The NES & Master System: Inevitable Comparisons

Back in May, I talked a little bit about my first exposure to the NES. As someone who didn’t have one, and who was instead gaming on the rival Sega Master System, the NES was not only something I had limited access to, but it was a console I greatly desired. I would try to fool myself into thinking that I didn’t really want one, and that my Master System was better, but absurdity has its limits.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the Master System. As evidenced by my post about the classic RPG Phantasy Star, it played host to a good number of excellent 8-bit titles. It just couldn’t hold a candle to Nintendo’s marketing, third-party policies, and resulting massive library of games. Even the console-specific print magazines were hilariously mismatched: Nintendo Power was this thick, robust magazine full of features, maps, letters, art, hints, reviews, and cool game advertisements. Meanwhile, Sega Challenge was a tiny, low-budget pamphlet that was maybe 16 pages long. I thought it was cool, but you wouldn’t want to bring it to school. You’d get laughed at, and get laughed at I did.

And so, for the three years that I had my Master System, I quietly enjoyed its games while playing a lot of NES games at my friends’ houses. However, even when I was there playing those games, I’d wind up comparing what I was playing to what I had on the Master System. Usually, what I was seeing on the NES was better.

One that really stands out in my mind is Sega’s Pro Wrestling vs. Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling.


In screenshots, you could argue that in some ways, the Master System version above looks a little better. It’s more colorful, its gameplay is tag-team style, players have energy meters, and the ring itself has some 3D perspective. However, that’s where its so-called advantages end.


The NES version, on the other hand, was just a revelation when I first played it. It not only had a really catchy title screen tune, but it was followed by large, beautiful portraits of each of the game’s wrestlers, with stats and other bits of information that made them feel much more human than the generic cast of the Master System game. It was all the little touches that elevated it as well: The ringside commentators, the cameraman filming the action, the fact that you could go outside the ring, the more realistic wrestler animations and interactions, etc. The list goes on and on.

After playing the NES game, I was embarrassed to even show anyone the Master System title! It had its charms with its super-deformed and very Japanese graphics, but it would never appeal to western audiences the way Nintendo’s game would. It truly was a night and day difference, and it remains one of my all-time favorite wrestling games.

Another pair of titles that showed the stark difference between the consoles was Sega’s own arcade conversion of Out Run and little-known (at the time) Square’s Rad Racer.


Again, upon first glance, the Sega game looks pretty good. The Ferrari Testarossa, the track layouts, and the visuals are a decent approximation of the arcade version, which is still a looker to this day. I remember being quite impressed with the screenshots, and when it finally came out as a 2 megabit (256 KB) cartridge in 1987, I couldn’t wait to play it.

And when I did? Man, was I let down. The graphics were so choppy, and even though I knew it wasn’t going to be as smooth as the arcade due to lack of hardware sprite scaling, it just felt way under-cooked. Most disappointingly, the music barely did the arcade soundtrack justice, which is one of its highlights.


Released the same year on the NES, Rad Racer is basically an Out Run clone right down to the Ferrari and opening beach setting, but without the branching paths. I tried to write it off in my mind as just a cheap copy until I actually played it. Wow, I was blown away yet again! Rad Racer moves along at a brisk 60 frames-per-second compared to the choppy mess that is Out Run on the Master System.

Roadside obstacles and scenery scroll past your vehicle smoothly, and while the graphics themselves aren’t as detailed as they are in Out Run, the smooth framerate, convincingly undulating roadways, and responsive gameplay give it a polished, high-quality feel.

Rad Racer also one-ups its competition by letting the player change the music station from within the game instead of being stuck with one song the entire time. Additionally, it has on-the-fly anaglyph 3D mode, which lets you use the included blue & red 3D glasses for a gaming experience that was very cool and unique at the time.

Being such a popular game, Space Harrier wasn’t immune to this either, with Square once again “paying homage” to it that same year with their own run & gunner, The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner.

Although vastly inferior to the arcade original, I loved the Master System version of Space Harrier. For the hardware it’s on, it looks great, has gigantic, screen-filling bosses, bonus content, and good versions of the game’s iconic music.

It’s somewhat choppy, though, and the techniques used to create such large visuals means there are flat, square-like edges around everything, and that detracts from the overall effect.


By contrast, 3-D WorldRunner is cartoon-like and not very interesting to look at in screenshots, but much like Rad Racer, it’s something entirely different in motion, moving smoothly at a near-constant 60 FPS. It has fun backgrounds like Sega’s own Fantasy Zone, and a similarly lighthearted tone.

While I remember it being criticized for just being a Space Harrier clone, I thought it was unique enough. Sure, it’s set in a very similar world with creatures and obstacles that bear more than a passing resemblance to Sega’s creations, but the run & jump gameplay sets it apart, as does the 3D feature, similar to that found in Rad Racer.

It’s one of those examples where I would say they are as unique as they are alike. I enjoy both games for different reasons, even though one was obviously influenced by the other. As they said in 1996’s Swingers, “Everybody steals from everybody; that’s Hollywood.”

Similarly, we see this — and will continue to see this — all the time in the videogame industry. How many “match three” games are there on Google Play and the Apple App Store? By today’s standards, Space Harrier and 3-D World Runner are very different games.

As an aside, I wish Square would go back and make more games like this again, or at least work with the Japanese developer M2 to make good 3D conversions of them for systems like the Nintendo 3DS.

These are just a few of the many examples of genre and style crossover between the competing consoles. Sega would also bring out games that were déjà vu familiar to what was already on the NES, like Compile’s Golvellius: Valley of Doom. This is what Sega owners got instead of The Legend of Zelda.


Golvellius had great music, and side and vertically scrolling action sequences replaced the dungeons found in Zelda, but the bulk of the game was spent in a very similar overworld, complete with hidden caves, vague hints, shopkeepers, and other near-homologous design elements.

It’s hard to deny that both of the opening landscapes had quite a lot in common, but as a Master System owner used to a slow trickle of quality games, Golvellius went down as one of my favorites back in 1988.


The Legend of Zelda would, of course, go on to become one of the most memorable and timeless classics on any console.

Content is king, as they say, and the NES — despite the many stinkers that called it their home — had so many more great games that victory was a foregone conclusion.

Then there were those times where neither game was all that good. Rambo: First Blood Part II (SMS) and Ikari Warriors (NES) come to mind, which were both part of the popular vertically scrolling military shooters at the time.


Rambo had decent visuals, and the gameplay was rather smooth, but it was slow. Painfully slow.

The thing about both of these games is that they are based on controls that were impossible at home at the time: a joystick that could simultaneously control the on-screen character and independently aim their gun in any of 8 different directions. This meant that at home, whichever way you were facing, that’s where you were firing, making strafing impossible. That was a huge part of Ikari Warriors‘ appeal, and would thankfully be addressed in its follow-up, Victory Road.


