Note: A story about 'play'. Before LEGO, before Star Wars, before video games, there was just 'Little Mouse' and 'Big Mouse', the names my twin brother and I used to refer to one another while we played together. The origin of those chosen names is lost forever, but the memory of them is still resident. It was a time of few rules, few boundaries, and high adventure. We were 6 years old.
“Big Mouse and Little Mouse”
It was a summer afternoon in the mid- 1970’s. TV programming had morphed from morning game shows into midday soap operas which meant the time had arrived to find something else to do. Midday TV was a barren landscape for several hours until Loony Tunes fired up again at 3:30.
Until then, it was time to play outside.
I ran out of the house, my twin brother close behind me. The screen door slammed against the side of our Southern California bungalow. We never used the front-door. The door-knob was broken, and only the dead-bolt worked. The only people that ever came to the front-door were sales people, complaining neighbors, or in rare instances, the police, so we knew to be cautious when answering if someone knocked.
Right outside the side-door was our driveway. It extended 100 feet, crawling up a modest hill just off the street, then jetting back past the house, past our first backyard, and straight up to the detached garage.
My brother chased me out the door with his disc-shooter, a plastic gun bought a few days early from the Lucky’s supermarket toy aisle. It shot little round spinning discs of various colors at middling speed: small enough to hit you in the eye, but not fast enough to do any real lasting damage.
“211 In Progress Adam-12” my brother called out as he continued his pursuit of me.
I was armed with my plastic pellet gun, also from the grocery store. Instead of discs, it shot yellow BB sized rubber balls. They were not as reliable as the discs, but the ammo was cheaper, and fire rate a lot higher. My brother shot two discs my way. One missed completely, passing by me and into the enormous wave of ivy that separated our house from Mr. Poe’s house, lost forever. The second one was a direct hit, bouncing harmlessly off my t-shirt, hitting the faded, silkscreened motorcycle, just under the words “Do It In The Dirt”
I did not fire back. Instead, I ran to the front yard, and tucked myself behind the ivy covered front lamp post. As my brother ran past, I took a couple shots, one whizzed by his head, and the other dribbled out the front of my gun, harmlessly dropping to my feet below. My brother dove onto a dirt patch in the front yard, rolled over, and pulled the trigger of his disc gun. What should have been a decisive blow, misfired, the disc getting caught in the plastic mechanism.
“Wait, wait wait, unfair” he said, as he tried to unjam his weapon.
I aimed at him, and shot three more plastic pellets, one bounced off his head, and the others missed, hitting the dirt in the front yard. As he frantically tried to get his weapon back in working order, I took one more shot, but nothing came out. My gun jammed too.
“Let’s play Emergency!” I suggested.
We put our guns on the front porch, and made our way to the garage at the end of the driveway. The garage door was open, as always. I pulled my Radio Flyer mini red wagon out from its’ storage space next to my older sister’s green Schwinn with banana seat, and yanked the handle until it turned around and came out of the garage. I check the supplies in the wagon: piece of garden hose,metal fishing tackle box, walkie-talkie, hammer, saw, army helmet, and a plastic machine gun: all the things a good paramedic might need.
“I’ll crash the motorcycle” my brother said, as he got onto his orange, Sears catalogue bike. He pedaled it back down the driveway, and took a right turn when he reached the front yard, disappearing into the front of the house.
Within a few seconds I heard the cry.
I jumped into my wagon, grabbing the handle and pulling it back so I could steer. With one leg curled-up in the wagon, and the other outside, pushing against the driveway, Squad 51 raced to the scene of the accident.
I drove swiftly down the driveway with my siren blaring, until I reached the front yard. I turned onto the dirt patch in front of the lamp post. At that point I needed to switch to four-wheel drive, so I jumped out of the wagon, and pulled it across the lawn to the scene of the accident. When I arrived I assessed the damage. The orange bike was on-top of my brother, as he moaned for help.
“The motorcycle is on fire” I yelled as I took the hose from fire engine and turned it on full blast.
“shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” I made a spraying sound with my mouth as imaginary water doused the motorcycle blaze.
When the fire was out, I took a look at the causalities. I pulled the bike off my brother, and sat down next to him with tackle box in-hand.
“I have the first aid kit”, I said as I moved towards the victim, “what hurts?”
“My leg” my brother whispered to me, and he started to move it around. I pulled the walkie talkie out of the squad.
“Rampart, this is squad 51” I said into it.
“This is Rampart”, my brother responded in a deep voice as he still laid on the ground, “go ahead squad 51”
“Rampart, we have a male victim here, aged 6. His vital signs look okay, but his leg is a real mess”
“Copy that squad 51, stabilize the leg, administer an IV with D5W and transport as soon as possible” my brother said, in his best doctor voice.
I put walkie talkie down.
My brother sat-up.
“Okay, my turn to be Squad 51”
“Wait, let’s play motocross instead” I replied.
I ran back to the garage to get my bike, nearly identical to my brother’s. I jumped on and started riding back down the driveway into the street, then up to about even with Mr. Poe’s driveway, next door. Jeff followed me, and we locked our wheels into position in the middle of the street, about 100 feet up from our own driveway.
“The gate falls!” my brother yelled, and we both started peddling furiously, picking up speed with every turn of the little gears. I edged him out for the lead. I turned into our driveway first, but instead of riding straight, I hit it at an angle and went straight for a ½ buried tree root next to the top corner of the driveway. I pulled back the handle bars as the bike hit the root and the bike flew a foot or so in the air.
“I’m Evel Knievel!”
I landed on both wheels, with my brother just behind me. I turned sharply in the front-yard. Dirt spit all over the front porch as my wheels dug into the ground below.
My turn was too sharp. Instead of making the quick loop back towards the driveway, I got stuck, jackknifed near the little retaining wall that separated our yard from the neighbor’s driveway. My brother, who had made a much less ambitious jump, pedaled past me, turned onto the driveway and rode back towards the garage, crossing the earthquake crack finish line before I could untangle my bike and get out of the front yard.
We parked our bikes in the garage, and then I went and pulled Squad 51 back to garage as well.
“Into the space ship!,” my brother yelled.
We both jumped into the front of white milk delivery parked in our backyard, Parked is a kind word for how it sat. It had been there for years, and never moved. Because of rotted holes in the roof and its position sitting under canopy of our Chinese Elm tree, it was covered and filled with sticks and leaves. One back tire was missing. the others had long since deflated and began to give themselves back to the earth.
We both got into the cab, brushing aside clumps of leaves quickly enough to both clear the seats and not see what creatures might be hiding in them. I grabbed the steering wheel by it’s rotting hand grips,
“Rocket launch to space” my brother called from the co-pilots seat.
“We have ignition!”
In unison we both shot backwards in our seats. I twisted the steering wheel side to side in an attempt to steady our ship during flight.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhbrrrrrrrrrrshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhbrrrrrrrrrr” the negines roared.
“Have we left the atmosphere?” I asked my navigator.
“Close.. Oh no!! We are breaking up!! Crash landing!! Crash landing!”
“It’s time to jump” I instructed.
