When Activision was founded in 1979 by disgruntled designers that had left Ray Kassar’s Atari to become the first third-party dev house for the system, it would later be joined by another powerhouse led by a number of designers with the same issues.
In 1981, these new designers would go on to form Imagic and provide not only the Atari 2600 with some of its best looking, and most exciting, games. They would also branch out beyond it into a number of venues such as the ColecoVision and Mattel’s Intellivision for which they created a number of a original titles instead of simply porting over what they had done elsewhere. They took full advantage of whatever hardware their games would find themselves on making it so that some titles available for one platform wouldn’t be found on others, a trait that would later fuel the new console wars when Nintendo, Sega, and scores of others re-ignited the market in the late 80s.
It was a bold step for a young company to make, but it helped propel them into sectors of the market that others didn’t normally enter — such as personal computers from the IBM PC to the Sinclair Spectrum.
Imagic’s games were flashy, something that the silvery polish of their game boxes splashed with art made from miniatures and models, played off of. Even the game carts were different, replacing the boxy end with an angled slope flattening out into a plastic “grip” emblazoned with the company name. The label was also silver stamped with the box art. But the games… Imagic’s games were filled with plenty of special effects, big sprites, and sound cues. They were a step above many of the games on the Atari 2600 at the time in terms of presentation.
One exciting game was Dragonfire from 1982. It was a side-viewed, arcade action game where the player played as a Prince determined to steal back the treasures of his father’s castle from the dragons that have taken over to help build an army. You didn’t actually get to build one, though, or kill dragons, but it was still fun to snag all of that medieval loot for awhile.
The game consisted only of two screens — the bridge over the moat and the treasure room where a dragon would be pacing at the bottom of the screen.
The bridge part was tricky. You had to cross it going from the fright while avoiding bolts of fire coming in from the left. Fortunately, the Prince could kneel (something that I wished Capcom’s Mega Man could have done in his first game against that Rock Monster boss) to duck below high flying bolts right before jumping (something that a number of current-gen games just don’t do, like 38-Studios’ Kingdoms of Amalur) over low ones.
After making it across, players had to avoid the super fireballs coming from the dragon pacing at the bottom of the screen while snatching up all of the treasures in the room before the exit would appear. The dragons were pretty wily — they won’t give chase if their back is turned as they walk from your hiding spot, but will come right over to throw a few fireballs up at you from below when they see you.
Escaping successfully ramped the difficulty up adding in more bolts of of fire, faster and meaner dragons spewing even more fire, and so on. It was pretty simple stuff aimed directly at scoring as many points as you could possibly do and little else. As an arcade-like game, it could be lots of fun though it could also get pretty repetitive, something which this review reprinted from the December, 1984, issue of Your Spectrum blasted as badly as shovelware was in the early 90s when CDs took off.
One neat thing that the game employed what can be argued as an another early example of cover in an action game. On the bridge level, players could retreat back into the right tower for protection if there were too many fireballs to contend with. In the treasure room, players can return to the door they came in from to hide from the dragon and its fire until it was safe to come out and snatch a few more goodies.
You can find this classic on Virtual Atari especially since it hasn’t found its way into a modern collection or digitally distributed format such as Sega’s collections have on Steam, XBLA, or PSN. There’s even an indie game inspired by the original that’s free to play from Snake Pit Entertainment called Castle of Fire complete with new graphics and ideas to vary the challenges as you try for the highest scores.
Unfortunately, unlike Activision, Imagic wasn’t able to survive the crash that crippled the industry from ’83 to ’84. There was no silver lining to this story in the years afterward and in 1986, the company folded. But even though it’s not as well known as the company its founders had left behind, the legacy it left behind, while not perfect, still had the same kind of polish that their boxes carried.