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.
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 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.
♫ 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 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 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.