Category Archives: 1983

Use the force, George!

George Lucas Takes His First Flight in Atari’s Coin-Op Star Wars Game

On August 10, 1983, the creator of Star Wars sat down for the first time to play Atari’s vector arcade game based off his famous film, via a cockpit cabinet installed at the Lucasfilm HQ in Marin County, CA.

And what a game! Colourful and detailed Quadrascan vector graphics, an elaborate and responsive flight yolk from famed Atari controller engineer Jerry Liachek, a digitized version of John Williams’ rousing score, along with actual spoken snippets of movie dialog. All this, and lots of exciting game play that nicely amps up the difficulty as you advance. You’ll notice a small plaque on the side of the machine on the first picture, towards the nose of the cabinet above Vader’s head. It reads “A special thanks for creating the Force behind so much fun.” A nice sentiment from Atari, indeed.

Watching Lucas on that August day were several anxious Atari and Warner Communications (mother corp. of Atari) execs, along with some Lucasfilm employees. In the middle of the crowd, wearing dark pants, is president of Atari’s coin-op division John Farrand. I believe that’s Warner Communications executive Manny Gerrard, the man who guided the purchase of Atari by his company, standing to the right of Farrand.

In typical style, while George played the game he remained deadpan, without much visible enthusiasm. The execs grew even more nervous, until Lucas emerged from the cabinet saying “That was great!”. 

For my money, Atari’s Star Wars is one of the greatest arcade games ever created. George approves.

For more on the Star Wars arcade game, check out this entry from TDE’s Oscar Week series, 2014.

For more information on Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters bitstory.

Onlookers watch George Lucas play Atari's Star Wars arcade game, 1983.

Onlookers watch George Lucas play Atari’s Star Wars arcade game, 1983.

 

Atari arcade game being played by George Lucas, creator of Star Wars

A reverse angle, with Lucas being advised by Don Osborne, VP of Marketing for Atari.

 

 

Still from Astron Belt, an arcade laserdisc game by Sega 1983

Astron Belted: Losing the Race to the Arcades

Something about the laserdisc video game craze of the early 80′s was and is fascinating to me.  From little pixellated images and 3 octave repeating tunes, we leapt into professional quality live-action or animated games with orchestrated scores. It seemed that arcade games had suddenly jumped into the future.  

Sega previewed their first video game to feature laserdisc technology, Astron Belt, in the fall of 1982 at the A.M.O.A. or Amusement & Music Operators Association trade show in Chicago. It wasn’t the first commercial interactive game with video footage: horse racing game Quarter Horse by Electro-Sport was shown at the 1981 A.M.O.A., and most likely released to the public that same year.

Laserdisc game Quarter Horse

Quarter Horse arcade laserdisc game, by Electro Sports

 

Even so, Quarter Horse was merely a betting menu accompanied by video footage of horse races. Sega’s machine allowed players to control a computer generated spaceship superimposed over movie footage. Players flew through space and over alien planetary landscapes, shooting enemy craft spewing laser fire and avoiding the tight confines of rocky canyons. It was a real game.

It was also real late. Shown at the 1982 AMOA, the game still needed refinement, and as it was being worked on the U.S. coin-op division of Sega was sold to Bally/Midway, prompting further delays. By the time Astron Belt reached U.S. arcades in late 1983, the  laserdisc video game craze had already been created earlier in the year by the animated extravaganza Dragon’s Lair, from Rick Dyer and Don Bluth, and was subsequently exhausted by a rush of carpetbaggers.

Hobbled by a lack of interactivity for players, along with nagging technical issues for arcade operators, these games were ultimately shown to be a brief respite for the slumping arcade market. The popularity of laserdisc games had begun faltering, and Astron Belt did little to improve this situation.

For more information on Astron Belt and the 80′s laserdisc craze, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory.

