Archive for the ‘video game’ 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 #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 #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 Game #12: Tetris

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Video Game #12: Tetris (1984)

tetris1_img6080Speaking 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.

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Again, not bad for a 30-year-old video game.

[50/50] Video Game #18: Rampage

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Video Game #18: Rampage (1986)

rampageThe 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?

[50/50] Video Game #19: Tail Gunner

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Video Game #19: Tail Gunner (1979)*

Tail_GunnerAnother 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.

[50/50] Video game #20: Defender

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Video game #20: Defender (1980)

defender

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.