Video Game Worriers
Between 1971 and 1973, 30 video games are produced for the arcade by 11 manufacturers. From 1974 to 1975, 57 games are released. And 1976 alone sees 53 video games by 15 companies hit the market. Most of them are simply cranking out PONG clones, such as 1975’s TV Pinball by Exidy, a company founded by H.R. “Pete” Kauffman in 1973. Located in Mountain View, CA, the name is a contraction of Excellence in Dynamics. It is their 1976 release Death Race, designed by the company’s prolific game maker Howell Ivy, that sparks the first controversy over video game violence. Described by industry trade magazine Play Meter as “the most morbid game to come along in quite a while”, its inspiration is a movie by illustrious B-movie king Roger Corman and released a year earlier, titled Death Race 2000. Originally named Pedestrian while under development, Death Race the game appears on the outside to be identical to an Exidy game made in 1975, Destruction Derby. In the first game, one is driving a car around an arena, smashing into other vehicles. Exidy sells the rights to manufacture Destruction Derby to amusement company Chicago Coin, a company teetering towards bankruptcy at the time. Thusly, after releasing the game under their label as Demolition Derby, Chicago Coin is reticent to provide Exidy with their owed royalty cheques. Attempting to recoup their investment in the game, Ivy quickly redesigns it as Death Race. The new game gives players an operator-adjustable maximum time-limit of 99 seconds to work the acceleration pedal and steering wheel and drive their vehicle around the playfield chasing running stick-men, referred to as “gremlins” in the instructional text. These humanoid figures move rapidly around the screen, in random quick-turning patterns that will quickly frustrate drivers as they pull frantically on a forward/reverse gearshift. The only safe place for the pedestrians are thin strips down either side of the screen where the cars cannot go. When one of the little on-screen characters is run over, it screams and turns into a cross, adding a new obstacle for players to avoid. Two steering wheels on the cabinet allow friends to revel in simultaneous automotive carnage. The atmosphere the game evokes is certainly unsettling, with gruesome artwork by Pat “Sleepy” Peak prominently featured on the cabinet.
“sick, sick, sick”
The hue and cry from the public and media over Death Race is almost as loud as the electronic shrieks the onscreen victims make as they are dispatched. For their part, the National Safety Council brands the game as “sick, sick, sick.” Some arcade operators balk at purchasing Death Race, but this might have less to do with any moral qualms over the content and more with the fact that the subsequent storm of publicity for the game drives unit prices up around $1,700 to $1,800. Amid growing pressure from parental groups looking anywhere but at themselves for an easy excuse to explain their wayward kids, Death Race eventually exits the market after a highly successful six month manufacturing run, popular to the point of units being back-ordered, and by far Exidy’s best-selling game so far at somewhere over 1000 machines sold. They quietly re-issue the game, unchanged, under a slightly revised title, Death Race 98, in 1977. Public ire is further peaked by the mainstream media’s coverage of the growing impact of videogames on society spurred on by the Death Race controversy, including a skewering on perennial TV newsmagazine 60 minutes. The Weekly World News, always a bastion of understatement, warns “The video-game craze that’s sweeping America like a plague can produce a crippling, hypnotic-like addiction that could destroy a child’s mental health!”, in an issue dated Oct. 6, 1981.
In the fall of 1982, at a summit on family violence held at the University of Pittsburgh, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop posits that “Videogames may be hazardous to young people” and names videogames as a main contributing factor to intrafamily violence, combined with television violence and poor economic conditions. At least he gets one of the causes right. The next day he walks back these bald assertions, stating that his comments “…were not based on any accumulated scientific evidence”, and that “Nothing in my remarks should be interpreted as implying that video games are, per se, violent in nature, or harmful to children.” Of course, we later have detailed human characters literally having their spines ripped out in Mortal Kombat, and although I remember playing Death Race regularly, I’m only slightly a murderous lunatic. I was too busy jamming on the forward/reverse stick trying not to get hung up on the crosses to start fantasizing about jumping into the family woody-wagon and plowing over sidewalks slaughtering innocent pedestrians.
Aaaanyway…undaunted by the bad publicity, Exidy releases a nominal sequel a year later, Super Death Chase, which curtails the violence by having the victims already dead; the player chases ghosts and skeletons around the playfield with his vehicle.
