Posted on June 24, 2017
Not too long ago I had a sudden realization.
I don’t just need the games I had with my Atari VCS from 1981-1984.
I need the console too.
I’ve written about my brother and my quest for VCS before (1981 Atari VCS Christmas). The story is long and involved, and covers the (totally true) machinations my brother and I concocted to get our Luddite parents to buy us a video game console. However (spoiler-alert), in the end, while our “plan” nearly ruins Christmas, it also ends-up with us getting VCS anyway.
Here is an excerpt:
“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 (my suiter) 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. “
Now, I don’t necessarily think this story is special or different than the stories from other kids who wanted Atari VCS systems at the time. In fact, I think it’s indicative of Gen X kids dealing with their Greatest Generation parents: the constant consumerism of our youth, clashed with the Depression-Era frugality if theirs.
But the fact is evident: if I’m going to complete a quest to replicate the Atari VCS of my youth, I have to include the console. The problem is, it’s not clear which console we received on Christmas morning in 1981. There were several version of Atari VCS consoles released in it’s life, and not all of them are created equal.
For vintage Atari collectors, the “holy grail” is what is known as the “Heavy Sixer”. It was the original VCS console released in 1977. Collector’s are keen on this version because it’s akin to a “first edition”. It has six front-panel switches, and a manufacturing tag on the bottom that says it was made in Sunnyvale, CA. This unit is heavier than the ones that came after, I believe, because it had extra shielding to help pass initial FCC RF testing. Finding a CIB (complete in box) Heavy Sixer is very difficult, and can be very costly.
Along with the “Heavy Sixer” there are Atari VCS game cartridges known as “gatefolds”. They are similar to the “gatefold” sleeves you find in the record collecting hobby. The original nine Atari VCS games come in gatefold versions. (Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat!, Indy 500, Starship, Street Racer, Surround and Video Olympics). CIB gatefold game cartridge is many times more expensive than non-gatefolds, for the same reason the “heavy sixer” is more expensive than the other Atari VCS console: people want them more because they came first and are pretty rare.
The next console, released in 1978 is known as the “Light Sixer”. It has six front-panel switches, just like the “Heavy Sixer”, but is lighter, and was made on Hong Kong. From what I gather, this unit is like the “fool’s gold” of Atari collecting. People who are not aware, think they have a “Heavy” version, when it’s really a “Light”. Sometimes “Light Sixers” are priced like “Heavy Sixers” on eBay, and it behooves buyers to ask a lot of questions and see photos before they purchase on thinking it’s the original console.
For me, discovering the difference between “Heavy Sixers” and “Light Sixer” and “gatefolds” and non “gatefold” cartridges brought back a lot of memories. The first story I wrote for this site about my love for the Atari VCS, back in 2007, was named First Communion. It was about my brother and I discovering Atari in 1978 while attending CCD classes with a girl who lived up the street. Lori had a “heavy sixer” and all of her games were in “gatefolds”. Here is an excerpt from that story:
“Lori had ‘2XL’, an early talking robot learning toy that used 8-track tapes to simulate choices made by the user. She had all manner of handheld electronic games from Tiger and Mattel, plus her own TV set and radio. However the thing that made us never want to leave her house was the wood-paneled, ‘heavy sixer’ Atari 2600 VCS her mom bought it for Christmas 1977, the first year it was available. Along with the 2600, her mom bought her every game at the store: ‘Combat’, ‘Air Sea Battle’, ‘Basic Math’, ‘Blackjack’, ‘Indy 500’, ‘Surround’, ‘Video Olympics’ and even ‘Star Ship’. “
But while I have an interest in the “sixer” consoles, I never owned one. I played the sh*t out of Lori’s, and also the one at the local Fedmart, but it’s not the console I want to have if I am to complete my quest. That console, it turns out is from 1980. I discovered this on, of all places, Facebook.
Several weeks ago I asked a question on the AtariAge Facebook page, about what console would have been mass produced in 1981. After a friendly, long, and in-depth, conversation (that you can read to the left) , I discovered the console I “need” is the CX2600A, first manufactured in 1980. There were later consoles, like the all-black Atari 2600, which is nicknamed the “Darth Vader”, and the Tramiel Era “Atari 2600 Jr.”, but the less said about that the better. I now know I need to get the exact console that I first hooked-up to my parent’s TV in 1981, on December 26th. I’d consider anything less, a failure.
What I own now is not a CX2600A. I own a a 1988 vintage Atari 7800 with a reproduction CX-40 Joystick. There is no expansion slot (the first Atari 7800 consoles sold in late 1984 had an expansion slot on the left side), so I know it’s from the late 80’s “Tramiel” era of Atari. This also means that there might be some compatibility problems with the console, including not working with the Arcadia Supercharger. If I’m going to be serious about this Atari Quest, it’s obvious that I will need the proper, 1980 CX2600A version, or I will not be doing this right.
The console has now been added to my quest. I’m not sure I can even afford a CIB CX2600A, but, at any rate, it will be stretch goal for me.
I have not gone shopping for Atari carts in several weeks now, as I have been concentrating most of my time on the “Never Let The First Die” Alarm Podcast, but I will pick it all up again very soon. Along with my love for 80’s new wave, The “Atari fire” still burns in me too…
Color Coding Key:Current Quest Status (As Of 6/24/2017)
X = No copy of any kind
X = Copy has some issues (loose, back condition)
X = Acceptable , but might not be correct version
X = Exact right version from pre-crash era
Posted on June 17, 2017
The full story in written form is below:
A Moment Near Aspen Grove
We were on our way to Aspen Grove, a small campground in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a high elevation desert landscape in Northern California. The campground was near Mono Lake, where Clint Eastwood filmed my dad’s favorite movie, High Plains Drifter. It was also close to Bodie, one of the the largest still-standing ghost towns in the Gold Country, where the California Gold Rush began in the 1840’s. My dad loved these types of things the most: history, cowboys, treasure maps, and beauty of the desert wildlife.
“I’m called to these places” he told us over and over.
When the call came, his boys, my brother and I, dutifully joined him on his adventures.
As we drove the last 100 miles or so to our destination, my dad stuck a cassette in the car tape player: Luciano Pavarotti. My dad listened only three cassettes: Pavarotti, Julio Iglesias, and Laura Branigan. On these long trips to the Gold Country, my brother Jeff and I swapped seats half way through the 8 hour drive. The good half was spent in solitude, in the back, in the camper, reading computer magazines and listening to The Alarm, The Smithereens, or Soul Asylum on a Walkman. The front seat was for sitting up, helping navigate and listening to my dad’s three tapes.
My brother and I took these trips with my dad once a year. Dad would would spend months planning the route, the location, the camp sites, and where we would search for treasure or artifacts. His hunger for an adventure was fed by his boredom from his day job working on government contracts at Hughes Aircraft. He talked often about boredom, and encouraged my brother and I to find a way to fight it when we grew older. However, my dad’s need for adventure was matched only by my desire to forget about school and work and disappear for a few days in the wilderness. The destinations were interesting, but the car trips there and back were unbearably long and, ironically given my dad’s quest to alleviate it, boring as all hell.
While in the front seat on a long drive, conversations with my father were pained and strained, and filled with uncomfortable silence. He could not hear well in his right ear, and that happened to be the ear that pointed towards the passenger seat I sat in. At home, I could enter his room, sit at the foot of his bed, and capture his attention long enough to strike-up a conversation about one of his passions. This was the best way to talk to my dad : on his turf, discussing his stuff. Our conversations ranged from JFK Assassination theories, to Civil War battle lore, from Kevin Costner movies, to the mysterious reasons I had not yet graduated from college.
So for me, it was four hours in the front seat, virtually alone, looking at miles and miles of empty desert, listening to the three tapes my dad allowed in his truck. Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with Pavarotti, or Iglesias, or really, even Laura Branigan. It’s just that I had no connection to them other than the fact that my dad liked them. I liked my own music, and my own stuff, and I wanted to listen to it as we drove to our destination.
A little past the midway point on interstate 395, we stopped in the town of Lone Pine, on our way up towards to Mono Lake. Lone Pine was unique in that a local geographical feature named The Alabama Hills was used as the filming location for 100’s of movies and TV shows. My dad’s favorite movie from his childhood, Gunga Din, was filmed there. We did not need gas or food at that point in the trip, but my dad usually made some kind of excuse to stop in Lone Pine. I theorized that it was to feel the “vibes” of the area, an expression he used often to describe when he was making a soulful connection to the world around him. I was as suspect of the concept then, as I am curious of it now.
Stuck in my own world, I took the stop as my chance to switch tapes on my dad. When he was out pumping a few gallons of unnecessary gas, I slipped something into the tape player I thought he might like. I’d never tried to play him The Alarm for him before that time. He must have heard them being played in my bedroom 1000’s of times, but he never mentioned it, and neither did I. They were an 80’s band inspired by punk and and Woodie Guthrie. They played mostly acoustic guitars and harmonicas at a lightning pace and sang about hope and social justice. However, if you did not listen closely, they sounded a bit like cowboys belting out vaguely patriotic rock, which I thought my dad might appreciate, at least on the surface.
As our Toyota pickup with the Lance camper on the back rolled out of the Lone Pine Exxon station, the first strums of Absolute Reality (acoustic version) came out of the stereo. I chose this song because:
1: It was up-tempo, but acoustic,
2: I liked it,
3: It was the first song on the tape.
At Lone Pine became a small spot in the rear-view mirror, I nervously listened to the song play, trying not to look at my dad’s reaction. At first, he said nothing. I took this as a good sign. Then after a couple minutes he started in.
“I do not like his voice” he said.
My dad was referring to Mike Peters, the lead vocalist for The Alarm. While no one could confuse Mike Peters with Luciano Pavarotti, I liked his vocals abilities very much. He had a warm, hard tinge to his voice, almost raspy, but not quite a growl. He did not scream like a punk singer, nor did he have a fey falsetto like many of his new wave contemporaries. His voice was right in the middle. and he sang his songs like he meant them, and he wanted you, the listener to understand that he meant them. It was a genuine sort of earnestness that I could then and still now, completely identify with.
However, my dad saying “I do not like his voice” translated to “turn it off”, and so I did.
The truth was, my dad’s interests and opinions dominated much of my life. While my mom kept very quiet about her beliefs (besides carting us to Catholic church as often as we would allow), my dad was very outspoken about what he thought about the world around us, and it had a huge affect on my life. Long before I formed my own alternative opinions, his right-wing politics became my own. He only ate organic food and avoided wheat, dairy and sugar, so the diet in our house was formed along those lines. The movies he liked were the movies I watched. He liked model trains and stamp collecting, so I did too . He liked the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Dallas Cowboys and rooting for the “underdog”, and I was inclined to go along with him. He liked backroads, ghost towns, and looking for things that helped him connect with the past, and he taught me to like those things as well. This was not necessarily bad thing mind you, but it also left little “space” for differing opinions or ideas in our family dynamic.
This lack of “space” had a physical manifestation as well. We were a family of six sharing a tiny house with one bathroom. My brother and I shared a 10 x 10 room for 24 years together, piled on top of each other as we grew from 20” long, 3.5lb twins, into 6’ tall, 165lb college students. My dad talked often about adding onto the house so we would have more room, but it never happened. As he got older, his own hobbies sucked away most of the disposable income in our household, and that became his priority. By the time I was a teenager, I was still sleeping on the same “bed” he made for me when I was three years old” : a piece of old styrofoam laid over a wood board, and our bathroom had a huge hole rotting hole in the floor. However, his bedroom drawers were filled with the priceless Civil War artifacts he collected, hidden away for eternity.
Funny though, if you give a kid a little space he will still run with it. My brother and I filled our tiny slice of personal area with things that were totally our own that we bought with our own money from jobs at: the public library (me), a record store (my brother). Posters of bands, records tapes and CDs, books and magazines about music, a guitar and amp, a tv, a stereo system, all manner of videogame and computer consoles, disks, cartridges and games, plus a rotating stash of candy my dad never knew existed, but we feared he would one-day uncover. These were all things that I could call my own, and the one thing that stood above them all was the rock band that caught my attention when I was 13, and had been my saving grace for my childhood: The Alarm
The Alarm was one of the few things in the world I had discovered myself. My older sisters had not introduced me to them, my mom had not sent me to a class to learn about them, and my dad had not played them for me. I was the one who saw their video on Video 1 with Richard Blade in 1983, I was the one who spent my Confirmation money on their first album Declaration in 1984, and I was the one who listened to it every single night in 8th grade on an old tape recorder and giant headphones. They were my band, and I kept on following them even after my fickle school friends grew-up and moved on to other things. I collected the all records, and when there was nothing else to buy,I collected the live tapes, and then the press releases, and posters and t-shirts, and anything else I could find that would solidify The Alarm as my band, something I discovered myself.
But in the cab of the truck, on our way to Aspen Grove, things were different. My dad’s presence was overwhelming. This was his space, and I was just visiting, I admired him very much for not being a fence-sitter. He had strong beliefs, and even if I had grown out and away from most of them, I did not necessarily want him to change himself. He had come to his conclusions by living his own life in his way. He was also not debatable. If he did not like the song, it was time for something else.
I put his Laura Brannigan tape in, and we listened for a while. All the way past the site of the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp, and through the town of Independence, Brannigan sang her sweet, energetic pop songs. I let the tape run out, and then inserted another cassette with The Alarm on it. We were just outside of Big Pine when The Alarm E.P. made it past the leader and first few notes of The Stand started to play out of the speakers in the cab of the Toyota.
The Alarm E.P. might be my favorite record ever recorded. It was five slices of what made The Alarm great, and what made them stand-out among their contemporaries. On that record, they sounded like no other band that came before or after. The sound was at once punk and pop and folk played with carefully crafted, wild abandon. It combined harmonicas, barnstorm stomping, electrified acoustic strumming, military style snare drumming, and hoops and hollers into a mix that defied description. If I had to find one, it might have been the Battle Of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand, if it was thrown into a blender and set to music. To me, the sound was imperfect, organic and life affirming. The minute I first heard it back in 1983, I knew I had found a missing part of my soul, raggedly shoved into place, and for the first time in my life, I felt like whole person.
However, that was my own reaction. My dad’s was something else entirely. As we continued on our journey, and the spirited glory of The Alarm’s music spilled out of the tape player, I waited for a clue to his inner thoughts. As The Stand led into Across The Border he spoke.
“I do not understand this music you and and your sisters like. It’s too fast. It has no melody. “
My dad’s thoughts were now on record.
I stopped the cassette and took it out. Nervous and frustrated, I fumbled a bit putting it back into its’ case. I opened Julio Iglesias and put it on instead
At least there was a tenuous connection to The Alarm with Julio. The image of Alarm guitarist Dave Sharp wearing a Julio Iglesias t-shirt in the Strength tour program from 1986 was burnt into my brain. I’d spent countless hours in the 80’s laying on my bed, leafing through it, listening to various Alarm albums and and wishing a tour would come through our town.
To me, the “image” and images of The Alarm were almost as important as their music: western outfits, red exploding poppies, religious symbols, massive guitar arm swings, and mile-high electric-shock hair, just to name a few. When I was 14 years old in 1984. starving for meaning and belonging, I ate that stuff up. The Alarm’s identity became my identity. Always an outsider looking in, I wanted to live in world where The Alarm was the biggest, most important thing going, and the messages from their music (interpreted, perceived or otherwise) were understood and enjoyed by everyone equally. By aligning with The Alarm I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. This was my secret frame of reference. It was perspective I wore like shield to help me through high school and beyond.
Julio Eglesias serenaded all the women he loved before in the front of the pick-up as we approached Bishop, CA, on the i395. As we drove, the amazing scenery shot-by at 75 MPH. To the East was the parched dry lake of the Owens River Valley, its’ river-fed life-blood diverted to water the suburban lawns of Los Angeles 100’s of miles to the south. To the west were the high rocky peaks of the Sierras, once an impassable obstacle to Manifest Destiny, now a virtual playground dotted with ski resorts and hiking trails. This part of Northern California, with its’ ties to history and wide-open spaces, had become a place of refuge for suburbanites. People like my dad, who worked tough modern jobs with little reward, building important, government contracted, secret machines all year-long just so they could come here and spend a few days pretending that the industrial progress of their employ had never occurred in the first place.
Whether he or I liked it or not, my dad’s job in the defense industry gave me a relatively comfortable life. Weird and tumultuous at times, sometimes dangling just a few notches above the poverty line, but still safe. On the other hand my dad’s upbringing was anything but. He did not talk about it much, but it was trips like the one to Aspen Grove when he would let his guard down, and tell my brother and I the secrets of his past. They came in snatches of anecdotes, instead of long-winded stories. Among shaggy dog jokes and penny poker games lit by a camp fire, we heard tales of his own father’s violent anger, of being sent away from his parents to live on co-op farm when he was four years old, about trying to make ends meet in the great depression, about fighting in World War II, working in coal mines, getting robbed in San Francisco, and trying to make-it as a TV actor in the 50’s. There was nothing romantic or reverent about the way he told these stories. They all had a twinge of pain, guilt and lessons learned. I hung on these stories throughout my childhood, trying to piece them together to understand who my father really was as a person.
If the moments I had to understand my father were few, the moments I had to earn my his respect and approval were even fewer. In many ways, I always felt like I let him down. For every soccer goal I scored for him as a coach, there was a flubbed tackled of missed pass that he seemed to remember more fondly. My dad loved to ride motorcycles, but I was never very good at it. My dad loved to shoot guns, but I never had any proclivity for it. I did share a love of the outdoors and hiking and camping with him, however, that was just THE START for my dad. A vacation trip like the one to Aspen Grove was not for idle camping and hiking. We were there for business. We were there to look for treasure, discover artifacts, feel “vibes”, and prospect for gold. Vacations with my dad were work. The “real” work he wanted to be doing instead of his drafting table prison sentence 400 miles to the south. Like I said, he planned this trips for an entire year. He was desperate to break the monotony of his life with some kind of adventure. He wanted us to get up early, dig some dirt, pan for gold, dig more dirt, get wet, get dirty, and then dig some more. I have to admit, it was fun, at least for a little while. A couple days maybe, but not for a week or two. My brother and I worked so hard at school and our part time jobs, we just wanted to rest on vacation, read some books and magazines. That’s all I really wanted to discover: some peace and rest. My dad though, had other ideas. Deep into the second ½ of his life, I figured he was searching for meaning the only way he could manage: on vacation from work, two weeks a year.
We would be at our destination within an hour and I still I really wanted my dad to like The Alarm. I wanted him to like something that I liked. I wanted him to understand who I was. I had tried to understand him by watching Clint Eastwood westerns with him, by reading his conspiracy theories, sampling his politics, and by attempting to enjoy his past times. Now I just wanted to find one thing of my own that he would accept as legitimate.
I may have still considered The Alarm mine, but by time were were on that road to Aspen Grove in 90’s, they had long since broken-up. The Alarm music that most inspired me came from their “rough around the edges” period in the early 80’s. Back then, they were a punk inspired new-wave band with a lot of interesting things to say, and a lot of interesting ways to say it. They helped tear down the walls of album oriented rock in an era before the term “alternative” was ever coined. However, as they progressed through the years and became better musicians, with a more refined sound, the edge to their music, the part I most identified with, disappeared. When punk broke again with Nirvana in 1991, they found themselves as part of the establishment being torn down, on the other side of the “alternative”. They broke-up soon after, and left a huge rift in my own personal musical landscape that I have never quite filled since.
So, at that moment, I decided to pull out all the stops. I found my absolute favorite song by The Alarm from their Strength album, The song I knew would be my last, best, chance to get my dad to understand why I liked them so much. I had held it back, because I wanted to have some ammo to fight future front-seat battles, but with time running out, it was now or never.
I cued it up, and it started to play.
The mournful harmonica opening of Spirit Of ‘76 came out of the tinny Toyota speakers. My dad said nothing, but I saw one of his eyes open wide. He used to play his harmonica for us when we were little kids. He was quite good at it, and I knew he loved the sound of the instrument.
Then the vocals came in, some of the best sung vocals The Alarm ever produced.
Well I find myself in reverie
bout what we might have had
And what might have been
We had something going once
That was such a long, long time ago
I could see in his cold, blue steel, eyes, the lyrics were taking him back to someplace only he knew in his head. I watched and waited. As each note passed, I realized I might have found the right song. I might have just imagined it, but at the moment think I saw a smile start to crawl across his face. His head nodded. I’m pretty sure he nodded anyway.
He liked it. I liked it too. No words were exchanged between us, but something had happened.
It was way back in 76
Our friendship formed of pure innocence
We first met in mathew street
Where we heard something that would set us free
A sign stands over a door, it says
“four lads who shook the world”
In the depths of those heady nights
We would dream of those bright lights
Oh my friend, oh my friend, oh my friend
And then the song changed. The slow part broke into crashing guitars and a rock beat. My dad fell back to his every day poker face as quickly as it had lit-up when Spirit Of ‘76 started. He did not say anything, but he did not have to. This part of the song was not his part. This was the music of my sisters, the music I liked, the music he did not understand. I self-consciously listened to the rest of the song. I did not want it to be over. I was hoping to see his face light-up again, and I waited for it. When he did light up once more, it was during the bridge when the song slows down for a few contemplative seconds.
Mersey lights shine in the distance
Same as they did for us then
Mersey lights shine bright in the distance
Where are you now my friend?
With those few lines, I could see relevance to the lyrics and music in my dad’s eyes. I could have imagined it, but to this day, I believe it was there. It seemed that I had finally found one moment in a song that was worth the effort of trying to play music for my dad. At that instant, I wanted the song last forever, so I could stay in this place I had discovered, a place where I believed my dad and I truly shared something in common. A place where I had found something of my own, something I discovered on my own, that my dad then discovered he liked just as much as I did.
When the song finally ended, I took the cassette tape out and turned off the radio. We were just passing the turn-off to the 120 at Lee Vining. We were near Aspen Grove. We would be at our camp site in minutes. We sat quietly the rest of the way.
We drove into the Aspen Grove campground, and found a nice site by the river. We all loved camping next to a river. The sound of rushing water was the most soothing thing I could imagine. We made camp, and made a fire. We cooked hot dogs and marshmallows, and listened to the “music of the rushing water” (the way my dad so perfectly described it ) as we played poker for pennies in the dying light of day. Later in the trip we did all the things my dad loved: fished for trout we threw back into the river, used metal detectors to (never) find buried treasure, explored old dirt roads looking for ghost town sites, and shot cans and bottles with hollow point bullets from a 45 automatic.
When we drove back home a week later, I had my four hours in the front seat to kill, but I never directly tried to play my dad The Alarm again. Not on that trip, or any other. Instead, I lived in reverie, recall a single moment, real or imagined, when I chose to believe that we both enjoyed the same music at the same time for the same reasons.
And what I would give today, to have just one more trip to the gold country, with my dad, sitting in the cab of his truck, navigating the i395, while negotiating our relationship. But at least I have that moment.
That is one moment I still hold dear to this day. A moment when I so badly needed to make a connection with man who I knew as my father, at that point, for 23 years but never really knew as person. A moment in the cab of 1-ton Toyota pickup truck hauling a Lance camper with my brother inside, speeding down a highway towards a middle-class refuge. A moment that occurred only once in my life, near a small campground in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a high elevation desert landscape in Northern California.
A moment near Aspen Grove.
Posted on June 16, 2017
Chris Crawford recently highlighted a “cleaned-up” version of his famous, game industry-defining “Dragon Speech” from GDC 1992. In this speech, Chris Crawford explained his dream of of true “interactivity” and how the game industry and he had parted-ways. While he was almost universally rejected at the time, in an era of machine learning, A.I. chatbots, art-games, indie-games, and serious games, Crawford’s ideas about the true purpose and goal of computer could not have been more prophetic. Crawford is my true hero, and I’m so happy to get to see this speech for the first time.
Also, below is an interview I conducted with Crawford about his time with Atari from 2007, published in 2008.
-Steve Fulton (Fultonbot)
(The following interview was published Dec. 22, 2008)
Chris Crawford was hired by Atari in 1979 as a VCS programmer. He soon moved to the 8-bit computer line where he programmed one of the influential games of the 8-bit computer era, Eastern Front. For the past 25 years he has worked as a game designer, software evangelist, and has been a pioneer in the area of interactive fiction.
Steve: Can You Describe VCS Development in 1979?
Chris Crawford: It was a very difficult machine to program. You had 128 bytes of RAM, and 2K of ROM space and the video display was driven by the CPU, the 6502 and so basically, most of your code consisted of the drawing code. You drew it one scan-line at a time. Basically you’d frantically load-up the display registers with the display data for one scan line, and then you had to load up the registers with the display data for the next scan-line and you had exactly 76 machine cycles in which to do this..or on average about 35 assembly language commands. That’s pretty tight restrictions.
Steve: You did Wizard right, and that never came out?
Steve: How did you get into the 400 and 800?
Chris Crawford: It’s funny, at that time everybody wanted to work on the 400 and 800 because it was so much sexier and powerful.
Steve: It was the 6502, but was the VCS some lesser version of the 6502?
Chris Crawford: No, exact same processor.
Steve: So just less support, memory, chips, etc?
Chris Crawford: Yeah. The 6502 in the 800 was faster. They clocked it at 1.8 MHz, whereas Stella’s was 1 MHz. But it had much better video. there was a graphics processor named Antic and Antic handled all of the graphics work ,whereas with Stella the CPU spent most of its time drawing the screen. with Colleen you simply set-up a page display and let that run. There was another processor called Antic and Antic did all the work that the 6502 did in Stella.
Steve: So with Stella you have 1/2 the Mhz and no co-processor?
Chris Crawford: Right, you did not have anywhere near as many CPU cycles to play with. The other thing of course was that Colleen had a lot of memory. the smallest was 8K (as opposed to 128 bytes) and it had a big ROM with all sorts of operating system stuff in it, interfaces for nonvolatile memory and so-forth.
Steve: Did you ever talk to Nolan Bushnell while you were there?
Chris Crawford: No, I never did. The first time I met Nolan Bushnell was, God, years later, I ran into him at a little conference of techies…I forget which one it was.
Steve: When I talked to him he was very much of the opinion that the Atari that he had started was very much based on game design and making games and dealing in that realm and when the Warner guys took over they really had no idea about that business and ran it into the ground. Did you see anything like that when you were there?
Chris Crawford: I think that is partly true. Now, I’m only replaying the scuttlebutt that I heard while I was at Atari, but the story that ran around the programmers (who were fairly disinterested observers I think) was that the VCS initially did very badly and after a time Nolan felt it was time to give-up on the VCS and build something new. He was especially enamored of the home computer. It was such better technology and so his attitude was ‘dump this VCS loser and let’s put all of our money on the home computer’ and the Warner people disagreed. It was Manny Gerard at Warner, the main guy, said ‘no, we just need to develop the market some more, we need more games, we need to build-up a bigger software library, we need to give this product time’ and so the Warner people refused to abandon the VCS. That was, according to the scuttlebutt, the reason for Nolan to leave.
