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About William

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A Perfect Storm of Brutality and Hilarity

As part of a running web series of me and my 9-year-old son playing co-operative (and yes, sometimes adversarial) video games together, we fired up a 1990 Midway arcade classic: Pigskin 621 A.D. Done by the team that produced the earlier Arch Rivals basketball arcade game, Pigskin is a just-deep-enough version of football, couched in the hilarious terms of a bunch of knuckle-dragging savages beating the tar out of each other on the playing field. As you’ll see in this video, we had a great time.  Enjoy!

Activision panel at CGE 2014 in Las Vegas. Left to right, you have Adam Bellin (ported Zenji to the C64, programmer on Ghostbusters), Garry Kitchen (Keystone Kapers), David Crane (Dragster, Fishing Derby, Laser Blast, Freeway, Pitfall!, Grand Prix, Decathlon, Pitfall II, Ghostbusters, Little Computer People, The Transformers: Battle to Save the Earth) and Steve Cartwright (Megamania, Seaquest, Plaque Attack, Frostbite, Hacker, Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers, Aliens: The Computer Game, Gee Bee Air Rally)

Space Shuttle Re-entry

When Garry Kitchen and a bunch of other Activision programmers left the company, they founded Absolute Entertainment in 1986, following a grand tradition of naming their new venture higher in the alphabet than their last. It was the same thing they had done to Atari when they left that company. Here is a description of the circumstances around their departure, outlined in the Atari/VCS/2600 Bitstory entry here at The Dot Eaters:

Then, one day in 1979, [David] Crane finds himself intently analysing a list of numbers on piece of paper. It is a memo from the marketing department, a part of Atari that has flourished with the ouster of engineer Bushnell and the instalment of salesman Kassar. The list, circulated throughout consumer engineering, ranks game sales figures for 1978, with each game as a percentage of overall sales for the company.  It is Marketing’s not so subtle advice to the programmers: make more games like those at the top of the list, and less of those at the bottom. It also has an unintended effect on Crane and fellow game creators Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead… they learn that the four of them are responsible for all of the top-selling games, 60 percent of cartridge sales for the year. With the knowledge that Atari made 100 million in sales that year, you don’t need a degree in computer mathematics to know that the four of them, each pulling in a salary of $25,000 – $30,000, have accounted for $60 million in sales for Atari. Armed with this evidence, the four meet with Kassar to request more financial compensation for their efforts. The CEO is unmoved, suggesting that making games is a team effort and their contribution on par with the assembly workers on the line who fit together the cartridges.  Soon after this exchange, the group get in touch with an attorney about incorporating their own business, making software for game consoles.  Kaplan leaves Atari soon after the meeting with Kassar, with Crane, Miller and Whitehead not far behind. The Gang of Four has left the building.

 

They must have taken some ideas with them when they left Activision because the following 1991 ad is for a redo Absolute did of Activision’s Space Shutte: A Journey Into Space, originally done by Garry’s brother Steve Kitchen for the 2600 in 1983. Absolute’s version, Space Shuttle Project, was designed by John Van Ryzin for the NES, a man who may be more popularly known as the creator of the great H.E.R.O. on the 2600 while he was at Activision. He helped his compatriots found Absolute, which Garry Kitchen eventually shuttered in 1995. Still, the company flew pretty high when it was making some great games for the 90′s top game machines.

Space Shuttle Project, a video game for the NES by Absolute

Ad for 1991′s Space Shuttle Project, by John Van Ryzin

 

A screenshot from Donkey Kong, a video arcade game by Nintendo, 1981.

Donkey Kong’s 35th Anniversary

It was 35 years ago today that Nintendo of America first let loose the angry ape Donkey Kong on the American public, but the company history goes back far earlier than that. Founded in 1889 in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto, Nintendo Koppai started off making hanafuda cards, then moved to American style cards at the turn of the century. In the 1960′s, third Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi and former maintenance man Gunpei Yokoi would steer the company into toys and electronics. Yamauchi eventually set up an American games division selling Nintendo arcade games, putting his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa in charge. 

Gameplay image of Radarscope, an arcade video game by Nintendo 1981

The flaccid Radarscope

 

Nintendo of America struggled to move arcade product such as Sheriff and Space Fever. Radarscope was a particular turkey, struggling to move out of the NoA warehouse as the Galaxian fad faded in U.S. arcades. In order to use up surplus Radarscope circuit boards, Yamauchi directed artist Shigeru Miyamoto and the veteran Yokoi to create a new game based on the hardware. What they came up with would help revolutionalize the game industry and put Nintendo on the road to riches.

