Friday Flashback Five: Week of September 10, 2000

It’s Friday, and that means it’s time for another Friday Flashback Five!  Each week, we take a look at the games that debuted this week in history—some were grand, some abysmal, others merely passable.  No matter how well they were received, all are a part of the hobby we all love.  This week, we’re heading back to the week of September Tenth, Two Thousand.

A handful of games came out this week, a few of which would still be remembered today.  Some would even be enjoyable to gamers of a younger generation getting into “retro-ish” games.  A couple could be even considered “game-changers”, titles that made gamers re-think what they thought they knew about a genre or setting.

Now for the usual disclaimers: Where possible, I’ve included links to Let’s Plays, play-throughs, game-play videos, and so on.  Some, many, most, or all might well be utterly infused with profanity and vulgarity.  Keep that in mind as you ready your clicking-finger.  Also, this isn’t a “top” or “bottom” list.  It’s just a look back at five random games from our hobby’s history and a peek at what effect they may or may not have had.

With that out of the way, let’s do it!

NFL Blitz 2001
Though it’s trickled off, there was a time when the N.F.L. Blitz series was an alternative to Madden.  There was a new game every year, each an improvement over the preceding in at least some fashion, and—coming as no surprise since it was published by Midway—it had a bit of a sense of humor about itself.  Also, during this time, the Dreamcast was still enjoying its popularity, helped into that position by such games that were “alternatives” to the “big -boys”, like NFL Blitz 2001.  What made it a good alternative was that the game play was solid and it offered a lot to the gamer, especially for the time.

There were offerings of modes like creating your own team or individual player, then there was the “tournament” game mode, which was something of a more hard-core game play mode.  The “arcade” mode allowed assistance from the computer as well as cheats, so the stricter “tournament” mode was a bit harder—though it still allowed no penalties, two-minute quarters, and such.

Some of the things that made it even more enjoyable were things like hidden players, including other Midway game characters, and popular personalities from the real N.F.L.  Aside from that, there were numerous ways to play with or against another human being, made all the easier since the game tracked season progress for multiple players.

The game was strategic, as choosing the right plays were more important than in previous titles, it let the player have a little bit of brutal humor as it let the player beat the crap out of an opponent post-play (there’s nothing like kicking a downed quarter-back, unless it’s doing it again and again and again, followed by an elbow drop onto his back), and it offered the player more ways to just have fun than could almost be imagined, even from a Dreamcast game.

A match between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills can be found here, here, here, and here.  There were other matches to choose from to link to, but as a Bengals fan, this one almost demanded to be linked.

Reach for the Stars
When gamers think of strategy games set in space, the title usually thought of is StarCraft, even though the genre has been around a lot longer.  Reach for the Stars, for example, is a sequel to an earlier game of the same name, published almost thirty years ago, when ASCII symbols were used for graphics.

Codes for ASCII symbols; early DOS games used such symbols for graphics

Stars was a pretty run-of-the-mill turn-based empire-builder.  You researched technologies, build necessary structures and ships, and you explored the galaxy, gaining more planets for your empire.  The first problem was the over-simplification of the building process.  The research was simply point-allocation, using science points gained from research facilities to learn this or that.  Building was a simple matter, as well, as each of the sixteen races had the same six building types.

With all of that made so easy, the only thing left is the combat, and that’s what the player was meant to focus on—but that, too, was simplified.  When a battle started, the enemy’s ships were lined up across from the player’s, then the player picked one of four formations and one of three ranges, then—they sat back and watched.  Literally.

On the other hand, there were a few interesting aspects.  There was a small diplomacy system in place; though all races started out at war, the player could get them up to neutral, allied, or united.  Races not at war could trade openly or travel through one another’s space; bribes of varying sizes and forms could be given to help things along.  It wasn’t the “deepest” of systems, but it worked.  That can be said for the game as a whole, really—it wasn’t all that “deep” or exciting, but it wasn’t terrible.  Such a lukewarm reaction really isn’t something that would make the game be remembered even a few years after being published, much less over a decade.

There are times that a game comes out that makes people stand up and take notice because it offers stunning game play, interesting mechanics, and is otherwise simply very fun—then it gets ported to another platform, and something gets lost in the shuffle.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen with Driver.  When it came out for the PlayStation, it was a hit—and when it was ported to Windows-based computers, everything that was fun about the original was kept.

You can almost hear that 'Seventies music

What made the game so fun was that it was different than a lot of car-centered games of the time.  Many had some sort of weapons system, usually some hood-mounted death-dealing contraptions.  Others were track-based, where you mainly just raced around and got to the end first.  Driver delivered on the promise it made in the subtitle “You Are The Wheelman”.  They gave you the city of Miami to start with, and in it you worked your way up through the ranks of the criminal underworld, driving like a maniac—but a very well-controlled maniac.

The plot was loose and one to not think too deeply on—you played an undercover cop who happened to be a crack driver, working his way up to bust the criminals.  It wasn’t great, but it worked.  The draw of the game was racing through a large city like something from an old ‘Seventies television show.  As such, you had similar, pounding music, hubcaps flying off of tires, police giving chase, the whole nine yards.  The core of the game—the missions—were surprisingly varied.  It wasn’t just “get from here to there”.  You had to follow people, shake someone following you; on mission involves you following a subway train.

While the computer port didn’t add anything, what was already there was enough to make it a must-buy for any computer-gamer even mildly interested in car-centered games.  There were dozens of missions, plenty of mini-games, and more.  It was, like its console “cousin”, something of a breakthrough in the hobby, so different from any other game that it could be compared to.

There’s a play-through of it (as well as Driver 2 and Driv3r) right here.

Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future
For those who might not remember my review of the game, let me just say that it was an astoundingly beautiful game; it holds up to games published even recently.  The controls were mostly superb; the only thing that was really an issue was camera-control, but it wasn’t the largest issue the game could have, and using shoulder buttons or triggers was rather common.

Still, it was a game of nearly unmitigated potential.  You could see a future in which Ecco stared in more games, each better than the one before.  One can only imagine that, by now, he’d have been able to explore an entire ocean.  Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

While I couldn’t recommend the game for the modern gamer who can only play for a little bit at a stretch, it was a darn fun game.  It was great, actually; it really felt like the two-dimensional Ecco gamers had known and loved from the Genesis days translated quite well into three dimensions.

A play-through of it can be found here.

MTV Sports: Skateboarding
Thanks to Tony Hawk, skateboarding games were almost a dime a dozen eleven years ago.  Some were alright, even if they were obviously “inspired” by the “Hawk-man”‘s games.  M.T.V. Sports: Skateboarding—well, it wasn’t alright.

To be fair, it tried.  It had a variety of modes—there was the free-roaming mode for just monkeying around, then you had the “lifestyle” mode which was basically a “career mode”.  There was a mode where you grabbed icons before the time ran out, a “stunt” mode, and more.  There were a number of real-life skaters—but all of them had the same tricks, so they felt more cookie-cutter than interesting.

Adding to the above were the graphics.  While they don’t make a game necessarily “better”, they can make it worse—low frame-rates, “stiff” animation, blurry textures—all of that added to boring game play made this a prime example of why bandwagons aren’t always things to jump on.

Game play footage can be seen here.

*                        *                        *

That’s all for this week.  See you on Monday, and have a good weekend!


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