Atari Pong Developer Challenge Diary: What The Radio Shack “TV Scoreboard” Taught Me About Game Design.
One day, back in 1978 my dad came home with this:
A Radio Shack, TV Scoreboard console. We had been begging my dad to let us play the Atari 2600 console in the TV department at Fedmart on every visit, so he knew we liked video games. However my dad, a notorious cheapskate, was not about to plunk down $169.99 on anything. $19.99 price-point of the TV Scoreboard was more his speed. However, even $19.99 was probably too much. i'm sure this came from the dirt-cheap bargain bin from Radio Shack.
At first, my 8 year old twin brother brother and I were really excited. The idea of having a video game of my own to play was enough to rocket me out of bed in the morning and into the living room to try it out.
Of course, this taught me my first lesson about video games. If no one else was awake, there was no one to play with. The TV Scoreboard had a "Squash" option that let a single player hit a ball against the wall, but I never found that game very interesting. I wanted to play "pong", and if no one was around, no dice.
When my brother was awake, and we actually played the unit, the second major issue reared its' head: sound. Like most dedicated "pong" consoles, the limited sound of the TV Scoreboard came from the unit itself, not from the TV. This made the already lo-fi beeps and boops even more annoying than I thought possible. We very quickly learned to shut the sound off, and play in silence. While the "pong" style game play of the unit was solid, nuances (like bad sound) ruined the experience.
The third thing I learned from the TV scoreboard was that "ping pong" games were not really all that much fun. Maybe six years earlier, when Pong first arrived, the game was thrilling, but in 1978, with Space Invaders filling the local arcades, the "ping pong" game play of the "TV Score-bored" (as it came to be known) was just not compelling enough.
Those three lessons: the need for compelling single player game play, the importance of nuances in games, and the need for evolving game play, have colored the design for the Pong game we are making for the Atari Pong Developer Challenge. I hope we can do those hard learned rules some justice with our entry.
By the way, the "TV Score-bored" stopped displaying video after a few weeks, but since the sound came out of the unit and not the TV, I could still "play" it by starting a game and listening for the sounds and moving the paddles. If I managed to "hit" a ball,a distinctive beep would sound, and I felt totally victorious for few seconds. On the other hand, my dad felt "taken" by the "cheap-o" device after it failed do quickly. It would be several years before another video game system entered our house.
By Steve Fulton
May 4th, 2012: For Star Wars Day, May 4th, we are re-running our story about Star Wars in-person, 1977.
(update: since I originally wrote this story, a fine denizen of the interbaun provided the proof to the right in the form of an advertisement about the event. It occurred on September 25th, 1977. I reposted the story because the ad to the right is amazing it it's own right!)
I've been a consumer of nerd-laden toys and video games for most of my life. There is not a January that goes by that does not see me searching through the After-Christmas red-tag bins at Target, looking for mark-downs on video games and toys that others would shudder at purchasing. Just yesterday, for example, I found three new Leapster games for my 4-year old for $6.44 each, Sid Meier's Pirates for The Wii for $13.78, but I passed-up the Spider Man pinball machine for $13.78 because it was the exact same table configuration as the Dora pinball game my 8-year old still plays, plus my girls are still not enthralled by super heroes. Even so, it almost made the cart too.
At Target this week, I noticed a few new Star Wars action figures with the classic packaging: something Hasbro decided to do last year to get old guys like me to buy the same stuff they have bought dozens of times already.
While I was holding a Storm Trooper action figure, I had a sudden flashback. It was to a time before there were any Star Wars toys for sale at all. It was the day I became a nerd consumer.
Although I had no idea in early 1981, my brother and I were video game obsessed twins on a collision-course with the pinnacle of ultimate geekdom: computer ownership. We both loved arcade games and owned an Atari 2600 that we played constantly. We spent all of our money on Electronic Games magazine, arcade tokens, and Atari cartridges. In the course of our many adventures searching for good, cheap video game thrills, we stumbled across a store named HW Computers. HW was part of a chain established among the first wave of computer stores. The shop was a mish-mash of t-shirted techies, cheap business-suited sales guys, IBM clones, Apple IIs, and walls of elaborately shaped boxes of software and games. We were there looking for the 2600 versions of Asteroids and Space Invaders, but instead we found something better...something amazing to me at the time. In a glass case HW computers had a display if one most beautiful creations I had ever witnessed: an Atari 800 computer and 810 Disk Drive. Atari made computers? We had no idea! We picked-up a catalog of Atari software, left the store, and our passion for computers was born.
Over the next two years, my brother and I schemed and scouted all avenues possible to obtain the pinnacle of our childhood dreams: an Atari computer. Knowing how expensive computers were at the time, and how little money my parents had, we knew we were going to have to be mighty creative in our endeavors if were ever going to see our plans come to fruition. The first thing we did was to educate ourselves. We poured-over the software catalog from HW, drinking in every game description with complete wonderment over what the experience might hold. Titles like Energy Czar, Temple Of Apshai, and Star Raiders had us drooling with excitement. We checked-out books on basic programming from the library, learning line numbers, loops, gotos, gosubs, plot and color statements. Soon we were fashioning our own programs on notebook and graph paper, designing games and graphics, and anything else we could think of. We had no way to test-out our ideas, but that didn't stop us from imagining the possibilities of what a computer could do. Still, being able to program a computer did not mean we would ever have one. If our plan was going to work, we would have to start really working on getting a machine into our house.
Our first chance came in the summer of 1982. MacDonald's had an Atari Video Game 'Scratch And Win' contest, giving away 1000's of Atari products, including 5200's and Atari computers. We resigned ourselves to win the contest. That summer, in between stints at the arcade that offered '8-tokens for a dollar', we would haunt the local MacDonald's, looking for discarded game-cards on the ground, and braving old Big Macs and soggy fries as we searched the trash cans in and outside the restaurant. Out of the 100's of game-cards we found, none of them were Atari winners. The best we did was to win fries and Cokes, but we were too disgusted by MacDonald's food by that time to eat any of it. As the summer passed, so did the Atari computer dreams, and by the time we were back in school the idea was pushed-back, but not forgotten, as 7th grade got under-way.
In early 1983, Atari announced a new line of low-cost computers. The XL line consisted of the 600XL and 800XL replacements for the Atari 400 and 800 respectively. Both had sleek new designs, (straight-edges replaced the space-age curves of the older machines) with BASIC built-in. They certainly were not as beautiful or engaging as their older counterparts, but they were much cheaper and this fact alighted our dreams once more. At the time, our dad had been working overtime at Hughes Aircraft with a new computerized CAD/CAM system. Without any knowledge of our computer obsession, he started coming home and bestowing upon us his wisdom about the virtues of this new computer system, and how computers were going to change everything. Our father had a degree in Fine Art from Syracuse University, and after spending 20 years trying to land a decent job, he knew the value of not wasting a college education. He warned us constantly that we would 'end up on skid row' if we wasted our education and didn't find a skill that was sellable. At the same time, he constantly complained about his job, and told how most of our work lives would be spent 'dealing with boredom'. As well, with his overtime work, he seemed to have a bit more cash on-hand than usual. My brother and I decided it was time to tell him about the Atari Computers we have been coveting.
Our dad was blown-away by our enthusiasm on the subject. We showed him the books we checked-out, the programs we had written, and the catalogs and magazines we had about Atari. We swept him up in our computer dream, telling him about how we could grow-up to be programmers (a sellable skill) and not be bored with work (because computers were cool!). He bought ever word. He had no idea his kids were so interested in something so technical and modern. With little coaxing, he joined us in our quest to make the 'Atari Computer Dream' a reality, and even better, he wanted to do it by Christmas.
