Oil’s Well, a fine cocktail of Dig-Dug, Snake, and Pac-Man

While a substantial number of coin-op video arcade games in the early ’80s became commercial success stories, inspiring a new generation of programmers, some titles never gained widespread success but yet still managed to influence what would become successful titles for home computers and video game consoles.

In 1982, the late Chris Oberth developed the coin-op video arcade game Anteater for Stern Electronics, a fine cocktail of Dig-Dug, Snake, and Pac-Man elements stirred into a unique but fun and challenging game. Unfortunately, the title never managed to stand out from the crowded video arcade scene. Monster hits like Frogger, Donkey Kong, and everybody’s favorite, Pac-Man towered above almost everything else. Nonetheless, the interesting concept of Anteater managed to reach people’s homes when Oberth created Ardy the Aardvark, a home version of his Anteater published by Datamost in 1983 for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64.

Ardy the Aardvark, Chris Oberth’s home version of Anteater, was picked up by Dave Gordon’s Datamost and published in 1983

The same year Oberth designed his home version of Anteater, Thomas J. Mitchell copied the concept for the Atari 8-bit line of computers. Mitchell swapped out the anthill setting for an oil-drilling operation, with the player guiding a retractable oil drilling head and pipeline through caverns below, gobbling up…yes you guessed it, dots (crude oil pellets). The only way to protect the pipeline from critters and crawlers was by quickly retracting it to safer grounds.

In 1982, On-Line Systems became Sierra On-Line, reflecting the company’s new location in Oakhurst, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Founders husband and wife Ken and Roberta Williams had sold 20% of their company to venture capitalist Jackie Morby of TA Associates, advancing the company into the league of serious businesses. In an attempt to have dedicated brands for its growing and diverse line of software products, a number of subbrands were created. With SierraVenture, dedicated to its adventure titles and the Sierra Business Products Division for home business software. Oil’s Well was picked up by Sierra On-Line in 1983 and marketed in its SierraVision product line, the company’s newly formed label dedicated to the explosive and lucrative action/arcade game market.

With its easy approach, fun, yet challenging, and at times heart-pounding gameplay, Oil’s Well managed to do what Anteater couldn’t and became a solid hit. Over time it was ported to the Apple II, Commodore 64, Colecovision, MSX, and for the IBM PC as a PC-Booter. Computer Games magazine awarded Oil’s Well the 1984 Golden Floppy Award for excellence, in the category Maze game of the year. An accolade exemplifying the significance and widespread appeal of maze games during the early era of arcade frenzy.

InfoWorld magazine reviewed Andy the Aardvark and Oil’s Well in December of 1983, giving the upper hand to Mitchell’s game, for its super-fast gameplay.

Oil’s Well was released in 1983 under Sierra On-Line’s short-lived SierraVision label.
The Coleco version was done by Don McGlauflin

The Atari 8-bit version of Oil’s Well was perfectly balanced between risk and reward and played extremely well

While it at the time seemed like the perfect choice to have a brand focusing exclusively on arcade games, the high production cost of cartridges, the North American video game recession in 1983, and the rapid speed of technological advancements led Sierra to abandon the dedicated label.
By 1984 the SierraVision label was all but history and Oil’s Well, with two other arcade titles from the SierraVision line, was re-released under the Sierra label.

In 1984 Oil’s Well was released for the IBM/PC alongside re-releases for the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit, in the new and bigger box, now under the generic name, Sierra

In 1985, Oil’s Well was released for the MSX

In 1989 Sierra got together with Banana Development after seeing Bananoid, a brilliant public domain 256-color arcade game. With Sierra having a remake of Oil’s Well in the conceptual stage, Banana Development was the perfect fit to help realize the idea of a modern interpretation. In 1990, a new version featuring 256-color VGA graphics was released for the IBM PC. The game played essentially like the original but with added mouse control and an excellent soundtrack.

While the simple yet unique gameplay was plentiful for a commercial game in 1983, customers’ expectations had changed significantly by 1990. To add an extra layer to the game, the team added small but charming animations between levels, giving a sense of an unfolding story as you progress.
The graphics were done by Nancy Hoffelmeyer and Andy Hoyos who the same year worked as art director on Sierra’s King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder.

In 1990, Mitchell’s Oil’s Well was released for the IBM/PC

While the 1990 release of Oil’s Well is cute and enjoyable, the original version is the better of the two

Sources: Wikipedia, The A-Z of Commodore 64 Games: Volume 3, InfoWorld

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