Friday Flashback Five: Week of November 29, 1998

It’s the end of the week, and of course that means it’s time for another Friday Flashback Five!  Each week, we go through five random games that debuted this week in history, and this week is no different. This week, we’re cranking the Wayback Machine for the week of November Twenty-Ninth, Nineteen Ninety-Eight.

Oh, my, a lot of games came out this week.  While, as ever, they really ran the spectrum from “terrible” to “fantastic”, most games this week were at least near the “fantastic” end.  Unfortunately, most didn’t get the fame they deserved.

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 get it on!

Viper Racing
For about as long as it’s been around, the Dodge Viper has been in racing games.  It’s not hard to see why—it has that classic American roar, and that sleek and stylish profile that both just beg to be taken for a spin.  Most of the games, though, have been heavily bent toward arcade physics.  Well, developer Monster Games apparently decided to do things a little different by making a racing game with ultra-realistic physics built entirely around the Viper.

Viper Racing is difficult to discuss succinctly.  You really felt the car and the road as you drove along the track—and the realism is driven home by how easy it is to slide off the track.  Thing is, that’s a real muscle car, emphasis on the muscle.  It’s designed to get up and go.  Once that was realized, once the player underwent the necessary shift in thought, they found an easier time.

Another aspect was the damage—you smack into something, and the damage is realistic (to a point; after a few smacks, it seems like the shell was made from tin foil).  None of the generic “corner damage” or the like.  Of course, that eventually impacted one’s driving, too, as one could damage the wheels.

It wasn’t trying to be the next Need for Speed, nor was it trying to be a very “diverse” game.  It gave you the Viper (and some generic cars, but that’s neither here nor there), some tracks, and told you to have fun.  The developers did everything they could to give you a rich, full experience to all but make you have fun.

A humorous Let’s Play video (though mildly inaccurate; the Let’s Player says the game came out in ‘Ninety-Three, which it didn’t, and to head off questions yes it’s footage of the right game) can be found here.

Populous: The Beginning
Can you name three “pure strategy” series?  We’re not talking about the “real-time strategy” genre which tends to involve heavy combat.  We’re talking about games that hand you a world or culture or the like and tell you that you’re in charge of it from start to finish.  Many people can name Civilization and SimCity, but for most gamers that’s where the list ends—even though the Populous series doesn’t deserve any less of the spotlight.

In most “pure strategy” games, you were essentially a god—and the first Populous handed you the role of a literal one.  You messed with the terrain, cast spells to have this or that effect, and so on.  It was a popular enough game for its time, and after a few expansions and a full-fledged sequel, it was time for Populous: The Beginning.

It was a daring game—daring because, then as now, publishers with a winning franchise tend to not want to shake things up too much.  They have the developer slap on a fresh coat of paint, maybe add a few additional moves/abilities/what-have-you, and boom, Generic Game: The Third After the Second finds its way to store shelves.  Electronic Arts allowed developer Bullfrog Productions to revamp the engine from the ground up.  While that had the interesting side-effect of making The Beginning closer to a real-time strategy game, that wasn’t really a full point in disfavor.

You had your basic units—individuals who built buildings, ones who converted followers, a magic-user, and so on.  There were two basic goals in most missions—convert a ton of followers, and beat the ever-loving heck out of the enemy.  Where the game really shone, though, was the graphics.  The buildings, as odd buildings in a game from the ‘Nineties could be, still looked believable and fantastic.  Stone buildings where you could count the bricks, huts where you could count the weaves in the thatched roofs.

In a weird way, this Populous game could be accused of not really being a Populous game—but it was so different, it deserved to stand on its own, to be judged not by what came before, but by what it alone brought to the table, and unfortunately history has largely forgotten it.

An informative Let’s Play van be found here.

Myth II: Soulblighter

The first Myth game was popular.  Crazy-popular.  It deserved to be, too.  What could have been a Command &amp Conquer clone turned out to be anything but.  Similarly to Bullfrog Productions with Populous: The Beginning, though, developer and publisher Bungie Studios wasn’t content to rehash what they’d already done.  Thus, Myth II: Soulblighter retained the spirit of its predecessor, but did everything the first game did better.

Taking place sixty years after the original game, the player comes in on a land at peace—just as that peace is about to be broken.  Undead warriors are popping up, which can of course only mean bad things.  Game play was incredibly diverse, with no two missions being really the same.  You had large outdoor areas, smaller indoor areas, and the entirety of the spectrum between to play with.

It was also a game that took the then-newer concept of “ambient life” and really implemented it well—animals walked around, doing their own thing, birds soared overhead, the enemy had interesting and something downright funny things to say when you aren’t fighting them.  The difficulty settings were improved, with more of a gradual curve, much-improved multi-player support—and much more.  It was a game that deserved to be remembered even now—though most of the reason its forgotten is that there are more recent entries in the series, so perhaps that’s somewhat forgivable.

Return to Krondor
The sequel to Betrayal at Krondor, Return to Krondor, was, like other titles on this list, revamped, but it still retained qualities that made the original so popular.  It was still heavily story-driven, though to the point where the player really had no impact on the story, and played through the brief story in a series of set, linear chapters.

On the one hand, using a preset character (in an age when create-your-own-character was a popular element in computer gaming) could seem rather limiting—but on the other, it came with a character that was fully fleshed-out, that was a true character in their own right, and thus added to the story.

Most of the quests and sub-quests involved dealing with human enemies, so that combined with the short story and linear game play turned off most gamers who game in from larger R.P.G.s—which is to say, a lot.  That was a shame, too.  On the surface, yes, it seemed restricting, but taking a real look at the game revealed a game that had a shockingly wonderful and in-depth story and positively stunning visuals, a combination that isn’t as common as one may think.  As I say now and then, it was a better game than its fate would have one believe.

Game play footage can be seen here.

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was more of a run-and-gun experience than anything actually involving hunting, so when gamers who saw Carnivores on the shelf and expected a Turok clone, they were sorely disappointed indeed.  If anything, the game really had much, much more in common with Deer Hunter and such games.

The premise was simple—on an alien world conveniently populated by dinosaurs, you, well—you hunted the dinosaurs.  And when we say “hunted”, we mean hunted.  You chose your weaponry, your place to hunt, and off you went.  You had to mind things like wind direction, how quiet you were, and more—as the dinosaurs could actually see, hear, and smell.  There was a points system in place, and you needed bigger points to get the chance to hunt bigger game.  Doing things like covering your scent and such things deducted points—but, interestingly, doing things like using tranquilizer darts actually increased your points.

That aside, the game was intense.  You needed to bring more than a point-and-shoot mentality to it—-try a head-shot on a triceratops and all you’d do was annoy it.  You needed to shoot a soft spot—eye, throat, that sort of thing.  Tactics were key—assuming you could take down most dinosaurs the same way—even of the same species—was a guaranteed way to die, quickly.  You had to take species, terrain, and much more into account.

A large number of dinosaur species to shoot at, a good variety of weapons—if there was even any inclination toward real hunting, the gamer could find a lot of fun with this title—one that, like the others on this list, is largely forgotten now.

*                        *                        *

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


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