Placing our rose-tinted goggles of nostalgia aside for one moment, it’s fair to say that a large percentage of games from the 1980s were painfully simplistic. But in among all the clones of popular arcade machines, which were ubiquitous on computers and consoles throughout the decade, there were legion lesser-known games which were full of innovative ideas and a sense of ambition that far outstripped their technical resources.
Not all of these ideas necessarily came off in the way they were intended, admittedly; while some are utterly brilliant, in other instances, their outlandish concepts were let down by some iffy execution. This list is devoted to the more eccentric games of the 1980s; the ones full of imagination and wit, and which, although not necessarily discussed much today, managed to bring an air of the unexpected to the medium.
Moondust: Commodore 64 (1983)
Could this one-of-a-kind art game have inspired Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez? Certainly, the wireframe graphics, tone and player-driven ambient music are remarkably similar to Mizuguchi’s trippy shooter. The game involved moving an astronaut around the play area, and using his colourful vapour trail to destroy enemy ships.
Why it was weird and innovative: A sort of cross between Asteroids and an Etch-A-Sketch, Moondust was as much about zoning out and floating away on its colour and sound as beating a high score, which made it something of an anomaly at the time. Generally credited as being one of the first art videogames, Moondust was created by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who’d go on to coin the term virtual reality, and wrote such books as Digital Maoism and You Are Not A Gadget.
A true space oddity, Moondust is still offers a hypnotic, oddly beguiling experience even today.
Little Computer People: ZX Spectrum/various (1985)
This charming oddity from designers David Crane and Rich Gold suggested that tiny humans lived inside the world’s computers – all that was needed was the right piece of software to see them. On booting up Little Computer People for the first time, you’d be presented with a static view of a house complete with bathroom, kitchen and study. And within a few moments, a randomly-generated computer person would appear within, and begin pottering about the place – watching telly, playing the piano, or cleaning his teeth.
The player could interact with the computer person, but only indirectly: there wasn’t a guarantee that he’d even carry out your typed commands of “smash windows,” “kick door in”, “lick curtains” or “place head in fridge”. More often than not, he’d just play the same tune on the piano over and over again. For hours.
Such frustrations aside, Little Computer People was a truly innovative game, even if the memory limitations of the time made the game less interactive and detailed than it might have been. Later games, such as Will Wright’s The Sims, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, or even the Tamagotchi pet craze, all succeeded in taking its ideas further, with hugely popular results.
Why it was weird and innovative: In an era packed full of blazing space lasers and muscle-bound warriors, the notion of a challenge-free virtual doll’s house must have sounded quite alarming to Activision, Little Computer People’s publisher. Fortunately, they released it anyway, resulting in a fondly-remembered cult hit that appeared on numerous computers, and even ported to the Famicom as Apple Town Story in 1987. Sadly, the command, “set fire to piano” didn’t work in any of them.
Eureka: Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum (1984)
Games Workshop founder and Fighting Fantasy author Ian Livingstone turned his attention to the video game industry in the mid-80s, and the result was a sprawling work of madness. Straddling two genres, Eureka was both an arcade maze game and text adventure, with a sci-fi backstory which crossed multiple timelines.
In a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a mysterious black cube found on the Moon has shattered into five pieces, which have each disappeared into the mists of time. The player then set off on a lengthy quest through history to find them, beginning in Prehistoric Europe, before taking in Rome, medieval Britain, WWII Germany, and finally the Caribbean of the 1980s. Each area began with a brief trawl through a Pac-Man-style maze (pictured above), where hit-points could be earned for the text adventure ahead. It was an ambitious concept for the time, which unfortunately kept clashing with the technical restrictions of 8-bit computers; each part of the game had to be loaded from a single audio cassette, which meant lots of fast-forwarding and rewinding to find the beginning of each programme. And because there was no save game option, an error in judgement could render hours of riddle-solving and adventure solving for nought – and another rewind to the beginning of the tape.
Although its gameplay was uneven, Eureka was notable for its presentation, with a box covered in handsome airbrushed art, and a lavishly illustrated manual full of clues, bad poetry and a charming picture of Ian Livingstone and his pet moustache. Then there was Eureka’s big gimmick: a £25,000 cash prize for the first player to solve the game’s conundrums and ring a UK telephone number with a secret code.
