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
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
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
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
Obviously, then, a good game not only captures the player's
attention, but also gives the gamer a measure of control over the
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
"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
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
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.
SOME FORGOTTEN COIN-OP GEMS
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