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:
A Harmony Cartridge is a device that can be plugged into an 1970's-era Atari 2600 video game machine. Data files can then be loaded onto an SD card, and the SD card inserted into the Harmony cartridge so that you can play many different video games without having to swap cartridges all the time.
In the 1970's, Sears licensed the Atari 2600 and put out its own version, calling it the Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade. This is the machine that I own.
Sears also licensed Atari's video games for the machine, and sold them under its own Sears Tele-Games brand
Sears was notorious for changing the names of Atari games. Sometimes because the name that Atari chose for its 2600 game was the same as one that Sears used for an earlier video game machine. Sometimes just because. Sears was this massive company that built America's tallest building and had its own ZIP Code, so renaming a bunch of video games was no big deal.
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:
Use an X-Acto knife to cut a tiny square from the label for the SD card to poke through.
Shave the plastic off of the end of the microSD card so it doesn't stick out so far. I'll have to look into if this can be done without ruining the electronics inside.
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:
I was digging the Halloween decorations out of the basement today, when I came across my old PSP gear. Joy!
Sonyʼs PlayStation Portable wasn't the first portable video game system I ever owned. I had the original Atari Lynx back in the 80ʼs. But the PSP brings back warm memories of a time in my life when I was more full of hope, and the world seemed to be filled with endless possibilities
I was in Japan in February of 2005, a couple of months after the PSPʼs launch, but two months before it became available in the rest of the world. My wife and I were riding on a subway in Tokyo when an OL (“office lady” — the female version of “salaryman”) sat down next to where I was standing. She pulled out a PSP and started playing ルミネス (“Lumines” in English). I was absolutely enthralled. I immediately said to Darcie, “Thatʼs what I'm bringing home from Japan.”
Yodobashi Camera is like the old Crazy Eddie electronics department store, except taking up a dozen floors of a skyscraper. If it runs on electricity, it's probably at Yodobashi. Anything from a Hello Kitty waffle maker to a household earthquake detector. From a refrigerator to a radiation monitor that you hang around your neck. From a transistor radio to the latest computer gear. If there was a PSP in Tokyo, I was sure I'd find it here.
Except that I didnʼt. Yodobashi was too much for me. Too many levels. Too much stuff. Precisely zero signs printed in English. I was over my head. Finally, I had to ask for help. A young man in an ill-fitting suit and an eager grin decided to take a chance with me.
My Japanese is bad. Real bad. When weʼre in Japan, my wife is in her element. She handles the shopgirls, and drags me around like a wide-eyed toddler. But I was on my own this time.
I tried to communicate very clearly and plainly, “Video games?” Blank stare. I broke out my best non-regional radio voice and enunciated as clearly as I could: “Play-stay-shun Port-a-bull.” Nervous smile.
Finally, I resorted to pantomime. I held my hands out in front of me in loose vertical fists, and pumped my thumbs up and down like I was pressing buttons.
With an expression of exuberant relief and a flourish of forearms and pointing palms, he guided me to a half-height white cabinet, bent over, slid back the glass door and popped up with a glossy white box.
With a hasty bow, he took off like jackrabbit down the warren of Panasonic boom boxes, Sony Cliés, and Sanyo voice recorders. His job was done, and he was happy to be done with me, and out of there.
That's why to this day, my wife and I call our video game machines “Peesps.”
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.
U.S. chess master Jude Acers
Play the living legend
Itʼs nice to see that sidewalk chess is still a thing. I havenʼt seen it since I lived in Chicago. It makes one feel better about the neighborhood and the city to know that things that are both smart and random can happen in public.
Perhaps not so random, as there was a chess bar across the street from this scene. But still — New Orleans has a chess bar. What is this, Tyrol?
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 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 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.
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 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 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.
♫ Jeder war ein großer Krieger / Hielten sich für Captain Kirk ♫
Tuesday, June 1st, 2021Alive18,298days
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.
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 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.
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.
I can finally play Zork on my TRS-80 Model 100. Sort of.
Iʼm actually using the Model 100ʼs terminal program to connect to a wifi dongle on the back of the machine which connects to my wifi router, which connects to my Mac Mini, where the game is actually running.
Some day Iʼd like to run Zork on this actual machine, but that would entail installing CP/M on the 100, which is still a very experimental process, and more complicated than I have time for.
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.
I donʼt have the correct controllers for this game. The paddle controllers that came with my Tele-Games machines will work… mostly. But theyʼre not the proper Atari Driving Controllers, which are able to spin all the way around. Not having the right controller constrains my ability to really steer wildly.
I donʼt have any friends to play this game with. Even without being in a COVID lockdown, nobody else I know finds old video games interesting.
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 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.
First, nuns were highly educated. They taught every level of education from kindergarten to college.
Because they were educators, they were deeply embedded in academia, which is where so much of the early development of computers happened.
Nuns could think and reason and plan. The average person today doesnʼt know enough history to understand that the first C.E.O.ʼs were nuns. They ran massive hospital systems and orphanages. They invented what today we call the logistics industry, because they needed to support complex systems. Even today, 26% of the planetʼs healthcare facilities are run by the Roman Catholic Church, which means there are nuns in charge of all sorts of things.
And hereʼs the big one: nuns could type.
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.