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Company logo for Activision video game company

Down Goes Activision! Bought by Microsoft for nearly $70B

For an extensive look at the glorious early years of Activision, have a read of my article, here: https://thedoteaters.com/?bitstory=console/activision

Microsoft has a deal to buy long-time video game company Activision, to the tune of $68.7 billion. That’s a lot of CoD Points! Looking back at the history of Activision, there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude in them being finally snapped up themselves. Through the years, the company has done a fair bit of acquiring of their own. For example:

  • In 1997, they acquired Raven Software, makers of the Heretic FPS games. With Raven closely associated with Doom and Quake makers id Software, this eventually gave Activision an in with id itself. Raven was eventually eviscerated with targeted lay-offs, and as with many dev teams within Activision, is now part of the Call of Duty factory.
  • Neversoft, makers of the Tony Hawk skateboarding games, got picked up in 2000. It was shuttered by Activision in 2014, its remaining team members redirected to… you guessed it… cranking out Call of Duty games.
  • Speaking of Call of Duty (which you do a lot of when it comes to Activision), developer Treyarch was drafted into Activision in 2001. Which marches us to…
  • Infinity Ward had made Medal of Honor: Allied Assault in 2002, and was subsequently picked up by Activision in 2003. They would, of course, be the impetus Call of Duty developers. Activision switches between Infinity Ward and Treyarch as lead designers of each new version of CoD.
  • Grey Matter Interactive (ne: Xatrix Entertainment) had a deal with id to make Return to Castle Wolfenstein in 1999. With id’s close relationship with Activision, Grey Matter ended up gobbled up by them in 2002. Spoiler Alert! They ended up merged with Treyarch to make Call of Duty games! Surprise!
  • RedOctane made their name by pairing with Harmonix to make the Guitar Hero games. After being purchased by Activision in 2006, they were spared the ignominy of having to toil away on the Call of Duty rockpile by being closed down in 2010.
  • There’s few long-standing developers as creative-minded as Toys for Bob, started by Paul Reiche III (the Archon games with Freefall Associates, Mail Order Monsters) and Fred Ford in 1989. After making the first two successful Star Control games (we don’t talk about Star Control 3), they found huge success with the Skylander games, marrying real-life figurines with video games. Picked up by Activision in 2005…. do I really have to say this… they’re put to work on Call of Duty games in 2021.

And of course, there’s the big one, when Activision merged with Vivendi, owners of World of Warcraft makers Blizzard Entertainment, to form Activision Blizzard in 2008.

So, when it comes to Activision these days, to paraphrase The Dark Knight: You either get shut down as a developer, or live long enough to see yourself working on Call of Duty games. In the above list, there wasn’t one description of a developer acquired by Activision where I didn’t also have to include the title Call of Duty! That’s what Activision has become: a Call of Duty factory. Game developers are bought, their talent steadily stripped away, and often eventually shuttered or absorbed. It’s a long way away from the initial vision of Activision, that of under-appreciated game designers lifted out of the enforced anonymity of Atari and allowed to take wing as gaming superstars.

For an extensive look at the glorious early years of Activision, have a read of my article, here: https://thedoteaters.com/?bitstory=console/activision

Aztec, a computer game for the Apple II

A Quick Look Back: Aztec

[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED FEB. 24, 2011]

It’s not an overstatement to describe Aztec as graphically dazzling, an action-adventure game released originally for the Apple II  and Atari 8-bit computers in 1982, and then a couple of years later for the C64Aztec is all the more remarkable when you consider that most adventure games of the era, such as those of Infocom, were limited to mere text to create the atmosphere, or the limited slide-show animations of Sierra On-line.

Aztec was designed by Paul Stephenson and distributed by Datamost, a company that produced a few other classic gaming gems, such as Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory in 1983.  Stephenson himself also designed Swashbuckler for the company, released the same year as Aztec… and you can definitely see familiarity in the combat modes between the two games.

The Title Screen Sets Us Up For Something Special

A colourful (if one had a colour monitor or TV set attached to their Apple) opening title screen greets you while the game loads.  Further pages of white text used to set up the story fool gamers into thinking that perhaps the graphics were a big come-on and that Aztec might be just another text adventure. The text explains that apparently the famed (but unstable)  Professor Von Forster found a lost Aztec temple, but disappeared without further contact.

The player is then presented with a few options, such as choosing either to start a new game or load up a previously saved one.  A difficulty setting is then requested, ranging from 1 if you want to take things easy, all the way up to 8 if one is feeling suicidal.  Charging you with following in the Prof’s footsteps, Aztec then puts the gamer in the scuffed shoes of a fearless adventurer, cutting through all that “red line representing travelling by the air from country to country” rigamarole by opening the gameplay with you standing right outside the Aztec tomb of real-life Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl. With the tap of a key, you descend into the mysterious depths.

