The Game: Players climb into a biplane to race against time to fly through barns and try to avoid geese, who have a habit of finding their way into one’s propellers. Other obstacles include windmills and, well, the broad side of a barn; collisions are a mere setback, not a fiery death. (Activision, 1982)
Memories: As one of the best-remembered early Activision titles, Barnstorming is actually a very simple game: most, if not all, of the game is based on easily memorized patterns, and the rest is down to reflexes. One element of the game, however, has a surprisingly checkered history.
Almost immediately when Atari programmers David Crane, Al Miller, Bob Whitehead and Larry Kaplan resigned from their positions to launch Activision, the fledgling company was under intense scrutiny and legal attack from Atari. Virtually all of Atari’s legal action against Activision contended that the four programmers were building their new venture on the back of stolen trade secrets. Atari could never actually provide concrete proof of this in court, but then the lawyers for Atari probably didn’t expect to – the real aim was to keep the case open and win an open-ended injunction to prevent Activision from releasing anything, just on the chance that the allegation was true.
One of the numerous accusations made by Atari’s attorneys was that the Activision programmers had stolen a display technique known as “venetian blinds”, which had been used to draw more detailed on-screen graphics by alternating scan lines; technically, the venetian blinds technique drew two completely different screen displays so fast that the human eye interpreted the slightly flickery result as a single image; this had been used to draw the chess pieces of Video Chess and the text display of Stellar Track. Activision co-founder David Crane responded to the accusation with a cheeky custom-programmed demo in which a “player” could raise and lower an animated set of venetian blinds with the VCS joystick, revealing a sunset in the window behind the blinds. The lawyers weren’t amused, but the code for the sunset and mountains in the background appeared in Barnstorming soon afterward, and the “distant sunset” background became a signature of many an Activision title.
Barnstorming isn’t an incredibly complicated or deep game, but it remains addictive through its simplicity.