The prize was eventually won by a 15-year-old lad named Matthew Woodley. His subsequent column in CVG magazine, in which he explained how he solved the game, was so utterly confounding that it boggles the brain. We’ve no idea what a teenager would have spent £25,000 on in the 1980s (in current terms, that equates to $3billion) – an Opel Manta and a Major Morgan, probably – but whatever he blew it on, he certainly earned it.
Why it was weird and innovative: Eureka’s headline-grabbing cash prize gained plenty of publicity, but it was the scale of the game, whose epoch-spanning breadth couldn’t even fit into the Spectrum’s memory all in one go, that made it so unusual for its time.
The Great Space Race: ZX Spectrum (1984)
UK developer Legend made quite a name for itself with its debut, Valhalla. A text adventure with lots of colourful graphics (which used the team’s own engine, grandly called Movisoft) and a lengthy quest, Valhalla was praised for its writing and level of detail.
With Valhalla a hit, anticipation began to build around Legend’s follow-up, called The Great Space Race. Legend fanned the flames, stating that its new game would use a new game engine called Movisoft 2, and an animation routine capable of displaying detailed facial expressions – this they called Facial Region Interpreted Graphics, or FRIG for short. We’ll let you make your own jokes up about that.
When The Great Space Race landed in players’ laps in 1984, it was with a dramatic thump. The game’s cassette came housed in a huge box roughly the size of a rental VHS case. Inside, there was a poster and a 56-page book full of comic art and world-building detail. It all felt very special.
Given that Legend had spent the past few months talking about its soaring budget (a reported £250,000 – which equates to around $90trillion) and groundbreaking graphics, you can probably imagine the reaction when the resulting game turned out to be less special than the hype and packaging implied.
Essentially a graphic adventure like the earlier Valhalla, The Great Space Race was about the trade of a valuable alcoholic beverage called Natof, as rival characters competed to ship consignments of the stuff to various space stations across the galaxy. With the game running in real time, players were required to make quick decisions in order to succeed – or at least, that was the theory. In reality, the game would simply make its own choices if the player waited too long to press a button, meaning the entire game would simply whizz through the motions of a low-resolution space opera without any input from a human being at all. This, along with The Great Space Race‘s surprisingly uneven graphics, made it an infamous critical and financial misfire.
Why it was weird and innovative: Messy and misguided though The Great Space Race was, it had some quite clever ideas, some of which were unheard of in the mid-80s. Its cast of 12 characters were all given their own rudimentary personalities and attributes, and part of the game’s challenge (such as it was) involved choosing which four to employ as your racers, since some got on with each other much better than others. The rush of deliveries around the galaxy were punctuated by random events, such as sobering up your drunken racers, bribing the police, and wondering whether or not to give into a pirate’s ransom demands. What a pity, then, that a game intended to be cinematic, sprawling and open-ended – an early sandbox adventure, in effect – was ultimately brought down by its inability to fulfil its own grand remit.
Instead, the mighty Elite – which, with its technical prowess and hard-SF atmosphere, was the polar opposite to the hare-brained, eccentric Great Space Race – would become the gold standard for space trading games.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ZX Spectrum/various (1985)
If David Lynch had attempted to make a videogame in the 1980s, it may have looked something like Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Designed to capitalise on the success of the controversial and popular band at the time, the game was a flip-screen arcade adventure with problems to solve and items to pick up. But what was so innovative about Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and so weird, was its atmosphere, setting, and unexpected digressions.
Taking place in and around a group of anonymous British terraced houses, the game unfolded like a dream. The player took control of an anonymous silhouette, whose aim was to find the mysterious Pleasure Dome, and in your quest, you could explore the houses and find all sorts of items and trinkets along the way. Solving certain puzzles would increase four bars on the right of the screen, and occasionally messages would appear on the screen saying things like, “You’re 20 percent a real person.”
There was a murder mystery to solve – finding the corpse in the deserted living room was an unsettling experience – and occasionally, the game would warp you into one of several surreal mini-games. One involved walking into a series of moving holes in the ground. Another trapped you in a maze with a killer fireball. Still another saw disembodied heads of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher spitting bullets at each other.
Everything about Frankie felt new and strange; even its control system, where you could move your character’s arm up and down to open kitchen cupboards or touch a coat hanging on a rack in a hallway, felt utterly unlike anything else available at the time.
Why it was weird and innovative: Full of oblique puzzles and seemingly unfathomable mysteries, Frankie was the kind of game you could just sit and tinker with for hours. The initial release came with a music tape but no instructions, which is a fair summary of its creators’ curious, figure-it-out-for-yourself approach. In terms of storytelling, it stood alone when it appeared in 1985, and even now, its eerie silence and abrupt transitions pack a powerful punch.
