The first action-adventure game.
Published by Atari.
Designed and developed by Warren Robinett
Platform: Atari 2600
From a design standpoint, watch for the fact that, on a system with 128 bytes of RAM and completely on-the-fly, raster-based graphics, each of the objects in Adventure is still more interesting than anything contained within 99% of current games. It is the most scathing indictment of "modern" gaming possible.
Further: Everyone knows, by now, about the famous easter egg. In case you don't: on higher game variations, there is a one-pixel-size dot in a locked-off room that's the same color as the background. Use the bridge to get into that room in order to pick up the dot, then take it to the room that has a black line on its right-hand edge and drop it. Bring enough other objects to that room and the line will flicker. At that time, you can move through the wall by pressing against it to see a graphic of Warren Robinett's name. Consider what percentage of the game's ROM is taken up by that graphic!
That anything other than Pong could be made on the Atari 2600 is rather incredible. By default, the system had four kilobytes of ROM space and 128 bytes of memory. Its graphics capability was more primitive still.
Atari's developers, at the time of the system's heyday, amused themselves with trying to push the system farther and farther. The creator of Adventure also wrote a BASIC interpreter for it. It was just barely useable, but it worked. Someone else wrote a chess player for it. The system is so challenging to write for that in recent years 2600 programming has become something of an extreme sport for geeks.
The 2600 was designed to play Pong-like games, but as is often the case, amazing things are possible if no one tells you what can't be done. So it was that Warren Robinett, despite having been told by his bosses that the project was too difficult to even attempt, decided to condense Crowther and Woods' classic text adventure, Adventure, to the system.
He didn't succeed in porting it, or even really capturing its flavor, but that's okay because the resulting game is probably the Atari 2600 game that stands up the best today. Even Pitfall II isn't quite as fun to play today as it was when first developed, but Adventure is still quite entertaining to run through for a few minutes.
The player is represented by a square, and his abilities can be summed up as being able to:
Pick things up by running into them.
Drop things by pressing The Button.
Return to the start location (by pressing reset, useful if eaten).
Get eaten by dragons. (Actually, the player doesn't have to do anything for this to happen. It more or less occurs on its own.)
Yet look at all that can happen:
Castles can be unlocked, by touching their doors with the right key.
He can also re-lock doors the same way.
Mazes can be explored, by moving around them.
Dark corridors can be explored because the area around the player lights up.
Dragons can be killed by touching one with the sword.
Some dragons are also afraid of things. The yellow one is afraid of the yellow key, and it can be used to chase him off.
The bridge item allows the player to pass through any horizontal wall it covers, and is used by dropping it in the right place.
The bat steals items, carried or not.
The bat can also move dragons around, sometimes producing moments of sudden peril.
Since the bat behaves randomly, he might also steal away a dragon that's chasing the player.
The bat might even bring a useful object to him.
The player, tiring of the bat's antics, can pick up the bat himself and carry him into a castle. If the bat or a dragon is inside a castle when its door is locked, it's trapped there!
He can use the magnet to pull objects through walls. Again, the magnet works entirely by proximity.
If the player gets eaten, and the dragon gets picked up by the bat, the player gets carried along, treated to an aerial view of the game world. (It's not too useful, but is interesting.)
Finally, the player can win the game by bringing the chalice to the Yellow Castle.
Making the game's triumph complete is the random adventure mode that scrambles the locations of the objects at the beginning of play. It's been noted that one game in eighteen is unwinnable in this mode, but considering that it's on a freaking Atari 2600, I think that kind of fault can be excused for once.
For such a small game world (there are only about a couple dozen screens in all) the game shows remarkable ingenuity in making the most of that space. Initial exploration of the world doesn't take long, but it's the varied terrain combined with the effects of the objects (including monsters) that make it interesting.
Adventure's fun comes from the way all of its simple objects interact to produce complex behavior. Carried objects continue to operate, whether it's the bat or player who holds them, so the bat might carry the magnet through a room where the player is using the bridge, moving it out of position and forcing him to find another way back. Or, carrying the sword, the bat might brush it across a dragon on his flight, killing it. This is possible because all of the objects in the game function automatically, which they have to be anyway since The Button is devoted to dropping stuff. A lot of the fun in Adventure comes from the unintended consequences of the player's actions.
Further, while the game contains what can only be described as a tiny game world, it is considerably replayable. Game variation 3 scrambles the locations of the game objects and monsters at the start of play, and the various implications of those objects can sometimes produce special challenges, like the sword being locked inside a castle, or the dragons appearing clustered together.
Indenture, a freeware DOS recreation of the original game with some extra features
An action-adventure that works its isometric perspective unusually hard.
Published by Sega
Developed by Climax Entertainment (Japan)
Platform: Genesis, Wii (Virtual Console)
Landstalker is a game that revels in its isometric presentation. Other isometric jumping games (there were more than a few from Europe) worked to keep each screen easy to understand, so the player wouldn't get confused as to how the platforms of each area related spatially to each other. There are places in Landstalker, on the other hand, that seem as if they were created specifically to be optical illusions.
While it is indeed its own game, at first glance it looks like an isometric knockoff of Zelda. Your character is an elf, is dressed in green, hangs out with fairies, explores a lush landscape, and frequently collects heart containers, here called "life stocks."
Where it diverges from the mold is in its vibrant characterization. Every character in Landstalker has a distinct, often humorous, personality, including the protagonist Nigel. The characters are memorable to a degree little seen outside the Grandia games, or perhaps the original Shining Force, also developed by Climax. It is truly a game that contains no angst. Nigel and pint-sized assistant Friday aren't even in it to save the world; their aim is to get filthy rich, and while they do good along the way it is fitting that the conclusion of the game results in them getting showered in gold coins. They may be treasure hunters, but they work for their loot.
And oh, how they work! Despite its Japanese production, Landstalker is really a descendent of those European isometric jumping games, dating back to Airball. Every one of them is maddeningly difficult, and not just for reasons dealing with the perspective. Other games of the type include Spindizzy and little-known SNES sequel Spindizzy Worlds, Head Over Heels, Light Crusader (a very atypical game from Treasure), Taito's arcade RPG Dungeon Magic (a.k.a. Light Bringer) and Sony Imagesoft's Solstice and Equinox. Landstalker is nothing less than an isometric platformer, infuriating puzzles intact, expanded and made into the basis of an entire game world.
It turned out pretty well. The joy and humor with which the characters are written and presented serves as a nice counterpoint to the difficult jumping challenges. While the game is one of the more linear examples on this list, it doesn't push the player to make progress. In Zelda style, there are "Life Stocks" hidden everywhere which serve to increase Nigel's life bar, and players will find themselves well-rewarded for poking around. And the game sports a very nice variety in setting. One area is a sequence of devious riddles, and another is a gigantic hedge maze. These places are important for exploration-type games where the vistas are much of the point.
Landstalker is one of those games where you hope, at the end, for another game with the same characters, which of course never happened except for Nigel & Friday's inclusion in Time Stalkers (a.k.a. Climax Landers), a suspiciously indulgent pseudo-roguelike in which Climax took characters from a number of other games they'd made and shoveled them all into a generic setting.
Most open world games make the player's character an unknowable cypher, purposely without words in order that the player can project his own thoughts onto him. But Landstalker takes the opposite approach, with effectively two protagonists who each comment during conversations. It is hard to imagine more likeable game protagonists without straying over into Game Arts' territory.
Landstalker also proves that difficulty can make an open world game better. There are traps on Mercator Island that will make any player want to throw down their controller, but the sheer variety of situation, just of seeing what the next area will throw at him, is enough to make him want to continue. The riddle area by itself is intriguing enough to warrant a play-through.