In the months that led-up to Christmas 1983 we made attack plans on just how we would make the Atari Computer plan a success. We listed all the things we would need: 800XL, 1050 Double Sided Disk Drive, a box of 10 blank disks, and a color TV for output. My dad took care of the color TV by setting us up with a refurbished one he built from taking night classes on television repair. We kept looking for the best prices on the Atari machines. Every week we would check the ads in the Recycler, and take a trip to Fedco and Gemco to see if a shipment of 800XL's had arrived. In the Autumn of 1983, the Atari XL computers became one of the best-selling lines in the world. Simply finding an 800XL was becoming a problem. As the weeks before Christmas turned into days, the outlook became bleaker and bleaker, as there were none to be found in any stores.
On Christmas Eve, we still had no computer purchased, and all hope seemed lost. We took one last trip to Fedco, just for the hell-of-it. It was Friday December 24th, and it just-so-happened to be the same day Fedco finally received their first shipment of Atari 800XL computers. We were amazed, and dazed. Our dream of almost 3 years was coming true, and on Christmas! My brother and I ran around the aisles, gleefully picking out everything we needed. However, our father was not as enthusiastic. He looked quite shocked that the store had anything in stock, almost like he had planned to find nothing there. In fact, he looked rather glum. As we dashed around the store, he finally got up the nerve to give us the news he had been holding back. There would be no Atari 800XL this year. He did not have enough overtime-pay to buy one. We would have to wait even longer.
Devastated, my brother and I went home and sulked. Christmas was ruined, and there was nothing we could do. We both wished our dad had never latched-onto our plan, as it only raised our hopes only to dash them in the worst way possible. However, church and family added some spirit back, and soon we got caught-up in the evening. It was Christmas by God, and it would still be fun, as it always was. Since the holiday fell on a Saturday that year, we would have two full weeks to play with whatever toys we received. Even without a computer, we still might get some Atari or Vectrex games, and that couldn't be all bad. Sleep that night was tough though. All the pent-up energy and feelings from years poured into twisted dreams about the Atari Computer Christmas gone-awry. Asleep, awake, asleep, awake, with dreams in- between about what could-have-been: programming our Atari 800 XL, playing computer games all day long.
Christmas morning and the next two weeks are a complete blur in my mind. For how precisely I remember the events that led-up to Christmas 1983, the events afterwards live in a state of suspended animation, where all memories seem to rest on-top of one another as if they all happened in tandem. My brother and I awoke, and things were just as my father had said. There was no Atari 800 XL, and there was no Atari 1050 disk drive. There were no shiny new computer games in elaborately shaped packages. In their stead were two giant Atari Computer boxes, one for an Atari 800, and another for an Atari 810 disk drive. Next to those was a box filled with books and two 5 ' inch floppy disk holders filled with disks. Our father had not lied. He could not afford a new Atari 800 XL,1050 disk drive or brand new computer games. His buddy at work, Dave Elwood, had sold him an older Atari 800, with its beautiful curved design, an older model 810 disk drive, and all the software he had collected for 3 years. It was like discovering The Lost Dutchman Mine when you thought you were on a trip to have your teeth pulled.
My brother and I dived into that computer and all the riches it held and did not come-up for air until two weeks later when we had to go back to school. We wrote programs, played games, and discovered everything we every wanted to know about owning our own computer. Mr. Elwood had collected dozens of games, and we tried them all. Every Zork adventure, every Scott Adams Adventure, all the Atari created arcade translations, Star Raiders, and tons of others. We explored financial programs, graphics demos, the realms of the public domain, and everything in-between. Nothing was off-limits, and everything was of the utmost interest. It was the purest moment I ever knew as a child. It was the joy of complete intellectual and sensory discovery. The computer held the promise as a device that we could control, and meld into what we needed and wanted, and as an unlimited tool for learning and creating.
20 years later, I still feel that way. I may be older and grayer, with 100's of games played and 1000's of lines of code written behind me, but the discovery of that Christmas will never change. My love of computers, programming, and games has grown and changed over the past two decades, but I now seem to be at a crossroads with it all. In a time when 'Global Sourcing' threatens my job on a daily basis, and multi-million dollar soul-less video and computer games threaten to destroy my hobby, I look back on that Christmas to remind me of the reasons why I still program computers for a living, and why I still play games. There is always the hope of the next great discovery, be it technical, or the story of a great game that will make me say 'wow!' with a pure heart and no irony what-so-ever. I seek to recall Christmas 1983, and to retain a tiny bit of that nerdy 13 year-old boy I once was: the one that believed, with computer in his hands, and a dream in his head, anything was within the realm of possibility.
In 2006 my family played hooky: All 5 of us. It was a Monday in November. The previous day I had gotten-up very early to stand-in line at the local Target. It was rumored that they would have about 100 Nintendo Wii consoles available first come, first served. In my pocket was $450 dollar in cash that I had earned from publishing an article about Atari history Gamasutra.com. I used that money in particular because I felt it was like the changing of the guard: old invested into new. I was an Atari kid, and because of that, I had never owned a Nintendo system in my life. I went from Atari 2600 directly to an Atari 800 computer, and then an Atari ST. I bypassed the Nintendo age completely. Because of this, there was no nostalgia in my heart for the Nintendo brand. The Wii was going to have to live on it's own merits: there were no 20 year old memories that would help float it into the success column in our house.
The line at Target moved very quickly, and when I got to the front, I picked out a Wii console, Wii Play (packed with an extra Wii-Mote), Elabits, Legend Of Zelda Twilight Prinicess, and an extra Nunchuck. I packed it all into my car, took it home, and hid it from my kids for Christmas. Then the yearning started. I needed to try it. I decided I wanted to play the console to make sure that it worked. Christmas would suck if it didn't work, right?
I asked my wife Dawn what I should do. She reminded me that we already had enough stuff for kids for Christmas, and suggested that I open the console and set-it-up to play immediately. To be honest, I could tell that her interest was piqued too. She had never had a Nintendo console herself (save for the one at the Teen center she worked at in the mid 1990's), and we had both been impressed by the Wii demo DVD I brought home from E3 that year. I needed no more convincing, however I still hesitated because imagined the Wii would make an awesome Christmas surprise (though the kids were had never really expressed an interest in it). I waited all day Sunday, and finally opened up the console and set-up Sunday night for everyone to see.
My family was instantly interested. Dawn and I spent most of the night creating Mii representations of ourselves. Before it got too late, we put in the Wii Sports disc to try it out. The first game we tried was Bowling, and my family was pulled into the contest immediately. We played through one game (and Dawn kicked my ass), and then realized it was too late to continue. I imagined we all went to bed that night with Wii dreams dancing in our heads, but in reality, it they were probably just in mine.
When I woke up Monday morning, I ran down stairs and started-up the Wii so I could test another one of the games on the Wii Sports disc. The first game I tried was golf. My 8 year old came down the stairs, and asked to play too. It was still early so I said yes. Soon after my wife came down with the baby, and sat on the couch next to us. Just a bit later, my 4 year old sleepily walked down the stairs and ask to play. I don't recall the exact events that transpired, but the decision was soon made that no one was going to work or school that day.
Wii decided to play hooky.
The rest of the family made Mii characters. My 4 year old tried to spell her name with the Wii-mote, but it came out "DC Nughman", and that stuck as her nickname for few years until she got really tired of it . After that, we tried out the other Wii games I had purchased. This is where I should have gotten a clue, but it passed me by. All of the other games were, honestly, not successful. Elebits was supposed to be kind of like Katmari Damacy, but proved too frustrating to play. Wii Play was like demo disc of failed controller experiments. Even Legend Of Zelda Twilight Princess left me cold. Since none of us had any built-in nostalgia for the Zelda franchise, the game came came off as slow but promising. However it was single-player game and we were having such a good time playing as a family, we quickly went back to Wii Sports. Outside of maybe one other session, none of those three game were played in our house after that day.
