Archive for the ‘arcade’ Tag

[50/50] Video Game #1: “TRON/Discs of TRON”

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Video Game #1: “TRON” (1982) / “Discs of TRON” (1983)

“That’s two games,” I can just hear you say. Actually, it’s five — they were all supposed to be in the same cabinet.

1 tron 1 tron_tankTRON was designed to be a marketing tie-in to the 1982 Disney movie of the same name; ironically, the video game made more than the film itself — or so the story goes. TRON is one of those rare gems: a polyglot of challenges that is greater than the sum of its parts; a smash success that can still be occasionally found in working condition today, three decades later, and a game that’s better than the movie it was inspired by. As I wrote in an Indy Week review of TRON a few years ago:

tron_berserk“It may have been the video game, in fact, that helped secure the film’s long-term reputation. Driven by a booming 8-bit version of Carlos’ ear worm of a soundtrack, the arcade game was challenging and addicting and everywhere. Even today you can find functioning machines collecting quarters in bars and the rare surviving arcade. The video game wasn’t just a product tie-in, it was considered an extension of the movie and had elements that didn’t make the final film, but which were part of the official story — an early form of cross-platform pollination now known as ‘transmedia.'”

tron_breakoutTRON effectively paid homage to early video games, with its take on “Tank,” “Berzerk” and “Breakout.” Add in the unique light cycle duel, where you had to race to draw walls around your AI opponent, and that made four-games-in-one. When development problems threatened to derail the title, it was decided to drop the 5th game, Discs of TRON, and release it as a stand-alone a year later once the bugs were worked out. (Speaking of bugs, a programming error — made no doubt in the last-minute rush to get the cabinets to arcades in time — caused the ‘Breakout’ portion of the game, where the player has to blast thru a rotating wall of color blocks, to suddenly veer off the left of the screen. This bug was never corrected, and later ports of the game still have error.)

Each of the four challenges weren’t, by themselves, great games. However, you would have to win a round in all four to get to advance to the next level, and you never knew which one was going to pop up on your screen next. This sense of anticipation — or dread; the tank level was exceptionally fast, hard and mean — helped seal TRON’s reputation.

1 tron 5

Discs of TRON sadly did not share in its companion’s success. By the next year the movie had come and gone, and the video game industry was in the midst of its first great collapse. Few copies of Disc were produced (in fact, my brother and I didn’t even know it existed until several years later, when we found a booth in the back of that boardwalk mecca of games, Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, MD.) For what it lacked in distribution, Discs of TRON made up for it in experience: thanks to its enclosed design, the gamer had to step inside a booth to play. Surrounded by digital stereo and enveloped by the blue glow of the control panel, it effectively isolated the player and made it very easy to believe you had been pulled inside the game. Discs of TRON was also a great deal of fun to play:

So there you have it. My favorite video game of all time. Would I buy one to restore if I had the chance? Probably not — there’s still something deeply satisfying about the surprise and joy of walking in someplace and unexpectedly finding an old TRON unit waiting to steal my quarters.

End of line.

[50/50] Video Game #2: “Tempest”

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Video Game #2: Tempest (1981)

tempestIs Tempest the most relentless video game ever created? It is certainly the most intense vector graphic title ever designed — pretty good considering it is composed of a handful of lines and basic shapes. And yet this simple set up reduces players to pure reaction, unable even to catch their breath between levels. All you have to do is shoot the pointy opponents sliding up the walls of a pit, and clear all the obstacles in your path before you plunge into the abyss.

In other words, it was exactly like high school.

Originally envisioned as a “3-D” version of Space Invaders, Tempest quickly mutated and surpassed its digital ancestor in every way, especially speed. As you danced on the edge of a dizzying vanishing-point perspective, slings, arrows and things were flung at you in quick succession. Just as soon as a pit was cleared of moving targets, you were fired like a bullet through a gun barrel to the next level (better hope you blasted all the spikes in your way, or your trip would be a short one). Each level the shape of the pit became more elaborate, and the objects flung at you more deadly. No music, no cute cartoon characters, just pure digital rush.

[50/50] Video Game #3: Marble Madness

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Video Game #3: Marble Madness (1984)

mm1You are a marble. All you want to do is roll downhill and cross the goal line before time runs out. In your way are killer slinkies, acid amoebas, mean black marbles, and bottomless cliffs in an existential landscape. Essentially Marble Madness is a surrealist version of that wooden marble maze game everyone seemed to have as a kid. You could also race against another player, which (if you’ve been reading this blog at all) you know means you could KNOCK YOUR BROTHER’S MARBLE INTO THE ABYSS!

