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Super Mario Nation
THE VIDEO GAME turns twenty-five this year, and it has packed a whole lot of history into a mere quarter-century
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
The cost of computers had come down in the ten years since Russell created Spacewar, but they were still far too expensive to be used as arcade machines. Bushnell came up with a solution. Rather than put the game on a computer, a processor capable of handling several kinds of tasks, he set about designing a single-function machine that could perform just one task: game playing.
He did it on the cheap. “Ampex had a policy that for hobbies they’d give you the parts. Everybody called them ‘Gjobs.’ As long as it wasn’t excessive … I mean, they were just fifteen- or twenty-cent items.”
Bushnell’s first game, Computer Space, was a strippeddown version of Spacewar, its monitor a black-and-white television he had bought at a Goodwill store.
With his prototype, Bushnell set about using his vigorous powers of persuasion to get someone to manufacture the game. When Bill Nutting, founder of a small electronics company called Nutting Associates, agreed, Bushnell quit Ampex and joined his firm. Nutting manufactured 1,500 copies of Computer Space by 1972, but for all Bushnell’s eloquent zeal, the company had trouble marketing its creation in the bars and bowling alleys where coin-operated games were mostly found in those days. The people who saw Computer Space were confused by its five-button control scheme and lacked the patience to read the two solid pages of instructions that accompanied it.
Nutting wanted to continue manufacturing “television games,” but Bushnell blamed him for the failure of Computer Space, claiming the company had mismarketed the game and failed to give it adequate support. He turned instead to a friend named Ted Dabney. Dabney chipped in $250, and the two started their own company. They wanted to call it Syzygy, a word referring to the alignment of three celestial bodies, but found (to their considerable surprise) that the name was already spoken for. Finally they lit on a word in the Japanese strategy game Go that was the equivalent of check in chess. The word was Atari .
A man named Al Alcorn was Atari’s first full-time engineer, and he was an exceptionally clever one. One day Bushnell told Alcorn that no less a client than General Electric had ordered from Atari a tennislike computer game that would feature two paddles swatting a ball back and forth across a television screen.
It was a total lie. Bushnell had not spoken with General Electric; he simply wanted to acquaint Alcorn with the mechanics of creating computer games and thought the engineer might not be motivated if he knew that the task was merely an exercise. When Alcorn finished the game, Bushnell and Dabney knew it was marketable. They tested the prototype of Pong in a rustic Sunnyvale, California, bar named Andy Capp’s Tavern, in September 1972.
Nolan Bushnell was not the first person to conceive a computerized tennis game. In 1966 Ralph Baer, the manager of the equipment design division of a military contracting firm called Sanders Associates, had begun seeking a new use for television sets. Baer, a German-born Jew who had emigrated to America as a teenager shortly before World War II, was a precise, austere man who documented every step of his invention process.
He put together a small team of engineers to create games that could be played on a television. In June 1967 the team began work on a game in which players used paddles to catch a dot as it flew across a television screen. When a team member suggested hitting the dot instead of catching it, the game evolved into computerized Ping-Pong. Baer documented his work at each stage.
As a military contractor Sanders Associates could not market the toy. Baer tried to sell his idea to other companies, and although RCA and a couple of smaller competitors came close to purchasing the technology, they ultimately backed away. It took Baer three years to find a licensee; in 1971 Magnavox purchased Baer’s license and used it to create the Odyssey, the world’s first home video-game console. Within a year Magnavox began presenting its new toy to dealers around the country in private showings. In May 1972, four months before Pong made its debut at Andy Capp’s, the Odyssey was demonstrated at a trade show in Burlingame, California. Nolan Bushnell attended that show—a fact that would soon lead to litigation.
In the beginning Bushnell had envisioned Atari as a company that designed games and sold them to established manufacturers. Shortly after setting up Pong in the tavern, Bushnell went to Chicago to try to sell the game to Bally or Midway, two leading pinball manufacturers. While he was away, Al Alcorn received a late-night telephone call that changed everything.
It was the manager of Andy Capp’s, calling to say that the Pong machine had just stopped working. He went on to tell about something curious that had happened. “Al, this is the weirdest thing,” Alcorn remembered his saying. “When I opened the bar this morning, there were two or three people at the door waiting to get in. They walked in and played that machine. They didn’t buy anything. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”