Monday, July 29, 2013

Dave Needle and Jerry Lawson - Two Early Independent Video Game Designers

Way back when I stared this blog, I posted about Dave Needle's one-off Star Trek video game. That post was only part of a longer chapter in my book about independent video game designers. Today, I am posting the entire chapter (at least as it exists right now). The earlier post didn't seem to arouse much interest, but it was actually one of the most interesting stories I heard when researching the book. Now that I have a few more readers, I hope this expanded version will be of more interest.

Chapter 13
The Independents

            The history of coin-op video games usually runs something like this: first there was Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space and then there was Pong and in-between there was nothing. In actuality, however, this may not have been strictly true (even aside from Galaxy Game and For-Play's Star Trek). The late 1960s and 1970s were a hotbed of activity in the computer field. A handful of companies, and even more individuals, were struggling to create a personal computer at the time and there may well have been others who were creating video games. These people may not have had Nolan Bushnell’s entrepreneurial instinct but it is likely that in at least a few garages and basements across the country, there were computer hackers and electronics tyros trying to build video games of their own.

Dave Needle
            One such independent designer was Dave Needle, who would go on to have a hand in the creation of 3D0, the Atari Lynx, and the Commodore Amiga. After graduating high school, Needle started attending Hunter College in the Bronx. It was there that he created his first video game.


Dave Needle

[Dave Needle] About six months or so before Pong came out I did my first game. I saw an article in Popular Electronics that taught how to build an analog TV game[2]. I thought it was cool so I built one in the bedroom of my house in the Bronx. I built it in an attaché case. It was mostly analog, a little bit digital for some of the collision stuff. It was fun – and allowed you to play Pong, basically. I made a second game that had a gun that shot a little bullet out and you angled the gun and pushed the trigger to fire. Later I added bounce to the paddles that was controllable by a second pot to control the angle of the paddles and then I actually got the [paddles to change onscreen] to show what angle you were going to bounce the balls off of. I thought it was cool, showed it to all my friends, and didn’t do anything with it. I had a great opportunity in front of me and just didn’t do anything. I made the one-offs of these games in cigar boxes and attaché cases and I just left them like that, finished college, and went off to California.

Article from November, 1972 Popular Electronics. This was probably the article Needle referred to
            This was the first time Needle by-passed his chance to get in on the ground floor of the video game explosion, but it wouldn’t be the last. After moving to California he graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Not long after graduation, he got a glimpse of Computer Space in a Long Beach arcade and was immediately captivated. He went home and created a baseball video game, and once again never thought about marketing it. When Magnavox came out with the Odyssey, he and a friend managed to bluff their way into a demo but could not get into the rooms where the game’s design was being discussed. After seeing the game, Needle once again designed a version of his own in an attaché case, and once again he didn’t think about marketing it.
Around this time, Needle took a job as a civilian technician aboard the USS Enterprise and in his spare time he continued working on videogames.

[Dave Needle] So I volunteer for work on the USS Enterprise for the navy. So I’m going to spend the next nine months at sea and what am I doing in my spare time? Once again I’m building another game in an attaché case. This time it’s a multi-game game. It has a version of Breakout, it’s got a couple of different kinds of Pong games, it’s got a maze game. [There was] no software. It was entirely hardware driven…It grew to two attaché cases…with cables that connected them on the bottom. In one of them was the power supply and all the joysticks and stuff. The other one was this giant pile of wire-wrapped boards. So that’s what I did in my spare time. I only made one of them. I never turned it into a business. What a jerk I am.

Probably around 1973 or 74 there was a fire on the Enterprise. The fire was in my shop. It burned down my shop pretty bad. Most of the equipment was totally destroyed. My game, which was in the shop at the time, was totally drenched in this corrosive fluid that they used to put out the fires and it was totally ruined.

At this time, Needle bought parts anywhere he could get them cheaply.

[Dave Needle] Radio Shack didn’t have the parts I needed. I was the manager of a team on the Enterprise…so I knew where the Navy got their parts. So I would buy a lot of those parts from the same sources the Navy was getting them from…I had military-capable wire-wrapped boards…it was the only stuff I could buy. Then one day I stumble across a store called I.C. Electronics in Los Angeles. They had a cool idea. Take integrated circuits, resistors, etc. and vacuum-pack them in nice clean packages and sell them at a decent price. Back then this was unheard of. . . One day I’m standing in the store and in comes a guy with some circuit problem. The kid behind the counter, who has no clue how to design circuits, has no way to help him. So I start helping the guy and this went on for some number of weeks. One day I’m helping a guy and he needs a part and there’s no one around so I yell at Don “Hey can I go back and get this.” He says yes and I go into his rows of parts in the back of the store and he’s got a ton of unlabeled stuff. I wound up going to work at the store for free when I wasn’t working on the ship and he paid me in parts. So I now got free parts for helping guys at an electronics store. I was in heaven.

Todd Fisher and the legendary Mike Quinn (probably at Mike Quinn Electronics)
Courtesy of Fischer's site

 It wasn’t long before the store’s owner told Needle about an even better source for parts – Mike Quinn Electronics. The gruff, bearlike Quinn was one of the forgotten fathers of the computer revolution. A number of the Bay Area personal computer pioneers haunted his shop, including Bob Marsh, Gordon French, and Lee Felsenstein (Processor Technology); Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg (North Star Computers), and Howard Fulmer (Equinox-100). Quinn frequented auctions and sales where he was able to obtain overstocked and over-manufactured parts for pennies on the dollar. He then sold the parts out of a sloppy, messy, dirty warehouse located near the Oakland Airport. Quinn’s had everything – motors, parts, control sticks, LEDs, broken video games, and, best of all, dirt-cheap prices. It was an electronics tinkerer’s dream come true. Needle and friends soon began to haunt the place. When they complained about not being able to get parts in the middle of the night, the store’s chief technician offered to give them a key, telling them to come in anytime, take what they wanted, and write it down on the back of a paper sack so they could pay for it later. Uncomfortable with the arrangement, Needle and the technician worked out a compromise, anytime he or his partners wanted anything, they would drive out to the technician’s house, then drive him to the store and he would open it up for them. While the technician’s girlfriend didn’t appreciate Needle and company’s late night visits, the trio was able to get the parts they needed whenever they needed them. The lack of money also meant that the partners often had to make do with homemade equipment.

[Dave Needle] I had to build a ROM programmer. I didn’t have enough money [to buy one]. The first ROM we were using had +9v and –12v, some ridiculous set of power supplies. So I built this thing. It had 8 toggle switches, one for each bit. It had another toggle switch that would increment the address starting from zero. It had a third toggle switch that would generate the programming pulse. So you put in the part, set up the bits, and you wiggled the toggle switch that programs in the 8-bits. Then you hit the address incrementer (I had a set of LEDs reading me the binary address), and you did it again and again. So, one-bit-at-a-time, you entered the data. Because the parts were expensive and I didn’t have a lot of space I made, in hardware, a small decompression mechanism and I had about an 8-1 decompression of the imagery and the hardware decompressed on the fly to give us those images and that was cheaper than [adding] more ROMs.

Not long after the Enterprise fire, Needle and his partner (either Stan Shepard or Bob Ewell) actually got their first offer to make money at their time-consuming “hobby”.

[Dave Needle] I went to work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda around 1974. So while I was there I decided to do another game. The bar where I spent a lot of time…was looking for some kind of an arcade game to have in the bar. So me and my buddy…built a multi-game game that was a sit-down table game. Did I build twenty of these? Did I try to sell it to anybody? No. I built only one. What a jerk I am.

For their next effort, the pair decided to make use of some new technology. All of the games Needle and friends had created so far had been 100% hardware based. Now they decided to create a game using a microprocessor (they would actually end up using two 8080s in the game). While Needle had no real knowledge of software, Stan Shepherd was a software whiz. They took a trip to the Federation Trading Post (an unauthorized seller of Star Trek merchandise in Berkeley run by Charles Weiss and Ron Barlow) and offered to create a Star Trek video game for the place. When the owner told them “Sure, go ahead” they immediately began working on the game. What they didn’t know was that the Trading Post got offers like that every week and no one ever actually came through on their promise. That wouldn't be the case this time. After about four months, Needle, Shepherd, and Bob Ewell had finished the game and the people at the Trading Post were stunned.

[Dave Needle] The game had an Enterprise ship and a Klingon ship. They each had shields around them with 16 shield segments. The shields took individual hits and glowed when they got hit, which was a pretty good accomplishment in those days, and then dimmed down to a lower level of brightness. A couple of hits on a shield would make it die and then a direct hit through the shields to your ship would cause some damage. You could rotate your ship so that the incoming weapon would hit a shield instead of your ship. It was 2-player or one player against the computer. You had 99 photon torpedoes and some amount of phaser energy. In those days that was top-notch stuff. Plus we had a cloaked Romulan ship that would show up when he felt like it and shoot a fireball at you. You could damage the Romulan ship if you hit it while it was visible. The game had 16 levels of gray. It had 42 or 43 plug-in, wire-wrapped boards in a big chassis, 2 fans in the bottom

The game was spectacularly successful. We didn’t understand gaming construction and we built the cabinet bigger than 32 inches across. As a result a lot of places we tried to play the game in couldn’t get it through their door. The other mistake we made was we had this tiny coin box in the bottom that overflowed every day. So we ended up taking it out and putting in two two-pound coffee cans, one under each of the coin slots, which also filled up. While it was in the Federation Trading Post, we were making $400 every couple of days. The three of us, I now had two other partners, would leave work at lunch, drive out to Berkeley and collect the money. After a while we got tired of driving there and we just trusted him and once a week we’d go out there and they’d give us a check of a pile of cash. Did I build ten of these? Did I sell it to someone? No. What a jerk I am.

 The trio's Star Trek game (which was probably created around 1977 or 1978) had another feature that would appeal to fans of the series. When a player lost, the Doomsday Machine from the episode of the same name (kind of a giant, floating cornucopia) would appear on screen and destroy their ship. The game was so popular that a local TV station got wind of it and the designers were asked to appear on Bob Wilkins’ Creature Features, a Sacramento area late-night show featuring horror movies and hosted by Wilkins, who also interviewed celebrities, the most famous being Christopher Lee[3]. The next day, Needle and his friends were recognized in the streets, but even more importantly, the segment had brought them to attention of Bally/Midway who soon contacted them about creating a game under contract. With the Bally contract in hand, Needle and crew set about work on a game that would eventually see light as Space Encounters and Needle was finally able to turn his “hobby” into a profession[4].
Jerry Lawson

            Jerry Lawson is one of the forgotten pioneers of the video game industry. As the designer of the Fairchild Channel F console, Lawson has been called the "father of the video game cartridge". Until recently, however, his work has gone all but unmentioned in most accounts of video game history. Even less known than his work on the Channel F, however, is his creation of one of the earliest coin-op video games to use a microprocessor. A game called Demolition Derby that Lawson designed in his own garage.
The son of a longshoreman, Gerald A. Lawson was born in Queens, New York in December of 1940. His grandfather had been a physicist, but as an African American, the only job he could get was at the post office. His father had a keen interest in science and that interest rubbed off on Jerry. As a youth Jerry dabbled in chemistry, ran an amateur radio station, repaired TVs, and built walkie-talkies. After attending Queens College and CCNY, Lawson worked for ITT, Grumman, and PRD Electronics before heading west to work for Kaiser Electronics in Palo Alto. He eventually made his way to Fairchild, who hired one of its first "field application engineers" - engineers who would work with customers in the field to help out with their designs.
Fairchild had recently released its microprocessor, the F8, in 1975 and Lawson was convinced it could be used to make a video game. A few years earlier (he recalls that it was 1972 or 1973), he had built a game called Demolition Derby in his spare time and soon got to work converting it to use the F8[5].

[Jerry Lawson] I did my home coin-op game first in my garage. Fairchild found out about it — in fact, it was a big controversy that I had done that. And then, very quietly, they asked me if I wanted to do it for them. Then they told me that they had this contracted with this company called Alpex, and they wanted me to work with the Alpex people, because they had done a game which used the Intel 8080. They wanted to switch it over to the F8, so I had to go work with these two other engineering guys and switch the software to how the F8 worked. So, I had a secret assignment; even the boss that I worked for wasn't to know what I was doing.
I was directly reporting to a vice president at Fairchild, with a budget...and finally, we decided, "Hey, the prototype looks like it's going to be worth something. Let's go do something." I had to bring it from this proof of performance to reality — something that you could manufacture. Also, a division had to be made, so I was working with a marketing guy named Gene Landrum, and sat down and wrote a business plan for building video games[6].

Lawson created a top-down driving game called Demolition Derby, which he sold to Major Manufacturers - a small manufacturer in San Mateo, California. Major tested the game at a Campbell, California pizza parlor but went out of business a short time later[7] and apparently built only one copy of the game ever built (Lawson was unable to get funding to build more). As head of Fairchild's video game division, Lawson went on to create Fairchild's Channel F home video game system and also became one of only two black members of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club. In March of 2011, Lawson finally got some long-overdue recognition when he was honored as an industry pioneer by the International Game Developers Association. A month later, on April 9, he died of complications from diabetes in in Mountain View, California.  

Needle and Lawson weren't the only videogame designers who started out as independents. Among the others were Larry Rosenthal, Ted Michon, Dave Nutting, and (of course) Nolan Bushnell (all of whose stories will be told in later chapters). There is no telling how many other unknown and unsung engineers were creating games in the videogame stone age only to fade forever into anonymity before their games saw the light of day.

Sidebar - Was Demolition Derby the first coin-op game with a microprocessor?                                                                         
            Some sources have suggested that Demolition Derby was the first game to use a microprocessor and even that the game was released not long after Pong, but is this true? Lawson claims he started working on the game in 1972 or 1973 and sold it to Major Manufacturers of San Mateo, CA. Some sources (including the Wikipedia article on Lawson) claim that the game "debuted" shortly after the release of Pong. The F-8, however, was not released until 1975 and Major Manufacturers was not incorporated until October of 1974. The October, 1975 issue of Play Meter announced that at the 1975 MOA show (the same show where Gun Fight was introduced), Major Manufacturers would be "…. introducing two new upright games that use a microprocessor...instead of a logic board, as well as exhibiting their line of video games and a new designer cocktail table". The article does not name any of these games, nor do any other issues of Replay or Play Meter. It is not clear from the description if the microprocessor games were video games or not. The October, 1975 issue of Vending Times, however, does list two games that the company was to display at the MOA: Lunar Module and Fascination - but does not mention whether they use a microprocessor. The 1972/1973 date thus seems clearly too early, at least for a microprocessor version of Demolition Derby (though Lawson could have started with a non-microprocessor version). In addition, only one copy of Demolition Derby is thought to have been built and it never went past the field testing stage. On the other hand, while it seems unlikely that it was field tested prior to 1975, given that Major Manufacturers did plan to show microprocessor games at the 1975 MOA, it (or one of Major's other games) may have been tested prior to the release of Gun Fight.

[2] Probably the article from the November, 1972 issue. Though it was actually published the same month Pong debuted.
[3] Wilkns’ show is said to have persuaded a young fan named George Lucas to begin making Science Fiction movies.
[4] The group had actually designed a quickie game for Ramtek earlier, but the game was never released.
[5] The timing of all of this is unclear. While Lawson says he created the game in '72 or '73, the F8 didn't come out until 1975 (it could have been designed earlier, but surely not as early as 1972). While Lawson's memory could be off, another possibility is that the game started without a microprocessor and he added one later.
[6] From a February 2009 interview conducted by Vintage Computing and Games (
[7] Major Manufacturers was incorporated on October 22, 1974 and had a booth at the 1975 MOA show where they introduced Fascination and Lunar Module and displayed other video games (though it isn't known if Demolition Derby was among them).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Exidy - Part 7

Victory and Victor Banana

Another now-rare game was Victory, a game similar to Defender that featured excellent gameplay and some of the best sound and speech for a video game at the time but was almost unknown in the arcades. A follow up called Victor Banana was released that included only minor changes to the gameplay and artwork. Both Victory and Victor Banana were creations of programmer Vic Tolomei (hence the name) and the latter reflected his odd sense of humor.
Pepper II


Pepper II was another Larry Hutcherson maze/capture game, similar to Stern/Konami’s Amidar. Each level featured four different mazes connected by tunnels. The player controlled an agnel that enclosed areas of the screen by "zipping" around them to paint the floor a different color. Enclosing an area containing a prize (like a safety pin or flower) advanced a bonus multiplier while enclosing one containing a pitchfork transformed the player into a devil that could attack the enemy eyes. Retracing an incomplete path "unzipped" it so that you had to paint over it again. The game was originally called Zipper (because of the zipping and unzipping) but Exidy owner Pete Kaffuman changed to something much more confusing
[Larry W. Hutcherson] "It was supposed to be called Zipper but Pete got afraid of a new lawnmower that was released called Zipper and decided on a fluke to name it Pepper II while he was sitting at the table…looking at a pepper shaker… Everybody was scratching their head trying to figure out why we were calling it that."
            Both Pepper II and Victor Banana were released as conversion kits (for Venture and Victory - though Pepper II was also available as a dedicated unit). With sales flat, Exidy was looking for a way to market new games and became the second major manufacturer (after Sega) to jump on the conversion kit bandwagon.
            As was the case with most companies, designing games during the early '80s was challenging. Before hard drives came along, programmers had to swap disks in and out multiple times to load their games and tools into memory. Design tools didn't really exist at the time so programmers at Exidy had to write their own, including a debugger, a graphics tool, and sound tools.
            Exidy largely chose to stay out of the licensing game, preferring to design its own games. The design atmosphere at Exidy seems to have been a good one. One report claims that designers could receive bonuses for hit games that exceeded their annual salary. In 1982 the company launched a game creation contest where teams of five (one from each of the company's divisions) would brainstorm ideas for new games then compete against one another for cash prizes.
            While Exidy had had its share of hits, it remained a fairly small player in the video game arena. Play Meter reports that the company had just a 2% market share in 1981 (trailing behind Atari, Bally/Midway, Williams, Stern, Cinematronics, and Sega/Gremlin). In 1982 the figure dropped to 1%. While it may not have been able to compete in terms of revenue, Exidy usually turned a profit. Exidy never went public. The decision was deliberate.

[Pete Kauffman] "We don't have the problems of a Warner Brothers or Gulf &Western. We don't have to do anything we don't want to do. Those guys have such a big animal to feed. We can do our $10-15 million a year and be as profitable as anyone[1].
After 1982, Exidy’s video game fortunes headed south in a hurry. The decline was exacerbated by earlier losses from the ill-fated Sorcerer personal computer. In the summer of 1981, Exidy had sold its Data Systems Division to a New York venture group called Biotech Capital Corp but the losses continued to affect their bottom line for months. At the 1982 AMOA show, Exidy had debuted Hard Hat (which they billed as the first “educational” game) and Snapper[2]. Neither went anywhere. Snapper never even made it into production."

[Larry Hutcherson] "I remember Snapper. Interestingly enough that game made more money when it was unplugged than when it was powered up. Yes, that's correct. More people put a quarter into the machine when the screen was black than when they could see what the game screen looked like….It was cancelled immediately after the first field test"

They weren't entirely without hits, however. The trivia game Fax (released in March) did moderately well. The game was designed to attract locations that might not normally have video games as well as to counter the negative press video games sometimes got. Exidy even produced solid oak "Elegante" model to appeal to upscale clientele.

[Pete Kauffman] You could put this game in the Hyatt Regency…and if you take a Fax game to show your legislators or local council, you can say this is the direction our industry is going with technology. It's fun but it's also educational. It's a positive type of game you can use to sell people who are negative on games. You can point to it and say "Here is our industry"…(laughs) They might pull out a Death Race game and say 'No, here is your industry[3]

The game's multiple-choice questions (which were to be replaced regularly) were submitted by employees throughout the company, who pored over almanacs, encyclopedias, and dictionaries in these pre-internet days (eventually Exidy sponsored a nationwide contest to find questions). One question that generated a lot of phone calls asked what "Big Ben" was. The choices included "clock" (incorrect) and "bell" (correct). Other questions were a bit more tongue-in-cheek (i.e. "What is a brassiere?" - A Bust Stop). Fax wasn't a smash but it was enough of a hit to merit a sequel.

In November, Exidy released the first in its “alliterative shooting” series, which consisted of a dozen games released between 1983 and 1988. Crossbow was a throwback of sorts to the old electromechanical rifle games. The player controlled a crossbow (created by Barnett Crossbows of England), using it to protect a group of onscreen "friends" (including a wizard, a dwarf, an amazon warrior etc.)from a host of different enemies while avoiding hitting the heroes with a stray shot. Among the dozens of different enemies were vultures, werewolves, fireballs, lava, ghosts, and more. The player could also plink away at bonus targets like street lights and crowns. If the player safely escorted at least one friend to the other side of the screen, they could navigate across various levels on a map by shooting colored boxes. Levels included a desert, an ice cave, a ghostly street, a jungle, and (finally) a castle, where the player faced off against the Master of Darkness.

Nick Ilyin was the game's designer while Larry Hutcherson handled the level design, using a special programming language developed by Hutcherson specifically for the game's hardware, which had been custom-designed by Howell Ivy and was called the "440 System". The language included a number of features that were quite innovative for the time such as multi-threading (the ability to handle multiple program "threads" running at once. It was a "pseudo-operation" language that included a number of simplified instructions that allowed novice programmers to design levels without getting into the details of assembly-language programming. Unfortunately, Hutcherson was the only one who was proficient with it and ended up rewriting most of the levels.

Crossbow featured pulse-pounding gameplay and was perhaps the first game to use all digitized sound and music , courtesy of newcomer Ken Nicholson

[Ken Nicholson] "During high school in Cupertino I was one of six nerds invited to join the extracurricular computer club. The club was an experiment run by a math teacher and he managed to get computer equipment donated from HP. I liked experimenting with natural-language parsing programs -- the kind of thing Siri does.
            Myself and another one of the computer club members somehow managed to get volunteer jobs apprenticing for software engineers at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. Another computer club member met Steve Wozniak on the bus and he and another club member ended up being one of Apple's founders."

…during college I landed a job as an IT engineer for a small credit union. When that job ended I started my own software consulting business called Syntax. (A friend wisecracked: "They're taxing that now?")…
            My business was based in Eureka, CA. Business was good but I decided that I was missing out on the video game boom and the legendary $100K+ salaries that video game developers were getting in Silicon Valley. So I relocated to Mountain View to try to break into the video game business.
            Though I did take a few computer science and electronics classes in college, my major was theatre. I studied lighting, sound design and acting. It turned out these skills were particularly useful in the game industry.

