Atari E.T. Dump Myth Proven True…Sort Of

It’s finally happened. Excavation has begun at the Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill which for decades has been rumored to be the final resting place of thousands upon thousands of unsellable overstock copies of the Atari 2600 game E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. But now it is the rumor which can be laid to rest: it has been confirmed that copies of E.T. have been found.

What many of the news stories fail to mention, however, is that several other game titles and pieces of hardware, including parts for the iconic Atari joystick, were also uncovered at the dig site. What this means is that the site was not merely the dumping ground for E.T. cartridges – or the symbol of the game’s supposed failure – it has long been said to be.

Rather, it seems to corroborate the theory held by leading Atari historians that the site was a dumping ground for an Atari plant in nearby El Paso, Texas that retooled in the mid-’80s. Machinery, computers, and excess inventory – including, but not limited to, E.T. cartridges – were crushed, dumped, and written off by the company. Such practices, while not exactly eco-friendly, were not uncommon at the time.

More questions surrounding the urban legend will be answered as the dig continues. In the meantime, the big question is: how long will it be before games uncovered at the landfill start showing up on eBay?

(c) 2014 Jeffery Koss

System Overload: Aquarius

Platform: Aquarius
Manufacturer: Mattel Electronics
Year: 1983

Aquarius computer console

“This is the dawwwning of the Aaaage of Aqu…” No? Okay. (Photo: Oldcomputers.net)

The Aquarius represented Mattel’s entry into the white-hot home computer wars of the early 1980s. It sounds ridiculous today, but it’s true: Mattel, renowned creator of Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars, made a computer once. And in many ways it was fitting; the Aquarius’ underpowered specifications (even by 1983 standards), diminutive dimensions, and blue rubber keyboard gave many the impression that it was more of a toy than a functional computer. Poor placement, unfortunate timing, halfhearted support, and negative consumer response conspired to make the Aquarius one of the shortest-lived home computers of all time; it was on the market -at least in the U.S.- for just four months. The extraordinary brevity of the Aquarius’ shelf life has cultivated its popularly held reputation of being one of the worst home computers ever. But is it really? Let’s break it down.

Aquarius promo

“Aquarius: at least it beats a Timex/Sinclair.” (Photo: 8bit-micro.com)

BACKGROUND
The Aquarius was born in the wake of Mattel Electronics’ Keyboard Component fiasco. The Keyboard Component was to have transformed Mattel’s successful Intellivision video game console into a full-fledged computer, but due to prolonged cost-related difficulties and numerous delays, the project was cancelled before very many were ever built. By that time, Mattel was facing allegations of fraud, as well as monthly fines from the Federal Trade Commission to the tune of $10,000.

Still on the hook to deliver on what they had promised with the Keyboard Component, Mattel came up with two solutions to stop the bleeding. One was the Entertainment Computer System (ECS), which was developed – practically in secret, due to internal politics – as a low-cost but much less powerful alternative to the Keyboard Component. The other was to rebrand and distribute an existing low-cost, standalone computer. And it just so happened that Mattel’s manufacturer for Intellivision products, the Hong Kong-based Radofin Electronics, had three such systems. Mattel decided to release two of them, which would become the Aquarius and Aquarius II. Thus, the Aquarius was released in June 1983.

But the Aquarius bombed. Hard. It came out at a chaotic time for Mattel, when the company was slashing prices after seeing Intellivision sales nosedive, effecting mass layoffs after going on a hiring binge only weeks earlier, and generally feeling the effects of the Great Video Game Crash then in progress.  Furthermore, the Aquarius simply wasn’t a very capable machine, even in comparison with aging but similarly positioned “budget” or “starter” systems like the Commodore VIC-20 or TI-99/4a, and it was generally ignored by consumers. Due partly to Mattel Electronics’ mounting financial troubles and partly to glacial Aquarius sales, plans to release the Aquarius II and other software and peripherals were abruptly abandoned. By October, Mattel sold the rights to the Aquarius and all unsold stock back to Radofin, bought out of their licensing contract, and, to borrow the expression, got the hell out of Dodge. After just four brief months, the age of Aquarius had passed as quietly as it had come. The system lingered on in PAL territories for a short time before it vanished into the ether of computer history.

Aquarius box

Aquarius box. The Aquarius could be purchased individually, as well as in various packages that included different combinations of software and peripherals.                                                          (Photo: Old-computers.com)

SYSTEM DESIGN
At the core of the Aquarius was the then-ubiquitous Zilog Z80 CPU, running at a then-respectable 3.5 mHz. But the machine had only 4KB of RAM, of which just 1.7KB were available to the user. Its BASIC interpreter – which was written by none other than Microsoft – was limited and lacked several commands found in other systems’ BASIC languages (many of which, incidentally, were also written by Microsoft). It lacked composite video output and serial connectivity, had only one audio channel, and its graphical capabilities were constrained to a limited and hard-coded character set. Working on Aquarius software was considered tantamount to punishment by Mattel’s software designers, who derided the Aquarius and its inadequate specs as “the System for the Seventies.”

Aquarius character set

Every Aquarius game’s graphics and animations are made of some combination of these characters. The possibilities are endless!…you know, within reason.

Another problem was the keyboard. As friendly as the Aquarius’ blue rubber chiclet keyboard appears, that’s how fiendish it actually is. To begin with, the keys are small and mushy-feeling, immediately rendering conventional touch typing out of the question. But more egregious is the layout, which I imagine is high in the running for “Most Bizarre Keyboard Layout of All Time” (though it doesn’t top the Commodore PET 2001 or Video Brain). For one thing, the Aquarius places the Reset key directly next to the “1” key, practically begging the user to fat-finger it at some point while pecking away at a BASIC listing and accidentally wipe out hours of work. The Reset key does have a “safety” ridge around it to mitigate this somewhat, but it’s still an easy key to hit precisely when you don’t mean to.

Aquarius keyboard

Nobody was ever going be writing any term papers or the next Great American Novel on this thing.                                     (Photo: geekvintage.com)

As if that weren’t enough, the Aquarius keyboard ditches conventional space bars and enter keys for little ordinary buttons which at first blush look like shift or control keys. This would be even worse if being able to type worth a damn were even a possibility to begin with, but fortunately it’s merely annoying.

But for all its quirks, idiosyncrasies, and questionable design philosophy, the Aquarius really only commits one unforgivable cardinal sin of hardware design, which can be summed up in four words: Hardwired. External. Power. Supply. The key offender, of course, being “hardwired.” True to its “System Of The Seventies” nickname, this “feature” seems to be a holdover from the Disco Era, when many video game systems such as the Fairchild Channel F and Bally Professional Arcade were tethered to their power bricks. The problems associated with this design should be obvious, the least of which is the inconvenience of handling and storing a system attached to a small dumbbell, and the greatest of which is how the computer becomes a deskweight if the power supply goes bad.

Aquarius power supply

WHY.                                                     (Photo: geekvintage.com)

The power supply came in at least two variations (I own Aquariuses – Aquarii? – with each type): a hardwired standard wall wart (*ugh*), and a “pigtail” unit, where one cord runs from the transformer to the computer while another runs from the transformer to the power outlet. The latter is preferable since it at least doesn’t hog precious real estate on an electrical outlet or power strip.

MEDIA
Like many home computers of the day, the Aquarius used ROM cartridges. And it has some of the strangest-looking cartridges I’ve ever seen; Aquarius cartridges are boxy, angular affairs that look more like battery packs from vintage cell phones than software cartridges as we know them. There is a reason for this, however: when inserted into the computer, the cartridge fits flush with the console’s angled top edge, creating a slim, streamlined, and slick-looking profile.

Example of an Aquarius cartridge. In addition to software, RAM expansions came in cartridge form.                                               (Photo: geekvintage.com)

Aquarius with cartridge inserted

Aquarius with cartridge inserted. Slick, right?                        (Photo: M. v. d. Steenoven)

This concession to aesthetics backfires a bit with the Mini Expander, though (more on that in a bit); the cartridges stick out like plastic stumps to make the system about as attractive as a Sega 32X setup.

The Aquarius also loads software from cassette tape. Although tape software was essentially nonexistent in the U.S. (apart from the Demo tape which came with a few of the various Aquarius packages to show off the Data Recorder, and the Terminal Emulator tape that came with the Modem), quite a few games came out on tape in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, where cassettes were a much more popular format even into the mid 1980s. These were usually interpretations of popular arcade games and standard BASIC fare, but there were original titles as well.

PERIPHERALS
On its own, the Aquarius is a pretty goofy little thing, and not well-suited to doing anything beyond running game cartridges (which is fine…that’s why we’re here, right?). But it did have a few peripherals that could be used to squeeze a little more usefulness out of it, such as the aforementioned Data Recorder and Modem, a small thermal printer, a four-color plotter (now exceedingly rare), and the Mini Expander.

Expanded Aquarius: winner of zero beauty contests.                                                (Photo: Oldcomputers.net)

The Mini Expander is interesting in that it essentially transforms the Aquarius into the computer it should have been in the first place. The “Mini” part is misleading since it’s almost as large as the computer (which itself is fairly small, so I guess it’s kinda mini), but the Expander is easily the Aquarius’ most important peripheral. It connects via the cartridge interface and adds three additional audio channels, game controller support, and two cartridge ports: one for a program or Modem, and one for a RAM expansion cartridge. The RAM cartridges came in 4K and 16K varieties and are pretty much required if you want to do anything besides play Astrosmash. Many of the third-party tape games require the 16K cartridge, but strangely, even a few cartridges – for example, FinForm – require the additional RAM to run, which in turn means they can’t be run without the Mini Expander.

CONTROLLERS
The Mini Expander was packed with two Aquarius game controllers, which makes sense since they couldn’t be used without it anyway. They clearly resemble the Intellivision’s controllers – specifically the Intellivision II’s – but they are smaller, lack side-mounted fire buttons, and have a six-button keypad in an unusual 2 x 3 layout instead of the standard 12-key pad. And although they use the same standard 9-pin connector as systems like the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, and the later Sega Genesis, the Aquarius is not compatible with any other controller. However, the Aquarius’ controllers are surprisingly sturdy, well-made, and responsive, although larger hands may find their small form a bit cramped.

Aquarius game controller

If the Intellivision controller and Tomy Tutor controller had a lovechild, you’d get the Aquarius game controller.                           (Photo: Phosphor Dot Fossils)

For Aquarius users lacking the Mini Expander (or those who simply don’t feel like using the controllers), the keyboard can also be used for game playing. In fact, Aquarius game cartridges included two sets of control overlays: one set for the game controllers’ keypads, and one set that fits over the computer keyboard (this overlay is actually two pieces). With certain games, the keyboard is actually preferable – mushy though it may be – as it can be more intuitive than the controller’s awkward keypad configuration:

Aquarius game controller overlays: Night Stalker

Case in point: Night Stalker, which requires you to move your character with the control disc while firing in different directions with these buttons…                                                                                                             (Photo: geekvintage.com)

Aquarius keyboard overlays: Night Stalker

…or you can use the keyboard, which approximates the modern ASDW/arrow key configuration, and not have to look at your controller every four seconds.                                                               (Photo: geekvintage.com)

SOFTWARE
Only about a dozen games were released in the U.S. before Mattel pulled the plug. Mattel’s Aquarius library reads like a playlist of “Intellivision’s Greatest Hits,” including such titles as Astrosmash, Utopia, Tron: Deadly Discs, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin. Even Burgertime made it to the Aquarius. But although they exhibit very distinct Aquariusness (check out a few gameplay videos on YouTube; you’ll see what I mean), they keep remarkable pace with their classic console counterparts. Astrosmash in particular is every bit as addicting as its more famous relative on the Intellivision, and is arguably the closest thing the Aquarius has to a killer app.

Despite a relative dearth of cartridge titles, quite a number of games came out on tape overseas. As mentioned earlier, these ranged from knockoffs of arcade hits to adaptations of common BASIC games to completely original titles. Serious Aquarius gamers would do well to track down games such as Millypede, N-Vaders, Mazantics, and Pac-Mr. (Or a therapist. *rimshot*) And by “track down,” I mean “download VirtualAquarius,” the contents of which include .WAV files for these games and more for use on the VirtualAquarius emulator, or on a real Aquarius through your device’s headphone jack. ‘Cause let’s face it: the chances of you happening across some Aquarius tapes are decidedly not good.

Note on loading cassettes: many Aquarius tape programs are two-part loads. First “CLOAD” the short BASIC loader, then “RUN” it. This will prompt you to load the machine language component.

It wasn’t all fun and games on the Aquarius. There were also a couple of productivity and programming cartridges such as FinForm, FileForm, Microsoft Extended BASIC, and LOGO. The overwhelming majority of Aquarius software, though, is games. Which is exactly the way it should be…we’re talking about a computer released by a toy company, after all!

COLLECTIBILITY
As you might expect, the Aquarius is fairly rare today. And yet, it isn’t; although the chances of finding one at your favorite thrift shop are thin, there are numerous Aquarius systems on eBay at pretty much any given time. Apart from its small but loyal cult following, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in these systems, and there are enough of them out there that they can still be had for a fairly reasonable price. Most of the best games are relatively common, but can be expensive individually ($20-30), especially if they’re complete with the box, manual, both overlay sets, and box insert. If you just want a taste of the Aquarius, chances are you could get a small lot with a few games for under $100, and that will probably include all the games you’re likely to ever want to play. But if you’re more adventurous and want get into late releases (ex: Burgertime) and cartridges that came out after Radofin took over (ex: Space Speller), expect to fork out $50 apiece and up.

There are some other things in the Aquariverse that collectors will want to take note of, as well. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the fabled Aquarius II. The Aquarius II was released by Radofin in PAL-Land after Mattel bugged out of the computer market, but as far as anyone can tell, it was even less successful than the first Aquarius.

Aquarius II system from Radofin

I guess people were happy with their superior computers. Their loss.                                                   (Photo: Old-Computers.com…duh)

Functionally, it’s essentially the same system as the standard Aquarius except that it has an improved keyboard and Microsoft Extended BASIC (otherwise available in cartridge form, although this itself is incredibly rare). Good luck finding an Aquarius II outside of Europe…or inside of Europe…or anywhere, basically.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS AND OTHER COOL STUFF
We’ve established that the Aquarius was staggeringly short-lived, obscure, and not altogether useful or popular. But that hasn’t prevented a cult following from springing up around the system, or new things being done with it. One such thing, which I would be remiss if I did not grant even a passing mention, is the Aquaricart, a menu-based multicart released by Aquarius authority Jay Snellen in 2011. It includes every cartridge release, electronic instructions for them (so you don’t necessarily need the manuals and overlays anymore), prototypes, and more…on one handy-dandy cartridge. In the immortal words of Duke Nukem: “Groovy.

Unpaid product placement.

The only Aquarius cartridge you’ll ever need.                                                             (Photo: M. v. d. Steenoven)

Another thing is this:

Yeah.

CONCLUSION
The Aquarius is like a weird cousin of the Intellivision; its games are ugly ports of Intellivision games, its controllers are like shrunken Intellivision controllers with fewer buttons, and the system itself was borne of the Intellivision’s failed Keyboard Component project. The only reason it was even released was to get the FTC off Mattel’s back, and despite the optimism displayed in Aquarius catalogs (which are basically lists of vaporware and cancelled projects), it’s likely that Mattel never truly intended to support it in any meaningful way.

Even from a technical standpoint, it’s a weird system. The keyboard, the proprietary printer connection, the shape of the cartridges, the hardcoded character graphics, the proprietary cassette connection, the controllers, the fact that there is some cartridge-based software which requires extra RAM…everything about the Aquarius is just weird. It’s also a funny system in that you usually expect what-we-now-call-PC versions of games to be superior to console versions, and the Aquarius ports of Intellivision games are actually worse.

Still, there’s lot to like about the Aquarius. The games, while clearly inhibited by the computer’s sizable limitations, are nonetheless highly playable, and none stand out as being particularly bad. Ugly and a little clunky? Perhaps, but on the contrary, they’re generally pretty good. It’s like the Aquarius was spiting itself or something. Furthermore, its relatively small library and oddball status make it a fun system to collect for. It’s not going to be your go-to retro computer, and there’s nothing the Aquarius can do that isn’t done better by an Intellivision or ZX Spectrum, but for collectors and gamers looking for something a bit off the beaten path, the Aquarius fits the bill.

(c) 2014 Jeffery Koss

Trick Or Treat: Essential Halloween Games

If you’re like me, Halloween is all about stocking up on candy, putting on a playlist of early Simpsons and South Park Halloween episodes, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!, and any number of awesome and awesomely bad horror flicks, busting out your beverage of choice, and rocking out on a game like Zombies Ate My Neighbors or Parasite Eve. Slaying monsters, exploring creepy places, or even being the monster is fun any time of year, and these games somehow become even better when there’s an aura of festivity around them. These are a few -but certainly not all- of my personal favorite Halloween games, in no order:

Castlevania (NES)Castlevania
(NES, Commodore 64, Amiga, DOS)

This one’s a no-brainer. As far as classic video games are concerned, Castlevania is essentially synonymous with Halloween. Any of the series’ many games will do (except maybe Castlevania 64, but if that’s what you’re into, who am I to judge?), but for sheer no-nonsense old-school wholesale ass-whooping of just about every creepy crawler in all of classic horrordom, there is no substitute for the original.

(Side note: is anyone else a fan of Simon’s Quest?)

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Ghosts 'N' Goblins (NES)Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins
(Arcade, NES, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, PC88, Spectrum, Amstrad CPC) 

Whether it’s the arcade original or one of the various home computer and console ports, no Halloween classic gaming session is complete without some form of Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins or, alternately, its sequel, Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts. Sneak a piece of your favorite candy from the Trick Or Treat stash if you can get past the first level. You’ll have earned it.

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Resident Evil (PSX)Resident Evil
(PlayStation, Saturn, PC, GameCube)
A spooky, mysterious mansion riddled with booby traps and monsters, a story that plays out like a murder mystery, precious few resources with which to survive, and some of the greatest bad voice acting of all time: these are the ingredients for a basically perfect Halloween game. That, and zombie-blasting of Dawn Of The Dead proportions. The GameCube remake ratchets up the suspense a bit by requiring you to burn the bodies of the zombies you put down, lest they come back to “life”…and you really don’t want that.

(See also: Alone In The Dark, Silent Hill, Clock Tower.)

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Haunted House (Atari 2600)Haunted House
(Atari 2600)

The graphical limitations of the good old Atari Video Computer System (that’s “2600” to you!) ended up doing Haunted House a lot of credit. You control a pair of freaked-out eyeballs exploring a pitch-dark haunted house (!) in a mission to collect keys, a scepter of invincibility, and three pieces of a magic urn while avoiding tarantulas, bats, and ghosts. Only when the urn is assembled can you leave the haunted house. Imagine Adventure a la Wes Craven.

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Death Race (Arcade)Death Race
(Arcade)

Chances are that unless you’re a big-time collector of arcade machines, you’ll have to play this controversial 1976 arcade racer via emulation (*shudder*), which puts you behind the wheel of a race car tasked with mowing down distinctly humanoid-looking zombies. Its subject matter was pretty intense in the Pong-dominated world of 1976, and it’s still fun today.

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Dracula (Intellivision)Dracula
(Intellivision)

This Intellivision exclusive differs somewhat from most other “creature feature” games. Instead of hunting and slaying Dracula, as the title and decades of horror-genre naming conventions may imply, you actually play as Dracula as he goes around flushing people out of their houses and murdering them in the street before returning to his tomb before sunrise. The pesky Constable can slow you down by chucking stakes at you (ouch!), but you can transform victims into zombies to take care of him for you.

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Halloween (Atari 2600)Halloween
(Atari 2600)

It’s all in the name. This one is probably the goriest game there is for the Atari 2600, although that’s a bit like saying “this plastic toy brick is the blockiest Lego.” Based on the classic horror film of the same name, you control a Sally Brown lookalike Jamie Lee Curtis as she tries to rescue the child she’s babysitting from the long blade of Michael Myers, ad infinitum, until Mikey has decapitated her for the third time. Bonus “oh no he di’in’t!” points: Myers can also stab the kid into a blood-spurting pile of smashed pixels.

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Atari 2600)The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(Atari 2600)
I went over this one in greater detail in an earlier review, but it fits the bill here. As established in that review, there are certainly better games -including its “brother,” Halloween– but Texas Chainsaw Massacre is ripe for a quick Halloween playthrough or two, even if only for the novelty value. Besides, what’s Halloween without a little novelty?

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Chiller (Arcade)Chiller
(Arcade, NES)

This 1986 arcade title could well be the only game in the Torture-Shooter genre, and it legitimately contends for “Most Violent Video Game Of All Time.” The whole point of the game is to activate torture devices to mutilate and dismember helpless loincloth-clad victims, as well as to shoot off as much of their skin and/or body parts as possible, in addition to other spooky targets like spiders, bats, rats, and other projectiles. The over-the-top gruesomeness and haunted locales -including torture dungeons and haunted graveyards- make this game worth checking out come All Hallow’s Eve…but maybe wait until the kids are asleep.

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Satan's Hollow (Arcade)Satan’s Hollow
(Arcade, Atari 400/800, Commodore 64)
First of all, no, this game does not advocate devil worship. What it does advocate, though, is classic arcade shooting goodness in the vein of Galaga or Galaxian. Old Scratch appears every couple of stages to barf columns of fire down on you, but that’s as Satanic as Satan’s Hollow gets. Even so, it’s a great game.

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Splatterhouse (Arcade)Splatterhouse
(Arcade, TurboGrafx-16, FM Towns Marty)
This one certainly lives up to its name. As the Jason Voorhees doppelgänger Rick, you punch, kick, hack, slash, and shoot your way through nightmarish stages full of slimy undead monsters, dismembered corpses, occult references, and various other abominations in a quest to rescue your girlfriend, Jennifer. Rescuing the princess has never been this horrortastic.

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Ghost Manor (Atari 2600)Ghost Manor
(Atari 2600)
There’s a lot more here than first meets the eye. What first appears as a fairly junky looking and pointless avoid-the-ghost-in-the-graveyard game actually turns out to be a pretty cool (though still junky looking, aside from the nicely detailed house in the background) multi-screen game which begins by catching the ghost in the graveyard. Turns out, he gives you spears that you need in the second screen to take out all the flying creatures -while avoiding the axe-wielding mummy- and get into the Manor. Then you avoid the moving walls while searching the coffins (?) for crosses, which you use to defeat Dracula and rescue your friend. It pays to read the manual, kids.

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Cauldron (Commodore 64)Cauldron
(Commodore 64, Spectrum, Amstrad CPC)
It feels like there aren’t too many games in which you play as a witch. Well, Cauldron is one of them, as you fly around on your broom collecting keys to underground caves containing the ingredients you need to create the potion to destroy the evil pumpkin, your arch-nemesis. It’s a pretty good and pretty forgotten game that’s worth resurrecting this time of year.

Note that instead of lives, you have hags. Well played.

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House Of The Dead 2 (Dreamcast)House Of The Dead 2
(Arcade, Dreamcast, PC)
You could probably lump the whole series in here, but my favorite has always been the second installment. Hilariously bad voice acting -if not quite as funny as Resident Evil’s– and fast-pasted Sega-style light gun action make House Of The Dead 2 a zombie-slayer to beat. Add a second light gun and you’ve got a party.

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Frankenstein's Monster (Atari 2600)Frankenstein’s Monster
(Atari 2600)
This relatively unknown Atari VCS title has all the makings of a classic Halloween game: spiders, ghosts, creepy-crawleys, and of course, Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s a multi-screen affair that can actually get a little intense as you race against time to build a wall around the dormant Monster before he comes to life. It’s almost worth it to lose on purpose just to see the “game over” sequence.

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Midnight Mutants (Atari 7800)Midnight Mutants
(Atari 7800)
It’s got Grampa Munster. What more is there to say? Actually, plenty. The game even bills itself as “the ultimate Halloween nightmare.” You roam around a haunted monster-ridden town, collecting items and weapons, opening up new areas, exploring Grampa’s mansion, and fighting a host of Halloween monsters and bosses. If you need help, Grampa gives you advice throughout the game about all of those things, rather like Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s a pity the 7800 didn’t have more games like this.

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(c) 2013 Jeffery Koss

A closer look at: The Karate Kid

Title: The Karate Kid
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Publisher: LJN
Year: 1987

The Karate Kid (NES)

LJN: Masters of the Exploding Rainbow Diarrhea Technique.

This review comes at the request of Kevin Wiesneski. You owe me, buddy.

