Exidy's Venture (1981): Fantasy or Funhouse?


Animation of the 1981 arcade game, Venture, by Exidy.  It shows a section of gameplay and the sprites for the monsters and treasures.

The early '80s were a special time in arcade games.  Technology had finally advanced to the point where games could make use of large casts of characters, all rendered with enough detail to make them recognizable as having counterparts in real objects.  What's more, microprocessors and ROM were now enabling gameplay that stretched beyond a single-screen playing field, allowing developers to start telling stories, even if only very simple ones.  Vast areas of space were opening up in game design, and even small-time game designers had the opportunity to break new ground with ideas that, in retrospect, should have been common sense.

It's within this context that we find Venture, a game that may have the distinction of being the first fantasy-themed arcade game, and which pioneered mechanics that are clearly identifiable in later action-adventure and action role-playing games.  

How You Play

You are Winky, daring smiley-faced adventurer, and you must recover all of the treasures from the Venture dungeon.  The game plays out from two perspectives, the level view and the room view.  In the level view, you're just a dot (perhaps an homage to Atari Adventure?) that travels from one room to the next, entering rooms at locations marked by white doors.  The catch is that you must avoid making contact with the squid-like Hall Monsters roaming the corridors.

Section of gameplay from the arcade version of Venture, showing the player avoiding Hall Monsters on the level map.

These creatures bear more than a passing resemblance to the aliens from Space Invaders, and like their shoot 'em-up cousins, are only a minor threat at first.  Be sure not to dawdle however, because also like Space Invaders, they will eventually kick into high gear.  Given enough time, the AI will develop to a point where it makes a beeline towards you and can match you step-for-step.

Section of gameplay from the arcade version of Venture, showing the player getting chased by Hall Monsters on the level map.

Fortunately, it doesn't take long to travel from one room to the next, so most of the game is played in the room view.  In each room, the player must fend off monsters and/or traps to collect the treasure and exit the room.  If you take too long to finish a room, one of the Hall Monsters will enter and begin chasing you.  They occupy a similar role to Evil Otto in Berzerk, matching the player's speed and forcing them to exit more or less immediately.  Here's what a room playthrough looks like:

Section of gameplay from the arcade version of Venture, showing the player clearing a room of snakes and collecting the treasure.

Easy enough, right?  Eh... not so much.  Venture is actually a brutally difficult game, moreso even than most arcade games of its time, and it's worth looking more carefully at some of the design decisions that led to that outcome.

Controls

The first thing that jumped out at me when I started playing Venture was how awkward the controls felt.  It's not that they're complex -- there is just a single 8-way joystick and a fire button -- but in practice, navigating the dungeon was really frustrating.  This is because when you change Winky's direction, he doesn't actually respond right away.

Animation from the arcade version of Venture, demonstrating the game's built-in lag in response to commands from the joystick.

In the above animation, the left side shows Winky making a turn at normal speed and the righthand pane shows the same turn slowed down by a factor of 5.  You can clearly see Winky stop before he makes the turn, adding a six-frame (0.1 seconds) lag before he translates your command into motion.  This may not seem like much, but in the world of action games, an additional six frames of lag is a big deal.  Note that this lag is in the game itself, so it would add on to any input lag that might be occurring in the game controller or display lag in the video output.

Enemy Movement

I don't know if the awkward controls in Venture were an intentional design decision or a consequence of hardware limitations, but the cruelty of the enemy AI most definitely lies at the feet of the developers.  Previously, I showed what a successful room playthrough looked like in Venture.  Here is an example of one that is not so successful.

Section of gameplay from the arcade version of Venture, showing Winky failing to evade erratically moving ghosts.

As it turns out, those missed shots are not just a consequence of bad aim (or bad luck).  Watch what happens when I try to shoot a single enemy that's clearly in my line of fire.

Animation from Venture demonstrating how the enemy AI avoids the player's line of fire.

In the animation, I've added a horizontal line to indicate my line of fire, and colored it red whenever the arrow is in flight.  The enemies in Venture appear to be designed to jump out of your line of fire whenever an arrow is present.  You can even see one point where the enemy jitters just above the line, suggesting that one part of the AI (evasion) is overriding the part that determines its wandering motion.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to backwards engineer the wandering motions of the enemies because they appear to be at least partially random.  Normally, I would track the paths of the sprites to see how they behave, but when you're dealing with randomized motions, you need a large amount of data to average over, and that can be both time- and memory-consuming with sprite tracking.  Fortunately, there's another thing I can do.

In a previous article on sprite extraction, I talked about using the mode of an animation to determine the background.  If I try that on a room from Venture, here's what I get.

Animation demonstrating the use of the mode of an animation to determine the background of a room in Venture.

Note that in this segment of gameplay, I've used a MAME cheat to make Winky invincible (to study the AI, not to improve my score).  When I take the mode of the animation, the dragons disappear and Winky stays put.  This is because the dragons are never staying in one place long enough to be the mode color in any part of the frame.  If Winky were moving around the frame throughout the animation, he would also disappear in the mode background.

Once I've determined the mode background, I can then isolate anything that's not in the background, like so.

Animation showing what remains after mode background subtraction in a room in Venture.

