By Steve Fulton
Some of these are good, some are terrible, but all of them are memorable. Here is a run down my favorite Christmas content from classic gaming and computer magazines like Electronic Games, Joystik, Electronic Fun and Atari Connection.
#10 Subscription Pleas
Every magazine contains advertisements trying to get readers to subscribe. However, these classic video game magazine ads for subscriptions are interesting for one reason: timing. The Electronic Fun advertisement (first one above) came in the December 1983 issue. I asked for, and received, a year-long subscription for Xmas 1983. Too bad the magazine only lasted another 5 months. After that, I was treated to 8 issues of "Video Review" as a substitute for my beloved Electronic Fun published by the same company. For this video game obsessed kid, it was no substitute at all.
The second advertisement is for Joystik. Joystik was not bad, but it was never really one of my favorites magazine. It was glossy and colorful, but it never felt authentic. However, it would have been the worst magazine ever if I had followed this advertisement to subscribe, as the ad appeared in the last issue of the magazine ever published.
The last ad, for Electronic Games. I sent away for this one and was happy with the result, as it stayed in publication for another 2 and 1/2 years.
#9 Atari Checklist
This ad appeared in several magazines in December 1983. For Christmas that year, any kids who still had an Atari 2600 should have been begging for any of these games. Ms. Pac-Man alone was worth having an Atari 2600, but Vanguard and Moon Patrol were good too as was Jungle Hunt and Phoenix. It just proves that Atari, even after the disaster that was 1982, still pushed to make great games for their console, even through their last Christmas season as an intact company. On the other hand, by the end of 1983 Atari knew that had an absolute dog on their hands with the 5200. The games were good, but system itself was not selling for a variety of reasons (terrible controllers, no built-in backwards compatibility, etc.). It might seem disingenuous to push the 5200, but what else were they supposed to do? If the system caught-fire over the holiday season of 1983, things could have turned out very different for the world's first video game company. They certainly had a great line-up of games.
#8 Atari Gift Collections
Atari Connection was a little known magazine produced by Atari Inc. in their heyday to support their line of computers. The best thing about the "winter" issues of the magazine were the Atari "holiday gifts" they sold direct to consumers. Buttons, t-shirts, money-clips, letter openers, hats, and all manner of other consumers items that could have the Atari logo slapped on could be had for Atari fans lucky enough to know where to get them. My favorite "gift" collection however is the totally sexist "Gifts For Mom" software that includes "Recipe Search And Save" as it's main offering. If I have one pet peeve about the early days of home computing, it is the fact that "Recipe Management" was a real and serious selling point that companies came-up to try to sell computers to families. Kids could "learn" with educational software, dad could play Star Raiders, and mom's could manage their recipes with a computer. Have fun mom. It was all laid-out like the 50's all over again. I'm convinced that this kind of marketing is the reason women did not feel necessarily welcome to home computers in the 80's: they offered nothing but the same crap they were already dealing with. Dads played games, kids got new learning tools, and mom got to continue doing her "work", but now with an electronic brain to make her more efficient so she could do more. Yea mom!
#7 Find The Bug
The pages of Atari Connection were not only filled with advertisements for Atari trinkets and sexist software pitches, it also made an attempt to teach BASIC programming. The Winter 1982 issue contained this cool "Santa" themed "find the bug" puzzle. I truly believe that hobbyist computer and video game magazines lost something special when they stopped printing program listings for users to read and type into their machines. Even the video game magazine Electronic Fun printed user-made program listings for readers to type in and enjoy. We would probably live in ubiquitous STEM world where every kid could write their own software programs if if video and computer game magazines had simply continued this tradition into the modern age.
#6 Computer Game Ads
Computer game ads, for many ears, were like the "punk rock" of golden age of gaming. At the time, computer game companies were mostly D.I.Y. operations started by married couples. business partners, or single individuals who had a passion for making games for the first era of home computers. They created a market out of the ether to serve an audience growing tired of the same-old video games (see The Atari Checklist above) and wanted more and different experiences. Their advertisements were not always the most professional, but they had a flair for eye-catching visuals visuals that felt both "home-grown" and "cool" in the back pages of video game computer game magazines. In many ways, I really miss theses types of multi-game advertisements, meant to showcase popular games, but also let players know about 2nd tier titles that had not been so popular. Back then, seeing all these game images and box shots sparked my imagination. I wanted to play all these games, and discover the particular angle an view point each author/programmer/design brought to their particular piece of work. It was an era lost for many many years, but thankfully, has returned with the advent of Steam, where finding good and interesting indie computer games is just a few clicks away.
#5 Electronic Games : You Can Be a Game Designer
The first "Christmas Issue" of Electronic Games also had the most iconic "holiday" cover of any classic era video game magazine. However, the most memorable part of this magazine was not the cover, or the gift guides inside, but the story "You Can Be A Game Designer". I was twelve years old when I read this story, and it was one of the first times I realized that I wanted to make games for a living. It was a long road to get there, but in retrospect, this story, in the 1982 Xmas issue of Electronic Games was one of the best presents I ever received.
#4 Wizard Video Games
Wizard's "violent" and "adult" Atari 2600 games were truly awful. However, the fact that they made a special "Christmas" advertisement in 1982 from Electronic Games to try to sell them is pretty special in my opinion, especially considering the fate of the games advertised. "Flesh Gordon": was never released, and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was a buggy mess. However, they gained press because they were banned at many stores, and saw a few protests by concerned citizens. No kid wanted these games. We wanted "Pitfall!" and "River Raid" for Xmas 1982. However, it's still an interesting footnote in video game history to see a full-page Christmas advertisement for adult content in the industry's best publication.
#3 Electronic Fun's "Phantom" E.T. Cover
Electronic Fun was an upstart video game magazine that was inspired by the format and content style from Electronic Games. Bill Kunkel dismissed it many times, and on the surface, it was a flattering copy of the first video game magazine. However, after the first few issues, Electronic Fun grew into it's own, competent publication. I never learned the names of people involved, like I did with EG, but EF brought some very interesting concepts to the video game periodical table. They used a " number of joysticks" rating system for reviews, featured some very in-depth interviews with game programmers and designers, and even featured short BASIC games for people with computers to type in and play.
However, they also appeared the partake in some editorial shenanigans. This cover was from their 2nd issue, and it says a lot about the industry at the time. There is E.T. on the front cover playing what appears to be a "Santa" themed video game. However, the most interesting part of the magazine is what is not inside. There is almost no mention of the E.T. game for the Atari 2600 (or the 8-bit computer version) in the magazine at all. The cover and the words "E.T/ Ready for Xmas" appears to be an endorsement for a video game the magazine had not even seen yet. Did Atari buy the cover? Was this an advertisement masquerading as editorial? I do not know the answer. It could have been completely on the up and up, but there have been hints otherwise.
The "real" concept of "Ethics In Game Journalism" has been around since 1982 (by "real" I mean large companies and organizations colluding in big way that hurts consumers, not indie gamers trying to get nominal press for their games-as-art style creations. Both are an issue, but one is much more impactful than the other one.), Electronic Games actually went ahead and covered the situation in their March 1983 issue with Arnie Katz's "Switch On" editorial named "Setting Some Standards" (you can see it above) Magazines at the time had 3-month lead-time, so this editorial was probably written at just about the same time this "Phantom E.T." cover hit the news stand. The 4th item on the list appears to confront this situation directly:
Arnie Katz described their main competitor , Electronic Fun this way " they had some writers reviewing games at times from photos of the screen shot. I remember a review (from one of their writers) about Kaboom! It was a review of Kaboom!, but he had never played it, apparently -- just seen a picture. He described it as "flaming bowling pins." I mean, there was some not very well done stuff in that magazine".
Electronic Fun was run by magazine industry professionals who were not necessarily fans of video games. Randi Hacker, the Senior Editor has admitted as much, as has Dan Gutman, the Managing Editor who told 2600 Connection that he wrote for Electronic Fun " for career reasons rather than for the love of it" . This was in contrast to the creators of Electronic Games, who truly loved the field of video games and wanted to see the medium proper and grow. No wonder they were not big fans of Electronic Fun magazine.
I still have no real clue why this E.T. cover appeared on a magazine with no coverage of the game inside. Imagine the "******gate" if that happened now!
