Fifteen years ago, I remember lamenting to a friend that one of the tragedies of the games industry was that it was too contemporary to bear historical witness.
Back then, listening to classic music or watching a classic movie was fairly easy (although nowhere near as easy as it is today). In 1999 however, if you wanted to play a Commodore 64 or Nintendo game or any classic from any era, you had to be willing to dabble in some fairly dark arts. I’m talking emulators (illegal and inelegant) or PC slowdown utilities.
This is certainly not the case anymore. Sites like GOG.com and even Steam have helped package classic games for the masses, but the iPad and Android tablets have enabled unprecedented curatorial depth. Between Apple’s App Store and Google Play. Countless classics from Sonic to The Secret of Monkey Island to Earthworm Jim have been ported to the iPad and Android tablets. These ports are legal, well-executed, and lucrative. The end result: History-minded gamers now have unprecedented access to many of the true classics—in their full, unadulterated form.
(Sometime soon—like the end of this year, Nintendo will be jumping into the pool. Mark my words: This will be a pivotal point in the company’s 125-year history.)
It is often a revelation to play some of these classic. The older the game, the more you are struck by how dated the visual quality of a ten-year old game is. Shortly after that, you begin to recognize play mechanics that have been duplicated numerous times by numerous other games.
Baldur’s Gate II is one such game. Developed by Bioware and published by Interplay in 2000, this literally massive Dungeons & Dragons-based RPG put Bioware on the gaming industry’s map by serving up one of the most authentic translations of the tabletop experience ever.
The play mechanic that hooked critics (who universally lauded the game as one of the best of the year) and fans was the way Bioware designed the combat system. Previously, combat in role-playing games was a straightforward affair. Players lined up against an enemy and took turns issuing orders to their party. Baldur’s Gate II presented a vision of combat that was complex, dynamic, and—most importantly—felt like gamer imagined combat to be.
This combat model would catapult Bioware to great heights, as the developer would use the core of this system in some way, shape, or form from Knights of the Old Republic (also available on the iPad) to Dragon Age to Mass Effect.
The layered, multi-faceted story was (and still is) excellent as well. In Baldur’s Gate II, you can see the very beginning of the nuanced, tension-filled story-telling that would catapult Bioware to the upper echelon of game developers in relatively short order.
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What’s interesting about these classics is that we’re seeing publishers release them at premium prices. Baldur’s Gate II is decidedly premium at $14.99. That is a lot of money for a game, but not many tablet games offer up 80+ hours of deep gameplay. Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition includes the original Shadows of Amn campaign and also includes all seven add-ons as well as multiplayer. (Some of the extra characters in the game cost an extra $2.99 each.)
Also interesting: Ports like Baldur’s Gate II create a downstream effect of sorts. In the case of this classic, a developer named Beamdog handled the port to the iPad, and will likely use the funds gained from this effort to fuel original development of their own.
Theoretically, the impact of releases like Baldur’s Gate II goes beyond historicity. For game developers—both young and experienced—the ability to witness first-hand one of the finest games in history can only help advance the state of design in the video game industry.
Other tablet games I’m playing
1. 4 Thrones Solitaire: I confess to being an occasional solitaire junkie. (Don’t judge me!) This one, which is also available for Android tablets, is great because the core gameplay is so simple, yet so challenging.
2. Ted Ginn: Kick Return: As a 49ers fan, I have no love for Ted “No Hands” Ginn. None. But this game, which is exactly what it sounds like, is shockingly fun. This is also a great iTunes URL to drop on friends who are Miami Dolphins fans.
3. Civil War Battles – Shiloh: Riveting and challenging old-school, turn-based strategy war game—right down to the unit icons. If you’ve ever used the word grognard to describe your gaming preferences, this is for you.
4. Shadow Blade: This action platforming game does a phenomenal job at fulfilling my need for clever, fast-twitch fun. The level design is particularly great.