Surviving The (Video Game) Crash: An Old Dude's Tale

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You can't help when you were born, as all decades have their ups and downs, but as far as the entertainment world goes, I think I was born at pretty much the right time: I only owned one eight track tape ever in my entire life (Rock and Roll Over by Kiss), had (/still have) only a couple dozen albums (that can be prone to skipping) and cassettes (that are prone to wear AND warping), and everything else has been cd for me. Sure, DVD among artists are gaining in popularity, but cds will still be manufactured for many more years to come...after all, vinyl albums supposedly "died" sometime in the 1980s, yet a few bands still release I got back into collecting vinyl around the year 2001, after a near dozen years of ignoring it. So DVD is just an eventual necessity I'll probably have to eventually switch to over the years...but I'll still keep plenty of cds as it is.

And, of course, I was right there at the birth of video games coming into popularity, both in the arcades and at home. My mom bought the household the Atari 2600 sometime in the early 1980s, like '81 or '82. It was a good time to be a video gamer, since, even though the 2600 was aging and being ridiculed by that old meanie George Plimpton touting the much more powerful Intellivision, it was still very popular and had a huge library of games that was constantly growing. By '83-'84, there was also the Odyssey 2, the very powerful consoles of the Atari 5200, Bally Astrocade and Colecovision, the curious vector game console the Vectrex and the Arcadia 2001...and those were just the CONSOLES, as computers were starting to do well too! Originally thought as expensive, boring grown-up utensils, computers were much more powerful than most consoles and brought about all kinds of other applications, such as word processing, electronic mail (whatever the heck that was back then, if you had a modem, that is), and being able to program your own games as well (among many other things that game-only consoles couldn't do).

Oh, and SPEAKING of which: yeah, it looked like just about ANY computer game killed, as the Commodore Vic-20 and 64, the TI-994A, Apple and Atari computers, the Coco and TRS-80, and other lesser known models such as the Spectrum (here in the States anyway, as it barely made a blip in sales, unlike overseas, where it was much more popular), among a few others, gave people a good, wide choice as to what to get, since computers were finally becoming affordable and gaining in popularity. Heck, even some consoles were crossing over too, since the Atari 2600, Intellivision and the Coleco were supposed to be coming out with keyboard units as well (which the Coleco Adam was the only one out of the three that actually DID do this, although it was a totally separate computer rather than just an add-on, plus that Odyssey 2 had a keyboard as well, but it wasn't exactly a computer though).

And, of course, who could forget the last tier as far as gaming went: the arcade! Once the parents started getting irritated at you tying up the tv -- as even a few models of those fancy home computers sometimes took a tv to use as well, rather than a monitor of it's own -- you could go to an arcade, and hopefully get a good 6-10, if not even TWELVE tokens for a dollar to keep you busy all afternoon with only a few bucks! (A crummy arcade was known as to giving you "only" four or five tokens for a buck; yucko! Avoid those like the plague, or like the George Plimpton ads on tv if you're an Atari fanboy [or girl]!)

Unfortunately, all good things can't last forever, now, can they? First, backing up to a few of the previous paragraphs: how many consoles and computers did I mention that were available on the market? That's right, SIXTEEN! (And that didn't mention a few of the ones I might have forgotten or were available overseas, but not here!) No WAY is a market going to keep on going that is that huge! Plus, my list didn't include the tons of software available for everything, either. Tons of video game companies were out trying to make a buck, and there were a lot of bad games out there, neither of which helped the industry.

I remember when that '83-'84 crash happened, too: Target had an ad for cheap 2600 games for only about ten dollars (here in Houston at the time, a new 2600 game cost upwards of nearly thirty dollars, so that was pretty cheap indeed), including Superman. Superman was a very unique game that was a total pain when you introduced someone new to it, since you'd have to sit with them and tell them where to go in the maze of subway levels to get Superman to deposit the bad guys in jail in order to help win the game, but it was very original, funny, and it could be pretty challenging too.

First off, though, the scene: it was just a wee bit slightly uncomfortable to see grown-ups (I guess) crammed into the video games section, practically climbing over each other to grab some games. Being a not-so-tall (I'm only 5'8" now) kid of 12-14, it was a bit unnerving, as I had never seen anything like that before (granted, this scene would play out again about a year later when the Cabbage Patch Kids craze briefly hit, with people fighting over those fat, ugly things, but I stayed free and clear of the dolls section at Toys 'r Us during Christmas, though): adults? Doing this over GAMES? Adults do BORING stuff, they don't play games or anything! (Ok, so I was slightly naive then too...)

Then there was the talk about Superman: "where's Superman?" "Superman's gone!" "Oh, they're all out of Superman!" So that was my cue to was actually pretty easy to find my mom, due to the other store isles being pretty empty on that day. Toys 'r Us also had Superman advertised for ten bucks, so we went there and got it (due to the store not having a video game blow-out sale like Target), due to my mom's knowledge of me AND my sister wanting the game (which was one of the few video games my sister ever played back then).

