The second episode of the Commander Keen series, The Earth Explodes, was released on the same day as the other two installments in the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. How does it fare in the face of its predecessor?
In 1981, a company named Softdisk was founded in Shreveport, Louisiana. Some time later, they hired an alumnus from the University of Missouri named John Carmack. Despite not leaving the college with a degree, Mr. Carmack was an exceptional programmer – particularly in the field of the rising new medium of video games. He was initially hired to work on Softdisk G-S, an Apple IIGS publication. There, he met another programmer by the name of John Romero. With the help of Michael Abrash’s Power Graphics Programming, Mr. Carmack developed an engine capable rendering graphics capable of smoothly scrolling in any direction. This was practically unheard of at the time; IBM computers available for commercial use were not able to replicate such a feat.
With an engine capable of scrolling graphics to hand, it was only natural for Mr. Carmack and his colleagues to use it to create a game. Coworker Tom Hall encouraged Mr. Carmack to demonstrate the engine by recreating the first stage of Nintendo’s landmark platformer, Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been released internationally in 1990. Mr. Carmack and Mr. Hall were then able to do just that in a single night using a character the former had created for a previous game he called Dangerous Dave. The game, cheekily titled Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement, was then shown to Mr. Romero, who realized the implications of being able to bring the success Nintendo had enjoyed to personal computers.
PC gaming survived the 1983 North American crash by virtue of being a niche market and therefore largely unaffected by whatever problems had plagued the mainstream. The team’s manager, Jay Wilbur, was impressed with their work and recommended that they contact Nintendo themselves in the hopes of being able to create an authorized port of Super Mario Bros. 3 for PC platforms. This team of programmers, now going by the name Ideas from the Deep, spent the next three days working on the demo for the hypothetical port. Although Nintendo praised the efforts of this budding team, they ultimately turned down the offer, wishing the Mario series to remain exclusive to their own consoles.
Undeterred, the Ideas from the Deep team convened to come up with a completely original idea. Mr. Hall suggested giving the game a science-fiction theme, which prompted Mr. Carmack to envision a child prodigy saving the world. The protagonist’s name would be Commander Keen. It was after Mr. Carmack read the premise in an overdramatic voice that the group knew they had a winning idea on their hands.
The first three games in this new series, Marooned on Mars, The Earth Explodes, and Keen Must Die!, formed a trilogy called Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons. They were all released simultaneously in December of 1990. The Ideas from the Deep team distributed their game using the shareware model pioneered by their publisher, the Garland, Texas-based Apogee Software. Specifically, the episodes could be obtained individually for fifteen dollars apiece or in a single lump sum for all three at the cost of thirty dollars – all via mail orders. This way, buyers could choose between paying an amount smaller than the price of a full game for one episode or a comparatively cheaper sum for all three. This distribution method proved to be a success for Apogee, as their sales levels had jumped from $7,000 per month to $30,000 by Christmas of 1990. Speaking retrospectively, it was speculated that this trilogy of games moved at least 50,000 copies. As a trilogy of games that afforded PC users an experience many of them otherwise had no access to, could they be said to possess the same timelessness of their primary influence?Continue reading
Upon its 2013 release, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us proved to be a tremendous hit with fans and critics alike. It proceeded to receive awards from nearly every conceivable outlet with one journalist considering it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. Emboldened by the success of this game, series creator Neil Druckman and the rest of Naughty Dog began working on a sequel in 2014. As development proceeded, Naughty Dog also provided gamers with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The former provided a sendoff to series protagonist Nathan Drake whereas the latter continued the story with two prominent female characters. Both games were well-received and cemented Naughty Dog as one of the most beloved American developers in the process. With the sequel to The Last of Us announced in 2016, fans eagerly awaited what Mr. Druckmann and his team had to offer.
Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, the development process would prove to be less than uneventful. While Mr. Druckmann had previously encountered tremendous difficulties on his path to bringing his artistic visions into reality, it was nothing compared to what was about to occur. The troubles began brewing as early as the very year they began work on the game. In March of 2014, it came to light that the creative director of the first three Uncharted installments, Amy Henning, had left Naughty Dog alongside game director Justin Richmond. One article from IGN speculated that they had been forced out of the company, citing how it coincided with Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley’s subsequent replacement of their respective positions. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra released statements, clarifying that neither of them had anything to do with the departure of Ms. Henning or Mr. Richmond.
