LET’S GO TO THE VIDEOTAPE

From Old School Gamer Magazine – January 2020

Videogame software can reside on many different types of media. In the early dedicated consoles of the seventies, the games were built-into the consoles themselves. The introduction of cartridges in 1976 eventually game way to CDs in 1988 and DVDs in 2000. Magnetic media also found its way to consoles in 1982 when Arcadia (later renamed Starpath) released the SuperCharger, which used cassette tapes to download games to the Atari VCS. Nintendo followed suit in 1986 by using floppy discs for its Famicom Disc System (and again in 1997 for its N64DD). But these units were only peripherals for existing consoles. No console had ever been designed around magnetic media. Well at least not until September 1987 when toy company Worlds of Wonder released its Action Max.

In theory it seemed like a good idea although it was really a throwback to 1972 when Magnavox issued screen overlays to simulate attractive graphics. In this case a live-action movie would play on the screen and provide the backdrop to the game.

The Action Max retailed for $99, which wasn’t a whole lot of money for a new console. However unlike conventional consoles, it didn’t hook up to a television. And unlike the conventional consoles that directly accepted the media, the VHS-tape games for the Action Max had to obviously be inserted into the VCR player. The system was packaged with one light gun, headphones, a red light and one game on tape. The gun and red light plugged into the console. A suction cup on the back of the light was used to attach it to the lower right corner of the television set. It flashed on and off whenever a target appeared on the screen. The games themselves were pretty primitive. Shoot at the targets and try to get the highest possible number of hits. An LED on the console kept track of the hits.

Worlds of Wonder Action Max

Five ‘games’ on videotape were released for the Action Max. While the themes of each game was different (for example 38 Ambush Alley takes place on a police target range and Hydrosub: 2021 is set underwater), the gameplay is the same on all of them; amassing points by hitting as many targets as possible. This could get pretty monotonous after a while, especially since games on videotape were linear and were exactly the same every time the videotape was played.

The Action Max was not available in Japan. Japanese consumers, however, could purchase a similar unit called the Video Challenger,which was issued in Japan by a toy company called Takara (now called Takara Tomy). Like the Action Max, the Video Challenger also used a gun (a “Challenge Blaster”) that gamers aimed and fired at the TV screen, but in this case, the gun was the console. It also displayed a score that increased every time the player successfully shot an on-screen target. However, the player also had to avoid being shot from the on-screen characters or else the tally would decrease. Games for the Video Challenger were designed by key videogame developers such as Sega, Data East and Konami. Despite this, the Video Challenger suffered the same fate as the Action Max. It simply couldn’t compete against mainstream videogame consoles like the Famicom. Due to the sequential nature of tapes, each game was repetitive and players simply lost interest after just a few plays.

Takara Video Challenger

If videotape was not the perfect medium for action games, perhaps it would work for education ones. That was the hope of View-Master/Ideal with their Interactive Vision that they launched in 1988.

But there was a more important difference between the Interactive Vision and the videotape systems that preceded it. The Action Max and Video Challenger could not generate any computer images onto the screen. The videotapes for the Interactive Vision had actual computer data encoded onto a track that downloaded to the console while it played on a VCR. The result was a hybrid system that was a mix between a videotape game player and a true videogame console. While images from the videotape would always appear the same on repeated viewings, the games themselves were computer generated and therefore would differ on repeated plays. This was a huge advantage over the Action Max and Video Challenger, which would always be the same every time they were played. But View-Master/Ideal even worked so that the portion from the videotape was not the same every time they were viewed. The tapes themselves featured two audio tracks, and the player selected which soundtrack would be used during the course of the play.

Viewmaster Interactive Vision

The Interactive Vision had been designed for children between the ages of three and eight. The unit utilized a controller that featured five color-coded buttons and a joystick, so children could highlight certain on-screen objects. Despite being named Game of the Year at one of the toy fairs where it was displayed, the system did not sell well at all. Thanks to poor marketing, few potential buyers even knew about it. And those who were aware of it refused to pay $130 for an educational product that only appealed to a very narrow target audience. The system was only released in North America with only seven tapes were available for it. All of them were licensed by either Disney or Sesame Street.

Only one videotape-based console was manufactured by an actual videogame company and that was the Video Driver (known as the Family Driver in Japan), which came out in 1988. This stand-alone unit looked remarkably like the Racing Wheel Steering Handle controller that was used with the Sega Japanese SG-1000 console. It consisted of a steering wheel and a gear shift.

Sega Video Driver

The small console, which in the United States was distributed by Tyco and cost approximately $70, attached to a horizontal sensor that sat in front of a 13 through 20-inch television set. A small plastic racing car sat atop the sensor facing the television set and it could be moved left or right by turning the wheel. The object of the game was to avoid the cars on the screen, which was essentially a film of cars traveling down various roads. The unit was bundled with a video cassette that featured two games, California Chase and Road Race. As with the videotape-based consoles that preceded, the allure of Video Driver wore out pretty fast and the system was discontinued within a year of its debut.

Video Driver was the last videotape-based system to be produced. But there almost was another.

Control-Vision was conceived in 1985 by Tom Zito of Nolan Bushnell’s company, Axlon. Zito had been a film major at New York University before he became Axlon’s Vice President of Marketing. His idea was to create interactive games combined with video footage. An approach that was closer to the path that View-master eventually took with its Interactive Vision. Zito’s idea was to have the computer create images over the live-action movie background.

After Bushnell approved the project, Zito assembled a team of videogame dignitaries, which included Steve Russell, David Crane and Rob Fulop. Zito calculated that they would need $7 million to finance the project, an amount that Axlon simply didn’t have. Hasbro, the world’s largest toy company, which until that point had stayed away from videogames, stepped in with the needed funding in exchange for the exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute the console. Axlon developed a compression routine, wherein five full-motion video tracks and sixteen digital audio tracks could be crammed together on one videotape without any loss of quality. The system could also switch back and forth between the 21 tracks instantaneously. In addition to the video and audio, the videotape would also contain the program code. Hasbro claimed that the new system would be a cross between a movie and a videogame. Two movie/games, Night Trap and Sewer Shark, were produced at a cost of $4.5 million, and more games were scheduled to follow. Hasbro had intended to market the Control-Vision directly against the NES. The $200 system was scheduled to appear on store shelves in early 1989, and retailers had pre-ordered 250,000 units. Unfortunately, a sudden demand for Video RAM (VRAM), which the Control-Vision used extensively, caused the price of the chips to jump from $30 to $80 each, which increased the wholesale price of the console from $105 to $155. Few retailers were willing to purchase the console at the higher price, which would have resulted in a higher retail price that potential customers would have balked at. Rather than selling the consoles at a loss to the retailers, Hasbro simply scrapped the project altogether.

Control-Vision Prototype

And with the death of the Control-Vision, videotape-based videogames finally became history.

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