As I begin writing this article, it is less than 1 week until the launch of the Nintendo Switch console. By the time this article is posted, the console will have been released. Because I didn't have the money to pre-order a Switch when the pre-orders were announced, I may well miss out on the launch of the console, unless I'm fortunate enough to score one from the nearest GameStop, Best Buy, or Target, the evening after the midnight launch. Barring that luck, I suspect it will be a few weeks before I'll be able to get my hands on one. However, with the Internet hype machine leaking information, and Nintendo themselves feeding the public little crumbs of info over the last few months, I've been sucked in like never before. I was intrigued by the launch of the Dreamcast, though hopelessly unable to afford one at the time, and I was very excited prior to the launch of the Wii U, though ended up not being able to afford one until nearly a year after launch, but with the Switch, and the possibilities it brings to the table, I have to say I'm more excited than ever.
Continue reading Why I'm Excited About The Nintendo Switch
The following was written up early last summer for appearance on another site that ultimately didn't run it. So I'm posting it here...
When I was in my early teenage years, the arcades were experiencing what would be their final hurrah before entering into a sad and ongoing fifteen year decline of increasingly shuttered mall stores, vacated boardwalk buildings, and empty pizza parlors. In many ways, however, the pinball arcade had already gone through this transition while the arcade itself was yet thriving. When I was a kid, most arcade hideouts had long ago tossed Pin-Bot and Space Shuttle machines to make room for more Mortal Kombat, Tekken, or NBA Jam cabinets. Pinball Wizard was not an anthem for my generation (I guess we had Guile's Theme, instead) and pinball was starting to be seen as a poor investment for arcade owners. As a kid, I didn't care. Pinball was something that I'd play to bide my time if all the video game machines were already taken. As an adult, however, I now lament the lost opportunity to spend more time with these masterful creations.
Pinball Arcade, published by FarSight Studios, offers a salve of sorts to my feelings of regret. FarSight previously published the excellent Pinball Hall of Fame titles which featured classic tables from pinball companies Gottlieb and Williams, each of which were painstakingly and lovingly recreated in video game form for a wide variety of consoles. Pinball Arcade takes that basic concept - detail-focused recreations of classic tables (complete with spot-on physics) - and offers it in the form of an PSN/XBLA/iOS title. This entry represents not only their best work to date, but it is also perhaps the best pinball video game to ever grace a console.
On consoles, the game comes with four tables at an initial offering price of $10. Those tables are Theater of Magic, Black Hole, Ripley's Believe it or Not!, and Tales of the Arabian Nights. These are all heavy hitters in the pinball machine market: Theater, Ripley's, and Tales regularly command $5,000+ to purchase a machine on eBay or at conventions, and Black Hole will likely cost you at least a couple of grand. No video game can give you quite the same feeling as you would get playing the original, but I find it much easier to drop $10 for an excellent facsimile of that experience that to drop $20,000 for the real thing. Having played a wide variety of pinball video games in the past and having played three of the actual tables that are included in this collection, I can say that I've never played a title that feels closer to reality than Pinball Arcade.
There are a number of things that Pinball Arcade does right. For one, it offers online leaderboards that allow you to compare your scores with those of your friends and with others from around the world. I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed this feature of the game, as it really delivers a sense of mutual competition that is reminiscent of the actual arcade experience. For another, it offers extremely easy to understand breakdowns of table goals, how to score, what spinners and lights mean what, etc. It seems a small thing for a pinball game, but the writer for the brief tutorial paragraphs deserves a bonus: those short blurbs of explanation are extremely succinct and informative without being condescending. The game offers a number of incentives for playing often and improving your skills: each table has a set of table goals and harder wizard goals which you can try and achieve (successful completion of which will net you trophies or achievements on PSN and XBLA, respectively), and finishing all of the goals will allow you to play tables with tilt turned off. Each tables menu also has a section detailing the history of the table and offers scans of the original flyers for you to pour over.
Oh, and those who purchase the PS3 version get the Vita version for free, so that's a nice bonus as well. The Vita version, while taking a slight drop in the visuals, performs extremely well and is my preferred platform for the game. You can't go wrong with any version, though.
FarSight has indicated that more tables will be continue to be released as DLC at about $2.50 per table. So far these tables have included "Monster Bash," "Bride of Pin-Bot", "Medieval Madness," "Funhouse," and "Cirqus Voltaire" with promises of "Attack from Mars, "Star Trek The Next Generation" and "Twilight Zone" coming soon (and, again, almost all of these are extremely expensive machines on the pinball market). They have also built into their game the opportunity for tournament and challenge play with the addition of future tables, which should make leaderboard chasing even more exciting.
Whether you are a grizzled veteran of the pinball craze in arcades, a video gamer who has ever enjoyed any video pinball title in the past, or just a person who likes games that motivate you to improve your score, youll find a lot to love in Pinball Arcade. It might not give you the exact sensation of feeling all the bumpers and becoming part of the machine, but you can still work out those crazy flipper fingers (on shoulder buttons) while pursuing your own (virtual) pinball crown.
In 1988, NEC released the $400 PCE-CD (or TurboGrafx-CD, in North America) without any included titles. Buyers needed to drop an additional hefty sum to actually play some games on the thing, and many probably opted for the premiere title in a series that would go on to be one of the most loved of all time.
If Fighting Street was any indication, CD-based systems and the Street Fighter series should have been dead in the water.
Fighting Street is a particularly bad example of the one on one fighting genre prior to their golden age period in the arcades of the early 1990s. Though the game included some of the same features that would go on to help define its sequels, the basic core components - gameplay, graphics, and sound - are all extremely rough compared to what would be accomplished just a few years later. Even when considered in context, the game was a mess.
As a launch game for the first CD-based console, there are several things worth pointing out:
The game included "high quality" CD-audio. One of the most marketable features of CDs was their ability to include higher quality music than would be possible with sound chips. Superior audio fidelity was driving CD sales in the music industry, and held promise for the gaming industry as well. Fighting Street does feature sound that is marginally better than most of the PCE's Hu-Card based games, but as it is emulating the soundtrack from an arcade machine, there is not the huge jump that some might expect. Of course the CD format would also become known in gaming for introducing voice acting. Voice acting is also included here, in a way. There is one recorded voice. Win or lose, a poorly recorded Japanese voice SLOWLY speaks the English words you see on the screen. Every time. You will hear this voice about every two minutes, which means that after an hour you have listened to it 30 times. Give a listen here around 2 minutes and again around 3:55.
The game actually had bearable loading times. One thing that plagued many later CD systems such as the Sega CD and 3DO were atrocious loading times. Even the fighters on SNK's Neo Geo CD suffered from long loads. Not so with Fighting Street. While the game does have some loading (usually to cue up the spoken voice), there's no waiting for more than 5 seconds or so between screens.
The game should have been packaged with a six button controller. The arcade version of the game used two buttons, and the intensity of a punch or kick was based on how long you held down the button. That set up was translated to the PCE-CD, but it just doesn't work as well as a 6-button set up might. In addition, the standard d-pad is poorly suited to this kind of game. I personally found myself fighting the controls more than my opponent, which is never something that bodes well for a game in this genre.
There was no ability to save. Feature-wise, this was one of the biggest surprises of the game. The PCE-CD had the ability to save game data on internal RAM, something that even later CD systems often neglected. The ability to save progress, high scores, settings, or other features could have highlighted this strength of the system. Opportunity lost.
The game was not good. I've made it a point to try and not do much in the way of reviews in this blog, instead focusing on specific novel features of the games I've addressed. For this game though, I feel I can make an exception: avoid paying any money for this. The bad controls and irritating sound are features that - while bad separately - really ruin the game when experienced together. It is a small miracle that the PCE-CD went on to have some of the best games of the era, and that Street Fighter would go on to the success it found. There's little here to promote the CD medium over carts/cards, and even less to encourage people to play fighters on the PCE-CD.
Twenty Five years ago today, the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in the United States. Before its run was over with the release of Wario's Woods in 1994, the system became the bestselling video game console of all time (a mark that would not be passed for many years), the company's name literally became synonymous with gaming, and the NES' library had achieved a special place in the hearts and minds of gamers the world over. Even today, the system is usually recognized as the most popular of all retro consoles, and many gamers continue to collect games in cartridge format or play them via the Wii's Virtual Console or emulation.
That success was far from guaranteed when the system launched in the U.S. on October 18, 1985. In fact, many onlookers felt dubious about the chances for Nintendo's console to succeed in the post-crash market of the mid-1980s. And even though the system had been moderately successful in the two years since it had launched in Japan (as the Family Computer), the kind of reception it would receive amongst American audiences was widely unknown. For this reason, the U.S. release was a limited one. The October 1985 date was for the New York City test market, and the full nationwide launch wouldn't be until February of 1986 after Nintendo saw some success in New York (and a few other markets).
Long before Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, or Contra became household names, Nintendo launched a product in the U.S. that had to convince a skeptical audience that it was worth investing in a new console. What was it like to purchase a brand new Nintendo Entertainment Center in October of '85 (or February of 1986)? What was the system launch like? Did those early decisions help the system achieve later greatness? Read on!
Part 1: The Games
The launch lineup consisted of eighteen games! This was almost twice the amount of games that launched in the U.S. with the Atari VCS, and half again as many games as had launched with the Colecovision. In some ways, this was a curious decision. While it afforded gamers a high degree of choice, it also served as a reminder that chief catalyst for the gaming crash a few years earlier had been a market flooded with low-quality games. Fortunately for Nintendo, their launch titles were not low quality. But, standing in a store 25 years ago, it might be hard for a gamer not to think that they were seeing more of the same practice that had killed enthusiasm and sales for Atari a short time ago.
The launch lineup took cues from Atari. As we've covered previously, the Atari VCS launch featured games with very short, descriptive titles (Combat, Blackjack, Street Racer, etc.). This let consumers know what they were buying, whereas a game named after a character might not. For the most part, Nintendo followed suit. Roughly half of the launch games featured titles which made gameplay elements explicitly obvious (10 Yard Fight, Baseball, Duck Hunt, Golf, Kung Fu, Pinball, Soccer, and Tennis) and another set made it easy to guess what the game featured (Excitebike, Ice Climber, Stack-Up, and Wild Gunman). Unlike Atari, however, Nintendo did include a few of their well known IPs in the launch lineup: Mario (Super Mario Bros.) and Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong Jr. Math) both made the cut, only leaving gamers scratching their head over titles like Clu Clu Land, Hogans Alley, Gyromite, and Wrecking Crew. In any case, like Atari, Nintendo offered a wide variety of launch titles, the scope of which wouldn't be offered again until Sony's PS2 launch almost 15 years later.
The launch lineup featured the system's iconic game (and character). The NES launch has several solid titles, but none were as important as Super Mario Bros. Mario was already a well known character based on the success of the Mario Bros. games and Mario's link to Donkey Kong, but Miyamoto's side-scrolling masterpiece was the game to define the console from day 1. Some of the launch bundles included the game, and it would go on to become the best-selling game of all time (a mark not passed until Wii Sports recently took the crown) . Few launch lineups in history have featured a game that made it into the all-time top 10, and all of them are games that launched with Nintendo systems.
Quality assured. In another nod to the video game crash, Nintendo included the Nintendo Seal of Quality on its titles to (hopefully) let consumers know that the games they were buying were bug-free, high quality titles. The seal may not have meant much in 1985, but by the time the NES was in homes across the country a few years later the seal came to represent an important departure from the flooded market that came to symbolize the latter days of the 2600's run.
(Note: I plan to cover many of these games in the blog individually in the future, but in the meantime there is an excellent run-down of the basics of each launch game here: http://matwolf.com/blog/n...-original-18-nes-games-2/ I shamelessly stole their images of box art, too.)
Part 2: The System
The D-Pad. Nintendo was not technically the first console maker or video game company to include a standard D-Pad, but they certainly popularized it. Nintendo's games were designed with the D-pad in mind, and anyone who has tried playing a Super Mario Bros. or Zelda game with an arcade stick knows that the experience is lacking. The D-Pad also signaled that the console would be more than a platform for arcade ports (which used joysticks), but that plenty of new content produced specifically for the console and its controller would be coming.
The graphics and sound. It is easy to forget that the NES once was a powerhouse system, as today when most of us look back on the 8-bit days we think about the simplicity of the visuals and sounds. Put simply, even Nintendo's launch games blew away anything that had been seen on a console up to that point, and rivaled some of the best computer graphics and sound of the era. Seamless scrolling, character RAM, 20+ colors, dedicated audio, and region-specific refresh rates all meant that the NES was a system that had both innovated and capitalized on the best of what was available in mid-1980s hardware. And while the launch lineup was impressive, the games in the system's later years would demonstrate just how impressive the processors inside the NES were.
Part 3: The Launch
The bundles were a good deal, but the games were pricey. If you bought a new NES in late '85 or early '86, you most certainly wanted to buy a system bundle and probably didn't end up buying very many games off the bat. I haven't yet found reliable data, but some web searching suggests that in 1985/1986 NES games were priced between $40-$70 MSRP depending on where you lived. When their launch went nationwide, Nintendo sold two bundles for consumers interested in buying the system. The Control Deck bundle with 2 controllers, a zapper and Super Mario Bros. retailed for $130 and the Deluxe Set, which included R.O.B., a zapper, two controllers, Gyromite and Duck Hunt sold for $250. Adjusted for today's inflation, games cost around $100, the control deck cost about $250, and the Deluxe Set cost just shy of $500. This means that consumers in 1985 were getting the system and accessories for roughly $150 in today's money, and that R.O.B. could be valued at about $150 himself. That might seem high, until one realizes that robots were all the rage in 1985...
Robotic Operating Buddy. A Japanese newspaper in July of 1985 announced the upcoming U.S. release of the NES in an article entitled "Nintendo to sell video game player-robot combination in U.S." In the article, they discuss the strategy behind R.O.B.
Nintendo displayed the Family Computer this year at consumer electronics shows in Las Vegas and Chicago, and has carried out market research. The home video game boom in the U.S., dominated by Atari and Commodore International, peaked out three years ago, and since then the market has contracted with much underselling.
For this reason, the Family Computer, with its attached robot, is to be billed as a different concept from the conventional video game. The robot is run by a cartridge inserted into the computer, and both it and the video screen can be operated simultaneously. The robot measures 22.8 by 18 by 23.5 centimeters.
The robot contains three battery-powered motors which control such operations as picking objects up and putting them down, raising and lowering, and turning around and carrying objects. Commands are sent by a flashing signal from the monitor screen, which is picked up by a light sensor in the robot.
In Japan, the robot sells at a low Y9,800, with two types of cartridges prices at Y4,800 and Y5,800 respectively. In the U.S., the player, robot and cartridge will be sold as a unit for around $100.
From early on, the emphasis was on the robot, as evidenced again by a Guardian article from October of 1985 that mentions Nintendo's console as R.O.B.-centric:
Toy makers in Britain and North America have been predicting since January that 1985 would be the year of the robot. Or at least of the toy robot.
Nintendo - has its eyes on the toy robot market. Primarily a computer and video games company, it has invented an interactive robot to play some of their video games.
Using a light link to the television, the 10in tall robot adds a new dimension to the video game. Prompted by invisible sensory devices which read messages from the TV screen, the robot performs a variety of spontaneous interactive affect game play. Standing on its stationary 6in base, the robot can assume 60 different lifelike positions by rotating its arms and shoulders left or right, and up or down, and can lift and move objects. It can pick up screen messages from as far away as 15ft, adding tremendous challenge to play strategy.
Nintendo plans to offer four robot games packs with the initial introduction of the system, and up to four additional games will be developed by the end of the year. The robot costs pounds 100 and the games about pounds 15.
Again, today we often think of R.O.B. as an interesting afterthought or as a failed, largely gimmicky accessory for the NES. But in 1985, most of the press surrounding the launch of the NES focused not on its games, but on this accessory. This was by Nintendo's design, and suggested from the moment of their first U.S. console release that they were trying to attract interest from a broader population of consumers instead of just gamers. They would of course repeat this strategy with their most successful console, the Wii.
It was not marketed as a gaming system.Due in large part to the gaming crash of a few years prior, Nintendo marketed the console as a device that allowed for learning and other forms of entertainment beyond simply playing video games. Their ads focused not on the graphics, the game library, or the features often touted when a new console releases -- they focused instead on the interactive nature of accessories like R.O.B. and the Zapper. The first NES commercial in the U.S. is an example of this:
Another example is the 1986 Sears Wishlist catalog, which emphasizes that the NES was a
fully equipped video system with the most progressive components such as a robot and the light-sensing Zapper Light Gunplus...it's not just for kids.
The art. As is the case with any new product, good art is important to help sell the attractiveness of the item to the consumer. Nintendo's emphasis in two areas - the game box design and the system box artwork - most certainly helped move units. The game box design (as seen above) emphasized the graphics of the games . A drastic departure from the Atari VCS or Colecovision game boxes before it, the NES game boxes showed blown up approximations o f the sprite art that players would find in the game. Even if the graphics weren't emphasized in marketing, they were certainly emphasized on store shelves. The art for the systems themselves featured a dark blue/black with stars background. The control deck set featured the system and hardware floating in space, while the Deluxe set emphasized R.O.B.'s head. At a time when there was still enthusiasm about the space program, sci-fi was seeing a renaissance in theaters, and robots were all the rage, the art reflected the broader interests of consumers.
In retrospect, much about the NES launch seems strange today. Most launches haven't followed the same cues (e.g. test markets and a downplayed emphasis on games/graphics), the system itself is no longer known for many of the things that Nintendo chose to highlight at launch, several launch games are still regarded as among the best on the system, and one launch title continued to be the best selling game for the console throughout the system's life. Nintendo took a huge gamble with the release of the NES, and though their strategy seems a bit unorthodox today, it certainly paid off for them twenty five years ago.
Do you remember anything about the NES launch? Were you in a test market? What do you think of their strategy? I'd love to hear your stories and thoughts, so sound off below!
Some of you may instantly recognize the title of this post, others of you may be curiously scratching your heads. If you don't recognize the quote, those are the immortal words uttered by the in-game announcer at the start of every race in the very first Ridge Racer game for the Sony Playstation, one of the system's ten launch titles and one of its best known racers. Many things can and have been written about the Ridge Racer series of games published by Namco, but they are interesting for this blog because five of the eleven games in the series have been in a console launch lineup. The launch titles were:
This five part series of blog entries will look at each launch title in the Ridge Racer series and what, if anything, they did to showcase the new capabilities of each system.
Ridge Racer - Sony Playstation
The Playstation's U.S. launch in September of 1995 featured only one game that had also been released when the system premiered in Japan the prior December: Ridge Racer. In fact, Ridge Racer was the only launch game featured in all three major game markets (JPN/NA/EUR ). It seemed clear from the start that Sony was banking on Namco's arcade hit to help sell systems.
In the U.S., Ridge Racer was one of two racing games that new console buyers could choose from when entering their favorite game or electronics store on that Saturday morning in September. The other, ESPN Extreme Games, featured an assortment of X-Games events such as street luge and mountain biking. Only Ridge Racer provided a traditional automobile racing game. So, new buyers looking to take the arcade racing experience home were faced with little choice but to buy it on launch day. As it turns out, they couldn't have done much better: Ridge Racer is an absolute gem of a racing game that accomplished many technical feats fifteen years ago and holds up well to this day.
Arcades in the U.S. were still doing quite well in 1994 and 1995, and though the focus for many players had shifted from fighting games to racing games, there was a lot to choose from in coin-ops around the country in the mid-90s. Increasingly, the best arcade games were seeing high profile ports for home consoles. During the period of time that the Saturn, Playstation, and N64 were released (between May 1995 and September 1996) each console had a racing game associated with it, a game that promised to push the limits of the console. For Nintendo, that game was Cruisn' USA (though the game didn't make the N64 launch). For Sega, the game was Daytona USA. For Sony, it was Ridge Racer.
At the time, I was a die-hard Sega fan and insanely jealous of my friends who were able to enjoy their copies of Daytona USA at home. Sure, the Daytona USA port didn't look arcade perfect, but it seemed close and impressed me nonetheless. When I couldn't play on a friends' Saturn, I would still frequently pump quarters into the Daytona USA arcade machine as my home racing was limited to Virtua Racing for the Genesis for several more years (an excellent game in its own right). By the time I finally joined the 32-bit generation and picked up a Playstation in late 1996 (skipping the Saturn altogether!), I was anticipating the release of new racing games for the PS1 (most notably Gran Turismo) and passed on picking up Ridge Racer. I'd had my fill of racing with Daytona and Crusin' and decided to pick up games for other genres in the interim.
So, I only recently acquired the classic PS1 launch game, and now wish I had done so a decade ago.
Early PS1 games didn't feature many of the icons on the back indicating compatibility with memory cards, number of discs, etc.
As a launch title, the game is significant for several reasons:
The graphics. There's no denying that an important draw for purchasers on launch day is graphics horsepower. The graphics put out in the PS1 port of Ridge Racer are simply better than they were for the Saturn port of Daytona USA. The polygons are less blocky, the sense of speed is faster, and the scenery is more diverse. There are usually more things happening on the screen at any given time, and aside from the poorly designed menus, the interface is quite polished. Daytona may have been better in the arcades, but if these racing games were meant to show off what the system could do, Ridge Racer was an early harbinger of the doom of the Saturn. Ridge Racer's graphics are bright, pop in is quite good for a first-gen title, and the scale of the landscape surrounding the courses is impressive.
It allowed you to choose your own music. Once the game was loaded and a race started, you could swap out the Ridge Racer CD for your own favorite disc. The game would then randomly select tracks on your CD to play while you raced and navigated menus. Since Daytona USA was a frequent point of comparison at the time this game came out, I should note that I also prefer Ridge Racers original music over Daaaaay-tohhhhhhh-nah's ( especially given the "classic" nature of the latter's songs). That said, nothing beats choosing your own musical selection. In playing the game again for this post, I chose the era-appropriate Beck album "Mellow Gold." Hearing track 11 playing over the credits was a sweet bit of randomness. In an age where CD sales were really catching on, this was a nice way for the Playstation to showcase its versatility.
Place this in the CD drive to make Ridge Racer unplayable.
It featured a mini-game with a generous reward during the only loading screen. Popping Ridge Racer into a console usually meant a few resets until all the enemies in this one screen version of Galaxian were cleared. Clearing all the enemies in the limited time granted you access to three times the number of cars that would be available otherwise. Not only did you have more options, but many of these were better cars. Furthermore, the game only loads once at the very beginning, a welcome change from the frequent and frustrating waits experienced by owners of many other CD-based consoles at the time. The fact that the loading screen is a game itself was icing.
The game featured a hefty amount of unlocakbles. There were certainly games with unlockables in the previous generations, but Ridge Racer was one of the first CD-based games to offer multiple versions of tracks to unlock, cars that could be won, and other goodies for the devoted player to discover. The ease of saving data on a memory card (times, unlocked tracks, etc.) meant that you could take these unlocked items with you, one of the key selling points for Sony's console.
The back of the manual provided alternate cover art.
Taken as a package, it is easy to see why Sony pushed for Ridge Racer to see a release in every major region on launch day. Better racing games would eventually come, but compared to racers on other consoles that preceded Ridge Racer, Sony clearly had the upper hand and could better capitalize on the ongoing arcade craze. The game is far from perfect; it is single player, some of the drifting feels too loose, the various tracks are all variations of one main track, the announcer voice is annoying, and the difficulty ramps up considerably in later stages. However, the game is still worth playing today despite these weaknesses, if only to appreciate how different it was compared to what had come before. The game would go on to see huge sales and win numerous awards in the next year. It would also become Sony's first pack-in game.
Ridge Racer spawned over 10 sequels. We will revisit some of those games in future installments.
Next Up: an "end game"
Easily the most popular early cartridge based system, the Atari Video Computer System (a.k.a. Atari 2600) would forever change entertainment in the home. This entry takes a quick look at what gamers encountered when picking up the system almost 33 years ago.
The VCS launch itself was a delayed event, held up due to some legal issues between Atari and Magnavox. Magnavox (makers of the Odyssey 1 and 2) owned the rights to publish Atari games through June of 1977, and so even though a working version of the VCS was ready in 1976, Atari waited until that contract was over so they could publish their games for their own system. In June of 1977 the contract expired and Atari brought the VCS to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago (which, incidentally, was the same show that introduced VHS to North America).
A few months later, on October 14, 1977, the console was released for $199 (or $249, depending on which source you read) in the United States. This initial VCS unit (later nicknamed the Heavy Sixer for its weight and number of switches) launched with nine titles. Surprisingly, the system had trouble maintaining sales, failing to sell all units shipped in 1977 or 1978 (it wasnt until a home port of Space Invaders hit in 1980 that the system really started moving off shelves).
The nine games released for the VCS at launch were Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Black Jack, Combat (as a pack-in game), Indy 500 (with driver controllers packed in to a big box), Star Ship, Street Racer, Surround, and Video Olympics. Customers browsing store shelves on launch day that October had these titles to choose from:
Launch games were sold in gatefold boxes (they open up like a book, similar to Odyseey2 boxes), a packaging style which was discontinued after the first year of (relatively poor) sales for the system.
I had some difficulty tracking down prices for new games, but based on what I found $20-$30 seems like a reasonable guess. Adjusted for inflation, that is $70-$105 a pop today! Purchasers could console themselves with the fact that they got multiple games, or modes, per purchase. With the exception of Blackjack, each game offered between 8 and 50 different games in each package, with the number displayed prominently on the box.
I plan to look more closely at some of these games in future installments of the blog, but there are really only a few titles that seemed to have much staying power through the life of the console or today. Combat is the obvious gem, but Indy 500 and Video Olympics both made this informal poll of AtariAge readers Top 100 2600 games of all time . Past those three however, the rest of the launch games are a mixed bag. Air-Sea Battle and Star Ship both offer some fun shooting, and the latter actually shows off some interesting graphics for a launch game. Surround is more or less a Tron cycle style game, and Blackjack is, well, blackjack (a very tough version played with a paddle controller). Woe to the poor kid whose parents brought home Basic Math or Street Racer, both of which were low points in fun for the launch lineup.
If you wanted to pick up four titles with your new system, you would be looking to spend about $300-$350 in 1977, or about $1000-$1200 today. By comparison, a 60GB PS3 at launch with four games and an extra controller would have cost about $900.
A few things stand out about the system launch.
For one, the titles of most of the games were very basic and descriptive, a strategy also used by Nintendo when they launched their NES in the U.S. some seven years later (with titles like Tennis, Kung Fu, Baseball, Golf, Pinball, Duck Hunt, etc.). This simple naming practice, paired with what continues to be some of the most imaginative box art ever produced , allowed for shoppers to easily identify what kind of game they were buying.
Also notable is the lack of any well known arcade games, games based on movies, or any other connections to popular culture of the mid-late 1970s (the first arcade port would be the aforementioned Space Invaders a few years later). Atari basically had to launch a system featuring games with no known properties, something that has not been done since.
The inclusion of a pack-in game, a practice that has fallen out of favor with many of the more recent system launches, is significant. Not only did it give purchasers the illusion of extra value at the register, but unlike pack in games for some other systems (Super Mario Bros., Altered Beast, etc.) Combat doesn't have a single player mode. This sent the message to consumers that the VCS was meant to be played with others and that multiplayer gaming was the foundation for the console. This message was reinforced by the inclusion of two joysticks, another practice that has unfortunately dropped out of most system launches.
Indy 500, which was released with the driver controllers in a bog box, is also an important title for its inclusion of accessories. While pricing information is scarce and unreliable, Indy 500 most certainly would have cost more than a standard game because of its inclusion of these controllers. Like modern console manufacturers, it seems Atari recognized that money could be made selling additional hardware, controllers, cables, and other add-ons for their system (the 2600 would see many accessories over the years). Starting customers out on launch day with some extra hardware made good fiscal sense.
As a whole, it seems that the launch of one of the most successful game consoles in history did some things right (pack-ins) and some things wrong (no known IPs). Fortunately for Atari, they did enough right to sustain the VCS for a few years until it really became popular with the addition of licensed titles. Tracking down the original launch games and the Heavy Sixer itself in the original boxes would be quite a daunting task today (the Heavy Sixer alone fetches a hefty premium over the other models on eBay), but I'd love to hear from anyone who has done so or who remembers the launch itself.