My brother bought me an Intellivision Flashback. It was half-price at Sam’s Club. He knew exactly what he was doing, too: fueling my interest in archaeogaming and retrogaming while reminding me of the fun we used to have playing the original Intellivision back in the 1980s. It was our first console. The Flashback console is easily half the size of the original unit and weighs mere ounces.
I remember crying when I was unable to play Auto Racing (this was after getting over not receiving an Atari 2600 for Christmas like my other friends). I used to annihilate my brother in Sea Battle. When I unboxed the Flashback at his house on Feb. 1, 2015, we were delighted to see that overlays were included. Anyone who played the original Intellivision will recall that all games came with a couple of plastic sheets that would slip into the controllers, overlaying the keypad, adding extra dimensions of complexity Atari could only dream of. We were the prog rock to Atari’s Sabbath, sacrificing a bit of muscle for intellect in how we chose to kick each others asses.
Even though we had great fun with Super Pro Football and the fancier, exotic titles from Imagic such as Microsurgeon and Demon Attack, what my brother and I truly enjoyed were the dungeon-crawlers, specifically Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin. Really. Once we got good enough at it, we spent an entire day going down to level 255 (the maximum depth) only to discover that level 256 was actually the first level repeated. We felt somehow cheated, but what could you expect when the biggest loot in the game was a treasure chest you couldn’t even open?
Imagine my delight in seeing that Treasure of Tarmin was included with the Intellivision Flashback. The game’s working title in 1981-82 was Minotaur, the eponymous monster guarding the ultimate treasure. To reach one of the first real boss-fights in RPG gaming, you had to explore dungeons, kill baddies, while upgrading armor and weapons. Sounds familiar, yes? So I played it through for the first time in over 25 years, and I was surprised how much I remembered about the video, audio, and controls, something a Java emulator on a Mac or PC cannot hope to replicate. I believe (as Rebecca HG, video game archivist has articulated on Twitter) that in order to experience a video game as it was meant to be played, it must be done on the hardware for which it was designed. This might be especially true for Intellivision games because of the truly alien nature of the keypad controllers, disk wheels, and side buttons. And when you think about it, these controllers have more in common with Xbox and Playstation than Atari ever did.
Although I was awash in nostalgia, I did want to undertake Minotaur under the banner of archaeogaming. Having spent literally years of my life in virtual dungeons (aka “instances”) in MMOs and in RPGs, how did we get there from here? Minotaur was informed by the rules of AD&D, and I’d been playing that for longer than I had the Intellivision. I had character sheets and understood stats. And I was already well acquainted with the tropes of this kind of gaming: gear up and kill stuff to get treasure. Minotaur was up to the task. The folks who produced the Intellivision Flashback also posted the manuals online as scanned PDFs. Here’s a snippet from Page 1 where players are instructed to “grab the loot,” already a time-honored tradition in tabletop gaming:
What kind of loot? Coins, necklaces, ingots, lamps, chalices and crowns. As a 10-year-old kid, I could give a damn about why there were crowns lying around in the dungeon, or why the loot types weren’t more diverse, or even what a loot table was, or the fact that the monsters never dropped anything after the thorough beat-down you’d just given them with your 3 x 6-pixel sword. You earned a treasure-score at game’s end, but to no real purpose unless you wrote it down to show your friends. No screengrabs or leader boards for proof. I remember taking a Polaroid of my TV after finishing an exceptionally good game.
Teleporting in, the dungeon is realized as it might have been drawn on my old pad of grid-paper, each square representing 10 x 10 feet. There is perspective in this game, and limited visibility adding to the randomness of each square level and the monsters and treasure within. In 1982, this was serious stuff.
Patrolling the outer corridors, I find my first door. They are all blue, except for the hidden doors, something that predated Castle Wolfenstein by almost ten years. Instead of a joystick, players pushed the disk on the controller to move. Holding the disk down kept the motion almost smooth, hopping from square to square.
My first wandering monster (classed in the manual as a “nasty monster”) was a Level 2 cloaked skeleton, which I hastily dispatched with my bow in a single shot. In Minotaur, the fighting happens in something close to real-time, and if you are fast enough, you can get off the first shot to stop the fight before it starts. Most monsters seem to be hanging out waiting for this kind of action. And death.
As you explore, you find various loot, some of which is not treasure, but is rather what is now called a “consumable”. In this game, sacks of flour that appear to be branded by Purina, are lying around. You pick them up, and when you press the “Rest” button, your stats increase. This is also true after fights.
To interact with these items, one does not point-and-click. This pre-dated the mouse, at least in my home. Instead, you have to center the item in the depression on your stats area and then activate it with the keypad.
Sometimes weapons will be lying on the ground, establishing another video game trope of . . . weapons lying around. There are no bodies. This is not an armory, nor is it a battlefield. It’s just a throwing-axe in the hall. Just like at home.
There are magic items, too. In days of yore, dungeon-delvers could opt to specialize in the magickal arts of kicking ass. In Minotaur, one need not specialize. Fireballs and lightning bolts were there for the taking and for the using by anybody. Different colors of weapon and magic item signified its power.
