Category Archives: 1982

Aztec, a computer game for the Apple II

A Quick Look Back: Aztec

[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED FEB. 24, 2011]

It’s not an overstatement to describe Aztec as graphically dazzling, an action-adventure game released originally for the Apple II  and Atari 8-bit computers in 1982, and then a couple of years later for the C64Aztec is all the more remarkable when you consider that most adventure games of the era, such as those of Infocom, were limited to mere text to create the atmosphere, or the limited slide-show animations of Sierra On-line.

Aztec was designed by Paul Stephenson and distributed by Datamost, a company that produced a few other classic gaming gems, such as Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory in 1983.  Stephenson himself also designed Swashbuckler for the company, released the same year as Aztec… and you can definitely see familiarity in the combat modes between the two games.

The Title Screen Sets Us Up For Something Special

A colourful (if one had a colour monitor or TV set attached to their Apple) opening title screen greets you while the game loads.  Further pages of white text used to set up the story fool gamers into thinking that perhaps the graphics were a big come-on and that Aztec might be just another text adventure. The text explains that apparently the famed (but unstable)  Professor Von Forster found a lost Aztec temple, but disappeared without further contact.

The player is then presented with a few options, such as choosing either to start a new game or load up a previously saved one.  A difficulty setting is then requested, ranging from 1 if you want to take things easy, all the way up to 8 if one is feeling suicidal.  Charging you with following in the Prof’s footsteps, Aztec then puts the gamer in the scuffed shoes of a fearless adventurer, cutting through all that “red line representing travelling by the air from country to country” rigamarole by opening the gameplay with you standing right outside the Aztec tomb of real-life Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl. With the tap of a key, you descend into the mysterious depths.

Indeed, I DO Dare

The game is essentially a platformer, with large sprites for the adventurer and the various creatures he must dispatch or avoid.  It’s quite a menagerie down there, with spiders, snakes, alligators, Aztec warriors and even dinosaurs calling Quetzalcoal’s tomb home.  While the animations are pretty limited, it’s the details of the artwork that really makes things pop.

There Be Dinosaurs Here

The layout of the tomb is randomized each time you play, and most of your time is spent searching for, opening and looking through boxes and piles of trash on the ground, which can contain weapons, health potions or just the scattered remains of poor Prof. Von Forster.  As you delve deeper the creatures get more dangerous, and the traps more cunning.  The end goal is to snatch a valuable jade idol that is hidden somewhere in the tomb, and then get out with your life.

Fresh Calamari For Dinner Tonight

Helping the creatures in their fight to finish you off is the game’s clunky control method.  Each action is assigned a specific key, so to walk you press “W” and then a direction key, and you’ll keep walking until you hit “S” for stop.  You can also crouch, crawl, plant dynamite, jump, run, climb… it gets to be a bit much fumbling around for each key on the keyboard, although once you get the hang on it you can navigate the tomb quickly while playing the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. You also can enter a fight mode, where you wield either the machete or a pistol, but often it is unsure why you hit or miss something. The sound isn’t any great shakes either; just the bloops and bleeps from the Apple‘s internal speaker, but this somehow adds to the game’s spartan charms. And being able to blow your way out of a jam with a well placed stick of TNT is a play mechanic that is still fairly unmatched in adventure gaming, decades later.

My Own Remains Will Serve As a Warning To Others

I have a particularly fond memory of Aztec, because when I was going to high school the first computers we got were two Apple II‘s for the science class.  For some reason there was a copy of the game in the library of disks, so every chance I got I put that bad boy into the floppy drive and loaded it up.  After a few times of him catching me and telling me to stop playing games with the computers, the science teacher banned me from the keyboard for a week.  I learned my lesson well; when I regained computer privileges I was more careful he wasn’t around when I played.

Sure, it’s no Uncharted, but at the time, this was as close to living out the Indiana Jones dream as you could get on a computer, with Raiders of the Lost Ark having been released just the year before. Aztec, complete with all its bugs and quirks, makes for an unforgettable Apple II gaming treasure.

Still featuring a light cycle battle from Tron, a film by Disney 2010

Remembering Cinema Futurist Syd Mead

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 

Syd Mead, Moebius and Peter Lloyd, art designers for Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney

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.

Still of lightcycles in battle from Tron, a video game themed movie from Disney 1982

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.

A drawing by Syd Mead for Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

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

Concept art of lightcycle from Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney

Original Syd Mead lightcycle design, with driver who becomes part of the vehicle

Journey Escape, a video game for the Atari 2600 video game console

Super Charged Communists Infiltrate the Atari 2600!

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.

Communist Mutants From Space, a home video game for the Supercharger, on the Atari 2600 console

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.

Cover of Escape, a rock album by Journey

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.

For more fascinating information about the Supercharger add-on for the 2600journey over to this article here at The Dot Eaters.

For more info on the Data Age Journey game, smash your way out of the egg and zoom over to this article.

Sources:
Communist Mutants From Space Cover from Moby Games: https://www.mobygames.com/game/atari-2600/communist-mutants-from-space/cover-art/gameCoverId,24124/
Escape cover art from Overstock.com: https://www.overstock.com/Home-Garden/American-Art-Decor-Journey-Escape-Framed-Album-Cover-Wall-Art/17522214/product.html

 

Atari’s Epic Dig Dug Commercial of 1982

As part of a marketing push (an area where CEO Ray Kassar excelled at), Atari created a two-minute ad for arcade game Dig Dug. The funny thing about all this hoopla is that Atari hadn’t actually made the game: it was licensed by the company from Namco for release in North America.

Dig Dug, an arcade video game by Atari and Namco, 1982

Dig Dug gameplay

Taking five days to film, the full ad ran in theatres during the summer of 1982, while a shorter 30 second version ran on TV. Originally, 60’s singing and dancing sensation Chubby Checker (The Twist) was to sing the catchy theme song in the ad, but Atari ultimately went with a younger singer, perhaps for reasons of demographics. You can hear Chubby’s version here on the Atari Museum Public Group on Facebook. The song was posted by Matt Osborne, the son of Don Osborne, who was Atari’s VP of Marketing at the time. Upon listening to it, I’m sure you’ll agree that Atari made a huge mistake not going with Chubby.

As for the visuals, the various special effects in the ad were handled by production designer Jim Spencer and crew, who among other projects had the effects-laden movie Poltergeist under their belt. They would subsequently work on films like Innerspace and Gremlins.

Created by advertising agency Young & Rubicam and directed by Manny Perez, the spot would go on to snag a 1983 Clio award in the Cinema and Advertising category. It might not be high art, but at least it reflects the most important aspect of the video game it’s shilling: it’s a lot of fun. It also got the job done for Atari; by their estimations the theatrical ad and shortened TV spots had by August of 1982 increased public awareness of Dig Dug by a whopping 227% over markets without the ads. This converted into 30% higher coin drops for the arcade game in those same markets. I can Dig that!

For more information on the history of Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory. 

Sources:

Atari Coin Connection, “Dig Dug Meets Clio”, pg. 2, Aug 1983
Atari Museum Public Group, Facebook
1982 Entertainment Tonight segment on the making of Dig Dug ad
Cash Box. Industry News – Atari ‘Customer Day’ Stresses Closer Ties With Distributors”, pgs. 38 – 39, Feb 19 1983, retrieved from Internet Archive Sept 15, 2019
Cash Box, Nov. 13 1982 article “Atari Launches National TV Push for ‘Dig Dug’

Don Mattrick, 18-year old Entrepreneur

You might recognize the name Don Mattrick. He served as President of Worldwide Studios at Electronic Arts, among other roles at the company, before joining Microsoft as Senior Vice President of the Entertainment and Devices Division in 2007. Eventually promoted to Pesident of the Interactive Entertainment Business, he ran such projects as the Xbox line at the company.  After leaving Microsoft, he assumed the role of CEO at the embattled mobile game company Zynga, creators of the FarmVille phenomena, among others.

