The Unreleased Games of Sega-Gremlin

A few months back I unleashed my archival efforts of Sega-Gremlin on the Video Game History Foundation. The videos are most visible but there was a small other page with a number of scans and photos of some game materials that I took at the Gremlin Reunion in September 2017.

Several of these images feature material from unreleased and totally unknown games, provided in large part by the one who drew them up: Cherry Sweig. These pitch materials speak about games which never entered production, but are still fascinating in terms of ambition and the delineation of responsibilities right before the Arcade Crash of 1982. These concepts would have probably been made in 1983 and I wanted to walk through them to best explain what’s there rather than leave it to vague interpretation.

Bulldozer Checkers

FAST ACTION, Interesting game play, artificial intelligence and lots of FUN. The PLAYER controls a BULLDOZER which pushes his checkers about the board. The COMPUTER or Player two controls the second BULLDOZER. The rules are just like real checkers except that the Player can move the checkers AS FAST AS POSSIBLE! and without waiting for a TURN. Checkers JUMP each other when pushed into jumping position. This game can be easily converted for home game systems.

This first pitch is definitely the most limited, but from one perspective it’s the most immediately appealing. Two players competing in a checkers match done in real-time while driving heavy machinery. There’s a brutal simplicity to it that reinforces the point that it could easily have worked on an Atari console, not even needing a button to really work.

It’s simplicity does belay some of the nuts and bolts of how the movements would work. Would it be frustrating to only be able to move in diagonals? What if two players attempt an attack at the same time? How does one prevent a stall from winning the game? A real-time chess variant does exist in the modern day and this game, even though stripped down for arcade action, would have had to deal with back when gameplay factors weren’t fully understood. Still, it’s a very interesting proposal and would have fit well into the weird experimental arcade era post-Crash.

Rail Lightening

A fast action thinking game, RAIL LIGHTENING can either be played by two players in competitive mode, or a player against the computer. The game action is based on an Apple game by Rich Gold.

Each player controls one half of the network of tracks with a series of buttons on the keyboard. Each button controls ONE of the SWITCHES. Each player controls ten switches. The space cars fly around the track on their own- a player cannot directly affect them. But by switching the switches the player can direct them about and keep them from crashing either into each other or into an open switch. A player can also direct them on to the other player’s side of the network.

A player loses when a space car crashes on THEIR SIDE OF THE TRACK. Fore-thought, strategy and lightening fast speed are needed to keep this game from getting out of hand. Version depicted uses two screens- on screen and multi-screen versions also possible. Good game to adapt for the home market.

Now this is interesting. You get two games for the price of one here. This game proposal – with it’s strange spelling – is actually an adaptation of another unreleased game on the Apple II. Rich Gold is a designer best known for originating the concept for Little Computer People (completed by Activision’s David Crane) but also worked on things like the Power Glove at Mattel. His fascinating career is detailed in a posthumously published autobiography, The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff.

Gremlin was Gold’s first job in the game industry, which he acquired by presenting a puzzle game he called The Train Game in about 1979. Gold was actually hired into the sound department because of his electronic music background, but it appears he never gave up the hope that his Apple II game would be turned into an arcade hit. Having a seemingly good rapport with the artists, they helped refine his pitch into something more marketable about 4 years later.

On a basic level, Rail Lightening shares a common player directive with Gremlin’s defining hit Blockade. The two players are trying not to crash their vehicles and make the other player crash by manipulating the play space. The difference is instead the way that the gamefield can be effected. The player is – in essence – creating bridges for the cars/trains to move around, presumably on the path of the roads defined on the map. Each node has three joining directions, which could alter the direction of travel from any one direction to two others. These are changed by hitting the respective button on the control panel, arranged in the shape of the map.

As Gold notes in his book, the biggest difficulty in this design was in it’s lack of direct, visceral action. You didn’t control the vehicles, you just made tracks for them to follow. You didn’t even have a cursor, you’d be wrestling for controls from the other side of the panel. Or not? The mention of a dual screen version would make it rather difficult to reach over to the opponent’s control panel to redirect them. So would each player have the entire map’s worth of buttons before them? It easily becomes overwhelming, especially when considering what a default action for a car reaching a juncture might be, how fast the game is played, etc.

There have been modern games which have done very similar things to Rail Lightening, succeeding via the use of a cursor which was none too common in those days. It’s unlikely that this game could have ever been a hit in the arcade even in the best of circumstances, but it would have been yet another wild experiment from the furtive creativity of Gremlin.

