Mike and Pete Austin, Level 9’s first two full-time employees
The first weeks of 1983 brought the last gasp of Level 9 as a publisher of generalized software in the form of an implementation of the Forth programming language (a Great White Hope for programming in the early 1980s that never quite caught on as anticipated) for the BBC Micro. The disappointing sales of that product, contrasted with the ever-quickening sales of their three adventures, guaranteed that Level 9 would live or die by their adventure games from here on. Thus, over the course of 1983 the Austin family transformed Level 9 from a hobby into the company that has gone down in history as the “British Infocom,” the most long-lived, dedicated, and arguably most important British publisher of the text adventure’s relatively brief lifespan as a viable commercial proposition.
Unable to keep up with rising demand by duplicating each cassette by hand, they signed contracts to begin churning out their games in bulk, the way the pros did it. At the same time they replaced their Ziploc baggies and mimeographed cassette inserts with real boxes which included real instruction manuals. With their beloved Nascoms fading in importance in a computing milieu now dominated by the likes of Sinclair and Acorn, the brothers began doing their development work on the BBC Micro. However, the two younger Austin brothers, Mike and Nick, continued to develop A-Code interpreters for many other platforms, bringing Level 9’s games to an ever-widening slice of the British microcomputer market. By fall their games were available for the Nascom, the BBC Micro, the Sinclair Spectrum, the Atari 8-bit line, the Commodore 64, the Camputers Lynx, and the Oric-1, with yet more platforms soon to follow. Meanwhile the lone Austin sister, Margaret, took over marketing. With sales now substantial enough to pay for them, full-page spreads began appearing around this time in the major magazines in lieu of the little classified ads with which Level 9 had made do in earlier years.
At the center of this web of activity was the eldest brother, Pete, who quit his day job in June of 1983 to become Level 9’s first full-time employee, soon to be joined by the youngest Austin, Mike, who took a year off from his education before starting university to help with the company. It was Pete who actually designed the games, as well as being the de facto leader and day-to-day manager of the family business. What with being so busy with the logistics of getting Level 9 up and running in earnest, Pete found time to design just one game for Level 9 in 1983, which in turn became the company’s only new adventure of the year. Still, that game, an exercise in hard science fiction which he called Snowball, was an important one, first fruit of a deepening determination to create adventures that were coherent fictional experiences. That determination would set Level 9 apart from most of their peers in the time to come, and would provide, even more so than their reliance on a cross-platform virtual machine or their impressive technical standards, a good reason to call them the British Infocom.
A comparison of Snowball to Peter Killworth’s science-fiction game of the same year, Countdown to Doom, might help to illustrate how Level 9 was now diverging from the Cambridge/Acornsoft nexus. The planet of Doomawangara makes absolutely no sense as a piece of world-building. Glaciers sit next to deserts next to jungles; it’s enough to make even a Star Trek writer blush. The game’s fictional context, like the world, like the conceit of needing to finish your work and get away before your ship disappears in 215 turns, exists merely as a frame for the devious, clever, surreal, inspiring, occasionally infuriating puzzles (including, of course, the meta-puzzle of solving all of those other puzzles within the time limit). There’s nothing wrong with such an approach; Countdown to Doom can provide quite a compelling experience for hardcore puzzle fans. Still, Pete Austin was aiming at something quite different in Snowball, something more demanding and perhaps ultimately more rewarding.
Level 9’s first trilogy of games had made occasional nods in the direction Snowball would now travel with determination. All three otherwise traditional fantasy puzzlefests are occasionally interrupted by odd, lumpy bits of exposition and plot that seem dropped in from some other creative endeavor entirely, as in the climax of Colossal Adventure when Crowther and Woods’s Adventure suddenly turns into a desperate mission to rescue 300 elves being held prisoner by a nation of evil dwarfs that apparently lives below Kentucky. But with Snowball the world-building really comes to the fore. A fan of the intellectual rigorousness of hard science fiction like that of Larry Niven (he listed The Mote in God’s Eye as a particular inspiration), Pete Austin strove with Snowball to craft a fictional environment that actually makes sense, that could make a coherent setting for a novel. As described in a detailed background section in the manual (shades of Infocom yet again), the game takes place aboard the eponymous Snowball 9, a massive colony ship carrying 1.8 million people, all in cryogenic sleep, on a journey of over a hundred years to the planet of Eden. The ship gets its name from the shell of ice which is constructed around it at the beginning of the voyage:
The chain of accelerators beyond Pluto burst erratically into life throughout the following three years, firing ten-tonne blocks of ammonia ice at precise speeds after the receding craft. Once reeled in by the Snowball’s skyhooks, the ice was built into a huge hollow shell around the linked passenger disks. When complete, this shielded the disks during the voyage, until the ice was finally needed as fuel for the ravening fusion drives.
As the above excerpt may illustrate, Snowball offers Big Ideas, and can inspire in the player the awe-inspiring, almost religious epiphany of coming face to face with wonders on a scale bigger than we as individual 21st-century humans can entirely fathom. And, as the above excerpt should also illustrate, the environment of Snowball is worked out with impressive care. In addition to its descriptions of the Snowball itself, the manual also includes the circumstances of her birth in the form of a history of humanity until the launch of Snowball and her 49 sister colony ships in the 2190s. None of this history bears all that directly on the game itself, but it does do much to make Snowball a holistic fictional experience, in a way that really only Infocom was also attempting to do at this date.
Surprisingly, all of this emphasis on coherence and (science-fictional) realism leads quite naturally to the most remembered, most mocked, and perhaps most misunderstood attribute of the game today: its geography of “over 7000 locations.”
When it comes up today, this data point is always followed by the same punch line: the fact that over 6800 of these rooms are essentially identical. Snowball is used in this context as the ultimate illustration of the absurdities of old-school adventures, with their mazes and sprawling geographies full of corridors and empty rooms. Still, it’s not really a fair portrayal of Snowball. Let’s remember that Pete Austin was trying to present a realistic depiction of this massive colony ship. Let’s further remember that such a ship will inevitably consist of endless identical rooms and corridors full of the 1.8 million sleeping colonists and the apparatus to maintain them. Snowball doesn’t indulge in mazes for the sake of them, and doesn’t ever demand that we map or visit any but the barest fraction of these rooms. Instead, a central puzzle is that of learning to use the ship’s manifest to identify and find the couple of rooms amongst this menagerie that you do need to visit. In this sense Snowball is anti-old-school: someone who tries to dutifully visit and map every single room in classic adventurer fashion, ignoring her role as a fictional actor in this world, is simply playing with the wrong mindset entirely. (That said, less defensible was Level 9’s decision to use the “over 7000 rooms” tagline as their centerpiece for marketing this “massive adventure.” For that they were roundly mocked even in the computer press of the time, and with good reason.)
