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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Living Worlds of Action and Adventure, Part 2: Mercenary, Fairlight, and Spindizzy

Before we begin in earnest today, I’d like to note that if I was writing this series of articles in isolation I would wind up covering a somewhat longer list of games. As it is, though, I’ve already written about what I would consider to be the next two logical suspects in the tradition I’m trying to chronicle here. Like all of the games I’ll be writing about from here on in this series, both are British creations.

First, we have Mike Singleton’s stately 1984 epic The Lords of Midnight. It stands out from the other games in this tradition in that it doesn’t run in real time — technically speaking, it’s actually a strategy-adventure rather than an action-adventure — but it has much in common with them in a thematic sense. Singleton too sought to explode the restricted possibility space of text adventures, refusing to let his expectations be tempered by the limited hardware at his disposal. Working on a 48 K Sinclair Spectrum equipped only with a cassette drive, he built his world as a 64 X 64 square “game board,” filled with multifarious terrain over which you can freely roam. You can look in any direction from any location in the world, seeing a dynamically generated picture of what lies there. Said picture can include friends, enemies, and neutral parties; the world contains dozens of other, computer-controlled actors moving about in pursuit of their own agendas. Despite its turn-based play and its stepped movement, The Lords of Midnight manages to achieve much the same sense of boundless freedom and emergent possibility that mark the best of the purer breed of British action-adventures. It was enormously popular, a perennial on the Spectrum for years, and its influence can be felt on most of the later games you’ll soon be reading about.

Then we have the action-adventures of the legendary development house Ultimate Play the Game. It was through Ultimate, who had connections to the wider international culture of videogames that almost all of their British peers lacked, that the innovations of Warren Robinett’s Adventure first reached Britain. Beginning with Atic Atac in 1984, their first game of the type, Ultimate’s action-adventures thus became the prerequisites for all of the British action-adventures that would follow. Later in 1984, they debuted Knight Lore, the first action-adventure to present its world from an isometric perspective, thus adding the third dimension of depth which Adventure had lacked. It would go on to become arguably the most influential Spectrum game of all time; in its wake, isometric games went from unheard of to absolutely everywhere in Britain in bare months. And then, barely a year on from those landmark games, Ultimate was gone, clearing the way for those who would build on their legacy.

So, have a look at my earlier articles on the aforementioned two topics if you feel the need to, and then let’s continue on to some other living worlds of action and adventure.

 

Mercenary: Escape from Targ (1985)


British game programmers of the 1980s had an insatiable appetite for vastness, driving them to find ways of making kilobytes of memory seem like megabytes. The canonical example of their peculiar form of programming genius is Ian Bell and David Braben’s 1984 game Elite, which packed a universe of eight galaxies and thousands of star systems into a BBC Micro’s 32 K of memory. Yet, extraordinary as Elite is, Paul Woakes’s 1985 game Mercenary: Escape from Targ deserves mention in the same breath whenever the conversation turns to making a big game using very little. Working within the only slightly more generous confines of a 48 K Atari 8-bit computer, Woakes mapped an entire planet’s surface into memory, creating a virtual space which one can spend hours and hours of real time traversing without ever treading over one’s previous footsteps. Eight years before Doom, on a computer with the merest fraction of the horsepower of the ones used to run that seminal title, Mercenary presented this living world in smooth-scrolling first-person three-dimensional graphics, running in real time. Its presentation was so revolutionary, going far beyond even the 3D graphics of Elite, that people struggled to come up with words to describe it. David Aubrey-Jones, who ported Woakes’s work from the Atari to the Sinclair Spectrum, took a stab at it by saying that Woakes alone among his contemporaries “writes in mathematics”:

The computer is continually evaluating your position, what is visible from your position, and how objects move in relation to you while still remaining in true 3D perspective. This sort of calculation is infinitely more complex than a game where a sprite is plopped down on the screen and just moved left and right.

The process Aubrey-Jones describes would of course come to be known as “3D rendering,” but at the time the necessary vocabulary literally didn’t exist in everyday diction.

Mercenary may not look like much today, but in 1985 its 3D world was nothing short of revolutionary. Here we’re standing near a flying machine which we can board and fly off in if we like.

Mercenary begins when your spaceship crashes on the planet of Targ. Your overriding goal is, as the game’s subtitle implies, that of simple escape from the planet. Several models of flying machine happen to be spread about the landscape; these you can climb into and use to joyride through the skies. But finding a flying machine capable of carrying you into orbit, where a space station beckons with spaceships bound for other worlds, is easier said than done. Before you can make your escape, you’ll need to explore a huge network of underground corridors that spreads out below the surface of the planet — just in case Woakes’s world wasn’t vast enough for you already. When you go underground, Mercenary takes on more of the characteristics of a conventional adventure game, with locked doors and keys, items to buy and sell, errands to run and corridors to map as best you can. While you’re at it all, you’ll have to reckon with a war that’s raging between the Palyars, the peaceful original inhabitants of Targ, and the Mechanoids, an invading army of robots. You can elect to ally yourself with one side or the other, try to insinuate yourself with both, or charge at all and sundry with guns blazing (although this last is not recommended as a viable long-term strategy).

One of the most extraordinary things about Mercenary is that there are no other embodied characters in its world — the closest it comes are the other flying craft on the surface who can pursue you — yet this world never feels empty. You can communicate with the Palyars and the Mechanoids only from a distance, through your trusty portable computer Benson and the trail of messages and clues left behind by others whom you never see. But somehow it works; the political choices you have to make feel thoroughly real.

Inside one of the underground complexes.

The game give you absolute and thoroughgoing freedom right from the start. You gain control while standing on the surface of Targ next to the ruin of your just-crashed spaceship. In terms of next steps, you have only a hint from Benson to seek out a certain location underground — a long, long way off and underground. At least a flying machine is conveniently close by; you can buy it using most of your meager initial store of cash to get started in your travels. Still, while it seems pretty clear what the game wants you to do at this point, nothing forces you to do it. Instead of taking the flying machine, you can save your money and set off on foot to see what lies beyond the proverbial next hill. Or you can save your money by stealing the flying machine, which will send the police after you in hot pursuit. At that point, you could of course try to escape them through clever flying… or use a well-placed missile to eliminate the threat more quickly. Either way, you’ve just made your first enemies.

Nothing is out of bounds. Most of the appeal of the game, truth be told, has little to do with escaping from Targ: it’s seeing what you can find out there in its world, testing its boundaries, and seeing what you can get away with. More so than Doom, a better point of comparison to Mercenary is actually Grand Theft Auto, and not only because you’ll spend much of your time jumping in and out of different vehicles. Some players might choose to follow the plot, but others couldn’t care less about it — and if you don’t, neither does the game. Another point of comparison — one anchored much closer in time to Mercenary than Grand Theft Auto and, one might even say, closer to it in spirit as well — are the works of that famed virtual-world-builder Richard Garriott. Like his Ultima games, Mercenary was a world before it was a game; the puzzles and plot were the last ingredients to go into the mix. If this can make the mechanics of solving it feel beside the point at times, that seems to be by design. Almost uniquely among games of its era, Mercenary fully supports — even encourages — free-form play, whether you want to go all ultraviolent on it or you want to just stroll around quietly seeing what you can discover. It only emphasizes this spirit of laissez faire to note that it’s impossible to get yourself killed in Mercenary. Even if you power-dive into the ground at mach 5, you’ll always be thrown safely clear of the wreck. Coming in a time when games were infamously cruel, such a forgiving spirit defied every contemporary norm.

Approaching a building on the surface of the planet.

The world of Paul Woakes is also like those of Richard Garriott in that it’s a collision of the epic with the personal, its spaces littered with the flotsam and jetsam of its creator’s mind. People and places drawn from his real life abound, along with in-jokes galore. If you blow up a sign advertising Woakes’s previous game, a shoot-em-up called Encounter, you’ll be scolded and trapped on the planet until it’s repaired: “The author won’t let you leave until you fix his advert,” says the game. There’s a flyable block of cheese — a different kind of flying Kraft (groan…). There’s a hapless “Palyar commander’s brother-in-law,” a classic sitcom archetype who keeps getting in your way and getting screwed over in one way or another. (It’s been admitted that he stood in for someone known very well to Woakes in the real world, but in the interest of protecting the innocent and the guilty no more details have ever been allowed to slip out.) There’s a kitchen sink for when you’ve tried everything to solve a certain problem — all but the kitchen sink, that is (bigger groan…).

There are just so many secrets to discover on Targ that have nothing to do with the plot. When you come upon a box of something with the number 12939 printed nonsensically on the side, you might want to look at the letters from the other side, whereupon you’ll find that they spell out Woakes’s caffeine-delivery system of choice: “Pepsi.” (Now it makes sense that they say they need a supply of “12939” to get their work done over in the conference room.) Bruce Jordan, the man who ran Novagen, the little company Woakes founded to sell his games, noted that “this really is the fun part. All of the wacky ideas are Paul’s. He has this weird sense of humor that comes through in the game.”

An Atari logo craving protection (if you’re playing the Atari version) or destruction (if you’re playing the Commodore version). Shooting it in the former version results in being called a traitor; in the latter version, you’re told, “Good show!” And yes, a Commodore logo is found elsewhere in both versions, with the opposite message attached.

Mercenary is littered with secrets and Easter eggs like those I’ve just described, crying out to be cataloged and shared by the game’s many devoted fans. Not least because exploring this world could feel so much like exploring the mind of its creator, a cult of personality sprang up around Woakes which was unusual even by the standards of the British games industry, where the programmers of hit games were often not only known but treated like royalty by their fans. (In the Britain of the 1980s, in other words, Trip Hawkins’s dream of turning “electronic artists” into rock stars actually was to some extent realized.) Woakes, an introverted chap who loathed the spotlight, only magnified his status by refusing every interview and, indeed, rarely appearing to leave his Birmingham home. He thus gained the reputation of a reclusive genius. While Woakes remained in hiding, other programmers gradually ported his game beyond the minority Atari 8-bit platform to machines like the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga, on all of which it did very well.

In light of all this British success, it’s more than a little amusing to consider the reaction Mercenary engendered when it was imported to the United States. The same game which British reviewers had gushed over as “one of the most exciting releases ever” or, even more extremely, “about the best computer game ever to be written” was roundly panned by American critics, who didn’t seem quite to know what to do with all the freedom they were being offered. “Avoid the unpleasantness of having to Escape from Targ by never getting stuck there in the first place,” wrote one. Another summed the situation up in two words emblazoned on the page in capital letters: “NOT RECOMMENDED.” Seldom have we seen a starker example of the differing expectation of two different gaming cultures. Indeed, many of the other games I’ll be writing about in this series never even got an American release. American publishers knew their customers, and knew that, for whatever reason, there simply wasn’t much of a domestic appetite for games like these.

Woakes followed up the original Mercenary with an expansion pack called The Second City, which added a new complex to explore on the other side of the planet. Then, over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he made a couple of full-fledged standalone sequels, each with expansion packs of its own. Running on more advanced machines than the first game, the sequels replaced the wire-frame graphics of the original with filled solids — and all still well before Doom. Woakes worked for years on each new game at a time when the norm was a handful of months. He thus became the ultimate independent videogame auteur of his era, selling none of his fine wines before their time. Meanwhile his cult of personality analyzed every scant morsel of a clue about him which they could find in his games and awaited his next masterwork with bated breath.

Ever the recluse, Woakes dropped off the radar later in the 1990s, when a changing industry made his way of making games untenable. To my knowledge, he has never in his life set down for an interview. He thus remains even today the subject of considerable speculation and fascination from his aging cult, a sort of ultra-nichey version of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon.

The best way to get a taste of his eccentric genius today is to visit The Mercenary Site. There you’ll find the inauspiciously named MDDClone, a loving, pixel-perfect re-creation of Mercenary and all of its sequels and expansions for modern Windows and Linux computers.

Fairlight (1985)


Although Fairlight was created by a Swede named Bo Jangeborg, it nevertheless feels like a vital part of the great British action-adventure tradition in that it was hugely influenced by the earlier British hit Knight Lore, was published by a British software house, ran on the British Sinclair Spectrum, and enjoyed by far its greatest success in, you guessed it, Great Britain. But most importantly of all for our purposes, its living world is as amazing for managing to live in just 48 K as anything put together by the greatest British masters of compression. In a telling testament to where his priorities lay, Jangeborg named his game engine the Worldmaker.

His game was released in late 1985, almost simultaneously with Mercenary, and the two titles form a useful study in contrasts. Where Woakes emphasized breadth in his virtual world-building, Jangeborg emphasized depth. The castle in which Fairlight is played consists of just 80 rooms, a far cry from the planet-sized sprawl of Mercenary. In place of the contiguous space of Mercenary, each room in Fairlight is its own discrete place, as in Warren Robinett’s Adventure. And Fairlight replaces the first-person 3D perspective of Mercenary with the third-person isometric view that first took the world of British gaming by storm in Ultimate Play the Game’s Knight Lore.

These points may at first seem to paint a picture of a less ambitious game, but the depth which Fairlight gains in place of Mercenary‘s breadth is in its way every bit as stunning. Jangeborg built for his world an extraordinarily versimiltudious physics model, then populated its rooms with objects and creatures to take advantage of it. Well before Richard Garriott would begin pushing in a similar direction in the United States with Ultima V, Jangeborg, with a fraction of the resources at his disposal in terms of both computing potential and human helpers, made a world built of realistic things. Every object in the game has a size, a shape, and a weight which the program accounts for at every step, and the world model allows objects to be beneath, behind, or inside other objects. Throw a dagger against a wall and watch it bounce off and come sliding back toward you on the floor. Push a table over to the wall, set a chair on top, and climb onto a precarious perch to squeeze through that high window. Surround yourself with a barricade of barrels to fend off those soldiers who are attacking from several directions, or leap onto a table and do your best Errol Flynn routine on them. Unlike the turn-based Ultima games, Fairlight does all of this in real time. It’s a heavy task for the little Speccy, so much so that there’s a healthy wait every time you move to a new room, so much so that the whole simulation slows down noticeably for every additional creature other than yourself on the screen. But the incredible thing, of course, is that it works at all.

Due to the limitations of the Spectrum, Fairlight presents itself in monochrome graphics. Far from being a disadvantage, they give the game a certain classy look today in contrast to the garish, clashing colors of so many of its peers.

Almost as impressive as the game’s physics model are the other inhabitants of the castle. As in Robinett’s Adventure, each creature has its own “fears and desires,” and its own way of moving around the world and fighting. Trolls, as you would expect, are big, dumb, and slow, but hit with deadly force if you spend too long in their path. Other enemies are quicker and smarter, capable of lying in wait to ambush you or retreating to join up with comrades elsewhere when the odds start looking unfavorable. And their “desires” really do come into play; if you toss gold on the ground as you’re running away, there’s a good chance the greedy soldiers will stop to pick it up.

Fairlight presents a universe of emergent possibility to replace the static puzzles of standard adventure games. One contemporary reviewer, struggling to articulate differences he could feel but couldn’t quite put a finger on, noted that in other games “each room poses a problem that you’ve got to overcome. Fairlight is one big problem — but you’ll have one helluva time trying to solve it!” There are no single-solution puzzles in Fairlight. Instead there are merely situations — or, if you like, problems — admitting themselves of a multitude of approaches, depending on predilection and circumstance. When you come upon a door guarded by a soldier, you could try to kill him with your sword. Or, you could get him to chase you into the courtyard, then dash back through the door and lock it behind you. You can play the game as a stolid warrior or a slinking thief as it suits you, without ever having to choose a class in some dry character-creation system.

To an only slightly lesser extent than Mercenary, Fairlight encourages open-ended playful play alongside more focused attempts to solve it. (You accomplish the latter, by the way, by rescuing a certain wizard who’s been imprisoned in one of the castle’s towers). Among the castle’s fiendish inhabitants are soldiers who collapse down into their helmets when they die, then re-spawn from them after a certain amount of time has passed. In the spirit of “I wonder what will happen if,” players started piling the helmets together in a single room, making an informal contest out of seeing how many resurrected soldiers they could pack in thereby. The Worldmaker engine, for what it’s worth, seems to have no hard upper limit on the number of inhabitants allowed in a room, although the game gets extremely slow as the numbers grow. But the biggest problem by the time you have, say, eight soldiers packed into such a small space is just surviving long enough inside the resulting Cuisinart of whirling blades to make it to the door.

Fairlight is the rare game where even the title screen is important. Looking closely at the castle here can give vital clues about the location of potential secret doors leading to unexplored areas.

Played today, Fairlight has some clear-cut issues beyond the slowdowns. The interface can be awkward. It takes time to get a feel for how to line up your movements with the diagonal lines of the isometric display, while picking up and manipulating objects can be annoyingly fiddly, requiring you to be standing just so in relation to them. And for all that Fairlight‘s world is much smaller than that of Mercenary in absolute terms, its castle is still a big place, virtually requiring you to make a map if you’re not to get hopelessly lost inside, not to mention if you hope to find the likely location of secret areas. Yet making an accurate map is no mean feat in itself, what with the isometric view once again confusing the matter and things constantly happening all around you in real time. All of these factors can combine to make Fairlight extremely off-putting when you first pick it up. Still, it is worth exploring, if only for a little while, to gain an appreciation for the major feat of programming talent and sheer imagination that it is. Quite apart from all its other strengths, its physics model alone is a decade ahead of its time.

Like Paul Woakes of Mercenary fame, the auteur behind Fairlight was something of an enigma. Spending most of his time in his native Sweden, Bo Jangeborg seldom gave interviews to the British press even when his game was at the height of its success. In the end, his time as a game programmer proved even shorter than that of Woakes. He had a major falling-out with his publisher, a sketchy outfit known as The Edge,1 over two issues. The first was their release of a Commodore 64 port of Fairlight with a bug in it that made the game impossible to complete; this they refused to ever address or even acknowledge, an unconscionable breach of faith with their customers. But The Edge’s relationship with Jangeborg fell apart for good only when they pulled Fairlight II out of his hands before it was complete and released it, full of mysteriously disappearing objects, spontaneously appearing monsters, and rooms that seemed to wander about the castle of their own accord, in order to capitalize on the 1986 Christmas sales season. Jangeborg claims that The Edge forced him to sign a contract authorizing the sequel’s release by withholding payment on royalties due from the first game. After that bitter experience, he never made another game.

Fairlight is unfortunately not so convenient to play today as Mercenary; it must be played using a Spectrum emulator such as Fuse. But the hardy among you who are willing to go through the trouble can find everything you’ll need to play it on an emulator at The World of Spectrum.

Spindizzy (1986)


One of the biggest international arcade hits of 1984 was a game from Atari called Marble Madness. In it, you control a marble rolling along an obstacle course full of jumps, hairpin turns, and other, evil marbles trying to knock you off the edge of the course. Two years after its arcade debut, Marble Madness came to computers for the first time in the form of an exemplary conversion for the Commodore Amiga from Electronic Arts. It became one of the Amiga’s biggest early showpiece games.

Yet even as the Amiga, with the comparatively huge amount of computing power it had on tap, was being turned to the task of duplicating the straightforward level-based arcade game by American programmers, a British programmer named Paul Shirley was applying some of the mechanics of Marble Madness to something far more innovative and ambitious — and doing it all within the tight constraints of an 8-bit Amstrad CPC home computer at that. Inspired, like all those countless other young British programmers, by the example of Knight Lore, Shirley had already worked up the routines to display a network of rooms from an isometric viewpoint when he first saw Marble Madness in a local arcade. This, he says, gave him the “rollaround idea,” leading him to design an unlikely mashup of Marble Madness and Knight Lore, taking the core mechanics of the former and applying them to an open world awaiting free-form exploration — a huge difference from the constrained level progression of the arcade game. “Whereas Marble Madness is a race,” Shirley said, “Spindizzy is more of an adventure.”

For all that adventure games are often seen as the very first narrative-focused computer games, most early adventures are actually more about exploring their architectures of space than they are about plot. When you solve puzzles, your reward is more rooms to explore, and when you reach the last room, you’ve usually either won already or are very close to it. With Spindizzy, Shirley took this notion to its logical extreme by making entering as many “rooms” as possible your one and only goal. You play a “Trainee Assistant Cartographer for Unknown Worlds” assigned to explore the recently discovered Hangworld: a labyrinth hanging suspended in “inter-dimensional space.” If you manage to visit every one of the 386 screens which make up Hangworld, you’ve won. But doing so is a very tall order.

Spindizzy in action. The numbers at the left show seconds of fuel remaining, rooms remaining to explore, and how many fuel jewels have been collected so far. Gerald, your avatar — or rather your avatar’s vehicle — is the inverted pyramid toward the right. Atop the ledge is a fuel jewel. The problem, of course, is figuring out how to get Gerald up there to collect it…

Like so many classic puzzle games, Spindizzy builds seemingly endless variation out of a very limited supply of parts. This puzzle game, however, adds all the pressure of an action game to the mix. Getting from one screen to another in your little marble of a spacecraft, who in the game’s quirky fashion is unaccountably known as Gerald, requires reflexes and coordination as well as puzzle-solving skills. Tight squeezes and jumps abound, as do pressure plates which cause effects elsewhere that you’ll need to discover for yourself. The physics model is almost as impressive as that of Fairlight; momentum and conservation of energy are critical. Gerald can actually be transformed at will into any of three separate shapes — a ball, a tetrahedron, and a gyroscope — each with its own handling characteristics. He also comes equipped with a turbo unit, but it must be used sparingly, as it consumes fuel at a prodigious rate. Ditto falling off one of the sides of the maze due to a misjudged corner or an overshot jump. A timer counts down the seconds of fuel remaining in Gerald before he goes dead and you lose the game; you begin with only enough to last 107 seconds of normally aspirated play. You can pick up more fuel by passing over energy jewels, but there never seem to be as many of them as you need. And no, there is no save function.

It all makes of Spindizzy a brutally difficult game, one requiring anyone who hopes to see its victory screen to play it over and over again, hopefully getting just a little further each time. The number of players who have managed to complete it — who have even come anywhere close to finishing it — must be vanishingly rare. Yet the game has a way of drawing players who swear it off in frustration back again the very next day, determined despite themselves to pick up where they left off and try to see a few more rooms. Universally judged by reviewers to be as praise-worthy as it was confounding, it was a big hit in 1986.

Cruel though it otherwise is, Spindizzy does do you the favor or providing a map which you can reference at any time by pressing the “M” key. As you can see, Hangworld is a big, big place.

Thankfully for the less hardcore among us, Paul Shirley did return to the concept once more. After a couple of less notable games, he made a pseudo-sequel called Spindizzy Worlds for the Atari ST and Amiga in 1990. It’s much larger but in many ways more forgiving that its predecessor: more hints are on offer as to where you should be going next and what you should be doing there, and the game is saved when you finish off one of its many component “worlds.” The first round of reviews were superlative; the sequel seemed to be shaping up to be at least as big a hit as the original. But Spindizzy Worlds was released on the Activision label in Britain just as Mediagenic, the label’s American parent company, was collapsing. It appeared in British shops in only tiny quantities, then promptly vanished forever, thus becoming one of the great should-have-been-a-contenders of gaming history.

Spindizzy Worlds on the Amiga looks snazzier than its predecessor, and is an even better game to boot.

Shirley too then vanished from the games industry. He claims he was never consulted about nor paid for a Super Nintendo version of Spindizzy Worlds which the resurrected Activision released in 1993. Asked years later in a rare interview what he would do to improve the industry, his reply made it clear that his bitterness persisted: “Shoot the crooks and incompetents running most of it.”

As Spindizzy Worlds proved to the few who got a chance to play it in its day, there’s still a lot of life in the Spindizzy concept. Add save points and some other measures to make it more reasonable, and I can imagine it doing well today. Various projects have been launched to remake it, but to my knowledge none have yet come to fruition as a complete, playable game. As it stands today, then, your only option is to play it through an emulator. You can download Spindizzy for the Spectrum at World of Spectrum or, even better, Spindizzy Worlds for the Amiga from right here — to play the latter, you may want to invest in the Amiga Forever emulator package — and have at it.

(Sources: Amstrad Action of May 1987 and October 1993; A.N.A.L.O.G. of January 1987; Atari ST User of February 1987; Commodore User of May 1988; Crash of September 1985, May 1986, June 1986, and September 1987; Midnite Software Gazette 40; New Computer Express of July 29 1989; Page 6 of March 1986 and January 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of March 3 1983, March 17 1983, May 26 1983, December 26 1985, January 9 1986, and May 22 1986; The Games Machine of October 1987; The One of August 1989, May 1990, November 1990, June 1991 and February 1992; Zzap! of March 1986, June 1986, September 1986, and July 1991; Questbusters of January 1987; Sinclair User of September 1985, October 1986, November 1986, December 1986, and April 1987; Your Spectrum of November 1985; Amiga Computing of November 1989, December 1989, and January 1991; CU Amiga of November 1991; Game Developer of April 2010 and November 2010; Home Computing Weekly of June 21 1983; Amtix of March 1986; Retro Gamer 52. Online sources include Eurogamer’s Mercenary Retrospective,” Electron Dance‘s “The First Open World,” Sockmonsters‘s “The Making of Mercenary, Paul White’s interview of Bo Jangeborg, and Rock Paper Shotgun‘s “Tim Langdell Loses in Future ‘Edge’ Trial,” and Halycon Days‘s interview of Paul Shirley.)


  1. The Edge was run by one Dr. Tim Langdell — he has always insisted his name be prefixed with his title — who has been a vortex of conflict and controversy since at least 1983, when he caused a brouhaha in the young British microcomputer industry by threatening to sue several developers who had used a BASIC compiler made by his company Softek to write commercial software without his permission. Anecdotes about Langdell’s jerky behavior soon became common barroom fodder within the industry, only occasionally surfacing in public. Insider legend has it that one of The Edge’s programmers, who Dr. Langdell demanded create a slapdash X-Men game in a ridiculously short time before his license on the property expired, finally had a meltdown in response to the constant needling. He punched Dr. Langell in the face before walking out, thus fulfilling the fondest wish of many; the game, needless to say, was never released.

    One hilarious bit of snark that did make it out for public consumption was the magazine Amiga Computing‘s review of The Edge’s game Garfield: Winter’s Tail in 1989. It’s told from the perspective of the titular cartoon cat:

    Garfield has signed up with The Edge, but notices that Tim Langdell, the boss of the company, doesn’t quite smell right. A first inkling of the horror to come.

    Then Garfield notices that there are holes in Tim’s jumper, and that he’s wearing a tatty old hat. Odd, but it gets odder when Tim shows Garfield how the game is progressing some months later.

    There’s a scrolling section, a scene in a chocolate factory, and a skating part. But where’s the Garfield, the plump one asks. “Right where we want him,” snarls Tim, six-inch blades flashing across the office, glinting in the moonlight streaming through the window.

    Garfield meows in surprise and finds himself catapulted into the game… [cue an extended pan of the game]

    That’s it for poor Garfield. His alter ego returns to his captive computerised torso and shivers under the blanket. Garfield can only sit and wait, and hope that some talented individual with the patience of Job can finish the game and rescue him from this nightmare that The Edge created.

    The next issue contains a contrite apology, obviously dictated to the magazine’s staff by Dr. Langdell’s lawyers:

    In last month’s issue in the review of The Edge’s new game Winter’s Tail some personal remarks were directed at Dr. Tim Langdell. We accept that these remarks were totally uncalled for, and insofar as they might have been read to be a slight on Dr. Langdell’s character or on The Edge’s reasons for licensing the Garfield character, we unreservedly apologize to Dr. Langdell and all at The Edge for these remarks.

    Having thus so thoroughly worn out his welcome in Britain that he was being slagged off in everyday reviews of his company’s games, Dr. Langell moved his operation to the United States in the 1990s, where he occupied himself for many years with threatening anyone in the games industry who tried to use the word “edge” in pretty much any context. He won a hefty settlement from the videogame magazine Edge, but overreached himself by going after the giant Electronic Arts for releasing a game called Mirror’s Edge in 2008. In response to a petition from EA which noted that he wasn’t actually doing anything with them other than threatening lawsuits, a judge invalidated Langdell’s trademarks on “Edge,” “Cutting Edge,” “Gamers Edge,” and “The Edge.” Undaunted, he has apparently moved on to mount fresh legal attacks using other specious trademarks. His membership in the International Game Developers Association was terminated in 2010 due to “lack of integrity” and “unethical behavior.” 

 
 

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Living Worlds of Action and Adventure, Part 1: The Atari Adventure

As regular readers of this blog are doubtless well aware, we stand now at the cusp not only of a new decade but also of a new era in terms of this history’s internal chronology. The fractious 1980s, marked by a bewildering number of viable computing platforms and an accompanying anything-goes creative spirit in the games that were made for them, are becoming the Microsoft-dominated 1990s, with budgets climbing and genres hardening (these last two things are not unrelated to one another). CD-ROM, the most disruptive technology in gaming since the invention of the microprocessor, hasn’t arrived as quickly as many expected it would, but it nevertheless looms there on the horizon as developers and publishers scramble to prepare themselves for the impact it must have. For us virtual time travelers, then, there’s a lot to look forward to. It should be as exciting a time to write about — and hopefully to read about — as it was to live through.

Yet a period of transition like this also tempts a writer to look backward, to think about the era that is passing in terms of what was missed and who was shortchanged. It’s at a time like this that all my vague promises to myself to get to this story or that at some point come home to roost. For if not now, when? In that light, I hope you’ll forgive me for forcing you to take one or two more wistful glances back with me before we stride boldly forward into our future of the past. There’s at least one more aspect of 1980s gaming, you see, that I really do feel I’d be remiss not to cover in much better detail than I have to this point: the astonishing, and largely British, legacy of the open-world action-adventure.

First, a little taxonomy to make sure we’re all on the same page. The games I want to write about take the themes and mechanics of adventure games — meaning text adventures during most of the era in question — and combine them with the graphics and input methods of action games; thus the name of “action-adventure.” Still, neither the name nor the definition conveys what audacious achievements the best of these games could be. On computers which often still had to rely on cassettes rather than disks for storage, which struggled to run even Infocom-level text adventures, almost universally young programmers, generally working alone or in pairs, proposed to create huge virtual worlds to explore — worlds which were to be depicted not in text but visually, running in organic, fluid real time. It was, needless to say, a staggeringly tall order. The programmers who tackled it did so because, being so young, they simply didn’t know any better. What’s remarkable is the extent to which they succeeded in their goals.

Which is not to say that games in this category have aged as well as, say, the majority of the Infocom catalog. Indeed, herein lies much of the reason that I’ve rather neglected these games to date. As all you regulars know by now, I place a premium on fairness and solubility in adventure-game design. I find it hard to recommend or overly praise games which lack this fundamental good faith toward their players, even if they’re wildly innovative or interesting in other ways.

That said, though, we shouldn’t entirely forget the less-playable games of history which pushed the envelope in important ways. And among the very most interesting of such interesting failures are many games of the early action-adventure tradition.

It’s not hard to pinpoint the reasons that these games ended up as they are. Their smoothly-scrolling and/or perspective-bending worlds make them hard to map, and thus hard for the player to methodically explore, in contrast to the grid-based movement of text adventures or early CRPGs. The dynamism of their worlds in contrast to those of those other genres leave them subject to all sorts of potentially game-wrecking emergent situations. Their young creators had no grounding in game design, were in fact usually far more interested in the world they were creating inside their primitive instruments than they were in the game they were asking their players to solve there. And in this era neither developers nor publishers had much of an inkling about the concept of testing. We should perhaps be more surprised that as many games of this stripe ended up as playable as they are than the reverse.

As I’ve admitted before, it’s inevitably anachronistic to return to these ancient artifacts today. In their own day, players were so awe-struck by these worlds’ very existence that they weren’t usually overly fixated on ending all the fun of exploring them with a victory screen. So, I’m going to relax my usual persnicketiness on the subject of fairness just a bit in favor of honoring what these games did manage to achieve. On this trip back through time, at least, let’s try to see what players saw back in the day and not quibble too much over the rest.

In this first article, we’ll go the United States to look at the development of the very first action-adventure. It feels appropriate for such a beast to have started life as a literal translation of the original adventure game — Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure — into a form manageable on the Atari VCS game console. The consoles aren’t my primary focus for this history, but this particular console game was just so important for future games on computers that my neglect of it has been bothering me for years.

After this article, we’ll turn the focus to Britain, the land where the challenge laid down by the Atari VCS Adventure was picked up in earnest, to look at some of the more remarkable feats of virtual world-building of the 1980s. And after that, and after looking back at one more subject that’s been sticking in his craw — more on that when the time comes — your humble writer here can start to look forward again from his current perch in the historical timeline with a clearer conscience.

A final note: I am aware that games of this type have a grand tradition of their own in Japan, which arrived on American shores through Nintendo Entertainment System titles like 1986’s The Legend of Zelda. I hope fans of such games will forgive me for neglecting them. My arguments for doing so are the usual suspects: that writing about them really would be starting to roam dangerously far afield from this blog’s core focus on computer gaming, that my own knowledge of them is limited to say the least, and that it’s not hard to find in-depth coverage of them elsewhere.

 

Adventure (1980)


 

Like so many others, Warren Robinett had his life changed by Will Crowther and Don Woods’s game of Adventure. In June of 1978, he was 26 years old and was working for Atari as a programmer of games for their VCS console, which was modestly successful at the time but still over a year removed from the massive popularity that would follow. More due to the novelty of the medium and upper management’s disinterest in the process of making games than any spirit of creative idealism, Atari at the time operated on the auteur model of videogame development. Programmers like Robinett were not only expected also to fill the role of designers — a role that had yet to be clearly defined anywhere as distinct from programming — but to function as their own artists and writers. To go along with this complete responsibility, they were given complete control of every aspect of their games, including the opportunity to decide what sorts of games to make in the first place. On Robinett’s first day of work, according to his own account, his new boss Larry Kaplan had told him, “Your job is to design games. Now go design one.” The first fruit of his labor had been a game called Slot Racers, a simple two-player exercise in maze-running and shooting that was very derivative of Combat, the cartridge that was bundled with every Atari VCS sold.

With Slot Racers under his belt, Robinett was expected, naturally, to come up with a new idea for his next game. Luckily, he already knew what he wanted to do. His roommate happened to work at the storied Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, and one day had invited him to drop by after hours to play a neat game called Adventure on the big time-shared computers that lived there. Robinett declared it to be “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” He decided that very night that he wanted to make his next project an adaptation of Adventure for the Atari VCS.

On the face of it, the proposition made little sense. My description of Robinett’s Slot Racers as derivative of Combat begins to sound like less of a condemnation if one considers that no one had ever anticipated the Atari VCS being used to run games that weren’t built, as Combat and Slot Racers had been, from the simple-minded raw material of the earliest days of the video arcades. The machine’s designers had never, in other words, intended it to go much beyond Pong and Breakout. Certainly the likes of Adventure had never crossed their minds.

Adventure consisted only of text, which the VCS wasn’t terribly adept at displaying, and its parser accepted typed commands from a keyboard, which the VCS didn’t possess; the latter’s input mechanism was limited to a joystick with a single fire button. The program code and data for Adventure took more than 100 K of storage space on the big DEC PDP-10 computer on which it ran. The Atari VCS, on the other hand, used cartridge-housed ROM chips capable of storing a program of a maximum of 4 K of code and data, and boasted just 128 bytes — yes, bytes — of memory for the volatile storage of in-game state. In contrast to a machine like the PDP-10 — or for that matter to just about any other extant machine — the VCS was shockingly primitive to program. There not being space enough to store the state of the screen in those 128 bytes, the programmer had to manually control the electron beam which swept left to right and top to bottom sixty times per second behind the television screen, telling it where it should spray its blotches of primary colors. Every other function of a game’s code had to be subsidiary to this one, to be carried out during those instants when the beam was making its way back to the left side of the screen to start a new line, or — the most precious period of all — as it moved from the end of one round of painting at the bottom right of the screen back to the top left to start another.

The creative freedom that normally held sway at Atari notwithstanding, Robinett’s bosses were understandably resistant to what they viewed as his quixotic quest. Undeterred, he worked on it for the first month in secret, hoping to prove to himself as much as anyone that it could be done.

It was appropriate in a way that it should have been Warren Robinett among all the young programmers at Atari who decided to bring to the humble VCS such an icon of 1970s institutional computing —  a rarefied environment far removed from the populist videogames, played in bars and living rooms, that were Atari’s bread and butter. Almost all of the programmers around him were self-taught hackers, masters of improvisation whose code would have made any computer-science professor gasp in horror but whose instincts were well-suited to get the most out of the primitive hardware at their disposal. Robinett’s background, however, was very different. He brought with him to Atari a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science from Rice University and a Master’s from the University of California, Berkeley, and along with them a grounding in the structure and theory of programming which his peers lacked. He was, in short, the perfect person at Atari to be having a go at this project. While he would never be one of the leading lights of the programming staff in terms of maximizing the VCS’s audiovisual capabilities, he knew how to design the data structures that would be necessary to make a virtual world come to life in 4 K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM.

Robinett’s challenge, then, was to translate the conventions of the text adventure into a form that the VCS could manage. This naturally entailed turning Crowther and Woods’s text into graphics — and therein lies an amusing irony. In later years, after they were superseded by various forms of graphic adventures, text adventures would come to be seen by many not so much as a legitimate medium in themselves as a stopgap, an interim way to represent a virtual world on a machine that didn’t have the capability to display proper graphics. Yet Robinett came to this, the very first graphic adventure, from the opposite point of view. What he really wanted to do was to port Crowther and Woods’s Adventure in all its textual glory to the Atari VCS. But, since the VCS couldn’t display all that text, he’d have to find a way to make do with crude old graphics.

The original Adventure, like all of the text adventures that would follow, built its geography as a topology of discrete “rooms” that the player navigated by typing in compass directions. In his VCS game, Robinett represented each room as a single screen. Instead of typing compass directions, you move from room to room simply by guiding your avatar off the side of a screen using the joystick: north becomes the upper boundary of the screen, east the right-hand boundary, etc. Robinett thus created the first VCS game to have any concept of a geography that spanned beyond what was visible on the screen at any one time. The illustration below shows the text-adventure-like map he crafted for his world.

It’s important to note, though, that even such a seemingly literal translation of a text adventure’s geography to a graphical game brought with it implications that may not be immediately obvious. Most notably, your avatar can move about within the rooms of Robinett’s game, a level of granularity that its inspiration lacks; in Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, you can be “in” a “room” like “End of Road” or “Inside Building,” but the simulation of space extends no further. The effect these differences have on the respective experiences can be seen most obviously in the two games’ approaches to mazes. Crowther and Woods’s (in)famous “maze of twisty little passages” is built out of many individual rooms; the challenge comes in charting the one-way interconnections between them all. In Robinett’s game, however, the mazes — there are no less than four of them for the same reason that mazes were so common in early text adventures: they’re cheap and easy to implement — are housed within the rooms, even as they span multiple rooms when taken in their entirety.

Crowther and Woods’s maze of twisty little passages, a network of confusing room interconnections where going north and then going south usually won’t take you back to where you started.

Warren Robinett’s graphical take on the adventure-game maze; it must be navigated within the rooms as well as among them. The dot at left is the player’s avatar, which at the moment is carrying the Enchanted Chalice whose recovery is the goal of the game.

Beyond the challenges of mapping its geography, much of Crowther and Woods’s game revolves around solving a series of set-piece puzzles, usually by using a variety of objects found scattered about within the various rooms; you can pick up such things as keys and lanterns and carry them about in your character’s “inventory” to use elsewhere. Robinett, of course, had to depict such objects graphically. To pick up an object up in his game, you need simply bump into it with your avatar; to drop it you push the fire button. Robinett considered trying to implement a graphical inventory screen for his game, but in the end chose to wave any such tricky-to-implement beast away by only allowing your avatar to carry one item at a time. Similarly, the “puzzles” he placed in the game, such as they are, are all simple enough that they can be solved merely by bringing an appropriate object into the vicinity of the problem. Opening a locked gate, for instance, requires only that the player walk up to it toting the appropriate key; ditto attacking a dragon with a sword.  By these means, Robinett pared down the “verbs” in his game to the equivalent of the text parser’s movement commands, its “take” and “drop” commands, and a sort of generic, automatically-triggered “use” action that took the place of all the rest of them. (Interestingly, the point-and-click, non-action-oriented graphical adventures that would eventually replace text adventures on the market would go through a similar process of simplification, albeit over a much longer stretch of time, so that by the end of the 1990s most of them too would offer no more verbs than these.)

The text-to-graphics adaptations we’ve seen so far would, with the exception only of the mazes, seem to make of Robinett’s Adventure a compromised shadow of its inspiration, lacking not only its complexity of play but also, thanks to the conversion of Crowther and Woods’s comparatively refined prose to the crudest of graphics, its flavor as well. Yet different mediums do different sorts of interactivity well. Robinett managed, despite the extreme limitations of his hardware, to improve on his inspiration in certain ways, to make some aspects of his game more complicated and engaging in compensation for its simplifications. Other than the mazes, the most notable case is that of the other creatures in the world.

The world of the original Adventure isn’t an entirely uninhabited place — it includes a dwarf and a pirate who move about the map semi-randomly — but these other actors play more the role of transitory annoyances than that of core elements of the game. With the change in medium, Robinett could make his other creatures play a much more central role. Using an approach he remains very proud of to this day, he gave his four creatures — three dragons and a pesky, object-stealing bat, an analogue to Crowther and Woods’s kleptomaniacal pirate — “fears” and “desires” to guide their movements about the world. With the addition of this basic artificial intelligence, his became a truly living world sporting much emergent possibility: the other creatures continue moving autonomously through it, pursuing their own agendas, whether you’re aware of them or not. When you do find yourself in the same room/screen as one of the dragons, you had best run away if you don’t have the sword. If you do, the hunted can become the hunter: you can attempt to kill your stalker. These combat sequences, like all of the game, run in real time, another marked contrast with the more static world of the Crowther and Woods Adventure. Almost in spite of Robinett’s best intentions, the Atari VCS’s ethos of action-based play thus crept into his staid adventure game.