We both motioned to put on our parachutes, then got into position, holding onto the frame of the missing doors on each side of our ship.
The free-fall only lasted a fraction of second. When I hit the ground, I rolled into a pile of leaves, just missing a bundle of branches left from tree trimming a few days prior.
“Time to make an assault on this planet!” I yelled.
We grabbed our laser guns (red flashlights) and crept into the jungle planet behind our garage. This was an area our family had dubbed “the back back” as it was the second back-yard on our property. Situated behind the garage and attached mother-in-law unit, it was 20’ x 50’ wild area filled with giant stalks of bamboo with leaves that tasted like licorice, wild reams of jungle grasses, grown over attempts at gardening, plus old toys, logs, and rusted tools, long lost to the uncontrollable nature. My dad made a valiant attempt to tame it every summer, but the area always fought back with an untamable, ferocious vigor. In the desert climate South Bay beach town in which we resided, it looked and felt like another world.
I put my hand up to my mouth and talked into my radio.
“CRRRT”, I made the sound of radio being turned on with my mouth.
“Ok Big Mouse, let’s explore this place”
“CRRRT”, my brother responded, his hand up to his mouth, talking through his fingers.
“Little Mouse, I don’t see anything yet.”
At some early point in our lives as twins, my brother and I began calling each other “Big Mouse” and “Little Mouse”. The names did not connote to anything in the real world, not to our relative size, nor even especially to animals we liked. They were of unexplainable origins, and we used them while imagining games and new worlds together. For all I know, the nicknames went all the way back to the womb.
We crept through the stalks of of bamboo, holding our guns out in front of us, at the ready to fight any space monsters we might find.
“This could be the Plant Of The Apes” I whispered.
“I don’t know” Big mouse whispered back. That doesn’t look like an ape to me!”
He pointed toward a set of green eyes sitting in a round clump of wild grass.
An alien monster.
White Paw, one of our two cats, blinked her eyes back at us.
We flash our lasers at the beast.
“Keep firing!” Little Mouse called out.
We switched our flashlights on and off at White Paw until she had enough. She got up, stretched, and scampered further back into the wild brush.
“Alien threat destroyed” Big Mouse Said.
“Return to ship” Little Mouse replied.
We both stood up and carefully pushed our way back through the bamboo stalks, to the stairs that led back down, out of the back back. We passed by our space ship, but didn’t climb back inside.
“Let’s play Green Berets!” I called out!
We dropped our laser weapons in the red wagon, and pulled back to the garage staging area, to get ready for battle.
I took my machine gun out. Green plastic, with a motor inside that made a rattling noise when I pulled the trigger, My brother got his from the front of the garage. The soldiers were ready to do battle. We skulked our way down the driveway to the battle-lines in the front yard. I blazed the trail first, hiding behind lamp post near the front of the house. My squad-mate held his position behind the broken-down, red Rambler in the driveway, waiting for my hand-signal to show the coast was clear.
I peered out from behind the lamp to the enemy outpost across the street.
I motioned for my brother to come forward, as I shifted my position to just behind the right-most tree in the front-yard.
For safety, I pointed the barrel of my gun out first, my eyes not far behind. Across the asphalt river I saw what I was looking for. The enemy. My brother joined me behind the tree.
“Enemy spotted” I whispered to him.
We both looked around the tree at the same, so I could point out the targets in the distance.
“There!” I said as I pointed them out.
Across the street a 5th grade girl and her friend were sunning themselves on lawn chairs, wearing sunglasses, and reading magazines and sipping beverages from clear plastic cups.
I quietly nodded to my brother.
“Engage,” I whispered.
At once, my brother and I peppered the enemy with bullets. Imaginary tracers were followed by even more imaginary machine guns rounds. Ineffective, the rattling firing noise of the guns only alerted the enemy to our presence.
They both looked up from their magazines, stunned by the sudden sound of an ambush, but not able to pinpoint the source of the attack.
It took a couple minutes for them to notice the little boys firing at them from across the street, ruining their day in the sun.
“Oh gross”, one said, lobbing verbal grenade in our direction.
“What little nerds,” the other replied, dodging our barrage.
Then in unison, they both went back to their magazines and did not look up again.
We continued to fire, but our rounds could not penetrate their armor.
Time for cartoons.
Ralph Baer: Ping-pong, tennis, hockey, Handball, volleyball, gun games, chase games (one spot chasing and wiping out another). It also had a joystick attachment with a golf ball mounted atop the shaft with which we played "golf" using an actual putter.
Steve Fulton Your original Brown Box was called an "analog" computer by Atari to defend against a Magnavox lawsuit. What do you have to say about that?
Ralph Baer: The Brown Box and its 1968 predecessor developmental systems were neither built around an analog computer (come on now...this was a consumer product!) nor was a purely analog design. While its circuitry was made up of discrete components, the circuits contained Flip-Flops, AND and OR gates, One-Shots, diode matrices, etc...what are these circuits if they are not digital circuits? People think that discrete component circuitry was strictly analog. This is complete nonsense. Of course we built digital circuits in the forties and fifties before there were IC's. In the sixties, plug-in cards with as little as one or two flip-flops were typical of logic modules of the day. So the notion that the Brown Box and its production version, the Magnavox Odyssey game was comprised of "analog circuits" is a myth...but that myth has a real origin: During the lawsuits, the opposition (Bally-Midway, Seeburg, etc) tried to make the judge believe that our circuits were analog and theirs were digital and hence they didn't fall under the Claims of our patents. The judges ruled otherwise and saw through this ploy in a hurry.
Re. cost considerations: In 1967, when the lab work to design a practical consumer product began at Sanders (in my little skunk works lab), IC's were not an option although we were comfortable with them in our defense electronics work. They were just too expensive for use in a consumer product. We HAD to use discrete components (resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes etc.) .When Magnavox finally began to negotiate a license starting in late 1969, they dragged out the negotiations (just like the big company they were) until well into 1969. The engineers were then turned on to get a production design out the door by late 1971 and production had to ramp up in early '72. There was just no time to redesign the product radically (which it should have been because a lot changed in IC pricing between 1967 and 1971) So they went with what was realistic: They copied our Brown Box circuitry almost part for part and changed only those things that FCC RFI regulations forced them to alter so as to meet the FCC specs for spurious radiation.
Steve Fulton There are many people who believe that analog computers, while severely limited, were elegant devices. Do you have any special views on analog computers?
Ralph Baer: Analog computers were indeed elegant devices. I used them as did many other radio and TV engineers in the fifties and sixties. They were great for modeling dynamic motion problems....but they cost on the order of $10,000 or much more. So forget analog computers as a means of playing home "video" games, except in the context of a demo in a lab environment where one or more analog computers were sitting around and one could temporarily borrow one for a "fun" ballistics demo (like Higinbotham's so-called tennis game).
Steve Fulton You and Magnavox had to sue Atari (and others) over Pong and patent infringement. Were you satisfied with the outcome?
