51 Shades of Geek

Pong

PongBuy this gameThe Game: Avoid missing ball for high score.

(No, really!) (Atari, 1972)

See the videoMemories: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And who hatched that egg (or fried that chicken) first – Atari founder Nolan Bushnell or inventor Ralph Baer, who licensed to Magnavox his concept for a dedicated video tennis game that could be hooked up to a TV set? Continue reading

Rebound

ReboundThe Game: Live in glorious black & white, it’s the first-ever game of video volleyball! Two players square off – well, okay, rectangle off – against each other as horizontal Pong paddles situated on either side of a dotted-line “net.” The ball drops out of mid-air toward one player or the other, who must move into See the videoplace to (hopefully) bounce the ball into the right direction. It may take a couple of tries to get the ball over the net, but don’t let it take three bounces or you forfeit a turn (and a point). (Atari, 1973)

Memories: Created on a hardware with a very similar architecture to that of Pong, Rebound was Atari’s first attempt to think outside the Pong box. Obviously, there are similarities: Pong paddles stand in for volleyball players, and the ball and “net” graphics are familiar enough to anyone who’s ever laid eyes on Pong. But where Pong only needed to simulate artificial action and reaction, Rebound actually has a tougher job: simulating real live gravity. But Rebound‘s gravity is a bit unpredictable and not quite authentic. Sure, volleyballs have been known to go astray, but Sir Isaac Newton would be left reeling by Rebound‘s first-ever video game simulation of real physical laws. Continue reading

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

Gotcha!

Gotcha!The Game: Two players – one represented by a roving square and the other by a plus sign – roam the ever-changing halls of a maze. The object of the game is for one player to catch the other before time runs out; however, the See the videomaze’s ability to constantly reconfigure itself isn’t going to make that easy. (Atari, 1974)

Memories: Among Atari’s first major forays outside of Pong and its endless variations on Pong was Gotcha, a coin-op which can boast the historical first of being the first video maze game. But Gotcha also got stuck with what may be one of the weirdest control schemes ever devised, possibly purely for marketing considerations…and one still wonders what the thought process was behind it. Continue reading

Tank

Tank (Ultra Tank shown)The Game: Two players each control a fearsome armored fighting vehicle on a field of battle littered with obstacles. The two tanks pursue each other around the screen, trying to line 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 around the screen, into nearby wall or mines, spinning at a very silly velocity, and battle begins anew. (Kee Games [Atari], 1974)

Memories: In the early 1970s, arcade distribution was a closely-guarded, exclusive thing. And to an ambitious guy like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, this represented a problem. Atari wasn’t an old-school pinball outfit like D. Gottlieb & Co. or Bally, and was bucking the system just to land a deal with regional distributors across the country anyway. The distribution system – which allowed one distributor to represent Gottlieb games exclusively in his area, while a competitor would be the only game in town for Bally/Midway fare, for example – was created in the pinball era; many arcade operators would deal exclusively with a single distributor, and of course there were franchise arcades owned by companies like Bally, such as Aladdin’s Castle. It was entirely possible, and not uncommon, to see some manufacturers represented only at one or two arcades in a given area, and their rivals represented only at others. Which was fine with pinball manufacturers, but Bushnell wanted to place Atari’s video games everywhere. Continue reading

Breakout

BreakoutBuy this gameThe Game: You’ve got a mobile paddle and – well, frankly, balls. But you don’t have a lot of balls at your disposal (am I the only one becoming a little bit uncomfortable discussing this?), so you have to make the best use of them See the videothat you can to knock down the rows of colorful bricks overhead. Missing one of your precious balls – and we all know how painful that can be – forces you to call another ball into play. Losing all of your balls, as you’ve probably guessed by now, ends the game. So, in essence, Breakout is a metaphor for life from the masculine perspective. (Atari, 1976)

Memories: The year was 1976, and Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, had an idea to revive the overmined “ball and paddle” genre: turn Pong into a single-player game, almost like racquetball, in which players must smash their way through a wall of bricks with a ball without missing that ball on the rebound. Bushnell was sure the idea would be a hit. Continue reading

Night Driver

Night DriverThe Game: You’re racing the Formula One circuit by the glow of your headlights alone – avoid the markers along the side of the road and other passing obstacles…if you can see them in time. (Atari, 1976)

Memories: Aside from the very cool cockpit cabinet of the sit-down version of Night Driver, there’s a reason why it earns a spot in video game history. Go ahead and see if you can guess what it is. Give up? It’s the first time that a representation of depth appeared in the graphics of a video game. Until this point, home and arcade video games had presented their playing fields as strictly two-dimensional spaces: they were seen from straight overhead, or from a side-on view. Continue reading

