Super Mario Nation


A woman in Babylon, New York, was so offended that she launched a very effective one-person campaign against video-game violence, alerting “Donahue” and “60 Minutes” viewers to the potential spiritual carnage. “It’s very tame by today’s standards,” says Eddie Adlum, publisher of RePlay magazine, who is all but omniscient about video-game history, looking back on Death Race 98. “Every time you made a hit, a little cross would appear on the monitor signifying a grave. Nice game. Fun. Bottom line, the game really took off when TV stations started to get some complaints from irate parents that this was a terrible example to set for children. The industry got a lot of coast-to-coast coverage during news programs. The end result was that Exidy sales jumped.”

ELECTRONICS buyers didn’t like Home Pong. After all, the public no longer cared about digital watches; why would television games be different?

Communities passed zoning laws that discouraged arcade companies from building new locations. But by now the games were beginning to come into homes themselves.

Despite Pong’s success, the Magnavox Odyssey never sold very well. Baer had originally seen his invention as an inexpensive novelty, something that could be manufactured cheaply and sold for twenty or thirty dollars. Magnavox executives had other plans. They built twelve games into its circuits and sold the system with cards, poker chips, and plastic overlays to create suitable backgrounds for whatever was being played. The final package sold for a hundred dollars—too much for a simple novelty—and then the people who were marketing the Odyssey made an even bigger mistake: They hinted that it worked only on Magnavox television sets. Predictably, this dim ploy did not sell more Magnavoxes; it frightened away would-be Odyssey purchasers. In 1972, the game’s first year of life, only slightly more than 100,000 Odysseys were sold.

In 1975 Nolan Bushnell took Atari into the home market. One of Al Alcorn’s engineers had proposed a home console version of Pong, and the team designed a working prototype based on the same digital technology used in the arcade game. The big dilemma lay not in building the product but in selling it. Toy stores rejected it because it cost too much; like the Odyssey, it carried a suggested retail price of a hundred dollars, and one toy buyer told Bushnell that the only product his store carried that cost more than twenty-nine dollars was a bicycle.

Nor were electronics buyers enthusiastic. They saw Home Pong as a toy, and a mere novelty at that. The public no longer cared about digital watches; why would television games be different? They were all too aware of the Odyssey’s sorry sales record.

One person who was interested, however, was Tom Quinn, the sports-department buyer at Sears, Roebuck’s headquarters in Chicago. As Bushnell tells it, “The guy had done really well the year before on Ping-Pong tables. In winter the sporting-goods section would sell some hockey equipment and a few basketballs, and that was about it. To make his Christmas numbers, the Sears buyer was focusing on Ping-Pong tables and pool tables, and he thought consumer Pong might be just the thing for the family rec room.”

Quinn said he’d visit Atari the next time he was in California. Three days later he dropped in at the offices at 8:00 A.M. , before any of the company’s executive team arrived. He wanted to arrange an exclusive deal between Atari and Sears. His enthusiasm prompted Bushnell to take one final stab at selling Home Pong himself, but finally he accepted Quinn’s terms.

The next step was persuading other Sears executives to support the product. Quinn arranged for a demonstration in a conference room on the twenty-seventh floor of the Sears Tower in Chicago. A daunting group of executives in business suits filled the room and watched as Alcorn hooked a Home Pong prototype to a television set and turned the game on. Nothing happened.

Thinking as fast as he ever had in his life, Alcorn figured out the problem. The Sears Tower has an antenna on the roof that broadcasts a signal on Channel 3; the Home Pong prototype was set for Channel 3, and the broadcast blocked out its signal. Alcorn told a colleague to cover for him and grabbed the prototype. “I turned it upside down and opened the bottom up. I got it to work in about ten minutes. I was sweating now and ready to jump out the window. This was too much pressure for the kid.

“So I finally played the game and it all worked and they were O.K., but I could see that something was bothering them. They had seen inside the prototype while I was adjusting it.

SOME TOWNS passed zoning laws to prevent the building of new video arcades, but by that time the games were coming into homes themselves.

“I said, ‘We’ll replace the wires with a silicon chip that’s the size of a fingernail.’