Ralph Baer: After ten years of litigation in courts from Chicago to San Francisco we collected many tens of millions of dollars. I spent a great deal of time working with our lawyers and testifying in court. The outcomes of all of our lawsuits were completely successful (for our side) and the infringers uniformly had to cough up large sums of money. At the same time, we (Magnavox under the Sanders patents) had well over a hundred patent licensees all over the world in the mid-seventies and collected large amounts of license income from those licenses, also.
Steve Fulton Was the patent on your videogames for play methods or for the hardware or both? Did it matter that the Atari products were digital and yours was analog?
Ralph Baer: We won our lawsuits because our patents covered both what is termed "means plus function"...i.e. we showed in the patents and claimed the concepts of the interaction of machine controlled screen symbols (such as a ball) and player controlled symbols such as the player paddles ( the functions). We also showed how this interaction could be accomplished (the means). Any game made by a manufacturer that exhibited the type of interaction defined by our patents was found to be infringing...and the judges in Federal District Courts and in the Court of Appeals all saw it that way.
Steve Fulton What did you think the first time you saw Atari Pong?
Ralph Baer: I/We did not see it but heard about the demo of the first Pong unit built by Alan Alcort (sic) about September of 1972. The minute we got wind of its existence, it was clear that there had to be some reason why a ping-pong arcade game (of all things) popped up from nowhere. It did not take long to find out that Nolan Bushnell and other Nutting Associates employees had signed the guest book at a Magnavox new-product demonstration at the Airport Marina in LA (on May the 26th, 1972 I believe) and that they (including Nolan Bushnell) had played the Odyssey ping-pong gamed hands-on there. Later denials by Bushnell and others in court or in depositions (or to the press) that playing the Odyssey ping-pong game had nothing to do with creating the Pong game were found less than credible by the courts and, in any event, defy logic and common sense. Bushnell's 1972 Computer Space game (being produced by Nutting Associates) was a commercial failure because it was too hard to play. When the visitors saw and played the Odyssey game, at least one light went on in Nolan Bushnell's head: Hey this is neat and easy to play! And secondly, somewhere along the line Bushnell recognized that there was such a thing as a consumer home game market (as introduced by the Odyssey game) and that 40 million homes are a slightly larger base for a new business than a few thousand arcades. And so Atari entered the home video game business in 1975 and made big success of it. But Odyssey had shown the way! With 360,00 games out there by early 1975, it was also a resounding success.
Steve Fulton Were you involved any other Magnavox videogame systems throughout the 70s and 80's?
Ralph Baer: Yes, throughout the seventies. There was virtually no Magnavox video game activity in the eighties...nor did anybody else do much in the early eighties. The industry had tanked completely and did not get resurrected until Nintendo came along, having spent a lot of money on designing and producing a 1980's type product. During the seventies I worked with Magnavox with varying degrees of success. I was responsible for resurrecting the Odyssey2 game in 1978 when management at Magnavox made the decision not to go forward with the program. I was successful in turning them around. I did however, play a major role in getting Colleco into a hugely successful string of video game products starting in 1975. All of these games were based on the General Instrument AY-3-8500 series of single-chip game devices. I was instrumental in getting Colleco first dibs on what was then a limited (yield) product availability problem for the AY-3-8500 devices. Colleco sold over a million Telstar games as a result and became a licensee of ours early on. We (a small group at Sander
s I set up) also helped Coleco by designing parts of their next years models (the Coleco Arcade game, etc.)
Steve Fulton When did you leave Magnavox?
Ralph Baer: I never worked for Magnavox. During the 1980's I got out from under running a division with 500 engineers and support people at Sanders and became an Engineering Fellow at Sanders Associates, later a subsidiary of Lockheed. Magnavox was our licensee under our video game patents and any relationship betwen Magnavox and Sanders (including me) was done at arm's length through mutual, contractual agreements (or by ignoring management and trying to help engineers at Magnavox because I figured that their success meant increased license income for Sanders, so to hell with management's distrust of cooperative arrangements, which is typical). I retired from Lockheed/Sanders in 1988 and have been an independent inventor, consultant and licensor of novel electronic games (like Simon, Maniac, ComputerPerfection and dozens more). ever since.
Steve Fulton Why do you think Maganavox and Atari in the 80's and Atari again in the 90's failed, while other videogame companies (i.e. Nintendo) were so successful?
Ralph Baer: Mostly because management did not have the courage of their convictions and would not spend the money required to develop new systems based on the latest semiconductor technology. It took Nintendo to step into the breach and resurrect the video game business.
Steve Fulton What invention are you the most proud of?
Ralph Baer: I have over 150 patents worldwide and even all of these reflect only a very small part of all the novel stuff I have come up with, much of which went into production. But how can you beat creating an industry with a novel product category. So obviously, the answer has to be video games.
Steve Fulton Did you ever play videogames with your kids?
Ralph Baer: Sure...I have three kids and they were between 10 and 16 when I brought early breadboard hardware (and later the Brown Box) home to see how they would react to the idea of playing games on a home TV set. My kids are all in the mid and late forties now and have their own children but they vividly remember playing ping-pong downstairs in my lab. So do some of their friends who came and visited...one of whom is my current primary physician now!
You didn't ask re. parent's responsibilities when it comes to their kids' choice of games...but I'll tell you anyway: It is up to the parents to watch what games their kids are playing. I do not intend to weigh in on what the practical problems with that need are. All I know is that grandkids are one's reward for not strangling one's teenagers. We have four of them and I now watch video games over their shoulders ...and sure enough, they play games which I really do not care for...but I'm not their parent.
Steve Fulton Since you basically invented home video games, and are a father and a grandfather, would you call your self an original "Gamerdad"?
Ralph Baer: I assume that Andrew Bub came up with that title. I like it. I guess, by definition, I must be a "GamerDad".
Steve Fulton If you could choose to do one thing in your life over-again, what would it be?
Ralph Baer: I would just like to pick up where I left off because I am still cranking out neat things (go to Toys-R-Us and see if they stock some of Hasbro's (Playskool) Talkin' Tools...they are based on my inventions...and I am still in demand among friends and others for occasional engineering design help. My favorite activity is analog circuit design (but I'll crank out logic designs, too, when I need 'em. Software is my younger partner's job, although I dabble in it, too). There aren't too many guys around my age (82) who still sit at the bench and cobble up circuit designs. It's just an art form and it's what I would definitely do if I had a chance to do it all over again....fat chance!
Steve Fulton Do you get tired of people asking you questions like these?
Ralph Baer: Are you serious? This is too much like work! The trouble is that once I start getting sucked in to answering the first question, I can't shut up. That must be obvious.
Note: I've been writing these little stories on the internet for the better part of the last decade. Out of my entire close and extended family, only a very few have taken the time to read them. One of those people was my Uncle Richard. My mom's brother, he was the only uncle I ever knew. He was in the Navy in WWII, and worked as an engineer in the Silicon Valley almost since it's inception. He was also a pilot, and the father of 9 kids. Since my mom is not on the internet, every time he read one of my stories that he enjoyed, he would print it out and send it to her so she could read it offline. When I was growing up, my uncle was one of the few people in my life that shared my love of computers and technology. I loved the idea that my uncle was sitting in far away location, reading my stories, and enjoying them enough to actually print them out sand mail them to my family. Uncle Richard died this morning, at 4:30 AM This story, in particular was one of his favorites, so I'm reposting it in his honor today. Thanks Uncle Richard for all your love and support over the years. I was blessed to have known you. I will always believe that you are out there. somewhere, reading my little internet stories about growing up and technology. One day, I promise, you will feature in one of these stories yourself. I've already written it in my head, I just need to get it down on paper,
Part I: Mr. Hughes
In the fall of 1982 I started 7th grade at Foster A. Begg Jr. High School in Manhattan Beach California. My classes were Homeroom, Honors English. Pre-Algebra, Honors Science, Honors Social Science, Drama, Spanish 1, and P.E. My Schedule was stacked with very difficult classes, and historically, that would have been perfectly fine. I was a pretty good student all through elementary school, wracking-up good grades and a fistful of dollars my dad would pay for every 'A' on my report cards. As 7th grade started though, my outlook on life chnaged. Just 9 months before, at Christmas, my brother and I had received our Atari 2600 VCS. Then, instead of spending our free-time reading or watching baseball on TV, we were playing video games. We played a lot of video games. However, it was not just playing, we also spent a lot of time designing our own games on the graph paper my dad brought home from his job at Hughes Aircraft, and with BASIC language manuals we had borrowed from the Manhattan Heights Library. Where once I had found school to be the most thrilling thing I had ever experienced, the idea of playing and making video games had taken its place.
It was no wonder then, that my first couple months of 7th grade did not go very well. I was doing OK, but the hardest class for me was Spanish. For some reason, while the idea of learning a computer language like BASIC seemed like second-nature, the idea of learning a foreign language simply did not compute. It started off badly, as Mrs Boerman (no joke) told me my Spanish name was 'Esteban'. I could never spell it right, and always got -1 for spelling it 'Estebaun' on every paper I submitted.. Even more difficult for me though, were the every day words. Mrs. Boerman called on kids at random to name something in the room using Spanish instead of English. I was absolutely terrified of her calling on me, but I simply could not commit many of the words to memory. In fact, the only word I memorized was El Reloj which meant "clock", because I was always staring at the thing in class, begging for it to move a little faster before she called on me.
When our grades came out for the first quarter, I got A's in every class, except Spanish in which I received a "B-". It was the worst grade I ever received in any class (up to that point any way). The day after grades were handed out, I sat in my home room almost in tears, trying to figure out what to do. I simply did not like Spanish. There was no way I was going to do any better in the class, and the subject simply did not interest me at all. Mr. Hughes, my homeroom teacher noticed that I looked pretty sad, and asked me to see him before I left for first period. Mr. Hughes was a very quiet man who taught reading. I too stayed quiet, reading at a desk in the back because I was scared of the older kids in the room. He had never asked me to talk to him before, and my stomach fell as the first period bell rang, as I had no idea what he wanted to say to me. Mr. Hughes had a reputation of being "mean". I'd never seen it, but then I was never on the receiving end of any of his anger either.
"Steve, I noticed you look pretty upset today, what's up?", Mr. Hughes asked me as I slung my Wilderness Experience backpack over my shoulders in an attempt to to get out of the room as fast as possible.
"Umm,I err, I...I..I". I stuttered. I did that a lot in those days. Trying to get the words out of my mouth was sometimes the hardest thing in the world for me.
I tried again.
"Sp..Sp...Sp...Spanish" I finally blurted out, "i...i...i...it's too hard for me"
He looked at me for a second and then he looked down at the book I was holding, Computers For Kids - Atari, and back up at me and said "you know, Spanish is an elective. You don't have to take it. Let me find out if there is something else you can do that period"
"Oh...Oh...Oh Kay, great" I said back, and ran out the door to Drama class.
My response masked my complete and utter joy at the idea. I might be able to get out of Spanish! The idea was breathtaking. I spent the rest of the day in joyous daze. I could not wait another minute to hear what Mr. Hughes might have for me to do instead of Spanish class. The next day I nervously entered home room. I was hoping that Mr. Hughes had remembered what he was going to do, but I did not dare ask him. I propped up my Atari book and tried to concentrate on the basic programs inside, but it was very difficult to digest any of it. All I wanted to do was to hear what Mr. Hughes had to say. About 10 minutes before home room ended, Mr. Hughes called me up to his desk. This was it.
"I talked to Mr. Donalou..." he started.
Crap. Mr. Donalou was the Principal, I did not think it would have to that far.
"...he will call your mom call later today. He wants to speak with her.".
Crap crap. I had to wait the whole day again, and now for a call from the principal. My heart sank.
When I got home, my mom told me that she had indeed been called by the principal, and they had a discussion about Spanish class. She told me that Mrs. Boerman did not want me to leave class, and that there were no others elective classes I could take at that time. I'd have to wait until the end of the trimester, and then I could be a library aid. For now, the only thing I could do was be a teacher's aid for Mr. Hughes, or continue Spanish. I suppose they thought this would make me stick with Spanish, but they were wrong. I chose teacher's aid, and wanted to start immediately.
The next day I began my new job working in Mr. Hughes' class. He taught reading to 6th and 7th graders, and my job was to grade papers and quiz kids on the books they had read. Since we had read the same books the year before, the job was pretty easy for me. The only hard part was talking out loud, which I still feared like nothing else on earth and I found painfully difficult. However, I got to know Mr. Hughes pretty well in the next couple months. He always told me about the books he was reading, and he seemed interested in whatever I was reading myself (usually an Alfred Hitchcock And Three Investigators book, a Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Golden Treasury Of The Civil War, or a computer manual. Far from being the "mean" teacher of his reputation, I found him to be the type of teacher who loved to see kids light-up when they discovered the same things he discovered in the books he taught. The problem was, there were not too many of those at Foster A Begg in those years. I found him coming back to my aid's desk more and more often to talk about my books and what I thought of the 6th grade material. Over time I got pretty comfortable talking out loud because Mr. Hughes treated me like any other person. My stuttering and fear of speaking were not cured, but our conversations had gone a long way to prove to me that my ideas were worth speaking, and others might like to hear them.
When the first trimester was almost over, Mr. Hughes came to ask me about my plans for the upcoming trimester. I could stay as his aid, or work in the library. He told me he would look into some other possible options, but no matter what, I'd have to choose by the next day.
When I got home from school that day, my mom told me the school secretary had called. She said I needed to choose a new elective: teacher's aid, a Library aid or... Computer Lab aid.
I was shocked. Computer Lab Aid had never been discussed before. In fact,I had no idea what it was, but it sounded amazing.
My mom called the secretary back and told her that I wanted to be a Computer Lab aid.
It was exciting to think about. Even though I read books about computers, I did not have access to one. My friend down the street had one, but I rarely got to use it now that we were in Junior High and he was still in Elementary School. Having access to computers meant the possibility of programming one, which meant I might be able to some day get some of my game ideas up on the computer screen.
The next day in home room, Mr. Hughes was silent to me again for the first time in weeks. However, I read my Atari Basic book even more feverishly than ever. I had no idea what was in-store for me when I started my job in the computer lab, but I needed to prepare the only way I knew how, so I just kept reading and reading. A few minutes before first period, Mr. Hughes came back to my desk.
"So what are you going to do about your elective?" he asked.
"Umm...I'm going to help out in in the Computer Lab" I replied.
I looked up from my book, and I saw something on Mr. Hughes I had rarely seen before.
He always sported a stern, yet concerned, yet scholarly look. Not mean mind you, just serious, and it rarely formed into a smile.
"Good, I thought you might choose that" he said back to me, and then he turned and went back to his desk.
Part II: Computer Lab
A few days later, day, instead of going to Room 22 to help Mr. Hughes, I slipped down the Room 23 ( next door ), and walked into my future.
Inside this little room were about 10 Apple IIe computers, all humming away running Bank Street Writer. There were about several different women who helped in the Lab, while Mrs. Brown, a math teacher, ran it as the faculty administrator. I handed her my transfer paper, and told her that was supposed to be there.
"Of course you are!", she said with a wild flair. "This is our lab. We have a class set of Apple IIe computers (one for every 3 kids), and look at this over here, our new Apple Lisa!"
She pointed towards what looked like an IBM PC on a desk separated from all the other computers. One of the adult aids was fiddling with it, trying to get it to work.
"We are still setting it up" she told me, "Now, look over here, we are setting-up for a writing class."
Mrs. Brown showed me around to all the Apple IIe computers that were running Bank Street Writer.
"Your job today will be to help anyone who needs it when they are writing."
Crap. I'd have to fake it. I's never used Bank Street Writer before, and I guess someone had told Mrs Brown that I could help teach it to other kids. Looking around, I spied a laminated card on one of the desks that listed the key combos for doing thinks like saving, loading, bolding, etc. I picked it up and studied it. If I was going to be successful I'd have to learn quickly. I felt my hands sweat a bit around the card. I could not blow this job on the first day.
Soon, the Lab filled with 30 6th graders, all fighting to sit in front of a computer. The lesson that day was to write a few sentences and save them to a 5.25" floppy disk. I floated around the room with my laminated card, trying to be helpful. Most of the kids were too busy pushing each other out of their chairs to even try the writing program. I did manage to help a couple kids get their work saved, but for the most part it seemed like an unmitigated disaster. After the kids filed out, I was afraid of what Mrs. Brown was going to say to me. Did she think it was my fault that my younger peers were such idiots when it came to computers?
However, Mrs. Brown came back told me that I did great. "It was one of our better classes!" she told me.
The class period was still not over, so I sat at one of the Apple IIe computers and typed a few key presses into Bank Street Writer. Within a couple minutes I had several paragraphs written describing how difficult it is to teach 11 year olds computer skills. When the bell rang, I saved the file to a disk, cleared the screen, and got-up left for my next class.
The following day I walked to the computer lab wondering just what they would have me do. However, when I got there, Mrs. Brown was absent. I asked one of the other ladies, the one who was trying to get the Lisa to work the day before,what I should do. She just looked at me coldly and said something that sounded like: "not mess things up for me." I had no idea what she was talking about, but it was enough to get me to cocoon-up for the day. I sat down at one of the Apple IIe computers in the back and looked through the disk-box next to it. I filed through the floppy disks until I came to one that looked really intriguing: Sands Of Egypt. I put the disk into drive A: and rebooted the machine. Soon, the hi-res title screen for the game came-up, and I was playing a full-on adventure game on a computer in the middle of the school day. I'd never done anything like it before, but I did not want to stop. No one came back to talk to me that day, so I just kept traveling across the desert near Cairo until the bell rang, then I got-up and left.
For the rest of the week, Computer Lab was mostly the same as day #2. Mrs. Brown was not there, and the other ladies either ignored me, or like the mean one, treated me like I was stealing food from their mouths. At one point the mean one asked me to get a printer set-up on one of the computers. I had never done that before, however, there was chart on the wall that Mrs. Brown had created that explained how to do it, and I got it done quite quickly. This seemed to make the mean lady even meaner. When she wasn't in the back fiddling with the still dormant Lisa, she complained that I had done everything wrong. This sent me to the back of the room again, where that I spent most of the rest of the week playing Sands Of Egypt. It was OK though, I was so engrossed in the game, I pretty much shut everything else out.
Anyway, within a couple weeks, things started to settle down in the lab and I worked into a routine. When Mrs. Brown returned, I was back to helping out in classes, connecting printers, showing kids the key combos for Bank Street Writer, and avoiding the mean lady. In my spare time I played Sands Of Egypt, Murder On The Orient Express, and a couple other games that were squirreled away on the floppy disks in the back of the room. I slowly proved my worth to Mrs. Brown and some of the other ladies. I became very adept at getting software set-up, and helping in the classes. In my spare time, as well as playing the games, and I started programming in Apple Basic. Not huge programs mind you, but small things like text displays, math calculators, and anything that would provide a nice graphic effect that could be produced in the few minutes a day I had to work on a program.
In home room during that trimester, Mr. Hughes was uncommonly quiet, even for him. We still spoke a bit, but it seemed that now that I was not his aid, I was back to just being another kid in class. I did see him talking to Mrs. Brown a couple times, and once he stuck his head into the computer Lab to see what I was doing. but for the most part he disappeared. I was never quite sure if he was mad at me for abandoning him as his aid so I could play with computers every day. He was so quiet it was hard to tell.
Back in the computer lab, things were starting to settle down. I think the programming work I was doing sent the mean lady over the edge. One day she asked me to come over and look at a program she was loading onto the computers. It was LOGO, a programming language that used graphics instead of text, designed to teach kids computer skills. I hated it. It made no sense to me. I got it to work, but it was obvious that I did not care about, so I failed to learn it. However, since I could not get into it it, the mean lady held it over me for the rest of the year. "BASIC is a dead end" she would say to me, just out of Mrs. Brown's ear shot, "LOGO is the future."
Still, Mrs. Brown was impressed with my little programs. She started having me do more and more intricate work, and even told me that next year she wanted me to teach programming to some of the kids. As I continued into the 3rd trimester, the computer lab became my refuge. As long as I avoided the mean lady, I could play in a world on computers for 52 minutes a day. Without Spanish class dragging me down, I did pretty well in most of my other classes too. To stay as an aid you needed at least a B average, and I was pulling that down with no problems. By the end of the year I had the run of the place, and except for the still unusable Lisa, I could perform almost any task asked of me, and still manage to play games and program most of the time.
For all intents and purposes, The Computer Lab had become my favorite place in the world.
Part III: Cold Reset
On the last day of 7th grade, I came to home room with a box of Italian candy. Mr. Hughes wanted us to have a "food of the world" party for the last day of school. We needed to bring food from a country our ancestors had come from. Each of us put the food on our desk, and the other kids came around to sample everything. My Italian candy was not very popular, so I sat most of the time by myself with an almost full box in front of me. In the middle of the period, Mr. Hughes came back to talk to me. We had not spoken very much for months, ever since I stopped being his aid. I had chosen to think Mr. Hughes really did not try to be quiet towards me, that instead, without me helping in his class, there was just not time to talk about anything at length.
