What Were the Odds?

What Were the Odds?
Chaos: Battle of the Wizards

Kieron Gillen | 6 Feb 2007 11:04
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Wizards battling!

Yeah, there's more to it, but this is stuff around the edges, like undead creatures can only be hurt by their fellow afterlife-shunners, or people with magical weapons or the array of spells which do things other than summon creatures. The usual thaumatalogical array of lighting bolts, with a few special spells which, in their low-production value, 8-bit ways, actually manage to be a little bit on the iconic side. The Gooey Blob, which starts as a single pulsating mucousoid thing before expanding; anyone in a square it spreads to is engulfed and immobilized, only being freed if friends attack the blob. Easy to do when small, but cheerily suicidal if you've let it expand to fill 80 percent of the playing space, which happens all too often.

That's Chaos, then. What makes it special is how those mechanics, when placed together, create something which is my default answer when anyone asks me, What's your favorite game ever? The important thing to realize is that Chaos was so far ahead of its time intellectually that no one even noticed, including the people who played it. They were just too busy being entertained.

In terms of technical futurism, Chaos had room for eight players in 1985; the same year Gauntlet was blowing everyone's minds into tiny pieces by allowing four players to Need Food, Badly, together. In England, you have trouble cramming more than eight people in any given room, making it the maximum you'd ever need for a social gathering. Don't have eight friends? Even with four players, nothing as competitively intense arrived in our homes until Bomberman/Dynablaster (if you're console) or Doom (if you're PC). Fundamentally, Chaos was turn-based deathmatch, taking the looks of Robotron and marrying it to the depth of chess gleefully polluted with the earthy semi-random humanity of poker.

Despite being a turn-based game, that the most natural comparisons are to arcade games is more than posture. Turns are made with, on average, less than 10 keyboard presses, unless you're being particularly perfectionist and examining everyone's statistics, in which case you can expect the room to harry you more than the hurry-up beast in Bubble Bobble. All of this means Chaos was fast to play. There's room for skill, sure, but it's a minimum effort strategy game. Sit there, Sit there, planning when best to drop your illusionary Golden Dragon if you wish, trying to second-guess whether anyone will have worked out you're about to do so and selected a Disbelieve spell in advance ... or just summon a Pegasus because it's a magicky horsey. It is welcoming.

This was the key part of its futurism, foretelling the era of the mid-'90s when the strategy game - suddenly - was the mainstream. The whole of real-time strategy - lest we forget in these days of the genre's middle-age spread, once an entirely radical innovation - rest entirely on the intellectual soil first investigated by Gollop. If you want to see its influence in the modern age, the truest disciple (and Gollop's other '80s games, like Rebelstar and the divine Laser Squad), is Advance Wars.

Between its vision and the quick, caution-to-the-wind play it accommodated, Chaos gained its gaming immortality. It actively invited you to gather as many friends as possible around to have a crack at each other in digital forms, while making a game simple enough so anyone you'd invite could play. And this means that wherever I've found myself in my life, there's been a place for Chaos.

When I was a Spectrum devotee, my brother and I played it intensely, with friends or not, with the computer filling in the gaps. When I left the Spectrum behind ... well, I didn't leave the Spectrum behind. It sat beneath the desk, with Chaos perpetually in its drive, ready to be dragged out when Stafford's finest Amiga-gamers fancied a break from Speedball II or Sensible Soccer. When I left Stafford behind ... well, you never leave Stafford behind, but upon crashing in from a club, Chaos found itself loaded up, the keyboard passed from hand, chasing the smokeables. And now, when I don't have a Spectrum, I'll find myself sporadically making a pilgrimage to its online java shrine and going for one last duel.

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