Exidy attempts to join the first wave of personal computers with the Sorcerer, debuting at the PERCOMP personal computer expo in Long Beach CA., in April of 1978. The impetus of the machine comes from Paul Terrell, pioneering founder of the first chain of computer retail stores, called The Byte Shop. When Terrell divests himself of the chain, he convinces Exidy owner Kaufmann and his technical team to enter the burgeoning home computer market with “something magical”.
Designed by Howell Ivy, the 13-pound Sorcerer is a keyboard console computer which sports a Zilog Z-80 CPU running at 2MHz, with the unit available in 8K, 16K, and 32K versions. A later revision of the circuit board allows for memory expansion up to 48K. Through a separate module, it is able to utilize the hundreds of S-100 bus expansion cards popular with early microcomputers. It also features a cartridge slot, allowing programs to be loaded with what Exidy calls ROM PACs, with three cartridges included with the system: a word processor, an assembly language interpreter and Microsoft 8K Basic, making Exidy one of the first licensees of Microsoft product, in their days after they leave MITS in New Mexico and before they head off to the greener climes of Bellevue, WA. Made available for the Sorcerer in 1979 are six games by Creative Computing Software, including LEM, a riff on the Atari arcade game Lunar Lander, Pie Lob which tasks players with throwing pies at each other over a sand castle between them, and a knockoff of Atari’s VCS game Dodge ‘Em, here cleverly renamed Dodgem.
Programs can also be loaded via a high-speed 1200 baud cassette-tape interface. Among other innovations, the Sorcerer sports a 63-key keyboard that, along with the full 128-character ASCII set, offers users a 128-character programmable graphics character set. This makes the system popular overseas via foreign language sets created by users. On the subject of graphics, the Sorcerer also sports a hefty screen resolution of 240 x 512 pixels, beating even the Apple II’s visual prowess, although Exidy’s machine can only output in black and white.
Released to market in June of 1978, the 16K version of the Sorcerer sells for $1295 USD, and $1495 for the 48K model. A combined monitor/dual-disk-drive subsystem is available for $2995. In 1981, responding to longtime criticism from dealers that Exidy is too focused on overseas markets at the expense of domestic sales, the company forms Exidy Systems to handle their small computer operations, with Paul Terrell made the president of the new outfit. Exidy also licenses the computer to a Texas company called Dynasty Computer Corp., who issue the system as the Dynasty smart-Alec. Never catching on in the North American market, the Sorcerer is eventually purchased by its European distributor CompuData, later known as Tulip Computers.
Running the Race
After Death Race, Exidy goes on carve out a substantial piece of the video arcade market, trumpeting itself as the third largest arcade game manufacturer by 1978. They go on to produce games like Venture, Mousetrap, Targ, and a whole series of light gun shooting games starting with Crossbow in 1983. This game is originally planned for release in mid-November of 1983, announced via press release by Exidy as another entry into the Dragon’s Lair-fuelled laserdisc game sweepstakes, although the collapse of that market and rapid improvements in raster-graphics quality causes a rethink of the game into plain old computer imagery. Other shooting games such as Cheyenne and Combat follow, along with the ridiculously gory and sadistic Chiller (1986), which would have literally caused parents’ heads to explode in 1976.
As for the gory legacy of Death Race, the blood flows red on the highways featured in American Game Cartridges’ version of the concept, in 1990’s NES game Death Race. Carmageddon, a much more graphic computer game version of Death Race 2000, is released in 1997 by British game developer SCi and publisher Interplay. Wanton vehicular slaughter and mayhem? There’s an app for that, when Carmageddon hits the iTunes store for iOS devices in Oct. 2012, developed by Stainless Games. One would also think that the unrepentant, in-your-face, wheeled violence of the Grand Theft Auto games owes something to Death Race, its creator Exidy, and their visceral impact on the industry.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
“Exidy Forms Subsidiary Company.” InfoWorld 30 Mar. 1981: 3. Print. Exidy, Incorporated, manufacturer of the Sorcerer computer, has formed a subsidiary – Exidy Systems, Inc. – to manufacture and distribute its small business computers. Almost since the introduction of the Sorcerer in June 1978, Exidy has been under fire from dealers and distributors,… one of the major complaints heard has been that Exidy has ignored the U.S. market and at times even put foriegn contracts ahead of shipments to dealers.
