The History of A-J Games: Part Five

To catch up on the story to date, you can view the archive here.

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

Rover of the Deep

Out of the 38 games I produced in the 1990s, I only finished 30. (If you want to get technical, I finished 31 then unfinished one.) Of the eight unfinished games, four had an actual chance at completion. I had the whole game planned out, and most of the infrastructure in place; all I needed to do was build the levels.

One of those four is a Blaster Master tribute called Rōdïp: Rover of the Deep. It came out of a sort of competition with another Game-Maker user, to design the best Blaster Master pastiche. His game hewed very closely to the source material. I took the basic concept and a variation on the vehicle design, and I wandered.

The plan was for six main levels, five bosses, and four vehicle upgrades. I finished everything except the levels, the bosses, and some elements of the presentation. Then I got distracted, and the game sat on the shelf for 15 years.

A few months ago I dug it up again, and I realized that the game ain’t half bad. For a Game-Maker game it controls unusually well. The existing monsters and background tiles are distinctive and meticulously built. The existing levels were pretty good, if rough around the edges — and certainly unlike something I would design now.

So I tidied up the levels, making sure that platforms and monsters were placed sensibly, and then I began to design a new one. The slot was already there; I just had to fill it.

In the game’s structure, level 3 is the first new level after the player gains the hover upgrade, allowing much more free movement through the terrain. It made sense, then, to capitalize on that new element and create a free-flowing map, not so dependent on platforms as on environmental hazards and barriers.

There is a contrast, though. For all the player’s new freedom, in a way the new map should be more constrained than ever. One concern is to give the level a sense of structure. It means nothing if the player can go anywhere, if there is nowhere specific to go. So throw in some long vertical corridors, or awkwardly connected rooms, to underline the potential of the player’s new mobility.

The other concern is to give the player a challenge that offsets the new ability. You don’t want the game to get easier just because the player is more powerful. Sure, earlier sections become a cinch — but a new rule should change the game’s focus, and give the player something new to master just around the time the player starts to feel comfortable. So the new level should present new sorts of problems that can only be solved with the new concepts at play.

None of this was a big priority. I have articles to write, a life to attend to, skills to learn. I don’t need to spend too much time messing with old, abandoned projects. So maybe once a week I would spend an hour or so tinkering with the map, adding another screen or two. It has taken a few months. The other day I finished the level. And here it is:

The entrance is toward the lower middle; the boss door is toward the upper left.

It may not be the strongest level in the world; much of it was improvised, rather than planned out deliberately. Still, that improvisation was informed by certain principles and, I think, a pretty good sensibility. Which is to say, I rather like it.

I’m uncertain whether I ever will finish the game; it’s been a decade and a half, so there’s no rush. And now that I’ve finished this level, I think I may have satiated my interest for the moment. Further discouraging me is that, after all, this is a pastiche. If I could take the rover out of the game, and turn the project into something wholly original, then maybe I would feel less reluctant. And yet then, the game would lose much of its identity — so there’s no point.

Again, though, I think the game is pretty decent for what it is — even half-finished. You can play it here, if you like. Press F6 and select the appropriate slot to skip straight to level 3.

Alternatively, here‘s a level 3 playthrough on Youtube.

The History of A-J Games: Part Four

To catch up on the story to date, you can view the archive here.

Between eighth grade and my sophomore year of high school was my phantom year. I wasn’t in public school, I wasn’t in private. Instead, I mostly sat at home and read books. This year corresponded with my 14th birthday, and with my introduction to Game-Maker. It was a year of untempered productivity.

I’ve talked about my early character-focused design. One of my early sources of characters was my former grade and middle school associates. After school or on weekends, they would come by to play videogames; I would drag them to the computer and show them what I was up to.

I think my games mostly puzzled them. They were sort of impressed that the games existed, but they didn’t much understand computers and were mystified by my subject matter and design choices. Inevitably, their minds would wander. They would ask me, could I make a game resembling this other game that they liked? Sure, maybe. I’d try. Could I put them in the game? Well… okay.

At that time, the big thing in my social circle (if that’s the term) was Japanese RPGs — Dragon Warrior, Phantasy Star — and PC strategy games like Star Control. They were also big into arcade brawlers and forced-perspective shooters. None of these genres was a match with Game-Maker, but I did what I could. Often, that wasn’t much.