We all loved The Karate Kid when it hit theaters. Heck, we still do. And everybody except the most curmudgeonly of joystick-era reactionaries and the most vapid of latter-day graphics snobs loves the good old Nintendo Entertainment System. So naturally, combining these two ’80s pop culture titans is a slam dunk, right? Let’s find out together!

The Karate Kid is a game I wasn’t altogether familiar with before my old pal Kevin requested I do a review of it. I’d read some things about it here and there, most of which had lead me believe it isn’t a very good game. The LJN logo on the cover certainly didn’t inspire notions to the contrary, based on past experience with such titles as Friday The 13th, Major League Baseball, The Uncanny X-Men (which I actually kind of like, in spite of itself), and the various junky WWF Wrestlemania games the company cranked out on the Nintendo. I’ve had The Karate Kid kicking around in my collection for some time now, but I never really played it apart from testing it to make sure that the thing actually worked. So, apart from the possibility of another terrible movie tie-in from LJN, I didn’t know what to expect going into this.

At first blush, the game looks and feels like a knockoff of mid-’80s one-on-one karate games like Karate Champ or International Karate. But beginning with Stage 2, the game becomes a side-scrolling beat-’em-up in the vein of Kung Fu and Black Belt. And the game has only four levels, which appear to be based more on The Karate Kid Part II than the original Karate Kid film. Stage 1 is the All Valley Karate Tournament from the end of the first movie, but stages 2, 3, and 4 take place in Japan, as does the bulk of Part II. Stage 3 recalls the typhoon scene from the second film, and Stage 4 puts you in a ruined Japanese castle and concludes the game with a boss battle against Part II‘s villainous Chozen Toguchi. The title screen even uses the poster artwork from Part II.

Title screen

Right name, wrong game. Or is it “Right game, wrong name?”

By rights, this game should have been entitled The Karate Kid Part II. Granted, consumers would doubtless have wondered what happened to the “first” Karate Kid game, but such naming conundrums never stopped companies like Sears, RCA, and Sears again from releasing products that often left gamers wondering where their progenitors were. (There were reasons for that which are more arcane than erroneous, but we won’t get into that here.)

I’ve read a lot about how this game is unplayably difficult due to broken mechanics, poor controls, and this and that. I didn’t find it to be that exactly, but there are a couple of things to know about the controls. The most useful attack by far is your basic kick, but there is a momentary delay between the press of the button and the execution of the kick due to it being a two-stage attack: a knee lift, followed by the kick itself. The kick itself is what takes bad guys out, leaving you vulnerable to attack during the knee-lift “setup,” which in turn makes learning the timing of the kick critical if you hope to get anywhere in this game at all. Punching is faster, but the range of the attack is short enough that by the time an enemy comes within punching range, he will probably have hit you once or twice.

There are two special attacks that Daniel-San can perform: the Crane Kick -the iconic move made famous by the first Karate Kid movie- and the Drum Punch. These moves are accessible by collecting sporadically appearing “C” and “D” icons and are usable only when you have some stockpiled.

Additionally, jumping is done by pressing “up” on the D-Pad; many gamers are less than fond of “Up To Jump,” and as a general rule I’m with them, but in this case I didn’t find it to be much trouble. The jumping physics remind me of those in the original Street Fighter, though.

Playing Tip: Progress methodically. Let enemies come to you and walk into your kicks.

I breezed through Stage 1 on my first attempt. I found Stage 1 altogether too easy. Like, Kelly Bundy easy. It requires little more than repeatedly kicking. Even Stage 2 didn’t put up much of a fight (see what I did there?) once I got the timing of my attacks down. I was starting to wonder where all the fuss about this game’s supposedly ludicrous difficulty had come from. But toward the middle of Stage 3, I was starting to see what they were talking about.

Stage 1: All Valley Karate Tournament

Wax on…

Stage 3: Typhoon

…Game off.

Stage 3 -the Typhoon level- is where some of the problems with the game’s physics become apparent. Chiefly, the rigid jumping and collision. Colliding with or being struck by an enemy or foreign object* results in your being flung helplessly backward, during which time you are still vulnerable to attack. In some sections of the game this can result in Daniel-San cheaply getting juggled around between enemies and whittled down to nothing without so much as an edgewise punch. But in Stage 3 these things more often resulted in instant deaths by getting bumped into water-filled pits, accompanied by frustration of Castlevanian proportions. In addition to the regular lot of red-suited hoodlums trying to bump you off, The Karate Kid’s typhoon level throws flying sticks and randomly-moving birds into the mix. It’s mildly comical to see the poor birds vainly flying against the hurricane wind, until you get smacked backwards into a watery death by an errant pigeon for the 57th time. The birds and flying sticks can be destroyed, but I found doing so almost as tricky as killing the Pterodactyl in Joust; it can be done, it’s just really hard.

(*Technically, as an American in Japan, you are the foreign object.)

E.T. (Atari 2600)

“…and you thought MY pits were bad!”

Yet, I am unconvinced that The Karate Kid is as fundamentally, irretrievably terrible as the internet likes to portray it. I daresay it even has a few things going for it. Not a lot, but a few.

The game is not altogether bad in the audio-visual department. The graphics are clean and somewhat detailed, although the color palettes are a little on the bland side. The title screen music is a little shrill, and the in-game music and sound effects are relatively basic, but the sound and graphics are just effective enough to get the job done. They’re essentially what you’d expect from an early third-party NES title.

The relative variety of gameplay is a plus, as well. In addition to the one-on-one and side-scrolling elements of the game, The Karate Kid mixes things up with bonus stages, which can be accessed at various points in your journey. I personally enjoyed them, if only for the fact that they broke up the monotony of walking rightwards and kicking people and getting knocked into pits. The bonus stages require the player to do things like catch flies with chopsticks, avoid a swinging hammer (this part reminds me of tetherball), and smashing blocks of ice (another reference to Part II).

The Karate Kid bonus round

This swinging hammer can be purchased at your local hardware store in the Poe-esque Torture department.

Parts of this game are certainly difficult and irritating, but with practice and experience, The Karate Kid is not insurmountable. If there are people out there who can master such aneurism-inducingly difficult games as Mega Man, Battletoads, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there’s no reason why The Karate Kid couldn’t be beaten by a player with the patience and inclination to do so. I am not that player (although after nearly 25 years, I’m pretty close with TMNT), but judging by the ending, it probably isn’t worth it anyway.

Playing Tip: When possible, run away from enemies. No more than two can be onscreen at a time (excluding birds and sticks); if you can keep them chasing you, the path ahead of you will be easier.

While I don’t think The Karate Kid is nearly as bad as it is often made out to be, I find it to be only marginal at best. And even though it’s an inexpensive and readily available cartridge that isn’t without some gameplay value, I would recommend it only to hardcore NES collectors -for completion’s sake- or budding retrogamers who stumble upon it at a thrift store and have nothing better to do with the couple of bucks it will cost. Ultimately, it just isn’t a very memorable game. Nothing about it really jumps out at you, and almost everything about it is firmly average (which is actually a huge compliment for an LJN title). Considering the Nintendo’s wealth of quality beat ’em ups such as River City Ransom, the Double Dragon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games, or the aforementioned Kung Fu, there’s just not enough here to make The Karate Kid worth going out of your way to pick up…unless you collect Karate Kid memorabilia or something (that’s probably a thing, right?). The Karate Kid falls into that lukewarm purgatory where it’s not quite good enough to play on its own merits, and not bad enough to play forteh lulz.

But it certainly isn’t the worst thing ever to have “The Karate Kid” slapped on it. (Or even the next worst.)

(c) 2013 Jeffery Koss

A closer look at: UFO!

Title: UFO!
Platform: Odyssey²
Publisher: Magnavox
Year: 1981

Odyssey²: home of the best box art of all time. The distinctive vintage sci-fi look adorns virtually every Odyssey game cover.

If you had an Odyssey² system in 1981, people who owned Ataris and Intellivisions wondered what was wrong with you. They maybe even pitied you a little, smug with the satisfaction that their systems were better than yours; the Odyssey didn’t have any of the “name brand” arcade games the Atari Video Computer System had, or advanced graphics like the Intellivision had. They would gloat that all you had was an admittedly cool-looking membrane keyboard that was as useful as a screen door on a submarine while they had the latest and greatest games and features.

That would all end when you showed them a game like UFO! Suddenly, Asteroids on their Ataris was seen for the chunky, flickery mess it was. Intellivision fans were forced to admit that the only game they had that could keep up was Astrosmash. Of course they would feign disinterest before sulking back to their superior hardware, as fanboys are wont to do, but it made them privately wonder if the Odyssey² wasn’t such a bad little system after all. After two or three years of mediocre, generic software, the underdog had bitten back.

UFO! cartridge (Odyssey²)

UFO! is one of the “Challenger Series” games for the Odyssey². These titles were the Odyssey’s answers to popular arcade games of the day -none of which could be licensed by Magnavox- and are generally considered the best games released for the system. UFO! is the Odyssey’s take on Asteroids, with sort of a Robotron twist. The game puts you in control of a flying saucer-shaped “Earth Federation robot-controlled battle cruiser” (according to the instruction manual), the mission of which is to defend Earth against various types of marauding UFOs. It’s not exactly the most original premise, but UFO! does quite a bit to distinguish itself.

The Odyssey²’s “boot screen.” Classic.

Your ship is surrounded by a force field, a somewhat novel feature. It can be used to ram an enemy, or to provide the energy for your laser missiles. After firing or ramming an enemy, the force field will need to recharge; while it recharges, you are vulnerable. The speed of your ship decreases by 50% while your shield is down, as well.

Starting the day with a bowl of Lucky Charms…er…a game of UFO!

The aiming system is unlike any other I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few!) and is rather innovative. The aforementioned force field actually serves as an aiming device as well. The brighter, larger dot in the field indicates which direction your shots will travel. Moving the ship in any direction will cause the aiming reticule to rotate clockwise. This will probably seem strange to the uninitiated, but it quickly becomes very intuitive. It’s a very clever way of approximating a “two-joystick” arcade control system, a la Robotron 2084 or Space Dungeon, with a single joystick controller.

You encounter three types of UFOs in the game: the Random Drifter, the Hunter-Killer, and the dreaded Lightspeed Starship. The “Random Drifter” drifts randomly (no way!), and is represented by a tumbling “X” (if you look carefully you’ll notice its animation actually cycles between the “X” and “+” characters). They’re worth one point each. Hunter-Killers are formed when two Drifters collide. They look like blobs combined with the tumbling Drifters. They follow you around the screen and are worth three points each. The deadly Lightspeed Starship is a bad mamma jamma. This mean motor scooter looks like a saucer, appears without warning, and fires lethally accurate laser missiles at you. It’s good for 10 points.

UFO!’s menagerie of enemies.

A very cool thing that happens when you destroy any of these things is that “shrapnel” flies off in three different directions and can destroy other enemies in turn, creating a chain reaction (be careful, though; your shield is down the whole time this is happening). Although I would have liked to see a point multiplier system for this domino effect, it is nevertheless perhaps the most satisfying gameplay aspect of UFO!

Shrapnel: these three dots left over from a destroyed UFO can also destroy other UFOs, which will give off three dots of their own, and so forth.

You only get one “life” in UFO!, as in most Odyssey games. And when it ends you are treated to a colorful display in which your ship sparks and goes critical before exploding. It’s one of the nicer “the quarterback is toast!” sequences that comes to mind, and it takes a little bit of the edge off a hard-fought 700-point game coming to an abrupt end. And as with the other Challenger Series titles, you can enter a 6-character name when you post a high score. Although UFO! is essentially a one-player game, any number of players can compete for the right to put a goofy abbreviation of their name (or, more often, some form of obscenity) on the screen.

Like most (okay, all) Odyssey² games, UFO!’s graphics and sounds are fairly austere, being culled partially from the system’s in-built character and sound effects sets. That is no detriment in the case of UFO!, however, as the game is colorful, clean-looking, and absolutely flicker-free. (Suck on that, Atari fanboys!) The sound effects are gloriously retro and distinctly “Odyssey²,” and very appropriate for the game.

Objectively, UFO! is one of the best games available for the Odyssey². It more than holds its own against the Asteroids games for both the Atari VCS and Atari 400/800 computer, and is in a completely different league than the Intellivision’s dreadful Space Hawk. Of course, comparing UFO! exclusively to its closest analog is selling it short because, although UFO! shares elements with Asteroids, it is truly a unique game. My only real critiques are that I’d have liked to see a scoring multiplier for “chain reactions,” as well as a simultaneous 2-player game, though I’m sure hardware limitations precluded either. But hindsight is 20/20, and even as is, UFO! is a bonafide underground classic that offers virtually endless replayability.

Fortunately for retro enthusiasts, UFO! is a very easy game to find. If you don’t own an Odyssey², it’s worth getting one for UFO! alone. I suspect many people did just that in the early ’80s, as virtually every Odyssey system you find for sale will probably include a copy of UFO!

UFO! was released internationally under various localized titles such as Satelliten-Angriff (Germany), Nazo no UFO (Japan), OVNI! (Brazil), and Les Satellites Attaquent (France). European editions of the game are also compatible with the Videopac G7400 (the released European version of the unreleased Odyssey³), which adds some bright background graphics to the game.

UFO! playing on a Videopac G7400.

UFO! is hands down my favorite Odyssey² game. It’s gotta be pretty high in the the running for “favorite game of all time” as well. Anecdotally, it was the first retro game I ever really played, way back in 1997 (I realize fully how silly that sounds to people of a certain age). Since then, I couldn’t even tell you how many hours of my life I’ve lost to UFO! In those many hours I’d like to think I’ve gained some tactical wisdom about the game, which I will share with you here:

Playing tip: The Lightspeed Starships have the irritating habit of instantly wasting you with their laser missiles the instant they appear on screen, sometimes even seemingly before. As a general rule, try to keep toward the center of the screen to maximize your ability to react to things that pop up at the edges of the screen. 

Playing tip: Although the Lightspeed Starships can travel at various angles, they can only fire diagonally. Stay out of its “corners;” approach from the sides or directly above/below. Use Drifters and Hunter-Killers as cover.

Playing tip: Just because a Starship is there doesn’t mean you have to attack it. If in doubt, avoid it. You’ll get more points by staying in the game than going after a Starship which you may not even be in a very good position to fight. You only get one life; think long-term.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

A closer look at: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Title: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Platform: Atari Video Computer System
Publisher: Wizard Video
Year: 1983

Another example of grossly misleading early ’80s box art.

This is an interesting one. Not so much for the game itself, but rather for its background and its place in video game history.

In the early 1980s, the home video distribution rights to the classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were owned by an independent distributor called Wizard Video. And at that time, video games were a hot business to be in; virtually everybody and their mothers were churning out video games, especially for the Atari 2600. Wizard decided that some video games based on its movies would be a lucrative product line. The company created and released just two games based on its properties –The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween- while the home console game market was imploding under their feet. Both games amounted to little more than cash grabs from yet another company that had no business making video games (see also: Ralston-Purina, Quaker Oats, Johnson & Johnson).

(Fun Fact: Wizard Video was owned by B-movie legend Charles Band, who produced such cult classics as Subspecies, Puppet Master, and Gingerdead Man. With Wizard Video Games he intended to make video games for adults, including a game adaptation of Deep Throat which never came to fruition.)

The Texas Chainsaw Title Screen.

The games were controversial due to their unprecedented violence; they were the first games to feature graphical representations of blood and homicide. Moreover, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earned the dubious distinction of being the first video game in which the object is outright murder. Most retailers wanted nothing to do with Wizard’s games, and those that did carry the games kept them behind the counter or in the back room, out of customers’ sight, making them available only by request. Predictably, they did not sell well, making them rarities today.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre puts you in control of Leatherface, the chainsaw-swinging maniac from the film, as he patrols his farm. Something seems lost in the translation from film to game, as he looks a little more like an entranced Coach Buzzcut from Beavis & Butthead than Leatherface (which in all honesty is probably more terrifying). Coach Buzzcut is equipped with a chainsaw, represented in the game as a long, nubby stump protruding from his torso.

Leatherface and his doppelgänger.

Randomly appearing on the screen (and chirping shrilly when they do) are teenage girls that bear a striking 8-bit resemblance to Loretta Lockhorn. Your mission is to kill Loretta Lockhorn as many times as possible within the limits of three tanks of gasoline.