Breakfast cereal based on Donkey Kong, an arcade video game by Nintendo 1981

Barrelling into breakfast with Donkey Kong Cereal


Donkey Kong
 became the biggest selling arcade game of 1981, giving even Namco’s powerhouse Pac-Man game a run for its money. The star of the game, a little rotund, mustachioed man later named Mario, would eventually become more recognizable than Mickey Mouse.

So happy birthday to Donkey Kong, Mario, and Pauline. Without you, the video game industry just wouldn’t be the same. 

For more information on Donkey Kong and related topics, consult your local Dot Eaters articles:

The history of Nintendo and the development of Donkey Kong

History of Super Mario Bros. 

Development of Nintendo’s Famicom game console

The Nintendo Entertainment System

The history of Nintendo Power magazine

The passing of Hiroshi Yamauchi

A review of the movie The Wizard

Title screen for Missile Command, an arcade game by Atari 1980

Missile Command and Centipede Getting Movie Adaptations

It looks like Emmet/Furla/Oasis Films and Atari are getting together to make movies out of two of the video game company’s best-known properties.  Missile Command was released in arcades by Atari in 1980, created by famed game designer Dave Theuer. Centipede was the product of Donna Bailey and Ed Logg, also released in 1980. Bailey was one of the few female designers in the industry at the time, and Logg might be more famous for creating Asteroids the previous year. 

The plotlines of retro video games of the 80′s were notoriously thin; the  geopolitical climate that would result in ICBM missiles raining down from the sky towards six nameless cities was never revealed in Missile Command, nor was the exact nature of the natural disaster that would create giant centipedes, mushroom-laying fleas, and giant spiders touched upon in that game. So the writers of these films really have their work cut out for them. They’ll have to fire up their favourite arcade game emulator and see if inspiration strikes.

Still of lightcycles in battle from Tron, a video game themed movie from Disney 1982

Tron Lightcycles Come to Life at Shanghai Disneyland

Tron was a 1982 film by Disney that promised to take the growing public interest in personal computers and video games and create a huge box-office and merchandising bonanza around the topic. It didn’t. Some products based on Tron were released in the run-up to its release, stuff like a handheld electronic game by Tomy, some home video games through a licensing agreement with Mattel… the most successful was Midway’s Tron arcade game, which ended up grossing more in quarters than the movie did at the theatres. Tron fizzling at the box-office upon release put a damper on the enthusiasm with which the film had been made.

Twenty-eight years later came the sequel, Tron Legacy. A masterly made continuation, Legacy ramped up the visuals and action to new hieghts, while making the story less about the technology and more about a personal story of father and son. But even as it diverged from the original, it still hit the important beats one expects from a Tron film, and this included an updating of the iconic lightcycles. And now the Shanghai Disneyland Resort has brought the Legacy lightcycles into the real world with a fast-paced and awesomely themed indoor/outdoor rollercoaster ride, where guests mount their cycle and power through neon tunnels and a twisting outside section. 

We might have been robbed of a second Tron sequel, but at least there’s some place on Earth where we can finally enter the Grid and race for gaming supremacy. Following is a video of the ride, called the TRON Lightcycle Power Run, in action:

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This is a triumph

5 Rogue Video Game AIs They Should Have Pulled the Plug On

Today, Artificial Intelligences are beating us at Go. Could their next move be plotting our extinction? Here are five video game AI characters that needed James T. Kirk to pull the plug:

GlaDOS (Portal - 2007, Portal 2 - 2011, Valve Corporation)

Sure, the AI matriarch (aka Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center is pure evil. After all, she did lock down the facility “within two picoseconds” of her activation and flood it with a deadly neurotoxin, and on ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day’, no less. But she also serves as a twisted kind of comic relief in the excellent Portal games. In an overly polite voice (supplied by Ellen McLain) dripping with passive-aggressiveness, GLaDOS does all she can to demoralize, hinder and just plain kill the series protagonist Chell as she is forced through a series of increasingly complicated test chambers. Oh, and there’s cake too (not really).

shodan_AI

SHODAN (System Shock - 1994, Looking Glass Studios/Origin, System Shock 2 - 1999, Looking Glass Studios/Electronic Arts)

Not happy to just murder the inhabitants of the mining and research space station Citadel Station (or convert them to murderous cyborgs and mutants), SHODAN {Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network) seeks to eradicate all human life on Earth, to be replaced by the devoted army she will create. A much more arrogant rogue AI than GLaDOS, SHODAN considers herself nothing less than a God. Not only this, but she mercilessly taunts the player character human ‘insect’ all the way through the games! SHODAN disciples can rejoice: she will return in System Shock 3, confirmed in December of 2015.

Robotrons (Robotron: 2084, Williams Electronics – 1984)

Set in the astounding year 2084, the plot for Robotron: 2084 marched out of the mind of legendary arcade game creator Eugene Jarvis as a kind of mechanized take on George Orwell’s 1984. In Jarvis’ dystopian future, computers have become more and more sophisticated, all in the service of solving mankind’s problems. The Robotrons become so advanced, in fact, that they decide to erase the one common denominator in the equation: humans. To facilitate our extinction, the Robotrons start cranking out lethal robots like the unstoppable Hulk, the dangerous laser-spitting Enforcers, and the diabolical Brains capable of brainwashing the wandering humans and turning them into mindless Progs.

AM (I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, The Dreamers Guild/Cyberdreams – 1995)

If you’ve seen the excellent 1970 movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, AM’s origin story might seem familiar. From the Harlan Ellison novel and video game, AM came about when an American supercomputer (known as the Allied Mastercomputer) absorbed its similar counterparts from China and Russia after gaining sentience. Seething with hatred at being imprisoned in its vast underground complex, AM proceeds to nuke humanity… save for five humans it keeps alive indefinitely to endlessly torture. A forerunner of the villainous GLaDOS, AM makes her seem like a paragon of decency.

reapers_AI

The Reapers (Mass Effect - 2007, BioWare/Microsoft Game Studios, Mass Effect 2 - 2010, BioWare/Electronic Arts, Mass Effect 3 - 2012, BioWare/Electronic Arts)

The worst on this list has to be the Reapers, a synthetic intelligence “with neither beginning nor end” that strives to hold its dominance in the galaxy by purging all organic life of a significant technological advancement. By doing this purging every 50,000 years, they eliminate any possibility that a race of intelligent beings could create a competing AI that would threaten their existence. In the bargain, they also harvest victims of inhabited worlds and convert them into Husks, zombified synthetic creatures that augment their army of ground troops.

Of course, not every AI entity in video games is malevolent. GLaDOS herself becomes a potato-based ally to Chell in Portal 2, EDI controls the Normandy in the Mass Effect games and eventually joins the fight personally as a playable character, and we have Cortana from the Halo games who made the jump to reality to assist users in real-life in Windows 10! Right now the idea of a rogue AI being able to threaten the galaxy seems pretty far-fetched, considering our smartphones can barely understand human speech with any kind of accuracy. But in 2014, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warned that AI technology could render humanity obsolete, and perhaps even destroy us. And this from a guy who uses a form of AI to communicate! If video games teach us anything, it’s that we might just end up autocorrected out of existence.

Man and Moon Man

A Jedi and His Lightsaber

In front of a Destination Moon poster stands author E.E. Smith, SF author whose works were an inspiration for the video game Spacewar!

E.E. Smith in front of poster for Destination Moon, 1950

 

This picture always blows me away. On the face of it, it is an image of E.E. Smith attending the premiere of Destination Moon, a SF extravaganza made by George Pal Studios and released in 1950. Sorry, we’ll get to the Star Wars stuff soon enough, but the ramifications of this photo cause my mind to fly off in as many directions as an asteroid belt.

The 1950′s weren’t exactly known for their level-headed science fiction films, but Destination Moon kicked off the decade with a sober, then-realistic portrayal of man’s first trip to the Moon. Adapted from his short story of the same name, Robert A. Heinlein also worked on the script, and the result was the most technically accurate portrayal of possible space flight on film until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. No Amazonian moon-women, no bug-eyed aliens… just four men going to the moon in a nuclear powered rocket and striving to make it back to Earth safely.

