Into the smouldering crater of the Big Videogame Crash of 1983 – 1984 came the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), a game console whose wild success upon release in 1985 single-handedly resurrected the industry in North America.
It was a daring move by Hiroshi Yamauchi and Nintendo, but not a completely blind gamble. The NES had already met with stunning success in the guise of the Family Computer (Famicom), a system released in Japan in 1983. The Famicom was so successful that by 1989, there was one console in every two households in Japan. For its U.S. release, the system was re-tooled as the NES, made to look more like a piece of A/V equipment than a video game in order to shake off the bad vibes that the collapse of the market had left with American toy buyers. To say the plan worked is an understatement.
Here we present a family portrait of the two systems, the NES and the Family Computer They might not have been the lightning that started the industry, but they certainly delivered a desperately needed shock to the system that got the heart of video games beating again:
Jumpman. Pitstop. Summer Games. Just a few of the classics from the library of Epyx, a company that produced computer games from 1983 to 1989. Its roots started with Automated Simulations, founded by Jim Connelley and Jon Freeman, releasing such D&D inspired computer games as the Temple of Apshai series, as well as Starfleet Orion and its sequel, Invasion Orion.
When the company morphed into Epyx, the focus was moved towards more action-oriented fare, to great success. Epyx had a staff of 200 and revenues of 9 to 10 million dollars annually at its height, but projects such as the Handy colour hand-held gaming system, later sold to Atari and released as the Lynx, helped dragged the company down into bankruptcy in 1989.
The IP from Epyx is ripe to be updated and ported to modern systems, and people like Davis Ray Sickmon, Jr. are stepping up to the plate. Sickmon, Jr. is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to produce a modernized version of Jumpman, first for the Ouya platform, and eventually for Android and iOS devices. You can check out the project and throw some coin its way here on Kickstarter.
WarGames was released to theatres on June 3, 1983, in midst of the cold war between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union. Starring Matthew Broderick in his second major film role, it followed the exploits of David Lightman, a high-school kid who’s desire to hack into the computer system of a video game company leads him into NORAD’s war plans computer. His hijinks then unknowingly hurtle the world towards nuclear annihilation.
Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes wrote the screenplay, inspired by the many glitches and close calls that had nearly resulted in the accidental deployment of nuclear weapons between the two superpowers. The original draft of the script was called The Genius, about an alienated hacker teen and his mentor, a dying scientist based on real-life astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. The scientist character eventually morphed into Stephen Falken, played in the finished movie by english actor John Wood. Perky Ally Sheedy, along with perpetual prick Dabney Coleman, helped round out the cast.
Another star of the movie was the NORAD command center, which at the time was the most expensive single set ever made. Its centrepiece was an array of huge screens, onto which filmed clips of computer vector graphics representing the various geopolitical locations and situations around the world were projected. An Apple II computer kept 12 35mm projectors in sync during filming of the scenes in the NORAD set.
WarGames, while stretching belief at times, is a fun film that moves at a nice, brisk pace. Along the way it manages to makes a few lasting comments about the technological genie-in-a-bottle that computers represent, as well as the futility of nuclear war. The countries of the world can face off in a dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship, or maybe instead…
There’s certain movies that immediately tickle my memory of those days of my youth, hunched over in front of the TV, tightly gripping the joystick of my Atari. Sure, there’s the ones from the early 80′s dedicated directly to the subject of video games, such as Tron or WarGames, which I’ve covered in my series of Games on Film articles. And there’s some that are simply of that era. Then there are some that cause a deeper itch in my psyche.
I was a teenager when I first watched Videodrome, which actually celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. It wasn’t my first film by Canadian writer and director David Cronenberg; Scanners had come out a couple of years earlier and had definitely made an impression on me. Videodrome, however, changed something inside of me. It wasn’t some earth-shaking epiphany, though, where you crane your neck and cry “Eureka!”. The movie is like the video virus portrayed in its story. It doesn’t influence you, it infects you. It literalized viral videos before anyone ever heard of Internet memes. Before most had ever heard of the Internet, even.
McLuhan, 1966 photo by Henri Dauman
The movie is itself heavily influenced by the works of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media analyst and philosopher who famously coined the term “The medium is the message”. McLuhan’s warnings of the invasive power of television to shape reality in its own images, of how it was becoming a complete electronic extension of man, so impacted Cronenberg that the character of Brian O’blivion in the film is based on the media critic. The film is more viscerally prescient than McLuhan’s casual statements of dehumanization. Videodrome is about the first “reality” television show.
It is also about the battle of hearts and minds fought through the arena of the television set, so it’s no wonder that protagonist Max Renn, played by James Woods, has an Atari 2600 setup plugged into his TV. What more literally represents a battle through the TV more than a video game? They have a place in the New Flesh, as shown in this iconic scene from the film:
Cronenberg would again probe the idea of the mating of reality and fantasy, of technology and the flesh, in eXistenZ (1999). Dealing directly with video games and virtual reality, the movie would not be quite so prescient this time; its thunder would be stolen by the mind-bending, time-stopping pyrotechnics of The Matrix, released earlier the same year.
With crushing casualness, McLuhan said “The medium is the message”. Cronenberg has a rejoinder: “The medium is the flesh”. Long live the New Flesh.
For anyone interested in director David Cronenberg and his wonderfully weird body of work, I highly recommend picking up the book Cronenberg On Cronenberg.
Atari might have created the video game industry, but it was Nintendo who brought things back from the dead after the disastrous video game crash in the U.S. in 1983-84. They did so via the Nintendo Entertainment System, but it was only through the development and subsequent success of the earlier Japanese version of the game console, called the Family Computer or Famicom, that Nintendo had the confidence, technical know-how and financial means to take on America.
Who knows how many years it would have taken for video games to come back without the Famicom? Five? Ten? It’s hard to deal in hypotheticals, but what we can do is take a look back at one of the most important consoles in video gaming history. 30 years ago, on July 15th, 1983, Nintendo released the Famicom in Japan. Here’s how it happened:
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..
If you entered a video arcade on July 1, 1983, you’d probably wonder what all the fuss was about. You’d be met by a huge crowd of people gathered around a new game. There’d be such a large crowd that the arcade owner would have installed a monitor on top of this game so everyone could watch it being played. If you checked out what was on the monitor, you’d see a video game like none other before it.
You’d be seeing Dragon’s Lair, released 30 years ago today. With rich, vibrant animation by Don Bluth, driven by laser disc technology from Rick Dyer and his RDI Video Systems company, it truly seemed like the waning days of the arcade had just gotten a huge shot in the arm. No matter that, due to the extravagant cost of the game to arcade operators (averaging $4,300), it was the first game to cost 50 cents to play. No matter that, despite the lush visuals, gameplay locked players on a rail that was minimally interactive. It was new, it was cool, and it was wonderful.
Even though Dragon’s Lair and the laser disc game phenomena that followed in its wake were conceptual dead-ends that were quickly left behind by gamers, their memories remain. I don’t think there is another game that so typifies the 80′s video game arcade to me as much as Dragon’s Lair.
To go for a spin through the development and aftermath of Dragon’s Lair, please check out our article on the Laser Game Craze.
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.
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.
It was 30 years ago today, on June 3, 1983, that WarGames was launched into theatres. While the computer equipment involved has invariably increased in complexity and power over the intervening years, the story of young computer genius David Lightman infiltrating the NORAD war plans computer and leading the world to the edge of mass destruction retains it powers, while reducing the feigned complexity of nuclear war down to the simplicity of a game of Tic-Tac-Toe.
Issued in an era where home computers were just starting to enter the public consciousness and online activities practically unheard of, WarGames had a lasting impact, both in its realistic portrayal of the world of computer hacking, as well as the idea of letting computers and their binary attitudes take over decision-making in the military industrial complex.
It’s also a damn fun ride. You can jump to the story of the production of WarGames here on TDE, and read my review of the movie over at Ten Point Review. It’s either that, or a nice game of chess.
Perhaps you’re like me, and the original Castle Wolfenstein, made by Silas Warner and Muse Software for the Apple II in 1981 and the C64 in 1983, defined your computer gaming experience back in the day. And perhaps Activision’s 2001 Return to Castle Wolfenstein remake, itself a re-telling of id Software’s seminal 1994 3D remake of the original, helped to define the modern online shooter in your mind.
Well, the news from Gamespot is that B.J. Blazkowicz is back for more two-fisted adventures with Wolfenstein: The New Order, announced today by Bethesda Softworks. The game is being developed by MachineGames, a Swedish outfit made up of former key members of Starbreeze Studios, makers of The Darkness and the Riddick games.
As I said, Return to Castle Wolfenstein was a watershed game, not necessarily for its rather pedestrian single-player campaign, but more for its amazingly well-tuned and just plain fun online component. Pitting Nazis against Allied forces, the simple-yet-deep strategy and wonderful level design destined the title for greatness. Here’s to raising a stein to the success of this new entry in the Wolfenstein saga.