1.21 Gigawatts? Great Scott! We've gotta go back Marty!
Sat, 20 October 2007
by: Australian Ninja
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Welcome dear reader to Remnants & Relics, the first in an ongoing series of features looking back at various aspects of yesterday's video games. This series is one that I'd hoped to kick off many months ago, but I just haven't had the time to do it justice, until now. So consider this your opportunity to put on your best pair or rose-tinted glasses, open up a luke-warm can of clichés and prepare to hop aboard the way-back-machine....
It came from beyond two dimensions!
-A Look Back at Isometric Gaming-
Back in the day, Isometric style video games were shit hot. This 2.5_D perspective used by clever programmers in the eighties gave the illusion of three dimensions, while the games were still strictly two dimensional. The early eighties provided the genesis of isometric gaming and popular games using the perspective appeared steadily right up until the late nineties and even today the odd game appears on handheld gaming devices and mobile phones.
|A screen from the excellent remake of Head Over Heels |
Isometric games are typically viewed from a three quarter view in a top-down perspective (also known as birds-eye-view). The games typically looked like they were made from lots of blocks built on a grid-like background. However appearances can be deceiving and only certain games were truly isometric, not just any game with a birds-eye-view could claim to be isometric.
I'm not going to bore you with the mathematical details of what constitutes a game being truly isometric, but you can check out the sordid definitions of such sleep inducing terms as isometric, axonometric and more at Wikipedia
Some of the most notable early games to use this perspective were Q*bert (1982) and Zaxxon (1982) in the arcades. Meanwhile, in the following years Ant Attack (1983) and Knight Lore (1984) appeared on the humble Spectrum. Of these games, one of the most ambitious projects was Ant Attack by British bedroom coder Sandy White. Ant Attack was a game set within a gigantic maze and the objective was to rescue a person trapped inside the massive maze world of Antecher, while your character was hounded by giant radioactive ants. The full map is a real work of art, Sandy White put everything he could into the game, mapping the entire thing out by hand on graph paper before coding the game. In terms of visuals and gameplay his accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider the memory limitations of the Spectrum used to code Ant Attack. You can check out Sandy White's website at www.sandywhite.co.uk and even play a working version of Ant Attack running in a browser window.
As far as isometric games go, Ant Attack was just one of the first snowballs in what soon became an avalanche of games.
|There's ants and they attack you. Simple concept, challenging game. |
While Knight Lore was an excellent game in its own right, coder Jon Ritman saw what RARE had accomplished in their game (spectacular graphics for the time combined with puzzle oriented exploration) and decided to make an isometric puzzle-adventure game of his own. The result was Batman, again on the Spectrum. While it too was a decent game, John Ritman and collaborator Bernie Drummond were not done with isometric gaming just yet. Taking some of the best elements from Knight Lore and Batman, they knocked it up a notch producing Head Over Heels, a true classic in the isometric puzzle-adventure-action genre. In addition to looking great, Head Over Heels boasted two playable characters (Head, who had the arms and Heels, who had the feet) that would need to work together co-operatively to progress through the games challenging dungeon-style rooms. While the gameplay was similar to other games in its genre, it was the level of polish and care taken in crafting such an excellent game that made it stand out so well, in addition to the unique feature of using two playable characters that needed to be alternately controlled to progress through the game.
You can download and play a fantastic Head Over Heels retro remake at www.retrospec.sgn.net along with other great free games. It's a bitch to play on the keyboard, but is still well worth checking out to see one of the finest examples of isometric gaming around. It's totally free to download, fun to play, and looks absolutely stunning redone with a '16-bit style' graphical overhaul.
While the old 8-bit consoles and computers from the eighties had their fair share of isometric games, the 16-bit consoles and the PC were not without their own unique games. For example, Landstalker: the treasures of King Nole (1992) appeared on the Sega Megadrive, Equinox (1994) appeared on the Super Nintendo and Sim City 2000 (1993) on the PC.
Landstalker was an action-RPG by Climax Entertainment that played similarly to Nintendo's Zelda series but was different enough to make it more than a copycat game as it is sometimes inaccurately labeled. Landstalker easily stood on its own two clunky feet, and was an absorbing action-RPG for those who dedicated their time to playing it. The puzzles were inventive, the dungeons were well designed and the game had a great sense of humour, with one notable mini-dungeon being played as a dog after your character Nigel had a spell cast on him by an unfriendly witch. Taking away the ability to hit enemies with a sword and being left with only a dog that could jump (resembling Tintin's 'Snowy') forced the player to think laterally about their predicament, and also made gameplay temporarily more like those old school isometric games from the early eighties.
|Nigel, daring to go where only Indiana Jones, Rick Dangerous and a whole darn heap of other adventurers had already been.... |
Equinox on the SNES was yet another isometric action-RPG with the focus on dungeon-crawling, without the usual exploration. It was also incredibly difficulty to complete. Despite being published by the veteran role-playing-game company ENIX (now Square Enix) as a sequel to Solstice on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the game itself was coded by the best of British again, being the Pickford Brothers (John and Ste). While this bastard-hard game was impressive, originally it was intended to be a full RPG with a world to explore etc, but became a dungeon-crawler only due to time constraints. A shame really when you consider the talent that went into it, as we can only imagine what the fully completed game would have been like to play.
Sim City 2000 was one of those games that were hard to miss when it was released (thanks to Will Wright). People were either playing Sim City 2000, talking about Sim City 2000 or annoying their non-video game playing friends by showing off their virtual creations at every opportunity. Sim City 2000 took the rather bland looking original Sim City released in 1989 and cranked up the visuals with some truly spectacular isometric graphics. It went on to spawn a number of sequels and spin-offs and the name branded itself into our society, producing endless variations of games featuring the word Sim. In fact, you could say it's one of the reasons the long-running series offshoot The Sims obnoxiously refuses to go away.
|Are we not all Simmed out by now, do we really need more? |
While true 3D has mostly superseded the isometric 2D perspective, isometric graphics still make the odd appearance and have their uses today. Portable gaming devices and mobile phones are the most common hosts to utilise this perspective in modern times. Scurge: Hive (2006) appeared on the Game Boy Advance and Habbo Hotel (2000-2004) appeared on PC's and mobile phones. Habbo Hotel wasn't actually a game, but an interactive chat program with pixellated avatars and proved to be immensely popular with several million users worldwide.
For those of you keen to dig in to some fun games that utilise the isometric perspective I'd recommend you check out:
Marble Madness (various)
Head Over Heels (Spectrum)
The Last Ninja (Commodore 64)
Landstalker (Sega Megadrive)
Final Fantasy Tactics (PSone, GBA, PSP)
Age of Empires (PC)
Populous (PC, various consoles)
Sim City 2000 (PC)
The Sims (PC)
You may be wondering "How the heck do I get hold of these games" To that I reply: You can buy them via websites such as ebay or import sites that specialise in retro games. You can also play many of the older games via free emulators available over the internet. More and more classic games are also showing up on Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii download services as well, so keep an eye out for the good ones. There are plenty of options available; it just depends on how much effort you want to put into finding a particular game.
[Factual references for this feature were cross-referenced and drawn from Wikipedia and various issues of Retro Gamer magazine.]
by: Australian Ninja
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