Blathr Wayne Lorentz

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History Ⅱ.0

Thursday, June 3rd, 2021 Alive 18,300 days

A Breakaway IV cartridge

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 than to go to a library and read dead trees. Especially if youʼre trying to promote 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.” There are several interrelated reasons.

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 that 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.

Sears did, indeed, sell a machine called “Pinball Breakaway” as part of its Sears Sports Center line of home video game machines. Pinball Breakaway played seven games, including one called Breakout, and one called Breakaway. Calling the Tele-Games version of Atariʼs game “Breakaway” is a continuation of the branding from the previous machine: Pinball Breakaway.

As for the Roman numeral, while Atari largely 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. Sears had long used the “Ⅳ” designation to indicate that four people could play at the same time on its standalone video game machines. The ultimate Sears-branded Pong machine was “Pong Sports Ⅳ,” which played 16 games, for up to four players. In this case, the Sears branding is actually less confusing than Atariʼs name for this machine, “Ultra Pong Doubles,” which makes it seem like the machine is only for two players, unless you're familiar with the term “doubles” as it is used in tennis circles.

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