As always, you can vote for up to four films and write-ins are accepted and welcomed!
VGM Entry 03: The crash of ’83
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
You may have heard that the video game market crashed in 1983. You may have even heard that this was the consequence of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Atari, December 1982) being a commercial disaster. I don’t know that anyone is naive enough to actually believe this latter claim, but E.T. certainly tops most lists of “worst” video games ever made because of it. A more accurate explanation is summed upon Wikipedia: “the main cause was supersaturation of the market with hundreds of mostly low-quality games which resulted in the loss of consumer confidence.” E.T. was definitely one such low-quality game, but it was one of many.
Yes, the market was flooded, games and systems were being cloned right and left, and everyone was looking to maximize profits by minimizing production costs. The mere existence of such titles as Purina PetCare’s Chase the Chuck Wagon (Spectravision, 1983) should raise an alarm, and nothing surpassed the almighty failure of the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man (Atari, 1982).
Rumor has it Atari released a test version in the early stages of development in order to get the title on the market in time for the holidays, but the game appears to have been released in March. Either way, it was completely unplayable. Atari were so convinced that consumers would purchase it based on the name alone that they produced two million more game cartridges than actual Atari 2600s.
Atari’s deceptive business practices certainly did not win over the hearts and minds of the public, so why didn’t other companies pick up the slack? Well, the truth is they couldn’t. Games like Pac-Man could have been better, but they couldn’t have been much better, because they were constructed with 1977 technology. Atari didn’t deceive the public by blowing off the production of Pac-Man so much as they deceived the public by pretending that the game was even possible on the system. It really wasn’t.
This is the arcade version of Up’n Down (Sega, 1983), to steal an example from Karen Collins. It was pretty standard for its day, and while it has nothing on the likes of Gyruss, it certainly did not contribute to a market collapse. Indeed, if everyone owned a home console with the graphic and audio capacity of 1983 arcade machines instead of the 1977 Atari 2600 there would have likely been no market crash; this is the point which I think a lot of commentaries overlook.
You couldn’t pull off a game like this on the popular home systems of the early 80s. Once ported to the Atari 2600, Up’n Down sounded like something of a sadistic nightmare set to the visual backdrop of a sewage drain. The technical explanation for why the music was so terrible is a bit beyond my grasp, but in plain terms the sound chip was simply not in tune as we commonly think of it. Further complicating the problem, the approximate notes available in any particular octave varied drastically, and the tuning for the North American and European versions were slightly different. Attempting to create good music on the Atari was simply hopeless, and visually, well, you can count for yourself how many pixels developers had to work with.
This wasn’t going to cut it. Nothing in the second generation of video game consoles was. It’s not that home gaming had to keep pace with the arcade, but it still needed to break that threshold of well, being any good. Quality wasn’t a possibility on these older systems, and by 1983 novelty had run its course.
The last interesting point I care to make is that a lot of Atari 2600 games did in fact have continuous music during gameplay. Up’n Down is a prime example. Quite a number of second generation systems–the Atari 2600 (Atari, 1977), Bally Astrocade (Bally Technologies, 1977), Odyssey 2 (Magnavox, 1978), Intellivision (Mattel, 1979)–were theoretically capable of this. If music was guaranteed to sound as bad as Up’n Down, then perhaps no developers bothered to waste their time with it initially, before the arcade made it an expected feature of games. But on the other hand, maybe some developers did, and their games were later lost in the sea of trash that characterized first and second generation game consoles. Was Rally-X in 1980 really the first? I suppose it’s not an important question, but I think the typically unsourced claims to its credit merit scrutiny.