And ultimately I would round a corner to find a ladder to take me down to the next level. Since playing this game, I must have climbed down thousands of ladders and stairwells in countless other games. The ladders, like the doors are blue. Why not brown? And I wonder if the designers thought that coding ladders and doors as blue meant that they were used for travel. Perhaps not.
After about ten minutes of wandering corridors that looked exactly the same, and taking the same wrong turns and ending up in the same places (which is great practice for excelling at navigating maps that make sense in later video games), I found the Minotaur who was guarding what appeared to be lunch. Unlike the previous monsters who were white or yellow or blue, the Minotaur was purple to signify his bad-assery.
Having bested the Minotaur (and I’ll be back because this time, it’s personal), I wanted to play a more “recent” dungeon-crawler. Tower of Doom was the third AD&D title for the Intellivision, released in 1986-87, about four years after Treasure of Tarmin. Sadly, despite “Doom” in the title, there was no BFG to be had. The opening screen already showed promise in an improvement of graphics, and a light-year forward in game music.
Even the overlay for this title was bad-ass looking like something from a Man-o-War album cover, and eliminated the need for the keypad at all, relying instead on the four side-buttons on each controller.
The manual even made promises such as, “the greatest challenge any mortal has ever known,” and, “encounter the vilest creatures ever unleashed.” This kind of hyperbole is truly bait for kids, and reflects the style of marketing popular at the time that crushes you with superlatives until you just have to play the game if only to see if it lives up to the hype.
There is of course loot in the Tower of Doom. It’s not all doom in there apparently. And in a fascinating turn of programming development, you can actually bribe monsters with the stuff you find. Or you can kill them. Your choice. The game awards you diplomacy points for successfully haggling for your life. And we also see the appearance of the Grail and the Rosary Necklace as supreme prizes in the elite levels, albeit wholly divorced from any religious context.
True to its AD&D roots, you can also choose your character class, although typical classes such as Paladin and Ranger are absent, substituted instead with “Waif” and “Friar”. Your class affects your stats for magic, life, and power, and it might be the case that certain classes are unable to use edged weapons, opting instead for projectiles or non-pointy objets-d’death.
My warlock (which really looks nothing like a warlock — although the same could be said of my character in Destiny) runs around in great haste, looking for stairs down to other levels, and for cash, gear, weapons, treasure, and monsters. In this game, you actually map each random level, interesting because at last the dungeons are roughly randomized, and you can see where you’ve been. You also have an inventory, and your loot begins to become identifiable with a bit more detail than what was found a few years ago.
And the game ended abruptly when I climbed down the last ladder to find myself outside getting the hell out of Dodge. The castle from which we escape is generic, the template or Ur-castle. The dungeon levels are generic and without the character we now expect. Instead we explore the Ur-dungeons. The loot we find has no context and no history. We don’t know anything of the people who left these treasures, nor do we really seem to care. They are in the game, because that is what we expect from an RPG. Material culture without the culture. Trash without a history of use or ownership. There is one kind of sword. One kind of shield. One kind of crown. And for a time, that was enough. We played for an hour, and then we went outside.
My final stats appeared after Tower of Doom finished, along with my XP and a treasure-score, meaningless in a way because of the inability to preserve your character for further development, taking it on future adventures such as the Wizard Hunt, or perhaps the Warlock ramble, or even the Priest Parade. To return to the main menu, you have to in effect kill yourself via the Reset button.
I found Tower of Doom to be a great improvement technically over Minotaur, two games in the same series following similar rules as sent down from the throne of Gary Gygax and then deconstructed into something a video game of the mid-’80s could actually do. As for story, both games lacked in any kind of lore or backstory. You’re a player lost in a maze and face great tribulations and violence in an effort to get rich and escape. Character-leveling is not yet present, although increasing player stats is. There are levels of gear, and I found it fascinating that purple gear in the Intellivision world hold the same elite status as that in contemporary RPGs, with blues the next level down. There is both melee and ranged combat. The maps do become random, as does the appearance of monsters and treasure. “Loot” was the active verb then as now.
With games like these for Intellivision and Adventure for Atari, we witness the creation of archetypes in video games. Better graphics and sound, the creation of stories and histories: it’s all window-dressing to the core need to explore, to fight, to collect wealth. As fantastic as these worlds began, and as fantastic as they have become, the core mechanics have remained unchanged in almost 40 years, a fact that puts video games on the same page as literature. We tell the same stories over and over, and continue to be entertained by them.
Post-Script: I am saving video game sounds for a future post on Archaeogaming. One of the best things about playing older games is the nature of the music and sound effects that charmed a generation or two of players and were then largely forgotten. Various websites and YouTube videos now serve as homes for these old sounds, but I do worry about their proper conservation and care over the long haul. I’ll leave that to pros such as Rebecca HG (@8BitBecca) to address in their roles as true video game archivists.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming