Stephen H. Landrum - From Arcadia to Epyx Feature - The Next Level

Stephen H. Landrum - From Arcadia to Epyx

A career retrospective of one of gaming's forgotten greats.

Article by Sean Wheatley (Email)
May 20th 2007, 11:44PM
 

Stephen H. Landrum may not be the most recognizable name to gamers, but he was involved in the creation of many classics from the 1980s, both popular and obscure. He began his game development career in 1981 at Arcadia, a company that was making an add-on module for the Atari VCS called the Supercharger. Due to legal reasons (Emerson had a console called the Arcadia 2001), it wasn't long before they changed their name to Starpath. In 1982, Starpath released the Supercharger which plugged into the cartridge slot of Atari's machine. Instead of cartridges, games were on standard cassette tapes.

The Supercharger greatly expanded the system's RAM, allowing for more complex games, and the tape format was ideal for including demonstrations of other games as bonuses. In today's market, we take for granted the abundance of game video footage on the internet but, back then, before widespread game rental services, these non-playable demos were a welcome feature that gave people an idea of what a game looked like in action.

Landrum's Supercharger port of the arcade game Frogger is considered by many to be the best console version of the early '80s. The detail wasn't quite at the level of the ColecoVision release, but stylistically it was closer to the arcade game. It was also considerably better looking than the cartridge VCS Frogger by Parker Bros.

This was a rare case of two different versions of a game appearing on the same console. Parker Bros. had exclusive cartridge rights to the game but since Supercharger games were on tapes, Starpath was legally able to sublicense it from Sierra On-Line which had the magnetic media rights.

Landrum also created Dragonstomper, significant for being the first true RPG on the 2600 back in 1982. Combat was turn-based, and battles gave the player the option to attack, use an item, or run. It didn't have the fancy first-person dungeons of its rival, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: The Treasure of Tarmin on the Intellivision, but in many ways it was a deeper and more developed RPG experience. Unlike Tarmin, it had shops where you could purchase items and hospitals if you needed healing.

He also developed Suicide Mission with Steven Hales (the creator of Synapse Software's classic Fort Apocalypse). This was an Asteroids-type shooter that attempted to recreate the smoothness of vector arcade games. While not as advanced as other 1982 games like Mine Storm on the Vectrex or Commodore's Omega Race ports, it was one of the better shooters of its kind on the VCS. While Suicide Mission was in the mold of Asteroids, Landrum's other Supercharger shooter, Communist Mutants from Space, was in the vein of Galaxian. Amusing title aside, it wasn't much for originality but the gameplay was solid, and it had some of the most fluid animation on the system.

Whether it was from a lack of marketing or because of the shift to newer consoles and gaming computers, the Supercharger was never a big seller. Starpath wasn't doing well financially and ended up merging with computer game company Epyx in 1983. The Starpath name was abandoned.

Much of Epyx's success came from its Olympics-inspired multi-event sports games. The first of these was Summer Games, originally released for the Commodore 64 in 1984, and later ported to other computers and consoles. It actually started its development life as a Supercharger game by Scott Nelson called Sweat: Decathlon which never saw release. After the Epyx merger, the ex-Starpath guys decided to make it a multi-event game. Landrum was lead programmer and creator of the diving and pole vault events as well as the intro scene.

Summer Games was a milestone in sports video games; no game before it had attempted to recreate the Olympics with such detail and life-like movement. Like Dennis Caswell's Supercharger game, Party Mix!, it was a great multiplayer game that appealed to casual and hardcore gamers alike.

Speaking of Caswell, he co-created Epyx's Pitstop II for the Commodore 64 with Landrum. It stood out as one of the best home racing games in 1984 because of its great sensation of speed and split-screen two-player mode. Landrum was not involved in the ports to other computers.

In 1986, Landrum designed another racing game, Super Cycle. Michael Kosaka did the graphics (he had previously worked with Landrum on remaking The Temple of Apshai trilogy for Commodore 64). It was likely inspired by Sega's Hang On, as it resembled it quite a bit. The ports to other computers were not done in-house at Epyx.

Landrum co-wrote Skate or Die! for Electronic Arts in 1987 with Michael Kosaka, David Bunch, and Rob Hubbard. Like Epyx's "Games" series, it was about competing in various events except, in this game, they all involved skateboarding. You could also enter a shop to buy new equipment. Like Atari's arcade game 720 before it, it's an ancestor to many of the popular extreme sports games of today, like the Tony Hawk series.

In addition to being released on nearly every Western computer format, Skate or Die! managed to be successful on the NES as well. What's odd, though, is that its 1990 sequel was exclusive to NES. Kosaka and Bunch returned for its development but Landrum did not.

In the late '80s, Epyx was creating a new portable system called Handy, but the company filed for bankruptcy in 1989 and ended up selling the system to Atari which released it under the name Lynx.

The Lynx's killer app at launch was a title programmed and co-designed by Landrum called Blue Lightning. Blue Lightning went where no console rail shooter had gone before, let alone portable ones. It had smooth hardware-based scaling, unlike its detailed but choppy scrolling console contemporaries (Genesis launch titles like Super Thunder Blade and Space Harrier II). In addition to being a great technology showpiece for the new system, the gameplay was fast and intense, a dream come true for fans of arcade games like After Burner.

Like many classic game makers, Landrum faded into obscurity in the '90s. Still, not many people can claim to have worked on such impressive games spanning console, computer, and handheld formats across various genres. His talent and versatility deserve to be commended, and his games deserve to be played.


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