As the games were requests, I had little ego attachment. I threw them together out of available materials, as fast as I could. I based most of the characters on a standard template, tweaked a bit to resemble my clients. Background and other sprite elements, I borrowed from sample libraries and my own past games. As I churned out the requests, gradually I built up a sort of shared resource pool. Between those resources and some recurring themes, such as Groucho Marx, most of these other-insertion games feel very similar.

If I noticed the repetition, then I didn’t care; I had a job to do. It barely mattered if the games were playable, since they weren’t meant for me. If I could work in some clever references and then finish the project, I was satisfied. And then, on to the next request.

Distribution opened up another problem. As I said, I felt no attachment to the games. Although I felt obliged to release them, I didn’t want to mix this work for hire (as it effectively was) with my personal projects. I therefore devised a sub-label, Don’Pan Software, to aid in distancing myself.

I made no secret of the relationship between the two labels; it was just a mental thing. If it’s no good, don’t panic. It’s not supposed to matter. On this side of the line, you don’t have to care.

There are a few distinct eras and subcategories of insertion games. Right now I’ll just detail the first one, as they have more in common with each other than the rest of the games.

The requests started early. After A-J’s Quest, I think that Cireneg’s Rings may be my second game. It’s hard to be sure, but the more I consider it the likelier it feels. It would have to be early for me to tackle a project like this.

Cireneg’s Rings is an RPG in the tradition of Dragon Warrior, including a generic medieval setting, an evil overlord with a princess in captivity, sprawling towns hiding opaque yet important secrets, and a very slow-moving character.

There are a few subversions. You know the convention, popularized by Dragon Warrior, where exiting a city reduces it to the size of a single tile on the world map? The idea is that the journey between points of interest is heavily abstracted — both visually, in the representation of scale, and mechanically, in the random battles that represent personal trials and learning experiences on one’s journeys. In later JRPGs, the convention just becomes a convention: towns grow tiny, while a huge character walks around the map.

So I decided to play with that; whenever you leave a town, the game halts for a moment while your character erupts to an enormous size. This enormous character is then used to tromp the countryside between towns.

Other curiosities include the large “Groucho Rock” formation on the world map, a large healing sauna in each town, and — in early versions — lots and lots of nudity. That’s mostly gone now, though there may be a couple of incidental flashes hidden away. Even without the nudity, most of the townspeople are deliberately wonky. They stand in place and stomp or wave their arms, as townspeople do in games like this — except more so.

If any of this sounds clever, it’s more than offset by the inanity. The game, for instance, is filled with useless items such as armor, which often comes at a steep price. This is not so much commentary as an oversight; Game-Maker provides no way to raise or lower a character’s defenses, and yet I had to include the armor shop. Why? Because this was an RPG. Were I more astute, I could have turned the fact into a gag about in-game financing and genre conventions.

That is, I could have if Game-Maker if Game-Maker supported text overlays — which it didn’t, which probably should have given me pause before I attempted an RPG. Later on the engine got support for interstitial text and animation between levels. Although that made the premise a little clearer, it still left the player to wander aimlessly.

Not that it would have mattered, as at this point I had little concept of how to pace or structure a game. Even if you know precisely where to go and what to do, the smallest of tasks can take forever and the most important events can pass without a hint that something happened. There is no comprehensible flow from place to place, and no build-up or release of tension.

Just to make the continuity even stranger is my failure to account for Game-Maker’s lack of event flags or counter resets, meaning that in theory the player can re-enter a dungeon and collect ten copies of a priceless artifact, or continually leave and enter an area to collect a key or health upgrade. It’s kind of a mess.

On the plus side, Cireneg’s Rings is probably one of the biggest games designed with Game-Maker. I learned early what the game industry in general would take another ten years to figure out: if you can’t do quality, you can always make up for it with scale.

The moment I finished my first RPG, I turned that experience around and attempted another. Whereas Cireneg’s Rings was my take on Dragon Warrior, Linear Volume was a direct rip-off of Phantasy Star II — as close as I could manage.

When it came out, Phantasy Star II was in the range of $80-90 — and this was in 1980s money — so as big an impression as the game made on me, I never had my own copy. Instead, I borrowed the game for perhaps two years from a middle school associate. He was a year ahead of me and I didn’t know him all that well, but we had similar taste in games.