Robinett’s Adventure was becoming a game with a personality of its own rather than a crude re-implementation of a text game in graphics. It was becoming, in other words, a game that maximized the strengths of its medium and minimized its weaknesses. Along the way, it only continued to move further from its source material. Robinett had originally planned so literal a translation of Crowther and Woods’s Adventure that he had sought ways to implement its individual puzzles; he remembers struggling for some time to recreate his inspiration’s “black rod with a rusty star on the end,” which when waved in the right place creates a bridge over an otherwise impassable chasm. In the end, he opted instead to create a movable bridge object which you can pick up and carry around, dropping it on walls to create passages. Robinett:

Direct transliterations from text to video format didn’t work out very well. While the general idea of a videogame with rooms and objects seemed to be a good one, the graphic language of the videogame and the verbal language of the text dialogue turned out to have significantly different strengths. Just as differences between filmed and live performance caused the art form of cinema to slowly diverge from its parent, drama, differences between the medium of animated graphics and the medium of text have caused the animated adventure game to diverge from the text-adventure game.

So, Robinett increasingly turned away from direct translation in favor of thematic analogues to the experience of playing Adventure in text form. To express the text-based game’s obsession with lighted and dark rooms and the lantern that turns the latter into the former, for instance, he included a “catacombs” maze where only the few inches immediately surrounding your avatar can be seen.

But even more radical departures from his inspiration were very nearly forced upon him. When Robinett showed his work-in-progress, heretofore a secret, to his management at Atari, they liked his innovations, but thought they could best be applied to a game based on the upcoming Superman movie, for which Atari had acquired a license. Yet Robinett remained wedded to his plans for a game of fantasy adventure, creating no small tension. Finally another programmer, John Dunn, agreed to adapt the code Robinett had already written to the purpose of the Superman game while Robinett himself continued to work on Adventure. Dunn’s game, nowhere near as complex or ambitious as Robinett’s but nevertheless clearly sporting a shared lineage with it, hit the market well before Adventure, thereby becoming the first released Atari VCS game with a multi-screen geography. Undaunted, Robinett soldiered on to finish creating the new genre of the action-adventure.

The Atari Adventure‘s modest collection of creatures and objects. The “cursor” represents the player’s avatar. Its shape was actually hard-coded into the Atari VCS, where it was intended to represent the ball in a Pong-like game — a telling sign of the only sorts of games the machine’s creators had envisioned being run on it. And if you think the dragons look like ducks, you’re not alone. Robinett never claimed to be an artist…

Ambitious though it was in contrast to Superman, his graphic-based adventure game of 4 K must be inevitably constrained in contrast to a text-based game of more than 100 K. He wound up with a world of about 30 rooms — as opposed to the 130 rooms of his inspiration — housing a slate of seven totable objects: three keys, each opening a different gate; a sword for fighting the dragons; the bridge; a magnet that attracts to it other objects that may be inaccessible directly; and the Enchanted Chalice that you must find and return to the castle where you begin the game in order to complete it. (Rather than the fifteen treasures of Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, Robinett’s game has just this one.)

The constraints of the Atari VCS ironically allowed Robinett to avoid the pitfall that dogs so many later games of this ilk: a tendency to sprawl out into incoherence. Adventure, despite or perhaps because of its primitiveness, is playable and soluble, and can be surprisingly entertaining even today. To compensate for both his constrained world and the youngsters who formed the core of Atari’s customers, Robinett designed the game with three selectable modes of play: a simplified version for beginners and/or the very young, a full version, and a version that scattered all of the objects and creatures randomly about the world to create a new challenge every time. This last mode was obviously best-suited for players who had beaten the game’s other modes, for whom it lent the $25 cartridge a welcome modicum of replayability.

Thanks to the efforts of Jason Scott and archive.org, Adventure can be played today in a browser. Failing that, the video below, prepared by Warren Robinett for his postmortem of the Atari Adventure at the 2015 Game Developers Conference, shows a speed run through the simplified version of the game — enough to demonstrate most of its major elements.


Robinett finished his Adventure in early 1979, about two years after Crowther and Woods’s game had first taken institutional computing by storm and about eight months after he’d begun working on his videogame take on their concept. (True to his role of institutional computing’s ambassador to the arcade, he’d spent most of that time working concurrently on what seemed an even more impossible task: a BASIC programming system for the Atari VCS, combining a cartridge with a pair of hardware controllers that together formed an awkward keyboard.) From the beginning right up to the date of its release, his game’s name remained simply Adventure, nobody apparently ever having given any thought to the confusion this could create among those familiar with Crowther and Woods’s game. Frustrated by Atari’s policy of giving no public credit to the programmers who created their games, one of Robinett’s last additions was a hidden Easter egg, one of videogaming’s first. It took the form of a secret room housing the only text in this game inspired by a text adventure, spelling out the message “Created by Warren Robinett.” Unhappy with his fixed salary of about $22,000 per year, Robinett left Atari before shortly thereafter, going on to co-found the The Learning Company, a pioneer in educational software. The first title he created there, Rocky’s Boots, built on many of the techniques he’d developed for Adventure, although it ran on an Apple II computer rather than the Atari VCS.

In the wake of Robinett’s departure, Atari’s marketing department remained nonplussed by this unusually complex and cerebral videogame he had foisted on them. Preoccupied by Atari’s big new game for the Christmas of 1979, a port of the arcade sensation Asteroids, they didn’t even release it until June of 1980, more than a year after Robinett had finished it. Yet the late release date proved to be propitious, coming as it did just after the Atari VCS’s first huge Christmas season, when demand for games was exploding and the catalog of available games was still fairly small. Adventure became something of a sleeper hit, selling first by random chance, plucked by nervous parents off of patchily-stocked store shelves, and then by word of mouth as its first players recognized what a unique experience it really was. Robinett claims it wound up selling 1 million copies, giving the vast majority of that million their very first taste of a computer-based adventure game.

For that reason, the game’s importance for our purposes extends far beyond that of being just an interesting case study in converting from one medium to another. A long time ago, when this blog was a much more casual affair than it’s since become, I wrote these words about Crowther and Woods’s Adventure:

It has long and rightfully been canonized as the urtext not just of textual interactive fiction but of a whole swathe of modern mainstream videogames. (For example, trace World of Warcraft‘s lineage back through Ultima Online and Richard Bartle’s original MUD and you arrive at Adventure.)

I’m afraid I rather let something fall by the wayside there. Robinett’s Adventure, the first of countless attempts to apply the revolutionary ideas behind Crowther and Woods’s game to the more mass-market-friendly medium of graphics, is in fact every bit as important to the progression outlined above as is MUD.1

That said, my next couple of articles will be devoted to charting the game’s more immediate legacy: the action-adventures of the 1980s, which would borrow heavily from its conventions and approaches. While the British programmers we’ll be turning to next had at their disposal machines exponentially more powerful than Robinett’s Atari VCS, they expanded their ambitions exponentially to match. Whether considered as technical or imaginative feats, or both, the action-adventures to come would be among the most awe-inspiring virtual worlds of their era. If you grew up with these games, you may be nodding along in agreement right now. If you didn’t, you may be astonished at how far their young programmers reached, and how far some of them managed to grasp despite all the issues that should have stopped them in their tracks. But then, in this respect too they were only building on the tradition of Warren Robinett’s Adventure.

(Sources: the book Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost; Warren Robinett’s chapter “Adventure as a Video Game: Adventure for the Atari 2600″ from The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology; Next Generation of January 1998; Warren Robinett’s Adventure postmortem from the 2015 Game Developers Conference; Robinett’s interview from Halcyon Days. You can play Robinett’s Adventure in your browser at 2600 Online.)


  1. As for MUD: don’t worry, I have plans to round it up soon as well. 

 
 

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Looking for a Web Designer/Developer

For a project that’s still in the phase of contemplation and feasibility study right now, I’d be interested in talking to any readers who happen to be experienced web developers. If I go forward with it — and whether I do or not may come to hinge on any feedback I get as a result of this little message — it will encompass both an aesthetic design and a significant technical — read, custom programming — component. I understand that those two roles will quite likely need to be played by two or more people, and that’s fine, although they would ideally be people who already have experience working together as a team.

On the technical end, I’d like to use WordPress if at all possible, as I already have a lot of experience with it and it works well for me. Thus a developer experienced with building on the WordPress platform would be the best candidate. That said, if after hearing my nascent plans you feel some other content-management system would work better I’m willing to listen and possibly even be convinced.

Note that I’m not asking for any freebies here. I’m happy to pay fair value for good, professional-level work — although if you do enjoy the my writing and want to give me a little discount on that basis, I certainly wouldn’t be too proud to accept it.

So, if you’d be interested in talking further, please drop me a line at maher@filfre.net and introduce yourself (if we don’t know each other already, that is). Links to samples of your work would be appreciated. If you happen to be a Patreon patron, please let me know that as well.

Sorry to have to be so cagey in public about what this is all about. I hope you know how it is with these things. I don’t want to make any public pronouncements about things that quite possibly won’t happen. But don’t worry: this blog isn’t going anywhere.

Huge thanks as always for your readership and your support, and see you again on Friday!

 

A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 8: Life After Tetris

Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers meet with Tetris licensees EA Mobile in 2015.

As the dust settled from the battle over Tetris and a river of money started flowing back to the Soviet Union, the Soviet Academy of Sciences made a generous offer to Alexey Pajitnov. In acknowledgment of his service to the state, they told him, they would buy him an IBM PC/AT — an obsolete computer in Western terms but one much better than the equipment Pajitnov was used to. This would be the only tangible remuneration he would ever receive from them for making the most popular videogame in the history of the world.

But the Soviet Union was changing rapidly, and Pajitnov intended to change with it. He formed a little for-profit company — such a thing was now allowed in the Soviet Union — called Dialog with a number of his old friends and colleagues from the Moscow Computer Center, among them his friendly competitor in game-making, Dmitry Pavlovsky, and the first of many psychologists who would be fascinated by the Tetris Effect, Vladimir Pokhilko. The name of the company was largely a reflection of a pet project cooked up by Pajitnov and Pokhilko, a sort of cross between Eliza and Alter Ego with the tentative name of Biographer. “This kind of software can help you to understand your life and change it,” Pajitnov believed. “This will help people. This is what I would call a ‘constructive game.'” Such a game would be, needless to say, a dramatic departure from Tetris, demanding far more time to develop than had that exercise in elegant minimalism.

In the meantime, though, Tetris was huge. Henk Rogers, now well-established as Pajitnov’s mentor in the videogame business, advised him strongly to make a sequel, and to do it soon — for if you don’t strike soon, he told him, someone else will. Pajitnov therefore came up with a game he called Welltris, a three-dimensional Tetris in which the shapes fell down into a “well” — thus the name — which the player viewed from above. While Welltris lacked the immediate, obvious appeal of Tetris, some players would come to love it for its subtle complexity. Pajitnov had no problem selling it to Spectrum Holobyte in North America, who despite their affiliation with the hated Mirrorsoft had managed by dint of luck and cleverness to remain in his good graces. In Europe, the game was picked up by the French publisher Infogrames. It was released for personal computers on both continents before 1989 was through.

Befitting his growing celebrity status, Alexey Pajitnov himself featured in the background graphics of Welltris.

Pajitnov greeted a new year and a new decade by taking his first trip to the United States. Paid for by Spectrum Holobyte, whose resources were limited, it was an oddly austere promotional junket for the designer of the most popular videogame in the world. He made the trip alone but for a translator to help out with his still-broken English. His first stop was Las Vegas, for the Winter Consumer Electronics Show — quite the introduction to American excess! He sat gaping in wonder at the food piled in mounds before him at the hotel’s $3.69 all-you-can buffet, flicked his “I Love Vegas” cigarette lighter, and remarked, “So this is a typical American city.” After Vegas, he traveled around the country in what a Boston Globe reporter described as “almost an underground manner,” “apartment to apartment, computer friend to computer friend.” But he was hardly a man of expensive tastes anyway; out of all the food he ate on the trip, it was Kentucky Fried Chicken he liked best.

Spectrum Holobyte did spring for a lavish press reception in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. The day after that event, he made time for a “U.S./Soviet Personal Computer Seminar” at San Francisco State University out of his desire to “grow up the game life in Moscow. I want to help, with advice.” He visited Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln at Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Seattle; got to see in person paintings at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan in New York which he’d known only from the books in his parents’ library; visited MIT’s Media Lab to view cutting-edge research into virtual reality, trying not to compare the technology that surrounded him there too closely to the spartan desk he had to share with others back at the Moscow Computer Center. And between all these glimpses of American life, he gave interview after interview to an endless stream of journalists eager to get their whack at one of the great current human-interest stories. He made time for everyone, from the slick reporters from the major newspapers and magazines to the scruffy nerds from the smallest of the trade journals. One and all treated him as living proof of the changing times, a symbol of the links that were being forged between East and West in this new, post-Cold War order.

His odyssey wound up in Hawaii with Henk Rogers, swimming and kayaking and drinking mai tais. The two friends were a long, long way from the gray streets of Moscow where they had met, but the bond they had forged there endured. Over drinks one gorgeous starlit evening, Rogers asked Pajitnov if he would be interested in leaving the Soviet Union permanently to work on games in the West. Torn between the wonders he had just seen and everyone’s natural love for the place he came from, he could only shrug for now: “I do not have an answer for that question.”

Rogers had had good reason for asking it. Ever ambitious, he had used the first influx of cash from Tetris to establish a new branch of Bullet-Proof Software in Seattle, conveniently close to Nintendo of America’s headquarters. Broadly speaking, his intention was to do in the North American Nintendo market what he had been doing in Japan: find games in other countries and on other platforms that would work well on the Nintendo Entertainment System and/or the Game Boy, license the rights, and port them over. His first big North American release, a puzzle game called Pipe Dream that had already been a hit on home computers in Europe, would do very well on the NES and Game Boy as well.

Yet Rogers was also eager to do original games with Pajitnov. He had passed on Welltris, whose 3D graphics were a little more than the Nintendo machines were realistically capable of, but kept cajoling Pajitnov to come up with yet another, more Nintendo-friendly Tetris variant. The result was Hatris, where the falling shapes of Tetris were replaced with falling hats which had to be stacked atop one another according to style. Although it presaged the later craze for matching games in the casual-game market even more obviously than had Tetris, it wasn’t all that great a game in its own right. Even on his American publicity tour, when it was still in the works, Pajitnov described it without a lot of enthusiasm. The sub-genre he had created was already in danger of being run into the ground.

