|The item in question.|
Brace yourself! There's going to be a lot of samey-looking 1-bit monochromatic graphics!
1984: The Beginning
Knight Lore introduced the whole "Filmation" concept. The Congo Bongo-esque player character could move around rooms, behind and in front of objects and act on them physically. The environment was dynamic: objects could be pushed around by players and monsters alike.
|Knight Lore. Push those tables to reach the objects.|
1985: Ultimate holds the ball
Notable: Alien 8, Fairlight, Nightshade
Others: Enigma Force, Cylu, Chimera
Ultimate's own Alien 8 did little to alter the Filmation scheme, using the same engine with a sci-fi backdrop. Some rooms had a remote control for another drone robot, suggestive of the multi-character games to come. Nightshade introduced scrolling, but this was at the expense of more complex character-world interaction.
|Left: Enigma Force. Right: Nightshade with scrolling graphics, from Ultimate|
Cylu and Chimera are small games where the perspective element is simplistic compared to Ultimate offerings.
|Fairlight, and then some more Fairlight|
1986: Floodgates open
Notable: The Great Escape, Batman, Fairlight 2, Movie
Others: Strike Force Cobra, Sweevo's World, Pyracurse, Gunfright, Rasputin, Nosferatu, Pentagram, Molecule Man
1986 saw a spate of isometric games released on the Spectrum. The developers had not only Knight Lore to look up to, but also Fairlight and Nightshade. Ultimate's own Pentagram seems poorly conceived in comparison to what was on offer. Gunfright, built on Nightshade's scrolling routines, at least offered an original wild west scenario. The 128k-only Fairlight 2 expanded on the first game, but offered little new. At least the forest environment showed that the rooms need not be made of rigid blocks.
|The Great Escape|
|Left: Swift scrolling in Pyracurse. Right: Strike Force Cobra with some clever coloring.|
|Batman by Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond, released by Ocean.|
|Left: Rasputin, Right: Nosferatu|
|Movie from Imagine.|
It seems 1986 brought a lot of sophistication to isometric games. However, ZX Spectrum games were often faux-complex, with sprawling empty maps and unnecessary objects to throw the player off the scent. One buzzword was "icon-driven", despite the fact most of the games would have worked better without. Isometric perspectives and graphic interfaces made good screenshots in magazines, but the games themselves could be surprisingly sparse.
1987: The genre starts to age
Notable: Head Over Heels
Others: 3D Game Maker, Bubbler, Martianoids, Hydrofool, Greyfell, Get Dexter
1987 saw both the pinnacle and the nadir of the isometric phenomenon. On the one hand we have the much-lauded Head over Heels, a game which took the best elements of Batman, scaled and revised into a tight puzzle-oriented game. On the other hand we have 3D Game Maker, an editor for creating formulaic, often substandard isometric games, which I will not name here.
|Head over Heels|
|Left: Bubbler Right: Martianoids|
|Hydrofool. Note that we are underwater now, playing that Gollum-esque character. A bit of a gimmick, really.|
1988: The last significant isometric Spectrum games
Notable: Inside Outing, Where Time Stood Still, La Abadia Del Crimen (The Abbey of Crime)
Others: Phantom Club, Super Hero, Last Ninja 2
1988 saw only very few inspired isometric games. The super-hero themed Phantom Club is worth mentioning mostly because it was authored by the same people as Movie. Despite good running-and-somersaulting animation and improved technical routines, the result is not as inspiring as Movie. Last Ninja 2 was converted from the C64, skipping the first part altogether.
|Left: Detailed scenery in Inside Outing. Pretty much everything can be moved. Right: Phantom Club boasted some bold color choices.|
|Left: La Abadia Del Crimen. Right: Where Time Stood Still|
From Spain, the Umberto Eco-inspired La Abadia Del Crimen is also an adventure game, again more comparable with The Great Escape than any other game, what with the daily routine in an isolated environment. I have not looked much into it though, but the Spanish-speaking speccy world holds it in high regard. For the English speakers, there is an unofficial translation, The Abbey of Crime.
It's all a matter of perspective
After all the imitators and seeming improvements, it is striking that Knight Lore/Alien 8 actually did most with the "new" perspective. These games had functional jumping, avoiding and route-planning based on three dimensions rather than two. The puzzles required object placement and retrieval, again thought out in 3D. Newer games could modify these elements, but would not deviate from the basic formula. And if they did deviate, it usually resulted in making the perspective less meaningful, reducing it into a visual gimmick.
When the 16-bit computers hit big time, the isometric genre was seen as decidedly 8-bit and was not tried that often on the bigger computers, just as the whole British style arcade adventure died a quiet death. Sure, many games utilized the perspective but were not part of this action adventure genre. When polygon graphics became feasible, games like Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 could offer similar thrills without locking to a particular perspective. Perhaps something of the DNA of the isometric lives in the modern 3D action game.
-Four way controls in an apparently free 3D environment? Urgh!
-Randomly moving enemies. Holy hell, the games are difficult enough as they are.
-Huge slowdown. When the going gets tough, it gets tough on the framerate.
-Faux complexity. Empty rooms, clunky interfaces, non-functional objects, sterile characters.
+A sense of mystery and exploration based on visibility and "locked out" game areas
+Fun experimentation with the physical object behavior and the game world
+Clever and satisfying puzzles enabled by the isometric object engine