And speaking of Ikari Warriors, what a mess. Choppy, simplistic graphics and a pace that felt even slower and more punishing than Rambo. I played this around the same time as Capcom’s 1942 on the NES and remember thinking, “Man, this console absolutely sucks for arcade ports!”, but as I discussed back in May, Rush’n Attack changed my opinion on that completely.

As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there were a lot of games that seemed strikingly similar to one another.  It’s interesting to think back on the fact that it was pretty rare for the same game to be on competing consoles, even through the 16-bit era. A few come to mind, like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Earthworm Jim, but it seemed like the exception, rather than the norm.

Each individual system played host to a slew of exclusives you couldn’t play anywhere else, despite their similarities. It’s a very different landscape today, and while it is apples and oranges to this discussion, it’s not so much about having the exclusive title anymore, but more about who has the exclusive content or lead release window.

I wouldn’t mind a return to the basics. Speaking of which, I think I’ll play a little Rad Racer right now.


Industry Memoirs: Lessons Learned, Part 1

This is a revised and expanded version of an email I sent to my QA team back in March of 2010. I was a Sr. Manager at the time working for THQ in Phoenix, AZ.

To set this up, the majority of the team was at the peak of testing the second installment in our UFC series. Some cracks were starting to show in their resolve and camaraderie, so I decided to share this with the entire department.

It might have been specific to that particular time and project, but I think this is useful advice for any new leader, or someone coming into the workforce fresh, whether it’s in videogames or not.

20140724_ufc2Stress levels run high on big projects. Stress levels run high in Quality Assurance, period. This has been a universal truth for as long as I’ve been in this industry. As the end of UFC 2‘s test cycle approaches, I’ve been asked several times, “How do you deal with all this stress so well?”

The thing is, I don’t know that I do. I know I haven’t in the past. Maybe I’ve learned to not let it show as much?

Whatever the case may be, I know it’s hard not to focus solely on — and get annoyed by — the world as you know it: Your team.

This very insular existence becomes the mind-numbing standard until that submission notification to Sony and Microsoft goes out and releases us back into the wild. “What is this… ‘sunlight’ you speak of?” and its variants are things I commonly hear during crunch-time, even in Phoenix where that scalp-baking sun seems to hover just a few short feet above our heads.

Sometimes we get pushed beyond our limit, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of losing it with our testing brothers and sisters, and so I want to share a couple key moments in my career that helped me keep and maintain perspective.

Back in early 1996 when I was still a new Tester, my middle name was “Overly Ambitious”, and I had an arrogant, know-it-all attitude to match. I thought I was going to be the next big-shot Designer on The Bard’s Tale IV, after all. I came into the job thinking that I was above my peers, just because I had played a bunch of obscure import games and could namedrop various industry figureheads. It’s definitely cringe-worthy stuff to recollect.

Anyway, about 4 months or so into my time at Interplay, one of my coworkers was chosen to be the newest Lead Tester. I don’t know why, but I got so mad that he was picked instead of me. He ended up taking over as my direct supervisor, and frankly, I treated him like garbage. He would ask me questions and I wouldn’t even look at him. When I did answer, it was with a bitterly sarcastic tone, usually under my breath.

From my perspective, I was just venting and didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I was responding to the situation the best I knew how. I was only 21, and in hindsight, it was the exact same way I would typically respond to my parents if I hadn’t gotten my way. In other words, childish. What a spoiled brat I was!

Instead of talking to him about this directly, I just clammed up. I found out later that my ridiculously immature behavior was being communicated up the chain to the head of the department, with suggestions that I be let go. Miraculously, I was somehow spared, but it could have easily led to a quick end to an even shorter-lived “career”.

Eventually, he invited me outside to talk during one of our breaks, and he just came out and asked me what my deal was. When I put it all out there instead of just internalizing it, I realized just how insanely unfair I was being. Here I was, a green Tester, angry about someone’s promotion that was completely well-deserved.

We became good friends after that, often shooting the breeze about art, and it was a critical lesson in teaching me the importance of not taking a passive-aggressive approach to coworker tension.

In most cases, an open and honest chat is the best way to get things resolved. What I did almost got me canned, and upon reflection, I was in the wrong the entire time. After that, my perspective changed, and I realized that all things considered, work was good! The summer before that I was jockeying a telemarketing desk and pushing carts around at Target. At Interplay, I was testing Descent II and Wolfenstein 3D, enjoying complimentary pizza during overtime, and hanging out with great, like-minded people that I am still friends with today.

20140724_freespace2However, another incident that really stands out for me was from when I was working offsite at Volition back in 1999. This one doesn’t have such a happy ending.

I was a Manager at the time, and I was asked to go out there to help put the classic space combat sim FreeSpace 2 through its final testing phase. There were 3 other Testers there from back home who had already been there for a few weeks —  including one of my best friends from college — and we would all be together for an additional month.

Things started out great, as it was a heck of an amazing opportunity to be working directly with the studio, and spending all that time with my coworkers would be a terrific way to build strong bonds. However, as the days, nights, and weeks passed, well, you know how it goes. You’re in the same office for 16+ hours per day with each other, you go out to lunch and dinner with each other, you ride in the same car with each other, and you’re in the same hotel room with each other. Something’s definitely going to give.

And give, I did.

As the Manager, I really should have kept it together. Instead, I reverted back to playground behavior, where I would be sarcastic, play favorites, not stand up for them in meetings, and mainly focus a lot of that rubbish on my friend. I was even throwing Sega Dreamcast controllers and being hurtful with my words if I was beaten at Soul Calibur. Yes, really. I actually look back on times like that and attribute it to why I don’t really care for multiplayer games anymore.

I don’t know why things turned out that way, but by the end of the project, real damage to our friendship had been done. Although he and I still hung out and for years after that, it created a permanent rift between us that never fully closed. At the end of the day, why? Because I got tired of the same stories and jokes? Because I didn’t like hearing him snore?

No, it was because of me. I put myself and those superficial things ahead of anything else, including a friendship that we had both invested a lot into. Once again, an important lesson was learned about treating others fairly and compassionately, and it would take at least several more years to finally get it right.

My experiences are not unique, and mistakes are part of life. I know that judgment during stressful projects can sometimes be clouded by many different factors, but these situations can be transformed into something great, and hopefully some of the missteps I’ve made along the way can help others avoid the same traps I fell into.


Interplay, late 1996: Packing my bags for PD

(Previous entries in this series can be found here.)


The 17922 Fitch building today, Interplay’s original home.

Following E3 in May of that same year, a handpicked team of Testers and I were making our final preparations to move out of Interplay’s Fitch building in Irvine, California to a temporary spot in what was only known to us as the Alton building. It was a couple miles down the street, and housed the OEM division that we were moving to. It also contained several development teams, which were still a nebulous, mysterious group of people that sat in dark offices lit only by the glow of their monitors and the occasional lava lamp.

