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Gems In The Rough: Yesterday's Concepts Mined For Today
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Gems In The Rough: Yesterday's Concepts Mined For Today

January 6, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Looking for an idea for a game? Why not try taking a peek at some old ones? Gamasutra looks at five not-quite-classics that had interesting ideas mucked up by poor execution, and uncovers how they just might work as present day indies.]

A great idea can have a lot of power, but the proof lies in the execution. There's no denying that, in a creative medium like game development, execution has humongous importance. Unfortunately, a lot can get in the way -- budgets, misapplication of concepts that are otherwise solid, or bad features getting in the way of good. In short, concepts are misused.

The best indie games show that great ideas do have power when aptly applied. And many of the best are inspired by game ideas from the golden age, where simplicity was a necessity; these add just enough modern touches to appeal to a lot of different people.

Yet as much as some indie games are celebrated as a melding of the past and the future, there are several ideas from the past that have slipped through the cracks. They've been around for quite a while, of course, and are arguably as unique as some of the best stuff that's come from the last few years, but the games' reputations precede them.

The following feature takes a look at five games from the NES era -- specifically Japanese games from the mid-'80s, when the Famicom reigned supreme. These games are not classics and did not sell millions of copies. In fact, they aren't even recognizable to most people.

If they're known at all, it's because hardcore fans of retro games the world over have turned these games into laughing stocks. They were made on the cheap, by designers and programmers who were probably just punching the clock -- and if not that, then their passion was misdirected. These are classics for different reasons: chiefly the fact that they're ironically loved by the generation that first played them.

That said, these games aren't entirely useless. This article is not intended to defend them, however. This is a simple presentation and evaluation of their ideas. Certainly, why bad or just low-quality games are remembered becomes evident when playing them, but we won't be dwelling on that.

Instead, we present these titles so that today's game developers -- of all experience levels -- can extract the designs that powered these bizarre, broken gems, and think of ways to improve on them for use in a fresh title, rather than relying on the obvious classics. From Famicom dud to iPhone hit? Stranger things have happened...

Bokosuka Wars

ASCII, 1985

In a Nutshell: A sort of action-RPG where the player amasses a phalanx of troops as they move upon an enemy castle, controlling them all at once. It's a long trek fraught with resistance, though, and battles can destroy you in one swoop if your army's overall strength value is but a digit lower.

Legacy: Bokosuka Wars was ported to Famicom from its original computer version, and games on early PCs were not nearly as deft as the Famicom/NES were, so Bokosuka Wars' extra-primitive graphics and slow scrolling felt out of place on the console, receiving scorn from kids who maybe didn't realize it was from a less-impressive platform. It became one of those aforementioned "ironic" classics some time later.

What to Consider: In the proper time and context, Bokosuka Wars is a clever design, and these days, it is in a sense a bit like a reverse tower defense game, wherein you play the offense; the horde descending upon the stationary castle, and the knights and soldiers you rescue have their separate strengths and can be upgraded.

Taken that way, you have a concept that isn't explored too much in the defense genre. Like tower defense, there is a strategy to it, but not enough to call it a strategy game -- a dependence on simply keeping high numbers of troops can potentially make the game a cinch. Perhaps using less transparent mechanics, and possibly even a more twitch-based element to battles, could keep Bokosuka's concept fresh for today.

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Guilherme Tows
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"Without a manual, map, or strategy guide, Super Pitfall becomes a pure trial-and-error expedition of the underground, with a certain (yet low) degree of discovery and magic moments (again, a low degree). With that in mind, one could make a game that jets ahead of Super Pitfall and gets as close to a "sandbox" as possible, with a loose goal that couples true exploration with graphics and physics that are actually good."

And then call it Spelunky.

Maurício Gomes
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No, not really :/

John Mawhorter
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Good article but I want a bit more detail describing the designs of some of these games. How do you control all the troops at once in Bokosuka Wars? How do the adventure-ey parts of Paris Dakar Rally work? etc.

Hirotaka Sato
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In Bokosuka Wars, player doesn't control all the troops, but control a certain "type" soldiers at once.

Adam Miller
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Next I'd like to see an article on games that, with a little tweaking, would be worth re-skinning. The C64/NES classic Archon comes to mind.

Scott Galloway
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There was a game for the TI called A-maze-ing where you were a mouse in a maze but you uncovered the maze as you tried to navigate through a Fog of War covered map and there were enemies like cats that could go through walls.

Rikard Peterson
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Archon was re-released last year as Archon Classic. (It's on Steam.)

Nilson Carroll
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OMG we must be on the same wave length or something. a few months ago, i showed bokosuka to my team and they thought i was just being silly. i'm glad someone knows what i'm talking about here : ]

Bisse Mayrakoira
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It sounds like Ray Barnholt is implying arcade shoot'em ups are suffering from a lack of original themes, which is patently false to anyone who has been playing them in the past few years.

The structure of King's Knight is interesting though.

Javier Chavez
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The setting looks interesting too, how many games use that medieval / sword theme in an action game? It's like Hexen II before 3d was common.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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The theme is not only highly generic, but appears to be a bad fit to the game, possibly a bad fit to the genre.

To say "the arcade shoot'em up style could always use a fresh concept" is especially strange considering that shoot'em ups have extremely varied themes in comparison to mainstream genres.

keith burgun
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"the rough" ? I like the article but I do not like that you're basically insulting old games for no reason.

Jamey Stevenson
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I really enjoyed this article, and I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that a column focusing on gaming arcana from a design perspective like this would make a great regular feature around here. Not to say that such a topic would be completely novel territory for Gamasutra by any means, but your obvious enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. More please!

John Mawhorter
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I agree. I don't think anyone has the time for it, but someone laying out a design map of the whole history of video games is something that should be done. But articles that introduce design concepts from old games in a way that saves you the hassle of finding and playing through tons of old NES games looking for new concepts are a step in the right direction.

Luis Guimaraes
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It's interesting because just today I decided to design a game having pacman as formula.