Category Archives: Retrospectives

Ancient Art Of War 1984 – RTS Retrospectives

Total War's grandaddy

Total War’s grandaddy

 

Major leap in presentation and depth from its predecessors.

Developed by Evryware and published in 1984.  Ancient Art of War introduced a whole slew of innovative features that now accompany most of today’s RTS games.  It featured a scenario list of maps, each with its own objective.  You could choose which leader to face against, from characters like Athena, or the challenging Sun-Tzu (writer of the Art of War).  Even including a map editor for making custom scenarios.  It truly broke away from the arcade design principles that plagued many early strategy games in the early 80’s.

Game Structure

You have 11 campaign scenarios to choose from.  Each one might have different starting conditions and objectives.  Some matches require you to capture a flag, others, to destroy the enemy forces. Each one would also start you off with different units, in different terrains, which might include forts, towns, hillsides, etc…  Beyond that, you can also set custom rules for them like supply-line length.

Gameplay

Gameplay consists of a mix of styles.  You start with a global view of the map, where you can order individual units to move (units are grouped together like in Company of Heroes or Total War).  If two opposing units meet, you can decide to zoom in and control the actual battle itself.  The game then switches to a side-view of the two opposing groups, each starting at opposite ends.

 

This is the overhead view

This is the overhead view

The is the battle-mode view

This is the battle view

The units are arranged in a predefined formation that the player can set beforehand, which is pretty cool, and allows you to better setup a tactical advantage.  Once the battle starts, you can decide to advance your units by type, retreat, back up, or attack.  Units attack in a fashion similarly of that to the Total War games.  Once they start attacking, the battle plays itself out, unless one decides to retreat and try to save some units from dying.  If all the units in a group die, then you lose that squad, otherwise, you can somewhat replenish them if the rules enabled it.  There is also no economy management, which kinda distances the game from the traditional RTS we know.

The actual meta of the units is a simple rock-paper-scissors style balance.  Knights counter barbarians, barbarians counter archers, archers counter knights.  There are also spies, which don’t attack but move quickly and see farther in the overhead view.  Also, the effectiveness of a squad is determined by how well-supplied they are.  Being in a village or fort would replenish a hunger value.  There is also morale, which Is decreased after every battle.  Units will retreat if they feel they are overwhelmed and low in morale and hunger.  Moving great distances can tire them.  Something really cool about this game is that where the units fight also matters, being uphill grants you bonuses for example.  Having archers in a fort means you can attack their knights or barbarians with impunity since they can’t attack through a wall.

Ancient Art of War_4

Fighting on top of a hill gives you an advantage.

Thoughts

So to summarize, the game has a rock-paper-scissor balance, terrain advantage, formations, macro and micro controls (Like Total War), a map editor, and a dozen single-player scenarios with different generals you can choose to fight (AI behavior change and difficulty).  This is an incredible amount of innovation for its time.  Not only that, but it couples it with a detailed and polished presentation. Although the control scheme is a little archaic, and it feels slow gameplay wise, I give it props for still being fun for me in 2014.

Stonkers 1983 – RTS Retrospectives

We’re starting to get close to that RTS look and feel

The pieces are lining up

Stonkers is one of the early RTS pioneers that first starts to resemble the RTS  we know today.  The objective of the game is to destroy the enemies forces by battling them with your own army.  In this game, your army is already deployed and ready to attack and defend.  The important issue then becomes supplying your troops.  This is critical because what determines a victor between equal forces is their rating.  It depletes every time they perform an action.  Supplies are generated by supply ships, which come every so often in your port.  This game also lets you switch views from a macro view (shown above), and a micro view where you can select and move your units (shown below).

 

stonker3

Here is the zoomed-in view, where you can select and order your units.

 

The main strategic element of this game comes from knowing which units to send against the enemy, and securing control of the only choke-point in the map.  The main issues with this game though is the slowness of it all.  You have to manually select and move each unit.  On top of that, they take their sweet-ass time getting there.  This is why newer games have a speed option.  Also, a mouse interface at the the time it was released, still hadn’t become the default.  Most of the games were controlled by joysticks.  Overall, this game will be remembered for being a pioneer in the genre.

Bokosuka Wars 1983 – RTS Retrospectives

Bokosuka wars

The beginnings of the action-strategy-RPG genre

 

The common ancestor of tactics and action-strategy games.

Bokosuka Wars was developed by Kōji Sumii, and released in 1983 for the Sharp X1 computer, and in 1985, for the NES system.  The gameplay mainly revolves on side-scrolling your forces from right to left, while keeping your king alive while you move him towards the enemy castle.  The plot of the game is that King Suren’s forces have been captured and turned into trees and rocks by King Ogereth. King Suren has to release his warriors from trees and rocks, and defeat King Ogereth’s forces. The allies coming from trees and rocks only appear in the NES console version, which is the version I played.

Game Structure

The game is really just one long level.  On the screenshot above, it tells you how much distance is left, the number of enemies left, and the number of allies left to free,  The moment your king dies, you lose and have to start over.  You win when you finally reach and defeat the enemy king inside his castle.

Gameplay

You initially control just your king, but you can free more units to join your cause.  Units you can recruit are either hidden in trees, which you simply bump into them with you king, or held in a prison camp.  Those units can help in creating formations to protect your king and fight enemies.

The game gives different levels of control for your forces.  You can decide to control all of them at the same time, just your king, or control a specific type of unit.  However, as you gain multiple units of the same type, you can only move them all at once, so it becomes hard to coordinate them and form formations since they bump against the environment, getting stuck.

 

Bokosuka wars2

The white unit with the sailor shirt is your king. The blue skeletons are your soldiers. Here you can see how important it is to have a formation setup for clearing safe passages for the king.

There are an abundance of enemies that stand in your way, and you can decide to fight them by bumping into them.  This initiates a pre-determined battle sequence.  The winner is usually determined by its power level, but there is a random element to it.  Unfortunately, it is hard to know for sure your chances of winning the battle, making the game feel frustrating and random at times. Especially with regards to your king.  Its important for him to engage in battles so that he levels up, but there is always a chance you can lose, and subsequently having to start over.  Regular units also get stronger. They can even upgrade to a golden variant, increasing their power level considerably.  There are also obstacles that only certain units can overcome, like the gates in prison camps.

Thoughts

Overall, for today’s standard, the gameplay feels slow and frustrating.  Slow because you constantly have to re-adjust your formations, and the controls don’t make that easy.  Frustrating because you can lose the game very easily in a random encounter, making you feel your chances of success are like a toss of a coin.  But for its day, it was an important title that helped inject more action into strategy games, paving the way for what will eventually be the RTS.

Utopia 1981 – RTS Retrospectives

Utopia

Credited with being the first Sim / God game, plus on top, introducing RTS elements.

 

The Progenitor of the RTS Genre

Created by Don Daglow, who also created the first interactive baseball game – aptly titled “Baseball” in 1971, the first RPG based on Dungeons and Dragons – again, simply named “Dungeon” in 1975, and much later on, the first 3D RTS game – “Stronghold” in 1993.

Utopia is a 1 to 2 player strategy game where the objective is to score points.  Score is calculated every round, and at the end of the final round, a winner is declared.  Although technically there is always a second player, one can ignore it and focus on getting a high score.  The way you score points is by improving the well-being of the population living in your island.  You can perform actions like build housing, schools, forts, crops, fishing boats, hire rebels.  Each element has its own gold cost and benefits that help keep the people happy.  If the population is getting high, you have to build houses to accommodate them.  If they are rebelling because they are unhappy, then build a fort to deter them, or build more crops or fishing boats to feed them.  Because there is a second player, you can influence their island as well.  You can hire rebels, or build a patrol boat that tries to sink their fishing boat in order to put a cap on their gold income.  Although it feels archaic playing it today, one can appreciate the game elements that back in the day, were innovative.

Game Structure

At the start of the game, you decide how many rounds and how long they last.  During a round, a player can move a cursor around, which is used for helping build new structures or to manually control boats.  Gold is earned every round, and can also be acquired during a round, by either moving a fishing boat towards schools of fish, building crops and hopefully getting lucky with the rain patterns, or constructing factories to generate constant slow periodic income.  Population and well-being also fluctuate each round, keeping the player engaged in trying to build enough structures to keep them happy.  At the end of the last round, a winner is decided based on a score calculated in by the total well-being of the population of your island.

Gameplay

Players interact with the game primarily with two main actions, building structures, or controlling boats.  This is all done in real-time.  This game could have easily being turn-based, but it has real-time random elements that the player has to account for.  There are randomly spawning rain clouds that help grow crops, hurricanes that can sink boats or destroy structures, pirates that sink you fishing boats, while you attempt to chase schools of fish.  All the while, the opposing player can send their own boats to try to sink your fishing boats, trying to gain a lead in resources.  For its time and even today, it is an interesting mix of timing elements.  Though, it also negatively affects the gameflow.  Since you can’t skip a turn, you might find yourself waiting for a couple of round to end before you can actually do anything.

Thoughts

After having played it for the first time in 2014 ( 33 years later), I can tell how influential the game was, as the progenitor of several interactive strategy genres.  It came from an era that was focusing on arcade and sport genres almost exclusively.  Ambitious for what it was trying to do with the very limited technology of the time, being a console game to boot.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t aged well because of it.  My highlight with it is possibly finding the first instance in a real-time strategy where players can attempt to attack directly the enemy’s resource gatherers.

Cytron Masters 1980 – RTS Retrospectives

Cytron Masters

One of the earliest computer games that can be considered to have some real-time strategy elements. Created by Dani Bunten Berry.

The Forgotten Stepping Stone

Although more of a real-time tactics game, it was nevertheless an important bridge to cross, moving away from turn-based.  Players control a commander, and the goal is to destroy the enemy’s command center.   Player control the game by choosing which type of unit to create (mines, bunkers, commanders, missiles, or anti-missiles), ordering them to attack or move to specific locations.  Your actions are limited by how much energy you have, which is acquired by controlling generators in the battlefield.  The game is not turn-based like chess.  Commands are given real-time, limited by energy costs.  I haven’t found an effective way to play the game, so I won’t comment much more on this game.  Here is a video so you can see how it plays.