Monthly Archives: January 2014

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1984: Devil World

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.

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. For more information on Devil World and the Famicom, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

 

Breaking Good

Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Breakout

30 years ago, in January of 1984, Steve Jobs and Apple presented the Macintosh computer to an astounded public. Utilizing such exotic technology as a mouse and a 3.5″ floppy drive, the Mac helped transform the personal computer landscape, from arcane commands to easy-to-use point-and-click interfaces. While it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves when first introduced, the Mac design would forever influence how computers were made, sold, and perceived by the public.

10 years before unveiling the Macintosh, Jobs got his start in 1974 as the 40th employee at Atari, as a $5 an hour technician refining the design of video games developed at the company. After returning from India on an Atari service call, in 1976 Jobs was tasked by Nolan Bushnell to build a new game the Atari boss had designed, based on the company’s premiere game PONG. In it, gamers would hit the ball up against a wall of disappearing blocks, as opposed to batting it back and forth with another player. Offering an insane deadline of just four days to get the job done, Jobs enlisted the help of his friend Steve Wozniak to engineer the game. It was called Breakout, and was a major hit for Atari.

Jobs eventually left Atari, and along with Wozniak founded Apple Computer. With the release of their Apple II computer, they helped establish the personal computer industry. With the release of the Macintosh, Jobs would further popularize and refine computers. As a bombastic carnival barker and charismatic distorter of reality, you can see more than just a bit of Bushnell in the man.

For more information on the history of Breakout, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Cartridge, a home video game for the Intellivision 1982

Dungeons & Dragons At 40: Its Role in Video Game History

It was, most likely, 40 years ago this month that Gary Gigax and Dave Arneson started showing friends and family their freshly printed rule books for a new tabletop miniatures fantasy game, sold under the company name Tactical Studies Rules or TSR.  A combination of Gygax’s Chainmail and Arneson’s Blackmoor, the new ruleset would be called Dungeons & Dragons and it would change the landscape of gaming forever. D&D, and its later branch-off Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, widely influenced computer and video games at their onset, both in the games themselves and those that create them.  To wit:

Willie Crowther was part of the team that built the foundations of the Internet at BBN in Cambridge, MA. in the early 70′s.  He was also involved in the large D&D community in the area, and later created the seminal text-adventure computer game Adventure.

Dave Lebling created a bookkeeping program on MIT’s computer in the 70′s, to help manage his D&D obsession. He later worked with a team at the school to make the wildly popular computer text adventure Zork, and subsequently helped found Infocom.

Jim Connelly and Jon Freeman were regular players in a D&D group in the 70′s, and they went on to start up Automated Simulations, producing the heavily D&D influenced Temple of Apshai, as well as other games in the Dunjunquest series. Automated Simulations would eventually morph into Epyx.

That’s not to forget Richard Garriott’s penchant for organizing D&D games at his parent’s house in Houston, Texas in the late 70′s. Garriott would create the profoundly successful Ultima computer role playing games, and himself sink into a fantasy role as the fabled Lord British.

And then there are the direct licenses of D&D to video and computer games.  Too numerous to count here, but I’ll leave you with one of the first.  Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge (its full name, as per the contract with TSR) was developed by APh Technological Consulting and published by Mattel Electronics for the Intellivision in 1982.  A D&D game in label only, it concerns itself with a team of three adventurers travelling across a mountainous landscape in a bit to retrieve the two halves of a broken royal crown, secreted away by a cadre of dragons.  It would later be renamed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain to distinguish it from another AD&D game from Mattel called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin, released in 1983. While it may not do much with the D&D lore, the first AD&D game from Mattel is still a fun adventure that accomplishes a lot inside its 6K boundaries:

Image of Tennis for Two, a precursor video game system by William Higinbotham

Tennis For Two

While there were attempts at displaying games on CRT screens previous to it, William Higinbotham’s Tennis For Two could be considered the first video game that most resembled what was to come. A fun-loving type and avid pinball player, Higinbotham had designed parts for the first atomic bombs during the Manhattan Project. He subsequently moved to Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, NY. There he developed Tennis For Two with the help of fellow technician Robert Dvorak, to be included at the 1958 annual open house at Brookhaven. Built using a Donner analog computer, Higinbotham’s game had players hit a blip of a ball at each other, over a net represented by a line in the middle of the screen. Sound familiar? The game was a smash, creating line-ups of people vying to have a go at computer tennis.

Tennis For Two made a return at the next year’s open house, with added upgrades such as a 17″ monitor and variable gravity effects. The game was then disassembled and used for other purposes. Higinbotham failed to patent his invention, which is probably a good thing.  Since he worked for the U.S. government, they would have ended up owning the rights to video games!

For more information on Tennis For Two, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

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.