The teenage girl might be a bit older than she said she was.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Randomly appearing to thwart your efforts are fences, cattle skulls, wheelchairs, and thickets (each is a reference to the film, but they seem a bit zany in the context of this game). And it is ridiculously easy to get snagged on these things; even the slightest collision of pixels will get you rigidly and maddeningly stuck. To get unstuck, you can either saw through the barrier or simply wait a second or two and Leatherface will get out of it on his own. The thickets must be sawed through, however; it seems Leatherface doesn’t know his way out of a pile of sticks and weeds.

When you’re a chainsaw murderer on the loose, these are the last things you want to see.

The obstacles (and the girls, for that matter) appear randomly no matter which direction you run in. There is no pattern or map. Like, at all; even obstacles you’ve already passed will disappear or rearrange. Going one way and turning around will reveal a completely new layout of obstacles. It’s a little disorienting, but when you’re a psychotic chainsaw killer, these things matter little.

Playing tip: instead of trying to meander through obstacles in search of chainsaw fodder, move back and forth rapidly to generate new obstacles. When a girl appears, you should have a clearer path to her. This can be especially helpful later in the game, when the increased speed makes fluid navigation of obstacles impossible.

Once you’ve gotten a bead on a prospective victim, you are free to run straight up to them and let loose, except that they have the annoying habit of teleporting behind you if you get too close. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and they’ll let you ‘saw them right away, but more often you’ll have to chase them back and forth a few times (the number of times varies depending on how much they want to piss you off), wasting precious fuel before you can finally do them in.

Another one bites the dust: although quaint today, it was this kind of brutality that made this game a pariah among retailers and consumers.

Playing tip: wait until your chainsaw is visibly overlapping the victim before revving up with the fire button.

When your chainsaw dries up, it’s the teenager’s turn to kick some ass. And that she does, in one of the silliest Game Over sequences I can recollect. How a helpless teenager can suddenly kick a hulking monster out of existence has baffled physicists for decades.

A little extra fuel is awarded every 5,000 points, and the game speed substantially increases every 10,000 points. The extra fuel usually isn’t enough to get you more than one or two more kills, though. And the increasing game speed, random and unmercifully sticky obstacles, backward-warping teenage girls, and limited, unreplenishable fuel all seem to conspire to create a maximum score ceiling of around 30,000 points, give or take a grand (I’m told the world record is 34,000; my best score is 28- or 29K). This is what prevents The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from being more than a novelty game; the real challenge of the game lies in wrestling with its flawed and arbitrary mechanics rather than honing any gameplay-related skill. It’s impossible to earn extra fuel at a rate that can keep you in the game much past 30,000 points (that’s 30 dead Loretta Lockhorns). The randomness of the obstacles and the teenagers would really have to work in your favor to get any further.

This cartridge looked awfully out of place in a pile of games including Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Math Gran Prix.

As stated earlier, this game is very uncommon today (read: expensive) since few were ever sold. But I have to imagine that even if it had proper marketing and exposure, it probably wouldn’t have sold that well anyway due to its being exactly the kind of substandard game consumers had grown leery of. It isn’t completely without gameplay value -I pop it into one of my many Ataris once in a while myself- but it’s really the novelty factor that is its draw. It’s worth playing for the novelty value, but it probably won’t hold your attention very long. I recommend this cartridge to serious collectors only; for casual or curious gamers, I suggest emulation or a reproduction cartridge…or a different game.

It bears mentioning that there was also a different version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the prototype of which was recently discovered, dumped, and released. This version was completely different from the released version, but the premise is the same: for Leatherface to kill as many victims as he can. You can read more about it at Matt Reichert’s excellent AtariProtos.com.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

The New Apple II User’s Guide

The Apple II lives on…

The Apple II will just not go away. The computer has maintained a loyal and dedicated base of fans, users, and hobbyists even since the line was discontinued in the early 1990s.

The New Apple II User’s Guide

And now, a new book has been released, along with a companion website, covering the developments have have occurred since the last IIe and IIgs systems left the factory. Such subjects include ethernet, web browsing, email, digital file storage, MP3 playback…all on an Apple II system. Users of the IIgs can learn more about using the GN/OME operating system, and other things specific to the IIgs.

If you want to bring your Apple II system into the 21st century, this 800-page book is a great reference. And at $20, it’s a steal. It should also make for excellent companion volume to the “Apple II Bible,” the Red Book.

The New Apple II Users’ Guide can be purchased at its companion website.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

Retro-Active’s Top 10 Bosses

Could good old Wart be one of Retro-Active’s Top 10 Bosses? I’ll save you some time: No. No, he could not.

I love lists. You love lists. We all love lists. Maybe we all just love to hate lists. Well, here’s another one to dissect: Retro-Active’s Top 10 Bosses!

In case some of you out there take this more seriously than you should, let me preface this with a few things:
1) I fully admit that this list skews retro. This list is absolutely biased according to what I’m into. So if you’re unhappy that I didn’t represent BioShock or Dead Space or whatever, I guess I don’t know what else to tell you. Go read IGN.
2) You will not find Sephiroth or Psycho Mantis or Bowser here. I don’t care how great you think Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, and Super Mario Bros. are; none of those franchises need any more stroking from the internet.
3) This is opinion and opinion only.

So by “Top Bosses,” I guess I really mean “Subjective Favorite Bosses”. I’m not saying that these are necessarily the biggest, baddest, rootin’ tootin’est bosses of all time (though some might be in the running), but they are ones I’ve really enjoyed -or ones that have really pissed me off- over the years. So with that out of the way, let’s get on with it!

10. Rex (3D Monster Maze, Timex/Sinclair 1000)
Okay, so technically he’s not really a “boss” in the conventional sense of the word. And thanks to the minimal graphical abilities of the Timex/Sinclair 1000, he’s actually a little silly-looking. But he’s big, he’s hungry, you’re stuck in a maze with him, you have no defense against him, and the phrase “Rex has seen you” made you seriously reconsider just how sick of Flight Simulator and Frogger you were after all. (You ZX81 fans in the U.K. and Canada know what I’m talking about.)

Who’s silly-looking NOW?

9. Goro (Mortal Kombat, Arcade)
Many would argue that MKII’s Kintaro was a greater boss character than Goro was. And they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But before MKII rolled around, Goro was larger than life. In fact, he still is, in the context of the original Mortal Kombat. Scorpion and Kano suddenly didn’t seem that badass standing before a ‘roided-out four-armed giant. If he got even one of those hands on you, it was all over.

The last known photograph of Johnny Cage.

8. Sack Head (Splatterhouse, Arcade/TurboGrafx-16)
The Spatterhouse series had enough epically strange, disgusting, creepy-looking, disturbing, and tough boss characters to fill this list all by themselves. But in my estimation, none said “you’re gonna die” in clearer tones than this guy. Resembling what I can only imagine to be a mishmashing of Abobo from Double Dragon, Jason’s mother from Friday the 13th, and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sack Head’s influence could still be felt over a decade later in games like Resident Evil 4.

The aptly, yet unfortunately named Sack Head.

(Speaking of Jason, Rick looks awfully familiar…)

7. Anton Girdeux (Syphon Filter, PlayStation)
Flamethrowers are awesome. Most of the time. That time in the monument after you disarmed the four viral bombs in Lincoln Memorial Park? Not one of those times. This fire-flinging Frenchman would barbecue up some Gabe Flambée faster than you could say “je n’aime pas!” Feeling so much as a single BTU from Girdeux’s flames meant instant death. There were a lot of instant deaths.

Anton Girdeux

Fighting this guy wasn’t exactly “ooh-la-la.”

6. Mr. X (Resident Evil 2, PlayStation), Nemesis (Resident Evil 3, PlayStation)
These guys are lumped together because, for one thing, I love the Resident Evil games (the first four, anyway, plus Code: Veronica), but mainly because they’re really more or less the same thing and serve the same functions in their respective games. Which in no way trivializes them, I should add. They followed you through the entire game, periodically popping up when you least suspected it to scare the bejeezus out of you, before appearing at the end of the game -in grossly mutated forms (redundant much?)- for a final showdown in which they couldn’t be defeated with conventional weapons.

Mr. X: the bane of Resident Evil 2’s B Scenario.

One of the great things about Mr. X in particular was that, in a game where most of your enemies wanted little more than to eat you, his preferred method of ending your game was beating your ass into stew with his fists.

