Armchair Arcade Issue #1 - January 2004

Welcome to the first issue of Archair Arcade!

The editorial staff of Armchair Arcade: Bill Loguidice, Matt Barton, and Buck Feris.

January CoverWelcome to the long-awaited first issue of Armchair Arcade, originally scheduled to come out in early November 2003. Obviously, there have been many unforeseen delays between that time and now, and there has been much hype and speculation about Armchair Arcade. With this first month’s articles, we think you’ll get a better idea of what we’re actually trying to accomplish.

The basic premise when starting Armchair Arcade was that certain obscure topics would benefit from deeper editorial treatments than have generally been provided by other types of publications, be they online or print.

Armchair Arcade was originally inspired by some popular classic gaming forums. Often, fascinating topics were discussed, but as is typical of online forums, these topics would get pushed lower and lower in the queue as new postings were made. While the older topics were still there, for all intents and purposes they were forgotten unless a random user’s search turned one up. Another frequent problem is that a great topic will spring up, and several people will offer opinions and discussions, but no one is willing or able to perform the necessary research necessary for further development.

The purpose of Armchair Arcade is to capture the best of free-form topics like those found in forums and generate meaningful, detailed articles. This first issue is a great example of the kinds of topics we’re most interested in, covering themes ranging from game packaging to using Aristotle to understand the appeal of videogames. Of course Armchair Arcade has so much more potential than even this first issue demonstrates. This is where you, the reader comes in. Armchair Arcade is an open publication, which means that any article or art submission from anyone will potentially be considered for future publication. We encourage it, we need it, and that’s what will make Armchair Arcade really great. Armchair Arcade is not just about the small group of people that started it and crafted the first issue; it’s what you, the reader, will bring to it.

A Treatise on Videogames

Author: Matthew D. Barton
Artwork: Elizabeth Katselis
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: All screen shots used within the article were taken directly from the author's copy of MAME.
Special Thanks: Bill Loguidice

The CriticWhen most people use the word "critic," they have in mind someone who makes and explains decisions about why a certain movie, book, or videogame is or isn't worth buying. This connection to money is one reason why so few critics earn the public's trust, especially in cases where the critic is "owned," either directly or indirectly, by the corporations which make the products they are criticizing. In other words, most "critics" produce little more than ad-copy, and we encounter their work mostly as endorsements--for instance, phrases mumbled by some well-fed critic may appear in the trailer of a movie, or on the back of a new novel. This problem has long plagued the videogame industry, in which most videogame journalists lacked professional backgrounds and had little sense of traditional journalistic ethics.

I bring up this commonly held definition of "critic" so that I may contrast it with another one: The critic as a scholar. Such a critic is less concerned with the subjective features of the works he studies than the objective features common to all of them. Instead of asking whether a certain videogame is worth $50, for instance, these critics may inquire into its technical or literary aspects; consider what it has in common with other videogames, where it fits into the historical evolution of its genre, and so on. These critics would look at videogames not as commodities, but as works of art--serious works that deserve serious study and cogent analysis. These critics are called "literary critics."

Now, at this point, I may as well address the argument that videogames are not literature by definition. Since the word "literature" is a form of "literate," which means the ability to read and write, some people argue that only books and other forms of writing can properly be considered "literature." Indeed, some literary critics deny that film is literature; to these people, any genre but the hallowed book is not worthy of serious study.

I respond to these arguments concerning the literary aspect of videogames in a simplistic way: Writing is only a technological medium used to give commands; this imperative aspect of language trumps the declarative aspect and thus allows videogames to become a particularly suitable vehicle for its delivery. Probably the only real difference between speaking and writing is that speaking requires only natural "tools," whereas writing requires artificial tools. This is an important point, because so many literary critics have gotten bogged down in this discussion and tried to make a clean break between writing and speaking, only to flounder at the last minute by horrible incongruities in their logic.

I mentioned that writing is a medium used "to give commands," which is a function I also ascribe to speaking. All acts of communication are commands, even if those commands are implicit rather than explicit. I say this realizing that most critics claim (and this is a tradition that goes back at least as far as Ancient Rome) that there are at least three purposes for writing: "to inform," "to persuade," or "to entertain." All of these are merely variations of "to command." Even if I tell you to "sit back and enjoy my story about a man shipwrecked on island," I am telling you what to do. If someone is "giving you information," they are telling you what to believe. As far as "persuasion" goes, the command implicit in all persuasive discourse is "consider what I am asking you to do." Thus, there is no form of communication whatsoever that is not in its pure form a command. As if further evidence is needed, consider that the simplest decipherable sentences in the English language are one-word commands: "STOP!" "GO!" "RUN!" "ATTACK!" Consider that even when the common person does not quite understand what his friend has said to him, he may respond with "Do what?" Thus, he anticipated a command in the garble. The verb is the soul of any language, and verbs are commands.

All of this talk about language and literature may seem a bit abstract and unrelated to videogames at first. What does an understanding of how language works have to do with Pac-Man? There's not even any text in Pac-Man!

The reason for my apparent digression is that to properly understand my literary theory of videogames, someone should first know some of my assumptions about literature and language. These assumptions will form the foundation of my critique of videogames. The command-aspect of language is what makes videogames worthy of being considered literature. What I will develop later in this paper is the idea that game authors have a more complex relationship with players than book authors do with readers; the game author must take into considerations not only the commands he will give his players, but the commands he will let them give his game, and how that game will respond to them.

Most literary critics cite Aristotle as the first literary critic, although Plato had some things to say in a couple of his dialogues. Aristotle is called the great empiricist because he studied things "in the real world." For instance, when Aristotle turned his attention to tragedy, he studied the plays themselves and invented a terminology to describe their features. This is a vastly different approach than that taken by Plato, who was the "rationalist" thinker. I won't go into detail the differences here, but suffice it to say that Plato thought literature was evil because it was "a copy of a copy of a copy." The perfection of an object exists only as a "form" or "idea," a physical manifestation of it is only a "copy" of this otherwise inaccessible form. A word used to describe this physical manifestation is yet another "copy" of it, and, finally, if the word is written down, yet another "copy." Just as second, third, and fourth generation copies of a VHS tape are exponentially distorted, so is the written word a wretched copy of the "original" idea which exists only in some metaphysical realm. Aristotle was less concerned with this abstraction and focused instead of classifying and defining literature and its parts.

My goal in this work is to do for videogames what Aristotle did for tragedies. While this goal may seem overly academic and even pedantic, I feel that the end result may well change the way enlightened people think and talk about videogames. I would also hope that any lover of videogames is a lover of challenge, and will consider the more difficult passages in this work to be far less difficult than Epyx's Impossible Mission!

Part One: The Soul of Videogames

In his famous work Poetics, Aristotle defined "plot" as the soul of tragedy. Here, I ought to define two terms as Aristotle understood them; namely, "plot" and "tragedy." "Plot" for Aristotle did not mean the story behind a work; for instance, we might say that the "plot" of Moby Dick is that a man loses his leg to a whale, hunts down the whale, and is eventually destroyed by it. This is not how Aristotle used the term. Instead, Aristotle meant the arrangement of incidents and episodes that would lead to the expected conclusion. In Greek tragedy, the audience already knew the "story," i.e., they knew in advance that Oedipus would kill his father, marry his mother, and eventually discover the truth and stab out his eyes. The challenge a Greek tragedian faced was not inventing a story, but inventing and arranging the events that would lead to the conclusion. What would be the scenes? What would the characters say to each other? In other words, "plot" for Aristotle was not the story itself, but rather the manner in which it was told.

"Tragedy" in Aristotle's time meant a very specific kind of play that ended, as we might expect, rather badly for the main character. The finer points of tragedy can be overlooked for our present purpose, but one vital point Aristotle makes is that the purpose of tragedy is "catharsis," or the purgation of the emotions. Aristotle viewed tragedies as a sort of emotional orgasm, which, once enjoyed, relieved the audience of bottled up emotions and allow them to live normal and healthy lives. We might almost consider catharsis a form of "stress relief." Now, the way this catharsis was reached in tragedy was by having the audience live vicariously through the characters; the audience identified with the characters; that is, they placed themselves in the characters' shoes. For a crude but effective example, consider horror films. Even though a viewer realizes she is not actually being chased by a madman with a butcher knife, she may discover that her heart is pounding. How is this possible? The answer is that she, to some degree, is living vicariously through the movie star. If the movie star is brutally killed, our viewer may reach catharsis: Her fears turned out to be unjustified; it was the movie star, not her, that was stabbed to death. She can now breathe easily; the fear was built up and has now been purged. As you may already guess, these notions of "living vicariously" and "catharsis" will be a very important part of my videogame criticism. In the case of tragic plays, catharsis depends on how well a viewer identifies with the protagonist. Videogames are better than traditional literature in this regard: Videogames effect this identification so strongly that players are known to refer to a moveable block on the screen as "me;" i.e., "Look--that's me on the screen." This type of identification is not possible in tragedy; someone may see a performance by an actor and say, "I know exactly how he feels!" but never, "That's me on the stage."

Let me turn now to the heart of my criticism.

