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Computer Space

Computer SpaceThe Game: Two ships are locked in deadly deep-space combat, firing interplanetary ordnance at each other. Whoever survives the most confrontations within a set amount of time is the victor. In the game’s one-player variation, See the videothe machine controls one ship, and a two-player version was also made. (Nutting & Associates, 1971)

Memories: To go all the way back to the beginning of video games in the arcade is to go back to Computer Space – which is also arguably the first arcade flop.

The idea behind the game wasn’t exactly new – it was almost a decade old, in fact. Steve Russell’s college mainframe favorite Spacewar! had captured the attention of a college student named Nolan Bushnell. Having served his own apprenticeship as a carnival barker in his younger years, Bushnell was sure he could sell anyone on entertainment, and he knew a potentially exciting new medium for that entertainment when he saw one. Continue reading

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

Gun Fight

Gun FightThe Game: Grab yer guns and draw, sonny! You face off against another player, with only six bullets and plenty of obstacles in the way – a pesky cactus or two, a roaming covered wagon, and so on. Whoever lines his opponent’s belly with lead first wins the round, and the final victory goes to whoever wins the most rounds. (Midway, 1975)

Memories: Originated in Japan as Gunman, Gun Fight holds a very special place in video game history – it’s the first arcade game with a microprocessor chip at its core. But that innovation didn’t start in Japan – it started when Dave Nutting, the brother of Bill Nutting (whose Nutting & Associates took one failed shot at arcade success with the first coin-op, Computer Space, in 1971), licensed Gunman from Taito. When originally manufactured by Taito, Gunman‘s guts were strictly analog, just like every arcade game that had come before in either country. Nutting had already been experimenting with implementing a game program through microprocessors, and decided to completely remake Gunman from the ground up. Continue reading

Odyssey 100

Odyssey 100The Game: A simple version of video ping-pong; players use three knobs, one to control horizontal movement, one to control vertical See the videomovement, and a third to control the “English” or spin of the ball. (Magnavox, 1975)

Memories: Caught flat-footed by the success of Atari‘s Pong home console, Magnavox found itself struggling to hang onto the very market that Ralph Baer‘s original Odyssey console had created in the first place. Perhaps not surprisingly, Magnavox turned back to the Odyssey, not just for inspiration but to – at least in a limited fashion – put the machine back on the market. Continue reading

Odyssey 200

Odyssey 200Talk about upscale. The Odyssey 200, released not long after the Odyssey 100, added an extra game to the mix, bringing the machine’s built-in game total up to three. In addition to Tennis and Hockey/Soccer, the Odyssey 200 adds Smash, essentially a vastly simplified game of racquetball. (Magnavox seemed to feel that the extra game – and the slightly more sedate paint job on the casing – merited a whole new unit and model number.) 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

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

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

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

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

Odyssey 500

Odyssey 500With the same trio of games as the Odyssey 400 – Tennis, Hockey/Soccer and Smash – the Odyssey 500, released in 1976 by Magnavox, would appear See the videoto not be much of an upgrade, but in fact, it’s an absolutely critical turning point for home video games: the Odyssey 500 did away with squares and rectangles to represent the player, and introduced character sprites – hardware-generated characters that roughly mimicked the shape of a human being. 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

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