Nemesis, the featured nemesis of Resident Evil 3. (See what I did there?)

Nemesis, however, was not above using heavy ordnance to ruin your day.

5. Hitler (Wolfenstein 3D, PC)
Wolfenstein 3D took no shortage of liberties in the historical accuracy department, and its portrayal of Adolf Hitler was no exception. The image of Hitler stomping around in some kind of tank-suit contraption armed with enough miniguns to outfit a squadron of Cheyenne helicopters is deliciously absurd (even more absurd than Hitler The Warlock). Any manic laughter resulting from said absurdity quickly came to an end when you saw what Der Führer could do with all that hardware, however.

Du werdest eine krankenschwester gebrauchen!

Being able to peel off his goofy armor with your own minigun before literally melting his Nazi ass with it was awfully satisfying, though.

4. Akuma (Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Arcade/3DO)
Virtually every other “Top Bosses” list I’ve seen includes Street Fighter II’s M. Bison. I’m not sure I understand why, but I’m guessing it’s because they forgot about Akuma, Super Street Fighter II Turbo‘s elusive “hidden” boss. As badass as Bison is supposed to be (I don’t see it myself), Akuma showed up out of nowhere and blew through him like he wasn’t even there. And then he did the same to you. For as long as your quarters and/or patience held out.

Akuma, moments before wasting you.

3. Technodrome (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, NES)
If you can make it this far in the game, congratulations. Few things inspired more dread in an NES game than suddenly finding yourself in a cavernous and ominously empty room, hearing the TMNT boss music come on (say what you will about this game, but it has some of the best music of the 8-bit era), and seeing the Technodrome tank’s giant electricity-spewing prong slowly rolling up on you. And between zapping you, shooting you, running you over, and swarming you with Foot Soldiers (who flung hailstorms of shuriken at you), the Technodrome didn’t f@#$ around. If you didn’t have at least three healthy turtles (one of them being Donatello), you needed Kiais. If you didn’t have any, you were screwed.

Not good.

Of course, if you got inside the Technodrome, you were screwed anyway.

2. William Birkin (Resident Evil 2, PlayStation)
This guy is a piece of work. William Birkin is a recurring boss who reappeared at various stages of his ongoing mutation, each more fearsome than the last. The last two mutations almost bordered on ridiculous; the poor guy eventually turned into some kind of enormous, eyeball-covered bulldog with the face of a wood-chipper, and later into a gigantic tentacled blob with the face of a razor-fanged sphincter. Regardless of the form (?) he took, Birkin was a force to be feared. (Except for his early pipe-swinging form; he was kind of a wuss. But those other ones? You’d better be packing.)

William Birkin G3

The next time something punches a hole through the side of your industrial elevator tram, don’t go outside to see what it was.

1. Cyberdemon (Doom, PC)
When you got to the last level in The Shores of Hell, the instant you saw those dead Barons of Hell hanging on the walls, and that creepy semitone music started playing, that’s when you conveniently starting thinking about having better things to do. Even if you made it through the whole game without cheating up to this point, you were now overwhelmingly tempted to say “screw it” and plug in IDDQD. And when you finally worked up the courage to face the music you knew was waiting for you, you found a 20-foot cyborg minotaur from hell, with a missile launcher for an arm and a disposition as sunny as the dark side of the moon.

“I REGRET NOTH…………”

As if that weren’t hardcore enough, the good folks at id Software -the creators of Doom– saw fit to stick this tough customer all over the place in Thy Flesh Consumed, Doom II, and Final Doom like he wasn’t that big a deal. And that’s not even getting into fan-made custom WADs like Alien Vendetta and Hell Revealed, where Cyberdemons are only marginally less common than the swarms of lowly Imps and Former Humans. Welcome to hell, indeed…hope you packed your BFG 9000!


(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

 

Profiles In Gaming: The Odyssey of Ralph Baer

The father of home video games; Ralph Baer, circa 1975, demonstrating the Odyssey 200 system.

Even if you don’t know his name, you know his inventions. Simon. Computer Perfection. Maniac. Video game consoles.

But to identify Ralph Baer only with the electronic entertainment devices he created is to do a great disservice to one of the world’s most brilliant and prolific inventors. Since completing his tour of duty with the U.S. Army in 1946, Baer has accumulated over 150 U.S. and foreign patents to his name. He designed and built everything from military and espionage equipment to surgical tools. He was involved with the development of etched core memory and launch control equipment for the Saturn V rocket. In 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush. In 2010, Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.

Video games have been a part of popular consciousness for over three decades. From relatively humble origins, the video game industry has grown into a multi billion-dollar a year behemoth. Games can now be seen in virtually every facet of modern life. It may be difficult to imagine a time when video games were not the pop culture juggernaut they are today. It may be even more difficult to imagine a time when they didn’t exist at all.

But all stories begin somewhere. And the story of video games as we known them, for all intents and purposes, begins with Ralph Baer.

Rodalben, Germany: birthplace of Ralph Baer.

The world was a troubled and very different place when Ralph Baer came into it on March 8, 1922, in a small southwestern German town called Rodalben. Europe was feeling the lingering effects of a monumentally disastrous World War, the root causes of which remained unaddressed by the vengeful peace terms that concluded it. In Baer’s native Germany, hyperinflation, economic collapse, and political extremism gave way to Adolf Hitler’s ascension to Chancellor in 1933, the same year Baer was expelled from school at age 11 for being Jewish.

Baer and his family fled Germany for the United States through the Netherlands in 1938, mere months before the events of Kristallnacht took place. Once in the U.S., he performed factory work while cultivating a love of electronics. He completed a correspondence course on the subject of radio technology before attending and graduating from the National Radio Institute in 1940.

Baer ran three New York City radio and television repair shops when he was drafted by the United States Army in 1943, during the height of the Second World War. He served one year stateside before being assigned to Military Intelligence in London, where he was attached to General Eisenhower’s headquarters. He was subsequently stationed in France. During his time in the army, Baer became an expert of some renown on military small arms; when he returned to the U.S. in 1946, he brought 18 tons of weapons with him and was instrumental in the creation and expansion of three official U.S. Army small arms exhibits.

Ralph Baer, during his service in World War II.

Once out of the Army, Baer went back to school again (let it never be said that he didn’t know the value of an education!), this time at the American Television Institute of Technology. He graduated in 1949 with a BS in Television Engineering; he was among the first people anywhere to be awarded such a degree.

During the ’50s, he got married and started his family, in addition to designing and building a plethora of different devices and electronic equipment, many of them under military contract. Such devices included a submarine-tracking analog computer for military aircraft radar use and a system used to monitor Soviet communications in Berlin. But even by 1951, while given the task by his employers at Loral Electronics to build the “best TV set in the world,” Baer had already conceived of games that could somehow be played on a television. His employers were not enthused with the idea.

It wasn’t until 1966, during his employment with Sanders Associates, Inc., that Baer first began conceptual work on a machine that would interface with a television set, display a set of objects on the screen, and allow the user to manipulate those objects. From this concept Baer, with assistance from fellow engineer Bob Tremblay, built his first game, which he concisely dubbed “Chase Game.” The game featured two objects on the screen (“spots,” as Baer called them). One “spot” represented a fox, the other a hound, and the game’s object, naturally, was for the hound to chase and catch the fox. “Chase Game” was certainly primitive, but the game (an unofficial project unrelated to Baer’s and Tremblay’s job duties, and for which they were not compensated) interested Baer’s employers enough to grant funding of $2000, with an additional $500 for materials.

The following year, 1967, saw the ever-innovative Baer making improvements on his game. Not the least significant of these was his development of a shooting game. Baer created and built a small photoreceptor into a toy gun while new teammate Bill Harrison designed the circuitry that allowed the gun to shoot the spots on the screen. And thus, light gun games were born.

Baer’s prototype light gun.

Later that same year, Baer worked up a concept for a ping-pong game with Harrison and Bill Rusch and demonstrated a fully-working prototype.

A little over a month later, in 1968, Baer filed his first video game-related patent application. By the end of ’68, Baer and his team had built and demonstrated a working prototype of an improvement upon the earlier game unit. Programmable by switches, the machine was now capable of playing football and volleyball games in addition to the existing ping-pong and gun games. Transparent plastic screen overlays provided color and background to the games.

A glimpse of things to come: the “Brown Box.”