There were once rumours that a bug rendered Frankie impossible to complete, which sounds like something its programmers may have introduced deliberately. But it seems that some players were intelligent and hard-working enough to solve Frankie’s riddles. The rest of us were left trapped among the game’s nightmare mazes and endless rabbit holes.
Takeshi’s Challenge: Nintendo Famicom (1986)
Takeshi’s Challenge could be regarded as Japan’s answer to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, in that it was a surreal adventure game designed to promote a popular entertainer – in this case, comedian, singer, actor, writer, television personality and crackpot game designer ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano. And like Frankie, Takeshi’s Challenge has a cult following – though for wildly different reasons. Generally accepted as one of the worst games of all time, this infamously bad product was reportedly based on ideas Kitano came up with on the spot during a lengthy drinking session.
This might explain why its salaryman protagonist ends up punching old men and members of the yakuza, shoot UFOs, and indulges in a spot of hang gliding. It’s a weirdly-programmed game full of horrible music. We wrote about Takeshi’s Challenge in more detail last year, where the game’s madness is aptly summed up thus: “It’s comparatively easy to make a mediocre game, but it takes real skill and dedication to make a truly terrible one.”
Why it was weird and innovative: The makers of Takeshi’s Challenge clearly had no intention of creating a coherent or even enjoyable experience, yet their sense of wild creativity was such that some of the ideas tucked away in the game have never been seen before or since. One section required the player to sing karaoke into the microphone built into the Famicom’s controller. Another puzzle required the player to expose a piece of paper to the sun – which meant that the controller had to be left untouched for an entire hour. Press anything, and it’s back to the karaoke competition.
Terrible though Takeshi’s Challenge was, its manner of playing with audience expectations was both weird, innovative, and sometimes downright sadistic, and we haven’t really seen anything quite like it since, aside from Sega’s extremely odd Japan-only wee platformer Pole’s Adventure. Legend has it that the game’s puzzles were so absurd that, even with a guide book, it couldn’t be completed, so the guide’s publishers had to print a second one to make the solution clearer.
Deus Ex Machina: ZX Spectrum/various (1984)
“Tuesday evening, after tea and compulsory prayers, the last mouse on Earth tried to hide from mankind inside the machine…”
Writer and game designer Mel Croucher was well known in the 80s for his sense of humour and innovative approach to his craft. Pimania was a brilliantly odd text adventure with the prize of a golden sundial worth £6,000 ($319,000,060 in modern terms). My Name Is Uncle Groucho, You Win A Fat Cigar was another adventure, this time set in a surreal version of America. ID attempted to simulate a conversation with a sentient computer.
The weirdest, most innovative game to have sprung from Croucher’s warped mind was surely Deus Ex Machina, perhaps the most unconventional game of the 1980s. As much an art installation as a game, its on-screen events were synched to the sounds which played on the audio tape that came with it. Featuring the voices of Ian Dury, Jon Pertwee and Frankie Howerd, Deus Ex Machina offered a trippy concoction of electronica, poetry, dystopian storytelling, and a gaudy kaleidoscope of colours and shapes.
As much a prog rock album as a game (tasks included guiding a green square away from a blue square in a field full of wriggling spermatozoa, or preventing laser beams from colliding with a spinning human figure), Deus Ex Machina was a true original, and it’s fair to say that we’ve seen nothing quite like it before or since.
Why it was weird and innovative: An example of a designer pushing at the boundaries of what was possible in 80s videogames, Deus Ex Machina was born partly out of Croucher’s frustration with the unimaginative nature of most software of the time. “It’s derivative, it’s all derivative,” Croucher said in a 1986 issue of Crash magazine, “The programming is superb now, but the concepts are all stale.”
In many ways, what Croucher said in the 80s still applies today: so many games are technically astonishing, yet creatively moribund. But back when software came on tapes and had to be crammed into a handful of kilobytes, along came Deus Ex Machina – a game that dared to illustrate Shakespeare’s seven ages of man in a splash of sound and colour. Croucher’s currently working on Deus Ex Machina 2, and we hope it’s as imaginative and intelligent as this 1984 masterwork.
Honourable mentions: Alien Garden, Jaron Lanier’s 1982 Atari 2600 curio about evolving animals.
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