THE ROAD TO VIDEOGAME HISTORY – Part 1

MY EARLY WRITING YEARS

I began writing when I was ten years old. An avid reader of Superman comics, one day I took two pieces of notebook paper, folded them in half, stapled them along the edge, and began writing comic books. I use the word “writing” loosely because what I actually did was draw pictures. Other than the cover, each page consisted of six panels of pictures and no dialog. I called this “comic book” Antman and it featured the exploits of a superhero named Antman and his sidekick Snakeman. The problem with these comic books was that I couldn’t draw if my life depended on it. Antman was a stick man with antennae protruding from the top of his head and Snakeman was an oval with a pair of eyes and a mouth at one end.

When I completed an issue, I attached two more sheets of notebook paper and began a new one. And I did this over and over again, numbering the issues as I went. Somewhere along the way I went back to one of the older issues and was horrified to discover that I had no idea what the stories were about. So at that point I began adding dialog balloons to the panels. My writing career was off and running!

I did this for about two years and approximately three hundred issues. At that time I came to another conclusion. I was not an artist. So the comic books came to an end and I began writing short stories. Most of them were science fiction since that was my passion at the time. Each story filled one side of a sheet of notebook paper. I wrote throughout seventh and eighth grade and many of the kids who signed my eighth-grade yearbook mentioned something about my writing. I came to the realization that I wanted to be a writer “when I grew up”.

MY COLLEGE YEARS

I don’t remember if I did much writing during high school, although my yearbook profile said I enjoyed creative writing. When I entered Rutgers University in the fall of 1977, I took a course in journalism. After one day I decided I wasn’t interested in writing non-fiction so I dropped the course and declared myself an English Literature major, which I would learn in hindsight years later, was probably one of the most useless majors a person could have. I took two creative writing and a science fiction course, although the stories I was writing at this point were fantasies with twist endings, or what I call Twilight Zone-type stories. The professor of the science fiction course was H. Bruce Franklin who, in 1961, had offered one of the first two university courses in science fiction. Professor Franklin agreed to be my advisor although I don’t think I ever went to him for advice.

Three major things happened to me in 1979.

First, Writer’s Digest, a magazine I began subscribing to when I was thirteen, started a book club that sold books for writers. One of the books I purchased was called One Way to Write Your Novel by Dick Perry and one of the chapters in that book was about how a novel could be written in 100 days by writing three pages every day. So I tried it. I sat down at my Smith-Corona electric typewriter and began writing whatever meaningless nonsense came into my head until I completed three pages. I did the same thing the next day and so on. After a few days a plot began to emerge and after about a month, I knew how the novel was going to end. I just had to get myself there. When we took a family trip to Atlanta to attend my cousin’s wedding, I brought along my typewriter so I could continue to write my three pages each day. At the end of 100 days I had written a complete novel!

The second thing that occurred in 1979 was that two of my close friends, Steven Wagenheim and Richard Friedman, began songwriting. I felt left out because I was, and still am, completely musically illiterate. But I was able to play the keyboard; the typewriter keyboard that is. Over the following fourteen years I would write 722 lyrics. Waggie or Rich set around two hundred of them to music. Most of them probably were bad but there were a few that I really liked and still listen to. But then again, I’m prejudiced. However, two of my lyrics did win awards in national songwriting contests.

Lovers In The Morning (But What About Noon?)

ABC TO THE VCS

The third event of 1979 happened in May and that was the one that drastically changed my life. That was when I purchased my first videogame console, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS).

When I bought the console there were approximately 25 game cartridges available for it. The unit was packaged with Combat and I purchased two additional games, Casino and Breakout. And of course as soon as I tired of those three I went out and bought another. And then another and another and so on. I have always been a collector: comic books, baseball cards, Matchbox cars. And before long I was collecting Atari VCS cartridges. I was no longer buying just the games I wanted to play. I was obtaining each and every one that was available. And after I had them all I began buying new ones on the day they came out. In 1981 Activision began releasing its own cartridges for the system and it was followed by Games By Apollo and Imagic and I strove to keep up with them as I spent myself into debt.

And then I figured a way to cash in on my collection. Why not write a book about the games? I decided to compile a directory that would summarize all of the games available for the VCS. I decided to call it ABC to the VCS and it would be an alphabetical compilation of all the games that were available. However, as the number of cartridges began to hover around the one hundred mark, similar games were beginning to appear from multiple companies. So I redesigned the book so it would consist of chapters containing comparable games. My goal wasn’t to review them but to allow readers to learn what made the games alike and different. I retained the original title.

