If you can think of anything less cool and hip and high technology than a television infomercial, please write in and let me know. But the ad gurus working for Atari in the mid-90’s thought this format would be a great way to move the Jaguar off shelves.
The Jag had already been on the market two years, and in 1995 had Sony’s PlayStation and the Sega Saturn breathing down its neck. Touted by Atari as the first 64-bit game machine, inside there were actually two 32-bit chips called Tom and Jerry connected to system memory by a 64-bit wide data path. This configuration made developing games for the machine difficult, hence third-party games were slow in coming. Meanwhile, the game libraries of its rivals swelled, and Atari discontinued the struggling Jaguar the next year.
Hard to see why, with hip and happening advertising like this. C’mon, Bob!
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 Galaxianin 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.
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.
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.
Developed by Mattel and consulting firm APh, the Intellivision (Intelligent Television) provided the first serious competition against Atari’s popular VCS game console.
With its advanced graphic capabilities and versatile keypad/disc controllers, the console was a success when released wide in the U.S. in 1980. Mattel’s aggressive advertising push for the Intellivision, which highlighted the superiority of its many sports games over Atari’s offerings, sparked a marketing war between the two companies. As Intellivision spokesperson George Plimpton was quick to point out, between Atari’s Home Run and Mattel’s Major League Baseball, there was simply no comparison. While Atari promoted their library of popular arcade game translations unavailable on other systems, hits like Night Stalker and Astrosmash help solidify the Intellivision’s success.
George lays into Atari
Speech synthesis via the Intellivoice module, as well as a game delivery system through Cable TV called Playcable, were eventually made available for the system. In 1983, Mattel redesigned the original Master Component console into the Intellivision II, simply a retooled box and controllers with the same capabilities at a reduced price. The Intellivision III was announced early that year, with such features as a built-in voice synthesizer, colour LCD display on the case and wireless joystick controllers. It and the top-secret Intellivision IV next-gen console project were cancelled by the end of the year as the home video game market collapsed.
Intellivision II and controller
After the company made a tenuous grasp for the home computer market with the ill-fated Aquarius computer, Mattel Electronics went out of business in 1984. All rights and existing stock for the Intellivision were sold to T.E. Valeski, former VP of Sales and Marketing at Mattel. As Intellivision, Inc. (later changed to INTV), the company marketed a cosmetically altered version of the original Master Component called the INTV System III in the fall of 1985. They met with enough success to produce several new games for the console, until this new venture closed its doors in 1990.
Where we celebrate the video games from 1984, a scant 30 years ago.
In 1984, perhaps driven by George Orwell’s warnings of a Big Brother controlling everything, telecommunications giant AT&T was broken up into eight different companies, the result of anti-trust court case United States vs. AT&T. Ads for fast food restaurant Wendy’s started asking other chains “Where’s the beef?”. And, of course, the revolutionary Macintosh computer was unveiled by Apple.
1984 was also the second year for Nintendo’s Family Computer (Famicom) video game console. It was such a solid success in Japan that Nintendo had to open a new R&D department dedicated to making games for the system in order to keep up with demand. Heading the new R&D4 was Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the smash hit arcade game Donkey Kong. His first game for the Famicom is our subject today: the bizarre Devil World.
Miyamoto in 1989
Players control a young dragon named Tamagon, who has taken it upon himself to enter the Devil’s domain and take on the big guy. As Tamagon moves around the Pac-Man styled maze, he must be careful. At the top of the screen the devil directs his minions to occasionally turn cranks, moving the maze in the four main compass directions. This movement creates crushing hazards for the dragon at the edges of the screen. Tamagon must take hold of the crosses littering the maze, enabling him to fight the denizens of Hell: robed eyes that chase him relentlessly. If the dragon is able to roast the eyes with his fiery breath while holding a cross, they turn into tasty fried eggs that he can eat. The crosses also let Tamagon pick up dots lining the maze, and when he has taken them all the board ends. He can also get some relief from the sweltering climes of hades by gobbling bonus ice cream cones that occasionally appear. In the next screen, Tamagon must take four bibles to a seal in the centre of the screen, and the last wave of the game is a bonus round with the dragon picking up bonus boxes before a time limit runs out. The screens then repeat, with increasing difficulty.
While the gameplay is merely another take on the maze game genre, the content of the graphics is what makes Devil World stand out, not only among other Nintendo games, but video games in general. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that there needs to be more religious imagery in games. Nintendo of America didn’t think quite the same way, however. While Devil World was released in Japan for the Famicom in 1984, and on the NES in Europe in 1987, it was never released in North America. This was because of NoA’s strict policy against religious iconography in their games.
Now, taking to the pulpit, is a video of Devil World in action. Perfect for all you video game zealots.
Auric Goldfinger, mineralogist and supervillian, once said:
Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor… except crime!
The same could be said for video game emulation. People have built cabinets to house computers running game emulators, complete with sturdy joysticks, buttons and even rollerballs, all in the attempt to replicate that authentic arcade game feeling.
Well, nobody has ever built anything like the MVGS2 Dream Station, made by Frenchman Patrice Daubaire. The system runs a custom emulator called Multi Video Games System 2, reproducing 34 retro game consoles. This is impressive in itself, but the kicker is that the system handles 75 separate game controllers, that have been adapted with unified connections so they are interchangeable between systems. Emulation is all fine and dandy, but the ability to easily plug in authentic controllers in order to play makes for a near-perfect classic gaming experience.
I love the revolving controller case, like you’re shopping at Birks Jewelry.
In 1887, the French gave us the Eiffel Tower. in 2013, they give us the towering MVGS2 Dream Station. It’s a treasure even Goldfinger would covet. I’ll leave you with a video of the system in action. Normally I’d think that the kind of music in this video is a tad overblown, but in this case it is suitably epic:
With the 27th anniversary of the proper launch of the Atari 7800 this month, here is a little retrospective on the console.
While the Atari 7800 might be historically viewed as a misfire on Atari’s part, we can at least appreciate the console for what it is. The console was intended to get a headstart on the NES as Nintendo had already approached Atari and asked them if they wanted to handle distribution rights in North America for the console for them. While in retrospect this was a boneheaded move times were different and Atari was a self sufficient company who wanted to remain that way.
After some legal tussling the proper launch of the console was delayed until 1986 and in a somewhat questionable strategic move the 7800 launched with games that were developed 2 years before and as such seemed dated.
The POKEY sound chip
What about the console itself? It’s an interesting beast being capable of playing 2600 software in addition to 7800 games. The hardware was similar to Atari’s earlier systems in that it rendered in between scanlines. The audio hardware was also identical to the 2600 in the console itself but developers could include a POKEY sound chip in the cartridge to enhance the soundtrack of a game. The POKEY was a flexible chip that could be used for a few different things but was mostly used for music generation in the Atari 8-bit family.
What about the games? Unfortunately due to limited developer support the 7800 library pales in comparison to the Master System and NES. That isn’t to say the console doesn’t have its fair share of great games though! The console featured a brilliant conversion of Commando which used the POKEY chip to enhance the sound. This game really stands out as one of the best on the console.
Screenshot of Commando.
Another great game that used the POKEY was Ballblazer which was a fast paced 3D tank shooter with a great soundtrack.
This doesn’t look like much here but it’s actually quite amazing.
Other beloved games in the Atari 7800 library include the brilliant Ninja Golf which incorporates ninja combat into a traditional game of golf, Midnight Mutants, Desert Falcon and even Xevious!
Ninja Golf being both brilliant and incoherent.
The Atari 7800 really is a great little console. It’s sleek, has a well designed controller and for collectors the library of games is definitely one that is within the realm of completing. The games themselves are fun to play as well with Atari staples like Joust and Centipede rounding out some great third party efforts. In honour of this somewhat forgotten gem from gaming past I highly recommend you pick one up on eBay as the 7800 really deserves another play for its birthday. Any Atariphiles out there want to weigh in on the 7800? It’d be great to hear memories from when you were younger or just some nice thoughts about the console!
Just wrapped up with Pac-Man gift paper and stuffed into Santa’s sack is our next retro video game present for our 12 Video Games of Christmas: the Atari Flashback 4 Deluxe.
Probably the next best thing to actually going on eBay and bidding on an authentic Atari VCS/2600 game console, the Flashback 4 is a stylized replica of the venerable Atari workhorse video game console. It plugs into your TV inputs, and included are 75 built-in video games, Atari VCS/2600 classics like Night Driver, Asteroids and Adventure. Unfortunately, most likely due to licensing issues, third-party games such as Activision’s Pitfall are not on the list.
A nice inclusion, though, are wireless controllers in the style of the originals. Ironic, considering Atari actually produced wireless 2600 controllers back in 1983, although the ones included in this package aren’t nearly as monstrous. Replica game paddle controllers also come bundled with the deluxe model, which should make playing games like Breakout and Video Olympics feel much more natural.
The Atari Flashback 4 Deluxe is made by AtGames and sells for $79.99, although at this writing they are currently sold out, so you should keep an eye out for replenished supplies, or you might have to do some searching to see if they are available online at various auction sites and the like.