Tag Archives: 16-bit

Open World Dreams (Part 2): Islands in the Stream

In last week’s exciting episode, I fondly recalled how my yearning for open world gaming experiences started at an early age, highlighting some of the 8-bit titles that were able to fill that need. We now wind the clock forward a few years to explore the 16-bit era.

Open World: 16-bit Style

The 16-bit era, at least where home computers were concerned, began in the UK with the launch of the Atari ST and Amiga computers. My dad was an early adopter of the Atari ST, so until I got an Amiga about a year later that was the machine on which I cut my 16-bit gaming teeth.

Just as the playgrounds of the early 1980s had rung with the battle cries of the C64 vs ZX Spectrum combatants, so too did the late 1980s playgrounds play host to the clashing armies of Amiga and Atari ST fans. To be honest, and having been in an ideal position to judge, there wasn’t much between them. The Amiga had a better sound chip and sprite-handling capabilities, but the Atari ST could crunch 3D geometry at a marginally faster rate giving it the last laugh as the industry began a slow, inexorable shift towards 3D gaming.

Right off the bat the Atari ST and Amiga played host to a number of exemplary gaming experiences that took advantage of copious amount of RAM (a whole 512 kB!), so it was no surprise that developers began to push the boundaries of established game spaces to literally broaden the player’s horizons.

By Your Command

One of the first Atari ST games I played was Carrier Command, a 3D action/strategy game from Realtime Games (previously responsible for some nifty 3D shooters on the ZX Spectrum). The player took control of a futuristic aircraft carrier, tasked with assuming control of a large archipelagos of islands. At the other end of the map an enemy aircraft carrier had the same goal.

A screenshot from Carrier Command on the Amiga.

One of my favorite things to do in Carrier Command after a cautious approach to an unknown island: launching a squadron of Mantas to conduct a reconnaissance. No enemies? Begin establishing base. Enemy defenses firing up? Prepare to wage a hard fought battle for control.

This was no boring turn-based strategy game—everything unfolded in real-time, giving you direct control of the carrier’s assets. You could fly planes, drive amphibious tanks, man laser turrets and deploy defense mechanisms, all from a first-person perspective.

Of course, the game’s main draw for me was the huge open world—the endless ocean, the secluded islands, all ripe for discovering and conquering. This freedom concertinaed down through every macro and micro level of control. At times it felt like you were trying to keep an impossible number of plates spinning, but doing so never felt short of exhilarating. As an introduction to 16-bit gaming it was certainly a powerful one.

(Incidentally, if all of this sounds familiar, Bohemia Interactive recently released an updated version in the form of Carrier Command: Gaea Mission. It’s not without its faults but it does a great job of capturing the essence of the original and giving it a modern lick of paint.)

Star Gliding, Across the Universe

Next up came Argonaut Software’s Starglider 2, a 3D spaceship shooter that bore little resemblance to its predecessor and made all the more interesting by the addition of an adventure component as the player criss-crossed the solar system attempting to acquire the scattered components of a powerful weapon. Yes, this was basically Star Fox with a never-ending fetch quest.

A screenshot of Starglider 2 on the Amiga.

Flying high above the surface of a planet in Starglider 2. The arcing electricity being generated by the pylons could be “skipped” across to recharge your shields and energy. Once complete, pull up and climb fast. The planet’s atmosphere gives way to the inky blackness of space, allowing you to navigate to another world of your choosing. Just don’t get too close to the sun.

As per usual, the most appealing aspect of this game for me was an entire solar system’s worth of planets (and moons) to explore. Each world had its own color scheme, day/night cycles, enemies, environmental objects and, in many cases, underground colonies.

Publisher Rainbird Software (who also published Carrier Command) experimented by putting the ST and Amiga versions of the game on the same disk, so I was able to compare them directly: the Amiga version had the better sound effects, the Atari ST version had the better frame rate, but otherwise they played exactly the same.

I have fond memories of playing the game with my brother, each of us taking turns to directly control the ship while the other made strategic decisions and suggestions as to how to tackle various missions. DIY co-op!

