THE ROAD TO VIDEOGAME HISTORY – Part 2

The American videogame industry had crashed at the end of 1983 and by 1984 few companies were releasing new games for the existing consoles. Then in 1985 Nintendo released its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and suddenly videogames were once again in vogue. In 1986 Atari released its 7800 console, which also played most 2600 games. This gave me a slight hope that ABC to the VCS could still be released with the inclusion of the 7800 games. However, it was soon apparent that there was very little interest in the new Atari console. Just about everyone wanted an NES. Sometime in 1987 I made the final decision to kill ABC to the VCS. Now I had to decide what I wanted to write about next.

I knew that I still wanted to write something videogame-related. I debated doing an ABC to the NES but quickly discounted the idea because I didn’t relish the thought of having to go out and purchase an NES and all of the games that were available for it.

Following the videogame crash of 1984, the videogame magazines fell by the wayside, leaving only those dedicated to personal computers. One of the magazines that remained in print was ANALOG Computing, a magazine devoted to the Atari 8-bit computers. I had subscriptions to it and its chief competitor Antic because I owned an Atari 800 computer. As far as I knew, neither magazine covered anything about console videogames. In its April 1988 issue, ANALOG featured the first part of a History of Video Games feature written by Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, two of the three people instrumental in the first videogame magazine, Electronic Games. The third member of the trio, Bill Kunkel, joined the team for the third installment of the feature dated June 1988. And although the third installment ended with a preview of the fourth, that fourth installment never appeared, leaving thousands of readers in the dark about “The Great Fall.”

And then it hit me. There had never been a book solely about the history of videogames. There were a few books that featured one chapter on history but none that were totally dedicated to it. I decided to rectify that. In those pre-Internet days I figured I had enough material for research. I owned all of the available videogame books and magazines and press kits that I obtained from several Consumer Electronics Shows (CES). And I had several industry contacts that I picked up at CES whom I could contact if I needed to. Plus, after having two articles published in Videogaming and Computer Gaming Illustrated, I had industry credibility.

And so I sat down at my Atari 800, popped in the AtariWriter cartridge, and began writing. Initially my idea was to have a chapter about the history of each of the major videogame companies. I started with Atari and then began writing about Mattel Electronics. It soon became apparent to me that there was a lot of overlap between the companies. Did M-Network belong in the Mattel chapter or the Atari one? And eventually it hit me that that wasn’t the way to go. It was obvious that the book needed to be chronological.

So then I started my research. I waded through all of my books and magazines for anything that I thought was of any historical relevance. And then I created a spreadsheet (on paper – I never opened my copy of VisiCalc for the Atari 800) where I created numbered categories and then wrote down the name of the article alongside the number of the relevant categories. When this was completed I began writing, beginning with the abacus. The first chapter was about the history of computers and ended with Magnavox’s Odyssey. I then started the next chapter and so on. By this time my goal was to complete the book so it could be published in 1992, the twentieth anniversary of the Odyssey and Pong.

I don’t remember at what point I came up with the title Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Home Videogames but it seemed like a good one. If the book was published in 1992 as I hoped, then the crash would have been directly in the middle of the industry’s twenty-year history. The industry crashed and like the mythical phoenix bird it came back even stronger than before. And it didn’t hurt that there was a videogame called Phoenix, which had been part of a lawsuit and lawsuits were pretty prevalent during those twenty years.

I had purchased my first PC, a 286, at the end of 1990, and I had to figure out how to get my book from my Atari to the PC. First of all it needed to be in a format that the PC recognized and that definitely wasn’t AtariWriter. But as far as I knew AtariWriter didn’t offer any options to change the format. Fortunately I learned that Atari released a disc version of the software called AtariWriter+, and this offered an option to save the documents in ASCII format, which any computer would recognize. However because this new program was on disc, it required more memory than the cartridge version. Many of documents that I loaded into AtariWriter+ that had been written in AtariWriter were truncated because there wasn’t RAM (Ready Access Memory) to contain it. So then I had to open it again in AtariWriter and split these documents into two, so each half could be opened in AtariWriter+ where I could save each of these documents in ASCII format by pressing CTL-S.

AtariWriter Menu
AtariWriter+ Menu

It took a long time to convert all of my AtariWriter files into ASCII files but I eventually did it. Recently as I researched the Atari word processing programs for this article, I learned that the entire procedure had been completely unnecessary. Apparently AtariWriter automatically saved its files in ASCII format. Now I keep hearing Cher singing If I Could Turn Back Time in the back of my mind.

Once I had my documents saved in ASCII format (again) I needed a way to transfer the data to the PC. The Atari used 5¼-inch floppy diskettes. And while my PC accepted both 3½- and 5¼-inch diskettes, it wouldn’t be able to recognize the Atari-formatted diskettes. I had to find a way to transfer the data from one computer to the other. In those pre-Google days of 1990 I had to search through all of my copies of ANALOG and Antic in search for hardware or a cable that would allow me to perform the transfer. I owned an Atari 850 Interface Module, which technically should have allowed my Atari 800 to connect to my PC through its serial port. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any information in the magazines that explained exactly how I could do it.

Luckily I had joined the CompuServe Information Service a few years earlier. Compuserve offered free online storage so people could trade files with other members. Well I was trading files with another member who just happened to be me. So I began uploading my ASCII text files to Compuserve using my 300-baud Atari XM301 modem, which took a long, long time. On the other hand, I was able to download those files onto my PC using a speedy 1,200-baud modem, and that seemed to happen instantly.

Atari 850 Serial Module
Atari XM301 Modem

I used Professional Write from Software Publishing Corporation as my word processor and quickly reformatted the text files and saved them as PW files. In April, 1991, once I was certain that the book was near completion, I began the chore of trying to obtain a publisher, with the hope of having it published sometime in 1992. I did not keep records of which publishers I sent proposals to but I do have approximately twenty rejection slips on hand that began arriving almost immediately. Apparently the twenty-year history of videogames was not something that any of them saw any interest in.

Around this time I learned about a fanzine called the 2600 Connection and I immediately subscribed and received an issue. I wrote a letter about my two books to it and that was published in the May/June 1993 edition.

My mailing address appeared at the end of the letter and before I knew it, readers of the fanzine began requesting copies of both books. So I knew then that I did have an audience for my books. Now I just had to figure out a way to deliver them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s