At a time when fighting and shooting games were all the rage, Marble Madness was a joyful outlier, a simple race against the clock over a not-so-simple landscape. The bright isometric grid, absurdist maze and idiosyncratic soundtrack guaranteed it was exactly the sort of game you’d expect me to go crazy over. The arcade version used a heavy trackball instead of a joystick, giving this abstract video game a visceralness other titles lacked. (Despite being exported to home consoles, smart phones and emulators, this lack of a heavy trackball meant the ports were always a pale imitation of the original experience.)

It was also unique in that the game ended when you finished the last race. It should be noted, though, reaching the final level was extremely difficult, and in spite of all the quarters I dropped in this pit over the years, I never managed to get to the final maze. It remained maddeningly just out of reach.

[50/50] Video Game #4: “Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator”

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Video Game #4: “Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator” (1982)

Star_Trek_-_Strategic_Operations_SimulatorLet’s just put it this way: my brother and I own a copy of this game.

The 400 lb. arcade version.

[50/50] Video Game #5: Space Wars

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Video Game #5: Space Wars (1977) aka Spacewar! (1962)

1181242171185Want to determine once and for all if an Imperial Star Destroyer can beat the USS Enterprise? Want to play THE original video game? You can do both with what is considered by many to be the very first digital game: Spacewar! Created in 1962 to showcase the computing power of the PDP-1 computer, Spacewar! is credited with helping to close many a sale of the expensive mainframe. Object? Blow up your opponent. While popular with programmers, the game was never available to the public.*

One of those programmers, Nolan Bushnell, who would eventually go on to found Atari, was inspired by Spacewar! to build the first commercial video game a decade later: Computer Space. Alas, in spite of its cool futuristic cabinet (which made a cameo in 1973’s “Soylent Green“), Computer Space wasn’t much fun to

What was fun? Space Wars, the commercial version of the PDP-1 game. Released in 1977 in the wake of Star Wars, the programmers creating the game had the brilliant idea, and presence of mind, to update the appearance of the two ship to look like those in Star Wars and Star Trek. And a star was born.

Talk about simple: the ships were composed of a handful of vector lines, moving against a black screen with a few dots on it for stars, and a circle in the middle representing the sun.  And yet this simple setup produced one of the greatest games ever. Object? Blow up your opponent. Don’t fall into the sun. Really. That was it.

Honestly though, if its your brother’s ship you’re annihilating, what more do you need?


* Until now. Last year, someone emulated the original Spacewar! game and put it online. Enjoy.

[50/50] Video Game #6: Galaga

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Video Game #6: Galaga (1981)

galagaiamgescreenIf you apply the rules of evolution to video games, than Galaga wins survival of the fittest. Almost 33 years after it debuted in arcades, it (along with Ms. Pac-Man) can still be found just about anywhere. I know three, maybe four, bars in the area that still have an arcade unit,* and if I wanted a game, I could walk out the door right now and play. It has been ported to every single console platform and smart phones — heck, it even made a cameo appearance as a visual gag in last year’s “Avengers” movie — and though it has received numerous sequels and upgrades, it is the original version that remains popular.* Galaga is the shark of video games, unchanged over time, perfect just the way it is.

Is Galaga still around because it’s popular, or is it popular because it’s still around? It has the same concept as Space Invaders, Centipede, its own predecessor, Galaxian, and a dozen other games, but good luck finding one of those these days. In many ways, it’s its simplicity that kept Galaga going long after more sophisticated machines came and went: one joystick and one fire button, with a ship that can only dance left and right as you dodge wave after wave of swirling alien insects. (Of course, it could just be people really like squashing bugs.) While the invading fleet can capture your ship with a tractor beam, rescuing it back with a well-placed shot gives you two ships to mow down more bugs… excuse me, I think I feel a quarter burning a hole in my pocket. Gotta go.


*To be fair, almost all of the units you see today are the special “Class of ’81” reissue that Namco put out in 2001, that put Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga in the same cabinet. However, a company reissuing an old video game like this is exceedingly rare, and the fact they picked these two titles simply underscores their continuing popularity.

[50/50] Video Game #7: Joust

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

Video Game #7: Joust (1982)

Knights on flying ostriches vs. villains on vultures. Over a lava pit. AND there’s a pterodactyl. Do I really need to say anything more?

[50/50] Video Game #8: Cyclone

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Video Game #8: Cyclone (1988)

cyclone“We have a winner!”

Considering how many quarters I dropped in pinball machines over the decades, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one. This is no token appearance, however; this game earned its place on this list. Pinball, once a reigning symbol of juvenile delinquency, was dethroned as king of the arcade when video came along in the 1970s. Thanks to a revival lead by a handful of designers at Williams Electronics, the pinball game came roaring back in the late ’80s with digital interfaces and elaborate Rube Goldberg-like structures in titles like Bad Cats, Pin*Bot and Comet.

Williams’ follow up to Comet, Cyclone, was that rare sequel that’s better than the original. The roller coaster/carnival-themed game was so popular and so widely distributed — and so well constructed — you can still find working machines in many places today, the digital voice of its carnival barker announcer calling out insults as patrons pass by.

[50/50] Video Game #9: Spy Hunter

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Video Game #9: Spy Hunter (1983)

1067979495What’s better than watching James Bond? Driving his gadget-filled sports car … or at least the arcade version of it. In the most obvious idea ever for a video game, Spy Hunter put you behind the sexy sexy wheel of a sleek hi-tech ride and sent you out to make the world — or at least the street — safe for democracy.

Seriously, who hasn’t been stuck in traffic at one point or another and wished they had a machine gun to clear the road ahead?

Spy Hunter armed you with all the clandestine classics — machine guns, oil slicks, smoke screens, surface to air missiles — to neutralize wave after wave of nefarious opponents in dark sedans trying to run you off the road, slash your tires, or blow you up. Of course it was a huge smash.

According to something I read on the internet, the designers at Bally originally wanted to use the James Bond theme for their game, but when the rights proved too costly, they went with another brassy soundtrack from the height of the Cold War: Henry Mancini’s theme to Peter Gunn. A now-forgotten ’50s TV show about a tough gumshoe — forgotten except for Mancini’s cool compositions — the pick was a perfect for Spy Hunter, and  single-handedly reintroduced the Mancini song to a new generation … at least until Art of Noise came along.

Numerous attempts have been made to update, reinvent and sequelize Spy Hunter (every few years there’s even a threat of a big screen movie), but nothing has been as remotely successful — or fun — as the original arcade game. Like the Peter Gunn theme, it’s a classic all by itself.

[50/50] Video Games #10 & #11: Tanks for the memories

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Video Game #10: Battle Zone (1980)
Video Game #11: Assault (1988)

Tank_01What’s better than one joystick? Two joysticks. Two joysticks were exactly what was needed to control the tank tracks in Tank (1974), the second smash arcade hit from Atari. Push both to move forward, pull both to go in reverse, and alternate to rotate left or right. Easy peasy.  Oh yeah, and the big red button was TO BLAST YOUR KID BROTHER OFF THE SCREEN.

You have no idea how many quarters we borrowed from my grandmother to play this thing when it first came out.

Tank narrowly missed making this list, but only because two of its descendants placed higher. While Atari’s Battle Zone sorely lacked the player v. player aspect of Tank, it made up for it with a targeting periscope you had to lean into that cut off your peripheral vision and effectively gave you the illusion you were gazing out a viewport onto the green glow of a future battlefield. The stereo speakers on either side of your head didn’t hurt either. Even though the landscape was a simple wireframe of vector graphics, if you had a really good run and got immersed in the game, stepping back from the machine into the real world would often be disorienting. Battle Zone was so realistic the U.S. Army had a version built to train gunners on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

What’s better than a tank that can turn left and right? One that can roll over like slinky, sit up like a spitting cobra and pogo into the atmosphere to single-handedly take on an entire army! Namco’s Assault took the twin yoke control of Battle Zone to the next logical step, allowing you to move sideways and meticulously dodge the concentrated fire of dozens of turrets and waves of enemy tanks. The launch pads were a nice touch too, flinging your tank skyward to rain shells on distant opponents and allowing you to recon the road ahead. Assault wasn’t deep, but it was stylish, slickly designed and blew up shit real good.

Tank image courtesy of the 20th Century Tech Museum