Still, Wii Sports was good enough. We continued playing all day and into the afternoon. We traded the Wii-motes back and forth for Bowling, Tennis, Golf and Baseball. We even tried Boxing, but it proved a bit too much with the nunchuck tether slapping us in the face as we tried to do battle. Still, it was a great family day, one of the most memorable we've had, and the Nintendo Wii had given it to us. I thought it would be the first of many such days we would spend as family together with the Nintendo Wii. I had never been a Nintendo fan-boy, but at that moment, I was sold. I had the urge to get ALL the games for the Wii, and then use the Virtual Console, go back and play all the games I has missed too.
Soon after though, things started to fall apart. My next purchase, Excite Truck failed to set the family alight. Warioware Smooth Moves proved far too difficult for the family to play ,and Cooking Mama just did not control as well as the DS game. While both Carnival Games and Williams Pinball showed some promise, Mario Party was a mess that got played exactly once, EA Playground simply did not hold the same appeal as Wii Sports, and Metroid Prime 3 was too traditional to appeal to the family.
I recall Dawn telling me one day, as we tried another failed game, and went back to Wii Sports that she felt the Wii was a "Bait And Switch." It had a lot of promise, but the games after Wii Sports never lived up to it. She had a point. At the time I was playing Williams Pinball religiously, but it was not really a "Wii" game at all. (It remains my favorite game on the console.) We also bought a ton of kids games, but most were simply awful. The worst game we ever bought for the Wii was iCarly 2, a game that I don't think was even play tested before it was released. With games like that, the kids expected that the games we bought for the Wii would be hard to control, look terrible, and not be fun to play. Bait and Switch indeed.
However, I was not ready to give-up. I started buying Virtual Console games in earnest in an attempt to rekindle the fire with some classic Nintendo Goodness. The original Super Mario Bros. was the first, and it proved to be a mild success. Dawn had spent many days playing the game with the kids at the Teen Center when she worked there in the 90's, and we had a few good sessions until it proved too difficult to continue. I also bought the first few Zelda games, hoping to see what all the fuss was about, but to be honest, I just did not see it. They were were Okay, but they did not really interest me. I was not immune the fact that the game was a huge advance in console video games when it was released, and putting my head into that of a 10 year old in 1987, I could see why they would have liked it or even loved it. However, that same year I was playing Dungeon Master on my Atari ST, such a vastly superior game in every way, there was no way I would have been drawn into Zelda or the Nintendo console. In fact, most of the the NES and Super NES games I bought from the Virtual Console (Save for Super Mario Bros. 3) were disappointing when compared to the Atari ST and PC/DOS games I played ion the same time period when they were originally released. So much for manufactured nostalgia grabbing me. As well, there was something else that really irked me about the Virtual Console: the almost complete absence of American and European games. It was as if the paltry eight Commodore 64 games available were Nintendo's big middle finger to all the games and history of the 80's that both influenced their creations and made their success possible.
Still, I was not ready to give up. So I bought Wii Fit and it became a sort of Wii Rennasiance in our house. Again, all of us were in the living room trying to ski or balance stuff, or hula-hoop. However, it too proved short-lived. For all of it's usefulness, Wii Fit was mostly a single player game. The promise of the entire family playing together was lost in the cumbersome interface of switching players. More games were bought, and played once: Super Mario Galaxy, Animal Crossing, Wii Zapper, Thrillville, Big Brain Academy, and many others. Even Super Paper Mario, a sequel to Paper Mario 1000 Year Door , agame my daughter and I had bought used, played and loved on the Wii, failed to gather much interest. The only successful games in our house, versions Karaoke Revolution, Guitar Hero, games that we could truly all play together but also titles that were available for any game system. Watching my wife and daughters sing songs in those games made me feel a bit that that first day we played hooky with the Wii. I wanted the feeling to continue.
So, I kept believing in the Wii. In 2009 I bought game that I figured would change everything, and for a while, it did. Boom Blocks appeared to be the game the Wii was made for. It used the Wii-mote perfectly, and the whole family could sit around and play it. Encouraged, I invested in the Wii Sports Resort and Wii Motion Plus in the belief that Nintendo was finally getting back to the roots of what made the Wii great, and by extension, what my family loved about it. However, for some reason, that game never made a huge impression. I, myself, loved the sword fighting, but the family lost interest quickly. Furthermore, the Wii Motion Plus drained the Wiimote batteries at an incredible rate. When Nintendo failed to follow-up Wii Sports Resort with any significant Wii-motion Plus titles, I removed the devices for good. The last full retail game I bought for the console was Wii Party, and it was similar failure in my house. Since then, besides cheap, red-tagged, marked-down games found on the end-caps at Target bought for he kids as fodder for cheap afternoon of entertainment, I have pretty given-up on the Wii.
Last year I bought the Kinect for our Xbox 360. Instantly, the same old family feeling entered out living room. We all played Kinect Adventures together, and Kinect Sports was a huge hit. While the Kinect has its' own particular issues, it was successful and accessible enough to get the whole family interested. While we don't have a lot of time these days to play Kinect, when we do play as family, it works out pretty well. My middle daughter, ("DC Nughman"), is currrently obsessed with Fruit Ninja. My oldest daughter loves Ping Pong on Kinect Sports. My youngest is now begging for the Seseme Street game for Christmas after we played the demo. At the same time, My wife and I play games like You Don't Know Jack and we all watch Netflix in HD on the 360. As well, all sorts of games are available for download instantly for the 360, in all genres and from all around the world. Sure there are no Nintendo games, but then we have all those already anyway don't we? In a sense, the Xbox 360 with Kinect out-Wii'd the Wii by actually delivering the whole family entertainment experience that the Wii promised but never delivered.
When the Kinect arrived, I moved the Nintendo Wii to the small TV upstairs, relegating it to obscurity. It's still hooked up, with Boom Blocks firmly set as the game that is played the most...but not very often . Still, I was not ready to give-up on Nintendo. Not until I saw the Wii U at E3 and realized that they have pretty much lost the plot. The Wii was a great system in search of software that did not exist. In the end, it might have been the best bowling simulator ever made, but it's promise of pulling the family together was lost in sea of shovel-ware and empty promises. Still, I've got the memories of that first glorious day, the day my entire family played hooky so we could all experience the Nintendo Wii together. Even if the console never lived up to its' promise of of truly great family experiences, I am still thankful for that first, best time playing Wii Sports and imagining the greater gatherings to come.
I sat next to Michael Jackson in the 4th grade. Not that Michael Jackson, but Mike Jackson, my friend since he moved from England to attend our Kindergarten at Pennekamp Elementary school in 1975.
Mike, I and my brother had been friends since he arrived from the UK, and we had been in just about every class together until Ms. Goldsmith's 4th grade classroom in 1979. We did all the stuff that normal kids at the time would do. We rode bikes, played army men and Godzilla, and we shot realistic guns at each other on the school grounds. We even made plans to move into a huge house together with all of our other friends in the neighborhood when we grew-up.
In November 1979, Mike invited us to his birthday party at Straw Hat Pizza. Straw Hat Birthday parties were always awesome. They always included double-cut slices of pizza with huge cheese bubbles, pitchers of root beer, free rides on the mechanical horse, silent movies, and especially, video games. Straw Hat was one of the only local places that had arcade games, so it was a no-miss event for sure.
There was one kid though, that I'm pretty sure was not at Mike's birthday party: Stanley Jones (not his real name). This is not a knock on Mike, because except for when we were in Kindergarten, not too many people invited Stanley to much of anything. Stanley had been in our Kindergarten class for a short time, and we played with him on the playground. The one thing I liked the most about Stanley was his enormous toothy grin, a smile he displayed with complete honesty at any given chance. However soon after Kindergarten started Stanley was moved to the "Resource" classroom. "Resource" was separate room where kids from all grades went who needed special attention. Stanley went there off and on, leaving Kindergarten class, and returning to play with us. Then then one day he left, and never came back.
Soon after Mike's 4th grade birthday party, he and I were sitting in our classroom, working on a math ditto. Math was my favorite subject in the 4th grade, but as I was zooming through the the purple ink on the page, I glanced at Mike's paper to see how he was doing. I noticed that Mike had not answered a single question. Instead, he was doodling, drawing some amazing little illustration of space ships in-between the questions. Soon after, Ms. Goldsmith came by and chastised Mike for not being further along on his work. I felt sorry for Mike. I remember thinking, "What was he going to do in his life he never learned his Math?" " How could he live in the big house together with all of our friends when we grew-up if he never made it out of school?"
If the prospect of Mike's future bothered me a little bit, the prospect of Stanley's future stuck in the back of my head. I wondered if Stanley would ever be allowed back into a regular classroom, but it never happened. Kids like Stanley were often left behind, as the throngs of students passed them by in the halls. Besides some of the more popular kids saying mean stuff under their breath at them as they passed, they were hardly even acknowledged. I never joined in, but instead was the kind of coward that just watched and never said anything to defend them, even when Stanley was the target.
There was very little understanding among us of Stanley or his particular issues, and I'm sure there were good reasons for us not being told. Still, a little information would have gone a long way. He and the other kids in "Resource" were sequestered away, partially for their own good and I'm sure, partially for ours. Whatever issues befell Stanley and whatever his thoughts and feelings were about it, I never knew. He was just whisked away where we hardly ever saw him.
I do recall speaking to Stanley on occasion, and in the 4th grade, he and his "Resource" class started to appear on the blacktop when we were out playing for morning recess. At that point, Stanley appeared defeated, or at the very least, exasperated. The huge smile he displayed in Kindergarten was long gone, replaced with a sort of knowing grimace. I'm sure the years since we all had class together had not been easy. Kids in the 70's could be very creative with their cruelty, and I'm sure Stanley was the recipient of much of it. Eventually, I believe, Stanley was put back a grade, but he did manage to make it all the way through Mira Costa High School and graduate. However, by then, I had lost complete track of him.
At the same time, Mike, my brother Jeff and I remained pretty good friends through most of our school years. We went on to Begg Junior High School, where we continued to be friends. We played video games together, and we traded Atari 800 games in early 80's. We hung out together for our first couple years of high school, listening to Depeche Mode and getting into all sorts of trouble. We even got caught together by mom after we snuck a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps into a screening of 2010 at the Mann Theater, and reeked of it afterward. However, as people are wont to do, we grew apart. By the time we graduated from high school, I'm not sure we even said goodbye to one another.
Nearly 12 years later, I was working at Mattel Toys ,building web sites and games. I was working in the I.T. department, which traditionally is all about things like databases, spreadsheets, HR systems, and making sure the computer network is working. However, I had been hired to build web sites for an IBM AS/400, and worked myself up to building ecommerce sites, then to consumer web sites and games. Since my main customers were the brand web teams in the marketing department, I spent most of my time working with them, co-located in another building away from I.T. The regular I.T. department had hard time understanding what I did, and game development in particular was the hardest for them to grasp. It was a constant struggle to get I.T. management to understand that games were essential to the success of the consumer web sites (our sites which were some of the most visited kids web sites on the internet). I never planned it this, way, but here I was, working between the lines, serving two masters: customers who wanted games and web sites and could not understand I.T., and my bosses in I.T. who could never grasp that games were what made our projects success in the first place.
Lo and behold, one day a new artist walked in, and it was Mike Jackson. He had most of the spent the previous decade working on all sorts of graphic design projects, including a PC game by Steve Meretzky named The Space Bar. Mattel hired him to design web sites, and he began working on HotWheels.com among other boy branded projects, none of which were things I was building, since I was mostly working girl's branded sites and games at the time.
About 3 years later, Mike and I got the chance to work on a project together. HotWheels.com wanted to add some Flash games to the site, and they had tapped us to both to a build game for the Monster Jam license. I spent a few days mocking-up a game that used some basic mathematical slope calculations to move objects down a hill, and when it was ready, I showed it to Mike so he could start designing graphics for it. As I was demoing the game for Mike, a thought struck me: When we were sitting next to each other in the 4th grade, I worried for nothing. My destiny might have been working out those Math problems, but Mike's was not. His destiny was in-between the lines of that math ditto, and his doodles were worth more than those math problems ever could have been, at least to him.
A few weeks into the game project, Mike and I attended a child testing session at the Imagination Center at Mattel in the main tower building. We were both happy to see that our game was the favorite among the kids testing that day. On the elevator ride up to the Cafe for lunch, we were talking about the game, when the car stopped on the 2nd floor and in walked none other than Stanley Jones. He was working on the mail crew at Mattel. Mike and I both greeted Stanley, and asked him how he had been. With a huge grin on his face, Stanley told us he was living in house in Manhattan Beach with his family, and how much he loved his job delivering the mail.
When we got off the elevator later and walked back to our building, I turned to Mike and asked him, "Hey, when we were in Kindergarten, did you ever think you, I and Stanley Jones would all be working at the same place almost 30 years later?"
"Never" he replied.
By the way, the game, Crashzilla Crusher, turned out okay. While the game looks primitive by today's standard, the kids in 2003 LOVED it. The game was played millions of times, and it proved the Hot Wheels brass that we should make even more games down the line. We went on to produce over 200 games for Mattel web sites, making them some of the most successful kids web sites in history.
However, Mike and I never got to work on another project together like Crashzilla Crusher. Mike got moved around to other projects and managers who did not appreciate his skills, and soon he left to work for Sony Imageworks. I stayed at Mattel for many more years. The web team moved to several different buildings, before ending up in the main Mattel building, where we stayed until I left. Even though Mike was gone, I saw Stanley Jones more often, delivering the mail and and doing other odd jobs on our floor. Sometimes he recognized me, and other times not. On the good days, we often talked in passing about the Hometown Fair, and the beach volleyball tournaments he watched when he walked to the beach He even lamented one time about how he missed all of the kids we went to kindergarten with, and wondered what had happened to them.
On my last day at Mattel, as I was carrying my boxes out of the building, Stanley rode the elevator down with me. He told me again about where he lived, and how much he liked his job at Mattel. Sometimes he told the same stories more than once, but I never mentioned it to him. One of my last memories from my 15 years at Mattel was Stanley's smiling face disappearing into the elevator as I walked out into my future. When I think of Mattel now, I like to think of Stanley Jones, happy, riding the elevator with the mail cart and talking to people as he walks the cavernous floors and back-ways of the Mattel corporate headquarters, hopefully finding success and happiness in his life, working between the lines just like Mike Jackson, and just like me.
My essay for Mr. Davis' 6th grade English class, March 22, 1982, Foster A, Begg, Junior High, Manhattan Beach, CA.
My favorite thing to do is play a video game. After school on Thursdays I run home, grab 10 dollars, and nag my mom to take me to the arcade. When we get there, I jump out of the car and run into the arcade to change my money.
When my money is changed, I run over the nearest GALAGA machine and start to play. What great fun it is to blast space ships out of the sky, and when it is over I slide another quarter in and play again. The sounds and colors the game makes are crisp and real.
When your playing the game its like your mind goes blank and all you can see is your ship blasting other ships. You usually play for about 5 hours, and when you finally leave you have a very bad headache and are dizzy. You feel so bad that for the next 7 days your sick and on the 8th you recover and on that same day you go back to the arcade.
(end of essay)
First off , it's not even a proper essay. Where are the 5 paragraphs and the conclusion? Slacker. Secondly, The whole bit about having $10 and playing for 5 hours is a total fabrication. It was more like $2.00 and playing for 2 hours because they gave 8 tokens for a dollar at Castle Park in Redondo Beach on Thursdays. I probably did not mention tokens at all because I did not think the teacher would understand.
