Friday, May 15, 2015

The History of Video Games: The Early Years

The latest issue of Video Game Trader, #32, includes my feature, The History of Video Games: The Early Years. I've reprinted it here for anyone who wants to take a look. If you enjoy the article, please consider purchasing a copy of the magazine from the website or subscribing. Thanks for reading!
As most of you already know, the video game industry has lost one of its pioneers, Ralph H. Baer, the “Father of Video Games,” who did nothing less than invent the concept of playing video games on a television set. According to family and friends, which includes video game historian Leonard Herman, Baer passed away at his New Hampshire home on the night of Saturday, Dec. 6. He was 92.

“Ralph was a generous, fantastic, and brilliant man,” Herman said. “You could spend hours with him and forget that you were in the company of someone his age. He had a youthful enthusiasm and till the end, he spent as much time as he possibly could working on one project or another.”
The project Baer is most commonly associated with is the very first video game console, originally known as the Brown Box, which played simple ping pong- or tennis-type games. Baer licensed his invention to Magnavox, which, in 1972, sold the system as the Magnavox Odyssey, laying the groundwork for the now-multi-billion dollar home video game industry.In addition to various other consumer electronic products, such as a light gun that was the first video game console peripheral, Baer invented Simon, the popular color-coded, beep-emitting, button-pushing memory game that is still being sold today.

Baer, an inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, was a humble, unassuming man, but he did receive prestigious awards for his work, including the National Medal of Technology, which was awarded by President George W. Bush, and a 2008 Game Developers Choice Pioneer Award.While Baer did indeed invent home video games—an incredible accomplishment—he would’ve been the first to admit that other brilliant men played key roles in the early history of the industry. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the origins of the hobby we all love.

Spacewar

Conceived in 1961 and completed in 1962, Spacewar was the first honest-to-goodness computer game. The brainchild of Steve Russell, a student at MIT and a member of the Tech Model Railroad Club, Spacewar is a two-player contest in which each participant pilots a rocket ship around the screen, firing torpedoes at one another. In Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games, Russell describes the rockets thusly: “One of them was curvy like a Buck Rogers spaceship. And the other was very straight and long and thin like a Redstone rocket.”

Starry, Starry Night

Spacewar is played out against a starry background, with a sun in the foreground. The sun boasts a gravitational field, adding a strategic element to the game. In addition, if a player gets in a pinch, he or she can escape into hyperspace, which makes the rocket disappear and reappear somewhere else on the screen (a risky, potentially fatal maneuver). Obviously, Spacewar birthed an entire industry, computer games, but it also influenced countless video games, including such similar space shootouts as Asteroids, Computer Space (mentioned later in this article), and Space War (an Atari 2600 clone of Spacewar).

Russell’s Roundup

Created on a Digital Equipment PDP-1 (Programmable Data Processor-1) computer (the first of the so-called “mini-computers”), Spacewar, as with many creative endeavors, was not created in a vacuum. Alan Kotok and Robert A. Saunders, two of Russell’s fellow TMRC club members, invented the game’s control boxes, which included a right-left rotation knob, a lever for acceleration and hyperspace, and a button for firing. Peter Sampson refined the starry sky with his “Expensive Planetarium” program while Dan Edwards put in the gravity calculations. Others involved in the development of the game include Wayne Wiitanen, Dan Edwards, Martin Graetz, and Steve Piner.

The Father of Video Games

The first person to conceive of and execute the idea of playing games on a television set (as opposed to a computer) was the late, great Ralph Baer, The Father of Video Games. In 1966 and ’67, while working as a division manager at Sanders Associates (a defense contractor), Baer began putting his plan into action, delegating technician Bill Harrison and engineer Bill Rusch to the task of creating a game device based on his designs. Harrison helped Baer develop a rudimentary technique for transferring images onto a television screen while Rusch specialized in actual game design.

