Simple Can Be Good

In many ways, you can't go home again.  I grew up with the 2600, moved on to the Atari 400, and kept going up the gaming evolutionary chain, usually a few steps behind where everyone else was.  Cheaper that way.  Many of the games, when I picked them up again, I couldn't even stand for nostalgic value because they'd already been surpassed, even in basic form, by stuff that came after it.  
 
This doesn't mean that those games were bad for all time, but they sort of served their purpose, and helped bring us here, possibly through mistakes no one wanted to repeat, or through smart features that inspired someone to make something better with them.
 
Still, there are certain games that I remember having the right amount of gameplay that made them carve out a niche for themselves in a way that fully-featured games can't quite reach.  There's something to be said for simplicity in design sometimes.  Here's a list of games that sort of feel like benchmarks to me that, while improved upon by others, only showed even more how good they were to begin with.  I imagine everyone's list of games like this would be different, and there's always a chance that nostalgia's coloring some of these, but I feel like these hit the right classic note for me.

List items

  • Most of the modes are a bit too simple, and some of them downright unfair (the bomber against three fighters doesn't stand a chance). But there's a golden combination in there: Tank Pong Invisible tanks. Players are invisible unless they fire or bump into walls. There are two wall settings, one with a more complex series of obstacles and one with only a few. Either work, although the complex one makes for more tense maneuvering. You sneak around, trying to get into a position where you think your enemy will be. When you fire it bounces off the walls, making beep tone that gets higher and higher with each bounce. The other player is often frozen by that sound, hoping that the shell will zip past without hitting. If you show any fear, even if the shell doesn't hit you've given yourself away. Have to keep cool. Keep moving. What's neat is that the aggressive player has shown him or herself when firing, and the careless player shows up when hitting a wall, so you have an almost submarine-like duel to the death where someone has to do something, but no one wants to make a sound. Really, really fun.

  • I've seen a ton of games that took notes from Star Raiders, and more which have excelled in other areas (like mission-based space combat, which some say Freespace is a master of). But in this KIND of space combat game, which is a sort of damage control for an entire region of space, it has a sort of meta-strategy element to it that makes it interesting in different ways. You have limited fuel, which supplies your shields, your engines, and your weapons. You lose points if you fill up on fuel too much, you lose points if those refilling stations are destroyed (though you lose less points if YOU'RE the one destroying them, which is an interesting, if disturbing, sacrifice to make). You have to be efficient, and you sometimes have to charge into battle with a crippled ship in order to save a station. On the hardest difficulty level, Star Raiders still is full of tension, even if the collision and space physics don't quite make much sense any more.

  • This game really isn't so simple, but I imagine it seems that way, especially in its older incarnations, to people who never ran into it when it first came out. The economic model in this game is the driving force, but the choices are restricted just enough that you don't feel overwhelmed. Build mines in rocky regions, survey land you know you'll have a chance to get for the hidden mineral type, rivers are good for growing food, flat places are good for solar energy. A balance is best, but it's always good to exploit a market hungry for a certain resource. What really makes this game great, though, is the competition between other players. The auctions have you racing to try to bid the highest, but you can wind up bidding way too much if everyone else retreats at the last moment. You can make stupid mistakes which add a party-game factor to it, as well as the random events that help out players who might or might not deserve it. The best versions of this game try to stick to the basic formula Bunten laid out so long ago.

  • I have never beaten this game, but what I appreciate about it is that it has just the right amount of detail in the descriptions so that you can almost imagine what you're seeing. A lot of games, before and after, tried to emulate the fantasy elements, or the cruel, meaningless deaths, but Zork managed to have weird combinations of the modern and the medieval, with both mystery and humor. When you can see the images in your head, you know they're doing something right.

  • I don't really need to say a whole lot about this, but what I think is cool is that it's one of the few successful games of this type that didn't have a strong analog in non-digital format. Pazhitnov made a classic game in the 20th century that is as much on the tip of people's tongues as Chess or Poker. OK, maybe gaming is still off in its own world, but Tetris is one of the strong bridges. I know many people who got into gaming through games like Tetris, and the crazy overachiever types can play this game so fast that they wind up competing with their own nerve impulses to try to react appropriately to the upcoming tetrad.

  • Many of the games on this list have some pretty solid reasons for being here, but I can't quite justify this one with a pat paragraph. This game is short by most standards, and its puzzles, while dastardly in places, aren't insurmountable. But combining the music, puzzles, graphics, and story I am reminded at how little someone needs to make a compelling game. The story manages to be told mainly in dreams and brief conversations, not long cut-scenes. You're thrown straight into the world with a compelling hook that's no more than a few sentences of text long, and there manage to be some compelling twists that you're directly involved in. You feel like you're making these twists happen when you figure out the puzzles, and the explanations toward the end for some of the dungeon's quirks are genius. My only lament is that Will Harvey and company didn't make more of these. Wow.

  • If you'd told me two weeks ago that I was going to put BG on a list like this, I first would ask you how the hell you knew what would happen in the future, and then I'd probably doubt you had any idea what was going on my head. But upon playing partway through this thing again, I have to say that while other games allow even more roaming, more customization, or more story than BG, BG manages to have the RIGHT level of each of those elements. You could customize a bit, and you could fiddle with equipment and spells to make your character fight a certain way at the right time. You could roam through a map filled with individual regions to explore, each with its own encounters and quests (which I think is where BG is the most fun). The story feels a bit too much at times I guess, but for the most part it doesn't halt the game. Like other good games with story, you tend to be able to pick up clues as you proceed, rather than having everything dictated to you. I have in mind a possible exception to this when I think of the chapter break narrations, but to start, while I skipped them, I found myself listening to them as I progressed, since I was feeling more and more connected to the game. Good sign, I'd say.

  • Difficulty 3 randomizes it, making things insane. I am impressed by how much fun I got out of this. If only other 2600 games had shot for this level of potential more often. Check it out for yourself: http://www.atari.com/arcade/adventure . Try to beat "ahooded" 's score.

  • I'd be remiss if I had Baldur's Gate on here, and didn't include Darklands. In some ways Darklands feels almost like a BG precursor, with its 3/4 semi-action battle system, where pauses are pretty much required to pull off decent strategies, and its paper-doll style equipment system. But man, while everyone else is pining for a modern Baldur's Gate, what I know I want, and what I think everyone else would want if they were familiar with Darklands, would be THIS game renewed. I should probably do a full piece on it some day.