"How was Mrs Brown this year?" he asked me.
"Great! I loved it! I think I know what I want to do when I grow-up."
"What?", he replied laughing, "teach in the computer lab, or program computers?"
"Hmm. Both I suppose!" I laughed back at him.
"Steve, Next year, I'm going to get my own Apple IIe computer in this class. "
"Really?", I replied, genuinely surprised. I never knew that a regular classroom could have it's own computer.
"Sure!" he replied, with a bit of enthusiasm I had not witnessed since I was his teacher's aid. "We'll put it right back there next to the window" he said, pointing towards the back of the room.
"Start thinking of the stuff we can do with it, because it's going to be great!"
Mr. Hughes looked at me like he meant it and I could tell how much he wanted it to happen.
"Cool." I said back to him, trying stay calm even though it seemed really exciting.
Underneath it all, I was really happy because it seemed like Mr, Hughes was not mad at me after all. I always suspected that he might have had a hand in getting me the job as Computer Aid. He did seem to know Mrs. Brown pretty well , and now he was getting a computer in his room, so I knew he was interested himself. I left that day with high hopes for the next year and 8th grade.
Over the summer between 7th and 8th grade my brother Jeff and I worked very hard to convince my dad that we needed a computer of our own. We focused on an Atari 800xl, the shiny, sleek new entry to the Atari 8-bit line. We played a lot of video games too, including tons of games on the Vectrex we bought ourselves with money we made from selling a bunch of our Atari 2600 cartridges.
When the time had come to choose my elective for 8th grade, I instantly chose Computer Lab aid. Even though I felt guilty for not choosing Hr. Hughes class room aid again, the Computer Lab was where I really wanted to be. I knew he would understand. Furthermore, with the new computer in our home room class, I could help Mr. Hughes in the period too, and get almost double the computer time I had in 7th grade. Just the thought made me want to skip the summer and just start school right away.
However, when my class schedule arrived in the mail the week before school, I was shocked to see that my home room had been changed to room 3, Mrs Davis. I still had computer lab 3rd period, but I had no idea why I was not in Mr. Hughes' home room. Had he kicked me out? I had Mrs. Davis for 6th grade English class. She scared me in 6th grade,and the idea of her scared me again. On the first day of school I sheepishly entered her home room, and told her that I used to be in Mr. Hughes' home room class. Her usual stern demeanor changed for minute, and she softly welcomed me told me where to go sit-down. Mrs. Davis treated me that way for the first few weeks. At the time I never really understood why, but I just went with it. I questioned a couple of the other kids that had been in my home room with Mr. Hughes, but none of hem knew why they were not in his class any more either. In fact most of them were quite happy to be in other rooms. To be honest, Mr. Hughes was not terribly popular teacher at Foster A Begg Junior High. It was probably the reason we got long so well in the first place, but it should have been clear to me why not many people cared about the change.
While home room was confusing, Computer Lab with Mrs Brown started better than the prior year. The mean woman was still there, but I had more free reign to do what I wanted while being an aid. Even better though, a new wrinkle had been added. A Company named Pertech had decided to donate a set of 24 high-end CPM workstations to our school. By the second trimester they would arrive, and it would be our job to explore them and make them work.
Still, I could not help wondering why I was not in Mr. Hughes' home room. A couple weeks into the school year, I decided to go ask him. Instead of going to room 23 immediately for 3rd period, I decided to visit him in room 22. However, the door was locked. It suddenly occurred to me Mr. Hughes did not kick me out of his home room at all, Mr. Hughes was not working at our school any more. I have no idea why I had not figured that out before, but I just had not even considered the possibility. I asked Mrs. Brown about him, but she only mumbled something I could not hear, and told me that I needed to load LOGO on a couple computers for a class the next period.
A few weeks later, there was an announcement in the daily school bulletin that there would be a memorial service during 3rd period. It said that any student who had known Mr. Hughes could come and say goodbye.
I never made it to the service. I found out later that Mr. Hughes had died of cancer over the summer. The same summer that I had spent dreaming about getting a new Atari Computer for Christmas, he probably had spent dreaming about how to keep on living just one more day.
I was not mad at Mr. Hughes for not telling me he was sick. In fact, I had no idea what to feel about him. I suppose I should have been sad, but I wasn't. I was just numb. It took about 25 years for me to really understand what he meant to me as teacher. Years later, as I recounted this story in my mind, I realized that Mr. Hughes was the first teacher (and also one of the last) who actually cared about me as an individual as well as a student. He helped me get my start in computers by supporting my interest in them, even though he never got the chance to have one of his own. Actually, in a way, he did get a computer of his own... 24 to be exact. When the Pertech workstations arrived later that year, the only classroom available to house them was Room 22, Mr. Hughes' old classroom. Instead of one Apple IIe, Mr. Hughes received 24 of the best looking computers I had ever seen. He never got to see them in action, but I like to think he smiled the day they were wheeled into his old class room.
Sometimes, when it's quiet, and I'm working on some web site, program, or game, my mind slips back to the final day of 7th grade, and my conversation with Mr. Hughes. I remember the look in his eyes when he told me about his computer plans, and what would happen the next year. It's an image in my mind that I can't shake, nor do I want to. Often, it occurs to me that those were not real plans at all, but the dreams of a man who knew his time was limited and they could never possibly come true. He must have known he was sick already, and he told me about his computer dreams for a reason. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Hughes handed me those dreams on that day in room 22, hopefully knowing that I'd keep them safe, that I was one kid who could steward them them into reality. Later that year I did get my first computer of my own and it launched my life as a computer nerd, an Atari Nerd, that still lasts to this day. I like to imagine that the thought of my eventual success in the computer field put another rare smile Mr. Hughes' face, and that he knew that a simple act as teacher, like maybe helping getting a student into Computer lab as an aid, changed that very kid's future, and set him on a path to success for the rest of his life.
