Tag Archives: nostalgia

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.

Open World Dreams (Part 1): Head for the Mountain!

As far back as I can remember, the limited geographical scope of video games often frustrated me.

I was rarely satisfied with the restrictions and boundaries established in each world I visited. Even as a ten-year-old I’d read enough books and watched enough movies to understand that grander visions were a possibility, yet at the same time knew that video games were only really being held back by the technology that drove them. I’d occasionally get a sense that the game’s developer(s) felt frustrated by those restrictions too.

I remained ever mindful of the bigger picture. Where did the titular Space Invaders come from? Did a mothership hang somewhere in orbit, dispensing wave after wave of invading aliens? Why was the action focused on just one base that was protected by only four bunkers? Where was the rest of humanity while I was fighting off the alien hordes? Were we actually on Earth at all?

Space Invaders from Royksopp's Happy Up Here video

Come to think of it, the video to Röyksopp’s Happy Up Here answers all my questions about what the Space Invaders were getting up to off-screen!

It’s important to note that these questions, usually asked subconsciously, were exclusively about the notion of space and physicality within these digital worlds, rather than anything of a more introspective or philosophical nature. Looking back over the books, movies, and music I’ve enjoyed over the last three decades or so, common themes emerge: exploration, environment, isolation, loneliness, and a sense of time and place. It’s no surprise that I came to expect as much from games too.

The interactive nature of games afforded me the opportunity to push at these physical boundaries. Perhaps not so much with the very early titles, but as games grew in complexity at an exponential rate, so too did the possibility for exploration.

“Head for the mountain!”

Those four words became a battle cry for the small group of friends with whom I’d regularly meet up for the sole purpose of playing games. Our initial objective in each and every game was clear: if the game depicted some sort of background scene, which typically included a panoramic mountain range, we’d do everything in our power to reach those mountains.

Deep down we knew this was a futile exercise. We’d played enough games to become savvy to their inner workings and the limits of technology. But we’d be damned if we weren’t going to have fun trying! An inaugural attempt at a racing game would see us veering off the track to see just how far away from it we could drive. Top-down games with a four-way scrolling mechanic were ripe for testing the rigidity of the map and what we could find away from the action. One day, we’d reach that mountain.

Auto Racing: Beyond the Track

A minor early success came in the form of Auto Racing on the Intellivision. This was a top-down racing game, not a million miles away from what would become Micro Machines. One of the game’s particular nifty features was that each track’s boundaries were defined by a seemingly ad hoc placement of trees. We quickly discovered that two very careful drivers (this only worked in 2-player mode) could navigate through the trees and reach areas beyond the track that you weren’t necessarily supposed to reach.

A screenshot from Auto Racing on the Intellivision of a crappy driver crashing into a building.

No, idiot. Drive AROUND the trees! Also, yes, this is an actual game from the olden times.

From a technical perspective, what was actually happening was that all the game’s track data was stored on one huge map; each level simply put you at a different starting point. Once you found an exploitable gap you could theoretically drive around this mini globe indefinitely. The developers, perhaps realizing this possibility, even hid a secret drag strip somewhere on the map as a reward for the player’s perseverance!

The Open World

As video game consoles and home computers evolved and found themselves with ever more RAM at their disposal, gaming worlds began to expand at a significant rate. Expectations grew to match, but even then a small number of titles had the ability to go above and beyond the call of duty, often in spectacular fashion.

The sheer geographical scope of Lords of Midnight blew every other strategy game away. The Tolkien-esque backdrop went a long way to attracting would-be adventurers, but the 4,096 discrete locations verged on the overwhelming, even if their visual representation was largely repetitive. Nevertheless, Mike Singleton, the game’s developer, set an early precedent for open-world gaming.

Acornsoft’s Elite, released on the BBC Micro a few months after Lords of Midnight, upped the ante once again, this time delivering a space combat/trading game that took you to the stars.  2,048 of them, to be precise, each with their own (singular) planet, space station and rudimentary ecosystem of fellow traders/pirates.

A screenshot of Elite on the BBC Micro. So, basically, lots of wireframe shit.

Space! Spaceships! Suns! Planets! Pew-pew lasers! A radar system only 0.04% of players could decipher!

It’s difficult to convey to modern gamers the giddy sensation of freedom these titles offered, especially when so many of their contemporaries were single-screen games with maybe the odd scroller thrown in for good measure. Being able to consult a map and consider a near endless number of options for navigating it gave the player a very real sense of empowerment within the game space.

Mercenary for Hire

The pinnacle of 8-bit open world games, at least for me, arrived in the form of Mercenary, which crash-landed the player in a huge wire-frame city and gave you one simple directive: escape. The perfectly curated simplicity of both the game’s objectives, visual presentation and (apparently) borderless geography conspired to instill a sense of agoraphobia in the player. Nevertheless, the ideal game for generating water cooler discussion: “What did you do after crash landing?” suggested hundreds of possible answers where far too many other games usually only have one.

Screenshot from Mercenary running on the MDDClone emulator.

The Palyar Commander’s Brother-in-Law’s house and ship. Just… don’t attack it. (This screenshot’s actually from a nifty Mercenary emulator called MDDClone that you should obtain forthwithly.)

Beyond the confines of the narrative, one of the overriding joys of Mercenary was that it gave the player the ability to walk off in any direction (although I’d recommend driving/flying) and discover any number of curious wireframe structures, some of which had a legitimate in-game function other than the purely aesthetic. It was the first game I can remember that not only gave the player an epic sense of freedom but rewarded them for their curiosity and desire to explore.

Yes, there was a mountain of sorts in the form of a mysterious pyramid. Did I head towards it? Take a wild guess!

Next week, on Open World Dreams, Mark tracks the rise of open world games as we head through the 16-bit era and arrive at their modern counterparts.

My Gaming Life: The Hyper-Condensed Version

In the year I was born:

  • The video game industry did not exist.

In the year I turned ten:

In the year I turned twenty:

  • Most games were still in 2D.
  • CD-ROM drives weren’t yet a thing and 70MB was considered spacious for a PC hard drive.
  • Activision filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  • Modern games: Super Mario Kart, Wolfenstein 3D, Mortal Kombat

In the year I turned thirty:

  • Sega of America and Sega Europe discontinued support of the Dreamcast console.
  • Modern games: Metroid Prime, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Grand Theft Auto III.

In the year I turned forty (sheesh):

  • Nintendo kicked off the eighth generation of video game consoles with the release of the Wii U.
  • Combined sales of Minecraft reached 17.5 million.
  • The Metal Gear, Street Fighter and Mega Man franchises celebrated their 25th anniversary.
  • A vocal minority of backwards, whining fuckheads continued to believe that women had no place in the video game industry.
  • Modern games: Dishonored, Journey, The Walking Dead

What was new in video games in the year you were born?