            The sound digitizing hardware used ADPCM - a compression algorithm developed by Microsoft. While the hardware was state-of-the-art for its time, storage space (especially for music) was limited.
[Ken Nicholson] "One of the weaknesses of the 440 system's audio capability was in music. Digital audio storage space was very limited and there wasn't room to store more than a few notes or phrases of music, with the rest of the space needed for sound effects. If you listen to the soundtrack of those 440 games you'll hear that things that sound like music are actually composed of shorter samples. The bugle call "charge" is an example. Also, some of the sound effects are reused but at a higher sampling rate or played back in reverse.
            For cost reasons the digital audio data was stored on ROMs which were very costly to master. In later games I was asked to reuse surplus ROMs from earlier games. That required some tricky sequencing of digital audio clips to avoid the games from sounding too similar."

Nicholson turned to a number of interesting sources to create sound effects for Exidy's line of shooting games. 

[Ken Nicholson] "Creating the sounds was a lot of fun. To get the sound of a skeleton exploding I went to a bowling alley and recorded someone bowling a strike. I went to a duck pond to record ducks. Most of the sounds, though, were recorded right in Exidy's offices. The Amazon warrior princess death sound was a slowed-down version of one of our female co-workers' screams. The iconic "You will die" of the Evil Sorcerer in Crossbow was my voice speaking into a metal wastebasket."
Crossbow also featured more RAM than most games at the time with 52 64k RAM chips. This was due to a (wise) decision Howell Ivy and Pete Kauffman had made at the 1982 CES to focus on games with more memory and graphics capabilities rather than pursuing the new laserdisc technology.

[Pete Kauffman] We decided not to go with the laserdisc specifically because of its drawback of the track-to-track access time…Solid-state digital has the advantage of total interaction[4].

Pete Kauffman, Howell Ivy, and Paul Jacobs

[1] Play Meter, September 15, 1983
[2] The Kusch’s Korner column in Vending Times reports that Exidy also showed Car Jamboree and Battle Cross at the show but the games were apparently never released by Exidy, though they were released by the somewhat obscure Omori Electric Co.
[3] Play Meter, September 15, 1983
[4] Play Meter, March 1, 1984

Monday, July 15, 2013

More Golden Age Tournaments

Here's a summary of a few other major 1980s video game tournaments.

Putt Putt National Tournaments

Putt Putt $10,000 Pac-Man Tournament
             On of the earliest big-money national tournaments was the Putt Putt $10,000 Pac-Man Tournament in the summer of 1981. Local and regional qualifiers were held at Putt Putt Golf & Games locations nationwide to pick three finalists, who competed in Fayetteville, NC (Putt Putt headquarters) on August 30th to crown a champion. 17-year-old Steve Hair of Columbia scored 372,600 points, edging out Chris Johnson and Mark Spina for the $5,500 first-place prize. The tournament did well enough that Putt Putt announced that they would be offering over $50,000 in prize money in 1982 in a series of $10,000 tournaments. The tournaments ended up being only $5,000 tourneys rather than $10,000. The Centipede tournament took place in January of 1982 with the finals on January 31st. Finalists played a 20-minute game at their local Putt Putt locations with their scores being called in to Putt Putt HQ. Larry Henderson of El Paso won the $2,000 first prize with a score of 299,816. The Tempest finals took place on March 28th with Curtis Kidwell of Arlington, TX taking home the two grand, scoring 409,381 points in 20 minutes. A third $5,000 tournament was scheduled for later in the spring but it isn't known if it ever took place.

 1981 California State Championships
            The summer of 1981 also saw one of the earliest large-scale state competitions when operator Silco West conducted a California state championship. Silco West was a spinoff of Silco Vending, which had been formed in New Jersey in 1920. In 1981, Silco West was one of California's largest operators with over 400 locations in the state (many of them 7-11s, though other clients included Circle K, Denny's Alpha Beta supermarkets, and Winchell's Donuts). Earlier in the year, Silco had formed an in-house promotion department headed by foosball champion Johnny Lott. Their first program was a state video game championship with proceeds going to the Muscular Dystrophy Association (Lott and Silco president Clyde Love even appeared on the Jerry Lewis telethon). Qualifying rounds were held at over 300 Silco-West locations in southern California over a period of eight weeks. Each week, the two highest scores at each location were recorded on a poster and at the end of 8 weeks, the 16 high scores faced off in a five-minute playoff to determine who would go to the 64-player single-elimination finals at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles on August 29th. The main event was a single-elimination Asteroids tournament with two three-minute games per match. Consolation events were held on Defender and Pac-Man. The tournament also included a celebrity event featuring the ubiquitous Matthew Laborteaux, star of Little House on the Prairie and probably the famous (and avid) celebrity gamer of the era. After taking on all comers in Missile Command (he lost only once in 3 hours), Laborteaux faced DJ Rick Dees in a celebrity match. In the finals, John Conley scored 24,170 points in three minutes to beat out Charlie Wells for the grand prize - an Asteroids Deluxe machine and airfare for two to the Atari World Championships in October. The tournament was promoted on local television programs, KIIS FM radio, and even had a spot on the Jerry Lewis telethon.

            A few months later husband-and-wife operators David and Marianne Davidson, hoping to repair the black eye the industry had received at the Atari $50,000 World Championships in October (see below), spent $60,000 of their own money to organize another California State Championship held at 200 Stop N Go locations with the finals at the Ramada Inn in Culver City on December 19 on Defender. Fifteen-year-old Jeff Davis won the contest and a new Defender arcade game.

1984 March of Dimes International Konami/Centuri Track & Field Challenge


            Held in spring of 1984, this tournament not only had the longest name of any tournament but it is considered history's largest arcade video game tournament with over a million contestants (800,000 in the U.S. and 200,000 in Japan). The U.S. Qualifying rounds took place from April 30 to May 25 at Aladdin's Castle and National Convenience Store locations (like Stop N Go and Hot Stop Markets). One qualifier from each of the 14 regions went to the four-round finals in Houston on May 26. Winner Gary West along with runners-up Phil Britt and Mike Mallory, travelled to Tokyo to face the top three Japanese finishers - Shinichi Takahashi, Akihiro Oozono, and 14-year-old champion Hideki Houchi . The three were put up at the Grand Palace Hotel (the event venue), given a two-day tour of the resort town of Nikko, and feted at a ceremonial dinner complete with Japanese performers. The presidents of Konami and Centuri were on hand for the main event, which took place on June 9. In the first round, players competed individually on each of the game's six events with Phil Britt winning four of them. The U.S. won the second round, in which each team was given twenty minutes to rack up as many points as possible, 220,000 - 140,000 (interestingly, the Japanese team played on cocktail machines while the US chose uprights). In the final round, each player played three games with only their top score counting. Using their "finger roll" technique, Britt and West finished first and second. All contestants won medals and loving cups and the US team got Seiko watches.


And here are some assorted pictures from other tourneys
First up, here's the winner of the 1974 Japan tournament I posted about earlier:
This wasn't a video game tournament, but here's Ken Lunceford, winner of the 1978 Bally Supershooter Tournament (billed as the first national pinball tournament).
Here's a picture from the Atari $50,000 World Championship fiasco:
Did you know that Billy Mitchell had a Siamese Twin? Here's proof from before the separation in 1984.

And here's another shot of the US National Video Game Team, circa March, 1984:
Houston Malibu Gran Prix Armor Attack Tourney - August, 1981
Tron World Championship - May, 1982
Captain Video Scramble Tournament - August, 1980
Stop N Go Krull Tourament, December 1983.

Easter Seals 10-Yard Fight Championship, August, 1984
First Annual Vs. Tennis Open, August 1984
Olympic Arcade Tricathalon - 1980

Not a tourney, but here's Craig Steele setting a record on Star Castle in 1981

Finally, here's an article from Vending Times about an all-but-forgotten attempt at an early attempt at forming a video game player's league