The Essential 50 Part 4 -- AdventureJeremy Parish
I Wanna New Duck Dragon
What's the greatest game of all time? Ignore for a moment the brutal flamewars and message board arguments this question inevitably spawns. Let's pretend for a moment that the answer is clear-cut; for grins, let's say it's... oh, say, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. After all, it was a vast game, full of secrets and monsters and challenges to test any gamer's dexterity, both mentally and physically. And it deftly spliced long-standing principles of adventure gaming together with the trademarks of the Zelda series and a healthy portion of genuinely original ideas. But how many players stopped while exploring the land of Hyrule to wonder about the origins of the game? How often did players stop to ask, "What inspired this dazzling creation?" The answer is "probably not a lot"; most people were too busy asking, "Guh? How do I kill that stupid Gold Skulltula was up there in the corner!?" to contemplate ancient history.
Even so, it's a valuable question. A basic truth behind this Essential 50 feature is that games are built first and foremost on other games; even Pong and Spacewar took their inspiration from table tennis and sci-fi serials (and in the case of Pong, previous video games). Great modern videogames consist of clever ideas wrapped skillfully around someone else's prior innovations. That's not to say designers are creatively bankrupt; rather, creativity is an evolving process shaped by experiences and influences. And so it happens that Ocarina of Time is the result of a chain of creative evolution that began with Warren Robinett's groundbreaking Atari 2600 adventure called, sensibly enough, Adventure.
Fittingly, Adventure wasn't the first game of its type; it was no heartbreaking work of staggering originality. Robinett's game was directly inspired by a text-based PC game also called Advent (a truncation of "Adventure" -- much like Crono in Chrono Trigger, its name was awkwardly abbreviated by the character limitations of old computers). Advent, in turn, was born from an even older computer game called Hunt the Wumpus.
What these games all have in common, from the lowliest Wumpus to the most intricate Ocarina, is exploration, inventory management, and the dread of knowing that somewhere in the current maze of twisty passages (all alike) is a deadly monster that will very likely wipe the floor with you when you meet it. Wumpus was a tense endeavor wherein a player was dropped into a series of connected caverns and forced to hunt a fearsome creature (the eponymous Wumpus) based on oblique text cues. Walking into the Wumpus' cave netted instant death, but by piecing together the information gleaned by moving from room to room, a skilled player could pinpoint the Wumpus' location and kill it with an arrow -- think Minesweeper with offensive weaponry. Advent expanded on this premise with a more intricately detailed world, a wider array of skills and a greater variety of enemies to confront. These elements have gradually evolved into the standards which modern gamers take for granted. Collecting armloads of tools and treasures for the sake of conquering the task at hand is simply a part of video gaming. But the standard has its origins in these old text games... and in Adventure.
Though the PC text adventures may have laid the groundwork for Adventure's quest, the Atari 2600 title did far more to influence future creations by simple virtue of its popularity. At the time of Adventure's 1979 publication, computers were still rare and expensive devices. The 2600, on the other hand, had already become a mass-market hit and quickly established itself as a fixture in millions of American living rooms. All told, Robinett's creation sold upwards of a million copies, effectively introducing video gamers to the RPG. Admittedly, his was a very blocky and simplistic sort of RPG, but it sowed the seeds of interest for a genre which would eventually become a significant niche in America (and an absolute juggernaut in Japan).
Text Game, Minus the Text
Prior to Adventure, console games tended to be fast-paced, simplistic, arcade-oriented affairs rooted in sports or abstract fantasy. Console ports of arcade games typically added replay value to their coin-op counterparts not by expanding on the gameplay but rather by offering numerous variants on the action -- invisible enemies, fast bullets, reversed controls. Games for both consoles and computers had quickly adapted to suit their respective audiences; unsurprisingly, PC games (designed for a limited group of intelligent, technically-minded academics) were much more involved and demanding than television-based titles intended for a wide general audience of children and parents. Adventure is significant in that it attempted to bridge this gap, yet simultaneously highlighted the glaring differences between the formats.
The Atari game was a work of interpretive brilliance. It cleverly extracted the basic elements of exploration, combat and treasure hunting from the text games and converted them into icons: simplified visual representations of the factors Advent could only describe. Some of these icons were embarrassingly simple (the dragon resembled nothing so much as a pot-bellied duck, and the player's character was represented by a small blue square -- which should be an amusing trivia tidbit for fans of GTA's "Degenetron" commercial); worse, the excellent descriptive writing of the original was lost in this new format. But considering the tight memory limits with which Robinett was forced to work, it's probably best to be charitable and focus on the good. His creation translated the essence of Advent into something comparatively fast-paced... and, more importantly, something accessible to the average kid sitting in front of his parents' 12" color TV. (Don't laugh, it was a posh setup in 1979.)
