Category Archives: arcade

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.

Eat Locally

Gobble Your Neighbourhood With PacMaps

Just ahead of April Fool’s Day, Google has struck again by allowing users to turn any small section of Google Maps into a Pac-Man game you can control with your computer arrow keys. Fire up a section from Maps, zoom in enough so there are a lot of streets that fill the view, and click the Pac-Man button at the bottom of the screen to Pac-ify your surroundings.  

A couple of tips: try to pick a map section without a lot of fiddly turns and angles. Getting Pac quickly through such chicanery can be murder. Also, since any roads heading off the sides of the section become like the tunnels in the original arcade game, be careful moving through them. You might not come out the other side where you expect.

Who said traffic in Toronto wasn’t any fun?

Google Maps

The king of Kong barrels into Pixels

Full ‘Pixels’ Trailer Hits YouTube

I had a visceral reaction watching this new trailer for Adam Sandler’s upcoming classic video game themed film Pixels, but it wasn’t in one direction or the other about the quality of the movie. It’s neat to see these vaunted video game characters come to life, but in the trailer they appear to be in service of slight sight gags and weak punchlines. It’s awesome to see Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani make a prominent appearance, but then he’s used in a joke that merely subverts your expectations, which is one of the lowest forms of humour for me. I’m hoping that some more insightful, telling observations about video game culture and game nostalgia were left out of the preview for brevity’s sake.

Ah well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see when Pixels hits theatres this summer. It will either be the best thing ever, or the worst thing ever. For now, here is the full, official Trailer:

Breaking Good

Connecting the Dots: How Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak Break Out

After he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon,  in 1974 Steve Jobs joined a small tech company by the name of Atari, working at their Los Gatos facility in California. Legend has it that he showed up in their lobby, scruffy and lacking in perfect bodily hygiene, and stated to the receptionist that he wouldn’t be leaving the premises until he got a job. Instead of calling the police, she brought Al Alcorn to talk to him, and was eventually hired. In spite of being brash and over-confident (or perhaps, BECAUSE of those traits), Atari CEO Nolan Bushnell took a liking to young Steve. One day he approached Jobs with a game idea. We break into the TDE archives to continue the story:

In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured. 

Jobs would later approach Bushnell with the idea of Atari producing a new computer he and Woz had developed, but the Atari boss passed on the offer. Atari would end up competing against that product with their 8-bit 400 and 800 computer lines.  Woz and Jobs did just fine with their own computer: the venerable Apple II, by the Apple Computer Company.

For more information on Breakout!, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Out on a ledge with Olive and Mario

Connecting the Dots: How We Almost Got Popeye Instead of Mario

Posting this story on the 85th anniversary of Black Tuesday, when the New York Stock Exchange plummeted 30 points and heralded the start of the Great Depression, is rather apropos. For at the dawn of the 80′s, Nintendo’s fledgling American subsidiary was in its own tailspin, and its fate would hang on the licensing of a depression-era cartoon icon for a hit video game.

Formed in 1980 in order to distribute Nintendo arcade games in the U.S., sales of derivative product such as HeliFire and Space Firebird for Nintendo of America had flatlined. NOA boss Minoru Arakawa put all of his eggs in one basket with Radarscope, a Galaxian clone that did little to distinguish itself from the other similar shoot-em-ups that littered American arcades. Only able to sell half of the cabinets he had ordered, Arakawa contacted his father-in-law in Japan, Nintendo, Ltd. boss Hiroshi Yamauchi, with a desperate plea: send him a hit game, or give up your dream of conquering the U.S. video game market. To produce such a game, Yamauchi paired a junior employee unversed in game design, named Shigeru Miyamoto, with his most seasoned hardware engineer, Gunpei Yokoi. The pair’s original intent was to quickly adapt a 42-year-old iconic cartoon character to a video game.

The story continues in the TDE Bitstory archive, after the jump:

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Showdown at the arcade

Shots Fired! Midway’s Gun Fight

Cabinet for Gun Fight, an arcade video game by Midway 1975

Gun Fight cabinet

Midway Mfg. Corp had ridden the coattails of Atari with their arcade video games Winner and Winner IV, both PONG clones released in 1973. They stopped following and helped push the technical envelope, however, with their groundbreaking Gun Fight, released in 1975. The arcade game placed two western hombres, one controlled by the player with two pistol-grip joysticks, in a showdown amongst rolling conestoga wagons and numerous cactii. It was based on the Taito arcade game Western Gun, but Midway game development contractors Nutting Associates decided to add a CPU in their redesign for the game’s release in North America, making it the first use of such technology in an arcade game. This allowed for more complicated on-screen sprites than the simple square paddles and ball of previous PONG games, as well as more unpredictable movement from the computer-controlled cowboy. The company followed up Gun Fight with Boot Hill in 1977, placing the video sprites on top of a  western tableau diorama built into the cabinet. Gun Fight designers Dave Nutting and Tom McHugh, of Nutting Associates, went on to make Sea Wolf and Wizard of Wor for Midway.

For more information on Nutting Associates and Gun Fight, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Marquee for Death Race, an arcade video game by Exidy 1976

Driving Controversy: Death Race

Death Race was an arcade game released by Exidy in 1976, amid a pack of other such driving games as Atari’s Grand Trak 10 (1974) and Le Mans (1976), as well as Indy 800 (1975), published under Atari’s secret Kee label. Racing games were pretty hot at the time, but Death Race threw in a little something special to the mix: instead of racing around a track, you drove your vehicle around an arena trying to run over little stick figures, who when hit would shriek and turn into a cross for you to avoid. It would become the first game to generate widespread concerns about video game violence.

Screen of Death Race, a violent arcade video game by Exidy 1976

Death Race, scourge of the arcades!

The blocky and abstract graphical representation of its obvious inspiration, Roger Corman’s low-budget exploitation flick Death Race 2000, seems positively quaint by today’s standards. Death Race, however, drove a storm of controversy as word got out about the game.  It was decried as “morbid” by trade publications of the time, and the National Safety Council branded it as “sick”. Newspapers ran stories gleefully outlining the premise of the game, and no reassurances from Exidy’s marketing man Paul Jacobs that players were actually dispatching “gremlins”, as noted in a label on the game’s dashboard, could quite quell the outrage.

Instructions for killing 'gremlins"

Instructions for killing ‘gremlins”

Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, Death Race was a hit for Exidy and helped establish them as a long-time player in the video game market.  The game also paved the way for more realistic video game violence, in the vein of the Mortal Kombat and the Grand Theft Auto games. All of which, of course, helped to turn kids into hardened killers, in the same way that video baseball games turned them into professional ball players.

For more information on Death Race, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

Breaking Good

Breakout: How Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak Built a Smash for Atari

Soon after dropping out of Reed College, in 1974 Steve Jobs became employee #40 at an up-and-coming company in California called Atari. He was a scruffy young man, who’s abrasiveness and questionable personal hygiene led management to put him on the night shift, so as to ruffle as few feathers as possible.

Even so, Jobs still managed to tick off a lot of people at Atari. Possibly seeing a lot of himself in Jobs, company co-founder Nolan Bushnell kept him around regardless. One day in 1976 he approached the young maverick and asked him to put together the hardware for a new variation of the company’s landmark game, PONG. In this new version, instead two players knocking a ball back and forth with paddles, a person could play alone, hitting the ball up against a wall of bricks at the top of the screen. Jobs was offered $750 for the job, with a $100 bonus paid for every microchip shaved off the design, therefore making the game cheaper to build.

It was Job’s friend Steve Wozniak who actually created the design for Breakout, spending four nights putting the game together with Jobs, all the while holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The game turned out to be a big hit for Atari, and the two Steves would eventually break out on their own to create a little computer company called Apple Computer. The computer landscape would never look the same again.

For more information on the making of Breakout, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

A screenshot from Space Panic

Space Panic: Drilling Down a Genre

I remember being fascinated with Space Panic when I first spied it in the arcades in 1980. A game genre will eventually become so ingrained over time that you lose sight of what it really meant, but the idea of platforms and ladders introduced in Universal, Ltd.’s Space Panic helped video games construct worlds that you could clamber around in, like an electronic equivalent of an Erector Set. Combine this world with an ever more difficult puzzle element where you dig holes to trap and dispatch angry aliens, sometimes requiring planning over multiple levels, and you get the perfect kind of gameplay, something that is easy to grasp but difficult to master. Added into the mix is a frenetic pace as your antagonists get more and more quick at chasing you around the screen, and a deadline to accomplish your mission as your oxygen slowly runs out.

Space Panic cleared the way for a myriad of platform games, from Donkey Kong to Dig Dug and beyond. You ever climb the side of a building and run across the rooftops in an Assassin’s Creed game? It all started here, dig it? For more information on Space Panic, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

He has a monkey on his back

Alan: A Video Junkie

I used to think this short film from SNL was a dream I had once.  But no, it’s real.

It is a poker-faced mockumentary about the dangers of the growing obsession of video games by youngsters of 1982. It is also a pitch-perfect indictment of the hysteria swirling around the pastime, drummed up by the news media to create a new boogeyman to scare adults. It’s 11:00 o’clock.  Do you know where your children are?  On the street corner, apparently, turning tricks for quarters to put into Dig Dug.

Made by Claude Kerven, the short aired on the premiere episode of the 8th season of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, September 25, 1982. They sure don’t make them like this anymore. Not only is it a reminder of video games past, it is also a monument to how SNL used to be edgy and hilarious:

Video via eBaum’s World