pac-man

Pinball to Pokemon: New book unearths 8 fascinating facts about the history of video games

Contributed by
May 25, 2018

The history of gaming is serious -- and not just because the Manhattan Project lent some of its scientists to the industry. It’s a scrappy timeline full of intellectual property theft, eccentric inventors, and lucky breaks. It’s also filled with objects and icons so recognizable that you might hum the theme music or feel the muscle memory return to your thumbs upon seeing them.

Those objects tell stories, often ones different than those popularized after their success. Understanding Mario is one thing, but understanding what came before Mario and what led up to Mario gives a much deeper appreciation for anything that managed to become a lasting legend of the video game scene.

Deepening appreciation is what Jon-Paul Dyson and Jeremy Saucier set out to do in their new work with The Strong National Museum of Play and The World Video Game Hall of Fame. A History of Video Games in 64 Objects —  out May 29 from HarperCollins — offers insights into some of gaming’s most cherished hallmarks and groundbreaking milestones.

SYFY WIRE got an advance look at the book, and we found 8 of the best (out of those previously mentioned 64) facts about your favorite games that you might not know. Impress your friends and add to your own encyclopedic knowledge of gaming with the following:

Pinball’s flippers were added to skirt the law.

Ah, the flipper. No gaming control mechanism has been so roundly cursed by everyone who’s used it. But these gutter-protecting bats weren’t always there to frustrate and excite players. Early arcade games, like 1936’s Bumper, had everything you might recognize in modern pinball... except a way to control the ball. It wasn’t until 1947’s Humpty Dumpty pinball machine that mechanical “flipper bumpers” were added to change the game of chance (one that could possibly be regulated or banned along with gambling by NYC’s moralizing mayor Fiorello La Guardia) into a game of skill. Interactivity was a key difference between the game and something like roulette -- and is now a staple of what we think of as pinball.

Death Race 2000 inspired the first video game to incite moral panic.

Death Race

Source: Exidy

It seems like every few years or so, a video game will take the blame for a violent crime or a particular game’s depiction of violence will be deemed too unsavory for kids and authorities will riot. But that’s been happening since video games began and adversaries were simply stick figures. Death Race, an arcade game released in 1976 that was loosely based on the satirical slaughterhouse film Death Race 2000 from the year before, got an episode of 60 Minutes and a study from the National Safety Council devoted to its vehicular stick-manslaughter. While the targets were ostensibly “gremlins,” this was still one of the first games to have violence outside of the military, police, or western arenas -- and thus was too unsavory for many authority figures. Unfortunately for them, it wouldn’t be the last game to offend their tastes.

The New Zork Times helped readers learn game secrets without spoilers thanks to invisible ink.

Before there was Nintendo Power, before Game Informer printed a page, and WAY before the internet, there was the New Zork Times. A seminal video game publication aimed to help players of the text adventure Zork figure out what the heck to do and where the heck to go, it was also a groundbreaking achievement in spoiler prevention. The monthly clue newsletter led to Zork media printed in invisible ink so that players could selectively unveil some secrets while maintaining the sanctity of others.

Simon partially owes its success to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Ok, Simon isn’t a video game. Not really. But the toy IS based on an arcade game (provocatively named Touch Me) that had the same Simon Says premise. Why don’t you ever hear about that game? Because it was offensive to the senses -- especially the ears. Simon’s pleasant four tones came from the encyclopedia entry for bugle; the E, C#, A, E harmonies mimic the instrument. They also, unwittingly, mimic the game played between the scientists and aliens of Steven Spielberg’s smash Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was released mere months before Simon hit the stores. Serendipity, thy name is Simon.

Pac-Man’s player base during the heart of Pac-Man Fever was 60% female.

When most games revolved around shooting down aliens, commanding missiles, piloting spaceships, and doing otherwise militaristic and hypermasculine activities, some developers realized that if they wanted to reach the entirety of the video game marketplace, they shouldn’t be making games driven by a simple and outdated idea of masculinity. Arcades were a boys’ club, but they didn’t have to be. That and a pizza’s missing slice were the inspiration behind Toru Iwatani’s Pac-Man. War games might be pushed toward men, but chase games work for everyone. Its success came from the fact that while a game like Defender’s demographics were 95% male, Pac-Man’s were 60% female. One of the first games to intentionally seek a female audience, it became one of the industry’s earliest hits.

Sonic the Hedgehog originally had a human girlfriend named Madonna.

sonic the hedgehog

Source: Sega

Sonic has always been the edgy alternative to the more safe, blue-collar plumber that is Mario. In fact, that’s because he was specifically designed that way. When Sega was putting resources into their Mario competitor, they wanted him to be as dangerous and full of attitude as possible to differentiate him from the mustachioed favorite. That meant some really crazy ideas in the design process. Sonic was originally going to be named Mr. Needlemouse and have vampiric fangs, a human girlfriend named Madonna, and a rock band featuring a monkey on bass and an alligator on keyboards. That’s even weirder than some of the Sonic fan art out there.

Doom began as a combination of Aliens, Evil Dead II, and a failed Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

In addition to its contributions to the modding community and the future of engine licensing, id Software’s Doom was a wildly inventive and graphically innovative game. Some of that was due to the properties that influenced it. Doom was originally going to be a licensed version of Aliens, but it became clear that 20th Century Fox was going to maintain creative control -- something id desperately wanted. So instead, the team decided to combine the sci-fi horror with the campy bloodbath of Evil Dead II and a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that Doom’s team lead, John Carmack, lost because his party was overrun by demons. While essentially a plotless space marine shooter (establishing a trope if ever there was one), Doom took these influences and turned them into an iconic aesthetic that helped define the FPS.

The company that would create Pokémon started as a two-man video game review fanzine.

Pokemon Red

Source: Nintendo

Game Freak was one of the most iconic video game names of the ‘90s because of their place in creating Pokémon. Whenever one of the Game Boy editions booted up, there the name was in all its pixelated glory. But it started as two friends kvetching about the state of the video game industry. Bug-collecting engineer Satoshi Tajiri and artist Ken Sugimori were pumping out crumpled, handwritten pages of Game Freak for other local video game enthusiasts hungry for a fanzine that delivered reviews and commentary on the niche industry. When the friends had finally had enough with the state of games, they vowed to make their own. When they did, they decided to keep their zine’s name for their company. And with the help of Nintendo, they created one of the biggest franchises of all time.