Celebrities

Over the years I’ve been lucky to meet many videogame “celebrities”, people involved in the videogame industry in a major capacity. Some of them I met just by attending the same shows that they were at. And others I’ve developed great friendships that lasted for years.

Ralph H. Baer

Ralph Baer is generally known as the inventor of the videogame console. I first met Ralph in 1983 at the Consumer Electronic Show. I was 23 and wearing a retailer badge and I recognized him. I went up to him and said “You’re Ralph Baer!” And he looked at me like I was the dumbest thing on earth and replied, “Yeah. So what?” I didn’t know how to react and so I slithered away with my tail between my legs.

Years later, after I wrote Phoenix, Ralph learned about it and wrote a letter to me asking how he could get a copy, and of course I immediately sent him one. In 1998 he invited me to his house in New Hampshire and there we began a great friendship that lasted until his death on December 6, 2014. I thought of Ralph as a surrogate father and I also befriended his wife Dena, until her passing in 2006, shortly before Ralph received the the National Medal of Technology from President George W. Bush. I also befriended his three children who I still maintain a relationship today.

Nolan & Tyler Bushnell

Nolan Bushnell was the co-founder of Atari Corp. I met him three times and in person he was the most genial man you could ever meet. I remember one year both he and Ralph Baer were both going to attend Classic Gaming Expo (CGE) and a round of Pong was to be played by the two. Prior to the show I saw Nolan at an event in New York City and I told him that Ralph was looking forward to the game of Pong against him and he replied that so was he. However when CGE actually occurred Nolan didn’t show up.

There has always been controversy about who actually invented videogames and for years Nolan took the credit. However, it was proven that Nolan witnessed an early demonstration of Ralph’s Odyssey and that was what inspired Pong. Nolan did attend CGE in 2004 and gave a talk that I moderated. Someone in the audience asked him if it was true that the Odyssey inspired Pong and Nolan finally admitted that “Yes I did see the Odyssey but I knew right away that it was a failure.” How could he know that a revolutionary device such as the first videogame console would be a failure (the unit eventually sold approximately 300,000 units). After that I lost respect of the man. The problem with Nolan is that over the years his stories about certain things have changed. Whether his discrepancies were intentional or if he really believed what he said to be factual, I have no idea.

In 2012, I asked Atari’s other co-founder, Ted Dabney, to write a foreword for the fourth edition of my book, Phoenix. He readily accepted. And then I thought it would be cool if Nolan also wrote one. But when I emailed Nolan he never responded. I was later told by a friend that Nolan didn’t like me because I was friends with Ralph. Or maybe he didn’t like me because of the article I wrote about Ted Dabney, which contradicted many of Nolan’s famous Atari stories.

I met Nolan’s son Tyler at the Coleco Retro Gaming & Collectibles Expo in Edison, NJ in August 2017. Tyler was there to talk about his new company, Polycade, of which he was the CEO. After the show he needed to get to Newark Liberty Airport and since I was heading home in that direction I gave him a ride. He did admit to me in the car that his father forgets things. I gave Tyler a copy of Phoenix IV and Ralph’s book, Videogames: In The Beginning. I also stopped at Wawa and introduced Tyler to their famous coffee.

Bill Kunkel

Bill Kunkel and Arnie Katz started the first videogame magazine, Electronic Games, in late 1981. I met the two of them at a press party sponsored by CBS Electronics in New York City prior to the 1983 summer Consumer Electronics Show (CES). I introduced myself to them and they were the two most obnoxious men I ever met.

I met them again, this time with Arnie’s wife, Joyce Worley, at the World of Atari expo in Las Vegas in 1998. I went up to them and reintroduced myself and this time they knew who I was because they knew my book. They were very humble and friendly to me. I made sure to talk to them at every show that followed. In 2005 Bill was writing his memoirs and someone suggested that I publish it, which of course I jumped at the chance. Bill and I maintained a friendship until his untimely death in 2011 at the age of 61.

Steve Wozniak

I met Steve, co-founder of Apple, at Classic Gaming Expo in 2005, but we had communicated before that. I had emailed Steve and asked him to write a blurb for Ralph Baer’s memoir Videogames: In The Beginning and he did! Years later we became Facebook friends. When Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs book was published in 2011, and everyone was talking about it, I posted on Facebook that I was reading Steve W’s book iWoz. He liked that and called me a nonconformist.

The photo below was taken when we met at CGE 2K5. The book he’s holding up is a prototype of Ralph Baer’s book.

Joe DeCuir

Joe DeCuir should bare the blame for me getting into videogames. After all, he was one of the original architects of the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), my first and still favorite console.

I first met Joe in 2000 at Classic Gaming Expo (CGE) and I don’t think I made a good impression with him. I was the moderator for his talk and I didn’t know what a moderator did other than introduce him. He was kind of upset that I wasn’t prompting him.

