Gaming Nostalgia? There’s an App for that!

Viva the 1980s!

InetHack with tileset interface

All of our cultural relics seem to be having a Second Act these days– whether it’s a crappy 70s TV show, or bad 80s horror movies, or schlock from another era.  Why not gaming?  Of course!

The advent of a relatively cheap and easily defined application library with freely available APIs and a free! market distribution channel has encouraged anyone with a notion to make a nickel and a dime to jump into the application development market for Ipod/Ipad/Iphone applications, or “apps”.   The up side to that is that a lot of ideas that maybe would have been considered “marginal” in a more expensive production venue (say, commercial software or book publishing) seem to have an easier time getting made as Iphone Operating System (IOS) applications.  For instance, the subjects of this evening’s post, a series of retread games from the 1980s, reborn using vastly different media and interfaces (although, oddly enough, possessed of significantly more raw processing power then in their first incarnations):

  • InetHack (IoS port of NetHack)
  • Rogue Touch (IoS game derived from NetHack or Ultima)
  • Slash ‘Em (yet another NetHack/Rogue clone for IoS)
  • Warlords (port from old SSG DOS game)
  • The Fighting Fantasy Series (several games porting Steve Jackson’s FF book-based RPG series to IoS)
  • Pocket MUD (an IoS client, of sorts, for several Multiple User Dungeons of the old school type)

Reviews of the games I have purchased are below

Herewith, a diverse group of titles that are all selling on a desire to relive cherished retro-gaming experiences from days (long) gone by.

This is not a niche I sneer at, since it is aimed squarely at your humble narrator.  I owned WARLORDS in the PC/DOS version (that’s Warlords ONE) and must have played it one hundred times.   I owned several of the Steve Jackson RPG books (no, not that Steve Jackson, the other one).   Accordingly, I purchased Warlords, a few of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and downloaded InetHack, NetHack, Pocket MUD and Slash”Em.

Collectively, they are all now in my “Retro Fun” folder on my Ipod Touch.

Pocket MuD at work
Pocket MuD in action. Click picture to order a copy from the Itunes store.

Pocket Mud: this isn’t a program so much as it is an Internet Terminal client for connecting live to Multiple User Dungeons (MUDs), a popular dial-up phenomenon dating back to the 1970s.  Graphics depend strongly on the set up of the MUD you are connecting to: for the most part, don’t expect more than colored ASCII characters or sprites.  Retro value is very, very high, as this app recreates one the earliest “MMORGs”

I liked it, but it did not knock my socks off with return play value.   I think the basic reason I was fairly blah about Pocket Mud is that retro or not, the games you will connect to will require a significant time investment that you should be ready and willing to make when you buy into this concept.  I might do that for a MMORG with better graphics, but ASCII graphics has only a threshold level appeal for me these days.  The MUD “experience” wasn’t something I was active in during its heyday, I haven’t grown fonder of it with the passing years.

Summary: It does what it does rather well, which is create a handheld TELNET terminal to an online system using rather dated technology and echoes it back to your device.   If you are or were a MUD fanatic, this surely is the app for you.   If you aren’t or weren’t, you might be a little lost at first.   PocketMud is free, and available at the Itunes store by clicking on the graphic to the right.

Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks:  There are many of these, and I’m not sure of the originator of the IoS versions.    Some appear to be published as apps by Big Blue Bubble, others by Bright AI company.

If you were breathing air in the 1980s and visited a bookstore, you might recall CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE (CYA) style books, which were quite popular at the time.  The reader is placed in the role of story protagonist and presented with a series of  numbered paragraphs, which end with instructions to go to another numbered paragraph on another page.  The idea being that the reader was the ultimate arbiter of the story through the power of the decisions he or she made as they read.    This same concept was the driving “engine” behind the Ace of Aces and Lost Worlds game systems (both of which would make great gaming apps, by the by, if you’re reading this, Mr. Alf Leonardi).

The Shamutanti Hills, from Bright AI
The Shamutanti Hills, from Bright AI

The original CYA concept spawned many competitors with unique approaches to essentially the same move-through-the-book-select-a-paragraph concept.  One of these was the Fighting Fantasy Gamebook series, originally published by Puffin Books.  Fighting Fantasy Books (FFB) were somewhat unique in that the gamebooks were more game than story— told in the form of a very lightweight rolepaying game.  The idea being the reader would be more invested in the main character if he or she had to nurse hit points and solve puzzles and fight monsters and such.  The very popular FFB series was spawned by Steve Jackson, who went on to co-found a little company called Games Workshop.  (maybe you’ve heard of it).  The FF books have been published and republished in several venues.

