If there’s one thing that goes together with late 70′s computer users, it’s TSR’s paper and dice game Dungeons and Dragons. Jim Connelley is dungeon master of a running D&D game in California, and one of the regular players is Jon Freeman, a neophyte to computer programming but well-versed in game design. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts with honours in English, he freelances as a writer. He has two books published under his name on the subject of games: The Complete Book of Wargames is published originally by Fireside in 1978, and later in 1980 by Simon & Schuster. The other is The Playboy Winner’s Guide to Board Games, released in 1979 by Playboy Press. This work appears to be a reissue of a book from 1975 titled A Player’s Guide to Table Games, from Stackpoole Books and credited to a “John Jackson”. Freeman is also a contributor to the hobbyist magazine GAMES. Having been interested in computer programming since being a math and physics major in college in the 60′s, Connelley picks up a newfangled Commodore PET computer after they come out in 1977. Looking to write-off the purchase, Connelley enlists Freeman’s help with designing Starfleet Orion, which Connelley programs in BASIC. When they release it in December of 1978, they have the first space-based tactical combat game for a microcomputer. In order to market the game, they form the first computer game publisher, Automated Simulations, operating out of Mountain View CA. The game is followed by a sequel, Invasion Orion, also for the PET. Both games are a success, and are eventually ported to other systems like the Apple II and TRS-80. An indication of the attitude the two founders have towards the type of games they want to produce is belied by the company tagline: Computer Games Thinkers Play.
With Freeman designing the games and Connelly as main programmer, Automated Simulations really hits it big in 1979 with the first entry in its Dunjonquest series, Temple of Apshai. Heavily influenced by the two founder’s interest in D&D, the game is the first computer role playing game (RPG), allowing character creation with such stats as strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, intuition and ego. Being a computer game, Apshai can do all the heavy lifting of probability calculations, leaving players to the fun of creating a character and getting on with the dungeon diving. After visiting the Inn and making an alter ego, the player then stocks up on weapons, shield and armour. An innovative aspect of play is the ability to haggle with the innkeeper, letting adventurers offer a slightly lower price for the equipment than the seller requests for it, in the hopes of saving a few coin on the deal. Once equipped, the player enters the Temple, populated by a variety of monsters, searching 200 rooms and catacombs for chests holding treasure. Featuring a sparse top-down display, the graphics are limited, with the rooms containing only a possible chest, guarding monster, and the bare walls. As the character is moved around the dungeon, the hallways open up to reveal new pathways and rooms, and players are directed to consult the manual for immersive room descriptions. Released after two months of intensive play testing to get things balanced perfectly, the game goes on to win the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design’s Origin award for 1980′s Computer Game of the Year. Over 20,000 copies are sold of the game through 1981, for the Apple II, TRS-80 and the PET. In the wake of this success follows another entry in the Dunjonquest series, titled Hellfire Warrior. Featuring four new lower levels to Apshai, with over 200 rooms, ads for the game warn off beginners as not up for the challenge. Two add-ons that require the original Temple of Apshai are eventually released: Upper Reaches of Apshai and Temple of Ra. They are all adapted to every major game platform, including a C64 translation by Steve Bryson. The entire trilogy is re-released with improved graphics in 1985 in a package called The Temple of Apshai Trilogy. Other games produced in the early years of the company are Crush Crumble and Chomp, Star Warrior, Keys of Acheron, Datestones of Ryn, and Rescue at Rigel, among others.
When Automated Simulations attends the West Coast Computer Faire in 1980, Freeman meets his future wife and collaborator, Anne Westfall, who is in the neighbouring booth demoing a TRS-80 surveying program. In 1982 the two leave Automated Simulations to form game development house Free Fall Associates. At their old digs there is a shift of focus as new management adopts the title of one of the company’s game brands, Epyx, as the new company name. There is also a desire to develop more arcade-like action-oriented fare.
Jumping to Success
Such action comes in the form of Jumpman, a spectacular entry into the platform gaming genre designed by Randy Glover in 1983. The player takes the role of the title character, running around a building in an attempt to defuse the bombs littered about. With three difficulty levels featuring 30 different screens each, the gameplay is fast and addictive, with some levels sporting almost diabolical design. The game is a success, selling around 40,000 units, and is followed by the sequel Jumpman Jr. that same year. But a rift has formed in the company, and chairman Connelley leaves along with the majority of the programming staff. Having investors in common, Epyx bolsters its personnel roster by merging with Starpath, called Arcadia until forced to change their name with Emerson’s release of their Arcadia 2001 game unit. Starpath are the inventors of 1982′s Supercharger for the Atari 2600, a device for greatly expanding the memory of the 2600 while playing games stored on cassette tapes, playable through any cassette player. Possibly the best known game for the Supercharger is Escape From the Mindmaster, an early 3D first-person maze game by Dennis Caswell. Moving over from his position as vice president of marketing and corporate communications at Coleco, industry veteran Michael C. Katz is named new president and CEO of Epyx.