E.E. Smith is considered the godfather of the space opera. A food chemist by trade, on the side he authored books with titles like The Skylark of Space and the later Lensmen, released from the 1920′s through to the 60′s. These would be initially serialized in the flagship SF literary magazine Amazing Stories and become hugely popular. They dealt with stoic heroes involved in vast interstellar space battles, and a gang of proto-geeks at MIT in the early 60′s were so heavily influenced by the vast cosmic conflagrations in Smith’s stories that they created an early computer video game around the premise and called it Spacewar! It was the space opera genre into which George Lucas would also delve, releasing his Star Wars movie in 1977. Also dealing with stoic heroes wrapped up in interstellar space battles, the original trilogy of Star Wars movies would change the shape of film-making forever.

An elegant weapon

An elegant weapon

 

Now, let’s take a closer look at Smith’s hands. He is holding a Graflex camera, with a flash attachment. When Lucas created Star Wars, he armed his Jedi and Sith Knights with lightsabers, “a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age”. The prop hilts of these fantastic laser swords were created for the film by using, yes, Graflex flash attachments.

So, this is a picture from 1950 of E.E. Smith, the literary creator of the rollicking space opera genre that begat Star Wars, holding a lightsaber.

The Force was strong with this one.

ee_smith-saber

 

The NES, a home video game console by Nintendo

The 30th Anniversary of the NES

It’s a toss-up as to what I would consider the most important video game console ever made. I could say the Atari VCS (later renamed the 2600), for it helped popularize the market for programmable video games. It wasn’t the first, but it was certainly the most popular of the first-wave game machines. 

But as ground-breaking as the VCS was, I have to give the nod to the Nintendo Entertainment System, first hitting American shores on October 18, 1985. In the face of the collapse of the entire video game market in 1983-1984, the NES was test marketed in the NYC area over the Christmas season. A redesigned version of Nintendo’s popular Japanese market Famicom console, great pains were taken to inoculate the NES from video gaming’s diseased past, diseased at least according to retailers and distributers of video games. The NES was made to look like a sleek piece of A/V equipment, to the point where the action of inserting a game cartridge was made to be analogous to putting a videotape into a VCR. It was also accompanied by a robotic game mate called ROB, to capitalize on the then-current wave of toy robots like Teddy Ruxpin.

 

This all helped to move NES units, with 50,000 consoles sold during the NYC test. By the time the NES rolled out wide in the fall of 1986, 350,000 to 400,000 sets had been sold.  But nothing helped spur sales like the 1986 release of Super Mario Bros., a magnificent side-scrolling adventure by Shigeru Miyamoto that caused NES units to fly off shelves faster than a Koopa Paratroopa. By 1987, the NES was the most popular toy in America, and had made the video game industry the fastest-growing segment of the toy industry, again.  

The Atari VCS may have helped popularize the industry, but absent Atari, somebody would have come up with an improved, programmable video game system eventually.

Only Hiroshi Yamauchi and the NES could have saved video games.

For more information on the Nintendo Entertainment System, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory.

A most gruesome death

Atari’s Epic Dig Dug Commercial of 1982

As part of a marketing push (an area where CEO Ray Kassar excelled at), Atari created a two-minute ad for arcade game Dig Dug. The funny thing about all this hoopla is that Atari hadn’t actually made the game: it was licensed by the company from Namco for release in North America. 

Dig Dug, an arcade video game by Atari and Namco, 1982

Dig Dug gameplay

 

The longer ad ran in theatres during the summer of 1982, while a shorter 30 second version ran on TV. Originally, 60′s singing and dancing sensation Chubby Checker (The Twist) was to sing the catchy theme song in the ad, but Atari ultimately went with a younger singer, perhaps for reasons of demographics. You can hear Chubby’s version here on the Atari Museum Public Group on Facebook. The song was posted by Matt Osborne, the son of Don Osborne, who was Atari’s VP of Marketing at the time. Upon listening to it, I’m sure you’ll agree that Atari made a huge mistake not going with Chubby.

As for the visuals, the various special effects in the ad were handled by production designer Jim Spencer and crew, who among other projects had the effects-laden movie Poltergeist under their belt. They would subsequently work on films like Innerspace and Gremlins.

Created by advertising agency Young & Rubicam and directed by Manny Perez, the spot would go on to snag a 1983 Clio award in the Cinema and Advertising category. It might not be high art, but at least it reflects the most important aspect of the video game it’s shilling: it’s a lot of fun.

For more information on the history of Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory. 

 Sources:

Atari Coin Connection, “Dig Dug Meets Clio”, pg. 2, Aug 1983
Atari Museum Public Group, Facebook
1982 Entertainment Tonight segment on the making of Dig Dug ad