Baer’s Brown Box

By November of 1967, Baer and his assistants were able to demonstrate a fully functional ping pong or tennis game (a precursor to Pong), in which players use paddles to rebound a ball back and forth across the screen. The trio also created a game consisting of two squares chasing each other. In 1968, Baer applied for the first video game patent. By 1969, Baer and company were demonstrating several iterations of the legendary “Brown Box,” a prototype unit that was equipped with a light gun, a console, and two controllers. Each controller had a vertical control, a horizontal control, and a control for putting “English” on the ball.

A Space Odyssey

Baer demonstrated the Brown Box to a number of television companies, including General Electric, Sylvania, and RCA, but it was Magnavox who took the bait. The company reengineered the Brown Box into a more streamlined unit (a futuristic white design), called it the Odyssey, and released it in 1972 (the same year Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn brought Pong to the arcades) as the world’s first commercially available video game system. The console retailed for $100, the equivalent of $560 today.

 Unlike subsequent video game consoles, such as the Fairchild Channel F (1976) and the Atari VCS (1977), the Odyssey doesn’t have microprocessors. Rather, it contains transistors and diodes. The games are plug-in cards that essentially reconfigure the system’s internal circuitry to make minor adjustments to the basic onscreen objects, which consist of a pair of paddles, a ball, and a line.

Due to the barebones nature of the Odyssey console (the unit produced no color, no scorekeeping, and no sound), the games were packaged with a variety of extras, such as game boards, dice, play money, tokens, tiles, cards, and/or other  items. The games also came with TV screen overlays to provide color and visual detail. Some of the best games for the console, including Shooting Gallery, Prehistoric Safari, Dogfight, and Shootout, were produced for the system’s Shooting Gallery light rifle.

Computer Space
 
No early history of video games would be complete without mention of Computer Space, the first arcade video game, predating the more popular Pong by approximately a year. Game historian Dave Beuscher of the late, lamented All Game Guide, summed up the origins of this groundbreaking coin-op cab thusly:

In 1970, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, two employees at the Ampex tape company in Sunnyvale, California began to work on a new idea to introduce into the pinball arcades. On weekends and in their spare time, they developed the science fiction video game Computer Space. Players would be in control of an on-screen spaceship and fight enemy flying saucers. The black and white screen on the machine was 13 inches wide. The game featured left and right rotational buttons as well as fire and thrust buttons.
In 1971, Bushnell sold Computer Space to Nutting Associates, a coin-operated game manufacturer. Nutting manufactured a modest 1500 units and introduced Computer Space into the pinball-dominated arcades where it quickly came and went. Bushnell suspected that the concept of Computer Space might have been too complex to attract an audience that had grown used to the simple instructions of a pinball machine.

Pong 
The first commercially successful arcade video game, Atari’s Pong was created by Al Alcorn, working under orders from Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. According to Chris Kohler of wired.com, Bushnell got the idea for the game from Baer’s most noteworthy invention.“One of the early Odyssey players was none other than Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, who visited a Magnavox product showcase in the spring of 1972, signed the guestbook, and played the Odyssey,” Kohler wrote. “When he returned to his nascent company, he assigned a project to Alcorn, a young recent graduate of the University of California Berkeley that Bushnell had just hired as one of Atari’s first employees.”

Bushnell publicly and vehemently denied attending the Magnavox event for decades, but finally admitted it at the 2003 Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

According to Kohler, Bushnell, although a remarkable marketing visionary, has for years had a hard time telling the truth, at least when it comes to video games. Kohler wrote, “To get Alcorn motivated to do great work and keep the costs down, the fast-talking, former carnival barker Bushnell spun up an elaborate lie: Atari had landed a contract with General Electric to produce a home video game machine, he told him, and it had to have a cost of goods of less than $50.”

Alcorn believed Bushnell’s bluff, despite the fact that no one from General Electric ever came to watch Alcorn working on the project, and despite the fact that Bushnell didn’t seem overly concerned that Alcorn was going over budget, so he brought his “A game” (so to speak), fine-tuning Pong as much as possible for a mass market release.

