” because the truth is 20+ years after owning I’m still not really sure how to play it, even today through emulation I’m none the wiser…
But whilst the gaming experience may still allude, it does have it’s plus points, essentially these boils down to a selection of primitive, but nevertheless, fascinating 3d animations, to be seen compiled in the above movie. The smaller movies show the objective of each mission, presumably what must be destroyed, captured or protected. Theres real charm and a sense of play here, as the camera slowly pans the various objects, the simplistic but striking models shimmer in a gorgeous range of acidic, saturated colours. In keeping with the plastic palette and theme, the in-game protanganist bare a closer resemblance to Lego-like renditions rather than that of the the real thing – toy buildings, tanks, fighter jets poised and ready to be challenged in battle. Finally and as if to underline that, checkout the lovingly crafted intro animation complete with clipping, and slight CPU slowdown. Forget todays hyper-realism, for me this is what computer graphics will forever be about.
Above: The box art featuring a pretty mean looking armoured vehicle, off topic I do wonder how much of a role tanks will play on future battlefields, not exactly cutting edge tech are they, and would you really want to drive one in an even fight?. Anyway, enough of that, as you might expect of a long-forgotten 22 year old game cyberspace isn’t awash with information on Battle Command. However, as always, a good place to start is the Wikipedia article.
Captain Blood – 1988 Infrogrmmes/ Mindscape
ZX Spectrum / Commordore 64 /Amstrad / CPCAmiga / Atari St / IBM-PC
The final title here, by Philippe Ulrich & Didier Bouchon is from France. As with most things Sci-Fi and Gallic, to say it’s ‘out there’ is a blasphemous understatement, quite how the French do their Sci-Fi which such broad strokes of flair must surely be the subject of a future article, but for now let’s stick this fine example.
Captain Blood’s suitably existential plot involves assuming the role of a game designer flung into his own game, searching the galaxy for a number rouge clones of yourself that were created during an accident soon after the transition to the game world. To track the clones down help is available via variety of alien races who are dotted around the galaxy and to whom who you must voyage too, meet and interview.
Gameplay involves picking and then travelling to a planet where upon arrival you must guide a biological probe called an ‘OORXX’ to the chosen worlds surface. This involves steering a cross hair across a fractal generated psuedo-3d landscape, try to imagine flying through Peter Saville’s iconic Joy Divison LP cover for ‘Unknown Pleasures‘. When the OORXX lands you’ll need to attempt to communicate with the local indigenous species using a complicated universal translating device, the ‘UPCOM’. I’ll pause here and just say, if you hadn’t guessed already Captain Blood It’s totally bizarre, and frankly, quite how it should be. The UPCOM’s GUI has a range of icons each symbolising a different concept, you string them together to form conversation, the machine garbles then out robotic synthisised speech, the alien subsequently responds. Yeap it’s even weirder than it sounds, but I have to say, if there was ever a game that deserves to be remade or re-invented for the tablet gerneration this has got to be it.
The games British box art, nice Font. Read more about Captain Blood at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_Blood_(video_game)
If your interested in reliving a few memories or just a spot of retro gaming most of these games are now classed as Abondonware, essentially meaning you can find the ROM’s and play them through the PC emulator DOSBOX. For OSX users this is easier than you think, just visit and download the Boxer App. In addition check Abandonia for a large selection of legally downloadable ROMs.
That’s pretty much it, quick disclaimer on the presentation, this is the first major post I’ve upgrading the site to be mobile responsive, if you spot any design anomolies please let me know. Back soon with more!