Indeed, I DO Dare

The game is essentially a platformer, with large sprites for the adventurer and the various creatures he must dispatch or avoid.  It’s quite a menagerie down there, with spiders, snakes, alligators, Aztec warriors and even dinosaurs calling Quetzalcoal’s tomb home.  While the animations are pretty limited, it’s the details of the artwork that really makes things pop.

There Be Dinosaurs Here

The layout of the tomb is randomized each time you play, and most of your time is spent searching for, opening and looking through boxes and piles of trash on the ground, which can contain weapons, health potions or just the scattered remains of poor Prof. Von Forster.  As you delve deeper the creatures get more dangerous, and the traps more cunning.  The end goal is to snatch a valuable jade idol that is hidden somewhere in the tomb, and then get out with your life.

Fresh Calamari For Dinner Tonight

Helping the creatures in their fight to finish you off is the game’s clunky control method.  Each action is assigned a specific key, so to walk you press “W” and then a direction key, and you’ll keep walking until you hit “S” for stop.  You can also crouch, crawl, plant dynamite, jump, run, climb… it gets to be a bit much fumbling around for each key on the keyboard, although once you get the hang on it you can navigate the tomb quickly while playing the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. You also can enter a fight mode, where you wield either the machete or a pistol, but often it is unsure why you hit or miss something. The sound isn’t any great shakes either; just the bloops and bleeps from the Apple‘s internal speaker, but this somehow adds to the game’s spartan charms. And being able to blow your way out of a jam with a well placed stick of TNT is a play mechanic that is still fairly unmatched in adventure gaming, decades later.

My Own Remains Will Serve As a Warning To Others

I have a particularly fond memory of Aztec, because when I was going to high school the first computers we got were two Apple II‘s for the science class.  For some reason there was a copy of the game in the library of disks, so every chance I got I put that bad boy into the floppy drive and loaded it up.  After a few times of him catching me and telling me to stop playing games with the computers, the science teacher banned me from the keyboard for a week.  I learned my lesson well; when I regained computer privileges I was more careful he wasn’t around when I played.

Sure, it’s no Uncharted, but at the time, this was as close to living out the Indiana Jones dream as you could get on a computer, with Raiders of the Lost Ark having been released just the year before. Aztec, complete with all its bugs and quirks, makes for an unforgettable Apple II gaming treasure.

Logo for Magnavox, makers of the Odyssey 2 video game console

PONG at the Press of a Button: The Magnavox 4305 TV Set

Mr. Peabody, set the Wayback Machine to 1951, when Ralph Baer was working for Loral Electronics Corporation. Tasked to develop “the world’s best television receiver”, Baer figured that while it’s great to improve the picture and sound of TV, what the medium really needed was viewer participation with the device, instead of just passively sitting there staring at the boob tube. One of his ideas is to include some kind of game to be played, but Loral ultimately ash-cans the whole endeavor, deciding that the market couldn’t bear the price tag of a super TV set. Bear, of course, would move on to Sanders Associates, where he would develop a standalone home video game system, that would become the first such marketed device, licensed by Magnavox and released in 1972 as the Odyssey.

Photo of Baer plays the Odyssey 100, circa 1977
Ralph Baer plays the Odyssey 200, circa 1977

Ultimately, Baer’s dream of an interactive TV would be realized by Magnavox when they release the 4305 TV model in 1976. Forget separate boxes, wires and RF modulators you had to screw onto antenna leads… this baby has an electronic ping-pong game at the touch of a button! While a modern marvel, dedicated TV games would go the way of the dodo after the release of programmable game systems like the Fairchild Channel F, or more dramatically with Atari’s powerhouse Video Computer System (VCS)…. later know as the 2600. Still, even those system required gamers to slog a big square console from its hidey-hole, flip the switch on the box connected to your TV, fumble around for the cartridge. The Magnavox 4305 TV? Just push a button to serve your friends or family some humble pie on the electronic tennis court.

Magnavox 4305, a TV/home video game hybrid
The Magnavox 4305 finally integrates the TV and video game, as Baer had originally envisioned, 1977

For more info on Ralph Baer and his amazing Odyssey video game console, check out our in-depth article on the first home video game system here.

Leader Board golf computer game by Access

The Incredibly Convenient Little Islands of Leader Board Golf

Leader Board golf, created by Bruce and Roger Carver of Access Software, is one of the premiere computer golf games of all time. Sure, golf on the computer would advance vastly in the years since Leader Board‘s release in 1986… the Carver brothers themselves would continue to revolutionize computer links with, well, Links in 1990.

