The BART Video Game Arcade (Circa 1976)

Gary Fong / The Chronicle
Gary Fong / The Chronicle / December 1, 1976

While at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple personality disorders), I had to trained fresh out of high school graduates on being video game testers. These youngsters didn’t believe I played video games in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. So I introduced them to a tester who tested video games for the original Atari in the 1980’s, and then introduced them to a tester who tested pen-and-paper games in the 1970’s. Their young heads often exploded in amazement that video games existed before the Sony PlayStation in 1995. As further proof that early video games existed, SFGate recently noted that the Powell Street BART Station installed video arcade games in 1976.

The first time I ever played a video game was Atari Pong in the basement of the Sear’s building in downtown San Jose—where the Midtown Safeway is today—during the Bicentennial (1975/76). I was five- or six-years-old at the time. My mother was returning something at the exchange desk. My father slipped a quarter into the arcade machine and we played a short game. Several years later I got a TV pong game for Christmas, the first of several early video game consoles that would prepare me for the working world.

Most arcade machines were hidden away in pizza parlors, bowling alleys and public venues like the BART station throughout the 1970’s. Arcades with wall-to-wall machines didn’t happen until the early 1980’s. The arcade that I grew up in was at Oakridge Mall in South San Jose. A dark hole in the wall that sucked in kids and their quarters like nothing else, and quickly doubled in size after taking over the storefront next door. This was my favorite after school activity.

My parents didn’t approve that I split my weekly allowance—a princely $30 USD that I didn’t know was a small fortune for a teenager—between the arcade and the bookstore. Video games were much worse than the pinball machines that they grew up on. Reading inspires all kinds of subversive behaviors, such as being smarter than anyone else. On the bright side, I wasn’t buying drugs like so many of friends who got stoned out of their mind in class.

After the Atari E.T. cartridge scandal killed the video game revolution, the wall-to-wall arcades started fading away in popularity. Newer video game consoles and PC’s brought the video games back into the home. Arcade machines are still tucked away at various locations today. The only real arcades left in Silicon Valley are Chuck E. Cheese’sDave & Buster’s or Nickel City. I don’t play arcade machines anymore, as any five-year-old youngster can beat my sorry ass with faster reflexes.

Reviving The Windows Gaming PC

The Apple Store revived my vintage Black MacBook (2006) several years ago after the CPU fan started screaming like a banshee, replacing the CPU fan, battery and keyboard. I hoped to get another six years of usage before getting a replacement system. Alas, the CPU fan started acting up several months ago. The system would shut down in 15 minutes after starting up. I could no longer use it to look for a new job, or, after being unemployed for nearly eight months, get it repaired or replaced. I had to switch over to my Windows gaming PC, which spontaneously reboots whenever I needed to do something.

Like most users who switched from Windows to Mac, I only turned on my PC to play video games. The last rebuild was in 2007 to upgrade the motherboard, CPU and memory for Windows Vista. That system was quite stable. A few years ago I replaced the dual-core processor with a quad-core processor and the video card from an ATI Radeon 3870 to an ATI Radeon 6790. That system wasn’t quite as stable. Upgrading to Windows 7 and Windows 8 over the years didn’t help much.

Was the quad-core CPU that came out years after the motherboard got manufactured and enabled with a BIOS update incompatible? Was the video card defective? Was the power supply failing in a mysterious way? Or was it all of the above?

Troubleshooting the PC was never urgent as I rarely played video games after getting serious about writing and suffering bouts of unemployment from my non-writing tech job. With the MacBook out of commission, I needed another computer system to continue my job search. The easiest solution was switching over to an old Dell system. However, I never take the easiest path if a harder—more educational—path is available.

After opening the PC and the Dell to lay side-by-side, I started switching out the video cards. With an old Nvidia Quadro video card in the PC and the 6970 video card in the Dell, both systems ran without problems. I then started checking the power requirements for the video cards and looked up the specs on the power supplies in each system.

The PC still had the power supply from 2007 with 20A on the 12V rail, but the Dell had a newer power supply with 40A on the 12V rail. Most new video cards required at least 25A on the 12V rail. The 6970 needed the extra juice for graphic-intensive applications. The solution became obvious. I switched the power supplies and put the 6970 back into the PC. (I didn’t bother putting the Quadro back into the Dell since the motherboard had a built-in AMD 4200 video chipset.) After wiping the hard drive and re-installing Windows 8.1, the PC was no longer spontaneously rebooting.

It didn’t take long to get the PC up and running with email to resume my job search. A few days later, I landed a new job. The only Mac-specific applications that I’m missing from the PC are Photoshop CS3 and Bento for ebook publishing. I can boot up the MacBook to complete any tasks within 15 minutes before it shuts down. Despite transferring operations over to my PC, I’m going to save up to get a replacement Mac later this year. Like most users who switched from Windows to Mac, the Mac is the better computing device.