M., Davis must have assigned an essay where we had to use the numbers 10,5,7 and 8 or something like that. She also probably wanted us to describe an activity in detail. By the way, not every kid wrote about video games in those days. In fact, I imagine I was going out on a limb with this essay because Ms. Davis could be fairly strict and straight-laced (as far as I recall).
The 3rd paragraph is the most interesting to me because it describes how my 12 year-old self felt when I was playing a video game. Pretty scary stuff for the video game naysayers at the time I would believe!
About 12 years ago I realized that I wanted to play my original 1986 Atari 7800, but had no idea where it was. After searching the garage at my parents house, I found the original system in its original box, but no games. This set me out on a mission to find games to play on it. This mission ultimately resulted in my acquiring smallish stock of retro games and systems. We moved houses 2 years later and all of those games and systems seemed to have been lost somewhere along that way...until today. Today, while searching for Easter baskets and decorations in the attic, I uncovered 5 boxes of retro gear. The first contained many of of the 8-bit Atari games (400/800/xl/xe, 2600, 5200, 7800) and a couple Intellivision games.
The box contained 51 Atari 2600 carts. Only 2 of them were doubles, and 4 were signed by the original programmers/designer. While at Mattel we had the pleasure of working with David Crane and Gary Kitchen (both with Skyworks at the time). They agreed to sign some carts that I brought in.
(click to enlarge photo)
The games starting from the top row and moving left to right and down:
Super Breakout, Asteroids, Casino, Video Pinball, Defender, Human Cannonball, Surround, Video Olympics, Home Run
Adventure, Maze Craze, Warlords(2), Football, Haunted House, Street Racer, Pele's Soccer, Space Invaders
Yar's Revenge, Pac-Man, Mario Bros, Pole Position, Real Sports Tennis, Centipede, Vanguard, Real Sports Baseball, Kangaroo,
Ms Pac-Man, Sears Tele-Games Golf, Bowling, Combat, Breakout, Basketball, Sears Tele-Games Pinball, River Raid, Sea Quest
Enduro, Pitfall (signed by David Crane), Grand Prix (signed by David Crane), Keystone Kapers (signed by Gary Kitchen), Spider Fighter(2), Megamania, Donkey Kong (signed by Gary Kitchen), Frogger, Phoenix (in Box)
Riddle of the Sphinx, Q-Bert, Star Wars (the Empire Strikes Back), Trick Shot, Atlantis
A couple of these games I got from Steve as he had been care-taking most of our older 8-bit stuff (I got the Atari ST). Some of these games I found at garage sales, mom and pop thrift stores, and on the internet, but by far the largest portion were grabbed from the TV department of the local Salvation Army for $1.50 a piece (you can see the shitty non-removable sticker on many of them). The Phoenix cart (in box) was purchased with a lot of 7800 games off the internet.
The box contained 18 Atari 7800 carts (9 in box, 9 loose).
(click to enlarge photo)
Pete Rose Baseball, Xevious, Food Fight, Desert Falcon, Robotron, Touchdown Football, Galaga, Asteroids
Baseball (in box), One on One (in box), Ms Pac-Man (in Box), Dark Chambers (in Box)
Donkey Kong (in box), Donkey Kong Junior, Choplifter, Tower Toppler, Centipede
Like the 2600 carts, a few of these came from Steve's stash of our originals while all of the in-box carts were purchased over the internet.
Atari 400/800/xl/xe computer game carts
My favorite retro machines are the Atari 8-bit computers (the mini-Amiga as Jay Miner had his hand in creating both). It was the most elegant and arguably one of the most powerful of the 8-bit computers. Game-wise it was much more powerful than the early IBM's, Apples, and Timex's, and it fought on even ground with the C=64 (each machine having it's own advantages).
This is the machine I was (and maybe still am) most interested in collecting carts for. I don't know If I will ever start up my collection again though. I was burned too many times by e-bay sellers who never sent he carts that paid for. This was the major factor that stopped me from collecting in the first place.
There are only 9-carts in this box for the Atari 8-bit computers, but I am sure I have more some place (or did they never arrive in the mail?).
(click to enlarge photo)
Millipede, Demon Attack (will not work on my 65xe or 800xl), Qix, Dig Dug, Star Raiders, Miner 2049er (I know the cart pic is obscured by my lame photography skills, but most of the printing is also gone form the label), XE Game System Food Fight, XE Game System Donkey Kong, and River Raid.
I never had a 5200, but when these two babies showed up at the bottom of a pile of junk on the 99 Cent store "media isle" I jumped on them.
(click to enlarge photo)
The two carts are Pole Position and Pac-Man, but I could have sworn I have an in-box Berzerk some place also.
It has been 12 years, but I still go to that 99 Cent store media section hoping to see Atari carts at least a couple times a year. No more have ever shown up.
I have a soft spot in my Atari heart for the Mattel Intellivision. Steve and I used to play the system all the time at Eric Barth's house down the street (he might be your professor now if you attend college in the South). I worked at Mattel for 13 years and was astounded by how little homage they paid to this lovely device (none-what-so-ever). That, in a nut shell, explains (to me at least) why they will never "get it" and will never be the digital company that they hope they can be.
Anyway, I found these four babies at a Goodwill Shoppe (the expensive one with the boutique). These were actually only a couple bucks each because they didn't have the word Nintendo written on them anywhere.
(click to enlarge photo)
The games are Mission X, Football (was NFL Football), Triple Action, and Burger time.
There are more boxes in the attic. I know there are Genesis, 32x, Jaguar, Atari ST games and much more up there. Maybe I'll get to them next week, or maybe it will be 10 more years. It all depends on how busy Zynga keeps me. (By the way, Zynga is a an awesome place to work)
(8bitjeff is Jeff D. Fulton)
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.
There is something significant missing on the restaurant landscape these days, at least here in the South Bay near L.A. in California: the classic 70's/80's "Pizza Parlor". This was not just a pizza restaurant, but a community experience unlike anything that exists today in franchise form. "The Pizza Parlor" was not a single restaurant, but instead, a concept of what it meant to eat pizza with your friends and family. There were two main establishments that offered similar experiences in this genre, and here they are in order of importance: Straw Hat Pizza, and Shakey's Pizza. That is all. Sure, there were some others (Pizza Hut, Round Table, Lamp Post, and Wildflower for instance), but they were either sub-par (Pizza Hut) or not major players (all the others) in our little neighborhood.
The concept of the "Pizza Parlor" went like this: It started with a huge communal room filled with long, wooden tables and benches (no chairs, and no booths please). Most of the lighting was removed or dimmed, and replaced with little candles in red-glass holders. Added to this was a movie screen in the back showing silent films, a mechanical horse ride, a selection of video games and pinball machines off to one side, and a small stage for live performances. Patrons walked-in and stood in-line to order. No wait-staff was allowed. You ordered your pizza at a small counter that allowed just enough of a view of the kitchen activity (i.e. pizza dough being tossed and twirled ) to let you know everything was being made to order. You picked-up your pizza sometime later at a similar window about 10 feet to the right. In-between was some kind of rustic decor: fake bricks, or a wall made of wine barrels and/or beer bottles. No matter what it was, this theme would extend around much of room, the setting the tone of the surroundings and the expectations of the patrons.
Two main items were available at "The Pizza Parlor": Pizza and beverages. The pizza was pretty much self-explanatory but varied by establishment (more on this later), the beverage situation however, was fairly unique. Adults would order pitchers of beer, and kids would emulate them with glasses of root beer. If the kids were really lucky, they would get a "pitcher" of root beer themselves. Soft drinks were never "all you can drink", so the "pitcher" was next best thing and it was very special indeed. Getting a "pitcher" of soft drinks was just about the coolest thing that could happen for a kid at one of these places. It was also rare, with only the richest parents willing to shell out the $4.00 required to buy one.