Starship 1

The Game: Climb into the cockpit of Starship Atari for deep space combat duty. Your mission is simple: wipe out every alien ship you see, as quick as possible, while taking as little incoming fire as possible. Take too much damage, and your fighting days are over. (Atari, 1976)

Memories: Housed in an imposing cabinet whose top half was a futuristic, vacuformed plastic hood containing the game’s monitor, Starship 1 was the first first-person space cockpit shooter, putting players in the hotseat of their own space fighter two years before Space Invaders came along. It’s innovative, but Starship 1 had its share of weaknesses, including a display with the kind of on-screen flicker that would become more familiar to players of Atari’s VCS console. Continue reading

Atari Video Music

Atari Video MusicSee the videoBack in the heady days of Nolan Bushnell-managed Atari, when the home versions of games like Pong and Stunt Cycle were making decent money, and the sky seemed to be the limit, and the 2600 was nothing more than a promising idea on the horizon, anything could’ve been the next big thing. And not even necessarily anything that was a video game. Despite all of the legendary stories of executive meetings in hot tubs, on-the-job marijuana use, and blue-jeans-as-businesswear, it may just be that nothing provides as much concrete evidence of the heady, psychedelic early days of Atari as one of their most obscure products: Atari Video Music. 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

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

Avalanche

AvalancheThe Game: Watch for falling rocks – because it’s your job to catch them. You control a series of containers arranged in a vertical row, and your task is to catch all of the rocks, without fail, not letting a single one of them hit the ground. The more rocks you catch, the more containers you’ll fill, and you’ll be left with fewer, and See the videosmaller, containers. If you let a rock through your defenses too many times, the game’s over. And you’ll probably be hit in the head with a lot of rocks. Neither outcome is really a good thing. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: Avalanche is a relic of the early days of videogaming, where no idea was left untried. It’s a fiendishly simple and surprisingly tense little number for what appears to be such a simple game. Continue reading

Fire Truck

Fire TruckThe Game: Two players take the twin steering wheels of a fire truck racing through obstacle-cluttered streets en route to a fire. The player in front steers the front of the truck, while the rear of the fire truck is steered independently by the player in back (one player sits and the See the videoother stands, affording both a clear view of the screen). If both players aren’t well-coordinated, the rear of the fire truck will smack into parked cars, trees and other obstacles that the front of the truck may have cleared successfully. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: A wickedly fun (and funny) cooperative game, Fire Truck isn’t so much a racing game as it is an avoid-everything game. It’s rather unforgiving in that it demands that both players be virtually joined in lockstep as to where the fire truck is pointed – anything less is begging for disaster. Continue reading

Football

FootballThe Game: Trade those pads in for pixels and get ready to hit the gridiron. Each player controls a football team represented by Xs or Os, and uses a keypad to select offensive and defensive maneuvers – and the trakball to tear across the turf as fast as the player can move it. Additional quarters buy additional playing time (each quarter gets two minutes of play). Whoever has the highest score at the end of the game is the winner; later four-player variations sported additional trakballs so the offensive player could control his team’s quarterback and another could control the receiver for passing plays, while there were now two independent players on the defensive team. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: The only serious rival for Space Invaders‘ arcade affection in 1978, Atari’s Football almost beat those crafty aliens to the punch by a couple of years. Continue reading

Super Breakout

Super Breakout4 quarters!The Game: You’ve got a mobile paddle and – well, frankly, balls. But you don’t have a lot of balls at your disposal (am I the only one becoming a little bit uncomfortable discussing this?), so you have to make the best use of them that you can to knock down the rows of colorful bricks overhead. In some games, there may be other, free-floating balls trapped in “cavities” in the bricks, and setting them loose will mean See the videoyou’ll have several balls – and not all of them necessarily yours, disturbingly enough – to handle. Missing one of your balls – and we all know how painful that can be – forces you to call another ball into play. Losing all of your balls, as you’ve probably guessed by now, ends the game. So, in essence, Super Breakout is a metaphor for life from the masculine perspective. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: The sequel to Atari’s original Breakout coin-op, which actually enjoyed greater success at home on the Atari VCS than in the arcades, Super Breakout added some minor innovations to the original game, including the cavities (and their rogue balls) and the double-paddle (and the paddle length shortening by half when you knock a ball into the top of the playing field). Still fundamentally a black & white game, Super Breakout’s colorful bricks were achieved the old Magnavox Odyssey way: colored overlays on the screen itself. 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

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

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