This 1979 piece was my contribution to a story about technological gifts for the upcoming Christmas season… they invited me to write it because of my activities as an active computer hobbyist since 1974. I discussed a few cartridge game systems, along with commentary about general-purpose machines.

by Steven K. Roberts
Louisville Today
November, 1979

Computer Games

Television sets, found in virtually every household in the United States, represent the most widespread entertainment and information system in human history. Aside from the lamentable fact that the bulk of currently available programming caters to the weak-minded among us, the universal existence of television is a good thing: almost all of us already own the most expensive parts of a computer terminal.

Mention of home computer terminals, a few years ago, would conjure images of vast “timesharing” systems accessed by telephone, through which, at exorbitant rates, subscribers would obtain stock-market data and conduct high-level business transactions. In the days when computers were large and expensive, only such serious use was economically justifiable.

Today, thousands of entire computer systems are completely dedicated to playing games.

Today, an “entire computer system” can cost as little as thirty dollars. The trick, for there must be one, is the use of microprocessors, the product of a new technology which ranks in historical importance along with the noble transistor, that cleverly contrived bit of silicon which launched the age of Solid State back in the 1950’s.

The microprocessor is a computer-on-a-chip, a tiny square of silicon upon which an extremely dense circuit has been photographically etched. Replacing huge air-conditioned cabinets which once ruled the computer kingdom, these inexpensive devices are not only cheaper and smaller, but also considerably faster and more flexible than their historical predecessors. Some radically new computer markets have been created, a few of which are in your livingroom.

Ever since the development of PONG by Nolan Bushnell of Atari in 1972, the world of video games has been expanding almost explosively. There now exists such a profusion of game products on the market that without some guidelines the consumer interested in purchasing one is at the mercy of often-extravagant sales claims and department store clerks who may not know the market.

Our opening mention of computer terminals refers to the fact that any video game system worth its salt these days is actually a computer, provided with built-in programming which defines the various games that it will play. In the early days, you would buy a Ping-Pong game, play with it for a few hours, then stuff it in the closet for all eternity because it became boring. Now, the better game systems are completely open-ended, offering not only the usual variations on “Ball and Paddle” play, but also team games such as baseball, thinking games such as Chess, and educational math and word games for the kids. The long-predicted “consumer computer” now exists.

A major problem, of course, when attempting to sell computers to the general public, is overcoming the preconceptions that have been formed which portray them as monstrous, complex, frighteningly expensive machines which can only be understood by white-jacketed, antisocial, myopic computer scientists. Even the words associated with computers have been invested with a forbidding glamour that seems to speak of a world apart from normal reality: Programming! Memory! Central Processing Units! To bring computers to the masses, not even explanations of their deceptive simplicity is enough — the consumer must be tricked into the realization that there’s not much to it.

And there’s not! Merely USING a computer involves no more than popping in a program cartridge and pushing a RESET button. The more flexible of the game systems offer substantial libraries of programs, all stored in cartridges about the size of eight-track tapes. You either select an existing game or you plug in a BASIC cartridge and write your own, keying in simple step-by-step instructions that tell the machine what to do.

Because computer “literacy” will, in the future, be as important to smooth functioning in society as the traditional kind of literacy, it is a good idea to start making the discovery that you can do it. If you are thinking of buying a video game, take note of the major differences that separate the “smart” ones from the “dumb” ones:

The cheapest, and inevitably the most boring, video games are the ones that offer a fixed number of choices. Even though these may contain microprocessors, the customer is unable to take advantage of their flexibility. Generally, this type of game has a rotary switch or a group of pushbuttons which allow selection of one of the stored options. Until you have gotten tired of the options, this type of system is not necessarily much different from the more flexible units, but it will probably end up in the attic sooner.

The largest category of video games in this year’s crop is the group which accepts cartridges. The Atari Video Computer System ($160-200, cartridges $19 each), the Bally Professional Arcade ($300), the Fairchild Channel F System ($100-150, cartridges $20 each), and the Magnavox Odyssey II ($165-200) all fall into this category, and offer a wide range of style and performance. Hardware quality ranges from terrible to reasonably good; operating convenience, image quality, and degree of challenge likewise. Some of them, most notably the Bally and the Atari, are making headway in the direction of allowing customer programming. (Remember: it’s easy.)

And then, there are the real “home computers.” All of these are capable of playing games, but they are hundreds of times more flexible and expandable than the game systems. It is here that you should be looking if you are interested in a long-term learning experience or a piece of equipment that can earn its keep when not providing entertainment. Notable systems in this category are: Radio Shack’s TRS-80 ($500-1000 depending on configuration), the Commodore PET ($795), the Apple II ($1195), Ohio Scientific’s Challenger II ($598), the Exidy Sorcerer ($895), and more every week. The most obvious difference is the price — four or five times the average for programmable games — but with a system of this sort, you get an unlimited learning tool, game system, and general purpose assistant. Off-the-shelf, plug-in programs may be had which perform such functions as bookkeeping, recipe filing, dress designing, speech synthesis, color graphics, text editing, home security and environmental control, and literally thousands of games.

The computer market has been turned inside-out. Only a few years ago, virtually the only customers for computers were businesses and institutions which could afford the $10,000-$1,000,000 prices of systems. Suddenly, microprocessors exist, and the industry is having a hard time keeping up with the demand for home computers, with shipping delays of as much as 18 months experienced by some unfortunate customers of the earlier systems. Well-equipped computer stores, such as Computerland of Louisville, offer wide choices of machines, and Radio Shack, Heathkit, Olson, and even some department stores are hopping on the bandwagon in a big way and hustling unprecedented quantities of once esoteric computers.

The age of computers and the age of video games are one. The shroud of mystery and price that has long kept “intelligent machines” from the common man has been whisked away with the new technology, revealing something for everyone. As the “BOOP” and “BEEP” of first-generation PONG games gives way to synthetic speech and sophisticated graphics, we embark on the I980’s, hand in hand at last with technology.

My first reaction, as an engineer, to the bulk of the “cartridge type” video games is disappointment — most of them don’t seem to be built to last. Smooth operation and ruggedness are too often sacrificed in the name of PRICE. As I wandered from store to store, seeing the cheapest of the video games falling apart right before my eyes and not terribly impressed with the ones that DID work, I began to make sweeping, cynical generalizations about consumer electronics. Ah, but all is not lost: there is a whole crop of new units that haven’t found their way into local department stores yet. (It might be a good idea to wait a few months and watch the market before making a purchase). Also, the units that are intended as home computers, such as the Apple, Radio Shack TRS-80, and Pet, are another story entirely — the quality is surprising. But first, let’s look at a few games.

A curious exception to my generalizations about the ruggedness of the hardware was found in the Magnavox store in the Shelbyville Road Mall. The Odyssey II was solidly constructed, and had been designed with some serious consideration to the problem of rough young hands, soft drinks and gravity. I was reasonably impressed with the “feel” of the hand controls, but not the keyboard. A well-built console, offering a full size typewriter style layout, it consists of a smooth surface bearing a graphic representation of the keys. There is no “tactile feedback,” no click when you press a key. If indeed the presence of a full keyboard suggests planning expansion into the computer market, long hours spent programming and typing will be tedious. (But it IS easy to clean!)

The demo unit at the Magnavox store had the Road Racing cartridge plugged in at the time of my visit. The first of the two games (for a single player) was a representation of the driver’s car, moving along a straight road with others controlled by the computer. The trick is to steer and control speed in such a way as to avoid accidents and make the best time. My only complaint here is that the pattern seems to be the same every time; once you learn the moves, it becomes boring.

The other racing game was an aerial view of a track, for two players. It is, unfortunately, not realistic: the accelerator is either on or off and the steering is based on screen direction, not relative to the direction of the car. When I stepped back to allow the eager crowd to take control, I watched long enough to see one of the cars get stuck outside of the track boundaries, requiring a RESET of the system before play could meaningfully continue.

I did not have the chance to play the BASEBALL game, but I watched others do so. It looks much better.

The much-touted Atari Video Computer System was the one I saw most often in my tour of East End department stores. This one was some what disappointing wherever I played it: the controls were clumsy and the hardware quality was unimpressive. The TANK game suffered from a common malady: a limited number of firing angles made it impossible to hit the opponent from certain positions on the screen (the same problem existed in DOGFIGHT). The tank had to be moving forward to turn, and evidently could not move in reverse.

The Fairchild Video Entertainment System was seen at Penney’s in the Mall, tagged at $99.95. The game cartridge in the unit at the time of my visit was BOWLING, and it was a reasonably good simulation of the game. Until I discovered the instructions printed in plain view on the cartridge, the action of the controls was a little confusing, but thereafter, it was pleasant to play. The game was realistic except for the strange method used to start the ball rolling: it bounces back and forth along the foul line until the controller is suddenly pushed forward (at an angle which governs the amount of the hook). This introduces an element of reaction time which probably keeps it from being too easy, but it detracts from the realism.

The Fairchild hand controllers, like most of the ones I saw on the games mentioned here and others, were cheap-feeling from an engineering standpoint. They were, however, more effective than most, having a short and smooth range of travel with the ability to rotate, push down, or rock in a joystick fashion.

At Consolidated Sales on Shelbyville Road, I noticed a GE portable Black and White television that was used to demonstrate the games. A playing field boundary and large block scoring numerals were permanently burned into the screen. This is a possible problem that is not highly publicized by the game manufacturers.

Service Merchandise addresses this difficulty with a stack of form letters in the game department, warning of the effect and commenting that moderate use on a modern television set should pose no problems. They suggest that the video game be used in conjunction with normal viewing habits, and that the game be turned off when not in use.

Video game technology has not reached its zenith yet, but there’s fun to be had in the little boxes. The industry press and reports from the latest Consumer Electronic Show suggest some very exciting things to come, such as machines with synthesized speech, excellent quality graphics, and very intelligent games. It’s a fuzzy line that separates video games from general purpose computers, and it’s slowly getting fuzzier. . .

The low-cost personal computers are a true testimony to the wonders of technology — the one I live with, for example, easily outperforms systems costing 10-20 times as much in the 1960s. A small computer is really “the ultimate toy,” as it can be whatever you want it to be.

Perhaps the best deal in personal systems these days is the Apple II, available in Louisville at the Computerland store on Lyndon Lane. Like the game systems, it displays on your color TV set, but unlike the game systems, it can be programmed in high-level languages, it can store an unlimited number of files, and it can accept the addition of numerous hardware enhancements. While absorbed in a SPACEWAR game, I conversed with the store’s proprietor, John Stork:

“So this is your best seller, eh? Why?”

“It’s a top of the line personal computer at a price people can afford. The firm is of high integrity. . . the machine is of high quality. . .”

“How about service?”

“I love to sell ’em ’cause they never come back!”

John warned against the temptation to expect personal computers to be business systems — this has led to many a disappointment and more than a few lawsuits in the last two or three years. (For a good business system, the minimum one can reasonably expect to pay is $5,000.)

But machines such as the Apple II are surprising in their capabilities, and the long-awaited day of retail computers for the home has arrived. Decide upon the scope of your needs, whether games only or open-ended, look over the marketplace, then jump in. You’ll never regret it.

Happy computing!

Steve Roberts has designed and built his own computer.