In 1991, long after laserdisc games had come and gone in the arcades, Rick Dyer tried his hand again in the genre by releasing Time Traveler. Distributed by Sega, Time Traveler was similar in concept to Dyer’s previous huge hit, the arcade laserdisc blockbuster Dragon’s Lair, featuring lush animation by Don Bluth. In Time Traveler, however, the action directed by players was represented by live actors. The hook here was, they didn’t just appear on a screen, but on a stage in the cabinet, seeming to hover in the air as actual objects.
The trick was achieved by having an image from a monitor hidden in the cabinet bounced off a blacked-out semi-sphere mirror up onto the stage, giving the illusion of depth to the characters. Not really “holographic”, but a pretty nifty visual effect nonetheless.
Unfortunately, like Dragon’s Lair before it, Time Traveler was hindered by a lack of interaction. In the game players control old-west Marshal Gram (like Holo-gram….get it?) in his quest to rescue beautiful Princess Kyi-La of the Galactic Federation, and prevent the evil scientist Volcor from tearing time apart. To do so, gamers merely chose which direction Gram should move or whether to use his guns, with the results played out accordingly. And with Dragon’s Lair and the various laserdisc games that came in its sizeable wake, arcade patrons quickly tired of the effect of Time Traveler and moved on.
Time Traveler did pull in $18 million in sales upon release, and a fighting game called Holosseum utilized the same tech, although with sprites instead of actors, the next year. It also got a home DVD release from Digital Liesure in 2000, sans holographic effect but presented in 3D with included glasses. Holography in the arcades, at least according to Rick Dyer and Sega, might have been a pretty picture, but failed to leave a lasting image.
It’s hard to believe that PONG is a half-century old. But it was 50 years ago, on Nov. 29, 1972, when an upstart company in Santa Clara, California called Atari announced a crazy product: a ping-pong game played on a TV screen, mounted inside a wooden cabinet.
It was the second attempt by the company to carve out a new entertainment genre: the first was Computer Space, a video coin-op game the company had produced the previous year under the uncomfortable business name Syzygy. Sketched out by co-founder Nolan Bushnell and assembled by Al Alcorn, PONG would go on to massive success, creating an entire industry that, within a decade, would be worth $3.2 billion dollars.
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.
Taking five days to film, the full 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 versionhere 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. It also got the job done for Atari; by their estimations the theatrical ad and shortened TV spots had by August of 1982 increased public awareness of Dig Dug by a whopping 227% over markets without the ads. This converted into 30% higher coin drops for the arcade game in those same markets. I can Dig that!
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.
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 C64. Aztec 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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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 Wars, WarGames 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.
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: