Space Race

Space RaceThe Game: Two rockets stand ready to lift off for a race into space teeming with fast-moving asteroids and space debris. Collision with even the tiniest piece of space junk sends a player’s rocket back to the bottom of the screen, with a slight time penalty (possibly for repairs) before it can lift off again. A vertical line in the center of the screen serves not only to divide the screen into “lanes” for each rocket, but to count down the amount of time remaining in the game. Whoever has the highest score when time runs out is the winner of the space race. (Atari, 1973)

Memories: Having scored instant success with Pong, Atari immediately had to contend with one of the side-effects of success: copycats. Dubbed “the jackals” by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, they copied Pong, releasing their own unchanged versions of it under different names. Even companies that would become some of the biggest innovators in the nascent arcade industry made their first steps away from pinball and toward coin-operated video amusements by copying Pong.

And now, to make matters worse, thanks to a pre-existing contract that was taken on in order to keep cash flowing into Atari’s coffers as an untried startup company, Atari was going to have to surrender one of its games to one of those competitors. Continue reading

The Amazing Maze Game

The Amazing Maze GameThe Game: You control a dot making its way through a twisty maze with two exits – one right behind you and one across the screen from you. The computer also controls a dot which immediately begins working its way toward the exit behind you. The game is simple: you have to guide your dot through the maze to the opposite exit before the computer does the same. If the computer wins twice, the game is See the videoover. (Midway, 1976)

Memories: Not, strictly speaking, the first maze game, Midway’s early B&W arcade entry The Amazing Maze Game bears a strong resemblence to that first game, which was Atari’s Gotcha. Gotcha was almost identical, except that its joystick controllers were topped by pink rubber domes, leading to Gotcha being nicknamed “the boob game.” Amazing Maze was just a little bit more austere by comparison. Continue reading

Barricade

BarricadeThe Game: Up to four players control markers that leave a solid “wall” in their wake. The object of the game is to trap the other players by building a wall around them that they can’t avoid crashing into – or forcing them to crash into their own walls. Run into a wall, either your own or See the videosomeone else’s, ends your turn and erases your trail from the screen (potentially eliminating an obstacle for the remaining players). The player still standing at the end of the round wins. (Ramtek, 1976)

Memories: If you’re a fan of the “Light Cycle” concept made popular by Tron (both the movie and the game), this is where it all started, with an obscure game from a relatively obscure manufacturer. But that obscurity isn’t earned by a game that essentially launched and entire genre. Continue reading

Tennis / Hockey

TennisThe Game: Activated by leaving a cartridge out of the slot, powering the system up and pressing one of the selector keys, Tennis and Hockey are built into the system. Timed games can be selected, and the traditional rules of each sport apply. (Fairchild, 1976)

Memories: An interesting indicator of how new the idea of interchangeable cartridges were, Channel F featured two built-in games as well. If a Channel F owner bought the machine but never bothered with any of the game cartridges, he could still enjoy the console. It’s really no surprise, then, that Fairchild fell back on some standard-issue video game ideas – nothing obscure for Channel F’s built-in games. Continue reading

Tic-Tac-Toe / Shooting Gallery / Quadradoodle

Shooting GalleryThe Game: The first Channel F “Videocart” packs three games into one bright yellow package. Shooting Gallery is a straightforward target practice game in which players try to draw a bead on a moving target. Tic-Tac-Toe is the timeless game of strategy in small, enclosed spaces, and Quadradoodle is a simple paint program, long, long before its time. (Fairchild, 1976)

Memories: This is a game that changed everything. For the first time, owners of a home video game console could go into a store, buy something that was less pricey than the console itself, plug it into that console, and play new and different games. Rudimentary games by today’s standards, sure, but in every sense imaginable, Videocart #1 was a game changer. Continue reading

Checkmate

CheckmateThe Game: Up to four players control markers that leave a solid “wall” in their wake. The object of the game is to trap the other players by building a wall around them that they can’t avoid crashing into – or forcing them to crash into their own walls. Run into a wall, either your own or See the videosomeone else’s, ends your turn and erases your trail from the screen (potentially eliminating an obstacle for the remaining players). The player still standing at the end of the round wins. (Midway, 1977)