Image source: Quarter Horse flyer, The Arcade Flyer Archive

1983 ad for Astron Belt, a laserdisc arcade video game by Bally Midway

Major Faux Pas

Major Fun with Major Havoc

1983 may have been the waning days of the arcade era, but video game companies were still producing amazing products that pushed the envelope, and Atari’s Major Havoc coin-op was no exception. Designed by long-time Atari coin-op division employee Owen Rubin, and prototyped under the title Alpha-1, I had an obsession with the resultant released game. The “Breakout” and “Galaxian” modes were pretty blah, but the game really shone in the parts where the titular hero Major Rex Havoc would land his spaceship onto an enemy Vaxxian space station. The player would then guide him through the complex, avoiding the local enemies and obstacles, following arrows along maze-like corridors to the station’s reactor, which he would sabotage. Then it was a panicked, breakneck race through the floaty, near-weightless environment back to the ship and a blast off out to minimum safe distance for the explosion. All this while maintaining oxygen levels so Havoc doesn’t asphyxiate.

havoc

Colourful, complex vector graphics and a superbly animated main character added to the mystique of this classic arcade game, one of the few that you can play today and still be challenged and transfixed.

To check out creator Owen Rubin’s webpage, click here.

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

major-havoc-1983

Activating the computer

Activision Pivots (1983)

The original 3rd-party video game maker for the Atari 2600, Activision apparently saw the writing on the wall in 1983. That was the year they made their move from consoles onto computer platforms, such as porting Kaboom! and River Raid to the Atari 8-bit XL line as seen in this ad. Moving to computer platforms helped the storied company survive the big video game crash of 1983-84, allowing them to become one of the biggest video game companies still around today.

Activision makes their move.

Activision makes their move.

For more information on Activision and the Atari VCS, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Images from the TDE databanks

The Visual Cortex: Activision Pivots

The original third-party video game maker for the Atari 2600 was Activision, formed by four disgruntled Atari game designers looking for more respect and a bigger piece of the financial pie. Former music industry exec Jim Levy, as well as venture capitalist Richard Muchmore, rounded out the company’s management.

Activision saw the writing on the wall for video game consoles in 1983. That was the year they pivoted from consoles onto computer platforms, porting popular hits like Kaboom! and River Raid to the Atari 8-bit XL line, as seen in the ad featured today in the Cortex.

Ad for computer games by Activision, a video game company 1983

Activision makes their move to computers.


Moving to computers helped the storied company survive the big video game crash of 1983-84, allowing them to become one of the biggest video game companies operating today.

For more information on the history of Activision and the Atari 2600, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial video game cartridge, unearthed after Atari burial over 30 years ago

Atari’s E.T. and the Great Video Game Crash

Microsoft and a documentary film crew have today unearthed some cartridges of Atari’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial game for the 2600, buried as “defective materials” by the company some 30 years ago as the video game industry was crumbling like so much cheap cement.

The only thing “defective” about E.T. was its inscrutable and endlessly frustrating gameplay.  Atari mother corporation Warner Communications paid Steven Spielberg 21 million dollars for the home console and arcade game rights to the movie, and programmer Howard Scott Warshaw hammered out the game in a breakneck six week deadline to get it out in stores for Christmas 1982.   Warshaw was present today among spectators viewing the excavation of his most infamous creation. 

Box art for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a video game for the Atari VCS/2600 1982

Box art for the dreaded Atari E.T. game

A run of five million cartridges were released to stores: only one million eventually sold, becoming a well-publicised flop that tarnished Atari’s reputation with retail game buyers and furnished another nail in the company’s coffin. Along with surplus cartridges for other games, as well as various hardware prototypes, a convoy of tractor-trailer trucks shipped the unsold copies of E.T. to the landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico where they were literally swept under the rug.

E.T. wasn’t solely responsible for the video game market cratering in 1983 – 1984, as a lack of technical innovation and the booming home computer market also took their toll. But it remains a touchstone of the hubris and failure that helped bury the greatest video game company in the world, and with it an entire industry.

For more information on E.T. and the Great Video Game Crash, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Photo of unearthed E.T. cartridge from the Twitter account of Larry Hryb, aka Major Nelson, @majornelson

The sweet science, in electronic form

Oscar Week at TDE: Rocky (1983)

Rocky was a low budget film from 1976, about a local Philadelphia boxer named Rocky Balboa getting a shot at the heavyweight championship. It went toe to toe with heavy-hitters like All the President’s MenNetwork and Taxi Driver at the 1977 Academy Awards, and walked off with the Best Picture prize, along with Best Director for John G. Avildsen. The immense success of the movie put a young Sylvester Stallone on the map, and was followed up by no less than five sequels, along with numerous video game adaptations.

