This is the sixth of an ongoing series of posts in which I list, in ascending order, the games that have most influenced me. If you want to know how and why this project started, read this introduction.
Now, let’s jump right in shall we?
Atari ST, 1990
In October 1953, an Israeli military force crossed into the West Bank and committed a massacre in a village called Qibya. Close to 70 unarmed civilians were killed, many of them women and children. The village itself was all but destroyed. The attackers, under the command of future Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was called Unit 101.
The operation drew international condemnation. A United Nations Security Council Resolution, “Violation of General Armistice by Israel,” was passed 9-0 in favour with two abstentions. Such UN Resolutions are numbered sequentially, so it was purely coincidental that this happened to be Resolution 101.
The videogame, Resolution 101, has absolutely nothing at all to do with this tragic historic event.
Instead, this is a fast-paced 3D shoot-em-up in which you fly a law enforcement hovercraft, badly I might add, across a sparse but colourful futuristic cityscape in pursuit of evil drug runners. Various hostile units engage you in vehicular Doom-like combat (OK, this was 3 years before Doom, and on the ST, so Doom-like is a stretch) until you encounter the boss gangster for the level, whereupon you engage with lethal force. You know the force must be lethal because of the short video sequence that plays when the drug lord’s hovercraft takes damage, in which he looks like he’s about to vomit into his moll’s handbag.
Despite being a bit limited overall, this was a slick game. It looked nice and ran well on the hardware. I remember getting a single-level demo on an ST Format magazine cover disk. I thought it was exciting, and the mag made a pretty big shout about it, but that demo would have been plenty. The game didn’t really go anywhere. Beyond the spectacle of the presentation hid a fairly lacklustre shoot em up. Doom, it was not.
ZX Spectrum, 1984
The Speccy didn’t come with many colours. It had six garish hues, plus black and white. Each of these was available in dim and bright versions (except black, which was always just black). Let’s say we’re going all-in on the disco vibe, so we’re definitely leaving white for the suits and black for the afros. And we’re going to stick to the six bright colours, because disco. Now, there aren’t that many possible combinations of two different colours drawn from six choices. Which begs the question: why this combination?
Christ that is a major ugly mess and no mistake. The opening section of Disco Dan has you run along an apparently endless cyan-magenta-vision corridor while being assailed by demonic yellow Pac-Mutants, jumping over red laser beam tripwires, and avoiding small black holes in the ground. It looks like an unethical experiment into whether humans can actually die of attribute clash.
For how long does this go on? Well, notice that no matter what happens your score doesn’t increase beyond a flat zero, so maybe you’re not making any actual progress at all? Nah, surely you’re doing well. There’s even a screen-wide progress bar that reduces (yes, reduces) by a pixel approximately once every… minute... or two? Christ.
But just as you’re about to quit, the terrible tunnel comes to a sudden stop, and the actual game begins. And it’s… well, it’s shit Q*bert, really, isn’t it?
The only reason I remember Disco Dan with any kind of fondness at all is that there was a kid who lived at the bottom of the cul-de-sac where I grew up, and he had the exciting new 128k Spectrum +2, and one of the only games he had for it was Disco Dan, and his name was also Dan! A coincidence which is only slightly less incredible than the one about the Israeli war crime.
ZX Spectrum, 1987
Why would anybody want to play a game that’s impossib… ah, I see what you did there.
I’m finding Impossaball almost as hard to explain as it was to play, but here goes. You control, and I use the term “control” in its loosest sense, a bouncing ball. You have to guide the bouncing ball from left to right through a horizontally scrolling environment, avoiding obstacles along the way, and hitting switches set into the floor and ceiling. Do all this and reach the finish line before the time runs out and you’re treated to more of the same. Only differently colored. And even more difficult.
Superficially then, this might seem like Wizball without the enemies, weapons, upgrades or characterization; but the truly surprising thing here is that Impossaball takes place in three dimensions. Your ball can not only bounce higher and lower, left and right through the levels, but can also go into the screen. Many switches can only be hit and many challenges only overcome if you’re at the correct “depth.” In trickier cases you need to bounce from front to back, with just the right upwards momentum, while also moving horizontally. This just about blew my tiny little nine year old mind.
Impossaball is an exemplary example of quality Speccy gaming of the time: graphics that worked with the limitations of the system, clean minimalist sound effects, and simple smooth gameplay that was a true test of skill. I appreciate that difficulty and accessibility is still a contentious subject in game design circles, but this is exactly the kind of game that I now relish: no hiding from its brutality, no easy mode, no way to grind and level-up past its challenges. Alas, not only did it blow my mind as a child, its difficulty also frustrated me, and as a result it didn’t get the attention it probably deserved.
Atari ST, 1989
Inadvertently continuing the war-crime themed fun comes the atrocity that was Joe Blade.
When you think of games that were banned in Germany due to their Nazi connections you almost certainly go straight to Wolfenstein 3D, but Joe Blade had run afoul of the same problem three years before Wolf came out. Not only was Joe Blade seen as being unnecessarily violent, glorifying war, but it also featured enemies that the German Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons decided were overly similar to SS officers. While Joe Blade wasn’t banned outright, it was made illegal to advertise the game, which amounted to the same thing.
Joe Blade sees you directing the titular character, 2D platformer style, through an enemy base in order to free prisoners. To do this, Joe must find keys to unlock cells, steal uniforms to evade capture (as in the 1982 2D version of Castle Wolfenstein), solve puzzles to defuse bombs, and use his limited supply of ammunition to kill enemy soldiers that absolutely aren’t Nazis honest. When shot, the enemies immediately disappear into an unnecessarily violent lingering haze of cute shimmering starlight, thus glorifying war.
Despite having all the superficial trappings of a good action-adventure platform game, Joe Blade unfortunately failed to include anything fun to do. All the rooms look the same, as do the enemies, and the game is far too large and nonlinear to be able to progress far without a map. There’s no in-game map, so making one is painstaking work. There’s no relief found in the gameplay itself either: there are no platforming challenges, no environmental puzzles, and defeating enemies involves little more than facing them and pressing a button. You soon become numb to the repetitive mechanical act of slaughtering the identical nameless… OK, I see why this got banned.
That's your lot. I assure you there are plenty of good games coming to this series, just... well, not for another couple of years.
Soon: Pac-Mania to Harlequin
Prev: Spy Vs Spy to Trantor
Thanks for reading. Did you love or hate these games? Hit the comments below.