Category Archives: VCS/2600

A screenshot of the arcade video game Space Invaders.

Invading the Arcade

Even 35 years later, Space Invaders epitomizes video games. Like the titular creatures who march inexorably down the screen at the player-controlled missile base, when the arcade game was released by Taito in 1978 it marched video games out of the dodgy doldrums of bars, bowling alleys and pool halls and into mainstream venues like restaurant lobbies and supermarket foyers. Thus, the game helped define the idea of video games in the minds of the public.

Taito engineer Tomohiro Nishikado drew his inspiration for the game from classic SF movies such as War of the Worlds, and upon release the game caused near the same kind of commotion as Orson Welle’s famous radio adaptation of that story. Space Invaders was so wildly popular in Japan that shop owners cleared their inventory and lined their walls with game cabinets to cash in on the craze. So many 100-yen coins were dropped into the machines that the Bank of Japan had to triple production to keep the money in circulation.

Van Halen bass player next to 'Space Invaders' machine, an arcade video game by Namco and Midway 1978

Van Halen bass player Michael Anthony, dreaming of disintegrating David Lee Roth, 1982

 

Space Invaders was met with great success in North America as well, under a license to Midway. Arcade operators were confident when they purchased a cabinet, knowing that they would recoup the cost in quarters within a month. When it became the first arcade game licensed for a home video game console, Space Invaders proceeded to save the struggling Atari VCS and put it on the road to complete domination of the home system market for several years.

Market penetration for the game was such that even the New England Journal of Medicine got into the act in 1981, dubbing a pained wrist caused by constant play of the game as Space Invader Wrist.  Never had coming down with a new ailment been so much fun.

For more information on the history of Space Invaders, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

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.

 

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!

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?

The Visual Cortex: Joust An Ad

Today the Visual Cortex hatches an ad for the Atari 2600 and 5200 versions of Williams’ arcade hit Joust:

Click to enlarge

Running in periodicals in 1984, it’s short on actual screenshots of the game, and heavy on artist renditions of the action. I also find it humourous how it tries to sex-up the “beasts of the air” you fly in the game, the ostriches from the original arcade game.   The ad copy starts off with an unusual, confusing take on the classic opening words of the Star Wars movies:

 

Well, which is it?  Long ago, or a distant future?  Anyway, I don’t think I want to purchase a game that spits eggs out of my TV screen, from whence evil, sharp-taloned dragons attack me.

Nintendo Admits It Has A Small Wii

Recently we seem to be in the timeline of our current generation of video game consoles where companies, anxious to generate renewed interest in their hardware without actually producing something new that would cannibalize sales of their current offerings, simply produce refreshes of their current machines.  This involves reducing the size and amount of inner circuitry of their lines, in order to look more sleek and save on production costs and thusly lower retail prices. Atari and Mattel both attempted to stave off obsolescence by remodelling their flagship consoles in the early 80’s, producing the 2600 jr. and Intellivision II respectively.

The Wii Mini, a video game console by Nintendo

Big things, small packages

 

Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have undergone shrinkage with “slim” versions, and now Nintendo, with the release of its next generation Wii U console safely behind them, has announced what it calls the Wii Mini.  Priced at $99.99, the smaller form-factor comes with a red Wii Remote Plus and Nunchuk controller, to match the console’s colour.  What it doesn’t include, however, is any online capability, nor Gamecube compatibility.  The console also seems to be a Canadian exclusive, at least over the 2012 Christmas season.  Nintendo is mum on any details about other countries getting a release, so currently only Canadians have tiny Wii’s.  Don’t worry though, we’re not embarrassed. Although I don’t think I’d be telling anyone I had a Wii Mini.  Especially in the clubs.  Be sure to ask your Future Shop salesman about his Wii Mini on Dec. 7.

Okay, I’ll stop now.  Although I still think they should have called it the “WeeWii”. Maybe in Scotland.

An excerpt of the cover of Atari's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

1983 – E.T.’s Final Home Recreated

Perfectly captured in forlorn sepia tones is the fate of the E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial game by Atari, infamous for helping sink the company and its flagship console the 2600, and thus the rest of the U.S. video game industry in 1983 – 1984.  Created by artist Pauline Acalin, these 6×6 digital prints feature the rejected 8-bit fugitive wandering a landfill, while the ghosts of slightly more popular electronic aliens look on mourning his fate.  The work is simply titled “1983”.

The hand-signed prints can be purchased at the Yetee Gallery space on Storenvy, for $20.  For more information on the E.T. game and the great video game crash, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

via Kotaku

The Roots of Activision

These days, although one of the most prolific game developers and publishers around, Activision is probably best known as the company behind the Call of Duty series. Starting as an entry into the WWII-shooter sweepstakes that was all the rage in the early 2000’s, the games moved into a more modern setting with, yes, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games that have become a license to print money in recent years.  A lot of people now deride Activision as simply resting on its laurels, content to spin money from what are essentially the same games released year after year with each new incarnation of the Modern Warfare series.

The company had a much more nobel and creative beginning.  Founded in 1979 by former Atari programmers who wrote some of the first games for that illustrious company, its raison d’être was to give creative license and proper accreditation to those the founders thought the most important to the success of any game platform: the people creating the games.  That, and to make some of the very best games for what was then the leading console, the Atari VCS/2600.

Activision founding members in 1980: L. to R. Bob Whitehead, David Crane, Larry Kaplan and Alan Miller

 

Throwing the astounding creativity of those early days into sharp relief compared to the moribund Activision of today is the Activision Anthology, a collection of wondrous 8-bit games now released for IOS devices.  The seemingly made-for-touch-devices Kaboom! is included free, with 45 other gems such as Pitfall!, Barnstorming and Enduro available as an in-app purchase for $6.99.  Another purchase tier lets you buy the games in 11 game bundles, each for $2.99.  They feature multiple control schemes, to help you acclimatize from rubber Atari joystick to touch screen.  There is also a lot of historical documentation included, such as original artwork, manuals and tips from the original programmers.

Those longing for the days when creativity was the watchword of the video game industry instead of a fossilized memory can gorge themselves on the best of the best with the Activision Anthology.

For more information on the company and the games that helped build the foundation of the industry, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.