Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Sword & Sorcery in the 1980s Arcade


Hasslein Blog

Monday, May 20, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Sword & Sorcery in the 1980s Arcade

Sword of Sorcery in the 1980s Arcade
By Matthew Sunrich

When Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson introduced the original version of Dungeons & Dragons as an optional expansion for their tabletop miniatures game Chainmail in 1974, they never could have dreamed that it would not only become immensely popular the world over (so popular, in fact, that Chainmail was soon abandoned altogether) but would also influence the world of gaming like nothing else before or since.

The milieu of Dungeons & Dragons borrows heavily from fantasy fiction, particularly works by Jack Vance (Dying Earth), J. R. R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), and Robert E. Howard (Conan). Fantasy as a literary genre is generally divided into two subcategories: epic fantasy and sword & sorcery, the former involving long-term quests and scores of characters, the latter concerning personal pursuits (treasure, typically), having fewer players, and being considerably shorter in length.

While it's certainly true that some D&D campaigns have been known to go on for years, the quests are usually about stealing some magical artifact, destroying a bothersome lich, or ridding the realm of goblins. Thus, D&D can most accurately be described as sword & sorcery rather than epic fantasy. Although Conan of Cimmeria is probably the most recognizable figure in the world of sword & sorcery, it can be reasonably argued that D&D has done more to further its proliferation and popularity.

As is the case today, there was a lot of crossover in the '70s and '80s between gamers and computer enthusiasts and professionals. It makes perfect sense, then, that programmers would figure out ways to create computer games that incorporated elements from fantasy RPGs. (Predictably, shortly after the release of D&D, a host of imitators flooded the market.) Many of these games were strictly text-based, but some of them had rudimentary graphics, as well. At first, they were put together simply for the amusement of the programmers and their friends, but as the popularity of RPGs and video games increased with the public, computerized sword & sorcery games became a commercially viable idea.

It might be difficult to imagine today, but in the early days of video games, there was a marked difference between computer games and their console-based counterparts. The former tended to feature more complex gameplay (in addition to requiring a certain amount of computer savvy), while the latter were easier to "pick up" and straightforward (slide the cartridge into the port, flip the "on" switch). While many computer gamers enjoyed consoles such as the Atari VCS (2600), Magnavox Odyssey2, and Fairchild Channel F, the reverse was seldom true.

The first sword & sorcery game available for a console was the generically named Adventure. Released by Atari in 1979, it was inspired by the text-based Colossal Cave Adventure and featured dragons, castles, and labyrinths. It went on to sell a million copies, proving that Atari players were enthusiastic about sword & sorcery games. It's even likely that Adventure introduced fantasy to an untapped demographic that previously subscribed to the belief that Combat was the ultimate home-gaming experience.

In the late '70s, arcades were becoming a big thing. People found the idea of playing video games in public to be immensely appealing. Machines such as Space Invaders, Asteroids, and the controversial Death Race sucked quarters out of people's pockets like computerized vacuum cleaners. Early games were designed to be simple to learn (Defender notwithstanding) so that players could get into them quickly (and, theoretically, become addicted); it might, then, seem like an odd concept to bring sword & sorcery into the arcade. When you peel away the complicated rule set of D&D, however, you find that it's really just guys exploring dungeons, killing monsters, and collecting treasure.

In a sense, the idea of the dungeon had already been introduced. In 1980, a Japanese company called Namco introduced what would become the most iconic video game of all time: Pac-Man. While it would be ridiculous to suggest that Pac-Man is a sword & sorcery game, its gameplay does involve a maze (basically a dungeon, right?), and the programmers' decision to use it as a framework could indicate D&D's influence. Of course, the maze is cross-cultural and centuries old, but remember that settings in Gygax and Arneson's adventures (Greyhawk and Blackmoor, respectively) borrowed from the various mythologies of the world, things that the general public had not really thought much about in a long time. Even though it had been just six years since D&D's introduction at the time Pac-Man debuted, its fingerprints could be seen everywhere, so it's within the realm of possibility that Toru Iwatani, Pac-Man's creator, was inspired by it.

The first noteworthy arcade game that drew inspiration from the D&D model was Exidy's Venture, released in 1981. Despite its primitive graphics (though not bad for the time), Venture succeeds in capturing the spirit of fantasy roleplaying by reducing its tropes to the simplest design possible and making the most of its potential. In essence, it disregards D&D's complex mechanics, such as experience points and attributes, and simply requires the player to slay wandering monsters and acquire all the treasure on a given level before descending to the next one.

The player controls Winky, a red smiley face with a bow and a bottomless quiver of arrows. Each level consists of several rooms, with ghoulish creatures (dubbed "Hallmonsters") policing the perimeter. Initially, Winky is just a tiny square moving through the dungeon, but when he enters a chamber, the screen zooms in. Each room contains a treasure and a group of themed monsters (skeletons, snakes, et cetera) or an obstacle of some sort. Winky's goal is to collect the treasure and escape. This is a fairly daunting task, as the monsters are difficult to hit and coming in contact with their corpses is lethal (they do disintegrate eventually); plus, if Winky tarries too long, one of the indestructible Hallmonsters will enter the room and seize him. When a room is cleared, it's filled in with solid color.

The "home" screen contains a box of question marks. As the player acquires each treasure, its image replaces one of them. This, naturally, creates an air of mystery, making the player curious about what sorts of items the other question marks might be hiding. It's a challenging game, especially when you consider that the "continue" concept was years away, so you have to start over once your three men have been expended.