Screen shot of Space Invaders from MAME.Like tragedies, the soul of videogames is their "plot." However, I, like Aristotle, do not mean "the background story" or any such thing related to fiction. The average game player does not care about "narrative" elements and finds most efforts to map a story onto a game to be cumbersome and intrusive; few are the gamers who praise the "cut-scene." When I say the "plot" of a videogame I mean the way the author has invented and arranged the events and devised the control mechanism. The best way to understand what I mean by "plot" in this context is gameplay, which is a strange coinage nevertheless familiar to almost all videogame enthusiasts. I want to be very specific about my use of the term "gameplay." I define the term to mean the way in which the player performs physical actions to manipulate objects (play), and the inherent challenges and assets offered by the game which make such actions necessary or desirable (game). This is a fair approximation of what Espen Aarseth refers to as the ergodicity of videogames; however, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the more common term. Let's start by analyzing the gameplay of a game most of us are intimately familiar with: Taito's Space Invaders.

Space Invaders typically offers a player two methods of physical control: A joystick for moving an object, in this case a spaceship, left and right, and a button for firing objects, namely missiles (or photon torpedoes). The control mechanism is easy, simple, and quite limited. This constitutes the "play." Now, the challenge of Space Invaders is likewise simple: Avoid being hit by an enemy ship or its missiles, and destroy as many enemies as possible before the inevitable tragic result. In addition to these simple elements, there is also a strategic factor created by the four barricades, which are assets. A player can hide behind these barricades and take potshots, or even destroy them himself, either by accident or design. If the game offered "power ups," like extra firepower, speed boosts, or extra "lives," these would also be considered "assets" for the player.

Like tragedies in Aristotle's time, Space Invaders' story is obvious and irrelevant. We also know how the story must end--eventually, the player will be destroyed. The "fun" of this videogame is not the story, but rather the gameplay. In the case of Space Invaders and other tragic games, the player's satisfaction arises not from the literary contemplation of a story, but the measurement of his gameplay skill as represented by the score.1

A game designer must ask herself three questions in regards to gameplay when inventing a new videogame:

1. What is the player to do physically?

2. How can what happens on the screen make these physical actions necessary and enjoyable?

3. How can the game help the player achieve catharsis?

All games, whether we are discussing videogames or Tic-Tac-Toe, involve the manipulation of objects. In videogames, these objects are usually "sprites," or images such as the spaceship in Namco's Galaga or the puzzle pieces in Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris. In chess, the objects are the chess pieces. In basketball, the object is the basketball. Finally, in word games, the objects are words, which are not treated as words but objects. Consider crossword puzzles and scramble games, which ask us to see words and letters themselves as objects to be manipulated.

Videogames allow players to interact with objects in ways that other games cannot. Game control devices have evolved along with graphics abilities to give players almost total control over objects; the only limitations to that control are artificially created by the programmer. Whereas the limitations of a player's control of a basketball are practically limited by her height, speed, sight, and agility, the only limitations imposed on players of basketball videogames are those directed by the programmers.2

A videogame designer must take into consideration the various input devices available when conceptualizing a game. Not surprisingly, there have been many such devices, and their history is probably one of the more fascinating aspects of videogaming. Nowadays, arcades sport machines with input devices ranging from fire hoses to fishing rods. More traditional devices, like joysticks and game pads, were originally quite simple, but evolved into almost staggeringly complex controllers with a myriad of buttons, knobs, switches, levers, and "throttles." While modern controllers typically provide six or seven buttons, a single joystick is itself capable of an infinite number of inputs--eight naturally, and more if "combos" are utilized, or rapid combinations of movements such as left-left-up-down-right. Such "combos" are used extensively in the popular title from Midway, Mortal Kombat3. Unfortunately, as is true of gameplay as well as joysticks, complexity is not always desirable, and may ruin gameplay with excessive and confusing controls.

Ultimately, the control mechanism is more significant for its limitations than its features. If a designer was developing games for a console restricted to two push buttons as input devices, a game like Mortal Kombat would be highly impractical. An interesting thing to note here is that the world's first computer game, Spacewar!, was so cumbersome to control-players had to flip switches on a mainframe--that clever hackers were led to create the first true game controllers. Often enough, control limitations are themselves a critical factor in the challenge of a videogame; interesting limitations often cause the player to think strategically, which players will find either enjoyable or frustrating depending on their temperament and ability.

The second question--How can what happens on the screen make the player want to play--is more important than the first, because no matter how well a joystick was designed, no one but the smallest child would delight in playing with it if it were not being used in conjunction with a videogame. The designer must find a way to interest the player in using the device to interact with objects on the screen. Many critics and players mistakenly place the appeal of videogames in features like graphics, sound, and so on, but it makes no more sense to say that a videogame is great because it is has good graphics as it does to say the game of chess is great because the pieces are ornate or made with exquisite materials.

All videogames have only one way to stimulate prolonged and recurrent interest: catharsis. Successful videogames must begin by building up an emotion in the player, then relieving it vicariously through catharsis. The best videogame designers are those who understand what factors in a game will achieve the desired emotional effect. What is most sorely needed in videogames are designers who understand human emotions and the surest way to affect them; though we have yet to see games of Homeric proportions, that certainly is a fault of videogame artists, not the medium.

Let us turn now to the types of videogames and their not-so-subtle differences. There are three types of videogames: Tragedies, comedies, and epics. Games in which the player must inevitably be destroyed are tragedies. If the player can "win" the game, we rightly call it a comedy. "Epics" are vastly different than other games because they involve a long and complex narrative, or story, presented as "episodes." Tetris is a tragedy, Mega Man is a comedy, and The Bard's Tale is an epic. Games that cannot be lost at all are not rightly called games.

Part Two: Tragedies

Let us now consider how these three types of videogames strive towards catharsis. As will soon be shown, games that fail often do so because they do not effect catharsis in players, instead leaving them either anxious or bored.

Now, I said earlier that tragedies are different from comedies in that they do not end well. I must at this point add to this definition. Tragedies work because they cause the player to perceive himself in a certain relationship with reality; specifically, the cold realization that the universe does not make sense. Bad things happen to good people, no matter how well they act or how hard they try to avoid catastrophe. The stark truth is that the universe must remain an enigma. Being reminded of this truth is necessary because we find it natural to impose an artificial "order" or "understanding" on the universe; indeed, without such artificial constructions we couldn't survive in this world. However, exposure to the eternal mystery of the cosmos is a wondrous and elevating experience, which helps restore our sensibilities and relieve us of the anxieties associated with trying to fit the square pegs of reality into the round holes of our understanding. This is true for videogames as well as tragic plays and even great cathedrals, whose mystical architecture is designed with such catharsis in mind. Whereas very ancient cultures saw no logical order to the universe at all, seeing every physical phenomenon as the workings of magic or gods, and found catharsis only in strange rituals, modern cultures see every physical phenomenon scientifically; we assume rational explanations exist for even the most inexplicable occurrences. Unfortunately, this relationship to reality is ultimately incapable of satisfying the needs of the human psyche, and some "patch" is needed, such as religious experience, fiction, and so on. Joseph Campbell talks about this extensively in his work on myths--Even the most sane, rational, and well-mannered people need to participate in some mythic ritual every once and awhile, whether that means whooping at a football game, preparing a romantic dinner for a spouse, or playing a round of Pac-Man.

Interestingly, the Greeks (and even late Renaissance critics) argued that tragedy was far more noble, "High," and lofty than comedy. They assumed that the best people, or the aristocracy, needed tragedy, whereas only peasants or "common" folk enjoyed comedy. The reason for this is quite simple: The common folk want a happy ending because their current station in life is often dismal. For instance, Christianity teaches that we shouldn't worry about living miserably here on earth, because we will live in eternal richness in heaven. People with limited access to wealth or even basic resources tend to live disorderly and harsh lives. They find the greatest catharsis in fantasies involving the acquisition of happiness and order; the proverbial "happily ever after." Contrarily, the upper classes dwell less on prosperity because they already possess it; for them, the artist prescribes tales of woe; that is, tragedies, to balance out their psyche. For the same reason that too much meat and sweets are bad for your diet, too much suffering or satiation dulls your wits.

So what does this all this mean? I will use a crude but effective analogy: a rib eye steak. If someone seriously contemplates why human beings enjoy eating good food, she will discover that it is a "mixed pleasure," to borrow a term from hedonism. A "mixed" pleasure involves the satisfaction or satiation of an appetite which, left unattended, would become painful or at least unpleasant. Let us consider the pleasure of eating a delicious steak. This pleasure is "mixed" because, while the seasonings and texture of the steak are very pleasing to the senses, part of our satisfaction comes from relieving our hunger. If we were previously satiated and attempted to eat a steak, our pleasure would not be nearly as great, and we can here recall the adage, "Hunger makes the best gravy." If we found it pleasurable and delightful to eat steak anytime, and this pleasure was in no way connected with pain, then we could call eating delicious food an unmixed pleasure. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and it is also not the case with tragic videogames. All bodily pleasures are mixed, and the only unmixed pleasure is the pursuit of knowledge (learning)--after all, learning is almost always pleasurable, yet how can we suffer lusting after something we are not aware exists?

Screen shot of Tetris from MAME.How is playing Tetris a mixed pleasure? After all, someone could say that he enjoyed playing Tetris anytime, never grew tired of doing so, yet never suffered from lack of playing Tetris. This last part I would find unlikely; though a person could obviously "live" without his favorite videogame, such a life would be, if even in a small way, less satisfying than the life where his desire to play was routinely fulfilled.

Thus, on a simple level, we find the pleasure of Tetris emanating from the desire to satisfy an appetite. I say "simple" because, one cannot acquire a taste for a fruit one has never eaten. It is only through habit and repetition that players become "addicted" to Tetris. We always refer to Tetris as a "mixed pleasure" because the pleasure of winning is impossible without the real (in this case inevitable) pain of losing. What makes Tetris particularly enjoyable for most people is that the pleasure of winning outweighs the pain of losing. While this may explain why people return, again and again, to Tetris, it does not explain what attracted them to it in the first place. Now, I will demonstrate this origin.

Why do people play videogames? The critical answer runs something like this: Videogames enable the player to live vicariously through a subject, be it a character or merely a cube. This is the first part of the pleasure, and it seems to be shared by all of humanity. Who hasn't had a pleasant fantasy about temporarily assuming another body, such as a bird? This impulse may be related to the sex drive, which is about as close to two bodies becoming one as we are likely to experience in this life. Aristotle explained the tendency to imitate nature as mimesis, and said that only through mimesis can we learn anything about the world (think about how we learn to talk, for example). Furthermore, Aristotle thought that human beings instinctually enjoy mimesis. This makes a lot of sense when we consider that children mimic their parents' speech for no possible reason other than pleasure; anyone who has been around an infant for longer than a few minutes realizes that desire for pleasure is the only reason infants perform any action.

While we're talking about infants, we may as well bring in some observations about babies that may be enlightening. Psychologists are aware that the youngest babies have not yet developed a sense of self; that is, they are not aware of the limitations of their body. As far as they know, their mother's nipple is part of their body. When they at last realize that they are confined in a body, and have no direct control of matters external to it, they experience a profound sense of loss; a knowledge of that split between self and other, a catharsis, that begins their journey into human consciousness. Freud and Lacan refer to this stage as the "Mirror Stage." The pain of this stage is probably responsible for the creation of most myths and religions, almost all of which share at their core a relinquishing of this rift, whether we are talking about being "one with the force," "being one with God," or even visions of the world as some giant computer matrix, ultimately capable of being totally controlled (with no division between the one and the many.) It obviously follows that art which ends in "catharsis" is a revisiting of this reality-forming rift first glimpsed in infancy.

StonehengeThe second part of pleasure comes from this type of catharsis. In an effective videogame, the vicarious control of the subject will build up a certain emotion in the player which climaxes when the player either wins or loses the game. In the best games, winning or losing matters--the player feels he has something to gain by winning and lose by losing. Since the ultimate "loss" a human being can suffer is his own life, the most profound game of history is war, and other games are simply variations of war with lower stakes. Most videogames, especially the first videogames, end in death. This is true for traditional games as well as videogames; for instance, it's obvious to anyone that ancient games like chess and cards find their origins in war and domination, and, when glancing back through history, we find that the possibility of dying was quite real in ancient games--whether we are talking about the first Olympics or Mesoamerican ballgames. As societies and cultures advanced, games (and religion), became less concerned with the "actual" and more concerned with the "representational." This is simply an abstract way of saying that the ancient games involved death; newer games involve only imaginary death, and some games only involve death at the most abstract level. In fact, tragedy itself likely evolved from mystic religions involving human sacrifice, as many prominent "Goat Song" scholars have noted. The catharsis involved in this representational violence is an integral part of all human societies; subsequently, we should praise videogames' ability to represent it so vividly and involve players in it so actively--otherwise, people may seek the "catharsis" of representational killing and dying in the real world.

Whether or not a videogame player "dies" in some graphically-realistic way on the screen is ultimately not important. What is critical is whether or not that loss with achieve a similar effect; a pain of loss and a moment of mystical awareness. At some point, a player has to realize that he lost not in spite of his mastery of the controls, but because he has control. Just as everyone must die no matter how well they plan their diet and how hard they exercise--a harrowing realization that requires quite a bit of maturity--the physical universe always gets the last laugh. The catharsis of losing a game of Pac-Man is responding to that terrible truth that the physical reality we live in must, in the end, betray us to some other metaphysical universe that we know nothing about. Games are, in their finest, purest, most significant form, a preparation for the enigma of death. As long as we're being metaphysical here, we might posit that the experience of death will be some realization as profound as that we experienced when we first learned that our body was separate from our mother's and the world around us; perhaps death will bring yet another such rift.

So, if this explains the appeal of tragedy and tragic videogames, what about comedy? Like Aristotle, I must postpone my treatment of this topic for a later treatise--in the second issue of Armchair Arcade.


1 In the age of modern computer gaming, when games are more likely played at home alone rather than at a crowded arcade, the "score" factor has become irrelevant. Subsequently, skill games emphasizing scores on "High Score" tables are becoming rare. The whole "score" phenomenon has a rich and interesting history, and I may take on the task of analyzing this history in a future article--for now, suffice it to say that producers of early home videogame consoles like the Atari 2600 tried to maintain the score/competitive spirit by hosting magazine contests, in which players were asked to photograph the screen when they reached a high score and mail it in for a special patch.

2 An exception is the case of differently-abled players, especially those without sight, who have been deprived of the pleasures of videogaming for perhaps too long.

3 One peculiar and highly popular new arcade phenomenon is Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), which lets players dance about on a special platform to display their dancing prowess.

Atari - A Tale of Two Systems, Part I: Atari 5200 and Atari 7800

Author and Photography Credit: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Christina Loguidice
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: Portions of this article's text were previously produced by the author for and appeared at OLD-COMPUTERS.COM. All photographs were taken directly of the actual products in the author's private collection.
Special Thanks: Matt Barton

The Atari 5200 SuperSystem, released in the US in late 1982, was the direct follow-up to the highly successful Atari 2600 (VCS), and predecessor of the Atari 7800 ProSystem. Atari chose to design the 5200 around technology used in their popular Atari 400/800 8-bit computer line, but was not directly compatible, unlike Atari's much later pastel-colored XEGS (XE Game System) console. The similarities in hardware did allow for relatively easy game conversions between the two systems, however, particularly when porting from the computer line to the 5200.

The Atari 5200, as designed, was more powerful than Mattel's Intellivision and roughly equivalent to Coleco's ColecoVision, both of which were the 2600's main competition at the time and the systems Atari had to target in order to remain technologically competitive in the console marketplace. Besides the unusually large size of the 5200 console, the controversial automatic RF switch box (incompatible with many televisions of the day without the included adapter) that also supplied power to the system and the innovation of four controller ports (the Atari 800 computer also featured four controller ports), the most notable feature of the system was the inclusion of analog joysticks, which to the frustration of most gamers were fragile and did not self center (or as "The Game Doctor", Bill Kunkel, put it, "dead fish floppo"), but had a keypad that accepted overlays and featured one of the first pause buttons. Part of the 5200's girth accommodated storage for these controllers to the rear of the console, as well as a wire wrap underneath.

Atari 5200 with standard controller displaying Alienating a significant number of Atari 2600 users, the Atari 5200 was not backwards compatible with the popular system, requiring the purchase of all new software. With a lackluster initial game line-up, featuring cartridges with versions of software like "Pac-Man", "Space Invaders" and "Breakout" that were already available on other systems, there was little incentive for many consumers to not consider the competition when upgrading consoles. With the poorly designed controllers, the few games that were otherwise impressive technically were difficult to control. For games actually designed around the non-centering analog joysticks, like Atari's own "Countermeasure" or "Space Dungeon", the system fared much better, but unfortunately these types of games were few and far between.

Realizing some of their mistakes, Atari released a smaller, two controller port Atari 5200 with a standard television switch box and independent power supply. In addition, the company released an Atari 2600 cartridge adapter to directly address an advantage that Mattel and Coleco had for their systems. Unfortunately, this add-on did not work with most of the 4-port 5200 models without significant modifications to the consoles themselves.

Despite all of these set-backs, the Atari 5200 had a slow, but steady user growth cycle. Other hardware, like the trak-ball, was well designed and received good overall software support. The joystick holders that came with certain games, like "Robotron: 2084", were appreciated by hardcore gamers for allowing arcade authentic simultaneous use of two joysticks. Third party software support was fairly limited, but there were many games in development right up to early 1984. Unfortunately, by 1984, the console game market as a whole was mired in the throes of the infamous videogame crash, which left no mainstream console survivors or software support.

Atari's high quality 5200 Trak-ball controllerAfter the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) revived the console industry beginning in late 1985, in 1986, Atari chose to re-release a smaller Atari 2600 system and resurrect the fully 2600 compatible Atari 7800, which was in development in the latter stages of the Atari 5200's short life cycle. While slightly more advanced than the Atari 5200 in the areas of graphics and overall system capabilities, it was a more traditional design and featured an inferior sound processor. In late 1987, Atari released the Atari XEGS, (named after Atari's then current XE 8-bit computer line, the successors to the popular XL series, which superseded the original 400/800 systems) a console-centric Atari 8-bit computer, attempting to fulfill the 5200's unrealized potential years too late.

Today, there is a thriving Atari 5200 hobbyist community, second only to the Atari 2600's, still creating new games. Because of the 5200's relatively swift demise, there are also an unusually high number of prototypes, many of which have been made available. For the modern collector, the hardware units themselves are relatively easy to find, but the fragile controllers in good working order are not. Further complicating matters, the cheap controller contacts require regular cleaning, as they corrode whether the joysticks are used a lot or simply put in storage and not used at all. The usual fix is to open the controllers and clean the contacts with a pencil eraser, removing what looks like black dirt (the corrosion). Obviously, this type of cleaning can only be done a finite number of times before certain controller elements completely wear out or fail from the repeated maintenance. There were rumors that if the videogame crash hadn't taken place when it did, Atari was going to release a new generation of self-centering 5200 controllers. Instead, third party joystick solutions, including "y" adapters for regular Atari joysticks, as well as the first party trak-ball unit, were released, but are now difficult to locate. Repair kits, refurbished joysticks and adapters for other controller types are readily available, but tend to be a hassle for those without a serious dedication to the system.

What one is left with when examining the life of the Atari 5200 SuperSystem, is a look at a relatively powerful game console with an interesting, if somewhat small software library, and one of the overall worst default mainstream controllers in the history of electronic gaming, from a company that should have known better.

The aforementioned Atari 7800 ProSystem was originally scheduled for launch in late 1984 as the follow-up to the misguided 5200, but didn't see a full release until 1986 in the US. Instead of competing with comparatively weaker systems like the 5200 and ColecoVision, the later release date for the 7800 brought direct competition from the more robust NES, released in late 1985, and the Sega Master System (SMS), which, like the ProSystem, was released in 1986.

In late 1984, despite having had successful showings at trade events, an extensive and enthusiastic preview in one of the top video and computer game magazines of the day (Electronic Games), retail orders already taken, and warehouses full of stock, Atari management decided to shelve the system and its launch games in favor of their computer line when it became apparent to them - and seemingly everyone else in the industry - that the videogame depression had become an irreversible crash. Also put on the shelf was a redesigned 2600, dubbed the Atari 2600jr due to its diminutive size. These moves have often been criticized in hindsight, but for those around at the time, it was clear that videogames were being supplanted by low cost and powerful personal computers as the more flexible game machines of choice, and a game system in the traditional sense simply wouldn't be financially sustainable.

All this changed in 1985, however, when Nintendo test marketed their successful Japanese game system in America, the Famicom (short for Family Computer), as the redesigned NES. Interestingly, Nintendo originally approached Atari in early 1984 about marketing and distributing the Famicom in America, but many factors, including management changes and the rapid decline of the videogame industry, led Atari to pass on the opportunity and force Nintendo to partner with Worlds of Wonder (the makers of "Teddy Ruxpin" and "Laser Tag"), and eventually go it alone. With a full product roll-out and clever marketing, by 1986, Nintendo caught the buying public's fancy and rejuvenated the videogame market. Atari, and soon Sega, took notice of Nintendo's success and quickly released systems of their own to try and capitalize on Nintendo's momentum.

Atari, with no real interest or time to develop new technology, decided to take the Atari 7800 and its existing warehoused software and release the system as-is. Unlike the NES, which was seemingly full of new ideas, the 7800's deployment strategy was straight out of 1984, as were the initial games. The cartridge included with the 7800 system, Pole Position II, looked primitive and simple in comparison to one of the NES' included titles, the now legendary Super Mario Bros. Surprisingly, around the same time, Atari also released the 2600jr for $50 (USA), supposedly as the system for gamers on a budget, despite the fact that the 7800 was fully backwards compatible, with the ability to utilize nearly all existing 2600 software and peripherals. Finally, there were even a few releases of remaining stocks of 5200 software, including titles that didn't make it out during the system's short prime, like "Gremlins".

With lack of an innovative initial line-up of games, retailer indifference, absence of any real third-party software support due to Nintendo's infamous contracts, and lackluster marketing, the 7800, despite eventually selling a few million systems, never really caught on. To further add confusion to Atari's renewed videogame initiatives, a third system (not counting the abandoned 5200), the XEGS, a console-centric Atari 8-bit computer, was released in late 1987, complete with keyboard and an Atari 2600/7800 compatible light gun, bringing the company full circle to their original vision with the failed 5200, but further removing company and development resources from the 7800.

Atari 7800 with standard controller displaying a As described earlier, the Atari 7800 came bundled with a Pole Position II cartridge and one controller—a digital joystick with two side buttons similar in shape to the Atari 5200's analog controllers, but having no keypad. Atari kept the design simple, which had worked well for the Atari 2600's controllers, but the build quality was not as high, and some found it uncomfortable. The 7800's single joystick controller contrasted sharply with the then revolutionary NES and SMS gamepad designs, but, for the European release of the ProSystem, Atari instead packaged two of their own interpretations of a gamepad in with the system, as well as built "Asteroids" directly into the console's memory. Unfortunately, the original configuration in North America remained the same in that region throughout the rest of the system's production cycle. In fact, the NES, and eventually the SMS, were available in various interesting boxed configurations, including those with light guns and various other peripherals, while Atari never came out with anything comparable for the 7800, eventually only going as far as releasing a few compatible games for use with the XEGS light gun. Ironically, Atari had plenty of exciting peripherals either developed or in development, such as a keyboard add-on and high score cartridge, but Atari's management decided each time to pass on a release.

As mentioned earlier, one of the major criticisms - perhaps unfairly - of Atari's 5200 when first released, was that it wasn't backwards compatible with the most popular system of the day, their own 2600. Atari rectified this situation by designing the Atari 7800 from a base of 2600 technology, providing almost perfect backwards compatibility, with the few inconsistencies due to several minor 7800 production revisions over the years. A type of encryption key was used to determine whether software should run in the system's 7800 or 2600 modes, and also acted as a way to ensure only authorized software ran on the system, something not possible on prior Atari consoles. While Atari, unfortunately, did not update the 7800's base sound capabilities beyond the 2600's level, there was an ability to add a custom sound chip - the Atari 5200's excellent "POKEY" - internally to a cartridge to enhance audio, usable either by itself or in conjunction with the built-in sound processor. Atari did update the graphics and other functions internally within the 7800 via several new chips, the most important of which was the "MARIA", which could allow over 100 objects on-screen at one time and provided for very stable, flicker-free images, particularly in comparison to the competition.

Much the same as Atari's management refused to release any peripherals for the 7800, and split already limited company resources across two other consoles and several different computers, an executive decision was made to keep cartridge RAM (memory) sizes small to minimize costs. Unfortunately, this in turn limited how advanced games could become, creating unfavorable comparisons to both NES and SMS software, which were under no such restrictions. Worse, there were even rumors that Atari purposely downgraded certain Atari 7800 titles so as not to outshine their own XEGS. In spite of this, a few games did eventually get released that demonstrated the ProSystem's potential and created more favorable comparisons, albeit too late to make a difference in the hotly contested marketplace of the mid- to late-1980's. As for the 7800's outdated internal sound technology, only two games implemented the POKEY chip option, creating too few examples of the system's extended audio capabilities. In short, these limited uses of the system's power, combined with the fact that many Atari 2600 games were also labeled for use on the 7800, gave many the false impression that the system wasn't competitive.

The 7800 ProSystem's history, like many Atari consoles, is that of a system whose full potential was never realized. Atari's management was responsible for many of the system's implementation blunders, but ultimately, the 7800 was a victim of bad timing, first with the 1984 videogame crash, and second going up against Nintendo and their eventual greater than 90% share of the videogame market, and all the industry influence that entails.

While it will probably never have the sizable hobbyist communities of the 2600 or 5200, there nevertheless is a growing movement for new developments, which bodes well for collectors, as the system and a lot of its software is still fairly easy to locate on the used market. Despite some difficulty in finding original working two-button controllers, unlike the 5200, there are readily available third-party solutions, and many of the games use standard single-button 2600-style controllers anyway. This type of controller is always easy to find, and even most SMS and Sega Genesis/Megadrive controllers work for all single button games without modification.

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Atari controller selection

A small selection of Atari controllers through the years. From left to right: Atari 2600 VCS pack-in joystick, Atari 2600 VCS paddle controller (1 of 2), Atari 2600 VCS keyboard controller (usually 2), Atari 2600 VCS racing controller (essentially a paddle controller that spins freely), Atari trak-ball controller (compatible with most Atari systems up to Jaguar), Atari 2600 VCS video touch pad, Atari 5200 pack-in controller, Atari 7800 US pack-in controller, Atari XEGS pack-in controller (same as 2600 pack-in except different color) and Atari Jaguar joypad. For a company that got so much right with their first Atari 2600 VCS pack-in joysticks and did so well designing alternative controllers, the pack-in controllers for the Atari 5200, 7800 and Jaguar were particularly disappointing for many game players.

Game Packaging: A Look to the Past When Treasures Beyond the Game Were Within the Box

Author and Photography Credit: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Christina Loguidice
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: All photographs were taken directly of the actual products in the author's private collection, except where otherwise noted
Special Thanks: Josh Larios, C.E. Forman, Dave Aston, Matt Barton, Buck Feris

Gamers who aren't familiar with classic games may wonder why anyone would be interested in an article on game packaging. Today, game packaging's highest function seems only to be for holding the game itself, be it on DVD, CD or some type of cartridge, with maybe a thin manual as an accompaniment. The outer packaging, besides revealing the game's title, also serves to describe any system requirements, features, basic storyline or premise, and to show a few screenshots. In the early days of game publishing, many companies invested great effort not only in the design of their games, but also in the way those games appeared on store shelves and what was included in the box. This article's intention is to describe this lost art of innovative game packaging from the early to mid-1980's, when there seemed to be an abundance of real thought and care behind the customer's experience beyond the software itself.

In the earliest days of home computing - the mid-1970's - games were usually distributed by hand on floppy disk and shared between members of user groups at computer club meetings. Little attention was paid to packaging and manuals, especially since most of these works were never intended for sale. By the late 1970's, there were limited mail order distribution channels through the few computer and hobbyist magazines that were around at the time, and a handful of stores that would stock these amateur games in Ziploc® bags with photocopied play instructions, often featuring crudely drawn artwork (Richard Garriott's Ultima-series predecessor, "Akalabeth", being a famous example). In fact, there were many parallels - including target audiences - to pen and paper wargames, which, at the time, were also packaged similarly when large companies weren't involved. By the early 1980's, as small development and publishing companies started to form based off the noticeable success of some of these early computer gaming endeavors - and the underlying technology began to grow relatively more sophisticated - so to did the packaging.

