- Historic Sites
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
Alcorn went over to fix the machine. Not knowing what to expect, he sprung the coin box to give himself a free game, and a torrent of silver gushed out. The game wasn’t broken, just choked; players had fed so many quarters into the coin slot that it had simply jammed. Alcorn scooped up handfuls of change, stuffed them in his pockets, walked jingling over to the manager, and handed him a business card. “Next time this happens,” he said, “you call me at home right away. I can always fix this one.”
The excited engineer called Bushnell in Chicago to tell him the news. Surprised by Pong’s instant success, Bushnell changed his plans: Instead of selling the game to a manufacturer, Atari would build it. Unfortunately he had already had an initial round of meetings in which he discussed the game with executives at Bally and Midway. Now he had to find a way to convince them that Pong was a bad idea without arousing their suspicions.
So the next time Bushnell met with Bally executives he led them to believe that Midway had already passed on the game. This made Bally’s people so nervous that they backed off, and so he was telling no more than the truth by the time he sat down with Midway and announced that Bally had pulled out. Freed of entanglements by his shrewd piece of antisalesmanship, Bushnell hurried back to California and secured a $50,000 line of credit, which he used to set up a 2,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.
Pong was an immediate hit. By the end of 1973 Atari had sold 2,500 machines; by the end of 1974, 8,000. The similarities between Pong and the tennis game on the Odyssey did not escape Magnavox’s attention, and the larger company soon brought suit, charging that Bushnell had blatantly copied its game. Bushnell maintained, as he does to this day, that he invented Pong on his own. In later cases against other video-game companies, Magnavox’s lawyers claimed that Bushnell had actually played tennis on the Odyssey for half an hour; Bushnell has always denied this. Nevertheless, Bushnell could not afford a court battle with a massive company like Magnavox, and he agreed to pay a $700,000 licensing fee; all future competitors would have to pay Magnavox even steeper amounts.
Over the next few years Atari put out several games, many of them highly derivative: Pin Pong, Dr. Pong, Pong Doubles, and Quadra Pong. During this time Bushnell bought out Ted Dabney. He thought his partner “still had small-company ideas.”
While Atari was busy releasing its own Pong imitations, other companies were too. Atari’s success had, Bushnell declared, surrounded him with “jackals,” and through the 1970s and early 1980s the most fiercely competitive jackal was Midway Manufacturing. Unlike Atari, Midway did not develop all its own products. Its earliest successes came from Taito, a Japanese company.
Gunfight, Midway’s first video-game hit, was a Western shootout in which players used pistol-grip joysticks to move cowboys up and down the screen as they squeezed off shots at one another.
VIDEO-GAME arcades became more plentiful than convenience stores. Even funeral parlors had them in their basements. Only churches escaped.
When Midway’s engineers first tested Gunfight, they were dismayed: The graphics were crude and blocky, the movement of the gunfighters very limited. In hopes of salvaging the game, Midway went to an outside designer named David Nutting, the brother of Bill Nutting, the man who had hired Nolan Bushnell to build Computer Space. By this time Nutting Associates had gone out of business, and Bill Nutting was in a very different field of endeavor, flying relief supplies and missionaries into impoverished African nations. Dave Nutting, however, went on to create several classic games—and to revolutionize the industry.
The prototypical Gunfight that Midway’s people handed Nutting simply featured two cowboys shooting at each other. Nutting sharpened the graphics, then looked for a way to put obstacles between the fighters. His proposed changes would drink up an inordinate amount of power, but Nutting saw a way around this. His improved—and highly successful—Gunfight was one of the first games built with a microprocessor.
At about the same time, a different jackal introduced another durable component to the video-game industry: social alarm. In 1976 the Exidy company released a game called Death Race 98 that had players drive a car along a haunted road beside a cemetery. Gremlins and skeletons would materialize in the road, and players earned points by hitting them with their cars. Despite Exidy’s nicety in calling them “gremlins,” they were in fact stick figures — people —and their advent caused the first national outcry against video-game violence.