Category Archives: 1990

#68: Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon

Format: Amiga Genre: Business simulation Released: 1990 Developer: MicroProse

Railroad Tycoon was one of the few games my Dad bought during his occasional dalliances with home computing. I remember him coming home with it and thinking, “Pffft, a game about building railways? Jeeeez, my Dad is SOOOOOOO sad!” (I was a sulky teenager at the time.) Then lo and behold, a few weeks later guess who was hooked on expanding his fledgling  railway network…

I damn well made sure my friends didn’t find out what I was doing though. I mean, just look at the front cover – this has to be one of the geekiest games ever created. But if you delve a little deeper you’ll find a solid and perfectly balanced strategy game – classic Sid Meier (he of Civilization fame). The graphics are pretty damn awful, even for the time, but once you get past the ugly exterior it’s easy to get hooked on manipulating your tiny trains.

The meat of the game centres around connecting towns and industries and micromanaging cargo. One town might produce iron and another might produce coal – take them both to a steel factory and you can produce steel, which in turn can be used to make canned goods or be exported… If it sounds complicated that’s because it is, and once you’ve connected five or six towns, micromanaging all of the various cargoes carried by each of the trains becomes a real headache. But somehow fun at the same time.

There are all sorts of strategic decisions to be made. Do I make my trains longer to maximise profit but at the same time reduce their speed? Is it worth the expense of new tracks and trains to connect to a nearby stockyard, or will the profits be too slim to make it worth it? Do I lay single track, which is cheaper, or double track, which allows my trains to move faster? It all adds up to an extremely complex but compelling game experience, even if (like me) you have absolutely no interest in trains whatsoever.

Both my Dad and I were totally hooked on this game at one point, but in the end it all got a bit too samey. The best bit is at the start, when you’re rapidly expanding your network, but once you get past a certain size, managing all of your trains becomes a bit of a nightmare, and you find yourself repeating the same actions again and again. Having said all that, the game impressed me enough to buy Railroad Tycoon II for the Dreamcast… although I kept that pretty quiet from my friends too.

(By the way, the little bell noise that signals when a train has arrived at a station used to drive me mad – have a listen in the video above to see what I mean. When your rail network got to a certain size the bell would sound almost constantly – it was almost like having tinnitus.)

Lewis

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Filed under 1990, Amiga, Business simulation, MicroProse

#36: Tetris

Format: Game Boy Genre: Puzzle Released: 1990 Developer: Nintendo/Bullet Proof Software

This was the game that started my gaming habit. I may have dabbled with gaming before this, but in 1990, at the tender age of 11, video games finally smothered me with their all-suffocating love. No more Airfix kits for birthdays please mummy, give me Nintendo.

Tetris Game Boy Box

Picture the scene: Christmas morning, 1990. Having been whipped into a frenzy of excitement by Nintendo’s relentless primetime TV ads, my sister and I had asked for a Game Boy for Christmas – and because it was such an expensive present, we’d agreed to share it between us. But wait, what’s this? TWO presents under the tree? Could it be…? YES! Our wonderful parents had given us a Game Boy EACH! AND an extra game each too! (Duck Tales and SuperMarioLand if you’re curious). Even now the recollection brings a smile to my face, and opening that present still ranks as one of my fondest childhood memories – who says kids can’t be bought?

Tetris Game Boy Screenshot 1

A joyous Christmas morning followed as my sister and I got down to the serious business of two-player Tetris while mum and dad cooked the turkey. Happy days! The only sadness arose when mum tried to get us to stop playing and eat our lunch. Alas, had she known that her children would be turned into gaming zombies, perhaps she would have bought us something else for Christmas instead. Possibly Meccano. Actually, were they even making Meccano in 1990? Come to think of it, what do kids get for Christmas nowadays if not computer games? iTunes vouchers?

Tetris Game Boy Screenshot 2

But I digress. Having dipped my toe in the gaming waters, I proceeded to dive headlong into the hallowed pool, and for months afterwards I could be found with my head buried in various gaming magazines, excitedly plotting which games to save up for with my £1 a week pocket money. To be honest, I grew bored with Tetris fairly quickly (I can almost hear the sharp intakes of breath from the readers – sacrilege!), but I think it deserves honouring as the game that really kick-started my fascination with games, as well as my long-held playground allegiance to Nintendo.

Original Game Boy with Tetris

Before I finish though, I have to mention the fantastic music. Of course, everyone remembers the main Tetris theme, but the other two tunes in the game were pretty damn good as well (if not better). I’ve included YouTube links to all three tunes below so you can judge for yourself – I think they’re some of the best (if not the best) 8-bit music out there. Can anyone think of any better 8-bit soundtracks? The only music I can think of that comes close is the soundtrack to Super Mario Bros. 3…

Lewis

Tetris A-type music.

