Player 2 Stage 1: The Coin Eaters
Atari has created the arcade videogame market with the sensational PONG, and continues to push the technical envelope with Tank. Now the arcade is about to get a whole lot more crowded.
The Feeding Frenzy Begins
After they release Tank under the Kee label in 1974, Atari produces another game, Shark Jaws, under a pseudonym in 1975. The first game featuring animated characters, it's a conversion using the Tank hardware. The manufacturer is Horror Games, created by Atari to avoid any possible legal hassles from the producers of the obvious inspiration for the game: Universal Studios' smash-hit movie Jaws. Even flyers sent out to prospective buyers prod them to "cash in on the popularity, interest and profits associated with sharks". What's a few maimed swimmers between profit margins, right? The ability to eliminate any affiliation between the two isn't helped by the fact that the cabinet artwork features the word shark in tiny letters with JAWS looming large next to it. It's one of a few variations on the theme, including Shark by U.S. Billiards, Maneater by PSE, Blue Shark by Midway, and Shark Attack by Pacific Novelty.
Draw (those pixels)!
By this time, other companies are starting to take arcade videogames seriously, including Chicago, Ill. based Midway. In 1975 they introduce Gun Fight, their first videogame as well as the first game to use a microprocessor. With an 8080 CPU, more varied and randomized gameplay can be achieved...in this case, as the two gunfighters face-off across a road with cacti and a covered wagon, the computer player can move more unpredictably, providing a greater challenge. It is originally manufactured by Japanese game company Taito, making the game the first ever licenced from Japan for distribution in America. Dave Nutting and Tom McHugh are responsible for the Midway redesign of the game for its American release. This dynamic duo solidify themselves in videogame history by also doing the groundbreaking Seawolf for Midway the same year, and the two team up again for Wizard of Wor in 1981. A sequel of sorts for Gunfight, called Boot Hill, is made by Midway in 1977. Atari has two versions of the concept, both titled Outlaw; an arcade version where players draw a light-gun pistol and shoot the onscreen villains, and a VCS port more similar to the original, designed in 1979 by David Crane.
The First Alarmist Outcries
Between 1971 and 1973, 30 videogames are produced for the arcade by 11 manufacturers. From 1974 to 1975, 57 games are released. And 1976 alone sees 53 videogames by 15 companies hit the market. Most of them are simply cranking out PONG clones, one of these being Exidy, the name a contraction of Excellence in Dynamics. It is their Death Race, designed by the company's prolific gamemaker Howell Ivey, that sparks the first controversy over videogame violence. Its inspiration is a movie by illustrious B-movie king Roger Corman and released a year earlier, titled Death Race 2000. Originally named Pedestrian, the game has the players steering vehicles around the playfield chasing running stick-men, obstensibly called "Gremlins" in the game text. The atmosphere the game evokes is certainly unsettling, with gruesome artwork by Pat "Sleepy" Peak prominently featured on the cabinet. When one of the little on-screen characters is run over, it screams and turns into a cross, adding another obstacle for players to avoid. Amid growing pressure from parental groups looking anywhere but at themselves for an easy excuse to explain their wayward kids, Death Race is eventually pulled off the market. Their ire is further peaked by the mainstream media's coverage of the growing impact of video games on society, including a skewering on perennial TV newsmagazine "60 minutes". Of course now we have detailed humanoid characters literally having their spines ripped out in Mortal Kombat, and although I remember playing Death Race regularly, I'm only slightly a murderous lunatic. I was too busy jamming on the forward/reverse stick trying not to get hung up on the crosses to start fantasizing about jumping into the family woody-wagon and plowing over sidewalks slaughtering innocent pedestrians. Aaaanyway...undaunted by the bad publicity and the meagre 500 unit production run, Exidy releases a sequel a year later, Super Death Chase, which curtails the violence by having the victims already dead; the player chases ghosts and skeletons around the playfield with his vehicle. Carmaggedon, a much more graphic computer game version of Death Race 2000, is released in 1997 by British game developer SCi to little protest.
In 1972, after dropping out of Reed College in Oregon, Steve Jobs becomes Atari employee #40 as a $5 an hour technician at their Los Gatos facility. As games come down from the company's Grass Valley development labs, it is Jobs' task to refine their design. Facilitated by an Atari sponsored overseas service call, Jobs spends several months in India following his quest to understand Eastern wisdom and philosophy, and after returning to Atari starts sneaking his good friend Steve Wozniak into the factory after hours for
long playing marathons on the arcade machines. The first time Wozniak sees a PONG machine he is hooked, and designs a PONG clone himself that would put one of four questionable phrases up on the screen if a ball was missed, such as "DAMN IT" and "OH SHIT". He does provide a switch to turn off the swearing, however. In 1976 Nolan Bushnell promises the young Jobs $5000 to put together the hardware for Breakout, yet another variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game sports a black and white display, utilizing the old pre-1980 chesnut of coloured overlays on the screen to simulate colour. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, and Jobs receives his money. Setting the tone for their business relationship, he tells his friend that the payment for the game was only $700 and pays Wozniak his "50-50" share of $350 and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout...the way his computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Later Jobs approaches boss Bushnell with the idea that Atari could produce the computer he and Wozniak are shopping around, and the two young employees go so far as to demo the system at Al Alcorn's house. With the new home PONG unit and looming financial problems already on his plate, Bushnell passes on the project, referring Jobs to infamous Silicon Valley venture capitalist Don Valentine who in turn points them towards Mike Markkula. Jobs leaves Atari soon after, and he helps himself to some electronics that eventually end up integrated into the prototype computer Woz and Jobs create under the auspices of thier newly founded Apple Computer Company. Atari would end up competing against the very company they let slip through their fingers when they release their 400 and 800 home computer systems in 1979. Atari follows up with the sequel Super Breakout in 1978, with trickier screens and faster action. It is on this sequel that legendary Atari game designer Ed Logg cuts his teeth. Both games naturally end up ported to Atari's venerable VCS home system, but the extreme limitations of that system won't even allow individual bricks to be drawn on the screen; players instead knock pieces out of colourful lines at the top of the screen. Versions are also ported to Atari's other gaming platforms and thier home computer products. And a radically revamped update of the game ends up in the limited library of the company's 64-bit Jaguar home console, in the form of 1998's Super Breakout 2000, released by Telegames.
What's Your Vector?
Located in El Cajon, California, floundering PONG clone maker Cinematronics ushers in new videogame technology with the first vector graphics game, 1977's Space Wars. The company is started by Jim Pierce, along with Dennis Parte and Gary Garrison, with the latter two eventually selling out to 'Papa' Tom Stroud. The title of the company's new game is a hardly subtle amalgam of the title of its genesis game, Spacewar!, and the current movie sensation Star Wars. It is designed by Larry Rosenthal, based on his memories of playing fellow MIT graduate Stephen Russell's mainframe classic. His brief exposure to the game comes during a tour of the MIT campus as a possible freshman candidate in 1968. Later he builds his version around a vector display, and shops the system around to numerous manufacturers and demands an unheard of 50 percent take in the game's profits. Called upon companies include Atari, who blow him off with Bushnell possibly still stinging from his own Computer Space fiasco. Hungry for a new, original game, Cinematronics snaps it up. In a move they ruefully regret later, their agreement with Rosenthal allows him to retain ownership of the technology. Following the Spacewar! motif, it has two ships (one retaining the original's wedge shape, the other suspiciously like the starship Enterprise) facing off around a sun, firing missiles at each other. A nice touch of detail is the asteroid that lazily floats through the playfield occasionally, making one wonder how many Atari employees might have played the game. Space Wars is also unique in that it offers the players a myriad of selectable play options, such as variable ship speed and gravity effects. Also featured is a damage model, causing ships to exhibit reduced performance after being grazed by a shot. The huge cabinet is big enough to allow two players to stand side by side with room to spare, but it has to be weighted in the back to prevent it from falling forward and squashing them. Space Wars not only encourages head to head combat, it requires it as there is no single player option. It is a big hit for Cinematronics, selling 30,000 units and staying in the top 10 money earning arcade games for three years. Through my experiences playing this game at the local bowling alley, I can vouch for it...it's a blast to play. Its success paves the way for the company's illustrious career as a producer of some of the most interesting games in the arcades. Some of their vector entries include Warrior (1978), Rip Off (1979), Tailgunner (1979), Barrier (1979), Star Castle (1980), Armor Attack (1980), Solar Quest (1981), Starhawk (1981), and Cosmic Chasm (1983). Pioneered here in Space Wars, Vector graphics and its method of drawing sharp geometric shapes with straight lines will soon become a hot trend in videogames...and garner a devoted cult following among obsessed collectors long after they disappear from arcades.