The controversy eventually subsided, and the fans continued to await the sequel to The Last of Us. Shortly after the release of The Lost Legacy in 2017, the first trailers for this sequel surfaced. Fans were now more excited than ever – particularly after the game became slated for a release in September of 2019. However, history repeated itself – this time, in the worst way possible. Jason Schreier, writing for Kotaku, wrote a report that revealed Naughty Dog’s intensive crunch schedule wherein 12-hour workdays was the standard. Many people concluded that Naughty Dog had been exploiting their programmers’ passion, and soon enough, the company gained a bad reputation in Los Angeles County for up-and-coming programmers. With its staff unable to bear working such untenable hours, the company had a 70% turnover rate. Although several other sources claimed such a thing was not unheard of in the industry, this caused many of Naughty Dog’s fans to turn on them.
Because of these harsh working conditions, the game found itself delayed yet again – this time to 2020. Naughty Dog assured fans the game would be released by that year’s summer, but then a disaster the likes of which humankind hadn’t experienced in nearly a century occurred. In late 2019, a coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 had broken out in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. Being highly infectious and capable of causing severe damage to one’s respiratory system, everyone on the planet not employed by an essential business soon found themselves under lockdown the following March. Unemployment skyrocketed and the ensuing stock market crash was likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of the year, over one-million people had lost their lives to the virus. It would eventually be considered the single worst pandemic in recorded history since the influenza outbreak of 1918.
In response to logistical problems caused by the virus, Naughty Dog opted to delay the game once more – this time indefinitely. By this point, fans were beginning to lose patience with Naughty Dog. It would seem that the game was not to surface for quite some time. However, an undesirable development forced their hand. In April of 2020, key details of the game’s story were leaked onto the internet. Although it was initially dismissed as a hoax, the leaks were quickly confirmed as the genuine article. Under most circumstances, leaks spoiling major content would cause fans to despair. The emotion these leaks instead inspired was sheer, raw anger – directed at Mr. Druckmann himself. Due to the content of these leaks, many fans swore off buying the game entirely with some going as far as canceling their preordered copy.
A few days after these leaks occurred, Naughty Dog announced the game had gone gold. Discs could now be manufactured for a slated release date of June 19, 2020. Many fans were excited about getting their hands on the game sooner than expected, but it was clear the leaks had taken the wind out of Naughty Dog’s sails. Regardless, the game, simply titled The Last of Us Part II, quickly amassed a level of acclaim rivaling – and in some circles, surpassing – that of the original. Many of them considered it the first true masterpiece of the 2020s. Facing delays, internal problems, and a worldwide pandemic along the road to seeing the light of day, was The Last of Us Part II truly able to surpass the acclaim of the original game and truly tap into the medium’s storytelling potential?
In the mid-2000s, a professor and lecturer from the University of Portsmouth named Dan Pinchbeck had an idea for an experimental video game. Creating mods using Valve Software’s Source engine became a favorite pastime of many PC enthusiasts at the time – Mr. Pinchbeck included. He then realized he needed someone to score the game. For this task, he turned to his wife, Jessica Curry. Ms. Curry had earned a Bachelor of Arts for English Literature and Language at the University College London in 1994; her postgraduate work saw her earn a diploma in Screen Music from the National Film and Television School. Using her experience, she was more than happy to help her husband with his project. Thus, in 2007, the couple founded their very own independent game studio they dubbed The Chinese Room – named after the famous thought experiment devised by philosopher John Searle in his work “Minds, Brains, and Programs”.
Being a research project at the university, it received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mr. Pinchbeck conceived the script, citing the works of William S. Burroughs as an inspiration. He sought to capture a poetic use of language while drafting the script, contrasting the descriptive tone typically found in the medium. The game, entitled Dear Esther, was originally released as a free mod in 2008. It was later selected for the Animation Exhibition at the Prix Ars Electronica. There, the website Mod DB selected it as one of the best mods of the year, placing it on their top 100 list. The following year, Dear Esther won the award for Best World/Story award at the IndieCade festival.
