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:
“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.
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:
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.
While extensively covering Disney’s 1982 computer-world movie Tron, I referenced futurist Syd Mead quite a bit. He left an indelible mark on that film and many other seminal SF works like Blade Runner. He passed away yesterday at age 86
Tron director Steven Lisberger (in black) meets with his art design staff: Syd Mead (centre, wearing tie), camera right of him is Moebius, next to him is Peter Lloyd
On Tron, Mead’s specialty in future-cool hardware was put to good use, designing the tanks and villain Sark’s huge floating carrier, along with the eye-catching TRON title font. But his most iconic design for the film, that ranks up there with the flying spinner car from Blade Runner, were the lightcycles. Still recognizable as motorcycles, but sleek, imposing and merging man and machine, they are a design that has lived on in the imagination far past when the lights came up in the theatres.
Tron lightcycles from original film, 1982
Rendered as CGI creations in Tron by effects house MAGI via their Synthavision process, the lightcycles had to be scaled back a bit from Mead’s vision. He did get to have the full look of the vehicles realized in the sequel, Tron Legacy. The biggest difference between the two is how the rider truly becomes a part of the cycle in Legacy, other than just being a driver inside it.
Syd Mead concept drawing of Tank interior
Mead also worked directly in the video game industry, including designing the vehicles in the 1995 Sega Saturn game Cyber Speedway. I think it’s fair to say the extended garage of our possible future wouldn’t look nearly as cool if not for the startling design work of Syd Mead. His practical but far-flung vision will be missed. RIP.
You can read my coverage of Tron and see many of Mead’s designs for it here on my site: http://bit.ly/2Z1CK8J
Original Syd Mead lightcycle design, with driver who becomes part of the vehicle
The Supercharger was one of those devices released later in the lifecycle of the 2600, designed to extend the life of the console which, by 1982, was incredibly popular but outclassed by the newer game systems. Made by Starpath (formerly Arcadia before having to change their name to avoid confusion with Emerson’s Arcadia 2001 console), the Supercharger was an elongated cartridge that added another 6K of RAM to Atari’s old warhorse. Not only that, but it also had a cable that you would plug into the 1/4″ jack of any cassette tape recorder, and load in games for the system via cassette. Thusly, not only did you get more RAM for your 2600 but also bigger games.
One such game being the delightfully titled Communist Mutants from Space. It is yet another Galaxian knock-off, albeit with some twists from the formula like different types of missiles you could fire at the Commies swooping down at you, or shields to defect their godless shots, or a time-warp feature to either rewind a fatal mistake, like letting government take control of all means of production from god-fearing capitalists.
It had a cool cover, too.
Not just commies, but mutant commies. From space!
But there’s something familiar about those commies, even if they are mutants and from space. Something about their shininess, about how their design is both round AND sharp at the same time… let’s journey down to the next paragraph for the answer, shall we?
It’s because the cover to the game was drawn by Alton Kelley, who, along with Stanley Mouse, made the super-cool rock album covers for Journey, one of the biggest rock bands of the 70’s and 80’s. Kelley was particularly responsible for the famous Scarab escape vehicle feature on the cover of, you guessed it, Journey’s Escape album. Maybe you’ll see some Communistic similarities in it.
Journey makes its Escape, 1981
A closer look at that Scarab vehicle:
It’s also in space!
Pretty nifty. Of course, Communist Mutants From Space isn’t the only video game connection to Journey. The band had two games of their own. Data East made Journey Escape for the 2600, and Bally/Midway made an arcade version called simply, Journey.