Also in 1983 comes Pitstop, an amazing head-on racing game where steadily increasing damage to the player’s tires requires the occasional trip to the pits. There the program presents a realistic pitstop sequence, with the player controlling the pit crew, racing to change the car’s tires and gas up the tank without overflowing. It is followed by sequel Pitstop II in 1984, sporting a dramatic increase in graphics quality, almost perfectly emulating Atari’s Pole Position, but with an equally dramatic decrease in car control. The game features the first split-screen racing display, allowing two players to compete head-to-head.
In 1984 Olympic fever sweeps though the U.S. as Los Angeles prepares to host the summer version of the games. At the same time, Epyx is under pressure to produce a hit. Scott Nelson, one of the former Starpath programmers, had created a decathlon game for the Supercharger called Sweat!, but when the company merges with Epyx the project is shelved. Although this 2600 game provides little in the way of actual program code, its subject matter is the impetus for Epyx’s sports extravaganza Summer Games. This project is chosen as a way of getting the new programming team from Starpath all working on the different sections required in the game. It is written in 100 percent assembler machine language, and the lead programmer is Stephen Landrum, accompanied by Randy Glover, Jon Leupp, Brian McGhie, Stephen Murdry, and Scott Nelson. This is the first game at Epyx to employ the use of a graphics artist, Erin Murphy, and from then on in they are used in the development of every game, along with a sound designer. There are eight Olympic events presented, including the pole vault, diving and skeet shooting, along with an impressive opening ceremony with the lighting of the Olympic torch. Each section features its own control method, with either frantic joystick waggling or complex timing moves. The various sports are all presented in loving detail, and Summer Games is one of the earlier games providing two-player simultaneous action on one computer. Up to eight people can play, and options include the chance to practice a single event, compete in a number of specified contests or going up against the full roster of competitions. A large selection of countries is available, each accompanied by their flag and a musical sample of their national anthems. The best times are saved as world records, providing motivation to keep practising. Even though the game development tools must be built from the ground up, Summer Games is completed in under six months, and it goes on to become a huge success with around 100,000 units sold. The Games series becomes a major franchise for the company, followed by Summer Games II and Winter Games in 1985, World Games in 1986, California Games, the best selling of the Games games, in 1988, and California Games II. Also in 1988 comes The Games: Summer Edition and The Games: Winter Edition, graphical revamps of the original Summer and Winter Game.
Doing the Impossible
Building on their experience with the Jumpman games, Epyx releases Impossible Mission in 1984, quite possibly the greatest platform game ever created. Made by Caswell, it has the player running around a huge underground complex in the guise of an acrobatic secret agent, attempting to put a halt to evil Professor Elvin Atombender’s plans for world-wide nuclear destruction. While travelling up and down elevators searching the various pieces equipment scattered about the place, our hero must avoid the deadly robots populating the rooms who are out to fry him. The robots are all amusingly different in attitude and competence, as some race at you firing electronic death while others can barely get their heads out of their RS-232 ports to notice you’re even there. Computer consoles are scattered about, which when accessed can disable the robots for a few short moments, or reset the elevators in a room.The game gives you a real-time countdown of six hours to collect the hidden puzzle pieces and put them together with your pocket computer, and every time the on-screen agent dies 10 minutes is deducted from the clock. When time runs out, Elvin dispatches the world with an evil cackle. There are also two rooms where the player can engage in a Simon-type game, following a pattern of colours and sounds to earn more lift inits or robot snooze codes.
Every aspect of this game gels amazingly: the unprecedented character animation of the lead character as he runs and does flying flips over his adversaries, the diabolical construction of the various rooms, and the atmospheric sound effects. One particular aural standout is the speech synthesis, done for the game by Electronic Speech Systems and the quality of which fails to live up to the programmers’ expectations. However, it is still has an amazing effect on the overall feel of the game, with the mad Professor issuing the now-famous ominous welcome at the start of the game, “Another visitor. Stay awhile…..staaaaay forever!”, as well as an occasional command to his metal pants army, “Destroy him, my robots”. And of course, our hero’s agonizing scream of terror when he falls down a shaft, which makes me jump out of my chair the first time I hear it. The only problem is that the game truly lives up to its name, with the puzzle component generally regarded as the hardest bit of gaming ever devised. There are dozens of pieces of the puzzle to be found, all of which must be arranged in order by getting flipped horizontally or vertically, making for a huge amount of possibilities. A call can be made to headquarters for help, but only at the expense of two minutes of clock time. Even with a low probability of seeing the conclusion, the game is a success, selling around 40,000 units. An inferior sequel, Impossible Mission II, follows in 1988 featuring an easier puzzle component but messier graphics. Impossible Mission 2025 is the final installment, made in 1994 by Microprose’s MPS labs in the UK, for the Commodore Amiga and CD-32 platform. While you’re STILL dealing with evil Atombender, and he’s STILL ensconced in an well-fortified complex guarded by lethal robots, and you’re STILL trying to find pieces of a puzzle you have to assemble to defeat him, the game does feature a twist in that you can choose between different characters to play as: a robot, a gymnast named Tasha, or soldier Felix Fly. Also included in the game is the complete version of the original.
A Dream in the Hand(y)
At its prime, Epyx employs 200 people and is making 9 to 10 million dollars annually. Its best-selling product is the Fast Load cartridge, which speeds up the painfully slow loading process of the C64 1541 floppy disk drive fivefold, and sells around 350,000 units. The company also picks up some licensing deals such as Barbie, G.I. Joe and Hot Wheels. But heading into 1989 product sales are failing to meet company projections, the C64 has dropped off the scope as a gaming platform, and a new project is draining resources, called Handy. It is designed by Dave Needle and R.J. Mical, fresh off the Amiga computer development team at Commodore. Handy is to be the world’s first colour hand-held game device, but is proving to be an elongated drag on Epyx. Another problem for the company is that its games are some of the most pirated computer titles around, with practically everyone with a C64 playing Summer Games and Impossible Mission but few actually paying for the privilege. A majority of the games on the drawing board are cancelled, and company staff shrinks to 20. The Handy project is eventually sold to Atari, via a deal that makes the video game and computer company a part owner of Epyx. Announcing the colour handheld system as the PCES or Portable Color Entertainment System at the Summer CES in 1989, Atari eventually renames the system as the Lynx. The new name highlights the fact that up to eight of the devices can be linked together via a cable, for head-to-head play. It also sports a 3 1/2-inch colour LCD screen with a resolution of 160×102 pixels, capable of displaying 16 colours at a time out of a palette of 4,096. Inside the case also resides a 16mHz 65C02 processor. While technically superior to the recently released Nintendo Gameboy portable game system, the $149.95 Lynx and its games lineup fail to compete against Nintendo’s juggernaut.
The same year as the release of the Lynx, Epyx files for bankruptcy. The company struggles out of receivership long enough to port a few games to the PC, but eventually the remains of the company are sold to Bridgestone Multimedia, specializing in Christian media products. This company in turn sells the major Epyx software rights to Atari Corp., who then ALSO go out of business. It appears that Hasbro, picking over the corpse of Atari in early 1998, has gained the Epyx game rights.
Game of Threads
One personal favourite of the Epyx games I feel I have to single out here before I close this entry is Dragonriders of Pern, released in 1983. Based on the seminal fantasy novels by Anne McCaffrey, the game is a stunning mix of political intrigue, diplomacy, strategy and action. Assuming the role of Bendon Weyr, the player must forge alliances with a picky bunch or neighbouring kingdoms, carefully tailoring the amount of his agressiveness or snivelling to suit the other leader across the negotiation table. Interspersed with this political chicanery is the occasional aerial battle against a shower of threads, not the most frightening of computer game adversaries ever created but who still provide a workout for your firebreathing charges. All of which is accompanied by a wonderful musical soundtrack. Produced right in the thick of the battle for the creative vision of Epyx, the designers are listed as “The Connelley Group”, founder Jim Connelley’s gang of programmers at the company who prefer the strategy in “action-strategy” more than the action part. The game is not a commercial success, proving the bean-counters right on at least one point, and Connelley soon leaves the company, taking his staff with him. I feel if more people had noticed the game, and if the Epyx marketing team had gotten behind the product a little more aggressively, this game typifies the type of epicness we could have looked forward to from Epyx.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Computer Gaming World, “Inside the Industry – Hobby and Industry News”, “Michael C. Katz, former vice president and corporate communications at Coleco Industries, has been named president and chief executive officer of EPYX, Sunnyvale, CA.”, by Dana Lombardy, pg. 3, Mar/Apr 1983
InfoWorld, “This Company is Serious About Games” by Paul Freiberger, pgs. 10-11, May 11 1981
Museum of Computer Adventure Game History – Dragonriders of Pern – www.mocagh.org/loadpage.php?getgame=pern
Epyx and Summer Games Homepage – rosenkranz.cjb.net
Image of Jim Connelley and other information from Compute! Gazette, “Inside View – Jim Connelley”, by Kathy Yakal, pgs. 70-71, Vol.1 No.3, Sept 1983
Electronic Games, Jumpman Ad, pg. 46, Jul. 1983
Antic, “News, Notes & Quotes: Atari Unveils Portable Game System” by Stephen Mortimer, pg. 13, Oct 1989
Computer Gaming World, “Hobby and Industry News – ‘Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall have left Automated Simulations…’”, pg. 4, Jul/Aug 1982
Plus email interviews with:
Sound Library (Click to view)
Temple of Apshai theme
Jumpman jumps audio sample
Jumpman falls sound sample
Pitstop start sound sample
Pitstop finish sound sample
Pitstop tire change sound sample
Pitstop gas up sound sample
Summer Games opening theme
Summer Games anthem sound sample
Winter Games sound sample
World Games anthem sound sample
Impossible Mission Atombender sound sample
Impossible Mission Atombender sound sample
Impossible Mission puzzle sound sample
Impossible Mission running sound sample
Impossible Mission lift sound sample
Impossible Mission fry sound sample
Impossible Mission scream sound sample
Impossible Mission 2 theme
G.I. Joe theme
Dragonriders of Pern whois? sound sample
Dragonriders of Pern thread attack sound sample
Dragonriders of Pern theme music