I remember several of my coworkers from QA telling me that I was the luckiest person in the world to be moving away, having open access to the developers there. However, all I kept thinking about were my friends back at Fitch, and how I’d miss all of our daily banter.

Instant messaging was still in its infancy, so most communication was done through good old-fashioned land lines, pagers, and of course email. Interplay used the DOS version of cc:Mail, so if you were testing PC software — which was primarily DOS-based back then — you couldn’t check your email. Very few, if any of us in QA had dual monitors or more than one PC at our desks. This was long before the days of thin LCD monitors too, so just fitting more than a single screen on your desk was a challenge. There was always buzz around the department whenever someone would get a nice, new Sony Trinitron monitor, and that buzz would usually be tinged with more than a touch of jealousy. Me, I never liked them because of the aperture grille damping wires that I could never un-see.


Interplay’s interim digs in mid-1996 at 2121 Alton Pkwy.

Anyway, that summer we were off to the Alton building’s OEM division, a team that worked with developers and hardware manufacturers to create customized game software — usually demos that would show off specific features, such as hardware mipmapping and bilinear filtering on 3D accelerated video cards.

The four of us sat together in a long, skinny office where we started off testing many different versions of Parallax Software’s Descent. It got pretty mind-numbing after a short while, so we would often break up the monotony with sessions of Quake, which were a blast! One of my coworkers also discovered that playing Descent to the Chemical Brothers’ album Exit Planet Dust (especially the three “Beats” tracks) made it an almost transcendental experience. If you ever get the chance to try it out yourself, I highly recommend it.

Around that same time, I had posted something Final Fantasy VII-related on Interplay’s internal message board. I don’t remember what it was about, but it must have been controversial, because I almost immediately got an angry response from someone in Product Development (PD) ripping me a new one. I was like, “Who the hell does this guy think he is?” We sent a few emails back and forth to smooth things over, and before long, it became clear that I had a lot in common with this guy. Turns out he would become one of my best friends, educate me in the ways of import gaming culture, introduce me to the classic works of Hayao Miyazaki, and be a groomsman in my wedding twelve years later. He would also provide an “escape” for me of sorts from OEM later that year.

It’s important to note again that I was still very new to being a team manager of any kind. There wasn’t any training, so you had to somewhat fly by the seat of your pants, emulate other Leads who you thought were doing it the right way, and hopefully ask a lot of questions. I didn’t do a whole lot of the latter, only because I had this notion in my head that asking too many questions would make me look like I didn’t know what I was doing.  That’s the problem, though: I didn’t! Plus, I was young and thought I knew it all. These are such common mistakes for new managers, and they really bit me in the ass over the next few years.


Interplay’s new home in 1996 at 16815 Von Karman Ave.

We had since moved from our temporary spot in the Alton building to our new “campus” around the corner on Von Karman Ave. It wasn’t Microsoft or Google huge, but going from the cramped spaces we were all used to into three large buildings was a big deal for us. Plus, parking! There was never enough parking at the original Fitch building, and we would constantly hear people over the intercom asking double-parkers to move so that other employees could leave for lunch.

The Computer Dealers’ Exhibition (COMDEX) in Las Vegas — which I’ll talk about more specifically in another post — came and went that November, and we were all flying pretty high from it. However, one day the part of my brain that controls egotistical idiocy must have been on vacation. I had walked into my office after lunch to find another coworker lounging in my chair waiting to speak with me. Something about that really rubbed me the wrong way, and after he left, I thought I’d complain about it vehemently via IM with a friend of mine.

Little did I know that the guy who I was insulting saw everything I wrote. He had to do some work from my friend’s PC, and he saw everything as I sent it. It’s one of those moments that drains the blood out of you, and I sat frozen at my desk for the remainder of the afternoon. I was expecting that at any minute my boss would walk in and tell me to get out. I was expecting it and it was deserved. But it didn’t happen.

I did a lot of thinking that night and throughout the next couple days as well. I wondered if I should let it blow over, since nothing had come of it. Instead, I psyched myself up and went into my coworker’s office to apologize. You can’t take back words, but you can certainly ensure that it doesn’t happen again. We ended up having a really good conversation about our friendship, working relationship, and various frustrations we’d had that year. What I did was a horrible thing, and it was probably the most important lesson I learned early on: If something’s making you mad, walk away from it until you calm down, because nine times out of ten, you’ll end up doing something you regret.

I’d hit rock-bottom in other ways too. Simultaneously that year, a small group of us had been working directly with Interplay’s team overseas in Japan trying to secure and localize a number of console games. Attempt after attempt, and nothing ever materialized, which was frustrating. It exposed me to the process of pursuing licenses, and how difficult — sometimes impossible — it could be.


Quintet/Enix’s beautiful Tenchi Sozo / Terranigma (1995).

We pursued everything: Sakura Wars, Langrisser, Hermie Hopperhead, Tenchi Sozo / Terranigma, Keio Yugekitai, Tokimeki Memorial, you name it. 2010 was the first time Sakura Wars appeared in the US, if that says anything about the difficulties surrounding that one. I really thought we were going to be the next Working Designs, only bigger. Looking back, the market really worked against us: Sony didn’t want 2D games on the PlayStation, the Super Nintendo was old news, and the Saturn was more or less dead in the water here in the US. Focusing on import game localization wasn’t high on anyone’s priority list except ours, so with nothing to show for it but research material — namely some import games and a stack of Famitsu Weekly magazines — we pulled the plug and called it quits.

I was also terribly bored with my OEM Test Lead job, often wishing that I had stayed in QA where there was not only more variety, but I also really missed the more casual and fun atmosphere. At the same time I wondered what it would be like working in PD, even though I didn’t know what was really involved. It seemed cool, though, and since I still wanted to make games, I figured the timing was right.

At the tail end of 1996, I contacted my friend — the same guy who didn’t have kind words for me on the topic of Final Fantasy — to see if there was anything available. To my surprise, there was an open Line Producer position for an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons PC game! What’s a Line Producer? Who knows, but it sounded like a dream, so I accepted without question.

So, in early 1997, I packed up my things and moved over to the building next door. There was no application, no interview, no nothing. Basically, I got an email from the Producer saying, “See you on Monday!” What a different industry it was back then.  It would be a move that proved to be highly rewarding and educational, but would also make me feel like an ignoramus among geniuses for that entire year on what was a very, very troubled project: Descent to Undermountain.



Interplay, mid-1996: My first E3

(Here are the links to Parts 1 and 2.)

20140603_e3_logoAs several coworkers and I were getting the last details of our transfer from QA to Interplay’s OEM division finalized, the videogame trade show known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was drawing near. It debuted the year prior, and it was already legendary, mainly due to the combined impact the show and the Sony PlayStation had on both the industry and consumers alike. Most of my gaming friends and I had one already because of the strong buzz it developed and for its solid launch lineup, including Ridge Racer, Battle Arena Toshinden, and Rayman.

