Maps are a critical part of many a good video game. Perhaps the art of map-making has been lost thanks to the internet but I’m happy to say that gaming really showed me the importance of making a good map.
A lot of NES-era video games needed maps. From The Legend of Zelda to Metal Gear, if you wanted to hit all the high points, you needed a map. In many cases a map was provided with the game or was even readily available through magazines like Nintendo Power and strategy guides. But for some games that was a luxury and you were left to make your own maps. One such game that had me making maps like crazy was Solar Jetman.
Solar Jetman was a space exploration game that shared quite a bit from good ol’ Lunar Lander in that you had to control your spaceship against gravity while avoiding planetary hazards, but Jetman also required you to fight bad guys and escape black holes. Solar Jetman was easily one of the most frustrating-yet-challenging games I owned. Part of that challenge was the controls but the other part was simply keeping track of where you were.
Scattered throughout the planets you explored were pieces to a spaceship you were trying to collect to finish the game. However, to find those parts you needed other things like fuel, weapons, gems and other add-ons. Navigating winding caverns was trouble enough without having to remember where things were located. There is a point in the game where you get a mapping device but the first half of the game you have zero help and thus I had to draw my own maps.
I wish I those maps, I’d love to see them. I remember drawing them on graph paper and keeping them in binder. They certainly weren’t as accurate as something you’d see in Nintendo Power but they highlighted all the key items and exits that I need to complete a level as quickly and efficiently as possible. As dying could happen frequently in Solar Jetman, having a good map was priceless. I took pride in my maps. Had any of my friends owned Solar Jetman I probably could have sold them for a buck or two but alas I was the only one foolish enough to buy the game. Okay, it’s not a bad game but I probably could have gotten a better game instead (of course, how many games do we say that about now!)
Solar Jetman taught me to not only make good maps but to pay attention to details that will support your journey later. All too often we think about what will help us at the time without thinking about the future. Even today when I play Minecraft, I think about how to make navigation caves and forests as easy as possible on return visits.
The internet might have limited the need for maps in a lot of old games but thankfully the trend in games using randomly generated levels may bring back the need to draw our own maps, just for ourselves. We might have more tools now than just a pencil and some paper but it’s still just as fun.
How not to make a map
As a footnote, I’d like to mention Section Z as a game that showed me how NOT to draw a map. The map for Section Z was included with the game and thank goodness it was because keeping track of that game by hand would have been quite the feat. So many lines and numbers to decode. Maps should make your life easier, they shouldn’t require a map of their own.