The second time I met him was at the Portland Retrogaming Expo (PRGE) in 2019. He came to my table and bought my book and was one of the friendliest people I ever encountered.

I’ve also thought of Joe as the “Father of USB” but when I said this to him he became very humble and said he was merely part of a team.

Al Alcorn

I’ve met Al, the designer of Pong, several times at various shows. He’s always been very kind and friendly. The photo below was taken at E3 in 2000.

David Crane and Garry Kitchen

David Crane and Garry Kitchen were two legendary programmers for Activision during its initial years. David, in fact, was one of the founders of the company. I first saw David at one of the 1983 Consumer Electronics Shows (CES). He was going up the escalator and I passed him on my way down. I thought I was passing a superstar and I couldn’t believe how tall he was.

Arguably David’s most well-known work was Pitfall! for the Atari VCS. He was also the programmer for two of Activision’s first four releases: Fishing Derby and Dragster. Both games raised the bar on how graphics could appear on the VCS.

Prior to joining Activision, Garry’s programmed two VCS games: Space Jockey from U.S. Games and Donkey Kong, the first VCS release from Coleco. While at Activision he developed one of the company’s most successful games: Keystone Kapers.

After leaving Activision, David and Garry founded Absolute Entertainment and later Skyworks.

I’ve met David and Garry at many shows over the years and it always blows my mind that they know who I am!

Daniel Kitchen

Once of the co-founders of Absolute Entertainment with Garry Kitchen was his younger brother Dan. Dan had also been a developer at Activision; his most notable game being Crackpots.

I first met Dan in 2001. I had been laid off from my technical writing job at ADP and I approached Dan about being a manual writer for Majesco Entertainment, a software company in central New Jersey, where he was a manager at the time. Unfortunately, he wasn’t looking for manual writers.

Dan is a prolific programmer who has developed games for just about about every major console ever released. Recently, he returned to his roots. While at Activision he had worked on Keystone Cannonball, a sequel to his brother Garry’s Keystone Kapers. That game was never released but Dan recently found it and decided to update it and release it on his own. The result is Dan Kitchen’s Gold Rush, which is scheduled for a late 2020 release.

Retro Game Con, November 2019

Bob Brown

Bob was one of the Atari engineers responsible for Home Pong, Atari’s first console, in 1975. He later helped start Starpath (originally called Arcadia), a third-party company that made games on cassette tape for the Atari VCS.

I first met Bob at the Starpath booth at one of the 1983 Consumer Electronic Shows. I remember telling him that lines were on the screen when I played my VCS. He gave me a ferrite toroid, a small powdered iron ring, to run the line to the TV through. I don’t know if it did the trick and I sure don’t know what I did with it.

Me with Bob at Classic Gaming Expo 2002.

Dan Kramer

Dan’s claim to fame is he developed the Atari 5200 Trackball. I first met him at the World of Atari expo in 1998 where he was showing off a trackball that he developed for the peripheral company, Nyko. We’ve been friends since.

Me and Dan at Classic Gaming Expo 2000

Ken Uston

Ken Uston was a notorious card counter who was eventually banned from casinos, who wrote several books about how to beat the casinos. He later switched to videogames and wrote several books included the best-selling Mastering Pac-Man. In 1984 Epyx released a computer game called Puzzle Panic, which Ken co-developed. The photo below was taken at the Consumer Electronic Show in the summer of 1983 and was published in Infocom magazine. The photo shows Ken showing off the game to CES attendees. That’s me in the glasses standing next to him. Note that the original title of the game was Puzzlemania.

Ken died in 1987 at the age of 52.

Eugene Jarvis

Eugene was the developer of such notable Williams arcade games such as Defender, Robotron 2084 and Cruis’n USA. I first met Eugene in 1997 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia where we both visited the travelling videogame exhibit, Videotopia, which had been conceived by our mutual friend Keith Feinstein. The photo below was taken in 1999 at the wedding of Keith and his lovely bride Jeannine.

Howard Scott Warshaw

Growing up one of my closest friends was a young man my age named Richard Friedman. After I got involved with Atari games in 1979, Richard told me that he had a cousin who worked for Atari. That cousin, actually a second cousin, turned out to be Howard Scott Warshaw. Howard is known for developing in six weeks the game E.T. for the Atari 2600, which many people mistakenly call the worst videogame ever created. It’s not and it wasn’t the cause of the videogame crash of 1983 as many people claim. To Howard’s credit, he also created one of the best games for the 2600 Yars’ Revenge. In the photo below, taken at Classic Gaming Expo in 2000, I’m exchanging a copy of the second edition of Phoenix for Howard’s documentary Once Upon Atari on VHS tape.

John Harris

John Harris was a guest at the first few Classic Gaming Expos in Las Vegas. He’s known for programming 1981’s Jawbreaker, one of the first Pac-Man clones to be released for Atari’s 8-bit computers. An entire chapter is devoted to John in the book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy.

John and I at Classic Gaming Expo in 1999.

Alexey Pajitnov

Alexey was a Russian programmer who developed a little game that consisted of seven different shapes descending from the top of the screen. That game was Tetris, one of the most successful videogames ever written. A Tetris movie starring Taron Egerton is scheduled to be released in 2021.

Alexey, videgame console inventor Ralph Baer’s son Mark and myself at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in 2019

Rick Dyer

Rick founded RDI Video Systems which was responsible for Dragon’s Lair, the first successful laserdisc-based arcade game. He also produced two followup laserdisc games: Space Ace and Thayer’s Quest.

Rick and I at Classic Gaming Expo in 1999

Warren Robinett

Warren is noted for being the designer of Adventure for the Atari VCS. And while it wasn’t the first, Adventure is usually credited for containing the first Easter Egg in a videogame, a hidden part of the game. Warren displayed his name in the game in frustration because Atari programmers were not receiving credit for their games.

Warren later cofounded The Learning Company, a company that developed educational software. The Learning Company was sold to Softkey, a company started by Kevin O’Leary of Shark Tank fame, for $606 million in 1995. O’Leary sold the company to Mattel in 1998 for $4.2 billion. The company lost $3.6 billion for Mattel which soon sold it at a loss and almost caused its bankruptcy.

The photo below of Warren and me was taken at Classic Gaming Expo in 2002, after we both were interviewed for segments in the cable show Icons, which aired on the cable network G4.

Warren had written his memoirs which I wanted to publish, but at the time he was going through a divorce and didn’t have time to dedicate to the book.

Ed Logg

Ed designed Super Breakout for Atari. He also co-developed some of Atari’s biggest arcade hits: Asteroids, Centipede, Millipede and Gauntlet.

Ed and I at Classic Gaming Expo in 2000

Jerry Lawson and Ron Jones

Jerry is noted as the man who created the videogame cartridge. While this isn’t accurate, Jerry ran the team at Fairchild that created the Channel F, the first console that utilized individual game cartridges. Jerry was also responsible for the unique controller that came with the system.

I met Jerry in 2005 at Classic Gaming Expo. Jerry gave a talk after Steve Wozniak gave his. Because of diabetes Jerry was in a wheelchair. I helped him from his chair onto the dais. I was dismayed because the packed room that Wozniak had enjoyed was now reduced to a handful of spectators. Jerry took it all in stride and proceeded to talk. Unfortunately the fire alarm went off during the speech so I helped him back down to his chair and rolled him outside through a side exit. I remained with him until we were given the all clear to return. I rolled him back in and once again assisted him up the dais. Unfortunately, there were now less people in the audience than before. But those who remained really got a treat listening to his story. For some reason I never thought of getting my photo taken with Jerry and of course I’ll always regret that. Jerry passed away in 2011.

But Jerry was a ground breaker in another area. He was one of only a few black engineers at the time. He and Ron Jones were the only black members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of computer enthusiasts that included Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs as its members. I met Ron Jones at E3 in 1999 when he was showing off his Songboy, a device that turned the Nintendo Gameboy into an MP3 player. Later that night we went to a Japanese restaurant in downtown Los Angeles and Ron and his group just happened to be there. This led to a memorable rap competition by an inebriated member of my group against someone in Ron’s group. Sadly, Ron passed away at the age of 48 in 2004. I could not find a photo of Ron anywhere.

Jerry Lawson

Dennis Koble

Dennis was an engineer with Atari who was responsible for early arcade games such as Sprint 2 and Avalanche. He left Atari in 1981 to co-found the second major third-party software developer, Imagic.

Dennis and me at Classic Gaming Expo in 1999

Steve Golson

Steve was a videogame programmer with General Computer Corporation (GCC), a company that made designed enhancement kits for existing arcade games. Steve is credited with programming Crazy Otto, an enhancement to Pac-Man. The game was shown to executives at Midway who purchased it and released it as Ms. Pac-Man. Steve also worked on the Maria graphics chip for the Atari 7800 console.

The photo of Steve and I was taken in 2018 at the American Classic Arcade Museum in Lacona, New Hampshire, after we both gave talks.

Jay Smith

Jay was the founder of Smith Engineering, and was the designer of two innovative consoles. The Microvision from Milton Bradley was the first handheld system that utilized interchangeable cartridges. This was followed by the Vectrex, a table-top console that contained its own vector monitor.

Jay and me at Classic Gaming Expo in 2001

Walter Day

In 1982, Walter began compiling high scores for arcade games from his Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, which he had purchased a year earlier. I first met him at an early Classic Gaming Expo and we have remained friends ever since. Every time I see him he praises me and makes me turn red with embarrassment. But he is a true pioneer and we owe him so much.

Tommy Tallarico

Tommy is best known for the musical scores that he has written for hundreds of videogames. For the past dozen or so years he has been leading a live show of videogame music called Video Games Live, which has played around the world. His latest project is running the Intellivision company and preparing for its first console, the Amico.

I first met Tommy in 2004 at a party at the Philadelphia Dave & Busters, hosted by Manci Games publisher Jason Mercer. I met him again at Video Game Expo the following year. I had a booth at the show and was with my friend Patrick Wong. Afterwards we planned to go the Old Country Buffet for dinner. Somehow word got out that we were going there and more and more people decided to join us. By the time we got to the restaurant, there were about 20 of us. And the last two people to show up were Tommy and his brother Mike. Not only was this a surprise that they were there, but Tommy foot the bill for all of us. Once inside, Tommy showed us a Sony PSP, which hadn’t yet been released. Tommy and I maintained a friendship ever since.

The photo below was taken on the stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ in December, 2010. From left to right are Tommy, me and my son Greg.

Jacob Ziv

Not really videogame related but in 1977 Jacob and Abraham Lempel invented data compression. Both Jacob and Abraham were friends of my in-laws. Although I have never met Abraham, this photo of Jacob and me was taken at my inlaws’ house in 1999.

Arda Ocal

Arda is a television personality, broadcaster, announcer and writer. He’s best known as a commentator for professional hockey and wrestling. I first met Arda at the Aviator’s Retro Videogame convention in Brooklyn, Nj in February, 2018, where he moderated a talk I gave. He did the same for me the following year at a show in Staten Island, NY. The photo below was taken at the Brooklyn show in 2018.

Ted Dabney

Ted was the co-founder of Atari along with Nolan Bushnell. Ted was sort of the silent partner as Nolan was the spokesman. After two years, Ted sold his portion of Atari to Nolan and left the videogame industry forever.

Following Ralph Baer’s suggestion, I wrote an article about Ted that was published in the British videogame magazine, Edge in 2008. This marked the first time that Ted ever told his side of the Atari story and he contradicted many of the tales that Nolan had been telling for thirty years. This began a deep friendship between me and Ted. It soon got to the point that the two of us would talk once a month.

I wish I had a photo of me with Ted but unfortunately, I never met him in person. After he was diagnosed with esophagus cancer in 2018, I arranged for a crew from the Smithsonian to go out to California to interview him. He called me because he was amazed that people actually cared about him. At that point my partner Rob Far suggested that we should go out and record Ted and me chatting one on one. I thought it was an excellent idea and I knew Ted would go for it. However when I called him to let him know, before I could say anything, he told me he was having a bad day. He didn’t know when the bad days would occur but we couldn’t afford to fly out to California and then drive two hours to his home just to find him incapacitated. So I never got to meet him but it was my own fault as I had a standing invitation to visit him for years,

Ted passed away in May, 2018. But for the five months that he was sick, he never complained to me once. He was always happy and maintained that whatever happened, he had lived the best possible life.

Ted Dabney

George Kennedy and Traci Lords

Film actor George Kennedy and underage porn actress Traci Lords were both signing autographs at a Nuon hospitality room at E3 in 2000. George was signing and handing out copies of the DVD of Cool Hand Luke, which he starred with Paul Newman. Traci was signing and giving out copies of the Denzel Washington movie Viruosity, in which she had a minor part.

I also had photos taken with Melissa Joan Hart who signed copies of Drive Me Crazy and Amy Jo Johnson who signed copies of Without Limits.

Penn Jillette

In 1995 Absolute Entertainment planned to release a game for the Sega CD called Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors. Unfortunately the company went out of business before the game could be released. My friend, Michael Thomasson, tried to secure the rights to the game so he could release it through his company, Good Deal Games. Somewhere along the way this never happened but in 2001, while we were in Las Vegas for Classic Gaming Expo, Michael received tickets for Penn and Teller’s show at the Rio Hotel and Casino. He invited me. Below is a photo of Michael, Penn and me taken at the Rio. I didn’t get a photo with Raymond Teller but I did hear him speak!

Alan Menken

This one isn’t really videogame related but in a way it is. Alan is the composer of all the music in the Disney’s animated movie The Little Mermaid. And since The Little Mermaid was also a videogame from Capcom for the NES and Gameboy, I figured I can include it here.

This photo was taken in 2016 at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ at the premier for the musical play A Bronx Tale, based on the Robert DeNiro movie. The show starred Nick Cordero, who sadly recently died from complications from the Covid-19 virus.