(Untitled)

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MOVING, WOBBLING, SPINNING, FOLDING, STRETCHING, FLIPPING, UNDULATING, EVER-CHANGING: the fantastic vision of tigers, elephants, Martians, giant spiders, all charging the arcade player. Unlike any other laser game the visuals are ALWAYS DIFFERENT, never the same, unlearnable! The laser animals can even REACT to the player’s shots: dodging out of the way, recoiling from glancing shots, collapsing and dying when hit!

How is it done? The animals and mythical creatures are shot with real footage on a chromo-colored background (or such background is matted on to the footage). Instead of playing the laser image directly out, it is sent through a RASTER MODULATOR which can distort, spin, flip and so on the image in infinite ways. A computer created raster image is then chromo-keyed on to the laser image creating a BACKGROUND while the animal is perceived to be foreground.

For the first time a laser image will come ALIVE!

This unnamed laserdisc game is a vivid, interesting response to the predominant backlash in the wake of games like Dragon’s Lair (indicating this concept was drafted fairly late in 1983 or later). Sega Japan actually had their own laserdisc system they used in Astron Belt, but this game was a direct response to the Dragon’s Lair approach, particularly in it’s lack of varied visuals.

It appears that the approach was to try and modify distinct images on the screen to make up for a lack of disc space. This would include a large amount of distinct hardware which could apply video effects to the creatures in real-time rather than having distinct animations. This probably would have looked a little funny in it’s basic conception (which the elephant shows), but if it had been developed they probably could have found a myriad number of ways to make the images unique.

The game may have also been a light gun game judging by the player representation here, but that’s not certain. It would have been a great harkening back to Sega’s earliest days in both electro-mechanical and video games, but given that the American development team had never made a light gun game before it’s uncertain they would have been able to handle the technical challenges. (One can see Mad Dog McCree for and idea about how the game probably would have worked in the abstract). This pitch also features Tron-like grid background, emphasizing the digital nature over something like a Safari shooting game, with the creatures being distinctly mystical rather than simply weird versions of modern creatures.

This game probably wouldn’t have done much to save the fate of the laserdisc since it didn’t solve what was really the fundamental issue: Repetition. Set images simply can’t be as dynamic as actual gameplay, so the more obfuscation away from reality the better games could be in the 80s. It would have probably been a trip on par with Cube Quest in it’s oddity though, so it’s sad that it was lost.

Dartz: Star Trek III

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MOVIE

GOAL:

To score as many points as possible by shooting out shapes of the target, a 3-D triangular prism.

GAME PLAY DESCRIPTION:

Players throw darts simultaneously as they reach into a dart dispenser in front of them. Color coded yellow or blue, they aim for their respective sides of the target to hit the shapes and score points. Easier shots are made to sides facing front on, yet bouncing shots off the background walls requires more strategy and is rewarded with bonus points. By hitting outer edges of the target, players can turn it so that another side faces forward. They may want their opponent’s side to be knocked away, or their own side to face forward and display some fewer and harder to hit shapes as the game goes on. Hitting the bullseye clears whole side of target. The fast moving pace of the game requires quick reflexes and keen strategy.

DART DETAIL:

The darts give the effect of consisting of small and accurate missiles leaving a trail of inner lights. Players pull them from dispensers and hold them by a wing at the bottom. Displaying a glowing transparent texture, they disappear upon impact creating a bright neon flash.

VISUAL DESCRIPTION:

Darts are thrown at a holographic target which is projected on to a 3-D image screen. The target is a bright colored triangular prism which tumbles in mid air within an evolving metallic framework. Reflections off the sides of the target not facing forward can be seen on these walls as an aid to the players. However, as the game progresses, sections of the walls break away and evolve into more intricate patterns making it increasingly difficult to bounce darts off. Animated visuals would be infinite and interesting to watch.

SOUND EFFECTS:

Sounds relate to the visuals and help describe the game action. Target sounds change according to its motion and echo its turning, tumbling and revolving spins. The trails of light behind the darts create an effect of a firecracker soaring through the air and exploding with a sizzling ‘pop’ as the darts hit the target. The intensity of the explosion relates to the color and value of the shapes hit on the target. Simple to complex metallic sounds describe the walls of the background and change in volume as they move forward.

