Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Greatest Video Games of All Time, Part I: 1970s-80s

10. Populous (1989, Peter Molyneux)

At the end of the 1980s, just months before the release of Will Wright’s Sim City (and two years before Sid Meier released the first volume of Civilization), Peter Molyneux, a thirty-year-old programmer from Guildford, delivered the original ‘God simulator’. Taking the radical step of allowing the player to build an entire landscape, Molyneux also managed to anticipate the expansive worlds and elaborate moral dilemmas of his later materpieces, Black & White (2001), and Fable II (2008).

9. Midwinter (1989, Mike Singleton)

“'A modern Midwinter’ is a phrase you hear regularly on the lips of wishful gamers,” wrote Jim Rossignol in 2009. “Some day it will happen.” Such hype, twenty years after it appeared on the Atari ST, shows the grip that Mike Singleton (a former English teacher) still holds over the imagination of certain audiences. His greatest game, the 3D-pioneering Midwinter allows the player to explore a huge post-apocalyptic world of ice, following a cataclysmic meteorite strike. In 1989, on the Atari, this was the beginning of 'virtual reality' storytelling.

8. Little Computer People (1984, David Crane)

Released 26 years before LittleBigPlanet, 16 years before The Sims, and 12 years before the Tamagotchi, David Crane’s Little Computer People is the obscure ancestor to a number of more famous miniature-world/life-simulator experiments. While Will Wright admits that he was a fan of the title, no subsequent artist has managed to capture the underlying strangeness of Crane’s original. The packaging insisted that the character inside the disk was real, and alive... Insert the disk, and a stark, empty house appears. After a while, a character appears from off-screen, and begins to inhabit it. That's it. In a key sense, though, they are a unique organism, as explained here at the Software Preservation Society – each title did indeed contain a unique, randomly generated digital character, a binary being, unlike any of the others on the shelf. And after a time, once settled in, they start to communicate with real humans, outside their screen-world...

7. The Oregon Trail (1971, Don Rawtisch)

Don Rawtisch’s 1971 history-class illustration, The Oregon Trail, demonstrates the incredible narrative appeal of interactive storytelling: created with Integer BASIC, the programme simulates the forbidding westward trek of the 1840s, made by so many hopeful Americans. The work was completed a year before Pong, and often falls outside official narratives of ‘video game history’. It remains, however, a truly engrossing experience: the linear stretch of the trail is created largely in the mind’s eye, rather than on screen, but there is still an uncanny sense of distance. Hoping to shoot dinner, or ford one last stream, hundreds of miles from safety, is oddly harrowing, and the resulting mishaps (almost simultaneously) often darkly hilarious.

6. Super Mario Bros. (1985, Shigeru Miyamoto)

An early highlight for the great Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Bros. is purely a Game (unlike so many other titles) and like any great game, it encourages us to play, play, and play again. The physics are flawlessly designed, and the visuals remain perfectly simple and effective today. Chosen by Game Informer as the 2nd greatest game of-all-time, this is a celebration of the unique fun (ideally two-player) to be had within a well-designed digital playground.

5. Weird Dreams (1989 Herman Serrano)

A truly unnerving lost-classic from the Commodore 64, Herman Serrano’s Weird Dreams seems more at home alongside the psychotic comedies of Gilliam and Lynch than standard cartridges such as Rat Race or Frogger. The opening scene greets us with a man etherized upon an operating table, and almost immediately tumbling into space – entering his own unconscious. Packaged with a 64-page novella detailing the events prior to the ‘simulation’ (the character is undergoing brain surgery to stop his nightmares, apparently), Serrano’s strange cartridge was unlike anything else in 1989 (or, with one bizarre 1998 exception, since). The ‘life’ counter is a heart-rate monitor shifting between 75 and 170 bpm, while the ‘levels’ range from a giant candy-floss machine to a horrible desert, via a ‘hall of tubes’. Never has a football seemed so terrifying.

4. Maniac Mansion (1987, Ron Gilbert)

A masterful parody of B-movie horror, Ron Gilbert’s first work throws together a Victorian mansion, a mad Doctor, a rogue meteorite, and a cheerleader named Sandy Pantz. The first game designed with the SCUMM engine, this epic horror-comedy was an early hit of the graphic adventure genre. With playable characters including a New Wave musician, a novelist, a surfer and a punk, the whole thing overflowed with page after page of witty and imaginative dialogue. Despite this fecundity, the title appears uncut as a game-within-a-game on a computer in Tim Schafer’s awesome 1993 sequel, Day of the Tentacle. As miraculous, if you think about it, as the entire manuscript for Billy Budd turning up in a locker among the pages of Moby-Dick.

3. A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985, Steve Meretzky)

The title of Steve Meretzky’s greatest work refers to a description in Wordsworth’s 1805 epic, of “Newton with his prism and silent face, the marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” Released for the Atari ST and the Commodore 128 at the height of the Infocom interactive-fiction phenomenon, Meretzky’s disk is a science fiction experiment, casting the player as a disembodied computer intelligence, trying to negotiate a physical world it cannot properly inhabit. The scenario is a brilliant inversion of the actual experience of any video game, in which we remain removed from the ‘virtual’ world, able to interact with it only at one remove, finding our way through the ‘strange seas’ of binary data. Highlighting the intellectual element of such interaction, this game is pure text and has no graphic element at all. As with the other great Infocom masterpiece, however (Brian Moriarty’s nuclear-holocaust tale, Trinity), the created world is utterly engrossing, and Meretzky captures the imagination in a way that few visual artists have ever achieved.

2. Space Invaders (1978, Tomohiro Nishikado)

The polar opposite to Meretzky’s masterpiece, Space Invaders is a purely graphical experience, made up of a black background and a series of floating lights. The purity of the end result is astonishing, given that the medium was only six years old when Nishikado developed his arcade machine. Space Invaders was the single game that inspired Shigeru Miyamoto to become a programmer (thus inadvertently giving us Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and Starfox), but it also remains unnerving and unique in itself. The tentacled menace (made up of just 46 pixels, less than the standard mouse cursor) looms out of the blackness as indelibly as the phantoms summoned by H.G. Wells, or the bombers that coursed into the skies above Nishikado’s own cradle in 1945. And the Invader remains as recognizable as Mickey Mouse today, appearing in graffiti, on clothing, and even rogue crop circles. In 1985, Steve Meretzky made a strong case for the interactive medium as a cerebral, textual one, but at the end of the previous decade, Tomohiro Nishikado had already established – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that it could also be a medium of pure image.

1. Deus Ex Machina (1984, Mel Croucher)

Released a few months before Mario’s debut on the Nintendo Famicom, Deus Ex Machina was an experimental Orwellian art-piece, a million miles from Miyamoto’s mushroom kingdom. Based on Shakespeare’s conceit of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ (the floppy disk was packaged with a cassette of semi-ambient music, featuring Jon Pertwee and Ian Dury reciting text from the 1599 play As You Like It) Croucher’s short masterpiece follows the life and death of a “defect” in a social machine: a magnificent blend of Jeff Wayne and Classical seriousness. (A mere 26 years on, a sequel is in development, this time apparently starring 'Lord Summerisle himself', Christopher Lee.) The first genuine art/game crossover, Deus Ex Machina remains unexpectedly moving today, culminating with perhaps the most memorable recitation ever of Prospero's "baseless fabric" speech, as we're warned, as at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, that this "screen shall dissolve... being such stuff as dreams are made on". With this forty-minute wonder, that claim seemed at last to bear some weight... In 1984, thanks to Croucher's wildly overreaching ambition, a new medium had defiantly arrived.

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