By Jared Newman
Next time someone tells you that Blizzard is anti-console, don't believe it.
As any Blizzard history buff should know, the company wasn't always a champion of PC gaming. Before Diablo, Starcraft and World of Warcraft, Blizzard was an accomplished developer for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. And while a few of these games were quite good, none of them resembled the role-playing and strategy games for which Blizzard is known best.
This is a history that even Blizzard likes to gloss over. The “Legacy Games” section of its website only lists a few of the games described below. So come along and get the real story on how Blizzard once loved -- and in fact built its foundation on -- the video game console.
In 1991, with $40,000 in publisher funding and just four months of development time, the pre-Blizzard Silicon & Synapse churned out RPM Racing in for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, a stinker of a game that by today's standards might've ended the developers' careers outright. The vehicles handled like dump trucks. The backgrounds formed nausea-inducing repetitive patterns. A touch of oversteering was enough to derail the entire race, making each track an endurance test instead of a thrill ride.
And yet, RPM Racing -- the acronym stood for “Radical Psycho Machine” -- sold enough copies to earn Silicon & Synapse a contract for two more games, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In an interview with IGN, Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham left RPM Racing off the record, referring to Silicon & Synapse's following two titles as its “first originals.” The game is also omitted from the “Legacy Games” section on Blizzard's website. But Blizzard isn't completely embarrassed about its roots; at Blizzcon 2010, RPM Racing had a spot at the Retro Arcade booth, warts and all, alongside classics like Diablo and Warcraft: Orcs & Humans.
The Lost Vikings
In its early years, Blizzard -- still known as Silicon & Synapse -- earned money and programming experience by porting other developers' games, such as Battle Chess and MicroLeague Baseball, to new platforms. But only a year after RPM Racing, the company came up with its first big hit.
The Lost Vikings, which launched in 1992 for Super Nintendo and 1993 for Sega Genesis, was miles ahead of RPM Racing in quality, polish and originality. While an ordinary platform game might let a single hero fight, defend, run and jump, The Lost Vikings divided these abilities among three characters that the player could only control one at a time. Think Lemmings with controllable protagonists. (In fact, Blizzard created a Lemmings-esque version of the game with roughly 20 vikings, art director Sam Didier told Eurogamer in an interview. It was never released.)
In hindsight, the opening cutscene for The Lost Vikings was a poetic moment for Blizzard. On the bottom half of the screen was a viking village, its rickety huts stirring thoughts of the fantasy worlds Blizzard would later create in World of Warcraft and Diablo. Above the village, an alien ship spanned the entire screen as it beamed the game's viking heroes into space, a hint at Blizzard's eventual foray into sci-fi with Starcraft.
Clearly, Blizzard is still proud of The Lost Vikings and its 1994 sequel, The Lost Vikings 2. You'll find character cameos in World of Warcraft and several Blizzard console games, and the Battleship Hyperion in Starcraft 2 holds an arcade shoot-em-up mini-game called “The Lost Viking.”
Rock 'n Roll Racing
1993 continued to be a fruitful year for Silicon & Synapse with Rock 'n Roll Racing, a pseudo-sequel to RPM Racing in an intergalactic setting. It was the perfect metric for how far the studio had come in a couple of years, with smoother controls, better graphics, selectable characters and loud-mouthed color commentary. Synthesized classic rock remakes of “Born to Be Wild” and “Bad to the Bone,” however anachronistic among the aliens and interplanetary travel, gave the game a rebellious flare. DieHard GameFan magazine named Rock n' Roll Racing the year's best driving game.
Between Rock n' Roll Racing and The Lost Vikings, the developers that became Blizzard were “on the map,” according to co-founder Allen Adham. According to an official company timeline, Videogames Magazine selected Silicon & Synapse as the year's best software developer.
By this time, the launch of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans was a year away. But even as Warcraft elevated Blizzard's status to superstar developer, the studio continued to work with game consoles, squeezing out a few more titles that time forgot.
The Death and Return of Superman
The Death and Return of Superman, released for Super Nintendo in 1994 and a year later for Sega Genesis, was neither a total cash-in nor a great game on its own merits, but it was the first console game Blizzard released under its current name. (The studio briefly became Chaos Studios but had to switch again after realizing the name was already taken.) Blizzard's side-scrolling beat-em-up vaguely approximated Superman's fatal battle with Doomsday as told in comic books, and then followed the Man of Steel's imitators who fought crime in his stead.
Beat-em-ups were not Blizzard's strong suit. Compared to Final Fight and Streets of Rage, The Death and Return of Superman gave players a meager arsenal of attacks that only changed cosmetically from one Superman variant to the next. Most levels were mind-numbing exercises in knocking out the same couple of enemy types over and over again, and the only thing really worth sticking around to see -- assuming you could handle the game's unforgiving difficulty -- was the plot. If you were willing to endure for that long, chances are you already knew how the story ended.
I don't know how The Death and Return of Superman fared commercially -- I recall renting it as a child and being disappointed with the lack of a two-player mode, even though it would've made no sense to the plot -- but as the games industry left side-scrolling beat-em-ups behind, Blizzard was wise to do the same after its sole, mediocre attempt.
Blizzard kept churning in 1994 with Blackthorne for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, a game that had all the hallmarks of the short-lived and under-appreciated “Prince of Persia with guns” genre. There were lightning-quick shootouts against scary opponents; puzzles that emphasized item collection and backtracking; and a rigid set of acrobatic commands that let you scale walls, hop across chasms and roll away from enemy attacks.. Actually, Blackthorne's control scheme was nearly an exact duplicate of Flashback: The Quest for Identity, which itself drew heavily from Out of This World, the cult hit from 1991.
I can forgive Blizzard for cloning a good concept, and besides, Blackthorne brought plenty of fresh ideas to the table. For the 16-bit era, the game was delightfully dark, its caverns dotted with friendly characters who you could kill accidentally or on purpose. A pulsating soundtrack hammered on your subconscious, occasionally punctuated by synthesized power chords. Lengthy gaps between difficult checkpoints only amplified Blackthorne's soul-crushing vibe.
?For Blizzard, Blackthorne would have made a fitting console swan song. It was one of the developer's most ambitious console games, and its orc-like foes set the stage for Blizzard's first PC endeavor, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. But the developer wouldn't be finished with game consoles until it took one last crack at licensed material.
Justice League Task Force
Blizzard was no rookie developer by the time it created Justice League Task Force for Super Nintendo, and not surprisingly, the game is a competent tournament fighter starring the heroes of DC Comics. Did it have the balance and fluidity of Street Fighter II? Of course not, but there's something satisfying about seeing Batman grapple off the screen with a special move before slamming down on an opponent from above.
Strangely, Justice League Task Force is another console game that Blizzard has quietly disavowed. There's no mention of it in a company timeline Blizzard once posted to its website, nor is it on the company's official list of legacy games. It wasn't part of the Retro Arcade at Blizzcon 2010, either.
And yet, without Justice League Task Force, Blizzard might not have met Condor, the studio that was developing its own version of the game for Sega Genesis. Their association led Blizzard to acquire Condor along with its next project, Diablo.
And the Rest, They Say …
Blizzard's flirtations with video game consoles didn't end there. Other studios helped port Diablo to Sony's Playstation and Starcraft to Nintendo 64. And in 2002, Blizzard announced Starcraft: Ghost, an ambitious stealth shooter for Gamecube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox. That game became vaporware when, in 2006, Blizzard postponed development indefinitely.
But now, Blizzard is “exploring a Diablo-related concept” for modern game consoles. In November, the company posted job listings for console developers filed under “Diablo III” on its website. Twenty years after limping onto the console scene with RPM Racing, Blizzard could be coming full circle. Presumably with a lot more than $40,000 worth of clout.