Aracade Classics - an introduction to retro gaming - Part Three

The Monochrome Era

You were thinking I'd never add another part to this weren't you? Come on, it's only been eight years since I wrote the last part...

Pong

The first great arcade video game is generally considered to be Pong. There were games before Pong, but you have to do your research to find out much about them and I don't remember playing those machines. I remember playing Pong and losing relentlessly to my sister and older cousin. I can't imagine my sister playing a video game today, let alone writing about one, so something has changed about video games since the earliest days, and despite all the casual gamer appeal of touch based phone and tablet games there is unquestionably a group of people who once enjoyed electronic gaming who have been driven away from it. They might still play Monopoly, but Pong, not so much.

The appeal of Pong, and the trick of it, was that it could be played against another person, and it was the two-player aspect that gave an otherwise tedious game considerable longevity. It's still possible to have fun playing Pong against a human - not that I'd recommend it - there are so many better competitive games today, but one does feel the history, especially if you have spin controllers.

Space Invaders

Space Invaders changed everything. It wasn't like Pong and you can see the beginnings of the trend that alienated so many from electronic games and turned the form into something of a boys only club for years.

I'll ignore the two player component of Space Invaders because it was plainly tacked on. Space Invaders could never be considered a two player game. Taking turns does not a two player game make, even if the screen flips upside down on your table-top machine. Conceivably, Space Invaders could have been made into one of the first co-op games, but it never occurred to the designers to try and manage two laser-bases and two sets of buttons. It would be a while before anyone made a game like that.

Space Invaders has some distinguishing features: it has a sci-fi theme, it's an action-based shooting game, it's played against a relentless/remorseless computer opponent, it has a brutal, throbbing sound-track with visceral bass, there is some hidden depth to the game-play (albeit not much), and perhaps most importantly, it can be mastered.

All those aspects combined together to make Invaders into a game that male youth found hard to ignore. Whether playing in arcades, or the cafeteria of a technical college, they could gain kudos by demonstrating skill at it, and perhaps more kudos if they knew how to game the machine to get free plays.

While Invaders had no significant software loopholes, opportunistic players were always looking for ways to manipulate the coin-box and credit addition hardware. Invader cabinets were drilled with holes, tricked with dodgy coins, tilted, bumped, shoved, lock-picked and subjected to just about every trick and voodoo ritual imaginable to try and get free plays. Some of the tricks worked. Most didn't. Straightforward though the coin-boxes were, they were based on those from gambling machines, and that hardware had already been well tested against tricky fingers; most machines had some kind of anti-tamper alarm and drilling a hole to poke a wire through would soon be detected and stymied.

Made Locally?

Early Invader machines were built 'entire' by Taito or Bally Midway. In the UK the Taito machines seemed less common than the later US versions, but it did depend who ran the arcade. Later that started to change, with arcade owners seeking cheaper ways to source their money-makers. The Taito machines seemed more often to have joysticks while the Bally hardware had buttons for left and right. Some report the opposite, but my memory on the topic is clear. The machine had been around for several years before I ever saw a Taito machine or one with a joystick, and by then I was very familiar with Bally machines with the reflecting display and left-right buttons.

There were numerous arcades in my home town, and the largest was associated with a local factory where cabinets were built and machines put together to go out to arcades in several locations around the country. I'm not sure if it's commonly undestood that many machines were imported as parts and the cabinets assembled locally, with the artwork added via stickers and illuminated signage panels. The same companies that were assembling gambling machines put together imported arcade machines with local coin-boxes for the national currency.

Atari and certain other companies always made complete machines, but other manufacturers were less picky about how their hardware was used. Invaders cropped up in endless variations, both in software and cabinet. Other machines like Scramble and Moon Cresta (you may know it by a different name) were so varied that you were pushed to see two machines alike.

You can read the ins and outs of the software development process that led to Invaders on other sites, and I recommend you do, as its fascinating history. What remains with me from the Invaders era is the atmosphere. It was a time when sci-fi movies were a big deal; the era of Star Wars, and later Alien, and that atmosphere rubbed off on Invaders somehow, no matter how little it had to do with Hollywood blockbusters. The aspirational quality of the game was evident. Even if all you were doing in practice was nudging a block of pixels left and right and controlling the timing of a button push or two, in the mind of the player there was some vague sense of space battle. It was all in the imagination of course, but so are the images of literature. Modern games have lost some of that ability to stimulate the imagination by being too completely rendered, though games like Ridiculous Fishing struggle to recapture them.

Cosmic Gorilla

A later derivative of the Invaders style was a rather memorable game called Cosmic Gorilla. It was much more free-form; far more of a frantic wack-a-mole game than the precise and very structured game that was Invaders. The techniques to 'beat' Invaders were simple and repetitive, with the only magic being in how to get 300 points off the saucer every time. Some people found it easy to delivery that level of consistent play in Invaders but struggled with Cosmic Gorilla. Overall, it was probably too hard a game and so never achieved the success it deserved. I never knew anyone who could genuinely thrash Cosmic Gorilla, and only a handful of people who were really any good at it. You can play it easily enough on an emulator today, but the thing that drove people to get good at arcade machines back in the day has vanished. There simply isn't the motivation to rack up high-scores sitting at home, playing on a emulator. It was always the aspect of competition that made arcade machines addictive; it's impossible to overlook that most of them were in arcades.

Asteroids

The vector based games stuck to monochrome long after the raster based games had moved on to colour. Nevertheless, raster gaming had a special appeal, and if you are going to buy retro hardware, a vector cabinet is a much more attractive proposition than a raster, which is all too easily emulated with Mame. There is no cheap emulator replacement for a genuine vector display, which have a unique and highly distinctive feel.

The specialness of vector displays was evident in the niche enthusiasm for the Vectrex long after home machines of a similar vintage were largely available for nothing in junk shops. Tempest, in my opinion the finest vector machine made and one of the few cabinets to deliver something that no home computer could approach, is one of the more collectable machines. Many would probably choose Star Wars instead, but Tempest retains a special place in my heart, even if I was never particularly good at it. It's a tragedy that almost every one was ruined by some idiot who deliberately vandalised the spin controller in a fit of rage. That it could induce such rage says something about that machine, but we're talking about Asteroids here right...

Asteroids has a great deal written about it on the internet but for me the thing that stands out is its similarity to Invaders in terms of appeal and ability to deliver kudos. Both games can be "beaten" and it is that possibility that makes them so addictive. If you have the skill to survive endless waves of Asteroids and the patience to ruthlessly farm saucers, you can rack up gigantic scores. Most big scores were achieved by saucer farming, which was a skill in itself, but eventually you would shoot the last asteroid and would be faced by a massive onslaught of boulders that could be extremely chaotic and tough to manage.

Asteroids plays OK on an emulator, but without the vector display and the massive weighty cam that produced its physically tactile thump, it's just not the same. Playing Asteroids on real kit is infinitely more romantic and tactile than the dull precision of an emulator. Alas, the original displays are typically worn out and so good examples are hard to come by now. Many of those tubes were shot by the early eighties and I haven't seen one that was playable for a long time.