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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

Dodge It

Dodge ItThe Game: Trapped in a square or rectangular arena, the player is represented by a mobile square. Another projectile punches its way into the arena and begins ricocheting around; points accumulate rapidly the longer the player’s See the videosquare avoids contact with the projectile, but starting at 200 points, an additional projectile is added every 100 points, each on its own chaotic, bouncing path. The game ends when the player inevitably collides with one of these projectiles. (Fairchild, 1978)

Memories: Nearly every system, no matter how obscure, has at least one unique game that’s worth seeking out both hardware and software, just to try it out and see how much fun it is. Some systems, like the Atari VCS and the Intellivision, have something like half a dozen “killer apps”. When I played Dodge It on the Fairchild Channel F, it was one of those occasions where I looked up at the clock, and realized two things: it was an hour later, and I was still playing Dodge It. It’s a unique concept that I hadn’t seen elsewhere, maddeningly simple and insanely addictive. Dodge It made it worth my while to have a Channel F hooked up in my game room. Continue reading

Las Vegas Blackjack!

Las Vegas Blackjack!The Game: Place your bets, ditch some cards, or play with the ones you’ve got. The computer offers the usual enticements – double down and insurance – but the odds are firmly in favor of the house. There’s no limit on how big your bet is, so you’re even free to bet an ante that’ll have you screaming “uncle!” if you lose. (Magnavox, 1978)

Memories: I’m not a big fan of card games. In fact, when I got hold of this rather common cartridge recently, the lovely Mrs. PDF actually had to teach me how to play blackjack. I was hopeless. But it’s grown on me. I’ve now had the opportunity to play both this Odyssey 2 version and a Game Boy Color edition which is part of a card game cartridge called Las Vegas Cool Hand. And I have to say I like the Odyssey version better. Continue reading

Star Raiders

Star RaidersThe Game: Zylon warships are on the rampage, blasting allied basestars out of the sky and wreaking havoc throughout the galaxy. Your orders are to track down the fast-moving raiders and destroy them before they can do any more See the videodamage. You have limited shields and weapons at your disposal, and a battle computer which is vital to your mission (though critical damage to your space fighter can leave you without that rather important piece of equipment). The game is simple: destroy until you are destroyed, and defend friendly installations as long as you can. (Atari, 1979)

Memories: The original version of Atari’s Star Raiders leaves very few doubts as to its origins; in a sense, it’s a new take on the old grid-based Star Trek mainframe game, only with ample opportunities for arcade-style action. Oh, and – astonishingly, even back then – the game kicks off with a title screen showing a spaceship obviously based on the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which also appeared in 1979. How the lawyers missed that one, we’ll probably never know. Continue reading

Defender

DefenderBuy this gameThe Game: Alien invaders besiege the helpless population of a planet, and you are the last line of defense. Ideally, you must destroy the aliens before they can abduct humanoids from the ground; if an alien ship gets to the top of the screen with a captive, it absorbs that unlucky soul and it becomes a much more dangerous and aggressive Mutant. Smart bombs give you the option to wipe out everything alien on the See the videoscreen, but of course you only have three of them at the outset of the game. You can also perform an emergency hyperspace warp, but you could rematerialize in a far more perilous situation than the one you just left. When you go to the next level by eliminating an entire alien fleet, you receive a bonus multiplied by the number of humans who are still safely on the ground. (Williams Electronics, 1980)

Memories: For many people, Defender is the pinnacle of video games, hands down. Fast-moving, unrelenting, hard to beat but easy to become addicted, Defender was always a bit too fast for me – but it’s a perennial favorite for so many others. Continue reading

Pac-Man

Pac-ManBuy this gameThe Game: As a round yellow creature consisting of a mouth and nothing else, you maneuver around a relatively simple maze, gobbling small dots (10 points) and evading four colorful monsters who can eat you on contact. In four corners of the screen, large flashing dots (50 points) enable you to turn the tables and eat the monsters for a brief period for an escalating score (200, 400, 800 and 1600 points). See the videoPeriodically, assorted items appear near the center of the maze, and you can consume these for additional points as well. The monsters, once eaten, return to their home base in ghost form and return to chase you anew. If cleared of dots, the maze refills and the game starts again, but just a little bit faster… (Bally/Midway [under license from Namco], 1981)

Memories: It began in 1979 when a young Namco game designer named Toru Iwitani made his fourth video game. Fascinated with pinball, Iwitani had created a series of games combining pinball physics with Breakout-style brick-busting elements, and while Gee Bee, Bomb Bee and Cutie Q were moderate successes for Namco, enough to keep Iwitani employed and developing new titles, the designer himself was finally ready to move beyond video pinball. Cutie Q was one of the first hints as to Toru Iwitani’s next project, with its colorfully cartoony monsters. With a small team of developers at his disposal, Iwitani – supposedly inspired by the shape of a pizza with one slice removed – set about creating a new game with nearly universal appeal. Continue reading

