Sunday, December 21, 2014



I just finished watching the documentary VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE on Netflix.  Overall a fun 90-minute doc that made for a fun trip down memory lane.  While not in depth enough to fully inform any newbies of the history of the video gaming industry, it does touch upon numerous main moments (and pitfalls) along with some fun look back at ads and commercials while intertwining interviews with several industry professionals like Atari’s Nolan Bushnell and celebrities who are also rapid gamers like Wil Wheaton.

Video gaming has been an important part of my life since my father brought home our family’s first Atari 2600 system in 1978.  I was a lot like Ralphie in A Christmas Story as I stared at the faux wood paneling on the front of the system and stroked the luscious gaming mecha like an electrified leg of glowing sexuality.  That first day we had two games Combat and Air-Sea Battle but in short time the family began stockpiling quite a collection of cartridges and even upgraded to the more graphic friendly Colecovision which included an adapter pack for the Atari 2600 thus allowing us to move our Atari 2600 to the basement TV while we had the option to play Colecovision in the living room.  This probably explains why in a house with two adults I currently need five TVs, five cable boxes, and multiple computers and gaming systems…because video gaming options was introduced to me at a very young age.

That wood is the mark of a quality product.  Bust out your Pledge!
The majority of games we bought for that treasured Atari 2600 were fun and offered a solid level of replay value for the time.  Luckily my family managed to miss most of the dud games (looking right at you E.T….although I did manage to borrow and win this game years later just so I could proudly state to people that, “Yes!  I won the worst video game ever produced.”)  Speaking of lousy games, I also remember drinking a shitload of Kool Aid one summer so we could send away points for the Atari 2600 Kool Aid Man game.  The game was actually kind of fun…and the animation of the big red guy smashing through the screen with an “Oh Yeah!” was sort of amusing.  But, I also remember tucking this game away when friends would visit as if owning such a game would hurt my street-cred as a serious gamer.  The biggest dud cartridge our family purchased was the opening day release of Pac-Man…wow, talk about sucking all the fun out of the arcade model with this monochrome nightmare with the worst sound effects in history (that would later be used in Superman III thus combining a hated video game with a hated movie).  The Atari 2600 version of Donkey Kong was also a major disappointment with lame graphics and only two different stages.  Luckily in the not too distant future we bought the Donkey Kong version for Colecovision which offered spot-on graphics and at least three of the four stages (but I still wish the Conveyor level had been included).

I have fond memories of bonding with friends while playing games on that original Atari system.  Having them bring over cartridges that I did not own (Activision greats like Barnstorming or Keystone Kapers, any of the Xonox cartridges, and the ever enjoyable The Adventures of Tron and Yar’s Revenge) always allowed for a long fun afternoon of gaming.  It was an exciting time to experience playing a video game that told a story and actually delivered an ending.  Winning the puzzle game Raiders of the Lost Ark and borrowing from my friend Shawn the under-rated platformer Pitfall II were high points in my early gaming career as I learned the tricks needed to complete a game and be able to shut off my system knowing that I had indeed reached a definitive conclusion in where I, the gamer, WON THE GAME!

In our home, the Top 10 most played cartridges that we owned were:

1.  RIVER RAID – This was the game!  Amazing that the same
Yellow Plane, Yellow Plane, why do you fly so low?
Yellow Plane, Yellow Plane, it's not your fault.
Christmas we were gifted our treasured request of Pitfall the next present opened was River Raid which my father bought on a whim.  Within a few days River Raid would surpass all of our other games for overall re-playability.  I love this game so much that decades later I managed to download it for my Xbox 360 and played it far too much while my wife would sit and watch and laugh going, “Really, in 2013 this is the best game you can find to play?”  A true classic and for my money the best game my family ever owned in our living room arcade.  River Raid was simplistic in that you flew a yellow plane on a mission to bomb the ships and planes stationed in the tight canals of an enemy nation.  It was a very 2D environment with weak graphics and lame sound effects.  But it was fun as hell.  And, this may speak to my gaming skill, no matter how long I played I could never get the game to actually loop and start at the beginning of the canals.  I always wondered how far the programming would actually allow for new levels to appear.  I never found out, but I had so many years of entertainment from this simple game that I don’t really mind.  Later when we owned our Colecovision system, a game called Zaxxon also came along.  This was a more 3D and sci-fi version of River Raid.  I didn’t enjoy it as much.  The 3D was trickier to navigate and at times there is a fine balance between level of simplicity and level of fun.  River Raid successfully found the perfect formula to balance both.