There was something very unique about this beverage situation that you do not find very often these days. You see, in the 70's and early 80's, it was fairly common for some adults to get very drunk with their kids in tow. It really did not matter what the occasion might have been (kids birthday party, soccer picnic, softball team dinner), the protocol was generally the same. These places were not Chuck'E'Cheese, where parents avoid the food and chase their kids for 2 hours. The amusements scattered around the place were there for these kids to GO do while the parents did their own thing, and many times this meant drinking until their livers called for an ambulance.
There was a lot of "waiting" in these "Pizza Parlors" and most of it stemmed from the fact that these places actually made their dough and pizzas from scratch and cooked them in a pizza oven. This could take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes or more depending on the size of the crowd at the "Pizza Parlor". While waiting for the food, parents ordered more and more beer while socializing at the giant wooden tables. The kids meanwhile, wandered unsupervised through the darkened cavern looking for excitement. They did not have to look very far. The silent movie screen was the most obvious diversion, as it was the largest and the brightest. A loop of silent Laurel And Hardy, The Three Stooges, Tom And Jerry and old newsreels played continuously in the back corner of the room. It provided a kind of hypnotic aura to the place, offering an otherworldly dream-like state for those who stared too long at the flickering screen.
The next most obvious diversion was the mechanical horse. This was not your "in front of Lucky's Supermarket" kind of mini-horse hopper, but a near full-sized bucking bronco of a kid's ride. The horse stood at least as tall as any kid, and in some cases a good head above them. You would climb-up into the leather stirrups (usually with help from an older sibling), drop your coin into the giant brown coin-box of the one side, and prepare to lurch into action. The horse would start abruptly, and jolt back and forth wildly. While this was not "Urban Cowboy" mechanical horse by any means, for 4-8 year old kid it was quite a ride. The horse was operated by pennies and pennies alone. This was not some kind of money-making venture for the "The Pizza Parlor" either, as the pennies were available for free from the pick-up counter.
What was not free however, were the video games. "The Pizza Parlor" was one main places kids found new video games in the late 70's and very early 80's (before arcades proliferated and games showed-up at the front of every convenience store). The games were placed in a very special spot, right next to the entry-way, visible to the entire room. Their blinking screens punctuated the dimly lit interior, creating excitement in the kids with quarters burning in their pockets, waiting for their parents to to give them a green light to go over and play. Asteroids Deluxe, Missile Command, Gorf, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong and many others all made their local debut appearances at a local "Pizza Parlor". I distinctly recall a birthday party in 1981 at the local Straw Hat where I discovered a Pac-Man coin-op for the first time. It was a revelation to see a game with cartoon based graphics surrounded by the usual space ship and race car games. However, it was not just the new games that were fascinating, but more interesting were the older games that the establishments had purchased and from which they were still trying to wring every last coin. Electromechanical baseball, Atari's Qwak gun game, and many every early "space games" (i.e. Kee Games Starship I in the corner of the local Shakey's) that appeared and failed in the wake of "Star Wars" but before Space Invaders showed them how it was supposed to work. Most of these games were sheer rip-offs, but that was also part of the fun. When you found one that was actually good, it was like discovering buried treasure.
When the pizza finally came, it was always fantastic. Each "Pizza Parlor" had their own unique take on what a the perfect pizza could be, but Straw Hat was usually the kid favorite. Their pizza included massive "cheese bubbles" over the crust that were as fun to pop as they were to eat. The pieces were always cut very thin, which made sharing much easier. Shakey's Pizza was good as well because it had a distinct sauce (by comparison Straw Hat seemed to have very little sauce) and good mix of cheese. However, to be honest, the pizza was really the last act in well-rounded "Pizza Parlor" experience. It was important, but maybe not as important as just being there with all your friends having the time of your life.
Sometimes if you were really lucky, the silent movies would turn off, and the little stage would come alive with musicians. Often "The Pizza Parlor" was home to local blue grass and country artists who would play weekends and some week nights. Adding live music to the darkness, communal atmosphere, and pitchers of beer made for a truly memorable experience. In many cases, the adults would have just as good a time as the kids, and no one really batted an eye or made a suggestion that maybe the mix of kids games, silent movies, a live music, and a liquor license were not really appropriate. It just was the way it was. Sometimes the kids were even invited into to the act - my wife for instance. As a little girl in the early 70's, she was called-up on stage to sing with the likes Vince Gill, Emmy lou Harris, and The Sweethearts Of The Rodeo at the local Straw Hat while she was there late at night on multiple occasions with her very young and outgoing parents.
Almost every community celebration in my youth ended up taking place at "The Pizza Parlor". I attended dozens of birthday parties, school celebrations, Cub Scout get-togethers, and end-of-year sports team events at one of these restaurants. One of my fondest memories of the "Pizza Parlor" was in 1980, when our soccer team, The Rowdies, held our end-of-the-season celebration at Straw Hat Pizza. Our coach was loaded (money-wise), and he spread his wealth that year over his son's soccer team. He owned his own textile company so the team had custom uniforms and jackets emblazoned with shiny fabric stars he awarded when we did something good in a game. His company had just made a deal with O. J. Simpson to create sports wear emblazoned with The Juice's initials. Not only did I cart a nice hefty trophy out of the Straw Hat that year, but also a loose-fitting blue-velour O. J. Simpson sweat suit that I won for being the the "most improved" player. Community events like these types of parties had a natural place at the "Pizza Parlor". As the kids guzzled pitchers of soft drinks, played video games, and generally ran around the place creating complete mayhem, the adults sat back and reminisced about their kids' passing youth over cold beer and warm memories.
- - -
In 1977 Pepsi Co. bought Pizza Hut and went on tear buying-up all the similar restaurant locations on the East Coast. By the late 80s Pizza Hut had become a behemoth in the East, and was ready to swallow the pizza business on a national scale. Their next target was out West and only Straw Hat stood in it's way (Shakey's a very small player). Here is blurb from the Straw Hat web site that explains what happened next:
By the mid-Eighties, Straw Hat Pizza was regarded as the dominant pizza restaurant in the Western United States as the Pizza Hut chain was trying to establish a market presence in the same area. Pizza Hut made a move to eliminate a major stumbling block to its own expansion by purchasing all company owned Straw Hat Pizza restaurants in 1987; thus removing its prevailing competition.
Pizza Hut was never a favorite in our neighborhood. As mentioned before, the pizza was not very good, but they also had a different attitude about eating it. They had waiters, tables with chairs, booths, and a menu that extended far beyond what a traditional "Pizza Parlor" offered. There was little of the communal atmosphere of "The Pizza Parlor" at Pizza Hut, and while they had some video games, you'd be hard-pressed to find a any kind mechanical horse, silent movies, or live music stage any where near one of their establishments. As far as I knew at the time, no one really frequented the local Pizza Hut very often. It was just not the place to go to be with other people. However, with the mighty wealth of Pespi co. behind it, Pizza Hut became unstoppable.
Within a couple years, the local Straw Hat was consumed by this effort and turned into a Pizza Hut. Nobody really wanted Straw Hat to go away, but there was no choice for the community. Large multi-national corporations felt they knew what was best for the concept of the "Pizza Parlor" and it's name was "homogenization". The local Shakey's stayed around a year or so longer than Straw Hat, but it did not last long either. All of the Shakey's restaurants in the USA were sold in 1989.
Shakey's Inc., the domestic division of Shakey's Pizza Restaurants Inc., has been sold to Inno-Pacific Holdings Inc. of Singapore, the companies said. Terms were not disclosed. (N.Y. Times, Feb 10, 1989)
They would see a similar fate to Straw Hat. Wikipedia had this to say about the fate of Shakey's:
Most of the U. S. stores closed during the time Inno-Pacific owned the chain.
And that was basically it for the glorious "Age of the Pizza Parlor". Within the span of a couple years the two biggest names in the area were eradicated, and in their place came either an empty storefront, or a very corporate, very bland substitute that never managed to become any kind of replacement.