#2 Twelve Days Of Gamesmas
I loved Arnie Katz's articles and editorials in Electronic Games Magazine. They were always heart-felt, and never fan-boyish. He covered many of the same issues that plague gaming now, and foresaw many of the problems and issues that still exist today. Bill Kunkel, on the other hand, was the fan-boy who loved gaming for games-sake. (I loved his stuff too). Joyce Worley was the news editor and stamped the whole opoeration with a sense of professionalism. The January 1985 issue (published December 1984) of Electronic Games was the last Christmas issue of the magazine. It was also either one of the final issues, or the final issue that any of the original creators of the magazine had control over the content. Any gamer who read this in 1984 would have understood most of the references, but 30 years later, you'd be hard-pressed to find any gamer who could name some of them much less all of them. Here is a quick list to help you decipher what it all means.
- Twleve Kings A Questing: (Sierra's King's Quest) (
- Eleven Froggers Hopping (Frogger)
- Ten text adventures (Infocom games. You know, kinda like Depression Quest. We liked those back then. We still like 'em now)
- Nine Runner's Loding (Lode Runner)
- Eight Jacks Attacking (The Commodre 64 game Jack Attack? Maybe the most obscure reference possible.)
- Six Games A-booting (games took a long time to load from 90K disk drive. Even longer from cassette tape)
- Five Gourmet Sticks (he's referring to joysticks. Expensive, quality joysticks, probably from Wico)
- Four monitors (It was cool back then to have a dedicated monitor instead of having to play computer games on your TV)
- Three disk Files (no computer files, but those plastic disk boxes that held 5 1/2 inch floppy disks)
- Two Stand-Alones (Dedicated table top game consoles. The best at the time was the Vectrex)
- And A Lifetime sub to E.G. (Another subscription plea. This time for magazine that only had 2 more issues)
I'm not sure if Katz knew it at the time, but this parody of "The Twelve Days Of Christmas", while it hasn't aged particularly well, certainly earns its' place a piece of bona-fide video game history, as it sets this issue of the magazine in a definitely place in time that has been buried and forgotten. And that's too bad, because it was an important time, and Katz, Kunkel and Worley chronicled the whole era. Excuse me if I get a bit teary-eyed when I look at picture to right, as it shows the staff of the first great video game magazine. When I was a kid, these were the people that led me through the darkness, and told me about everything video games were and could be. The gentleman in the middle, holding the "gourmet stick" is Arnie Katz. The guy lying on the floor in Bill Kunkel (RIP). Joyce Worley is the woman on the far right in the back. At the end of 1984, this was the final goodbye from the first era of video games. Everyone else had left the building, literally, and figuratively.
It is an era forgotten by most, and dismissed by many.
A time buried away under the sands of time and Alamogordo.
A time I will never forget.
#1 Atari Christmas Morning
Finally, I just love the cover of this magazine. It's an Atari Christmas morning, and it reminds me distinctly of the early hours on Xmas 1983, when my brother and I received our first computer, and Atari 800. It's difficult to describe that morning in words, although I've tried, because it meant so much then, and the meaning has only increased over the years. It was the single most important life-changing event of my young life.
Over the years, it has affected my brother and I in couple ways. First, we tried to recreate the feeling of that morning on numerous times by buying each other computer and video game products , but it never works. Whether it was with an Atari 7800 in 1986, a Sega Master system in 1989, a slew of Atari ST computer games in 1990, A CD-ROM drive in 1992, a flood on Atari Lynx Games in 1993, etc., it was ever been the same. It just goes to show that "magic" has a way of existing in it's own space and time, and sometimes you need to simply experience it, and try to remember it, because it's unpredictable, and no easy to conjure on your own.
The other thing it has done, at least for me, is to try to get me to give that same feeling to my own kids. Although I've tried many times, this Christmas was the first time any of my children expressed emotions close to mine from that Christmas 31 years ago. My middle daughter asked for a sewing machine this year, and I my wife and I decided to not cheap-out, and get her a decent machine, and everything she needed to get going. Neither if us are into sewing, and neither are her sisters. It's her thing. Just like computers were for me and borther back in 1983. Yesterday in the car, as we drove to get hamburgers she said this to me: "daddy, that as the best Christmas ever."
Mission, finally, accomplished.
In the fall of 1981, just after starting junior high school, my brother Jeff and I tried to convince our parents that we 'needed' an Atari VCS for Christmas. Our parents had never been very electronics or modern convenience friendly, so it was quite a tough sell. Other than a color TV (Zenith console circa 1972), there was nothing in our house that would signify to, say a time traveler from the year 2181, that technology had progressed much since the end of World War II. My mom washed the dishes by hand, threw her food garbage in a compost trash can, opened cans with two hands, a tool, and a twisting motion, popped popcorn on the stove in covered pot, 'processed' food with a knife and a cutting board, made coffee with a pan and a strainer on the stove, and heated all meals in a vintage O'Keefe And Merit built-in oven using gas only (never waves of any kind, micro, or otherwise). Likewise My dad mowed the lawn with a push mower, paid for all purchases with cash (never credit), listened to A.M. radio exclusively, and refused any kind of telephonic upgrade beyond the, a single, flesh colored, wired, rotary telephone in the living room. For our entertainment our house received channels (2-13 and 28) and had a stereo system that could play a phonograph records only (no supports for tapes).
The very idea that a video game system could invade this environment was beyond unthinkable: it was ludicrous. Our parents did not waste money on non-essentials or 'fad' products, and if they were going to make any kind of purchase they needed concrete proof that it would not be a wasted effort. Even then, there were no guarantees. Ever since we had played the Atari at our friend Carrie Lenihan's house in 1978, we had hinted that a VCS would be the ultimate gift. Several Christmases went by though, and there had been no movement in that direction at all. At one point, a Radio Shack TV Scoreboard Pong System made it's way into our house by way of 75% clearance, but it did not fit the bill and was quickly forgotten.
The problem was, things in the video game world were heating up considerably, and after 1981, there would be no turning back. The past summer, while doing the laundry at a local laundromat, we convinced my mom to take us the adjacent HW Computers store to look around. The store was an Atari dealer, so they had racks of Atari 8-bit computers games and stacks of Atari computer equipment. They also sold Atari VCS games. While we were prepared to see the same old stuff like Combat! , Adventure and Circus Atari, we were not prepared for the newest game in the case: Space Invaders. I had suspected that Atari would start releasing popular coin-op games on their system, but the proof was right there in the store. However, what we saw next sealed the deal. Right next to Space Invaders was the box for Atari coin-op game Missile Command, and next to that a "coming soon" flyer for Asteroids. Asteroids, to us at the time, was the best game ever made. We spent countless quarters playing it. To have it in our own home would be amazing. All of a sudden, having an Atari VCS went from "nice to have" to "the most important thing in the world to an eleven year old ." That said, getting one would take careful planning and a coordinated effort. My twin brother and I had never wanted anything that badly though, so we had to try everything we could think of.
After some discussions in our room, we decided that our for attack was to prove to our parents that a video game system was a genuine product any kid would be required to have under the Christmas Tree. While this would not guarantee a purchase, it would set the ground work of legitimacy, which for my parents, was very important.
The first part of this ad-hoc plan, was to let our parents know how much we wanted an Atari by pointing it out to them in every store we could find. It was a simple plan, based on the theory that if you repeated the same actions over and over again, they might get the point. A few rounds of Combat in the TV section at Fed Mart on every visit, begging to descend the stairs the basement Toy section of Sears to look at the Sears Tele-Game behind the glass case, making a bee-line into every electronics, toy, and music store in the mall just to get glimpse of Atari's wood paneled wonder and the stack of games that were available. We made it a point to salivate over the machine in any and every store we visited that had one. We were obnoxious and relentless.
Our second front in the battle for an Atari VCS was through Electronic Games magazine. Electronic Games , the first ever magazine dedicated to video games, published its first issue in November of 1981, at almost the perfect time for our plan. Jeff and I found it on the news stand at Luck'ys super market, convinced our mom to let us buy it (she didn't want us to waste our money), and devoured every page over an entire weekend. When we came-up for air on Sunday night, we both knew we had found a new angle. Electronic Games Magazine was the first legitimate, tangible concrete proof that video games were not just a passing fad. Would a passing 'fad' have a dedicated magazine? My dad loved magazines. He himself subscribed to enthusiast magazines dedicated to his own hobbies (Dirt Bike. Shotgun News, Prevention). This was "our" hobby. He had to see that, right? We showed him the magazine, and he seemed to agree. It was not altogether remarkable reaction, but it was a solid start.
Our third front in this battle for an Atari VCS was the most complicated, but also the most important. We needed to appeal to their innate sense of frugality, installed in them (in my opinion) by living through the Great Depression. The Atari VCS was expensive. At $139.99 (list price) in 1981, it was just about the same price as an Xbox One in 2014. No one gift for any occasion (birthday, Christmas, anniversary, etc.) had every cost as much. It would be an uphill battle. My dad was a very cost-conscious man (with everything but his own hobbies). He loved the idea that his job at Hughes Aircraft afforded him all sorts of discounts on items for which 'regular' people had to pay full-price. For instance, all of our movie tickets came from Hughes Employee Association. However, the tickets had so many restrictions that we didn't see any movies until they were 1 or 2 months into their run. Sure, this rendered my brother and I socially retarded because we couldn't join any pop-culture playground movie discussions, but hey, we saved $.25 per ticket. Likewise, we only went to Disneyland on the 'Open From 7:00 PM-1:00 AM Hughes Aircraft 'Special Event' nights, and we did most our Christmas shopping at Gemco and Fedco, 'club' stores that allowed-in only union workers, government employees and government contractors (read: Hughes Aircraft employees). It was on one of our trips to Gemco, that we showed our dad the Atari VCS, and demonstrated the Combat! cartridge. He was intrigued, but when he saw the price tag ($129.99), he almost had a heart attack. There was no way he was going to spend so much money on any kind of toy. It was a huge step backwards.
At just about the same time, Toy R' Us was running a TV commercial in which they advertised the Atari VCS for a "discount" of $139.84, roughly a $.15 cent off the list-price. Our dad hated Toys R' Us with a passion because they almost never had discounts. Jeff and I made sure to show him this commercial whenever it was on. Even though the Atari VCS cost a relative fortune (for the time) at Gemco, it was nearly $10 less than the hated Toys R. Us and their fake $.15 cent insult of a discount. My dad dad's innate ability to find bargains was ignited. He knew his boys wanted one of those machines, and he knew how to get it at a discount. At that very moment, I believe I heard a distinct clicking sound: as if the frozen gears of our own little video game universe began to turn, ever so slightly.
The next line of attack on this front was the 1981 Sears Christmas Wish Book. Every year since we were very little, my mom would break out the Wish Book and have us circle the stuff we wanted for Christmas. For the past few years we had almost exclusively circled sports equipment, Legos, and Star Wars toys. However, for Christmas 1981 Jeff and I pointedly circled the Sears Tele-Game (their officially branded version of the Atari VCS). We really did not want a Sears Tele-Game. No kid in their right-mind wanted one. A Tele-Game was up there with Tough Skins and Hydrox cookies, Shasta Cola and Kinney Shoes as the least favored name brand substitutes in existence. However, that would not matter. Even though we circled stuff in the Wish Book, our parents hardly ever bought anything from it, they just used it as a guide. Furthermore, if there was any store my dad hated more than Toys R Us, it was Sears. He would complain constantly about their poor quality products, and what he called 'built-in depreciation' that forced people to use Sears' product service centers prematurely. All of this was probably little more than urban legend, but it served our purpose so we used it to our advantage. We strategically placed the Wish Book in an area my dad could find it (on the kitchen table), and left it open to the Tele Game page for a few days. Our hope was that our dad would notice the Tele-Game and ask us about it. However, this did not happen. He hated Sears too much to give the Wish Book the necessary attention required to establish any sort of hatred towards a cheap imitation product.
We had to step-up our attack to another level.
There are some significant areas of life that make being a twin completely lame: it's very difficult establish your own identity, many of your birthday and Christmas presents are for 'both of you', you are never sure people are interested in you as a person or just because you seemingly have a doppelganger walking around with you, and you can easily become socially inept because you have a built-in buddy and you never have to learn to make friends on your own. However all of these things are trumped in those rare moments when you mind-meld into an unstoppable single-headed force. Rare as they are, it's those times that make being a twin one of the coolest things in the world. At that moment in 1981, we had to harness that power if we were to be successful in our VCS quest.
"Hey. Jeff.", I said one morning in early December as I walked into the kitchen, looking at the strategically located Sears' Wish Book conveniently located next to our dad who was eating homemade corn and blueberry pancakes for breakfast, "What. Is. That. In. the. Sears'. Wishbook?"
Without missing a beat, Jeff replied "Hey. Steve. It's. An. Atari. 2600. Video. Game. System. The. Same. One. We. Showed. Dad. At. Gemco, Remember?"
As the first portion of our act completed, we both noticed no discernible reaction from our father. We had to step it up a bit.
"Sears', I replied, 'Don't. They. Have 'Built-In. Depreciation?"
My Dad's ears perked up. We had hit a nerve.
"Yes," Jeff replied, "Look. Closer. It's. Not. Actually. An. Atari. It. Is. A, Cheap, Sears' Rip-Off!" (Even though this was not technically true, my dad had no idea).
With that, my dad picked up the Wish Book and looked at the page. 'Damned Sears!' he blurted out between bites of corn cake "Thank God for Gemco."
Then he put down the catalog returned to eating.
With most of the groundwork laid, Jeff and I continued our push into December. We continued to point out the Atari VCS at every store that had one, we circled it in newspaper ads, got 'overly' excited when one came on the TV and parents were in the room. As school let-out for Winter break, Jeff and I both felt an Atari might be within our grasp, but the 'not knowing' was killing us. Not able to contain our desire to know 'the truth', we decided to ask our older sister Mari if she knew anything.
Mari was always kind of an enigma to Jeff and me. She watched us when we were little, but as she got older it was tough for Jeff and me to relate to her. She started staying out very late on school nights, and was into the very first punk rock scene in L.A. This meant she hung out with all sorts of odd, fascinating and sometimes downright scary characters. We wanted to know what our sister was about, but it was difficult to get her attention away from the gritty 'scene' and back to her plain old geeky twin brothers.
However, Mari was also the most responsible young adult we knew. She was paying her own way through Design School, had her own car, and appeared to have intimate knowledge of the inner working of the Fulton family. If anyone knew anything about an Atari VCS secretly coming into the house via our parents, it would have been Mari. As well, on the occasions we did spend time with Mari, she sometimes took Jeff and I to the Castle Golf and Aladdin's Castle arcades to play Breakout and Asteroids, or played other games with us at Safeway and Pizza Hut, so she knew how much we liked video games, and probably had some idea about how much we wanted an Atari VCS.
Jeff and I cornered Mari just outside her room (a mother-in-law attachment to the garage) a few days before Christmas, and begged her for information. However, what she told us was not what we wanted to hear.
"I have no idea if mom and dad bought you and VCS for us for Christmas" she said, "but it's time you guys faced the cold hard reality of mom and dad."
"What's that?" I asked her.
" You don't think mom and dad have heard your hints? Don't you think they WANT to get you an Atari? The truth is, an Atari is expensive, and mom and dad just don't have it this year. Maybe if dad works some overtime, they can get you one next year. Maybe, maybe not. "
My brother rand I just looked at her and she continued.
"I have to pay my way through school, and buy everything that I need. Appreciate what you get, save your money, and maybe you can get one on your own. That's what I'd do."
With that, she went back into her room, shut the door, and turned up The Clash on her stereo.
Mari's words (and 'Clampdown') rang in my ears all day.
I went through many phases of emotion that day, but by the end I realized that Mari had to be right. The truth was always there, but Jeff and I just did not want to see it. There was a good reason why my mom did not want us to waste our money on video game magazines, a good reason why our parents were so frugal, always looked for bargains, were careful where they shopped, and did not buy modern appliances.
They could not afford them. Period.
A shattering feeling of complete disillusionment hit me at that moment. For the first time I realized that merely 'asking' for something did not mean I would always 'get' it. Simply put, I realized for the first time that I, was not in control of everything. No manner of hints and cajoling could change the fact that, if the money wasn't there, it was not there.
