I recently read that Ogre, a game based on an old Steve Jackson board game, is getting a new release 35 years later. The $20,000 kickstarter goal was exceeded by $880K. Ogre for the Commodore 64 was roughly the 10,000th game I owned and the first one I bought legally. We got the commodore in the early 80’s. Very quickly it seemed like every kid had a treasured 5.25″ disk tray to hold all their pirated games. Might seem odd now but there was no other option (not that I had any money even if there was). The one computer store in town didn’t sell games.
Once I moved to Canada I was exposed to the novel idea that games were a commercial enterprise. But I was still a kid with no allowance so I kept up my disk tray and added BBSs as a source of ill gotten digital booty. Then, months before my 13th birthday, my older brothers told me they would buy me a game. I obsessed over the decision. I quickly read every magazine review before store owners shood me out. If Chapters/Indigo had existed back then I would become the Phantom and moved into the rafters. Every game ad was studied to try and divine through the marketing haze how many hours of joy I would gain.
Finally I decided. It was a forgettable martial arts affair. I was deep into my Bruce Lee phase and the tiny pixel kung-fu men kicking each other in the face were what I imagined Michelangelo would have done if he had wisely decided to focus on more worthwhile subjects . I showed my brothers the ad (in the back of a well worn Dragon magazine) and was crushed by their lack of enthusiasm. “What about this?” one of them said and showed me drivel named Ogre, some static, black and white game without a single ruptured solar plexus.
I grew despondent and suspicious. They had done this to me the previous birthday, promising any board game I wanted from Toys ‘R’ US. When I made my pick they Jedi mind tricked me into buying Shogun instead. It didn’t matter that I ended up absolutely loving Shogun, I suspected they were using my birthday as a way to double up on their own presents. I was determined to see my own pick through this year. Come birthday time I would be entrails deep in kung-fu goodness and they could use their own birthdays to feed their own needs.
They wore me down, as older brothers do. I was a stubborn kid so too much force would have made me intractable. But I hated looking foolish and they played on the growing fear that I would waste their largess on a dud. They were right about Shogun after all. At the last moment, in the store, both game boxes in my hands, I relented. I put down the colorful, glossy box full of images of artistic palm strikes shattering noses and walked to the cash register with my disappointing black and white ugly duckling, full of hexes and adorned with a tank that looked like a mole rat. In a moment of Faustian folly I traded months of joy for a chance to say “I told you so”.
I wanted to hate that game so badly. Never in the history of gaming has a game faced a harsher critic. I wanted to sulk and be so unhappy that not only would they be forced to buy me another game, they would never question my wisdom again. But Ogre was just too good. And deep. I played it so much that my brothers’ own mocking “I told you so’s” turned from instructive to gleeful. I didn’t care, it was such a sublimely designed game with bold design decisions that all worked. The game pits the titular Ogre, an advanced battle tank bristling with weapons, against a much larger group of conventional units. The balanced but asynchronous sides would still be novel today and the local multiplayer kept the disks in the drive for months after I figured out the (initially competent) AI.
I never got to play that kung-fu game. It never made an appearance on the pirated circuits. I remember it got middling reviews and then disappeared. We lament the number of poor games released on Steam it’s never matched the torrent of trash created for the commodore in its heyday. The current archive holds over 25K and there’s no way to ever recover the tens of thousands of amateur games released into a pre-internet void. I’m sure it wouldn’t have made an impact.
I consider Sid Meier a paragon of game design but when I trace back a lot of my favorite things I just as often end up with Steve Jackson. Judging by his wildly successful kickstarter I’m not the only one.
<Update – by a weird quirk of internet magic I ended up playing a beta of the new Ogre a day after writing this. You can find my first impressions here.>