Category Archives: Atari

Oscar Week at TDE: Star Wars (1983)

George Lucas’ movie Star Wars doesn’t require much of an introduction. The science fiction epic was released in 1977 and forever changed the film industry. The fact that it didn’t snag the Best Picture oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony (that honour went to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) the following year is often considered a bit of a robbery. Star Wars buffs can take consolation that John Williams won for Best Score, which also features prominently in the arcade game.

It’s to the great credit of Atari’s Star Wars arcade game that it lives up to the original material. Designed by Mike Hally, it was based off an earlier unfinished game by Battlezone creator Ed Rotberg. Utilizing Atari’s colour Quadrascan vector graphics hardware, the game totally immersed players in a galaxy far, far away… especially if they were playing the sit-down cockpit version. The game covered the action that takes place in the film’s final reel: Luke Skywalker as Red Five, joining the attack against the dreaded Imperial Death Star. Controlling Luke’s X-Wing fighter, gamers fended off a wave of enemy TIE fighters, then swooped down into the famous Star Wars trench scene in a race to deliver the final shot into the exhaust port, then out in time to watch the great conflagration as the deadly technological terror explodes. Then rinse and repeat, as the TIE fighters became more numerous and active, and the surface defenses of the Death Star increased in complexity and difficulty.

Not only did we have detailed and fluid vector graphics, we also got snippets Williams’ aforementioned rousing music score, as well as well-done and dramatic voice synthesis straight from the film. Add to that famed Atari controller engineer Jerry Liachek’s great-feeling flight yolk controller, and you had the makings of an undisputed classic. Atari’s Star Wars arcade game deserves its place as one of the greatest games of all time.

Here are the rest of the Oscar Week articles on TDE:

The Towering Inferno (VCS/2600, U.S. Games 1982)
M*A*S*H (VCS/2600 Fox Video Games 1983)
Rocky (ColecoVision, Coleco 1983)
The Wizard of Oz (SNES, Manley/SETA 1993)
Jaws (Amiga, Intelligent Design/Screen 7 1989)

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.

An excerpt of a screenshot from Breakout, a video arcade game by Atari.

Breaking Bad

 

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.

Long Lived Is The New Flesh

There’s certain movies that immediately tickle my memory of those days of my youth, hunched over in front of the TV, tightly gripping the joystick of my Atari. Sure, there’s the ones from the early 80’s dedicated directly to the subject of video games, such as Tron or WarGames,  which I’ve covered in my series of Games on Film articles. And there’s some that are simply of that era. Then there are some that cause a deeper itch in my psyche.

There’s Videodrome.

I was a teenager when I first watched Videodrome, which actually celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.  It wasn’t my first film by Canadian writer and director David Cronenberg; Scanners had come out a couple of years earlier and had definitely made an impression on me.  Videodrome, however, changed something inside of me. It wasn’t some earth-shaking epiphany, though, where you crane your neck and cry “Eureka!”.  The movie is like the video virus portrayed in its story. It doesn’t influence you, it infects you. It literalized viral videos before anyone ever heard of Internet memes.   Before most had ever heard of the Internet, even.

photo of Marshall McLuhan, 1966

McLuhan, 1966 photo by Henri Dauman

The movie is itself heavily influenced by the works of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media analyst and philosopher who famously coined the term “The medium is the message”.  McLuhan’s warnings of the invasive power of television to shape reality in its own images, of how it was becoming a complete electronic extension of man, so impacted Cronenberg that the character of Brian O’blivion in the film is based on the media critic. The film is more viscerally prescient than McLuhan’s casual statements of dehumanization. Videodrome is about the first “reality” television show.

It is also about the battle of hearts and minds fought through the arena of the television set, so it’s no wonder that protagonist Max Renn, played by James Woods, has an Atari 2600 setup plugged into his TV.  What more literally represents a battle through the TV more than a video game?  They have a place in the New Flesh, as shown in this iconic scene from the film:

Cronenberg would again probe the idea of the mating of reality and fantasy, of technology and the flesh, in eXistenZ (1999). Dealing directly with video games and virtual reality, the movie would not be quite so prescient this time; its thunder would be stolen by the mind-bending, time-stopping pyrotechnics of The Matrix, released earlier the same year.

With crushing casualness, McLuhan said “The medium is the message”. Cronenberg has a rejoinder:  “The medium is the flesh”.  Long live the New Flesh.

For anyone interested in director David Cronenberg and his wonderfully weird body of work, I highly recommend picking up the book Cronenberg On Cronenberg.

 

Gameplay from arcade version of Asteroids

This Asteroids Trailer Will Rock Your World

Back in the heady days of 2011 I posted about a movie version of the classic Atari coin-op Asteroids, being developed by Universal as a project for Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich.  I haven’t heard much about that project since, but I’m thinking it ought to be just scuttled right now, because THIS version looks way better:


As always, for more information on the history of Atari’s seminal arcade game Asteroids, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Conan O’Brien Takes On Retro Games

These days, mountainous-haired carrot-top Conan O’Brien seems to be taking a lead from Jimmy Fallon, who replaced O’Brien on NBC’s Late Night back in 2009. Conan went on to host the vaunted late night talk show The Tonight Show, a run that only lasted months. Fallon himself has since been tasked to take over The Tonight Show when current host Jay Leno steps down, perhaps even permanently this time.

Anyway, this post isn’t meant to dwell on the revolving-door morass that is late night television in America.  It is meant to point out that O’Brien himself has started to mine video games for comedic value, much like Fallon has pretty much from day one.  Fallon played Wii games on his show when Nintendo’s revolutionary console came out, and has featured other popular games in front of the camera.

