Boston — 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.
"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.
He noticed me over his shoulder. When the game finally ended, he nodded toward the machine. "Here. You want to try it?"
It looked easy. I put in quarter, took the controls, blasted three shots wide of everything, and exploded in a cloud of video dust as one of the enemy army hit me at point-blank range. It was humiliating.
"Space Invaders really isn't that hard," said Marty. He dropped more money in the machine, and what he called a "rack" of aliens appeared.
?The first thing you do is get the whole third row." Dodging lasers, he blasted a hole right through the atackers. "Then the second. Then the first. Then, after 22 shots, you wait here." He moved the station to the far right. An orange, alien spacecraft suddenly appeared at the top o the screen. A good shot blew it apart.
The screen blipped as if cheering.
"Bonus," it read, "300 points."
Marty looked smug. "I've got the program memorized," he said.
It turned out Marty was a Space Invaders shark, an all- star of the video-game subculture. He could speak Space Invaderese -- "back-seat invading" (teaching someone else the game); and "invading streak" (a hot spell in which a player can't miss); a "forward diagram" (picking off the leading edge of the alien army); and a "backward diagram" (shooting at the trailing flank). Near the top of his college class, he wasn't the sort of person typically associated with pinball and pool halls.
Video game manufacturers say their research shows college students like Marty are the most avid fans of their products. Don Osborne, national sales manager for Atari, claims "video games tend to appeal more to people with white-collar, upper middle-class backgrounds. Compared with pool or pinball, video players tend to have a higher intellectual level."
The machines themselves are relatively simple, mere off- shoots of the cutting edge of computer technology. The heart is a small computer called a microprocessor, similar to office word processors. The computer, programmed to play the machine's side of the game, is hooked to a video screen with a sharper picture and the flexibility to provide more spectacular visual effects than a television picture tube. The whole package is wrapped in a cabinet that may be decorated with two-headed grasshoppers, spaceships that look like scorpions, or other approximately-alien characters.
Most video games are also wired for sound. Galaxian whistles, for instance. Asteroids whooshes. Space Invaders shrieks. When not being played, Invaders is also programmed to lure players with a pre-game show, which involves spaceships dashing across the screen doing cute things. And at rest it thumps with a threatening heartbeat, as if troops of Martians were about to burst through the walls of the pizza parlor.
Generally, the games are dreamed up by marketing departments. Sounds, aliens , weapons, and scenarios are then shaped by Research and Development, which bases concepts on careful market research. So the monsters of Space Invadders and other games are the result of a committee, not the dream of a wild-eyed mad scientist.
Asked what new games they're working on, company officials invariably cough and say something vague, like, "Oh, I'm not really sure myself," or "Those people are hard to get close to, so I couldn't really say." Then they change the subject, like auto executives questioned about next year's models.
Amusement centers or small retailers buy the games outright from the manufacturer for $2,200 to $5,000. In a prime location, such as a Las Vegas casino, a machine like Space Invaders can earn $1,000 a day. In a food mart or ice cream parlor they can easily earn enough to pay the heating and electrical bills.
"The games are popular because they're skill-oriented," says Don Osborne. "There's an unending amount of strategy and technique in firing and maneuvering. They're easy to learn, but hard to master."
For Marty, mastery was simply a matter of spending money. "It's not really a skill. It just takes about 25 bucks to get good."
It takes more than 50 cents, anyway. On my second try at space Invaders I lasted a bit longer, but hardly made a dent in the advancing hordes before they blasted me off the screen.
My eyes narrowed. My lip curled.
I plunked another quarter down the slot. Sure, maybe it will run 25 bucks or so. But no machine is going to get the best of me.