Memories: Any classic gamer worth his weight in pixels will recognize Checkmate as one of the inspirations for the Light Cycle sequence in both the movie and the game adaptation of Tron – but that doesn’t mean that Tron had to be behind the wheel for this concept to be a lot of fun. Continue reading

Dominos

DominosThe Game: Up to two players control markers that leave a trail of dominos in their wake. The object of the game is to trap the other players by See the videolaying a wall of dominos around them that they can’t avoid crashing into – or forcing them to run into their own walls. Coming into contact with a line of dominos, either you own or someone else’s, collapses your own trail and ends your turn. The player still standing at the end of the round wins. (Atari, 1977)

Memories: Another variation on the game concept that the movie (and game) Tron would later popularize as Light Cycles, Dominos is one of the few attempts anyone made to try to couch the concept in non-abstract, real-world terms (well, real-world if you can imagine someone having an infinite number of dominos to build a wall, but that’s neither here nor there). Continue reading

Odyssey 4000

Odyssey 4000The final member of the Odyssey stand-alone console family tree, the Odyssey 4000 boasts more games than any of its predecessors since Ralph Baer’s original Odyssey, and was only the second of the dedicated Odyssey consoles to feature color (after the experimental Odyssey 500). And for those who have ever held the joystick of a Magnavox Odyssey2 in their hands, the Odyssey 4000 offers another familiar element – its joysticks are exactly the same mold as those of the Odyssey2, only rotated 90 degrees, and sporting some major differences in internal mechanisms. Though multidirectional, the joysticks are designed to favor vertical movement and offer some resistance to horizontal movement. Continue reading

Combat

CombatThe Game: Two players each control a fearsome armored fighting vehicle on a field of battle littered with obstacles (or not, depending upon the agreed-upon game variation). The two tanks pursue each other around the screen, trying to Buy this gameline up the perfect shot without also presenting a perfect target if they miss. In accordance with the laws of ballistics and mass in the universe of Saturday morning cartoons, a tank hit by enemy fire is bounced across the screen – sometimes right off the egde of the screen and into a corresponding position on the opposite side of the field – spinning at a very silly velocity, and battle begins anew. Other variations include biplane and jet fighter dogfights. (Atari, 1977)

Memories: Chances are, anyone who’s my age who is asked to remember their first video game console will tell you it was the Atari VCS – and their first game? Naturally, the one that came with the VCS: Combat, based on the 1974 arcade hit Tank! by Kee Games.

Kee Games? Continue reading

Surround

SurroundBuy this gameThe Game: You and your opponent face off in an enclosed arena, controlling “leader blocks” which leave solid walls in their wake. You must not collide with your opponent’s block, its solid trail, or the walls of the arena. To win, you must trap the other player, or the computer-controlled block within your solid wake (or their own). (Atari, 1977)

Memories: Any Tron fan worth his weight in bits will know what part of that 1982 game (and movie) was inspired by Atari‘s Surround and other games of its ilk which had been in the arcade for some time. But if anything, the Light Cycle scenes and game stages that came down the pike later simplified the game to its core, for Surround actually has more twists – literally. Continue reading

Blasto

BlastoThe Game: Piloting a mobile cannon around a cluttered playfield, you have but one task: clear the screen of mines, without blowing yourself up, in the time allotted. If you don’t clear the screen, or you manage to detonate a mine so See the videoclose to yourself that it takes you out, the game is over. If you do clear all the mines, you get a free chance to try it again. Two players can also try to clear the minefield simultaneously. (Gremlin, 1978)

Memories: It may not look terribly entertaining if you’re accustomed to graphics even on the Atari 2600’s level, but Blasto is quite addictively entertaining when you get right down to it, and its decidedly lo-fi graphics are just part of its charm. Continue reading

Frogs

FrogsThe Game: Long before Frogger and Frog Bog, there were simply Frogs, the original arcade amphibians. One or two frogs hop along a lily pad at the bottom of the screen, scoping out tasty flies to eat. When you’ve got a See the videomorsel in your frog’s reach, jump and try to activate your frog’s tongue at just the right time. (You’ll know if you’ve snared a meal because your frog will seem to ascend the screen in heavenly bliss.) Whoever has the most points at the end of the timed game is the supreme frog. (Gremlin, 1978)

