The long march. (classic computer games) (Column)
by Paul C. Schuytema
What makes a computer game a classic? Is it longevity? Originality? Mass appeal? It could be any or all of these things, but one thing is certain in the world of computer entertainment: A classic is not a classic because it has remained stagnant.
Take The Oregon Trail by MECC. The game has been around forever (in terms of PCs, that means since the Apple II in 1979), and it's still here. The task is simple (or so it first seems): to guide a wagon from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon during the 1840s. It's a logistical game: You have to know what supplies are important from the start, and you have to keep your people fed and healthy. What the game accomplishes complishes beyond just great gameplay is to make you think about the millions of variables and unknowns the settlers had to face during that trek of 2000+ miles. You learn along the way, by listening to complaints and hopes and histories, just what it might have been like. The Oregon Trail is not the same game it was. It has just moved to 256-color VGA and full mouse support, and during its evolution, The Oregon Trail has become a better game. Now, when you hunt, you must actually aim your weapon, lead the prey, and shoot carefully (you brought along only so many bullets, remember?). If and when you get to the Columbia River, you must navigate it yourself, avoiding rocks and swirling eddies.
Accolade's sports game from the mid 1980s, Hardball, is another game that has stood the test of time. The baseball simulator began with CGA graphics and a simple premise: to simulate the feel of full-diamond baseball, from play to management. The current incarnation is Hardball III, which is announced by a digital Al Michaels and features woodgrain scoreboards, customizable players, rosters, and zoomed-in shots of key plays. Accolade has also just released the MLBPA Players Disk, which allows you to play real teams in Hardball III.
One category of games that faded from view during the graphic revolution is the text adventure. Beginning with the original Adventure at MIT, the genre grew into interactive fiction. In 1982, Zork I, Infocom's first interactive story set in the Great Underground Empire, was the top-selling computer game. Infocom tackled nearly all genres, from the hard-boiled detective story in Witness to cryogenic science fiction in Suspended to tropical diving adventures in Cutthroats--all without a single screen of graphics.
Not many games have yet come up to the storytelling depth of Infocom's adventures. So Activision has rereleased a two-volume set containing Infocom's 31 classic stories of interactive fiction. There are enough games in those two heavy boxes to keep even the most expert player challenged for years.
Back in the early days of computerized entertainment, games like Adventure and Zork were the first to take us to other worlds: fantasy worlds. There is a tradition of fantasy role-playing that is every bit as long as computer gaming itself, and one of the most stunningly evolved and dynamic series is Origin's Ultima. The first trilogy still sells well, and it should: The adventures are addictively playable.
The first Ultima adventure was released in 1980, utilizing tile graphics: It was a bird's-eye view of the lay of the land with the hero at the center. The Ultima trilogy (Ultima I, II, and III) takes place in the kingdom of Sosaria, ruled by the benevolent Lord British. Sosaria is a world full of castles and dungeons and creatures of every flavor, and exploring is the name of the game.
Currently, the series takes place in Britannia and has progressed into Ultima VII, Ultima VII Part Two (Serpent Isle), and Ultima Underworld: the Stygian Abyss. The graphics have pushed the technology to the edge (Ultima I requires a PC with 256K RAM and EGA, while the Stygian Abyss needs a 386 with 2MB of RAM and VGA), but the story is still the thing. And Ultima delivers.
Perhaps the acid test for a classic (no matter how old) is this: Do you still ponder the game after you shut off the computer and walk away?