Category Archives: 1981

A screenshot from Donkey Kong, a video arcade game by Nintendo, 1981.

Donkey Kong’s 35th Anniversary

It was 35 years ago today that Nintendo of America first let loose the angry ape Donkey Kong on the American public, but the company history goes back far earlier than that. Founded in 1889 in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto, Nintendo Koppai started off making hanafuda cards, then moved to American style cards at the turn of the century. In the 1960’s, third Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi and former maintenance man Gunpei Yokoi would steer the company into toys and electronics. Yamauchi eventually set up an American games division selling Nintendo arcade games, putting his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa in charge. 

Gameplay image of Radarscope, an arcade video game by Nintendo 1981

The flaccid Radarscope


Nintendo of America struggled to move arcade product such as Sheriff and Space Fever. Radarscope was a particular turkey, struggling to move out of the NoA warehouse as the Galaxian fad faded in U.S. arcades. In order to use up surplus Radarscope circuit boards, Yamauchi directed artist Shigeru Miyamoto and the veteran Yokoi to create a new game based on the hardware. What they came up with would help revolutionalize the game industry and put Nintendo on the road to riches.

Breakfast cereal based on Donkey Kong, an arcade video game by Nintendo 1981

Barrelling into breakfast with Donkey Kong Cereal

Donkey Kong
 became the biggest selling arcade game of 1981, giving even Namco’s powerhouse Pac-Man game a run for its money. The star of the game, a little rotund, mustachioed man later named Mario, would eventually become more recognizable than Mickey Mouse.

So happy birthday to Donkey Kong, Mario, and Pauline. Without you, the video game industry just wouldn’t be the same. 

For more information on Donkey Kong and related topics, consult your local Dot Eaters articles:

The history of Nintendo and the development of Donkey Kong

History of Super Mario Bros. 

Development of Nintendo’s Famicom game console

The Nintendo Entertainment System

The history of Nintendo Power magazine

The passing of Hiroshi Yamauchi

A review of the movie The Wizard

Spider-Man Crosses Joysticks with Video-Man

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was an animated series put out by Marvel from 1981-1983, an interesting link between the swinging 60’s Spidey cartoon and his modern incarnation in shows like 2012’s Ultimate Spider-Man.

More apropos to this site, here is an episode that addressed the video game craze, where Spidey does battle with Video-Man, a flat pixellated baddie who materializes out of an arcade game to fight the web-head and his buddies. Go for it!

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends Season 01… by VNNetwork

Activision Puts One Over the Net

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Berkeley in 1972, Alan Miller would eventually answer a Silicon Valley want ad and thus become an early game designer for Atari and their 2600 (then called the VCS) console in 1977, joining the company several months before the release of Atari’s seminal games machine. After some pedestrian releases like Surround and Hangman for the console, Miller made the ground-breaking Basketball in 1978, featuring a trapezoid court that startled a lot of people with its illusion of depth in the playfield. Miller pushed the then-known programming limits of the 2600, and subsequently went on to become one of the founding members of Activision, the first third-party publisher of 2600 games.

While at Activision, Miller would take the trapezoid court of Basketball, duplicate it and stack the two vertically for the cartridge featured in today’s game ad, 1981’s Tennis. He would also add a shadow to the ball, a seemingly small graphical tweak that did wonders for helping players orient their positions on the court.

When it came to making great sports games as real as they could be on Atari’s flagship video game console, Alan Miller had no reservations.

For more information on Alan Miller, Activision and the Atari 2600, consult your local Dot Eaters bitstory.

Tennis by Activision, for the Atari VCS 1981

Connecting the Dots: How We Almost Got Popeye Instead of Mario

Posting this story on the 85th anniversary of Black Tuesday, when the New York Stock Exchange plummeted 30 points and heralded the start of the Great Depression, is rather apropos. For at the dawn of the 80’s, Nintendo’s fledgling American subsidiary was in its own tailspin, and its fate would hang on the licensing of a depression-era cartoon icon for a hit video game.

Formed in 1980 in order to distribute Nintendo arcade games in the U.S., sales of derivative product such as HeliFire and Space Firebird for Nintendo of America had flatlined. NOA boss Minoru Arakawa put all of his eggs in one basket with Radarscope, a Galaxian clone that did little to distinguish itself from the other similar shoot-em-ups that littered American arcades. Only able to sell half of the cabinets he had ordered, Arakawa contacted his father-in-law in Japan, Nintendo, Ltd. boss Hiroshi Yamauchi, with a desperate plea: send him a hit game, or give up your dream of conquering the U.S. video game market. To produce such a game, Yamauchi paired a junior employee unversed in game design, named Shigeru Miyamoto, with his most seasoned hardware engineer, Gunpei Yokoi. The pair’s original intent was to quickly adapt a 42-year-old iconic cartoon character to a video game.

The story continues in the TDE Bitstory archive, after the jump:

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Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, a computer game RPG by Lord British/Origin 1986

From Akalabeth To Earth Orbit: Ultima and Lord British

As a teenager in Texas in 1977, Richard Garriott confounded his high school teachers with adventure games produced on paper tape using a mainframe computer. He would chase his dreams of computerized D&D-type adventures all the way to the pinnacle of the computer games industry.

While working at a local computer store in 1979, Garriott produced his most elaborate game world yet, titled Akalabeth. Only a few copies ended up selling, painstakingly packaged by hand in Ziplock bags, but one copy winded up in the hands of California Pacific Computer Company. They purchased the rights to distribute Akalabeth, and eventually sold 30,000 copies.

The same company sold Garriott’s next game, Ultima, in 1981, which later received the subtitle The First Age of Darkness. A tile-based RPG programmed in BASIC, it sold more than his first attempt but Garriott eventually soured on his relationship with his publisher and signed a deal with Sierra for the sequel, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, released in 1982. For Ultima III: Exodus, Garriott teamed with his father Owen and brother Robert, along with Chuck Bueche, to found a new company to produce the popular Ultima games: Origin Systems. The company signed a distribution deal with EA in 1984, the result being the groundbreaking Avatar trilogy.

And so it goes, as the Ultima games became one of the biggest franchises in gaming history.  The Ultimas went 3D in Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss in 1992, and blazed a trail in the MMO genre with Ultima Online in 1997

Garriott himself blazed a trail into space in 2008 as a customer of private space trip facilitator Space Adventures; he was also a principle investor in the organization. The Ultima creator was simply  following his father’s footsteps, as Owen Garriott himself was a NASA astronaut.

With his more Earthbound adventures, Richard Garriott has made an indelible impact on computer and video gaming.  For more information on Lord British and Ultima, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

Wolfenstein Returns

Perhaps you’re like me, and the original Castle Wolfenstein, made by Silas Warner and Muse Software for the Apple II in 1981 and the C64 in 1983, defined your computer gaming experience back in the day. And perhaps Activision’s 2001 Return to Castle Wolfenstein remake, itself a re-telling of id Software’s seminal 1994 3D remake of the original, helped to define the modern online shooter in your mind.

Well, the news from Gamespot is that B.J. Blazkowicz is back for more two-fisted adventures with Wolfenstein: The New Order, announced today by Bethesda Softworks. The game is being developed by MachineGames, a Swedish outfit made up of former key members of Starbreeze Studios, makers of The Darkness and the Riddick games.

As I said, Return to Castle Wolfenstein was a watershed game, not necessarily for its rather pedestrian single-player campaign, but more for its amazingly well-tuned and just plain fun online component. Pitting Nazis against Allied forces, the simple-yet-deep strategy and wonderful level design destined the title for greatness. Here’s to raising a stein to the success of this new entry in the Wolfenstein saga.

via Gamespot

Yar's Revenge, a video game for the Atari 2600 console

Yar’s Return

A remake of Yars’ Revenge, a classic from the Atari 2600 library, is due soon on Xbox Live and PSN.  Originally released for the 2600 in 1981, Yars’ Revenge had started out as a home game licence of Cinematronics’ successful arcade game Star Castle.  Atari programmer Howard Scott Warshaw juggled the play mechanics around when the deal with Cinematronics fell through, and Yars’ Revenge was born.

The sequel boasts updated graphics, of course, but loses the free-wheeling feeling of the original by being a rail-shooter, keeping the player on a straight track from which there isn’t much deviation.  In this regard, it appears much less original than its 2600 brethren.  Expect it to hit consoles soon.