Memories: Though the game concept would be more widely popularized by Frog Bog several years later on the Intellivision, this is where the two-frogs-catching-flies game began. If you’re wowed by the amazing graphics on this early game, don’t be – the colorful background was a piece of artwork set into the arcade cabinet, onto which the game’s graphics were “projected” by laying the monitor flat on its back and reflecting the computer-generated graphics of the frogs and flies toward the player via a mirror at a 45-degree angle. (The game’s graphics were actually generated and shown backward, so the mirror reflection would show letters and numbers properly.) Continue reading

3-D Tic-Tac-Toe

3-D Tic-Tac-ToeBuy this gameThe Game: If you’re not quite up to the challenge of playing 3-D chess with Mr. Spock, you can always try playing 3-D tic-tac-toe against the Atari 2600. Using your joystick, you position your pieces in an ongoing battle with the computer. But be careful – the machine is very wily about placing its pieces, and can often force you to head it off at one pass, only to leave yourself wide open for a complete vertical row. This game is much more challenging than it looks, despite the age of the technology involved. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: Clever little game, this, and among the earliest batch of Atari cartridges released. And considering that its contemporaries in that batch included such titles as Breakout, Space War and Combat, 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe is probably the most graphically refined of the early VCS games. Continue reading

Armored Encounter! / Sub Chase!

Armored Encounter! / Sub Chase!The Game: War is pixellated, blocky hell on the Odyssey2! In Armored Encounter, two combatants in tanks circumnavigate a maze peppered with land mines, searching for the optimum spot from which to blow each other to kingdom come. In Sub Chase, a bomber plane and a submarine, both maneuverable in their own way, try to take each other out without blasting any non-combatant boats routinely running between them (darn that civilian shipping!). In both games, the timer is counting down for both sides to blow each other straight to hell. (Magnavox, 1978)

Memories: Armored Encounter! is a somewhat standard-issue variation on Atari’s Tank coin-op (which that company later used to launch the Atari VCS under the name of Combat), only with a vastly simpified map. Continue reading

Basketball

BasketballSee the videoThe Game: Two players each control one man in one-on-one, full-court action. Whoever has the highest score by a predetermined time limit wins. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: If you need a “before” and “after” picture to see how far video basketball has come, Atari’s Basketball – one of the earliest games published for the VCS – is an effective “before” snapshot. Atari had previously included a Pong-style basketball game as one of the selections on its dedicated Video Pinball console, and compared to that, Basketball is a quantum leap forward: the players are now represented by stick figures, not paddles, and there’s a very early attempt at an isometric 3-D representation of the court, possibly one of the very earliest 3-D perspectives attempted in home video games. Continue reading

Baseball!

Baseball!The Game: In Baseball!, you are, quite simply, one of two teams playing the great American game. If you’re up at bat, your joystick and button control the man at the plate and any players on base. If you’re pitching, your button and joystick control how wild or straight your pitches are, and you also control the outfielders – you can catch a ball on the fly, or pick it up and try to catch the other player away from his bases. (Magnavox, 1978)

Memories: Why exactly do I like the Odyssey2 baseball game? What the hell do I care for this stripped-down, ultra-simple, painfully two-dimensional version of baseball? Precisely because it is simple. Modern computer sports games are just too damned complex. Baseball! didn’t force you to pick existing players based on their RBI or average score per game, nor did it make you struggle to make sense of a vaguely three-dimensional display trying to ape ESPN game coverage. Continue reading

Bowling! / Basketball!

Bowling! / Basketball!The Game: Hit the hardwood in one of two sports. Roll your big shiny one down the lanes and try to knock down all the pins in Bowling!, or go for a basket in Basketball! Not possible in Odyssey2 Basketball!: fouls, three-point shots, free throws, most steals… (Magnavox, 1978)

Memories: Granted, neither the bowling nor basketball games for the Atari VCS which competed for shelf space with this two-in-one Odyssey2 title were significantly better, but they would’ve been hard pressed to turn out significantly worse. Continue reading

Casino Slot Machine!

Casino Slot Machine!The Game: You pays your money, you takes your chances. Pull the lever (or, in this case, the joystick) and try to get the fruit to line up. If you succeed, you’re in good shape; if you don’t, well, you’re out some more change. (Magnavox, 1978)

Memories: While I actually rather enjoyed the Odyssey2 Las Vegas Blackjack! cartridge, I have a hard time gleaning even the slightest measure of enjoyment from Casino Slot Machine!. Continue reading

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