In 1983 the video and computer game market was hotter than ever, with revenues hitting over $3 billion. With no regard to quality or what consumers desired, subpar games were being pumped out in the thousands, flooding an already saturated market. By Christmas, the impending disaster that had been lurking all year came thundering down. Millions of games that nobody wanted, piled up in warehouses, containers, and even landfills. While the North American video game crash mainly hit the console and cartridge game market, the ripples were felt by large parts of the industry. Over the next two years, the market dropped almost 97%. Companies that had heralded the home computer entertainment revolution were killed off one by one. Sierra On-Line, one of the most successful in the business, managed, but only by the skin of its teeth to stay afloat, more or less saved by a relationship established with corporate mastodont IBM in 1982.
Sierra had invested significant sums in what should have been a lucrative venture in action and cartridge-based games. Throughout the latter part of 1982 and 1983, the company had bought into a large amount of more or less questionable games, some for systems already deemed obsolete by the lightning-fast advancement in technology. What was burning hot today would be ice-cold by next week. By the time a game had been programmed, tested, manufactured, marketed, and distributed to retailers its designated system could be nothing more than a remembrance of yesterday.
Back in 1980 Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore International, as part of his philosophy, computers for the masses, not the classes, introduced the Commodore VIC-20, the first low-cost color computer available on the market. The $299 ($1000 in today’s money), user-friendly computer quickly became a best-seller and the first home computer to sell more than a million units. Producing games for the VIC-20 was tempting and fitted well within Sierra’s newly established SierraVision label, devoted, to action and cartridge-based games. But time was moving fast and by the spring of 1983, the VIC-20 software market was well beyond its heyday and now in rapid decline. Commodore’s latest offering, the Commodore 64, a vastly more capable machine quickly rendered the VIC-20 irrelevant and antiquated. Nonetheless, in the July 1983 issue of Compute! magazine, Sierra On-Line advertised three upcoming titles for the Commodore VIC-20. Among those, the infamous Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash, considered by many the holy grail of computer games, Chuck Bueche’s Creepy Corridors, and Doug Whittaker’s Flip-N-Match.
Sierra On-Line’s VIC-20 advertisement, published in the July 1983 issue of Compute! magazine.
Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash, used the Ultima name and cover art from Sierra’s Atari 8-bit release of Richard Garriott’s first Ultima title but had no relation to the Ultima series. The title was solely chosen by Sierra to profit from the popular Ultima brand
For the new SierraVision lineup, Sierra invested in porting a number of already existing titles alongside the development of originals. Somewhat aware of the Commodore VIC-20 situation, the company only produced just enough copies to fulfill its end of the publishing deals, typically a few thousand copies. One of the existing titles that found its way onto the VIC-20 under the SierraVision label was Chuck Bueche’s Creepy Corridors.
Bueche had been introduced to computers by his college roommate Richard Garriot and had, in 1981, his first game, Brainteaser Boulevard! published by California Pacific Computer Company, the same company that had published Garriott’s Akalabeth and later his first Ultima game. Garriott, after a fallout with founder Al Remmers of California Pacific, found a new publisher in Ken and Roberta Williams‘ On-Line Systems, and so did Bueche. While Garriott would spend another year on the development of his second Ultima title, Bueche completed his second title, Laf Pak, a compilation of four small games consisting of Creepy Corridors, Apple Zap, Space Race, and Mine Sweep, all inspired by popular concepts of the time. The compilation was published for the Apple II in 1982.
Chuck Bueche’s Laf Pak, a compilation of four small games was released for the Apple II in 1982 by Ken and Roberta Williams’ On-Line Systems.
One of the games, Creepy Corridors, was re-released the following year for the Commodore VIC-20
Creepy Corridor was a simple yet challenging maze game, the inspiration was obvious.
Bueche sampled his own scream for when the player died, a feature that took up almost a fifth of the available resources but would become the game’s best-known attribute
Laf Pak didn’t become successful and the low sales figures were proof of changing times, the market was moving away from simple mindless shooting games. Following the release, Ken and a hesitant Roberta sold 20% of their company to investor Jackie Morby of TA Associates and On-Line Systems became Sierra On-Line. Ken became increasingly aware that he needed someone that could manage and turn the otherwise rowdy crowd of programmers and college drop-outs that were management into actual employees of a now real business. For the company to be able to grow and compete in the rapidly evolving consumer market transformative actions were needed and Dick Sunderland, Ken’s former boss from Informatics, was inserted as president. The company would go on to create a number of different sub-brands catering to the many different genres of games and software titles the company offered. SierraVenture for the company’s hugely successful adventure titles and SierraVision for its arcade and cartridge-based games. In 1983 Bueche’s Creepy Corridor, as the only game from the Laf Pak compilation, was ported by programmer Don McGlauflin to the Commodore VIC-20. The limited computer and the small capacity of the cartridge didn’t allow space for Bueche’s sampled death scream, the most memorable element of the game.
Creepy Corridors was ported to the Commodore VIC-20 by Don McGlauflin and released under the SierraVision label in 1983.
The great cover artwork was done by marketing illustrator Mark Crowe, who later would earn his mainstream fame as one of the designers of the renowned Space Quest series
By the time Creepy Corridors was released, the VIC-20 was widely available for under $90, nonetheless, the majority of potential customers had already migrated to the Commodore 64 resulting in only a small number of copies ever sold. It became apparent that Sierra needed to reinvent itself. Its bet on cartridge-based games was a bust, the market had crashed, nearly taking the company with it. The fundamental differences between Sunderland and Ken resulted in the two constantly clashing. Sunderland was booted and Ken swore he never would invest in the video console game and cartridge market again. The SierraVision label was canned and Sierra would soon rise to unforeseen glory and fame, starting with Roberta’s fantastic King’s Quest series, the ambitious graphic adventure rising from the established relationship with IBM.
The relationship with IBM also amounted to a few earlier games being ported to the IBM PC and PCjr in IBM’s Entertainment Series. One of the games was Bueche’s Creepy Corridors, which was ported by John Redekopp and released as Mine Shaft in March of 1984 when the IBM PCjr became available.
Creepy Corridors was ported to the IBM PCjr by John Redekopp and released in IBM’s Entertainment Series – While the copyright says 1983, the IBM PCjr wasn’t available until March of 1984 missing the planned ’83 Christmas release due to production delays
Mine Shaft became one of only a few IBM PCjr cartridge-based games released. Experts, prior to its release, had predicted that the PCjr quickly would become the standard by which all other home computers were measured and estimated sales north of one million in 1984, but the excitement quickly wore off as the release date closed in. Dealers reported that consumers disliked the price, the keyboard, and its limited memory. Retailers, selling primarily to business customers, didn’t know how to market it. After only 18 months of disappointing sales, the computer was discontinued.
Only a few of the SierraVision titles were later republished under the generic Sierra On-Line name.
The same year as Creepy Corridors was released for the VIC-20, Bueche headed off with Richard Garriot, and along with Richard’s older brother Robert and their father, Owen founded Origin Systems. Bueche made several appearances in the Ultima series of games as the court jester Chuckles.
Don McGlauflin later worked as a programmer on Christy Marx‘s excellent Conquest of the Camelot, published by Sierra On-Line in 1989.
Sources: Computer Gaming World July-Aug 1983, Compute! July 1983, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, Washington Post…