While it must be remembered that the statements throughout this article all have exceptions, especially in that there was poor packaging in the past, and, alternately, there is some great packaging today, since the actual visual output of early computer games was fairly limited, the packaging back then was sometimes a way to make up for these failings and help absorb the player in the software's universe. After all, if a game consisted of only text and no visuals, for instance, how else could you properly attract a potential buyer? As a result of situations like this, game packaging was often a work of art, with elaborate hand-drawn or painted box covers, detailed manuals, and frequently, well-crafted additions such as gameboards, maps, reference posters and counter pieces, which are often casually referred to as "feelies". Furthermore, while this discussion of game packaging will focus mostly on computer game packaging since that often had the most intriguing elements and the more hardcore audience to cater to, videogame packaging - though to a far lesser degree due to generally less complex game subjects and an arguably more mainstream audience that didn't necessarily care about external game elements - also had some standouts. Productivity and educational applications, while obviously not game-related, will be covered briefly as well, simply because the packaging of such software ran parallel to what was happening in the entertainment side of the industry.

We'll begin our discussion by examining external packaging. As mentioned previously, early computer packaging often had elaborate, hand drawn artwork, whether original or adapted from elsewhere. While artistic creations could have been made via computer even then, color, resolution and output capabilities made the idea impractical, though there were exceptions, such as some of the product that used in-game screenshots from Penguin Software (later Polarware), a company whose slogan was "the graphics people". For most companies though, which used traditional artistic methods from traditional artists, the end results were what one would expect-eye catching works of unique art. Today, between the use of automated computer tools, the ease of photo-realistic image integration, the quality of in-game visual assets being recyclable for use on the packaging, the stylized influence of anime' and smaller box sizes, there seems to be less room for real creativity. Adding in the fact that the packaging materials themselves have become externally more slick and polished with the use of modern manufacturing methods, the impact on the eye has further gone down in this sea of almost universally glossy exteriors.

In regular use from the early to mid-1980's, "bookshelf" games - with their oversized boxes - from companies such as Avalon Hill Microcomputer Games, Infocom and Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), were ideal canvases for artists to create something special. Over time, as costs rose and the battle for shelf space became ever more competitive, the switch to smaller box sizes signaled the beginning of the end for the artist's canvas. These days, the era of specialty sizes of boxes is long past. There is little difference between Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube or Microsoft Xbox packaging besides a few labels on their DVD keep cases. Furthermore, now that mainstream PC games are released only in small-form boxes or DVD keep cases themselves, even computers, the traditional home of more complex gaming that could benefit most from detailed packaging, are no longer artistically friendly. Unfortunately, this type of shrinkage has plagued many industries and seems to be a natural process, such as when consumers' preferred music medium switched from large record albums to small CD's, or as seen in the complaints of comic strip artists, whose work has been scaled into increasingly smaller spaces in the daily newspapers.

In Steven L Kent's "The Ultimate History of Video Games" book, a passage describes how Trip Hawkins, then of Electronic Arts (EA), found the packaging situation of the early 1980's "laughable" and how he applied his marketing knowledge to create the famous "album covers" that all the company's early software utilized. Although other companies, like Accolade and Taito, would later adopt this format, EA was the originator, which created a strong brand identity. While this type of packaging no doubt helped to attract buyers - again, oversized palettes are good - and as with the equivalent for record albums, the format was friendly to the thin 5.25" floppy disk mediums of the time, the downside was that internally there was little room for much more than a manual, reference card, password protection wheel and the software itself. There were no CD's at the time, so the packaging from companies like EA was modeled on what was contemporary. It seems that later, in the age of CD- and DVD-based videogames and computers, that process was followed to its logical conclusion, with packaging externally indistinguishable from their CD music and DVD movie counterparts.

Regarding the inside of these game boxes, again, bookshelf-style packaging was the best because it offered depth in addition to width, but in reality, any size box that was deep enough was often sufficient for special content. For game developers like Richard Garriott, who had very specific requirements from publishers for his games, such as the inclusion of things like cloth maps, coins and metal artifacts, a deep box was essential. Companies like Garriott's own Origin Systems and the aforementioned Avalon Hill Microcomputer Games, SSI and especially Infocom, were masters at these types of inclusions, but there were many other companies that developed great packaging during the same era.

It is no exaggeration though to state that for many, the ultimate packaging overall with the best inclusions was definitely for Infocom's text adventures. These games were pure text, pure imagination and were comparable to novels that a reader interacted with. Because the consumer couldn't sample the "pages" of the game - a screenshot of text would be worthless in context - the packaging that was created was some of the most imaginative ever and is still among the most sought after by collectors. The early versions of "Zork", which was the company's first product, started out very simple (think Ziploc® and 8" floppy disks), but later games set an incredibly high standard. Deadline's police folder and documents, Starcross' plastic flying saucer packaging and map, Suspended's recessed plastic face mask (with creepy eyes), Planetfall's brochure and I.D. card, Wishbringer's pink "wish" stone, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's peril sensitive sun glasses and fluff, and Ballyhoo's circus ticket, were just a few of the many examples that helped to bring these pieces of interactive fiction to life. Infocom as a company knew that the game packaging and inclusions were useful in adding to the interactive experience on the computer. These days, the game itself and system's hardware is what provides nearly all of the end user's experience.

Now that computer games are generally released in small boxes or DVD keep cases, the era of the inclusion, like the era of cover art, is also long past. In fact, we may be seeing the continued devolution of detailed manuals as well, furthering the synergy in the modern era with videogame systems and how their games are documented. In fact, a cynic might suggest that manuals are so inadequate simply to sell more hint books and walkthroughs.

As game technology became more realistic and visual, and games began costing more to produce in a competitive market, less time and money seemed to have been spent on the packaging. Boxes became smaller and simpler, and manuals less involved, with progressively fewer inclusions. In fact, by 1985, some of the best companies, like SSI, moved to smaller and more standardized packaging. Even Infocom had eventually moved to a standardized package for all its games.

While the industry moved fairly quickly from Ziploc® to bookshelf games, the golden age itself was relatively short. In fact, with the introduction of CD-based games, there seems to have been a significant step back. By the time the CD-ROM was becoming a standard, on-disc documentation became a reality, with boxes that often contained only a CD within a jewel case or paper sleeve.

Atari 8-bit computer cassette tapes, with their synchronized voice, visuals and sound, could be considered the basic precursor to modern multimedia CD-ROM's. Unlike today's multimedia CD's however, the packaging was still important, often coming in handsome bookshelf boxes that contained workbooks and other thoughtful add-ins. The same is true for the original versions of products like "WordPerfect", "GEOS", "Microsoft Word" and "AppleWorks"—really any early productivity package. All had tremendous packaging, with deep boxes and hefty manuals. Today, however, most manuals or help is of the "online" or in-system variety. The parallels to the game world can't be ignored, but ultimately, this is not about productivity packaging, this is about game packaging, which brings us to our final analysis, videogames.

Cartridge games up until systems like the Sega Master System (SMS) and NEC's TurboGrafx-16, were generally packaged in cardboard boxes. The durability was in the medium the game was on, not the packaging. There were regional exceptions, such as plastic cases from CBS ColecoVision for non-North American territories; however, for the most part, early packaging in the US was not an art on game consoles.

In the history of game consoles, as with solid outer packaging, inclusions have been rare. Exceptions include Magnavox's Master Strategy series of games for their Odyssey2 system, which were innovative combinations of an onscreen videogame and off-screen boardgame in oversized packaging, and Atari's mini-comics, which shipped with games like "Defender" and "Berzerk" for their 2600 Video Computer System (VCS).

Up until the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), most videogames produced were simple enough to only need the briefest of instruction manuals. From the NES forward, particularly as technology continued unabated, certain strategy and role-playing games, for example, required more detailed instructions. For the most part though, thicker manual or not, there were no changes in box sizes; it was the standard size for each brand of console or nothing. These days, in-game tutorials - interactive or not - have taken the place of detailed manuals. Manuals essentially consist of text and command summaries. Cut scenes (movies) now tell the story rather than the manual or other in-box inclusions. Most users - meaning the mainstream, the casual, the "average" consumers - probably never really read manuals anyway and modern games certainly cater to that idea. Early computer games targeted a more hardcore audience - the early adopters as it were - that appreciated hardcore packaging and materials. As the audience for gaming expanded and development stakes increased, there was less of a need for fancy packaging since a smaller percentage of consumers demanded it, particularly as in-game audio-visual content became more sophisticated.

What the average gamer looks for in today's games are "Easter Eggs", which is the term for hidden areas, secrets or other "locked" content in-game. What used to consist of one or two surprises or bonuses per game now constitutes a major portion of the appeal for many, as in the discovery or unlocking of these secrets being part of the gameplay. Whether it's EA's Madden football series of games and their "Madden Cards" or Midway's Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance's over 600 "Koffins" containing hidden content, these virtual bonuses take the place of the past's physical add-ins. It's no wonder then that the casual gamer has no desire for fancy packaging—there's plenty of flash and "substance" in-game.

It's been stated before and I'll state it again—hardcore gamers appreciate hardcore packaging, with unusual boxes and a handful of feelies. This audience still gets appealed to on occasion - the collector, the nerd, the fan boy, the obsessive player - but the prices for these deluxe versions or special editions are often beyond the realm of the casual. Today, hardcore packaging - if available at all - has a hardcore price. There are still tens of thousands of hardcore gamers like in the past, it's just more profitable to go after the hundreds of thousands of mainstream consumers instead.

