Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gotta Get Me a ColecoVision -- Christmas of 1982

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I couldn’t afford my own video game system. My family wasn’t poor exactly—my dad had a good job at Bell Helicopter—but money always seemed tight. Apart from our annual Griswold-like summer outings (which were, now that I think about it, done on the cheap, what with the Vienna sausages consumed and lack of souvenirs purchased), we rarely splurged on luxuries, and there was no way my parents were going to fork over the $200 it would have taken to snag an Atari 2600 or the $300 necessary for purchasing an Intellivision.

Thus, I spent many a day riding my bike to various console-enhanced friends’ homes, thrilling to Combat and Asteroids for the Atari 2600, grooving on Baseball! and Speedway!/Spin-Out!/Crypto-Logic! for the Odyssey2, and marveling over Astrosmash and Star Strike for the Intellivision. Two of my best friends owned Fairchild Channel F systems, and, desperate as I was for electronic entertainment, I even enjoyed the little system that couldn’t, deriving some measure of pleasure from such odious titles as Bowling and Tic-Tac-Toe.

Despite the lack of an honest-to-goodness game console in the Weiss household, my home life wasn’t entirely void of bleeps and bloops, thanks to Mattel’s line of handheld electronic games (which began in 1976 with Auto Race), most notably Football (which I owned) and Basketball (which was my brother’s). At $30 or so a pop, these babies were a little pricey, but relatively affordable, at least as Christmas gifts. Knockoffs were even cheaper, and I remember purchasing an off-brand basketball game at K-mart for $17. Unfortunately, by pressing the shoot button continually as you guided the little red hash mark representing your player down the lane, you could go right through the defense, scoring a basket every single time. Some bargain.

Regarding Christmas, Santa Claus never put gifts under the tree for me totaling more than $100, which is not a complaint (children starving in India and all), but merely an observation. One-hundred dollars could purchase quite a bit 30 years ago, and Christmases in our house were lived relatively large (the aforementioned bicycle was a Christmas gift), but not large enough to contain a programmable game system. Up until the summer of 1982, I was fairly content with the vicarious ownership of games and game systems, and I became a regular fixture at a number of gamers’ homes within a 10-mile radius of my house. 
In 1982, when Coleco began advertising their next-gen ColecoVision, it hit me like a laser beam to the head that sitting on the sidelines, playing other people’s systems, was no longer a viable alternative to owning my own game console. The first ColecoVision ad I saw on television was 90% hyperbole, showing a guy standing at an arcade cabinet, playing a 3D shooter in which ships actually flew out of the screen. Even at the tender age of 14, I knew this imagery had little to do with home gaming (I was almost 15, after all). What truly impressed me about the ad was the other 10%, which showed the ColecoVision port of the arcade classic Donkey Kong in action, looking virtually identical to its coin-op counterpart.

Those colorful, detailed, beautifully rendered Donkey Kong screenshots, which were light years above the blocky imagery associated with the Atari 2600, Intellivision, and other previous systems, had me at hello, and I simply had to get a ColecoVision, no matter what the literal or figurative cost. The notion of sitting at home on my living room floor, playing near-perfect ports of some of my favorite arcade games without having to insert untold numbers of quarters sent my senses soaring.

At the Toys “R” Us near my house, the ColecoVision retailed for $189.99 plus tax, which was around $100 more than Santa was willing to pony up. Stealing one was out of the question since the systems were kept behind the counter (and since my conscience wouldn’t allow such a thing), so my brain kicked into overdrive, scheming and dreaming of ways to get a ColecoVision. Fortunately, it was summertime, which meant there were plenty of lawns to be mowed, and, by season’s end, I had managed to save up $130, which was enough to give $100 to Santa Claus (i.e. the folks) and still have enough left over to purchase a copy of Mouse Trap, which was an even better game than Donkey Kong in terms of arcade emulation.

Thus, Christmas of 1982 saw me staying up late into the night with my shiny black game system, playing Donkey Kong and Mouse Trap until my hands and wrists were sore and my eyelids were too heavy to keep open.

