Always a movie series to exploit the popular trends of the day, the James Bond film Never Say Never Again capitalizes on the video game craze of 1983, but in a decidedly Bondian style.
As our hero faces off at a table against his nemesis in the fictional video game Domination, he is put under more and more duress as a painful electrical charge builds up in the joysticks he is holding. After losing a couple of matches, the second of which sees him flying out of his chair in pain, Bond challenges Largo for the whole enchilada. The stakes are very high, and as they rise, so does the current running through the controls.
The gameplay doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the graphics wildly out of reach for a 1983 video game, but the scene does bring 007 up-to-date in his battles with supervillains.
While not the first programmable home game system, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later renamed the 2600 after its model number, was definitely the console that put home video games into the public consciousness. Released in 1977 and bundled with the cartridge Combat , it had a rocky beginning, with production problems and lacklustre sales haunting its launch. Things got so bad that Atari co-founder and CEO Nolan Bushnell dramatically stood up during an Atari/Warner stockholder’s meeting and suggested that the 2600 have its price slashed and be discontinued by the company. It remained in Atari’s catalog, but Bushnell was pushed out of Atari in 1978.
First VCS prototype, assembled in 1975
With the home licensing of Taito/Midway’s arcade smash Space Invaders in 1980, the 2600 went on to become one of the most successful home video game consoles of all time. So wide was its installed base with users that two companies sprang up to become major third-party suppliers of games for the system. Both Activision and Imagic produced some great games, but only the former was able to survive the big video game crash of 1983 – 1984 by pivoting to the home computer market, eventually becoming one of the largest video game manufacturers and remaining so to this day.
The 2600 itself fought off all comers, including game machines from Magnavox and Mattel, until the 1982 release of the ColecoVision usurped the throne with powerful arcade-like graphics. Still, the 2600 held on in budget form as the $50 2600 Jr., until eventually discontinued by Atari in 1991. The system is truly one for the history books.
Movies based on video games don’t have a great track record: last year’s big-budget attempt, Assassin’s Creed, from Fox failed to hit its target at the box office domestically (but did admittedly flash its blades overseas). But movie studios should really start mining the talent of the indie scene for help in making faithful and exciting video game adaptations.
Case in point: Adam Arnali, who has made a terrific short film titled Dead World, a prequel to the Galaxian arcade game that shows mankind fighting back against the hoards of aliens invading the planet. It’s got action, it’s got drama, and it’s got ranks of alien bastards shuffling across the screen. What more could you want? Check out the film here on YouTube:
In my article about the Nintendo Entertainment System, I paint a picture of then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi as an iron-willed leader who’s uncompromising nature was famous in the video game industry. Today it was announced on Namco’s Japanese-language website that one of the few people to go up against Yamauchi has passed way at the age of 91: Namco founder Masaya Nakamura.
Started in 1955, Nakamura Manufacturing Company of Tokyo was initially an installer and operator of amusement park rides atop a department store in Yokohama, Japan. Becoming Namco in 1972, they entered the video game industry by purchasing the Japanese subsidiary of Atari from that company’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, in 1974. They would go on to not only trailblaze in the industry by developing one of the first full-colour and sprite-based video games with Galaxianin 1979, Namco would help solidify the video game market in North America a couple of years later with a blockbuster hit by employee Toru Iwatani, featuring a little yellow circle with a wedge of a mouth named Pac-Man.
The game-changing ‘Pac-Man’
It would be during the heydays of the NES when Nakamura would face-off with the most powerful company in the industry. Nintendo’s powerhouse game console had a draconian third-party licensee program, forcing makers of NES games to fork over a 20 percent royalty on sales and give exclusivity to Nintendo’s game machine for two years, among other financial hardships. Although Namco had been one of the first licensees for the NES, Nakamura would chafe under these restrictions and call out Yamauchi in the press for his licensing system, stating that “Nintendo is monopolizing the market, which is not good for anyone.” Namco then allied itself more closely with Nintendo’s competition at the time, most notably with Sega and their Master System and Genesis machines. Due to Nakamura’s resistance, as well as accusations from the U.S. Justice Department over various monopolistic practices, Nintendo would eventually drop the exclusivity clause from their developer contracts.
Namco nestles up to the competition, 1990.
Merging with Japanese toy and video game company Bandai in 2005, Bandai-Namco today remains one of the few early arcade game companies still producing games. They have the assured and fearless guidance of Masaya Nakamura to thank for it.
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!
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.
Ad for 1991′s Space Shuttle Project, by John Van Ryzin
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.
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.
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:
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.
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: