The Signal on the Screen

by Staff

Many arcades started out as shooting galleries, letting you pop balloons or shoot down the moving crows with an air-rifle or .22. Then came the pinball machines, with a variety of designs, all based on how long the player could keep the steel ball in motion on the board. When the board became a TV screen and the ball became a moveable dot, something was lost of the good old days where you’d stand at the counter with a real rifle, popping real bullets at a real (usually chipped and dented) target. But a good deal was gained, especially for the player interested in the strategic factors inherent in continued eye/hand action.

Yet for nearly 10 years, the screen games continued to be devoted to the play tradition of the gallery and arcade games. Manufacturers turned out only two types of screen games: shoot-to-blow-up and variations of the Pong game. The screen was not initially considered a revolutionary device, simply another way of playing the same old games.

Part of this was due to the newness of the screen medium in a place where tradition demanded flip and tilt full-body language from those engaged in play. It was a physical ritual. But then, body language counted for something, a nudge of the hip at the proper moment could keep the ball in play. The new screen games just didn’t work that way. No matter how hard you kick your television set, Howard Cosell will not fall over in the picture on the screen.

The body language, the being able to put mind, body, and soul into the frenzied action of the game was not present with the screen games, so for some time the players shunned the games. Some manufacturers understood this, adding things like the life-sized cast-metal periscope to Sea Wolf so the player could twist and turn his body, grip real firing buttons, and enjoy much of the physical action of mechanical pinball, although all his shooting and the subsequent blowing up of ships on the horizon took place on a TV screen—totally unaffected by how hard he slammed the periscope.

So at first the games only aroused a mild interest, and addictive play was still centered on the pinballs. Occasionally a Sea Wolf will provide a little variety to the pinball player, but that was it.

During the 1970s all this changed. The pinball tradition of mechanical games was successfully challenged by the signals on the screen games.

Part of this success is directly attributable to the technological progress in microprocessor chips, which made computers small, smart, and cheap. Our thanks to NASA and the Japanese.

With better computers, the screen games hidden away in the backs of arcades began to glow in strange colors. Down deep in their plywood boxes the graphics came to life. Black-hole blacks, fire-storm red, intergalactic purples caught the eye of the passing pinball player.

These screen games began to attract a new generation of players, young people who would become the first wave of computer games players. They, didn’t come to wrestle a pinball machine, they came to test their eye/brain/hand response against the logic of the computer.

At first, the games all produced a shoot-to-blow-up action game personified by the original Space Invaders. This game made full use of the computer, for color graphics, intensity of play, and inhuman sound effects. Gradually the computers and programs got a little better, and Space Invaders was up-graded by Asteroids where the laser blaster took on full movement, and then along came Defender with even more player control.

Despite the improvements in graphics, sound, and computer action, the games of the Space Invaders era were enjoyable, complex, shooting gallery games.

In the midst of the space warriors blasting each other, the second wave started with a new machine that featured an unlikely looking little ball that gobbled up dots and ran away from little scary monsters, unless of course the little ball had just had a power pill, because then he’d gobble the monsters up and they’d turn into ghosts and run away from him.

Pac-Man was a shock to the arcades. It became immensely popular, and attracted many new players.

Why anyone would want to put out a record called “Pac-Man Fever” seemed, at first thought, beyond us. But the record arrived, fronted by musicians Gary Garcia and Jerry Buckner, and we took a look at it. It wasn’t until we opened the album and pulled the record out in its dust cover that we began to suspect that Gary and Jerry were serious. For printed on both sizes of the dust cover are five sets of patterns. Well, this prompted us to put the record on the turntable and have a listen. That was our mistake, or rather Buckner and Garcia’s mistake. Even with the actual game sound effects throughout the songs, this is not the goods, at least for Clash fans.

In 1980, researchers at a Japanese company called Namco wrote a computer program that, in two years, has produced as much profit as if they’d written a hit record and produced a blockbuster movie. Namco names the computer program Pac-Man, and created the first computer generated pop star, a little electronic terrestrial whose antics have made millions and millions of dollars for Namco, and demonstrated once and for all that it’s more fun to play TV than it is to watch TV.

Bally, America’s largest pinball manufacturer, has nearly 100,000 Pac-Man machines in arcades across the country, as well as bars, restaurants, and other spots.

So far over 30 companies have licensed the right to use Pac-Man for one promotion or another. Pac-Man’s little electronic image has replaced the smiling circle that told us to have a good day. There will be everything from Pac-Man pajamas to shoe laces.

Why was Pac-Man such a bit hit? Obviously because it’s fun to play. But so were earlier arcade games, like the one the Japanese wrote called Space Invaders. The real success of Pac-Man comes from the maze concept and the fact that he is the first electro-terrestrial with personality. It is this personality that has produced a Ms. Pac-Man, and Baby Pac-Man, and Blinkey. There is no question that Pac-Man is the Beatles of his day.

The maze concept is an important success factor. It attracted new game players, players who were happier with the tensions of the maze chase than with constant laser bombardment.

Today the pinball machines are off in the back corner where once the screen games stood. And now the screen games, with science fiction names and intense computer graphics, are the lifeblood of the arcade.

In the old days you could shoot tin cans in your backyard or buy a pinball machine for your rec room, but basically the games at the arcade were why it was an arcade in the first place. The computer screen games have changed that, and made the arcades just the visible part of a five billion dollar a year industry.

The game in the arcade machine is a computer program. The arcade machine is a computer with analog-digital controllers and a TV set. The manufacturers realized they could sell the game computer to people who owned television sets (and there were quite a few around) and then sell them the programs one at a time.

This was a revolutionary concept, and one that was a complete success from the point of view of the manufacturer and the consumer. Now players didn’t have to live near an arcade to play computer games. While the arcades might still feature the best and the brightest of the games, the games could be played day or night on the home TV screen. And when you tired of one game, you switched it for another video game cartridge and your game computer turned your TV set into a different game.

The future of the screen game is in the hands of the writers who create computer programs. At the moment their creativity seems to be divided between more representational combat games in the Space Invaders school and elaborations on the maze concept made popular by Pac-Man. There’s no doubt, however, that other new concepts will be introduced, and that the sophistication of the computer programs will create even more intense graphic playing situations.

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