One of the most enduring legends in the world of video games is the one stating that Atari buried millions of unsold cartridges of its failed game E.T.: The Extraterrestrial in the New Mexico desert. Between the game’s terrible reception and the video game crash of 1983, Atari wound up with more unsalvagable merchandise than they could handle.
So they buried them in the desert.
Or so the story says.
Because that’s just what it was, right? A story? An urban legend? Something whimsical we’d like to think actually happened? Something for us to dream about how, gee, wouldn’t it be neat if someone went and tried to dig these things up and find out once and for all?
Hello friends! Of course, when Pike and I resolve to get the blog going again, we both fall deathly ill and can barely rouse ourselves from bed that exact week! Still, I have largely recovered so here we go with a little blog post!
Here’s what you do: Go to Google Images and type in “atari breakout”. As you will soon see the screen will morph into that precise game, using the images for the blocks! Breakout is one of my very favorite classic games, one I’ve always adored, and it provides a really useful launching off point to show how very very simple systems can still make a very engaging and deep game. If you’re not familiar with Breakout, well, here’s your chance to get acquainted with it – though you might want to hold off if you’re in the middle of an important project ;)
That’s what Breakout looked like in the beginning and very little has changed. Those colored bars across the top consisted of a number of ‘bricks’, and you use the paddle to hit the ball up towards them, with the objective of breaking every brick. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well it is. But marrying such a simple concept with such a sense of satisfaction is the genius that makes Breakout such a great game – all you’re doing is breaking bricks to clear the screen. You’re not fighting wars like in Hearts of Iron, you’re not shooting mans like in Call of Duty, you’re not going fast like Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed – you’re just breaking some bricks. You’d wonder how it can be so fun and addictive. But that simplicity might be the very reason for it. Anyone can figure out the conceit of Breakout within a few seconds of watching or playing. There’s nothing extraneous to it, not even graphically in the beginning, it’s what you might call a very ‘pure’ game. And when you managed to breakthrough the bricks and get your ball to bounce along the ceiling and the top row? Well, that’s one of the more satisfying experiences in gaming, simple as it might be.
Breakout is a stellar example not just of how videogames began but of what makes them special. With a very simple premise, controls that are simply “left” and “right”, and almost nothing in the way of aesthetics, it’s not something that modern gamers, used to all kinds of razzmatazz and particles and trillions of polygons on Lara Croft’s breasts, might immediately see the value in, but it’s about as pure as a game gets. You’ve got your objective and the means to achieve it, and the only enemy is your own mistakes. It’s pure gameplay, nothing else. That’s something maybe some developers could do with a gentle reminder of in this day and age.
When I first saw the above phrase on the Internet this morning I was rather taken aback. Surely Atari isn’t that old! Quickly I rushed to Wikipedia, though, where they confirmed it: “Atari was incorporated in the state of California on June 27, 1972.”
Now Atari didn’t invent the video game, nor did they invent the arcade video game or the home console system. They did, however, popularize these things and prove that video games were a profitable and interesting thing to go into. Pong was the first game to really take arcades by storm, and while the Magnavox Odyssey might have been the first console, it was the Atari 2600 that wound up in the home of so many kids in the early 80s. It was certainly in mine.
Thanks to Nolan Bushnell and Atari, games went on to become first a cultural phenomenon and then the art form that they are today. So stop and take a moment to reflect on the last forty years, and enjoy a slice of the cake: