• Ben Drakes

Why I Became a Retro Game Collector (And Paid £270 for a Bundle of Dragon 32 games)

Updated: Dec 17, 2018

In my last post, I mentioned that I recently became a retro video game collector. Specifically, I collect only Dragon 32 games for now. I got to speak about this yesterday on CoCo Talk - a live talk show for fans of the TRS-80 Color Computer. I was kindly invited by co-host L. Curtis Boyle, who’d seen my Phantom Slayer video (the Dragon is based on the CoCo’s architecture, so it had many ports of CoCo games, including Phantom Slayer).

If you missed the show, you can watch it here. It was a pleasure to speak directly with members of this community for the first time; I got to talk about my work at Virtuix, tell my Ready Player One story, and they even looked at my blog live on air! I also got some good advice – to join the Dragon 32 group on Facebook, which I did this morning. I was surprised to discover that my first big purchase of Dragon games – a lot of 42 titles that I’d won the day before, and which I’d alluded to on the show, had caused a bit of a stir in this group!

I’d like to try to address the question of why I paid so much, and at the same time explain why I became a Dragon collector. As one member correctly pointed out, it was indeed the MIA titles that motivated me to put in such a high bid, but there's more to it than that. There are some other nice titles here that made this a good lot with which to begin my collection in earnest. There’s Indoor Football - an early soccer game, the humorously titled Eddie Steady Go - which is also the title of a Rozlyne Clarke’s 1990 pop classic, the unusual anaglyph cover of Movie Producer (I have my 3D glasses ready and waiting for this!), and the beautiful box art of Caverns of Chaos. Then there are the two MIA cassettes - Islands Adventure/The Fourth Dimension (who knows what these games are about!), and Missile Defender - but I’ll get to that one later.

First, why am I collecting at all? I wasn’t even born when most of these games were released. It’s kind of a long story, but hey – that’s what blogs are for!

I currently work for Virtuix Inc, the Austin-based company that makes the Omni - a VR treadmill I used to play Phantom Slayer. I’ve been involved since 2013, helping to design various components, including the harness, overshoes, and the algorithm that converts foot movement to in-game motion. I also gave our software platform its name - Omniverse. Originally, the device was marketed at home users, but when consumer VR failed to grow as quickly as expected, being a small startup company we had to pivot to commercial use, so we refunded international pre-orders and stopped taking domestic orders from consumers – that was a stressful time.

I now travel across Europe helping to set up commercial sites and train staff, but back when we were consumer-focused, I was tasked with making older, non-VR games work with the Omni.

Why do that you ask? Well, at the time, no AAA studios were making VR games, and there were precious few games available from indie studios, and even fewer that supported “full locomotion”. You see, without a VR treadmill, attempting to navigate an environment using “artificial locomotion” (moving around with a joystick or trackpad) typically causes simulator sickness within a few minutes, sometimes people feel nauseous instantly.

The reason for this is quite interesting - it’s due to an “ocular-vestibular disconnect”. Your brain says that you must be walking because that’s what your eyes see, but your body is telling you that you are motionless. The nausea that accompanies this is an instinctive response that evolved to protect us, because in nature if you appear to be walking but can’t feel anything, something must be wrong – you have either been poisoned or have sustained an injury, so it’s safer to puke and lie down than continue walking around! That’s what those symptoms are trying to make you do, which is why you sweat and feel unwell. It’s one of the biggest problems that has faced the VR industry, and partly why its growth has been so sluggish. Many VR games, even five years on, do not feature full locomotion - instead you are forced to stand in one place, or teleport instantly from one position to another. This has given rise to a plethora of “shooting galleries” AKA wave shooters.

To combat this, I created guides on how to make games like Skyrim and CS:GO playable in VR with the Omni. When using the Omni, you are far less likely to become nauseous, as you experience acceleration and deceleration as you lean forward, back, and turn, and your legs move in almost exactly the same way that they do when you walk in real life.

The last few years have been extremely busy for me, but recently I’ve cut back on some of my responsibilities at Virtuix. I no longer handle the commercial and general inboxes, or proof-read our newsletters. This has freed me up to do something besides work, a welcome change! I found myself wanting to pick up where I left off making old games playable with the Omni. My last few projects had included VR-modified versions of GTA V, Minecraft and Doom 3, but my favourite was the classic Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Some old games work better than others in VR... and then there’s Jedi Outcast. It was a revelation. Though it was released in 2002, it felt like a AAA studio had made a game conceived and optimised for VR and then sent it back in time to show us how it ought to be done. I literally cried, and I don’t mean that in the millennial sense - actual tears formed in my eyes and ran down my cheeks, forcing me to remove the headset – it was that good.

Where could I go from there? I doubted that I would ever find a better game than Jedi Outcast, so I set myself a challenge – to find the oldest game that could be made to play comfortably with the Omni. I began researching the history of video games, with a focus on first-person shooters as a starting point. Through Wikipedia I arrived at an entry for Phantom Slayer, considered by some to be the first of its kind. Here is a link to a fan site made by CoCo enthusiast L. Curtis Boyle, where you can also download it.

I wanted to verify that Phantom Slayer was indeed the first FPS, so I continued my research, across many systems – everything I could find prior to its release. This was a challenge, because the term “FPS” was not coined until after the release of Doom, which was described as a “virtual reality adventure” by the developer, and for a while FPS games were known as “Doom clones”, so I had to look at anything that was described as a “maze game” or a “shooter”. There were a lot of shooters made before 1982! I looked at games for the Atari systems, the C64, the Apple II, TRS-80 Color Computer, the Commodore PET, the Fairchild Channel F, and more.

Released in 1976, the Channel F was the first console to have a microprocessor, allowing users to play against the “CPU”. This type of home console would cause the crash of the Coleco “Pong” machines, such as the Telstar Arcade, which had a light gun that let you shoot a moving human character from a fixed, first-person perspective - one of the early "proto-FPS" games.

By now I was convinced that Phantom Slayer was the first to bring the core elements of an FPS together, but I kept going back anyway, to 1974’s Wild Gunman, 73’s Maze War, 72’s Shooting Gallery, 71’s Computer Space, 69’s Duck Hunt, 66’s Periscope, 62’s Space War, 58’s Tennis for Two, the mechanical shooting galleries of the 30s, and then further, to try to understand why we like shooting and hitting things so much!

VR Tennis in 1958

VR Tennis in 2018

The arquebus in the 15th century, the fire lance of 950 AD, the flint-tipped arrows of 20,000 BC – now it was all starting to make sense! The reason we like shooting things, indeed the reason we like any sport – from baseball to basketball, is that hand-eye coordination is essential to survival. Video games let us enjoy exercising this skill safely, but they offer so much more.

I bought a copy of Phantom Slayer, and got it working with the Omni. It was a delight, and I once again felt the joy of helping to bring an old game back to life and giving it a power it had never had before. I could sense the Phantom’s pent-up frustration – deprived for decades of the human souls its creator had programmed it to crave, it attacked me remorselessly! Fortunately, it’s just a game, and the Phantom can’t really hurt me – but if it could, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

I decided to make a video, and thought it would be nice if I started it by flicking through the developer’s other games before selecting Phantom Slayer, so I bought some more of them on eBay.

Even after I published the video, I kept searching eBay for the games I needed to complete my “Ken Kalish Kollection”, and I came across the lot in question. In these bulk sales, the individual games are often not listed, so you can’t rely on search queries if you’re looking for one title. Since I was inspecting it anyway, I thought I’d do some background checks on the titles included (it's a fun, relaxing thing to do). My resource for this is the World of Dragon archive. If it’s not archived here, it’s either on everygamegoing.com, or it’s “MIA”. I found that there were two MIA titles – no roms or cover scans anywhere on the internet, an exciting discovery in itself! With a little more searching I was able to find something about Missile Defender - apparently, it was a Missile Command clone. Coincidentally, it had been reviewed in the same issue of Dragon User that reviewed Phantom Slayer – there was even a grainy screenshot (this issue shows another of Ken's games, Starship Chameleon, on the cover).