In some ways, today's force feedback and rumble technologies still provide that physical or tactile link to the game and its virtual environment. Classic packaging certainly had a decidedly tactile feel, with more things to touch and physically interact with beyond a computer or controller. In the past, if players had a computer or even a game machine, they were probably more hardcore than the modern equivalent; they were probably stereotypically "geeky" and part of the audience that would appreciate hardcore packaging and content that required more of a time investment, as the computers of the era certainly did. It was much more of a hobbyist environment than it is now. Again, that audience is still there today, but it is less appealing to mainstream publishers when there is a huge percentage of the buying audience who wouldn't even consider buying anything that might seem overly complex, with "too much" stuff in the box. At best, today we have the collectible, but there was a time, that golden era, when a normal game could have it all. For the future, we can only hope that on-demand publishing becomes more cost-effective and we can once again experience one of the many forgotten elements of gaming's best, and the average consumer demands more.

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What follows is a visual description of some of the package types covered in this article.

A selection of early Avalon Hill Microcomputer Games bookshelf-style boxes. Avalon Hill was experienced in fancy packaging from their many years developing sophisticated, hardcore boardgames, which many of their computer products were directly based on. Unfortunately, this experience usually did not translate into good software.


"Legionnaire", a bookshelf-style game from Avalon Hill with a very artistic cover, was designed ostensibly by "The Award Winning Atari Designer" (Chris Crawford, a fact Avalon Hill should have simply stated), as quoted from the back of the box. Also on the back of the box and rare for Avalon Hill at the time was a screenshot, something they usually avoided because most of their early games had no or low resolution graphics.


"Dnieper River Line", another bookshelf game from Avalon Hill, with a deluxe gameboard and punch-out counter pieces. Early software from this company often contained versions for computers such as Apple II, Tandy Model I/III, Atari 8-bit and Commodore PET, all on the same cassette.

Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), created game boxes as good as any company of their era, even when they switched from bookshelf-style packaging (like "Computer Ambush") to the smaller form boxes (all others pictured) around 1985 (similar in size to many modern PC games). Awesome cover art was an SSI trademark, and the image was usually carried over directly to the manual ("Phantasie" manual shown without box).


A closer look at SSI's "Computer Ambush". SSI would supply grease pencils (far right) with some of their games to write on included laminated maps (center). In cases like this, with large inclusions, the bookshelf packaging was used to great effect.


Electronic Arts (EA) were the innovators of the record album-style boxes. The thinness of this style of packaging was in sharp contrast to the depth of other box styles, to the point where games like "The Bard's Tale - Tales of the Unknown", would include things like maps on the inside cover of the package in order to maximize the usable space. Other companies would later adopt the format for all or some of their products, like Taito ("Arkanoid") and Accolade. Accolade was notable for promoting their designers directly on the packaging, just like EA originally did. In addition, Accolade, much like Penguin Software/Polarware, often featured actual screenshots on the front box covers showing off their state-of-the-art graphics.

Infocom, the company with arguably the greatest overall packaging, supported a tremendous number of computer platforms, though not in the same box as was the case with Avalon Hill. "Infidel" is shown here in the box size the company eventually standardized on. An "authentic" journal, letter and envelope with stamp, notes, and map were all included, and added to the immersion. All other games from when Infocom was an independent company would receive similar treatment.


Infocom's infamous original "Suspended" packaging. Later versions would lose the plastic mask, but this was the real thing and certainly helped add to the Infocom legend. The inclusions can be seen in the picture of the back of the box to the right. (Photo credit David Sinclair and Julian Linder, courtesy of Josh Larios at http://infocom.elsewhere.org/ (Infocom Games Playable Online))


It's obvious why truly deluxe packaging, like Infocom's "Starcross", pictured above, was produced only for a handful of games and in such limited quantities. Besides the relatively high cost of manufacture, packaging like this often needed premium locations on store shelves because of their unusual shape or size requirements. The inside of Starcross' package included items like a ship's log book and space map. (Photo courtesy of C.E. Forman at www.yois.biz (Ye Olde Infocomme Shoppe))

Our last photograph of a true Infocom release is "Ballyhoo", which, while considered one of their weaker games overall, nevertheless had a deluxe packaging treatment worthy of many of their best releases. Included with the software were a double-sided circus admission ticket with punch-outs to indicate 'male' or 'female', a balloon, an instruction manual attached to the box masquerading as an official circus souvenir program and a double-sided 'Dr. Nostrum's Extract' postcard advertisement.


Fold-out, flap-out and album-style alternatives were also popular. "Dragonworld", which included an interesting window adhesion sticker, was from Infocom competitor Trillium/Telarium, whose games featured an advanced parser and nice graphics. "Star Trek The Kobayashi Alternative" was a multi-window take on the text adventure from Simon & Schuster, which took advantage of their background in books to create a nice hardcover, book-like package with spiral bound pages. "Swords of Twilight" featured EA's eventual use of more traditional packaging, forgoing their trademark flat album-style. The pictured "Leather Goddesses of Phobos" was actually the Mediagenic (what used to be Activision and eventually became Activision again) "budget" version of Infocom's original release and did not feature the 3D comic as an inclusion. Finally, Melbourne House's "The Living Daylights" was not only a mediocre game, but did little to take advantage of the multi-fold format. Of course, over the years, many games on every platform have wasted potential in their packaging.


Origin Systems Inc., under the direction of Richard Garriott (a.k.a., Lord British), aggressively challenged Infocom for the best packaging crown. On individual releases, like the Ultima games or "Autoduel" (pictured), Origin was hard to beat. Garriott and Origin, unlike other big names at the time, relied on different companies to publish their games, but only under strict terms, particularly in regards to inclusions. In the case of Autoduel, the publishing honors went to Broderbund.

"Space Rogue", Origin's somewhat obscure predecessor to its popular Wing Commander games and likely inspired by Firebird's "Elite", featured a wealth of inclusions and was an incredible example of what a game could be outside of the actual software. Everything - except for the very 1980's-styled space jock on the cover - screamed quantity, quality and attention to detail.


Origin became known for including metal artifacts and cloth maps in the company's games, but sometimes included other fun incidentals like the black and white headband pictured here for "Moebius".


"Elite", from Firebird, is considered one of the crowning achievements of 8-bit computer programming. As the picture illustrates, there were a lot of interesting items in the box as well, including a keyboard overlay and bizarre copy protection device (the red optical lens in the lower left of the photo). "Echelon" from Access, a company who always tried to do interesting things with technology, not only included a large map, thick manual and keyboard overlay, but also provided a simple voice "recognition" headset called "The LipStik", which really acted as a joystick's second fire button (something the game's platform, the Commodore 64, didn't offer).

Computer game packaging, unlike most of the ones for videogame consoles, came in all shapes and sizes. However, interestingly, if a game came on cartridge for computer it was likely to approximate the same size box as its videogame counterparts (see "Clowns" and "Pipes" for the Commodore 64 and "Journey to the Planets" for the Atari 8-bit). Elsewhere in the photo is Muse's 1981 "Robotwar" for the Apple II, which, while not exactly in Ziploc© packaging, came close, with little more than a fancier manual separating it from its slightly older cousins. "Dave Winfield's Batter Up!", also for the Apple II, came in a plastic snap type of case, a format which made an occasional appearance from a variety of publishers on several different platforms.


Educational and productivity applications released before the introduction of the CD-ROM often came in deluxe packaging, with either thick manuals or workbooks as accompaniment. As the picture demonstrates, plastic snap cases were considered the most appropriate formats for these types of products by some publishers, like Coleco and Atari.


Another example, this time from Commodore for their Vic-20, of educational software in oversized packaging and a full-color comic book style workbook. In terms of educational products, "Gortek and the Microchips" was unusual in that it even came with an inclusion, an "I program with Gortek" sticker.

"Quick Brown Fox" was an early word processor for the Commodore 64 that came on cartridge and was accompanied by a data cassette with workbook files. The instruction manual came in a nice brown three ring binder that slipped nicely into the oversized cardboard bookshelf-style box. "GEOS", from Berkley Softworks, was an early Windows/Macintosh-like graphic environment and operating system for the Commodore 64 and 128. Besides a hefty manual, the GEOS package included a plastic overlay that was used as a drawing guide for the software's geoPaint module.


Desktop publishing programs today usually include a simple manual and CD. Broderbund's original "The Print Shop" actually also included paper and envelopes in its imposing box. "WordPerfect Works" and "More", both for early Macintosh systems, are actually just mid-size examples versus how deep boxes were for higher end productivity applications (yes, the manuals, and thus boxes, got even thicker!).


Generally speaking, videogame packaging before the CD-ROM came in cardboard boxes of roughly the same size. Even Sega Genesis cartridges, which for the majority of the system's lifespan came in plastic cases, eventually downgraded to cardboard packaging (see "F-15 Strike Eagle II").

Coleco software for both the ColecoVision videogame console and Adam computer came in a variety of box types and designs. For arcade conversions on the ColecoVision, the packaging design was like "Space Panic". For original games, the ColecoVision package design was similar to "Tarzan". For Adam arcade conversions on data cassette, interesting arcade-shaped boxes like "Donkey Kong" and "Zaxxon" were created. "Nova Blast" from Imagic is shown in that company's famous silver, shiny box, which appeared across their product line for a variety of platforms. "2010", from Coleco, was a text adventure on data cassette for the Adam that came in a nice, slightly oversized plastic case. Only a handful of non-Adam-specific games, like "Fortune Builder" (not pictured), would come in similar packaging. "Pepper II", as pictured, is the non-US CBS ColecoVision version of the game in a plastic snap case that was available for a short time to US consumers via mail order companies after Coleco pulled out of the videogame business in the mid-1980's.


