Aliens in the pizza parlor!
The alien ships skittered toward us across a field of stars, whistling like falling bombs. Their deadly curtain of laser fire forced Marty to ram the stick sideways, pitching our command ship out of range. The shots buzzed past us into deep space, but the enemy fleet kept coming. Shaped like beetles, their hulls glowed red and yellow against the glittering stars -- quite a pretty picture, really. But I was in no mood for pretty pictures.Skip to next paragraph
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"No little fly's gonna get us," Marty snarled. He punched the "Fire" button and blew two fighters into atoms. Only the cruiser was left, but it refused to retreat, threatening to ram us in an intergalactic game of chicken. Marty faced it head- on, squinting into the radar screen as he twisted us through the alien's fire, waiting until there was no turning back before shooting. The cruiser exploded in a multicolored cloud, milliseconds before collision would have destroyed us both. I saw three more ships peel off from the alien fleet that hung in the distance like a storm cloud, and knew that we were doomed.
This time the aliens tracked us with deadly precision. Their pinning crossfire prevented retreat, and when the laser beam hit us, Marty snarled again and I felt my stomach drop through a pit. The explosion rocked our ears and the radar screen lit up like Times Square on New Year's Eve.
"Game Over," it said.
"Rats," said Marty "Got another quarter?"
By now I was hooked, so I put in more money and we played another round of Galaxian, one of the sophisticated video games wich are displacing pinball in pizza parlors and penny arcades around the country. Tall cabinets with TV screens, the games show the lighter side of the mini-computer revolution. They are also cult objects on US campuses, fulfilling the same purpose goldfish-swallowing or storming the dean's office did for generations past.
"School is fast-paced," says Marty, a Boston-area college student. "I come in here to relax. Sure, ou know you're going to get blasted eventually. But when you get good, you can play for half an hour."
He pats Galaxian fondly on its beeping screen. "I come in here and beat life."
It all started with Nolan Bushnell, a Californian who founded Atari Inc. in the early 1970s. Atari's first product was Pong, a game in which two players batted a televised square back and forth across a video screen. A primitive concept compared to Galaxian, it was still an immediate hit. Soon, kids with quarters to burn were driving electronic cars, out- drawing electronic villains, guiding swimmers through shark-infested video waters, and firing missiles at televised jet fighters.
But it look outer space to make video arcade games a smash success. In the mid-'70s a Japanese-made game named space Invaders became as popular in its homeland as rice and Toyotas. In 1978, Midway Manufacturing, a US firm, licensed the idea and began manufacturing Space Invaders at its plant in Chicago. It has since become the most successful coin-operated game ever sold in America. The average video game or pinball machine is manufactured for only 90 days before production switches to a new model, but Space Invaders is still being snapped up by amusement arcades and burger joints after 22 months on the assembly line. Even Midway can't quite figure out why it's so popular.
"Sometimes we scratch our heads, and go, 'Why has this continued so long?'" sighs Stan Jarocki, Midway's marketing vice-president. "But there's no end in sight. I think it's just a release from tension. No matter what your score is, you'll enjoy it, and want to play it again."
The game's success has launched a fleet of competitive space games, such as Atari's Asteroids and Cinematronic's Space Wars, that for young people like Marty Weintraub have become the Hula-Hoops of the 1980s.
I met Marty in a sandwich shop one lunch hour. He was hunched in front of a cabinet about the size of a refrigerator, staring at a TV screen mounted in its upper half. Periodically the machine emitted a little squeal, as if someone were dropping ice down its back.
I wandered over to investigate while waiting for my chili dog. On the screen , a phalanx of aliens vaguely resembling pro wrestlers was descending on a space station. Marty was skipping the station back and forth, trading laser fire with the aliens and trying to keep from being overrun. Each time he scored a direct hit, the attacker squeaked and disappeared, electronically vaporized. The forces of evil were falling like wheat before a combine, as Marty jiggered the machine around and fired on the run. He was very good.