Christmas morning was always a rare, happy blur in the Fulton household. For all the time our family spent ignoring and fighting each other during the other 364 days of year, we would try to make it up on Christmas. Christmas morning was one of the only times you would see the following in our house: people hugging, people thanking each other, people saying 'I thought of you when'', my mom and dad smiling at each other, my sisters getting along, people asking my mom if she needed help with anything, and our entire family in the room together at the same time. We might not have had much money, but collectively as a family we seemed to saved it all so we could wrap-up tons of stuff for each other for Christmas. Present were usually inexpensive: model kits, art supplies, books, household items, etc. More emphasis was placed on the thought than the value, and "surprises" were of utmost importance. It was our only real happy "family" time of the year, so we wanted it to last as long as possible. Our present opening lasted hours, with each person watching everyone else open their presents, 'ooing' and 'awing' over them, and then moving onto the next present. We would break for breakfast, and sometimes even for lunch before all the present opening was complete. None of us ever stated it, but I'm pretty sure the reason it lasted so long was because no one wanted it to end. As soon as the last present dropped, we all would retire to our various rooms, and pretty much ignore each other (save for Birthdays, Easter 4th Of July, and Thanksgiving) for another year.
I do not remember much from Christmas 1981, except for the last two presents that Jeff and I opened. It was late morning, The Christmas tree lights had long-since gone from lighting-up a darkened room to blinking ineffectively against the day light. It had been a good year, and even though there had not been an Atari VCS yet, I recall being satisfied with what our parents had given us. Mari's words, while difficult for my 11 year old mind to completely understand, had broken through. I had moved from disillusionment to mere disappointment. Jeff and I talked it over, and we decided that we would save any Christmas money we received (usually from relatives) until our birthday (in January) and see if we could afford an Atari VCS by then. It was a thin plan, but it gave us the illusion that we could control our own destiny, which was a comforting feeling.
So when the wrapped box the size of an Atari VCS was taken from its' hiding place behind the tree and was handed to Jeff and I to rip open, it came as an utter and complete surprise. As the wrapping came flying off, there it was in our hands, a real 'Atari Video Computer System' complete with Combat! cartridge, two joysticks, two paddles, TV switch-box and AC adapter.
Jeff and I were completely stunned.
Before we could even fathom how it had actually happened, Mari handed us the present she had bought for us. We opened it up to reveal the Breakout cartridge for the VCS. Mari was in on the plan all along. She had done a bit of convincing on her own to get my dad to buy the Atari VCS for us, and was instrumental in the process of getting it for us on Christmas morning 1981. My dad did his part by working some extra overtime at Hughes so he could afford the purchase. It was a rare moment when our family actually seemed to "work" the way I thought family should work. The fact that I was lucky enough to end up with an Atari VCS as the result is something I will never forget.
By the way, as it turned out, our Mom had not only 'got' our hints, but was concerned that we would not be sufficiently surprised on Christmas morning if they did indeed get us a VCS. She turned to Mari and had her try to throw us off the track. In the end, all of our twin scheming almost worked too well, and could have back-fired completely if my mom had decided that there would be no surprise.
For sake of this story I'd like to pretend that we had an idyllic Christmas day playing the Atari VCS, and enjoying family time over Combat! And Breakout, but I can't. In reality the VCS didn't work out of the box (the TV connection was broken), so we had to take it back to Gemco (of course) the next day to get a replacement. Since we were already out of the house, we spent our Christmas money on Asteroids, Activision Tennis and Activision Laser Blast, cartridges then took the haul home and played the Atari VCS all-day and into the night on December 26th and all the way through Sunday January 3rd, the day before went back to School It probably seemed like a complete waste of time to anyone from the outside, but to Jeff and I, it was pure bliss.
Mari played along with us most of the time too, which was cool, because we never really had anything at home prior that we all liked to do together. The Atari VCS helped created actual "family time" among siblings that never really existed in our house before that day. In the years that followed, Jeff and I and Mari formed camaraderie over video and computer games that has lasted until this Christmas. Even though she was 9 years older and wiser than us, the medium of the video game leveled the playing field so we could compete on equal footing, and helped create a an intangible sense of understanding between us that, while wavering in the ensuing decades, has never broken. Every year since, we have purchased each other at least one game for Christmas, and even though we don't have as much time to play them with each other as we used to, we are always with each other in spirit. This year I bought Mari (a female gamer at age 53) two PS2 games (Star Ocean and Kingdom Hearts 2). Jeff bought her some computer games, and Jeff and I bought each other the the recently released AtGames ColecoVision and Intellivision plug and play consoles. Our love of video games will never die.
On the other hand, our parents and our other sister Carol never really warmed-up to the Atari VCS like we hoped they would. I think my mom played Asteroids once, and my dad might have tried Combat! a couple times. Our sister Carol, 16 at the time, probably just said 'ewww, geeks' and ran away from it. I don't think they have ever understood what we liked about video games or what the VCS meant to us, and to be honest, I'm not sure I could really explain it to them if I tried.
All I know is this: My brother and I received an Atari VCS for Christmas in 1981, and it turned out to be one of the best Christmas surprises ever.
Note: A story about 'play'. Before LEGO, before Star Wars, before video games, there was just 'Little Mouse' and 'Big Mouse', the names my twin brother and I used to refer to one another while we played together. The origin of those chosen names is lost forever, but the memory of them is still resident. It was a time of few rules, few boundaries, and high adventure. We were 6 years old.
“Big Mouse and Little Mouse”
It was a summer afternoon in the mid- 1970’s. TV programming had morphed from morning game shows into midday soap operas which meant the time had arrived to find something else to do. Midday TV was a barren landscape for several hours until Loony Tunes fired up again at 3:30.
Until then, it was time to play outside.
I ran out of the house, my twin brother close behind me. The screen door slammed against the side of our Southern California bungalow. We never used the front-door. The door-knob was broken, and only the dead-bolt worked. The only people that ever came to the front-door were sales people, complaining neighbors, or in rare instances, the police, so we knew to be cautious when answering if someone knocked.
Right outside the side-door was our driveway. It extended 100 feet, crawling up a modest hill just off the street, then jetting back past the house, past our first backyard, and straight up to the detached garage.
My brother chased me out the door with his disc-shooter, a plastic gun bought a few days early from the Lucky’s supermarket toy aisle. It shot little round spinning discs of various colors at middling speed: small enough to hit you in the eye, but not fast enough to do any real lasting damage.
“211 In Progress Adam-12” my brother called out as he continued his pursuit of me.
I was armed with my plastic pellet gun, also from the grocery store. Instead of discs, it shot yellow BB sized rubber balls. They were not as reliable as the discs, but the ammo was cheaper, and fire rate a lot higher. My brother shot two discs my way. One missed completely, passing by me and into the enormous wave of ivy that separated our house from Mr. Poe’s house, lost forever. The second one was a direct hit, bouncing harmlessly off my t-shirt, hitting the faded, silkscreened motorcycle, just under the words “Do It In The Dirt”
I did not fire back. Instead, I ran to the front yard, and tucked myself behind the ivy covered front lamp post. As my brother ran past, I took a couple shots, one whizzed by his head, and the other dribbled out the front of my gun, harmlessly dropping to my feet below. My brother dove onto a dirt patch in the front yard, rolled over, and pulled the trigger of his disc gun. What should have been a decisive blow, misfired, the disc getting caught in the plastic mechanism.
“Wait, wait wait, unfair” he said, as he tried to unjam his weapon.
I aimed at him, and shot three more plastic pellets, one bounced off his head, and the others missed, hitting the dirt in the front yard. As he frantically tried to get his weapon back in working order, I took one more shot, but nothing came out. My gun jammed too.
“Let’s play Emergency!” I suggested.
We put our guns on the front porch, and made our way to the garage at the end of the driveway. The garage door was open, as always. I pulled my Radio Flyer mini red wagon out from its’ storage space next to my older sister’s green Schwinn with banana seat, and yanked the handle until it turned around and came out of the garage. I check the supplies in the wagon: piece of garden hose,metal fishing tackle box, walkie-talkie, hammer, saw, army helmet, and a plastic machine gun: all the things a good paramedic might need.
“I’ll crash the motorcycle” my brother said, as he got onto his orange, Sears catalogue bike. He pedaled it back down the driveway, and took a right turn when he reached the front yard, disappearing into the front of the house.
Within a few seconds I heard the cry.
I jumped into my wagon, grabbing the handle and pulling it back so I could steer. With one leg curled-up in the wagon, and the other outside, pushing against the driveway, Squad 51 raced to the scene of the accident.
I drove swiftly down the driveway with my siren blaring, until I reached the front yard. I turned onto the dirt patch in front of the lamp post. At that point I needed to switch to four-wheel drive, so I jumped out of the wagon, and pulled it across the lawn to the scene of the accident. When I arrived I assessed the damage. The orange bike was on-top of my brother, as he moaned for help.
“The motorcycle is on fire” I yelled as I took the hose from fire engine and turned it on full blast.
“shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” I made a spraying sound with my mouth as imaginary water doused the motorcycle blaze.
When the fire was out, I took a look at the causalities. I pulled the bike off my brother, and sat down next to him with tackle box in-hand.
“I have the first aid kit”, I said as I moved towards the victim, “what hurts?”
“My leg” my brother whispered to me, and he started to move it around. I pulled the walkie talkie out of the squad.
“Rampart, this is squad 51” I said into it.
“This is Rampart”, my brother responded in a deep voice as he still laid on the ground, “go ahead squad 51”
“Rampart, we have a male victim here, aged 6. His vital signs look okay, but his leg is a real mess”
“Copy that squad 51, stabilize the leg, administer an IV with D5W and transport as soon as possible” my brother said, in his best doctor voice.
I put walkie talkie down.
My brother sat-up.
“Okay, my turn to be Squad 51”
“Wait, let’s play motocross instead” I replied.
I ran back to the garage to get my bike, nearly identical to my brother’s. I jumped on and started riding back down the driveway into the street, then up to about even with Mr. Poe’s driveway, next door. Jeff followed me, and we locked our wheels into position in the middle of the street, about 100 feet up from our own driveway.
“The gate falls!” my brother yelled, and we both started peddling furiously, picking up speed with every turn of the little gears. I edged him out for the lead. I turned into our driveway first, but instead of riding straight, I hit it at an angle and went straight for a ½ buried tree root next to the top corner of the driveway. I pulled back the handle bars as the bike hit the root and the bike flew a foot or so in the air.
“I’m Evel Knievel!”
I landed on both wheels, with my brother just behind me. I turned sharply in the front-yard. Dirt spit all over the front porch as my wheels dug into the ground below.
My turn was too sharp. Instead of making the quick loop back towards the driveway, I got stuck, jackknifed near the little retaining wall that separated our yard from the neighbor’s driveway. My brother, who had made a much less ambitious jump, pedaled past me, turned onto the driveway and rode back towards the garage, crossing the earthquake crack finish line before I could untangle my bike and get out of the front yard.
We parked our bikes in the garage, and then I went and pulled Squad 51 back to garage as well.
“Into the space ship!,” my brother yelled.
We both jumped into the front of white milk delivery parked in our backyard, Parked is a kind word for how it sat. It had been there for years, and never moved. Because of rotted holes in the roof and its position sitting under canopy of our Chinese Elm tree, it was covered and filled with sticks and leaves. One back tire was missing. the others had long since deflated and began to give themselves back to the earth.
We both got into the cab, brushing aside clumps of leaves quickly enough to both clear the seats and not see what creatures might be hiding in them. I grabbed the steering wheel by it’s rotting hand grips,
“Rocket launch to space” my brother called from the co-pilots seat.
“We have ignition!”
In unison we both shot backwards in our seats. I twisted the steering wheel side to side in an attempt to steady our ship during flight.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhbrrrrrrrrrrshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhbrrrrrrrrrr” the negines roared.
“Have we left the atmosphere?” I asked my navigator.
“Close.. Oh no!! We are breaking up!! Crash landing!! Crash landing!”
“It’s time to jump” I instructed.
We both motioned to put on our parachutes, then got into position, holding onto the frame of the missing doors on each side of our ship.
The free-fall only lasted a fraction of second. When I hit the ground, I rolled into a pile of leaves, just missing a bundle of branches left from tree trimming a few days prior.
“Time to make an assault on this planet!” I yelled.
We grabbed our laser guns (red flashlights) and crept into the jungle planet behind our garage. This was an area our family had dubbed “the back back” as it was the second back-yard on our property. Situated behind the garage and attached mother-in-law unit, it was 20’ x 50’ wild area filled with giant stalks of bamboo with leaves that tasted like licorice, wild reams of jungle grasses, grown over attempts at gardening, plus old toys, logs, and rusted tools, long lost to the uncontrollable nature. My dad made a valiant attempt to tame it every summer, but the area always fought back with an untamable, ferocious vigor. In the desert climate South Bay beach town in which we resided, it looked and felt like another world.
I put my hand up to my mouth and talked into my radio.
“CRRRT”, I made the sound of radio being turned on with my mouth.
“Ok Big Mouse, let’s explore this place”
“CRRRT”, my brother responded, his hand up to his mouth, talking through his fingers.
“Little Mouse, I don’t see anything yet.”
At some early point in our lives as twins, my brother and I began calling each other “Big Mouse” and “Little Mouse”. The names did not connote to anything in the real world, not to our relative size, nor even especially to animals we liked. They were of unexplainable origins, and we used them while imagining games and new worlds together. For all I know, the nicknames went all the way back to the womb.
We crept through the stalks of of bamboo, holding our guns out in front of us, at the ready to fight any space monsters we might find.
“This could be the Plant Of The Apes” I whispered.
“I don’t know” Big mouse whispered back. That doesn’t look like an ape to me!”
He pointed toward a set of green eyes sitting in a round clump of wild grass.
An alien monster.
White Paw, one of our two cats, blinked her eyes back at us.
We flash our lasers at the beast.
“Keep firing!” Little Mouse called out.
We switched our flashlights on and off at White Paw until she had enough. She got up, stretched, and scampered further back into the wild brush.
“Alien threat destroyed” Big Mouse Said.
“Return to ship” Little Mouse replied.
We both stood up and carefully pushed our way back through the bamboo stalks, to the stairs that led back down, out of the back back. We passed by our space ship, but didn’t climb back inside.
“Let’s play Green Berets!” I called out!
We dropped our laser weapons in the red wagon, and pulled back to the garage staging area, to get ready for battle.
I took my machine gun out. Green plastic, with a motor inside that made a rattling noise when I pulled the trigger, My brother got his from the front of the garage. The soldiers were ready to do battle. We skulked our way down the driveway to the battle-lines in the front yard. I blazed the trail first, hiding behind lamp post near the front of the house. My squad-mate held his position behind the broken-down, red Rambler in the driveway, waiting for my hand-signal to show the coast was clear.
I peered out from behind the lamp to the enemy outpost across the street.
I motioned for my brother to come forward, as I shifted my position to just behind the right-most tree in the front-yard.
For safety, I pointed the barrel of my gun out first, my eyes not far behind. Across the asphalt river I saw what I was looking for. The enemy. My brother joined me behind the tree.
“Enemy spotted” I whispered to him.
We both looked around the tree at the same, so I could point out the targets in the distance.
“There!” I said as I pointed them out.
Across the street a 5th grade girl and her friend were sunning themselves on lawn chairs, wearing sunglasses, and reading magazines and sipping beverages from clear plastic cups.
I quietly nodded to my brother.
“Engage,” I whispered.
At once, my brother and I peppered the enemy with bullets. Imaginary tracers were followed by even more imaginary machine guns rounds. Ineffective, the rattling firing noise of the guns only alerted the enemy to our presence.
They both looked up from their magazines, stunned by the sudden sound of an ambush, but not able to pinpoint the source of the attack.
It took a couple minutes for them to notice the little boys firing at them from across the street, ruining their day in the sun.
“Oh gross”, one said, lobbing verbal grenade in our direction.
“What little nerds,” the other replied, dodging our barrage.
Then in unison, they both went back to their magazines and did not look up again.
We continued to fire, but our rounds could not penetrate their armor.
Time for cartoons.