The videogame overlay was usually reserved for those consoles that had controllers featuring keypads in order to offer a quick command reference in a useful location. Alternately, as with most software for the system, the "Mine Storm" overlay for said game on GCE's Vectrex went directly over the unit's monitor screen and not only provided a command reference, but helped to enhance the visuals as well. Many modern games could easily put this type of command summary information on screen at all times, but few exercise the option. Note the score pad that came with Coleco's "Super Action Baseball". Modern sports games track statistics for you, but older console games didn't, so this game came with that rare inclusion for this category of product.


Magnavox's "The Quest For The Rings" for the Odyssey2 videogame console was part of the company's "Master Strategy" series of games that combined on-screen action with boardgame-like play. The end result were games in beautiful, oversized packaging with interesting inclusions.

Later videogame systems, starting with the Sega Master System (SMS), began to feature plastic storage cases (though in the case of the SMS, also some of ugliest cover art). CD-based videogame products would start out in either oversized plastic or cardboard cases, but eventually, as with games for Sony's original Playstation, end up in standard and smaller CD jewel cases. NEC's TurboGrafx-16 products, while not CD-based, were among the first game products to use CD-style jewel cases. As with cardboard's tendency to get crushed, CD jewel cases tended to crack. Plastic DVD keep cases which are the standard on today's videogame consoles and are making headway in the PC world, are probably among the most durable of all formats tried to date. It's unfortunate then that DVD keep cases are fairly limited in regards to what can fit within the box.


Packaging for portable videogame systems has almost universally been small in all ways. This category of product is understandably undersized, but unfortunately limits anything interesting from being in the boxes beyond a manual and software.


Atari's PC CD-ROM game, "The Temple of Elemental Evil", features the now standard box on that platform, but with a nice swing cover that features attractive, raised artwork and includes a spiral-bound instruction manual. The CD software came in the pictured paper sleeves. Unfortunately, while this is one of the better modern examples (like Take2 Interactive's "Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne"), for this type of game it's still a long way away from the best of what used to be.

Infogrames' "Sid Meier's Civilization III" came in a standard boxed edition (not shown) and the pictured limited edition, which features a collectible tin and an extra CD of bonus video content. As with other products of this type in the modern era, this special edition costs more than the standard version, while offering little incentive for purchase beyond the previously established hardcore fan-base.

Intellivision vs. ColecoVision Parts I and II: BurgerTime and Gambling

Author and Photography Credit: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Christina Loguidice
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: Portions of this article's text were previously produced by the author for and appeared in various incarnations of his personal Website. All photographs were taken directly of the actual products in the author's private collection. In the instances of screen shots, these are photos from the specific game running on the actual hardware, displayed on a television.
Special Thanks: Matt Barton

Mattel Intellivision vs. Coleco ColecoVision
Part I: BurgerTime (Data East © 1982, Mattel © 1982, Coleco © 1983)
Part II: Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack (Mattel © 1978), Ken Uston Blackjack/Poker (Coleco © 1982)

Original review materials for Intellivision vs. ColecoVision, Parts I and II: BurgerTime and Gambling

Part I
Picture yourself as a chef who for years has beaten the eggs, chopped the pickles, and boiled the hot dogs. Nothing strange there. Now imagine all that food finally getting sick and tired of this kind of treatment and coming after you in an attempt to exact their revenge. This is the strange premise behind Data East's arcade legend, "BurgerTime", which has been a favorite for home system translation since its original arcade release in 1982.

These same eggs, pickles, and hot dogs chase you around a playing field that consists of a series of platforms and ladders typical of the era. You go up and down these ladders in an attempt to drop the pieces of hamburgers (as if a McDonald's "Big Mac" was taken apart) stacked on separate levels.

The loose parts of a particular burger are stacked in such a way that when you drop a bun or other piece down a level, it falls on the one below it. This is accomplished by walking (!) on each piece until the burger has been completed. The level is over when all the burgers have been finished and the next, harder stage begins. If you are caught by any of the food, you lose a life, and your quest to make burgers continues from where you left off until you run out of chefs.

You are given several options for self defense and gaining points besides completing the hamburgers. If a food happens to be walking behind you on a piece of burger that you are walking on (i.e., about to drop to the next platform), it not only falls the one level that the food normally would, but the added weight causes both to drop down additional levels, not only eliminating the enemy food, but making your stacking job easier. In addition, if any food gets caught under a falling piece of burger, it is eliminated as well. You have to hurry though, because it doesn't take long for them to come back.

Your greatest weapon and one that should be used as a last resort, is the pepper. When thrown at the food, it causes them to sneeze and freezes them in place for a short time. Use this weapon wisely though, as you only have a small supply, and the bonus objects, like French fries, that periodically pop up to replenish your supply, are difficult to reach most of the time.

Title screen of Intellivision BurgerTime on televisionThe Intellivision version starts out with a nice animated opening screen, giving a small glimpse of what the gameplay is like (this type of opening screen was typical of Mattel's later creations, dubbed "Super-graphics", like "Bump 'n' Jump", and "The Power of He-Man", which really only took advantage of clever programming techniques). Like most Intellivision games, you have a choice of four levels (1-3 on the keypad and 4 on the disc) and number of players. Once this is decided, another animated sequence of the food getting close to catching the chef is shown. Every time you lose a life, this animated sequence shows the food getting ever closer, until, at the exhaustion of your lives, they catch the chef and 'Game Over' appears.

The theme song and sound effects are enjoyable and true to the original, taking full advantage of the Intellivision's average sound capabilities. While the graphics aren't very detailed, everything is easily identifiable and the colors are pleasant. There are indicators for everything needed, including game level and this session's high score, which are easy to find and uncluttered. The programming is also quite solid, especially considering all the little tricks involved, like the animations and lack of graphics flicker, which is always a bonus in these early games.

Play screen of Intellivision BurgerTime on televisionThere are a few minor complaints, however. One is that you need split-second response time and the disc controllers that Mattel decided to make their standard, are ill-suited to this type of game. Second, while each playfield changes slightly as play advances, you're still stuck with the basic top bun, burger, lettuce, and bottom bun combination-the arcade version has many more varied components.

These points are minor, though, and subject to personal preference (you may not notice any control problems for instance). In no way do they stop this game from being a classic and one of the must-haves that really take advantage of this system. Highly recommended - (4 1/2 out of 5)

The first thing I noticed about the ColecoVision version was that it lacked the little animated sequences that the Intellivision has. There is no real excuse for an omission such as this, except for the fact that designers seem to take different routes to interpreting a game on the hardware they are working on and there's only so much room to place things (especially back then).

While the Intellivision version lacked burger variety, this has cheeseburgers, tomatoes, etc., and makes the game have a slightly longer play life; you'll want to make it to the next level to see what they'll think of next to make the burger from.

The playfield is also smaller and more compact, with a lot of black in the background, making the highly detailed graphics show up better, with plenty of nicely placed indicators. Although the Coleco system has better sound hardware and adds background music, the sound effects are remarkably similar to the Intellivision version, probably more due to good programming on the Mattel side than any deficiency on Coleco's part.

One of the notable Intellivision perks of the later era, as mentioned, was the addition of more incidental animations and screens, which "BurgerTime" incorporated. One of the perks for the Coleco system was the inclusion of a nifty pause feature, which this game mysteriously lacks. In a hectic game of this type, this would have certainly put a little more in favor of this version. Also, for two player games, it would be nice to have each player be able to select their skill levels separately (games like "Subroc" incorporated this nice feature). It feels and acts very much like one of their earlier games, except for the improved graphics.

Play screen of ColecoVision BurgerTime on televisionSpeaking of graphics, you will notice flicker. Because of the high detail of the graphics and the number of moving objects on the screen, the hardware is being taxed, resulting in this annoying circumstance, mostly when the moving objects appear on the same plane. The Coleco coders could have taken a cue from the Mattel programmers and gone for less detail, perhaps, but the call was theirs to make.

While it may sound as if I dislike the Coleco version, this is far from the truth. It's a solid game that in being compared to a version of the game which is a classic on what is technically an inferior system, becomes nothing more than slightly above average. The play mechanics are still there, and it's still loads of fun, but except for the graphics, you really don't get the feeling of it taking advantage of special features like it should. Good (3 out of 5 stars)

Intellivision BurgerTime
Advantages - Solid graphics and sound, nice intermission animation, and a faithful arcade translation.
Disadvantages - Lack of graphic detail and variety, and poor control using the disc.
Overall - Highly Recommended (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

ColecoVision BurgerTime
Advantages - Highly detailed graphics and faithful to the arcade look.
Disadvantages - Lacks the perks (like intermission animation) of other versions and the graphics tend to flicker a lot. Also, the music might actually use too much of the Coleco's excellent sound chip, resulting in occasionally "crowded" in-game sound.
Overall - Good (3 out of 5 stars)

Part II
There have been certain forms of entertainment that have been popular on game systems from the beginning. One of these is gambling, where much of the excitement of the casino is recreated without the threat of losing any real money. In the casinos and videogames alike, card games like blackjack and the various forms of poker usually top the list of favorites.

"Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack" on the Intellivision is definitely what you call old, with a copyright date of 1978, but you would never know it when playing. It remains to this day one of the most fun and full-featured games of its kind on almost any system.

Play screen of Intellivision Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack on televisionThe program handles up to two players at once and contains four different card games: Blackjack, 5-card stud, 7-card stud and 5-card draw. All of these provide every feature you can think of, except Blackjack, which allows you to double-down, but does not let you split a hand when you are dealt pairs. Splitting is not always allowed anyway, so this might not be considered a major fault.

The game centers around an animated dealer who is surprisingly personable and suitably shifty-eyed. While he plays only a decent game, he's still fun to have around because of the various faces he makes (an interesting facial ex pression to watch for is when he gets angry at the players for "calling" too much or not betting enough in a given hand). The graphics are pleasant and suitable, with everything easily identifiable - though the coloring is a bit on the yellow side - and the sound effects are adequate. You have a choice of any game at the end of every hand and your money gets carried over to each game. There is even a dealer's choice (random) button on the keypad overlay if you can't decide which to play next.

The inclusion of a 5-card draw game is an unusual one because most programmers on these early systems shied away from it (probably due to difficulty in incorporating certain features). This is done quite well, even though I wish you were able to take back your discards in case you made a mistake. Once you toss it, it's gone forever; in real life, this option is unnecessary, but here I feel it's needed (this is only a game after all).

If you like cards, this is a must have. It's lots of fun, visually appealing and has plenty of game choice to hold your interest; including the often excluded 5-card draw. Highly Recommended (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The only ColecoVision casino game, "Ken Uston Blackjack/Poker", is just as solid as the Intellivision game, though not as varied. You are offered only two types of games to play, blackjack and 5-card stud, but it plays them to the hilt.

Up to four can play, but it's difficult to keep your cards hidden from even just one extra player. There is still a lot of multiplayer fun to be had though.

Once play begins you are stuck with what game you chose—there's no carrying your winnings over from poker or blackjack. It's treated as if they're stand-alone games, right down to resetting the system when wanting to play the other.

In blackjack - which does include hand splitting on pairs - gameplay progresses pretty much as you would expect. Extra features include "hints" from Ken Uston, which pretty much means telling you when to split, double-down, take a hit or stand. These are generally easy enough for anyone to figure out on their own, but this gives the game some much needed personality and can act as a decent tutor.

Play screen of ColecoVision Ken Uston Blackjack/Poker on television5-card stud also plays just like you think it would, but unlike the Intellivision version, there is no 'drop' button programmed for a controller button. Instead, the dealer asks you - DROP? - just before every bet. Needless to say, this gets quite annoying and shortens the poker game's play life a lot.

The overall graphics are solid, if unremarkable, and the sounds are quite good, if annoying at times. The animated dealer is well done, but slightly stiff looking, even though he bursts forth with a smile or half-frown when appropriate.

If you don't mind the fact that it only contains the two card games, you'll be pleased that it plays them well and comes fully featured. The four player option is welcome, if clumsy, and the graphics and sound are good. It's not without its problems though, and you might do better with another game on a different system. Good (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Intellivison Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack
Advantages - Four different games to choose from, including 5-card draw. It's also fun to play for many reasons and would be welcome on any early system. An Intellivision classic.
Disadvantages - It's a little too yellow graphics-wise, but this in no way interferes with gameplay. Also, blackjack should include hand splitting and the discard option in 5-card draw shouldn't be so final (though it is in real life).
Overall - Highly Recommended (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

ColecoVision Ken Uston Blackjack/Poker
Advantages - Up to four players at once and plays its games well. The graphics are solid.
Disadvantages - Only has two card games. The poker game is in need of a 'drop' button, instead of the dealer asking you (annoyingly) prior to every bet. The sound, while good, becomes repetitive.
Overall - Good (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Guide to Game Rankings:

Turrican vs. Metroid: A Complexity Issue

Author and Screenshots: Matthew D. Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout and Additional Screenshots: Buck Feris
Notes: All screenshots were taken directly from the referenced emulators.

Title screen of Metroid taken from the FCE Ultra NES Emulator.After reading literally tons of videogame theory and thinking a lot about videogames (and games) in general, I have come to a few realizations about why I enjoy certain games a lot more than others. This realization sprang from hours of thinking about supposedly similar games and wondering, what is that quality about X that makes it better than Y?

It was in thinking about the Turrican series from Rainbow Arts for Commodore Amiga computers and the Metroid series from Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) that I finally happened upon a principle of game making that really excited me. Since many people likely to read this article might also be developers, I thought I would share my findings in hopes that someone may use the principle to design better games.

Turrican and Metroid seem at first to be very similar. Both are platform games featuring robotic-like male/female avatars. Both games feature plenty of enemies to blast and fun "bosses" to battle. The graphics and sound in both series are excellent on their respective platforms . Neither game bores the player with long cut-scenes or irrelevant narratives like so many games today, and both require a sound knowledge of the gameworld's rules and good tactics to win.

Screenshot of Metroid taken from the FCE Ultra NES emulator.The difference – and it is a huge one – concerns the power-ups. In Turrican, power-ups either recharge a player's energy or shields, or increase his firepower. If you collect enough "lasers," for instance, you can wipe out a whole slew of enemies with one shot. If you die, you lose some of this firepower and must re-collect the power-ups. Other power-ups give you a "bouncing ball" like fire; another one is "tri-shot" which splits your shots into three pieces. You can play Turrican without really paying much attention to the power-ups; they're nice, but generally not essential.

This factor is completely different in Metroid. In Metroid, there are two distinct types of power-ups: One works like Turrican's, i.e., you replenish your energy or restock your missile/supermissile/super bomb supply. The other type of power-up (of which I am most concerned with here) changes the way you play the game. For instance, getting the "ball" power-up near the beginning of the game makes a tremendous difference on gameplay; you can now access more areas and have to take into consideration the fact that you can "change into a ball" when contemplating strategies for each screen. Thus, this power-up makes a change at the fundamental game level—it gives you a new tool to navigate the gameworld. The ball power-up makes gameplay more complicated, but also more rewarding—now you have an amendment to the "basic rules" of the game that requires more strategic thinking.

Title screen of Turrican taken from the WinUAE Emulator.The other power-ups in Metroid perform similarly. Only at the end of Super Metroid (SNES) is the player able to fully navigate the gameworld—without, say, the “space jump,” certain areas can't be visited. Also, the weapons, such as the freezing ray, change the way players deal with enemies. Often enough, the player needs to freeze an enemy and use the frozen nemesis as a jumping or grappling platform, rather than just destroying them.

This is my point—in the one game, you already have all of your navigation abilities at the beginning; once you learn how to use them to navigate the game world, you're set. From then on, it's shoot to kill. In Metroid, your character is like an infant in the real world; it takes hours and hours to gradually gain the abilities to fully navigate the world.

Games like Metroid and Turrican (and pretty much all games, actually) work on an "aporia and epiphany" model, to use terminology from Espen Aarseth. An aporia is some "thing" in the game that serves as a stumbling block to progress. For instance, there are plenty of areas in both games that are inaccessible by standard maneuvers. Another example of an aporia might be a particularly difficult boss or monster that consistently defeats the player. When players reach aporias, they either give up (I consider consulting a Website or hint manual to be giving up) or keep trying different strategies until they find the answer. The joyous feeling that comes over a player – who usually quite suddenly and almost randomly discovers a solution to a difficult aporia – is called the "epiphany." It's that, "Oh, so that's it!" moment when the issue is resolved and the game makes sense again.

Now, to again return to the theme. In Turrican, these aporias are almost always related to the sheer number or power of the enemies. True, there are some locations that require other tactics, but most of the time it's more a matter of how fast a player hits the fire button. In Metroid, an aporia might require a very precise maneuver only made possible with a combination of "power-ups;" a player may have to use the grappling hook to swing up on top of a frozen monster, and then use the spring ball to access a small tunnel. Of course, the only way the player may have noticed the tunnel was to use the x-ray power-up, which allowed him or her to see it in the first place.

Screenshot of Turrican taken from the WinUAE Emulator.The idea here is one of increasing orders of complexity. Turrican follows a constant progression. As the game progresses, the monsters get bigger (and there are more of them). Metroid follows an exponential progression. With each power-up, the game gains another order of complexity. In a way, getting power-ups actually makes the game more difficult, because now there is a whole new set of tactics to take into consideration.

Compare Metroid to a game like chess. Someone may argue that chess is more like Turrican, because all of the pieces already have their full powers at the beginning of the game. However, I see it as more like Metroid, since the tactics must change with every move. If a player has a queen in the middle of the board, he or she sees and plays the game differently than if the queen is still locked behind a row of pawns. The Queen piece, much like Samus Aran (Metroid's avatar), potentially always has awesome game-world navigating abilities. However, the key is "unlocking" that potential by getting her into the right place at the right time.

While the "power-up" difference between Metroid and Turrican may seem a trivial thing at first, I hope that this discussion has helped game makers, game theorists, critics, and casual players alike recognize just how profound the difference is. My hopes are that more games like Metroid are forthcoming, for while Turrican is certainly an excellent game in its own right (I lost literally weeks of my childhood to it!), it lacked an essential quality that would have made it even better.


Footnote 1: I don't really think the "appearance" matters much; good graphics are a strictly social convention anyway and are actually more visible if they "suck" than if they are "awesome." Anyway, in a truly excellent game, one doesn't have time to notice them anyway. Good graphics are more pleasing to on-lookers than players. This is why so many games interrupt the player to show off "awesome" graphics. “Blah,” I say.