The vast majority of the early VCS games covered so far were games that the developers were personally interested in putting together. Whether these were ports of popular arcade games, conversions of tabletop timewasters, or novel concepts, marketing had largely stayed out of the way on what games came along and focused on selling them. But there were exceptions, even at this stage, of which Brain Games is one.

The crux of the marketing department’s request involves the VCS’s mix of controllers. You’ve got the two major ones that were packed in with the console itself from the get go: the joystick and the paddle controllers. The vast majority of the games on the platform use the joystick, which is surprisingly flexible for having one button. A smaller number use the paddle controller, which is much more limited in the types of games that it excels at; developer Larry Kaplan noted that marketing specifically requested that the programmers create games that use the paddles to ensure that users were still getting use out of them, which is why he put together Street Racer for the VCS’s 1977 lineup. The VCS also hosted two other controller types though: The driving controller, used in the system’s heyday with only Indy 500; and the keyboard controller.

Continue reading “Brain Games – October 1978”

We’ve seen a slow progression of video game sports through the 1970s up to this point, both on the VCS and off of it. Pong was a deeply simplified version of ping pong, and all the other sports games on the original Magnavox Odyssey were functionally the same basic thing. The same holds true for a number of early arcade sports renditions: hockey becomes Pong with a specific goal area, Volleyball and Basketball become vertically oriented versions of Pong, and so on. Racing games got to become their own genre pretty early on, however, and baseball followed shortly thereafter. 1978 would prove to be a watershed moment for one particular sport, however, as a full, non-Pong version of Basketball made its debut on the Atari VCS.

Coincidentally release at the same time as another basketball game that came out alongside the Magnavox Odyssey2 in 1978, Atari’s VCS version of the sport is seemingly the first commercial attempt at the game to really try and translate the major appeal of basketball into a video game. Creator Alan Miller has noted that he played on his high school basketball team, and as the eldest of six kids had spent a lot of time in his youth coming up with games for everyone to play; it seems likely that he wanted to try and translate a sport he enjoyed to the VCS, and he largely succeeded.

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It’s undeniable that Atari initially made its name with Pong. This simple two-player take on a tennis game was an incredible arcade success for the company, with competing clone machines popping up in the years following its 1972 debut. Even the earliest years of the home console market saw an array of Pong clones – itself a clone of the tennis game on the original Magnavox Odyssey. There is just one problem with Pong: It’s a two-player game. If you don’t have someone to play with, you’re not going to spend money on it.

There are two ways to tackle this problem, and Atari essentially covered them both. The first is the solution seen in the 1977 VCS game Video Olympics, where developer Joe Decuir programmed a simple computer opponent for players to compete against. This required actually having the memory available and the processing power to actually create your digital foe, and in the mid-1970s these were both in short supply. The other option was to reimagine Pong as a single player game.

Continue reading “Breakout (Breakaway IV) – October 1978”

This game is something of a treat for these early years of the VCS. Not only is it an original game concept, it’s actually a pretty nifty title in its own right. Flag Capture doesn’t exactly have name cachet like Combat or Outlaw, and arguably it’s one of the more overlooked non-sports games from the console’s first few years, but it’s absolutely a treasure.

Flag Capture, released as simply “Capture” by Sears, is the first game that developer Jim Huether wrote for Atari. In interviews, Huether has said that he originally wanted to port the board game Stratego to the console. For the unfamiliar, Stratego is a two player game where each side sets up a field of soldiers and bombs, but their opponent has no idea which is in which space (and vice versa). You simply have to approach with one of your pieces and attack; if it’s a soldier, whoever has the higher rank will win the battle (with the exception of the spy, who can kill anyone he attacks first). If someone other than a miner lands on a bomb, they are removed from the board, otherwise the bomb is removed; it carries on like this until someone finds their opponent’s flag piece. This is a lot of complexity to ask from a 2k Atari VCS cartridge and on a single screen, so rather than try to adapt Stratego in its entirety, Huether boiled it down to the underlying idea behind the game: finding a flag before your opponent.

