Spacewar: Profile of a Cultural Earthquake

October 16th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

The world’s first video game tournament took place at Stanford on October 19, 1972, 45 years ago this week. The Living Computer Museum in Seattle is hosting an event on Thursday to commemorate this anniversary, and in conjunction, they commissioned me to write this article about the history of Spacewar and its influences.

It has been fifty-five years now since the first release of Spacewar!, a seminal computer game that began as a low-key tech demo among a group of friends but soon grew to rock Western culture like a tidal wave. When a group of Harvard employees and MIT students named Steve Russell, Wayne Wiitanen, Alan Kotok, Martin Graetz, Dan Edwards, and Peter Samson created the game, they had little idea that it would evolve into one of the most important cultural developments of the 20th century.

In its most basic version, Spacewar pits two player-controlled rocket ships against each other in a game of orbital single combat. Each player uses a set of switches to guide their ship through a physics-based two-dimensional simulation of deep space. Momentum and inertia play their part just as they would with a real spaceship, and a large star in the middle of the screen acts as a huge gravity well that draws the ships into oblivion if they do not carefully thrust their way around its pull.

As the first interactive virtual world, in the sense of simulated physical space, Spacewar set conceptual precedents that are still reverberating in our society. The game also marked a new dawn for human storytelling, allowing interactive expressions of archetypal stories as old as civilization itself. Along the way, it also launched a massive industry.

All this starting in 1961 — the year men first went into space.

[ Continue reading Spacewar: Profile of a Cultural Earthquake » ]

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

[ Retro Scan ] Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

October 2nd, 2017 by Benj Edwards

First Castlevania Symphony of the Night Magazine Advertisement - EGM 1997Fear has an address: 677 Bluebonnet Ln., Wichita, Kansas 67218

20 years ago today (Oct 2, 1997), Konami released Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in the US. My life has been demonstrably better ever since.

After reading a review of it in EGM, I knew I had to get the game. So I did, and it was awesome. This is probably still my favorite video game — or at least in the top three. This is the game that inspired our beloved Metroidvania term and genre, and it’s still one of my favorite game genres to this day.

[ From Electronic Gaming Monthly, November 1997, p.8-9 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite Castlevania game?

Tags: , , , , , , ,

[ Retro Scan ] Super NES Play It Loud Poster

September 22nd, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Nintendo SNES Super NES Play it Loud Poster Star Fox Donkey Kong Front Side - 1994Side 1: Grunge fonts galore

1994 was a very good year for the Super NES. It’s around the time when US Super NES sales began to exceed those of the Genesis again, and of course, the release year of some of the games listed on this large fold-out poster. Chief among them, of course, is Super Metroid, which I consider to be one of the greatest video games of all time.

Some people like Donkey Kong Country as well.

This poster came packed with first-party Super NES games sold around 1994 — and I quite possibly got it from inside the Super Metroid box itself. (I wish I hadn’t separated all those documents out long ago, but I did it mainly to focus on scanning them for this very column.)

I’ve talked about Nintendo’s Play it Loud campaign before (especially here and here, and here), so I won’t go into it again. But it was a very effective campaign that found back against Sega’s assault on Nintendo’s kiddie image.

The back side of this fold-out poster contained the obligatory Nintendo Power magazine ad, coupled with a non-obligatory Star Fox graphic. Neat.

Nintendo SNES Super NES Play it Loud Poster Star Fox Donkey Kong Front Side - 1994Side 2: While you’re at it, subscribe to Nintendo Power

[ From Electronic Gaming Monthly, November 1997, p.8-9 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s the most underrated Super NES game?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

New Limited Edition Street Fighter II Cartridge Could Literally Burst Into Flames — or Just Ruin your SNES

September 1st, 2017 by Benj Edwards

iam8bit Street Fighter II limited edition reproduction cartridge is a fire hazard on fire

This is really bizarre.

News hit a couple days ago that “iam8bit,” a boutique retailer of video game nostalgia products, is releasing a limited edition Street Fighter II cartridge for the Super NES.

It is part of a Street Fighter 30th Anniversary package for US $100 (plus $24 shipping, inexplicably) that includes trinket bonuses designed to lure cash out of a video game collector’s wallet.

The cartridge looks and supposedly plays like a real Super NES cartridge on a real Super NES console. There’s only one catch: iam8bit says it might catch on fire while you play it.

I am not making this up. Here’s a quote of the actual product page:

WARNING: Use of this reproduction game cartridge (the “Product”) on the SNES gaming hardware may cause the SNES console to overheat or catch fire. The SNES hardware is deemed a vintage collectible, so please exercise extreme caution when using the Product and make sure there is fire extinguishment equipment nearby. Use of the Product is at the sole risk of the user. The Product is sold “as is”. Neither iam8bit, Inc. nor Capcom Co, Ltd. make any representation or warranty, express or implied, of any kind, including any warranty of merchantability of fitness for a particular use, or that the Product is safe to use, and iam8bit, Inc. or Capcom Co, Ltd. shall have no liability for damage to property or persons arising from use of the Product. Nintendo of America is in no way associated with the release of this Product.

[ Continue reading New Limited Edition Street Fighter II Cartridge Could Literally Burst Into Flames — or Just Ruin your SNES » ]

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Carol Shaw Donates Collection to The Strong

July 19th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Carol Shaw with River Raid Box

Good News!

You may recall that I interviewed Carol Shaw for VC&G back in 2011. Shaw is best known for developing River Raid and for being Atari’s first female video game designer.

(At that time, I called Shaw “the world’s first female video game developer.” Since then, I have made a new discovery, so stay tuned.)

Through connections made between myself, Shaw, and my good friends at The National Museum of Play at The Strong in Rochester, NY, Shaw recently donated a cache of amazing historical materials, including printed source code for River Raid and an EPROM of her first game, Polo.

Carol Shaw's River Raid Atari 2600 Source Code Photo

When I first learned that Shaw still had large format printouts of the River Raid source code (back in 2011), I panicked, trying to figure out the best way to preserve it. I was thinking I might even have to fly over and photograph it myself — just to make sure it would not be lost.

But luckily, ICHEG at The Strong is a wonderful institution, and I have been doing my best to direct prototypes and other artifacts their way over the past few years. I am happy to do my own small part in preserving the history of video games, and it is wonderful that an important pioneer such as Shaw is getting the recognition she deserves.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later

July 18th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Sid Meier's Civilization I for MS-DOS Screenshot

Ten years ago today — on July 18, 2007 — Gamasutra published my in-depth history of the creation of Sid Meier’s Civilization called The History of Civilization. (Here’s my original VC&G post on the topic.)

My article was originally intended to be part of a series of articles — conceived by Simon Carless, if I recall correctly — that would cover the histories of the then-recently announced “Game Cannon.” (I wanted to do a piece on Tetris next, but I could not figure out how to get an interview with Alexey Pajitnov.)

Treating video games as legitimate cultural artifacts worthy of preservation and study was a very novel idea at the time. My work, and that of others, over this past decade has made this idea far more mainstream, although there’s still a lot of work to do.

My Civilization article still gets a lot of attention. Gamasutra re-promotes it every once and a while, and it has been cited in books, other articles, and more. So imagine my embarrassment as I tell you, right now, that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing back when I wrote it. I was never formally trained as a journalist; I learned my craft and absorbed lessons as I went along.

The lesson I learned from the Civilization piece was to never make assumptions. The History of Civilization was only the second big history narrative piece I’d written in my career, and I remember being nervous about making a few assumptions about things that I did not firmly know to fill in gaps in the narrative.

I did not have the time or budget to interview more one person fully the article (Sid Meier, though I asked Bruce Shelley questions via email), so I wondered: How on earth do I fill in those knowledge gaps? I just went with what made the most sense, and I was lucky that it did not lead to any problems. Today, many journalists still do this, and it’s a terrible practice.

Since that time, I typically go way way way over budget with interviews and research so that I never, ever have to make any assumptions in the storytelling process. As we speak, I’m about three months late on a big feature because of this obsession of mine. It’s not an economical way to do business as a freelancer, but at least my editors know I can deliver an accurate product.

Does that make The History of Civilization a bad article? No. It’s still a good piece overall, although I would do things differently if I wrote it today.

…But there is this nagging issue, always in the back of my conscience, of a very long email that Bruce Shelley sent me about it just after it was published.

And that, my friends, will be the first of several updates related to this article that I collected have for you today, in three acts:

I. Bruce Shelley’s Notes on the Article
II. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley in the Flesh
III. History of Civilization Translated into Chinese

[ Continue reading ‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later » ]

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

[ Retro Scan ] Bentley Bear’s Spelling Bee

July 17th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Atari Scholastic Series Spelling Bee a Bentley Bear At-Home Tutor Crystal Castles Educational Software Atari ST Atari Mega and ST box packaging scan - 1988“Follow me, KIDS! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

I recently visited fellow NC computer collector Tom Copper (hopefully the subject of a future post), and Tom gave me this neat and rare piece of educational software for the Atari ST series. It’s called Spelling Bee, and it features Bentley Bear of Crystal Castles fame.

Apparently, Atari made a series of educational games starring Bentley Bear. Sadly, this particular game is not that great. It’s just a simple version of Hangman that, in my opinion, does not aid spelling skills at all. I have two kids — ages 7 and 4, and my eldest gets to play all the older educational software I can find. She gave this product a thumbs down. So do I. But it sure is a neat piece of computing history.

(P.S. If you’re interested in an overview of great educational games of the past, check out this slideshow I did for PCWorld back in 2015).

[ From Scholastic Series Spelling Bee by Atari, 1988, cover/back ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite educational PC game of all time?