Even as it's new sub-par incarnation, I still frequented the location of the Straw Hat Pizza often after it was converted to a Pizza Hut. Even though it had been gutted and most the things that had it special had been removed, like a zombie from Dawn Of The Dead, I returned to place of my rampant childhood consumerism as a force of habit. For what it was worth, the building still hosted some very significant events in my life. In my senior year, 1988, it was the place my only really serious high school girlfriend and I went on our first date. Several years later, my future wife and I went there every week to play our favorite pinball game Machine Bride Of Pinbot" (but we hardly ever ate the pizza). Still, it was hard to be there for very long without getting too nostalgic for the "Pizza Parlor" of my youth. Memories hung around the place around like residual spirits, magically implanted into walls by the sheer volume of joy that the building once held.
No matter how much I wanted it to be the same restaurant though, the changes that had taken place under the new Pepsi Co. regime doomed the place into obscurity. The lights had been turned brighter, the long wooden tables removed, and the root beer pitchers replaced with all-you-can drink cups filled with Pepsi products. The video games had been moved to a back corner , hidden from view, the mechanical horse and live stage removed to add more booths, and the silent movie screen rendered both mute and blind, and then later, covered-up with sports memorabilia. The smaller tables brought smaller groups and the communal, party, atmosphere of the "The Pizza Parlor" was stamped out completely. In time, the music and loud, happy voices from celebrating teams and community groups disappeared as well, never to return. By the year 2000, Pizza Hut lit their pizza ovens for the very last time, and moved to a new location as a delivery-only store-front. The building re-opened a few months later as a Mongolian BBQ rendering the final remaining link (no matter how thin it might have been) to the "Age Of The Pizza Parlor", gone forever.
"Look at this...Atari 7800's for sale!"
October of 1986 was a trying time for Atari 8-bit computer nerds Nerds like Jeff and I. We had seen the vastly inferior (to us) Commodore 64 reign supreme for many months. Most software companies were skipping the Atari line in favor of the better selling Commodore machine. After 3 years of serious Atari 8-bit computing, we had pretty much experienced everything there was to get out of the tan wedge-shaped machine from Atari's better days. At the same time, our Atari 2600 seemed very old. We still played it a little, but for the most part it gathered dust in the broken wood TV cabinet in our living room. When we did buy games for it, they were from the Kay Bee Toys bargain bin for a few dollars each. However, by the fall of 1986 the 2600's RF unit had stopped working, and we had no desire to replace it. We still had a stack of 2600 games, but no way to play them. All the commercials on TV were for the Nintendo N.E.S. and it's bizarre robot peripheral B.O.B. As far as we were concerned, Atari video games was dead and cheap crap had taken its place. At the same time, the 16-bit ST computer was on the horizon, but without any U.S. based distribution, it would be many months before we could get our hands on one. Even Atari coin-op games, which had once been the best games in the arcade, had fallen on hard times. With games like Super Mario Bros. and Arkanoid competing for floor space, Atari Games 'contests like Championship Sprint and 720 did not stand much of a chance getting kids to release their quarters.
In short, Atari fans were a very tough spot. Intruders had over-ridden our camp from all sides. Any notion we had back in 1984 that the Tramiels would save Atari was long since destroyed. However, we were still loyal. The Atari "Fuji" symbol was burned into our brains. We had to follow. That is why it was so exciting to see that some of the mail order companies were selling the Atari 7800 and about a dozen different games for rock-bottom prices.
The 7800 and its' next generation games had looked so awesome in the pages of Electronic Games back in 1984. The machine was backwardly compatible so we could play our orphaned 2600 games. We had to have one. It was an easy sell. We showed our mom, who was only too happy to oblige by ordering us one with two games (Galaga and Food Fight) for Christmas. What we did not realize was that waiting for the 7800 would a be a problem. You see, after we knew the 7800 was on the way, Jeff and I came up an idea. A wonderful awful, terrible, idea. We decided to sell all of our Atari 8-bit computer equipment, save the money, and combine it was any Christmas money plus any birthday money we would get in January, to purchase an Atari ST 16-bit computer as soon as they were available in 1987.
The plan made no sense at all. We were going to spend $100's of dollars for a new Atari computer that probably would not be supported by any software, that was not compatible with any other Atari platform, and that no one else we knew had or was ever going to have.
Sue us, we were Atari Nerds.
In the next month I raced to finish the final game I had purchased for the Atari 800: Ultima IV. I spent many hours every day trying to perfect my avatar. Before school, in the afternoon while I was on the phone with my girlfriend, and late at night after (and instead of) doing homework. By early December I had managed to make it to the room with the Codex, but I never managed to finish the game.At the same time, we started advertising the vast amount of Atari related equipment we had collected over the years for sale. We started by posting on the local bulletin boards SWAMPS and Video BBS. We had 100's of disks, an extra 810 disc drive, 850 interface, Gemini 10X printer, Atari 800, Atari 800xl, 1050 drive ,cables, books, games, etc. By mid-December all but a few 5.25" floppies had been sold, and we pocketed about $400, roughly 10% of what we had spent on everything.
With two weeks until Christmas, a sudden realization hit us: for the first time in 5 years, we were nearly game less. Aside from a Vectrex with a dodgy #1 fire button, we had no games to play what-so-ever. The next 14 days were mostly torture. Jeff and I busied ourselves trying to earn money to pay for two Christmas dances (we were both dating girls from an all girls Catholic school, and they had their own dance, and we had ours at our own all-evil public school), and for gifts for said girls and our families. By the time that mayhem had ended, it was Christmas break and there just a few days to wait until the 25th, and the 7800. Still, being game less. was very difficult. The few days left before Christmas, as moved slower than any days I can recall. While we used to play 8-bit computer games late into the night, now all we had was broadcast T.V. By the 24th we were climbing the walls trying to find something interesting to do.
To say that getting the 7800 on Christmas morning was exciting as getting a 2600 in 1981 or an Atari 800 in 1983 would be over stating the facts a bit. It was cool to get one, but not exactly exciting overall. First off, we knew it was coming, and secondly, we did not have high-hopes for it. Atari Corp. output had been such a disappointment up until that point, that we we held back most of our enthusiasm until after we had the chance to boot the machine and play some games...however when we finally did get it up and running...
Yes, I said. Blown away.
The pack-in game, Pole Position II was near arcade quality. Off hand, I could not find any differences with it than the coin-op. While, the coin-op was also not huge favorite of mine, I could still see how much better this version was than the Pole Position had been for the 8-bit computers. Suitably impressed, we tried the next game, Galaga. Galaga had been one of my favorite coin-ops for several year at that time, and I knew the 7800 version would have to be something special to get me excited for it. Luckily, the people at GCC/Atari (back in 1983/1984 when all the release games for the 7800 were actually produced) had done a remarkable job with the translation. While a few things looked different (the ships were all a bit smaller and less colorful than their arcade counterparts) the game played like an exact copy of Galaga. All the same strategies could be employed, and I could feel that home version would have me playing for a long time.
The 3rd and final game we tried for the 7800 was Food Fight, the GCC/Atari coin-op from 1983. Right from the outset we could tell that game would become the show piece for the 7800. The game was a near exact copy of the Food fight coin-op, still one of the best and most underrated arcade contests ever produced. Jeff and I spent the next couple days playing and replaying all three 7800 games. We are simply amazed at the quality of the games. It was cool to play them in 1986 (almost 1987), but it was difficult to not wonder how good they would have seemed in they had been released as scheduled for Christmas 1984. For a couple die-hard Atari fans, the missed opportunity was almost too much the bear. The 7800 rocked and we were ecstatic about it.
