The Machines have Been Overlooked, but Not Forgotten

by Rich Pearl

(Appeared in the June 1983 issue of "Electronic Games" Magazine)

  • Imagine that you have just entered a huge, cobwebbed vault. Stepping into the semi-darkness, it takes a second for your eyes to adjust to those gloomy surroundings. Once they have, however, the sight that greets them is one to stir any arcader's blood: arcade videogames, old and new, each covered by a coating of dust.

  • Reacting as if by instinct, you drop a quarter into a slot and the entire room springs to whirring, clanging life. It looks as if you're in for a long and pleasurable afternoon.

  • Wander about. The initial reaction is that this apparently forgotten vault contains every game ever produced. Look closer, however, and you begin to notice some totally unfamiliar titles. The dust is thicker here, and when the old man who makes change in this strange arcade-world is questioned about the mystery machines, he only smiles enigmatically.

  • You have discovered the "Almost" row, a special collection of unsuccessful games deserving of a better fate. A few plays and you're dumbfounded! How could such wonderful games possibly have failed?

  • Let's dust these curious old coin-ops off and take a look at them. Perhaps they hold within them some clue as to their curious lack of success.

  • Playing them, however, tells only the smallest part of this story.

  • Every year dozens of new coin-op machines go from the factory to the arcade. Few ever enjoy the popularity of a Pac-Man; most are marginal or partial successes. Each game was tested and evaluated for its marketability before production began, yet no matter how much advance testing was done, they all flopped. Some were truly ingenous and novel in concept. Given another time or place to find their audience, maybe they too could have stood with the likes of Defender and Tempest.

  • Starfire, out of the Exidy line, was the first total environment game. For this sit-down, the gamer got into an enclosed cabinet which gave him the feeling of piloting his own rocket ship. This was far-sighted thinking -- from one of the few American companies that then designed its own games -- but as the prototype for others it was ahead of its time and unable to find a market. Starfire was perceived as something different.

  • Without any like games to compare against, it had to stand on its own merits. No ready-made audience had stood waiting for a newer version; Starfire was on its own, boldly traveling where no game had ever gone before. Ground-breakers must create their own markets. Perhaps this number never got the time to develop a following. A game must either make it fast or it's doomed.

  • "The bottom line on any game," says Lila Zinter, at Exidy, "is does it make money? Total success is measured by what is in the cashbox. It isn't easy for a small manufacturer to wait for a hit -- and there are a lot of reasons a good game might fail. Timing is but one."

  • A game has to come out at just the right time. What's on the market has a direct bearing on how a new title is viewed. Are there others parallel in play? Will it have to share time with another? In a saturated market, no matter how innovative the game, it's not going to get the attention it needs.

  • The average life span of an arcade game is only four to six months. This does not leave much time to be discovered. As Dave Nutting says, "Players want to get up on a game right away. They like to see their quarters go a long way." Some of the best classics took too much time to master.

  • Robby Roto, designed for Midway by Nutting, has only a small cult following hooked on it. Although initial testing was positive, there were less than 2000 units sold. It never matched the success of Atari's Dig Dug, out at approximately the same time.

  • Robby Roto is a character who digs under the round to find hostages held by monsters, and buried treasures. He has to wend his way through three mazes, each one increasingly more difficult. With the help of a magic button that freezes his enemies and makes Robby invisible -- we could all do with such help -- he scrambled and burrowed his way into the hearts of only a few.

  • "Conceptually, Robby Roto was right on, claims Nutting. "You'd be surprised at the fervent calls we get from those who play it. But it was a very complex game and those that played it found themselves on the defensive -- most were intimidated. Gamers like to be aggressive."

  • Obviously, then, a good game not only captures the player's attention, but also gives the gamer a measure of control over the action.

  • When Qix, by Taito, was initially released, it grabbed the gaming world with its color and imaginative design. Almost immediately it rose to the top of the charts. Everybody tried Qix, a game so visually stimulating and equally challenging its future seemed as unlimited as its patterns. So what is it doing in this end of the closet?

  • "Qix was conceptually too mystifying for gamers," Keith Egging admits. "It had a random mapping program that allowed for constan alteration. It was impossible to master and once the novelty wore off, the game faded."

  • A game can only be as sophisticated as its audience. Somewhere down the aisle is Universal's Space Panic. This was not only the first of the climbing games, it was also the first of the digging games. That's quite a load for a player on a new game. No punning intended when I say that the rungs were too high for the average gamer to scale.

  • In playing this game, players move from level to level by the way of the now popular ladder while pursued by apple-shaped aliens. When you came in contact with them you died -- with three deaths to a game. The object of the game was to catch the aliens by baiting them into pits you'd dig, and then covered them before they escaped. This was accomplished with the "digging" button. As you got to the higher levels you had to dig two holes, perfectly placed, one above the other, to keep the alien in.

