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A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 2600 Video Computer System/VCS
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A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 2600 Video Computer System/VCS

February 28, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 8 Next

Other impressive SuperCharger games included the first-person maze game, Escape from the Mindmaster (1982), and Survival Island (1983), an action game composed of three major scenarios and featuring a unique passcode system -- one of the first of its kind -- allowing a player to go back to a previously uncovered location without replaying the same scenes.

Milton Bradley remained a key player throughout the 1980s, developing products for its own systems as well as other video game and computing platforms. Milton Bradley developed two games for the VCS that were each packaged with unique controllers.

Spitfire Attack (1983), came with the "Flight Commander," a tabletop joystick meant to look like a fighter plane gun, and Survival Run (1983) came with the "Cosmic Commander," a tabletop joystick meant to resemble a spaceship's flight panel.

Jay Miner left Atari to form what would become Amiga Corporation (whose employees had roles in future products such as Commodore's Amiga, Atari's Lynx, and the 3DO Multiplayer). The company produced unusual controllers and games for systems such as the VCS, including Mogul Maniac (1983), a skiing simulator.

Mogul Maniac was packed with the Joyboard, a joystick platform the player stood on and controlled by shifting bodyweight and staying balanced. These and the many other unusual devices produced for the VCS had varying degrees of usefulness and commercial success, but nevertheless enhanced the distinctiveness of Atari's system.

Screenshot from an event in Epyx's California Games (1987), demonstrating what 10 years of experience on the same system can generate.

As stated earlier, for every classic such as Fathom (Imagic, 1983), in which the player alternatively controlled a seagull and a dolphin in order to rescue Trident's daughter, and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Activision, 1984), which was both an action-packed adventure platformer and a technical masterpiece from David Crane, there were spectacular failures.

These failures included the likes of Lost Luggage (Apollo, 1982), which was a marginal catch-the-falling-object game, Porky's (20th Century Fox, 1983), which was tenuously based on the raunchy comedy movie of the same name, and Fire Fly (Mythicon, 1983), a shooter starring a poorly animated running man with bad control and even worse graphics.

The VCS was also home to the first adult videogames, which included titles such as Mystique's Custer's Revenge (1982) and Bachelor Party (1982), both of which would be considered crude even without the pornographic themes. However, as awful as some of these releases were, none would become more infamous than the one-two punch of Atari's Pac-Man (1981) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

"Whatever ivory tower technicians may say, it is impossible to view the VCS as anything but very much alive as long as a dozen or so cartridges reach stores each month." – (Electronic Games magazine, December 1982)

In what should have been the deal of the year, if not the decade, Atari got sole rights to Namco's arcade smash-hit Pac-Man (1980) in 1981. While aggressively promoting and protecting their sole right to produce Pac-Man and any derivative works for home use with vigorous litigation, Atari corporate failed to ensure that programmer Todd Frye's end result was a decent game. With poor graphics, bad sound, control and implementation in a tight 4KB of ROM, rather than the originally requested 8KB, it was a travesty of a game and a devastating blow to Atari's reputation.

Atari wrongly guessed that the name alone would generate enough interest to sell the dismal product; they mistakenly produced millions more cartridges than VCS systems in active use. With such a poor game, cartridge sales -- while still extremely high at an eventual seven million units -- nevertheless left Atari with roughly five million unsold copies and only a small increase in VCS system sales, if any, over what they would have had anyway.

Atari would later redeem itself to a degree in the critical sense with superb translations of Ms. Pac-Man (1982) and Jr. Pac-Man (1984, but not released until 1988), but the detrimental financial and consumer impact of the VCS version of Pac-Man was difficult to recover from.

Atari's Jr. Pac-Man, which was finished in 1984, but not released until 1988.

As for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, lead programmer Howard Scott Warshaw of classic shooter Yars' Revenge (1981) fame, seemed like a logical choice for the project. He had impressed Steven Spielberg with his work on the translation of another popular film by the famous director, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which, in 1982, was successfully released as a sophisticated two-joystick action-adventure.

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