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 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. He's a previously published author of two books on board games, and is a contributor to the hobbyist magazine GAMES. Looking to write off the purchase of his new Commodore PET computer, Connelley enlists Freeman's help with designing Starfleet Orion, programmed in BASIC. When they finish it in 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. 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. But the company really hits it big in 1979 with the first entry in its Dunjunquest 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. Having created their character at the inn, the player then stocks up on weapons, shield and armour. An innovative aspect of play is the ability to haggle with the innkeeper, letting the player 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, in search of 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 player moves his on-screen character 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. The game wins the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design's Origin award for 1980's Computer Game of the Year, and it is followed by two sequels, Upper Reaches of Apshai and Temple of Ra. They are all translated to every major game platform, and the entire trilogy is re-released with improved graphics in 1985. 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.
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 earliest 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
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 enough 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 who's quality 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 Prof. issuing the now-famous ominous welcome at the start of the game "Another visitor. Stay awhile.....staaaaay forever!", an occasional command to his metal pants army "Destroy him, my robots." and our hero's agonizing scream of terror when he falls down a shaft "AAAAAAaaaaaaAAAAGGGGHHHHhhhhh!", which makes me jump out of my chair when I first 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 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.
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 C-64 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 C-64 has dropped off the scope as a gaming platform, and a new project called Handy, to be the world's first colour pixel hand-held game, is gathering expenses. Epyx games are also some of the most pirated computer titles around, with practically everyone with a C-64 playing Summer Games and Impossible Mission but very 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 and renamed the Lynx, and shortly after this deal Epyx succumbs to the Jack Tramiel
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. But I feel this game typifies the type of product we could have looked forward to from Epyx if more people had noticed the game, and if the Epyx marketing team had gotten behind the product a little more aggressively.