I really wanted to see E3 for myself, but since the show would be moving to Atlanta the following year, I figured this would be my last chance to attend. I worked up some courage and kindly asked the management team if I could go for one day. I was thrilled when they said yes and were able to secure me a badge. I didn’t even care that my name wasn’t on it; I would be known as the generic “EX96”, and treated that pass like gold! I still have it.

The first day of E3 arrived on May 16, 1996. Little did I know what I was in for.

First of all, nobody told me about the parking, or lack thereof. I suppose I should have known that I would need to get to the LA Convetion Center by or before the crack of dawn to secure parking at the actual venue. I would never make that mistake again.

20140603_sm64_boxThat was a big year, as among many other things it marked the debut of Nintendo’s Super Mario 64, and everyone wanted to get a taste. It’s a classic that a lot series die-hards still consider the best of the 3D Mario games, if not at the very least the most revolutionary. I would go on to spend way too much money on an import Nintendo 64 to play it before its US release, but I’ll save that story for another post.

Anyway, back to the parking saga. After sitting in gridlocked hell for over an hour, I finally found a “parking lot” about 5 blocks away. It consisted of little more than rock-riddled dirt, a chain-link fence, and a shady attendant, but after wasting nearly 3 hours driving to LA and scouring the area, lowering my parking standards didn’t take much effort. I parked and headed towards the convention center, wondering if my car would still be there after the show.

Now, if you’ve never been to E3 before, pictures and videos really don’t do it justice. The enormity and intensity of everything is very difficult to fully capture in words, especially back in the day when the sky was still the limit for everyone. The venue itself was already larger than life, with giant banners adorning the outside of the convention halls, while advertisements, kiosks, models, bright lights, huge video walls, and very, very loud music hitting me from every angle once I stepped through the building threshold.

It was sensory overload of the highest magnitude, and I loved it. I was just about to turn 22 that month, so I was still in my “I’m able to go out every night to loud clubs and bars and function fine the next day!” years. I was ready.

Walking into one of the main halls, I just didn’t know where to start. I saw the names of my favorite companies hanging high in the air: Nintendo, Sega, Konami, Namco, Square, Sony, Capcom, and many others. It’s interesting to look back and see how much the Japanese companies dominated the industry back then, compared to what it’s like now. While I wanted to make a beeline straight for the heavy hitters, I decided to just go up and down each row to check out every booth in order.

About halfway through the first hall, though, I was not only starting to feel fatigued, but also incredibly annoyed with the insanely dense (and sweaty) sea of attendees.  It was pretty cool to see so many like-minded people together at one event like that, but when you can’t even focus on a game you’re eager to check out because someone’s standing there yelling at you to go through their game a certain way, or you’re being constantly bumped by the flow of people behind you, it quickly becomes an exercise in patience. Or rage control, rather.

That aside, however, the announcements and games themselves that year were fantastic! It’s crazy to think that Windows wasn’t even really a gaming platform yet. Most things we did at the time were still done in DOS. I was definitely more comfortable with the streamlined C:\> prompt than I was with the clunky and ugly Windows 95. Microsoft made a big gaming push that year, but I didn’t really pay attention, since I was still very much attached to DOS gaming. I was there for the consoles, man.

20140603_crash_1_boxAlthough Super Mario 64 was the star of the show, Naughty Dog — who was still relatively unknown at the time — was showing off their own mascot platformer for the PlayStation: Crash Bandicoot. Like the whole Windows gaming thing, I remember walking past it, thinking that it looked nice, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it. Part of it was the Mario 64 buzz; the other being my weird bias against domestic developers at the time.

While I loved them for traditional PC game development, I found most US-based console games to be lacking when stacked up against their Japanese competitors, and the vast majority of my favorite 8-bit and 16-bit games came from overseas. There were exceptions, like the excellent Cool Spot and refined Disney platformers from Virgin, but heading into the 32-bit generation, a lot of those ill feelings still persisted. However, by the second — and especially the third — Crash Bandicoot game, I was a huge Naughty Dog fan, with their games and the games of many other US-based developers looking and playing as good as the best out of Japan.

20140603_nightsMeanwhile, after a year on the market, Sega was still struggling with their Saturn console. It was one of the worst console launches ever, and even though I felt burnt by both the Sega CD and 32X — both were huge disappointments for me — I was still a big Sega fan at heart. One of my most anticipated games was NiGHTS into dreams…, which I had only seen in tiny, compressed video clips on the internet earlier that year, but the design, colors, and sound immediately drew me in.

The display that Sega had for NiGHTS was pretty cool, with the title character flying high above their booth, but the area they had for it was small. Most folks stood transfixed (myself included) on the utterly amazing Virtua Fighter 3 demo, showing off Sega’s new Model 3 arcade board. To put it lightly, it melted faces, and I think it still looks pretty darn good for its age.

I didn’t get the sense that Sega really believed in NiGHTS, and I remember that it didn’t do much when it came out in the US later that year. I loved it, though; the analog controller was terrific, and it remains one of my all-time favorite Saturn games. It also possesses a magical soundtrack that is still part of my CD collection.

20140603_ff7One other major title at E3 was Square’s behemoth: Final Fantasy VII.

At the time, I don’t know if any other game was anticipated as highly as this, and it had already made tsunami-sized waves with the announcement earlier that year that it would no longer be released for the Nintendo 64, but instead would be exclusive to the PlayStation. The announcement underscored the high cost and low capacity of cartridges, practically outdating the N64 before it had even been released. This was absolutely huge news at the time, since Nintendo fans had grown up with so many Square classics across its 8-bit and 16-bit systems, and many would find themselves deserting the child’s play of Nintendo for the cool, new kid on the block.

I honestly don’t remember much about FF7‘s presence at the show, as I think it was only there in CGI trailer form. No matter, though; the demo that was released later that year pretty much guaranteed that everyone and their mother would buy it upon release. And buy it they did, to the tune of about 10 million copies over its lifetime. No wonder it’s often referred to as the game that sold the PlayStation.

But after only about 4 hours, I was done. That whole “I don’t remember much” theme would continue through all E3 shows I would attend as either a guest or exhibitor. There’s just so much to see and do. If you do get a chance to attend, I’d recommend bringing a camera and notepad so that you can actually document and remember what you saw, because otherwise you won’t. There’s just no way. This is especially true for the tiny diamonds in the rough, of which there are always many.

My next show wouldn’t be until Atlanta ’98, where I would also work the Interplay booth for the first time. I almost didn’t make it onto the flight back to LA, if that says anything about the good times that were had.

I’ll always be very thankful that I was able to go, and yes, my car was still there, parked in the dirt as I’d left it.


The Sega Master System, Part 1: Odd man out

20140523_smsYou’ll never believe the reason why I wanted a Sega Master System so badly back in 1986. I had seen a Toys R Us ad for it not too long before Christmas that year, and sure, the system itself looked pretty cool. However, it was the game I saw plugged into it that grabbed my attention: Cobra Command. Yeah, the LaserDisc arcade game.

As a young, impressionable 7th grader who didn’t have a modem yet, I didn’t possess much knowledge about technical limitations, data storage, etc., so I surmised that sure, they could fit an entire LaserDisc game onto a cartridge. I mean, why not? Or better yet, use one of those nifty little Sega Cards! I later learned that Master System cartridges started out at 128KB (1 megabit) and those Sega Cards only held a fourth of that at 32KB.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be playing stuff like Space Ace on the Master System anytime soon, even though I was convinced that it would happen. It didn’t.

While today’s consoles cost $400-500+ and only come with one controller and no games, the 8-bit era was more generous. For $200 at launch, you got the Master System console, 2 controllers, the Light Phaser gun, and two games: Hang-On & Safari Hunt. Nintendo offered a great value for the same asking price, sweetening the deal with R.O.B. No matter what you thought of that robot — or how poorly he “worked” — he was one of many strokes of genius in marketing the NES.

Anyway, Christmas Morning arrived, and even though I wouldn’t be fighting Borf, saving Daphne from the clutches of an evil dragon, or even stomping on Goombas, I was still in gaming bliss. Not counting our Apple //e, the only other gaming device in our household was an old Atari 2600, so going from that to the Master System kinda blew my mind.


The first game I powered up was The Ninja, based on Sega’s similarly titled arcade game. I remember the opening like it was yesterday, with the stylish, scrolling text reminiscent of Broderbund’s Karateka, except now with catchy background music and drums! Percussion in console games was still new to me, and hearing that snare along with clear, multi-channel melodies was amazing.

I loved that game so much, and it’s one of my all-time favorites on the Master System. It was very challenging, with good level design, diverse enemy types, hidden secrets, tight controls, and lots of style. It was similar to other vertically scrolling “run & gun” titles like Ikari Warriors, but I liked the pacing and variety of The Ninja better.

20140523_transbotTransbot, one of only a handful of Sega Card games I would ever own, was another I received that Christmas. Sega got me with their marketing when I saw a clip of it in one of their TV commercials. When I saw the Star Wars-like AT-ST, I knew I had to have it. The game itself controls well, has several different weapon types, decent graphics, and a few interesting enemy patterns, but it’s an otherwise boring and repetitive game that I tired of quickly. Compared to The Ninja, or even the pack-in games, this one was disappointing.

Its quality would be consistent with the few other Sega Card games I would risk asking my parents for, like My Hero and Ghost House. I actually liked My Hero better than the arcade version, but it too was repetitive. I seem to remember Ghost House having a little more challenge and variety, but the fact that I barely recall any details about it speaks for itself. That was it for me and Sega Cards.


Ahh, but then there’s Alex Kidd in Miracle World. This was, in my opinion, the “must have” Master System game. Before playing it, I really had no idea what it was about. Sega’s cartridge boxes are infamous for their atrociously terrible art, but something about the name still intrigued me. From the moment I turned it on, I knew this was going to be great. The title screen was so colorful, the music was extremely upbeat and catchy, and the world map inspired a great sense of adventure.

The platforming gameplay was also lots of fun, with sprawling levels going in every direction, different vehicles to drive, shops to buy items, and one of the more unique (and frustrating) features: playing rock-paper-scissors against the game’s bosses. It was all very unique, and I enjoyed it as much as Super Mario Bros., perhaps even a little more due to its more varied styles of gameplay. This was Sega’s attempt to eat into Nintendo’s success, but there was just no way. Still, this is a classic and one of my favorites of the 8-bit era.

Meanwhile, my neighbor across the street also got a Master System that year, which in hindsight was miraculous, since he would end up being only one of two people I knew at school who had one! We’d trade games every now and then, which was fun. I miss that about childhood: bartering in the playground bazaar.

20140523_blackbeltI remember borrowing Black Belt from him, which I would later find out was re-skinned from the Japanese Fist of the North Star original. It was a pretty straightforward and short side-scrolling beat-’em-up with mid-bosses and power-ups that you had to be quick about grabbing out of the air. My friends and I would laugh at the way defeated enemies would “explode” into a spray of square tiles.

The highlight, however, was definitely the one-on-one boss fights. Some of them were tough, and looking back, they were pretty impressive for still being part of the pre-Street Fighter II era. The characters were large, their movements were smooth, and when you would finally defeat them, they’d be on the receiving end of a satisfying flurry of punches and kicks. The only thing missing was Kenshiro’s trademark, “Atatatatatata!”


Finally, another early favorite of mine was Fantasy Zone. A port of the Japanese arcade game, I would not play the original until years later on the Sega Saturn and in MAME. That wouldn’t matter, though, because the Master System version was terrific. In fact, after having played both, I like the Master System version better.

Graphically, the game was lush, detailed, and it certainly captured my imagination. The player’s ship — Opa-Opa — was also unique with its different wings, weapons, and one of my favorite touches: little feet that would come out and touch the ground, letting you stroll around the bottom of each level. You can tell that Sega’s artists had a blast visualizing the world and its inhabitants.

Fantasy Zone‘s soundtrack deserves special mention. In addition to each level having its own unique look, they all had their own distinct musical themes. This was pretty amazing in the day and age where many games used the same music over and over throughout, and this helped make these alien worlds memorable. Well-designed bosses provided a good level of challenge, all leading to the game’s surprisingly touching ending.

As much as I loved that first wave of Master System games, the best games were yet to come. Specifically, a $70 RPG that would blow away my expectations and change the course of my life: Phantasy Star.

See you next time in Part 2!


The Apple //e, Part 3: Quest for 16 Colors

The Apple //e might have been the most popular computer in the mid-’80s, but it certainly wasn’t the most technologically capable when it came to gaming. Armed with a standard array of 7 colors in high-resolution mode (jokingly referred to as the “Big Seven” in development circles), it was only slightly better than the paltry 4-color CGA spectrum on IBM computers.

Its built-in speaker didn’t exactly set ears ablaze either with its output, and while multi-voice sound was achievable, it paled in comparison to the audio heard through the Commodore 64’s legendary SID chip or the equally excellent, but perhaps lesser-known POKEY chip in Atari’s 8-bit computers.

Games on those competitor systems blew my mind back then, and it would be depressing playing games like M.U.L.E.Ghostbusters and Moon Patrol on my friends’ computers and then come home to the weaker looking and sounding versions on the Apple.

While we would never get a Mockingboard sound card either — and let’s face it, very few games actually supported it — we did get an Extended 80 Columns Card, which gave it 128K instead of the standard 64, and enabled support of 16-color high-resolution graphics, a holy grail of sorts for Apple games back then.

