Reading 02: The History of... The Golden Age

The Golden Age of video games, from ~1978 - 1983, featured classic games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong. Archive.org hosts an online video game arcade with hundreds of games from the Golden Age and beyond. I took advantage of this online arcade to play one of the first and most popular games for the Atari 2600, Pitfall!

Pitfall! High Score

Pitfall! was revolutionary for a few reasons. First, it’s gameplay intentionally allowed for a longer style of game. Before Pitfall!, most games were designed so that the player would lose as fast as possible. This allowed for arcades to keep making money as players kept putting quarters into their machines. For home systems, there was no need to have accelerated gameplay, and Pitfall! benefitted from that with a 20 minute playtime.

Additionally, it is typically credited for creating the side-scrolling genre of video games. In the game, you act as an individual running through the jungle collecting treasures and avoiding obstacles. There is often the opportunity to fall down a hole or use a ladder to enter tunnels that are in parallel with the main game screen. Frankly, I had quite a bit of difficulty with Pitfall! at first, primarily because the emulator’s controls were mapped so that I couldn’t jump and move left or right at the same time without switching desktops. Eventually, I was able to work around this and face my next obstacle, a crocodile infested marsh. It was exciting to make it past the crocodiles, rattlesnakes, and scorpions. In my best run, I died when a lake suddenly appeared beneath my feet and I was swallowed up.

After trying out Pitfall!, I moved on to a new console: the Magnavox Odyssey 2. The Odyssey 2 retailed for a whopping $675.47 in 2018 dollars. It was one of the big three video game consoles and sold 2 million units before the end of the Golden Age. I played around a bit with Pickaxe Pete for a bit, struggling to find the controls, before I settled in with Munchkin.

Munchkin... There was an attempt

Munchkin was a ripoff of Pac-Man, where you chomp through a maze collecting small dots while avoiding munchers. Four of the dots are special and turn the munchers into ghosts, which the player can then attack. Unlike Pac-Man, there are only 12 dots that slowly move through the maze. The center walls also move occasionally, allowing access to the different quadrants. Ultimately, Atari sued Magnavox over the similarity to Pac-Man and won the suit, forcing Munchkin to be pulled from stores.

One quirk of Munchkin is that the maze walls disappear when you are moving. This provided an interesting level of difficulty to an otherwise straightforward game. I enjoyed Pac-Man better than Munchkin, but I could definitely see the similarity. Munchkin felt like it was more luck based compared to Pac-Man, as it was much easier to get trapped with no opportunity for escape.

Games like Pitfall! and Munchkin are so memorable because of a mix of nostalgia and their creative gameplay. Old games were constrained in terms of memory, graphics, sound, processing, and pretty much everything else. This meant that game designers had to be very creative in order to make a compelling game. This creativity shows why some of the classics from the Golden Age have stood the test of time, and will be played for decades to come.