51 Shades of Geek

Lunar Rescue

Lunar RescueBuy this gameThe Game: Those pesky Space Invaders are back and this time they’ve got hostages. Your mothership hovers in orbit over the craggy, uninviting surface of the moon, waiting for you to hit the action button and signal the beginning of your mission. The docking back doors open underneath you and your lander begins See the videodropping toward the surface. You can control where you land, and to some extent the speed, and you’ll have to weave through several rotating zones of meteoroids to reach the surface safely. Once landed, you can take on one passenger, and then you have to blast off again to ferry your man back to the mothership. Only this time, the meteors are replaced by several waves of flying saucers who will not only be happy to ram your lander, but shoot at you from above too. If you get your man home – or even if you don’t – the mission begins anew until you run out of ships. Higher difficulty levels add more enemies, such as fireballs streaking through the sky. (Taito, 1979)

Memories: This very obscure Space Invaders sequel takes some of the same basic ideas as Atari’s Lunar Lander (released the same year) and adds some lunar loonies and other more obviously fictional elements; Lunar Lander was good if you wanted a straight-ahead simulation of an Apollo landing, but you get to land your ship and then take off and shoot stuff in Lunar Rescue. It’s challenging and quite a bit of fun, too – I find myself playing this one for a pretty good stretch if I start. Continue reading

Out Of This World! / Helicopter Rescue!

Out Of This World! / Helicopter Rescue!The Game: In this two-for-one game, you take to the skies in one of two different ways. Out Of This World! is a classic lunar lander game, in which you must balance your descent speed and your remaining fuel to make a safe landing on the surface of the moon, and then safely return to dock with your command module in orbit again. Helicopter Rescue! is a simplistic game in which you pilot a helicopter, trying to retrieve as many people as possible from a doomed hotel and take them safely to a nearby ground station. Precision and timing are of the essence. (Honestly, though, we never see what’s wrong with that hotel – there’s no evidence of fire, terrorists, massive fiddygibber infestations…) (Magnavox, 1979)

Memories: I grew up a space buff, and by the time this game came around – and keep in mind, kids, 1979 was only the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing – I thought it was so cool to have even a rudimentary spaceflight simulation on my state-of-the-art Odyssey2. 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

Rally-X

3-D computer rendering of Rally-X cabinetThe Game: Go, Speed Racer, go! (Well, almost.) As the driver of a high-powered race car, you rocket around corners and down straightaways, trying to pick up every yellow flag in the maze-like course and avoiding deadly collisions with pursuing red cars. Watch out for rocks and oil spills, and use your smokescreen See the videoBuy this gameonly when necessary to distance yourself from the red cars. (Bally/Midway [under license from Namco], 1980)

Memories: Namco released Rally-X at the same time as Pac-Man, and like Pac-Man, Namco licensed Rally-X to Midway. In fact, the major buzz at that year’s AMOA (Amusement Machine Operators’ Association) annual trade show – where arcade owners tried to figure out which would be the hottest new games to buy for their establishments – was for this dandy little racing/maze game, and Pac-Man was considered an also-ran, perhaps a little too abstract for the U.S. market. Continue reading

Adventure

AdventureBuy this gameThe Game: As a bold adventurer trespassing a mighty castle in search of treasure, you face a twisty maze of chambers, dead ends aplenty, and colorful, hungry, and suspiciously duck-shaped dragons. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: The first game of its kind to hit the Atari VCS, Adventure scores a first in video game history – and not just because of its huge, sprawling maze.

Programmer Warren Robinett was a little disgruntled during his stint at Atari. He watched as his fellow programmers jumped ship, formed companies like Imagic and Activision, and struck it rich as the third-party software industry took off. Continue reading

Quest For The Rings

Quest For The RingsThe Game: In the opening screen – the mists of time, so the rulebook tells us – two players pick their characters’ classes. Warriors are sword-wielding strongmen, wizards can cast spells from a distance, phantoms can walk through solid walls (but not lava formations), and changelings can become invisible when they move. The two intrepid adventurers then set forth on a quest to retrieve the ten rings of power from randomly selected dungeons and filled with randomly selected horrors. (Magnavox, 1980)

Memories: According to the rulebook, a third player (whew, is anyone else beginning to figure out why these games never caught on?) – acting as a dungeonmaster of sorts – selects the combination of mazes and monsters to challenge the players, based upon their position on a map (the aforementioned gameboard). Continue reading

Kick / Kickman

KickThe Game: In an addictive little number from the height of Midway’s post-Pac-Man arcade empire, you are a unicycle-riding clown who occasionally wears a spiked hat. Your job is to keep any of the balloons falling from overhead from hitting the ground. You can bounce the balloons back into the air – temporarily – by See the videokicking them, but the only way to remove a balloon from play permanently is to catch or pop it on your head. In later stages, other objects fall from the sky, including special guest stars Pac-Man and those darn ghost monsters, and also including bombs which are the only thing you must avoid. (Bally/Midway, 1981)

Memories: A wonderfully addictive game with intensely aggravating controls, Kickman has gone down in video game history with unjust obscurity. But perhaps this lack of bona fide “hit” status can be blamed on that wacky lateral trakball control – it was such a pain in the butt until you’d gotten sufficient practice in. Continue reading

Venture

VentureThe Game: Trapped in a maze full of HallMonsters (TM, pat. pend.), you are adventurer Winky (TM, pat. pend.), on a mission to snatch incredible treasures (TM, pat. pend.) from hazardous underground rooms inhabited by lesser beasts such as re-animated skeletons, goblins, serpents, and so on (TM, pat. pend.). Sometimes even the See the videowalls move, threatening to squish Winky (TM, pat. pend.) or trap him, helpless to run from the HallMonsters (TM, pat. pend.). The deeper into the dungeons you go, the more treacherous the danger – and the greater the rewards. Just remember two things – the decomposing corpses of the smaller enemies are just as deadly as the live creatures. And there is no defense – and almost never any means of escape – from the HallMonsters (TM, pat. pend.). (Exidy, 1981)

Memories: Okay, maybe I went a little too far making fun of Exidy’s hopes that Venture would become a Major Video Game Franchise (TM, pat. pend.), but this game is peppered with trademark symbols – a sure sign that Exidy was banking on this game being the kind of breakthrough licensing windfall that Pac-Man was for Bally/Midway and Namco. Continue reading

Kaboom!

Kaboom!Buy this gameThe Game: No manifestos, no political agendas, nothing like that – there’s just a mad bomber at the top of the screen, with a seemingly endless supply of explosives to chuck at you. You, on the other hand, have rather more limited resources – namely, three buckets of water. Your job is to keep those buckets right under the bombs and catch them all. If a bomb gets through, it costs you a bucket. If you lose your last bucket, you’ll be going out with a bang and a whimper. Catching all of the buckets in a given level of the game gives you a brief pause to prepare for the next wave – because your adversary’s using that brief pause to go cook up more bombs. (Activision, 1981)

Memories: Another one of Activision’s early best-sellers, Kaboom! is good, colorful fun – and it’s about as original as the concept of a madman with a bomb. As was typical in these early days before look-and-feel lawsuits became almost routine, the basic game play of Kaboom! was “borrowed” from an early black & white Atari coin-op called Avalanche. In that game, the bombs were falling rocks, and the whole thing was essentially a variation on the theme of Breakout. Continue reading

Jawbreaker

JawbreakerThe Game: You’re a mobile set of chattering teeth, gobbling up goodies in a maze as jaw-breaking candies pursue you. If you bite down on one of these killer candies, you’ll rack up quite a dental bill (enough to lose a life). You can snag one of four snacks in the corners of the maze and suddenly the tooth-rotting treats become crunchy and vulnerable. Advance to the next level by clearing the maze of dots. (On-Line Systems, 1981)

See the videoMemories: Atari’s home version of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 was like a trail of telltale blood in a tank full of pirhanas. It was quickly apparent that there was one wounded one in the group, and other predators quickly closed in for the kill – or, in the case of Pac-Man, provided games for various platforms that duplicated the Pac-Man experience better than Atari could apparently manage to do. Continue reading

Bagman

BagmanThe Game: You’re a thief trying to make away with all the loot buried in a complex maze of interconnected mines and shafts, and you’d get away with it if it weren’t for some pesky cops who are hot on your trail. You can drop bags of money See the videoon them from a level above, or temporarily brain them with a pick, and they’ll occasionally also bumble into open mine shafts of their own accord. In any of these events, they vanish for a little while to recover before reappearing. But any of these things will do you in too! (Stern/Seeburg [under license from Valadon Automation], 1982)

Memories: Bagman was a very addictive and fun variation on the ladder-climing format that had become familiar in the space of just one year. Despite putting the player in the role of a crook, the worst behavior this game could possibly encourage would be slapstick, Keystone Kops-type violence (wouldn’t it be great if there were a bunch of comically clumsy cops, and wouldn’t it be great if they brought beer – really good beer?). It’s a very cute and playable game. Continue reading

Blue Print

Blue PrintThe Game: You are the intrepid, barbershop-quartet-suited J.J. (hey, it’s better than being O.J.!), out to save a damsel in distress from a pursuing monster. How does a guy in a little striped suit do this? By building a mobile, tennis-ball-launching contraption to dispatch said dastardly monster, naturally. The catch? The eight pieces of your mechanical creation are hidden somewhere among ten little houses in a maze – See the videoand those houses that don’t contain parts of your machine contain a bomb that must be dumped into the bomb pit immediately (else they’ll explode and kill J.J.). Critters also roam the maze to annoy you, including one pesky monster who will prematurely jump on the “start” button, rattling your still-unfinished machine to bits. If you don’t build your Rube Goldberg gizmo in time, the monster catches the damsel and you lose a life. (Bally/Midway, 1982)

Memories: Fun little game, this Blue Print. Perhaps somewhat like the rodent protagonist of Mappy, J.J. seemed to be primed for some kind of merchandising that never happened. Continue reading

Black Widow

Black WidowBuy this gameThe Game: You’re a spider whose web seems to be a popular hangout for any number of flies who seem to have an aversion to getting caught there. So you’re left with the only option nature leaves open to a spider in this scenario: you shoot your prey down and eat the yummy grubsteak that’s left behind! Some bugs will have the whaudacity to lay their eggs in your web, which you can either push off the edge (a risky trick depending on how “developed” some of the eggs are) or wait to hatch into more bugs that you See the videocan shoot down. Beware of “grenade bugs” which destroy everything within a certain radius around them when you shoot them; they may take out other adversaries as they go, or destroy you if you’re too close. (Atari, 1982)

Memories: Black Widow is a fun number which smacks of an attempt to do Robotron: 2084 in vector graphics. It’s also one of the handful of Atari arcade games sporting the color vector monitor, which was prone to numerous technical glitches (not the least of which was overheating to the point that capacitors melted off the board). What vector graphics had over traditional raster displays, however, was fast action, and Black Widow is a beauty in that respect. Within only a few levels, the action is almost too much for the average player to handle. Continue reading

BurgerTime

BurgerTimeBuy this gameThe Game: As Chef Peter Pepper, you climb around a multi-level factory whose sole function is to make some really big burgers. We’re talking about some BIG burgers here. But your ingredients aren’t exactly cooperating with you. Mr. Hot Dog, Mr. Egg and Mr. Pickle are doing their best to keep you from making those big See the videoburgers, but you can turn the tables on them and put them in your edible creations! You have a limited supply of pepper which you can use to stun your tasty stalkers (and keep in mind, this was years before Mace). Or you can simply lead them across one of the yummy ingredients, and they’ll become part of the burger. (Which is a rather disturbing thought when it comes to to hot dogs and eggs in a hamburger.) Also, you can walk across a bun or a slab of meat on the level above them, and the falling ingredients will squash them on the way down. (Bally/Midway [under license from Data East], 1982)

Memories: BurgerTime was a cool twist on the climbing genre, but it had one main problem – oh, boy, was it ever slow! I t took forever to climb ladders, and on those later levels where there were huge, dangerous stretches of ladders, this slowed the game down to an annoyingly slow pace. Other than this, though, it was a nifty little game, and just playing it and writing about it has made me hungry for something from Burger King… Continue reading

