There was no predestination that games would become the sprawling adventures we know of today. The development of how players progressed through games and found value in them came in stages, convalescing into the unique experience of something one could play and engage with for hours over multiple sessions, where progress never falls too far behind where you last played.
While there are stories to be told about the modern evolution of quicksaves and tracking exploration, we’re going to look at the story of how games about competition became games of discovery. How did the content of a game and knowing its fullest extent of it become more important than pure mastery? How do we get from Space Invaders (1978) to Super Mario Bros. (1985)?
Before Space Invaders, games played to a specific score, a competitive score, or a timer. There were no lives, a temporary failure simply set you back from achieving the next highest score. There was a certain amount of exhilaration in that, but even a perfect game could only last for so long. Arcade games were tailored to this sort of play and so had a certain accessibility which limited depth, always boiling down to a single element of mastery. With Space Invaders there came an idea – borrowed from pinball – of potentially playing as long as you could: or at least until the program bugged out from your score getting too high. Lives gave theoretically unlimited playtime, but they were often tethered to an objective or had a timer (hopefully longer than a perfect playthrough) to keep things relatively reasonable.
It’s a certain type of player that wants to try and reach a million points and will actually dedicate themselves to replaying identical stages over and over again. Pac-Man (1980) was cute and unique, but the real depth lay far beneath the surface in how the characters interacted with the player. To be able to see something new was more of a novelty than a feature.
Post-Space Invaders in Japan, there was a rush by each game company to differentiate their own space shooters by adding new elements. Rather quickly, they settled upon the concept of what we today call ‘waves’, separate unique encounters of enemies in a cycle which would – if well-designed – steadily increase the difficulty over time. Such tricks were undoubtedly limited by how much could be fit into the scanty ROMs at the time, but Astro Fighter (1979) by Data East and Ozma Wars (1979) by SNK shows a distinct progression in stages and also the the latter includes the added wrinkle of some enemies who have an inherently higher power level by virtue of delivering more bullets than the standard enemy.
It was with the enigmatic shooter Phoenix (1980) that progression first became codified in the genre. Not only did Phoenix have very distinct waves of differentiated enemies and obstacles, but a player would restart at the beginning of that specific wave when they died rather than be sent back to the beginning. The enemies would also grow more monstrous in a sequence which culminated in a battle with a giant motherbase: What we now call a ‘boss’. While not exactly telling a specific story in any level of sophistication, the stages of Phoenix spell out a ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ if not exactly a ‘middle’ and it would immediately repeat upon destroying the boss. This was still a step in the right direction, and would incentivize players to continue playing in the hopes of seeing new content even if there was ultimately a limit to such excitement.
One other wrinkle did prevent the games from becoming internally consistent: A coherent world unto itself. While it was great and fine to have gameplay in distinct stages on separate screens, it didn’t create the impression of a tale that could be told linearly. These limits again came down to technology, where displaying a single screen was the most efficient use of memory, even if enemies could come from off screen. Scrolling games existed – the likes of Super Bug (1977) and Monaco GP (1979) had consistent worlds with varying terrain – but that in itself didn’t necessarily imply a greater world, just a continuous challenge to set one’s self against before the clock ran out, with scenery which didn’t mean much for gameplay.
Konami’s Scramble (1981) changed all of that. This revolutionary new shooter featured a world which scrolled forward into the unknown, towards an end point, and featured a screen for a completed round… In very broken English. There were stages marked by the counter on the screen, but that served more as a marker for the checkpoint system because the world flowed seamlessly from one area to the next. Sure, it was a pretty bizarre world as it existed, but the terrain was very consequential especially in the later stages. The ground mattered as much as the air, with the fuel bar borrowed from Astro Fighter and a final maneuver likely borrowed from Star Wars to end the stage.
While we unfortunately have no information behind the creation of Scramble – not even developer names – what we do know about it’s release was that it was significantly pirated in Japan and the U.S, even leading to a landmark copyright case in the former country. This problem appears to have necessitated a quick turn around on a similar game, though it wasn’t just a reskin. Super Cobra (1981) was about twice as long as its predecessor in pure game time with a more involved final objective, so the clever (anonymous) designers at Konami added the ability to Continue after losing all lives, retaining all score and the stage position without resetting the game. (Interestingly enough, in the initial version this was limited to 4 times before being extended in the international versions, contingent on the operator allowing Continue a via dip switch.)