Now we get to the reason why I decided to become a collector of Dragon games, and why I started this blog. Becoming a collector is a serious thing. I knew that I would likely be bidding against other collectors who care passionately about these games (though some might be re-sellers), so I didn’t enter into it without consideration. I watched “The Bits of Yesterday” to get a better understanding of the pros and cons of collecting. I could see that this would be an enjoyable hobby, but it’s one thing to buy a magazine, quite another to take a rare game copy out of circulation - you have a responsibility to give something back. That’s why I started Retro Give Back – I don’t want to enjoy my hobby selfishly, I want to contribute to the community. That means helping with the archiving process, and there could be no better way to start than with Missile Defender.

Why, if it’s only a clone? Yes, it's a clone, but it’s a clone of one of the most important games ever made – Missile Command. Missile Command was an arcade game released by Atari in 1980, during the golden era of video game arcades. It was made by Dave Theurer, the same gentleman who developed Tempest, which is the game animation on my homepage. The objective in Missile Command is to protect the cities by shooting nuclear warheads out of the sky. The problem is, you can’t keep knocking them all out, so you eventually have to choose which city you’re going to save, and in the end, everyone dies. Instead of a “game over” screen, you are presented with a more final-sounding “The End”. The idea behind this is to convey the horror of a real-life nuclear war that could end humanity. A product of the commonly felt apprehensions during the Cold War, this game was not just about hand-eye coordination – it was an attempt to change the hearts and minds of its players. Could a player growing up to become a head of state elect not to develop or use weapons of mass destruction as a result of playing this game? I don’t know, but it certainly influenced a generation - I even noticed it playing on the monitor behind Ron Delvaux during the CoCo talk show. As a result of working on it, its developer was afflicted with nightmares for years after its release. You can read more about that in this interview.

The truth is, the Cold War never ended. Only recently, an ex-Russian spy was attacked on British soil using a nerve agent. While the topic is not discussed as frequently in the media, Russia, America, and other nations have certainly continued to develop weapons of mass destruction. Of course, it is done secretly so we don’t often hear about it, but nevertheless this is the greatest threat to humanity. The emergence of AI will allow for the creation of weapons far more deadly than the nuclear warheads in Missile Command, and one accident is all it will take to wipe us out entirely.

No safeguards are sufficient. We think we’ve built walls high enough, but tsunamis still flood nuclear reactors causing massive devastation. We think we’ve screened pilots and passengers effectively, but suicidal pilots and homicidal passengers still crash planes. Hubris is a failing of the young, and sadly we are mortal and must keep handing power down to younger generations who as yet lack the wisdom to use it well. It’s through mediums such as music, books and video games that we can help accelerate their understanding and compassion, so it’s important to preserve even the clones of a game like Missile Command. Without our culture, we are lost.

A game may not seem like much, but I think of each title that has ever released as a snowflake. On its own, it can’t amount to anything and will quickly melt into oblivion, but as they fall continuously, they accumulate and build into something magical – and the snow is still falling. Missile Defender hit the ground in 1983. It could have been the last game, but so far we’ve avoided a nuclear winter. I don’t know if the cassette is still in there, if it's been overwritten or is salvageable, but I’ll do my best to prevent it melting away.

One day, we may overcome all of the problems we face. We may live in a virtual world in which we are happy and safe – or we may obliterate ourselves before we have a chance to get there. Looking back on the history of video games is like looking up at the sky when it snows, it fills me with appreciation for what has come before and gives me hope for the future.

Thank you for reading!

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