Archive for the ‘video games’ Tag

[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

[50/50] Video Game #14: Karate Champ

Friday, March 1st, 2013

Video Game #14: Karate Champ (1984)

karate champMy 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.

[50/50] Video Game #15: Xevious

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Video Game #15: Xevious (1982)

Xevious_PosterIn 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.

[50/50] Video Game #16: Q*Bert

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:

[50/50] Video Game #17: Lunar Lander

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Video Game #17: Lunar Lander (1979)

lunar landerRemember 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: )

50/50 — A year-long countdown

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.

BookOfListsOver 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.

Top 5 albums of 2011: Part II: Electric Boogaloo

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

#1 The Cars — Move Like This

The simple fact that I can write a sentence with the phrase “new Cars album” is reason enough to celebrate. That it’s actually a solid, catchy record is a minor miracle. 24 years after they called it quits, a sudden impulse overtook Ric Ocasek, and he decided to get the band back together one more time. Maybe he was feeling old, or, more likely, Ocasek didn’t want the awful Door to Door to be The Cars’ swan song, but whatever the reason,  — OH MY GOD THERE’S A NEW CARS ALBUM.

Granted, it isn’t perfect: Benjamin Orr, who died of cancer in 2000, is sorely missed. A lot of people pointed out that it was Orr’s voice that carried the band’s ballads, and Ocasek isn’t up to the task, straining to match the gossamer tones the songs need. That said, Ocasek’s writing is as beat and whip-smart as ever, and the overall effect is incredible. They somehow managed to pick up their original sound as if they had stepped out for a smoke instead of taking a quarter century break, with songs that both recall their biggest hits and feel completely new. In it’s review, the AV Club said, “considering how many other bands have tried to make modern versions of classic Cars songs, it’s nice to see the original article doing it better than most.”

This isn’t just a nostalgic cash grab by a bunch of old dudes playing at new wavers. Ocasek’s lyrics in particular are world worn, a generational coda to the capricious cool of their top 40 hits. As one critic said, “Sad Song” is the bookend to “Let’s Go” and “My Best Friend’s Girl,” as though it’s sung by the same character thinking about how much he’s learned since. And “Hits Me” is clearly penned by a guy who been through it all and just wants to get to next week. It is their darkest album since Panorama.

And, still, it’s a joy. My brother saw them perform in Philly (at the Electric Factory no less) and said, while they weren’t a great live act they were never a great live act. Yet, it was absolutely clear these four guys were just plain happy to be on stage and playing together, and that reenergized youthful enthusiasm — along with a fans who felt the same way — made for a great show. While it would have been good to see them one more time, I’m just happy I’ve got one more Cars album to listen to, one that fits perfectly along side their very best stuff.

Honorable Mention: Daft Punk — TRON: Legacy 

Technically, this came out in 2010 along with the film of the same name, but I didn’t pick it until well into last year. None of which changes the fact that I played this soundtrack in 2011 more than any record I’ve bought in years. TRON: Legacy — the movie — is seriously flawed and, I strongly suspect, would have failed if it weren’t for this stunning techno score. It is the best thing about the movie, and pulls the story along even when the plot, acting and special effects refuse to do so.

Beyond their driving synth numbers, the duo of Daft Punk — who, with their robot-masked public personas were tailor made to work on this movie (and indeed appeared as themselves in one scene) — composed a tight orchestration that is a worthy successor to Wendy Carlos original TRON score, and belongs among the most famous and listenable of soundtracks.

I’ve listened to it while writing, while playing games, while cooking, while folding laundry — seriously, there is nothing it can’t make more exciting.