Fire Truck. What, you thought I meant something else?
Of course, this game just might have caused you to drop a few F-bombs in 1978, as your buddy sat in the seat steering the titular vehicle and controlling the gas and breaks, while you struggle to keep the trailer straight with a tiller wheel mounted behind on a control panel. The game can be played solo, but since it’s the first arcade game to offer simultaneous co-operative play, a two-person crew is really necessary to get the most out of it. A purely one-player version would be released by Atari later as Smokey Joe.
Try to keep collateral damage to a minimum as you fight fires, will you?
I’m not sure if I always ended up finding Fire Truck cabinets with defective second steering wheels, or if the game was shipped this way from Atari’s factory, but I found it impossible to control the trailer with the tiller wheel. No matter how gently I handled that second wheel, the trailer would seem to have a mind of its own and just swing all over the place, usually into houses or other vehicles.
Still, Fire Truck was a unique game that had players working together instead of against each other. That’s worth a few smashed and/or burned houses, I guess.
Beloved comedy science fiction writer Douglas Adams postulated in his famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books that the answer to life, the universe, and everything was 42.
This may or may not be the case (we’ll have to find the question first), but the answer to fun, video games, and everything is indeed 42, as in 42 years ago today on Nov. 29, 1972. That was the day an upstart venture 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.
Midway Mfg. Corp had ridden the coattails of Atari with their arcade video games Winner and Winner IV, both PONG clones released in 1973. They stopped following and helped push the technical envelope, however, with their groundbreaking Gun Fight, released in 1975. The arcade game placed two western hombres, one controlled by the player with two pistol-grip joysticks, in a showdown amongst rolling conestoga wagons and numerous cactii. It was based on the Taito arcade game Western Gun, but Midway game development contractors Nutting Associates decided to add a CPU in their redesign for the game’s release in North America, making it the first use of such technology in an arcade game. This allowed for more complicated on-screen sprites than the simple square paddles and ball of previous PONG games, as well as more unpredictable movement from the computer-controlled cowboy. The company followed up Gun Fight with Boot Hill in 1977, placing the video sprites on top of a western tableau diorama built into the cabinet. Gun Fight designers Dave Nutting and Tom McHugh, of Nutting Associates, went on to make Sea Wolf and Wizard of Wor for Midway.
Death Race was an arcade game released by Exidy in 1976, amid a pack of other such driving games as Atari’s Grand Trak 10 (1974) and Le Mans (1976), as well as Indy 800 (1975), published under Atari’s secret Kee label. Racing games were pretty hot at the time, but Death Race threw in a little something special to the mix: instead of racing around a track, you drove your vehicle around an arena trying to run over little stick figures, who when hit would shriek and turn into a cross for you to avoid. It would become the first game to generate widespread concerns about video game violence.
Death Race, scourge of the arcades!
The blocky and abstract graphical representation of its obvious inspiration, Roger Corman’s low-budget exploitation flick Death Race 2000, seems positively quaint by today’s standards. Death Race, however, drove a storm of controversy as word got out about the game. It was decried as “morbid” by trade publications of the time, and the National Safety Council branded it as “sick”. Newspapers ran stories gleefully outlining the premise of the game, and no reassurances from Exidy’s marketing man Paul Jacobs that players were actually dispatching “gremlins”, as noted in a label on the game’s dashboard, could quite quell the outrage.
Instructions for killing ‘gremlins”
Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, Death Race was a hit for Exidy and helped establish them as a long-time player in the video game market. The game also paved the way for more realistic video game violence, in the vein of the Mortal Kombat and the Grand Theft Auto games. All of which, of course, helped to turn kids into hardened killers, in the same way that video baseball games turned them into professional ball players.
It was, most likely, 40 years ago this month that Gary Gigax and Dave Arneson started showing friends and family their freshly printed rule books for a new tabletop miniatures fantasy game, sold under the company name Tactical Studies Rules or TSR. A combination of Gygax’s Chainmail and Arneson’s Blackmoor, the new ruleset would be called Dungeons & Dragons and it would change the landscape of gaming forever. D&D, and its later branch-off Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, widely influenced computer and video games at their onset, both in the games themselves and those that create them. To wit:
Willie Crowther was part of the team that built the foundations of the Internet at BBN in Cambridge, MA. in the early 70’s. He was also involved in the large D&D community in the area, and later created the seminal text-adventure computer game Adventure.
