I'm a child from the arcade games and home computing era. In my early teens in the beginning of 1980's I saw an arcade video game first time in my life and like many kids of my age, I was immediately fascinated by the fantasy world on the CRT display of that bleeping machine. This happened in the amusement park section of an agricultural show where my parents had taken me. I was too young and with no pocket money of my own to try the games myself at that time, but that first lure of the video games set me on my way to get all the computer and programming skills I have today, as well as to the career in developing software.
A few of the games of that era have stuck to my memory. Some of them were without names to me first, because I only paid attention to the gameplay.
One had a rows of monsters coming down in robotlike motion from the top of the screen towards a spaceship at the bottom. The player could move the ship sideways, in an attempt to hide behind a number of blocks gradually eroding from bombing by the monters. firing a missile towards the attackers. Eventually, the player would get killed. Even if she managed to shoot away every descending enemy, there would be a new, even faster attack wave appearing as soon as the previous one had been annihilated. There were only temporary victories for the player, but it was easy to understand the charm of trying to test how long one could survive, and how many monsters could one kill before the last spaceship was gone.
Another game had the player controlling a blocky pixel hero running on top of platforms made of tiles, and climbing ladders between the platforms. This time the group of monsters or robots were moving in the same floors and ladders and tried to catch the player. The only defense against the monsters were pits or holes that he could dig using a shovel of some sort. By keeping a button pressed, the little video man started digging the platform, and with three shovelfuls had made a hole through it. The monster seeking the player would get stuck in the hole, but only for a while. Unless the player got right beside the hole and started filling it again, the monster would climb up from the hole, and turn into a faster and more intelligent monster. If the player did succeed filling the hole while monster was still trapped inside it, the monster would drop one floor down, and be destroyed. Unless, the player found out soon, the monster was of a more advanced type which required dropping it through two or three holes that had to be dug right on top of each other. Similar to the spaceship vs army of aliens game, this game would get more frantic and panicky over time.
The aliens vs. spaceship game was called Space Invaders by a Japanese company Taito, I learned later. It was one of the first megahits of the arcade video games and is still very well known not only as a game still played today, but as a kind of archetype of many space action games since.
Space Invaders gameplay video from Youtube, by Matteo Bonora
As for the second game that I remember from my childhood, for a long time it remained anonymous to me, mostly because I did not see it again since.
Few years later I did saw another game with a guy running on platforms and climbing ladders that became much more popular and well-known. This latter game had quite a lot more personality and elements. This time, the enemy was a big ape, that apparently had taken a girl as hostage and climbed to a building being constructed. The hero seemed to have overalls, a cap, and mustache. He had to start from the bottom of the consruction and try to reach the top while the ape was throwing down barrels. Barrels rolled down and the guy had to jump over them or avoid them by climbing a ladder at the right time. Reaching the bottom the screen the rolling barrels dropped in and out of a large oil barrel with fire, and turned into flaming barrels themselves that started climbing after the hero who had managed to avoid them on the way! Again, a panicky feeling of how to survive the ever growing number of threats was evident in the design of this game. And once the player learned to cope with the dangers of the first level, and reached the girl at the top, the gorilla just got the girl again and climbed upwards to another, different level where the gameplay was changed to pose new challenges to the player.
Even the youngest video game players recognize the gorilla and the man with the mustache, as they went on to establish a video game empire for Nintendo as well as make their creator one of the most respected game designers in the history of the video game industry.
Donkey Kong arcade game from 1981. This was the second platform game I ever saw. Youtube video by Ninsegalover
The early arcade games had other similarities that were all part of their appeal. They were built as colorful cabinets that were usually as tall or actually a bit taller than a kid of my age at the time. They had a screen where the gameplay happened. They had a coin slot where you had to insert coins to get credits to play. They featured a curious bleeps and whitenoisy sound effect produced by some electric magic inside the cabinet. And they had controls, usually at least a few buttons and a stick with a ball on top, that was used to give direction to whatever player was controlling on screen. All of this was built to withstand heavy use. The players would often use unnecessary force while panic level rose as the game progressed, and the game would not collect more coins if it went out of order because of rough handling.
The stick became known as 'the joystick' and is one of the defining features of arcade video games, even though not all of them use it. The playing controls are the key to arcade type video game experience and the joystick therefore stands for the key characteristic in them -- interactivity -- very well.
But what was the first platform game I ever saw? That game with platforms and ladders that I fell in love with before Mario and Donkey Kong, with distinct and original gameplay that I remember equally well to those other early games by Nintendo and Taito. What was the name of the game, and who had made it?
I did not know the answers for decades. Then, last year, I read the news that Internet Archive had published information on hundreds of classic arcade games:
Although I could not get the authentic experience of playing the games in their original hardware, as physical arcade game cabinets, I could browse them, get information on them, and even play them in emulator. I realized this collection could contain the platform game whose name had dropped from my memory (if in fact I had ever registered it there) and whose origin had remained unknown to me, so I started going through the collection one at the time but skipping those games that I knew not to be the one I was looking for.
After having gone through dozens of games listed and described on the Internet Arcade pages, I started the emulation of a game called Space Panic, by a company called Universal.
Right away I felt odd sense of hilarious nostalgic joy when I realized I had found the game that had been lost to me so many years. Here was the video man with his virtual shovel, the monsters chasing him, the ladders, the platforms, Plus, a feature I had not even noticed when I first saw the game played years ago: oxygen level meter that absolutely limited the time a player has for defeating the monsters.
Space Panic on Youtube, courtesy of Arcade Classics
Looking back, I think Space Panic really ignited my fondness of the platformer genre: I remember playing quite a few of them quite a lot, especially once I got a home computers of my own which had a number of games available. Lode Runner, Mr. Do's Castle, Hunchback, Jumpman, Donkey Kong, these were all variations of the same type of game and I spent hours trying to master their levels. I did play other types of games as well, such as some shoot'em ups like Gyruss, Galaxian and Zaxxon, racing games, like Pole Position and Pitstop, text adventures like Zork and Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and maze action games like Pacman, Dig Dug, and Boulder Dash. But the platform genre clearly interested me the most.
Since then the evolution of the platform game genre has long been pushed forward by Super Mario games by Nintendo. Mario games still contain the core movements of running, climbing and jumping around levels, avoiding and defeating enemies. I am not alone in liking this type of game, obviously, as it is most often still the genre that introduces video games to kids. There are probably very few video game players that do not have fun memories of playing platform games, although many may have outgrown them and moved on to play more serious types of games featuring, for example, team-based combat, or simulation, or strategy.
As for me, I liked these early video games so much that I bought my first three computers for not only playing the games, but also make them. In my next blog postings I will share some of my early efforts as well as the results of trying to make games myself. You'll see that platform games remained my favorite as I gradually progressed from a game player to a game creator.