Note: I've been writing these little stories on the internet for the better part of the last decade. Out of my entire close and extended family, only a very few have taken the time to read them. One of those people was my Uncle Richard. My mom's brother, he was the only uncle I ever knew. He was in the Navy in WWII, and worked as an engineer in the Silicon Valley almost since it's inception. He was also a pilot, and the father of 9 kids. Since my mom is not on the internet, every time he read one of my stories that he enjoyed, he would print it out and send it to her so she could read it offline. When I was growing up, my uncle was one of the few people in my life that shared my love of computers and technology. I loved the idea that my uncle was sitting in far away location, reading my stories, and enjoying them enough to actually print them out sand mail them to my family. Uncle Richard died this morning, at 4:30 AM This story, in particular was one of his favorites, so I'm reposting it in his honor today. Thanks Uncle Richard for all your love and support over the years. I was blessed to have known you. I will always believe that you are out there. somewhere, reading my little internet stories about growing up and technology. One day, I promise, you will feature in one of these stories yourself. I've already written it in my head, I just need to get it down on paper,
Part I: Mr. Hughes
In the fall of 1982 I started 7th grade at Foster A. Begg Jr. High School in Manhattan Beach California. My classes were Homeroom, Honors English. Pre-Algebra, Honors Science, Honors Social Science, Drama, Spanish 1, and P.E. My Schedule was stacked with very difficult classes, and historically, that would have been perfectly fine. I was a pretty good student all through elementary school, wracking-up good grades and a fistful of dollars my dad would pay for every 'A' on my report cards. As 7th grade started though, my outlook on life chnaged. Just 9 months before, at Christmas, my brother and I had received our Atari 2600 VCS. Then, instead of spending our free-time reading or watching baseball on TV, we were playing video games. We played a lot of video games. However, it was not just playing, we also spent a lot of time designing our own games on the graph paper my dad brought home from his job at Hughes Aircraft, and with BASIC language manuals we had borrowed from the Manhattan Heights Library. Where once I had found school to be the most thrilling thing I had ever experienced, the idea of playing and making video games had taken its place.
It was no wonder then, that my first couple months of 7th grade did not go very well. I was doing OK, but the hardest class for me was Spanish. For some reason, while the idea of learning a computer language like BASIC seemed like second-nature, the idea of learning a foreign language simply did not compute. It started off badly, as Mrs Boerman (no joke) told me my Spanish name was 'Esteban'. I could never spell it right, and always got -1 for spelling it 'Estebaun' on every paper I submitted.. Even more difficult for me though, were the every day words. Mrs. Boerman called on kids at random to name something in the room using Spanish instead of English. I was absolutely terrified of her calling on me, but I simply could not commit many of the words to memory. In fact, the only word I memorized was El Reloj which meant "clock", because I was always staring at the thing in class, begging for it to move a little faster before she called on me.
When our grades came out for the first quarter, I got A's in every class, except Spanish in which I received a "B-". It was the worst grade I ever received in any class (up to that point any way). The day after grades were handed out, I sat in my home room almost in tears, trying to figure out what to do. I simply did not like Spanish. There was no way I was going to do any better in the class, and the subject simply did not interest me at all. Mr. Hughes, my homeroom teacher noticed that I looked pretty sad, and asked me to see him before I left for first period. Mr. Hughes was a very quiet man who taught reading. I too stayed quiet, reading at a desk in the back because I was scared of the older kids in the room. He had never asked me to talk to him before, and my stomach fell as the first period bell rang, as I had no idea what he wanted to say to me. Mr. Hughes had a reputation of being "mean". I'd never seen it, but then I was never on the receiving end of any of his anger either.
"Steve, I noticed you look pretty upset today, what's up?", Mr. Hughes asked me as I slung my Wilderness Experience backpack over my shoulders in an attempt to to get out of the room as fast as possible.
"Umm,I err, I...I..I". I stuttered. I did that a lot in those days. Trying to get the words out of my mouth was sometimes the hardest thing in the world for me.
I tried again.
"Sp..Sp...Sp...Spanish" I finally blurted out, "i...i...i...it's too hard for me"
He looked at me for a second and then he looked down at the book I was holding, Computers For Kids - Atari, and back up at me and said "you know, Spanish is an elective. You don't have to take it. Let me find out if there is something else you can do that period"
"Oh...Oh...Oh Kay, great" I said back, and ran out the door to Drama class.
My response masked my complete and utter joy at the idea. I might be able to get out of Spanish! The idea was breathtaking. I spent the rest of the day in joyous daze. I could not wait another minute to hear what Mr. Hughes might have for me to do instead of Spanish class. The next day I nervously entered home room. I was hoping that Mr. Hughes had remembered what he was going to do, but I did not dare ask him. I propped up my Atari book and tried to concentrate on the basic programs inside, but it was very difficult to digest any of it. All I wanted to do was to hear what Mr. Hughes had to say. About 10 minutes before home room ended, Mr. Hughes called me up to his desk. This was it.
"I talked to Mr. Donalou..." he started.
Crap. Mr. Donalou was the Principal, I did not think it would have to that far.
"...he will call your mom call later today. He wants to speak with her.".
Crap crap. I had to wait the whole day again, and now for a call from the principal. My heart sank.
When I got home, my mom told me that she had indeed been called by the principal, and they had a discussion about Spanish class. She told me that Mrs. Boerman did not want me to leave class, and that there were no others elective classes I could take at that time. I'd have to wait until the end of the trimester, and then I could be a library aid. For now, the only thing I could do was be a teacher's aid for Mr. Hughes, or continue Spanish. I suppose they thought this would make me stick with Spanish, but they were wrong. I chose teacher's aid, and wanted to start immediately.
The next day I began my new job working in Mr. Hughes' class. He taught reading to 6th and 7th graders, and my job was to grade papers and quiz kids on the books they had read. Since we had read the same books the year before, the job was pretty easy for me. The only hard part was talking out loud, which I still feared like nothing else on earth and I found painfully difficult. However, I got to know Mr. Hughes pretty well in the next couple months. He always told me about the books he was reading, and he seemed interested in whatever I was reading myself (usually an Alfred Hitchcock And Three Investigators book, a Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Golden Treasury Of The Civil War, or a computer manual. Far from being the "mean" teacher of his reputation, I found him to be the type of teacher who loved to see kids light-up when they discovered the same things he discovered in the books he taught. The problem was, there were not too many of those at Foster A Begg in those years. I found him coming back to my aid's desk more and more often to talk about my books and what I thought of the 6th grade material. Over time I got pretty comfortable talking out loud because Mr. Hughes treated me like any other person. My stuttering and fear of speaking were not cured, but our conversations had gone a long way to prove to me that my ideas were worth speaking, and others might like to hear them.
When the first trimester was almost over, Mr. Hughes came to ask me about my plans for the upcoming trimester. I could stay as his aid, or work in the library. He told me he would look into some other possible options, but no matter what, I'd have to choose by the next day.
When I got home from school that day, my mom told me the school secretary had called. She said I needed to choose a new elective: teacher's aid, a Library aid or... Computer Lab aid.
I was shocked. Computer Lab Aid had never been discussed before. In fact,I had no idea what it was, but it sounded amazing.
My mom called the secretary back and told her that I wanted to be a Computer Lab aid.
It was exciting to think about. Even though I read books about computers, I did not have access to one. My friend down the street had one, but I rarely got to use it now that we were in Junior High and he was still in Elementary School. Having access to computers meant the possibility of programming one, which meant I might be able to some day get some of my game ideas up on the computer screen.
The next day in home room, Mr. Hughes was silent to me again for the first time in weeks. However, I read my Atari Basic book even more feverishly than ever. I had no idea what was in-store for me when I started my job in the computer lab, but I needed to prepare the only way I knew how, so I just kept reading and reading. A few minutes before first period, Mr. Hughes came back to my desk.
"So what are you going to do about your elective?" he asked.
"Umm...I'm going to help out in in the Computer Lab" I replied.
I looked up from my book, and I saw something on Mr. Hughes I had rarely seen before.
He always sported a stern, yet concerned, yet scholarly look. Not mean mind you, just serious, and it rarely formed into a smile.
"Good, I thought you might choose that" he said back to me, and then he turned and went back to his desk.
Part II: Computer Lab
A few days later, day, instead of going to Room 22 to help Mr. Hughes, I slipped down the Room 23 ( next door ), and walked into my future.
Inside this little room were about 10 Apple IIe computers, all humming away running Bank Street Writer. There were about several different women who helped in the Lab, while Mrs. Brown, a math teacher, ran it as the faculty administrator. I handed her my transfer paper, and told her that was supposed to be there.
"Of course you are!", she said with a wild flair. "This is our lab. We have a class set of Apple IIe computers (one for every 3 kids), and look at this over here, our new Apple Lisa!"
She pointed towards what looked like an IBM PC on a desk separated from all the other computers. One of the adult aids was fiddling with it, trying to get it to work.
"We are still setting it up" she told me, "Now, look over here, we are setting-up for a writing class."
Mrs. Brown showed me around to all the Apple IIe computers that were running Bank Street Writer.
"Your job today will be to help anyone who needs it when they are writing."
Crap. I'd have to fake it. I's never used Bank Street Writer before, and I guess someone had told Mrs Brown that I could help teach it to other kids. Looking around, I spied a laminated card on one of the desks that listed the key combos for doing thinks like saving, loading, bolding, etc. I picked it up and studied it. If I was going to be successful I'd have to learn quickly. I felt my hands sweat a bit around the card. I could not blow this job on the first day.
Soon, the Lab filled with 30 6th graders, all fighting to sit in front of a computer. The lesson that day was to write a few sentences and save them to a 5.25" floppy disk. I floated around the room with my laminated card, trying to be helpful. Most of the kids were too busy pushing each other out of their chairs to even try the writing program. I did manage to help a couple kids get their work saved, but for the most part it seemed like an unmitigated disaster. After the kids filed out, I was afraid of what Mrs. Brown was going to say to me. Did she think it was my fault that my younger peers were such idiots when it came to computers?
However, Mrs. Brown came back told me that I did great. "It was one of our better classes!" she told me.
The class period was still not over, so I sat at one of the Apple IIe computers and typed a few key presses into Bank Street Writer. Within a couple minutes I had several paragraphs written describing how difficult it is to teach 11 year olds computer skills. When the bell rang, I saved the file to a disk, cleared the screen, and got-up left for my next class.
The following day I walked to the computer lab wondering just what they would have me do. However, when I got there, Mrs. Brown was absent. I asked one of the other ladies, the one who was trying to get the Lisa to work the day before,what I should do. She just looked at me coldly and said something that sounded like: "not mess things up for me." I had no idea what she was talking about, but it was enough to get me to cocoon-up for the day. I sat down at one of the Apple IIe computers in the back and looked through the disk-box next to it. I filed through the floppy disks until I came to one that looked really intriguing: Sands Of Egypt. I put the disk into drive A: and rebooted the machine. Soon, the hi-res title screen for the game came-up, and I was playing a full-on adventure game on a computer in the middle of the school day. I'd never done anything like it before, but I did not want to stop. No one came back to talk to me that day, so I just kept traveling across the desert near Cairo until the bell rang, then I got-up and left.
For the rest of the week, Computer Lab was mostly the same as day #2. Mrs. Brown was not there, and the other ladies either ignored me, or like the mean one, treated me like I was stealing food from their mouths. At one point the mean one asked me to get a printer set-up on one of the computers. I had never done that before, however, there was chart on the wall that Mrs. Brown had created that explained how to do it, and I got it done quite quickly. This seemed to make the mean lady even meaner. When she wasn't in the back fiddling with the still dormant Lisa, she complained that I had done everything wrong. This sent me to the back of the room again, where that I spent most of the rest of the week playing Sands Of Egypt. It was OK though, I was so engrossed in the game, I pretty much shut everything else out.
Anyway, within a couple weeks, things started to settle down in the lab and I worked into a routine. When Mrs. Brown returned, I was back to helping out in classes, connecting printers, showing kids the key combos for Bank Street Writer, and avoiding the mean lady. In my spare time I played Sands Of Egypt, Murder On The Orient Express, and a couple other games that were squirreled away on the floppy disks in the back of the room. I slowly proved my worth to Mrs. Brown and some of the other ladies. I became very adept at getting software set-up, and helping in the classes. In my spare time, as well as playing the games, and I started programming in Apple Basic. Not huge programs mind you, but small things like text displays, math calculators, and anything that would provide a nice graphic effect that could be produced in the few minutes a day I had to work on a program.
In home room during that trimester, Mr. Hughes was uncommonly quiet, even for him. We still spoke a bit, but it seemed that now that I was not his aid, I was back to just being another kid in class. I did see him talking to Mrs. Brown a couple times, and once he stuck his head into the computer Lab to see what I was doing. but for the most part he disappeared. I was never quite sure if he was mad at me for abandoning him as his aid so I could play with computers every day. He was so quiet it was hard to tell.
Back in the computer lab, things were starting to settle down. I think the programming work I was doing sent the mean lady over the edge. One day she asked me to come over and look at a program she was loading onto the computers. It was LOGO, a programming language that used graphics instead of text, designed to teach kids computer skills. I hated it. It made no sense to me. I got it to work, but it was obvious that I did not care about, so I failed to learn it. However, since I could not get into it it, the mean lady held it over me for the rest of the year. "BASIC is a dead end" she would say to me, just out of Mrs. Brown's ear shot, "LOGO is the future."
Still, Mrs. Brown was impressed with my little programs. She started having me do more and more intricate work, and even told me that next year she wanted me to teach programming to some of the kids. As I continued into the 3rd trimester, the computer lab became my refuge. As long as I avoided the mean lady, I could play in a world on computers for 52 minutes a day. Without Spanish class dragging me down, I did pretty well in most of my other classes too. To stay as an aid you needed at least a B average, and I was pulling that down with no problems. By the end of the year I had the run of the place, and except for the still unusable Lisa, I could perform almost any task asked of me, and still manage to play games and program most of the time.
For all intents and purposes, The Computer Lab had become my favorite place in the world.
Part III: Cold Reset
On the last day of 7th grade, I came to home room with a box of Italian candy. Mr. Hughes wanted us to have a "food of the world" party for the last day of school. We needed to bring food from a country our ancestors had come from. Each of us put the food on our desk, and the other kids came around to sample everything. My Italian candy was not very popular, so I sat most of the time by myself with an almost full box in front of me. In the middle of the period, Mr. Hughes came back to talk to me. We had not spoken very much for months, ever since I stopped being his aid. I had chosen to think Mr. Hughes really did not try to be quiet towards me, that instead, without me helping in his class, there was just not time to talk about anything at length.
"How was Mrs Brown this year?" he asked me.
"Great! I loved it! I think I know what I want to do when I grow-up."
"What?", he replied laughing, "teach in the computer lab, or program computers?"
"Hmm. Both I suppose!" I laughed back at him.
"Steve, Next year, I'm going to get my own Apple IIe computer in this class. "
"Really?", I replied, genuinely surprised. I never knew that a regular classroom could have it's own computer.
"Sure!" he replied, with a bit of enthusiasm I had not witnessed since I was his teacher's aid. "We'll put it right back there next to the window" he said, pointing towards the back of the room.
"Start thinking of the stuff we can do with it, because it's going to be great!"
Mr. Hughes looked at me like he meant it and I could tell how much he wanted it to happen.
"Cool." I said back to him, trying stay calm even though it seemed really exciting.
Underneath it all, I was really happy because it seemed like Mr, Hughes was not mad at me after all. I always suspected that he might have had a hand in getting me the job as Computer Aid. He did seem to know Mrs. Brown pretty well , and now he was getting a computer in his room, so I knew he was interested himself. I left that day with high hopes for the next year and 8th grade.
Over the summer between 7th and 8th grade my brother Jeff and I worked very hard to convince my dad that we needed a computer of our own. We focused on an Atari 800xl, the shiny, sleek new entry to the Atari 8-bit line. We played a lot of video games too, including tons of games on the Vectrex we bought ourselves with money we made from selling a bunch of our Atari 2600 cartridges.
When the time had come to choose my elective for 8th grade, I instantly chose Computer Lab aid. Even though I felt guilty for not choosing Hr. Hughes class room aid again, the Computer Lab was where I really wanted to be. I knew he would understand. Furthermore, with the new computer in our home room class, I could help Mr. Hughes in the period too, and get almost double the computer time I had in 7th grade. Just the thought made me want to skip the summer and just start school right away.
However, when my class schedule arrived in the mail the week before school, I was shocked to see that my home room had been changed to room 3, Mrs Davis. I still had computer lab 3rd period, but I had no idea why I was not in Mr. Hughes' home room. Had he kicked me out? I had Mrs. Davis for 6th grade English class. She scared me in 6th grade,and the idea of her scared me again. On the first day of school I sheepishly entered her home room, and told her that I used to be in Mr. Hughes' home room class. Her usual stern demeanor changed for minute, and she softly welcomed me told me where to go sit-down. Mrs. Davis treated me that way for the first few weeks. At the time I never really understood why, but I just went with it. I questioned a couple of the other kids that had been in my home room with Mr. Hughes, but none of hem knew why they were not in his class any more either. In fact most of them were quite happy to be in other rooms. To be honest, Mr. Hughes was not terribly popular teacher at Foster A Begg Junior High. It was probably the reason we got long so well in the first place, but it should have been clear to me why not many people cared about the change.
While home room was confusing, Computer Lab with Mrs Brown started better than the prior year. The mean woman was still there, but I had more free reign to do what I wanted while being an aid. Even better though, a new wrinkle had been added. A Company named Pertech had decided to donate a set of 24 high-end CPM workstations to our school. By the second trimester they would arrive, and it would be our job to explore them and make them work.
Still, I could not help wondering why I was not in Mr. Hughes' home room. A couple weeks into the school year, I decided to go ask him. Instead of going to room 23 immediately for 3rd period, I decided to visit him in room 22. However, the door was locked. It suddenly occurred to me Mr. Hughes did not kick me out of his home room at all, Mr. Hughes was not working at our school any more. I have no idea why I had not figured that out before, but I just had not even considered the possibility. I asked Mrs. Brown about him, but she only mumbled something I could not hear, and told me that I needed to load LOGO on a couple computers for a class the next period.
A few weeks later, there was an announcement in the daily school bulletin that there would be a memorial service during 3rd period. It said that any student who had known Mr. Hughes could come and say goodbye.
I never made it to the service. I found out later that Mr. Hughes had died of cancer over the summer. The same summer that I had spent dreaming about getting a new Atari Computer for Christmas, he probably had spent dreaming about how to keep on living just one more day.
I was not mad at Mr. Hughes for not telling me he was sick. In fact, I had no idea what to feel about him. I suppose I should have been sad, but I wasn't. I was just numb. It took about 25 years for me to really understand what he meant to me as teacher. Years later, as I recounted this story in my mind, I realized that Mr. Hughes was the first teacher (and also one of the last) who actually cared about me as an individual as well as a student. He helped me get my start in computers by supporting my interest in them, even though he never got the chance to have one of his own. Actually, in a way, he did get a computer of his own... 24 to be exact. When the Pertech workstations arrived later that year, the only classroom available to house them was Room 22, Mr. Hughes' old classroom. Instead of one Apple IIe, Mr. Hughes received 24 of the best looking computers I had ever seen. He never got to see them in action, but I like to think he smiled the day they were wheeled into his old class room.
Sometimes, when it's quiet, and I'm working on some web site, program, or game, my mind slips back to the final day of 7th grade, and my conversation with Mr. Hughes. I remember the look in his eyes when he told me about his computer plans, and what would happen the next year. It's an image in my mind that I can't shake, nor do I want to. Often, it occurs to me that those were not real plans at all, but the dreams of a man who knew his time was limited and they could never possibly come true. He must have known he was sick already, and he told me about his computer dreams for a reason. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Hughes handed me those dreams on that day in room 22, hopefully knowing that I'd keep them safe, that I was one kid who could steward them them into reality. Later that year I did get my first computer of my own and it launched my life as a computer nerd, an Atari Nerd, that still lasts to this day. I like to imagine that the thought of my eventual success in the computer field put another rare smile Mr. Hughes' face, and that he knew that a simple act as teacher, like maybe helping getting a student into Computer lab as an aid, changed that very kid's future, and set him on a path to success for the rest of his life.
I was 9 years old when I first touched the keyboard of an Apple II computer. It was 1979, and I was visiting my friend Eric's house. Eric's dad was a computer engineer at Hughes Aircraft, and he was the first person I ever knew who owned his own computer.
Eric, my twin brother Jeff, and I all gathered around the machine, and using some simple commands Eric's dad taught us, we created our first programs. All were based on the PRINT command.
First we printed something once.
10 PRINT "HELLO"
This seemed very logical to me. We asked the computer to do something, and it responded in kind.Next, using a loop with a GOTO Eric's dad showed us, we printed the same thing dozens of times until we broke out of the program. It was amazing. We had done the work of dozens of single commands with just 2 lines code. I was fascinated by this efficiency and the way the machine responded to a concise set of numbered commands.
10 PRINT "HELLO"
20 GOTO 10
We continued to play around with printing and discovered that you could concatenate strings with a semi-colon, which led to interesting scrolling and text effects.
10 PRINT "HELLO";
20 GOTO 10
One thing we all noticed with this program was just how slow the text was printed to the screen in Applesoft BASIC. As we watched the text scroll up the monitor, one of us had an idea. The exact person who thought of this idea has been lost to time, but all of us remember the output vividly: if text scrolled up the screen so slowly, we could use limitation to our advantage. By chaining many PRINT commands together, we could "launch" ASCII designed rockets up the screen every time we ran our BASIC program.
This was a revelation to us. It meant that with a few simple commands, we could make something we designed come to life.
And so that is what we did. For hours. For days. For weeks. We sat and wrote lines of PRINT statements to create rockets like this one:
10 PRINT ""
20 PRINT ""
30 PRINT ""
40 PRINT ""
50 PRINT ""
60 PRINT ""
70 PRINT ""
80 PRINT ""
90 PRINT ""
100 PRINT " ^"
110 PRINT " / \"
120 PRINT " / \"
130 PRINT " / \"
140 PRINT " / \"
160 PRINT " |_______|"
170 PRINT " | |"
180 PRINT " | |"
190 PRINT " | |"
200 PRINT " | |"
210 PRINT " | U |"
220 PRINT " | S |"
230 PRINT " | A |"
240 PRINT " | |"
250 PRINT " | |"
260 PRINT " | |"
270 PRINT " | |"
280 PRINT " | |"
290 PRINT " | |"
300 PRINT " | |"
310 PRINT " | |"
320 PRINT " | |"
330 PRINT " /|||||||||\"
340 PRINT " |||||||||||"
350 PRINT " | |"
360 PRINT " | |"
360 PRINT " | |"
380 PRINT " | |"
390 PRINT " | |"
400 PRINT " | |"
410 PRINT " | |"
420 PRINT " | |"
430 PRINT " |||||||||||"
440 PRINT " | |"
450 PRINT " | |"
460 PRINT " | |"
470 PRINT " | |"
480 PRINT " | |"
490 PRINT " /-----------\"
500 PRINT " ///////|\\\\\\\"
510 PRINT " ////////|\\\\\\\\"
520 PRINT " |||||||||||||||||"
530 PRINT " /-----------------\"
540 PRINT " |||||||||||||||||||"
When we tryped "RUN" rocket text would print in succession. Since the update was so slow, each line printed one at a time, and scrolled up, making it appear like the rocket was shooting up the screen, and disappearing off the top of the monitor. As time went on, our rocket designs got longer and longer and more and more eleborate, and each time we typed "RUN" we watched our creations crawl up the screen and disappear back into the 8-bit universe from which it came.
It was the right place at the right time. If I was any younger, I would not have understood what I was doing If I was any older, I would have probably questioned and complained about the speed of the display refresh, instead embracing it as part of fabric of the universe in which were were creating our worlds.
Since that day, I've written more lines of code than I can count, and worked on 100's of games and applications. However, I've never fogotten those rockets, or how it made me feel when we created and then "launched" them. For me, ceating these rockets in BASIC was a nuanced experience that cannot be exactingly recreated. Doing so would require a mix of technology, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and personal naivete that existed at one exact moment, in 1979, and has been lost over the decades.
But the affect of them lives on.
Those simple programs were the jumping off point for a life of wonder and amazement I made for myself, by sitting down behind a keyboard and typing out the ideas in my head. I may be terrible at making music, and even worse at drawing pictures, but with code I feel I have the power to weave tapestries and create realities. Many times now, when I compile my code, have a clean build, and run my project, I feel like that 9 year old boy again. I feel that same charge of excitment, and the same thrill of accomplishment I felt back in 1979, after typing in some code, typing RUN, and watching the magic of BASIC unfold before my eyes, inching up the screen, one line at a time.
My “Lost Age Of The The Pizza Parlour” Gets An Honorable Mention in 43rd Annual Easy Reader Essay Contest
A re-written version of my old 8bitrocket.com Eassy "The Lost Age Of The Pizza Parlour" was chosen as one of several "Honorbale Mentions" in the 43rd Annual Easy Reader Essay contest. Now titled "Pleasures Of The Pizza Parlour", you can read the new version here : http://www.easyreadernews.com/73558/pleasures-of-the-pizza-parlor-el-porto/ -8bitsteve
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.