On our second episode of The King of Games 98, we have two wildly different games directed at very different audiences. Thief – The Dark Project was a moody stealth action adventure starring a wisecracking thief facing mysterious forces. Pokemon Red and Blue were the games that launched a phenomenon that is still being felt today, propelling the craze for catching weird creatures with some of the most ridiculous names ever devised.
Let us consider the tale of the tape.
Thief: The Dark Project
- Platform: Windows PC
- Release Date: December 1, 1998
- Publisher: Eidos (now Square Enix)
- Developer: Looking Glass Studios
- Director: Greg Lopiccolo
- Terry Brosius
- Laura Baldwin
- Ken Levine
- Composer: Eric Brosius
- Metacritic: 92
- Lifetime sales: 500,000 by May 2000
Pokemon: Red and Blue
- Platform: Game Boy
- Release Date:
- Japan: February 27, 1996
- North America: September 28, 1998
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Game Freak
- Director: Satoshi Tajiri
- Composer: Junichi Masuda
- Gamerankings: 88%
- Lifetime sales: 31,000,000 worldwide
There has not been, and there may never be, a phenomenon as large as Pokemon. Yes, properties like Star Wars and even Fortnite most recently have captured the cultural zeitgeist, but none of these, not even Nintendo’s very own Mario, have made their way into the public consciousness like Pikachu and his pals have done. It is strange then that it all started on the Game Boy, which was then considered an obsolete system, with monochrome graphics, and which could barely produce the sounds of its namesake pocket monsters. If one were to speculate about the chances of Pokemon succeeding before its release, it is hard to think that it would have been considered a surefire success.
But success it was, making it the most successful video game adaptation of all time, with its tentacles spreading into a highly successful TV series, movies, toys and most recently, a highly successful augmented reality adaptation in the form of Pokemon Go. The key to Pokemon Red and Blue’s success could be found in several components. Leave no doubt that the cuteness of these original 150 Pokemon, which instilled the urge of catching them all, was a significant aspect. But beyond that, it is a game that succeeded because of its simplicity and accessibility. The original games are not bogged down in mechanics and for the most part, the most challenging component is managing your monsters to effectively utilize its rock, papers, scissors combat.
This ease of access segues into perhaps the most important factor paving its success. There is no doubt that there were other games with simplistic and accessible mechanics in the market, none of which attained the level of success that Pokemon Red and Blue achieved. What these other games lacked was what I call the “playground aspect.” This is the element whereby a game gains popularity due to its presence in schools and other settings in which kids usually hang out. Simply put, Pokemon, at the time, became inescapable. Being a kid, you had to know about Pokemon, and that was fine, considering that these games were enjoyable and accessible RPGs at heart.
That playground factor was amplified by the fact that you could actually, you know, take your Game Boy to the playground. It was here where the brilliance of the games really shone through, as you could not only battle against others through the Link Cable, proving once and for all that your Gyarados really was unbeatable, but also trade Pokemon with your friends, as the games required trading between the Red and Blue versions in order to obtain the original 150.
In the case of Thief, it is one of the most influential games of its time, principally due to its successful integration of player agency in order to tackle level progression. It is a game with deep, complex, mechanics, allowing players to approach levels in a variety of ways. Although the game does not reward a head-on approach that favors violence, this is not an issue considering that the stealth is so versatile and enjoyable.
Crossing a level in Thief is very much like solving a tightly layered jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces need to fit just right. You may have to cross a room, but you not only have to contend with the guards patrolling the hallway, but also the sound of your feet on the tiled floor, the various candles exposing you from the shadows and the archaic map that makes you wonder whether crossing the room actually makes for the right way at all.
It is a style of game design that was not immediately successful, only seeing itself replicated in other games connected to the legendary Looking Glass Studios, such as Ion Storm’s Deus Ex. Over time, Thief’s form of stealth started seeping its way into other games, most notably Splinter Cell, which borrowed Thief’s emphasis on light and sound, a feature that would become associated with that game and its console audience, despite Thief having done it four years earlier. This style of stealth would not really see a resurgence until the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored, the latter of which wore its Thief influence on its sleeve, in many ways improving upon that title through its supernatural components.
Thus, Thief’s influence has been more subtle, which is not surprising considering the game was not necessarily a blockbuster hit, having only sold about 500,000 copies, which is considerable in light of the times and the fact that it only released on PCs. Despite its influence, Thief very much remains a niche chapter in the history of gaming, while Pokemon has only continued to grow over time. Just going by cultural influence, Pokemon has and will continue to dominate, as its success is simply unparalleled. Yet, that is exactly the reason why we are doing this, as it allows us to explore different factors without necessarily letting one factor, such as commercial success, override the others.
This means that perhaps Thief has a fighting chance going against the mighty juggernaut that is Pokemon. Regardless of how it does, it certainly deserves its place in the video game hall of fame and more than earns its spot on this tournament.
Special thanks on this episode goes to Benja Hiller a/k/a @frau_lametta, who did a terrific job on this episode and was an absolute pleasure to have on the show. If you have not yet and happen to speak German, make sure to check out her website https://welcometolastweek.de/ and give her a follow on Instagram.
We hope you are enjoying this little series, and if you are, make sure to leave us some feedback below.