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

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

Odyssey 300

Odyssey 300Taking Atari’s lead for the first time, the Odyssey 300 – in its bright yellow shell – saw the console abandoning the trio of horizontal/vertical/English controls that had been in place since the original Odyssey. In addition to mimicking the all-in-one controls of Atari’s Pong, Odyssey 300 – still boasting the standard Tennis, Hockey and Smash variations of its predecessors – introduced digital on-screen scoring. The Odyssey games were no longer reliant on the honor system: at 15 points, one player won the game. 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

Death Race

Death RaceThe Game: Two players control one car each, careening freely around an arena filled with zombies. Faced with zombie-fication at the pedestrian crossing of the undead, the drivers have only one option: run over their opponents! See the videoEach zombie that’s squashed leaves a grave marker behind that becomes an unmovable obstacle to zombies and cars alike. Whoever has run over the most zombies by the end of the timed game wins. (Exidy, 1976)

Memories: Death Race, which didn’t even come within shouting distance of having anything to do with the movie of the same name, was the arcade game that sparked the very first protests about violence in video games. Those protests go on to this very day, with games like the latest iteration of Grand Theft Auto and Bully drawing fire for depicting various kinds of real world violence. Compared to those much more recent games, it’s almost laughable to think that the abstraction of Death Race was where some parents first drew the line. Why? Because Death Race was the first person to put stick figures – a representation of a human being – on the screen and let you do something nasty to them. 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

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

Odyssey 2000

Odyssey 2000After the baffling backward step of the Odyssey 400, Magnavox’s Odyssey 2000 saw a return to the Pong-inspired, single-paddle control scheme, with digital scoring restored as well – Magnavox had decided to rest the Brown Box design (and the subsequent variations on it) permanently in favor of, once again, the General Instruments AY-3-8500 “Pong on a chip” processor. Packaged in a red casing, this would be the last anyone would see of the smoothly rounded-off, integrated Odyssey console. The next system to bear the name would return to its roots – with wired controllers that weren’t necessarily stuck to the main console – and look forward, with a futuristic new design that stands up even today. 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

Pinball

Odyssey2 Pinball cartridge signed by Ralph BaerThe Game: A virtual pinball machine is presented, complete with flippers, bumpers, and the ability to physically “bump” the table to influence the motion of the ball. Per standard pinball rules, the See the videoobject of the game is to keep the ball in play as long as possible. (Ralph Baer, 1978 – unreleased prototype)

Memories: Ralph Baer’s Pinball, released to the public on cartridge at the 2001 Classic Gaming Expo, was never intended to be a commercially released title. Instead, it’s a tech demo of sorts, a “rough sketch” example of what kind of games Magnavox’s still-in-development Odyssey2 system would be capable of. There are no special graphics to represent the various elements of the game; the bumpers are simply the letter O, and the flippers are forward and backward slashes. Continue reading

Slot Machine

Slot MachineBuy this gameThe Game: The one-armed bandit joins forces with the one-button, one-joystick wonder. Place your bet, pull the lever and take your chances; lining up the symbols in the three windows of the slot machine will pay off (in a virtual kind of way). Messing up just makes the house richer. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: An early title by prolific Atari VCS programmer David Crane – still working directly for Atari at this point, well See the videobefore his Activision and Pitfall! years – Slot Machine is an good snapshot of where console gaming was in 1977/78. Console games seemed to fixate, at this time, on simulations (or rough approximations) of existing sports and games that could be played “in the real world” without computer assistance. More fanciful fare – such as space games – were left, for the most part, to the arcade. Continue reading

Bomb Bee

Bomb BeeThe Game: Video pinball is back, and now in more than one color! Bomb Bee takes the game mechanics of Gee Bee and makes them noisier and brighter, adding “bumper traps” that can keep the ball bouncing in tight cul-de-sacs, racking up massive bonus points with every strike. (Namco, 1979)

See the videoMemories: When Namco introduced the world’s first arcade game with a full-color monitor, Galaxian, it was still fairly experimental, and some other Namco releases in 1979 were still in black & white. One of the first color games to follow Galaxian was Bomb Bee, Toru Iwitani’s reworking of Gee Bee, now in brilliant color. Continue reading