Steve:From your opinion, from being there, what do you think? The VCS was successful for a couple years, but then its limitations were really what made it die. Do you think Nolan was right, or the guys are Warner were right?
Chris Crawford: The guys at Warner were proved to right because the VCS did not peak until 1982, and Nolan left in ’79, so the growth curve continued up steeply in ’79. ’80, ’81 and in fact, what brought Atari down was the E.T. cartridge in Christmas of ’82. so even ’82 was a magnificent year for Atari and most of Atari’s profits came from the VCS, not the home computers and not the coin-op machines.
Steve: When you worked in the Home Computer Division, do you remember a time that it was ever profitable?
Chris Crawford: I wouldn’t know the answer but my impression was that they were always spending more money than they were taking in. The home computer did grow and it did enjoy good sales, it was doing well, but they kept adding to the home computer division, investing in it the same way they had done with the VCS, but then the Commodore 64 pulled the rug out from underneath the home computer.
Steve: The pricing rug? They pretty much cut the price in half to being with.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, there was a price-war. At that time when the the Commodore 64 came out there were a number of color computers. There was the Apple, the Atari, Texas Instruments had a machine, Radio Shack had a machine, and there were a couple of other real minor ones. The Commodore 64 came out and it was priced below everybody else, and that forced Atari to drop its price. Basically, Jack Tramiel was moving all of his production overseas, and he was able to lower his prices. There was a steady price-war, and over the period a of months the prices kept going down and down and down. What really killed Atari was they decided to move all the production to Hong Kong. The christmas production was supposed to (christmas was big selling time for these machines),the Hong Kong unit was supposed to come up in August ’83.F
Steve: For the XL line?
Chris Crawford: Yeah. They shut-down production in the States expecting the Hong Kong production come on-stream, and the Hong Kong line had problems and didn’t come online until November. When Christmas came there were no Atari computers on the shelves.
Steve: I can attest to that. Christmas ’83 I asked my dad to but me one and I ended up with an Atari 800 instead, which I loved because it was superior. I certainly remember that Christmas.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, it was an absolute disaster, a catastrophe for Atari and that is what sealed atari’s fate. Now there a bunch of other things that greatly contributed to it, but I feel that was the knock-out blow.
Steve: When you were there you designed some of the early games. Didn’t you say you worked in a research lab?
Chris Crawford: Yeah. I think had 4 different jobs at Atari. My first job was as a Stella programmer and that lasted 3 months and I wrote one program for Stella named Wizard. After that I was transferred to the Home computer Applications group where I was programming the home computer, and that lasted about 10 months.
Steve: Is that where you made Energy Czar?
Chris Crawford: Energy Czar and SCRAM were made during that time. Then I was promoted to supervisor of the software support group. Our job was to provide technical support to outside programmers. We had a whole package of goodies we provided for free. By the way, the main thing we did was this tour where I would travel around to cities all over the country. We would rent a hotel meeting room, and people could come-in to these seminars where we taught them all about how to program the Atari and I did almost all the work here. I had a real barnstorming style. My job was to wean people away from the Apple to the Atari. I was pushing that line really hard. Somebody in one of the magazines that had come to it said ‘Crawford does a show like an old-time evangelist. You half-way expect him to start quoting the bible’. and that is where the term ‘software evangelist” arose.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, I was the first.
Steve: So you moved on an did Eastern Front which was a huge success?
Chris Crawford: Yes, yes. Although, an interesting point I’ll make, Eastern Front was the classic example of technological opportunism. The way many games are designed nowadays…and I’m very critical of technological opportunism. I did it back then. The Atari 800 had this wonderful scrolling capability. I developed a little scrolling map thing just to show off to people this wonderful capability. I remember telling Joel Billings at SSI and number of other people ‘boy think of the war game you could make with this’….and they said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’
Steve: You had a history of building war games, right?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, but I hadn’t done any on the Atari.
Steve: You did some for Avalon Hill for the Apple?
Chris Crawford: Actually, I did them on the Atari and people ported them over. I did Eastern Front on the 800 initially as a demo, and when I tried to interest war game people into using it, they kind of blew me off. So on the side, on my own, nights and weekends I said ‘well, let’s see if we can add some units here and move them around. Basically one thing led to another and I ended-up with a war game. I will tell you an important point to make for the readers is that game was TOTAL CRAP before it shipped. The game play was atrocious. It was really dull and boring and I had the good sense to realize ‘ship it when it is ready’ so I just went back to the drawing board and reconsidered how it was working and made some major changes in its operation. It worked!
Steve: They allowed you to do that at the time?
Chris Crawford: I was doing it on my own, that was the whole deal. If I had been doing this as an official project it probably would have shipped before it was ready.
Steve: Eastern Front went out via APX instead of through the Atari software channel?
Chris Crawford: I showed it to the Atari people, the marketing people, and they said ‘oh geez, this will never sell. it’s a war game’ they said ‘you can put it in the Atari Program Exchange”. I put it there and it was a huge hit. The next year they came and said ‘why don’t you do a new version for us that we will release as an official Atari product?” So you know, they were just completely wrong.
Steve: How successful of a product was it for APX?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, it was really the product that made APX. That along with Caverns Of Mars. Those two products together made APX a huge success. By the way, there is a side-story on APX. The guy who cooked up the idea, Dale Yaokum, was trying to explain to the management that there are a lot people out there that like to write programs and if we can publish these programs for them, it’s a win-win. The management was not very interested in it. He put together a business plan for it and said ‘look, we only need a little bit of money and this thing can be self sufficient and it might make some money.’ They very grudgingly agreed to let him do it. And so he did it and very quickly made it into a monster success. It was a major profit center for Atari. They rewarded dale for his initiative by bringing in another guy to be Dale’s boss and the other guy didn’t know anything about software! The other guy was really hard to work for, so Dale in disgust, quit about a year later. Classic story of executive blunders.
Steve: What did Dale go on to do?
Chris Crawford: He quit APEX and went over to corporate research. He ran a unit that was going to design a “shoot for the moon” new computer. The worked on something with a 286, the absolute newest processor coming out and they were getting pre-samples from Intel. They were were designing that when Atari collapsed. He then got a job at Xerox PARC, then founded his own company. About 10 years ago he sold his company for millions of $$, retired, bought himself an airplane, learned how to fly…he always wanted to be a pilot, and he’s now very happily retired.
Steve: In the beginning, did Atari management want to own all the software for the computers?
Chris Crawford: Yes. The attitude of the executives was ‘we want to make all the money on the software. We don’t want any competitors. They were having competitors with the VCS and the programmers were trying to explain that ‘no that’s not how it works, you need a big library of software, you need to encourage them’ and I was one of the people doing that. Initially they had never quite defined what it was that had to be kept secret. I was the programmer at Atari who had come-in from the outside world and had more contacts with outsiders. I’d be working on Atari software and the phone would ring and it was somebody in Indiana saying ‘can I get any of the technical documents?’ and I would go over to the main area and get a few of the technical documents, photo-copy them and mail them off. I was sending out…there were enough loopholes that I was able to send out some documents and not get fired.
Steve: But for the most-part, they wanted to keep a lid on all that documentation?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, they wanted it all kept secret. I was sending out some minor stuff and then one day it was sort of like ‘the dam broke’ and they had an officially policy, 180 degree reversal ‘we want to tell everybody about this’. I immediately got on the phone and started calling a bunch of my contacts saying ‘hey would you like complete technical documentation on the Atari?’ and we shipped a lot of those.
Steve: What did you think of M.U.L.E.?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, and I think this opinion is shared by most of the designers who were active at that time. My belief is that M.U.L.E. was the finest computer game design ever done in terms of the going “with the grain’ of the machine. Using the machine to fullest, really understanding what the machine could do. It was just a beautiful design because it was so perfect for the Atari.
Steve: The use of joystick ports, the sound?
Chris Crawford: Not just technical brilliance, design brilliance too. He didn’t use a lot of techie tricks, he actually used them in a very creative way and himself made a game that was brilliant.
Steve: It’s been 15 years since you’ve released a game and you are now finishing up Storytron interactive fiction engine which was created out of the relationships in Excalibur in 1983, What is the breakthrough that got Storytron ready to go in 2007?
Chris Crawford: There were many breakthroughs of major developments that I’ve had to make, and that is one reason why it has taken 15 years. If it was just one technology I had to build then it would have been done years ago. moreover, there is a strong synergistic relationship between these components and so I could not see them all at once. I started work on the basic engine and it in itself was a breakthrough in how it handles drama and so-forth, and it was only one and by itself it was insufficient. I didn’t realize that it’s biggest problem was that it was very difficult to program then engine, to give the engine the data it needed to tell good stories. That was the engine I did between ’91 and about ’94 and ’95. The next big breakthrough was building the editor that allowed a user to program the engine…to develop the data set required for the engine. It’s a very complex data set and it took me a year to that because I had to build a scripting language and the fundamental requirement was…if I was just writing a scripting language for programmers it would have been trivial, I could have knocked it off in a few months, because everybody has done that, but my requirement was that this had to be something accessible to non-technical people.
Steve: So someone like novelist could sit down and use this?
Chris Crawford: Right, but it was still programming and so it’s still la huge restriction on the novelist, we are still demanding an enormous amount from him. We wanted to eliminate all unnecessary techiness and that was a huge task. I did a first round on it in period of ’94-’98 and it was no where near good enough. It was functional, you could do things with it, but it was still very difficult for people to do things with it. this was the “erazmatron” period. For Storytron I tore it apart and completely re-built the entire thing from scratch and came-up with an even better scripting system. It’s still difficult to use. This is like Macromedia Flash. This is non-trivial., but it is also a hell of a lot easier to use than a real programming language.
The 3rd killer problem was the user interface. In erazamatron the user interface, basic internal structure, the basic atom was a ‘sentence’ and you interacted with people one sentence at a time. That was pretty limiting and it really did constrain the designer rather badly. I’d say the biggest of the breakthroughs was the linguistic system I have in Storytron. Basically it allows the user to speak to the computer in this toy language. It’s a very powerful language system. The Story Builder creates words and defines them, and that is process of creating a work in Storytron. You define all the words…of course, defining them is a big job. That’s the concept.
Steve: I’ve read that your plan with Storytron, and this might have been someone’s idea of what your plan was, was to create a kind of a myspace like web site where people could come and create their interactive stories and share them with other people. Was that your idea, or someone else’s?
Chris Crawford: That’s not quite what we are doing. what we have is web site where, when it is fully operational (we are planning for January 1 (2008) and we are on-track) basically anybody who wants to can download the authoring tool and use the authoring tool to create a story world. When they have the story world the way they like it, then they can upload it to us to put into our library. Then any consumer can come along and play story worlds in the library. Our revenue model is that we make money from the consumers playing the story worlds. Revenue is hared with the authors, and wearer aiming for a 50/50 cut.
Steve: Do people subscribe or do they pay per story world?
Chris Crawford: Initially it looks as if we will do pay to play, or fixed fee where you get to play one story world per month or two months or something. Once we have big library we will open it up on subscription basis, however I will say we have not ruled out an ad-based revenue model. We simply had to choose one or the other for our business plan and we felt the subscription based had some advantages and we went with that, but we may end-up ad based. We don’t know.
Steve: What’s encouraging is that you are actually ready to launch this.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, this thing is definitely coming together.
Steve: So, have you heard in the past anyone describe you as a Don Quixote like character?
Chris Crawford: Oh yeah, I have!
Steve: What do you have to say about that now, now that you are almost finished?
Chris Crawford: You know, they’ll see. In fact, I’d like to address the criticism you mentioned ‘Crawford hadn’t designed a game in 15 years’. The fact is, I have not made any effort what-so-ever to talk to people about games in 15 years. Every single public press…i mean the books i’ve published, I’ve published 3 books, one was on Interactivity, one was on Interactive Storytelling, and one was about games, and the publisher approached me, and said ‘geez, we’d really like you to write this book’.
Steve: And that book ‘On Game Design’ pretty much covers all the games you wrote. Period.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, I make no attempt to teach about the current generation of games. All of my public presentations have been at the request of the host. I’ve never gone out and looked for it, they just call me up and they want me to talk. In a couple cases I’ve told them, ‘I haven’t done a game in 15 years’, an they say ‘well,we still want you’
Steve:You are going to be done soon, do you have anything else to say before we sign off?
Chris Crawford: Well, the Storyton stuff is definitely going to change things. The games industry has gotten stuck in a rut doing the same things over and over again, making fundamental errors a long time ago that are now holding them back. some critical mistakes. I think the first mistake was around 1990 with Wing Commander. Wing commander was very bad for the industry because they bought market-share. They threw an awful lot of money at that game and produced a game that was very expensive. The game never made money, the add-on packets brought them into the black. They did the same thing with each of the subsequent Wing Commander games. The basic game itself ended-up losing money because they spent so much money on the graphics as a result the games industry is now very capital intensive. They send millions of dollars making a game and there is no easy way to build a good game that can get a fair shot in the marketplace. That means they have cut-out one of their best sources of creative input which is all the crazy people out there. the model I like to use for this is, Hollywood has it nailed down and the games industry really should learn from Hollywood here, although it night be too late. Basically there are 8 million people (surveys show) 8 million people in this country will tell pollsters ‘yes, I have an idea for a novel I want to write”. Out of those 8 million a few hundred thousand apparently, each year actually write something. Out of those few hundred thousand, I think it is something like 10,000 actually produce a manuscript that they ship to a publisher. Out of those 10,000 only a few hundred are published. Out of those few hundred, only a handful actually hit the big time. Maybe a dozen make a goodly amount of money. Out of those dozen, 1 or 2 will be cherry picked to make a movie. Think of it as a pyramid creative base is 8,000,000 ideas and at each level there is a selection that takes place that knocks out 98% of everything. It’s a sorting system that takes the very best for the full treatment.
Steve: And you are saying the games industry really does not have that because no small person cam sit-down and write a full-fledged game without $10,000,000 or more?
Chris Crawford: Right now anyone in this country with a word processor can sit-down and write novel and it might be a huge hit.
Steve: Do you think stuff like Storytron (and other technologies) are sort of changing that for small part of games industry?
Chris Crawford: Well ,that is certainly what we are doing with Storytron. We are using the Hollywood model, not the games industry model. My point here I suppose is that this is one of the greatest weaknesses of the games industry. they just can’t tap-in to this huge base of creativity. Yes, there are lots of tools that allow you to build interactive fiction or platform games or first person shooters or so-forth, but the problem is, they are starting off with the assumption that you are doing a genre.
Steve: You can’t create an interesting game, because the game has already been created for you. you are just editing the game.
Chris Crawford: Yeah. Where did J.K. Rowling come from? She just came out of the woodwork. Same thing with Tom clancy. Classic example of an absolute nobody who had the right combination of talents, he slapped together books and kaboom! The system really worked for him. It picked this guy out of obscurity and generated millions and millions of dollars of wealth. the games industry can’t do that.
Steve: So that is really the story of Storytron then? A model that is separate from the games industry to open something up?
Chris Crawford. Yes we have no desire to compete with the games industry on anything. We are a completely separate market.
Steve: Do you think the games industry has a narrow view of what can be called a ‘game’?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, in the 80’s when I was working in it my feeling was ‘let’s expand this definition to include all sorts of crazy things, let’s make this a medium of expression’ and they narrowed it down to ‘a hobby’ which is not a medium of expression it is a hobby greatly by a small collection of people.
Steve: Do you follow the Nintendo Wii and what’s been happening with that?
Chris Crawford: I’m aware of the Wii and the fact it has generated so much excitement and the fact that it really is a radical new concept for the games industry.
Steve: Well it is a radical new concept and I love it myself for those exact reasons, but what I find most interesting about it is the reaction from the “hobbyists” that you described. Almost a fearful reaction that somehow their hobby will be destroyed by something new, some new expanded market, and it might be exactly what you are describing.
Chris Crawford: I was unaware that the old timers were uncomfortable with the Wii.
Steve: Yes, the hardcore gamers are uncomfortable that the Wii is taking market share away from PS3, the Xbox360 and the PC, and the games are more oriented toward multi-player and family oriented stuff. their worry is that it is going to destroy their hobby, which I find quite funny myself.
Chris Crawford: Well there is actually in one sense I suspect the Wii is a continuation of an old evolutionary process that has been going on in all forms of software. The basic sequence here is that you get a piece of software, or a game or whatever. It’s successful and there are a bunch of people who really love it, so you come out with version 2. The thing is, that sells primarily to the aficionados who loved version 1. the want something better than version 1, meaning something more complicated than version 1. Version 2 always had more features than version 1. This process continues with version 3,4,5,6 etc. The problem is, by the time you get to version 5, you have built something so hairy that the average beginner can’t use it. At that point, somebody else comes in with the new easy to use version, a a clean simple one, and that attracts a new generation of people who are intimidated by the monster version the aficionados like, and this process just keeps going on over and over. The Wii in a sense is something like this. My impression from the software available for it is that it tends to be beginner-level software.
Steve: The games on other systems look so complicated or you need to play online you need to be yelling at people through your microphone. A lot of people don’t want to do that.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, it’s a regular cycle that software goes through and I fear…I don’t know how to stop the cycle. Our work is going to get more and more complicated and at some point will we ebnd up being replaced by someone who is cleaner and easier? It looks like…if you are the guy who owns version 5, you are not going to throw it away, you are stuck with it. It’s a tough problem.
Steve: Do you think the web is your next direction for software delivery?
Chris Crawford: There is no question that the web is the future. That’s sort of obvious I feel. The web is steadily taking over everything. I’ll mention one advantage of the web. Our software is…we don’t have to worry about piracy at all. The basic engine that runs everything never runs our web site.
Steve:Right, it can’t because it’s tied to the back-end
Chris Crawford: Yep.
Steve: You give the Story building engine away for free. Piracy is nothing to you.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, it’s a really nice model. I just can’t understand why there are people who haven’t just abandoned everything else.