In trying to make the leap from text adventure to interactive fiction, Pete Austin faced many of the same questions with which the Infocom authors were wrestling. In particular: to what extent could or should the author define the protagonist? Would players insist on playing “themselves” in adventure games, or would they be willing to play a role assigned to them, as it were, by the needs of the fiction? Pete created a detailed profile of the protagonist, Kim Kimberly, and included it in the manual. Kim’s gender, however, he left unspecified. When asked about his reasons for doing so, he often noted that as many as one-third of the people who played Level 9 games regularly were female. In deference to them, he made the decision to try to make all of his games “non-sexist.” It’s of course problematic in the extreme to assert that a game which merely features a male — or female, for that matter — protagonist is automatically sexist. Nor is it entirely clear that players, male or female, otherwise willing to accept inhabiting a role very different from themselves would determine that playing someone of the opposite sex would be the deal-breaker. In an interview for Micro-Adventurer, Pete went on to make the more straighforwardly sexist — or at least condescending — assertion that “adventure games offer many women, trapped at home by children, a more intellectual alternative to Mills and Boon.” Ah, well, at least the fellow was trying, which is more than could be said for most of his peers.
Progressive as it is in so many ways, Snowball still has its full share of problems and questionable elements. Like the three fantasy games that preceded it, it’s just much too hard, and too often for the wrong reasons. The most infamously awful puzzle involves a computer screen which is operated by looking at desired entries in a menu and then BLINKing, a completely unclued combination of the design sin of read-the-author’s-mind with just a dash of guess-the-verb. Just to really salt the wound, the first entry you read after — let’s be honest — looking the answer up in a walkthrough is… instructions on how to operate the computer. Grr…
The parser, while it does understand phrases of more than two words to an extent, is very unrefined compared to that of Infocom. You see, the parser here lies — or, if you like, cheats. When it encounters a phrase it doesn’t entirely understand, it attempts to guess the meaning from those words it does. This is a fraught approach, with huge potential to result in misunderstandings. You’re thus likely to see a lot of weird non-sequitur responses in your time with Snowball.
And then the actual plot that develops in the game itself, involving a hijacker who is attempting to crash the Snowball into the Eden system’s star for reasons that are never really explained just as it will soon be time to begin reviving the colonists and sending them down to their new lives at last, is oddly sparse in comparison to the meticulous back story.
All of these weaknesses can largely be attributed to the draconian technical constraints of the 32 K, cassette-based machines that represented the lowest common denominator for which Level 9 had to develop. I mention them here only so you won’t think that Snowball is possessed of quite the same sophistication and polish of a contemporaneous Infocom game. By comparison Infocom, with the luxuries of an extra 16 K of memory and floppy-disk-enabled virtual memory, had it easy. Still, Snowball packs a staggering amount of content into 32 K, and is in that light if anything even more technically impressive than Infocom’s games.
Indeed, when compared with the most obviously similar game in the Infocom canon, Starcross, Snowball acquits itself pretty darn well. While Starcross owes a hell of a debt to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Snowball is braver, more audacious in proposing a more original science-fictional concept and working it out so carefully. If its plot is ultimately a bit slight, well, plenty of science-fiction novels are also more interesting for their worldbuilding than their plot. I would even say that Snowball gets the sense of wonder of the best science fiction across better than Starcross. There are a few moments, such as when you exit the ship proper to the interior of the globe of snow and see this huge man-made wonder stretching out around you, that approach the transcendent even given the bare few sentences Pete Austin can spare to describe the scene. Anyone playing along at the time had to recognize the audacity that was lacking in most of Level 9’s peers, and had to be excited to see where it would take them. That’s a journey I’ll be continuing to follow here with relish.
For anyone playing along with these articles, I’ve prepared a zip file which includes Snowball in its BBC Micro disk incarnation as well as the original manual and a hints sheet, which, once again, you’re likely to need. Next time we’ll wrap up 1983 in Britain with the most important adventuring development of the year — which wasn’t even a game per se.
Peter Killworth always found time for a wide array of hobbies and activities, ranging from anthropology to stage magic, to supplement his significant career in oceanographic research, but one suspects that he must have been even busier than usual during 1983. Inspired by the unexpected success of Philosopher’s Quest, he published two original games that year with Acornsoft, and ported a third to the BBC Micro for them.
The two originals were Castle of Riddles and Countdown to Doom. The former feels very much like Philosopher’s Quest II, although it is a completely original effort and not, as is sometimes reported, derived à la Zork II and III from yet-unused sections of Philosopher’s Quest‘s mainframe source, Brand X. The plot, such as it is, casts you as a down-on-your-luck adventurer who is hired by a wizard to recover a certain Ring of Power (where have we heard of that before?) from an evil warlock with a penchant for riddle games. Acornsoft had a good reason to want Castle of Riddles to be particularly difficult even by the rather heartless standards of the time: they made solving it into a national contest. Working in conjunction with Your Computer magazine, the company collected orders during the first weeks of 1983, then shipped out copies to all would-be participants on February 15. First to solve it would get a voucher good for £1500 worth of Acorn hardware and software of his choice, along with a magnificently nerdy “£700 hallmarked silver ring-shaped trophy mounted on a presentation plinth and inscribed ‘King of the Ring.'”
When several weeks went by without a winner, there was some concern that Killworth had made the game too difficult, that no one would manage to solve it before the contest’s expiry date of March 31. Thus a 34-year-old businessman named Colin Bignell thought he had an excellent chance when he finished the game at last late one night in March. He immediately dashed to his car and drove through the dawn from his home in Littlehampton, Sussex, to Your Computer‘s offices in London to deliver the code word that the game reveals upon completion. But alas, as he pulled up outside one Peter Voke was already inside doing the same thing; Bignell had to settle for runner-up status.
Contest winner Peter Voke stands third from left; runner-up Colin Bignell first from left.
The Castle of Riddles contest was something of a landmark. Many other publishers would launch similar efforts in the years to come. It proved to be an excellent way to build buzz around a new title in the British software industry, which much more than the American thrived on just this kind of hype and excitement. Perhaps less fortunate was the effect it had on the designs involved. They simply had to be damnably, absurdly difficult to prevent a stampede of players beating down the publishers’ doors hours after release. Thus what could already be a stubbornly intractable genre had some of its worst tendencies elevated to the realm of virtual necessity. Indeed, Castle of Riddles itself is the least of Killworth’s games. Even he regarded it with little fondness; it’s the only one of his Acornsoft games that he did not choose to revive for the company with which he later became associated, Topologika.
Much more impressive, and a significant step forward for Killworth as a designer, is Countdown to Doom, a science-fiction scenario. Your spaceship has just crash-landed on the planet of Doomawangara. You have all of about 215 turns to repair your ship — accomplished by gathering the spare parts that are conveniently lying about the planet and dropping them into the ship’s hold — and escape, after which the ship “collapses” for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (beyond the wish for an in-game turn limit, that is). As that tight turn limit suggests, Doom is an extremely difficult game laced with the usual sudden, blameless player deaths that are such a staple of the Cambridge approach to adventure games. This game, like its stablemates, sends the dial smashing right through the top of the Zarfian Cruelty Scale and just keeps on going. With only 215 turns to hand, getting everything done makes for quite an exercise in planning even once you know the solution to each individual puzzle. Yet its puzzles, while hard as nails, mostly stay just on the right side of fairness, only dipping a toe or two occasionally over the line. They reward intellectual leaps as much or more than dogged persistence (not that the latter isn’t required as well). Let me give a quick example of how heartless yet kind of magical these puzzles are.