Lunar Lander

Lunar LanderBuy this gameThe Game: Gene Kranz isn’t around to give you a go/no-go for landing – in Lunar Lander, you’re on your own, trying to use the least fuel to bring your lander down for a soft touchdown on the safest target area available. You can always scrub the landing by pulling the ABORT handle, or you can opt for nerves of steel and try to keep your ship – valued at 100 megabucks, incidentally – in one piece. Failure, as some associated with the moon program have been known to say, is not an option for making that one small step…but if you do litter your landing pod across the lunar landscape so many times that you run out of fuel, you can always try to salvage the space program’s integrity for another quarter. (Atari, 1979)

See the videoMemories: Atari’s first foray into vector graphics was old news by computer mainframe standards. The basic premise of Lunar Lander had been around as a text-only game, blasting craters into college students’ productivity and computer lab time, for years. Continue reading

Starhawk

StarhawkThe Game: The player pilots a space fighter into an endless dogfight above a space station trench. Enemy ships attack from all directions, and even zip See the videodown the trench; and and all of these can be blasted into bits for points. Beware the fastest of these enemy fighters, which will appear with very little notice and fire directly at the player’s score, relieving it of points every time the fighter is successful with its attack! (Cinematronics, 1979)

Memories: 1979 is the year that trench warfare – i.e. the Death Star trench – hit arcades and consoles alike. With the premiere of Star Wars in May 1977, game designers everywhere seemed to home in on the movie’s climactic flight through the Death Star trench as obvious video game material, and with good reason: the enclosed space offered plenty of hazards and limited room to maneuver, as well as the illusion of 3-D depth. As long as the hardware for a given project could handle the display requirements, the game play was a no-brainer – it had already been dictated by George Lucas and ILM. The only thing that kept the earliest variations on the Death Star trench theme from appearing immediately after the movie was the turnaround time for development, programming and manufacturing. Continue reading

Star Fire

Star FireThe Game: This may sound awfully familiar, but you’re the lone surviving pilot of a space squadron decimated by enemy attacks. The enemy’s bow-tie-shaped fighters are closing in on you from all sides, and you must keep an eye on your own fighter’s shields, weapon temperature (overheated lasers don’t like to fire anymore), and ammo, all while trying to draw a bead on those pesky enemy ships. You’re also very much on your own – nobody’s going to show up and tell you you’re all clear, kid. (Exidy, 1979)

Memories: It didn’t just sound familiar – Exidy’s 3-D blast-o-rama Star Fire looked familiar – its TIE fighter-shaped enemies and the typestyle seen in its attract mode were straight out of Star Wars. How it escaped a legal dogfight is hard to fathom – unless it has something to do with George Lucas and 20th Century Fox not wanting to remind everyone that the only other exponent of that galaxy far, far away in 1979 was the Star Wars Holiday Special. Continue reading

Alpine Skiing!

Alpine Skiing!The Game: Take to the slopes, in a digital sort of way. Choose between the slalom, giant slalom and downhill events, get a partner on the other joystick, and plow through that white stuff like it’s gonna melt tomorrow. And try not to hit any of the obstacles – before you can even say “I want my two dollars!”*, a collision can send you into a tumble that’ll just carry you right into the next one…and the one after that…and the one after that… (Magnavox, 1979)

Memories: Athough rather simple video skiing fare, Alpine Skiing! can be good for some laughs with a good second player. The lack of a one-player option limits it a bit, but it’s on par with Activision’s Atari VCS skiing game. Continue reading

Dynasty!

Dynasty!The Game: Purporting to be based on the ancient Chinese game of Go, Dynasty! is actually more of a variation of Othello. The same strategies apply, and can be played with two players, one against the computer, or – for those who are feeling a little bit lazy – the computer vs. itself. (Magnavox, 1979)

Memories: One of the things I always remember about the Odyssey2 game Dyntasty! – and I’ll admit, this is the weirdest possible thing to remember – is its player symbols. For a human player, you’ll see the stock O2 stick man, while the computer is represented by a unique symbol, uP – not really a u, but the Greek letter Mu, used to represent “micro” – hence, microprocessor. Pretty obscure terminology for a video game, but then again, this is a fairly obscure (though easy-to-find) game on a relatively obscure console. Continue reading

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