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Coming as it did at the tail end of westerns’ day in the sun, the old American west might not be the most popular setting in video games, but it has popped up a few times over the years, from Wild Gunman to Sunset Riders up to the recent Red Dead Redemption games. But if you want to see an early example of a video game western, then Outlaw has you covered.

Continue reading “Outlaw (Gunslinger) – October 1978”

Atari catalog, 1978

Most of the Atari VCS games we’ve looked at so far are ones where you know what you’re getting into just from the title. A game named Indy 500 is probably about racing. Space War is most likely going to have you fighting in outer space. Blackjack is going to involve playing cards, and so forth. But then you get to Slot Racers, and you’re probably going to be kind of baffled. What the heck is going on here, you might ask? After all, slot racing in real life is little more than model cars you insert into an electrically connected track and drive around a predetermined route. This game has player vehicles driving around a maze shooting at each other. If you have the Sears version of the game, which was released under the title Maze, you might have a better idea of what you’re getting into here. But the reason Slot Racers seems so far removed from the source material is because that wasn’t the premise in the first place.

But before we get into that, we have to step back a moment and recognize that Slot Racers is the first Atari VCS game developed by Warren Robinett. Best known for his seminal 1980 VCS game Adventure, Robinett was part of the second hiring wave of Atari home video game programmers, coming on board in November 1977 – shortly after other notable Atari developers like David Crane and Jim Huether joined the company. Robinett wrote about his experiences at Atari and developing Slot Racers in his book (unpublished as of this writing), and graciously provided me with a copy of the manuscript to help describe the development of his three VCS titles. He also explained to me that he felt that the best way to figure out how to program a game for the VCS within its limitations is to just start writing a complete one, and while driving to work one day he had an idea in his head for a game he called “Traffic.” In it, two cars would be driving around a city maze firing rockets at each other in a severe case of road rage.

Continue reading “Slot Racers (Maze) – October 1978”

I don’t think it’s a secret that baseball, as a sport, doesn’t lend itself well to early video game consoles. One team is always going to have nine players on the field, while the other is dealing with their batter, along with any base runners they might have on the field at the moment. Meanwhile, the consoles in question typically are limited in resolution, controller input options, and memory. But that didn’t stop programmers and developers from trying their best to translate the popular sport to the video game machines of the day, and eventually they succeeded in making some really good renditions of America’s pasttime. Unfortunately, Atari’s Home Run, released by Sears as simply Baseball, is more of an iterative step on that journey rather than one of the benchmarks.

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In the early days of home game development, it was pretty plain to see when developers were pulling from an existing arcade title, and when they appeared to just be seeing what they could make work on a microprocessor. Hangman, released by Sears as Spelling, seems very much like the latter. It falls into the category of games that can be played with another person around the house, albeit not a terribly exciting one.

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Fresh off a strong and successful 1977, Atari’s Video Computer System was in a good place. Hundreds of thousands of units had been sold; the company’s home game design team continued to grow and was getting more experienced. Having exhausted most of Atari’s top-tier arcade titles, those same developers had to get creative on what to make next. One of those designers, Ian Shepherd, seemed to have decided to look backwards for inspiration – about 15 years backwards, specifically, to one of the very first video games ever designed: Spacewar.

Continue reading “Space War (Space Combat) – October 1978”

Ask someone what they know about Tron, and odds that if they know it at all, it’s probably because of the light cycle sequence. In it, cyclists create walls of light behind them as they move, trying to trap their opponent and cause them to crash. As it happens, that idea didn’t originate with Disney, but dates back to the 1976 Gremlin arcade game Blockade. And as we’ll see, Blockade would find itself cloned time and again, including by Atari for the VCS with Surround.

Continue reading “Surround (Chase) – September 1977”