The Electric Yo-Yo

The Electric Yo-YoThe Game: Don’t take this personally, but you’re a yo-yo in The Electric Yo-Yo, trying to clear all the dots from the screen and trying just as hard to avoid the bug-eyed monsters and other enemies who seem to be natural predators of toys on strings. You must plan your movement around the screen carefully – the further you can move in a straight line to eliminate the most dots, the faster you’ll move. See the videoBuy this gameGetting stuck in limbo with no targets in the same horizontal or vertical space means you have to take painfully slow baby steps around the screen, making you a sitting duck (or a sitting yo-yo) for your adversaries. You can occasionally grab a flashing dot to give you the power to knock the bug-eyed monster out of the way momentarily. If you clear the screen of dots, a new pattern of dots appears, each one more difficult to complete than the last. (Taito, 1982)

Memories: Even two years after Pac-Man hit it big, just about everyone was trying to carve out a slice of the dot-gobbling pie with games that, if they weren’t outright ripoffs, were at least conceptually similar. Taito, normally associated with such trail-blazingly original games as Qix and Jungle Hunt, was no exception, but at least The Electric Yo-Yo is far more original than the vast majority of Pac-Man-inspired arcade games. Continue reading

Ms. Pac-Man

Ms. Pac-ManThe Game: As the bride of that most famous of single-celled omniphage life forms, your job is pretty simple – eat all the dots, gulp the large blinking dots in each corner of the screen and eat the monsters while they’re blue, and avoid the monsters the rest of the time. Occasionally various fruits and other foods will bounce through the maze, and you can gobble those for extra points. Every so often, just to give you Buy this gamea chance to relax, you’ll see a brief intermission chronicling the courtship of Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man (and a little hint at who the next game would star). (Bally/Midway [under license from Namco], 1982)

Memories: The first real sequel (excluding any altered pirate clones or enhancement kits for the original Pac-Man) in the Pac-Universe, Ms. Pac-Man added quite a few new twists to the original game without changing how it’s played. The new mazes, extra side tunnels (on some mazes), and bouncing fruit were about the only things that could be changed without drastically altering the game (though the later Jr. Pac-Man addition of a scrolling maze was interesting). Continue reading

Super Mouse

Super MouseThe Game: Super Mouse is on the case. He’s trying to grab all the food from every level of the screen. While he’s on the case, cats are on the chase, trying to catch Super Mouse. Two blocks of cheese on the top levels of the screen can be dropped on top of the cats, or the cats can be tricked into chasing Super Mouse over a trap door that’ll dump them in a water tank. But the cats don’t stay gone for long. Super Mouse advances to a new level when he takes every piece of food back to his secret hideout. (Taito, 1982)

Memories: Barely remembered by anyone, Super Mouse was one of the hundreds of games that heralded the 1982 arcade “boom,” when no idea was too strange or too derivative. Super Mouse combines elements of Donkey Kong and Turtles (not exactly two games that one hears mentioned in the same breath a lot) to create something intriguingly unique. But it’s not all that and a piece of cheese. Continue reading

Swimmer

SwimmerBuy this gameThe Game: You’re a swimmer, and you’re doing what any swimmer does – splashing your way down the river, trying to avoid typical deadly swimming hazards like fast-moving floating logs and gigantic killer crabs. And like most See the videoswimmers, you’re trying to collect yummy prizes from the water, such as cherries and bunches of grapes. Dive under the obstacles, work your way around the predators, reach the finish line and swim on to the next level! (Tehkan, 1982)

Memories: Okay, it has to be said at last. I have to get it on the record. What is it with the diet of early 80s video game characters? Really. Everyone’s eating cherries and apples and other fruit – think about it: Pac-Man, Kangaroo, Mr. Do and Swimmer seem to be subsisting on a largely fruit-based diet. Now, this probably little to do with the produce industry, and everything to do with fruit being the most recognizable foodstuff that could be produced with the graphics capabilities of the time. Still, it’s a funny coincidence that crosses species, game companies, genres and everything except the food pyramid. Continue reading

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