Wordtris

But the industry, inevitably, was just getting started. The next several years would bring heaps more variations on the Tetris template, a few of them crediting their design fully to Pajitnov, some of them crediting him more vaguely for the “concept,” some of them not crediting him at all. Some ran on computers, some ran on consoles from Nintendo and others. Some were very playable, some less so. Personally, I have a soft spot for 1991’s Wordtris, a game designed by two of Pajitnov’s Russian partners at Dialog where you have to construct words, Scrabble-style, out of falling letters. In addition to its other merits, it became another casual pioneer, this time of the sub-genre of word-construction games. But then, I’m far better at verbal puzzles than spatial ones, so my preference for the wordy Wordtris should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.

Despite all the industry’s enthusiasm for Tetris-like games, Pajitnov and Pokhilko’s plans for an Eliza killer came to naught. Publishers were always willing to use Pajitnov’s name to try to sell one more falling-something game, but didn’t think it had much value attached to high-concept fare like Biographer.

In 1991, Pajitnov finally answered in the affirmative the question Rogers had posed to him on that evening in Hawaii; he and his family immigrated to San Francisco. Cutting ties with Dialog back in a Soviet Union that was soon to be known simply as Russia again, he formed a design partnership with Pokhilko, who soon joined him in the United States. Over the next several years, the two created a variety of simple puzzle games, some more and some less Tetris-like, for various publishers, along with at least one truly outré concept, the meditative, non-competitive “aquarium simulator” El-Fish.

Meanwhile the times were continuing to change back in Russia, as piece after piece of the state-owned economy was privatized. Among the entities that were spun off as independent businesses was ELORG. Nikoli Belikov, savvy as ever, ended his career in the bureaucracy by becoming the owner and chief executive of the new ELORG LLC.

Henk Rogers had all but promised Pajitnov shortly after they had met in Moscow that, although he might not be able to secure a Tetris royalty for him right away, he would take care of him in the long run. He had indeed looked out for him ever since — and now he was about to deliver the ultimate prize. He came to Belikov with a proposal. Belikov still didn’t know much about the videogame business, he said, but he did. In return for a 50 percent stake in Tetris, he would take over the management of what was by now not so much a videogame as a global brand. Belikov agreed, and Rogers and Pajitnov together formed The Tetris Company in 1996 to manage the Western stake. And so at last Alexey Pajitnov started getting paid — and paid very well at that — for his signature creation.

For Rogers, protecting Tetris represented an almost unique challenge. More than virtually any other videogame, the genius of Tetris is in the concept; the implementation is trivial in comparison, manageable by any reasonably competent programmer within a few weeks. And, indeed, the public-domain and shareware software communities in the West had been flooded with clones and variants almost from the moment the game had first appeared on Western computers in 1988, just as had been the land behind the Iron Curtain in the years prior to that. No more, said Rogers. He hired a team of lawyers to go after anyone and everyone who made a game of falling somethings without the authorization of The Tetris Company, attacking with equal prejudice those who tried to sell their versions and those — often beginning game programmers who were merely proud to show off their first creations — who shared them for free. His efforts created no small uproar on the Internet of the late 1990s, leaving him to take plenty of heat as, as he once put it himself, “the jerk behind The Tetris Company.”

To this day, the bulk of The Tetris Company’s time and energy is devoted to the relentless policing of their intellectual property. As one would expect, Rogers and company have tended to draw the broadest possible line around what constitutes an infringing Tetris clone. The location of the actual line between legality and illegality, however, remains curiously unresolved. The Tetris Company has always had a lot of money and a lot of lawyers to hand, and no one has ever dared engage them in a legal battle to the death over the issue.

In addition to managing The Tetris Company, Henk Rogers continued to run Bullet-Proof Software throughout the decade of the 1990s. The first half of that period was marked by a number of successful non-Tetris titles, such as the aforementioned Pipe Dream, but over time Bullet-Proof increasingly dedicated themselves to churning out permutation after permutation on a game that many would argue had been born perfect: Tetris 2, Tetris Blast, V-Tetris, Tetris S, Tetris 4D. By decade’s end, they were running out of names. Screw it, they said in 1998, we’ll just call the next TetrisThe Next Tetris.

Bullet-Proof closed up shop shortly after that game, but Rogers formed Blue Lava Wireless in 2002 to make games for the first wave of feature phones. Their most successful titles by far were… you guessed it, mobile versions of Tetris. Indeed, the convergence of Tetris with mobile phones drove a second boom that proved just as profitable as the first, Game Boy-driven wave of mobile success.

Having long since sold Blue Lava, Rogers lives the good life today in his first geographical love of Hawaii, running the Blue Planet Foundation, which has the laudable goal of ending the use of carbon-based fuels in Hawaii and eventually all over the world; he also oversees a commercial spinoff of the foundation’s research called Blue Planet Energy. He’s still married to the girl who tempted him to move to Japan all those years ago. And yes, he’s a very, very rich man, still making millions every year from Tetris.

Alexey Pajitnov has continued to kick around the games industry, plying his stock-in-trade as a designer of simple but (hopefully) addictive puzzle games and enjoying his modest celebrity as the man who made Tetris. He spent several years at Microsoft, where he was responsible for titles like The Microsoft Puzzle Collection and Pandora’s Box; some of the puzzles found therein were new, but others were developed contemporaneously with the original Tetris during all those long days and nights at the Moscow Computer Center. He’s slowed down a bit since 2000, but keeps his hand in with an occasional mobile game, which his reputation is always sufficient to see published. In light of his ongoing design work, it was perhaps a bit unkind of a 2012 IGN article to call him one of the games industry’s “one-hit wonders.” Still, Tetris was so massively important that it was all but an inevitability that it would overshadow every other aspect of his career. Pajitnov, for his part, seems to have made his peace with that, humoring the wide-eyed reporters who continue to show up to interview him at his current home near Seattle. It may have taken Tetris a long time to pay off for him, but he can have no complaints about the rewards it brings him today: he is, like Henk Rogers, very, very rich. The two men remain close friends as well as business partners in The Tetris Company; the warm relationship forged over vodka on that cold Moscow night back in February of 1989 continues to endure.

Bosom buddies from Day One: Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers in Moscow, 1989.

Nikoli Belikov, the most unlikely person ever to become a millionaire thanks to videogames, finally cashed in his Tetris chips in 2005, selling his stake in the game to The Tetris Company for $15 million. Doing business in his country remained as complicated as ever at that time. The only difference was that Belikov now had to fear the Russian Mafia finding out about his windfall rather than the KGB and the other entrenched forces of the old communist system. In an episode that had much the same spy-movie flavor as the original Tetris negotiations, Belikov and Rogers signed the deal and exchanged funds in Panama. The former then went back home to Moscow to enjoy a retirement worthy of an oligarch.

The other people Alexey Pajitnov left behind in Russia weren’t quite so fortunate. Dialog, the company he had helped found there before emigrating, collapsed soon after the departure of their star designer. And with the end of Dialog ended the game-design career of Dmitry Pavlovsky, who went back to other computer-science pursuits.

Vadim Gerasimov, the third member of the little game-making collective that had spawned Tetris, had parted ways with Pajitnov even before the brief-lived Dialog experiment. The most idealistic hacker in the Russian camp, the circus that sprang up around the Tetris rights had never set well with him. He claims that at some point after ELORG got involved in the negotiations Pajitnov came to him with a paper to sign. It stated, according to him, “that I agree to only claim porting Tetris to the PC, agree to give Pajitnov the right to handle all business arrangements, and refuse any rewards related to Tetris. I did not entirely agree with the content, but I trusted Alexey and signed the paper anyway.” Gerasimov had been given credit right after Pajitnov himself as the “original programmer” of Tetris in the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte versions, but by the time the Nintendo versions appeared his name had been scrubbed from the game. To my knowledge, he never made any money at all from writing the first version of Tetris to reach beyond the Iron Curtain. While I hesitate to condemn Pajitnov or anyone else too roundly for that state of affairs — after all, even Pajitnov himself wasn’t paid for many years for his game — it does strike me as unfortunate that Gerasimov was allowed, whether consciously or accidentally, so completely to slip through the cracks. Had he not lent Pajitnov his talents, it’s highly unlikely that the game would ever have become more than a curiosity enjoyed by a handful of people in and around the Moscow Computer Center.

Gerasimov does evince a tinge of bitterness when he speaks about the subject, but, to his credit, he hasn’t let it consume his life. Instead he’s made a fine career for himself, immigrating to the United States, earning a doctorate from MIT, and finally winding up in Australia, where he works for Google today as a software engineer. He claims not to agree with The Tetris Company’s policy of so zealously protecting the property — although his position should perhaps be considered with a certain skepticism in light of the fact that he has never been in a position to benefit from that protection.

It was Pajitnov’s good friend and frequent design partner Vladimir Pokhilko who came to by far the worst end among the Russians who were there to witness Tetris‘s birth. Having cut his business ties with Pajitnov after the latter took a staff job with Microsoft in 1996, he tried to make a go of it in Silicon Valley, but bet on all the wrong horses. Beset by financial problems and rumored entanglements with the Russian Mafia, in 1998 he murdered his wife and son with a hammer and a hunting knife, then cut his own throat. His good-natured comment to his buddy at the Moscow Computer Center in 1984 — “I can’t live with your Tetris anymore!” — suddenly took on a different dimension in the aftermath. Pajitnov, so garrulous on most subjects, clams up when the topic turns to Pokhilko, the old friend who was obviously hiding a profound darkness behind his cheerful smile. “We [were] always friends, colleagues, and partners with good and warm relations,” he says, and leaves it at that — as shall we.


 

Pokhilko wasn’t the only character in the Tetris story to come to a bad end. Sometime during the early morning of November 5, 1991, Robert Maxwell jumped or fell off the deck of his luxury yacht into the sea near the Canary Islands. His body was discovered by a passing fishing boat the next day.

When executors and regulators began to look closely at Maxwell’s personal finances and those of his vaunted publishing empire in the aftermath of his death, what they found appalled them. He had racked up more than $3 billion in debts, and had been stealing from his employees’ pension funds and making countless other illegal transactions in order to shore up both his business interests and his own lavish lifestyle. Pathologists hadn’t been able to agree on a definite cause of death after his battered body was recovered. In light of this, and in light of his political and financial entanglements all over the world, not to mention the accusations of espionage that have occasionally dogged him, conspiracy theories abound about his fate. One suspects, however, that the more prosaic explanations are the more likely: either he deliberately threw himself into the water to escape the financial reckoning he knew was coming, or, being grossly overweight, he had a heart attack while taking in the view and simply fell into the water. There is, however, one other oddity about the whole thing to reckon with: his body was completely naked when it was recovered. It’s highly doubtful that the mystery of Robert Maxwell’s death will ever be solved beyond a shadow of doubt.

The strange circumstances of Robert Maxwell’s death caused a sensation in the British tabloid press.

In the wake of the Maxwell empire’s collapse, Kevin Maxwell filed for the biggest personal bankruptcy in British history, writing off more than $1 billion in debts. He was taken to trial for conspiracy to commit fraud for his involvement with his father’s house of cards, but was acquitted. His business record since has been checkered, encompassing another huge bankruptcy and repeated accusations of malfeasance of various stripes.

Like most of Robert Maxwell’s properties, Mirrorsoft was sold off in the scandal that followed his death. The operation wound up in the hands of Acclaim Entertainment, but the name disappeared forever.

Over in the United States, Spectrum Holobyte managed to live considerably longer. Phil Adam and Gilman Louie, the partners who had long run the publisher, pulled together enough venture capital in the midst of the Maxwell empire’s collapse to buy their complete independence. They then went on another buying spree as the merry 1990s got going in earnest, picking up both the computer-game publisher MicroProse and the American division of Henk Rogers’s Bullet-Proof Software in 1993. Combined with the good relations they enjoyed with Rogers and Pajitnov, the latter purchase seemingly left them well-positioned to continue to exploit Tetris for years to come. But they had extended themselves too far too quickly, picking up a mountain of debt in the process. Caught out in between the first and the second great Tetris booms, they were never quite able to turn the corner into reliable profitability. Hasbro Interactive bought the troubled company in 1998, and the name of Spectrum Holobyte also vanished into history.


 

Robert Stein lost his rights to Tetris on personal computers in 1990, when ELORG terminated his license due to his ongoing failure to pay them in a timely manner. Stein did cite an excuse for his tardiness this time, claiming that Mirrorsoft had simply stopped paying him for their sub-license altogether amid the brouhaha of 1989. Since Spectrum Holobyte was paying their royalties to Mirrorsoft, who were supposed to then pass them on to Stein, such a refusal would have meant that Stein himself would have received nothing at all to pass on to the Russians. Regardless of the full truth of the matter, Stein was forced out of the picture, and Spectrum Holobyte negotiated their own license directly with ELORG in order to continue making their version of Tetris.

Stein lost his last remaining Tetris deal, for the arcade rights, in 1992. Once again, ELORG cited non-payment as their reason for terminating the contract, and once again Stein claimed that his sub-licensee — this time Atari Games — wasn’t paying him.

Years before this event, Stein’s little company Andromeda Software, thoroughly unequipped to compete in the evolving international videogame market, had ceased to exist as anything other than a paper entity. With the termination of his last ELORG deal ended his time in games. I don’t know what he’s been doing in the years since, but he is alive and apparently well.

A recent still of Robert Stein from the documentary Moleman 4.

To this day, however, Stein remains deeply embittered against virtually every other character in the story of Tetris. His own narrative is at odds with that of the other principals on a number of key points. He confesses only to naiveté and perhaps the occasional bout of carelessness, never to deliberate wrongdoing. In his telling, the story of February and March of 1989 is that of a premeditated conspiracy, orchestrated by Henk Rogers, to steal Tetris away from him. While he admits to having earned about $150,000 to $200,000 from Tetris — no mean total in the context of most videogames of its era — he’s clearly haunted by all the tens of millions earned by Rogers, Pajitnov, and Belikov. “Tetris made enemies out of friends and corrupted people left, right, and center,” he says.


 

The war between the two Ataris and Nintendo raged on long after the issue of the Tetris rights was decided in November of 1989.

In May of 1989, Atari Games had launched still another lawsuit against Nintendo, this time alleging them to have violated their patent on an “apparatus for scrolling a video display” from 1979. Meanwhile Nintendo continued to put the squeeze on Atari at retail, threatening to cut off stores who dared to stock the Tengen games. Atari’s Dan Van Elderen claims that eventually all fifteen of the largest retail chains in the country dropped Tengen in the face of such pressure.