That vine sure made circumventing the crocodiles easier!
2.  PITFALL – I loved this game as a kid so much that I had my photo taken next to my television with my high score so I could send away for a free gift from Activision.  In fact, now that I think about it…not sure they ever sent the item.  It was either a poster or a t-shirt, but free prize or not this game was a blast and I loved exploring the underground tunnels to determine the best way to work my way to a high score within the twenty minute time limit.  As a kid, Pitfall programmer David Crane was a celebrity in my home and I made sure to buy other games that he was the lead programmer on like Grand Prix, Freeway (get the chicken across the road), and even Fishing Derby.  Indiana Jones was won of my favorite movie characters so it wasn’t too big of a leap to see that Pitfall Harry and his vine swinging antics would be a close second.  I become skilled at Pitfall to the point that I could always easily complete the twenty-minute session.  I won some bets with friends on who could manage the most points in that time frame as well.  Still, there was always the momentary panic anytime you would cross onto a new screen and see the dreaded three alligators sitting in their swamp and knowing that you had to slow down and time your jumps precisely lest you would fall into the water or down a gator’s gullet.

Never judge the fun of a game by how small the maze is.
3.  WIZARD OF WOR – This was the most popular game for my brother and me to play together.  It was a game where you controlled humanoid warriors in a small labyrinth maze (this format will sound familiar) that was swarming with monsters (some invisible) and then you would have to eventually work your way toward a fight with the eponymous Wizard.  During the course of the battle both players could choose to work as a team or kill each other (often switching for no reason during the game).  Not many games for the Atari 2600 offered this sort of simultaneous co-op play excitement.  This game was one of the last “new game” purchases my family made for our Atari 2600 but my brother and I played it so much in our basement that it was worth every penny.

4.  VIDEO PINBALL – This was a visually unspectacular game but it 
So bland to look at, but once the ball starts
bouncing around there was a good deal of fun.
was fast paced and fairly addictive.  I enjoyed playing Video Pinball the most because my father (who was not a gamer) would sit and play this game with me and it was the rare game where he was better than me.  I have fond memories of these father-son moments sitting on the living room carpet and playing this game for hours.  Years later in college, I borrowed someone’s Atari 2600 system for the weekend and flipped the score on Pinball and on the bumpers.  I was happy with the score and retired from any return visits although I am still a sucker to play any real life pinball games that I spot in visits to arcades.

5.  Q*BERT – During my formative years as a gamer my favorite game at
The "Donkey Kong" of my living room.
the arcade was Donkey Kong, thus at home DK received less attention.  Q*Bert filled the void by offering a fun and fast paced game with patterns that must be figured out all while under immense pressure to avoid a myriad of enemies.  The tension playing this game was pretty high and reminded me exactly of how I felt standing in an arcade facing the barrels of Donkey Kong.  Burger Time (for Colecovision) also comes in a close 2nd for this very same reason.  The arcade game was rarely visited when I had the opportunity to play Donkey Kong instead.  However at home I enjoyed the adventures of Peter Pepper although the pace and the difficulty of Burger Time often left me overly frustrated, thus I stayed with Q*Bert.  My game play with Q*Bert was solid enough that I could stretch out a single game to go for close to an hour.  Not too shabby.  On a side note, my grandmother saw me play Q*Bert so much one holiday season that she bought me a plastic coin bank of the character.  I remember stock piling coins until it was filled and eagerly opening up the booty to find I had enough money to buy a home computer (more on this in an upcoming entry).

6.  MISSILE COMMAND – There’s three games that could fall into
The tension to save those six cities was intense!
this #6 spot since they all offered the endless assault of a futuristic setting.  Asteroids and Space Invaders were the other two but I always found myself drawn back to Missile Command.  Probably because the difficulty was so damn hard and the pace so nightmarish that I never seemed to survive for more than a few minutes.  I also loved that explosion sound any time one of the six main cities would go up in a mushroom cloud.  I was never a fan of the arcade version because I struggled even more so with the track ball.  However, in the later years of this system when many games had lost their luster, I did often find myself sparing some time for a few quick rounds of Missile Command.  Still, as a youth I wished that some of these games would offer the possibility of actually winning.  The Atari 2600 would provide numerous sub options for gameplay on Missile Command and I often thought a version with a definite number of levels might allow for a more rewarding experience.  Imagine counting down from Level 100 to Level 1 and trying to keep your cities alive the entire time.  Then there is a solid goal to strive for instead of merely prolonging the inevitable nuclear destruction at the hands of alien invaders.

7.  SUPERMAN – As a kid who loved comic books, when I heard that
Loved that box image. 
The game also holds a fond place in my heart being the
first time I controlled a video game superhero.
there was an Atari game based on Superman, I momentarily lost my mind.  Then when I saw the game box with the artwork of the red-and-blue caped superhero I absolutely lost my mind!  The game played out like a pixilated comic book which made up for the pixilated graphics as Superman needed to change into costume, capture criminals and a flying Lex Luthor, avoid Kryptonite bombs, and rebuild a bridge before returning to the Daily Planet to report the story.  The game looked ridiculous but it was certainly fun.  In the 1970s the idea of playing a video game as a comic book character was such a rare treat that this game felt like owning the Ark of the Covenant.  Superman had an end point which also made it feel rewarding to play.  As the superhero you could literally save the day!  Even at a young age I played this game repeatedly trying to memorize the city screen patterns and finish as quickly as possible.  My fastest time was 57 seconds.  Yes – seconds!  Now that truly has to be some form of record.  What makes that score even more special is the fact that my father had just come home with pizza and my mother was busy yelling at me to shut off the game and yet under all of this duress I managed to achieve a spectacular score and save the citizens of Metropolis and then reward myself with a warm slice of pepperoni pizza.
     Later on Parker Brothers released an Atari game based on Spider-Man.  Naturally this had me thrilled to no end as I was praying for a similar open world experience.  Sadly that game was limited to climbing buildings while your web fluid inexplicably drained.  I have never had patience for “beat the clock” style games, especially when their very logic defeats the point of common sense (i.e. Spider-Man is capable of climbing walls!  Thus if his web fluid is empty, he does NOT fall to his death!)

That dot with the key...that's you!  YOU ARE THE DOT!
8.  ADVENTURE – You were a “dot” with a sword that battled dragons to save a kingdom with a chalice.  Sounds lame and it looked lame but Adventure was the first game I ever experienced that offered free roaming.  You could travel anywhere you wanted and determine ways to make the game as difficult as needed.  There were mazes, three dragons of varying speeds, a flying bat, and even the now famous “Easter Egg” dot that would reveal the name of the programmer when delivered to a specific spot in the game.  I remember winning Adventure the first day we bought it and thinking, “I wonder if I’ll ever play this game again?”  I did, later that day and for weeks, months, and years to come.  It was always a fun game to return to and wander from screen to screen on a fond trip down memory lane.  Colecovision had a game called Venutre (based off the arcade game) which I also enjoyed although that game offered less free roaming and more intense and sometimes painfully fast deaths.

9.  BERZERK – I loved playing Berzerk in the arcade and the home
version did not disappoint.  This game also has the distinction of being the first video game that I can remember saving up my own money to buy.  I did a lot of chores around the house to save up the $40 (could it have been that much) to buy this cartridge.  The second game that earned my allowance was Haunted House, but for some reason that game never clicked with my imagination as much as Berzerk.  Back in the day I was a sucker for any game that involved a humanoid character (see a pattern forming in Haunted House you played as merely two glowing eyes roaming in the dark) and Berzerk’s offering of a man with a gun running through an endless labyrinth maze filled with angry robots was a classic scenario.  Essentially it was a one player version of Wizard of Wor.  The never ending dialogue of “Stop the humanoid!” always made me smile in arcades and I wished more dialogue found its way into the home version.  The shockingly swift pursuit of the smiling ball Evil Otto who was hot on your heels made this a fun game that kept you on your toes.  As a fan of the movie TRON, I felt like Berzerk was a similar offering as to what the world of video arcade gladiatorial combat might actually be like.

10.  ACTIVISION TENNIS – Tennis!  Tennis?  I can see people
The #1 sport in my family (1978-1982)
screaming now.  Keep in mind I’m talking about games that got the most play in my household growing up.  I did not come from a home where baseball and football were popular.  My parents both loved watching and playing tennis (so much so that it often prevented me from playing video games because if I wasn’t watching John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors then I found myself sitting at the park babysitting my brother while my parents played on the city courts for a few hours).  My father bought the game and because he knew the sport it was the kind of game that the whole family could gather around the small TV and enjoy together.  Later on I found hours of enjoyment simply playing games against the computer (who seemed to always be able to run down my shots).  Decades later the reason I bought the Top Spin games for my Xbox systems was mostly because of my fond memories of playing Activision Tennis with my parents during my youth.


I no longer own an Atari 2600.  I know there are plenty available on eBay or there are offerings of MAME or other simulator programs.  However, for this level of gaming I do believe in the “You Can’t Go Home Again” motto.  I would rather have fond memories of plugging in a cartridge on a snowy afternoon and spending a few hours with my brother and friends than I would owning this same system today.  An Atari 2600 would more than likely sit on a shelf and rarely even make it to a television to be plugged in.  I have my memories and they are great memories of a period in my life where the Atari 2600 brought a great deal of fun into my life.

Before we move into 1983 and beyond, it is worth noting that during the same time period that I was playing the Atari 2600 at home I was also regularly visiting video arcades.  In my next entry on my history of video gaming (which may not fall sequentially with my blog entries), I will discuss some of my memories of plucking down quarters in these public establishments and which games drew my attention, imagination, and money the most.
The awesome Colecovision with the Atari 2600 adaptor!  Best Christmas present ever!

GAME OVER...for Part 1.

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