One of our Game Nights this summer showcased the first games of famous designers. The idea was to show how first game designers started, and teach our students that it is okay if your first game is not genius, and that good games are the result of teamwork and not of individual personalities. As I was working on videogame archeology to prepare the session, I realized that lesson was not going to get across with these examples, because they all turned out to be really great games, and some of them made by the designer himself. What is interesting is that most of these games have nothing to do with what these designers have become famous for. So let's travel back in time and play these "first games".
Shigeru Miyamoto, Donkey Kong (1981), Arcade
If you want to teach that your first game does not have to be great and perfect, Shigeru Miyamoto is not the example to give. Donkey Kong is one of the milestones in videogame history, and its first screen has become a cultural icon. This was also Mario's first appearance, though at the time he was called Jumpman. Kong is a spectacular first game, and definitely not the norm in what may characterize first games. What must be remembered is that Miyamoto did not work on his own but he was assisted by several engineers, and supervised by Gunpei Yokoi.
Since most people know how great Donkey Kong is, I will devote more space to talking about other first games, which are less known but equally interesting.
Will Wright, Raid on Bungeling Bay (1984), Commodore 64
Before he became King of the Sims, Will Wright developed this action game for Broderbund. The Bungeling Empire (we still don't know how to pronounce it) was the fictional evil entity that players fought in two previous Broderbund titles, Choplifter (1982) and Lode Runner (1984).
Raid is a shoot-'em-up that scrolls in all directions, where you pilot a helicopter that attacks the Bungeling factories located on different islands. Your mission is to destroy all factories as soon as possible, because they fortify themselves over time, producing more advanced technologies to defend against you. The factories were also interdependent, with boats that go from one island to another. The level design is rather sophisticated, since the difficulty increases over time by using the system; there are no "levels", but rather the world develops as you play; it is actually a simulation. In fact, the map editor that Will Wright made for this game was the initial inspiration for Sim City; he found it more interesting to play with the map editor than with the game itself. Raid on Bungeling Bay is actually lots of fun, and a great SHMUP and very engaging. The world certainly seems alive, and the gameplay is rather dramatic, with horrible explosions when you die, lively sound effects (and this was C64!), and constant close calls for the player and the enemies.
You can see a walkthrough of the whole game here:
This was not a good example to teach students about game development--Will Wright designed and coded the game himself, while we want to encourage collaboration and team work in games. We only stopped playing because the emulator crashed, so we moved on to the next game.
Jordan Mechner, Karateka (1984), Apple II
Another game made by one single designer/programmer, who was in college while he made this game. *sigh* After this, he did the original Prince of Persia (and by original I mean the 1989 one, although he was also involved in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003)), and the lovely and experimental The Last Express (1997).
Karateka is still fan-tas-tic 24 years later. It only uses five colours, but that does not make it any less visually interesting. This was Mechner's training ground for the careful and animations of Prince of Persia. It is also very cinematic, the cross-cutting between the villain sending his henchmen to finish your character is dynamic, so that the scene gives you a respite rather than getting in the way of gameplay. Mechner is originally a filmmaker, he has written and directed documentaries, and it shows.
The combat is actually great, and it's not only because of how it controls (again, it's evident where the sword fighting in Prince of Persia comes from), but how the system works. There are two modes: walking and fighting stance. Before entering fighting stance, you can salute your enemy like a good karateka. Then you take the fighting stance, where there are three types of punches and kicks, which you must deliver timely or you will get a good beating and die. There's no room for button mashing.
Karateka is also quite difficult, since there are no savegames, though this was quite common in the early/middle 80s. It also has one of the wickedest endings in videogames. This is yet another "save the princess" story, and when you finally get to the chamber where the she is, you have to drop the fighting stance in order to finish the game in a happy embrace. If you enter the room in a fighting stance (which you have been adopting most of the time), she'll kick you in the head and kill you instantly. Why this princess needed any rescuing is one of the mysteries in videogame history.
If you don't believe me, watch it yourself.
I could not be more thrilled when I read that Mechner is reviving Karateka.
Hideo Kojima, Penguin Adventure (1986), MSX
The creator of the Metal Gear series started his career in Konami as designer in 1986, making games for MSX computers, and his first game had nothing to do with Solid Snake or "tactical espionage action". Penguin Adventure was a sequel to the MSX hit Antartic Adventure (1983), where you are a penguin running in a circuit from one base to another in Antartica. The original was a racing game with no end, and you control a penguin instead of a car, you catch jumping fish for extra points, and you had to dodge sea lions instead of other drivers.
Penguin Adventure is as cute and engaging as the original, though much more complex. The racing has a clear goal, which is finding a cure for the lovely penguin princess Penko Hime. Penta the penguin has to complete the circuit, get the apple and return in time to save her. The basic running mechanics are the same as in the original, adding several layers of complexity. To begin with, there is a variety of landscapes apart from the ice of Antartica: from forests, to water, caves, the desert and even outer space.There are boss battles every few stages: you have to defeat a flame-spewing dinosaur by breaking the ice under it. The fish that you catch can be used for bartering or playing in slot machines (sic) in order to get items to help you in your race, such as a propeller hat to jump higher, or a pistol to kill enemies.
Kojima was assistant director in this, so we cannot measure how much influence he had over the design. However, the disturbing image of a running penguin with a gun seems to be right up his alley. So do the two endings, which is are more twisted than Karateka's: in the "sad ending", Penko Hime is dead by the time you get back. To see the "happy ending", you have to press the pause button ONLY ONCE (no more, no less) in the whole game, in another game withough savegames. Or you can watch it below.
David Jaffe, Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse (1994), Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, SNES, Sega CD, Playstation
As with Kojima, we cannot quite account for David Jaffe's contribution in his first credited game, since he appears as one of four co-designers. The contrast between this game and the games he has later become famous for (Twisted Metal series, God of War) is also rather pronounced. The levels of Mickey Mania are based on Mickey Mouse's classical cartoons through the years, starting with Steamboat Willie, and finishing with The Prince and the Pauper. This plataformer was supposed to be released for Mickey's 65th anniversary. The game is a bit difficult, even for seasoned players like our lab members, who needed repeated runs at the game. This may seem too much for game aimed at young kids, but it is not so. It's a perfect game when you're eight and you can play the same level again, and again, and again, and again, knowing exactly at what point you have to jump or dodge. It's more drilling than playing, which is fine when you're a child with plenty of leisure time. Mickey Mania was also a really good plataformer, with a fine variety in the gameplay. We enjoyed it in spite of the difficulty, which kept our players striving to finish level 2.
There were two designers whose first games we could not show. Peter Molyneux's The Entrepeneur, a text-based business simulation, is rather difficult to find even in the times of the internet, because it only sold two copies. I found the flight simulator Spitfire Ace, Sid Meier's first game, but I could not make work because it needs two emulators to run (one for the operating system, one for the floppy drive).
In the end, the initial lesson that we wanted to teach did not really come across. But we all learned something else: your first game may have nothing to do with the games you work later on, so take the advantage of the experience and learn all you can.