In 1982 I graduated college with my very useful English Lit degree. Naturally I couldn’t find a job, especially since I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. And then I learned that a new TV store was opening in town, right across the highway from Crazy Eddy. SaveMart was a New York City-based retailer that had been in business since the fifties and now they were opening their first New Jersey store and I applied for a job. I went for an interview at their offices in the Bronx and told them about my book. They hired me to manage the videogame department in the new store. However, before I could start, I had to take a lie detector test. And since lie detector tests were illegal in New Jersey, they got around this by first sending me to their store on 14th Street and next to 59th Street in Manhattan. What I remember most about the second store was that it was tiny and the temperature was in the nineties. I had to wear a suit and they made me unload a tractor trailer. Oh, and by the way, neither store carried videogames. But I told myself that they were small stores. The one in New Jersey was going to be the largest in the chain. And being across from Crazy Eddy they would definitely want to compete in any way they could.

But when I started at the New Jersey store I was dismayed to find that there weren’t any videogames there either. When I contacted my manager about this he explained that they were a unique company and didn’t want to carry the same stuff that everyone else sold. They wanted to be different. They gave me the chore to investigate and if I learned about a new innovative system coming down the pike I should let them know. That’s what I did when I learned about the ColecoVision. But when I told them that this was the system they should carry they told me no. They had a better one that they were going to sell. That “better” system turned out to be the Emerson Arcadia 2001. During the two years I worked at the store I don’t think we sold one. But then again we didn’t sell much of anything. The company was the largest Zenith retailer in the country and basically that was all they sold. People would enter the store without knowing what was sold there despite my pleas for the company to advertise in the Newark Star Ledger, they continued to only put ads in the New York Daily News. Potential customers who entered the store expecting bargains quickly turned around and ran across the highway.

TRADE SHOWS

Meanwhile, I had a potential problem with my book. Hundreds of games were being released for the VCS, which had been renamed the 2600. Although I kept up with them, I realized that by the time the book was published it would already be out of date. So I needed to learn about new games in advance. Fortunately, I had one fringe benefit from working at SaveMart. The store received trade magazines and in these magazines were advertisements for the upcoming Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The CES was the largest trade show in the country and it was where the manufacturers showed off their new products that would be released throughout the year. Unfortunately, the show was not open to the public. However, I was employed by a retailer and the ads in the trade magazines had the registration information. So I signed up and paid my registration fee and soon I received a Retailer badge that had my name and SaveMart on it and would allow me entry into the Winter CES in January, 1983 in Las Vegas.

The Consumer Electronics Show was incredible. I met Ralph Baer, the inventor of the home videogame console for the first time, and I played games such as Telesys’ The Impossible Game, that would never see the light of day. I carried a notebook with me so I could describe all these wonderful games that were forthcoming for the Atari 2600. But the notes that I wrote down weren’t enough. I needed press kits from the individual companies that would describe these games in better detail than I ever could in my notes. So I sought out the press representative at each booth and explained why I needed a press kit. Some were cool about it and handed me one on the spot. Some were cool about it and handed me one on the spot. However others looked me over and didn’t believe this 24-year old kid with a retailer badge and directed me to the press room. The problem with this was that you needed an Editorial Press badge in order to enter the press room. And someone sat at its entrance checking badges for compliance.

I hadn’t come that far to be turned away at that point. I told the person at the door my quandary and before long I was met by Allan D. Schlosser, the Director of Public Affairs for the Electronic Industries Association (EIA), the organization that sponsored the twice-yearly CES. I repeated my plight to Mr. Schlosser and he allowed me to sneak into the press room for ten minutes as long as I stayed out of everybody else’s way. I thanked him but before I entered I asked him what I should do to avoid this problem if I needed to attend the Summer CES in Chicago. He handed me his card and told me to contact him, which I did when I got home. Following that I received press badges for many a CES to follow.

The inside of the press room for me was like finding the Holy Grail. There were tables galore topped with press kits. I looked at each one and only took the ones from companies that had announced games for the VCS, a decision I would regret years later.