Being in junior high, this was big freakin' news, as everyone was talking about it: "my dad bought 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe just for the heck of it!" Indeed, it must have been a pretty big success.

Then, months later, the same thing happened a way: games were discounted EVERYWHERE, and not just in toy/department stores, but even the little rinky-dink record stores that tried to cash in on the video game craze by stocking some games (and usually had lousy prices). The difference this time around, though, was that the games sat around, rather than having people (crazy) climbing over each other to get at them. A severe saturation point had been reached. Activision wound up losing over $300 million due to the crash, Atari, at one point, was losing millions by the day, probably a good 90% of all video game companies that were around back then died, and the arcades went with them: Memorial City Mall here in Houston, which had, at one point, I think FIVE arcades going at the most at one time, dropped down to ZERO. Granted, not all of them were going to stay there anyway: Quiptars, being gigantic and giving you a good 8-10, maybe even 12 tokens for a buck (I don't remember what the top number was at it's height), opened a Quiptars II at one point, but it didn't make any sense, due to it only being about a tenth the size of the original Quiptars (or less, even!), as it was so small you were literally almost bumping elbows with people trying to get to what few games they had (I think the only thing going for Quiptars II was that it had a few games the original Quiptars didn't. But it didn't stay open for long anyway).

Even though I didn't have the big bucks like a friend of mine who had a paper route (and had a ton of games for his a Colecovision...and TI-994A...AND C-64), there were a few good points of the crash for myself; to wit:

*getting Pitfall!, but of course, this is *mandatory* for us 2600 owners, but it was one of the cheap ones I got

*Star Wars Return of the Jedi Death Star Battle, a so-so oddity that didn't have much to do with the movie, but it got a lot of play anyhow

*the whimsical, funny, "reverse Kaboom!" of Crackpots

*Space Jockey--no big deal on this one, but I got to experience what it was like, as I heard it wasn't that great, but I was curious nonetheless

*half of the Telesys catalog of Demolition Herby (a fun, kind of "Amidar on speed" game), Cosmic Creeps (looked like it was made for little kids, but it turned out to be a pretty original, different game), and Ram It (none of my friends liked it/could get past the first screen, but it's one of the few games out there that needs a good deal of strategy AND luck to beat, and is considered to be a hard-to-find, but worthwhile classic today).

Then, the highlights of it all for me:

*getting a Starpath Supercharger for only ten bucks, down from it's usual price of about $45 (known to most of us nowadays as to having pretty much THE best library out there for the 2600, even with only a dozen games)

*getting H. E. R. O. for only $15 (one of the most incredible games for the 2600, period, and is fairly rare nowadays)

*Tunnel Runner for only $10 (see above)

*getting the usually-priced $35 Indy 500 (due to coming with it's own special controllers) for only $10

*the non-Atari 2600 purchase of one of the most unique (and sought-after nowadays) game systems ever in the history of gaming of the Vectex for only $50.

Even though I always liked them and plan on playing them until the day I die (since, as I'm nearing 40 now, my life's roughly [more or less] half over), home video gaming took a rest for a while until the Atari 7800 come out and floundered around in stores, crushed by the mighty Nintendo NES. I bought it used, along with a bunch of games, from a friend of mine for $200 (a rip-off nowadays, but not bad back in the day, as it wasn't very old then). Even though it was much more powerful than the 2600 (not counting the sound chip, though), and the arcade adaptions were a lot closer to the originals than the 2600 ones were (like Joust, Ms. Pac-Man [as far as the mazes went, I mean, Ms. Pac-Man for the 2600 was pretty good too], and Robotron: 2084, which probably couldn't have been done on the 2600), things didn't feel the same to me as they did back in the 2600 days. After all, (home) video games were pretty much brand spanking new back then, and I was a young kid at the right age to have the "oh wow!" factor included during the glory days. Even though I had more contact with renting games for my Sega Genesis, CD, and 32X several years after that, again, it didn't bring back the same feelings, although my Genesis ranks a close second to my 2600 as to my favorite console that I own.

Things just aren't the same. And neither is the video game industry. Sure, it's still a multi-billion dollar a year industry (as much money as The Incredibles movie made [a few hundred million], the Halo 2 video game outgrossed it in only it's first few weeks of release), but there's far fewer consoles and computers out for them. Arcades have been dying for many years now, and a lot of free online gaming is also available as well. There IS a possibility of another video game crash eventually, I suppose, but it is pretty doubtful it will be anything like the one of '83-'84. (After all, has there been another Great Depression since the late 20s/early 30s?)

In closing, I don't even have a real ending for this piece. I just hope you enjoyed reading this and it brought back some good memories of getting some cheap games yourself (for those of us that were around back then, that is). That, and lets hope this, probably the darkest chapter in the brief history of video games, is a history that won't be soon repeated.

Some of the (mostly 2600) loot I got for $15 or less (original suggested retail price up to $45!)

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