“You steal my guitar? I shoot you in the crotch! Wait, forgot my gun.”
Outside of the obligatory (and quite good) official Atari arcade ports to the Lynx, one struggles to think of a reason for gamers of the 90’s to have picked one up. It’s certainly not for the mostly bizarre third-party games that remain. Take, for example, this one from Telegames. I can’t imagine people being enticed by such a confusing and inscrutable box cover, saddled with the title Fat Bobby. I have a hard time just picking out the protagonist. Guitar guy is more prominently placed, but then again the other guy seems more relevant to the title…. which I always read as ‘Fat Boobie’ for some reason. Maybe it’s the font.
Nobody beat the Atari 2600 for third-party game support, but Mattel’s Intellivision console wasn’t a slouch in that department, either. While one could argue that the shovelware foisted onto Atari’s flagship system was one of the culprits of the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, third-party support was also crucial for a console’s future on the market, as well. And maybe the greatest external game developer for the Inty was Imagic, who not only made games for the system, but good games, many of which utilized the advanced power inside the system to bring gamers to places no one had ever imagined possible. I made this video to showcase why Imagic was #1 with Intellivision owners in the later stage of the console:
After he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon, in 1974 Steve Jobs joined a small tech company by the name of Atari, working at their Los Gatos facility in California. Legend has it that he showed up in their lobby, scruffy and lacking in perfect bodily hygiene, and stated to the receptionist that he wouldn’t be leaving the premises until he got a job. Instead of calling the police, she brought Al Alcorn to talk to him, and was eventually hired. In spite of being brash and over-confident (or perhaps, BECAUSE of those traits), Atari CEO Nolan Bushnell took a liking to young Steve. One day he approached Jobs with a game idea. We break into the TDE archives to continue the story:
In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured.
Jobs would later approach Bushnell with the idea of Atari producing a new computer he and Woz had developed, but the Atari boss passed on the offer. Atari would end up competing against that product with their 8-bit 400 and 800 computer lines. Woz and Jobs did just fine with their own computer: the venerable Apple II, by the Apple Computer Company.
While extensively covering Disney’s 1982 computer-world movie Tron, I referenced futurist Syd Mead quite a bit. He left an indelible mark on that film and many other seminal SF works like Blade Runner. He passed away yesterday at age 86
Tron director Steven Lisberger (in black) meets with his art design staff: Syd Mead (centre, wearing tie), camera right of him is Moebius, next to him is Peter Lloyd
On Tron, Mead’s specialty in future-cool hardware was put to good use, designing the tanks and villain Sark’s huge floating carrier, along with the eye-catching TRON title font. But his most iconic design for the film, that ranks up there with the flying spinner car from Blade Runner, were the lightcycles. Still recognizable as motorcycles, but sleek, imposing and merging man and machine, they are a design that has lived on in the imagination far past when the lights came up in the theatres.
Tron lightcycles from original film, 1982
Rendered as CGI creations in Tron by effects house MAGI via their Synthavision process, the lightcycles had to be scaled back a bit from Mead’s vision. He did get to have the full look of the vehicles realized in the sequel, Tron Legacy. The biggest difference between the two is how the rider truly becomes a part of the cycle in Legacy, other than just being a driver inside it.
Syd Mead concept drawing of Tank interior
Mead also worked directly in the video game industry, including designing the vehicles in the 1995 Sega Saturn game Cyber Speedway. I think it’s fair to say the extended garage of our possible future wouldn’t look nearly as cool if not for the startling design work of Syd Mead. His practical but far-flung vision will be missed. RIP.
You can read my coverage of Tron and see many of Mead’s designs for it here on my site: http://bit.ly/2Z1CK8J
Original Syd Mead lightcycle design, with driver who becomes part of the vehicle
The Supercharger was one of those devices released later in the lifecycle of the 2600, designed to extend the life of the console which, by 1982, was incredibly popular but outclassed by the newer game systems. Made by Starpath (formerly Arcadia before having to change their name to avoid confusion with Emerson’s Arcadia 2001 console), the Supercharger was an elongated cartridge that added another 6K of RAM to Atari’s old warhorse. Not only that, but it also had a cable that you would plug into the 1/4″ jack of any cassette tape recorder, and load in games for the system via cassette. Thusly, not only did you get more RAM for your 2600 but also bigger games.
One such game being the delightfully titled Communist Mutants from Space. It is yet another Galaxian knock-off, albeit with some twists from the formula like different types of missiles you could fire at the Commies swooping down at you, or shields to defect their godless shots, or a time-warp feature to either rewind a fatal mistake, like letting government take control of all means of production from god-fearing capitalists.
It had a cool cover, too.
Not just commies, but mutant commies. From space!
But there’s something familiar about those commies, even if they are mutants and from space. Something about their shininess, about how their design is both round AND sharp at the same time… let’s journey down to the next paragraph for the answer, shall we?
It’s because the cover to the game was drawn by Alton Kelley, who, along with Stanley Mouse, made the super-cool rock album covers for Journey, one of the biggest rock bands of the 70’s and 80’s. Kelley was particularly responsible for the famous Scarab escape vehicle feature on the cover of, you guessed it, Journey’s Escape album. Maybe you’ll see some Communistic similarities in it.