Unburying The Atari E.T. Video Game Scandal

E.T. The Extra-Terrestial Video GameThe 1980’s home video game revolution crashed and burned in after Atari introduced “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” a movie-based video game that it overpaid to license, ordered millions of cartridges more than all the Atari 2600 video consoles in existence, rushed the game to the store shelves, and buried the whole thing in a New Mexico landfill. According to Snoops, the E.T. landfill burial was an urban legend. A documentary team went sifting through the landfill and found the E.T. cartridges. For those of us who lived through this particular episode of video game history, some things are best left buried in the ground.

I had an Atari 2600 and 30+ video game cartridges worth $1,000 USD when I was a preteen, a small fraction of the 500+ cartridges available back then. Toy “R” Us had one whole aisle dedicated to video game cartridges, where consoles and empty cartridge boxes hung from pegboard. You take a tag from the sleeve below the item you want, pay at the cash register, and take it over to the “cage” that used to house the high-priced specialty toys. At the height of the video game revolution, so many cartridges lined the cage from floor to ceiling that the clerks had little room to move around.

I knew the industry had jumped the shark when a camera store sold video games along side their expensive cameras under the glass case. The young sales clerk reassured me that “Shark Attack” by Apollo—one of the first cartridge companies to file for bankruptcy—was a great game. It wasn’t great; it was horrible. My friend and I exhausted the replay value of the game in less than an hour. I paid $30 USD for this piece of crap. That was the last cartridge I ever bought for the Atari 2600.

As for E.T., I paid little attention either the movie or the video game because I detested Reese’s Pieces.

After being split into several companies by Warner Communications in 1983, the intellectual property rights floated around the industry for years. I was working as a video game tester at the family owned Accolade when Infogrames, a French video game company that no one heard of, bought it out while on a buying spree to become the next Vivendi Universal that bought its way into the American multimedia markets. One of the companies that got bought was Hasbro Interactive, which owned the intellectual property rights for Atari.

Speculation was rampart that Infogrames would change its name to Atari after relocating the office from San Jose to Sunnyvale, which was where the old Atari had its headquarters. Shortly thereafter, the company became the new Atari and I became a lead tester in 2001. Alas, the new Atari didn’t escape the old Atari curse when every video game title became available for every platform (i.e., Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube/GameBoy Advance, PC, and Sony Playstation 2), flooding the market with DVDs for games that were excellent on some platforms but terrible on others.

I knew the new Atari jumped the shark when it acquired the rights for “Enter The Matrix” in 2002, a movie-based video game based on the popular Matrix movies, featuring two-hours of exclusive video from the forthcoming sequels. Security was tight. When a DVD without the exclusive content disappeared, five testers got fired. I avoided the game like the plague and spent only three days testing the rabbit hole tunnel sequence that was a black screen for the Nintendo GameCube version towards the end. Although it sold five million companies, the game was so horrible that it made E.T. look good in comparison.

The new Atari sold off all the video game studios that it bought over the years, realizing that it paid two to three times for what each studio was actually worth, reduced itself to peddling Facebook games for a while, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. The newly reformed Atari has only ten employees out of a company that once employed hundreds.

Meanwhile, I quit the company after six years in 2004, finished my associate degree in computer programming, and changed my career to help desk support. That was the best decision I ever made in my life, as being a video game tester was a dead-end job if you weren’t young and stupid to tolerate the abuses that went with it. After a while, you stop being young and stupid.

Kickstarter: The MegaTokyo Visual Novel Game

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My favorite webcomic, Megatokyo, has a Kickstarter project to create a Megatokyo visual novel game for the PC, Mac and Linux. A visual novel game is the Japanese version of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, where you interact with the characters and decide what happens next in the story.

Megatokyo is about two American fanboys of manga, anime and video games, who are stuck in Tokyo after flying to Japan on a whim and can’t afford to go home. Piro is the normal guy looking for love in all the wrong places. Largo is the weird guy battling giant monsters and being a substitute teacher at a local school. A typical day for them can be quite strange, especially if an unscheduled zombie hoard is trashing Tokyo.

The response from fans was phenomenal. With an initial funding goal of $20,000 USD and stretch goals to $75,000 USD, the project has $250,000+ USD in pledges. I’ve pledged at the $35 USD level to receive all the digital downloads when they become available. If you’re interested in being the first to get this game, there’s still time left to make a pledge. The expected release date for the first part of the game is February 2014.

Updated 21 July 2013 @ 10:15PM Update: After all was said and done, almost 5,000 fans gave slightly under $300,000 USD. Check out the post on my writing blog.