Bonus Features

I continued playing ST/Amiga games until well into the early 1990s, but I’m struggling to recall anything else I played that offered the player an expansive world to explore. FTL’s Dungeon Master was certainly a ground-breaking RPG, but its tile-based mazes didn’t quite offer the same sense of freedom.

Mike Singleton’s Midwinter took the template established by Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge—wander around a huge open world, make friends/enemies, try not to die too much—and transplanted it into a post-apocalyptic future, but I never really played this game until the mid-1990s, by which time I was firmly entrenched in the world of PC gaming. But stay tuned, Midwinter fans—I suspect Justin Keverne will have something to say about this game and its sequel before long.

A screenshot of Midwinter on the Amiga.

Traversing the icy plains of Midwinter, the player comes under attack by a plane. Time to whip out a suitable weapon for dispatching it. Or, if you’re fast enough, ski down into the next valley and hope to evade it.

And then there’s Novagen’s Damocles, the follow-up to Mercenary. Another game I didn’t get round to playing until long after its release. It has much in common with Starglider 2, in that you have an entire solar system to explore (as opposed to Mercenary’s single city on a single planet) and a race-against-time quest.

There was some great work going on in the combat flight sim field at the time, particularly Microprose’s Gunship 2000 and F-19 Stealth Fighter, each of which expanded their digital battlefields way beyond what had previously been attainable on 8-bit systems, opening up a rich seam of strategic options for the player in the process.

But for all these wonderful experiences there was still something missing, still something a little too abstract about these experiences. The hardware wasn’t quite ready to deliver that immersive first-person experience I was craving. Something with worlds of staggering size and architectural complexity, populated by intelligent characters and a near endless array of possibilities for exploration and adventure contained therein. We were getting closer but still felt too far away.

In the next article in this series we head into the early-to-mid 1990s and the PC gaming boom. At this time gaming hardware was beginning to evolve at an accelerated rate, which meant some truly exceptional open world gaming experiences were just around the corner.

5 Disney Video Game Adaptations That Didn’t Suck

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a movie in possession of box office potential must be in want of a video game conversion.

Such was the enduring philosophy of the 1980s, which unfortunately resulted in the likes of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600 and an entire industry that somehow didn’t get the message that a shitty game would be destined for the landfill. In fact, with very little evidence to the contrary, we’re pretty sure that Howard Scott Warshaw, the game’s creator, ended up in that landfill too. No one fucks with Atari.

Developers didn’t just ruin perfectly good movies. TV shows, books, and even concept albums all became fair game for “conversion”—a process which usually involved stripping the very heart and soul from a media property and slapping the remains into an awkward side-scrolling platformer with similarly awkward shooty bits.

Thankfully, as the gaudy 80s transitioned into the grungey 90s, a number of publishers decided it might be in their best interest to start encouraging adaptations that people might actually want to play. Disney, having run of out day care centers to sue, now had enough time on their oversized mouse-hands to devote to entertaining people once again, and thus was born a new era of video game adaptation goodness.

Our intrepid Disney correspondent, Wes Hampton, has the skinny on some of those half decent Disney adaptations. Take it away, Wes!

5. DuckTales (NES, 1989)

Disney's DuckTales (NES)Toon Disney somehow struck gold in 1987 with DuckTales. Who could have guessed that a cartoon centering around Scrooge McDuck—a not-that-lovable money-grubbing asshole—would be a hit with the kids? Rising to the challenge Capcom decided to create a game based on this license that people would actually want to play, and just so they wouldn’t have it too easy they decided to relegate all the best characters to supporting roles. In fact they threw pretty much the whole concept of the show out the window, which is probably why this game was so good.

Capcom had already proved its worth with games like Bionic Commando and the Mega Man series, so I guess they figured they knew what they were doing when they built a new Mega Man-type game, took away the gun and only then asked, “How can we make this related to a show about a duck who wears spats and loves money?” Their answer was to replace Mega Man with Scrooge, give him a cane to beat people with, and have him chasing treasure instead of something useless like world peace. Also make his cane a pogo stick, because he does that in the show, right? Who cares, kids are stupid. They’ll buy it anyway.

Not surprisingly Capcom knows how to make Mega Man games, even when they don’t star Mega Man, and DuckTales was largely a success. It truly was a wonderful time when a game could be based on the premise of “You’re the richest person on Earth! But—oh no!—there’s money out there that you don’t own! Better snatch it up before some poor person finds it!” and everyone loved it. Take that, 99%.

For anyone who gives a Scrooge McDuck:

4. The Lion King (SNES/Genesis, 1994)

Disney's The Lion King (Sega Genesis)The Lion King movie was an animated spectacle and anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn’t seen it or is lying to your face and looking to get punched. It had a brilliant script, excellent voice acting and the animation was beyond beautiful. It was also, at its most basic level, a movie about cats back in the day when YouTube wasn’t around to fulfill that need.

To capitalize on that amazing level of profitability a game needed to be made. Virgin Interactive knew that, as lions, we wanted to tear shit up with our mighty claws and strike fear in the hearts of our enemies with thunderous roars. Also we wanted to swing on hippo tails and be thrown by monkeys if the “Just Can’t Wait to be King” level is to be believed.

The Lion King took us from Simba’s carefree days as an adorable, internet-worthy kitten, through the terror of being chased out of his home and finally brought us back in triumph as an adult to kick some hyena ass right out of Pride Rock. The ending where you throw Scar from the top and then walk away like a bad-ass without even looking to see if he lived or died? That’s pretty much how every game should end.

The Lion King game matched the look of the movie surprisingly well given the limitations of the platforms. There were some slight graphical differences between the SNES and Genesis versions, but they were similar enough that it didn’t make a huge difference which one you played. The sprites for Simba are especially fun to watch as you climb ledges and pounce on enemies. The music was even 16-bit-ified versions of the award winning movie soundtrack, which, in my opinion, only improved it. Really the only complaint I have is that it was too short and maybe a little too simplistic. I would have also loved a chance to whack a few people on the head as Rafiki, but all-in-all it’s still the best game ever made about being an exiled king of the lions.

You say tomato, I say Hakuna Matata:

3. Gargoyles (Genesis, 1995)

Disney's Gargoyles (Genesis)Gargoyles is one of the best cartoons from the 90’s. That is a fact and not some made up internet fact. If you disagree then I’m sorry, because you’ve obviously never seen an episode. It was dark, it was violent, and it was full of mythology and the occult. Plus it featured two former Star Trek: The Next Generation cast members along-side Ed Asner in central roles. Disney went out on a limb with this one and anyone who remembers the show will tell you it paid off.

To match the style of the show Disney’s own video game studio, Disney Interactive, put players in the role of Goliath—the biggest and baddest of all the gargoyles. The tone of the game was dark and there were lots of enemies to wreak havoc on with your giant claws. But Goliath doesn’t just maul people, he can also climb walls and even gain a bit of extra height with a flap of his wings. It’s like Wolverine, Batman and Spider-Man had a baby, but instead of wearing a cape the monster-baby had awesome wings that he could wear as a cloak.

Basically any kid who ever dreamed of being a giant, terrifying super hero-beast was sure to feel right at home in Gargoyles. The only criticism I can really give this game is that you only get to play as Goliath. Don’t get me wrong, I love Goliath, but the Gargoyles were a team with each one having his own strengths and weaknesses. My personal favorite was Lexington and I would have loved the chance to fly around dive-bombing fools like a little yellow missile. It felt a bit like getting a Ninja Turtles game and only being able to play as Leonardo, if Leonardo could tear through stone with his bare hands and not think twice about ripping a foot soldier in two. Actually, I’d play that game too.

Miriam Gargoyles:

2. Darkwing Duck (SNES, 1992)

Disney's Darkwing Duck (SNES)He is the terror that flaps in the night! He is the missed jump that forces a rage quit! He is Darkwing Duck!

Continuing the Duck theme from DuckTales a few years before, Capcom adapted another Toon Disney success (and my personal favorite of the Duck cartoons) Darkwing Duck. This one was almost too easy to get right. He was already a crime-fighter, he already used weapons, and he already had a rogues gallery more ridiculous than any comic book hero. And even though it was built using a modified version of the Mega Man 5 engine they took a little extra care to create a game that actually, you know, felt like it was based on the series.

Set in the dark, Gotham-esque town of St. Canard, Darkwing Duck must make his way past multitudes of evil henchmen to confront his biggest enemies (well, most of his biggest enemies, but I’ll get to that). Armed with his trusty gas gun—which could shoot other bullets picked up throughout the levels—and his cape that acted as a shield Darkwing was well equipped to handle any foe. As with DuckTales there was a severe lack of good-guy supporting cast. The difference is Darkwing didn’t need it. I would have liked to have seen Goselyn help out in a support role or Gizmoduck as a playable character, but the game works just as well without them.

The graphics have been tightened up somewhat since Scrooge’s outing but it still has the look and feel of a Mega Man game. The Darkwing Duck character is one of my favorite sprite-adaptations from this generation, even though they gave him a white hat for some reason. Even the henchmen looked spot on. If I have one complaint about this game it’s that Negaduck wasn’t included. The rest of the Fearsome Five were there, why not include their leader? Instead we get Wolfduck, a boring and horribly named villain created specifically for the game and who was never used again in any form. Thanks Capcom. Stick to making games. Let Disney handle the duck-related characters.

Duck á Lestrange:

1. Aladdin (SNES/Genesis, 1993)

Disney's Aladdin (Genesis)My number one pick for best video game adaptation of a Disney TV or movie property goes to Aladdin. It wasn’t my favorite Disney game, but due to unusual circumstances Aladdin had something special going for it. Capcom still had Disney licensing rights for Nintendo consoles when Aladdin was released in theaters, but Disney’s animation studios had established a deal with Sega who was also granted licensing rights. So the SNES and Sega Genesis versions of the game were developed totally independently from each other yielding very different games. They were released within 10 days of each other and both versions were completely awesome.

One thing Sega had going for them was the deal they had with Disney’s animation studio. The Genesis version used traditional animation bringing it very close to the look and feel of the film in terms of art style. The SNES version wasn’t far off, but it looked like a video game, not a Disney movie. Both games used the film’s soundtrack as background music, like The Lion King, and both games followed the main beats and locations of the film. Players take Aladdin from the streets of Agrabah, to the Cave of Wonders, then back to the palace to ultimately face Jafar.

Both versions include their own take on the magic carpet escape from Cave of Wonders scene, and both versions gave me flashbacks to playing Battletoads and fondly throwing my controller across the room. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Both games even include weird levels based around Genie’s “Friend Like Me” musical number from the movie. Of the two versions the SNES version of Genie’s level is definitely stranger.

The gameplay is what really separates the games. The Genesis version has you climbing ropes and sword fighting palace guards; the levels are laid out like a platformer, but Aladdin lacks some of the acrobatics of his SNES counterpart. On Super Nintendo, instead of a (tiny) sword Aladdin is granted the ability to bounce off of his enemies heads like some sort of Arabian Mario. He also has the ability to jump, climb, swing and flip with more agility. The SNES levels leave a lot more open space and high ledges from which Aladdin can rain down his terrifying assault, like a Disney Assassin’s Creed, but minus the boring parts where you blend into the crowd and pretend like you’re not about to murder some guys.

Both versions of Aladdin really deliver the goods in different ways, but one feature really puts these games over-the-top. It was something so integral to the film that both studios included it without communicating with one another. I’m of course referring to Aladdin’s apple throwing prowess. Apple throwing is really the crowning achievement in Disney games and they haven’t been able to top themselves since. That’s what makes Aladdin number one.

Things are unraveling fast now, boy!

Honorable mention: Kingdom Hearts (PS2, 2002)

Kingdom Hearts and its sequel hold a special place in my heart for reasons even I don’t understand. I love it to the point that my wife bought me a solid metal Keyblade for our anniversary and it’s one of the most romantic gifts I’ve ever received, so I would be remiss if I didn’t give it at least a minor mention for the crowning achievement of somehow adapting virtually all of Disney’s film properties in one series and making it weirder by mixing in some Final Fantasy, because, hey, why not? Good job, guys.