Journey makes its Escape, 1981
A closer look at that Scarab vehicle:
It’s also in space!
Pretty nifty. Of course, Communist Mutants From Space isn’t the only video game connection to Journey. The band had two games of their own. Data East made Journey Escape for the 2600, and Bally/Midway made an arcade version called simply, Journey.
Jim Walls joined the California Highway Patrol in 1971, working in the Southern California community of Van Nuys. In 1984 he was injured in a shootout during an enforcement stop, and while on administrative leave met Sierra boss Ken Williams via his wife Donna, a hair stylist who would occasionally cut Williams’ hair in a salon in Oakhurst. Williams was mulling over the idea of a Sierra adventure game about police work, and was looking for a consultant with real-world experience.
Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, 1987
Police Quest 2: The Vengeance, 1988
Poster for Police Quest 3: The Kindred, 1991
Working with Sierra, Walls would create the story for Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, and go on to make two more games in the series, as well as the naval thriller Codename: Iceman, until leaving the company in 1991. His name would be replaced on the box by none less than former LAPD chief Daryl F. Gates in Police Quest: Open Season, released in 1993. That year Walls would consult for Tsunami Media, made up of mostly ex-Sierra people and founded by famed EA game producer Joe Ybarra (M.U.L.E., Bard’s Tale, et al.). There Walls would create Blue Force, another police procedural adventure game. He gets even more biographical with this one; the hero is Jake Ryan, motorcycle cop.
Blue Force by Tsunami, 1993
Subsequent to a couple of unsuccessful crowdfunding campaigns to launch a new IP in the vein of Police Quest titled Precinct, Walls settled into retirement. But his work on the Police Quest series, a beloved member of the Sierra adventure game most wanted, writes Jim Walls’ name into the blotter of video game history.
In 1991, Sierra was on the vanguard of online graphical virtual worlds, as The Sierra Network, initially devised by co-founder Ken Williams as a service for house-bound seniors called The Constant Companion, moved from test marketing to nationwide service.
Moving from simple parlour games like chess and backgammon to action games like Red Baron and The Shadow of Yserbius, TSN also promised virtual “theme-parks” like SierraLand and LarryLand.
In addition, users could communicate with each other across live conference areas. To help new users parse the strange text they might be seeing online, in the Summer of 1992 Sierra-published magazine InterAction helpfully provided a guide to this arcane language:
It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it
It’s interesting to see how online shorthand has evolved from the early days of virtual communities. For instance, <ROF,L> The comma seems a bit superfluous if you’re trying to acronym something. And <G,D&R> for grinning, ducking and running. That’s waaaay too much work.
As for the emoticons, I have to say that (a smiling person wearing a striped necktie) and (Uncle Sam) are two amazing feats of engineering, but regular use for them in the vernacular is dubious. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Or so says a smiling Batman B-)
Some advice on romance for you from a retro video game historian: Find someone who looks at you the way this lady looks at the guy running the Aquarius Home Computer System, by Mattel Electronics.
On second thought, maybe don’t. She looks like she’s thinking about slitting his throat while he sleeps tonight, and whether she could completely bathe her naked body in the amount of blood that came out of him.
And another thing: this photo seems to prove just how unuseable the crap keyboard on the Aquarius was. Look at the man’s fingers, curled up like an old, arthritic witch in order to press on those tiny, rubbery chiclet-keys. The computer came with a built-in flavour of Microsoft BASIC, but can you imagine trying to program on that thing? 20 minutes and I’d be longing for release, as the pumping blood from my carotid artery splashed on my wife’s writhing body.
Also, the dude has a Mini Expander AND two memory packs, but hasn’t installed them into the computer? That means he’s stuck with the anemic 4K standard RAM in the Aquarius. Yes honey, you can bring the kitchen knife to bed tonight.
(This article was originally posted to The Dot Eaters on July 15, 2013)
Here is the last of the TDE articles detailing various aspects of the Famicom, as well as the NES, the North American version of the console released in 1985. These posts celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Famicom, and lead up to the full history of the Famicom, to be posted tomorrow. The post today also falls on the 30th anniversary of Mario Bros., so two koopa’s with one fireball, so to speak. While Famicom project lead Masayuki Uemura and his team at R&D2 labs at Nintendo do great work putting together the hardware of the famed video game console, it’s the games for the system that give it longevity. And there’s few games that boost Famicom and NES sales as much as Super Mario Bros..
The following is a movie review of mine from Ten Point Review. The idea of the site is to rate a movie according to four criteria, and then add and subtract points from that sub-total depending on how you react to various other aspects of the film, thusly coming up with a score of between 0 – 10.
This article was originally published on The Dot Eaters on Jun. 25, 2013
You might be thinking, “Why the hell review this chunk of cinematic excrement?”. If so, I see you’ve already watched Joysticks. Also, good question. I asked myself this very thing about 1000 times while subjecting myself to the movie.
As a video game historian, you’d think Joysticks would be right up my alley. I squee with delight at quick glimpses of classic arcade games in movies like Tron and WarGames. I even jones on the scene in the 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead where they’re in the arcade playing all those classic 70’s games like Starship. And I have to say, Joysticks does not skimp on the video games. Heck, even the opening credits are interspersed with plenty of 80’s video game footage.