  • The average playing time for Space Panic was 30 seconds. You felt like you'd been hit going up the ladder by a brick falling through the arcade. Or maybe you'd dug a hole too deep to escape them. Whatever it was, Space Panic played too hard and had to be buried.

  • Someone must have seen it though, and like it, because the game was released as a computer game by Broderbund under the name Apple Panic. This software version is deliciously true to the original. So perhaps there is life after the arcade! Do you feel the home could amass a haven for failed game titles? Can the extended popularity of Donkey Kong, in the arcade, be traced to the emergence of the videogame at home? The games certainly have a greater life span at home. Wizard of Wor was only a moderate success as a coin-op, but it walks on water as a home cassette. Maybe we should keep a watchful eye on some of these games in the closet and see where they go.

  • Want to play some more? I warned you -- we might be here awhile.

  • Players aren't the only ones with a say about a game staying alive. The distributor has something to say as well. When Exidy introduced Mouse Trap, they had visions of the world beating a path to their doors. This complex little number was a maze-chase with a lot of unique features. There were color coded trap doors, operated by respectively colored buttons on the console, and time delayed metamorphoses where you chose the proper moment of transformation from the meek mouse to a fierce dog. Proper use of these buttons were a significant part of the strategy of this game. Coming after Pac-Man, the distributors and operators chalked this game off as basically another maze game. Though not totally true, it effectively killed off the title.

  • "Exidy is an innovator, but because we lack a big money of an Atari," claims Lila Zinter, "we have a hard time breaking through the politics in getting a game a fair chance. A game can be at a large disadvantage if the distributor doesn't like it. A product that does not get to the consumer in sufficient quantity is not likely to get its necessary exposure."

  • Banking a game -- having more than one, side by side -- so that several gamers may simultaneously play, instead of standing around and watching, can often help to give it a better chance to be seen. You couldn't play what you can't find. Sometimes the hardest part of a game is knowing where to find it. Good thing we found this closet!

  • But what if we hadn't?

  • So what do they do with a failed game? There isn't really a home for dead games, a wayward station filled with our classics. So what happens if a title doesn't make it? Do they save the cabinet and bury the rest?

  • Kick Man had been a Bally/Midway game where a clown on a unicycle travelled back and forth catching balloons on his head as they fell off a rack onto the screen. He had very large feet so he could kick those he missed into the air and then catch them when he could. A pin that is on his hat bursts the balloons, but as the game progresses the pin fails to pop them and they sit on his hat. Pac- Man finally shows up to gobble these. This game had top-notch background graphics and special sounds for effects. Can you imagine a game featuring Pac-Man that didn't make it? Kick Man is it.

  • "A great script and a super cast with a famous director insures nothing. You still don't know they'll produce a big hit," cautioned Bill Adams, head of the team that helped develop Kick Man. "Maybe Kick Man relied too much on reaction skill and didn't have enough strategy. We tried to put it in, but guys in bars wouldn't play it -- it was too cute. And it wasn't banked in the arcades. It just didn't catch on."

  • Kick Man had a lot of work in it, however, that didn't die. "It has the basic hardware system that pushes Tron," according to Jim Jarocki. The MCR, Midway Cart Rack, as the general gaming system is known, was one of hte first in-house systems Midway developed -- and it has several high powered features.

  • The MCR system uses three boards, one on top of the next. They generate the foreground, background and any sounds needed in the game.

  • In a kind of arcadian evolution, a failed game may become the progenitor of the next Pac-Man or the genesis of the next Joust.

  • Every good game may not survive, but something from it does. Next time you're in an arcade just remember, there's a closet somewhere, housing a game that left its mark on the machine you're playing -- and you don't have to blow away the dust to see the result.


    Bosconian (Midway)

  • The best flat-out action Science Fiction game introduced in '82, and it died on the arcade floor. Full directional scrolling, radar scanners, mother ships and guardian squadruns -- all in addition to dual-directional firing that allows players to take out enemies on their tails simultaneously.

    Targ (Exidy)

  • One of the most unique approaches to the maze-chase contest presents alien invaders moving over a grid of city streets seen in overview. The game has become a home classic in a slightly altered form as Crossfire from On-Line for the Apple II and Atari computers.

    Ladybug (Universal)

  • The most wonderful blend of strategy and maze-chase thrills ever concocted. The ladybug must not only avoid the guardian insects but must also employ great strategy in opening and closing the many turnstiles only she has access to.

  • In its ColecoVision format, it is proving one of the most successful home videogames ever.

    Red Baron (Atari)

  • Gorgeous quadra-scan (vector) graphics and magnificent audio frills just weren't enough to create interest in a first-person flying game. Hopefully, this marvelous flight simulator with a combat theme will re-emerge in home format some day.

    Typed by Keita Iida

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