Dave Lebling created a bookkeeping program on MIT’s computer in the 70’s, to help manage his D&D obsession. He later worked with a team at the school to make the wildly popular computer text adventure Zork, and subsequently helped found Infocom.
Zork box art, TRS-80 version
Jim Connelly and Jon Freeman were regular players in a D&D group in the 70’s, and they went on to start up Automated Simulations, producing the heavily D&D influenced Temple of Apshai, as well as other games in the Dunjunquest series. Automated Simulations would eventually morph into Epyx.
That’s not to forget Richard Garriott’s penchant for organizing D&D games at his parent’s house in Houston, Texas in the late 70’s. Garriott would create the profoundly successful Ultima computer role playing games, and himself sink into a fantasy role as the fabled Lord British.
And then there are the direct licenses of D&D to video and computer games. Too numerous to count here, but I’ll leave you with one of the first. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge (its full name, as per the contract with TSR) was developed by APh Technological Consulting and published by Mattel Electronics for the Intellivision in 1982. A D&D game in label only, it concerns itself with a team of three adventurers travelling across a mountainous landscape in a bit to retrieve the two halves of a broken royal crown, secreted away by a cadre of dragons. It would later be renamed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain to distinguish it from another AD&D game from Mattel called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin, released in 1983. While it may not do much with the D&D lore, the first AD&D game from Mattel is still a fun adventure that accomplishes a lot inside its 6K boundaries:
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 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.
Today, Nov. 15, 2013, the latest in modern console gaming drops. The Playstation 4 features 8G of RAM, a 1.84 teraflop graphics chip, a 500G hard drive and an eight core CPU running somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1.6 GHz per core.
Now, follow me back through the murky mists of time. Here, just put your hand on my arm, I’ll lead you through. Watch out, don’t trip over that original Playstation, it’s grey and hard to see in this fog. Look, there’s Panasonic’s 3DO Real console, that monster is hard to miss. Be careful not to trip over those joystick cords for the Atari VCS. Wait… ah, here we are.
Odyssey with controllers plugged in, and game cards
The Odyssey, released by Magnavox in 1972. Developed at military contractor Sanders Associates by Ralph Baer, it was the very first home video game console. The Odyssey didn’t have gigabytes of RAM, nor a graphics processor, nor a multi-core processing unit. It didn’t have ANY CPU or any of that other stuff; inside it was a board made up of discreet components like capacitors, resistors and transistors. Its black and white graphics were so rudimentary that packaged with the console were mylar overlays you would slip onto your TV screen to simulate various backgrounds. You then played virtual Ping Pong, or shot at dots with an available light gun accessory. The Odyssey didn’t transport you onto a fully-rigged sailing ship as you plied the green waters of the Caribbean, nor did it place you on a frantic battlefield full of soaring jet fighters or rumbling tanks.
Beginning the Odyssey
The Odyssey did, however, take the first tentative step towards those later worlds. It was the starting point, with the PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One as the current destination. We will keep moving forward, but on these occasions, it’s good to also take a look back at where we’ve been.
Out of Namco in 1979 came soaring Galaxian, a take on the Space Invaders formula where the little alien critters are not content to shuffle left and right across the screen, but break formation and come tearing down at the player, shooting at them all the way.
They’re coming for you in Galaxian
Galaxian not only helped usher in full RGB colour to arcade games, but also pioneered the use of sprites as graphical objects, allowing for the furious action that made the game so popular. It was as influential to video game design as its own invading inspiration, and spawned a set of sequels, such as 1981’s Galaga, as well as a plethora of remakes and ports. A particularly awesome port was made of Galaxian for the VCS/2600in 1983, so good that it seems almost impossible to have been done within the stringent programming confines of Atari’s warhorse video game system. Of course, we can’t forget the game’s treatment at the hands of Coleco, featured as one of the company’s popular tabletop LED mini-arcade games.
Bring the arcade home with you!
Down another path of sequels was handheld LED game Galaxian 2 by Entex, as well as the monstrous Galaxian 3 theatre games constructed by Namco in the 90’s. These giants, starting as 28-player motion ride experiences and eventually tapered down to 6-player walk-in arcade games, give the Galaxian player a suitably epic experience.
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:
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: