Friday, March 22nd, 2013
Video Game #12: Tetris (1984)
Speaking of Tetris …
I once tried to convince my boss back in the ’80s to let us get Tetris for the computer at work because it was a great design training tool. He didn’t buy it. Which is a shame, because I learned as much about page layout from Tetris as I did from any class at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I felt vindicated again when, just recently, I saw the checkout guy at the supermarket carefully stacking and packing the grocery bags in a particular order. “You’ve got a good system there,” I said. “I play a lot of Tetris,” he replied. I laughed and we ended up holding up the line as we talked. It turned out he worked for UPS during the week and that his boss actively encouraged his employees to play Tetris — it helped them pack the trucks more efficiently.
It is addictive and useful and still wildly popular — not bad for a title that’s almost 30 years old. Unlike virtually every other video game, Tetris has had an exceptionally long life with very little change in its design, across numerous platform evolutions. (And now it’s having another resurgence on smart phones worldwide.)
It is also one of the rare gems that’s become a pop culture touchstone — certainly in geek culture. Last year students at MIT programed lights in a 20-story campus building so they could play the game. On the side of the building. It frequently shows up in memes, like this so-obvious-you-can’t-believe-you-didn’t-think-of-it-yourself cartoon.
Again, not bad for a 30-year-old video game.
Friday, March 1st, 2013
Video Game #14: Karate Champ (1984)
My brother texted me last week that the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was closing after its rent was suddenly raised. It may eventually open elsewhere, but in the meantime he took his girls down for an afternoon of arcade classics. We talked later about how, as much joy a great pinball game can bring, there’s never been a two-player version, where you can go head-to-head against an opponent. Like your brother.
Enter the fighting games. Player v. Player. While the graphics and gameplay have grown more sophisticated over the decades (in most cases intimidatingly so), there is something to be said about the simple joys of the first fighter game, Karate Champ. No special weapons, no power moves, just pixilated karate. Because there were only a few controls and combos, the match really came down to knowing your opponent. In other words, it was the perfect game for two brothers to go slap happy on each other.
Plus, it was the first game you could take out your opponent by kicking him in the nuts. Ahh, technology.
Friday, February 22nd, 2013
Video Game #15: Xevious (1982)
In retrospect, this is just a really good scrolling shooter where you (again) shoot down hordes of invading aliens intent on conquering Earth. (This seemed to happen a lot in the early ’80s.)
At the time however…
Xevious came out at the very peak of the first great wave of video games — Atari even produced TV commercials announcing its arrival (unheard of at the time) — and incorporated every lesson Japanese and American companies had learned up until then about what made a successful and addictive arcade game. It was fun, challenging, rewarded successful hand/eye coordination, and its oversized cabinet came with booming speakers that bathed the player in an array of mesmerizing, cascading sound.
Xevious also introduced a number of concepts — such the idea of defeating a “big boss” to win the game — that have been thoroughly incorporated into other game designs over the last 30 years.
What I remember most though is the strange joy my brother and I felt whenever we walked into the Space Port (the arcade at the Colonial Park Mall) and didn’t see anyone playing Xevious. The game was hugely popular when it first came out, and for the longest time you had to queue up to play. It was in the prime spot at the front of the arcade entrance, and you would hover about hitting lesser games, trying not blow your precious horde of quarters on something you really didn’t want to play while waiting your turn. So if, after riding your bike all the way out to the mall, you turned the corner into Space Port and saw the machine was free, you knew it was going to be a really good day.
Speaking of free, you can apparently now play Xevious here online — no quarter, and no queueing, needed.
Thursday, February 14th, 2013
Video Game #16: Q*Bert (1982)
If the best video games let you do stuff you can never do in the real world, then Q*Bert is a shoe-in for one of the greatest. Where else can you hop about an Escher-like pyramid floating in the void, as killer marbles and snakes made out of springs relentlessly pursue you? Based on a classical optical illusion of 3-dimension cubes in a 2-dimensional space, Q*bert was deliciously disorienting — especially when creatures whose floor was your wall began drop in from the side of the screen.
Land on a cube and it changed color; change all the cubes and you advanced to the next level. It sounds easy, and it is at first, until the accumulation of opponents catches up with you and you miss a jump, plunging into the abyss. And Q*Bert had attitude, swearing in cartoonese whenever he was squashed. It was great, goofy fun that challenged your spacial and pattern recognition skills like few other games.
Catch up on the complete list of games here: http://wp.me/P26xZm-6h
Thursday, February 7th, 2013
Video Game #17: Lunar Lander (1979)
Remember when I said vector graphics were perfect for video games set in space? This was never more true than with Atari’s Lunar Lander. Debuting ten years after Apollo 11, Lunar Lander put you at the controls of the lunar module and dropped you over the moon, with limited time and limited fuel in which to safely land.
That was it.
Lunar Lander wasn’t deep, wasn’t complex and wasn’t fast — but it was intense. And for kids who had grown up on watching the Apollo missions and STILL COULDN’T BELIEVE NIXON PULLED THE PLUG ON APOLLO 18 AND THE MOONBASE, this was as close as we were ever going to get landing on the moon. (Points go to the designers for using a control bar for the rocket engine instead of a joystick or button, giving the arcade console a more tactile feel than other games.)
Alas, executing a safe landing was all you could do in the game, and after planting those a few times, my brother and I became more interested in how spectacular a crash we could make while plowing full speed into the lunar surface. The novelty wore off for other gamers as well, and Atari ended up converting many of the Lunar Lander cabinets into their other space game from that year: Asteroids. You may have heard of it.
Unlike its cousin, Asteroids was fast, complex and infinitely replayable, and went on to become one of the most successful video games of all time. Yet, when Brent and I went to the first major Arcade Museum show in Baltimore in 1999, we flew right past Asteroids and the other restored games and went straight to Lunar Lander.
It may have only been good for five minutes — but what a five minutes.
(Even though very few LL cabinets survived, you can still play the game today with this lovingly recreated fan version. It won’t even cost you a quarter: http://moonlander.seb.ly/ )
Thursday, January 24th, 2013
Video Game #18: Rampage (1986)
The whole point of video games, it seems to me, is to do things you couldn’t normally do. Why bother playing a digital version of golf or bowling or hunting when you can go out and do that for reals? Now, blow up a planet, fly a starship, shoot someone in the head? — hello, arcade.
Few titles embodied this better than Rampage — the game where YOU are the giant monster destroying the city. You get to eat people, knock helicopters out of the sky, and smash buildings. Better yet, Rampage was a three-player game, so you and two buddies could trash the town. The game gave you the option of playing King Kong, Godzilla or a giant werewolf (or their cartoonish generic equivalent) in a scenario right out of a ’50s monster movie.
Level the entire town and you get to move on to the next level … where you get to crush even bigger buildings and eat more people. That’s it. But really, what more can you ask for from a game that let’s you play Godzilla?
Thursday, January 17th, 2013
Video Game #19: Tail Gunner (1979)*
Another space shooter, Tail Gunner put you in the back seat of starship where you had to fend off wave after wave of starfighters intent on blowing up your ride. Unlike the many pixel-based games that came to dominate the arcade in the 1980s, Tail Gunner was vector-based, using straight lines generated by electron beams to create objects. The glowing wireframe images certainly made you feel as if you were playing in a high-tech computer, and lent itself very well to space settings, as you will see.
I actually missed this game when it first came out and only discovered it years later in a forgotten corner of the massive arcade at Hersheypark, the summer I worked there. The amusement park had been collecting video and pinball games for decades, and with each new generation of releases, older titles were pushed further and further back into the building. The version they had — virtually the only one I ever saw, in any arcade anywhere — was a large enclosed cockpit with the joystick and controls on the side of the gunner’s chair. This unusual set up made Tail Gunner particularly challenging, and immersive in way few video games were at the time.
Thursday, January 10th, 2013
Video game #20: Defender (1980)
Of all the quarters I dropped in the arcade, I probably lost more in a futile attempt to master Defender, an intense space shooter where you were the only line of defense between little pixel people and the aliens that wanted to abduct them. Once, in fact, I burned through an entire week’s allowance in less than an hour on this damn thing. Clearly I had a problem—WITH HITTING THE TARGET.
To be fair, Defender was probably the fastest and most complicated video game out at the time — relentless and requiring meticulous hand/eye coordination, especially when it came to shooting a flying saucer without hitting the human it carried and then catching said human before they hit the ground at terminal velocity. It was this challenge that kept me — and millions of other players who made it an arcade smash — coming back.
While I never got particularly good at Defender it’s still an all-time favorite, and the sound of the ship’s blaster and the digital chirp of the aliens as they snatched up yet another hapless earthling is seared into my skull.
Friday, January 4th, 2013
I love lists. When I was a kid, I devoured every edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, bought all three volumes of the Book of Lists, and listened to American Top 40 every week. One New Year’s Eve I almost missed the ball drop because a local radio station timed Casey Kasem’s year-end countdown to end at midnight and I HAD to know what the #1 song was when they announced it (Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” if you’re curious … and yeah, I was as disappointed at hearing that as you no doubt are.) Heck, I even used to keep an AT40-style list of girls I liked in middle school, even though I was too shy and awkward to talk to most of them.
Over time I kept running tallies of favorite games and movies, and was always annoyed if a critic simply listed things in alphabetical order. Best of and Worst of Collections of are all well and good, but a numbered collection is even better. I wanted to know WHY they thought something was better than something else, and rankings will always win out. It’s silly, because I know so much of it is personal taste, and that quantifying quality is rarely an exercise in comparing apples to apples. (And the horse-race aspect of, say, weekly box office receipts may indeed be damaging to the very idea of quality and creativity. How often IS the top grossing movie actually the best movie of the year?) None of which takes away from the fact that one of your all-time favs may actually be a trashy piece of fiction — as long as you KNOW its trashy and love it anyway.
So yeah — I love lists. And recently, when LOCUS asked readers to vote for their favorite sci-fi and fantasy novels (AND short stories and novellas and novelletes) of the 20th and 21st century, I found myself compiling yet another set of personal lists — and being challenged by what I found. And then I started thinking that next year I turn 50, and that I had all these lists around, many of which reached 50 or more entries … so I’ve decided to do a countdown to my birthday next year with a list of my all-time favorites — music, movies, books, games — one item each weekday for the next 50+ weeks.
Won’t you please join me on this horribly self-indulgent quest? Stop on back throughout the next year for the 50/50 countdown, and see if you agree with anything on my best of list. I look forward to the feedback /and snarky comments.
Monday — Albums
Tuesday — Books
Wednesday — Movies
Thursday — Games
Friday — Songs
Coming Monday: My #50 record has THE GREATEST ALBUM COVER OF ALL TIME. Be here to find out why.