Note: This interview with Chris Crawford was conducted in September on 2007 as source for my Atari History articles I was (still am?) writting for Gamasutra.com. Since this interview was conducted, Chris Crawford’s Storytron site has launched, and both the development tools and the player are now available for download.
Posted on May 28, 2017
We communicated on Twitter a bit, and noticed that he was die-hard Atari fan. I saw a lot of myself in the transmissions AtariSpot was sending to Twitter, and followed him almost immediately.
The thing is though, at that point, I had never purchased an Atari 2600 game on the internet.
My brother and I used to carefully scan the video game section of “The Recycler” newspaper back in the 80’s looking at the listing for Atari 2600 consoles and games, but I don’t recall us ever buying anything. It was just curiosity I believe. We wanted to who was selling what, an for which prices. In fact, while I sold some Atari stuff in the 80’s in “The Recyler”, I don’t ever recall buying anything.
So for me, seeing a price-list in my in-box brought back memories, but not those of being a video game kid in the 80’s. It was memories of being a new wave teenager and young adult in the 80’s and 90’s and buying records in Goldmine magazine.
In those days, I was the “kid”, and I was up against a very well-established business that had existed for decades. Record collecting was then, all about two artists: Elvis, The Beatles. Everything else was a just a nice-to-have. Since my goal was to collect all the songs from my favorite 80’s band, The Alarm, I found myself having multiple disadvantages. The people who sold in Goldmine did not know the value of the records (this meant they were usually priced too high), and they didn’t care about them, which meant they did not always list them even if they had them.
What saved me then was persistence. I would call-up every dealer in the magazine until they knew me by name. Even though I was much younger than them, I knew more about the specific records I wanted, and soon they respected me, at least for that. Within a few years, I collected almost everything I wanted, mostly from dealers who would say to me on the phone “Hey, I have this record too by The Alarm…” but were things that never listed for sale in their ads.
However, I also recall an inflection point when the prices got so inflated and ridiculous that I would never make any purchase. I believe, since I started calling all the dealers, word got around that collecting The Alarm was “hot” (it certainly wasn’t, but I was persistent) and that made dealers raise prices on things to match the “demand”, which in reality was just myself (and maybe a couple other people I came to know later) calling around to find new releases.
in 2017,collecting Atari VCS games as an adult, I find the situation quite different. I find myself as the “old hand” who is trying to re-learn the business of collecting in a completely different way. My suspicion was that most of the people collecting Atari VCS games were at least my age, if not older. They were people of my age who lived through the era of collecting from magazines like “Goldmine” and knew the game of price-matching among dealers to match perceived demand. I’m sure that kind of thing still exists, and truthfully, one trip to eBay proves it.
However, among die-hard Atari fans, I’ve found this to not be the situation.
Case and Point: AtariSpot.
After a few Twitter messages, we emailed back and forth until he sent me his sale list. I have to say, that at first I was bit worried that AtariSpot’s list would turn-out like those old record lists from The Recycler. Was AtariSpot just another old dealer who had found a niche, and had zeroed-in on myself as an easy pigeon, fueled by nostalgia, to open my wallet for some old cardboard, plastic and integrated circuits?
However, not only were his prices reasonable, but he went out if way to mention the various defects and quality issues with each game.
I made two separate purchases from AtariSpot. The first was an iconic set of games that I knew I wanted to own for my collection. I decided I only wanted to buy CIB (complete in box) games for now, here is what I purchased.
While I might have been a but unsure about buying CIB games for my collection at first, when I opened the box from AtariSpot, my doubts were eliminated. Holding those Atari boxes for the first time in more than 30 years felt like have a bit of magic in my hands. Unspecific memories of each game flew through the movie theater in my mind.
“…playing Combat! at Fedmart with my brother until the salesman force us to go away”
“…staring at the box-art for Air Sea Battle at Lori’s house and imagining that the blocky in-game action matched that illustration in exacting detail”
“…opening the Breakout cartridge from my older sister on Christmas morning in 1981, and knowing my obsession with clearing the 2nd screen that game could finally be fulfilled”
“…playing Outlaw against my dad, one of the only game he ever played with my on the Atari VCS…”
“…speeding down the road in Night Driver and imagining it was late at night, and we were driving to vacation on one my dad’s wild adventures”
“…trying to play just ‘one more game’ of Vanguard on Christmas morning 1982, before we had to pack-up and to my grandmother’s house…”
“…being wowed by the sheer technical brilliance of Star Master…”
“…sitting with my brother and on the floor of our living room on the 4th of July, 1983 finishing my first ever RPG, DragonStomper…”
“…figuring out the ‘nudge’ secret to Video Pinball and wracking of 100,000’s of points in a single game…”
It occurred to me right then that this is what my quest was about. It was about the nuances, the lost memories, and feeling of getting something back that was ‘lost’ so long ago.
As well as the games I ordered, AtariSpot, inspired by my own quest, threw-in a few other games for free to help me along!
- Hangman! (box)
- Street Racer (loose)
- Solaris! (yes! One of my all-time favorite games!)
- Laser Blast! (my god do I have storied about this game!)
- RealSports Baseball.
Far from being the opportunist he could have been, AtariSpot appeared to be a genuine Atari fanatic who was trying help another Atari fan bring some magic back from the 80’s. A few days after my first batch of games arrived, AtariSpot emailed me to say that a another deal had fallen through, and asked if I would like some of the other games on my list. I jumped at the chance to get some more games at some very reasonable prices.
All of these games helped flood back fleeting memories of the era, just like the first batch.
“…playing Asteroids the day after Christmas in 1981, and realizing we finally, finally, FINALLY could play arcade games at home…”
“…playing Donkey Kong on New Year’s day in 1982, after my dad bought me the game as payment for helping my grannie move out of her house and into a retirement home…”
I especially enjoyed holding the boxes for the Supercharger games, which, to me, are some of the most amazing creations from the entire golden-age of video games, but that is story for another time,
I was so happy with AtariSpot, that I asked him to write a little bio of himself that I could include in this post. Much to my surprise, AtariSpot was not an old guy like me, but much younger. This made me very happy. I loved that younger people were getting into the hobby for the “right” reasons, collecting things that make them happy, not just as a soulless bushiness transaction.
It reminded me of myself, all those years ago when I collected records in Goldmine magazine
It reminded me of myself now.
Here is the bio AtariSpot sent me:
“The first video game console I ever owned was an Atari 5200. I’d have to dig up old Christmas photos to see which year Santa brought it, but I’d guess 1985. I’ve been told that I was a Pac-Man enthusiast even at the young age of 4, and that Santa had to search his warehouses high and low for the 5200 that came bundled with Pac-Man because I so enjoyed it in the arcade. For the following years, there would always be a few Atari cartridges under the Christmas tree. Because I didn’t own any other video game console at home until the PS3 (it’s true!) the Atari 5200 will always be the system I love most.
Meanwhile, my grandparents lived only two city blocks away, and they had an Atari 2600. My brother and I would visit them many times a week, so we were fortunate enough to enjoy the best of both worlds. As a kid, I never really thought about one system being “better” than or different to another — they were all just fun video games.I wasn’t much into game collecting until just a few years ago. Unfortunately we didn’t keep the boxes for the 5200 games I received as a kid. If I was starting from scratch I’d certainly have gone for collecting games complete-in-box, but since I was already halfway to owning all of the 5200 games when I began collecting in earnest, I continued on as a loose cartridge collector. Hey, at least it saves on storage space!
Collecting for the 2600 has become my current focus largely due to being only two games away from owning the full 5200 library, one of which is Bounty Bob Strikes Back (which routinely sells loose for hundreds of dollars). On the other hand, putting together a complete Atari 2600 collection is not feasible for me (and most people) for two reasons: 1) the comparatively vast library, and 2) the existence of titles where only a handful of cartridges have ever turned up. That doesn’t mean I can’t have fun trying, though! I really enjoy finding the oddball Atari Corp. era cartridges, and I’ve recently gotten into collecting cartridges from overseas, especially titles that were never released in the USA.
My most recent Atari acquisition is an Atari 1200XL, my first 8-bit computer. I have zero experience with the Atari home computer world, so I look forward to learning all about it!
You can follow me as I share photos of my collection on Twitter at @AtariSpot, and also check out my interview with author Tim Lapetino (The Art of Atari) over on atari.IO, as well as my review of his book.”
So thanks AtariSpot! You’ve helped me take my quest to the next level.
But now I need to figure out my next move…
Current Quest Status (As Of 5/28/2017)
*5/28/2017: Added “Source” notation to salute people who help me on my quest.
Color Coding Key:
X = No copy of any kind
X = Copy has some issues (loose, back condition)
X = Acceptable , but might not be correct version
X = Exact right version from pre-crash era
Posted on May 12, 2017
There is a line near the end of the extraordinary documentary The King Of Kong that carries the weight of the entire film. It was spoken by a tween-age girl, but in the context of the film, that girl might be the most “adult” person to show-up on the screen during the movie’s 79 minute running time. As her father is talking about getting into the Guinness book Of World records playing Donkey Kong, the girl says back to him “…some people ruin their lives trying to get in there.” It is a moment of clarity within an otherwise fascinating yet bewildering yet frustrating series of events depicted in the film. The line does not only stand out because it was spoken by a child, but also because it was not said aloud by any of the adults involved. It’s a transcendental moment that takes an otherwise merely likable story and exposes the sociological study that lies at the heart of the movie.