After Christmas break, with school starting up again, I discovered that several of my friends had received ColecoVisions as well, meaning it was time to get back on my bike and make the rounds. Not to play their systems (though two-player gaming was certainly in order), but to borrow their game cartridges that I couldn’t afford. Luckily (for them and me), the next summer I turned 16, meaning I could get a job and purchase my own consoles and cartridges.

Now, all these years later, I have way too many video games to count, and, in these more indulgent times, my son teenage has an Xbox 360 he received for Christmas a few years ago, and Santa brought a Wii U to our house last year. Unfortunately for him, regardless of Santa’s newfound generosity, my son still has to do yard work.

*This essay originally appeared as one of two chapters I contributed to Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Retro Gamers Holidays Gift Guide

Check out Shawn Long's Retro Gamers Holidays Gift Guide!

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Teaser Trailer

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mr. Do! -- The Greatest Game of All Time

Years ago, I had an article published in Game Informer. Here it is:


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"100 Greatest" Gets Some Love

In his weekly email, Buddy Saunders, owner of Lone Star Comics and, made my new book one of the four featured listings. Thanks, Buddy, for the excellent exposure!

Batman Eternal TPB (2014 DC) 1-1ST
Batman Eternal TPB (2014 DC) 1-1STAn All-Star creative team is assembled for this mystery that sees Commissioner Gordon framed for mass murder and Batman's city brought to the verge of chaos and disorder! Collects Batman Eternal #1-20
Superior Iron Man #2A
Superior Iron Man #2ATony Stark has transformed San Francisco into the prototype for his NEW WORLD concept. However, there is resistance. A resistance led by Daredevil the Man without Fear!
100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987 HC (2014 Schiffer) 1-1ST
100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987 HC (2014 Schiffer) 1-1STFrom Atari 2600 to the NES, here are the best of the early video games, shown in over 400 color photos and described in incredible detail in the entertaining and informative text!
Deathstroke #2A
Deathstroke #2AThey threw everything they had at him and came close to actually taking him out. Now, an All-New and improved Terminator is back to settle the score!

The Game Chasers Season One DVD

The Game Chasers
Season One DVD

I’ve known Billy and Jay—The Game Chasers—for a couple of years or so now, thanks to seeing them at various comic book and video game conventions in Texas. When I’m manning a booth at a show, trying to pawn my books off to anyone who will give me the time of day, they usually stop by my table to say hello, which is always cool.
At the ScrewAttack Game Convention in Dallas this past July, I admitted to Jay that I had never actually watched an episode of their YouTube show, The Game Chasers. In the program, which is now on season four, he and Billy, a couple of regular Joes wearing baseball caps and wife beaters, drive a Ford Ranger all over the Dallas/Fort Worth area, haunting thrift stores, flea markets, and other places one might find video games (including actual retro video game shops), hoping to add rare gems (and common games alike) to their collections at a good price.

Instead of good-naturedly harassing me for not watching the show, which I thought he might do, Jay gave me a review copy of season one, which has 10 extended episodes, a “lost” episode, two animated specials, exclusive interviews, an episode called “The Game Chasers Take Pax,” and various outtakes, deleted scenes, and make-of specials.
Billy and Jay describe The Game Chasers as an American Pickers of sorts, but with video games as the focus.

When Jay gave me the DVD set, it was a friendly gesture that I very much appreciated, but I wasn’t sure I would get past the first or second episode as I’m not really the target audience (thought I knew my teenage son would enjoy it, which he did). While I play and collect video games, I don’t watch reality TV, and I would rather read a serious book about video game history than watch YouTube “celebrities” talk, joke, and cuss about old video games (although there are exceptions—Keith Apicary cracks me up).

Despite my interest in collectibles, and despite the fact that I have a booth at an antique mall, I’ve never seen an episode of American Pickers, although I suspect I would probably enjoy it. What I have seen—as of a couple of months ago—are all the episodes of The Game Chasers season one, plus most of the special features.