Kunkel, Bill. “Insert Coin Here.” Electronic Games July 1984: 78-80. Electronic Games – Volume 02 Number 13 (1984-07)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 09 Feb. 2016. When the initial press releases rolled from the Exidy PR Departments’ desks, Crossbow was being ballyhooed as another Dragon’s Lair…producing the next generation of laserdisc videogames.Videogaming and Computergaming Illustrated, “Eye On: Arcadia Junior”, pg.10, Nov 1983. “Exidy, meanwhile, is planning a mid-November ship for their laserdisc offering, Crossbow.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Videogaming Illustrated collection, Sep 17 2015.
Video Games, “The Great Debate” by Howard Mandel, pgs. 21-24, 72, Mar 1983 . “‘Video games may be hazardous to the health of young people…’ U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop unloaded this bombshell last fall at a seminar on family violence at the University of Pittsburgh.” “But a day later, Koop retracted his statement, saying ‘This represented my purely personal judgement and was not based on any accumulated scientific evidence…'” Retrieved from Digital Press, Video Games collection, Sept 17 2015.
Ad for the Exidy Sorcerer from Byte, pg. 81, Oct 1978
RealDeals Movie Posters – www.reeldeals.com/index.html The Arcade Flyer Archive – flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=home
PERCOMP ad from Byte, pg. 5,, Sept 1977
Electronic Games, “Insert Coin Here: Crossbow” by Bill Kunkel, pgs. 78-80, July 1984
Cover. 1983. Replay. 1st ed. Vol. IX. N.p.: n.p., 1983. N. pag. Print.
Images of the Exidy Sorcerer computer, peripherals and Exidy logos courtesy of the Obsolete Technology Website at Exidy Sorcerer computer – oldcomputers.net/sorcerer.html The Giant List of Classic Game Programmers – www.dadgum.com/giantlist/list.html YouTube Video posted by Woldorge
Images of Death Race cabinet, marquee, and bezel instructions taken at the Musée Mécanique, Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco
iTunes Preview: Carmageddon – itunes.apple.com/us/app/carmageddon/id498240451?mt=8
Terrell, Paul. “A Guided Tour of Personal Computing.” Creative Computing Nov. 1984: 100-04. Creative Computing Magazine (November 1984) Volume 10 Number 11. Internet Archive. Web. 06 Mar. 2016. Photo of Paul Terrell
Radio-Electronics, “Buyers Guide to Home Computers” by Jules H. Gilder, pgs. 45-67, Oct 1980
C. Everett Koop. 1989. People. Extra ed. New York: Time, 1989. 129. Print.
Sestren Forum, Death Race – 1976 – www.sestren.org/forums/showthread.php?118535-Death-Race-1976 Gamearchive – www.gamearchive.com Electro Mechanical Arcade Machines – historyofracinggames.files.wordpress.com/2007/06/005-em-machines4.pdf Facebook – Pete Kauffman – www.facebook.com/pete.kauffman.3 The Bronze Age photo gallery -www.spies.com/arcade/bronzeage/pictures/index.html Badger’s Gameroom – Firsts of the Firsts! – www.gamearchive.com/collector/badger/History.htm Timelapse – Specials – www.barracuda-gssm.com/timelapse/specials Walla Walla Union Bulletin (AP), “Death race: A kick from killing”, pg. 7, Jul. 4, 1976 Winnipeg Free Press (Field Newspaper Syndicate), “Death Race is newest fad in coin-operated games”, pg. 25, Oct. 28, 1976 Exidy Game List – www.stormaster.com/Spies/arcade/info/ExidyBoardList.txt Brian’s Coin-Op History Archive – coinop.vintagegaming.com The ‘Wiretap’ Archive – Exidy Game Art – surfin.spies.com/arcade/photos/Exidy/index.html Middletown Times Herald Record, “‘Death Race’ really knocking them dead”, by Fred Kirsch, pg. 11, Oct. 31, 1976 South Mississippi Sun, “More ‘casualties’ mean better driving habits in the world of ‘Death Race'”, by Lloyd Gray, pg. A1, Mar. 25, 1977
Weekly World News, “Addictive video games can cripple a child’s mind, warn researchers”, pg. 39, Oct. 6, 1981
InfoWorld, “Child Experts dispute surgeon general’s stance on video games”, pg. 14, Dec. 20, 1982