Archive for the 'Retrogaming' Category

Ted Dabney (1937-2018)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Ted DabneyIn Memoriam: Samuel Frederick Dabney, Jr. (1937-2018),
co-founder of Syzygy and Atari

Samuel Frederick (“Ted”) Dabney, Jr., who co-founded Atari with Nolan Bushnell in 1972, died of esophageal cancer just three days ago. He was 81 years old.

I was not close with Ted, but I did interview him at length for articles about Computer Space and Pong back in 2011 and 2012. During our conversations, he was candid, detailed, kind, and very helpful. During my conversations with him, a lot of the details of early Atari history you can now read online were coming out of him for the first time, so he was a vital source of fresh information on that subject.

Ted did critical work as a partner of Nolan Bushnell in the early 1970s. He served as a creative sounding board for Nolan’s ambitious ideas and also as a key implementer of some of them.

Ted met Nolan around 1969 while working at Ampex, where they were office mates. They shared big dreams and secret sessions of the board game go while in the office, and in off-hours, they hung out and scouted locations for a new restaurant idea Bushnell had that involved talking barrels.

With Nolan at Syzygy Engineering, Dabney created the video control circuitry used in Computer Space, built the prototype cabinet for that game, designed its sound circuit, and more. On Pong, Dabney built the prototype cabinet and gave feedback to game designer Allan Alcorn. He also provided ideas for Atari’s third game, Space Race, before he left Atari in 1973.

There is some confusion about the reason Dabney left Atari. Dabney told me that Nolan forced him out. Bushnell commonly cites poor work performance as the reason Dabney left. Absent some documentary evidence, the real answer will always be one of those fuzzy historical points left to interpretation. What we do know for sure is that the two founders were no longer getting along.

(By the way, I have recently read some reports about Dabney that say he left Atari because he was angry that Nolan patented his motion control circuitry without including him on the patent. This is plainly false. Dabney did not even know that Nolan’s motion control patent existed until I informed him about it in a 2011 interview.)

A lot of the key info I gleaned from Dabney can be found in my 2011 piece on Computer Space, which is a primary source for some of the secondhand knowledge you’ll read about Dabney and Atari’s early days on the web. Some day I need to publish my full interview with Dabney on Pong, because it is very insightful.

It’s also worth noting that Dabney remained friends with Nolan throughout the 1970s despite the Atari business acrimony. They were never truly close like they were circa 1969-1972, but they still kept in touch, shared a hot tub or two, and Dabney created a trivia game for Nolan’s Pizza Time chain in the early 1980s.

I will miss talking to Ted. He was laid-back, easy going, and straightforward. He had so much skill and experience from his days before Atari, and I need to write about that some time. I had hoped to interview him again at some point, but life delayed those plans. May he rest in peace.

[ Retro Scan ] Gateway to the Savage Frontier

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

SSI AD&D Forgotten Realms Gold Box Gateway to the Savage Frontier RPG sexy sorceress legs advertisement scan - 1991BEGIN A FANTASTIC NEW QUEST! !!!

For some reason, my brother and I never owned any SSI Gold Box AD&D games when I was growing up. I have played many of them briefly since then — and there definitely are a lot of them.

So I’m particularly interested to know what you guys think about the Gold Box games — which ones you’ve played, which are the best, etc.

[ From Video Games and Computer Entertainment, August 1991, p.13 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite SSI Gold Box game?

[ Retro Scan ] Benj’s 1992 Christmas List

Monday, December 11th, 2017

Scan of Benj Edwards 1992 Christmas Xmas List 1992Seems like I wanted a computer

My father passed away in 2013, and since then, I have been slowly going through his possessions, including his papers, to take stock of what’s there and put things in order.

Last year, in the back of a tall metal file cabinet, I found a manila folder labelled “Christmas Lists.” Amazingly, it contained many of my handwritten childhood Christmas lists, addressed to both Santa and my parents. It was very touching to find. I had no idea my father had saved them.

Among these papers, I found this gem from 1992 (I pinpointed the date easily because I remember which year I wanted to get a Prodigy client set). I was 11 years old. That was also the first year I started my BBS.

Unlike my richly illustrated Christmas list from 1989, this one is all text. Among items like ‘G.I. Joe guy,’ a giant Hulk figure, and a snare drum, we find gems such as ‘Nintendo Game Genie,’ the aforementioned ‘Prodogy’ (sic), and “#1 gift! A COMPUTER!!!”

(I’m pretty sure the $15 was a joke.)

At the time, I was using a dreadfully slow monochrome IBM PS/2 Model 25 (with an 8086 CPU) to run my new BBS (that my dad had bought new around 1987), so I’m pretty sure that was the main reason I wanted a computer.

I didn’t get a new computer that Christmas. I think my dad bought me my first non-hand-me-down PC around 1994. But I did get a Prodigy connection kit, and you can read more about that in this classic post. And of course, best of all, I was surrounded by my loving, supportive family in a stable home. It was a great Christmas.

I was a lucky kid, and I am very grateful that my family encouraged me to explore what I loved. I plan to do that for my kids as well.

I hope all of you out there have a very Merry Christmas.

[ From Benj’s Christmas List (Vol. 2, Chapter I), 1992 ]

Discussion Topic: Have you ever received a computer for Christmas? Tell us about the first one.

History’s First Female Video Game Designer

Friday, October 27th, 2017

Joyce Weisbecker RCA Studio II Article on FastCompany

Ever heard of Joyce Weisbecker? If not, you’ll probably hear her name a lot in the future — at least in video game history.

FastCompany just published an article I wrote about Weisbecker, who was probably the world’s first female professional video game developer, predating the work of Carol Shaw by several years.

In 1976, Weisbecker created two games for the RCA Studio II console (released Jan 1977), which was based on her father’s home computer architecture. Her story is fascinating, and I had a lot of fun bringing it to light. I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, if you enjoy seeing this kind of work from me, please consider supporting me on Patreon. At this point, Patreon support is absolutely essential to what I do.

There are many more stories like this out there, including some I know about already, but they will never be developed without financial support.

Spacewar: Profile of a Cultural Earthquake

Monday, October 16th, 2017

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 » ]

[ Retro Scan ] Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

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?

[ Retro Scan ] Super NES Play It Loud Poster

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

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?

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

Friday, September 1st, 2017

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 » ]

Carol Shaw Donates Collection to The Strong

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

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.

‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

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 » ]