In your initial explorations you come upon a bunch of gibberish written on a wall.
Anyone who’s ever played an adventure game can guess that this must be an encoded message, but how to crack it? Well, later in the game you come upon another strange message on a wall.
This is all the information the game provides for cracking the code. Want to have a go at it? Go ahead; I’ll wait…
So, the solution is to take every fifth letter after the first, cycling around and around until every letter is used. This yields “Say ‘flezz’ to disable the robot.” Sure enough, there’s an annoying little thief of a robot elsewhere in the game.
Even if you cracked the code, don’t feel too smug; you had an advantage. In the actual game there is nothing to connect these two messages together, nothing to indicate the second provides the key for the first. I needed a nudge to make that connection myself when I played, but thereafter doing the rest myself was so satisfying that I kind of love the game for it.
Countdown to Doom is easier to love than many games of the Cambridge tradition. For all its cruelty, it does display some hints of mercy. You’re expected to gather six needed spare parts to solve the most pressing problem, that of escape, but a full score also requires satisfying your greedy inner adventurer by gathering six treasures. These, which are generally the more challenging to collect, are actually optional; it’s possible to escape and thus ostensibly win the game (apart from a chiding message telling you you could have done even better) without collecting a single one. This choice adds a welcome dose of positive reinforcement. It’s more satisfying to win the game with a less-than-optimal score and then go back in to improve it than it is to simply fail over and over.
In contrast to Castle of Riddles, Countdown to Doom remained always one of Killworth’s favorite children. Its design is tight and perfect in its own uncompromising way, its puzzles often brilliant. Games from this tradition will always be a minority taste even amongst the minority that can still stomach old-school text adventures in this day and age, but Countdown to Doom is just about as perfect an exemplar as you’ll find of said tradition.
Killworth’s final effort for 1983 was another minor landmark. Kingdom of Hamil was a loving port of the Phoenix game Hamil, the first to be solely authored by Phoenix stalwart Jonathan Partington, to the BBC Micro. Thus it became the first Phoenix game not authored by Killworth to make it into homes, and the first to retain its original title and to remain basically complete in its new form. The story, embellished a bit over the original on the Acornsoft box copy, has you the displaced heir to the throne of Hamil, needing to prove your worth to prove your identity. This being an old-school adventure game, “worth” is meant literally here: you must collect valuable treasures and drop them in the castle vault. As usual, none of this makes a whole lot of sense. No one would ever accuse the Phoenix games of even storybook realism.
But then you don’t play these games for their stories, and Hamil has some wonderful elements. Partington always had a certain fondness for large-scale, dynamic puzzles that often span multiple rooms while requiring precise timing, the sort of thing that demands to be worked out carefully with pen and paper. His talents are much in evidence here. There’s a chase scene with a dinosaur that spans more than 30 turns yet has to be planned and executed perfectly down to the last move, and a similar sequence in which the terrain literally explodes behind you. Much of Hamil is so fun to solve that you can almost forgive it its few puzzles that cross the line. The last of these, however, does a good job of crushing any spirit of generosity you might still have. It’s one of the classic what-the-fuck moments in adventure gaming, reading like a caricature of the brainy, mathematical Phoenix tradition.
Early in Hamil, you find yet another encoded message on a wall.
This is actually easier than the similar puzzle in Countdown to Doom. When a certain locked door starts asking you for a password, it’s not too difficult to figure out that it must be a simple transcription cypher, with the first three words representing “The password is…” By the time you get to the climax of the game, then, you feel pretty confident in deciphering the messages that appear.
Cracking the code yields:
WHAT ARE THEIR ORDERS?
WHAT WAS THE PHRASE?
WHAT IS THE SET, SORTED?
But your difficulties are only beginning. I’ve actually now given you everything the game does, so have at it if you like.
Ready to continue? Okay! In the words of the anonymous writer of a walkthrough from long ago:
You must obtain the set of letters from THE PASSWORD IS, which is THEPASWORDI. Then you must sort the letters, resulting in ADEHIOPRSTW. Finally you must encode this string. You do this in the opposite way in which you decoded messages. Thus, if, for example TPM was decoded to THE, THE is encoded as TPM. ADEHIOPRSTW encodes to NYMPHSWALTZ. To finish the game you must type NYMPHS WALTZ. (SAY NYMPHS WALTZ or NYMPHSWALTZ do not work.)
Really, what could be more clear? Again, solving this here and now, while ridiculously difficult, is actually much easier than it would be for someone encountering it in the game. There you are given no more indication than what you see of what “the phrase” is referring to amongst a big game full of phrases (it’s a text adventure, after all). Thus we come to the hate in my love-hate relationship with Phoenix.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. I’ve prepared a zip file for those of you interested in exploring Killworth’s 1983 for yourselves. It includes each of the three games as a BBC Micro tape image, the way they were first distributed. (To start one of the games on a BBC Micro emulator, mount the tape image, then type *TAPE followed by CH.””. Note also that at least some of the disk images of these games floating around ROM archives and abandonware sites are corrupted and uncompleteable.) I’ve also included some hint sheets, which you’ll likely need. For what it’s worth, when I play I give myself unfettered access to the first level of hints. This usually provides the sort of little nudges that the games so painfully lack, the likes of which Infocom would have provided within the games themselves as a matter of course by this time. I find this lets me appreciate the games’ qualities and enjoy solving them without the whole thing devolving into an exercise in masochism.
Next time we’ll check in with our other special friends in British adventuring, Level 9, to see how 1983 treated them.
Like its American counterpart, the British PC industry was untenably fragmented by the beginning of 1983. The previous year had been deemed Information Technology Year by the government. Unlike so many government initiatives, this one had succeeded swimmingly in its goal of drumming up excitement and enthusiasm amongst the public for microcomputers. Where excitement and enthusiasm go in a market economy, of course, also go products. Thus the new computers had come thick and fast throughout 1982. In addition to the BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum which I’ve already written about, there were heaps of other machines whose names sound like something spewed by a beta version of Google Translate: the Dragon 32, the Grundy NewBrain, the Jupiter Ace, the Camputers Lynx, the Oric-1. Throw in a spate of knockoffs and clones from the Far East, and the situation was truly chaos; most of these machines were incompatible with one another. Something had to give. If the lines of battle had been drawn up in 1982, the war would begin in earnest in 1983, just as it had in North America.
