Category Archives: arcade

Screenshot of Pong

PONG Turns 40

This article was originally posted to The Dot Eaters on Nov. 29, 2012

On November 29, 1972, a recently incorporated company in California named Atari announced the release of its first product, an electronic video arcade game called PONG.  Two players would stand at the wood-grain and yellow cabinet, twiddling the control knobs that moved two paddles displayed on a B&W TV screen.  With the paddles they would play an electronically abstract game of table tennis, batting a little white blip back and forth in an attempt to “Avoid Missing Ball For High Score”, as the simple gameplay instructions prompted.

Conceived by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and designed by Al Alcorn, Pong was a smash success, giving birth to the video game industry.  Fast-forward nearly 40 years later, in 2011 that industry was worth US$65 billion dollars.

Ad for a Pong-type home kit, Visulex 1975

This newfangled electronic Ping Pong thing comes home, 1975

 

Among other celebrations of Pong’s 40th birthday, an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest game of Pong was made on Nov. 16, 2012.  A 22-story version of the game, complete with festive lighting, was played on the side of the Downtown Marriott hotel in Kansas City, MO.

In a lead-up to the anniversary, earlier this year Atari announced the Pong Indie Developer Challenge.  Offering a grand prize of up to $100,000, the company solicited independent app developers to submit their take on the venerable Pong.  The three winners were announced on Aug. 2, and they will participate in a profit sharing scheme divided between the three Pong apps that will see them collect royalties up to the winning prize amounts.  The top winner, the freemium-based PONG World by zGames, can be snagged at the iOS App Store here.

Pong put Atari on the road to becoming the fastest growing company in American history.  It’s no stretch to consider that when you say Pong is 40 years-old today, you’re also saying the video game industry is 40 years-old.  So like those tipsy patrons of Andy Capp’s bar in Sunnyvale California, who played the original Pong prototype until it broke and convinced Bushnell and Atari to produce the game commercially, raise a glass to the grand-daddy of the video game industry.  Your serve, PONG!

You can play an updated version of PONG online at Atari.com for free.

For more information on the history of Pong and Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters article

Blast… or be blasted!

The more I play Blaster, released by Williams in 1983, the more the game amazes me.

Designed by Defender creators Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, it features a startling 3D perspective as you soar over an alien landscape, blasting giant robots and rescuing floating astronauts. The visual effects are nothing short of astounding, especially considering the time at which the game was made. It’s no surprise that several designers at Williams would eventually move on to work on the ground-breaking Amiga computer at Commodore, known for its graphical and aural prowess. Added to the allure of this and several other Williams games, such as Bubbles and Sinistar, is that it came in an indestructible plastic cabinet, named Duramold by the company.  Rumour has it, however, that the plastic would shrink over time, causing the monitor inside to eventually be ejected like a champagne cork. Talk about 3D effects!

Enjoy the following video we made of Blaster gameplay.

As always, for more information on Blaster, Jarvis, Defender, and other things Williams, please consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

This article was originally posted on The Dot Eaters on Nov 14, 2012

Run, Coward! Sinistar Unleashed, by GameFX and THQ, Windows 1999

This ad features another entry in the turn-of-the-millennium retro game remake sweepstakes. This time it’s Sinistar getting the reboot treatment, the 1982 Williams arcade classic by Sam Dicker, pictured below the ad in 1984.

Sinistar Unleashed, a video game for Windows

Run, Coward!

Sam Dicker, creator of Sinistar, 1984

For full info on Sinistar, Williams Electronics and their seminal shoot-em-up Defender, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Real-Life ‘Galaga’ Short Film

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 planetIt’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:

And to read The Dot Eaters bitstory of Galaxian and Galaga, click here:

Video game maker Namco founder Masaya Nakamura

Namco Founder Masaya Nakamura Passes Away

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 Galaxian in 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.

Pac-Man, an arcade video game by Namco

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.

Ad for Namco games, a video game maker

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.

A Perfect Storm of Brutality and Hilarity

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!

Title screen for Missile Command, an arcade game by Atari 1980

Missile Command and Centipede Getting Movie Adaptations

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.

5 Rogue Video Game AIs They Should Have Pulled the Plug On

Today, Artificial Intelligences are beating us at Go. Could their next move be plotting our extinction? Here are five video game AI characters that needed James T. Kirk to pull the plug:

GlaDOS (Portal – 2007, Portal 2 – 2011, Valve Corporation)

Sure, the AI matriarch (aka Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center is pure evil. After all, she did lock down the facility “within two picoseconds” of her activation and flood it with a deadly neurotoxin, and on ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day’, no less. But she also serves as a twisted kind of comic relief in the excellent Portal games. In an overly polite voice (supplied by Ellen McLain) dripping with passive-aggressiveness, GLaDOS does all she can to demoralize, hinder and just plain kill the series protagonist Chell as she is forced through a series of increasingly complicated test chambers. Oh, and there’s cake too (not really).

shodan_AI

SHODAN (System Shock – 1994, Looking Glass Studios/Origin, System Shock 2 – 1999, Looking Glass Studios/Electronic Arts)

Not happy to just murder the inhabitants of the mining and research space station Citadel Station (or convert them to murderous cyborgs and mutants), SHODAN {Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network) seeks to eradicate all human life on Earth, to be replaced by the devoted army she will create. A much more arrogant rogue AI than GLaDOS, SHODAN considers herself nothing less than a God. Not only this, but she mercilessly taunts the player character human ‘insect’ all the way through the games! SHODAN disciples can rejoice: she will return in System Shock 3, confirmed in December of 2015.