We deal here with Rocky Super-Action Boxing for the ColecoVision. It actually covered the ground of the third Rocky film, with the titular hero going up against Clubber Lang, played with verve by Mr. T. As indicated by the game’s long name, it was made for use with Coleco’s complicated Super Action Controllers, which themselves bear resemblance to boxing gloves. There’s no motion-detection though… players control body movements with the large joystick on top of the controller, and throw and block punches with the four finger buttons.

The gameplay is pretty good as far as boxing games of the era go. There’s three horizontal  “lanes” which the players can move up and down in, and their position vs. the other boxer regulates whether punches register and can be blocked. This adds a bit of strategy as the pugilists jockey for the superior positioning. The game also offers a surprising amount of variety with the settings: you can play against the computer as either Rocky or Clubber with the CPU taking up the role of the other boxer with adjustable skill levels, and there is even a one-on-one mode where two humans can face each other in the ring. Typically from the ColecoVision, the graphics are also a standout. Everything is colourful and clear, and the boxers are rendered quite well.  We even get a referee wandering around the ring, keeping an eye on the proceedings. A player can really get into the role of Rocky Balboa and end up jabbing the air while holding the fancy Super Action Controllers.

Should I say it?  Yes I should.  It’s a knockout. Even Mickey would be proud, ya bum!

Here are the rest of the Oscar Week articles on TDE:

The Towering Inferno (VCS/2600, U.S. Games 1982)
Star Wars (Arcade, Atari 1983)
M*A*S*H (VCS/2600 Fox Video Games 1983)
The Wizard of Oz (SNES, Manley/SETA 1993)
Jaws (Amiga, Intelligent Design/Screen 7 1989)

Suicide might be painless, but this game isn't

Oscar Week at TDE: M*A*S*H (1983)

The film M*A*S*H, released in 1970, was ostensibly about a forward line mobile hospital and its staff who try to keep their sanity intact during the Korean War, but everyone knew it was a thinly veiled metaphor for a different conflict; the Vietnam War, then raging both abroad and at home, with the fatal Kent State shooting of protesting students by National Guard troops happening only two months after the film’s release.

The movie was directed by Robert Altman, who had made a career for himself directing shows during the early days of television. Tapping public angst over the growing morass of Vietnam, MASH exploded onto the screen and helped cement Altman as a counter-culture hero, thumbing his nose at authority like the beleaguered doctors in the film.  While nominated for Best Picture, MASH lost the prize to another, more obvious war picture, Patton. It did, however, walk away with the award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Two years after the MASH theatrical release, it was turned into a wildly popular TV show on CBS.

M*A*S*H the video game, however, is merely a shallow attempt at cashing in on the final days of the TV show, which ended its 11 year run in 1983, the same year the game came out.  Released for the Atari 2600/VCS, the premise is the kind of pure insanity that would make the show’s recurring psychiatrist character, Sidney, drool: it charges medic Hawkeye Pierce with alternating between piloting a helicopter to pick up sky-diving medics and wounded soldiers, and performing surgeries to remove shrapnel from patients.

It’s easy to see why designer Douglas Neubauer, of Star Raiders (Atari 8-bit computers) fame, used the pseudonym “Dallas North” as credit for this game, which was released by Fox Video Games. This exercise was merely another attempt by Fox at jumping on the VCS/2600 bandwagon by trafficking in product based on a 20th Century Fox property. The company features fairly prominently in this series of posts, so stay tuned for other examples. The game made it to computer platforms as well, with a version for Atari’s 8-bit computer line, as well as the TI-99/4A system.

M*A*S*H is also probably the only video game in history to feature the term “Ferret Face”. So there’s that.

Here are the rest of the Oscar Week articles on TDE:

The Towering Inferno (VCS/2600, U.S. Games 1982)
Star Wars (Arcade, Atari 1983)
Rocky (ColecoVision, Coleco 1983)
The Wizard of Oz (SNES, Manley/SETA 1993)
Jaws (Amiga, Intelligent Design/Screen 7 1989)

Use the... well, you know

Oscar Week at TDE: Star Wars (1983)

George Lucas’ movie Star Wars doesn’t require much of an introduction. The science fiction epic was released in 1977 and forever changed the film industry. The fact that it didn’t snag the Best Picture oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony (that honour went to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) the following year is often considered a bit of a robbery. Star Wars buffs can take consolation that John Williams won for Best Score, which also features prominently in the arcade game.

