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Videogame Classics

Reviews of the greatest video games of all time, from classic to modern games.

This ongoing series of reviews offers entertaining insights into those great games and consoles that we love.

1981 - Atari - Released on Atari 2600 and arcades
Warlords - video game classics

July 22, 2005

Warlords! To every child with an Atari Video Computer System, that name instantly spelled action! excitement! thrills! To teenagers, it meant a glorious opportunity to drink one other stupid and practice their fluency with swear words. To adults, it meant nostalgia, and heartfelt memories of far too many evenings camped out on the couch, in front of the television with paddle controller in hand.

Ah, those wonderful paddle controllers. When I first saw an Atari, it was 1980 and I was seven years old. What a strange contraption this proved to be. The joysticks, they were simple, immediate, they made sense. But the paddle controllers, no, they were just a little alien. A little otherworldly. I honestly can't say why it was that I felt that way, but I did.

I never minded the Atari paddle controllers, but they never found any practical use. There was the ever-present Breakout to play, and maybe even Video Olympics, which was really 50 variations on Pong and fooled no one. What else was there? I suppose we could play Blackjack, but we already have a real deck of cards, and someone could always make that quacking shuffle-the-deck sound the videogame makes, so what's the point?

The joysticks took full control, thanks to Space Invaders and Adventure and Asteroids and Combat and Air-Sea Battle, and too many lesser games that no one ever remembered or admitted owning. Pretty soon, these games would sell for a couple dollars apiece, and even then, they weren't worth the cash. You were better off to invest in bubblegum baseball cards or pixie sticks.

We'll just forget candy cigarettes ever happened.

Back in those early days of playing TV games with some bizarre machine, there were an endless chorus line of controllers. None of them could hold a candle to the simple joystick. The paddles were at least respectable and felt nice in your hands, which is more than anyone can say about most of them. To this day, I still can't look at an Intellivision controller without my hands cramping. What a mess.

The Atari came in a large box with two joysticks and a pair of paddle controllers, and the pecking order was established right out of the box. The game that was packed in used the joysticks. Nice. So the paddles sat there, in a lonely clump, never getting used aside from your younger sister's attempts to hit the ball on Breakout.

Then 1981 rolled around, and fortune smiled. It's name was instantly known, a legend that flew in with the wind. There was never any advance warning, never any hype, and yet every one of us kids knew exactly what it was. It's name was Warlords, the answer to our prayers.

It's the simplest idea ever conceived. People like to crowd around the TV and take turns playing Atari. Why not create a game where they all play at once? If nothing else, it will cure the boredom of waiting for your turn, and parents won't have to worry about all that impatient shuffling. They can go back to worrying about how much time you're spending in front of the screen, playing those damned videogames.

Warlords was far more than just a diversion, an excuse to use those controllers some poor designed conjured in the 1970's. It became more than just another game. It became a rite of passage; the true test of friendships. If you friends can play against each other in Warlords for an afternoon, and not become violent, bitter enemies, they'll be loyal friends for life. Wars and wild dogs won't tear them apart - they faced down Warlords and lived to tell the tale.

We'd probably say it was like Breakout on crack, only crack hadn't been invented yet. American tax dollars at work, friends.

In the game, each player took a shield and defended a castle in their corner. A ball would fly out of the black space, hurling towards one of us. The instructions, of course, tried to claim that little white ball was really a medieval fireball, being thrown back in and endless blood feud between four murderous sons of the King. I don't think anyone really pretended they were the angry knight on the box, but it was nice reading nontheless.

See, parents? We were doing more than staring at the screen. We were reading, too. And because of that, we were inspired to become famous writers. Okay, no, not really.

Back to the match. You and our friends use the shield to deflect the ball - no, it's just a ball, don't be a dork - and smash each others' castles. Break the walls down, red brick by red brick, and kill the defenseless king inside. It's like the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop - who can get their first?

This was excitement never before seen. There were plenty of great games, but this one somehow hit a nerve. It wasn't about anything else but competition. No more boasting about how you could finish such-and-such a level from some game, if only the sun weren't in your eyes. This was put-up-or-shut-up time.

None of us ever meant to become jerks. We never started out with the intention of mercilessly pounding everyone else into the ground without warning. It just happened. Somehow, that ball that was supposed to hit Blue's castle somehow hit mine. It hasn't my fault, the pleading goes, I swear. Then you hear the barely muffled snickers. You just got taken in and now it's time for revenge.

Remember when I promised we'd team up against those two? Bam! I take it back. Oh, yeah? Bam-Boom! Take that back!

Sooner or later, instant karma hit us right in the face. That precious ball, which is not a medieval fireball at all, but an ordinary videogame ball, would get caught behind someone's shield. Suddenly, before you could even blink, half of your buddy's castle is gone. Wiped out. You almost want to console him, but then you remembered about the last time you were sucker-punched. John Lennon was right about a lot of things.

But now, John's gone and we're all on our own. It's just us and our little shield.

Even if, or really when, you get taken down - it's not my fault when everyone gangs up on me! - there's still a chance to get back. For you see, Warlords is the first videogame to include an afterlife. Your king and shield remain at ghosts, invisible except during the brief flashes as another brick is destroyed.

When that wayward ball hits your shield, it changes course. It bends. Now, if I can just put my shield in just the right place, I can redirect that ball into Green's castle and kill his King. Serves you right for hogging the Doritos!

The players are slowly taken down, one by one, until the final two remain. All our nerves are fried; our shoulders are bruised from repeated punches - I told you not to look, that's two! - and friendships have been taken to the breaking point. But now there's only two left, and two other amateur ghosts who keep missing the ball. It's moving too fast. Veering one way, bouncing against the corners.

The friend playing blue catches the ball, and holds onto it. Both castles are completely gone now, wasted. It all comes down to who can make the perfect shot. He bobs and weaves with his shield, trying to throw Purple off. Left. Right. Dodge. Run back. Gotta make this shot count.

He lets the ball loose. We ghosts hold our collective breath. Purple is too far away. This could be the end!

But Purple does make it, barely, and knocks it against the far corner. It hits my ghost shield, bounces off the far wall, and flies straight into the heart of Blue's king. Ka-Boom!!

It's all over, and the last man standing is...

Your little sister. She's only six and she won? Dammit!

Whaa-! I'm telling! Mommm! He sworrrre!

Uh-oh. We're in trouble now. Good thing the babysitter's outside and can't hear.

Besides, it's time for the next game. Best of five. As long as the Doritos hold out, we'll be here all day long. If there's anything better than Warlords, I don't wanna know about it.

Videogames of the Damned

Daniel Thomas MacInnes' videogames blog, offering commentary and reviews on classic and modern games.

The spirit of "independent game journalism" lives on!