Even if you aren’t that familiar with British computing history, you probably aren’t exactly in suspense about who won in the British theater of the Home Computer Wars of 1983. The fact that I chose to feature the BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum on this blog in preference to all those other oddball models pretty much says it all. The BBC Micro found a home in virtually every school in Britain, and, even at a street price of £400 or so, also became a favorite of researchers and hardcore hobbyists, who loved its sturdy construction and expandability. The Spectrum had none of these things going for it, but it did have a £130 price tag and a bright color graphics display for games. Neither machine was perfect, but each was a good fit for its niche. And in addition to hardware specifications both had considerable soft power working in their favor. The BBC Micro had been blessed with the imprimatur of the British government, and thus stood in effect as the official computer of the British nation. And the Speccy came from Uncle Clive, the man who had first brought low-cost computing to the British masses. Sure, he was a bit eccentric and a bit prickly, but that was just a manifestation of his impatience with the bureaucrats and business concerns that delayed his inventions reaching the masses. It was an image that Sinclair, who had begun to read his own positive press notices when said notices existed only in his head, positively reveled in. Throughout the year Sinclair struggled to keep up with demand, as seemingly every kid in Britain begged for a Speccy. Meanwhile those other computers straggled on as best they could before bowing to the inevitable one by one during this year and the next. Kids wanted what their friends had, and their friends all had Speccys.
Put crudely, then, the BBC Micro came to occupy the space in British computing held by the Apple II in North America, the Establishment choice for education and home computing. The Speccy, meanwhile, was the Commodore 64, the cheaper, ruder, funner model that the kids adored. Just to keep us from getting too neat with our analogies, it should be noted that the Commodore 64 itself also began arriving in numbers in Britain during 1983. However, the vagaries of economics and exchange rates being what they were, its initial price there was closer to that of the BBC Micro than the Spectrum, limiting its sales. The Commodore 64 became the computer for the posh public-school kids, while the Speccy remained the choice of the masses. The former was unquestionably a much more capable machine than the latter by any objective measure, but even in later years, when the price dropped and the 64’s popularity grew, it never quite got the same sort of love that accrued to the Spectrum. Like driving on the wrong side of the road and eating baked beans for breakfast, there was just something indelibly British about the Speccy’s peculiar BASIC and weird keyboard, something that made a generation of British gamers and game programmers fall in love with it as their machine.
To work this comparison one last time, Clive Sinclair’s 1983 in Britain was like Jack Tramiel’s in North America — the best, most unblemished, most triumphant year of a long, chequered career. It must have felt like vindication itself when he received an invitation to attend the Queen’s Birthday Honors in June to receive a knighthood. Suddenly Uncle Clive had become Sir Clive. Given Sinclair’s relationship with the British bureaucracy the honor might have seemed a surprising one. Indeed, at the time that he received it his company was still embroiled in various government investigations for its failure to ship its products in a timely fashion to customers as well as a rash of complaints about shoddy workmanship. (Sinclair was still desperately trying to recall some 28,000 Spectrum power packs that had the potential to shock a person into unconsciousness — shades of the exploding watches of yore.) Luckily, he was a huge favorite of Margaret Thatcher, no friend of entrenched bureaucratic forces herself, who saw him as exactly the kind of entrepreneur that her new, more freedom-loving and capitalism-friendly Britain needed. And Thatcher, who was riding a tide of personal popularity and renewed patriotism of her own in the wake of the Falklands War, generally got what she wanted. The press gushed with praise in the wake of Sinclair’s honor, some justified, some somewhat, shall we say, overblown. Popular Computing Weekly credited him with “transforming Britain from a nation of shopkeepers to a nation of micro users.” Sinclair User simply announced that he had “invented the home micro,” conveniently forgetting about some folks on the other side of the Atlantic.
Clive still being Clive regardless of his honorific, he sunk his cash and his reputation into projects that were of debatable wisdom at best. In lieu of a floppy-disk drive for the Spectrum, he invested in a strange piece of technology called the Microdrive, a tape-based system that looked and operated rather like an old 8-track audio tape. Announced simultaneously with the Spectrum itself back in April of 1982, the Microdrive didn’t finally arrive until the summer of 1983. When it did it was like a caricature of a Sinclair product: cheaper than the competition but also slow and balky and horribly unreliable. A computer crash at the wrong moment could erase an entire tape in seconds. Users may have partially embraced the Speccy because of its eccentricities, but this was taking things too far. Rather than being charming the Microdrive was just sort of terrifying. It never got much love from Speccy users, who chose to stick with the even slower but more trustworthy medium of the cassette tape. In his choosing to develop such a white elephant rather than investing in the plebeian, well-proven technology of the floppy disk we see the most exasperating side of Clive Sinclair, who was always trying to prove how much more clever he was than the conventional wisdom of his competitors, even though conventional wisdom is often conventional for a reason. The Microdrive in turn shows the dangers of a company that is absolutely controlled by a single mercurial individualist. Sinclair’s backers and fans would learn much more about that in the time to come.
Then again, at least the Microdrive was a computer product. Sir Clive, who always harbored a deep skepticism about how long this computer thing was really going to last, also sunk energy and resources into his twin white whales, a miniature, portable television set and an electric car. Both projects would provoke much hilarity in the British press in later years when his star as a captain of industry had faded. But instead of going on any more about any of that today let’s just leave Sir Clive to enjoy his big year. His road will get bumpier soon enough.
Criticisms aside, Sinclair did play a huge role in turning Britain into the most computer-mad nation on Earth. Despite the American industry’s considerable head start, a greater percentage of British than American homes had computers by the end of 1983. Already by April total British microcomputer sales had passed the one-million mark. By December the Speccy alone was flirting with that figure.
All those computers in private hands meant a software marketplace that was if anything growing even faster than the hardware side. And since the computers selling in biggest numbers were the Speccys being installed in bedrooms and living rooms across Britain, software in this context meant mostly games. By 1983 a hit game could make you, at least for the time being, rich, as was demonstrated by a flood of brash young game publishers populated by brash young men just a year or two (at most) removed from bicycling to school. Now they drove Porsches and Ferraris to posh offices in the most fashionable parts of town. A company called Imagine Software, publishers of such Speccy hits as Arcadia, was amongst the most spectacular of the success stories. When a BBC film crew visited their office for a documentary feature in early 1984 they found “huge, luxurious offices, acres of carpet, computer terminals by the ton load, lots of young programmers, secretaries in abundance, young ‘gophers’ acting as runners for the management, and a company garage packed with a fleet of Ferrari Boxers, BMWs for the lesser executives, and the famous Mark Butler custom hand-built Harris motorbike.” Clearly a certain sector of British society had another very good reason to love Sir Clive: his creation was making them rich.
Just as in America, established media forces were also eager to get a piece of the action. Virgin Records launched Virgin Games, and of all people K-tel, those purveyors of cheesy TV-peddled hits compilations, also jumped in, attending the Midland Computer Fair with a well-publicized £1 million burning a hole in their pockets for deal-making with eager programmers.
Yet even with the arrival of Big Money on the scene the British industry remained wilder, woolier, and more democratic than its American counterpart. The games themselves remained much less expensive. Whereas a big release like Ultima III could exceed $50 in America, games in Britain rarely exceeded £10, and most sold for around £5 or even less. With less invested in any particular title, both publishers and buyers were more willing to take chances on crazy ideas, and individual programmers had a better chance of seeing their creations on store shelves and actually making them some money. Even if no one wanted to give them a chance they could just start their own little company in the hope of becoming the next Imagine; distribution was also comparatively wide open, making it relatively easy to get your game to the public on your own. It all added up to a market that had a lot of product that for very good reasons would never have passed muster in the United States. Yet it also had a spirit of wild-eyed, devil-may-care creativity about it that was sometimes lacking amongst the more staid, polished American publishers.
My special interest, adventure games, were a big part of the industry, amongst if not the most popular genre out there. As with other kinds of games, adventure seemed to be multiplying exponentially from month to month. Britain was not just computer mad but also adventure mad. Well before the end of the year production of new British adventure games far outstripped that of American, and the disparity would only continue to grow over the next few years. In November Micro-Adventurer debuted, the first magazine anywhere in the world dedicated not just to games in general but to this particular genre.
To survey this explosion of titles in any real depth would bog us down for months; that will have to remain a task for some other, even more esoteric blog than this one. But I will try to convey some sense of the times by continuing to follow the careers of some friends we met earlier. We’ll do that next time.
(This survey of the scene is drawn mainly from the Your Computer and Sinclair User issues of 1983, with occasional forays into Home Computing Weekly and Popular Computing Weekly. The image is taken from the 1984 Sinclair User annual’s cover.)
Just before we left the U.S. for Denmark almost four years ago, I bought a cache of old Amiga magazines on eBay to help with the book I was planning to write there. By the time we moved to Norway almost two years ago, the book was finished, and so I deposited the magazines at my in-laws’ house near Flensburg, Germany. (There are a lot of different countries in my life these days.) Now said in-laws are hoping to move soon, so I need to do something with them. I just don’t have the space to keep them, especially as we’re likely to be moving yet again quite soon. Nor do I need them anymore in hard-copy form, because they’re all now archived on my computer. So, I’m wondering if anyone wants them.
What they are, specifically, is almost every issue of AmigaWorld and Amazing Computing from the first issue until just shortly after Commodore’s 1994 bankruptcy, in (relatively) gently used condition. I say “almost every” for the sake of caution, as there may be just one or two issues of either or both magazines missing, but no more than that. There’s also some sales catalogs, a few issues of an early desktop-video magazine, and some other loose bits.
So, I’m willing to give the whole collection to anyone who can arrange for their transportation. That, alas, could be the sticking point. They fill at least eight or ten boxes (maybe more), and they aren’t light. Shipping would likely be expensive within Europe, very expensive internationally. The ideal scenario would be someone willing to pick them up in Flensburg. I’ll be there this Friday and Saturday only, but I could arrange for one of my in-laws to be there most days in the near future.
If you want them, send me an email using the link at the right and tell me how you propose to get them. Should there be a rush I’ll decide based on some combination of first come first serve and practicality. And if you know anyone else who might be interested, please tell them about it. If I can’t find them a home I’ll probably have to take the magazines to the recycler, much as that would pain me. Hundreds of magazines just aren’t compatible with the Traveling Scandinavian Roadshow that is our lives at the moment.
In my last article I described some of the pioneering early work done in multimedia computing with the aid of the new technology of the laser disc. These folks were not the only ones excited by the laser disc’s potential. Plenty of others, at least some of them of a somewhat more, shall we say, mercenary disposition, considered how they could package these advancements into a form practical and inexpensive enough for home users. They dreamed of a new era of interactive video entertainment to supplement or even replace the old linear storytelling of traditional television. Tim Onosko described the dream in an article in the January 1982 issue of Creative Computing that reads like a scene from L.A. Noire:
The scene is your living room. You’re watching a television program — let’s say it’s a cop show. A policeman is questioning a man suspected of committing a crime. The suspect answers in a barely audible tone, and his words come slowly. The policeman finishes his interrogation, then turns to the camera and asks you a question: should we believe him?
On a hand-held remote control, you press a button indicating that you doubt the suspect’s story. The cop consults you again, this time offering three possibilities.
Do you think the suspect was:
B) concealing important facts?
C) in shock and unable to communicate accurately?
The core of this idea was decades old even in 1982. Before she became the voice of Objectivism, Ayn Rand first attracted literary notice for her 1934 play Night of January 16th, a courtroom drama with a twist: members of the audience get to play the jury, deciding whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The ending of the play naturally depends on their choice. In 1967 the Czech director Radúz Činčera debuted his film Kinoautomat, in which the audience gets to vote on what happens next — and thus which scene is played next — nine times over the course of a viewing. On a less high-brow note, various cable operators during the 1970s experimented with what might be seen as the ancestors of American Idol, allowing the audience to vote their preferences via telephone. The main thing that distinguishes the scheme that Onosko describes above is that it places the individual, rather than a voting group, in control. In the dawning age of personal computing, that was no small distinction.
Still, interactive-video visionaries faced an uphill climb made even steeper by the very people who championed the laser disc as the next big thing in traditional home video. The legal team at MCA, co-developer of the laser disc, declared that their contracts with the Screen Actors Guild made it illegal to offer any sort of interactive features on their movie discs; they could only sell movies to be “viewed straight through.” Pioneer, the electronics brand with by far the biggest commercial presence in laser discs, didn’t even bother with excuses. They were simply uninterested in the various proposals from interested developers, not even deigning to reply to most. These big companies insisted on seeing the laser disc as a videocassette with better picture and sound, a difficult sale to make in light of the format’s other, very real disadvantages to the videocassette. Meanwhile its really revolutionary qualities, while not quite going unnoticed — Pioneer and others did make and sell industrial-grade players and the laser discs they played to the institutional projects I described in my last article as well as many more — were deemed of little ultimate significance in the consumer market.
Denied the industry sanction that might have made of the interactive laser disc a real force in consumer electronics, hobbyists and small developers did the best they could. A tiny company called Aurora Systems developed and sold an interface between an Apple II and the most popular of the early consumer-grade laser-disc players, the Pioneer VP-1000. Even so, those dreaming of a hobbyist-driven market for interactive laser-disc entertainment akin to that of the early general software market would be disappointed. A fundamental problem prevented it: even hobbyists with the equipment and the skill to shoot video sequences for their productions had no way to get it onto the read-only medium of the laser disc.
Admittedly, some went to great lengths to try to get around this. In that same January 1982 issue, which was given over almost entirely to the potential of the interactive laser disc and multimedia computing, Creative Computing published a fascinating experiment as a type-in program. Rollercoaster is a text adventure that requires not only an Apple II, a VP-1000, and the Aurora interface but also a laser disc of the 1977 movie of the same name. You, like George Segal in the film, are tasked with trying to stop a madman from blowing up a roller coaster. The game opens by playing an intro sequence from the laser disc interspersed with text. You see the madman planting the bomb, and see the airplane carrying you, a detective, arriving on the scene. Most of the locations you enter once the game proper begins are illustrated by a single frame judiciously chosen from the movie, and various actions are rewarded with a snippet of footage.