I (sort of) keep this list running in my head all the time. It changes often, and usually one of the most recent games I've played moves up higher (see Torchlight 2). These games come from every platform I've ever owned or played (arcade, Atari 2600, Atari 800, Vectrex, Atari ST, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, PS1, PS2, GBA, Wii, DS, XBox 360, PC). It's weighed down haevily by RPGs and arcade games. It turns out, as I look at 40 years in gaming, that's what I like to play. (this was inspired by a discussion on http://www.quartertothree.com)
- Dungeon Master (ST)
- MULE (800)
- Escape From The Mind Master (VCS)
- Ultima IV (800)
- Fallout (PC)
- Torchlight 2 (PC)
- Final Fantasy I (GBA)
- Food Fight (7800)
- Star Castle (arcade)
- Roller Coaster Tycoon (PC)
- Dune 2 (PC)
- Xenon 2 : Megablast (ST)
- River Raid (2600)
- Temple Of Apshai Trilogy (800)
- Desert Strike (Genesis)
- Lost Dutchman Mine (ST)
- Oids (ST)
- Wolfenstein 3D (PC)
- Wing Commander (PC)
- Skyrim (360)
- Medal Of Honor (PS1)
- Crash Bandicoot (PS1)
- Galaga (arcade)
- Phantasie II (ST)
- 7 Cities Of Gold (800)
- Star Wars : Rogue Squadron (PC)
- Time Pilot (arcade)
- Dragon Stomper (VCS)
- Pinball Construction Set (800)
- Outlaws (PC)
- Anco Player Manager (ST)
- Boom Blocks (Wii)
- Sly Cooper (PS2)
- Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance (PS2)
- Red Dead Redemption (360)
- Battletech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception (PC)
- Excalibur (800)
- Zolar Mercenary (Lynx)
- Battlehawks 1942 (ST)
- Swimmer (arcade)
- Threshhold (800)
- Asteroids (arcade)
- Super Breakout (2600)
- Stanley Parable (PC)
- Star Wars Jedi Knight (PC)
- Might And Magic III (PC)
- Peggle (PC)
- Bookworm Adventures (PC)
- FIFA 2014 (Xbox One)
- Wii Sports Resort (Wii)
- Bosconian (arcade)
- Paper Mario : 1000 Year Door (GameCube)
- Midtown Madness (PC)
- Motorcross Madness (PC)
- Lego Star Wars (PS2)
- Scribblenauts (DS)
- Microleague Baseball (800)
- Full Throttle (PC)
- Interstate '76 (PC)
- Pinball Arcade (PC)
- Blue Max (800)
- Archon (800)
- Arkanoid (ST)
- Castle Wolfenstein (Apple II)
- Phantasy Star (Master System)
- Tetris (arcade)
- Star Wars The Arcade Game (arcade)
- The New Super Mario Bros. (DS)
- Namco Museum Vol. 1 (PS1)
- Ali Baba And The 40 Thieves (800)
- Gates Of Zendocon (Lynx)
- Wizard's Crown (ST)
- Legend Of Grimrock 2 (PC)
- Mine Storm! (Vectrex)
- Pinball Hall Of Fame: Willams Collection (Wii)
- Katamari Damacy (PS2)
- Miracle Warriors (Master System)
- Puzzle Quest (DS)
- Airborne Ranger (ST)
- Bit. Trip. Beat. (Wii)
- Guitar Hero (Wii)
- Scott Adam's Adventutres (800)
- Wargame Construction Set (800)
- Demon's Winter (ST)
- Command And Conquer (PC)
- Might And Magic VI (PC)
- Gamestar Baseball (800)
- The Dragons Of Hong Kong (Apple II)
- Crush Crumble And Chomp (800)
- Burnout 3 (PS2)
- FIFA International Soccer (Genesis)
- Simpson's Hit And Run (PS2)
- Twlilight 2000 (PC)
- Half Life 2 (PC)
- Road War 2000 (ST)
- Bard's Tale (ST)
- Pac-Man Championship Edition (360)
- Crimson Skies (PC)
- Warcraft (PC)
- Behind Jaggi Lines/Rescue On Fractalus (800)
Note: In the light of some more recent events in the gaming world, this seems even more relevant today than when I posted it in 2011. So here it goes again.
I was looking through my old copies of Electronic Games, and I happened upon an editorial by Arnie Katz from the March 1983 issue. It lists the "standards" that the publication had decided to employ to make sure that they were creating the best magazine for their audience. IMHO, I believe these became the defacto standards for game journalism until the "preview" era of the 1990's turned everything on it's head. It did not get much at the turn of the 21st century, when the web made everyone "a game journalist". (By the way, for this exercise, the first three items, while interesting, are not as important as the last three).
By the was, we here at 8bitrocket.com are going to try to live by these standards from now on as well.
February 12th, 1985. That's the day Nintendo won everything.
It was the day the 2nd to last issue of Electronic Games magazine was published in the USA. Electronic Games had been, since 1981, the defacto standard for video game news and information for the Golden Age of video games. The creators of Electronic Games Magazine, Arnie Katz, Bill Kunkel, and Joyce Worley pioneered video game journalism. In the pages of their magazine, the rise and fall of the first great video game age was chronicled and recorded.
However, by the end of 1984, a huge shift was occurring in the gaming world. Video game companies were going of of business at an astonishing rate, and the zeitgeist at the time held that consumers were all moving to low-cost computers like the Commdore 64 and Atari 800XL. Because of this, the publisher of Electronic Games Magazine decided that the services of Katz, Kunkel and Worley were no longer needed. Even though the team were a trusted group of journalists who had built hard-won credibility with the gaming public, they were shown the door. Their expertise in video games was no longer necessary.
The last few issues of Electronic games published in 1985 (February, March and April) were used to burn-off a backlog of stories written by the original creators, while prepping the magazine to shift full-time to computers with new publication named "Computer Entertainment." Even though magazine started as a dedicated publication for video games, the March 1985 issue had very little coverage of gaming consoles. Besides a handful of "clearing the plate" style reviews for inconsequential end of life video games like Congo Bongo (Colecovision), Beamrider (5200), and Frogger II: Threedeep (2600), there was only a single news item about video games named "Nintendo's Final Solution."
Besides having an amazingly insensitive and, as history would show, totally ironic title, the story was about the imminent release of the Nintendo "AVS" (Advanced Video Entertainment System..an early name for the NES). The new editors of Electronic Games felt that this might be a "miscalculation" because the "video game market in America has virtually disappeared." Obviously, using all available information, this is the only story they could have written about the "AVS". They had recently fired the only people involved with the magazine that knew anything about video games. Would Katz, Kunkel and Worley have treated the story in a different way? The trio always heralded the arrival of new console with a sense of awe and wonder that matched their gaming enthusiast readership. Would they have dug into the story, found out about the Famicom in Japan and followed-up the story with an interview and in-depth report about the console? We may never know, but we also know they were never given a chance.
Personally, I don't recall reading this news item about Nintendo. I had my subscription to Electronic Games at the time, and I was still reading every issue, but maybe not as thoroughly as I had in the past. I too was seduced by the power home computers, and I believed they were the key to my future. Even though I had grown up with arcade and console video games, by 1985, I spent nearly all my time playing games and writing programs in BASIC on my Atari 800. I probably skipped the news section of Electronic Games that issue to jump directly the Bill Kunkel's in-depth report on computer software piracy (the last in-depth story of his every published in Electronic Games) or the Strategy Session coverage of computer action RPG Gateway To Apshai.
There was one more issue of "Electronic Games," published in March of 1985 (the April issue), but it was effectively the first issue of "Computer Entertainment". The last vestiges of the original Electronic Games had been wiped away. The focus of the magazine at that historic moment was the home computer revolution. Any story about console video games was just an unfortunate distraction to their goal of re-launching a magazine for a new era.