“I was motivated to make it playable,” he told wired.com. “So the little things like the ball reflecting off of the paddle at different angles, I tweaked that up to try to make it as fun to play as I could.”
The cabinet housing the Pong has two analog rotary controllers for maneuvering vertically moving paddles located on the left and right hand sides of the screen. At Bushnell’s directive, Alcorn added scoring and sound to help make it superior to the Odyssey. It is indeed a terrific two-player contest, in which one player to controls the left paddle while the other controls the right. The object is to rebound the ball back and forth across the screen, and, as the simple, iconic instructions on the cabinet dictate, “Avoid missing ball for high score.”

Less convoluted than Computer Space, Pong was immensely popular (the story of the game’s smash debut at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California bar is the stuff of legend), despite not being backed by a large company like General Electric. The game spawned several sequels and countless clones, the latter of which invaded homes in full force. If you’ve ever spent time with Coleco’s Telestar Alpha, APF’s TV Fun, or Radio Shack’s TV Scoreboard (to name just a few), you’ve played a Pong clone.

A Brief Pre-History of Video Games

Prior to the groundbreaking work of Baer, Russell, Alcorn, Bushnell, Russell, and company, other, more primitive steps were taken in the field of playing games on a screen. In 1952, A.S. Douglas created a tic-tac-toe computer game displayed on a cathode ray tube. In 1958, William Higinbotham devised an oscilloscope game called Tennis for Two.

Despite these earlier strides in giving the citizens of the world more screen time, Russell’s Spacewar, Bushnell and Dabney’s Computer Space, and Baer’s Odyssey are regarded as the first computer game, first arcade video game, and first TV video game respectively. And, to give Al Alcorn his due, Pong was the first video game of any kind to become a household name.

Paying Tribute

The next time sit down to play the latest PC or Mac game, drive or ride your bike to the local arcade, or fire up your PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or Nintendo Wii U, remember to give a shout-out to these legends of the industry, who kick-started our favorite hobby long before there were Kickstarter campaigns.

SIDEBAR:
On Feb. 5, at the D.I.C.E. Awards in Las Vegas, Al Alcorn and, posthumously, Ralph Baer, were honored with a 2015 Pioneer Award. Mark Baer, who played the Odyssey with his little brother when they were kids, accepted Ralph’s award on his father’s behalf. Rich Hilleman, chief creative director at Electronic Arts, presented the awards. Leading up to the event, Hilleman said, “Ralph and Al are the very definition of Pioneers. Every publisher, every developer, every platform, and all of the billions of players in the world stand on their sturdy shoulders. I am one of many who owe nearly all of what I have done to the remarkable talent vision of these two giants."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

My Room of Doom

I was recently interviewed by the Sega Channel, which is now iretrogamer.com:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D -- New Nintendo 3DS XL


Xenoblade Chronicles 3D for the New Nintendo 3DS XL is one of the better reviewed games on the market right now, and it's a system exclusive, so I thought I'd post some links to some of those reviews. Before I do that, here's the Amazon description:
Take up arms against an invading army in this remake of an acclaimed RPG, only on the New Nintendo 3DS XL system. Explore vast landscapes and beat down foes in battles that blend real time action with RPG strategy. Exclusive features make the Xenoblade Chronicles 3D game the ultimate way to learn the truth behind the mythical sword, the Monado.
Due to the processing power and additional buttons of the New Nintendo 3DS XL, you can experience this epic RPG portably. Command your party or quickly jump between locations by pressing the new ZL & ZR buttons and look all around the game’s beautiful environments using the C-Stick. These features perfectly round out an already outstanding adventure comprised of intense combat and intriguing storytelling. British voice actors and gorgeous art direction lend the story an authentic fantasy feel, while the customizable moves of your characters and chainable combos keep you on the edge of your seat.
Now for the reviews. To read them, simply click on each link:


American Pie Lyrics Sell at Auction for $1.2 Million



NEW YORK, NY—Don McLean’s handwritten lyrics for “American Pie,” in which the folk troubadour famously sings about “the day the music died,” have sold at auction for $1.2 million. This falls far short of the $2 million realized in June of last year by the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s equally iconic “Like a Rolling Stone,” but it’s nevertheless a pretty good chunk of change for a few pieces of paper scrawled on in pencil, plus typed drafts for the song.