Around the time that I finally returned his game, I decided to make him a sort of thank-you gift. I whipped up a bad copy of the Motavian and Dezolian overworlds, and arbitrarily seeded them with towns and dungeons. I also designed an in-game intro, where a Winthrop Ramblers school bus disappears into a vortex and my acquaintance emerges into, essentially, the world of Phantasy Star II — albeit a version populated with Groucho noses, pickles, and toenail clippers.

When I told him what I was up to, my associate suggested a title and then asked if I meant to distribute the game commercially. If so, he insisted that I change the character’s likeness. This discussion sent a few wheels spinning, and led me to go back and produce a sanitized version of Cireneg’s Rings.

Previously I had given little thought to privacy or social delicacy. From here on, I had a sort of pattern for such games: one edition for the associate in question, and an edited draft for mass consumption. Any personal or gratuitously naughty elements went in the trash, to be replaced with random whimsy. That extra step gave the public editions more care and polish, which easily made them the definitive versions. It also made me feel less awkward about the games.

Around the time that I was wrapping up this project, a fellow who had played Cireneg’s Rings asked that I place him in a space adventure modeled in the vein of Star Trek. At the time I was only slightly familiar with The Next Generation, but a bit more cultured in space shooters and strategy games — in particular Toys for Bob’s Star Control.

Accolade’s Genesis port was another large and expensive cartridge that I had borrowed — twice the size of and possibly even more expensive than Phantasy Star II. It also loomed large in my creative mind, as the game was so darned strange. The cartridge was unlicensed, which meant the molding and the packaging were non-standard, and the actual game design was like nothing seen on a console at that time. Of especial note were the digitized sound effects, so uncommon at the time yet so easily implemented in Game-Maker.

After two wonky RPGs I was eager to try something different, so I set about designing a wonky shooter-adventure — with strong RPG trappings, mind you.

Ultimately, Explorer Jacko was only a slight departure from my earlier games. The way I figured, space would be the overworld — and space would be modeled on the melee mode of Star Control. This didn’t quite work out, but if one is charitable then the space levels might seem like a large-scale version of SpaceWar!, littered with almost pixel-for-pixel copies of some of the more interesting Star Control vessels.

Being space, the overworld is very difficult to navigate. If you putter around long enough, you may come across towns or dungeons — or, if you will, space stations and derelict colonies. Deep Space 9 was the brand new thing in syndication; although I barely watched the show, that was probably an influence. Aside from serving as store fronts, the stations also contained holodecks that allowed for more adolescent mischief.

The player could also disembark at colonies to wander around on foot, shoot monsters, and collect important items. There was little real reason to do this except in pursuit of the game’s very simple, and distressingly imperialist, story. Hidden away in a dungeon, somewhere in space, is the passport that you need to land on a certain planet. Find the passport, then land on the planet. Bingo; you’re done.

The game’s entire challenge comes from the difficulty in finding one’s way, keeping track of where one has been, and in the severely overpowered ships and monsters that the player faces. In order to explore sufficiently to figure out what one is doing, one must destroy countless little monsters to rack up the money to upgrade both the ship and the character’s equipment.

Although the game is a failure in most respects, Jacko in a sense does more successfully follow the JRPG formula than its predecessors. It’s also a sort of interesting mix of play styles, with the constant cycle between a space shooter and an adventure exploration game. The game’s beginning, although poorly implemented, is also curious; the player starts by breaking out of a jail cell, and for a while has no direct means of attack or defense — just some time delayed explosives. Eventually the player finds a ship and, with luck, limps to a nearby space station for help.

Designed better, that might have been a dynamic teaser to draw the player into the game’s action while slowly introducing its concepts. As implemented, it just confuses the player with one irrelevant obstacle after another. Hey, live and learn.

I certainly never tried another RPG, though I had far more strange decisions to come.

The story continues in Part Five

The History of A-J Games: Part Three

To catch up on the story to date, you can read the first two parts here and here.

So some of my characters, I spun out of existing projects. Others came about from that web of interests and in-jokes that brought about my Andrew-Jonathan strip in the first place. These characters are built of wholly abstract materials, which makes it all the harder to justify them in design terms.