That doesn’t mean that the Apple didn’t have great games, though. Quite the contrary. It’s just that they didn’t look or sound as good as they did elsewhere, especially when it came to action and arcade games.  I know the saying goes that graphics shouldn’t be the main focus, but I don’t think you can debate that they can only help if they’re done well.


The first game I ever played with the Apple’s enhanced graphics was Penguin Software’s 1984 adventure Transylvania, based on the original non-enhanced version from 1982. For some reason, this game — along with Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego — was commonly found in elementary school classrooms, despite its somewhat graphic nature and adult themes. It did “teach” map navigation, comprehension, and problem solving, but we all played it for the cool graphics. It was also fun to watch out for the menacing werewolf, who would always appear at the most inopportune times.

In hindsight, the enhanced 16-color version doesn’t really look that good, held back mainly because it was based on an older game, but it did have a very ominous, new title screen, complete with an animated splash of blood, so props to Penguin for that.


Around the same time, I got what would become one of the most famous games of all-time, Sierra’s King’s Quest (1984). This one was a life-changer for me, since at the time, playing it was the equivalent of being transported into an animated storybook or movie. It totally shifted my view of what a computer game could be. Your character Sir Graham was drawn and animated beautifully, the colors were rich, each scene had a wonderful sense of depth, and the simple act of moving Sir Graham around objects and behind buildings in each area was really advanced stuff back then.

One of my best memories about King’s Quest was how each scene was drawn.  The Apple wasn’t a particularly fast computer, so each image looked like it was being drawn on the screen by hand, filled in with color, and additional details would be splashed on the end. Seeing each one come to life like that was a treat.

The text parser was also intelligent, and for the most part, understood plain English, compared to other more simplistic graphic adventure games that only accepted two word inputs. This also helped give King’s Quest a more natural and organic feel, and it made a strong impression on people who played it. I re-bought this series a few years ago on, and while certain aspects of it don’t really hold up that well — like obscure puzzles and vague pathways — it’s still a wonderful game full of humor and adventure.


It wasn’t all gaming, though. Broderbund’s Dazzle Draw (1984), a computer art program that would later lead me to Deluxe Paint II Enhanced and beyond on the PC, was fantastic. I didn’t have a drawing tablet like a Koala Pad or anything, so I tried my best using a Kraft analog joystick. It was far from refined, but I thought it was just so cool to be able to have drawing tools like this on our computer. It also had a menu system that mimicked the feel of a Macintosh, so that made the entire package feel very premium and professional.

I still have my drawings on a 5.25″ floppy disk somewhere in storage. If I can find them, I’ll share them in a future post.


Like I’ve said once or twice before, Broderbund’s output on the Apple was impressive, not just in terms of quantity, but they set very high quality bars too. Dan Gorlin’s Airheart (1986) represents the pinnacle of Apple action games for me. I was already a big fan of Choplifter, but Airheart took things to a whole new level. Not only did it sport gorgeously immaculate 16-color graphics, but the animation quality was absolutely stunning. The first time I loaded it up, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!

Not only was the art and animation fluid and cinematic, it was also really funny and full of great little details. From the way your character would slip on his backpack to the realistically flowing robes on your “guardians”, they showed just how much Dan Gorlin cared about the look of this game. It also conveyed an impressive sense of depth as you sped over and under the sparkling ocean, your character shaking water from his head after surfacing.

One of the most unique features was how each enemy would cause a different type of end for the player. You didn’t simply blow up, but if you got hit by a bubble, you would struggle inside it trying to escape until it eventually exploded, taking you with it. Or you’d get trapped by a vacuum-like enemy, which would ingest your ship, but eject you out, leaving you to endlessly swim to your demise. All of these touches made the game such a treat on the eyes, and is one of my all-time favorite Apple games.


Wings of Fury (1987) was another Broderbund game that required 128K to run. While it had the 16-color title screen pictured above (which really isn’t very good), the game itself ran in standard 7-color high-resolution mode, which for me was pretty disappointing. The game was lauded for its realistic physics and gameplay, but I was never able to truly get the hang of it, and only played it a handful of times before moving on to something else.

It reminded me of Star Blazer, Choplifter, and other side-scrolling Apple shooting games, but its focus on realism and slower pace made it less fun for me when I was younger. I’d be curious to try it out again now to see if my opinion has changed. It did have some novel ideas like a view that would go super-wide as you gained altitude, a pseudo-3D terrain map HUD, and a flight model that made your plane feel nice and weighty.


Next up: New World Computing’s Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World (1988). New World had already shown players that it could produce a beautiful-looking RPG with the first Might and Magic, but this one took the series’ graphics to new heights on the Apple. The title screen alone made my jaw drop, and the huge in-game animated graphics were a revelation. Compared to most other RPGs at the time, this was the undisputed visual king.

I played it a lot, but I don’t remember ever finishing it. That was pretty common for me back then, as I would often get frustrated with traditional computer RPGs and either quit or start using things like hex and characters editors to cheat. Anyone remember The Bard’s Tale Workshop?


Finally, Interplay’s Dragon Wars (1989) took the successful formula and look of The Bard’s Tale series and gave it a fresh coat of paint. I admittedly did not put a lot of time into this game, even though I do remember it being very good. 1989 was a pivotal year for me, since it would see the release of the Sega Genesis, me getting my driver’s license, and our family’s first IBM-compatible PC: a 386/33 with VGA graphics and a SoundBlaster.

My eyes and ears would be ill-prepared for what I would play next.


The Nintendo Entertainment System, Part 1: The cool kids

Whenever I see forum threads to the tune of “What are your most shocking gaming secrets?”, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that I never owned a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). No, I instead chose to ask for a Sega Master System for Christmas back in 1986. In a lot of ways, owning a Master System was similar to what it feels like to own a Wii U today: a trickle of good first-party support, but that’s about it.


But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. While I have a lot to say about the Master System, I want to talk about the NES. Out of the group of friends I hung out with back in junior high, at least half of them had one.

While almost all of us had an Apple // computer of some kind, the NES was different. Its primary killer app was Nintendo’s own Super Mario Bros., which for all intents and purposes, was a pixel-perfect translation of its arcade counterpart. Full of variety, tight gameplay, colorful graphics, and a catchy soundtrack, owning this game — and knowing all of its numerous secrets — immediately put you in the “cool” category among your peers.

20140521_kung_fuI’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of my friends. It’s not like I could simply ask my parents, “I know you just bought me a Sega, but how about that Nintendo too?” Out of the question, and I would never build up the courage to ask. That left me with the obvious alternative: play them all at my friends’ houses!

And play I did. A lot. The NES simply had the better games, and so many more of them. The difference between the two libraries was ridiculously comical, and it’s no wonder Sega moved quickly to release the 16-bit Genesis in 1989, a mere 3 years into the Master System’s short existence.

20140521_excitebikeThe first couple years for the NES were amazing. While many genres were still in their infancy, the quality on display even at that early stage was incredible.

Take Excitebike, for example, which was already a fun game to play with great pseudo-3D graphics, but they upped the ante by including a track designer. Although its save/load functionality was far from ideal, building that in as a feature added value, while being a fun way for friends to show off to one another.

20140521gngMeanwhile, Capcom had been releasing a number of arcade-to-home conversions at that time as well. I was a big fan of their arcade games like 1942, Ghosts’n Goblins, and Commando, but their NES conversions didn’t impress me. Their graphics were really choppy and the music was hollow and tinny.

I played them to death, of course — and they did play good, which is important to note — but it was disappointing that Nintendo’s home console wasn’t able to do justice to many of my favorite arcade games.

20140521rushnattackThat would all change when my friend received Konami’s Rush’n Attack for his birthday in 1987. Although I was already a fan of Konami’s games like Castlevania and Gradius, it was Rush’n Attack that for the very first time made me realize that home versions of arcade games could be better than the originals.

While the NES version’s color palette and animation weren’t as detailed, it ran more smoothly, felt better control-wise, and it blew my mind with one of the best soundtracks of that era, which still sounds great today.

It was from that point forward that Konami became synonymous with quality for me. They would really falter in later generations, but back then, it was rare for them to put out a complete dud.

The years that followed would further solidify the NES as arguably the all-time best videogame console. It would play host to many games that are to this day considered the greatest ever made.


Interplay, early 1996: Into the Lead Tester fire

20140515_vrsoccerAfter getting my feet wet as a Tester, heading into the second half of my first year at Interplay was a whirlwind experience, to put it lightly. I had only been working there for about 5 months, testing games like VR Soccer ’96, Cyberia, and Casper, when in early 1996 I was selected for a Lead Tester position. Prior to this, the only leadership experience I had was working briefly as a Floor Supervisor at the pub down the street at UC Irvine. I was definitely more comfortable fixing a good meatball sandwich that I was managing a team.

I felt so incredibly ill-prepared, even though I had displayed some rather ugly arrogance earlier regarding my readiness to be a Lead (more on that in a future post). I even emailed the Director of Quality Assurance about how I was having second thoughts and that they should pick someone else. Both he and the Assistant Director came by, calmed me down, and said they had every confidence that I would do well.

Even though there wasn’t any formal training, I was completely supported. That pep talk gave me enough of a boost to sign the dotted line on the promotion. I often referred back to that moment throughout my career, since I would see those exact same expressions of hesitation and fear on the faces of future employees making that difficult transition from individual contributor to management.

20140515_quicksilverThe first game that I was Lead on was Quicksilver Software’s Conquest of the New World for the PC. I was already a fan of theirs since my friends and I had played lots of Castles back in high school, so I was excited to dive in. However, stepping into the project as it was nearing its crescendo was overwhelming.

The bug list — which was tracked and maintained entirely in Microsoft Word and not a database — was massive. It was practically a second job keeping it updated, which is a big reason why I rarely left work. Lead positions were still hourly back then; not something you see much of these days. That helped ease the sting of the long hours we collectively put in, but I was young, and it didn’t really bother me. You always knew which teams were doing lots of overtime, too: they would have the newest and nicest cars in the parking lot.

In terms of my health, I was decently fit when I was 21, but it didn’t take long to develop what was affectionately known as the “tester gut” around the office. I still carry it with me! Fast food was the norm and poor sleeping habits certainly didn’t help. Overtime meals — provided by our Producers — would include pizza, Chili’s, Claim Jumper, and all manner of other take-out options. I still loved playing videogames and hanging out with my friends in my spare time too, so that meant staying up even later. I honestly don’t remember many nights where I was asleep before 2 a.m. Nowadays? 9 p.m. hits and I’m ready for bed.

Overtime took its toll in other personal ways as well, triggering a rather bad break-up with my girlfriend at the time. Although it was never that solid of a relationship to begin with, my work was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And wouldn’t you know it? It happened over the phone one night while I was still at the office trying to get Conquest out the door. Perfect.

Overall, though, the whole Conquest project was a great thing, and I have to somewhat selfishly admit that being credited as the Lead for the first time felt really good! I don’t think the game sold well, receiving middling reviews, but I didn’t care. I was still extremely proud of the work we did. My testing team and I spent a number of weeks onsite at Quicksilver’s office prior to it going gold, working directly with the developers. I learned so much about game design and development, and the small office culture affected me in a very positive way. It’s those “in the trenches” experiences that really stand out for me as I reflect on my career. They’re unbelievably stressful on the body and mind, but they have the potential to bring teams together like nothing else can.

20140515_descentAfter a short break to recover — and a patch or two — QA started receiving a number of prototype video cards. I was used to playing most PC games in chunky 320×200 resolution, and with 3D-intensive games like Descent, sometimes in an even smaller window than that. These new cards sported built-in 3D acceleration and bilinear filtering, and allowed those same games to look and run smoothly in 640×480 or higher. Even though those early cards were buggy, I immediately knew this was going to be a big deal for games. My enthusiasm for the technology (and probably some begging) got me put in charge of a specialized team that focused on testing our games with these cards, which was pretty cool.

There were many emerging players and names on the 3D hardware front — S3 ViRGE, Matrox Mystique, ATI Rage, 3Dfx Voodoo, etc. — and they were all chomping at the bit to show off their capabilities. Interplay had a new building a few miles away from their main location that housed several production teams and the OEM division. The latter was responsible for working out deals with the various hardware vendors to customize and bundle our games with their gear, and OEM was where all those 3D cards were coming from.

Because the business was growing so fast, they soon needed their own QA team. Although it was tough to leave the group of people that I had gotten to know so well, it was a great opportunity, so I, along with a few others, packed up our things and moved over in the middle of 1996.

It would turn out to be a rough patch in my career, but a very valuable one as well.


The Apple //e, Part 2: More Influential Games

I had a great time last week reminiscing about some of the Apple //e games that influenced me at a young age, so what the heck — here are several more that I loved from my gaming formative years.


The game that I constantly heard about back in the early ’80s was this one, Dan Gorlin’s Choplifter from Broderbund. The Apple wasn’t a fast computer, so to finally see and play an arcade-style game that was as smooth and responsive as this was really special. Like many Broderbund games back then, it was all about the details. I thought the design of the helicopter was great. It displayed convincing flight dynamics, and the way it would subtly “bounce” when you touched down created a nice visual marriage that added to the game’s realism.

Controls were easy to learn, and understanding how yaw affected your weaponry was key to success. More nice touches included the perspective/parallax effect on your home base’s barrier and the way rescued hostages would wave in thanks as you dropped them off to safety. A lesser game wouldn’t even bother with such details, but Choplifter was no ordinary game.


