Chrontendo 63!

Dr. Sparkle has come through once again with the 63rd edition of Chrontendo! It’s the third we’ve linked to from Set Side B (even if, for a while, we incorrectly labeled the previous one as #68, oops).

The games covered by this one are:

Knight Move (Japan only): A puzzle game involving landing a chess knight trying to land on a target square. Apparently this got a later release on PC by Spectrum Holobyte. Wikipedia tells us that the “A. Pazhitonov” listed as the creator on the Famicom version’s title screen is Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris. I cannot speak to that fact’s veracity, but it seems plausible enough. Pajitnov later would be hired by Microsoft to make puzzle games for them around the Windows XP era.

Lamentable US cover art of The Mafat Conspiracy (image from MobyGames)

The Mafat Conspiracy: the sequel to Golgo 13! The US release does its Japanese manga source material a great disservice by not having the grim face of protagonist Duke Togo visible anywhere on the front of the box, instead using extremely generic cover art. In play, it’s very similar to a slightly more competent version of the original, just with a different scenario.

Disney Adventures in the Magic Kingdom: Another of those Capcom Disney games, a glorified minigame collection, and probably the worst of the bunch! We’re a mile away from Ducktales here. As if to confirm the player’s low expectations, trivia questions are part of the game.

Solstice: Isometric platformer of the style well-known around that time in the UK, a very difficult yet respectable exploration game, and probably the best game in this episode. I prefer its SNES sequel Equinox, programmed by the Pickford Brothers, which has a highly distinctive look.

The vibe of Solstice’s print ad is like “we’re gonna make a porno”

The Last Starfighter: This is secretly a renamed port of the Commodore 64 classic Uridium! A little of the bloom is off the rose here, if only because high speed scrolling of the kind you see here is so common on the NES, yet so difficult to accomplish on the Commie. The C64’s distinctive look was heavily influenced by that system’s limitations: it takes some serious programming effort to get the C64 to be able to scroll significant screen data in a frame, enough so that, to do it, you basically have to leave color memory unchanged, since it can’t be relocated like tile definitions can. The NES can do scrolling much more easily than the Commodore 64, and had been doing very colorful fast-scrolling games like the Super Mario series for years, yet the game kept the same nearly-monochrome look as the C64 game. That’s why Uridium got such acclaim in the UK, because scrolling games like it were unknown on the system at the time, while the NES had support for it in the hardware, so it didn’t have nearly the same impact.

Captain Skyhawk: The main things I remember about this, a game which I’ve played and beaten, is it was made by Rare, and that Dave Barry once wrote a column about how much his kid dearly wanted a copy of this game. Dr. Sparkle is pretty hard on this one too, and I think for good reason. This is clearly a game intended to be in the River Raid style, but with elevation. It could have been done as a quasi-flight sim, with targets you have to duck beneath or fly over, but in its design the elevation barely matters, and instead it’s a lot more like a standard vertical shooter. The enemies don’t even cast shadows! Helicopters or ground vehicles alike can be shot if if they were on the same plane. It would have done better if it had either gone all-in on the elevation, maybe tying it to the player’s speed, and having fewer yet smarter enemies that also had elevation; either that, or taking out the elevation completely and making it into a 2D shooter more like Zanac or Raiden. Rare at that time understood the NES hardware better than most developers, and was more than capable technically of going with either approach. But they didn’t.

Then after you have Afterburner-style dogfighting levels, then the point where most players threw down the controller in disgust, when they’re asked to align and dock with a rotating space station. It all resembles a tech demo at Rare that Milton Bradley decided to try to make a few bucks off of selling as a game.

This even made it into the US release

Mechanized Attack: It’s another military-themed SNK action game, like Ikari Warriors, Guerilla War, Iron Tank or P.O.W. This one’s a light gun shooter. The game is most notable for having a debug mode, accessible by a code, with pixelated female nudity. This connects with reports of sexism in the Japanese game industry at the time (link found on Kid Fenris’ blog). The full salacious details of the cheat are up at The Cutting Room Floor.

Horrifying Palamedes box art (image from Wikipedia)

Hatris: Another game designed by Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov, it’s also nowhere near as iconic as Tetris was, but as time has shown us, very little else is. I get the play mixed up with that of Nintendo’s Yoshi puzzle game, perhaps for good reason. Turns out there was an arcade version of this!

Palamedes: Another Tetris-ish generative piece-laying puzzle game, this one with a dice theme. And there was an arcade version of this too!

Hiryu No Ken III: 5 Nin No Ryuu Senshi: Only released in Japan. Dr. Sparkle is quick to let us know right off this isn’t the “Fist of the North Star” Ken, but the Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll Ken. These games are a bit more simulationist (in a sense) in their depiction of martial arts than most beat ’em ups.

SD Hero Soukessen: Taose! Aku No Gundan: Also Japan-only, second in a long series of “super deformed” (basically meaning big headed, small bodied humanoid figures depicted in a cutesy kind of way) robot fighting games. The robots (and tokusatsu characters) are licensed from a variety of media, making this a massive crossover media series that could be seen as an inspiration for the hulking monstrosity that Super Smash Bros. has become. Properties that I recognized from the video are Kamen Raider, Gundam and Ultraman. This one has a fan translation patch.

Chrontendo 63 (Youtube, 1 hour 18 minutes)

Games With Blobber Mazes

Apple II Wizardry. All images in this post are from MobyGames.

