Thursday, June 22, 2006

My history with electronic games, part 2: 1980s

Please see part 1, part 3, and part 4.

In the 1980s I was still making computer games for school demos and fairs on my trusty C64 and Apple II. I was attending my father's college classes to learn more programming. By the time I hit college in 1985 (at 16 years old), I began experimenting on the Internet (or Arpanet, BITnet, and DECnet).

So the early part of the 80s were still a lot about arcade and computer games. Tron - great movie. Star Wars movies. 1985 was Back to the Future, a perfect movie with four sequential climaxes. I had missed Blade Runner (I saw it in the 90s).

D&D was my thing until the last two years of college. I got engaged the summer before my senior year. My big games were still Cosmic Encounter and Bridge. I was beginning to formulate better tastes in both music and books. So less Piers Anthony, and more William Gibson. Less radio pop music, more REM, Indigo Girls, and folk music.

I graduated college in 1989, with an eye for moving to Israel in the early 90s. My older brother had already moved, and my middle brother was on his way.

All images here are from Wikipedia, or otherwise linked back to their source.

A note about video and computer games:

From my limited perspective, the vast majority of video and computer games are built around three programming technologies:

  • motion tracking
  • collision detection
  • object state change

These programming techniques used to create Space Invaders appear to be the same programming techniques used to create Red Alert. Things move and things collide. When they do, or when you press a button, or when something else changes state, an object changes state: appears, disappears, or gets a new set of stats and moves in some other direction. Red Alert simply has a vast number of different types of objects, and very pretty representations of these objects.

Is it any wonder that we have so many shoot 'em up games? That's what lend themselves to this way of thinking. You need to get to recreations of board games before you find a real difference in the emphasis in programming.


Arkanoid is Breakout with dropping capsules that give you bonuses, neutral effects, or penalties. While I played a bit of this, I played more of Dx-Ball in the nineties.


In Battlezone, you have a 120 degree 3d-view of a wire landscape with tanks that you have to blow up, and who in turn are trying to blow you up.

Battlezone ranks as one of my favorite arcade games, even though I was never very good at it. It was the first game that felt like you were immersed in the physical game space. Maze games didn't feel like that, because movement in a maze game is by discrete units, e.g. 5 foot blocks. In BZ, movement was continuous. You had a little radar showing you where your enemies were, and you had to swivel around to hit them. The best way to do this was to turn while reversing, in case they were firing at you.


A game where the object is to use the robots bad AI against them, since they don't know how to get around walls, only how to step one step closer to you. Kill them all and escape the maze.

Electronic Chess Game

The game I played doesn't look quite like this one, as in mine the pieces had pegs under them. There were four levels of play, and the fourth level was unplayable, as it played with a five hour time clock (who had that much time?). Third level was hard to beat. First was pathetic.


Another 2D move game. Kill the tanks and rescue the people. It was the rescue part that added a little higher moral value to the game. Of course, you could kill the people, too, but you didn't gain points for that.


2D shooting game, but at least you could go both backwards and forwards. The game space wrapped around.

Discs of Tron

This obscure game was my favorite arcade game ever. It was just what a video game was meant to be. The game played a bit like air hockey and dodgeball (my best sport). You had to throw a disk in richoche moves to either knock the other guy off of his disks or knock out his disks. Your job was to catch or avoid whatever was thrown at you. It also felt very 3D.

The graphics and music were cool. And it was fun, leveled up nicely, and was quite addictive.

Dragon's Lair

Dragon's Lair was very original. The game was a choose your own adventure game, where every wrong choice meant a spectacular death. Each segment was pre-recorded on video disk, and all you had to do was quickly make the right choices within a second or so to escape to the next room.

The mechanic is built purely around the idea of knowing what to do through trial and error, each trial costing you quarters, of course. I really didn't like the concept, and while a I put a few quarters in, I quickly grew to loathe the concept.

Dung Beetles

A game very similar to Pacman, with a larger screen and the section at which you were located highlighted with a magnifying box. The magnifying box was cute.

Dungeons of Daggorath

This one stands for any number of maze like games that have endless wireframe walls, ladders to climb up and pits to drop down, monsters to encounter and treasures to collect. It was sort of like playing 3D Rogue, but with less story.


A better version of Galaxian, the standard in shoot 'em up against columns of enemies and waves of attack.


Another groundbreaking game, this was a little 2D shooter game, but four people could play at once, so long as each took a different character: Thief, Wizard, Warrior, or Valkyrie (whatever that is). Sound clips from this game have also entered hacker lexicon ("Wizard needs food, badly"), and four were better than one in cooperatively taking out the monsters.


A rather forgettable game where you had to flap your wings correctly to fly from one level to another spearing monsters, or you crashed.


A really forgettable game that was a huge step backwards in technology. Bombs dropped, and you had to catch them. I didn't play much. Heck, I could program this already when I was ten years old.

Lode Runner

One of a group of games where you had to collect the right pieces in the right order and jump from the right level to the right level in order for a ladder to appear that would let you escape the level. If you did the wrong thing, you either died or got stuck and had to turn off the computer (which was rather stupid). The game was like playing Gridlock.

Marble Madness

Probably my second favorite arcade game. You had to exert just the right amount of pressure on a rolling marble to keep it rolling down a track, and the choices got more difficult and the tracks got narrower. If you missed, the marble fell off a cliff. You exerted pressure by spinning a large black trackwheel; a little for some pressure, a lot for a lot of pressure.

It was brainy, subtle, and cute. Very addictive.

Missile Command

Another trackwheel game, you moved a crosshairs around in space and then pressed which silo you wanted to shoot to that crosshairs in order to create explosions that would hopefully engulf incoming missiles. The smart missiles you had to hit dead on or they would avoid your explosion. You only had 30 missiles each level, and six cities to defend. If you scored enough points, one of your cities might get regrown.

A very intelligent game with limited resources for a shooter, but ultimately it was how fast you could move the ball and hit the firing key. At later levels, you just had to create a wall of explosions.


What now seems to be a rather dumb game, you just had to run and jump, occasionally catching a swinging vine to do so.


An intelligent game both puzzle-like in which you had to visit all the regions in the least number of steps, as well as having to avoid the monsters coming after you. Very pretty, too.


The last of my top four games, this one was also brilliant and simple. You simply had to enclose territory by drawing lines around space after space, while the line being drawn had to be finished before the floating electric spark touched it. In the meantime, two crawling things were coming to get you if you wasted too much time.

Grabbing area and watching the percentile covered space appeals to the mathematician in me.

Robotron 2084

Similar to Berzerk, but without walls, the robots could do nothing more than step one step closer to you with each movement. They got faster and faster each level.


The first of the 2D versions of the adventure game, that eventually hit its peak with Nethack (which I didn't play until the nineties, and is still being developed). It is a turn based tactical game, with a lot of strategy, minimal graphics, and a good story.


A simple shoot the falling objects game. If enough parachuters fell on either side of the gun, the round ends with them scuttling over to your gun, climbing on top of each other, and blowing up your gun.

I recall a similar game called something like Sperm from Space, where your gun was an upside down naked woman that shot ... uh ... ping pong balls, I think, and if too much sperm managed to fall, then ... uh ... you lost.

Star Castle

This was a great game where you had to destroy the rotating shields of a ship in the center who could shoot as well or better than you could. Timing was essential.


There was nothing new in the mechanics here, just a great change in perspective. You circled around the outside at things crawling up to the top of a wall. When they were all done, you went through onto another wall. Nice perspective effects.

Time Pilot

I think this was one of the first major games with "bosses". After defeating the little guys, you had to kill the massive guy to get to the next level. Your ship always stayed in the middle, while the playing area scanned underneath you.

The theme/story of time travel at each level added to the game.


Tron was four games in one, where you had to play and succeed in all four before moving to the next level. Of the four games, only the light cycle one was really good. Light cycles is like multiple player snake, where each person tries to trap the other players by circling them with boxes. The other games were simple shooters.

Watch games

This was the era when little versions of video games were coming out on wrist watches. Digital watches were the thing, and they were pretty cheap. Most of these games provided only a few levels of difficulty, similar to the games you play on your cellphone today.


Another game with a little bit of a strange perspective, as the play space was tilted by 45 degrees, and you had to navigate objects and shoot in your relentless forward movement.


Technorati tags: , , , , , , , , ,


Steve said...

You and I grew up at about the same time period (I graduated from high school in 1984) and apparently we had much the same taste in arcade games. Ah the memories of a misspent youth! Kids today just ... well you know what I mean.

Jackson Pope said...

What scares me is how mush you remember. I'm a bit younger than you and yet I still can't remember half the games I played as a kid.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Jack - the perils of a cluttered mind. Many of these were better off forgotten.


Galaga said...

All of these games are beautiful memories for me in front of the screen when I was child. This moments won't come back. :(