High Scores Episode 1 - Boom and Bust Recap

High Scores Episode 1 - Boom and Bust Recap
By Douglas & Julie Shepard

It will hardly come as a shock that many of us here at GameShampoo have been playing video games for most of our lives. Some of us started on the Nintendo; some began on the Atari. Both of these companies have been the topic of countless articles and documentaries already. But episode one of Netflix's docuseries “High Scores,” titled “Boom and Bust,” delves into some lesser-known history of video games' early years, discussing early arcade cabinets and the Fairchild Channel F alongside the Atari 2600. These systems were the first and second generation of video game consoles, breaking new ground and taking those first steps towards today's sprawling industry. We understand that video game history is far more complex than something that could be covered in just a  limited series of 45-minute episodes, of course. There will be times in these recap that we present additional research to elaborate on points presented in the episode itself.

The cold open has a mysterious programmer talking, who will re-appear later in the episode, talking about the groundbreaking work they were doing in the early 70's with video games. This opening ends with the game many attribute the early 80's Video Game Market Crash to: “E.T. The Extraterrestrial”.(Insert ominous music here.)

The show begins properly with an interview with Nishikado Tomohiro, who made “Space Invaders” in 1978. This was the first arcade blockbuster, breaking games out from the smaller computer labs that they had been found in (save for the odd house with an early Atari system). Nishikado was generous enough to share his design notebook with some of the original programming notes and character sketches that he had. He was eventually approached by Atari to port it over to the Atari 2600, becoming one of the earliest game and system bundles. Nishikado also talked about the sheer amount of money that the game was bringing in from the Invader Houses around Japan. There was a time the truck that collected money from the video game cabinets was visibly dipped down from all the coins! Now demand increased as companies began to see the profits in arcade cabinets. But player skill began to improve, and they were going to demand something more challenging soon.

Enter Doug Macrae and Steve Golson. Doug got his start when he brought a pinball machine into his college dorm. He expanded to a second machine, brought in Steve and some other friends, and by their junior year had 20 machines spread throughout the dorms. The problem they encountered was the revenue fall-off that happened over the weeks the machines were out, simply from people learning about the game. Being MIT students, Doug and Steve started looking into modifying the games, adding more elements to the gameplay, and increasing the difficulty. This was the birth of video game modding. They created “Super Missile Attack” based off “Missile Command,” and it was a hit. They decided to leave college and focus on their next kit, for the biggest game of the time: “Pac-Man!”
Now we get to Rebecca Ann Heineman. She got into the Video Game industry by playing in – and eventually winning - the Atari National Video Game Championship in 1980. She is the first of many interviewees in this series who participated in video game championships, leading up to modern day eSports tournaments. The narrator notes that at that time, there were no leagues and no pro players, nor were there really spectators. In fact, the episode showed retro footage of where the early tournaments were: local shopping malls. Rebecca talked about how this was the first tournament for video games ever and how it helped her back then to just be herself, before she transitioned formally to being female.
The next interviewee was Iwatani Toru, who created Pac-Man. He wanted to make a game that anyone could enjoy. The episode talks about the “Pac-Man Fever” that gripped the world in the wake of Pac-Man's release and its wide appeal. It mentions the cartoon show, the song “Pac-Man Fever,” and just how widespread “Pac-Man” got. With widespread popularity came mods. Atari tried to sue one of the modders, Mike Horowitz. But, concerned about the precedent that could be set if they lost, they settled out of court and hired Mike to develop a more challenging version of “Pac-Man.” The result: “Ms. Pac-Man.”

Another figure enters here, reciting the poem “Jabberwocky” as his mic check: Nolan Bushnell,  legendary founder of Atari. The focus at Atari, he explains, was not on the hours, but on the output. The episode does take some time to address (but not really debunk) the rumors of Hot Tub meetings, orgies, and fairly wide-spread drug use.

Now the episode dives into the history of a man whose name has been sadly forgotten in video game history: Jerry Lawson. This part interviews his children (Karen and Lawrence) and grandson. Jerry passed in 2011, but his contribution changed home video gaming as we know it to this day: he brought Video Game Cartridges into the world. This was all done for the Fairchild Channel F console, which is also mostly lost to time. Still, Lawrence and Karen talked about the workshop that Jerry set up in their childhood garage. He led the team that would invent swappable cartridges. This, of course, prompted the other console companies to mimic this.

The Fairchild Channel F was the first to feature Jerry's swappable cartridges. It also sported detachable controllers, not a common feature in the first or second generation of video game consoles. The controllers featured 8-direction movement, and the same input could be pushed or pulled to interact with the game. It was also one of the first consoles to have a microprocessors inside it. By the end of its lifespan, the console had 26 games to its name and 1 demo-cart, bringing the total to 27. Apparently, the higher the number, the rarer the cartridge, since fewer were produced. The console would receive 1 iteration throughout its lifespan, but it was ultimately overshadowed by its competition from Atari.

As the episode began to wrap-up, it went back to the man from the beginning, Howard Scott Warshaw. He wrote a number of very successful games for Atari, including movie tie-in games. He explained that it took 6-8 months for a game to finish its development. He had just finished the game for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” directed by Steven Spielberg. Just as the party finished to celebrate that, Warshaw was tapped to do the game for Spielberg's “E.T.” … in 5 weeks' time. Still, he was utterly confident that he could make the game in that crunched time frame. He only had 36 hours to complete the basic design documents for the game to pitch to Spielberg himself and get approval. Warshaw knew he couldn't program what Spielberg was counter-proposing, a version of “Pac-Man”, in 5 weeks, so he ended up trying to compromise by creating a game wherein the player leads E.T. around a series of obstacles in the yard.. From there, it was the most intense development cycle he had gone through at that point. He had his work computer brought to his house to ensure he had computer access to simply write code day and night. He finished the game on time, and it was presented to Spielberg, who signed off on it. From there, the game was mass produced and rushed to market without any of the usual testing. It would go on to become the greatest flop of the era.

“E.T.” does offer something interesting in its lore that the episode did not even touch on: the rumors that millions of the Atari Cartridges were buried in a landfill in New Mexico. The interesting thing here is that the rumors had some truth to it. A documentary called “Atari: Game Over” was made to document the search, and eventually excavation, of the cartridges themselves. It is suspected there are about 700,000 cartridges in the landfill. They are just located deeper in than was allowed. This venture yielded about 1,178 Atari Cartridges. The excavation happened in April of 2014 and the documentary was released in November of that year. (Those who led this excavation were clear that theirs was a one-time case of the city granting permission.)

The episode wrapped up talking about the disappointment that followed with the Atari version of “Pac-Man,” a poorly-ported version of the arcade game. This was just the beginning of a number of bad games released for the 2600 system. The corporate mind-set that emerged of quantity, not quality, created the crash of the Video Game Market in 1983. The crash of the Video Game Market is very broad topic and not something we want to summarize. But the loss of control, saturation, competition from personal computers and the inflation of the 80's all had a hand in it.

This episode does a good job of introducing bigger topics that people can look into. The Fairchild was something completely new, even to people like the staff of GameShampoo who discuss the history of the console market and its evolution for a living. This episode did look overlook some of the beginnings of video games, but this is a series, so we won't put all our cartridges in one landfill.

Comments (0)

New comments are currently disabled.

Subscribe to me on YouTubeFollow us on Twitter!
Join our Steam group!