Pong (1972)

As a child raised on the Nintendo Entertainment System I failed to realize that I’m a generation removed from the opening era of videogames, contrary to what I believed in my own little head canon.

Anything before Super Mario Bros. was inconsequential in my eyes; that was my benchmark for the beginnings of the medium I so enjoy. I don’t ascribe to that mentality anymore thankfully, but even so I can still see why I thought that way. Saying that Atari and ColecoVision looked antiquated, even by 80s standards, isn’t that much of a hot take. And really, while I still appreciate and enjoy these digital relics today, they don’t often hold up even to hindsight. But that’s not the point; what matters is how they were received and perceived when they first arrived on the scene. I didn’t realize how meaningful those moments were until a casual conversation during Christmas turned into a personal history lesson on Pong.

While talking to my youngest brother about Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration (which I highly recommend you play!) my father’s (heretofore known as Pop) interest was piqued because a) he loves to tell a good sentimental yarn an b) he was around when Pong was a thing. I mentioned how this bare-boned arcade game that helped bring videogames into popular culture got a dismissive reaction from one of my sons, only for his opinion to turn a quick 180° when we actually sat down and played it, which I’ll get to in a bit. There wasn’t anything particularly insightful about Pop’s story, but the fact that Pong had impacted him (more so with one of its many home releases, but to wit) enough for him to remember it was my biggest takeaway.

It’s an unsurprising but subtle reminder that games did in fact have a huge impact well before not only Super Mario Bros. but my time on this earth as I know it. With a little bit of imagination I could picture how wild it must have been to have control of what was happening onscreen. Obviously Spacewar! came first but not many people would have had access to it. Pong was the great introduction to the masses of digital leisure and, much like when man first landed on the moon, my parents were around for both historical events.

So I put the cart before the horse a bit in this little allegory, none of the above would have happened if I hadn’t conned one of my kids into playing Pong with me in the first place. I mean, you could play it by yourself, but it’s a way more fun than just letting the ball slip by the non-existent A.I. to dabble with it or try and control both of them in a pat-your-head-and-rub-your-belly kind of scenario. Besides, it’s as good an excuse as any to spend quality time with your offspring…by playing a game that’s older than both of us.

I have a tendency to lazily turn what I want to be a critical essay into a furtively half-assed review, but in the instance of Pong there’s not much to say beyond that it works really well fifty years after the fact and there are zero bells and/or whistles. It does have a beep though! Even though Pong is the most facile of experiences that is in by no means an indictment to it being enjoyable. Even though I knew it would be a good time in the periphery sense, it held its own not just to me who went in wearing an amateur historian hat but to a 12-year-old who placated my whims but had a look on his face that he thought his old man was joking and not being serious about sitting down and playing Pong on our large, 4K television.

Control quibbles notwithstanding (I didn’t realize how wonderful dials were until I had to move my paddle with an analog stick), the barebones, nitty-gritty smack a ball back and forth until somebody scores 11 points still induces a competitiveness that overrides Pong’s simplicity. I didn’t need to worry about learning mechanics or systems, I just needed to have fun with my boy and try not to laugh so hard at a mishap caused by the sheer physics of the thing that I can’t breath and my son gets a point. I often forget that games can be played with others for mutual enjoyment because I often gravitate towards genres that are the opposite of that or require you to go online and play with basest of trolls. All that mattered is that I spent quality time with my child while playing a quality game. What better way to be reminded than with the O.G. of the concept.

In one of the interviews on Atari 50 Al Alcorn mentions that Nolan Bushnell, the head of the company at the time, wasn’t interested in Pong beyond using it as a testbed for his grander aspirations, but lo and behold on a market test in a bar it made so much money that it literally stopped the arcade machine from working anymore. The power of Pong isn’t just that it helped launch a medium, but that it did so because it helped bring people together and it’s remembered fondly because of it.

I always appreciated Pong for its historical relevance, but I’m earnestly surprised at how endearing it still is.

DEVELOPER: Atari | PUBLISHER: Atari | RELEASE: November 29th, 1972 | PLATFORM: Arcade | PLAYED ON: Nintendo Switch (Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration)

Book Report | Minecraft Woodsword Chronicles: Into the Game! by Nick Eliopulos & Luke Flowers

If you have kids, you should read to them.

OK, that’s probably not the cold open you were expecting from a book report, but the joy I found in reading and sharing the world of Minecraft Woodsword Chronicles with my youngest son is a reminder that there is an amazing connectedness that comes with it, so much so that it’s worth throwing up this little P.S.A. before I even get started.

I needed a reminder of this fact and got one from one of my brothers; over Christmas he and my niece regaled me with how they got lost in the Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland and I immediately got wistful about reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Odd and the Frost Giants and Wildwood with my older boys. Not that I need a thinly veiled excuse to dive into children’s or young adult books, but there is truly something magical when you enter those worlds and share the experience with your children. I wasn’t sure where to start, but I remembered a recommendation from an author I admire on how he enjoyed reading Nick Eliopulos and Nick Flower’s Minecraft Woodsword Chronicles even though he had no prior experience with Mojang’s creative world. Knowing my youngest son did love Minecraft, it sounded like a good place to start our literary adventures.

It doesn’t happen very often but the first book in the series, Into the Game!, absolutely nailed everything I expected from it. Or is that mined?

I’m allowed a bad dad joke every now and again. You’re not the boss of me!

The book opens on a clever note; it immediately opens with the protagonists (at this point unnamed or revealed) being trapped in a burrow, worried about being found by whatever is lurking outside. It lets you know immediately that a) there is going to be some action within its pages and b) it totally sells you on the Minecraft-iness of it while doing so. My son doesn’t have a hard time getting into a good story, but I saw the prologue as something that would entice kids that aren’t regular readers into biting on this one because it’s totally in their wheelhouse. Once we get to the story proper it does something else that is equally as adroit: introducing us to Woodsword Middle Schooland its students through the eyes of a new kid on her first day of school.

As young Wildling Scout and nervous new kid Ash Kapoor steps through the doors, you slowly get introduced to her new classmates and eventual friends (as well as important faculty members) organically as she attempts to survive her first day. You meet brother and sister duo Morgan and Jodi, wiz-kid Harper and the kind but silly Po. Eliopulos does a good job of feeding you a few personal facts to flesh out each character in a way that never feels heavy-handed. It’s enough to get you invested in the story and endeared pretty quickly to the protagonists without giving you some kind of massive lore dump. Kudos to the level of representation in this book; that sort of thing matters a lot and it’s done so subtly that I can’t help but appreciate it because of that.

The hook of Into the Game! and Minecraft Woodsword Chronicles is that our party of pals end up playing Minecraft on specially made VR headsets made by science teacher/potential mad scientist Doc Culpepper only for the to discover they’re actually in the world.

It begins with the kids trying to acclimate themselves to this new reality while also deftly dropping knowledge about the game proper to the readers. To me it was a neat way to get myself accustomed to Minecraft as a game and the lingo that surrounds it; to my son it was a barrage of name drops that tickled his fandom and further invested him into the overarching plot. To totally sound like a cool dad I will say that I’ve played enough Minecraft to know the general flow of the game, but I could see my wife who couldn’t give two hoots about it still being able to follow along enough to have a good time. While I’ll definitely give Nick Eliopulos credit for scribing a brilliant kids book, it goes without saying that it all gets tied together well with Luke Flower’s art. We stared at a two-page spread of a tree house for ten minutes straight, just admiring the design and imagining what it would be like to play on it. It also set my 7-year-olds expectations very high for a tree house we plan to build in our backyard, but that’s a story for another day.

Into the Game! is a fantastic start to a wonderful series that should be read not just because of its ties to Minecraft but because its themes of friendship, teamwork and resolving differences are time-tested lessons that should be taught to everyone. Even in a book about my kid’s current obsession. Actually, especially in a book about my kid’s current obsession.

Ozma Wars (1979)

I’ve always aspired to be something of an amateur historian and archivist but always end up petering out after a while because life has this tendency of getting in the way. What I really mean to say is that I don’t make the time for it, and that’s on me.  Apropos of this being like my millionth time taking a stab at recording my critiques, the randomizer and quirky inner logic I use to decide where to start often lands me on Ozma Wars, SNK’s Space Invaders mod that was created to take advantage of a craze of the times that, at least in my eyes, was a better game and pretty innovative to boot.

Not too shabby for a game I was pretty apathetic about the first time I booted it up.

When I say apathetic I mean that in an optimistic way; other than a handful of games in the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection I didn’t know what I was getting into and compilations like this tend to have not just a lot of variety in the games it presents but also in their quality in general. Not that you can’t find interesting concepts in terrible experiences, but understanding them and enjoying them don’t always go hand-in-hand. Without getting more digressive than I already have, I just like gleaning things from every game I play, good or bad.

Luckily for me, Ozma Wars turned out to be pretty good, which helped change my mindset.

If you were stand an Ozma Wars cabinet next to a Space Invaders one, you’d be hard pressed to find the similarities beyond their status as a shooter. Space Invaders is a rhythmic experience where a large alien battalion slowly marches towards you as you take potshots from behind cover to eliminate them before they reach you. Win and you get to face another wave, this time faster and a little farther, ad nauseam. Ozma Wars took that idea (and apparently the technology behind it) and added an assortment of iterative but substantial changes that makes it feel more like Galaga than its forebear, which says a lot.

Rather than staving off wave after wave of the same alien, each new one instead offers a different type, giving Ozma Wars an almost level-like structure. At first you’re attacking traditional starships, then smaller globes followed by a giant orb that launches a barrage of laser beams at you that you somehow have to shoot between to pick it off. There are even more besides that! While I can appreciate the repetitive nature and mastery of games that cycle through the same scene, I’m more inclined to enjoy those that throw a multitude of challenges my way because I just simply prefer that kind of change of pace. On top of that your ship moves at a much faster clip than the one in Space Invaders so it gives off the impression of being a much more empowering play.

As if changing the mechanics wholesale wasn’t enough, Ozma Wars also introduces a “life bar” which allows you to take a few hits before going down, which was a pretty neat abstraction to the usual “die in one hit” motif most quarter munchers were prone to. The more I play the game the more I realize it’s less a life bar in the traditional sense and more of a subversive timer. You can dock with a mothership in between stages to recharge your ship, but the moment you’re out in the thick of it the bar continually goes down. Take a hit and it goes down faster; spend too much time trying to tread lightly and deliberately and you’ll run out of fuel before reaching the next gas station. While it seems arbitrary and sneaky, this idea also accredits the player by allowing them to progress further than you normally would in this type of game while also challenging you to figure out the best ways to waylay enemy patterns.

The more I play Ozma Wars the more I admire it; not just because of the way it spectacularly builds off the framework of Space Invaders, but because it’s a light and easy entry point for this style of game. I also appreciate how it changed my perspective on how I should approach vintage games: with an open mind and plenty of curiosity.  It may not always pan out, but every now and again you can have fun with your learning experience.

DEVELOPER: SNK | PUBLISHER: SNK | RELEASE: 1979 | PLATFORM: Arcade | PLAYED ON: Nintendo Switch (SNK 40th Anniversary Collection)