Robotrons (Robotron: 2084, Williams Electronics – 1984)

Set in the astounding year 2084, the plot for Robotron: 2084 marched out of the mind of legendary arcade game creator Eugene Jarvis as a kind of mechanized take on George Orwell’s 1984. In Jarvis’ dystopian future, computers have become more and more sophisticated, all in the service of solving mankind’s problems. The Robotrons become so advanced, in fact, that they decide to erase the one common denominator in the equation: humans. To facilitate our extinction, the Robotrons start cranking out lethal robots like the unstoppable Hulk, the dangerous laser-spitting Enforcers, and the diabolical Brains capable of brainwashing the wandering humans and turning them into mindless Progs.

AM (I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, The Dreamers Guild/Cyberdreams – 1995)

If you’ve seen the excellent 1970 movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, AM’s origin story might seem familiar. From the Harlan Ellison novel and video game, AM came about when an American supercomputer (known as the Allied Mastercomputer) absorbed its similar counterparts from China and Russia after gaining sentience. Seething with hatred at being imprisoned in its vast underground complex, AM proceeds to nuke humanity… save for five humans it keeps alive indefinitely to endlessly torture. A forerunner of the villainous GLaDOS, AM makes her seem like a paragon of decency.

reapers_AI

The Reapers (Mass Effect – 2007, BioWare/Microsoft Game Studios, Mass Effect 2 – 2010, BioWare/Electronic Arts, Mass Effect 3 – 2012, BioWare/Electronic Arts)

The worst on this list has to be the Reapers, a synthetic intelligence “with neither beginning nor end” that strives to hold its dominance in the galaxy by purging all organic life of a significant technological advancement. By doing this purging every 50,000 years, they eliminate any possibility that a race of intelligent beings could create a competing AI that would threaten their existence. In the bargain, they also harvest victims of inhabited worlds and convert them into Husks, zombified synthetic creatures that augment their army of ground troops.

Of course, not every AI entity in video games is malevolent. GLaDOS herself becomes a potato-based ally to Chell in Portal 2, EDI controls the Normandy in the Mass Effect games and eventually joins the fight personally as a playable character, and we have Cortana from the Halo games who made the jump to reality to assist users in real-life in Windows 10! Right now the idea of a rogue AI being able to threaten the galaxy seems pretty far-fetched, considering our smartphones can barely understand human speech with any kind of accuracy. But in 2014, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warned that AI technology could render humanity obsolete, and perhaps even destroy us. And this from a guy who uses a form of AI to communicate! If video games teach us anything, it’s that we might just end up autocorrected out of existence.

Atari’s Epic Dig Dug Commercial of 1982

As part of a marketing push (an area where CEO Ray Kassar excelled at), Atari created a two-minute ad for arcade game Dig Dug. The funny thing about all this hoopla is that Atari hadn’t actually made the game: it was licensed by the company from Namco for release in North America.

Dig Dug, an arcade video game by Atari and Namco, 1982

Dig Dug gameplay

Taking five days to film, the full ad ran in theatres during the summer of 1982, while a shorter 30 second version ran on TV. Originally, 60’s singing and dancing sensation Chubby Checker (The Twist) was to sing the catchy theme song in the ad, but Atari ultimately went with a younger singer, perhaps for reasons of demographics. You can hear Chubby’s version here on the Atari Museum Public Group on Facebook. The song was posted by Matt Osborne, the son of Don Osborne, who was Atari’s VP of Marketing at the time. Upon listening to it, I’m sure you’ll agree that Atari made a huge mistake not going with Chubby.

As for the visuals, the various special effects in the ad were handled by production designer Jim Spencer and crew, who among other projects had the effects-laden movie Poltergeist under their belt. They would subsequently work on films like Innerspace and Gremlins.

Created by advertising agency Young & Rubicam and directed by Manny Perez, the spot would go on to snag a 1983 Clio award in the Cinema and Advertising category. It might not be high art, but at least it reflects the most important aspect of the video game it’s shilling: it’s a lot of fun. It also got the job done for Atari; by their estimations the theatrical ad and shortened TV spots had by August of 1982 increased public awareness of Dig Dug by a whopping 227% over markets without the ads. This converted into 30% higher coin drops for the arcade game in those same markets. I can Dig that!

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

Sources:

Atari Coin Connection, “Dig Dug Meets Clio”, pg. 2, Aug 1983
Atari Museum Public Group, Facebook
1982 Entertainment Tonight segment on the making of Dig Dug ad
Cash Box. Industry News – Atari ‘Customer Day’ Stresses Closer Ties With Distributors”, pgs. 38 – 39, Feb 19 1983, retrieved from Internet Archive Sept 15, 2019
Cash Box, Nov. 13 1982 article “Atari Launches National TV Push for ‘Dig Dug’

What Starts With an “F” and Ends With “uck”?

Fire Truck. What, you thought I meant something else?

Of course, this game just might have caused you to drop a few F-bombs in 1978, as your buddy sat in the seat steering the titular vehicle and controlling the gas and breaks, while you struggle to keep the trailer straight with a tiller wheel mounted behind on a control panel. The game can be played solo, but since it’s the first arcade game to offer simultaneous co-operative play, a two-person crew is really necessary to get the most out of it. A purely one-player version would be released by Atari later as Smokey Joe.

firetruck-crunch

Try to keep collateral damage to a minimum as you fight fires, will you?

 

I’m not sure if I always ended up finding Fire Truck cabinets with defective second steering wheels, or if the game was shipped this way from Atari’s factory, but I found it impossible to control the trailer with the tiller wheel.  No matter how gently I handled that second wheel, the trailer would seem to have a mind of its own and just swing all over the place, usually into houses or other vehicles.

Still, Fire Truck was a unique game that had players working together instead of against each other. That’s worth a few smashed and/or burned houses, I guess.

For more information on the early days of Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters bitstory.

Image Source: The Arcade Flyer Archive

fire-truck-flyer-1978

Flyer for Fire Truck