Pac-Man Fever

I grew up in what is now known as Silcon Valley during in 1970s and 1980s. I expierenced first hand the development of computers and more importantly – electronic gaming.

My timeline bridges the transition between pinball and the video arcade machines. Pinball was cool and ubiquitous. However, very quickly games like PONG and TANK began to vie with pinball for floorspace in the local pizza parlors and burger joints.

My uncle’s favorite burger joint near Stanford University called The Oasis. During the mid-1970s, the place was loud with music and had a floor covered in peanut shells. What is also had was a Sea Wolf arcade machine. Sea Wolf had a periscope you looked through and then fired torpedos vertically up towards ships on the water’s surface. The adults enjoyed the beer and us kids loved Sea Wolf.

The pizza parlor on the corner of Fremont and Mary Ave in Sunnyvale had quite a few different names over the years. What it also had was TANK – two combatants manned their controls and battled each other in the midst of a maze of obstacles. The one cartriage that would come with the Atari 2600 (VCS) was COMBAT and included a similar (if not as impressive) game.

The first computer that I (or actually my dad) had was an Apple ][. We started out loading programs with a tape player (Breakout being my favorite). Then there were additions: one and then two 5 1/4″ floppy drives, memory expansion, an Epson dot matrix printer, and an acoustic cup 300 baud modem. For arcade-like gaming I received first paddles and then a joystick. Gaming on the Apple ][ was thrilling, but could not hold pace with the thrill of the development of improved graphics and sound.

To take advantage of these developments and to help me part with my hard earned quarters, dedicated arcades began to spring up. These augmented the arcade games found at the burger joints, minature golf courses, and pizza parlors… as well as the one or two games found at the local convience store or bowling alley. Near my dad’s house was Merlin’s Castle which had one of my favorite games – Lunar Lander. By my mom’s, another arcade (next to the Brunswick bowling alley at Homestead and Hollenbeck Road) had Scramble… a lesser know game, but one I am still obsessed with. During the summer, we’d go to the Great America amusement park where their video arcades had an awesome selection – to include the vector graphics Stars Wars game with incredidble audio. Another favorite location was Farrell’s, kitty corner from the Fremont and Mary pizza place. Farrell’s had two awesome games that are burned into my memory: Joust and Tron.

Let me not forget about Chucky Cheese Pizza Time Theater. Mr. Bushnell (from Atari) established one of the first Chucky Cheese Theaters across the street from the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose (also by the Century Theater where I first saw Star Wars). Chucky Cheese was the location to host a birthday party. The animatronic puppet show was horrible. The pizza just as bad. But the video arcade games where the latest and greatest. With a pocket full of tokens, an elementry school kid could have the time of his life.

I was first exposed to text-based games at IV Phase – a company where my friend’s mom worked at. Interestingly enough, IV Phase was located where Apple’s headquarters is now, where HWY 280 intersects Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road (aka HWY 9)…. I also remember that before IV Phase, the area was an orchard. The text-based game was Adventure. My friend and I each played a different terminal and could “see” and cooperate with each other in the game.

Apple ][ games became more sophisticated and better emulated (or copied) actual games found in the arcade. The big difference was that instead of paying 25 cents for a play, I could more than likely get an Apple ][ game for free; either from a BBS or one of my friends at school. My favorites were Wizardry, Choplifter, and Loderunner.

Entering high school in 1983, my interests turned elsewhere. The Apple ][ was actually used for productive activity like writing papers on what passed for an early version of word processing. When I was a sophomore, one of my friends who hosted a BBS was busted for hacking. The FBI took away all his computer equipment. This event, in addition to scarying the crap out of me, also produced additional incentive to stay away from computers. And I did, other than using MACs in college to write papers.

Now, 20 years later, I am enjoying a few different open source gaming platforms that are allowing me to re-live (and re-play) some great memories.

  • The Wiz
  • The GP2X Wiz is an open-source, Linux-based handheld video game console and media player created by GamePark Holdings of South Korea. Its the second in a series of handheld gaming devices, I picked mine up at The Wiz is capable of emulating many computer systems and gaming consoles. Such emulation allows me to play the original games – just the way they I played them back in the day. Some of the emulated computers include: Amiga, Atari 400/800, Commodore 64. The consoles are well represented by emulating Atari VCS, GameBoy, Genesis, Colecovision, Intellivision, Nintendo NES, and Nintendo SuperNES. However, where the Wiz (and other open-source devices) really shines with MAME (or Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator). MAME allows the device to emulate just about any video arcade game that ever was. From Asteroids to Zaxxon, the Wiz, through MAME, uses the original code from these arcade machines to provide an identical expierence to what the game was like back in the pizza parlors and game arcades.

  • The Caanoo
  • The Caanoo is the successor to the Wiz. The specifications are similar with the major differences being the Caanoo’s larger display, USB 2.0 capability, and WiFi capability. Another change (which some find contentious) is instead of D-Pad on the left side, there is a small analog joystick. I really enjoy the joystick as it gives a much higher degree of control for diagonal movement that is hard to reproduce with a D-Pad.

    Both the Wiz and the Caanoo are produced by GamePark Holdings (GPH). Where these devices depart from the handheld devises of Nintedo and Sony is that there are very few dedicated, for-purchase games created specifically for the Wiz or Caanoo. The majority of all the emulator software available is designed and coded through open-source channels. An active user base provides plenty of support in working through any issues of using the devices.

  • The Pandora
  • Quite a departure from the two Korean handheld devices is the Pandora. Esentially a subnotebook (a bit smaller than your standard netbook), the Pandora has an inteseting homebrew history. The system by default comes with a Linux OS based on Ångström. The addition of a keyboard opens additional possibilities for the emulation of early computer platform games (… think Zork on the Apple ][). The biggest drawback to the Pandora is that they are just tough to get a hold of. The manufacturer, OpenPandora, has had a myriad of delays in shipping due to several different problems. Those of us who pre-ordered a Pandora have been hanging in for what is going on to almost two years. Those who have received their Pandoras have been quite pleased. Mine was posted via air mail and I’m hoping to receive it this week. My intent is that the Pandora will serve as my main means of entertainment on my flight back to the US in mid-June.

    Let the games begin!