Yes, I blazed right through the first season, once I finally sat down to watch it. I didn’t binge, but I did watch an episode every couple of days. The show revels in its Beavis and Butt-head-style silliness (such as Jay calling the town of Waxahachie "Waxasnatchie"), but it’s actually pretty fun to watch Jay and Billy go to stores that I frequent, and to watch them dig through NES commons and the like to find the occasional diamond in the rough. The humor doesn't always resonate with me, but each episode does provide a few laughs. 

I’ve been game-chasing for decades. It’s pretty cool that you can now watch a show about such a thing.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Hottest Band in the World

In addition to promoting The 100 Greatest book and working on the next Classic Home Video Games volume, I've been working on a book about the rock band KISS, one of my favorite musical acts of all time. Here are some really cool rare photos I've run across during my research:

On the newspaper photos below, the names are assigned to the wrong band members!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Video Games: The Movie

Sometime last year the producers of Video Games: The Movie contacted me as a follow-up to an interview they did with me at the 2012 Classic Gaming Expo. The interview at CGE went well, and they wanted to come to my house and interview me again for the movie. The day before they were to arrive, I cleaned the house from top to bottom, organized my office and game room, brushed up on gaming history, and got everything ready.

Unfortunately, right before they were going to come over, they got a call from Al Alcorn, who designed Pong (with Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney). Alcorn was available on short notice, so the producers had to drop everything and fly to New York. Needless to say, my interview got bumped, and they said they'd get back with me. Regrettably, they never did, and they didn't use the footage from CGE in the movie, so I was left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I wasn't bitter, but I was disappointed.

The  other night I watched the movie (streaming on Netflix), which is a surface overview of gaming with more of an emphasis on celebrities (Will Wheaton, etc.) talking about video game culture, why video games are great for society, and how important storytelling is in modern video games. It's basically a long ad for video games. No mention of ColecoVision, Dreamcast, and certain other key consoles, but the production values are good, and it's a decent documentary for people who don't know much about video games. No big reveals, though, and a lot of history, both negative and positive, is glossed over. The film is flawed, but certainly watchable.

Here's hoping I'll be in a deleted scene or two in the inevitable director's cut DVD release...

Monday, November 3, 2014

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987 --- Review

Many reviews of my book have appeared online, but this is one of my favorites, posted by Michael on The Dinglehopper:

There have been many top 100 books before, but rarely one like this. Here are the best of the early video games, shown in over 400 color photos and described in incredible detail in the entertaining and informative text. Each game’s entry features production history, critical commentary, quotes from industry professionals, gameplay details, comparisons to other games, and more. This book celebrates the very best of the interactive entertainment industry’s games from this highly crucial, fondly remembered decade. This pivotal period was marked by the introduction of the indispensable Atari 2600, Odyssey2, and Intellivision, the unleashing of the underrated Vectrex, the mind-blowing debut of the next-gen ColecoVision and Atari 5200, plus the rebirth of the industry through Nintendo’s legendary juggernaut, the NES. Whether you’re young or old, new to the hobby or a hardcore collector, this book will introduce you to or remind you of some of the greatest, most historically important games ever made.

This is a masterwork of scholarship in a field we’re only beginning to recognize the need for. While on the surface it looks like many other X best Y’s and while the average gamer might have her own list of ten or even twenty, Brett Weiss has thrown down a gauntlet with the kind of intertextual support typically unseen outside of Oxford University Press or more recent Tolkien ephemera.

These probably actually are the one hundred greatest console games of the period.  Not your favorites, not the most popular, but objectively. The burden of proof is now on everyone else who might disagree.  They’ll need ten citations and a cross system comparison in addition to personal testimonials just to begin that debate, though.

I’m sure I excluded some cartridges that many gamers – including you, constant reader – hold in particularly high regard, and for that I don’t apologize.

Rather, I hope my perceived oversight makes your blood boil (or at least simmer), forcing you to fire up the respective classic console, plug in that old favorite that I neglected to include, and extol the virtues of that game to anyone who will listen online or in person.

It’s bold, but aside from forgetting a title you might be especially nostalgic about, you needn’t worry. No matter what you loved, more than one of your favorites will be in here.
The years covered include the Second Generation, The Great Video Game Crash, and the beginning of the Third Generation. The selection is omnivorous, with games for the Arcadia 2001, Astrocade, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 7800, ColecoVision, Intellivision, NES, Odyssey2, Sega Master System, and Vectrex. If any of that isn’t familiar, it will be by the time you finish the book.

Each entry includes original box art, publication data, and one or more of the following: screenshots, cartridge photos, instruction manual art, box back, and ad copy.  In addition to descriptions of the games, entries are heavily sourced with reviews from contemporary publications and current enthusiasts.  None of this is just Brett Weiss’s opinion. You’ll also learn about how to play the games, or variants, on modern systems. And the entries end with an interesting fact about the game and a one sentence “WHY IT MADE THE LIST.”

The selections are system specific.  If a game was demonstrably better on the Intellevision than the Atari version, Weiss explains why.

Some of the games are ubiquitous. Combat, sold with the Atari 2600 (VCS) made the list. Others are so obscure only serious retro gamers have even heard of them. “Most Gamers who have actually played Bounty Bob Strikes Back love it.”

Some stand out for other reasons. Centipede was the first shooter to appeal to women and a recognized and remembered classic even on the 2600, which is noted here but justly not included in the praise for the 5200, ColecoVision, and 7800 ports.

The original was programmed by Dona Bailey in 1980.  Check out what happened and note how little has changed in more than three decades.

“When asked if things changed once she programmed Centipede, Bailey said, “yes,” but not necessarily for the better. “There was a lot of surly attention after that…people just started, you know…the typical kind of thing people would say was, either it was a fluke or I didn’t really do it, somebody else did it.”

Since the book is well researched and clearly referenced, I was able to find the original interview. Bailey’s experience was both disappointing and unsurprising.

Yes, but I’m not sure it was for the better! There was a lot of surly attention after that. It’s not always popular to do something [like] that — the first thing that happened, I was not ready for at all, and I still haven’t figured out how to deal with this part — people just started, y’know… the typical kind of thing that people would say was, either it was a fluke or I didn’t really do it, somebody else did it. I’m a very peaceful person, and I felt sick of fighting, so I really just disappeared, and I haven’t had contact with the industry for at least twenty years.

Sounds disturbingly familiar. The Gamergate movement is apparently upholding a tradition in its fourth decade when it attacks game developers like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu.

A few entries made me want to expand my collection. Shark! Shark! for the Intellivision is all about fish who eat fish.  Brett Weiss loves it because it was an early example of power leveling your avatar and killing sharks. It’s another game programmed by a woman, this time Ji-Wen Tsao. Its initial print run was 5600 copies versus supported titles that released 800,000.

Some of them are true loves, possibly in despite the consensus rather than because.  Rambo: First Blood Part II for the Sega Master System is lovingly described even as its criticisms are fairly presented. Weiss wants to spread the word so much he includes the cheat codes for the game, without which it’s unbeatable.

My favorite console game of the era, Warlords [note by Brett Weiss—the book lists games alphabetically, not in order of greatness], finally appeared at number 96 [author's note, the book lists games in alphabetical, not in order of greatness], with “some of the best party-style, four-player gaming ever created, regardless of the era”.  Something of a hybrid between Pong and Breakout, it was the first game whose coin-op version derived from the console game rather than vice versa. And it was programmed by a woman, Carla Meninsky. Her first game,Dodge’Em, also appears in the book.

With a foreword from Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day, an appendix of one hundred honorable mentions with brief descriptions, a bibliography (including websites), and a title based index, this book is indispensable for collectors, enthusiasts, and researchers.

Recommended for Ernest Cline, retro gamers, and would-be Kings of Kong.

Order The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987 HERE.