With the Continue feature, score became effectively infinite based on the difficulty of the game and the players’ skill. Large stage-based games would follow in Super Cobra‘s wake in the subsequent months like Vanguard (1981) and Fantasy (1981) – both from SNK – Bosconian (1981) from Namco, and Jump Bug (1981) from Coreland. Not every game would adopt a Continue feature, but it became very common in shooting games and would become an iconic, shared image across many experiences of the arcade Golden Age. Discovery was becoming a larger part of video game culture, tinged by the economic reality of constant replay and mastery. Where, then, does the desire to complete a game become the purest reward?
This discussion has been neglecting the other side to this story, that of the role-playing game tradition. True enough that in RPGs, the idea of an objective and multiple levels of a dungeon had been long established, but looking at the early adaptations of D&D like The Dungeon (1975), Beneath Apple Manor (1978), and Dungeon Campaign (1979) it’s easy to see a much more disconnected view of encounters based on the progression of the character rather than of a larger world. The likes of Ultima (1981) and Wizardry (1981) were not a given with the base format of D&D, which back then was only rarely used to develop a greater world. This is to say, it’s not necessarily true that the story-telling aspect of D&D was the fountain from which video games based on completion spring from, especially as RPGs themselves grew out into stories of continuous character evolution.
What RPGs almost certainly provided to this picture – through a circuitous route – was the desire to seek out things in the world which were hidden or unnecessary to the completion of the game. The original Adventure (1976) had these hidden secrets and optional rooms which were replicated in simpler graphical form with Warren Robinett’s Adventure (1980), including its famous developer credit Easter Egg. When secrets like this became above-ground they influenced the likes of Xevious (1982) which had invisible Sol Towers and special flags which could be discovered for bonus points. Another game of the time, Space Dungeon (1982), featured rooms which were not necessary for completion but simply added to the scope of the world. Learning a game was no longer simply about mastering its quirks, but also discovering the layout of a setting which was clearly authored.
Completion as a desirable result of playing games remained largely the domain of literary based games – the D&D and Adventure tradition – or sports games, until the release of Crystal Castles (1983) by Atari. In this platformer, the goal was so explicitly to reach an end game that special warps to skip levels were a desirable bonus rather than a mere detriment to score-chasing. While not having a very satisfying end screen, Crystal Castles would to some degree prove that the journey was the reward. Games were inherently enjoyable to progress through and elaborate on, independent from the bonus reward of score or experience points.
These many factors of appeal which were unique to video games would be convalesced – and pushed over the edge – in the seminal game Tower of Druaga (1984) by Namco. Druaga did not suit itself to being an arcade game, with a timer deeply restricting its complex exploration and enemies which could only be defeated using certain items in an inventory system. What it accomplished for action games though was setting out a complex – or really, convoluted – set of objectives in order to obtain the true ending. The game raked in 100 yen pieces from the dedicated Japanese players who somehow picked at all of the game’s quirks to reveal the hidden items and how to use them to finish the game exactly as intended: Without any hints.
Druaga‘s influence was not always stated, but I believe was an overriding keystone for subsequent Japanese game developers in the console space. More than a few early Famicom games would hide items behind seeming arbitrary conditions, such as Wrecking Crew‘s (1985) prizes and the hidden bonus items in Bomber Man (1985). Of course there were more than a few overt similarities to Druaga in The Legend of Zelda (1986) which would serve as the paradigm for this new style of gameplay with no pretentions of score or experience points. By then, the brand new style of console-based action games with save features and non-linearly progressed worlds had become a new style of play.
So how do we get from Space Invaders to Super Mario Bros.? By creating newly elaborate settings, which grow into worlds, which take on a structure, and begin to encourage players to deviate from that structure. It was a step by step process which resulted from the necessity of games being able to grow larger, then a desire to make gameplay have more inherent value than mastery. These few years from 1979 to 1985 created something new in video games: A concept of a game which, in itself, was rewarding.
(Special thanks to Alex Smith – who did a lot of the initial positing for this progression, especially in regards to Scramble – Dylan Mansfield, Hex, and Lee for discussion on this topic as well as Namcokid47 for the ending image.)