Like many successful mods, Dear Esther went on to receive a commercial release. This Landmark Edition was released in 2012 on the digital distribution platform Steam. An artist of renown within the independent circuit named Robert Briscoe had the honors of completely redeveloping Dear Esther from the ground up. As the original mod, though praised, was also criticized for baring numerous glitches and a poor level design, Mr. Pinchbeck gave Mr. Briscoe his full blessings for the redesign. As a standalone release, Dear Esther received positive reviews overall. When the original mod was created, the independent gaming scene had started gaining traction. Even now, it is considered one of the scene’s early hallmarks. How, exactly, did it capture such a profound amount of critical attention?
Prior to the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Nintendo announced the development of a magnetic drive peripheral for the console dubbed the 64DD. The 64 references the console to which it was intended to attach along with its sixty-four megabyte magnetic disks and DD stood for “disk drive” or dynamic drive”. The peripheral as was to have features such as the ability to connect to the internet, a real-time clock, and rewritable data storage. Nintendo themselves touted the machine as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console”. Because even a peripheral console wouldn’t amount to much without a library of games, Nintendo turned to their various development teams to create original titles for the 64DD.
One such company up for the task was HAL Laboratory. Their proposed game was entitled Jack and the Beanstalk. It was named after the famous English fairy tale and inspired by the numerous beanstalks Mario could climb throughout his series. The development team itself was dubbed “Jack and Beans”. The project’s existence was revealed in 1995, but no screenshots or videos were publicly released. There was much speculation as to how the game would have played with some fans suspecting certain elements found their way to Earthbound 64 – another title intended for the 64DD. This is because in an interview with Benimaru Itoh, one of the art designers for Earthbound 64, he revealed players could plant seeds that grew in real time using the 64DD’s internal clock. However, the Jack and Beans team wouldn’t have to wait for long before a sudden development caused them to shift gears.
The year 1996 marked the debut of Game Freak’s Pocket Monsters franchise. Although released to a lukewarm response, it had little trouble finding a fanbase. With the Game Boy considered a passing fad by then, the millions of units sold revitalized interest in the aging, portable console. When the game was translated for Western fans under the name Pokémon, it became a hit overseas as well, causing it to become a worldwide phenomenon. This led a plethora of spinoff media, including an anime series, several manga stories, and a collectable card game. Once it was clear that the Jack and the Beanstalk project had made no significant progress, the team eventually proposed turning it into a Pokémon spinoff. From there, the Jack and Beans team had a definite direction, and in 1999, they at last completed the project. The game’s final title was Pokémon Snap. Because 64DD had been delayed countless times, they converted their game to the Nintendo 64 platform whereupon it sold 1.5 million copies. Exactly what kind of experience does this game, released during the height of the Pokémon franchise’s popularity, have to offer?
In the 2000s, J Allard of Microsoft proposed a summer internship with the express goal of focusing on game design. Three interns for Microsoft, Scott Brodie, Danny Dyer, and Matt Monson, in turn created a game during the summer of 2006. Their effort was a shoot ‘em game named Aegis Wing. Mr. Dyer and Mr. Monson had been members of the Texas Aggie Game Developers, which was a student organization at Texas A&M University established to nurture new talent. The three of them collaboratively did all of the groundwork, though outside sources provided art and audio support.
The team ran into a few difficulties due to having but three months to see this project through and XNA, a freeware toolkit commonly used for Microsoft products such as the Xbox 360, was not yet available at the time. Nonetheless, the three-person team soldiered on, completing their work by the end of the summer – though they had to cut out a few planned features along the way. They handed their work to Carbonated Games, an internal studio of Microsoft Game Studios to be published. The fruits of their labor were then released on the Xbox Live Arcade service as a freeware title in May of 2007. What was this small team able to accomplish in three months?
Despite not selling as many copies as its direct predecessor, King’s Quest VI was yet another success for Sierra’s flagship franchise upon its 1992 release. While King’s Quest V was a major step up from its own direct predecessor in terms of presentation and gameplay, King’s Quest VI ironed out a majority of its flaws. The untrained office employees were replaced by professional voice actors. Combined with more user-friendly design choices and sensible puzzle solutions, there was little question King’s Quest VI managed to be the pinnacle of the franchise as soon as it debuted. Even if making a sequel was the logical thing to do, series creator Roberta Williams had her work cut out for her.
During this time, Disney’s success after having fully recovered from a nearly fatal slump in the 1980s effected what is believed to be the studio’s renaissance. The film most commonly cited for starting this era was The Little Mermaid in 1989. This triumph was then followed up by Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin in 1992. All three of these films are beloved classics by anyone versed in the medium – and even those who aren’t. Realizing just how much life these films breathed into the medium, the Sierra staff sought to capture that energy and transplant it into the next King’s Quest installment.
With the rising popularity of the CD-ROM format, Ms. Williams had begun drafting ideas for a game featuring heavy amounts of full-motion video footage. Its name was to be Phantasmagoria. As a result of her busy schedule, she helmed the development of King’s Quest VII alongside two other new directors: Lorelei Shannon and Andy Hoyos. Even so, Ms. Williams was enthusiastic about the project, often bouncing ideas off of Ms. Shannon. It was to the point where they were sad when the planning process came to an end, for Ms. Shannon believed they could have devised new ideas for the next two years.
In order to make as good of an impression as possible, Sierra’s co-founder, Ken Williams, had the idea to contact an up-and-coming animation studio known as Pixar. They had made a favorable impression on animation enthusiasts with their collection of short films, and were in the process of creating their theatrical debut: Toy Story. To Mr. Williams’s surprise, he received a call from Pixar founder Steve Jobs almost immediately after proposing a possible collaboration. Unfortunately for Sierra, the plan fell through when it became clear the Pixar team was far too busy to entertain making a short film for them. To bring their vision of an interactive cartoon into reality, Sierra contracted four animation houses: Animation Magic Inc., Dungeon Ink & Paint, LA West Film Production, and Animotion.
Despite the fact that most of these animators had limited experience in computer gaming, the development cycle proceeded fairly smoothly. The project eventually saw its completion in November of 1994 under the name King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. Being the seventh installment of a long-running franchise, King’s Quest VII had no problems finding an audience, selling 3.8 million copies within the next eighteen months. However, while fans and critics alike were enthusiastic about the series’ previous entries, the seventh left them divided. Some disliked the Disney-inspired presentation while others had nothing but praise for it. Although many games to follow the franchise’s pinnacle gain a new lease on life with the power of hindsight, King’s Quest VII remains a divisive entry to this very day. Was it even possible for Sierra to successfully follow up a game as beloved as King’s Quest VI?
The year 1980 marked the founding of a game developer known as HAL Laboratories. Headquartered in Chiyoda, Tokyo, one of the first things the company created was a peripheral that allowed computers to display graphics when they were otherwise incapable of doing so. From there, they developed what a part-time worker named Satoru Iwata admitted at the time was slew of rip-off of Namco’s famous arcade games such as Rally X and Galaxian. As copyright laws surrounding software was not clear in that era, they did not ask for Namco’s permission, though they did eventually obtain a license from them. In 1982, Mr. Iwata graduated from college and joined the company as a full-time employee. Following that, the company developed original games for the MSX and Commodore VIC-20 before focusing their attention to Nintendo’s Famicom console.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Nintendo had just launched their Game Boy console and a young man by the name of Masahiro Sakurai joined HAL Laboratories. Nintendo’s portable console proved to be such a hit, that demand often exceeded supply and Mr. Sakurai was in the processes of developing a game for it. Naturally, in order to design a game, he needed to create a character for it. At the age of nineteen, he drew a blob-like character as a placeholder sprite until he could come up with a different model. However, as time went on, he preferred it over any of the other proposed designs he came up with.
During the development of this game, Mr. Sakurai’s team called the character Popopo before ultimately deciding on Kirby. In later years, Mr. Sakurai himself remained unsure as to how they decided on that name. Given that Mr. Sakurai gave Kirby the ability to inhale and spit out objects at enemies, fans speculate he may have been named after the Kirby Company, which famously manufactured vacuum cleaners. Another theory is he was named after John Kirby, the attorney from Latham & Watkins LLP who defended Nintendo against Universal Studios’ infamous copyright infringement lawsuit they filed in 1981. Universal alleged that Nintendo’s popular arcade game Donkey Kong was an unauthorized allusion to the classic film King Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong, has gone on record saying this is the reason why Kirby made a list of potential names for the character, though he wasn’t named after the attorney.