The euphoria was felt for the 7800 did not end with the three games we received Christmas morning. Armed with the desire to experience more of what this amazing machine had to offer, we set-out on an after-Christmas-week quest to find as many games as possible for it. Now, this was 1986, so the week after Christmas was not at all like it is now. In 2008, the week after Christmas is like "Christmas II", with all the gift-card holders scrambling to pick the the fresh meat off hastily re-stocked shelf bones in an attempt to keep that Christmas high for a few days longer. No, back then the shelves after Christmas were bare. Restocking did not happen until late January. For the most part, stores were open to handle returns and complaints and to get ready for the New Years's "White Sales". Needless to say, finding shiny new 7800 games to feed our new-found hunger for titles was rather difficult. After trying the local Targets, K-Marts, Sears' and Kay-Bee's without luck, we finally managed to find a few new games at the Toys R Us in Sherman Oaks, California. Even then, the pickings were very slim. Among the game offerings were Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Dig Dug, Xevious and Asteroids. They were not even displayed on the store floor. Jeff and I spied them in the "video game cage", up high on a shelf (stacked above and behind the reams of Nintendo NES games). The guy working the cage had no idea what we were talking about when we mentioned the 7800, so we had to request each game by name, and he would go through the painful process of searching the stacks as we pointed wildly towards any box that said Atari" or "7800" on the side. Still, the process was worth the effort. At $9.99-$19.99 each the games were an absolute bargain. We picked-up Dig Dug, Xevious, and Asteroids, and took them home to investigate.
Dig Dug had been one of my favorite games when it was positioned in the front of the local Manhattan Liquors, next to the Tempest machine). While I had been very disappointed with the 8-bit version of the game, the 7800 one captured much of the "cute" aesthetic missing from the other translations. Simple details, like the inclusion of a text font that closely match the arcade game went along way to separate the 7800 version from all others that came before.
Xevious had always been an intriguing arcade game for me. The first top-down scrolling shooter that I could recall, it offered a ship with two weapons and multiple different types of enemies. It was also insanely difficult. One of the most interesting aspects of the arcade game was the "Eagle" design that you would fly-over when you were close to finishing each level. I was very excited to see this recreated for the 7800. This version captured everything I liked about the arcade game, and had me wondering just were the 7800 could take games of this genre.
Asteroids, however, was the show-stopper.
Officially titled Asteroids 3D, it was the version of Atari's classic coin-op we had been wanting for years. The Atari 2600 version was decent, but sullied with flicker and with asteroids that only moved vertically. At the same time the Atari 8-bit computer version was a slow, jumbled mess and the Atari 5200 was never released because it was unplayable with that system's idiotic controllers. This meant that all the 7800 had to do was play a decent game and it would easily end-up on top. However, instead of just being decent, the 7800 version obliterated all previous efforts. The graphics were updated with a cool 3D look, and game play was nearly identical to the coin-op. Beyond that, it offered two player simultaneous competitive and team modes, something that rare very rare in for console games at the time. Jeff and I were in Asteroids heaven from the moment we inserted the cartridge into the 7800. Aside from short bursts with the other games (including time replaying 2600 favorite like River Raid and Vanguard), Asteroids rarely left the 7800 cartridge slot for the remainder of Christmas vacation.
When school restarted again in January, our desire to play the 7800 did not subside. If anything, we wanted to play it much more. While Asteroids was still a favorite, the other 7800 games started getting a bunch of playing time as well. For at least a week in January 1987, I woke up an hour early just to get a few rounds of Galaga in before school started. Likewise, it was difficult to tear Jeff away from the console after school whole he attempted to master Food Fight. To us, these were simply awesome translations of the arcade games, better than anything we had ever seen or played. By our birthday on late January, we were sucked-in completely. Even though we were saving money for a 16-bit Atari ST computer, we still managed to use a bit of birthday cash to buy the 7800 versions of both Joust and Robotron, neither of which disappointed us in an way. So far the 7800 had not let us down, and we were very surprised, as we did not believe the new Atari had the ability to pull anything like this off. Was Atari Corp. really part of the Next Generation of video games?
Soon after our birthday, Jeff and I visited our friend Wesley Crews' house. Wesley had been on a ski trip for most of Christmas vacation, and we had been too busy right after school started to go over to his house. He was itching to show us his new Christmas gift, a Nintendo N.E.S. I did not have high hopes for it. The commercials for the machine made it look like the Coleco Adam or Mattel Aquarius: bizarre under-powered, over-priced systems with far too many cheap plastic peripherals. The first game he showed us, Duck Hunt, proved the point. It was a light gun game that played like all others from about the same time. The gun did not match-up right to the con-screen cursor, the action was bland, and it all seemed fairly awful. It did not compare well to the nearly pixel-perfect old-school arcade action action on the 7800 in any way. However, the second game we played was another thing entirely. Excite Bike on the N.E.S. looked and played exactly like the Vs. coin-op we had seen in the arcades. The graphics were crisp, the sprites were large, and the action was enthralling. Not only that, but the game allowed players to could create their own tracks and then race on them.
One other thing we noticed right away were the controllers. Instead of a joystick, they had four arrow buttons, two fire buttons, plus Start and Select buttons. All of these buttons were top-mounted on a rectangular pad. The pad was easy to hold, and the buttons were easy to press. The 7800 had "2 fire button" controllers too, but they were nothing like the Nintendo Controllers. The 7800's "Pro-Line" controllers were difficult to hold, and with buttons on either side of the controller, caused your hand to cramp after a short time. I tried to find some kind of fault with the N.E.S. and the way the games played or were controlled, but honestly, there was nothing I could identify. It played very enjoyable new-style games and it included next generation features that Atari had not even considered in 1983 when the 7800 was first designed. While the Tramiels (who ran Atari Corp.) could have redesigned the 7800 to better compete with the N.E.S., they had released it as-is, and the machine suffered by comparison.
It took about 20 minutes of playing Excite Bike before Jeff and both realized that there would be no future for the 7800. While the Atari system had some great translations of old arcade games, that was all it had. It simply could not match the deep excitement of playing games on the N.E.S. There was an unmistakable, yet indescribable quality to Excite Bike that made us want to play it over and over. This addictive quality did not come from the rinse and repeat game-play of old Atari-style single-screen skill games, but from the depth of game play and the creative tools that seemed to let you play for ever without ever repeating anything.
In a sense, the 7800 became our last goodbye to the golden age of video games. We finally got a chance to play the games that should have saved Atari in 1984 and could have kept them on top long after. However, in 1986/1987, compared to the N.E.S., they looked like far too little, far too late. The 7800 wasa great little machine, but after being held in dungeon for almost 3 years, it came out looking like the world (one quickly being conquered by Nintendo) had passed it by. The funny thing was, even though we thought it was pretty cool, we were not sold on the N.E.S. either. The "deep" qualities that we liked about Excite Bike were the same things we liked about computer games. The N.E.S. was still just an 8-bit machine, but newer more powerful 16-bit computers were on the horizon. Unlike the 8-bit computer party that we had joined 1/2 a decade too late, we wanted to be into the 16-bit era on the ground-floor.
A couple weeks later, Jeff and I traveled out to Orange California, our pockets filled with the money we had saved since late November, to purchase an Atari ST computer from the back trunk of the guy (his name was Art I believe) who ran the store Computer Games Plus (Honestly , this was the only non-mail order way to purchase an Atari ST at the time). We took that machine home, and embarked on a brand new computer quest that would lead us on all sorts of wild digital adventures. We still played the 7800, (especially Asteroids, Galaga and Food Fight), and over the years, even purchased a few more games for it from the bargain bins. However, it took a far back-seat to the Atari ST. and the amazing 16-bit games that were being (mostly) created in Europe for the machine. In time the 7800 was put into that same broken, wooden TV cabinet in my parents living room that once held our 2600 and never played again: its' memory soon faded away, placed into the same bit-bucket of similar forgotten Atari Nerd dreams...