What were some of hidden factors that led to the fall of Atari and the golden age of classic video game consoles? Did the world at large really understand video games at all? In this episode we set out to prove, through the lens of some truly awful products and ideas, that the industry might have killed itself.
The back pages and new products sections of Electronic Games magazine in 1982 and 1983 were filled with all sorts of products, services and offers that were dubious at best, and possibly, criminal at worst. It appears that in the very early years of video games all sorts of people jumped at the chance to try to sell all manner of items to the newly minted audience of “arcaders” and “joystickers” (the terms Electronic Games editors used to refer to “gamers” in the early days). Below are some the most useless/interesting and bizarre products that we could dig up in those pages:
Asteroids Halloween Costume
Vinyl Halloween costumes emblazoned with brand-names of major products and characters were one of the very first ways kids were subjected to product placement advertising in 70’s and 80’s. At the time, parents willingly let their kids become walking billboards for major corporations, and paid good money for the privilege. While Halloween is an even bigger party in 2011, at least the costumes have become a subtler mix of licensed characters and zombie fantasies with a bit less over-the-top advertising.
However, in 1982, Asteroids made a terrible costume. Atari never created many proper characters that could be licensed for costumes (the Adventure dragon perhaps?), and trying to make a “space rock” into a viable Halloween monster was not a good choice. In fact, in 2008, Topless Robot named this costume the #1 on the list of the Greatest/Most Pathetic Old School Halloween Costumes. Why? Here are their words: “A clever bully could—and would—also use it as an excuse to play Asteroids by repeatedly punching you in the face” Need we say more? Even if you badly wanted this for Halloween, it was still an awful, miserable choice.
Video Maniac Sports Accessories
Believe it or not, while video games were popular in the 80’s, I don’t recall video game t-shirts and other related clothing to be popular at all, at least not among my friends…the super nerds who played tons of video games. In fact, I didn’t own any kind of video game related t-shirt until a friend of mine found a Dig-Dug shirt at the thrift store in early 90’s and gave it to me. T-shirts in general were not a big fashion item at the time, as most of us were wearing O.P. shorts and shirts.
However, this did not stop multiple companies from advertising all manner of t-shirts they hoped would appeal to the “arcaders” of the golden age. Video Maniac was one of the most enduring, with ads that ran through nearly every issue of Electronic Games. (By the way Ugo.com once named Video Maniac one of the “scrubbiest” video game advertisers of all time). The ad featured here (from 1983) is my personal favorite because the photo looks like it was taken directly from back pages of my 9th grade year-book.
These products must have been selling, but to whom? A t-shirt sold for $11.95, which was not cheap back then. Almost 30 years later,(thanks to you: systematic corporate globalization, out-sourcing, off-shoring, and world-wide labor exploitation) I can get an Atari t-shirt at Target for only $9.99 . Furthermore, who , in the totally serious, non-ironic 80’s, would have worn a shirt with the words “Video Maniac” on it without the same bullies to played Asteroids on your face, using your new Video Maniac t-shirt to hang you from top of the ball cage in the boy’s locker room?
Before I leave the video game clothing aisle and more onto accessories, I would be remiss to not mention The Gobbler, a product that is wrong in so many ways, it’s hard to get the point across without a good picture. Oh good, we have one. Take a look, then come back over here after your eyes have properly adjusted to the horror they have witnessed.
What. Is. THAT? Is that supposed to be a cheap Pac-Man rip-off? But, but, is that some kind of mustache…or…? I imagine that this thing had some kind of string that hung down, when pulled, made the mouth open and close to pretend to Gobble? I would then guess the idea would be to go to the arcade and chase one of the girls from the Video Maniac ad around while pulling the string and saying “The Gobbler Is gonna Get You!” Ooops, I guess you forgot that her boyfriend is one of the guys who kicked your ass for wearing an Asteroids costume over your Video Manic Muscle-T. Time to run home as fast as possible to put on your…
You know, to “improve your scores”. For $2.50 plus $.50 shipping and handling you could buy… something. Thank god Koal sales in Torrance, CA registered that trademark, Whew! They saved themselves a lot of legal headaches trying to stop the massive hoards of other companies rushing into the same space and taking away their business using similar names. Oh look, they have a left hand version too. Isn’t that just the same as the right-handed one, but turned over to the back-side? By the way, have you noticed that your Asteroids costume has short sleeves and no hands? You better buy a pair of Bat Mitts to make up for it.
So let’s suppose that you are a tired Video Manic “arcader” who has had enough of masquerading as an Asteroid, while playing with your Gobbler and wearing a pair of Bat Mitts, and you just want to challenge your friends to a few games of Combat! in the privacy of your own house? Was there some kind of product that would help you play better? Of Course there was! You could have your “Arcade Action At Home” with the Stick Station, a $15 (or so) piece of…wood! Yes, this amazing piece of wood could do what only your left hand could do, and that’s hold the base of your joystick. How did that help you? Well, you could yell “No Hand Cramps Biatches!” at your friends, while blasting their bi-planes out of the sky as they rubbed their sore digits and wondered just how you got so good so quickly. What was your secret? It couldn’t have been the giant block of walnut finished wood in your lap, could it?
The Grand Stand
Not to be outdone, after being embarrassed by your block of wood, one of your buddies pulled the perfect gift, a ” Grand Stand Joystick Stabilizer And Score Enhancer” out of his duffel bag, and the pendulum of awesome started swinging in his direction. It was a battle to the walnut finish as you struggled to fight off his Combat! jets, hand cramp-less for sure, yet still playing with your joystick in your lap with nothing for your left hand to do except hold onto its’ Bat Mitt and pray for success.
You see your friend didn’t need a lap any longer. The Grand Stand sat between his legs, supported by his feet, allowing him to sit comfortably and fight off your attacks with ease. Even your attempt to thwart him by making him use an oddy sized (yet superior) Wico joystick didn’t help since The Grand Stand “Adapts To All Popular Joysticks”, unlike your block of wood.
Back in 1982-1983, there were scores of these types of “enhancer” products designed to take your $34.95 + $2.50 shipping and handling in the hopes that they would improve your ability to play home video games. I, like others, have always wondered just how many of these types of products were sold back-in-the-day. However, what if there was a product that made all of these products moot, one that went full circle, and really brought the “arcade to your home?”
Family Arcade Enclosure
A real arcade cabinet in your house! This was the dream of many kids at the time. An arcade machine with multiple games of your own that you could play without quarters.
Of course, we already had that with our game consoles, but it didn’t “feel” the same while sitting on the couch with a Grand Stand between our legs and a Stick Station in our laps… and that’s because we were not standing!
You see, apparently, the most comfortable way to play (mostly) 2-player, single screen, video games for hours at home was not sitting comfortably on the couch 6 feet (at least) from your radiation spewing, electron gun equipped tube TV, it was crammed together, right next to it, trying to control your side with a joystick clamped to hunk of wobbily plywood your dad hastily constructed from $50 worth of products (oh, and $1500 worth of power tools) from Builder’s Emporium specified in a set of $9.95 instructions sent from Beltsville, Maryland.
A Video Games Club
OK, so now that you have an amazing arcade at home, it’s time to get some games…for free! You could do that by joining a video game club.
Since you spent all the game money you saved up to help buy the parts for (and more parts to repair) your Family Arcade At Home, there was not much left over to buy any new games. Near the end of 1982 and into 1983, most of the best Atari 2600 games were released (Pitfall!, River Raid, Vanguard, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Demon Attack ,etc.) and you needed a quick way to get the best games for your console.
A video game club where you could get free games, and discounts, plus trade games would seem like a great choice, right? Almost a dozen of these clubs appeared in the back pages of Electronic Games magazine during the first year of publication, and after reading the fine print, nearly all of them appeared to not quite be the amazing “deal” as they might have appeared at first. Video Fun and Games Inc. offered you a “free” game plus the very tangible benefits of “coupons, contests, and newsletters” all for the cheap price of $35 (and 4-6 weeks for delivery). At the time, many games cost about $24.99 $29.99 each, and shipping from mail order catalogs was $2.00-$4.00, so in essence you got a game for a bit more than it cost to buy one at the store (with tax) or mail order with shipping. Actually, this club was one of the better deals going. Others cost $20 and you got a t-shirt and coupons, but no game, and still others were a bit less with the offer of membership cards and little else.
A Job Working For The Ultimate Wiz
So after you had spent the rest of your money on that video game club, if you really wanted new games it was time to get a job. The good news was, the pages of Electronic Games magazine, while not “over-flowing” with job listings, did offer some very interesting employment opportunities. There were job listings to work at Atari, Fisher-Price, 20th Century Fox, and even offers to teach you how to repair arcade games. However the most interesting opportunity was none of those. It was a one-time advertisement offering the amazing opportunity to work with The Ultimate Wiz as an executive assistant. Apparently The Ultimate Wiz promised to be “The Master Of All Technology” and was going to create his own (uh oh!) “Club for computer WizKids.” We’ve searched high and low to find some reference to the Ultimate Wiz other than this advertisement, but we have not found anything. Who was the Ultimate Wiz, or did his Club For Computer WizKids ever came to fruition? We just don’t know. However, if the Ultimate Wiz was the Master Of All Technology, one wonders if it was he (or she) who came up with the final item on our list…
Space Willy was less a product, and more an idea or a licensing play. Aimed, by their own admission, at “Young Adults” Space Willy just might be the worst idea ever conceived.
At at time when the average age of subscribers to Electronic Games magazine was 21 years old, and even most kids who played video games (at least in my experience) played them with a ferocity and vigor as if they were striving to be adults at the same time, creating an uber nerd that looked like he could be beat-up by a 4 year old girl was not a good idea.
Space Willy looks like he just removed his Asteroids mask and was getting ready to put on his Gobbler for some “action”…and are those “Bat Mitts” he has on each hand? It appears that Space Willy was destined for a life as a major character in arcades and restaurants, but surprisingly, it never happened. Why? Because, again, it may have been the worst idea ever conceived.
In a way, Space Willy is the perfect “product” to end this list as it sums up everything about the golden age video games and how they were created, marketed, and sold. For the most part, video games became popular, not because they were marketed well, or because someone came-up with a great pitch or slogan that caught-on and swept the masses. Video games caught on because, at their core, they were a revolutionary and enjoyable way to spend time alone or with your friends. In fact, the best years of the golden age of video games were almost over when the first mass market advertising appeared in on a regular basis in Electronic Games magazine (March 1982).
Space Willy in fact, who appeared in late 1983, proves (to me anyway) why golden age video games failed in the early 80’s: the business world still did not “get” what games and gamers were all about. The whole business world was not ready for the rise of video games, nor were they prepared to alter or change plans based on on the idea that they were an ever changing entertainment medium, instead of a fad to milk until kid’s pockets were dry. Most video game companies did not really know what games to make, retailers didn’t know which games were good, or how much of each one to buy, and marketers had no idea what or how to sell to the masses of hardcore video game fans. Thus ideas like Space Willy, video game clubs, Asteroids Halloween costumes, Batt Mitt, and the Ultimate Wiz, filled the void instead of real, solid ideas on how to move the medium of video games forward. Instead, it took a massive crash, shake-out, and financial melt-down for everyone to wise-up, get serious, and start creating the right products for the right audience.