the release of the Atari keyboard controllers in the fall of 1978 necessitated the development of games that actually use them. Atari’s developers were in need of game ideas that could play to the keyboards’ strengths, and as such turned primarily to existing mental puzzles and computer programs. We saw this last time with Larry Kaplan’s Brain Games, a collection of basic memory and mathematic games, and we’ll see it again next time with Hunt & Score. But for now, we’ve got Codebreaker, which is the VCS rendition of a pair of logic puzzle games with fuzzy origins; one dates back at least to the early 1900s and the other to around the 1500s in its current form, but is probably really a variant of a number game that goes back to the earliest days of human civilization.

The original version of the first game on this cart is known as Bulls and Cows for reasons I haven’t quite managed to put together. In that rendition, one player comes up with a secret, four-digit number and the other must try and guess it in as few turns as possible. After the second player gives their guess, the first player lets them know how close it is by telling them the number of cows – the number of digits that are correct but in the wrong position – and the number of bulls – the number of correct digits in the right spot. If the second player gets four bulls, they win the game. The game is probably better known under the name Mastermind, a codebreaking game using colored pegs instead of numbers that was first published commercially in 1971 by Invicta Games.

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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”

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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From early on, video games have been translating the games people play in the physical realm to the digital. Sometimes this manifests as a sport, like racing cars, but it can also take the shape of something you might play in everyday life. One of the earliest computer games was a 1954 computer conversion of blackjack done on an IBM-701 by Los Alamos engineers to break down the best ways to play the game, and it would prove to be a popular target for computer programs in the 1960s and 70s, with early renditions such as David Frailey’s September 1967 version for DEC’s PDP computer line, and another written in BASIC that was included in David Ahl’s seminal book, 101 BASIC Computer Games.  With this kind of background, it’s not terribly surprising that the card game was routinely among the earliest releases on the first programmable consoles, either.

Continue reading “Blackjack – September 1977”