This focus on video game playing by late night hosts seems on the whole to be tapping the popularity of “Let’s Play” videos of game play that litter YouTube and twitch.tv these days. Germain to this site, O’Brien featured a “Throwback Edition” of his Clueless Gamer segment last week, playing games from the Atari 2600 library. Among the savaged product was the big kahuna of awful classic games, the impenetrable E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a game so dense and confusing, and with such high-hopes pinned upon it at release in 1982, that its abject failure was one of the reasons the entire video game industry cratered in 1983-84.

Gaze upon the spectacle of Conan O’Brien sampling the best (and worst) games from one of the most popular video game systems of all time:

The Dot Eaters 15th Anniversary Re-Launch Party

Tomorrow, May 16 we will be holding a shindig to celebrate our 15th anniversary online, as well as the launch of our revamped site, which came online May 1.  The details are as follows:

The venue will be Saviari Tea & Cocktail Lounge, located at 926 King St. West.  It’s at the intersection of King W. and Strachan, the next major intersection West of Bathurst St., in Toronto, Ontario.


View Larger Map

The event will run from 6:00pm to 8:00pm.  There will be classic video game stations set up to play, including Mattel’s Intellivision and the Coleco ColecoVision. We will also be running a game tournament, playing Atari’s infamous 2600 version of Pac-Man.  Here’s how the prizes will break down:

1st Prize: a $50 dollar EB Games gift card

2nd Prize: a pair of tickets to the Game On exhibit currently running at the Ontario Science Centre.  This is an amazing exhibit of the history of video games, from PONG right up to modern systems and games.

3rd Prize: a $20 dollar gift card for A & C Games, a video game store specializing in retro games and systems.

In addition, each winner will receive a retro video game T-Shirt from Chop Shop Goods.  As well, there are 50 discounted tickets to the Ontario Science Centre for everyone, first come first served.

The event is free to attend, and there is a $5 registration fee to enter the Pac-Man competition.  There is a cash bar, and appetizers will be served.  To RSVP for the event, please shoot an email to contact@thedoteaters.com or use the contact form on this site on the Contact Us page.

See you there!

What Nolan Said: Innovation

Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in 1972, sold it to Warner Communications in 1976, and was eventually ushered out of the company in 1978.  The writing had been on the wall for awhile, for the man who had kept Atari alive by constantly innovating, by constantly swimming forward in a sea of ravenous competitors.  By then, Atari had gone from a company about innovating to a company about marketing past successes, and that attitude eventually helped sink the entire industry in 1983-84.  What Nolan Said:

Nolan Bushnell and quote

Nolan Bushnell and quote

Quote comes from a 2007 interview of Bushnell by Benj Edwards for Vintage Computing and Gaming.

Image is of Bushnell at the Campus Party Brasil Expo in Jan. 2013.  By Camila Cunha.

The Ad Game: Vanguard for Atari VCS/2600

Vanguard was an arcade game developed by “shadow” developer TOSE, and released in Japan by SNK in late 1981 and licensed for North America by Centuri.  It was an important intermediate step towards modern side-scrolling shoot-em-ups such as Gradius and R-Type, improving on a genre first formed by William’s seminal Defender.

Today in the Ad Game we feature a TV commercial for the Atari 2600 port of Vanguard:

Vanguard was definitely a great arcade game, and the 2600 version a spectacular port that demonstrates the amazing things Atari programmers were able to pull off with the platform as it matured.  This ad, however, doesn’t do any of that justice. For instance, who trades off the joystick to their buddies in the middle of a game?  Hard to keep your concentration and momentum going with some jerk begging for the joystick.  Just wait until he crashes, it won’t be long.  Try shouting “The wall, the wall!” into his ear, that oughta speed up his destruction. One of the big innovations touted in Vanguard was the ability to shoot in four directions, but in the ad the shooting looks pretty spastic.  The key to any successful shooter is the precision of your shots, and here it looks like the gunner is having a seizure. Then, of course, we have the hulking Luthor, who’s sole responsibility is to defeat the Gond, the boss at the end of the round.  A man of few words, it is rumoured that Luthor once, when a kid refused to give up the joystick to him, stuffed the poor bastard’s hand completely into the cartridge slot.  We can only know his moods by his demented chuckling. Perhaps Luthor is related to Beavis?

What Nolan Said: The 70th Birthday Edition

Today is Nolan Bushnell’s 70th birthday. Before co-founding Atari and the video game industry, a previous job he had held while a student attending the University of Utah was as a carnival barker. It was a job he ended up doing his whole life.  In today’s What Nolan Said, Bushnell states the ultimate goal he had on the midway of the Lagoon amusement park back then:

Photo via kandinski’s flickr photostream

Atari Files for Bankruptcy Protection

In 1972 Atari was both founded by Nolan Bushnell and produced PONG, the arcade video game that established the industry. Since then,  the Atari brand has bounced around more than the ball from its first game.

The latest iteration of the company was established in 2001, when Infrogrames Entertainment from France picked up the remains of Atari from the Hasbro bankruptcy proceedings, with the parent company eventually changing its name to Atari S.A. in 2009, the initials after the company name standing for “Societe Anonym”, the French equivalent of Ltd..

Logo for Rollercoaster Tycoon, a computer video game by Atari

An apropos representation of the ups and downs of Atari

 

The new entity had some success with titles such as Rollercoaster Tycoon, some disasters with games like the remake of Alone In the Dark, and accrued a massive amount of debt in a seemingly endless series of acquisitions.  In recent days, the U.S. division of Atari found its stride by abandoning the retail sector and concentrating on the hugely profitable, digitally distributed casual and mobile game markets. Therein lies the crux of this latest filing:  detaching itself from the drowning-in-debt French holding company, and striking out on its own with renewed investment capital in order to exploit the new freemium gaming economy.

Expect Atari to bounce back.

For more information on the beginnings of the company that started it all, consult your local Dot Eaters article.