Flow chart for the game Rollercoaster, showing where video sequences and still frames appear
Rollercoaster, written by David Lubar with major design contributions from Creative Computing‘s publisher and editor David Ahl, is almost certainly the first computer game to incorporate what would come to be called the cut scene. It’s also the first to incorporate video footage from the real world, what would come to be given the tag of “full-motion video,” harbinger of a major if relatively short-lived game-industry craze of the 1990s. Still, its piggybacking on the film of another was legally problematic at best, and obviously inapplicable to a boxed-commercial-software industry. The fundamental blockage — that of lacking the resources to make original laser-disc content — remained. And then along came a Southern Californian named Rick Dyer, who made the deal that would bring interactive video to the masses.
Like so many others, Dyer had found his first encounter with Crowther and Woods’s Adventure a life-changing experience. Even as he built a lucrative career as a videogame programmer for Mattel and Coleco in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he dreamed of doing an adventure game in multimedia. Dissatisfied with the computer graphics available to him, he cast about far and wide for an alternative that would be more aesthetically pleasing. His first attempt was a sort of automated version of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that would soon be huge in children’s publishing. It consisted of a roll of tape upon which was printed text and pictures. As the player made choices using a keyboard, the controlling computer would shuttle the tape back and forth to expose the correct “page” for reading and viewing. Next he created a setup built around a computer-controlled slide projector, with a computer-controlled tape player used to play snippets of audio to accompany each slide. He also tried a complicated VCR setup, in which a videotape was laboriously rewound and fast-forwarded to find the next scenes needed by the game. When laser-disc players began to arrive in numbers, he felt he had the correct format at last. He started a company of his own, Advanced Micro Systems, and went to various toy companies with an idea he called The Fantasy Machine, a sort of interactive storybook for children. He found no takers. But then he met two partners just desperate enough to listen to his ideas.
Beginning in 1977, Cinematronics had developed and marketed quite a number of arcade games. Their games never entered the public consciousness in the way of an Asteroids or Pac-Man, but they did well enough, and are fondly remembered by arcade aficionados today. By 1982, however, the hits had stopped coming and the company’s vector-graphics technology had begun to look increasingly dated. Overextended and poorly managed like so many companies in this young and crazy industry, they ended up in bankruptcy, needing a hit game to convince the court not to liquidate them entirely. They found what looked like their best shot at such a thing in an unlikely place: in Dyer, who proposed adopting his interactive children’s storybook into an arcade experience. With little else on the horizon, they decided to roll the dice on Dyer’s scheme. Inside the arcade machine’s cabinet would be a very simple computer board, built around the tried-and-true Z80 processor, connected to a Pioneer laser-disc player. Dyer had found 5000 industrial-grade models of the latter languishing in a warehouse in Los Angeles, victims of the somewhat underwhelming reception of the laser disc in general. Pioneer was willing to sell them cheap — a critical consideration for a shoestring operation like this one.
With the hardware side in place, Dyer now needed someone to make the video footage his software would control. He had, in other words, come to the crux of the problem with computer-controlled video. Dyer, however, had an advantage: he lived on the doorstep of Hollywood. He was able to find just the person he needed in Don Bluth.
Bluth was a skilled animator who must have felt he had been born at the wrong time. He got his dream job at Disney in 1971, arriving just in time for the era that would go down as the nadir of Disney’s long history in animated film. Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men were now indeed getting old, and Walt himself was gone, leaving the studio without a strong leader. The result was almost two decades of critical and commercial underachievers, the sole exception being The Rescuers (1977), for which the eight remaining Old Men roused themselves to recapture the old spirit one last time. Bluth also got to work on that film, but otherwise his assignments were disheartening. Yet his options outside Disney were also limited at best. In this era the Saturday-morning cartoons were king. Bluth, a classicist by training and temperament, loathed the make’em-quick-and-cheap-and-sell-the-toys ethos of that world. (“There are two kinds of animation: the Bambi and Pinocchio classical style, and the Saturday-morning-cartoon type. I’d rather sell shoes than do the latter.”) When he left Disney at last in 1979 it was to form his own studio, Don Bluth Productions, to make the kind of big, lush animated features that didn’t seem to interest Disney anymore.
Most would say he delivered with 1982’s The Secret of NIMH, the first film that was fully his. But while the critics raved the public stayed away. Bluth blamed the film’s failure on his distributors MGM/UA, who failed to get it into enough theaters and promoted it only halfheartedly; MGM/UA would probably say that an old-fashioned, animated feature like NIMH was simply passé in the year of E.T., Star Trek II, and Tron. To add to Bluth’s woes, a major strike hit the animation industry just as he was hoping to begin production on a second film. He managed to cut a private deal with the union, but as he did so his financial backers lost faith and pulled their support for the new movie. With no obvious reason to continue to exist, Don Bluth Productions, like Cinematronics, faced bankruptcy and liquidation. And then, like Cinematronics, they got a call from Rick Dyer.
With little money of his own and with his partner literally bankrupt, Dyer couldn’t offer Bluth much beyond a one-third stake in whatever money the doubtful venture might eventually earn. Still, Bluth jumped on the proposal as “a dinghy to a sinking ship.” He scraped together a $300,000 loan, enough to prepare about five minutes of footage for a prototype system that the three partners, who now called themselves Starcom, could show to potential investors. The windfall came when Coleco, a Johnny-come-lately suddenly pushing hard to build a presence in home videogames, offered a cool $1 million for the right to make a home version of the game. Starcom wasn’t quite sure how Coleco was going to manage that, but they were thrilled to take their money. It was enough to let Bluth and company finish the 22 minutes of animated footage found in the final game, albeit barely; with no money to hire voice actors, for instance, the animators and their colleagues around the office simply did the voices themselves. (Editor Dan Molina, who voiced hapless hero Dirk the Daring, seems to have been channeling Scooby-Doo…)
The decision to make The Fantasy Machine into an arcade game necessitated a radical retooling of Dyer’s original vision. Such a slow-paced exercise in interactive storytelling was obviously not going to fit in the frenetic world of the arcade, where owners expected games that were over in a few minutes and ready to accept the next quarter. The Fantasy Machine therefore became Dragon’s Lair, with the story stripped down to the very basics. You guide Dirk the Daring, a courageous but awkward hero in the tradition of Wart from The Sword in the Stone. Dirk loves Daphne, a shapely but empty-headed feminist’s nightmare modeled from old Playboy centerfolds. (Bluth: “Daphne’s elevator didn’t go all the way to the top floor, but she served a purpose.”) Daphne has been kidnapped by the evil wizard Mordorc and his pet dragon — horrid pun coming! — Singe. The game comes down to escaping all of the monsters, traps, and other obstacles in Mordorc’s castle until you arrive in the inner sanctum at last for the final showdown.
Menus asking what to do next were replaced by action sequences which require you to make the right movement with the joystick or hit the fire button to strike with the hero’s sword at the right instant as the video plays; failure means the loss of one of your three lives. At first the team tried to preserve some semblance of you actually guiding the story by placing, say, several doors in a room, each leading to a different scene. In time, however, even that fell away, as all meaningful choices were replaced by what the development team called a “threat/resolve” model. The game as released plays its 30 or so scenes in a randomized order to keep you from getting bored — or too comfortable, thus extending your time at the machine. In each, complete success or complete failure at executing the necessary arbitrary movements in the proper time windows are the only options. You either survive, in which case that scene is checked off your to-do list, or you die, in which case you lose a life, one of the silly death animations which make up a huge chunk of the total content on the laser disc plays, and the scene is shuffled back into the deck.
Let’s take a look at one of these scenes in action. The clip below shows one of the longest scenes in the game, running almost a full minute; many others are over in a scant ten seconds or less. After you (unavoidably) fall into the conveniently placed boat, you have to make thirteen movements with the joystick at the right instants. If you flub any one of these, the scene is immediately interrupted for a separate death sequence.
Lengthy as it is, this is actually one of the easier scenes in the game. The flashes in the oncoming tunnels give some clear visual indication of what you need to do, and most of the necessary actions are fairly intuitive. You may only need to die three or four times here to get the sequence straight. Most scenes are not so forgiving. It’s never obvious just when you should be trying to control Dirk and when you should just be watching; nor is it always clear which move is the correct one, or just when it needs to be executed. You can learn only through trial and error. Back in the day, you were paying 50¢ for every three lives whilst doing so; as a technological showcase the game was priced at twice the normal going rate. If we define a good game as one that gives you lots of interesting choices, Dragon’s Lair must be the worst game ever. As John Cawley noted in his book about Don Bluth, it’s more of a maze than a game; the smartest players were those who just watched other people play for hours while noting the correct moves, to be used to hopefully run through the whole thing in one go when they finally felt ready. I like the description at Dave’s Arcade best: “[Dragon’s Lair] is a hybrid of an animated movie and a Choose Your Own Adventure book…except the book is ripped from your hands and thrown across the room every time you fail to turn the page fast enough.” And yet, punishing as the game is while you learn the moves, it becomes trivial once you’ve accomplished that; within weeks of its release every arcade in America had that one annoying kid who had mastered it and used his skill to extend his time at the machine while frustrated arcade owners gnashed their teeth. Thus the game manages the neat trick of being too difficult and too easy at the same time.
None of which prevented it from turning into an absolute sensation when it arrived in arcades in the summer of 1983, and not only amongst the usual arcade rats. Thanks in some degree to Don Bluth, whose background as a traditional animator seemed to somehow legitimize Dragon’s Lair in their eyes, the mainstream media and the Hollywood establishment took to it with gusto. It got a feature spot on Entertainment Tonight, feature articles in The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, front-page coverage in a hundred newspapers. Ricky on Silver Spoons got his own personal Dragon’s Lair machine to play on as part of the show’s fantasy of living the good life, teenage style. The New York Post called it “a quantum jump into a whole new art form of the arcade.” Many people who had resisted the lure of the arcades during the days of Space Invaders and Pac-Man now came in at last to have a look and give it a go. Cinematronics couldn’t make enough machines to meet demand. Those arcades that managed to secure one sometimes had to snake velvet ropes around the premises for the line of people waiting to play. Some wired up additional monitors and mounted them high above the machine so the people in line could watch the current player’s exploits. One allegedly installed bleachers for the pure spectators. Most machines earned back their $4000 purchase price within a week or so, while also boosting earnings from all of the other, older machines around them that people played when they got bored of waiting for Dragon’s Lair.
The craze isn’t difficult to understand. Cursory observation — about all the average non-gaming beat reporter was likely to give it — can make it seem that the player is really controlling Dirk, really guiding him through a lushly animated, interactive cartoon. Seen in this light, and when compared to the flickering sprites and electronic bleeting of the other machines in the arcade, Dragon’s Lair could seem like an artifact beamed in from twenty years in the future. The audiovisual leap from old to new was so extreme as to be almost unfathomable, making Rick Dyer and Don Bluth look like technical sorcerers with access to secrets denied to the rest of the world. It felt like movies would have had they leaped from The Jazz Singer to Star Wars in a year.
Pundits within the industry, meanwhile, had their own strong motivations to see Dragon’s Lair and the “laser-disc revolution” it allegedly harbingered in the best possible light. What had begun as a worrisome lack of continued growth in the arcade and home-game-console industries during the second half of 1982 had by that summer of 1983 become a clear, undeniable downturn that was looking more and more like it was about to become a free fall. It appeared that all of those who had snorted dismissively about the videogame “fad” might just have been right. And so, just as Don Bluth saw Dragon’s Lair as the dinghy that could save his company and his career in animation, arcade owners and game makers saw Dragon’s Lair as the dinghy that could save their industry. And for a while that really did seem possible. While the bottom dropped out of the home videogame market, Dragon’s Lair kept the arcades above water. (One arcade owner made a comment about Dragon’s Lair‘s popularity that could be read as ominous as easily as ecstatic: “There is no number two. It’s just taken over.”) People in the industry convinced themselves that 1984 would bring a wave of other, even better laser-disc games and the high times would well and truly be here again. John Cook, writer for an industry magazine, gushed that “by this time next year a new videogame without a laser-disc player will be as rare as a silent movie in 1929.”
M.A.C.H. 3 and Bega’s Battle, two of the short-lived laser-disc games of 1984
In reality the second half of 1983, when Dragon’s Lair stood alone, was as good as it got for laser-disc games. Cook’s predicted avalanche of new games did hit with the new year, but they were uniformly uninspiring. They fell into two general categories: those that aped Dragon’s Lair‘s “interactive cartoon” approach with all of its associated limitations and those that used laser-disc video strictly as eye candy, displaying it behind and between levels of a more conventional game. In addition to their lack of depth, virtually all of these games also lacked the one saving grace of Dragon’s Lair: the skilled animators at Don Bluth Productions. Some of them did the best they could with the artists they could find; many grabbed their footage from cartoons or even feature films (Astron Belt, a game which actually predates Dragon’s Lair in its original Japanese release, used footage from the recent Star Trek II amongst other sources); all of them looked shabby in comparison to Bluth’s work. None did very well, and the industry as a whole settled back into the decline that Dragon’s Lair had briefly arrested.
Even Dyer and Bluth’s followup to Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, despite having a more coherent, linear plot progression and giving the player at least a modicum of more control over its direction, failed to recapture the old magic. Players of Dragon’s Lair had fallen into two groups: the casually curious, who lost a couple of dollars before they even figured out what was happening on the screen or what they were supposed to be doing and moved on with a shrug; and the committed, who doggedly worked out the moves and battled their way to the end. With the novelty of the cartoon graphics now gone, neither group showed much interest in repeating the experience. As for the arcade industry: it would eventually stabilize and even recover somewhat, but those heady days circa 1981 would never return.