But he got his start in the game business by co-founding Distinctive Software in 1982, at the tender age of 17.  Mattrick is standing on the right,  pictured with his partner in the company, Jeff Sember.

From left: Jeff Sember and Don Mattrick

From left: Jeff Sember and Don Mattrick

 

In this image they are showing off their game Evolution, on the Apple II. As a kind of primordial Spore (software superstar Will Wright’s treatise on the subject, released in 2008), the game has players guiding an entity as a one-celled protozoan to tadpole to rodent to beaver to gorilla to, ultimately, Man. Another big hit for Distinctive were the Test Drive games, hit driving game for the C64, Apple II and PC DOS. Racing games would become a speciality of the company. 

During the lead-up and launch of Microsoft’s Xbox One console in 2013, Mattrick became a whipping boy for the gaming community due to the draconian DRM scheme that saddled the console. Initially, trading or selling games was severely restricted on Microsoft’s unit. Particularly in memes created using the photo used as a featured image in this post, Mattrick and the Xbox were savaged. A tremendous outcry from players, as well as some brilliant positioning from Sony, eventually caused Microsoft to remove these restrictions.  

From the Apple II to the Xbox consoles. What a long, strange trip it’s been for Don Mattrick.

1983 ad for Evolution, a computer game by Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember

Ad for Evolution, 1983

 

The Visual Cortex: An Ad for Aztec

The Apple II was a solid gaming platform in 1982, but Paul Stevenson’s graphically astounding and highly interactive action-adventure games for the computer really pushed the envelope of what was possible. Having slashed his way through the pirate genre with Swashbuckler earlier in the year, he moved onto his magnum opus. We feature a magazine ad for it today in the Cortex: Aztec.

Ad for Aztec, a computer video game by Paul Stevenson and Datamost, 1982

Indiana Jones eat your heart out

Nothing like it, indeed.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial video game cartridge, unearthed after Atari burial over 30 years ago

Atari’s E.T. and the Great Video Game Crash

Microsoft and a documentary film crew have today unearthed some cartridges of Atari’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial game for the 2600, buried as “defective materials” by the company some 30 years ago as the video game industry was crumbling like so much cheap cement.

The only thing “defective” about E.T. was its inscrutable and endlessly frustrating gameplay.  Atari mother corporation Warner Communications paid Steven Spielberg 21 million dollars for the home console and arcade game rights to the movie, and programmer Howard Scott Warshaw hammered out the game in a breakneck six week deadline to get it out in stores for Christmas 1982.   Warshaw was present today among spectators viewing the excavation of his most infamous creation. 

Box art for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a video game for the Atari VCS/2600 1982

Box art for the dreaded Atari E.T. game

A run of five million cartridges were released to stores: only one million eventually sold, becoming a well-publicised flop that tarnished Atari’s reputation with retail game buyers and furnished another nail in the company’s coffin. Along with surplus cartridges for other games, as well as various hardware prototypes, a convoy of tractor-trailer trucks shipped the unsold copies of E.T. to the landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico where they were literally swept under the rug.

E.T. wasn’t solely responsible for the video game market cratering in 1983 – 1984, as a lack of technical innovation and the booming home computer market also took their toll. But it remains a touchstone of the hubris and failure that helped bury the greatest video game company in the world, and with it an entire industry.

For more information on E.T. and the Great Video Game Crash, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Photo of unearthed E.T. cartridge from the Twitter account of Larry Hryb, aka Major Nelson, @majornelson

Alan: A Video Junkie

I used to think this short film from SNL was a dream I had once.  But no, it’s real.

It is a poker-faced mockumentary about the dangers of the growing obsession of video games by youngsters of 1982. It is also a pitch-perfect indictment of the hysteria swirling around the pastime, drummed up by the news media to create a new boogeyman to scare adults. It’s 11:00 o’clock.  Do you know where your children are?  On the street corner, apparently, turning tricks for quarters to put into Dig Dug.