And that was that. That little story about Nintendo became the last of 1000's of stories Electronic Games Magazine published about video games. It just so happened to also be a report about the video game system that would one day take over the world. The release of "AVS" , arguably the most important event in the history of video games, was brushed-off as inconsequential also-ran, not even worth investigating further. The pioneering voices of the video game revolution had been silenced. It would be many years before another mainstream publication dedicated to video games would arrive on the news stands in the USA In the absence of an independent magazine dedicated to video games, in-depth and investigative journalism was replaced by magazines published directly by console manufacturers. All the information was controlled. The enthusiasts had no voice. The war was over before it even started.
I've always been a huge fan of Jordon Mechner's Karateka. Released in late 1984, it was one of the major games that bridged the gap between the pure arcade games of "Golden Age of Atari" and the richer story telling of the "Nintendo Age." Written for the Apple II, the game became a #1 hit, was released on every platform available at the time, and has since been re-released on iOS, Android plus re-imagined on XBLA and PSN. While I always found the game fairly difficult, I loved the cinematics, the animation, and the challenge the game offered. It was head and shoulders (plus a second head and shoulders) above nearly any game of the type I played at the time, and is one of the true classics from that era.
Since the game was released by Broderbund, a well-known game company, I was never especially curious about how it was made, how it was programmed, or the story behind's its' creation. At the time, I was a 14 year-old aspiring game programmer when Karateka was released. I loved reading stories about people who made their own games, put them in baggies, and sold them to computer stores all by themselves. I was just getting started, writing public domain games in BASIC for my Atari 800 and uploading them to BBS systems as manner of distribution, pretty much as indie as you could get. I could not be bothered with the origins of a game from major company like Broderbund.
Since it came from a big software house, I just figured Karateka was one of a slate of like-games Broderbund had in production pipe-line. Also, I knew the game was made for Apple II and Commodore 64 first. Since I was an Atari fan through and through, it was difficult for me to get my head around the fact that this amazing game was not an Atari-first product. Eventually it was released for the Atari 7800, Atari 800, and Atari ST, but I don't think I could ever forgive the fact that it was was written for Apple and Commdore computers first.
That's the hell of being a life-long Atari fan.
It took me 30 years, but I finally got around to finding out the origin story the game by reading Jordon Mechner's book "The Making Of Karateka." Now I wish I had studied this game and its' story a long time ago, as I found it an essential narrative for indie game developers.
Presented in diary format, the story does not start in the glass and wood paneled halls of a successful Marin County software company as I expected, but instead, in dorm room behind the CRT glow of an Apple II monitor. Jordon Mechner was a college student at Yale in 1982, trying his hand at writing computer games in assembly language for the Apple II. Since this is purportedly Mechner's actual diary (and there is no reason to disbelieve him), we don't get a full back story of how he got to this point in his life. It starts abruptly, as the reader is dropped into his thoughts about game development from the very start. When we meet him, he's toiling away programming an arcade game named Deathbounce for the Apple II, attempting to apply lipstick to his pig in any way possible, hoping to shape it into the game he always hoped it would be. It's not that Deathbounce is bad game, it's just a game whose time has passed. By 1982, the arcade game era was over. "Arcaders" (as "gamers" were called back then) had seen and played almost every combination of single-screen action games. They were looking for more, and so it seems, was Jordon Mechner. Eventually he gives-up on Deathbounce, as a better idea takes over: a karate fighting game with movie-style story-telling.
From the very beginning of the story, I was struck by the universality of Mechner's plight. I don't want to give away too much of the story, but the ending is never in doubt. Anyone who knows the history of computer games knows that Karateka was an institution in the 80's. It was the type of game that computer owners booted-up to make their game console owning friends green with envy. However, Mechner's journey is the real star of the show here, and there are tons of great lessons within the text for indie game developers. I personally took away a lot of inspiration and validation of my own experiences. Mechner's Deathbounce story is great example. He puts so much work into the game, but eventually cuts his losses with it, and puts it aside for good. Any game developer that has a stack of unfinshed ideas on their hard drive will instantly recognize the experience.
Mechner is obviously a smart and artistic guy with the advantage of attending an Ivy League School, but even for him, Karateka becomes quite an achievement. The way he describes using every resource at his disposal to create the game play, graphics, and sounds for Karateka is inspiring and not unlike the methods that many successful one or two-person game shops employ today. Mechner also describes in detail, the struggle between programming a game on contract, and finishing his work on Karateka. Anyone who has tried to run an indie game shop, attempting to bring their ideas to life while funding them with outside work will instantly recognize the situation. At the same time, Mechner's struggles with self-doubt, insecurity, and the feeling that he has somehow "missed the golden era" should ring true with anyone who has ever made game in the ever-changing technology landscape.
Eventually Mechner does join-up with the "big game company" Broderbund, after many months of working on his own, but even that experience mirrors the modern world. The in-house programmers Mechner meets at Broderbund feel over-worked and unappreciated. Everyone seems to be looking for a way out and a chance to make it on their own. However, Mechner loves the camaraderie of making games with a team, and nicely juxtaposes his life as a dorm-room coder to his life meeting fellow developers and coming out of his shell at while trying to finish Karateka at Broderbund.
Karateka was not a game made overnight, and this is another great lesson for indie game developers in the mobile/digital age. At first, Mechner believes it will take just a few months to develop, but as he gets further and further into the project, he realizes just how much work is involved in creating such an epic contest. If he produced only the basic Karate game he planned at the outset, and then sold it to a publisher, he would have made a little money, but the game could (and would) have been easily copied by other programmers and made for other systems. Instead, he poured 2 years of hard work into a game that was so advanced for the time in every possible way, it was almost impossible to clone without great effort.
While the story is more than 30 years old, the parallels in The Making Of Karateka to developing indie games today are uncanny. For me, reading it was an experience of universal truth, validation, and exhilaration at the unfolding story of struggle and success. Technology always changes. Platforms rise and fall. Companies go in and put of business. However, the drive of a single person with a unique vision is at the heart of making great games. Reading about Jordon Mechner's struggle to bring Karateka to life is at once both inspirational and cathartic. It should be required reading for any developer currently toiling in the modern game industry.
The book is available at Amazon.
In an alternate universe, Atari released the 7800 in 1984
In an alternate universe, Warner Brothers did not sell the Atari consumer division in 1984, but stuck with it.
In an alternate universe Atari battled with Nintendo throughout the 80's and 90's
In that alternate universe, some amazing games were released for the Atari 7800
In that alternate universe, these are some of the game I would have loved to play on my Atari 7800
The Best Role Playing Games (that pre-date Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy by several years)
The Best Strategy Games
The Best Games From Synapse Software
The Best Games From The Atari Lynx
The Best Licensed Arcade Games
By Jeff Fulton (8bitjeff) - CTO Producto Studios
Producto Studios provides a mobile makeover to Orbeezone.com.
Orbeez, Maya Group’s best-selling product line are the cool fun orbs that grow and change when you add them to water. The Maya Group called in Producto Studios to grow and change Orbeez website with a metamorphosis of its own – mobile metamorphosis. With a keen eye for responsive design, skilled insights into mobile and Producto’s long history of developing promotions for kids the mobile makeover was almost as easy as adding water. See the change here www.orbeezone.com and contact Producto Studios for your own mobile makeover needs.