On the surface, The King Of Kong is a movie about a regular guy and perennial also-ran from Seattle (Steve Wiebe) trying to beat the high-score on the coin-op version of Donkey Kong. The high-score that has been held for almost 25 years by guy named Billy Mitchell, who, in the tiny and ridiculous world (a phrase coined by my good friend Brandon Crist in 12th grade) of competitive classic video games that he inhabits, is an incomparable rock star. The mulleted and patriotic tie-wearing Mitchell is a dynamic, successful and charismatic Hot Sauce tycoon from Florida with a trophy wife (his words) who was one of the first video game record holders in the 80’s, and remains so to this day. Mitchell’s circle of friends and influence extends to most of the competitive classic video game playing field and to the official classic video game score-keepers at Twin Galaxies including their enigmatic leader: the hippie, Zen master, and epic rock song-writer Walter Day. If this description sounds as ridiculous to you, as it was for me to write, then you might be starting to understand how just what kind of of “slice of nerd-life reality” this movie captures. The writers of the Simpsons could not have written more colorful characters nor could the writers of The Office come-up with more uncomfortable situations than the ones these real-life people have placed themselves within.
I don’t want to ruin the events in the movie for people who have not seen it, so I’ll just say this: the movie tracks Steve Weibe’s attempts as a West Coast outsider to “break-in” into the insular world of classic video game competitions (a mostly Mid-West and East Coast activity) ,and follows all the tricks, backhanded compliments, blockades, and subterfuge many of the “regulars” who inhabit that world(many are friends of Billy Mitchell) throw in his way to stop him. The first time I watched the movie (and I’ve watched it several times now with and without the included DVD commentaries), I sat with my mouth agape in bewilderment. I was so angry at the the events that unfolded on the screen, it was difficult to sleep the night I first watched it. I forced my wife to watch the movie the next night, just so I could have someone to talk with about the movie. She was shocked too, but for a different reason. My very insightful wife caught-on instantly to why the movie bothered me so much, and she reminded me of something I had pushed to the back of my subconscious: I’d lived it. Well, sort of anyway.
You see, back in 1995 I wrote a rock history of the 80’s band The Alarm. It was published Goldmine Magazine, at the time, the premiere tome for music collectors in the USA. It just so happened that the same month it was published, Mike Peters, the lead vocalist and songwriter for The Alarm was traveling in the USA. He read the article, and when he came to California, he called me on the phone, and asked my wife and I to come out and meet he and his wife. We struck-up a firm friendship that exists to this day. In 1996, Mike needed a web master for his new web site, and he asked me to do it. I’ve been running http://www.thealarm.com ever since. In 1997 I traveled to Wales, UK to The Gathering, Mike Peters’ annual music festival for fans of The Alarm. I looked forward to the trip very much, and was excited to meet other Alarm fans from around the globe,. However, what I found there was not what I expected. While there were many nice, regular people at The Gathering, there was also a “core” set (a “nerdcore” if you will) of die-hard fans of The Alarm who treated me like, well, complete crap. As I learned from others, these people were part of “the family”, a set of Alarm fans who had followed the band from the very early days in the UK, and had been close to it’s inner circle. Since I lived in the USA on the West Coast, I had never met or even known about this “elite” crew of fans. Even though I had been a fan of the band just as long as they had, none of them believed I had the “street cred” to be friends with Mike Peters or run his web site. For several years these people attempted to have me removed from being the web master of TheAlarm.com, pulled dirty tricks, etc. I know, it sounds unbelievable, but in the tiny ridiculous world of The Alarm that these people inhabited it made complete sense. Die-hard nerdcore fans of old rock bands are just as nerdy, and just as territorial it seems, as the denizens of the classic gaming competition underground.
To me, this “nerdcore” is one step beyond hardcore: they are the hardcore of the hardcore. Usually they are fans of something (a band, a tv show, a game, etc) that has long-since left the mainstream. They have stuck around long-enough to become subject matter experts on something that only they really care about. However, in many cases this “nerdcore” would like nothing better than to have the object of their fandom once again regain the popularity and acceptance that it once held, and along with it, they would be held in high regard as the ones who “stuck it out” while the rest of the world was so ignorant of the greatness of the thing they hold dear. To this end, they might try to “keep out” others who might threaten their position when this eventual “judgement day” comes to pass. Of course, in reality they are pushing out any people who might help their cause, and sometimes end-up hurting the very thing they want to support. It is an example of irony at its finest.
So for me, watching a guy named “Steve” (look at the byline above), in this instance Steve Weibe, travel to distant locations with honest intentions, while being foiled at every turn by a nerdcore who wanted to protect the territory they had felt was rightly theirs for the past 25 years, struck a chord. It took the movie from being just a simple survey of classic gaming culture into a study of just how far die-hard fans of something, no matter what it is, will go to protect what they believe is rightfully theirs. This is especially true if these fans are adults, and the object of their fandom was something they they loved as kids (or teenagers) but were never able to let-go of. In that sense, it is something I’ve never seen on film before. King Of Kong provides a view of how small, growth-stunted subcultures feed off their own and ultimately build a wall to protect themselves from the outside world. It also shows how far some of these people will go to stay afloat and on-top of said subculture, because to them it is the most important place they could possibly be. The insightful words of the young girl in the film come back to haunt me when I think of this. “…some people ruin their lives trying to get in there.” Yes they do. Some people get so wrapped-up in their own little nerdcore world, that they will protect it all costs, be it classic video games, 80’s rock bands, or anything else that gets you so wound-up about the past, you ignore the present. It’s an instance when adults act more like children than children themselves. If this hurts outsiders and leaves their own lives stunted or ruined, so be it, as long as they stay “in the know” and at the “top of the heap”, no matter how small that heap might be. This propels King Of Kong from an interesting documentary into a must-see, must-own DVD. It is also one of the most compelling and insightful movies I have ever seen.
The amazing documentary King Of Kong is available now on DVD. Buy it from the official site so the filmmakers can try to recoup their costs. The DVD contains a multitude of bonus content and footage that add greatly to the impact of the film.
(originally published Feb, 20, 2008)
Posted on May 12, 2017
Note: Jeff and I produce and host a podcast for the 80’s band The Alarm. The Alarm are still going in 21st century, making new music, and inspiring their fans. We’ve been spending much of our “online” time working on the podcast over the past couple months, which is why this site has seen fewer updates.
Listen as roving UK reporters Gary Overington and Mike Peters himself take you on a unique journey backstage at The Alarm’s 2017 UK Tour Kickoff in Portsmouth. Includes interviews with with the crew and band (including a very intimate personal and interview with Jules Jones conducted by Gary) plus several live performances.
- Gary Overington
- Mark Warden
- Andi Badgeman
- Mike Peters
- Jules Jones
- James Stevenson
- Alarm super fan Pete Cole.
- Lie Of The Land
- Brighter Than The Sun (live)
- Howling Wind (live)
- Time (live)
- Love And Understanding (live)
- There Must Be A Way (live)
- Strength (live)
- Tomorrow (live)
- Kill To Get What You Want (live)
- Peace (live)
- 68 Guns (live)
- 45 RPM (live)
- Blaze Of Glory (live)
- Marching On (live)
- Two Rivers (live)
- Recording Engineers: Gary Overington, Mike Peters
- Edited and Mixed by Steve Fulton
Posted on May 1, 2017
The experience of growing up at the dawn of the video and computer game age is one that I know all-to-well. Video games and computers exploded at the end of the 70’s and have became an increasingly larger part of daily life ever since. However, while video games and computers are accepted as main-stream in 2017, that was not always the case. There was a time, not too long ago, when the world was not necessarily convinced about the transformative nature of electronic entertainment and communication. As my dad used to tell me, “the struggle is a much more interesting story than just the victory”, yet it seems that this particular struggle is sorely under-represented on the book shelf.
The book Extra Life By David S. Bennahum is a great little book that takes this struggle to heart. It is both a memoir and coming-of-age story set dead-center in the golden age of video and computer games. The author grew up on coin-op video games, and for his Bar Mitzvah received the greatest gift any kid could have received at the time: An Atari 800 computer. Bennahum digs into the true feelings of kids at the time that suddenly found themselves owners of a wonderous new toy: a home computer. He details his own exploits with software, programming, and the social aspect of being a computer user (read: geek) in the 80’s. Some of the most compelling content comes later in the book, when Bennahum describes his time in high school computer classes. Anyone who took a computer class in high school in the 80’s will instantly recognize the little “kingdoms” created by teachers and students alike. Bennahum expertly paints a picture of the high school computer lab: a place whose denizens want nothing more than to live in an electronic world of their own making, be damned the world outside. The fact that this “world of their making” would one day become mainstream and move beyond their wildest expectations makes the story even more compelling.
Extra Life was published almost 20 years ago, just as the World Wide Web was tightening it’s grip on the computer world. I suppose that this might be why it was not extremely popular when it was first published. The future was at hand, and this book was anchored to the past. However, in 2007, with the web 10 years in the mainstream, and the craze for it still unabated, books like this are important. They show that while technology might be different, people stay pretty much the same. The same obsession and power mongering that permeates the Web 2.0 world today, existed in the 80’s, but in a much more limited form.
However, so do the immensely positive aspects of the medium. The power of discovery of, learning with, and programming a computer has only become more powerful in the 21st century. As the news media clings to increasingly negative stories of the world wide web, it’s good to read something that reminds us of the uniquely transformatative power of the digital world.
David S. is now a Founding Maker at Ready Makers ( getready.io ) a company that creates a cross platform personal robotics platform to help kids learn to program. His latest publication, The Ready Maker Handbook, credits his early programming experience with his Atari 800 computer as why ” He understands what it is like to be a kid entranced by the opportunities new technology offers.”
(originally published July 26, 2007)
Posted on April 28, 2017
I believe that I was born to be a computer programmer. Somewhere, deep in my soul, there is a need to organize my thoughts in ways that are both new and interesting, but also foundational and reusable at the same time. I’ve always felt that there is something atypical about this kind of work, and about the people who have chosen to do it. Not that it is better or worse than any other profession mind you, but that it was very unique, and at the same time both interesting and powerful.
However over the years, I have learned that this is not exactly a commonly-held belief.
Years ago (it seems like another lifetime now), a manager of mine was adamant that we create a “software development factory”. This person worked in Information Technology, but was never a programmer. This person (hence forth referred to as “IT”) was in love with “process”. “IT” had worked up through the I.T. ranks as an analyst at first, but had been able to cultivate the right look and absorb the right words to be promoted through past similar personalities into a position of real power.
At this one historic moment, “IT” was in the driver-seat of a team of managers and developers. I was one of them. The problem was, “IT” had no had no idea what our jobs entailed. Since “IT” did not like to think there was a concept,”IT” did not understand, “IT” decided to “improve” the team. “IT” had the bright idea that we should take a team of developers and create a “factory” out of them. In this person’s mind, programming was a rote exercise that could be turned into a repeatable process. In the “I.T.” view, programming did not take any real thinking. You took inputs, processed them, and created outputs. “IT” believed this was the most menial work possible, only important enough to be treated in the most dismissive of ways.
Suffice to say, “IT” and I did not get along. However, instead of rolling over, I tried to fight back.
- I argued up and down, and down and up, left ways and right ways that my team of developers were not factory workers, and they did not create widgets.
- I explained over and over that each project was different and required a unique solution that could not be picked off a shelf and plugged-in automatically.
- I created 100 page documents that described in detail how software development worked and how it was more iterative and creative than simply straight-forward and rote.
- I created diagrams of every type imaginable showing the tools, the process, and the creative thinking that went into designing software.
- I pasted images of all our work on the walls and in the conference rooms.
- We adopted SCRUM and Extreme Programming methodologies to show that development was iterative and not simple a step-by-step process,
- I hung statements from notable software designers and developers in the hallways.
- I brought in great software developers to teach classes on design and creative software development
In the end, of course, it did not work.
I was demoted.
My team was cut in 1/2, then 1/2 again.
Work was outsourced.
When it stayed internal, it was done by generic contractors instead of the type of hand-picked software wizards I knew would make the best developers.
Quality slipped, and so did deadlines.
The super-effective and proud team that I once led was turned into a hallow carcass.
This proved to me that there is a common misconception about what software development really entails. I’m not talking about “software support”, but real, honest programming. Truthfully, I don’t think many people outside of core development circles understand how software is made, or what it means to the people that do it.
Worse, this misunderstanding is not just superficial. It colors decisions made by people in the highest places of power. It’s ill-informed, destructive, and in some cases, could even be dangerous.
A few years ago, I decided to try to find out what other people have written on this subject. I was on a quest to find a way to describe programming that would make someone in “IT”‘s position understand the reality of “programming”.
I started at he top. One of the masters of computer science, Donald E. Knuth, wrote about The Art Of Computer Programming in 1974 (he is also the author of the widely read multi-volume set of books by the same name) . Knuth chose to describe programming as art:
“My feeling is that when we prepare a program, it can be like composing poetry or music…Some programs are elegant, some are exquisite, some are sparkling. My claim is that it is possible to write grand programs, noble programs, truly magnificent ones!”
“…computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty. A programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better.”
While his ideas on the subject are a close approximation of my own, I needed to try to find some other perspectives as well. With a little more searching I found this great article about Art And computer Programming, by John Littler. It contains many quotes from developers on the subject, as well a very relevant quote from none-other than Albert Einstein.
“After a certain level of technological skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetic plasticity and form. The greater scientists are artists as well.”
While both of these sources were awesome, I was not sure that “art” was the only description I was looking for. Programming may well be an “art” but it is also a “science” too, so just calling it an “art” is not quite accurate. Furthermore, calling it an “art” certainly would not have changed the mind of “IT” . In fact, “IT”, being of simple mind (in my opinion anyway) , would have probably just found that idea “elitist”, and dismissed it immediately. Because of this, I wanted to find another word that did not seem quite as lofty. I found it a few lines down in Littler’s article.
“To me, it relates strongly to creativity, which is very important for my line of work”
This , a quote from Guido van Rossum (the creator of the Python programming language), was getting closer to what I wanted to read. Being “creative” was certainly necessary for art, but it was also necessary for many other pursuits. “Creativity” could describe a beautiful painting, as well as an effective strategic battle plan, or even the solution to complex problem with no clear-cut answer. To me, software development involved at the very least, all three of these things. I decided to follow this line to see where it would take me.
Over at AnswerBag.com, I found that someone named “guitar man” had asked this question: “Is computer programming creative? or is it a just an analytical type process? ”
There was one answer, and it came from a guy with the very creative name: “Jeztyr – whispering in the ears of kings” :
“Programming is an art form that fights back. It requires creativity to solve the seemingly unsolvable, and analysis to make it better, faster, more efficient. A lot of programming is mundane, ritualistic stuff, but other times it’s rewardingly convoluted.”
This answer really hit home with me. I liked the use of the words “creativity” and “analytical” at the same time. However, the best word for me was “convoluted“. Some how that word seemed to describe the software development process in a way that I had never considered before. I decided to look-up the word “convoluted” on Dictionary.com. Here is what it said:
con-vo-lut-ed: Adjective: complicated; intricately involved: a convoluted way of describing a simple device.
“Hmm.” I thought. I then looked at the synonyms: “elaborate,
All of these words seemed to point to something that was underlying all of this, but not quite yet on the page. Yes, software development is “intricate” and “elaborate”, but the words “tangled” and “baffling” also stood out to me. Those words seemed to describe to me the state of “software development” when you know the problem you need to solve, but you don’t yet know how to solve it. It is also the same part of the process that can require a creative “spark” to surmount, and once a solution is in place, the process becomes more scientific. This limbo state of development always seemed to the most “unordered “to me the most…chaotic.
I then recalled something from our time dabbling in SCRUM (a software process that embraces change instead of pushing back on it). The phase was “controlled chaos“. While the SCRUM definition was not necessarily what I was looking for, the term seemed to be appropriate. Software Development was an ever-evolving process of taking chaos and creating order. Creating order from chaos is not an easy thing to do, but it is something that certain individuals (including many talented programmers) thrive upon.
I searched for some thoughts on this, and I found one that was so blunt and and final, even “IT” could have internalized it. Software Engineer Robert L. Glass described his role this way:
“Eat Chaos, Poop Order.”
In the most base way possible, Glass had crystallized my thoughts on software development. He continued to clarify his position.
“Chaos and order are the theme of my life. I consume one and produce the other.“
I could not agree more.
At this point, I seemed to have come to the end of my journey. All of these quotes I had found sort of swirled around in my head until I came to a realization of what it all meant to me, and it is the following:
“Programming is at once, both disciplined, and undisciplined . You must follow some rules, but also strive to break others if you want to make breakthroughs and discover new ways to make better software. It truly is art and science mixed, however the amount of each depends on the problem you are trying to solve. However, there is something else. Programming is like making sense of the senseless. It starts as chaos,and through sheer will of the mind, that chaos is organized into something amazing. It is also a stunningly enjoyable profession that feeds your mind and soul at the same time. In my nearly 30 years of programming experience, the initial surge of energy I feel when sitting down to start developing a new program has never dissipated nor has the sense of satisfaction when the last line of code is written and I hit the [Enter] key for the final time. If anything, the process has only grown greater and more important as the years slip by. In the final analysis, far from being a rote exercise, creating software just might be the the ultimate creative medium. With the proper knowledge, creativity, and computer power, you can build almost anything you can imagine. ”
It was long-winded, but I was satisfied with my answer. However, if I had been able to express these thoughts properly all those years ago, would I have been able to change the mind of someone like “IT”, and finally prove the reality of software development to someone in power?
Probably not, but at least I proved it to myself.
(originally posted June 9, 2009)