Atari found a friendly ear for their tale of woe in United States Congressman Dennis Eckart. The Democrat from Ohio was the chairman of a subcommittee focused on antitrust enforcement, and he was already inquiring into Nintendo’s business practices when he was contacted by Van Elderen. Van Elderen and other Atari executives became star witnesses in building the case for an official government investigation into Nintendo, while Eckart never even contacted anyone from the opposing camp to ask for their side of the story. On December 7, 1989, the 48th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — the timing struck very few as coincidental — Eckart held a press conference to announce his recommendation that the Justice Department launch a probe of Nintendo’s role in the videogame market. As Howard Lincoln would later note, the press conference couldn’t have favored Atari’s position more had the latter written the script — which, in light of the cozy relationship that had sprung up between Eckart and Atari, there was grounds to suspect they had. The Justice Department soon handed the case to the Federal Trade Commission.

While the FTC investigated, Eckart continued to speak out against the Menace from Japan, blending long-established generational hysteria against videogames in general with Japophobia. Like many in the software industry, his greatest fear was that Nintendo would turn the NES into a real home computer, as they were trying to do to the Famicom in Japan, and use it to take over the entire market for consumer software. Think of the children, he thundered: “How did they [Nintendo] get in American homes? They enticed their way in through our children’s hearts. If you turn a toy into a computer, what’s the next step?”

Under mounting pressure from several sides, Nintendo eased their licensing conditions somewhat on October 22, 1990, allowing some licensees to begin manufacturing their own game cartridges. They also dropped the provisions from their standard licensing agreements that restricted their licensees from releasing their games on rival platforms. Many publishers would admit privately that the removal of this specific language from the contract changed little in actuality — “I’m not going to make games for competing systems because we know that Nintendo would get even, one way or another,” said one — but it did do much to nullify the primary charge in Jack Tramiel’s Atari Corporation’s case against Nintendo: that not allowing licensees to release a game on a rival platform for two years after its appearance on the NES constituted an abuse of monopoly. Some suspected that the changes at Nintendo had been the result of a deal with the FTC which allowed them to avoid some charges of engaging in anti-competitive practices.

Although Nintendo was clearly moderating some of their stances in response to recent developments, Atari Games still couldn’t manage to get a win in Judge Fern Smith’s courtroom. On the contrary: on March 27, 1991, she handed them another devastating defeat. A forensic study of the code used in the lockout-defeat mechanism employed by the Tengen cartridges having shown it to be virtually identical to Nintendo’s own, Judge Smith excoriated Atari for their actions in words that left no doubt about her opinion of their business ethics. She certainly made no effort to sugarcoat her verbiage: “Atari lied to the Copyright Office in order to obtain the copyrighted program,” she bluntly wrote. After having killed the Tengen Tetris fifteen months before, she now ordered all unauthorized Tengen games for the NES to be pulled from the market.

On April 10, 1991, the FTC announced that they had charged Nintendo with price-fixing in light of the latter’s policy of demanding that retailers not discount their products. But, anxious to avoid another ugly public legal battle, Nintendo had agreed to a settlement which required them to discontinue the policy in question, to pay $4.75 million to cover the government’s administrative costs in conducting the investigation, and to send consumers who the government claimed had been negatively affected a $5 coupon good for future Nintendo purchases. And with that, the FTC’s Nintendo probe was effectively finished. Everyone agreed that Nintendo had gotten off rather shockingly easy in being allowed to turn what should have been the negative press of a major judgment against them into what amounted to a new sales promotion. It almost seemed like someone at the FTC had a soft spot for them. Both Ataris blasted the easy treatment of Nintendo in the press, indelicately implying that something underhanded must be going on between Nintendo and the FTC.

But brighter news for the Atari camp did come the very next day. Atari Games had bitterly contested Judge Smith’s injunction stating that they couldn’t sell their Tengen games on the NES unless and until their appeal of her most recent ruling was concluded in their favor. They claimed the injunction could very well drive them out of business before that day arrived, making their ongoing appeal moot. On April 11, the appeals court agreed to give them back their right to sell the Tengen games while the legal proceedings ground on.

Whatever the situation in court, the two Ataris could feel fairly confident that they were at the very least holding their own in the public-relations war. In January of 1992, Michael Crichton summed up the mood of many inside and outside the American government with his novel Rising Sun. A thinly disguised polemic against Japan — Crichton himself described the book as a “wake-up call” to his country about the Japanese threat — it centers on a fictional corporation called Nakamoto whose mysterious leader sits far away in Japan at the center of a web of collusion and corruption. It was hard not to see the parallels with Nintendo’s greatly-feared-but-seldom-seen president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Price-fixing and other forms of collusion are “normal procedure in Japan,” says one of Crichton’s characters. “Collusive agreements are the way things are done.”

Just months after the publication of the novel, Yamauchi confirmed all of its worst insinuations in the eyes of some when he bought the Seattle Mariners baseball team. The Japanese, it seemed, were taking over even the Great American Pastime. What was next, Mom and apple pie? Major League Baseball approved the sale only on the condition that the day-to-day management of the team remain in American hands.

Hoping to capitalize on the political sentiment that so often painted Nintendo as a dangerous foreign invader, Tramiel’s Atari Corporation elected to take their $250 million lawsuit against Nintendo to a jury trial. But whatever abuses Nintendo may have committed, they had been smart enough not to give Atari any smoking guns in the form of written documentation of their more questionable policies. When Minoru Arakawa took the stand, he faced a barrage of aggressive accusations from Atari’s lawyers.

Isn’t it a fact that if Atari or Sega was also being carried, the salesman would go in and say they won’t be able to carry Nintendo?

Did Nintendo ever tell any licensee that they could only make games for Nintendo?

Did Nintendo ever tell them, the licensees, that if they put their games on any other system they would be penalized?

That Nintendo would reduce their allocation of chips during the chip shortage?

Cancel trade-show space?

Any threats to prevent them from making games for other home-videogame systems?

To every question, Arakawa gave a one-syllable answer: “No.”

On May 1, 1992, the verdict came back. The jury did acknowledge that Nintendo had enjoyed a de facto monopoly over the American console market at the time Atari had filed their suit, but just having a monopoly is not illegal in itself. The jury found that Atari hadn’t managed to prove that Nintendo had abused their monopoly power. Atari Corporation would elect not to appeal the verdict.

On September 10, 1992, Atari Games lost their appeal to Judge Smith’s ruling against them of the previous year, and her overturned injunction against them went into permanent effect. All Tengen games on Nintendo’s platforms were to be pulled from store shelves and destroyed, effective immediately. Tengen and Nintendo had been parted forever.

With these last two rulings, the war entered the mopping-up phase, the final result all but a foregone conclusion. In 1990, the delicate stock-balancing act that had allowed Hideyuki Nakajima to run Atari Games as an independent entity had collapsed, and Time Warner had assumed control. The latter was skeptical from the beginning of this war that felt like it had at least as much to do with pride and legacy as it did with sound business strategy. Following these latest setbacks, they pressed Nakajima hard to cut his losses and settle the remaining legal issues. Atari Games and Nintendo announced a closed settlement agreement on March 24, 1994, that put the last of the litigation to bed, presumably at the cost of some number of millions from Atari.

Shortly thereafter, Atari Games ceased to exist under that name. On April 11, 1994, Time Warner went through a restructuring which saw Atari and Tengen subsumed into the preexisting subsidiary Time Warner Interactive. With the arcade market slowly dying and Nintendo certainly not likely to let them back onto their platforms anytime soon, the storied name of Atari had become a liability rather than an asset.

Atari Corporation came to a similarly dispiriting end. After years of creeping irrelevancy brought on by the slow decline of their ST line of computers and the more dramatic failure of the Atari Jaguar, a quixotic last-ditch effort to launch a game console to compete directly with Nintendo, the remnants of the company were scooped up by JTS Storage, a maker of hard disks, on July 30, 1996. Thanks to the financial contortions that were used to bring off the deal, the transaction was counter-intuitively recorded as an acquisition of JTS by Atari, but there was no doubt on the scene about who was really acquiring whom. Like Time Warner, JTS saw little remaining value to the Atari name; they had acquired Atari Corporation for nothing more nor less than a pile of cold hard cash the company had recently collected after winning a patent-infringement judgment against Sega, not in the hope of making Atari mean something again to a new generation of gamers for whom the name’s glory days were ancient history. But the money didn’t do them much good; JTS went bankrupt in 1999.

In a previous article, I called the war between the two Ataris and Nintendo the past of videogames versus their future. As we can now see, that description is almost literally true. The two Ataris could perhaps console themselves that they had forced some changes in Nintendo’s behavior, but they had paid a Pyrrhic price for those modest tactical victories. After the war was over, both Ataris died while Nintendo thrived. Winning the war so utterly became one of the proudest achievements of Howard Lincoln, that unapologetically vindictive master strategist. “Lincoln’s motto was ‘fuck with us and we will destroy you,'” said one of Nintendo’s lawyers. “Otherwise he’s a really nice guy.”

Yet the full import of the war extended far beyond its importance to the individual combatants: it marked a watershed moment for the way that software is sold. Buried in the text of Judge Smith’s 1991 ruling against Atari Games was the statement that legitimized the future not just of console-based videogames but of much of the rest of the consumer-software market. Irrespective of the shady methods Atari had employed to violate Nintendo’s patent in the case at hand, Judge Smith affirmed that Nintendo did have the abstract right to “exclude others and reserve to itself, if it chooses” complete control of the Nintendo cartridge market. This statement essentially reversed an established precedent, dating back to an antitrust case that was decided against IBM in 1969, that a hardware manufacturer could not decide what software was allowed to run on their machines. With the legal cover Judge Smith provided, what had once been shocking enough to set most of the American software industry up in arms soon became routine. Every successful console that would follow the NES, from Nintendo or anyone else, would use the walled-garden model. Even more significantly, virtually every significant new software market to arise in the future, such as the mobile-phone and tablet markets that thrive today, would also be a walled garden controlled by a single corporation. Today, the un-walled marketplace for personal-computer software has become the exception rather than the rule, a shambling ghost from the past which no corporation has yet been able to corral. And long may it shamble on, for it continues to provide a haven in interactive media for the experimental, the controversial, the iconoclastic, and the esoteric — all the things the walled gardens reject.

The anti-Japanese, anti-Nintendo sentiment in the country, which had threatened to reach xenophobic levels in some circles, gradually faded as the decade wore on and Nintendo lost some of their standing as the be-all, end-all in videogames. Their much-feared strategy of using the NES as a Trojan Horse to take over all of consumer computing never really got off the ground. The enhancements that turned the Famicom into a full-fledged computer had never done tremendously well in Japan, and the Nintendo Network there turned into one of the company’s rare outright failures, never getting beyond the tens of thousands of subscribers. A survey found that the biggest source of consumer resistance to the idea was, ironically, Nintendo’s established reputation in videogames. People just weren’t excited about using what they thought of as their children’s toys to manage their stock portfolios. In light of these setbacks in Japan, Nintendo never introduced either the “computery” hardware enhancements they had tried on the Famicom or the Nintendo Network to North America. They instead elected to content themselves with their lot as the biggest company in videogames, much to the relief of the American software industry.

But even in the field of videogames, Nintendo wouldn’t stand alone for much longer. Sega had introduced their Genesis console in North America already at the end of 1989. Following a slow start, it eventually turned into a viable competitor for the aging NES. At mid-decade, Sony arrived with the PlayStation as a third major player in the game-console space. While both Sega and Sony adopted Nintendo’s walled-garden approach to software, one could no longer claim that videogaming writ large in North America lived by the whims of a single company. Yes, one could still be unhappy that all three popular console-sellers in the United States were Japanese — another successful born-in-America console wouldn’t arrive until the Microsoft Xbox in 2001 — but even that concern faded somewhat with the tech boom of the mid- and late-1990s. In this market, there was plenty of room for everyone, even the shifty-eyed foreigners.

Minoru Arakawa resigned as president of Nintendo of America in January of 2002. When not enjoying semi-retirement, he has since worked with Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov on various projects related to Tetris.

Howard Lincoln was appointed CEO of the Seattle Mariners in 1999, signaling a scaling back in his involvement with Nintendo proper. He continued to run the team until 2016. His tenure produced no triumphs to compete with his great victory over the two Ataris; the team made the playoffs the first two years with him at the helm, but never again after that.

Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln at the Interactive Achievement Awards in 2007, where they accepted lifetime-achievement awards.

In 2003, the North American arm of the French publisher Infogrames re-christened themselves Atari. Any hopes they might have had to revive the name’s glory days were, however, sadly disappointed. After years of lurching from crisis to crisis, the new Atari filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. Today a skeleton staff makes casino games under the name.

As for Nintendo… well, Nintendo remains Nintendo, of course. They’ve long since surpassed their old rival Atari to become the most iconic name in videogames. Once, parents would say that their children liked to “play Atari,” regardless of what name happened actually to be printed on the front of their game console. Now, they say their children like to “play Nintendo” — and, thanks largely to what Tetris first began, they’ll often say that they “play Nintendo” themselves. Nintendo has had ups and downs over the years, but have on the whole remained ridiculously successful thanks to the same old blending of strategic smarts with a deep well of ruthlessness ready to be employed when they judge the situation to call for it. Some variant or another of Tetris — usually more than one — has been a staple of every Nintendo machine since the NES and Game Boy.


 

And so we’re left with only one fate left to describe: that of the place where we began this journey, the Mirror World of the Soviet Union.

The dawn of the 1990s was an extraordinary time in the often fraught history of East/West relations. The opening of the Soviet Union brought with it the expectation that the world was witnessing the dawn of a new economic superpower even as a military superpower fell. Freed from the yoke of communism, Russia seemingly had everything going for it. It was a sprawling land bursting with natural resources, with an educated population eager to shed their isolation and become a part of the free world’s economic and political order. This was the period when Francis Fukuyama was writing The End of History, claiming that with the end of the Cold War free societies and free markets had won history’s argument, leaving humanity with nothing left to do but enjoy their fruits.

Few industries were more excited about jumping through the mirror and doing business in the lands beyond than the computer industry. As relations improved between West and East, the restrictions implemented by the Coordination Committee on Export Controls in the West were gradually eased. Already by 1988, it had been permitted to sell 16-bit microprocessors like the 80286 to the Soviet Union; by 1990, 32-bit processors like the 80386 were also allowed; by 1991, the restrictions as a whole were no more. Conferences and seminars sprung up, places for Western business executives to meet with former Eastern government bureaucrats newly thrust into the same role by their countries’ privatizing economies.

Of course, those Westerners peering eagerly through the mirror still had their work cut out for them in lots of ways. Most of the Eastern European economies were in complete disarray, with devalued currencies and thus little hard cash for buying Western products.

But where there’s a desire to do business, there’s usually a way. Some enterprising Western exporters resorted to complicated three-party deals. The would-be computer exporter would give their machines to an agent, who would send them on to Eastern Europe in exchange for raw goods. The agent would then sell the goods back in the West, and give the computer exporter a chunk of the profits. By 1992, an 80286-based PC in Russia cost about $1100. This was certainly better than the $17,000 one could have expected to pay for a shoddy Apple II clone nine years before, even if that kind of money would buy you a much more powerful 80386-based machine in the United States.

Issues of Byte magazine from the early 1990s buzz with excitement about the opportunities awaiting citizens of the Mirror World, not to mention those in the West who planned to guide them down the tricky paths of capitalism. “These are people who have felt useless — useless — all their lives!” said American business pundit Esther Dyson of the masses getting their first taste of freedom. “Do you know what it is like to feel useless all your life? Computers are turning many of these people into entrepreneurs. They are creating the entrepreneurs these countries need.”

And yet, sadly, the picture of a Russian entrepreneur in the popular imagination of the West of today is that of a mobster. Under the benighted stewardship of Boris Yeltsin, the high hopes for the Russia of the early 1990s gave way to the economic chaos of the mid- and late-decade years, paving the way for one Vladimir Putin. The new Russia proved unable to overcome the culture of corruption that had become so endemic during the old Soviet Union’s Brezhnev era.

I’m hardly qualified to provide a detailed analysis of why it has been so hard for Russia to escape its tragic past, any more than you are likely up for reading such a thing at the end of this already lengthy article. Since moving to Europe in 2009 and continuing to be subjected to my fellow Americans’ blinkered notions of what is “wrong” here and how it should be fixed, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the only way to really know a place may be to live there. So, in lieu of flaunting my ignorance on this subject I’ll just provide a few final anecdotes from my trip across Russia back in 2002.

  1. Driving around Moscow with several other backpackers and a guide we’d scraped together enough money to hire, I noticed some otherwise unmarked cars sporting flashing lights on the roof, of the sort that the driver can reach up through the window to set in place as she drives. There were a lot of these cars, all rushing about purposefully with lights undulating like mad. Was there really that much crime in the city? Or was some sort of emergency in progress? Weird if so, as the cars with the flashing lights by no means all seemed to be headed in the same direction. Curious about all these things, I finally asked our guide. “Oh, most of those cars aren’t actually police,” she said. “If you pay the right person, you can get a light like that for your personal car. Then you don’t have to stop at the traffic lights.”
  2. This being the period just after George W. Bush had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen clear to his “straightforward and trustworthy” soul, I was interested to hear what ordinary Russians thought of their new leader. To a person, the Russians I talked to found the West’s hopes that Putin would prove an enlightened steward of his people hilarious. “Putin was KGB during the Soviet times,” they told me. “Do you not understand what that means?”
  3. In all my life’s travels, I’ve never witnessed a more cash-driven economy than the Russia of 2002. Many of the Russians I met said they would accept their salary from their workplaces only in cash. Life savings were hoarded inside mattresses and behind paintings, for, after the economic collapse at the end of Yeltsin’s reign which had cost many Russians their previous life savings, banks were a bad joke, a sucker’s game. There were no ATMs outside of Moscow, nowhere to cash checks. On the plus side, you could buy most things with American dollars if you ran out of Russian rubles. Indeed, these were vastly preferable to many Russians, being the engine that made the underground economy go.
  4. I was single at the time, and families kept wanting to show me their daughters, with an obvious eye to marriage and a ticket to the West. Luckily, I was old enough to know to keep my distance from what could have been some very dangerous entanglements, although it was kind of fun for an average-looking guy like me to be fawned over like fitness-model material for a while.
  5. When being shown around Vladivostok at the end of my trip — and it is a very lovely city — I asked our guide about some huge mansions built into the hills surrounding the harbor and visible from many spots in the city proper. She seemed scared to say too much about them. “That’s where the Mafia lives, we don’t go up there” was all I could get out of her. “We” in this context apparently meant ordinary, non-Mafia Russian citizens like her.
  6. Despite such social disparities, few Russians evinced much nostalgia for the Yeltsin era, when they had enjoyed more political freedom than at any other point in their country’s history. Instead many preferred to cast their nostalgic gaze further back, to the Soviet era. Back then, they’d had security, they told me: a paid education, a guaranteed job, paid medical care, a rent-controlled apartment for their family once their name came to the top of the waiting list. If Putin could provide them with those things again, they weren’t overly inclined to quibble about issues like free speech and voting rights. They’d seen what they thought of as democracy up close and personal during the 1990s, and it hadn’t been a terribly pleasant experience for them. The West could keep it as far as they were concerned.

Perhaps somewhere in the intersection of these anecdotes can be found some clues as to what went wrong with the dreams for a healthy, stable, and free Russia.

Today Putin revels in his role of the comic-book evil mastermind, gobbling up territory here, hacking elections there, scheming always to undermine the existing world order and sometimes seeming to succeed at it to a disconcerting degree. Like most “strong-man” leaders, he tells himself and his people that he does these things in the name of nationalism and ethnic pride. Yet the would-be strong man fails to understand that by embracing the role of the geopolitical pariah, by running his country as a criminal enterprise with himself at the top of the oligarchial food chain, he actually turns Russia into a weak nation when it could be such a strong one. The largest country in the world has a gross domestic product less than that of South Korea, and 7 percent that of the United States, the nation it so desperately wishes to challenge again on the world stage. Now that the Iron Curtain no longer blocks their way, far too many of the best and the brightest in Russia flee to the West, leaving behind a generation of often hopeless men to literally drink themselves to death; the average life expectancy for a man in Russia is 64 years. The country remains what it has been for centuries: the greatest example of wasted potential on earth.

The Moscow Computer Center as it looks today.

The storied Moscow Computer Center still exists inside the changed Russia, under the official name of the Dorodnicyn Computing Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences. But even in 2004, when the BBC filmed there for a documentary about Tetris, its luster was yet more faded than it had been during Alexey Pajitnov’s time there. Yuri Yevtushenko, the director of the place at the time, painted a rather grim picture: “Our institute is getting older. The average age of the staff is fifty, and I’m afraid that in ten years if this continues without good young support we will cease to exist.” Working there paid a wage of $200 per month — hardly much enticement for the next generation of talented young Russian hackers. His analysis of the Computer Center’s future prospects could stand in for those of his country: “In Russia, the most widespread strategy is the ‘perhaps’ strategy. It has often saved us. During wars, at the beginning everything looks hopeless. Any other country would probably have been destroyed and died, but Russia somehow finds a way to pull through and survive. I hope it will be the same here too.”

Yes, hope must live on. The Putin era too shall pass, and Russia will perhaps in time get another chance to realize its potential.

The way a narrative history like this one reads has always been a function of where it begins and ends — what the historian Hayden White calls “emplotment.” Writing history at the wrong time can be intellectually dangerous, as Francis Fukuyama, who has become a walking punch line in the wake of all the history that has transpired since his The End of History, can doubtless well attest. The thing about history, for good and, yes, sometimes for ill, is that it just keeps on happening. Maybe, then, I’ll someday be able to write a less melancholic ending for this tale of the Mirror World. The people of Russia certainly deserve one.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman, and Rising Sun by Michael Crichton; the BBC television documentary From Russia with LoveSTart of June 1990; GamePro of December 1990; Computer Gaming World of September 1993; Byte of September 1990, January 1991, January 1992, and September 1992; Boston Globe of January 30 1990; San Francisco Examiner of September 24 1998. Online sources include Vadim Gerasimov’s personal Tetris recollections; Tetris Pressures Game Act-Alikes” from Wired; “The People Versus Mario” from Muckrock; “The Mystery of Maxwell’s Death” from The Independent; “Russian Men Losing Years to Vodka” from The Guardian; “Off the Grid” from Hawaii Business; “The Man Who Made Tetris from Motherboard. And one more big thank you to Peter Sovietov for sharing his knowledge of Soviet and Russian computing with me.)

 
 

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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 7: Winners and Losers

Hillary Clinton plays with her Game Boy on Air Force One in 1993. While history hasn’t recorded with certainty what game she was playing, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts it was Tetris.

Atari had high hopes for the superlative implementation of Tetris they released for the Nintendo Entertainment System on May 17, 1989, and its initial performance fulfilled all of them, more than justifying their ambitious opening production run of 300,000 cartridges. Indeed, in the first month alone, fueled by positive press and even more positive word of mouth, the Tengen Tetris burned through half of that stock, with sales increasing week over week. Atari clearly had the beginnings of a massive hit on their hands — but not if Nintendo could prevent it.

Nintendo requested that Judge Fern Smith, whose San Francisco courtroom would be the home of most of the legal proceedings in the war between them and Atari, issue a preliminary injunction barring Atari from continuing to sell Tetris until the questions surrounding the rights to it had been fully resolved. Judge Smith agreed to allow the two sides to argue their cases for or against such an injunction beginning on June 15. In the scant few weeks allowed to them, the two companies’ legal teams scrambled to collect documents and depositions in the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Nikoli Belikov, Alexey Pajitnov, and the other Russians associated with ELORG thus got to enjoy the novel experience of being interviewed by opposing teams of American lawyers.

The current proceedings were not a full trial on the issue of the rights to the NES Tetris; that wasn’t expected to begin for months, and could then take more months to bring to a final verdict. This preliminary hearing dealt only with the question of whether Atari should be allowed to continue to sell their Tetris over the course of all those months. If Judge Smith thought it likely that Atari would prevail at the full trial, she could give them permission to do so. If she thought the opposite, she could order the Tengen Tetris pulled from the market for the interim.

When in-court arguments began, Atari pressed two separate lines of defense against Nintendo’s charge that the Tetris rights they claimed to own were ill-gotten. They hoped at least one of them would stick.

One line of defense accepted for the sake of argument the definition of “computer systems” as “PC computers which consist of a processor, monitor, disk drive(s), keyboard, and operation system” which was found in the revised contract Robert Stein had signed with ELORG the previous February. The NES did in fact — or at any rate potentially could — meet this definition, Atari argued. For proof, they looked to the console’s Japanese incarnation. There it was known, conveniently for Atari’s purposes, as the Nintendo Famicom, short for “Family Computer.” As that name would imply, Nintendo’s long-term goal had always been to turn the platform into more than just a game console. As far back as 1984, they had started selling an add-on kit called Family BASIC, an implementation of the BASIC programming language which came complete with a keyboard for typing in code. From 1986 on, it had been possible to purchase a disk system for the Famicom, which could be used for saving one’s BASIC programs as well as running commercial software sold on this alternative media. Thus a Famicom could be configured in such a way as to tick most of the boxes in the revised contract’s definition of a computer system. Should Judge Smith need more evidence, Atari pointed out that just the previous year Nintendo of Japan had introduced the Family Computer Communications Network System, a modem allowing Nintendo owners to take their machines online — albeit, in keeping with Nintendo’s walled-garden philosophy, only to access Nintendo’s own network. Once online, a Famicom could be used to play games with others, but could also be used to access a whole range of other information and services, from an encyclopedia to stock reports, from a travel agency to mail-order retail kiosks.

Sure, these things had only happened in Japan to date, but the North American NES was at bottom the same machine as the Japanese Famicom. All signs pointed to the NES as well being given capabilities that moved it from the category of game console to that of full-fledged home computer. For evidence of that, one needed look no further than Nintendo’s most recent annual report, where plans for a North American version of a Nintendo-branded online service featured prominently: “By employing the Nintendo Entertainment System as a domestic communications terminal, utilizing regular telephone lines, and the establishing of a large-scale network which to this point has been inconceivable, we plan to provide a vital supply of information for the domestic lifestyle in the fields of entertainment, finance, securities, and health management, to mention but a few.” “In court,” said an Atari spokesman, “Nintendo went to great lengths to say that the NES was a toy and its cartridges were the equivalent of Barbie’s arms and legs, but at the same time they were signing up AT&T to use the machine for stock reports. There is a Nintendo computer network in Japan and one planned for the United States. Sounds like a computer to me.”

If Judge Smith was in doubt how seriously Nintendo’s more grandiose schemes should be taken, she needed only ask the Software Publishers Association. The American software industry lived in terror of this potential Nintendo network, as it did of all of Nintendo’s much-rumored plans to use their game console as a Trojan Horse for bringing the walled-garden model of a software marketplace to applications other than games. If and when brought to fruition, such plans might force the entire industry to kowtow to the whims of this one foreign company. Thus the SPA’s support of Atari’s efforts to break into Nintendo’s extant walled garden of videogames by force, before it was too late.

In response to Atari’s claim that the NES effectively was a computer system, Nintendo noted that the contract which they claimed gave them rather than Atari the rights to make Tetris for the NES had been signed between ELORG and Nintendo of America, not Nintendo of Japan; the version of Tetris available for the Famicom in Japan was made by Henk Rogers’s Bullet-Proof Software, and its legitimacy wasn’t an issue to be decided in Judge Smith’s courtroom. Whatever its technical similarities to the Famicom, the North American NES was a separate product, and none of the Japanese accessories which could be construed as turning the Famicom into a “real” computer were available for the NES. If such accessories should become available in the future, the argument might be revisited, but right now the court should deal only in actualities, not hypotheticals.

For their other line of defense, Atari fielded the assertion that the revisions made to the original contract with Robert Stein had been made in bad faith, and that Stein had in fact been tricked into signing the contract. The Russians had originally intended, Atari argued, to license all of the rights to Stein and be done with it before they realized what a big seller the game had the potential to become. When they saw the opportunity to make more money through a deal with Nintendo, they had tried to pull a fast one to duck out of the first agreement. Stein himself testified to all of this in his deposition. Atari’s Dan Van Elderen, who had recently replaced Randy Broweleit at the head of the Tengen subsidiary, claimed the Russians “knew they had sold all those rights until they figured out, counseled by Henk Rogers and Nintendo, that there was a loophole. They realized they could have gotten a lot more money, so they double-dealt us all.” “Something went on between the Russian author and Nintendo,” said Atari’s president Hideyuki Nakajima in a deposition that might have come across better had he shown Alexey Pajitnov the respect of learning his name. “Nintendo knew we had the license, and it urged us to go forward with the game. Nintendo only cared once we filed the antitrust suit against them. They went after us. Howard Lincoln and Arakawa wanted to stop us. It was revenge.”