Tetris B-type music.

Tetris C-type music.

Tetris gameplay video.

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Filed under 1990, Bullet Proof Software, Game Boy, Nintendo, Puzzle

#10: Super Mario Bros. 3

Format: NES Genre: Platform Released: 1990 Developer: Nintendo

Well of course Mario had to find his way onto the list somewhere.

super-mario-bros-3-box

Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the best selling video games of all time*, and with good reason – I can’t think of many games that managed to steal away my spare time so effectively and ruthlessly over such a long period. In fact, I think I could safely say that this is the first game that I was ‘addicted’ to: my sister and I could become utterly transfixed by it for hours, only stirring to take on sustenance and perform essential ablutions.

As a sequel, it surpasses the previous two games in every respect, not least graphically. I mean, compare this:

008_smb3_screenshot1

with a screenshot from the original Super Mario Bros.:

super-mario-bros-1

and I’m sure you’ll agree there was a huge improvement all round.

Another innovation was the map screen. Gone was the old spectre of linear game progression – now you could choose the route you took through the game (well, to a limited extent anyway). Further innovations included the raccoon suit, which enabled Mario to fly (obviously) and added a certain verticality to the level designs. This was just one of the many guises Mario adopted though – my favourite was the level where he climbs into a sort of green clockwork sock, which allows him to cross spikes.

Yes, that’s right, a green clockwork sock. If there’s one thing Mario 3 isn’t short of, it’s imagination.

009_smb3_screenshot

I think my favourite part of the whole game was World 4 – Giant World, where everything was huge (natch). A simple concept yes, but there was something endearing about jumping on giant Goombas and battering walls with enormous Koopa shells.

011_smb3_screenshot

Then there were the flying ship levels that cropped up throughout the game, culminating in a giant flying ship at the end and an army of wooden ‘tanks’ – more examples of the nuggets of imagination that flew out of this game like money flying out of an Icelandic bank.

003_smb3_screenshot

However, there was one big problem with Super Mario 3 – the lack of a save game. This was rectified in the version released as part of the Super Mario All Stars game on the Super NES, but in the original, once you turned off the console, that was it. In a game as complex and huge as this one, it was heart-breaking to flick that OFF switch and know that next time you played you’d have to start all over from the beginning.

This meant that it was almost impossible to complete the game, unless you used the ‘warp whistles’ to skip several worlds. I remember that once my sister and I tried to finish the game in its entirety – we played for hours, taking it in turns to finish each level, but we still ran out of lives before we reached the end.

I think this kind of sado-masochistic gameplay is indicative of the ethos of many games at the time – it was almost accepted by gamers and game designers alike that the player would be punished for failing, but that they would keep coming back for more anyway. Of course, the lack of a save game was partly due to technical reasons – the NES console had no save memory of its own, so cartridges had to be built with ‘battery back-up’ in order for a save function to be included, and many publishers sought to avoid including this costly extra in their games. Even so, you’d think Nintendo might have wanted to push the boat out a bit for this particular game – I mean, considering it was one of the best-selling games of all time, you’d think they could at least afford to include one little battery in the cart.

solar-jetman-box1

There were other ways around the save game problem too. Many games, such as Solar Jetman, used a password system to let you skip to the last level you played with approximately the same amount of lives that you finished with. Of course, it meant having to carefully keep various lists of passwords on scrappy bits of paper – lists that were often prone to being ‘tidied’ by overzealous mothers – but it was better than having to start at the beginning every time.

It’s very different nowadays of course, and even the idea of a game that you can’t save seems faintly ridiculous. More than that though, the ethos of game design has moved away from punishing the player to constantly rewarding him or her. Even the concept of ‘lives’ is becoming old hat; ‘lives’ were originally implemented into arcade games to limit the amount of time the player could use the machine before inserting more money, but this makes no sense for console games. Indeed, many games, such as the new Prince of Persia, have now abandoned the concept of ‘dying’ completely, and seem no worse because of it.

super-mario-galaxy

This is something that the designers of Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii) seem to have realised – the player is showered with so many extra lives that the whole concept of even having ‘lives’ seems pointless. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next Mario game does away with the idea of lives altogether.

Anyway, despite the possible overtones of sado-masochism (see above), Super Mario Bros. 3 was, and still is, a delight to play. Click on the video below to see the first level in action and I guarantee your eyes will glaze over with nostalgia as soon as you hear the first bar of that music…

Lewis

* SMB3 sold 18 million copies, being surpassed only by the original Pokémon games. Technically, the original Super Mario Bros. is actually the best selling game of all time, but since it was given away free with the NES, it doesn’t really count. Hey, them’s the rules.

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Filed under 1990, NES, Nintendo, Platform