SCORING:

Each player is assigned 2 sides each of the target by his color, yellow or blue. There are 38 shapes to hit per side and 76 total shapes per player.

100pts 1 lighter shape

200pts 1 darker shape

500pts Bounce Shot

5000pts bullseye

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ARCADE:

A version of the game seen in the movie, this game would have a different and more futuristic appeal than those in the arcades today. Influenced by the movie version, the main effect is the visuals and excitement of the gameplay. It would utilize the state of the art in game technology to reinforce the Star Trek 3 Movie theme Laser disc generated backgrounds combined with computer- generated targets and darts would allow for an unlimited number of environments.

GOAL:

to score as many points as possible by shooting out shapes of the target, a 3-D triangular prism.

GAMEPLAY:

Very fast paced and aggressive action where everything seen on screen is active and interacts with the player’s token dart.

One or two player option, always playing for maximum points. However, incentive to achieve more advanced backgrounds drives the players on and on.

Shooting strategy, aiming skills and quick reflexes are required. The fast moving target and evolving backgrounds deter the player from accomplishing goal and he must sharpen his skills to play more. Game may be ended as pace quickens and he uses up his supply of darts. (10)

SCORING:

100 points per lighter colored shape. 200 points per darker colored shape. 500 points per bounce shot, and 5000 points per bullseye… where all shapes on one side are erased and points are rewarded for full side even though some have already been hit on that side.

CONTROLS:

Fire button for shooting darts and track ball for moving cursor to desired spot on playfield.

CURSOR:

A small yellow or blue crosshair, controlled by the player moving the trackball, to help aim for shapes on target. The timing is critical and player learns to adjust aiming with speed and motion of the target and background.

SOUND EFFECTS:

Sounds related to the visuals as in the movie, yet are not as elaborate. Tumbling target sounds change according to its position on the screen. The darts create an effect of soaring firecrackers exploding with a sizzling ‘pop’ upon impact that relate in intensity to the color and point value of the shapes hit. Simple to complex metallic sounds describe the background and help the player judge for distance and accuracy.

CABINET DESIGN:

Designed as a smaller and less obtrusive cabinet, it allows the actual game to stand out more. Players would be attracted to the visuals and sound effects of the game at first glance. Cabinet would be made of a flat, yet reflective metal that radiates to different shades of grey. Stereo speakers positioned along monitor are thing and face the player front on as he plays.

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Camera pans bar scene. A brilliant display of light and action draws attention to a dart game along the wall. Players throw darts simultaneously at a holographic image which is projected on to a 3-D screen. The target, a colorful prism, tumbles in mid air within an evolving framework.

The darts and their trails of light create the effect of soaring firecrackers that explode on impact with varied sounds and intensities.

Blue players’ side of target faces forward and he scores by hitting inner dark areas.
Yellow hits outer edge and knocks target to his side.

Yellow scores, while Blue aims and misses. Blue tries to bounce dart off framework and turns target back to his side.

Blue shoots bullseye, erasing all shapes and wins.

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1) MOVIE VERSION SIDEVIEW

MOVIE VERSION SIDEVIEW:

Setup in a bar situation, this would be a highly visible game – (like ‘darts’ is now)It will be in view from almost anywhere in the bar – as a background.

The images here could be projected in by holography and up to four players could play at once-

VISUAL:

The 3-D PYRAMID would appear first & hover float in space & slowly begin to tumble/flip – (any direction? Might confuse)

(If it goes in constant direction, it would be predictable – more advanced levels would get random to flipping!)

Then, the rectangular rings would appear from a vantage point (?) on floor. And come up towards the players & the disappear at some point – (See Image 1)

The Darts would cause a lot of light & noise… somewhat of a fun lazer/phazer sound with trail of light behind it…

The missed shots would travel through the bands & into the room, but disappearing fast.

The best documented game out of Cherry Sweig’s collection was the game set to tie in with the upcoming Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator game by Gremlin had been a fair hit with a massive marketing campaign retroactively tying it with Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, and this time they wanted to create a game to tie in explicitly with Paramount’s movie. It was to be featured in the film itself, presumably in the San Franscisco Bar scene with Bones or some other deleted scene. (It’s unclear how much initial cooperation the Gremlin people had with the script writers or if this pitch was in itself an imposition into the story)

The concept of the game is far more abstract than flying the Enterprise. Instead the game is a suped up version of darts (or DartZ as they call it). The player aims against a three dimensional prism of varying shades to garner the most points within a timelimit. Pretty much just like regular darts, but with an extremely trippy visual twist. Not only would the three dimensional aspect come into play for targetting, the vision that the artists laid out also includes different viewing angles and close-ups on the action as the darts flew.