It also established the basic dichotomy of PC games versus console games; one which remains in place to this day. Conversions of computer games to other play formats were nothing new -- Nolan Bushnell had tried (and failed) to turn Spacewar into an arcade hit -- but Robinett's game was the first to truly make the most of the target medium. A text-based game simply wasn't possible on the 2600, which had limited memory capacity and input devices consisting of directional controls and a single input button. But the machine excelled at flashy (for the time) graphics and intense (for the time) action, and this is where Robinett placed his emphasis. Compared to the PC original, the console game was far less of a brain-teaser, required less patience, and forced players to use far less of their imagination to visualize the game world (although accepting those enemies as dragons rather than birds did take a little creativity). It was Stone Temple Pilots to Advent's Pearl Jam: the same sort of thing, blatantly derivative, but less demanding and ultimately more marketable.
Ironically, while Adventure could be seen by some as a dumbing down of a more complex PC game, its depth was unprecedented among console games. In fact, it helped open Atari owners' eyes to the fact that games could consist of more than analogues of real-world sports or simple head-to-head combat. The enormous multi-chambered mazes of Adventure's castles, along with its persistent inventory system and unique enemy behavior routines, offered a more ambitious challenge than the likes of Tank or Space Invaders. The rudimentary nature of Pong had been essential in introducing the public to a wholly new form of entertainment, but the impressive sales figures racked up by Adventure demonstrated that these same audiences had grown ready for more substantial fare. It paved the way for the appearance of more sophisticated titles like Pitfall and, eventually, the next major milestones in quest gaming: The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest. It also introduced the basic concept of the maze-chase game, which would be streamlined and simplified into Pac-Man a few years later.
Adventure seems almost unplayably basic these days. It takes almost as much imagination to visualize the game in its revolutionary 1979 context as it does to see a knight and dragon in a colored box and chubby yellow waterfowl. But for better or for worse, it set the tone for future console RPGs, establishing once and for all that such games would forever be different from their PC-based cousins.
It's something of a footnote considering the significance of Adventure's impact, but it bears mentioning that the game may in fact be most famous for a seemingly frivolous contribution to the art: it featured the first known video game "easter egg." The game's programmer, said to have been frustrated by Atari's policy of leaving games unattributed to their designers and programmers, decided to take matters into his own hands and hid his name inside the game in such a way that it could only be discovered by an unlikely confluence of factors. As it turned out, his name was found, proving that gamers have always had entirely too much free time to muck around in other people's virtual playgrounds. By the time the trick was uncovered, though, the game had been published in large numbers and Atari decided to let it slide. However, the company tightened its QA process in response as a way to prevent it from happening again.
Robinett's little trick had two lasting effects. First, it inspired countless other developers to add their own little easter eggs to games to the point that secrets and bonuses have become practically de rigeur. God modes, big head modes, unlockable galleries: these have their origins in a secret room hidden within Adventure's blocky primary-colored castles. Perhaps more significantly, Robinett's trick was a rebellious act that symbolized the dissatisfaction simmering beneath Atari's surface. The company was making millions of dollars from the work of a small group of people who were in turn rewarded with middling salaries and mandatory anonymity. The tension came to a boil soon after with the mass exodus of the programmers and designers who would found Activision. The programmers wanted more recognition for their work; Atari responded to their efforts by tightening its fist; a collapse was inevitable. The Adventure easter egg symbolized the entire confict in a nutshell.
Platform: Atari 2600
First console RPG/adventure
First major PC-to-console adaptation
Established PC/console paradigm
First "Easter Egg"
Dragon Quest series
Adventure in Flash
Brilliant (and utterly mad) Adventure mod for Quake III
More on Advent (aka Colossal Cave)
"While I played the TI conversion of Hunt the Wumpus until my brain turned to soft jelly, I have no real memories of Adventure -- mainly because I didn't own an Atari 2600 until it was long dead. But seeing as the top-down-perspective action RPG is one of my absolute favorite game types, I owe Adventure a definite debt of gratitude. It's easy to see the game's influences throughout the genre, from the early maze-chase craze of Pac-Man to the intricate 3D exploration of Wind Waker. Of course, Adventure isn't solely responsible for the creation of those particular titles, and in fact it owes its existence to earlier computer-based text games. But its impact is undeniable. So next time you frothing fanboy types get ready to sacrifice the fatted calf to Shigeru Miyamoto for his latest fab-tastic Zelda creation, be sure to offer up a dove or two for Warren Robinett.
P.S.: I don't think Ocarina of Time is the best game ever. That was just, you know, hypothetical."
Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in 1UP.