In @Play yesterday I mentioned a number of games that use Wizardry’s weird world metaphor. They’re sort of like roguelikes in that the world is divided into a grid of discrete spaces, but instead of viewing them from overhead, you are given a first-person view from the center of that space.

You don’t move with the same kind of smoothly-adjusting motion as Wolfenstein 3D would bring a while later, but movement instead jerks along one space at a time, and you turn in 90 degree increments. These games all disorient the player just enough that mapping them becomes important, but can be easily mapped on graph paper. Your more fiendish RPG dungeons of the type have tricks they play on you as you explore specifically to disorient you, like teleporting you to an identical-looking corridor without telling you, or spinning you around randomly. Wizardry and Bard’s Tale in particular delight in doing this.

It’s such a distinctive and immediately recognizable way to represent dungeon exploration that I’m surprised there isn’t a fan name for it, like “shmup” or “belt scroller.” I’ve calling them blobbers, but those actually get their name from the fact that, if you are commanding a party of characters, they’re all considered to inhabit that one space. The term doesn’t really apply to the mode of movement, only the atomicity of your group.

I gave a list of a good number of games that offer this kind of movement, but shortly after I thought of a bunch more, and they’re such a weird and varied bunch that I figured I’d take it as an excuse to catalogue as many examples as come to mind, and say some words about them in passing.

In the beginning there’s the Wizardry games, of course. I don’t actually know if it’s the first of the type, but it’s the earliest I can think of. Wizardry games using this format include, I believe, the first seven in the series; the 8th (and last in the core series) finally switched to a full 3D engine. There’s also some Japanese Wizardry games, and some of them use the style as well, but I can only personally vouch for one. That’s eight in total.

There’s some games that use Wizardry-style mazes as only a part of the experience. Some of the Ultima games do this. The Ultima predecessor Akalabeth uses them, and I know Ultima III does too for its dungeons. That’s two more.

Might & Magic II for Genesis, image from MobyGames.

There’s two major series of Wizardly-inspired games. The original Bard’s Tale series were blobbers in the truest sense of the term. That’s four: I, II, III and Construction Set. The hugely underrated Might & Magic series also used them for both dungeons and their game worlds up to V. That’s nine more, for a running total of 19.

On the NES there are some surprising examples of the form. I already mentioned Interplay’s Swords & Serpents, a unique and probably doomed attempt to make a Bard’s Tale RPG on a ROM-based system. There’s multiple oodles (boodles! froodles! zoodles! poodles!) of interesting things about that game, like its character-specific password system and its four-player support, but we don’t have the time here to get into that. In fact, I could say that about nearly this entire list.

Two of the most ridiculous kinds of characters to explore 1st-person dungeons are a super spy (as in Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode) and lightbulb-tonguing uncle to a weird and macabre family (as in Fester’s Quest), both also on NES. Adding them to the pile brings us up to 22.

I mentioned Phantasy Star on Sega Master System and Arcana on SNES. There’s also Shining in the Darkness on Genesis and Double Dungeons on the TG16. There’s at least one Madou Monogatari game that uses the system, but I’m only adding games that I can remember without Googling or looking anything up, so I’m only counting it once. We’re now at 27.


There’s 3D Bomberman on the MSX, an early experiment in the Bomberman series where the mazes you’re in are 3D. In the arcade there’s Ed Logg’s Xybots, which was intended to be a Gauntlet sequel but the play ended up being different enough that he changed it to a sci-fi game. Xybots breaks the rules slightly because your character is visible, but it’s still that kind of grid-based, first-person maze. More recently there’s, hm… at least five Etrian Odyssey games? That brings the count up to 34.

Some more miscellaneous RPGs I mentioned last time: Dragon Wars, Eye of the Beholder, and Dungeon Hack. I particularly like Dragon Wars and Dungeon Hack, although for completely different reasons.

Dungeon Hack

Oh! Let’s not forget about the D&D Gold Box series, which use 1st person grid mazes for dungeon exploration. That includes Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Secret of the Silver Blades, Pools of Darkness, Champions of Krynn, Death Knights of Krynn, Unlimited Adventures, and the Buck Rodgers game made in that style. There are other computer D&D games from the time, but they didn’t use that engine. These games also had other modes of exploration, and overhead-view combat, so they aren’t as tied to the format.

Finally there are some other miscellaneous games. Blobber-style mazes were a low-resource way of immersing the player in a labyrinth, even if there was nothing else in there of interest. My first exposure to the field was a C64 BASIC game called, natch, Labyrinth. I remember seeing a shareware DOS game called 3-Demon. The game that Strong Bad poked around in the Friendlyware video I linked last time is Killer Maze, and definitely fits the discretely granular bill.

It’s a good excuse to embed the video. (14 minutes)

So, all in all that’s 48 games completely from memory! But I’m sure there’s more; can you think of any others?

Wolfenstein 3D

When Wolfenstein 3D came out this entire style of world presentation immediately fell out of favor. Wolf 3D has very much that same kind of grid-based world, but no longer is your position locked to the center of each space. You can turn in angles of less than 90 degrees, and there’s more of a real-time immediacy to the game that’s a lot more engaging.

Wolf 3D pretty easily destroyed this genre. Almost no blobber mazes show up from that point on except for some edge cases that are explicitly calling back to the old style, like the later Japanese Wizardry games and Etrian Odyssey. It is interesting that, once computers became powerful enough to render worlds in a more fluid and immediate kind of way, it made these kinds of distinctive presentation shortcuts irrelevant. It’s kind of saddening.

EDIT: One I had intended to include but somehow left out is Dungeon Master, which xot reminded me of in comments!