My Personal History with Electronic Games: 0 of N

We didn’t have much money. I understand that now, though I didn’t understand it then. 

This meant toys of an electronic nature—especially in the 1970s—were rare, and although I still recall we had a lot of toys, even limited lots of toys like Lego, Micronauts, and some Star Wars figures and (hand-made) vehicles, electrical devices were rare.

That changed after I turned 10 in 1981 with the Atari Video Computer System (VCS, also known as the 2600). Among the games cartridges we acquired was Basic Programming, which, in spite of its rather primitive nature, commanded a fair bit of my time and attention. But since there was no way to save your work, it quickly faded from view.

When we got a computer in 1983—a Commodore 64, used (later sold), that changed things. Unlike Basic Programming on the Atari, this was a much more sophisticated (and I daresay less ugly) machine. The full-screen editor was a definite novelty at the time. Somewhere along the line we also acquired a used Vectrex with Berserk, missing the overlays for Minestorm and the aforementioned Berserk.

It was fascinating enough, but by 1985 or 86, I had been gifted a new Commodore 128 computer for my birthday. And my mobile computing needs were satisfied by a tiny Casio PB-80 personal computer (which came with BASIC and a rudimentary database). A year or so later, I was able to acquire a tape drive and, with a few issues of Compute! Gazette, I was in business.

So most of the games I played in the 1980s were either on the Atari 2600, the C64 running under the C128, which I entered myself and saved to tape or were purchased on cartridge, or on my father’s 286 computer, which by 1987 I was using mostly to play with PFS: Publish and Wizardry.

Aside: the 286 was made by American Semiconductor, a step up from the frankly terrible Sanyo MBC-555 micro my Dad elected to purchase instead of a vastly superior Atari ST—even used, the Atari was a much more interesting and capable machine than the new Sanyo, which I came to regard as absolute garbage. The lack of wholly functional games on what was ostensibly a business computer didn’t help. (What also didn’t help was how slow the Sanyo was, or how we wound up with a computer without so much as BASIC.)

But to be honest, I cared much less about games than I did robots in the 1980s. Toys like Tomy’s Omnibot were fun to use, but I was more interested in building them—electronics, servomotors, microcontrollers, programming, et cetera. I wasn’t able to accomplish much (although my skill with a soldering iron still serves me to this day), but I learned a lot of things nobody was teaching in high school at the time. The hobby faded long before Lego Mindstorms ever became a thing, however.

So when the video game crash happened in 1982, I scarcely noticed—I learned about all of that after the turn of the 21st century. In 1984, we were living in Japan, and I had other priorities.

Among them:

  • Adventure (VCS)
  • Air-Sea-Battle (VCS)
  • Alice in Wonderland (C64)
  • Asteroids (VCS)
  • Berserk (Vectrex)
  • Bowling (VCS)
  • Breakout (VCS)
  • Centipede (VCS)
  • Combat (VCS)
  • Defender (C64)
  • Impossible Mission (C64)
  • Jupiter Lander (C64)
  • MasterType (C64)
  • Minestorm (Vectrex)
  • Missile Command (VCS)
  • Night Driver (VCS)
  • Othello (VCS)
  • Pac-Man (VCS)
  • Pitfall II (C64)
  • Space Invaders (VCS)
  • Space War (VCS)
  • Spy Hunter (C64)
  • Super Breakout (VCS)
  • Superman (VCS)
  • Sword of Fargoal (C64)
  • Yars’ Revenge (VCS)

So what’s missing? I’ll come back to that.

Leaving aside the other activities you can do with a computer that have nothing to do with games—I experimented with a 1-bit digital pixel drawing program for the C64, music, among other diversions—the only video games I can credibly claim to have completed in the 1980s are Adventure, Pitfall II, and Superman. Not even Wizardry (for PC, bought in 1987), which claimed a lot of my time, was played to completion, even after making extensive maps of the levels I did get to visit (alas, long gone with my manual and box it came in; at least I still have the original program disk).

I think the case here is that, if you ignore the sole sports title (Bowling, which, even if you win you wind up “completing,” even if you lose or fail to meet a set goal), or the board games, that mostly leaves games like Yars’ Revenge, Breakout, or Space Invaders—games which are essentially unwinnable because they reset—looping back to the same state as the first screen, over and over and over again ad infinitum, with the added consequence that the gameplay is now harder. So your reward for successfully shooting all of the invaders is essentially a punishment—faster invaders. Oh, and points, I guess. (Especially for solo play, points always struck me as an empty metric.)

Superman may not have been the best game for the Atari 2600, but at least it gave you achievable goals and a small (albeit crudely rendered) world to explore, something games like Asteroids don’t bother with. In other words, you can only play Asteroids until you’re bored or frustrated or both. (And hey, Superman’s even an open world.)

For all the charm I found in games like Space Invaders (even in Pac-Man for the VCS), I preferred games that offered some sort of immersion—even if I couldn’t always finish them. Bear in mind most video games of this period didn’t even have musical soundtracks; most only had blips and other noises.

So when in the 1980s I encountered what might actually be regarded as the diametric opposite of video games: role playing games, games which you don’t win, couldn’t necessarily “complete” (except by accomplishing clear goals and objectives), and where the points you earned actually had meaning because they could be used to advance the character you played.

I admit I was slow to grasp the magic of Dungeons & Dragons at first. But when it finally did, I preferred it. I didn’t completely stop playing video games (notably, Wizardry was mechanically similar enough to D&D to maintain my attention), but my interest in them slackened considerably afterwards, right when some people might argue when electronic games started getting really interesting.