But Leader Board continues to fascinate. It had an amazing feel on the Commodore 64… the ball flew through the air and bounced onto the fairways (or bunkers, drat them!) with a kind of uncanny realism for the time, and the swing of the golfer seems as smooth and human as the titular prince in Broderbund’s Prince of Persia. But of all the endearing qualities of Leader Board, my favourite has to be the weird glitch that happens when you stroke a ball that lands at the edge of the many water hazards in the game. Instead of plunking you in the water and adding a stroke to your score, when the graphics are redrawn to your new position on the fairway, suddenly you find that your ball has miraculously landed on one tiny little island in the water! When I played with friends, when this happened we would invariably let out with a “Whew! Good thing the ball just happened to land on that tiny island!”

The incredibly convenient little islands of Leader Board golf. Totally ridiculous… but also immensely charming. This video is my ode to one of the goofiest, and greatest, game glitches of all time. Of course, since I’m playing golf, I let off a few choice words at the end, so you’ll have to click on the “link” in the embed to watch it.

A Completely Bonkers TV Ad for Pole Position

A lot of people might remember the manic ads that Sega put out in the 90’s (SEGAAA!), and consider them the apex (or nadir) of video game advertisements.

But Atari kind of created the mold here, with this insane 60 second spot that aired in 1983, announcing the crossing of their arcade hit Pole Position over to the 2600 and 5200 video game systems. You know that any ad which starts with a giant hand reaching down and shaking the douche-bag corporate executive “who keeps interesting things from happening” and family out of their VW Rabbit and into Formula One racecars is DEFINITELY a keeper.

Please enjoy the mayhem, and remember: THIS WAY, CLARENCE!

title screen for movie trailer for WarGames, a computer game themed movie starring Matthew Broderick

Classic Computer Thriller WarGames Hits VHS in 1984

I’m embarrassed to say that I only read George Orwell’s classic near-future book 1984 only a few years ago at the time of writing this blog post. The most amazing thing about this excellent novel is how incredibly prescient it is.

Watching the 1983 computer game-themed WarGames gives me the same feeling. Back before the Internet was a popular thing and Dani Bunten was just starting to popularize online gaming over at a little start-up gaming company called Electronic Arts with programs like Modem WarsWarGames told the gripping story of young David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) trying to hack into a gaming software company and unknowingly causing a NORAD computer bring the world to the brink of nuclear armageddon. Even since, there a have been very few, if any, movies that gave a realistic view of actual computer hacking… and certainly not while surrounded by such an exciting package.

So, we bring you the trailer for the movie’s release onto VHS tape in the year that Orwell warned about, a movie with its own advice about the nuclear arms race: The only winning move is not to play.

You can click here for our in-depth look at the development of WarGames and its lasting impact.

Commodore 64, the popular home computer from Commodore 1982

1983 Commodore 64 TV Commercial – “Honest Competition”

Shilling the Commodore 64 home computer in this 1983 TV ad about its honest competition… I kinda wish Commodore would have spelled out the nature of how they “asked” various competing computer systems which one was better. Did they run a comparison program? What were the parameters? Who programmed it? Enquiring minds want to know!

For some computer gaming history, check out the Computer Gaming History section of The Dot Eaters, here:

https://thedoteaters.com/?bitstory=computer

Image of the Atari Lynx handheld game unit, 1989

Reason for Failure of Atari Lynx Handheld #469

“You steal my guitar? I shoot you in the crotch! Wait, forgot my gun.”

Outside of the obligatory (and quite good) official Atari arcade ports to the Lynx, one struggles to think of a reason for gamers of the 90’s to have picked one up. It’s certainly not for the mostly bizarre third-party games that remain. Take, for example, this one from Telegames. I can’t imagine people being enticed by such a confusing and inscrutable box cover, saddled with the title Fat Bobby. I have a hard time just picking out the protagonist. Guitar guy is more prominently placed, but then again the other guy seems more relevant to the title…. which I always read as ‘Fat Boobie’ for some reason. Maybe it’s the font.

Fat Bobbie, a video game for the Atari Lynx handheld console

Guitaratica!

To read more about the Atari Lynx and the great computer game developer Epyx that created it, consult my article on the whole works, here.

 

Logo for Imagic, a video game company

All the Console-Exclusive Imagic Games for the Intellivision

Nobody beat the Atari 2600 for third-party game support, but Mattel’s Intellivision console wasn’t a slouch in that department, either. While one could argue that the shovelware foisted onto Atari’s flagship system was one of the culprits of the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, third-party support was also crucial for a console’s future on the market, as well. And maybe the greatest external game developer for the Inty was Imagic, who not only made games for the system, but good games, many of which utilized the advanced power inside the system to bring gamers to places no one had ever imagined possible. I made this video to showcase why Imagic was #1 with Intellivision owners in the later stage of the console:

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.