As an app, the FF books actually make fun games.  There are more than one publisher but they all appear to have roughly the same interface.  The  page flipping look and feel of the books is maintained in the app, so the apps appear surprisingly faithful to the story that they sprang from.  All hyperlinks to other pages, dice rolling and character sheet changes are maintained by the app, which eliminates the paper, pencil and dice roll.

I actually felt very similar frustration to the game experience I remember when I owned the books wayyyy back in the 1980s.   The game system as an app will not allow you to cheat; therefore the experimental “page flipping back” (e.g., er.. cheating) to quickly correct a wrong move can’t happen– when you screw up, you start from the beginning again.  That’s a minor setback, but it’s also a significant difference between the book originals and apps.   There might be some interface differences between the Bright AI apps and the Blue Bubble ones, if so, they are too insignificant to mention here.   So far, I’ve found the following titles in this series:

I’m not sure which company did what, but as I have stated, they are all pretty much the same thing, for about 4 dollars each.

Summary: An excellent porting of an old concept, made new again via the magic of IoS and portability.  The perfect time-waster on the train or in a long line.  These apps are VERY evocative of a pen and pencil experience and worth 4 dollars– though I wouldn’t pay any more than that.

Warlords (called Warlords CLASSIC on Itunes)

This is a very decent porting of an old DOS game from the very early 90s/late 80s first published by SSG, an Australian wargame software company known for great artificial intelligence opponents.

Warlords CLASSIC from "Alsedi Group" click picture to purchase

I enjoyed the original quite a bit; the “Classic” version (not to be confused with “Warlords: Call to Arms” which has very similar fantasy wargame themes if not remotely similar interfaces) is a port of the very first game in the famous Warlords Series from SSG games of Australia.

This is a straight port, which can cause some problems as you learn the incredibly clumsy interface via the IoS interpreting DOS game controls from the 1980s with finger swipes substituting for a lot of mouse click and keyboard presses.   I think it would have greatly improved the game to work on the piece selection and movement a tad before releasing this game– it is very difficult to move through your armies or click somewhere on the grand strategic map to see how other players are faring.

With that said, as a straight port, it does retain the game elements that made the first one so enjoyable.. a nicely fleshed out fantasy venue, a sort of heroes-quests-monsters sub-game that has RP elements to it, and the different fantasy races having to be played somewhat differently from each other to succeed in this game.

Summary: The Warlords Classic app is dirt cheap and has a lot of re-playability from the git go– not quite as much as, say, Civilization Revolutions, but definitely a game I will go back to again and again for a light wargame fix.  There are few enough of those on the IoS platform now, so good on the publishers of Warlords Classic for producing this.

With that said, it was nostalgia factor that drove me to buy it and keeps it on my Ipod Touch.  There are probably better games out there in this genre with better interface design.  This won’t be popular with younger users since there are many games that do virtually the same thing with a better interface.

InetHack, NetHack, Slash’Em and Rogue Touch

hyperlinks to respective Itunes app store pages.

Roughly, all four of these products are aiming at the same group of customers yearning for the same retro gaming niche.  There was a time when adventure roleplaying computer games were NOT first person slash’em ups OR isometric view real time massively multiplayer online monstrosities.  There was an entire generation of Two Dimensional overhead questing games largely inspired by the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons (the pencil and paper RP game).   Graphics were crude but the stories were EXCELLENT– see Ultima in Wikipedia some time to get the idea.  This was massive world building on a budget.

NetHack for IoS
Nethack for IoS.. pretty spiffy considering the program's origins.

Related to the massive campaign games like Ultima was the other side of the spectrum, crude dungeon delver adventures that went on and on and just used colored ascii characters.  These were games like NetHack, Rogue, Sprites and ZZT.. they used minimal graphics to convey maximum fun.

Of the games in this category, NetHack, Inethack, Slash ‘Em and Rogue Touch are inhabiting pretty much the same box and appealing to the same crowd who enjoyed Ultima or the Gold Box RPG series from SSI.  They like a macro view of the action, probably located in the classic 80s dungeon setting, and they don’t want to invest a lot of time or drama learning the system.  ALL of these games deliver on that promise.

The graphics for all four are very different– Slash “em remains true to its ASCII character origins, NetHack looks almost modern with its isometric viewpoint, INetHack has a top down view similar to the old Gold Box games, and Rogue Touch reminds me strongly of Ultima.  Whatever.  Most of these are free, and most of them deliver on similar promises.

Summary: A very enjoyable blast from the past, almost mindless fun once you take the trouble to create a player character.  Surprisingly full of depth, at least some of them are.  Well worth the effort and time you will put into them and excellent filler games for standing in line at the bank, taking the bus, or playing in the library.

And there you have it.  A giant heaping hand full of Retro Gaming for those of us who like living in the past, at least sometimes.  And all for next to nothing!  Truly, we live in the best of times.

Fighting Fantasy: Citadel of Chaos