Atari Nerd Chronicles: Garage Games – Literally
As long as I can remember, Jeff and I have wanted to make games. I’m not exactly sure where to start this story, so for lack of a better place, I’ll pick the beginning. Jeff and I were born on January 24th, 1970, as 1 month pre-mature twins. I arrived 4 minutes after Jeff, and was a complete surprise. The doctors had no idea our mom was carrying twins With both of us coming in at just about the 4lb mark, we arrived a bit underdeveloped, before our time and underestimated: a few of attributes that we have not been able to shake for most of our lives.
We grew up just like most suburban kids of the 70s; We rode our bikes, played guns and ditch ’em at the school, stayed out all day to come home when the street lights came on. Our dad was an amateur motor-cross riding, fine-art major turned actor turned draftsman at Hughes Aircraft. Our mom was an actress, turned housewife, CCD teacher and later a classroom instructional aid. Our two older sisters were into KISS, Bowie, Iggy Pop, The Ramones and later grew into some of the first punk rockers in the area. We lived in Manhattan Beach, which then (and now) sold itself as one of the premier beach communities in Southern California. At the time, the city was quickly changing from sleepy beach town into playground for the rich and powerful. It was common belief among the Manhattan Beach populace that the city was split down the middle: the ‘haves’ on the good side of town lived near the beach, the ‘have-nots’ (us), on ‘bad’ side, lived just to the East, across Sepulveda Blvd. Still, we did not want for much. We had a nice little house on a quiet tree-lined street. Food was always on the table (although it was often McDonald’s). There was never a lot of money in the household, but we never realized it either. The fact that our friends were always going on ski trips and had brand-new BMX bikes while we went on weekend trips to San Diego and rode hand-me-downs was mostly lost on us. It just meant that we had to find creative was to entertain ourselves while our friends were busy doing things we could not participate in. At a very early age, Jeff and started designing games of our own to help fill the days.
Our little house sat on pretty large lot of land. The best feature was a 100 foot long driveway. For a good amount of time in the mid-70’s, our mom had no car, and dad took the only drivable vehicle (a giant, white 4-door International pick-up) to work every day. This left the entire driveway open for whatever games we wanted to play. Jeff and I spent many days conceiving 2-player versions of nearly every sport imaginable. We referred to these sport as ‘Garage Games’ (i.e. Garage Baseball, Garage Basketball). We didn’t own much official sports equipment, so we used whatever was available. A found tennis ball (the old-money rich people up the street had their own tennis court) became baseball, and a bare open-hand, a glove. We’d use the length of the driveway, and play a two-player version of over-the-line where the ball was thrown by the batter and the fielder did everything possible to stop it from hitting the garage. An old, un-returned red rubber ball that rolled down the hill from the elementary school became our basketball. The basket was two markings on the open garage door. A basket was scored it you could wedge the ball between the open door and roof of the garage. Brooms became hockey sticks, plywood on old roller skates became a street surfboard, the garage door became a soccer goal, two red wagons became race cars and the driveway our track. We once spent a good amount of time pushing each other around on a broken-down 75CC motorcycle, pretending to be motor-cross racers before the gears froze permanently.
At about the same time, to try to make extra money, our Dad was taking electronics courses throughSouthBayAdultSchool. He collected all manner of surplus extra electronic parts and broken equipment he could find, and stored it in the back of our garage. Soon after, Jeff and I snuck in there and experimented with all the batteries, wires, lights, motors, potentiometers, etc. that were piling up in the back near the washer and dryer. We had no idea what we were doing, but through trial and error started making electric gadgets with blinking lights, switches, running motors, etc. At one point we discovered that bouncing a marble off of a rubber-band stretched between two nails pounded into a board, created a pinball effect. We then re-worked many of our gadgets into simple pinball tables with lights, spinning targets, etc. They were very crude designs, created with very little electronic knowledge, and it showed. Frustrating to play, and easily breakable, the ambition of the games far outstripped their execution and we were soon looking for other ways to make our own interactive entertainment.
Besides making up games in and outside the garage, there were many games and activities were devised in the ‘spirit’ of those Garage Games, but created in the house utilizing household items. We spent many days creating animated ‘flip books’ out of every paper-back book we could find. We would draw one little picture in the corner of one page, and use the indentation on the next page to make the next frame of animation. Neither of us were great artists, so the animations had to be very simple. There was, at least, one full summer in theFulton household during which you could not read any soft-cover book without being distracted by cartons of exploding Tie-Fighters, flying arrows and text re-arranging itself running up the side of every page.
Another way we found to create our own games was to bypass the limitations of an already established toy and create something new out of it. The best example of this was ‘Etch-A-Sketch Racing’.
By using scotch tape and the lap timer on a digital watch, we created our own racing games using this seminal drawing toy. First, one of us would spend the time to lay-down an elaborate track using scotch tape over the Etch-A-Sketch screen. When that was finished, the other one of us would attempt to ‘race’ (draw a line through the track) as fast as possible without hitting any of the scotch tape lines as he was timed by the digital watch. It worked fairly well, as long as the players were honest about not hitting the barriers. This kept our attention for a while and I’m sure we could have found many more uses for the Etch-A-Sketch Racing ‘engine’, but it was not to be. Something else was on the horizon.
It seemed that just as soon as we had discovered a way to create games with an Etch-A-Sketch, many times more interesting things had suddenly arrived on the scene. First came ‘Star Wars’ in 1977, which, basically, made everything else irrelevant. All we wanted to do was play ‘Star Wars’, think ‘Star Wars’ and be ‘Star Wars’. Then, a year later, ‘Space Invaders’ arrived in the arcades and we were able to actually ‘play’ Star Wars’or a reasonable facsimile. Then finally, later that year, the final nail in the coffin of our ‘Garage Game’ designs was delivered to us. Its name was ‘Atari’ and it just about changed everything in our world.