It would be one thing to base a game on abstract concepts. That’s probably an ideal place to begin, actually; to take vague notions from life and to see how best to communicate those ideas through a framework of cause and effect. You only seldom see this approach; when you do, as in games like Passage or D2, or even Pac-Man, you end up with highly expressive, meaningful content.

Pac-Man

To base a game not on concepts, but things — well, you’re always starting on the wrong foot. This is why there are so few excellent licensed games, and why genres and long-standing series tend to devolve into meaningless variations on a form. It’s why tech demos, although fascinating on a level, make such empty and tawdry exercises.

This may be why so few developers have made real use of the Nintendo Wii. Nintendo boiled some brilliant and progressive concepts down to a thing, which developers proceeded to use as a thing rather than explore for the concepts that it represented.

Red Steel

So it’s hard enough to build a game out of an established character. Imagine if that character itself is uncertain. Instead of A-J Bear to draw from, with all his built-in thematic trappings and influences and continuity, you have the vague idea of a hedgehog who is very, very British. Offhand you can throw together a few lazy pitches, but what are you basing those pitches on? Cultural preconceptions? Handy iconography? Are you going to just stop there, or are you going to examine those preconceptions and break down that iconography into something practical and representational?

Think that’s easy? How about a game based on a funny name combined with a meaningless catch phrase? Whoever the character is, this is his name and these are the words that he spouts whenever possible.

Though I’m certain meaningful projects have begun with less material, some tasks were too much even for the slapdash methodology and low artistic standards of my youth.

Sign of the Hedgehog (title)

Considering its origins, Sign of the Hedgehog turned out pretty well. From its title you may ascertain my thought process. For full clarity, though, let’s take a trip back to 1991.

From a very young age, I was obsessed with hedgehogs. Such it was that when, in the early ’90s, I read of Sega’s upcoming mascot game, I felt compelled to tell the world. No one would believe me. I was obsessed with the Sega Genesis, which was fine but at that time no one owned or played the system. I was obsessed with hedgehogs, but in mid-Maine in the pre-Sonic era no one had ever heard of them except in association with me. So clearly I had gone off the deep end and was just making things up now.

Sonic the Hedgehog

The game arrived, and it was very good, but — Sonic wasn’t really a hedgehog, was he. He didn’t look like a hedgehog, he didn’t move like a hedgehog, and he wasn’t really characterized the way you’d imagine. About the only parallels you can draw are that Sonic has spines and that he can roll into a ball. My mind got working.

Over the next couple of years, more Sonic games kept coming out to decreasing returns. Sure, each game had more stuff in it, but those were just things. The actual themes and spirit that made the first game so intriguing was being sidelined in favor of… stuff. It got so that Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was the last console game I bought or played until the Sega Dreamcast, another five years on. I was totally disenchanted with the direction that games were moving in.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3

And yet here I was in response, comporting more stuff into my own fetishistic ideas of propriety. I would draft my very own hedgehog game, the way that Sonic should have been. My hedgehog would of course be British, and as a Briton he would be enamored of all things tea. He would be reserved and conservatively dressed. As a hedgehog he would live in green places and only rarely stray out of his comfort zone. It would take a spectacular quest to shake him from his Hobbit-like indolence — something like a personal request from the Queen.

Hedrick

So we have a reluctant hedgehog with a tea obsession invited to see the Queen. What would motivate him to actually attend? Well, let’s make it tea with the Queen. What makes his journey an adventure? Maybe he needs to prepare for the visit. Let’s say he needs to bring supplies. What sorts of supplies? Goods for a tea party. So what goes with tea? If we’re being stereotypical, then crumpets.

SotH screenshot

You can see the game taking shape here. Now we have a journey, and a scavenger hunt. Although there is a linear goal, this is a game about exploration and discovery rather than about speed (which is just as well for a hedgehog). Since it’s broadly linear but narrowly not, let’s scatter the levels around an overworld rather like Commander Keen‘s.

Overworld map

I’m not sure that this is very deep stuff, but at least the design concepts do come from the basic premise. If you squint, the game might even look a bit like satire regarding British conventions and the arbitrary decisions in mainstream game design. I don’t think any of that was deliberate. So far as I was aware, I made the game in earnest.