Happy with my prizes, I left the press room and went back to enjoy the exhibits. In addition to meeting Ralph Baer, I met the “brains” behind some of the companies. Bob Brown had been one of the men who had been responsible for bringing out a home version of Pong back in 1975. At this time Bob was a VP with Starpath, a company that was releasing games on cassette tape for the VCS. I remember telling Bob that there distortion on my screen when I played my 2600 and he gave me a small ferrite toroid (a powdered iron ring) that could catch stray signals sent by the console to the TV. I don’t remember if it solved my problem. Joseph Biel and Irwin Gaines were two of the founders of CommaVid and one of them showed me how to play their unreleased game Rush Hour. That game would later be released by CGE Services twenty years later with a manual written by yours truly.

Dan Oliver, a former programmer with Games By Apollo, had left that company to form his own, VentureVision. Dan had a table where he showed off his games Rescue Terra I and Innerspace. Dan gave me a copy of Rescue Terra I but he never got to release Innerspace. It was later released by Imagic under the name Laser Gates.

The trip was worth the expense. In addition to obtaining the press kits, I had also made many important contacts. I was placed on the mailing list of Activision, Commavid, Telesys and US Games and they began sending me review copies of their games. Activision even sent me some Intellivision games, which forced me to go out and purchase an Intellivision II.

And with this new smorgasbord of games on the pike, I knew I couldn’t just stop writing the book at that point. A month after CES was the International Toy Fair in New York City, only a few miles from where I lived. I’m not quite sure how I acquired my press pass but somehow I did. And while I thought CES was the only venue that the companies used to premier their new stuff, I quickly learned that they used Toy Fair as well. It was there that Atari first displayed its Graduate computer add-on for the 2600. Milton Bradley showed off its Tank Commander controller along with the game Tank Blitz. And companies that I hadn’t seen at CES were here. ZiMag showed off its first line of 2600 games and Amiga showed its Supercharger knockoff, the Power Module. Coleco used the show to announce its Expansion Module #3, the wafer-driven Super Game Module.

And once the Toy Fair was over, June was only a few months away. So now I definitely needed to attend the Summer CES in Chicago. As promised, the EIA sent me a press badge and when the time came I drove out to Chicago with my friend Bruce Kleiman. As he was a photographer for a local newspaper, he was able to easily obtain a press badge.

New stuff was shown at the Summer CES. Atari unveiled its voice controller that it produced in conjunction with Milton Bradley. Control Video Corporation showed off its Gameline Master Module that would deliver games to the 2600 through the phone lines. I met the company’s president, William F. Von Meister, and he gave me a free subscription to the service. I also got to try out the Ultravision Video Arcade System. And Edward Tang, the president of Answer Software, invited to me to his offsite hotel suite where I got to try his company’s PGP-1, which was a code-altering device for the 2600. I also got to play two new games, Confrontation and Gauntlet, and was put on their press list. I also remember passing Activision’s co-founder and programmer David Crane on the escalator and I was star-struck.

     In my mind, the whole reason I attended the trade shows was to get advance notice of new games that were coming out for the Atari 2600 in order to keep my book current when it was published. But now I didn’t know when to stop. Every six months would bring a new trade show and new games. I needed to put a stop to this once and for all. But where would I draw the line?

Meanwhile, I became a contributor to Videogaming & Computergaming Illustrated. This now made me a legitimate videogaming journalist and I registered myself for the Winter 1984 CES as a writer for that magazine. My badge for that show reflected that. Unfortunately the atmosphere at the Winter 1984 show was vastly different from the prior two that had dozens of companies showing off new Atari 2600 games. Following the infamous crash of the industry at the end of 1983, there were few videogame companies in attendance at the 1984 WCES. I think I counted four. The only one that I clearly remember was Sunrise Software which had a very small booth on the main floor. The company showed off two games for the 2600, Snowplow and Glacier Patrol. Snowplow has never been seen since. Amiga also had a booth at the show but no games. In fact, they had nothing on display. But the press representative “confided” with me that the company was developing a 16-bit computer. I acted astounded even though I had no idea what he was talking about. I spent most of the show at the newly-named Video & Computergaming Illustrated’s table where they were handing out free copies of their January 1984 issue which featured my second article, “The Strategic Scenario”. I made sure I took home a liberal amount of copies. Although I didn’t go home with dozens of review copies of games and press kits, at least I had the magazines.

But the writing was on the wall. That magazine would only publish one more issue and then it would fold, along with several other videogame-related publications. Apparently, few people in America were still interested in videogames. And this meant that ABC to the VCS wouldn’t interest too many people either. I had to admit to myself that I had to put the book to rest.

Now I had to find something else to write about.

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