Like many early arcade games, Venture makes up for its graphical shortcomings with absorbing sound effects and smooth, immersive gameplay.

In 1985, Atari gave arcade gamers the spectacular and groundbreaking Gauntlet. Inspired by the 8-bit Computer game Dandy, Gauntlet is a dungeon-crawling adventure that allows up to four players to participate at the same time. Four sword & sorcery archetypes are represented: Warrior (Thor), Valkyrie (Thyra), Wizard (Merlin), and Elf (Questor), each possessing unique strengths and weaknesses.

The name is a particularly apt choice because navigating the labyrinths is akin to running a gauntlet. It's not unusual for players to encounter fifty or so enemies at one time. Ghosts, demons, thieves, "grunts," sorcerers, and even Death himself assail the adventurers en masse, and more are constantly emerging from generators (which can be destroyed if you manage to fight your way through the monstrous host). Rewards scattered throughout the dungeons include keys, potions, treasure chests, and stamina-increasing plates of food.

Unlike Venture, Gauntlet allows players to prolong their character's lives by inserting coins to increase health, making "marathon games" possible to those with enough quarters. It also features an intelligible voice (quite unlike earlier machines such as Wizard of Wor) that provides instructions and status updates, although it can prove annoying at times. One hundred unique, perilous levels await players with enough pluck and/or disposable income. Gauntlet was followed a year later by Gauntlet II, which differs from its predecessor mainly in terms of added features.

It's hard to believe that video-game technology had improved so much in just the four years between Venture and Gauntlet. Visually, Gauntlet still stands up today and remains a great way for four friends to enjoy dungeon crawling together (if you can locate a machine, that is).

1986 also saw the introduction of Rygar, Tecmo's entry in the sword & sorcery arcade-game genre. The eponymous "Legendary Warrior" wields a peculiar weapon called a "Diskarmor" that resembles a buckler with a chain or rope attached. Rygar is set upon by numerous foes at every turn (from the land, sky, and underground, often at the same time), making quick thinking and even quicker fingers essential.

Unlike Venture and Gauntlet, Rygar features side-scrolling, linear gameplay. There are no puzzles to work out or paths to pick from; Rygar's breakneck pace would make such things impossible anyway. Terrain is composed primarily of forests, deserts, mountains, and caves, and the variety of monsters is, frankly, remarkable. Rygar can stun enemies by jumping on top of them, but, like Venture, one hit results in death. Certain species of monsters are virtually impossible to avoid, even with practice, which can prove frustrating. Despite its drawbacks, it's an enjoyable game with a lot to offer and good replay value.

Taito's Rastan (known as Rastan Saga in Japan) took arcades by storm in 1987. Clearly inspired by Conan, Rastan is a barbarian hero who must face scores of monsters (many insect-like) with only his strength and his broadsword at his disposal. (Other weapons are available from time to time, but they're only temporary.) Some enemies drop treasures when you destroy them, which either increase your offensive or defensive capabilities or stamina or give you extra points. While it lacks the variety of foes found in Rygar, Rastan's gameplay is more balanced and makes better use of its resources. Rastan also has a life bar, which allows him to endure multiple hits before expiring.

Like Rygar, Rastan is horizontal and linear; there is only one way to go, and you'd better be quick about it or the powers that be will send an invidious cloud of bats after you. Rastan's graphics are impressive, much more so than Rygar's, and its environments (jungles, caves, mountains) are engrossing. Similar to Gauntlet and Rygar, it has a continue feature, although you must either go back to the beginning of a level or to a "checkpoint" when you die, rather than just "regenerating" where you bought the farm. Difficulty is often cited as one of its defining characteristics, and even though it works with the same "palette" every time, no two games are ever the same.

Sega, the company that had given us Frogger and Pengo earlier in the decade, incorporated elements of Rastan and Gauntlet into 1989's Golden Axe. Perhaps the most famous sword & sorcery arcade game of all, Golden Axe allows three-player-simultaneous gameplay and is probably the first major game to feature a dwarf, the redoubtably named Gilius Thunderhead, as a main character. The other two heroes are barbarian Ax Battler and amazon Tyris Flare. As in Gauntlet, each has strengths and weaknesses that must be taken into account. Each of the characters has a bone to pick with Death Adder, the game's antagonist, but he or she must defeat hordes of his savage minions before facing him in the royal palace, where he is keeping the king and his daughter captive.

Golden Axe's gameplay is straightforward, making it easy for players to dive right in. It differs from Rastan in that the environments (which vary wildly) are more three dimensional. The heroes need to move up and down the playfield in addition to forward and backward. This allows players to implement strategy when facing enemies, such as positioning his or her character above or below the "plane" a monster is on, so that its attacks won't connect. As in Gauntlet, characters can use magic, which derives from bottles dropped by giggling sprites. Each character wields a different kind of magic, the destructive potential of which is determined by the number of bottles he or she has collected.

One of the Golden Axe's best features is its music, which draws players into its fantastic environments with instrumentation designed to evoke a particular mood depending on the situation. Of course, the music is hard to hear in noisy arcades, but on those rare occasions when the places are less crowded, a player can savor everything the world of Golden Axe has to offer.

This article is, of course, not exhaustive, but these five games paint a pretty clear picture of the progression of video-game technology in the 1980s and how it was used to bring sword & sorcery to the arcades. Sadly, arcades are now mostly a thing of the past, but, thankfully, there have been indications here and there recently that a revival may be around the corner. 

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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