Category Archives: VCS/2600

Pitfall!, a major hit for Activision

Connecting the Dots: How a 1979 Atari Marketing Memo Started Activision

If you ask co-founder Nolan Bushnell, the main reason for Atari’s ultimate failure in 1983-1984, a failure so dramatic that it helped drag an entire industry down with it, was sowed back in ’78. That was the year he left the company, and new CEO Ray Kassar changed Atari’s focus from innovating in the video game space to marketing what they had already had. Sure, in the short term this strategy might have aided in Atari becoming the fastest growing company in American history, but it left the video game giant on a foundation of sand as the technology of video games and the tastes of players progressed through the years. Nothing quite crystallizes this attitude of marketing over innovation so much as the story of how the first third-party game maker for the VCS, Activision, was born. The story continues in the TDE Bitstory archive:

One day in 1979, [David] Crane finds himself intently analyzing 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.  Knowing 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.

Activision went on to great success, producing hits like Pitfall! and Keystone Kapers for the 2600, as well as cartridges for Mattel’s Intellivision.  Their pivot in 1983 to games for the home computers of the era allowed them to weather the storm of the Great Video Game Crash of 1983-84, and today remain as one of the largest video game companies around.

For more history of Activision and the Atari VCS/2600, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

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

Run, E.T., Run!

Oscar Week at TDE: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Tonight’s the big night!  Overly primped celebrities engage in vapid self-congratulatory masturbation.  Still… we’re excited! Wrapping up this series of articles covering games based on movies either nominated for or winners of Best Picture, we have perhaps the most infamous: Atari’s adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Released in 1982, the movie concerned itself about the story of a young boy who befriends a lost space alien and attempts to return him home.  It was an immediate hit, and through various re-releases the movie ended up taking around $435 million over its box-office lifetime. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1983, but lost to Richard Attenborough’s epic biopic Gandhi.

Atari saw E.T. as a natural video game hit. Steve Ross, head of Atari owners Warner Communications, negotiated a 21 million dollar deal for the home video game rights to the movie. The problem was that negotiations took so long that Atari game designer Howard Scott Warshaw was left with only six weeks to get a game for the VCS/2600 out the door in time for Christmas 1982. Within that crushing deadline he attempted to create an involved adventure game featuring the lovable little alien, but the result is confusing and endlessly frustrating.  Players strive to guide E.T. around an abstract landscape, searching for the three pieces of the interplanetary telephone that he can use to phone home. With only a certain amount of energy to complete this task, E.T. is chased by government agents and scientists, who will delay his progress. Also on hand is young Elliott to lend assistance during the mission.

The game is at least interesting, with invisible power zones positioned around the different screens giving E.T. special powers, such as teleportation and the ability to scatter his pursuers. The real problems are the holes that are scattered about, into which the alien falls over and over and over and over and over again. My gosh, the holes. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Atari’s E.T. cartridge has so many, many eyes to gaze so very, very long into you.

For more information on the E.T. game and its role in the great video game crash of ’83 – ’84, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

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)
Rocky (ColecoVision, Coleco 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)

As the building burns

Oscar Week at TDE: The Towering Inferno (1982)

In the lead up to the Academy awards on March 2nd, 2014, The Dot Eaters goes to the Academy Awards. We will be profiling video games based on movies that either won or were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Today’s pick might surprise you.  Yes, in 1975 The Towering Inferno was nominated for Best Picture.  I’m not sure how much money producer Irwin Allen lavished on the Oscar committee to nominate this disaster flick…. or perhaps he just threatened to lock them in a burning building. While it didn’t win Best Picture, it did make off with the Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Music, Original Song awards.

The game, made in 1982 for the Atari 2600 by U.S. Games (a division of General Mills, known for high-tech products such as oatmeal), certainly didn’t earn any awards. It is a cut and dried maze game, where players must guide firemen into the titular building in an attempt to rescue four survivors, who slowly perish one by one as time ticks on.  They have a rather anemic water hose they can use to clear a path through a maze of burning walls to the survivors, who for some reason are huddled behind a white window at the top of every floor. If the player makes it out the bottom exit with at least one survivor, they move to the next floor and repeat until all the floors are extinguished.  There are actually nine towering infernos in the game, with the player moving to the next one after finishing the previous one.

While pretty standard in gameplay, The Towering Inferno actually employs a bit of strategy… do you take your time to extinguish the flames and make a safe pathway, or is it a reckless rush to save as many survivors as possible?  What would Steve McQueen do?  Following is a video of the game in action.  Witness the burning spectacle that is… The Towering Inferno!

 

The box to find under the tree in 1977

The Atari VCS/2600

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.

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.

For more information on the Atari VCS/2600, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

A screenshot of the arcade video game Space Invaders.

Invading the Arcade

Even 35 years later, Space Invaders epitomizes video games. Like the titular creatures who march inexorably down the screen at the player-controlled missile base, when the arcade game was released by Taito in 1978 it marched video games out of the dodgy doldrums of bars, bowling alleys and pool halls and into mainstream venues like restaurant lobbies and supermarket foyers. Thus, the game helped define the idea of video games in the minds of the public.

Taito engineer Tomohiro Nishikado drew his inspiration for the game from classic SF movies such as War of the Worlds, and upon release the game caused near the same kind of commotion as Orson Welle’s famous radio adaptation of that story. Space Invaders was so wildly popular in Japan that shop owners cleared their inventory and lined their walls with game cabinets to cash in on the craze. So many 100-yen coins were dropped into the machines that the Bank of Japan had to triple production to keep the money in circulation.

Space Invaders was met with great success in North America as well, under a license to Midway. Arcade operators were confident when they purchased a cabinet, knowing that they would recoup the cost in quarters within a month. When it became the first arcade game licensed for a home video game console, Space Invaders proceeded to save the struggling Atari VCS and put it on the road to complete domination of the home system market for several years.

Market penetration for the game was such that even the New England Journal of Medicine got into the act in 1981, dubbing a pained wrist caused by constant play of the game as Space Invader Wrist.  Never had coming down with a new ailment been so much fun.

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

New meaning to the phrase "interactive media"

Long Lived Is The New Flesh

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.

There’s Videodrome.

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.

photo of Marshall McLuhan, 1966

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.