Several years later, I would play Choplifter again on the fledgling Sega Master System. It was a good arcade-to-home port in its own right, but I’ve always preferred the Apple original. There’s a purity to its straightforward, distilled design and fun, tight controls, and it still plays brilliantly today, 32 years after its release.

Speaking of helicopters, another game that my friends and I just loved was Sabotage. Its concept was simple: defend your single turret from bombs and falling paratroopers with a stream of artillery. What made this game memorable — for better or for worse — was the violence. Even though the paratroopers were only constructed of a handful of pixels, they would meet their doom in any number of ways, accompanied by “watery” sound effects that were strangely satisfying. My favorite was hitting a parachute with a well-placed bullet, sending the paratrooper falling to and splattering on the ground. If you were lucky, they would fall on someone who already landed, eliminating both of them.

20140502_sabotageFor a game with such simple controls, it was surprisingly deep. You could also select steerable shells, giving you the power to sweep the screen with a spray of bullets. It did nothing to help your score since bullets ate away at your point total, but boy was it fun!

Games like this and the more well-known title The Bilestoad were some of the earliest examples of games where violence was a big part of their gameplay. The Bilestoad in particular was extremely violent for its time, where pools of blood and body parts would be strewn across the game’s arena, accompanied by nasty sound effects and an ominous soundtrack. Sabotage was tame by comparison. It wouldn’t be until Midway’s Mortal Kombat in the early ’90s that videogame violence would become such a controversial issue.

20140507bruceleeOne of my favorite genres is the run & jump platformer, like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Meat Boy, and Rayman. While I credit early arcade games like the perennial classic Donkey Kong for sparking my love for them, I spent way more time at home with Datasoft’s Conan and Bruce Lee. Both games consisted of challenging screens to conquer, with good controls, nice graphics, and swift gameplay. Bruce Lee was particularly fast, which made it a thrill to play. Having a ninja and sumo wrestler constantly chasing you around added to the tension and pacing, and remains one of my all-time favorite games. It was also unique for boasting a nice 16-color title screen in double high-resolution, a rarity back in 1984. Two-voice music also helped set it apart from the single, linear sounds so common at the time.

20140507drolFinally, for this installment, one more from Broderbund: Aik Beng’s Drol. Like many kids, I loved cartoons, so games that had cartoon-like graphics really appealed to me. Drol was one of those, possessing superb visuals and nice animation. When we would later get a composite color monitor around 1986, it was one of the first games I played on it, just to see what it looked like in something other than green. Another game had a similar style — Tony & Benny Ngo’s Bandits (Sirius Software) — and looking back, these two games had a notable influence on my art style over the next few years, especially when it came to fonts. They both still look super-clean to me, fueling my belief that good art, no matter what the medium, never gets old.

That’s it for now. Thanks for putting up with the green screenshots, by the way. Although I would soon go on to play all of these games in color, my fondest memories of them are from that old, 12″ monochrome monitor.


The Apple //e, Part 1: Monochrome Memories

I touched on the Apple //e’s influence on me a bit in last week’s Industry Memoirs post, but when I thought about it afterwards, I realized just how big of an impact it had on me. More so than our Atari 2600, Apple’s popular home computer — and more specifically its games — would chart a course that led me to my first job in the videogame industry. This installment focuses on the very first year the //e entered our home.


My father purchased the computer when we were living in Spring, Texas in 1984. I remember going with him to ComputerCraft to pick it up, and all told, it cost him about $1,400, including a new desk. The store itself was very big and had a couple different floors. I still distinctly remember the smell of electronics and the glow of the monitors, something I still gravitate towards when I go to department stores today.

20120320_apple_gearEven back then, Apple knew that presentation and brand loyalty was important. The boxes were attractive and sturdy. Everything came with high-quality spiral-bound manuals. Their 5.25″ floppy disks were adorned with full-color labels and sleeves. Even their included software, like the classic Apple Presents… Apple, possessed a level of polish and fun that anyone in the family could enjoy and learn from. I “played” it endlessly, learning about the computer, its capabilities, but most importantly getting to the open apple/closed apple sorting minigame!

20120318apple2_2The hardware itself was also slick, with an attractively molded case that felt premium to the touch, with easy access to the internal expansion slots. The keyboard was comfortable and fully integrated. The Disk ][ drive’s door had a satisfying tactile feel and sound when you opened and closed it. The green monochrome monitor had “show-off” features like a tilting screen and a design that made it sit beautifully flush atop the computer.

It didn’t look like a boring business machine at all, and instead felt like something that accentuated the room it was in. Even though it wasn’t something I bought (I was only 10), I treated it with care, keeping the screen clean and the entire system covered when not in use.

20140502_karatekaThose early years with the //e were pretty magical. One of the first games I ever played was the classic Karateka. Released that same year, it was the game that first made me realize that videogames could be cinematic. Characters had personalities, emotion, and possessed great detail in their design and animation. The short, effective musical pieces exemplified early leitmotif that sounded terrific through the computer’s internal speaker. The small touches, like how you can respectfully bow to certain opponents or the various ways that the player can die, added to its uniqueness. A great intro, multiple endings, and its attention to the smallest detail totally blew me away.

20140502_microwaveAnother lesser-known game that I played to death early on was Microwave, similar in style to many maze games of that era. I loved this one, though, because it was the first computer game I’d ever heard with background music during gameplay. Not just any soundtrack either, as I distinctly remember one of the tunes being a direct lift of the well-known Creature Cantina song from Star Wars. Game soundtracks would become a very important focus for me during the 8-bit console era and beyond, much to the credit of this little gem.

20140502_stellar7Pulling off a good 3D game on the //e was pretty tough, but that didn’t stop companies from trying. One of my favorites was the Battlezone-inspired Stellar 7. The warp/launch sequence that would play after successfully completing a level was so good, pushed over the edge by the great sound effects. I also really liked the wireframe models and being able to move around them in 3D space. Very impressive, and even though the objects were simple, they were highly stylized with very memorable designs.

Dynamix remade Stellar 7 years later in 1990, which I bought without hesitation. It’s a great 256-color VGA game that is an excellent remake of the original, with clean graphics and sound card support.

20140502_loderunnerAhh, Lode Runner, one of the all-time best build-it-yourself games. Broderbund was a company that could do no wrong in the //e era, and were also responsible for the aforementioned Karateka, as well as other essentials like Choplifter and the wildly popular Print Shop.

Lode Runner is a fun game in its own right, but where I spent most of my time was in its level editor. Not only was it intuitive, but it breathed endless life into an already great title. I credit this game for getting me interested in game design. It taught me a lot about good level flow, level-breaking item and enemy placement, and being disciplined about balancing function with form. It’s a beautiful game that plays as good today as it did in the ’80s.

Another realization I had while writing this was that there are so many other games I want to talk about. For every one I brought up, there were ten others that came to mind! As I said, it was a magical time, and one that I’ll be revisiting again soon in a future GHG entry.

Have a great weekend!