The game’s title is both a none-too-subtle nod to Sega’s game and a play on British public houses — or at least my adolescent concept of them.

In the end, Sign of the Hedgehog is more linear than I intended. You can thank those constant Game-Maker goblins of flags and counters. There was no easy way to prevent players from entering the same level over and over again to rack up provisions, which could only be a problem because Game-Maker will never reset special counters. Thus the player could keep collecting crumpets and 1-ups, dying, and then starting over to build up a wealth of currency and blow through the later levels.

Of course since the counters don’t reset this is a problem anyway, but at least making the level progression linear prevents players from abusing the system too terribly. In retrospect there are a few other unexplored solutions, but this is what we have.

The game was successful enough in my mind to warrant a sequel. I had promised one to registered users, and I figured that this time I would finally get a few orders. The orders never came, I got distracted by other projects, and the game never took shape.

Sign of the Hedgehog 2 (title)

To be precise, Sign of the Hedgehog 2 took a very general shape but I never bothered to whittle it down. As a result I have a slightly amended concept — this time Hedrick is collecting scones instead of crumpets; he now can toss crumpets like a Frisbee — and a new map screen, decorated with a poorly designed first level. To change things up, the map is now side-scrolling rather than an overhead view. You can tootle around the map all that you like, but there is nowhere to go.

One advantage to the side-scrolling map is that it does give a sense of scale and adventure. Compared to the bird’s eye view, you can judge how far Hedrick has traveled and what he went through to get there. I guess you could say it’s more subjective.

SotH2 screenshot

So far as I can tell, the one working level was more of a test than a real finished design. It consists of clear blocks against a night sky, presumably because I so enjoyed the clear blocks in the Commander Keen games. It was an easy visual effect, and it looked cool. Beyond that it had no purpose.

Already you can see my sensibility devolving, in several respects. But it would disintegrate much further.

The Adventures of Fred Earwigian (title)

The Adventures of Fred Earwigian is the nadir of my character-based design process. By this point I had been hammering that character button for a couple of years, expecting my game concepts to magically present themselves at the last moment and allowing the full projects to take form. In this case, that didn’t happen. Why not? Well, let’s see.

Fred Earwigian was not so much a character as a wacky name. I have no memory of its origin; just that the name arose somewhere before high school, and thenceforth again whenever life called for a nom de guerre. Around my third year of high school, the name crossed paths with a domestic catch phrase and inanity was born.

On one return from Russia, my mother imparted a story of crossed communications. One of her hosts had advised her on departure not to forget, as she heard it, her hair. In reality he was speaking of a stuffed rabbit, a gift from one of her Russian friends. The misunderstanding delighted her enough to turn “Don’t forget your hair!” into a common goodbye in my household.

An arctic hare

By 1994, my well of ready ideas was dry. I began The Adventures of Fred Earwigian with nothing but the name, and eventually a title screen, expecting intuition to steamroll the rest into existence.

Based on the title graphic, I figured that Fred was rather slow — both physically and mentally. In physique and mannerisms, I envisioned him as a vaudevillian yokel with bits of Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. In personality, my mind went to Steinbeck’s Lennie, from Of Mice and Men. I wasn’t trying to be obscure; these were honestly my cultural references as a teenager. I didn’t get out much.

Of Mice and Men

When one thinks of Lennie, one thinks of rabbits on the farm. When I thought of rabbits, I thought of Fred singing “Don’t fergetcha, don’t fergetcha hare / Ba-dum, ba-dum”.

That became the basis of my game: a bumbling, slow-moving, dim-witted fellow looking for a lost hare. I couldn’t make it work. I couldn’t find the game. I couldn’t find a point to it.

I drew and animated Fred’s sprite, and I recorded him some voice samples. I drew up half a dozen scenarios, none of which fit. The game was stalled.

Fred Earwigian sprite

I threw the character sprite and title screen together with a map and background tiles from one of RSD’s demo games, and uploaded the mess to the semi-official Game-Maker BBS in Rockport. With the files I included a document pitching Fred Earwigian as a design contest. Whoever made the best game out of the available materials would win something or other. No one bothered. Quite understandable.

You’d think that my experience with Fred Earwigian would have taught me something, but any wisdom was a good decade off yet. In the meanwhile I had mistakes to burn.

The story continues in Part Four