Category Archives: arcade

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.

Are you ready for some footbrawl?

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.

This is a triumph

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.

A most gruesome death

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

 

The longer 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.

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

Jump into the hot seat with Fire Truck

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

 

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.

 

 

Video-Man Attacks

Spider-Man Crosses Joysticks with Video-Man

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was an animated series put out by Marvel from 1981-1983, an interesting link between the swinging 60′s Spidey cartoon and his modern incarnation in shows like 2012′s Ultimate Spider-Man.

More apropos to this site, here is an episode that addressed the video game craze, where Spidey does battle with Video-Man, a flat pixellated baddie who materializes out of an arcade game to fight the web-head and his buddies. Go for it!


Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends Season 01… by VNNetwork

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

Ship of the imagination

Forget Matthew McConaughey, Take a REAL Interstellar Trip

If you partake in that sort of thing, maybe you want to turn your lights down, the volume up, spark a bowl and take a trip through the wondrous world of Interstellar.It was yet another entry in the laserdisc arcade game sweepstakes of 1983 – 1984. Playing somewhat like Mylstar’s M.A.C.H. 3, the game had players controlling a space ship sailing head-on over an unrolling landscape, shooting at oncoming enemy craft and ground targets. The difference is, Interstellar’s video rendered backgrounds were surrealistic and bizarre, as if Salvador Dali had made a video game. All accompanied by a spacey synthesizer soundtrack. It was developed by Japanese toy-maker Gakken, and manufactured by TV maker Funai.

The YouTube video below lacks the computer generated graphic of the space ship, as it’s just an output of the laserdisc content. Still, like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar is the Ultimate Trip.