Video Game Years Part 1: The Arcade and Atari Days


Along with movies, comic books, cartoons, and TV shows, video games were a big element in my life while I was growing up.  From the days in the arcade up until playing Nintendo at home, video games gave me tons of fun and hours of entertainment throughout my childhood to my teen years.  This will be a two-part article where I will discuss the years in my life with video games.  The first part will be arcade games and Atari and the second part will be Nintendo and beyond. 


First some history on video games, which date back to the late 1940’s when a type of video game was made for the missile defense system for target practice.  Years later in the 60’s, computer techs were making their version of a video game called Spacewar!, which is considered the very first computer game.  Programmers throughout the 60’s and into the 70’s continued to make other computer games which would eventually lead to video games entering the public eye.  In September 1971 the very first coin-operated video game was installed in the student union of Stanford University.  The game was called Galaxy Game and is the very first arcade video game.  Others followed like Computer Space (an arcade version of Spacewar!) and Pong made by Atari.  Pong was the first hugely successful video game and it was all over the place in arcades throughout the country. 


The Atari 2600, a pioneer in home video games.

By 1972, console systems were being made so people would be able to play video games at home.  The first was a system by Magnavox called Magnavox Odyssey.  Atari followed suit five years later with Atari VCS, which later was renamed Atari 2600.  By the late 70’s arcade games were heating up with the debut of Space Invaders in 1978.  Other games became successful like Galaxian and Asteroids at the arcade and this era became known as the golden age of video arcade games.  Other consoles popped up as well like Intellivision, ColecoVision and Activision, but Atari remained the top console at that time.  Magnavox Odyssey ended up hurting in sales and basically faded away.


Now back in the early 80’s is when I discovered video games.  I can’t really remember the moment when I first walked into an arcade and played a video game, but it was sometime in 1981.  I believe the very first big arcade our area got was in Chuck E. Cheese.  Chuck E. Cheese was all the craze for kids back in the early 80’s and our mall opened one up around that time.  Of course there was a lot to like about the place – the pizza, characters, kids games, but the thing I remember the most and was most fond of was the arcade.  This was the first arcade I hung out in and played video games for a few hours.  I remember exchanging my dollar bills into Chuck E. Cheese tokens.  Once I had enough of those I hit the arcade.


The original Pac Man arcade game.

Probably the game I played the most at first was Pac-Man.  Once it was released in 1980, Pac-Man was the most popular video game ever.  It even spawned two spin-off games, Ms. Pac-Man, which was very successful as well and the not so successful one, Jr. Pac-Man.  I can remember people waiting in line to play this game or people would just gather around and watch someone play to see how high a level they could get.  I think eventually Chuck E. Cheese got another Pac-Man machine since it was so popular.  I believe they did that for all the big successful games that people waited in long lines to play.


The video games that I played in the arcade were the ones with cartoonish characters in them.  I never really was into space or racing arcade games.  The only space ones I remember playing were Star Wars The Arcade Game and Moon Patrol.  Other big favorites of mine were Donkey Kong, Frogger, Q*Bert, Centipede, Dig Dug, Burger Time and many other popular games.  I remember when the film Tron came out and the arcade game was released.  It was very popular, but I don’t remember playing the game.  I might have played it only once just to try it out.


Another arcade game that was out that was kind of unique for the time was Dragon’s Lair, a video game that was basically a cartoon image instead of a digital computer image.  The game was nothing like anything in the arcade and was all the talk at the time.  It was actually on a laserdisc format and ex-Disney animator Don Bluth created the animation for the game.  For a game that was very popular, I don’t really remember playing it that much or at all.  I think I might have played it only once and from what I can remember it was difficult to play, so maybe that’s why I never played it again.


More arcades started to pop up all over town.  Besides Chuck E. Cheese, our mall had two other arcades and I believe there were a few video games by the movie theaters there.  Pizza places would often have one or two video games at their establishments.  Theme parks in Upstate New York would put in arcades and The Sylvan Beach Amusement Park had three great arcades.  Now they had them for years with pinball machines and skeet ball, but now video games were all the rage andSylvanBeachhad the best.  Even today the park has the arcades with classic video games from the 80’s.  There are a few newer ones, but mostly the ones from the golden age of video games are there.

 After years of playing video games in the arcade, I needed to bring the experience home.  In 1983, most of my friends had an Atari 2600.  A few had other systems at the time like ColecoVision or Activison, but most had Atari.  For Christmas of ’83 I got an Atari 2600 and it was one of the best presents ever.  Finally I would get to play video games at home and wouldn’t have to beg my mom for quarters to play video games.  The system came with two joysticks and two video game cartridges, Pac-Man and CombatPac-Man was the one I played the most and was the one I wanted the most.  I would play Combat too, which had a selection of different combat missions, but it was very basic.  Pac-Man I would play for hours and try to get to the highest level.  This was back when video games would go on and on and be the same thing and would just get harder each level you would go up.  This is before games had a story and you went through that story to get to the end of the adventure.


I have to say, even though I thought the Atari was the greatest thing in the world, I was a little disappointed with the graphics.  Mainly because they did not look like the ones in the arcade and they were not colorful and bright like those ones were.  For example, Pac-Man on Atari didn’t look like anything like the video game in the arcade.  The concept and layout were the same, but the look and sound were different.  This was because the bit rate was different from the games in the arcade and the ones on Atari.  Regardless of the look being different, the system was tons of fun and I got hours of entertainment.  Who cares if it didn’t look the same way as the arcade video games, I could play these games anytime now from home.


From 1983 to 1987, I bought a ton of games for Atari and most were good but some were not so good.  Besides Pac-Man, ones that stuck out for me were Asteroids, Breakout, Defender, Dig-Dug, Haunted House, Jungle Hunt, Missile Command, Phoenix, and course E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Atari made all these games and some of my favorites from that bunch were Haunted House, Jungle Hunt, Phoenix, E.T., and RaidersE.T. and Raiders were popular games to get because they were based on the popular films, but the games were very hard to play compared to the other games. They were also very different in that these two games had an adventure story you had to go through and there was an end to the game, where others just went on and on.  Haunted House was a very cool game that had you wandering through the house fighting off bats, spiders, and ghosts and you had to get items to make it through the house.  I remember playing Jungle Hunt for hours and in the game you had to swing from a vine, go through crocodile-infested waters, and battle cannibals to rescue the girl.  Phoenix I remember buying sometime in ’86 and it was a typical shoot ’em up game where you had to battle alien birds.  The game was also very popular in the arcade in the early 80’s.


An early advertisement for the Atari 2600 game system.

There were a number of other games I had as well, which were not made by Atari, but were made for that system and other systems of that time.  Ones that stick out the most were Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior from Nintendo, Frogger, G.I. Joe: Cobra Strikes, Q*bert, Spider-Man, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Tutankham from Parker Brothers, and Kaboom! and Laser Blast from Activision.  All of these games were favorites of mine and I played them for hours.  Being a huge fan of Star Wars I had to get a Star Wars video games.  Empire Strikes Back was just the Hoth battle with the AT-ATs while you were in a snowspeeder trying to shoot them down.  Spider-Man was another cool game where you had to climb a building to fight with the Green Goblin and had to dodge bombs while climbing.  In the G.I. Joe game you had to dodge a giant cobra while it shot lasers at you.  Tutankham had to be one of my favorite Atari games.  I got this in the later years of my Atari days, I believe in ’86.  This game is about an explorer who is robbing tombs and battling off different creatures while going through a maze and trying to find keys to open up doors to get to the tombs.  This game, although it was like traditional video games at the time with no story or end, was kind of like the early games of Nintendo like Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda where you were walking through some type of maze or setting that would get you somewhere else instead of just going around in circles or just staying in the same layout. 


I do have to mention that around this time a company called Wizard Video and along with VSS, inc. released Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre video games for the Atari 2600.  I didn’t know about these games at the time but discovered them many years later.  The horror magazine Horrorhound did an article on Wizard Video, which released tons of great horror films on VHS in the 80’s, and talked about those two horror video games.  They even showed some stills of the games that looked like a typical Atari game, but it was kind of cool to see games based on two iconic horror movies.  In the Texas Chainsaw Massacre game you are Leatherface and had to kill trespassers with a chainsaw and in the Halloween game you were the babysitter and had to protect the children from Michael Myers.  The games were very controversial when they were released and not many were sold, but now they are hot collectable items for Atari game collectors.


Video games were not just in the arcade and on the home systems; they were all over the place during the 80’s.  There was tons of merchandise with video game characters on them.  Some even had their own cartoons like Pac-Man, which ran from 1982 through 1983 and was made by cartoon giant Hanna Barbera.  I remember having a few Pac-Man T-shirts, hats, toys, Colorforms, and even a Pac-Man board game.  It was funny seeing a video game go to a board game, but it was very cool.  The board game was like the video game with the same concept, but like any board game, you would use dice to control your moves.  The game had white marbles to place on the board and a plastic Pac-Man would gobble up the marbles and try to avoid the ghosts that would come after him. 


Atari also introduced an upgraded version of the 2600 called Atari 5200.  The system was suppose to be more advanced than the 2600 and was released in 1982.  The sales of this system did all right, but not many kids that I know bought it since most of them had the 2600 and the upgrade wasn’t a big enough deal to go out and buy a new system.  Atari was also still heavily marketing the 2600, more so than the 5200.  Two years after its release, the 5200 was discontinued in 1984 to make way for their next upgrade they were working on, the Atari 7800.  The 7800 was released in 1986 to compete with the brand new Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System which had been released a year earlier. 


The short lived Atari 5200.

By this time Atari’s days as the lead home video game system were numbered and new ones, like Nintendo and Sega, appeared which had better graphics and the style of games were more entertaining then the traditional on screen action arcade games.  Nintendo and Sega gave birth to the adventure style games where the character was on a quest to get to the end and beat the game and where each level had a different adventure. 


Although Atari stayed in the game with new systems like Atari XE and Jaguar, it never dominated the market or became a popular home video game system again.  I still have great memories of my Atari 2600. It was the pioneer home video game system that paved the way for other systems like Nintendo, Sega, PlayStation, and Xbox.  By the mid to late 80’s when Atari was fading away, arcades were still thriving.  Even though people had home systems, the arcade was still the place to be and at that time graphics for arcade games were still better than the ones on Nintendo and Sega systems.  Tons of new arcade games would be released and video games still remained as popular as ever as we approached the 1990’s.


Coming soon, part two of The Video Games Years:  Nintendo and Beyond!