Of course, the anonymous bidder who won the lyrics to “American Pie” bought much more than simple manuscript pages. He or she purchased a piece of history—the genesis, realization, and thought process that went behind penning the Vietnam-era, post-Altamont epic that helped define a generation “lost in space.” In some respects, “American Pie,” written in 1970 and ’71 and reaching #1 on the Billboard charts in 1972, reflects the innocence of the 1950s, the ideals and turbulence of the ’60s, and the birth of 1970s cynicism.

On the surface and at its core, “American Pie” was inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who were victims of a bad-weather plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959—the day the music died—during the “Winter Dance Party” tour of the Midwest. Pilot Roger Peterson, who reportedly wasn’t certified for an instrument-guided flight, was also killed.

Holly, famous for such songs as “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day,” was only 22 when he died but is widely regarded as one of the most influential rockers of all time. Because of logistical frustrations with the tour (broken heaters on busses, lack of clothes laundering services), he chartered the plane for himself, guitarist Tommy Allsup, and bassist (and future country legend) Waylon Jennings. As fate would have it, Allsup lost his spot on the plane via a flip of the coin with Valens while Jennings gave up his seat to The Big Bopper, who had the flu.

Up until the sale of the lyrics, which was hosted by Christie’s on April 7, McLean has been reluctant to talk about the meaning of “American Pie,” beyond the fact that it was inspired by the plane crash. “People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” he said years ago. “Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time. They're beyond analysis. They're poetry.”

And, when in a comical mood, he has frequently said, “It means I never have to work again.”

Now, as promised, McLean has come clean about the ubiquitous song, which references everyone from Karl Marx to James Dean to the Rolling Stones to Charles Manson to the “widowed bride,” Jackie Kennedy. “Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he told Christie’s. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”
McLean continued: “For more than 40 years I have rambled around every state of the union and many, many countries of the world. My primary interests in life have been America, singing, songwriting, and the English language. I love the English language as much as anything in life and words really do mean something. I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song ‘American Pie’ so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game. It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music and then was fortunate enough through the help of others to make a successful recording.”

At the eight-and-a-half-minutes, “American Pie,” which is the first track on the album of the same name, is the longest song to ever hit #1 in America. In 2001, it was voted #5 on the list of “Songs of the Century,” an educational project hosted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic Inc.

Today, “American Pie” remains a beloved staple of classic rock radio.

As music critic Douglas Brinkley states, “When ‘American Pie’ suddenly is played on a jukebox or radio it’s almost impossible to not sing along…After all these years later ‘American Pie’ still makes me feel empowered and yet filled with a sense of loss. The song is alive and joyful, yet fretful about a world gone wrong. It is a song that will never die. A reverie for the ages.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Yars' Revenge -- Game Boy Color

I wrote this review back in 1999, when the game first came out and I was writing for the late, lamented All Game Guide. The company would mail me games, and I would play them and review them. After a couple of weeks, I would have to send the games back. It was a fun job while it lasted.
Yars’ Revenge
Game Boy Color
Publisher: Telegames
Developer: Atari
1999

DESCRIPTION:

The retro-gaming trend continues as Yars' Revenge, the Atari 2600 classic from 1982, makes its way to the Game Boy Color. In both games you maneuver (in all directions) a mutant space fly named Yars around the screen.

Your primary objective is to break a path through a Shield on the right side of the playfield and destroy the Qotile therein. Each Shield is made up of cells; you can destroy these cells by firing at them with Energy Missiles or by devouring them on direct contact. The Shields come in two shapes: arches and shifting rectangles.

While Shield cells can be destroyed with simple Energy Missiles, of which you have an unlimited supply, the destruction of a Qotile base requires the use of the Zorlon Cannon. To gain access to this incredibly powerful incendiary device, you must eat five Shield cells or fly over the Qotile to activate the cannon, then fly to the left edge of the playfield to load the cannon.