Whatever the case may be, Kirby’s debut game was released in 1992 for the Game Boy. The game was originally titled Twinkle Popopo, but Mr. Sakurai’s team changed it to Kirby of the Stars to reflect the character’s new name. For its Western release a few months later, the game’s title was changed to Kirby’s Dream Land. The game proved fairly popular, selling a little over one-million copies. Critics were fairly receptive to the game, believing it provided a unique take on the platformer genre. With Kirby going on to become the mascot of HAL Laboratories, how does his first adventure hold up?
With the international success of Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, Game Freak’s bestselling franchise had presence on both the handheld and console markets. The latter game was especially novel for its time, having introduced the Transfer Pak. With it, players could insert their own copies of Pokémon Red, Blue, or Yellow into these devices and have the creatures they raised battle it out in 3D. Naturally, Nintendo EAD was compelled to make a sequel following the release of the mainline series’ second-generation games: Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver. This sequel was showcased at the Nintendo Space World festival in 2000. It was originally going to be entitled Pokémon Stadium 3 domestically before being changed to Pokémon Stadium Gold/Silver, seeing a release in December of that year. Western fans wouldn’t have to wait too much longer for the game to be released internationally, seeing the light of day in March of 2001 in North America and October of the same year in Europe. As only the second of the two games in the series left their native homeland, it was dubbed Pokémon Stadium 2 abroad. Does this game successfully keep up with the core series’ evolution?
On the eve of the release of King’s Quest IV, series creator Roberta Williams had many reservations – many of which were shared by her company, Sierra. Their flagship series’ fourth installment was to cast a female character in the lead role in an era when the medium had a predominately male fanbase. Princesses were expected to get captured so they could be saved by the noble hero; giving one an adventure of her own was simply unheard of. On top of that, Sierra had just finished developing their new game engine: the Sierra’s Creative Interpreter. Having been specifically designed for 16-bit little-endian computers, they feared many longtime fans lacked the resources to play it. They could not have anticipated King’s Quest IV to sell 100,000 copies within two weeks of its launch. Many journalists had nothing but praise for the new female lead – a sentiment shared by fans of the series.
With this success, the series had a future after gaining a powerful rival in the form of LucasArts. It was therefore only natural for Sierra to keep up the momentum by developing a sequel. After the significant technological leap from King’s Quest III, the programmers were in the process of refining their newest engine. The second version of the SCI engine, SCI1, was to feature 256 colors. Ms. Williams once again found herself in the director’s chair for the game that was to showcase the engine’s new capabilities.
As was the case with King’s Quest IV, Sierra sought to make the game as accessible as they could. The original version would be released on a floppy disk while owners of top-end computers could utilize a format gaining popularity for its superior storage capabilities: the CD-ROM. Furthermore, it was during this time that PC game developers began taking note of the rapidly growing console market. Thanks to the successful launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the North American console market had recovered from its devastating 1983 crash, and it was soon outpacing the PC in terms of popularity. While PC gaming required a degree of expertise most people simply did not possess at the time, anyone could place a cartridge into NES and commence playing. By the end of the decade, anything released on the NES was guaranteed a significant return on investment for the developers. As a result, Sierra collaborated with the prolific, Tokyo-based developer Konami to create and release a port for the NES.
This installment, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!, was released in November of 1990. Sierra spared no expense making King’s Quest V, giving Ms. Williams and her team a budget of one-million dollars. The company’s gambit paid off, for the game, like its predecessor, was a commercial success, moving 500,000 copies over the next few years. For a significant length of time, it had been the best-selling PC game of all time until 1995 when Cyan, Inc.’s Myst surpassed it. Many magazines praised it for its exemplary VGA graphics and sound card utilization with critics considering it the single greatest installment in the series thus far. Was King’s Quest V able ensure the popular series had a leg to stand on in the new decade?