Gaming: When I Was Born (1982)

Platforms: Retro

A child is born...

It’s easy to forget, and as you find yourself increasing in years the likelihood is that it becomes even easier and easier to forget. If forgetfulness is a by-product of age then I would be so bold as to say that taking things for granted is a characteristic of being young, at some point I’ve moved between these two spheres and I cant remember when. In approaching my 30th birthday I’ve been looking back at a lot of things and with videogames still being a part of my life, and without any indication that they will cease to do so, I wanted to have a look at how far we have come in my lifespan. I like to think I was born with a controller in my hand, such is my love of videogames, but if I could have played games in the year I was born what type of games would I have been playing and what did the market look like back then?


When you can quantify your age by the controllers you remember you may have a problem

The year of my birth saw some interesting things unfold in the world, the Falklands War was just kicking off, E.T and Wrath of Khan were filling the cinemas, Survivior were unwittingly working their way onto people's iTunes ‘Running’ playlists with Eye of the Tiger and Knight Rider was cementing Hasslehoff into pop culture forever. There were also many interesting things going on in the gaming industry and many of the developments still have very real impacts on the games we play. These days, for instance, EA is a juggernaut raking in around $3.8 billion but in 1982 the company had only been founded by Trip Hawkins. Beginning life as a small publisher and branching out to developing games in-house by the late 1980’s it’s amazing, and a little frightening, to see how big EA have become.

It's in the game...

For better or worse EA is now entrenched in all of our lives and its exponential growth over thirty years is a testament to an ever flourishing industry and also the growth of the gaming community worldwide. If the first thirty years are any indication I would be happy to wager that they will still be around in another thirty years time. Electronic Arts were not the only ones breaking into the gaming market in 1982, that year also saw the emergence of Lucasfilm Games, the ill-fated Microprose and The Enix Corporation renamed itself Enix which would later merge with Square to become Square Enix. Thirty years on and we can see that while some of the names we know are enjoying unrivalled success there are those that have either fallen by the wayside or some that have had to adapt to maintain market viability. Even from the failures of the time we still have much to remember such as in the case of Microprose who, despite failing for some very bad business decisions, gave us the likes of Civilisation and Rollercoaster Tycoon which remain as classics in the hearts and minds of gamers.

Consoles Available in 1982:
Atari 2600
Atari 5200
Bally Astrocade
Coleco Gemini
Emerson Arcadia 2001
Fairchild Channel F System II
Magnavox Odyssey
Mattel Intellivision

1982 also witnessed an absolute ton of hardware being available to the general population, if you were of console buying age or of fiscal ability in 1982 you definitely had your work cut out deciding what to buy. It’s easy to forget that the console race was not as simple as it is now, three big companies with an average life cycle for consoles of around 5-6 years. In the good old days the console market was fertile ground, the promise of the industry was clear for all to see but for every success story there were to be multiple failures. For instance, do you remember the Arcadia 2001? Me neither. Released by the Emerson Radio Corporation the console went head to head with the likes of the Atari 5200 and the ColecoVision, which I am sure most gamers will have heard of from either experience or by aged games writers reliving their childhood in articles. Despite offering gamers similar specs to its rival consoles the Arcadia 2001 failed for software reasons which may seem slightly strange today.

While the Arcadia 2001 (left) failed immediately, the Spectrum ZX (right) enjoyed many years of success, particularly in the United Kingdom.

By today's standards we will look at a game based on a television show or film licence with an
unfavourable glance as we know that a great licence does not a good game make and for every great batman game we’ve had numerous terrible ones. However back in the 80’s popular brand names were gold, this is how you got selected as a product of choice. Sadly for Emerson and the Arcadia 2001 they couldn’t secure the licences that Atari could and because of that it was doomed before it even got into the limited number of homes that it did.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom on the hardware front as Atari and Coleco were doing the console business and business was good, meanwhile we also had the Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 entering the home computer arena. The Commodore 64 in particular was not just a success financially but a piece of hardware that is fondly thought of even to this day, it’s not something I ever owned but was secretly jealous of all my friends who had one. It’s interesting to note that the Commodore 64 was shelved eventually not by lack of demand, by the late 80’s Commodore were shifting around 1.5 million units annually but by the financial constraints of producing the home computer. Despite a few months head start and a price point that was half that of the Commodore 64 (the Spectrum was costed at £175, a much more attractive proposition than the £399 of the C64) the Spectrum ZX couldn’t hold on to their early market position, Commodore accounted for around 40% of the home computer market for the rest of the 80’s.

Video (games) killed the radio star...

There was also another momentous event in the wonderful year of 1982, my birth notwithstanding, and that was of the first ever computer games television show Starcade. Paving the way for future shows such as Gamesmaster and Bad Influence, Starcade had contestants answer questions on videogames before going head to head on various arcade games for the chance to win gaming goodies. While it didn't last long it did manage to put out 133 episodes and showed that a videogame show was a viable prospect, even with the industry at that point being in its infant stages. Videogame shows have never tended to translate well to television, more-so as it always tends to focus on competition rather than news and lifestyle. There is a certain need for the tactile with videogames and when interactivity becomes elusive your interest will wane.

If Starcade hadn't started it all most people in their late twenties wouldn't know who Patrick Moore is.

The good...

In terms of the actual games that were released in 1982 it turns out that it was a very interesting year, with some classics, the biggest flop in gaming history and also possibly the first ever racist videogame. It seems in many ways that nothing much has changed in the landscape of gaming from then to now, with success, failure and controversy ever being present which is possibly something that has kept the energy in the industry for so long. It was a busy and memorable year for gaming with memorable titles filling homes and the arcades with many titles being released which would be the first games I would ever play a few years later. In fact my earliest memory of gaming is coming home from school to an Atari 2600 sitting beneath the television and being blown away while playing Pole Position. It’s hard to not oversell Pole Position for what it brought to gaming and the racing genre as a whole; the rear/raised viewpoint, AI opponents, time trials to qualify and time limits on checkpoints. These are all things that seem relatively commonplace now but Pole Position fired the starting pistol on racing game innovation. This Namco racer was one of a few classics that they released that year with Dig-Dug and Xevious also filling out their back catalogue, Gottleib released the fantastic Q*bert and the soon-to-be-massive Shigeru Miyamoto released Donkey Kong Jr. in the arcade.

The bad...

It may say more about my character than I'd like but if there’s one thing I love more than good games it’s truly truly awful games, and 1982 saw what is regarded as the biggest flop in gaming history: E.T The Extraterrestrial on the Atari 2600. Due to licencing negotiations and studio wrangling the game was only given five weeks to complete development in time for the Christmas rush, a task that fell to Howard Scott Warshaw. With an average of six months for standard development, it was seven months for Warshaw’s excellent Yars Revenge, this was a daunting task but when you are asked by Steven Spielberg to make a game there’s not much you can do but say yes.

Honestly, after this I would buy E.T an iPhone myself if he would just go home already

The game is your standard top-down affair with E.T looking for pieces of his phone which once found will allow him to phone home and be rescued. The game was bug laden, monotonous and thanks to a studio decision it was never tested by the public, it seems that Atari and Warner hoped that the licence alone would guarantee the sales. With an across the board negative reception from critics the game failed and saw Atari’s projected profits drop around 40%, and it also served to damage the Atari brand at a time when there were many other competitors. There is also an unverified story that all of the unsold E.T Atari cartridges were crushed and buried at a landfill in New Mexico, while perhaps not true its one of the most interesting myths surrounding gaming.

The Ugly...

If there ever was a solid example to dispel that Golden-Age fallacy where people perceive that everything in videogames was better years ago, cleaner, friendlier, more moral then Custer’s Revenge is that example. There is media outcry nowadays with every decision that Rockstar seems to makes but for all the car-jacking and gangland shenanigans they've never based a game on the rape of Native American women. It’s truly staggering that at no point did anyone see the problem with the development of this, your character makes his way from left to right, with an erect penis, avoiding arrow attacks making his way to a tied up Native American woman who he then proceeds to have sex with.

There was outrage at the time from various women’s groups and anti-pornography movements, and rightly so, and the game also met very negative critical reviews for its base gameplay and poor graphics. As we all have learned throughout the years, any publicity is good publicity and with all the coverage the game received and the uproar it caused it managed to double the sales of any of developers Mystique’s other games.

Getting older...

It’s funny looking back at gaming in the year I was born for while I wasn’t able to understand or enjoy the landscape at the time it’s interesting to note how the ‘then and now’ are intertwined. The companies that succeeded then have to a large extent shaped our gaming lives, many early understandings of how the player should interact with game worlds are still being used as industry standards today and even financially we can see the growth of the biggest entertainment industry in the world today. In such a short space of time videogames, and the industry, have come such a long way and if things continue as they have we shall be celebrating the industry for many more years.

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