Once loaded, the weapon appears on the left side of the screen and moves in a direct (vertical) line with Yars. To use the Zorlon Cannon, aim it at the Qotile, fire and fly out of the way. If your shot makes contact with the Qotile, you score points and advance to the next screen.
While you are flying around the screen trying to destroy the enemy, Destroyer Missiles, which appear one at a time, will pester you. Avoid them or be destroyed. Periodically the Qotile will assume the shape of a Swirl and come after you. You can destroy this Swirl with the Zorlon Cannon by hitting it either in its base location or in mid-air. Or, you can try to avoid the Swirl altogether.

Running vertically along the center of the playfield is a colorful and glittering pathway called a Neutral Zone. While in the Neutral Zone, you cannot operate fire commands or be harmed by Destroyer Missiles. However, you can still be destroyed by a Swirl.

The Game Boy Color version of Yars' Revenge features enhanced, updated graphics. Other additions to this version include more than 250 levels with password codes, bonus rounds involving a high-speed chase through an asteroid field and new enemies, such as Shield Builders and Zone Guardians.

REVIEW:

At a time when the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast make the Atari 2600 look like some strange relic from a distant past, along comes Yars' Revenge for the Game Boy Color, programmed by Mike Mika. Perfectly suited for older games that are smaller in scale than their futuristic cousins, the Game Boy Color is home to numerous Arcade and console classics. Count Yars' Revenge as one of the system's best.

The first question most retro-gamers have upon hearing of an old favorite being converted to a modern system is this: is it faithful to the original? With Yars Revenge, the answer is an unqualified YES! While there are a few differences between the original and the new game, they are nothing for purists to fret over. In fact, most of the additions to the new game add to the fun -- most notably, the level progression and new enemies.

Being able to save your progress via password and advance through a whopping 250+ levels gives you reason to take your Game Boy Color wherever you go and try to get further and further into the game, whether you are playing for an hour or two or in small chunks of time; trying to get past a tricky level in Yars' Revenge while standing in line at the bank will make you wish there were more people in front of you.

The new enemies are certainly a welcome addition to the Yars' Revenge formula. After advancing 30 or so levels, you will want additional challenges. Instead of inserting generic characters into the game that would simply kill Yars on contact, the designers were clever enough to give the new enemies specific tasks: rebuilding the Shields and stunning your character and robbing him of his stored energy.

The biggest structural difference between Yars' Revenge for the Game Boy Color and the original is that the new game has a partially scrolling playfield. This helps compensate for the small screen size of the handheld system. Some may find this distracting, but it is a necessity. Luckily, the designers had the foresight to insert a moving arrow along the right side of the screen. This helps you aim your Zorlon Cannon when you are trying to shoot the Qotile.

Another unique aspect of this version of Yars' Revenge is the high-speed chases through the asteroid fields. This is handy for gaining extra lives, but the missions themselves are boring. Perhaps some shooting action similar to that found in Asteroids would've helped. This is just a small gripe, though, and is insignificant in the scheme of the game's more than 250 levels.

I was pleased but not surprised when I found out that Yars' Revenge was being released for the Game Boy Color. Of the hundreds of games that were available for the Atari 2600, Yars' Revenge is one people still (as of 1999) talk about. There are many reasons for this: the annoying (in a good way) Destroyer Missiles that keep you from sitting in one place and mindlessly firing; excellent controls that keep the game fluid and untarnished by age; an ingenious weapons system that requires you to perform several steps prior to firing your mighty Zorlon Cannon; and strategic (but not overly so) gameplay that requires you to be proficient in aiming, shooting and flying.


Luckily for Game Boy Color owners with a fondness for the classics, this updated edition of Yars' Revenge keeps everything that made the original great while adding just a dash of modern flavor.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Intellivisionaries Podcast -- Interview

I had the privilege and honor of appearing on Episode 18 of the Intellivisionaries Podcast to talk classic games. Tune in at the 02:10:00 mark, or listen to the whole show. Check it out HERE.

Thanks for listening!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987 -- Reviewed by Boing Boing

A writer for the very popular website, Boing Boing, has given high marks to my latest book,The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987. After the review appeared, the book took off on Amazon, so that was nice. You can check out the review, which includes a link to sample pages, HERE.