Made by Claude Kerven, the short aired on the premiere episode of the 8th season of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, September 25, 1982. They sure don’t make them like this anymore. Not only is it a reminder of video games past, it is also a monument to how SNL used to be edgy and hilarious:

Video via eBaum’s World

Oscar Week at TDE: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Tonight’s the big night!  Overly primped celebrities engage in vapid self-congratulatory masturbation.  Still… we’re excited! Wrapping up this series of articles covering games based on movies either nominated for or winners of Best Picture, we have perhaps the most infamous: Atari’s adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Released in 1982, the movie concerned itself about the story of a young boy who befriends a lost space alien and attempts to return him home.  It was an immediate hit, and through various re-releases the movie ended up taking around $435 million over its box-office lifetime. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1983, but lost to Richard Attenborough’s epic biopic Gandhi.

Atari saw E.T. as a natural video game hit. Steve Ross, head of Atari owners Warner Communications, negotiated a 21 million dollar deal for the home video game rights to the movie. The problem was that negotiations took so long that Atari game designer Howard Scott Warshaw was left with only six weeks to get a game for the VCS/2600 out the door in time for Christmas 1982. Within that crushing deadline he attempted to create an involved adventure game featuring the lovable little alien, but the result is confusing and endlessly frustrating.  Players strive to guide E.T. around an abstract landscape, searching for the three pieces of the interplanetary telephone that he can use to phone home. With only a certain amount of energy to complete this task, E.T. is chased by government agents and scientists, who will delay his progress. Also on hand is young Elliott to lend assistance during the mission.

The game is at least interesting, with invisible power zones positioned around the different screens giving E.T. special powers, such as teleportation and the ability to scatter his pursuers. The real problems are the holes that are scattered about, into which the alien falls over and over and over and over and over again. My gosh, the holes. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Atari’s E.T. cartridge has so many, many eyes to gaze so very, very long into you.

For more information on the E.T. game and its role in the great video game crash of ’83 – ’84, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

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

The Towering Inferno (VCS/2600, U.S. Games 1982)
Star Wars (Arcade, Atari 1983)
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)

 

Oscar Week at TDE: The Towering Inferno (1982)

In the lead up to the Academy awards on March 2nd, 2014, The Dot Eaters goes to the Academy Awards. We will be profiling video games based on movies that either won or were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Today’s pick might surprise you.  Yes, in 1975 The Towering Inferno was nominated for Best Picture.  I’m not sure how much money producer Irwin Allen lavished on the Oscar committee to nominate this disaster flick…. or perhaps he just threatened to lock them in a burning building. While it didn’t win Best Picture, it did make off with the Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Music, Original Song awards.

The game, made in 1982 for the Atari 2600 by U.S. Games (a division of General Mills, known for high-tech products such as oatmeal), certainly didn’t earn any awards. It is a cut and dried maze game, where players must guide firemen into the titular building in an attempt to rescue four survivors, who slowly perish one by one as time ticks on.  They have a rather anemic water hose they can use to clear a path through a maze of burning walls to the survivors, who for some reason are huddled behind a white window at the top of every floor. If the player makes it out the bottom exit with at least one survivor, they move to the next floor and repeat until all the floors are extinguished.  There are actually nine towering infernos in the game, with the player moving to the next one after finishing the previous one.

While pretty standard in gameplay, The Towering Inferno actually employs a bit of strategy… do you take your time to extinguish the flames and make a safe pathway, or is it a reckless rush to save as many survivors as possible?  What would Steve McQueen do?  Following is a video of the game in action.  Witness the burning spectacle that is… The Towering Inferno!

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

Star Wars (Arcade, Atari 1983)
M*A*S*H (VCS/2600 Fox Video Games 1983)
The Wizard of Oz (SNES, Manley/SETA 1993)
Jaws (Amiga, Intelligent Design/Screen 7 1989)