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Time passed. I conducted some experiments, learned a few things, and became more confident with the tools. I completed a few original games, and toyed with some tributes. When I stumbled into my next run of insertion games, I was more prepared. I had a better sense of what was and was not possible with RSD’s tools. I had a slightly better sense of design. Creatively and technically, I was in a place to be more ambitious.
It’s unclear where Gridline came from. I get the feeling that the title screen may have come before the game itself, so maybe it began with some experiments in Deluxe Paint. Maybe I was thinking of some other game, like the early Genesis puzzler Zoom! — at least stylistically. Structurally, ToeJam & Earl may have had some influence.
Alternatively, the background grid may have left over from Explorer Jacko. Perhaps the tiles were meant for a dungeon level that I never completed.
Whatever the game’s origin, it is perhaps the most original I had developed to this point. Whether it is successful is another question. For a while I was rather proud of it, though. Of my early insertion games, it is the only one that I considered “canonical” and included on lists of available software.
The character is again based on the familiar template. I believe I had recently come back in contact with a grade school associate who I had not seen in five years, and so meant to send him the game as a gift. His input was zilch and his presence had little to no effect on the game’s design. In this case I felt free to get as weird as I liked.
I decided that the grid setting was a sort of outer space purgatory, to which my associate had been spirited away for reasons unknown. The grid was full of mostly-original monsters who could turn a person to stone, and indeed littered with statues representing previous explorers. The idea, I think, was that every time the player died, the character would petrify on the spot — and then the next time around, the statue would remain on the field. That element never quite came together.
Something that sort of did work out was the combat. In place of the projectiles in my earlier games, here it’s all about close-quarters fighting. Furthermore, the attacks are mapped to four directionals for a sort of Robotron-style experience. Both the attacks and the mapping are a little wonky in the implementation, but compared to what I’d done before this is a pretty big stylistic leap.
Amongst the melee combat, the small environments, and the distinctive monsters — as well as the dire consequences of being touched — Gridline winds up feeling sort of conceptual. Whether it works or not, it’s small, focused, and distinctly odd. Little wonder it pleased me at the time.
Less pleasing were my next two projects, both of which felt altogether foisted on me. Someone sat me down, told me what do do, and watched while I did it. The results so embarrassed me that, despite later attempts to salvage the material, these games are amongst only three finished projects that I never released.
It is perhaps significant that both games use the same background tiles, most of which I borrowed from earlier projects which in turn borrowed most of their tiles from A-J’s Quest. There is an element of rapid prototyping, especially with someone watching over one’s shoulder, and there is an element of sheer apathy.
I think what most bothered me about these games is that the actual design was less a concern than their exhibition of my associates’ proclivities. Tony & Me, for instance, was meant to be a Double Dragon style brawler — not the most sensible option for the given tools, but I was willing to try — but what it was really about was its protagonist’s real-life ambitions to get laid. That, and to demonstrate what a tough dude he was.
I suppose I could have gone any direction with this game. Were I a little more clever I could have undermined the premise with some lampoonery, or used it as an opportunity to try some new techniques that would pan out in later projects. Instead, I just chose to get it over with.
I brought over the melee combat from Gridline, but in interest of simplifying the controls and out of sheer apathy I condensed the attacks down to one button. The results are underwhelming. The character will close his eyes, extend both arms, and then depending on which direction he had been walking, a fist or a weapon will appear at the end of one arm. When I write it out like that, the animation sounds more interesting than it is. In practice, it comes off as lazy. Which is accurate.
Likewise the enemies are borrowed wholesale from Gridline and A-J’s Quest, which confirms the game’s dating if my vague memory and extrapolation of the game’s mechanics weren’t enough.
One new element is the character sprites. I think by this point I was tired of rehashing the same template. It was too recognizable, it was too limited, and it just wasn’t original. Also, I may have chosen to demonstrate to my associate the character design process. If that was the case, then I can understand why I may have begun from scratch — especially as by this point I felt I had a grasp of basic animation.
Of note is that my associate insisted that I include myself as a playable character — inspired, perhaps, by the variety in Final Fight or Streets of Rage. My implementation was, for whatever reason, to position the player as a ghost or angel who has the opportunity to be revived as either of the two characters — complete with voiceover about his predicament.
Since the engine only supports one player at a time, and since there is no practical difference between the characters, the effect of the choice is somewhat diminished. I chose to distinguish the two threads by swapping out the monsters (he gets Gridline; I get A-J’s Quest) and by changing the ending. Play as him, you get a happy ending. Play as me — well, you just play a level and then stop.
Later on I removed the parts that made me feel icky, changed around the identities of involved parties (both he and the particular girl he had in mind), and adjusted the mechanics enough to allow the game to sort of stand alone. None of it helped, though, and the game sat on my hard drive for a decade and a half.
Mind you, it had company. If Tony & Me was embarrassing, my next game was probably one of the more horrible things I’ve done.
There’s sort of a long story here. You know when you’re little, and your parents match you with other kids your age, and somehow they’re your friends, whether you actually like them or not? That was never more the case than with this client. Let’s call him Mark. My, he was a pushy one. Mark had a grudge against another fellow in our grade, we’ll say Harold. I never quite understood why.
As I say, I had no problem with Harold, but being young and conflict avoidant, I tended to just go along with Mark’s nonsense until Mark went away. One day Mark invited himself over and decided that I needed to make a game in which he killed Harold. I think I ignored him at first, but Mark had a way of digging in his heels and I had a way of folding.
The idea was that Mark would catch Harold in various lewd acts, at which point Mark would slowly blast Harold to pieces. I’m going to spare you the details, but it got unpleasant. Mark wanted to be portrayed as basically a Harold-slaying machine. He also wanted a sort of 3D, behind-the-back perspective reminiscent of Dead Angle.
In the tradition of games like Street Fighter II, interspersed with the normal levels were various bonus stages. In one stage Mark attacked Harold’s house and killed his mother. In another he simply chased Harold through a town and field, throwing sharp objects at him. In portraying Mark, I drew roughly from my memories of the arcade version of Sega’s E-SWAT, a sort of Japanese response to Robocop. Mark certainly liked his Robocop.
Which is not to say that I put any effort into the project. In fact I borrowed nearly all the game’s resources from Tony & Me, a project that received little enough attention. I think every step of the process I was simultaneously dragging my heels and looking for ways to avoid thinking about what I was doing.
Ultimately I filed Operation Killbot way in the back of my directory structure, unwilling to throw anything away but unsure what to do with the game. Eventually, as with Tony & Me, I made some effort to clean the game up. I removed some of the more uncomfortable imagery, changed around the premise and identities, and tried to tidy the mechanics.
That last part was the most damning, though, and explains why, even after several passes at fumigation, I never released the game. It simply doesn’t work, on any level. Mark’s requests were impossible within the framework I was using, but I didn’t care. I was only concerned with shutting him up and getting him out the door. Granted, in retrospect you can take Killbot as a curious experiment. It comes off as a sort of shooting gallery game, like a poorly designed Hogan’s Alley or Chiller without the light gun.
Maybe with extensive revision I could have salvaged the basic format. The level that works the best is the first bonus stage, where the player attacks the house. This is not to suggest that the level actually works, but the variety of targets — some stationary, some moving — does suggest a better direction for design.
It seems that even in the worst failures one can find, if not salvation, some glimmers of inspiration. This is a reassuring thought, as we have yet to hit the bottom of the well.
The story continues in Part Six…