It’s to the great credit of Atari’s Star Wars arcade game that it lives up to the original material. Designed by Mike Hally, it was based off an earlier unfinished game by Battlezone creator Ed Rotberg. Utilizing Atari’s colour Quadrascan vector graphics hardware, the game totally immersed players in a galaxy far, far away… especially if they were playing the sit-down cockpit version. The game covered the action that takes place in the film’s final reel: Luke Skywalker as Red Five, joining the attack against the dreaded Imperial Death Star. Controlling Luke’s X-Wing fighter, gamers fended off a wave of enemy TIE fighters, then swooped down into the famous Star Wars trench scene in a race to deliver the final shot into the exhaust port, then out in time to watch the great conflagration as the deadly technological terror explodes. Then rinse and repeat, as the TIE fighters became more numerous and active, and the surface defenses of the Death Star increased in complexity and difficulty.

Not only did we have detailed and fluid vector graphics, we also got snippets Williams’ aforementioned rousing music score, as well as well-done and dramatic voice synthesis straight from the film. Add to that famed Atari controller engineer Jerry Liachek’s great-feeling flight yolk controller, and you had the makings of an undisputed classic. Atari’s Star Wars arcade game deserves its place as one of the greatest games of all time.

Here are the rest of the Oscar Week articles on TDE:

The Towering Inferno (VCS/2600, U.S. Games 1982)
M*A*S*H (VCS/2600 Fox Video Games 1983)
Rocky (ColecoVision, Coleco 1983)
The Wizard of Oz (SNES, Manley/SETA 1993)
Jaws (Amiga, Intelligent Design/Screen 7 1989)

Kool-Aid Man breaks through in a video game for Mattel's Intellivision, 1983

Crap from the Crash: Kool-Aid Man for the Intellivision

30 years ago, the video game industry in North America bottomed out. Having enjoyed a meteoric rise since PONG had created a sensation a decade previous, what had been a $3.2 billion industry in 1983 was reduced to maybe $100 million in 1984. It was utter devastation. One of the reasons for the Great Video Game Crash was because of the immense river of garbage product that flooded the market at its peak. In this series on TDE we’ll look at some of these lamentable games.

Games like the one we feature today, Kool-Aid Man, created by Mattel Electronics for the Intellivision under the auspices of General Foods, purveyors of the sugary beverage concoction Kool-Aid. The game was initially part of a promotion where you could get it, or a different version made for the Atari 2600, by sending in 125 proof of purchases to the company.  It later also saw release at retail.

I guess the Intellivision version could have worked, if they had have taken the kid-friendly and action(and sugar)-packed company mascot and put him inside of a compelling game. Instead, we get this dreck: a boy and a girl wander around a cavernous house, collecting the supplies needed for some delicious Kool-Aid: a glass pitcher, a Kool-Aid packet, and the most important ingredient: lots and lots of sugar. A whole bowl of it, in fact. It’s no wonder that Kool-Aid Man has the energy to smash through walls: he’s on a maniacal sugar-high. The kids collect this paraphernalia while avoiding the dreaded Thirsties, who bounce around the house with impunity. If one of these critters touch a kid, they are incapacitated, apparently with thirst. If each kid gets hit twice, no Kool-Aid for you! The player can switch between the two children via any button on the control pad, which they’ll have to, since there are three things to collect and the kids can only carry one thing at a time. If everything is gathered and brought to the kitchen sink, the titular jug then makes his thunderous appearance, causing what I estimate to be about $5,000 dollars damage to the kids’ near-endless domicile. Kool-Aid Man thusly gives the Thirsties their comeuppance while chasing down various badly-drawn versions of strawberries, lemons, grapes and such. This is the closest Kool-Aid will ever get to actual fruit. Then repeat, until diabetes sets in.

Typical for an Intellivision game, the action is slow, here to the point of plodding. Not good for a game catering to sugar-addicted youngsters. Having to schlep back and forth to pick up the various items is tedious in the extreme, with the repetitiveness made worse by the fact that the item placement is not randomized, so it’s just a matter of getting to each one while avoiding the bad guys. There are a few difficulty levels that speed up the Thirsties movement and shorten the time allotted to get things done, but you’re probably better off just getting up off your butt and mixing yourself a real glass.

Below is a video of the game in, well, I guess you could call it action. For more information on Mattel’s Intellivision console, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.