Even at its peak Dragon’s Lair never quite paid off for the folks who made it the way the hype might have made you think it did. Their lack of financial resources and the bankruptcy courts who had to approve Cinematronics’s every move kept them from fully capitalizing on the early publicity. They eventually ran out of the surplus, discontinued laser-disc players that Dyer had found, and had a terrible time getting new ones out of Pioneer. Cinematronics did manage to produce over 10,000 units over Dragon’s Lair‘s brief production run, a very impressive figure in a slumping arcade industry, but could probably have sold several times that if they could only have made them while the craze lasted. On the other hand, the game’s scarcity doubtlessly added to its mystique, and allowed Cinematronics to sell each unit for $4000, easily twice the industry’s going rate. Less ambiguously damaging were the technical faults that started to crop up after a few months. Dragon’s Lair worked its laser-disc player hard, sending the laser careening all over the disc for ten or twelve hours per day of constant use. Meanwhile the machine that housed it was getting constantly kicked, slapped, and jostled by angry or jubilant players (more of the former, one suspects, given the nature of the game). Pioneer had never planned for such conditions. The players started to fail in relatively short order, leaving Cinematronics scrambling to replace them, at considerable expense in money and in the precious new laser-disc players they had to use as replacements, for angry arcade owners who had just lost their cash cow.
The partners, like the industry as a whole, mistook player infatuation for commitment. Space Ace, which cost twice as much as Dragon’s Lair to make, did a bare fraction of the business. Development of a third game, Dragon’s Lair II, was halted in March of 1984. It was hoped that this would just be a temporary delay, to let the laser-disc scene shake itself out a bit and the substandard Dragon’s Lair knock-offs fade away. But by July Cinematronics couldn’t sell the Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace games that were now clogging their warehouse. Production had finally ramped up just in time for demand to cease. The world had moved on; Dragon’s Lair II was cancelled. The people who had planned to make it had no choice but to move on as well, although not without accusations and threats amongst the partners as everyone blamed everyone else for what had happened.
Cinematronics straggled on in the diminished arcade industry for more years than anyone might have expected before finally being acquired by another arcade survivor: WMS Industries, the company that had once been Williams Electronics of Defender fame.
Rick Dyer renamed his company RDI Video Systems to continue to pursue his original dream of The Fantasy Machine. He put together a laser-disc entertainment system for the home called Halcyon, or just Hal for short, a deliberate play on the computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey; apparently he judged that people thinking of inviting Hal into their living rooms wouldn’t think too much about HAL’s running rather messily amok in the film.
Hal talked to you, and, if he was in a good mood, accepted a limited number of voice commands back in return. This feature was enough evidence for RDI to declare that he was “artificially intelligent,” again without seeming to think about where HAL’s AI got the poor Discovery crew in the movie. Dyer and one of his partners appeared with Hal on Computer Chronicles, giving what has to be one of the most uncomfortable product demonstrations ever. Hal refuses to understand host Stewart Cheifet when he says the simple word “one,” to the point that Cheifet finally just gives up and takes option two instead. Meanwhile co-host Gary Kildall, no slouch in matters of computer science, presses Dyer and his associate relentlessly to abandon their patently silly AI claim; they just cling to it all the tighter.
Dyer hoped to release a whole line of interactive laser discs for Halcyon, but only three were ever completed: a couple of football games that use real NFL footage, and Thayer’s Quest, a menu-driven interactive story that hews very close to Dyer’s original plans for the game that became Dragon’s Lair.
Halcyon as a whole is an amazing, bizarre, visionary, kooky creation years ahead of its practical time. As the coup de grâce, RDI planned to sell it for a staggering $2200. It’s unclear whether any were actually sold on the open market before Dyer’s investors pulled the plug; if so, the numbers were truly minuscule. After Halcyon’s failure Dyer continued intermittently to work with interactive narratives, surfacing again in the mid-1990s with two adventure games, Kingdom: The Far Reaches and Kingdom II: Shadoan.
Don Bluth never had any real passion for videogames; it’s unfortunate that Dragon’s Lair has gone down in history as a Don Bluth creation, when in reality it was very much Rick Dyer’s vision. Even at the height of the game’s success Bluth always talked about it as a means to an end, a way to expose the arcade generation to the pleasures of classical animation rather than as a new type of entertainment in its own right. Short-lived as its success was, Dragon’s Lair served its purpose for Bluth. It did indeed become the dinghy that kept him afloat in the world of commercial animation until the opportunity to do another feature came along. Bluth found a backer in Steven Spielberg, whose Amblin Entertainment funded and released Bluth’s An American Tail in 1986. That film, along with the likes of The Brave Little Toaster and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, marked the beginning of a renaissance for animation on the big screen, paving the way for Pixar and a rejuvenated Disney to return the big-budget animated feature to the yearly blockbuster rolls in the 1990s. But another, more direct legacy of Dragon’s Lair probably didn’t thrill Bluth quite as much: the game was adapted into exactly the kind of knock-off Saturday-morning cartoon he loathed. Unfortunately for ABC, it debuted only in the fall of 1984, by which time the kids they were trying to reach had moved on long ago. It lasted for only one season of 13 episodes.
Coleco also saw little return for their investment in the Dragon’s Lair intellectual property. They had schemed on introducing a laser-disc player for their ColecoVision console and/or their ill-fated Adam home computer, but soon realized — shades of the $2200 Halcyon — it would just be too expensive to be practical. Instead they funded a completely new game for the Adam inspired by scenes from the original. It didn’t look as nice, but was probably more fun in the long run. That game turned out to be just the first — and arguably one of the best — of a long, confusing stream of games that have carried the Dragon’s Lair name since. When Readysoft released a version for the Amiga in late 1988 it was rightly seen as a landmark. As the first version that looked reasonably close to the laser-disc original, it marked just how far computer graphics had come in five years; soon we would be in the era of Pixar, when computers are used to create feature cartoons. But not all things change — the gameplay remained as simplistic as ever. Today Digital Leisure sells Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, and Dragon’s Lair II, completed at last, in versions playable on anything from your Blu-Ray player to your iPhone. And yes, it’s still the same exercise in rote memorization it’s always been, with a few optional kindnesses to make the experience a bit less painful. Dragon’s Lair must be the most long-lived bad game in the history of the industry. Such is the power of nostalgia.
Dragon’s Lair makes an interesting study today not just as an historical curiosity or an example of style over substance, although it is both of those things. In addition to being one more crazy, unexpected offshoot of the original Adventure, that urtext of an industry, it’s an important early way station in gaming’s long relationship with movies; indeed, I believe it’s the first game to give itself the fraught title of “interactive movie.” The lesson that may seem obvious after playing Dragon’s Lair a few times is one that the industry would learn only slowly and painfully: non-interactive video is a problematic fit with an interactive medium, a subject we’ll undoubtedly explore in depth around here if we ever make it to the era of the lost and lamented (?) full-motion video games of the 1990s.
But for now let’s not judge Dragon’s Lairtoo harshly. It may not be much of a game, but, like so much of what I write about on this blog, it’s a great example of stretching available technology just as far as it will go and creating something kind of amazing in its time and place. For that golden six months in 1983, at least, that was more than enough. The impression it made on hearts and minds in that short span of time has fueled thirty years of nostalgia. Not bad for a 22-minute cartoon.
(As mentioned in the article, you can still buy various incarnations of Dragon’s Lair and associated games from Digital Leisure. You can also use some of these products as a key to let you play the games in their original form using the Daphne emulator. See that project’s website for more information.