Phoenix

PhoenixThe Game: In a heavily armed space fighter, your job is pretty simple – ward off wave after wave of bird-like advance fighters and Phoenix creatures until you get to the mothership, and then try to blow that to smithereens. All of which would be simple if not for the aliens’ unpredictable kamikaze dive-bombing patterns. The See the videoBuy this gamePhoenix creatures themselves are notoriously difficult to kill, requiring a direct hit in the center to destroy them – otherwise they’ll grow back whatever wings you managed to pick off of them and come back even stronger. (Taito, 1980)

Memories: Phoenix is one of my two favorite games to emerge from the shooting game genre which emerged from the success of Taito’s own Space Invaders. Most shooter games involve chance, luck, and precious little skill, and very few of them give you the chance to try to work out any kind of strategy. Two exceptions I can think of are Midway’s Galaga and this game. Continue reading

Red Baron

Red BaronThe Game: Take to the sky for some biplane battle with Baron von Richtoven himself! In a combat environment where banking too sharp can either be a daring maneuver or certain doom, your mission is to take out as many enemies as you can See the videoBuy this gamebefore you yourself accumulate too many bullet holes in the sides of your biplane. Dirigibles also make tempting targets and, for the truly daring, there are land-based tanks nestled near mountains and civilian homes. The game is over when the last of your planes is shot down. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: Emboldened by their first-person tank combat simulator Battlezone, Atari also set out to create the first ever first-person flight combat simulator. (Presumably this fascination with first-person combat sims predated Atari’s shotgun wedding with the U.S. Army that resulted in the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle Trainer.) And lest you think there’s no connection between Battlezone and Red Baron, take a close look at that cabinet – it’s exactly the same design as the Battlezone cabinet, minus the periscope-style viewer and second joystick. Continue reading

Targ

Targ - photo courtesy Tim SniderThe Game: You’re trapped in a symmetrical maze with a bevy of robotic target vehicles – “Targs” – which are programmed to do just one thing: collide with your vehicle. You have one advantage on these decidedly mean streets, however – you can fire missiles ahead of your car (but the Targs are capable of dodging your projectiles too, so don’t get too cocky). Every once in a while, one of the impregnable blocks in the maze will disgorge a new enemy which is just a little bit faster and deadlier than the rest. Clearing the screen of Targs advances you to a new level with faster enemies – and eventually they’ll put the brakes on your attempts to survive. (Exidy, 1980)

Memories: This is one of those games that’s just emblematic of what was great about the early 80s heyday of the arcade – the graphics did what was required without a lot of embellishment, and the emphasis was on the breakneck speed of the thing. And Targ moved fast. Really fast. Continue reading

Tempest

TempestBuy this gameAs a strangely crablike creature, you scuttle along the rim of an abstract, hollow geometric tube, zapping red bow-tie-ish critters and purple diamond-shaped things which carry them. There are also swirly green things (swirly thing alert!!) which spin “spikes” like webs, and by the way, you should avoid spikes. See below. (Atari, 1980)

See the videoMemories: Tempest is a bizarre little game to crack. Since you spend your time rolling around a vaguely tubular structure, the game is controlled with a knob only, and surprisingly, the speed with which you move the control is reflected in your onscreen speed. With some practice, Tempest was a truly addictive, engrossing game, one of the arcade’s best. Continue reading

Warlords

WarlordsBuy this gameThe Game: Think of it as Pong to the death. Two to four players hurl a fireball (multiple fireballs as the game progresses) around the playing field, smashing the walls to each other’s castles and – hopefully – hitting the other players’ kings and putting them out of commission. Your launcher doubles as a mobile barrier See the videoaround your castle which bounces the fireball right back at your curiously Vader-esque opponents. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: Far more famous at home on the Atari VCS than it was in the arcades, Warlords was a really fun game with the right group of friends (or friendly enemies). I’ve only ever seen one machine, and it was a cocktail table (or, to use less industry-specific jargon, a “sit-down”) version – and now that I think about it, it seems like Warlords would have been a bit difficult to pull off as an upright cabinet, but uprights did exist – with B&W monitors only. Continue reading

Checkers

CheckersThe Game: The classic game of strategy is faithfully reproduced on the Atari VCS. Two armies of twelve men each advance diagonally across the checkerboard, jumping over opponents and attempting to reach the enemy’s home squares to be crowned. Whoever still has pieces still standing at the end of the game wins. (Activision, 1980, for Atari 2600)

Memories: Programmed at roughly the same time as Atari’s consumer division was working on Video Checkers, Checkers was one of the first four games released by third-party software upstart Activision – the first company to focus solely on making software for other companies’ hardware. Continue reading

Donkey Kong

Donkey KongThe Game: An oversized gorilla kidnaps Mario’s girlfriend and hauls her up to the top of a building which is presumably under construction. You are Mario, dodging Donkey Kong’s never-ending hail of rolling barrels and “foxfires” in your See the videoattempt to climb to the top of the building and topple Donkey Kong. You can actually do this a number of times, and then the game begins again with the aforementioned girlfriend in captivity once more. (Nintendo, 1981)

Memories: Make no mistake about it, Donkey Kong is the point of origin of one of today’s largest video game empires, both fictional and real. The character of Mario appeared again in numerous arcade games. Continue reading

Fantasy

FantasyThe Game: As an unnamed but cartoonishly cute little hero, you are powerless to watch as your girlfriend Cheri is abducted by a boatload of pirates. Only then are you inspired to act, chasing after the heavily armed pirate ship in your defenseless balloon. You dodge cannonballs as you try to reach the pirate ship’s landing pad (what is it, an aircraft carrier?!). Then you have to battle those nasty pirates on the deck of their ship while still dodging that pesky cannon, until you do away with them all and get to Cheri. A bird then scoops her up, leaving you to take a treacherous balloon trip, climb a tree teeming with dangerous critters, avoid tigers in the jungle, and take on an entire tribe of natives (who seem to be in cahoots with the pirates, who now have helicopters and artillery!) to rescue Cheri. Then, of course, she goes and gets herself kidnapped again. (Rock-Ola [under license from SNK], 1981)

See the videoMemories: Why do I like this game? Hmmmmm…I don’t know. I only ever saw one Fantasy machine, at the game room at Gaston’s fishing resort on the White River in Arkansas. I think one of the game’s best qualities was the “continue” feature, which allowed you to pop another quarter into the machine and pick up where your previous game left off within 30 seconds. Continue reading

Galaga

GalagaBuy this gameThe Game: Commanding a small fleet of sleek fighter ships, you’re up against an alien invasion, arriving in wave after unfriendly wave. Alien fighters resemble butterflies and bees, but the real prize is the handful of motherships which arrives with each wave. Capable of taking two hits – the first weakens them and turns them dark blue, the second destroys them – the motherships also come equipped with a tractor beam with which to snare your fighters. But if one of your fighters is captured, and you can destroy the See the videomothership which is towing it, your wayward fighter will be returned, doubling your firepower. (Bally/Midway [under license from Namco], 1981)

Memories: Where its predecessor, Galaxian, brought “attack formations” to standard Space Invaders-style shooters, Galaga introduced real strategy, and influenced nearly every shooter that came after it. Continue reading

Qix

QixThe Game: In an exceedingly abstract and addictive game, you are a marker, trying to claim as much of the playing field as you can by enclosing areas of it. Drawing your boundaries faster is safer, but yields fewer points. A slower draw, which leaves you vulnerable to attack from the Qix and the Sparx, gives you many more points See the videoBuy this gameupon the completion of an enclosed area. If the ever-shifting Qix touches your marker or an uncompleted boundary you are drawing, you lose a “life” and start again. And the Sparx, which travel only along the edges of the playing field and along the boundaries of areas of the screen you’ve already enclosed, can destroy you by touching your marker. And if you linger too long, a fuse will begin burning at the beginning of your unfinished boundary, and will eventually catch up with you. (Taito, 1981)

Memories: Possibly the single most abstract thing to hit the arcade until Tetris, Qix was an underground arcade hit. Its bizarre game play, which defies any attempt to attach a narrative element or even define the Qix and sparx as anything other than “your opponents,” is enormously addictive. To this day, it’s still one of my favorites, but it’s nearly impossible to explain the game to anyone who wasn’t there to see it for themselves. Continue reading

K.C. Munchkin!

K.C. Munchkin!The Game: As a small blue spherical creature whose sole sensory organs consist of two eyes, two antennae and an enormous mouth, you are on a mission to eat twelve dots which are floating around a small maze. Pursuing you are three See the videomulticolored jellyfish-like horrors who will gobble you up on contact. (North American Philips, 1981)

Memories: K.C. Munchkin!, for its similarities to Pac-Man, actually got Magnavox sued…by Atari! Huh? Follow me: Bally/Midway were, at the time, the U.S. copyright holders of the concept and code for the arcade Pac-Man…should they not have filed that suit rather than Atari, which was still fuming over the richly-deserved flood of negative reviews for its horrible Atari 2600 Pac-Man adaptation? Continue reading

Missile Command

Missile CommandSee the videoThe Game: Tucked away safely in an underground bunker, you are solely responsible for defending six cities from a relentless, ever-escalating ICBM attack. Your missile base is armed with three banks of nuclear missiles capable of intercepting the incoming enemy nukes, planes and smart bombs. One nuke hit on your base will incapacitate one bank of missiles for the rest of your current turn, but one nuke hit on any of your six cities will destroy it completely. (The only chance you have of rebuilding a city comes when a bonus city is awarded for every 10,000 points scored.) And when all six of your cities have been destroyed, the cataclysmic end of the world proceeds. Game over. (Atari, 1981)

Memories: After the runaway success of the licensed Space Invaders and its own in-house Asteroids translation, Atari started mining its own vaults for new cartridges – and Missile Command, the legendary Cold War video game that had given its designer nightmares about nuclear war, was a prime target. Continue reading

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