Games Computers Play

People who need people just haven’t gone shopping for toys lately.

Boris has nothing on his mind but chess. He is an ever-ready opponent who never tires of a clash of wits. And a polite one: He will compliment you on a brilliant ploy, but he would never tactlessly call your attention to an amateurish blunder. Boris is an electronic chessplayer; he sells for $300.

Game-industry forecasters claim that the computer will be the next big consumer fad, and that by the mid 1980s home computers will be as common as television sets. All of this is possible because of the microprocessor, a tiny silicon chip that doesn’t begin to cover the tip of the thumb. Now costing less than $10, this incredible innovation is the basis for the tabletop computers that can perform the same functions as the million-dollar boxcar-sized Univacs of the Fifties. And the microprocessor isn’t limited to workaday data processing. Now that electronic memory and logic circuits are cheap, game makers are madly producing microprocessor-controlled video games, board games, computer games, calculator games – even computer pinball.

The most versatile (and expensive) of the new electronic toys is the home computer, which can be programmed to perform many functions. And it loves to play. If you teach it to, it will play chess, blackjack, roulette, or tick-tack-toe. You can turn it into a slot machine, a crap game, a battlefield, or a galactic encounter. It is for the mental tinkerer who gets more jollies from creating a game than from playing one.

The computer, however, doesn’t create anything. In The Home Computer Revolution, Ted Nelson described the computer as “a gentle giant, trustingly obedient, with no judgment whatsoever.” The computer remembers what it is taught and invariably reacts to commands accordingly. You cannot program a computer to beat you at chess, because it can play only as well as its programmer. How can you program a computer to beat you at a game of skill? That’s where the Information Bureau comes in. For $120 a year, owners of Radio Shack computers can avail themselves of the products of talented programmers. “We have a plethora of games,” says Information Bureau president Lee McDaniel. “We send out a regular newsletter to let the members know what’s available. If they want something programmed which we haven’t done, we’ll do it for them as soon as we can work it in.”

So far, Radio Shack is running away with the home-computer business with the TRS-80. It hit the market in October 1977 at a bargain-basement price of $599, complete with video display and cassette recorder. Radio Shack won’t say how many they’ve sold, but one knowledgeable observer says that the total is already over 200,000 and that Radio Shack has sold more home computers than all other makers combined.

Another popular brand is the Apple. It costs twice as much as Radio Shack’s TRS-80, but it is designed to work with your color television screen, can follow vocal instructions, and can store more information.

Bob Rogers of the CompuShop showed me his Apple. Step one was to insert an information storage device called a floppy disk. (Why are they called floppy disks? “Because when you hold them on the edge and shake them up and down, they flop,” Rogers explained.) The disk inspired the Apple to break out in song, offering a flat rendition of the theme from Star Wars. After the introductory credits, the Apple undertook a recreation of the last 15 minutes of the movie, with a tiny space vehicle dodging and darting through a galactic maze, as Bob Rogers (1 kept wanting to call him Buck) tried to zap it.

A step down from the home computers are the computerized video games. Only a couple of years ago we thought that Pong was a big deal. Now Pong is dead, and four-function Odysseys are available all over town for $15 apiece. The problem with Odyssey, Pong, Super Pong, and even Ultra Pong, was their lack of versatility: Whatever they could do when you bought them was all they could ever do. Then Christmas before last, Fairchild exploded the market with a video game ($149.95) that was controlled by interchangeable cartridges. The games it can play are limited only by Fairchild’s capacity to manufacture cartridges and the consumer’s ability to produce $20 bills to pay for additional cartridges. After giving Pong a decent burial, Atari, Pong’s manufacturer, came out with a similar system at $179.95. Like the original Pong, these systems work with television sets (not included); each offers a wide range of electronic diversions – shooting galleries, doodling, mazes, ball games, brain teasers, and card games, all in color and with sound effects.

The Fairchild and Atari games are not programmable; the cartridge determines the game. Magnavox has a new video game system called Odyssey 2 ($179.95) that lets the user make some of the rules, though it isn’t as versatile as a computer. It has alphabetical and numerical keyboards, and a control cartridge that offers instruction in computer programming. Other cartridges range from the serious (Math-A-Magic and Memory Quiz) to the frivolous (in Golf, a computerized hacker throws his club after slicing into the woods). The most popular cartridge is Football, in which computer-controlled offense and defense react to the participants’ play selection. One player controls the quarterback, who can run or pass. The other player commands the movements of the middle linebacker, who can tackle or intercept, and the rest of the computerized figures follow the lead of the key participants.

Despite the demise of Pong, single-function computer games abound. The manufacturers of these games, however, have abandoned the TV connection in favor of compact, built-in playing boards. There’s no need to tie up your television screen with a computer game with a one-track mind. Boris ($300) comes with a number -and-letter coded chess board and a small screen that flashes Boris’s moves, as well as such thoughts as “Is this a trap?” or “I expected that.”

Department stores are in a quandary over where to display these single-purpose electronic games. Are they toys? Sporting goods? Are they related to the calculator species? You might find them in any of these departments. The Mattel line is most likely to be found with the toys, simply because Mattel is known to the world as a toy maker. Mattel offers four games – Football, Basketball, Auto Race, and Space Alert, in which the player attempts to intercept the computer-controlled Cylons. Each of the games features realistic sounds.

Simon is a memory game with a deceptively simple appearance, basically just four large colored keys. The object is to repeat a sequence of flashing lights and sounds, in exactly the same order as offered by Simon. The pace quickens, the sequence lengthens, and soon Simon has blown his opponent’s mind. Comp IV selects a three-to-five-digit number at random; when you try to guess the number, it tells you how many digits of your guess are correct and how many are in the proper sequence. The trick is to deduce the correct answer with the least number of guesses. Code Name Sector, Electronic Battleship, and Electronic Intercept all test the tracking skills and patience of human opponents. For the card sharps, there’s Vegas 21, which comes in desk and pocket models. This one will even allow the suicidal to split a pair of tens and go down for double.

It pays to shop around for these games. While list prices range from about $25 to $50, they are heavily discounted at some high-volume stores.

Unlike Boris, the computing calculators have not abandoned the work ethic. From eight to five they’re content to cipher away at first- and second-order differential equations by the fourth-order Runge-Kutta method. But come nightfall, they swing into Space War, Nim, Racetrack, Artillery, and The Dealer. Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard offer “game libraries” which can be played on some of their programmable calculators. ’ The program for each game is coded magnetically onto a plastic card or etched onto a plug-in circuit board.

Computers have even taken over pinball. Bally introduced the computerized Evel Knievel model shortly before Knievel’s imprisonment. New machines such as Middle Earth, World Cup, and Strikes and Spares feature L.E.D. numerical display, electronic tilt sensor, chimes and organ sounds, adjustable difficulty settings, and memory features which recall each player’s bonus earnings when his turn comes up again. It’s amazing what you can get these days for only $1,700.

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