Nintendo yielded no ground to this argument either. They trotted out depositions from Alexey Pajitnov, Alexander Alexinko, Nikoli Belikov, and others at ELORG, all testifying that they had always understood the contract with Stein as covering only full-fledged personal computers, and had created the revised version merely to clarify what had always been the case. Furthermore, Stein had been given ample time to review this clarified version of the contract, and had signed it of his own free will.

As anyone who has followed the long and winding story of the Tetris negotiations to this point must acknowledge, neither side was presenting anything close to the unvarnished truth. Nevertheless, Judge Smith, who wasn’t privy to the inside details of the case in the way that we are today, had a hard time getting past the presence of a signed contract clearly stating that the rights Stein had licensed applied only to personal computers — which she judged that the NES, whatever it might become in the future, wasn’t as of June of 1989. On June 21, she handed the devastating news to Atari: they must immediately cease manufacturing and selling the Tengen Tetris, unless and until their right to do so was affirmed by the trial which was to follow later in the year. In the meantime, all unsold copies were to be recalled from the retail pipeline and locked away in a warehouse under the supervision of the court.

In a telling sign of which way the winds were blowing, Judge Smith issued no injunction against Nintendo releasing their own NES version of Tetris while both sides prepared for the full trial. But, perhaps wary of attracting her ire when she seemed to be favoring their side, Nintendo opted to hold their version in abeyance as well. Whose Tetris would make it permanently onto store shelves would be decided by a trial which was scheduled to begin in November. Until then, Tetris on the NES would remain in a tense state of stasis.

As the trial date drew near, Nintendo flew Nikoli Belikov to California to become their most important witness. The excitement of a free trip to the Soviet Union’s vision of a Mirror World was rather dampened by the rest of his circumstances. The pressure from Robert Maxwell’s allies inside the Kremlin hadn’t eased. Belikov faced the prospect of losing his career or possibly even his freedom if things went badly in that San Francisco courtroom. “Before my departure, I was invited into the State Committee for Computer Technology,” he remembers, “and they said, if you lose this lawsuit a special commission will be created who will look into how many millions of dollars the Soviet state has lost due to your reckless actions.” Belikov had known his fair share of bureaucratic scuffles during his day, but he had never felt so exposed as he did now. He joked darkly with his new Nintendo friends that if things went south he might just have to defect.

He needn’t have worried; Nintendo’s confidence that Judge Smith was leaning in their direction proved well-founded. The first day of the trial — November 13, 1989 — was a dream for Nintendo and a nightmare for Atari. Judge Smith came into the courtroom that morning only briefly, to announce that, having reviewed the evidence that had already been submitted, she saw no need to hear from witnesses or otherwise go through the motions of a full trial. She announced a summary judgment declaring Nintendo to be entirely in the right, Atari entirely in the wrong. The former was free to release their NES version of Tetris at their convenience, while the latter was to destroy their warehoused copies of the game forthwith. After months of preparation and buildup, the “trial” was over well before lunchtime. Atari announced that they would appeal the summary judgment, as you do in such circumstances, but soon decided that doing so would just mean more lawyers’ fees down the drain.

So, the judgment was allowed to stand, and the remaining copies of the Tengen Tetris were destroyed. Thanks to their relative scarcity as well as their sheer quality as the best implementation of Tetris ever to grace the NES, those copies which were sold during the one month the game spent on the market have become collectors’ items today, fetching prices of $100 or more.

For the Nintendo/ELORG camp, it was all over but the celebrations. “It made both Mr. Arakawa and I feel wonderful, just great” says Howard Lincoln. “There was jubilation,” says Henk Rogers. Rogers took Belikov out on the town. “I remember he turned up the stereo. We were breaking all the laws,” says Belikov. “He was speeding around San Francisco on the hilly streets. I was, honestly speaking, still in shock. Everything was happening in slow motion. The joy came a lot later. The fear started to go. I could go… I could go back!”

When Belikov did go back to Moscow, the money that came flowing the Russians’ way thanks to the deals he had made was finally enough to quiet the storm that had been battering at ELORG’s doors for so long. Robert Maxwell came to ascribe his friend Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to deliver on his promise to oust “the Japanese company” to his need to placate certain factions within the Kremlin in order to maintain his grip on the General Secretary post: “He said other people in the government felt strongly that it should go the other way, so we stopped.” After threatening to create an international political scandal out of the issue, Maxwell allowed cooler heads to prevail in the end, washing his hands of the whole matter in that way that only the very rich are generally empowered to do. “You take your lumps along the way,” he said with a shrug. As big a deal as Tetris was in the realm of videogames, it was small potatoes in the context of his overall business empire.

And so, not without a whiff of anticlimax, the final questions about who was the rightful owner of Tetris in each of its incarnations were definitively resolved. ELORG, Bullet-Proof, and Nintendo were the winners, the new order they had sculpted in February and March of 1989 having been given the stamp of approval of an American court. Atari, Stein’s Andromeda Software, and Mirrorsoft were the losers. Somewhere in between was Spectrum Holobyte, who had managed — as much due to circumstance as conscious choice — to sit out the conflict as something of a neutral party, and was rewarded by being allowed to continue enjoying the strong sales of the North American personal-computer version of Tetris. Those sales, which would ultimately total several hundred thousand, might not have been a patch on the numbers the NES version would soon be racking up, but they suited a small computer-game publisher like Spectrum Holobyte just fine.

Nintendo’s NES Tetris was inferior to Tengen’s, but was good enough to get the job done.

As for the right and wrong of it all… well, the ethical waters surrounding Tetris had been muddy virtually from the moment Robert Stein had seen Vadim Gerasimov’s implementation of the game running on a computer in Budapest and tried to buy it from his Hungarian programmers without acknowledging where it had actually come from. Still, whomever we decide to label as the heroes and villains of this twisted tale, and in whatever ethical light we choose to see the other aspects of Atari’s war against Nintendo, it’s hard not to feel that Atari got a raw deal when it came to Tetris. They licensed the rights in good faith and created a superlative version of the game, only to be forced to pay for the sins of others. But all’s fair in love and (business) war. “It was revenge,” says Howard Lincoln of spoiling Atari’s plans and spiriting away what would go on to become the most popular videogame in history. “And you know how sweet revenge can be.” I’m not sure I do, actually — but I have a feeling that Howard Lincoln does.

Nintendo’s NES Tetris hit the market within days of the summary judgment, hoping to capitalize on whatever was left of the Christmas rush. The game would spend a year on the NES top-ten chart and sell at least 6 million copies over the course of its unusually long commercial lifetime. Yet, just as Lincoln, Arakawa, and Rogers had all suspected, and despite all the drama that had surrounded its release, this version of Tetris didn’t turn out to be the one that mattered most.

The Nintendo Game Boy had arrived in North American stores near the end of the summer of 1989, just in time to create a major headache for the teachers of all those members of Generation Nintendo who headed back to school with the gadgets in their backpacks. Game Boy would go on to become Nintendo’s second massive success story. In fact, it would become even more massive a success story than the first, selling almost 120 million units — roughly twice the total worldwide sales of the NES and Famicom lines — over the course of more than a decade in production.

For the first handful of those years, every single one of the millions upon millions of Game Boys that were sold in North America and Europe included a copy of Tetris. It was thus the Game Boy that spread Tetris absolutely everywhere, making it popular on a scale that no videogame had ever managed before nor has ever quite managed since. The irony in this is rich. While everyone’s attention had been focused on the grand legal showdown between Nintendo and Atari, the handheld Tetris, the rights to which had never been seriously disputed by anyone since Henk Rogers had picked them up on his first visit to Moscow, was the Tetris which ultimately proved to be the most important by far.

The Nintendo Game Boy Tetris, by far the most successful and historically important version of all.

In discussing such a divine synergy as that enjoyed by the Game Boy and Tetris, it’s impossible to state precisely which half of the equation got more out of the deal. Still, the preponderance of the evidence would seem to indicate that Tetris gave at least as much as it got. In the process, it did nothing less than identify a whole new potential market for videogames.

Nintendo of America’s success to date had been predicated on knowing exactly who constituted the natural market for their games, and targeting that market with pinpoint precision. Nintendo Power, the lifeline that linked the Nintendo executive suites to the youthful Generation Nintendo, looked not at all different from other magazines aimed at teens and preteens, full of exclamation points and eye-popping splashes of color plastered across every page. A closer look at the contents only cemented the impression: alongside articles about the games themselves were profiles of teen pop stars like Debbie Gibson and earnest admonitions not to let playing Nintendo supersede doing homework. While a story might occasionally surface, in Nintendo Power or for that matter in a newspaper, about a sheepish parent who had somehow picked up a Super Mario Bros. obsession, such anecdotes were amusing for the very reason that they were such an exception to the demographic rule.

But as the Game Boy’s sales only continued to increase following a launch that had been explosive beyond even Nintendo’s dearest hopes, the company’s customer surveys began to reveal a curious piece of information: many, many adults were playing with the Game Boys they had bought for their children as much or more than said children were. The adults in question were largely well-educated professionals who would never have dreamed of darkening the doors of an arcade or picking up an NES controller. Yet here they were, playing Game Boy. And, it didn’t take much further probing to reveal, the game they were almost universally playing was Tetris.

Surprised by this development but far from averse to it, Nintendo began aiming some of their marketing fusillade at adults. Game Boy advertisements were soon appearing in in-flight magazines, targeted explicitly at the business travelers leafing through their pages:

If you’re reading this ad, you’re very bored. You’ve mastered the safety instructions in every language, and the flight attendant won’t give you any more almonds. Now what? Game Boy won’t ask you for your dessert, and fits just as neatly into the mouth of that screaming child beside you as it does into your briefcase.

The cleverest of all the new advertisements neatly reversed the typical family’s videogame supply chain to suit the changing times: “This Father’s Day, treat Dad like a kid!”

Many of the Game Boys sold via such advertisements were literally never used to play any other game than Tetris. Reports had it that some players, concerned over a tendency the cartridge had to fall out of its slot as it aged, actually glued it into place — thus cementing permanently, as it were, the link between Game Boy and Tetris. This state of affairs wasn’t entirely ideal in Nintendo’s view — they sold the Game Boy cheap in the expectation of making a lot more money off the game cartridges they would later sell for it, a plan which a Game Boy that was used for nothing other than playing Tetris rather nullified — but Game Boy sales on the whole were so absurdly strong that there was little room to really complain.

Careful readers will note that I described the combination of the Game Boy and Tetris as “identifying a whole new potential market for videogames” rather than creating one in any sustained sense. For years after millions of adults went Tetris crazy, game makers — including the usually astute Nintendo — were remarkably slow to follow up this success. Many students of gaming history date the true beginning of the modern market for casual games to the release of Bejeweled in 2001. Yet if you ask these same students about the first casual game, full stop, the majority will point back to Tetris. Not coincidentally, Bejeweled and its many descendants all inhabit a subgenre broadly known as the “matching game,” which has Tetris as its forefather. When writing A Casual Revolution, his book on the phenomenon of casual games, Jesper Juul interviewed dozens of casual players. One of the constants of these interviews emerges when the players are asked about their experience of playing games before discovering modern casual-game portals like Big Fish Games. As often as not, Tetris is the first thing to spring into their minds. This indicates not simply that many of these casual gamers once played Tetris, but that they also identify it as something broadly like the games they enjoy today. Tetris gave them a glimpse of something circa 1990 that the games industry never fully managed to deliver to them again until the following decade.

Eager like all Tetris publishers to use the game’s origins in the Mirror World for marketing purposes, Nintendo did a fair amount of outreach in the Soviet Union. Here Howard Lincoln visits a Russian summer camp, where he passes out free Game Boys.

Juul published his book in 2010, when countless millions were still playing Tetris on the so-called “feature phones” of the time. For all the anecdotes from Tetris‘s heyday about playing it on work PCs in office cubicles, it was always the collision between the game and a mobile device — whether Game Boy, feature phone, or smartphone — that really brought the magic. It may have taken Tetris five years to make the journey from Alexey Pajitnov’s clunky Elektronika 60 terminal to the svelte little Game Boy, but once it arrived on mobile it was clear that this was where the game would truly thrive. A great casual game can be played obsessively or sporadically with equal success, and thus really comes into its own when combined with a portable gadget of some stripe and a player with a little — or perhaps sometimes a lot — of time to kill. Game designer Frank Lantz:

Tetris might be the ur-casual game. If you think of casual games as the PopCap-style match-3 puzzle games, Tetris is the blueprint for that, and yet it is possible to play Tetris in drunken binges. You are addicted to this activity, this repetitious thing you can’t walk away from for hours. When you finally put it down, you are groggy and have a headache. Or it is possible to play Tetris when you are standing in the line at the DMV and you think, “Okay, I am bored, I’ve got five minutes to fill and I will play some Tetris.” It is still Tetris in either sense.

Tetris, in other words, molds itself to your life rather than the other way around. Rather than gaming as lifestyle, it’s gaming as lifestyle accessory. It turns out that, contrary to almost every one of the games industry’s pre-millennial instincts, there’s even more money to be made in the latter than the former. Tetris, the urtext of the casual game, had sold an estimated 170 million physical copies and 425 million digital copies by 2016, earning nearly $1 billion in the process. By most meaningful measures, it is indeed the most popular videogame in history. A game that somehow managed to become iconic without containing any actual icons — no characters, no story, no essential style or look — it must also be, in light of the market it did so much to identify, at the very least in the conversation for the title of most important videogame of all time.

In 1993, Tetris became the first videogame to be played in space when cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov took his Game Boy with him into orbit. This well-publicized event was as close as the Russians ever came to achieving their hopes for a grand promotional partnership between Nintendo and the Soviet space program.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff, The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman, and A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players by Jesper Juul; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; Nintendo Power of July/August 1989, September/October 1989, and November/December 1989; The New York Times of June 22 1989 and December 21 1989.)

 

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