To find out where the enemies are spending the most time, I just look at each pixel in the image and measure how often it's occupied by an enemy.  The above animation isn't long enough to get a good sampling, so I averaged over 7 minutes of gameplay at a reduced frame rate.  That yielded the following heat map.

Heat map of the enemy movements in a room in Venture, with Winky on the right side of the room.

In this map, brighter shading indicates more time spent in that area.  You can see that the dragons congregate in two general areas, one that's fairly spread out in the lower right corner and another that's concentrated near the treasure at the top of the room.  The top region, which contains the yellow dragons, has sharp boundaries at fixed horizontal and vertical distances from the treasure.  The white dragons, meanwhile, must stay out of the top region, but are otherwise unrestricted in where they can go.  They do, however, spend more time near Winky than far away from him.  To get a better idea of how Winky's position is influencing their motion, let's move him to the other side of the room and see what happens.

Heat map of the enemy movements in a room in Venture, with Winky on the left side of the room.

Not only do the white dragons move to the same corner as Winky, but the yellow enemies now spend more time to the left of the treasure than to the right of it.  

Let's try the same thing on another set of enemies.

Heat map of the enemy movements in a room in Venture, with Winky facing skeletons

Here, the skeletons are all the same color, but have individual behaviors just like the dragons did.  One skeleton stays near the treasure and the other two wander around the rest of the room, with a modest preference for the area where Winky is.  Again, the treasure guard prefers the part of his region that is nearest to Winky.

You won't find treasure guards in every room and some enemies will be more attracted to Winky than others.  This room, on the second level, doesn't require a heat map to analyze how the enemies are responding to him.

A demonstration of enemies in Venture whose movements are drawn directly to Winky.

I credit the developers for giving each room a different character, with enemies that vary in number and behavior.  Some rooms will change their configuration spontaneously, while others will have moving walls, like this one on the first level.

A room in Exidy's Venture where the walls move around the treasure.

Dead Enemies

The obstacles facing Winky are considerable.  Slow reflexes, combined with enemies that move erratically towards him and can instantly dodge his shots, would surely be enough to challenge any adventurer, but the developers saw fit to add yet another wrinkle.

Snippet of gameplay from Exidy's Venture demonstrating how enemy corpses can kill you.

That's right, enemy corpses are lethal.  Even if you've managed to overcome the frenetic prescience of the AI, you will be left with a maze of slowly decaying corpses that may or may not fade away before the Hall Monsters appear to crash the party.  This seems utterly unjustifiable in the game world and totally unnecessary considering the game's already considerable difficulty, but there you are.

Overall Impressions

So where does this leave us with Venture?  From the historical standpoint, it's actually a unique and innovative design, and accordingly it achieved a reasonable amount of success in its time.  Each room is a puzzle to be solved and serves as one piece in a larger dungeon puzzle.  Obvious or not, many of the conventions established in Venture would end up becoming fixtures in future action-adventure games, most famously in the Zelda series.  

Animation comparing the basic mechanics of Exidy's Venture and Nintendo's Legend of Zelda.

Dungeon crawling and world exploration were not new to video gaming in general -- they had long been fixtures in PC gaming -- but Exidy deserves credit for being the first to successfully incorporate it into an arcade game.  

That being said, I did not have fun playing this game.  It's not just that Venture is difficult -- that alone is by no means a sin in the design of video games.  Rather, it's the feeling of helplessness I get from my failures.  It's the sheer futility of having an enemy erratically jitter into Winky because the unnatural evasive abilities of the AI forced me to make a close approach.  It's the laggy controls nullifying any realistic chance I might have had of compensating for an unlucky spastic jerk.  It's the dotted remnants of a long-dead enemy preventing me from escaping a room that has too soon been invaded by an overzealous Hall Monster.

If these challenges had some rationale within the context of the game world, I might be able to see past them, but it is exactly the opposite.  They all seem like artificial contrivances cynically added to the game mechanics to bleed as many quarters from the player as possible.  The resulting aesthetic more closely resemble that of a funhouse at a carnival than any dungeon adventure, and cheap thrills are the last thing I look for in an epic quest.  

Credit where credit is due, but I'm inclined to leave this artifact for museums.  

With that, I'll leave you with a montage of my most excruciating Venture deaths.







Comments

  1. Enemy movement heat maps?? This is why I love your blog.

    Regarding the lag when changing directions, I believe the developer incorporated it so that the player would have the ability to shoot in different directions without moving. I did the same thing in the first top-down maze game I made 20-some years ago. It was the solution I came up with so the player could quickly turn and shoot in the opposite direction without also moving that way. I'll admit that it didn't feel very good.

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    Replies
    1. The heat maps are one of my new favorite toys. Expect them to show up again soon.

      I did some experiments with Winky's firing to see if I could change my firing direction without moving, but was unsuccessful. Maybe I'm doing it wrong?

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    2. I just tried it again. Yeah, it's a bit tricky. I had to lightly tap the other direction in order for Winky to stay in the same spot.

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    3. I also tried the Colecovision version and it has the direction change lag as well. It must have been deliberate. Also, it seems to be a lot easier to change direction without moving in that version.

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