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Nintendo is Playing Risky Games With Its Cultural Legacy

July 7th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Super NES Classic fits in your hand

By now, all of you have probably heard about Nintendo’s upcoming Super NES Classic Edition, which the firm announced on June 26. It’s a tiny HDMI-capable Super NES that plays 21 built-in games and will retail for $79.99 US. And it’s due for release on September 29, 2017.

It is also, quite possibly, intended to be a huge publicity stunt.

You guys may remember the absolute fiasco that was the NES Classic Edition — Nintendo’s miniature HDMI NES with built-in games. The NES Classic edition was announced on July 16, 2016 and launched on November 11th of that year for $59.99.

Of course, when November 11th, came around, shoppers snapped up the limited supply Nintendo produced within seconds on Amazon.com and at other retailers, leaving many thousands of NES fans frustrated and unable to ever buy the tiny wonder console for a reasonable price.

Yes, that included me. Scalpers on eBay turned around and immediately sold the NES Classic Edition for 200% the retail price, and today they go for around $200-$300 unopened on eBay. (I did eventually buy one on eBay for around $250.)

I’m tempted to ask: Will the Super NES Classic Edition suffer the same fate? But this isn’t the right question. The question should be: Is the launch and availability of this new product going to make a mockery of Nintendo’s cultural legacy?

[ Continue reading Nintendo is Playing Risky Games With Its Cultural Legacy » ]

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

[ Retro Scan ] The Hayden Sargon Hamburger

July 6th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Hayden Book Company Computer Program Tapes Software Sargon Game Playing with BASIC How to Build a Computer-Controlled Robot The First Book of KIM General Math Complex and Matrix Math Introductory Engineering Math advertisement scan - 1979Starving for Software? Eat a tapeburger

For some reason, I find few things less appetizing than a black and white hamburger. (Maybe one with a computer tape on top of it.)

But we’re not here to eat this advertisement for Hayden Book Company’s 1979 computer tape offerings. We’re here to look at it.

I know very little about Hayden itself other than that it originated as a New Jersey-based book publisher and later transitioned into selling software on disk and tape as well (as “Hayden Software”). That stands in contrast to what I think was the firm’s first approach to publishing software — in paper books full of source code.

It’s worth noting that this might be the first-ever advertisement for what was originally called “Sargon: A Computer Chess Program“, a pioneering chess game and engine for personal computers that debuted at the 1978 West Coast Computer Faire. I recall my brother playing Sargon II for the Atari 800 and Sargon III on the IBM PC, and I had a copy of Sargon II for the Apple II. It was a stalwart, well-respected chess series for many years.

[ From BYTE Magazine, February 1979, p.143 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s the best computer chess game you’ve ever played?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

[ Retro Scan ] Milton-Bradley MBX for TI-99/4A

June 15th, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 2Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 2

The Milton-Bradley MBX, launched around 1983 for the TI-99/4A home computer, is a strange product: it combines a pistol-grip joystick with a rotating knob and analog control, a 64-position touch pad with overlays, and voice-recognition headset into one package that is supposed to enhance gameplay on specially-designed TI-99/4A games.

This neat TI-99/4A site has a history page about it, so I think I’ll just snatch a portion that explains the MBX’s origins:

Now that you have an idea as to what the MBX System is, below is a little history provided by Mike Langieri (the creator of the device). According to Mike, the MBX actually started out as a stand-alone game console in 1982 and was to be Milton Bradley’s answer to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. MB’s plan was to provide the game player with voice recognition, speech synthesis, and an action-input keypad which in turn would give them an advantage over the systems already on the market.

Now how come MB did not go ahead with their own system in 1982? Once the Colecovision came out, Jim Shea (then president of Milton Bradley) thought that the market was not big enough to support 4 game systems from Atari, Mattel, Coleco, and Milton Bradley and therefore killed the project. However, so much development went into creating MB’s own video game unit that Mike was then assigned to finding a use for all the technology they developed.

Eventually it was decided to transform Milton Bradley’s gaming system to an add-on for the TI-99/4A, most likely due to the fact that MB had earlier developed the Gamevision line of video games for the 99/4A and also created the graphics chip used inside of the TI system. Thus, “the MBX was the phoenix that rose from the ashes” as Mike wonderfully put it.

It’s amazing to think “What if” and wonder what a Milton-Bradley game console might have been like. I believe that Milton Bradley also originally tried to sell this idea to Atari, but they declined, and it ended up as a TI-99/4A peripheral. A non-rotating, non-analog variation on this joystick did end up as Atari’s Space Age joystick, though.

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 1Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 1

I have a complete MBX system in the box (which may be where I got this flyer), but for some reason I have never used it. I think that’s because I don’t have any of the games that support it — or I didn’t 17 years ago when I first bought my MBX on eBay. Right now I don’t even know what box my MBX is stored in, so it would be hard to rectify that.

[ From Milton Bradley MBX Promotional Flyer, ca. 1983 ]

Discussion Topic: When was the first time you ever used voice commands with a computer?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,