The language leaves it a bit unclear if the player would have an avatar on the screen to accompany the dart throwing. Three different versions are described, one which lies within a strangely JAMMA-like arcade cabinet, one which could be played as an actual darts game with a technological flare, and the version to be used in the movie with extra visual artistry ripped from a laserdisc. The game itself doesn’t appear to have been conceived as a laserdisc game despite it being very easy to picture it as one.

This proposed physical version would require not only the space to put it in, a screen which to project holographic images, and fancy custom darts, it would have required a ridiculous amount of work to get it functional. Nothing like this had ever been built and something similar didn’t come into being before the advent of virtual reality years later. That idea was probably doomed to the planning phase, but the video version also raised a number of challenging questions.

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Why a prism for a target? Probably because it could justify the artists’ love for geometric patterns and changing light. Sweig even had a number of ideas that she had experimented with on display as sketchings. It’s difficult to imagine how all these various colors would be displayed by early 1980s hardware even given the things Gremlin had achieved in the past. The gameplay description doesn’t really make it explicit how a player could access the various sides of this prism though. There’s no indication that it would rotate, but there seems to be the idea that the darts could curve, yet also possibly that two players would each take one side leaving the other two sides unused.

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One of Sweig’s favorite parts of working on this project was in devising the controls. They wanted to make it simple, but impart as much character as possible into their designs. The mock cabinet has a large button and possibly a trackball for moving the cursor on the screen. Three joystick designs with one button warp through the uncomfortable looking to the robust and distinct, certainly not a bad way to play a game of this type.

Even had the situation at Paramount and Sega been more stable, there is some doubt that any of these concepts – Star Trek included – would have been major successes. Not to diminish the contributions of artists, but their inclusion to the field of video games as a dedicated position was incredibly recent. The desire for experimentation in visual style also mixed with what seems to be a very misled understanding of player psychology. This is said in retrospect, but just as marketers weren’t the right people to design video games at certain times, artists are probably universally more suited to home games as opposed to arcade games.

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Keeping in mind that these are rough drafts, many of them are amazing windows into what sort of strange games could have emerged in an already strange time. There were several arcade games which Gremlin released that made it to a test state like Pig Newton, Ixion, and Razzmatazz which you can play in MAME nowadays. The unfortunate demise of Gremlin scrapped untold numbers of projects, but I am glad to be able to share with you some of what remains from the ashes.

(Thanks so much to Cherry Sweig for saving these images; Calico Stonewolf and Gorgis for helping with transcription; and the various other Gremlin employees who helped me work out that crazy world they lived in.)

4 thoughts on “The Unreleased Games of Sega-Gremlin

  1. Hi, not sure what you mean by “one must wonder if a laserdisc light gun game would even work”?

    There’s a good half-dozen games out there that are coin-operated laserdisc light-gun arcade games, mostly by American Laser Games, including the famous Mad Dog McCree series.

    For more info on these, see http://www.dragons-lair-project.com as an excellent resource.

    Am I missing some nuance here?

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    1. A good point. It really did slip my mind and I was thinking of the light gun in improper terms, thinking of it as based on the raster drawing of the computer graphics rather than in the mode of later light gun games with better hardware. I still think it would have been a difficult technology for back then, but point taken. I’m sorry to have shaken your trust with that one little off factoid! I really don’t think about ALG too much, though I probably should do so more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No worries! I think I understand better your point of differentiation now. And as you say, this was 1983, Mad Dog McCree was 1990.

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      2. To reply to Dave on the forum (too lazy to make an account), Wild Gunman is not a video game. The way detection methods work in electro-mechanical light gun games versus video games, including Mad Dog McCree, are different. Wild Gunman doesn’t track where on the screen you shoot as far as I’m aware whereas a video light gun games does. It’s a technical challenge that Exidy figured about using pure raster graphics with Crossbow; there’s a difference in how that works with a streamed image from a laserdisc. You’re not directly affecting the screen so my question would be, could you still read it in the same way? Would processors, which have to interpolate the scanline being produced by the laserdisc, have been fast enough in the mid-80s as opposed to the early 90s?

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