Financial analysts predict that by the end of 1982 there will be about 14 million video game systems in American homes, and this year alone, about 60 million video game cartridges will be purchased. The majority of the game systems have been sold by Atari, which first marketed its Video Computer System (VCS) in 1977 and this fall introduced a more advanced 5200 system. Of the 15 most popular cartridges listed this week by Billboard magazine -- best known for its tabulation of record sales -- all are designed for one of three systems: Atari's VCS, Mattel's Intellivision or Coleco's Colecovision.
I spent an entire weekend this month playing with five home video systems and about 75 cartridges. What follow are a few observations by an admitted technomaniac.
Colecovision certainly has the capability for outstanding graphics, particularly with its Donkey Kong and Smurf cartridges. But by restricting itself, for the most part, to recreating home versions of arcade games, Coleco seems to be limiting the potential flexibility of its unit, which has far more input possibilities -- i.e. switches and controls -- than most arcade games. By Christmas, Coleco expects to introduce an interface module that will accept any cartridge designed for the VCS, which will make Colecovision the most versatile unit on the market.
Intellivision imaginatively exploits its own control devices more than most other systems, creating games that generally require more than just hand-eye coordination for skillful playing. Unfortunately, its direction control disc tends to lack precision.
Although the VCS is the most popular piece of hardware in the field, Atari's software for the unit is crude and unimaginative. And unlike most other units, the basic system affords nothing more than paddles, joysticks and fire buttons -- which tends to limit the VCS.
The Atari 5200 is several times more sophisticated. Its home versions of arcade games like Pac-Man, Defender, Missile Command and Centipede are remarkably realistic, and its adaptation of the classic Star Raiders (originally created for the Atari 400 and 800 home computers) is by far the most spectacular space shootout game. It remains to be seen whether the 5200 system can provide the kinds of original cartridges that will make George Plimpton eat the words he uses tocompare Atari's baseball game unfavorably with Mattel's -- still the best sports game available.
The most novel system introduced this year is Milton Bradley's Vectrex, which contains its own TV monitor. The three-dimensional graphic display system on the Vectrex is similar to the type used in arcade games like Asteroids and Tempest and will provide arcade addicts with a sense of visual definition impossible to obtain on a regular TV set.
This fall Mattel also introduced a voice synthesis unit called Intellivoice, which plugs into the Intellivision master component and adds a surprisingly clever and rich texture to the company's already sophisticated game programs. And a new company called Starpath (formerly Arcadia) has just marketed its Supercharger, which plugs into the VCS, adding 6,000 bits of memory that provide an incredibly rich visual presentation format. Starpath's Phaser Patrol (fed into the Supercharger from any cassette player) is almost as detailed as the 5200 unit's Star Raiders; unfortunately its other cassettes don't display the depth of original thinking the Supercharger itself does.
In fact, judging by the Billboard top 15, it seems that far less thought has gone into designing home software than hardware. Some of the best sellers are simplistic variations of horizontal (The Empire Strikes Back, Chopper Command) or vertical (Megamania, Demon Attack) shoot-em-ups. Six are variations of arcade games: Donkey Kong and Frogger are surprisingly effective; Defender and Pac-Man are embarrassingly poor; Lock 'n' Chase is a clever reworking of the Pac-Man maze gambit, and Atlantis translates the strategy of Missile Command into a visually more interesting game. Star Raiders (for the VCS) and Starmaster are both basic space war games. The Atari cartridge comes with a keyboard attachment that plugs into the VCS and slightly expands its parameters; Starmaster, however, is more graphically subtle.
Far and away the most imaginative cartridge is Activision's Pitfall, which requires the player to maneuver a jungle character past a variety of objects -- barrels, snakes, tar pits, scorpions.
In general, Activision has marketed the most visually exciting material, including a Wild West game called Stampede and very realistic Skiing and Tennis cartridges. Another software house called Imagic has created a wonderful pool cartridge called Trick Shot and an enjoyable space wars game, Star Voyager. Mattel's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is quite good at recreating the fantasy of the real game, and its Intellivoice B17 Bomber replicates most of the action of a World War II aerial mission over Europe. But even Mattel has its dogs: The much advertised Star Strike is the least interesting of the space games, and Tron Deadly Discs is a pale imitation of the arcade unit.
Another game based on a film should fare better when it goes on sale next week: Atari's E.T., for the VCS, is the first really clever adaptation of movie to cartridge. (One wonders how George Lucas could have allowed release of the silly Empire Strikes Back game.) The player must help E.T. gather parts that will allow him to phone home. In the course of the game, E.T. picks up Reese's Pieces, gets captured by an FBI agent, is rescued by Elliot and even makes a dead pot of flowers bloom.