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.
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.
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?
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.
just forget candy cigarettes ever happened.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
probably say it was like Breakout on crack, only crack hadn't been
invented yet. American tax dollars at work, friends.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
when I promised we'd team up against those two? Bam! I take it back.
Oh, yeah? Bam-Boom! Take that back!
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.
now, John's gone and we're all on our own. It's just us and our
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.
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!
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.
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
lets the ball loose. We ghosts hold our collective breath. Purple
is too far away. This could be the end!
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!!
all over, and the last man standing is...
little sister. She's only six and she won? Dammit!
I'm telling! Mommm! He sworrrre!
We're in trouble now. Good thing the babysitter's outside and can't
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.