Unusual Games from the Golden Age of the Video Arcade
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This list is the second in a series that examines coin-op video games. It's difficult to explain to a young gamer just how big a deal the arcade used to be. To them, an arcade is a sort of Chuck E Cheese experience: a few video games but mostly carnival type machines that give out tickets you can trade in for cheap prizes. Although the word "arcade" has been around for a long time, there was a brief period in the late 70s and early 80s when it became literally synonymous with the term "video games" and these years have come to be known as "The Golden Age of the Video Arcade". Historians still argue over exactly when it began and ended. Some say it started in 1971 with the release of "Computer Space"; some say it was 1978 with the release of "Space Invaders"; still others say it was 1979 when "Asteroids" made its debut. Some say it ended in 1983 with the great video game crash (that would eventually destroy Atari); others say it ended in 1986 with the release of the 3rd gen Nintendo Entertainment System. I prefer the shorter 78-83 time frame, with seven years leading up to the Golden Age and seven years of fade-out. For this list, however, I'm using the longest definition in order to cast a broader net.

One of the interesting things about a new technology is that, at first, nobody really knows what to do with it. You might see that it has great potential but tried and true methods have yet to be developed. Video games were no exception and, as an artistic tech, unusual games are inevitable. What makes a game unusual? Sometimes it's bizarre game play, or maybe the game has an odd history, or perhaps it features some weird hardware. This list examines some of the unusual games of the era.

Let me set the stage with a little history. In the beginning there were really only two video games: Video Tennis (which would eventually evolve into what became popularly known as "Pong"), and Spacewar! The first video gamers were engineers inside University computer labs and tech companies. Eventually some of them realized there was commercial potential for these games. Oddly, home gaming and coin-op gaming began at the same time, but there was never much of a contest in terms of game-play and graphics. Home games simply could not compete with a coin-op machine that came with a computer programmed solely for the game at hand. As a result, arcade games would dominate over platforms for fifteen years or so. It wasn't until games like "Pitfall" and "River Raid" (from then rebel Activision) on late 2nd gen systems, and certainly by early 3rd gen NES games like "Super Mario Bros." and "The Legend of Zelda", that gamers began gravitating out of the arcades and into their homes. This, however, is still in the future. Video Tennis/Ping Pong became the staple game of 1st gen home systems such as the Magnavox Odyssey. Two versions of Spacewar! competed to be the first coin-op game. Technically the winner was Galaxy Game but only one (very popular) machine was originally released. Therefore, the real winner was....

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1. Video Game: Computer Space [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
Video Game: Computer Space
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-1971-

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Computer Space was the very first arcade video game. That fact alone earns it a spot in the early pages of video game history books. Looking back at it now, what's surprising is how advanced the game was for its time. A player controlled a rocket and shot missiles at a pair of flying saucers in a zero gravity environment on a wraparound screen. Flash forward a decade (into the heart of the Golden Age) and you'd still see several games at the arcade, such as Asteroids, Space Duel and Star Castle, gobbling quarters by using the same basic premise.

What made Computer Space unusual, however, was its futuristic looking cabinet. How futuristic? The game was featured in the Sci Fi film Soylent Green as a rich man's leisure activity (along with the other "furniture"). The cabinet design did make sense. The designers were convinced that they were creating the future in entertainment. Why not house it in a box that wasn't coy about their vision?

But perhaps it was too futuristic looking. From a gamer's perspective, Computer Space was far superior to Pong (released one year later), and yet Pong would become the first video game rock star. How could that be? You could argue that Computer Space's complex, non-intuitive controls turned off potential gamers at a time when the fledgling video game industry needed to create actual video gamers, and that's true enough. But you could also point to the cabinet. A side-by-side comparison of the two games is instructive. Which of them says to an early 70's, blue collar guy at a bar, "Grab a beer buddy and saddle up to have some fun," and which of them says, "Unless you're an MIT graduate you should probably just keep on walking pal,"?

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2. Video Game: Space Race [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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-1973-

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Speaking of unusual cabinets... The designers of Computer Space, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, would go on to form a new company called Atari--the first rock star video game company. No doubt they were thrilled by Pong's huge success but maybe they had some cabinet envy from their first baby. Atari's second release, Space Race (the first video racing game), returned to a science fiction theme. Players moved their spaceships from the bottom of the screen to the top while avoiding asteroids. Reaching the top acted as a "lap" and the ship would start again at the bottom. To be honest, it wasn't a very good. The most you could charitably say was that it took a baby step forward in game design.

But holy crap! Just look at that cabinet. The picture above doesn't do it justice. It was like a large chunk of Kryptonite hurtled through the atmosphere and embedded itself in the floor of your arcade. The cabinet for Space Race was arguably the most unusual ever made. Unfortunately it was also expensive and time consuming to make. In fact, from then on, most video arcade games would come in the standard (and cheaper) rectangular container.
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3. Video Game: Gun Fight [Average Rating:4.00 Unranked]
Video Game: Gun Fight
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-1975-

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Designed by Tomohiro Nishikado (who would go on to create Space Invaders), Gun Fight had players controlling cowboys in a Hollywood style shootout on a dusty western road. A joystick was used for movement while the firing mechanism was shaped like an actual six-shooter handle complete with a trigger. There were barrel cactus you could use as cover but, if shot, a large chunk would be removed allowing future bullets to fly through. There was also a wagon that would roll down the middle of the road allowing you to move closer to your opponent, sort of like charging the net in tennis. All-in-all it was a pretty fun game and my friends and I would always throw a quarter or two in it at the arcade however ... there wasn't much special about it.

So why is it on the list? It's because Gun Fight was the very first video game in which humans controlled human shaped avatars directly trying to kill each other. Complaints of violence in video games have been around for almost as long as video games have been commercially available. This eventually resulted in a self-imposed rating system to warn users of how much violence to expect. And all that blood, all the flying guts, all those severed heads and ripped out spinal cords, all those angry parents and news anchors shaking their heads at how low humanity can fall, ALL OF IT can trace its roots back to this rather innocent game.
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4. Video Game: Death Race [Average Rating:6.00 Unranked]
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-1976-

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I had actually forgotten about this game until I started researching this list. Death Race is here because it's in the same boat as Gun Fight. But while no authority seemed to care about Gun Fight, Death Race became exhibit 'A' in news broadcasts (including 60 Minutes) describing the growing trend in video game violence (and its psychological impact). Inspired by the Sci Fi flick, Death Race had players racing cars around the screen trying to run over and kill (human shaped) gremlins (or zombies). They would die with a scream and then be replaced by a tombstone. These grave markers were impassible and thus the difficulty would increase as the screen filled up with them. Fun right?

So why did Gun Fight get a pass while Death Race ended up being literally declared "gross" by The National Safety Council? My guess is because parents in those days grew up watching cowboys shoot each other: in the movies, on television, playing Cowboys and Indians with friends. It was just an acceptable form of entertainment that they didn't think twice about. Now imagine these parents watching their young son hunched over a video game and sporting a maniacal grin while committing what appeared to be vehicular murder. And don't tell them that those human shaped creatures were bad guys who needed killin'. I suppose the cabinet, sporting a horror-film/hot-rod motif, didn't help either. Young males might have loved it but some dad who spent his youth getting shot at in Korea and now found himself in an arcade surrounded by longhair "hippies" while his kid killed things with a car was probably wondering what in the hell had happened to the world.
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5. Video Game: Night Driver [Average Rating:4.58 Overall Rank:7631]
Video Game: Night Driver
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-1976-

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Night Driver's claim to fame is that it was one of the earliest first-person racing video games and, perhaps, the first published game to display real-time first-person graphics. (It's odd that no one really knows.) Admittedly it wasn't much to look at; two rows of dots scrolled down a black screen. What the hell is it? The problem, of course, was memory. Considering the computing power in those days it's a wonder the designer managed to accomplish what he did. Even the front end of the car, to save space, was simply a plastic insert at bottom center of the screen. Then came one of the greatest marketing ideas in arcade history. By calling it Night Driver the dots became reflectors on the sides of the road, and the screen was black because you were driving at, well ... night. Brilliant.

What really made Night Driver unusual, however, was that it was one of the first games (possibly THE first) to come in a cockpit version. By today's standards it wasn't much, just an attached fiberglass seat, but in those days gamers were used to bringing their imaginations to the arcade. Being able to sit down and have the gearshift in a more accurate location made for one helluva experience. Cockpit versions of arcade games (that offered a more and more immersive experiance as the Golden Aghe progressed) really deserve an entire Geeklist of their own. For now, I'll just point out that if you go to an arcade today the few remaining video games inside will typically be of the gimmicky cockpit type. With their flashing lights and hydraulic shifting they offer an experience that home platforms just can't duplicate.
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6. Video Game: Fonz [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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-1976-

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Fonz was a black-and-white motorcycle race game with a pasted on theme (more on that in a little). You used real motorcycle handlebars to both steer and accelerate your bike on a forward-scrolling road. Play-wise, it wasn't much different than similar type games of the era however it did contain some notable design features. For example, it was the first game where objects grew larger as they approached the player's (third-person) point of view thus advancing the industry's never ending quest for realistic design. It was also the first game to use haptic feedback which made the handlebars vibrate when you crashed. This William Castle-esque gimmick would be used for many other games including (eventually) controllers for home platforms. Finally, Fonz used an 8-track tape player for its sound effects rather than relying on the primitive audio chips of the day (although this was merely a temporary solution to the tech limitations of its era as opposed to an advancement forward).

What made the game unusual, however, was that it was one of the first video games to have a movie/TV tie-in (perhaps THE first for television). These days, of course, it would be weird for any Hollywood release with any geek potential to not have a game based on it but, back then, video games were typically original worlds unto themselves. Then again, Fonz wasn't really original. It was the North American version of the game Moto-Cross (Man T.T. in Japan) which was itself a motorbike variant of the car game Road Race. But, at the time, Sega in America was owned by the same people who owned Paramount Studios who, in turn, produced the big hit show Happy Days on which Fonzie was the breakout character. So, in a sort of circle of capitalistic logic, the game (with a little tweaking and a new cabinet) would be used to promote the show while the show's popularity would entice fans to play the game.

In the (admittedly rare) discussions of Fonz these days, the joke is that it's good that the game came out early in the TV show's run or they'd of had Fonzie jumping the shark. (Happy Days is the show were that expression originated.) I actually disagree. Had it been released five or six years later it might have been an interesting mix of mini-games à la Tron: Fonzie races his bike, Fonzie jumps barrels at Arnold's Drive-in, Fonzie drives in a demolition derby, Fonzie dons water skies and (of course) jumps the shark. Exactly what the controller for such a game would look like is anyone's guess but, would it have been cool? AYYYYY!

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7. Video Game: Breakout (1976) [Average Rating:5.79 Overall Rank:5316]
Video Game: Breakout (1976)
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-1976-

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If you have paddles on each side of the screen batting a blip back-and-forth you're playing Pong (Ping Pong or Tennis for lst gen home platforms). Replace one side of the screen with a wall so that the blip bounces off it and your playing (what was then called) Handball. Rotate the screen 90 degrees so that the wall is on top, add more walls and divide them into sections so that when the blip hits one a chunk of the wall vanishes. Now you're playing Breakout.

As you can see, Breakout is a natural evolution in game design. I list it here merely as an example of an unusual problem that old school designers had. If you knew nothing of video games and were to play this without any visual clues what would you be doing? Playing some weird abstract. Meh. But call it Breakout, and add a cartoon convict on the cabinet smashing bricks with a sledgehammer and what have you got? COOL! A JAILBREAK GAME! It's worth observing that in the early arcade days the art on the cabinets was very explanatory as to what the game was about. Later, as graphics improved and you could just look at the screen to see what was going on, cabinet art became more abstract, like old carnival marquis designed to attract the eye and make you wonder what was inside the tent.
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8. Video Game: Atari Football [Average Rating:6.50 Unranked]
Video Game: Atari Football
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-1978-

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Atari Football, based on American football, was a pretty popular game for its time. A good simulation, it cleverly used Xs and Os to represent the players on the field which not only made the animation easy but actually enhanced the ambiance. Its first unusual characteristic was the use of a trackball and, although it wasn't the first game to utilize one (that honor goes to Soccer by Taito), it was the first time most players ever saw one. The trackball would go on to greater glory in games like Missile Command and Centipede but that brings us to the real reason Atari Football was unusual: it was exhausting.

Whereas later games used the trackball for precision aiming and moving, in Atari Football it was all about spinning and spinning and spinning that damn ball as fast and for as long as you could. A quarter only put 90 seconds on the game clock but even this short duration would often leave players worn out and gasping for air. Longer play times would result in sore palms and even blisters. Today, of course, video games are often incorporated into exercise machines to entertain the user. Back in the day, however, Atari Football caught the out of shape players off guard (which is why it's best to run off tackle).
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9. Video Game: Lunar Lander [Average Rating:5.80 Overall Rank:6139]
Video Game: Lunar Lander
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-1979-

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Lunar Lander gave players a chance to pilot an Apollo Command Module as it descended to the surface of the moon. Two buttons controlled the ship's rotation while a large grab handle worked the main thruster and enhanced the theme. The game had actually been around for years in various formats beginning as a text program where players would use telemetry data to land the craft. The arcade version was a way for Atari to showcase its new vector graphics generator which the company would use again later that year in its ultimate arcade game: Asteroids. Since Asteroids was such a huge hit, all production of Lunar Lander machines stopped and the game's cabinets were cannibalized for the new top pig in the sty. Over 300 Asteroid games were shipped still wearing Lunar Lander decals on their sides.

A comparison of these two titles is a good example of what made Lunar Lander unusual. Like most arcade games of the time, Asteroids, with its exploding rocks and UFOs whizzing by, leaned toward fantasy and whimsy. Lunar Lander, by contrast, leaned hard on realism. How real was it? Even today, if you were to go to a science museum, odds are you'd see a Lunar Lander game inside, not as an amusement near the snack counter but as an actual exhibit, a fun and interactive way to demonstrate (at least the basic) challenges and difficulties of REAL space travel.
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10. Video Game: Crazy Climber [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked]
Video Game: Crazy Climber
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-1980-

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In Crazy Climber players controlled a human fly stuntman who scales high rise buildings. In real life climbing a skyscraper would be intense enough but, being a video game, the poor fellow has many other problems to deal with. There's windows that close on his fingers, falling flowerpots, pooping birds, live wires and, of course, a 30 foot tall gorilla out for his afternoon rampage. It ain't easy being a video game hero.

What made the game unusual was that the controls were merely two joysticks: no buttons involved. That's not to say that dual-joystick games were a complete rarity. Most tank games had two joysticks and so did games like Robotron and Karate Champ, but none of these used them quite like Crazy Climber. The left joystick controlled the left hand and the right joystick controlled the right hand. That's it, and it was surprising how much variety of movement it allowed, anything from climbing upward at a full sprint to inching sideways along a ledge. As you might imagine, the game was difficult to port to home platforms and still keep the feel of the original. The NES had a special controller to play it but you'd need some awful rich parents to splurge on a one-game piece of hardware.

Crazy climber is also notable for being the first video game where the theme involves climbing, beating out Donkey Kong by a year.
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11. Video Game: Berzerk [Average Rating:6.12 Overall Rank:3207]
Video Game: Berzerk
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-1980-

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Berzerk was one of those games that you never had to wait in line for but everyone would play it after getting their fixes on whatever machine brought them to the arcade in the first place. You controlled a guy running through a maze and fighting robots. This minimalist approach allowed you to mentally overlay whatever Sci Fi you theme wanted. Maybe you were Luke Skywalker running through the Death Star, or you were fighting Cylons from Battlestar Galctica or blasting killer robots from the Disney flop film The Black Hole. Fun stuff.

One unusual aspect of the game was that, unlike most other releases where you would fight and kill bosses at the end of a level, the boss of the Berzerk labyrinth was indestructible. His name was Evil Otto and it was his job to keep up the pace of the game by "encouraging" players who were loitering too long on a given screen to keep moving. Otto's looks were laughable. He was just a circle with a happy face inside it, a video game non-sequitur if there ever was one. Yet, when he showed up on the screen, with a synth voice loudly intoning that now famous line "Intuder Alert! Intruder Alert!", it certainly got your heart racing.

But perhaps it got the heart racing a little too much. What really makes Berzerk unusual is that it's responsible for the first known video game related death. In 1981, Jeff Dailey played the game, scored a personal best high score, entered his initials and then dropped dead of a heart attack. He was 19 years old. An autopsy revealed scar tissue on his heart so he was (unknowingly) a ticking time bomb, but the report concluded cardiac arrest due to increased heart rate and blood pressure from playing a video game. Less than a year later another gamer, Peter Burkowski, would also drop dead from a heart attack immediately after playing Berzerk (again after completing a record high score and entering his initials). Sad and weird but, on the bright side, they both became video game legends.
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12. Video Game: Battlezone (1980) [Average Rating:5.65 Overall Rank:6453]
Video Game: Battlezone (1980)
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-1980-

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Battlezone was the flip-side of the Lunar Lander coin. Whereas Lunar Lander was a (sort of) simulator that became a video game, Battlezone was a video game that became a simulator (kind of). It was a tank game whose cabinet added to the ambiance by having the player view the action through a periscope viewfinder. The look was minimal. Utilizing Atari's wireframe vector graphics, players found themselves on a flat plane with a mountainous horizon (complete with erupting volcano). Transparent geometrical shapes, such as cubes and pyramids, acted both as obstacles to movement and as cover when taking incoming fire. Despite the bare-bones appearance, it got the job done and was a surprising realistic experience.

How realistic? What puts Battlezone on this list is that the US Army asked Atari to make a military version (featuring helicopters, missiles, and machine guns) of the game to train solders on its Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Most Atari designers, being pacifist hippie types, refused to work on the project since they didn't become game designers to help out the military. Only two Army Battlezones were produced. One disappeared into the military machine and is presumed lost. The other was found in a dumpster behind Midway games: quite a collectors item.

It's a bit of a stretch but, with its first person view and quasi 3d graphics and periscope viewfinder you must look into, Battlezone is sometimes called the first virtual reality arcade game.
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13. Video Game: Tempest (1981) [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:1722]
Video Game: Tempest (1981)
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-1981-

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Tempest was originally going to be a 3D version of Space Invaders but, as often happens, the designers' reach exceeded their grasp. The tech simply wasn't there yet. With a team already assembled they decided to make a new game inspired by lead designer Dave Theurer's dream of monsters crawling out of a hole. Although it ended up with a Sci Fi theme, that vision was still retained.

The game used a vanishing point perspective with the player on one edge of a geometrical shape (many of them tubular) shooting at aliens coming up to get the player. The controls were a fire button, a super zapper button (destroy all enemies once per level) and a dial to move your blaster. The dial was weighted so that if you spun it and let go it would keep on spinning awhile (Tron and Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator also used this device). It was simple enough to port the game to home platforms but, without the weighted dial, many players thought that it just didn't "feel" right and preferred the original arcade version.

Tempest ends up in the land of the unusual because it was the first game to let players choose their starting level. Up until this time, many games (like Night Driver above) would let you select a difficulty level but you would still start at zero points. By letting you select the starting level the game essentially had a crude save feature. Also, the higher the level you selected, the higher the bonus points you received, and those bonus points were quite tempting. During the Golden Age (long before internet play), getting high-score on a machine at a busy arcade was equivalent to mastering the game, and there was no way you could get high-score on Tempest by starting at level one. Arcade owners also like the idea. A skilled player could make a quarter last for a looong time. By tempting experts to start at higher levels the coins kept on flowing. So players accepted the idea. Why not? It was ultimately their choice to make.

While Tempest isn't considered a pivotal milestone in video game history, it was a good game that broke some new ground and it deserved the accolades it received.
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14. Video Game: QIX [Average Rating:6.56 Overall Rank:2521]
Video Game: QIX
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-1981-

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Qix (pronounced "kicks" although no one I knew called it that) was an odd duck of a game. It was unusual for being the only purely abstract release to make a splash at the arcade. Qix would explain the "hows" but had nothing to say about the "whys". Technically, it was classified as an area control game, but even that broad definition couldn't quite pin it down.

Using a joystick and two buttons a player would indeed try to claim territory by maneuvering a cursor on the screen. One button would draw lines quickly for normal points while the other would draw slowly for double score. The Qix itsef was a cluster of psychedelic lines that moved randomly across the screen. You were safe from it on the edges but if it caught you drawing a line you lost a life. Nor were the edges completely safe since moving along them were sparx that would also kill you on contact. In addition, Sparx could travel along your lines if you paused mid-draw, crackling like a fuse on a cartoonish cannonball bomb. Like Evil Otto from Berzerk, you could not defeat any of these ... what? Things? Creatures? Bad guys? You could only outmaneuver them.

Qix was not a big hit (although most medium to large size arcades had a machine). It just didn't appeal to players looking to simply blast things or beat their buddies on some sports simulator. Rather it was enjoyed by more bookish gamers. You know, the type that today would enjoy reading and writing long posts on a video game website. These players found Qix to be an unusual change of pace from the typical arcade fare.
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15. Video Game: Zaxxon [Average Rating:5.91 Overall Rank:4755]
Video Game: Zaxxon
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-1982-

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I discussed Zaxxon in the sister to this geeklist. Yes the game's axonometric projection was unusual (and pretty damn cool) for its time, but the reason it also appears on this list is because Zaxxon was the first arcade game with its own TV commercial. Yes, if your company sold a video game platform for the home it made sense to advertise hot games that people could play on your system. But what about a game that asked you to get off your couch, drive to the arcade and play it? That was unusual. I've posted the commercial below. Note that it oddly doesn't use the actual game's graphics.
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16. Video Game: Tutankham [Average Rating:5.60 Overall Rank:6706]
Video Game: Tutankham
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-1982-

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Tutankham was obviously inspired by the King Tut mania of the 70s and early 80s as Tutankhamen's treasure famously toured the world's museums. (No doubt the first Indiana Jones film, released a year earlier, also had an impact.) It was a pretty game, with bright colors and crisp graphics. And although it wasn't a classic, it did have a devoted following. Why? Well, its first unusual quality might answer the question.

Tutankham was a dungeon crawler, a rare genre for coin-op games. In fact, it and Gauntlet (1985) were the only ones I can think of that made any sort of splash in the Golden Age. It wasn't until 3rd generation home platforms--which finally had the tech and the time frames--that dungeon crawlers became commonplace. Then again, by this time, people with Apple IIs were already mapping out the extensive dungeons of Wizardry and (later) Bard's Tale. (Lucky bastards.) For Tutankham you became an explorer searching through King Tut's tomb for treasure. Unlike the real tomb, the video game counterpart was filled with nasty creatures (asps, vultures, bats, dragons, but oddly no mummy) trying to kill you. What's not to like?

Fortunately, your tomb raider had a gun, but this led to the game's real unusual quality: you could only fire sideways. At the time, players were used to firing in any direction they wanted unless it was some one directional game like Space Invaders or Galaga. For Tutankham, it was easy to fight it out in passages that went left/right. In passages that went up/down (or very large rooms), however, you were defenseless and so careful timing and set up became important. True, you were also equipped with a flash grenade that killed all on-screen enemies, but you only got one per level and therefore couldn't just splurge on the first tight spot you came across. Frustrating and cool, it was these limitations that got the game a rep as one of the harder machines in the arcade.

In a famous rumor, the game was originally named Tutankhamen. During the design process it was decided to reorient the screen from left/right to up/down. Doing this, however, meant that the name would no longer entirely fit onto the title screen. Rather than redesign the screen to use a smaller font size, they simply decided to chop off the last two letters thus: Tutankham.
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17. Video Game: Reactor [Average Rating:6.50 Unranked]
Video Game: Reactor
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-1982-

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Reactor had the unusual theme of trying to cool off a nuclear reactor core before it reached meltdown status. Using a trackball to maneuver a cursor, players would try to deflect and decoy nuclear particles into overheated control rods. Destroy all the rods and the expanding core would shrink down to normal size (thus ending a wave). It seemed straight forward but (Surprise!) there were some difficulties. Touching any wall would kill you, and the reactor was filled with various gravitational and magnetic forces that were constantly pushing and pulling you in different directions. So it took a few quarters just to get the hang of safely maneuvering before you could even play the game proper. It was weird yet Reactor attracted a small but dedicated cult following.

What really separated Reactor from the usual games, however, was its soundtrack. By this time there was enough memory available for designers to add the luxury of good music and Reactor featured a face-melting guitar riff that would (as I'm sure was the intent) turn heads in the arcade whenever it started blasting out of the speakers. It was the only arcade game that I would actually stand next to (while in attract mode) just to hear the music play. Even today I'll sometimes catch myself humming along.
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18. Video Game: Q*bert (1982) [Average Rating:5.70 Overall Rank:5667] [Average Rating:5.70 Unranked]
Video Game: Q*bert (1982)
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-1982-

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Q*bert rates unusual status due to its utterly bizarre theme and appearance. It was as if M.C. Escher had designed a maze chase game while on an acid trip. Actually, the game really was inspired by Escher drawings. The "maze" was a 2D pyramid of cubes with perspective and shading forcing the human mind to accept it as a 3D object. The object of the game was to change the color of each cube by maneuvering Q*bert (who looked like a sport's team mascot) around the pyramid and landing on every top. Due to the odd playing surface, he could only move diagonally, and confused, beginning players would often have Q*bert leaping to his death off the side of the structure. Rounding out the game's characters was an assortment of snakes, blobs and gremlins.

If you're doubtful of Q*bert's inclusion on this list, consider that when it debuted at the 1982 Amusement Expo it was described as "the most unusual and exciting game of the show". Despite (or perhaps because of) its weirdness, Q*bert was a big hit, even achieving a sort of "hipster" status among arcade aficionados. But perhaps the designers only scratched the surface of the game's bizarre potential. One of Q*bert's early working titles was Snots And Boogers. Now what would THAT version have looked like? Holy @!#?@!

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19. Video Game: Joust [Average Rating:6.19 Overall Rank:2484]
Video Game: Joust
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-1982-

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Joust allowed players to take on the role of a good knight-errant holding his lance aloft while battling evil knights. (A plague on those foul varlets!) Off hand it sounded like a standard sword-and sorcery game or perhaps a historical reenactment. It wasn't. You see the good knight's mount was a flying ostrich (player 2 had a stork) and the evil knights all rode vultures. The fighting took place inside a large underground cavern above a lake of lava where occasionally a pissed off pterodactyl would show up. Joust wasn't history, and it went (flew?) well beyond standard warriors-and-witchcraft games into a land of crazy fantasy.

Williams had the designers use the hardware from its earlier big hit, Defender, and you can see a definite family resemblance between the two. Obviously there were some differences besides the themes. Joust, for example, took place on a single wraparound screen and the joystick was only used for left-right movement. The most unusual innovation that it brought (and the reason its on this list), however, was the flap button. The knight rode a bird so to change altitude you had to flap the animal's wings. Tap the button quickly and you went up; tap it slowly (or not at all) and down you flew. Nice. Many designers were inspired by the idea, most notably over at Nintendo by the people working on the Mario Bros franchise.

Unlike most games on this list, Joust was a bonafide arcade classic. So I got quite a shock the next year (1983) when one of my favorite arcades added a double-play room for older games and saw Joust among the offerings. Having grown up with the development of arcade video games I just assumed that the onward-and-upward trajectory was normal. No sir. The sad Joust machine I was looking at was saying that I was living in a Golden Age ... and its days were growing short.
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20. Video Game: Mr. Do! [Average Rating:6.51 Overall Rank:3160]
Video Game: Mr. Do!
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-1982-

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I must confess to my complete ignorance about Mr. Do! No one in my circle of (admittedly arrogant, judgemental teenage) video game friends would be caught dead playing the game. We dismissed it as a Dig Dug ripoff for little kids to toy with--yuck. Looking back over the years, did our teenage condescension cause us to miss out on some fun? Probably. I've seen some favorable posts for Mr. Do! here at VGG (maybe they were the little kids we were snickering at back then), and the game did have an unusual feature. If you grabbed an uncovered diamond you received a play credit. Winning a free game on a pinball machine was a common prize, but on a video game the best you could usually hope for was an extra life or added bonus time.

But the real reason I include Mr. Do! here is because it represents an unusual solution to a common problem machine owners had. Coin-op games were expensive. If you ran a mom-and-pop, say, pizza parlor that bought a machine, and the game sucked, you were on the hook for a lot of money. Even if the game was a hit your customers/players would eventually tire of it and you'd have to roll the dice on a new machine. One solution to the problem was the conversion kit. You'd by a game in a standardized universal cabinet. When the quarters stopped flowing you'd slap in a new disc, slap on a new nameplate and (possibly) slap down a new control panel. Voilà! A new game for a fraction of the cost. Did it work? Not really. Mr. Do! wasn't the first, but it was the only notable conversion game I can think of. Most of them really were crappy ripoffs. In hindsight, instead of the future of arcade gaming, conversion games were an indicator of an industry starting to nosedive.
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21. Video Game: Track & Field [Average Rating:6.06 Overall Rank:4764]
Video Game: Track & Field
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-1983-

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Track & Field was inspired by the Olympics or, more likely, looked to cash in on the just-around-the-corner games in 1984. It allowed players to compete in various decathlon events and thus was a series of mini games. Like Crazy Climber, Track & Field had an unusual control system consisting of two buttons. Alternately tapping on them (left-right-left-right) increased your speed. The faster you tapped the faster you went while losing tempo or double-tapping the same button slowed you down. Pushing a third button let you perform an action such as jumping a hurdle or releasing a javelin.

As you might guess from the description things could get pretty hectic. Players in close races would often begin pounding on the machine like a Whac-A-Mole game. Breakdowns became common. Furthermore, you could physically cheat the game--no hack required. You simply laid your index finger between the buttons, placed a pencil on top with your middle finger holding an end down on one of the buttons and rapidly tapped the other (up) end. Not only did this teeter-totter rig almost double your speed, it also guaranteed no double-tapping. Cool! Heh, I actually saw a couple guys get booted from the arcade when caught doing it (one of whom was my friend who had driven us there so it turned into a rather disappointing evening).

To solve these problems, the designers came up with an unusual solution. New buttons were instilled on the machines that were protected by a hard plastic lip. So the only way you could actually press one was with your fingertip from directly above. Clever, right? Alas, the cure turned out to be worse than the disease. Excited players would still begin pounding the machines only now they were bruising their hands and/or jamming their fingers. Ouch! Pencil cheats simply shrugged and moved on to greener pastures. Play on Track & Field games with the new buttons plummeted to practically zero. And you thought owning your own arcade would have been fun.

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22. Video Game: Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator [Average Rating:5.80 Overall Rank:6579]
Video Game: Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator
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-1983-

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Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator (a mouthful of a title) was the first official Star Trek video game. (There was a primitive text based ST game played on mainframes in the early 70s.) It was inspired by the Kobayashi Maru test seen in the second film although it does pay homage to the original series with the appearance of the Nomad probe. (Why not
V'Ger?) Basically you trekked from sector to sector fighting Klingon Battle Cruisers who were attacking Federation space stations. It was a pretty good game for its time and rather difficult to master.

What made ST:SOS unusual was how it used the display screen. While other games (such as Defender) did show multiple views of the action, Star Trek upped the ante into information overload. The entire upper left corner of the screen gave data about the ship's status; the upper right showed an "overhead" view of the sector; the bottom half acted as Enterprise's main view screen. (Talk about multi-tasking.) Besides the upright, the game also came in an unusual cockpit version that really added another dimension to the experience. The seat was modeled after the Captain's chair from from the first movie and the game controls were located on the arm rests. Very cool.

Although Star Trek was not a classic of the golden age (the Star Wars game released the next year would blow it away but what else is new?), it was a notable game that any serious Trekker should seek out and play.
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23. Video Game: Punch-Out!! (1984) [Average Rating:6.33 Overall Rank:5852]
Video Game: Punch-Out!! (1984)
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-1984-

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But what if one screen just wasn't big enough to provide all the necessary information to the players? The boxing game, Punch-Out!!, was one of the last arcade games that would actually draw a crowd of onlookers. While the graphics may have leaned towards the cartoonish, you really did feel like you were fighting a sanctioned bout. Players took on the role of an up-and-coming boxer (depicted in wire-frame to better see the opponent) working his way through the ranks. Despite the theme, Punch-Out!! had much in common with a mystery game since each rival boxer had a weakness that, once figured out, could be exploited.

What made the arcade version of the game unusual was the inclusion of a second viewing screen. The designers didn't want to crowd the action screen with too much data and decided that a second monitor would be a fun and simple solution. It was a good (albeit expensive) decision since players needed to play close attention to an opponent's body language and facial tics as they looked for signs of weakness. Had everything been crushed into one screen (ala Star Trek), it would have been almost impossible to be graphically subtle with the clues.

Another unusual thing about the game was that in North America, it would actually become a bigger hit as an NES home port called "Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!". In this version, the hero boxer became known as Little Mac. This rather clever idea allowed designers to eliminate the distracting (and design complicating) wire-frame image by allowing players to see the opponents by simply looking over their (now) short boxer's head. With the luxury of time that home play allowed, the game had more of a campaign feel as Mac, led by his trainer "Doc" Louis, worked his way through the various boxing circuits--complete with cut scenes and even Mario the plumber doing a cameo as the fight referee. Eventually Mac would face "Iron" Mike Tyson himself in a bout for the Heavyweight Championship. Tyson would knock you out cold with a single uppercut. It was actually a pretty intense gaming experience ... in a cartoonish sort of way.

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[I should note that Punch-Out!! was certainly not the first game to contain more than one viewing screen. The racing game TX-1, for example, used three screens to semi-surround the player in a sort of wide-screen experience (and cost two quarters to play). Also, the arcade version of VS. Tennis had two screens on either side of a triangular topped cabinet allowing two players to play two separate games at once or to play against each other with each player's POV depicting the action from their side of the net. Still, none of these games used an extra screen to simply provide additional data to the player(s).]

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24. Video Game: Marble Madness [Average Rating:6.30 Overall Rank:1950]
Video Game: Marble Madness
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-1984-

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Marble Madness is another game that makes the list based on its unusual theme and game play. Like Q*bert, it took its visual inspiration from M. C. Escher drawings. (I'm starting to think that had Escher been born 50 years later he would have died a very wealthy video game designer.) Using a trackball controller, you guided a marble down a race course, filled with crazy banks and elevation changes, to a finish area. (The visuals may have been Escher, but the original idea came from miniature golf.) It seemed simple enough but, like Reactor, it took several quarters to get the hang of controlling the marble with all the gravitational forces being applied to it. It was fun once you got the hang of it, and it was beautiful. The sleek graphics and music were pleasing to eyes and ears giving you a sense of being in the future. It was a sort of euphoric crack cocaine experience for video game junkies.

It looked like Atari had a big hit on its hands but, sadly, the story has an unhappy ending. No matter where Marble Madness machines were installed, after a mere six or seven weeks of brisk quarter munching, playtime would drop off dramatically. It was quickly realized that with only six tracks to run their marbles down, once players completed them, enthusiasm waned and they moved on. Designer Mark Cerny anticipated the problem and wanted to add more but was overruled by the company suits. By this time Atari was in dire financial trouble and there was no time or money for design delays. Like most trackball games, home ports were a mixed bag; a few were really good, but most ranged from mediocre to terrible. So, with some bitter irony, a game that might have helped turn the company's fortunes around after the bad management decisions of 1982 would instead help to hasten the company's demise in 1985.
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25. Platform: Arcade
Platform: Arcade
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Do you play video games? Probably not. By strict definition a video game is only played on a cathode ray tube. You know, an old school TV picture tube. But times change. Definitions change. A cathode ray tube TV--once a jaw dropping high tech marvel--is now something you can't even give away to charity. Charity doesn't want it.

Nothing, of course, lasts forever including golden ages. Usually you don't even recognize them while they're happening. You just assume that everything is normal and will continue as it is. It's not until they're over with that you can appreciate what happened, just in time to mourn the loss. The Golden Age of the video arcade only lasted five or six years. Some gaming historians consider the 1990s to be the Golden Age of home platforms. Today, I suppose, is the Golden Age of internet gaming. What will the next Golden Age be? Virtual reality? Star Trek holodeck type games? Computer chips implanted in the brain? Whatever it is, it will begin as a jaw dropping high tech marvel.
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