Further developments and revisions culminated in “The Brown Box” in 1969, so named for the wood-patterned contact paper that covered the unit and its controllers.  Demonstrations of the Brown Box were performed for representatives of RCA, Zenith, Sylvania, General Electric, and Magnavox at Sanders Associates’ plant in Nashua, Hew Hampshire. A license agreement was drafted with RCA in 1970, but the deal fell through.

However, Bill Enders, one of the RCA men who had been impressed by the Brown Box, had left to become Vice President of Marketing at Magnavox. There, Enders championed Baer’s game machine. So, later in 1970, Baer and Sanders’ Corporate Director of Patents, Lou Etlinger, were invited to Magnavox’s plant in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to demo the Brown Box for their engineering, production, and marketing managers. It received a chilly reception from all except for the Vice President of Marketing for the TV division, Gerry Martin. And on his authority, Magnavox would pursue the TV games project, pending the approval of corporate management, which came nine months later in 1971.

Once a preliminary licensing agreement between Sanders Associates and Magnavox was signed, Baer’s Brown Box prototype and all related design documentation were turned over to the engineers at Magnavox, who quickly began development of a production version of the game unit. In 1972, Magnavox unveiled the finished product, called Odyssey, to Magnavox dealers across the U.S.; home video games had arrived.

The fruit of Ralph Baer’s labor: Odyssey, the world’s first home video game, from Magnavox.

During the development of the Brown Box/Odyssey, Baer conceived of games that could be played “online” through cable or telephone lines, decades years before online gaming as we know it came into being in the 1990s. He also designed “active cartridges” containing additional electronic components. These were to add more features to the games, such as sound effects, variable net position, and variable ball speed, but these were deemed unfeasible.

In the ensuing years, Baer assisted the development of follow-up Odyssey consoles, such as the Odyssey 100 and Odyssey 200, and Magnavox’s next-generation programmable console, Odyssey 2. He also supported Magnavox and Sanders in their patent infringement lawsuits against Atari and Nintendo, which Magnavox/Sanders won. Baer also consulted with Coleco on the development of their Telstar and Combat! game consoles, as well as their Kid Vid module for the Atari 2600 console. He also designed the classic handheld memory game Simon (inspired by Atari’s Touch Me game, in a somewhat ironic twist), as well as other early ’80s classics Maniac, Computer Perfection, and Amazatron. In addition to his games, Baer also created numerous toys and other consumer products.

Ralph Baer surrounded by his most famous inventions

Baer still continues to design, build, and tinker at the age of 90. He recently published a book in 2005 about the history of video games from his unique vantage point, titled “Videogames: In The Beginning.” From 2004 to 2006, Baer built an entire line of working recreations of his various Odyssey prototypes, which he donated to the Museum of The Moving Image in Astoria, New York. His original Brown Box now resides at the Smithsonian Institution, but he has an entire lifetime’s worth of invention and innovation under his belt, from medical instruments and military hardware to toys and talking doormats. And he shows no signs of stopping.

What will he come up with next?

Ralph Baer, age 90, in his workshop.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

Quintessentially ’80s video games

Ah, the 1980s.

It was an exciting time of terrible fashion, cocaine, angular automotive design, Middle Eastern crises, AIDS, and music excellent and awful in equal measure. Arnold Schwarzenegger had not yet ascended to governorship of California. Mike Tyson had not yet descended into full-fledged lunacy. People thought you looked cool and tough when you wore a red bandana and a cutoff jean jacket instead of just thinking you might have mental problems. Maggie Thatcher was the man, the A-Team had the plan, and the San Francisco ’49ers dominated like few other football teams in NFL history.

Few other time periods in the history of the world are so synonymous with the products they birthed than the 1980s. Rubik’s Cubes. Cabbage Patch dolls. The DeLorean. Leg warmers. Members Only jackets. Transformers. Walkmans. VCRs. Boom Boxes. New Coke. Old Coke. And then there were the video games. And few of those video games exemplify the glorious yuppyism and Russophobia of the Reagan years more than these:

Tax Avoiders (Atari 2600)
Run around a platform-laden screen collecting “$” while trying to avoid “red tape.” Then, in the second screen, run around and climb up and down ladders to avoid the IRS agent; the longer you can keep out of his clutches, the more points money you earn. Then repeat the cycle until the tax year is up. Only in the ’80s could a game like this ever have seemed like a good idea.

Tax Avoiders (Atari 2600)

Tax Avoiders: Income screen. Yup.

Interestingly, the game mechanics of Tax Avoiders -and even the character you control- are identical to those of 20th Century Fox’s Atari adaptation of the movie Porky’s (speaking of ’80s wonders…), which was released around the same time; it is inconclusive who ripped off who.

Communist Mutants From Space (Atari 2600 + Supercharger)
This game’s story reads like the plot of an exceptionally bad ’50s sci-fi propaganda movie: “The evil ruler of the planet Rooskie has launched a diabolical attack. A cunning Mother Creature, filled with irradiated vodka, transforms helpless slaves captured on peaceful planets into bloodthirsty COMMUNIST MUTANTS!” Irradiated vodka? WTF? Anyway, playing the game reveals that none of the title’s nor instruction manual’s references to communism actually have anything at all to do with, well, anything. Simply calling this “Mutants From Space” wouldn’t have made the slightest difference, although it wouldn’t be the campy curiosity it is today.

Communist Mutants From Space (Atari 2600)

Is this what Lenin had in mind?

Despite the cheese factor of the title and premise, Communist Mutants From Space is actually a surprisingly good take on Galaxian. Additionally, it earns extra ’80s Points for being not only an Atari 2600 game, but an Atari 2600 game on cassette; a device called The Supercharger plugged into the Atari and allowed advanced games such as this, which couldn’t be done at the time on cartridge, to be loaded from cassette tape.

The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! (Odyssey 2)
First off, this one has a board and pieces. Secondly, it’s a stock market simulation game. It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds like.

The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! is one of the Odyssey 2’s three Master Strategy Series titles. These games are interesting in that, in an effort to create large and relatively expansive games while circumventing the Odyssey’s hardware limitations (which were painfully obvious even by 1982), they included game boards, playing pieces, special keyboard overlays, and other means of physical game interaction. They were, in a sense, hybrids of video games and board games, a concept never really seen before (the original Odyssey notwithstanding) or since. But while two of these three games, Conquest of The World! and Quest For The Rings!, respectively offered complex military strategy scenarios and Tolkienian adventure, The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! offered a rudimentary and austere stock market simulation that was difficult for Odyssey 2 owners bother with when they could play UFO!, K.C.’s Krazy Chase!, or Pick-Axe Pete! instead.

Just what you always wanted in a video game: a stock market ticker tape.

And yes, all Odyssey 2 games have exclamation marks in their names (except for the very, very few titles released by Imagic and Parker Bros).

Take The Money and Run! (Odyssey 2)
Have you ever had one of those nightmares where something is relentlessly chasing you, and no matter where you go, you can never escape? That’s basically what Take The Money and Run! is.

When a game takes place on a planet called “Keynesium,” it’s like it is warning you to stay away. Take The Money and Run! puts two players -and only two players (if you want to play alone, you have to watch the other guy just stand there)- into Keynesium’s “electronic labyrinth of more than a trillion different mazes!” as they do battle with the forces of…uh…economics. These economic forces -Inflation, Taxes, Income, Investment, Expenses, Reward, and Thief (just like you learned in Econ 101)- are represented by little robots, one to each player. The robots chase the players when a decrease to cash is in effect, such as Taxes, Expenses, Inflation, and Thief; when an increase to cash is in effect, the players go on the offensive. The longer a player goes without being caught by the (-) robot, or the sooner he catches the (+) robot, the better the score, which is naturally measured in dollars. It’s actually pretty similar to Tax Avoiders (or should I say, Tax Avoiders is like Take The Money and Run!, which came out earlier). But that’s basically it. It’s tag. With money. And relentless little econobots that haunt your dreams.

Beware the pink robots that chase you throughout Keynesium’s trillions of mazes!

What was the deal with games like this? Were we so obsessed with money in the ’80s that we actually needed video games about money?

Campaign ’84 (Colecovision)
Somebody, somewhere, thought this game needed to exist. Damn if I know why.

Campaign '84 (Colecovision)

Apparently Campaign ’84 even tried to ban itself.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss