Youʼll play pretend miniature golf tomorrow
Monday, November 7th, 2022 Alive 18,822 days
“No Access to Delivery location” is Postal Service for “There was a big Astros World Series parade in the way, so the mailman went home.”
“No Access to Delivery location” is Postal Service for “There was a big Astros World Series parade in the way, so the mailman went home.”
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs the Sears version of Warlords.
Iʼve never played this game, and have no connection to it. But I bought it for three reasons.
A drop in the level of the uterus during the last weeks of pregnancy as the head of the fetus engages in the pelvis.
That doesnʼt sound like a very fun video game.
I got a new video game today. Well, itʼs an old video game, since most of the games I play are for the Atari 2600.
Itʼs Chase, which is the Sears Tele-Games rebranding of Atariʼs Surround.
A simple as it is, this is an engaging game, which explains why itʼs been recreated on dozens and dozens of machines. People today still have warm and fuzzy memories of 1997ʼs Snake on Nokia cell phones, but it originated in 1976 with the Blockade arcade game from Gremlin before it became Sega/Gremlin.
This version is solid, except that the bleeps are annoying, so itʼs best to turn off the sound and put on some period-appropriate music like Sirius 70ʼs on 7.
It also has a nice freeform drawing mode, which is useful to endearing oneself with oneʼs sweetheart.
Today I decided to make a Sears-accurate label for my Harmony cart.
If you're not a retro video game nerd, some of those words may not make sense. To elucidate:
The Harmony cart comes with a label that doesn't look like an Atari label, or a Sears label, so it kind of ruins the look of the machine. In fact, there's no label on the end at all. That's because that's where you jam the microSD card into the cart so you can play your games.
I found some fonts on the intarwebs and decided to teach myself a bit of Affinity Photo. The result is pretty good. It's far from perfect, mostly because I couldn't find a font that really matches the Sears font. Which makes sense, since Sears was a big enough company to have its own font artists.
Bauhaus appears to be the closest font, and there are hundreds of Bauhaus-inspired fonts available for free download on the internet. Sadly, most of them are corrupt, incomplete, or worse. It seems that the people who run free font web sites just copy files from one another, and don't bother to verify that the font actually works.
For the green text, I found a generic seven-segment-display-inspired font that's almost correct, except for the middle pointy bit of the capital M.
I printed out the label on glossy photo paper, which looks nice, but isn't truly accurate. To be accurate, it would be on matte label stock, sun faded, smeared with peanut butter, and have the corner peeled up a bit.
Since Sears was in the habit of renaming so many games, I decided to change the name of my Harmony cart to "Super Multi-Cart." The name just popped into my head.
Because the microSD card sticks out of the end of the Harmony cart a bit, the label doesn't lay flat. I haven't decided how to address this. My options are:
If you're into this sort of thing, here are the Affinity Photo label files I made, so you can print your own, or improve upon what I've done:
People forget how primitive video games were in the early years. For a very long time, the only way to start a game was to press the Restart button on the console. It would be years before anyone dreamed up the idea of starting or restarting a game by pressing a button on the controller thatʼs right there in the playerʼs hand. Itʼs so elementary that people today take for granted that itʼs always been that way.
In the early years of video games, there was no such thing as sitting back and relaxing while playing a game, unless it was something with no end, like the free draw mode in Surround. You had to reach out and touch the console every few minutes when the game ended.
I got a new Atari cart today. It's Basketball, and naturally the Sears Tele-Games version because that is the manner in which I roll.
The game is not great in a lot of ways, but it is exceptional in one — It perfectly captures the vision, abilities, and naïveté of video games in 1978.
Two years later, it made an appearance in the movie Airplane!, much to the delight of video game fans and the horror of nervous flyers.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Space Shuttle by Activision.
From what Iʼve read, this is supposed to be one of the most difficult of the mainstream Atari 2600 games. Itʼs also supposed to be among the most rewarding to complete.
Itʼs supposed to be hard because the controls are very difficult. When Atari needed more buttons for one of its games, it just rolled out new controllers. Activision took a different path, and instead repurposed many of the existing switches on the Atari 2600 console to control functions of the game.
That Activision needed more buttons and levers to control this game makes sense, because youʼre flying a freaking space shuttle.
Also, from what Iʼve read, I shouldnʼt call this a game. Itʼs believed to be one of the very first consumer flight simulators, and it sounds like the sort of thing Iʼd have to take a full day off of work to get right.
Iʼm curious about how I would do with Space Shuttle, reliving the days when space exploration was about to be so common that weʼd “shuttle” people into outer space the way Pan Am shuttled people up and down the east coast. Here in 2021, neither of those things exist anymore.
I got a new Atari cart today. Itʼs Poker Plus, the Sears version of Atariʼs Casino.
This is the text label version, which is what I prefer because that means its an older version, and what I would have had in my home, if my family had this cart in 1978. But we didnʼt.
The version of this game with the Sears picture label is more unusual, but not quite what one might call “rare.” Just seldom seen for sale.
Itʼs a very minor topic of discussion in the realm of Atari nerds that Sears spent a lot of time and money making its own artwork for the Atari games it licensed. There are plenty of debates over which is better. I donʼt have a preference. But I do note that the Sears imagery is often racier than the Atari version.
Here are the Atari and Sears picture labels of the same Casino/Poker Plus game.
The Atari one is fine, featuring a slim young woman in a strappy white evening frock engaged in severely constrained enthusiasm. The Sears one features a Vegas showgirl wearing low-rise panties, a feathered headdress, and nothing else. Sheʼs covering her breasts with her slender arms, but not out of shame, based on her smile.
As a resident of Las Vegas, I am uniquely positioned to decide which label is more accurate. And I can tell you that the Sears version is more correct.
Not because there are lots of gregarious topless showgirls roaming the casinos of Sin City. There arenʼt. Except for street buskers, the showgirls are all gone. Itʼs Miss Atari who is wrong. The notion of Vegas casinos being populated by well-dressed, glamorous, interesting people died in the late 1980ʼs. If she was done up in crop-top football jersey with a tattooed beer belly hanging over pajama bottoms and Crocs, toting a three-foot-long empty plastic beverage container and a grudge against Southwest Airlines, then she would fit right in.
But graceful white evening dress and statement jewelry? This isnʼt Monaco.
I remember that Wizard of Wor was a huge hit in the arcades. Now I have it as an Atari Cartridge.
I find it humorous that this is a video game from CBS, the media Goliath I would later work for, briefly. In 1982, it seemed like every big company on the planet was trying to get into the video game business. From toy companies like Mattel to movie companies like 20th Century Fox to record companies like K-Tel.
Even the arcade version from Midway seemed very primitive to me, so Iʼm not eager to try out the 2600 version, which I assume to be even worse. But maybe Iʼll be surprised by a high quality, fluid, engaging production from a company as large and resourceful as CBS.
Oh, wait. I used to work for CBS. I know better.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Pitfall, by Activision.
This game was massive when it came out. Everyone I knew did everything they could to get a copy. But this is my first time playing it.
My parents were Sears people, and so unless I somehow came up with the money myself, they would only buy gen-you-wine Sears Tele-Games versions of Atariʼs games. And since Pitfall was Activision, not Atari, I was stuck. But not for long.
A few months later, a Commodore 64 was set up in my bedroom, and while my friends had tired of Pitfall and moved on to other games, I didnʼt care whether they lent me their cartridges or not. I had a whole new world of possibilities opening up under my fingers, right on my homework desk.
I got a new Atari cart yesterday. Itʼs BASIC Programming.
While the word “BASIC” in the title is properly capitalized because it is an initialism for Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, the title would also work in sentence case as “Basic Programming,” because this is truly basic programming.
Lots of modern-day reviewers on the internet who are more interested in outrage clicks than thoughtful conversation deride this program as a farce or even a toy. I have the unpopular view that BASIC Programming is really quite good, both as a technical achievement and as a cultural change agent. It achieves a number of important goals:
This is all elementary school stuff today. But when this cartridge came out in 1979, it was absolutely revolutionary. For $50, an Atari owner could get a taste of what it was like to actually program a computer. And while computers were starting to occasionally appear in well-to-do homes, they were still staggeringly uncommon, and cost about the same as a new car.
Joysticks and buttons in arcades gave wider society its first opportunity to command an electronic machine to do things. BASIC Programming gave Atari owners the ability to give an electronic machine sequences of commands, and to act on them. Moving a dot around a screen with a joystick had been done long ago through various electromechanical methods. But this was the first chance for ordinary people to actually command a machine to do more than just react to stimulus.
BASIC Programming has a limited feature set, but itʼs still an integrated development environment, not fundamentally different from what computer programmers use today. One significant difference is that BASIC Programming managed to present a fully functional I.D.E. in a minuscule 2K of memory. Thatʼs about one sixth of the words in this article.
By comparison, the current version of Microsoftʼs I.D.E. starts at 274,000 times the size of BASIC Programming, and increases rapidly from there, depending on what language you write in.
Atariʼs BASIC Programming crosses the same ocean as Microsoftʼs VS Code, but does it with a styrofoam pool noodle instead of the Queen Mary.
In addition, BASIC Programming is user-friendly in one specific way that few computers are today. Like me, it had Sister Maria for third grade Arithmetic class, where she preached, “Anything divided by zero is zero.” Try to divide something by zero in Atariʼs basic BASIC, and it politely gives you zero. Unlike modern computer systems that fall on the floor, curl up in a ball, and start quietly sobbing to themselves when asked the same question.
The one popular modern-day gripe I agree with is that the input method is cumbersome. Itʼs a pair of keypads, one plugged into each joystick port, and then locked together. I understand why it was done this way, but that doesnʼt make it easy to use.
Still, the single keypad pair is pulling more than its weight, even for the era. It is used for:
Just looking at the command set, thereʼs a lot of interesting points.
In addition, when you run a program, the systemʼs cursor moves through the program during execution, allowing you to follow along with whatʼs happening. This kind of functionality is an add-on in modern systems.
On a personal note, I love the idea that it has a Halt command. It brings a lot of nostalgic feelings to my tummy. Back when computers were commanded to run and then halt because of their military origins. A time when you couldnʼt start a computer without a key. When computers had mechanical odometers behind a panel so that the IBM service guy from New Paltz could write down for how many hours you used the machine, to let Big Blueʼs billing department know.
Yesterday was a quiet Saturday, so I sat down with BASIC Programming and approached it with my programmerʼs analytical mind, and without the biases of modern-day development. My conclusion is that this is really quite fun.
I started by typing in all six of the programs I could find on the internet. Unlike the days of typing in program from the backs of magazines, these all worked the first time, with moving dots and pinging sounds. Then I started to experiment on my own.
The dialect of BASIC that this cartridge uses is very much of its era. Variable assignment is done with ←, instead of =, just like in 1960ʼs and 1970ʼs computing languages like AP/L. Goto is your friend, not your enemy. And the notion of whitespace for readability goes right out the window. This will be a show-stopper for anyone used to cruising Appleʼs internal codebase.
Iʼm not musical in any way, so naturally I enjoyed stringing along rudimentary bloops and bleeps into nonsensical songs. For an afternoon, I was the e e cummings of synthpop, but I was also doing something: I was creating. This was an a-ha moment, and I felt a rainbow connection to dads of the 1970ʼs, sitting cross-legged in wood-paneled living rooms, scales drifting lazily from their eyes as the future was revealed.
If you appreciate programming elegance, the value of simplicity, or simply dig code golf, this is your course. You are forced to think about what youʼre doing. To make choices, evaluate tradeoffs, and make do with what you have. Itʼs a lot of the brain stimulus that gets some people into programming as a profession in the first place
There are a number of people who enjoy making tiny programs. Some so small that they fit into a PC-DOS boot sector. I think a few of those people might thrive within the constraints of this environment.
The biggest limitation of BASIC Programming is memory. You can only cram a few dozen symbols into the machine. Thatʼs to be expected, since the entire console only has 128 bytes of memory. Thatʼs the reality of 1979. But today, people are able to program Atari cartridges that work with comparatively massive amounts of information. One guy even sells Atari carts that are full-motion videos of popular movies. I suspect one of those clever people could find a way to make a version of this that works around the memory limitation.
The second-biggest problem is the Frankensteinian keyboard. As an input device, it was never intended for long-form content. But the cognitive overhead of shifting modes, double-checking the screen, and the constant hunt-and-peck involved make it hard to concentrate on the program, and not on the controller. Perhaps thatʼs another throwback to 1970ʼs computing, though.
Iʼm old enough to be one of those programmers who wrote their programs out on paper first (graph paper, if you were lucky), then typed it into a shared computer, and hoped that it did what was intended. Maybe if I spent more time thinking about the code beforehand, rather than writing it on-the-fly as is common today, coding in BASIC Programming wouldnʼt be so arduous.
Still, I think that with a bit of time, it would be possible to come up with a harness that links a standard Human Interface Design keyboard with the pair of Atari joystick ports to emulate the keypad. In my mind, it would take some kind of Arduino or Raspberry Pi device with a dozen I/O pins. Voltage might be an issue, but nothing insurmountable to todayʼs hobbiest.
In fact, using this method, one could actually load BASIC Programming programs stored in a host system through the Arduino-powered keypad interface. You could write a program in Microsoft VS Code, or Panicʼs Nova, and when you push to git, or the version management system of your choice, it could also be sent wirelessly to the Arduino, which then relays the keypresses into the Atari 2600.
Now I know what Iʼm going to do when I retire.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Pole Position.
Iʼm not big on racing games, though I enjoy watching other people play them. My problem is that Iʼm not very good at racing games. The one racing game I actually like and am also good at is Ridge Racers for the PSP.
This Pole Position cart wasnʼt a deliberate purchase. It came in a box with a knot of other games, but Iʼll keep it for two reasons.
First, because I do have some nostalgic memories of playing Pole Position when I was a kid. I wasnʼt any good at it back then, either. To me, a joystick was entirely the wrong control method for this game, especially considering that every Atari console shipped with perfectly fine paddle controllers, and many people also had the racing version of Atariʼs paddles left over from other games.
The second reason Iʼll keep it is because the end label is wrong. It reads “POLE POSITN*.”
Label errors werenʼt uncommon on Atari games, and got more and more common as the years went on and the company moved from sprinting to walking to hobbling with a cane to shuffling with a walker to its inevitable dirt nap. But this is a pretty glaring error, and I do enjoy knowing that other people make mistakes, too, so Iʼll put this one in a protective sack to keep it fresh.
I got a new Atari game today. Galaxian.
Itʼs colorful, modern, and very well done. Not at all the sort of thing I go in for.
Iʼm more a plodding Space Invaders kind of guy. I like a game that allows me to have a sip of beverage without penalty.
This is the first time Iʼve seen Galaxian in its 2600 form. By the time this cart hit store shelves in 1983, my interest had already moved to the Commodore 64, and so this was never on my radar.
I got a new Atari game today. Itʼs Breakaway Ⅳ, the Sears Tele-Games version of Atariʼs Breakout.
Breakout has some interesting history behind it, which is unfortunately being re-written in the internet age. It was one of the Atari games that Steve Jobs worked on, and he enlisted Steve Wozniak to help with the project. That much is not in dispute.
However, since the death of Mr. Jobs, itʼs become common for revisionist historians on the internet to paint him as a comic book-grade evildoer. After his death, the embellishments became louder and more elaborate, as there was no living person to push back against them.
Today, if you look into the history of Breakout online, you are told that Jobs was a con man who took advantage of poor, helpless Saint Wozniak and twirled his mustache all the way to the bank.
Accounts from the time of the gameʼs development tell a very different story. But itʼs easy to slander someone after they are dead. Especially if youʼre trying to remake your own image, and benefit from internet outrage.
Another detail about Breakout that the chattering internet classes scratch their heads over is why Sears would label this game “Breakaway Ⅳ” instead of “Breakout.” The reasons are both simple.
Sears had a habit of renaming the Atari games it licensed if the names were too close to the names of other video game consoles that Sears had previously released. In the occluded view of video game history we get from the internet, consoles like the Atari 2600, the Fairchild Channel F, and the Magnavox Odyssey started it all. But there were hundreds, possibly even thousands of video game consoles before those.
The previous generation of consoles lacked interchangeable cartridges, and often could only play a single or a handful of games. But they existed. And they had names. Sears sold at least a dozen of these machines under its Tele-Games brand in the years before the Atari 2600 was invented, so in order to prevent confusion and re-using product names, it came up with new ones. For example, Atariʼs Street Racer became Searsʼ Speedway Ⅱ.
In addition, while Atari repeatedly targeted its advertising to individual game players, Sears heavily promoted its video game machines as devices to bring families and groups of people together. Breakout is one of those games that can be played by up to four people. The “Ⅳ” may be an indication of the number of people who can be brought together to play at once.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. It's Arcade Pinball, the Sears version of Atari's Video Pinball.
It's a really good game, with just the right balance of luck, still, and action to be engaging.
People on the internet like to moan that Sears should have called it “Video Pinball,” like Atari did. But Sears was putting out video game consoles long before Fujicorp, and several of them already had pinball games, which were commonly referred to as ”video pinball.” Labeling this cart “Arcade Pinball” cuts down on confusion for those who were playing video games at home before 1977.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Outer Space, the Sears version of Atariʼs Star Ship.
Star Ship was one of the least popular of the original Atari 2600 launch titles. The graphics are a bit crude, even for 1977, and the gameplay isnʼt much fun without a second human companion. Atari stopped making this game by 1980, while other launch titles continued for years afterward.
The Sears version is not notable on its own. The Atari version is most famous for sometimes coming with a weird label with giant yellow letters that looks nothing like any of the other Atari cartridges. The oddball label doesnʼt it more collectable. A quick scan through fleaBay shows sellers asking the same price for either version.
The most annoying thing about the 1970ʼs: People who would call Atari cartridges “tapes.”
I got two new cartridges today, with the same game: Super Breakout. Both the Atari and Sears versions.
As games go, Super Breakout was a massive hit. When it was released in 1980, the Atari 2600 was fully mainstream, so for a lot of people, this was their first exposure to Breakout in any form, and everyone wanted it.
The Sears version is notable because it has the game title on both the end label, and the top label. And the game name on the top label is off-center, as itʼs an unbulleted part of the bullet list of game variations. And since Sears is using the Atari name for this game, the label also has a trademark disclosure.
This is one of those games that exemplifies that playing video games used to be a group activity, whether at an arcade or at home. The Atari 2600 version of this game can have up to four players. The Atari home computer version could have up to eight players.
Today, if you want to play a video game with eight other people, you do it in your momʼs basement, all alone, hooked up to the internet. Itʼs not the same thing.
Today I noticed that the imitation wood veneer of my Sears Tele-Games machine is different from the imitation wood veneer of my TV stand. I guess Iʼll just have to buy new furniture.
I didn't want to spend two hours today playing Atari games. But I had to. They were invading my space.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Memory Match, the Sears Tele-Games version of Atariʼs A Game of Concentration. When it comes to the battle between Atari titles and Sears titles, Sears wins here.
Today I got a new Atari cartridge. Itʼs Maze Mania: A Game of Cops ʼn Robbers, the Sears version of Atariʼs Maze Craze: A Game of Cops nʼ Robbers.
Whatʼs interesting about this cart is that while Sears changed the name from Maze Craze to Maze Mania, it kept the subtitle. Mostly.
Sears contracted “and” as “ʼn,” instead of using Atariʼs “nʼ.” I wonder if that was a deliberate decision, or the result of carelessness.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe.
This is a game that everyone seemed to have, and nobody seemed to play.
Iʼve tried it, and itʼs hard. I think a lot of parents had visions that this would being out some kind of high-tech futuristic whiz kid in their children. But all it did was make them feel dumb.
Annie is not impressed by my mad Pong skills.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Race, the Sears Tele-Games version of Atariʼs Indy 500.
This is one of those games that Iʼm not very good at. I suspect there are two reasons for this.
One thing I never see mentioned anywhere, and I donʼt remember from old magazines, is that itʼs pretty significant that the Atari version of this is called “Indy 500.” Surely there must have been some kind of licensing agreement with the people who run the Indianapolis 500 race, but itʼs not mentioned anywhere on the cart, in the manual, or on the box.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Maze, the Sears Tele-Games version of Atariʼs Slot Racers.
The game involves navigating a wedge through a maze and shooting at your opponent.
This is one of those occasions when Sears has the better title, since the game takes place in a maze, but doesnʼt seem to have anything at all to do with slot cars.
But imagine if you had slot cars that could shoot little projectiles at each other. I think that would have been a big hit in 1978.
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Checkers, the Sears Tele-Games version of Atariʼs Video Checkers.
Sears wins for having the better title here. Sure, it is played on a video screen, but calling it “Video” checkers is one of those “No shit, Sherlock” situations.
As checkers go, I think it must be a very good game. I say this because I always lose.
The yammering yabbos on the internet are wild about this game because it was programmed by Carol Shaw. I have nothing against Ms. Shaw, and from what Iʼve read, she seems like a very nice person. But she is repeatedly cited as — in the words of Wikipedia — “one of the earliest female programmers.” This is only true if you ignore the hundreds of women programmers who came before her.
A lot of those programmers were nuns. Nuns played an oversized, and under-recognized role in the early days of computing. There are a few reasons they were involved.
In old photographs of people working in mainframe computer rooms in the 1960ʼs and 70ʼs, there are always women around. The men are thinking and looking at printouts and working with slide rules and pencils, but itʼs the women in the pictures doing most of the actual computing. Women were far more common in the computer industry in the early days than they are today.
And even before electronic computers, if you go back to the earliest day of computers, when a “computer” was a person who computes, there were women. Big businesses had rooms full of people clicking away at various mechanical tabulating machines. These people were the companyʼs “computers,” and very often those rooms were full of women. Not men.
When computers first showed up in my school in 1980, the nuns steered the girls to them, while the boys were discouraged from using computers. Why? Because typing was a skill for girls. “Boys donʼt type,” I was told.
This continued into my high school years. I wanted to take a typing class because I had a computer at home. I was told that boys werenʼt allowed to take typing classes.
Even into the 1990ʼs, parts of the business world were still organized around the notion that men were the bosses, and women typed for them, and having the women run the computers was a natural extension of that. My mother worked in Manhattan for the vice president of a mid-sized regional bank. He never used e-mail. Each morning my mother would print out his e-mails and give them to him to read. He would then dictate the responses, which she wrote in steno, and later typed into the computer and sent the responses.
But nuns arenʼt cool today, especially on the internet, so they get ignored. Nuns are one of the types of women that otherwise enlightened people still think itʼs OK to marginalize. Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was the first person in the world to earn a doctorate in computer science, but there are plenty of people on Wikipedia, and elsewhere, who try to suppress knowledge of her contributions in the field.
A complicating factor is that a lot of the work that nuns did in computing was before Atari even existed, and itʼs hard for many people on the internet to imagine there were programmers before the internet, let alone before Atari. And certainly not women programmers. They didnʼt exist until the STEM campaigns of the late 1990ʼs, in their minds.
Still, some day Iʼd like to take Ms. Shaw to coffee to hear her stories about the early days of video game programming. I think her memories are probably worth bottling and saving for posterity.
You can tell itʼs a childrenʼs game because thereʼs a cartoon.
You can tell itʼs 1978 because the cowboy has a cigarette.
My local library sometimes has little museum exhibits in it. Today I noticed some new artifacts on display, including an Atari 2600 of the sort I played just last week.