Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 7    December 1998

Have We Reached Maximum Innovation?

by Chris Federico

When I was in Kindergarten, living in Cleveland, I remember a yellow game console that sat in our living room and got plugged in on special occasions. It played Pong, but my folks referred to it as Hockey, so maybe that's what the clone was actually called. [Feb. 2012 interjection: I've since discovered that this was actually the Odyssey 300.] Anyway, I thought it was really cool that you could control something on TV, let alone play a game against someone. It was an EVENT when it got hooked up to our television set, because it was neater than any of the toys I had. It was definitely more interesting than a Pinball machine. We kept the unit when we moved to Milwaukee in 1978, but I don't remember seeing it after that.

In 1981, when I was 9 and we had since moved to Albuquerque, my dad dragged me and my younger brother along to his gym to wait in the lobby while he worked out. Looking forward to a boring afternoon with nothing to do, Mike and I brought along a matchbox car and book (respectively). Arriving, we saw a strange coffee table between the reception couches, and ambled over to investigate as Dad went off to torture himself by deliberately lifting heavy things over and over.

It was a table-top model of the Asteroids Deluxe coin-op -- my first encounter with a non-Pong video game. The ball and lines had evolved into boulders and an actual spaceship, and I thought that this machine was the coolest thing that had ever been invented. You could actually shoot at stuff, and you had three chances to keep from being smashed or shot. It was a scenario, not a simple tennis-court affair. I remember how it became a whole new game when I risked trying out the "thrust" button. New elements like that never arose in Pong. A further step beyond the role-playing sophistication of Asteroids Deluxe didn't occur to me, because I had nothing to compare it with except Pong. It was the height of consumer-ready technology.

I ran after Dad and asked him for some quarters. He gave me the ones he had, but my brother and I quickly used them up. We could then only look at the game's attract mode. I became so desperate to be in the spaceship again that I worked up the nerve to approach one of the gym's members, a complete stranger who was standing in the lobby, and ask him if I could borrow a quarter. It was crucial that I further challenge this cool new machine. The prospect of leaving the gym without playing anymore was unthinkable. Following my request, the stranger came over to look at the game.

"Yeah, you'd better show me how to play," he said, and got us a couple dollars' worth of quarters. (Remember when strangers did cool things like that sometimes?) My dad came out to check on us and saw us still playing the game. The stranger told him, "They're showing me how to play." My dad thanked the guy, a little embarrassed, and returned to his workout.

One night a bit later in the year, he had an argument with my mom and decided to take me with him to some bar. He seldom drank, but when we got there, I beheld the actual object of his patronage: Pac-Man. I was fascinated. This was surely the most incredible progression from the single-color Asteroids Deluxe screen that was possible. I didn't even know that these things were called "video games"; there were just Asteroids Deluxe machines (as well as, I presumed, the non-deluxe versions), and now, Pac-Man machines. I played a couple of games, and the wild colors and multi-character action -- something that wasn't taken for granted yet -- distracted me so effectively that I could clear little more than a corridor's worth of dots. "It takes practice," my dad said in that typical state-the-obvious mode of fathering.

Our first VCS was brought home in February of 1982, along with Space Invaders and (of course) Combat. I later found out that instead of the latter, some other kids' consoles had come with Air-Sea Battle. These were clearly weird kids. Also, the occasional VCS had six switches on the front. This looked unhealthy and mutated. I knew that the correct amount was four, due to the fact that mine had that many. The difficulty switches clearly belonged in the back.

I couldn't play the thing enough. The rest of the time, all I did was to wonder what the other games were like. I invented new ones that I fantasized about creating someday. I envied people who had games that I didn't. They were all exciting to me. What an improvement on the so-called Hockey machine we'd once had!

I first saw Defender in some kind of vehicle fix-up place. I didn't play it, because whichever parent was driving didn't have time to wait around, or didn't have a quarter for me, or etc., or etc. (it was always something, wasn't it?) -- but I thought it was neat how the game's characters were introduced as some kind of friendly cast during the attract mode, despite being aliens and spaceships. I first played in a Safeway grocery store; I dropped in the lone quarter that my mom had given me, blew away a few enemies, and got the dreaded GAME OVER message the second I finally figured out the controls. This was a new peak of involvement.

Left without anything else to do, I watched the demo until I finally realized that you were supposed to shoot Landers and rescue the Humanoids that they'd kidnapped, returning the latter safely to the ground. What a cool idea! Manic to play the game now that I actually knew what was going on, I begged my mother for another quarter, but she didn't have any more, or didn't feel like getting change, or etc., or etc.

My first Tempest was located at the local Husky truck stop/diner. Centipede was initially spotted at Smith's grocery store. I finally played Donkey Kong at a Howard Johnson's restaurant. Red Baron and Missile Command first took my tokens during a fourth-grade field trip to Chuck E. Cheese in late springtime, '82. Technology had been maximized; these detailed, often wonderfully frightening but occasionally cartoony games, with their demanding goals, fantastic graphics and sounds, and wildly varied control methods, represented the collective apex of entertainment, as far as I was concerned. I didn't see them topped, in essence, for a couple of years.

Then the Star Wars coin-op came out. Shortly afterward, realistic flight simulators took over 8-bit software sales. Surely a new height. I played so many games on my Commodore 64, received for my birthday in January of '84, that I almost forgot about the VCS for a while. I even finally learned to program. Much later, the Amiga version of Firebird's Elite was the most exciting first-person plateau I could conceive of.

Throughout, people in the industry made accurate predictions: Games would become so realistic that they would be like interactive movies, and scenarios would grow much more complex. But what hopes do we harbor these days? I mean, skip ahead to first-person exploration epics like Doom, and the sort-of first-person action games on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. These are basically the heights of technological entertainment that one can achieve. So what's next?

Sure, graphics will get even better, with digitized real images becoming more prominent until, I imagine, that's all we'll see. Microprocessors will get faster, until speed isn't an issue at all. But what about the actual complexity, physics defiance, and/or player involvement? The graphical capabilities and chip speeds that designers now have at their disposal allow them to realize the most extreme game ideas. Game mechanics, general concepts, and the player's ability to revolve an utterly imaginary world around him have reached what is possibly the highest zenith in gaming innovation. Because, while future games will be more technically superior, how can the actual game play be surpassed yet again -- especially if players keep voting "Yes" by buying clones of clones?

Good as Pac-Man and Star Wars are, it was easy, even back when they were new, to think of elements that could be added to make them more intense, or to require the player to do more things and feel more engaged by the landscapes and characters. Does anyone push the industry by wishing for more anymore?

Of course, this doesn't bother those of us who have at least as much fun playing the old stuff -- but it's something to think about. An entirely new type of video game was very impressive back in the '80s and early '90s, simply because, like that first Asteroids Deluxe coin-op that so entranced me, there was no precedent against which to measure it. But what new types of games do we have left?

Invent the video game of the future. If you feel like writing about it, send it along, because I'd be extremely interested in seeing what vistas the industry has left to explore, and how much its patrons will allow it to innovate, if at all. -- CF