All Your Base Are Belong To Us - Chapter 1 - Pt. 5

Still at Sanders after the release of the system, Baer (along with engineers Larry Cope and George Mitchell) continued to hatch numerous game ideas. He developed the first detailed concept for an arcade game loosely based upon ABC- TV’s Monday Night Football. It was a complex game that involved offense, defense, coaching, and a joystick that let you move in eight directions. Mitchell and Baer took their machine on the road to Kenner, Bally, Coleco, Ideal, and Mattel, but they couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm. Bally in Chicago was the worst. In the meeting Baer saw a group of well- dressed people who looked very grim, uninterested in his idea and generally angry with him. He was glad to get out of there.

Occasionally, he peppered Magnavox with ideas for new games, not the least of which was Run Silent, Run Deep, based on the World War II submarine warfare movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, from United Artists. Magnavox always balked. For Centronics’ Gamex division in Las Vegas, Baer designed the display portion for the first electronic casino blackjack game, along with a horse racing gambling game called Photo Finish. Just as the manufacturing process was about to commence, all work stopped: Word was that certain unsavory characters had strongly suggested that Gamex get the hell out of Dodge. While the lead engineer was hired away to Bally in Chicago, most of the others ran for the hills like Sonic the Hedgehog on speed. The mob controlled much of Vegas in those days, and their grip only began to let up after the FBI’s massive assault on gambling crime in the late 1970s. That was too late for Gamex and, by default, Ralph Baer.

But Baer wasn’t done. To Campman’s joy, he created video-game training exercises for the military. Later, with two cohorts, he invented the Simon memory game, a popular toy that used flashing light sequences. Milton Bradley’s marketing of Simon was sheer Madison Avenue genius, and included the adver- poem: “Simon’s a computer. Simon has a brain. You either do what Simon says or else go down the drain.” Also in the seventies, after a panicked call from Coleco about the Telstar, Baer helped to get a nasty bug out of the three- game console in which Coleco had invested $30 million. The Telstar was emitting too much interference for the FCC to approve its distribution to toy stores. Baer added a simple resistor to the inside that fixed the problem. Baer did this even though he knew Coleco’s game system was very like the Odyssey and thus a competitor to his baby.

The Telstar was just one of many consoles obviously influenced by Baer’s creation. But throughout this roller- coaster ride with Magnavox and beyond, Baer did his best to keep calm and to look on the bright side. His struggle to bring videogames to every home with a television set was undoubtedly a superhuman feat, the Alan Moore/Watchmen kind, which required years of stamina in the face of unremitting disappointment as doors constantly closed in his face. The business travails involved in touting his invention would have
broken lesser people.

Ralph Baer remained strong because he knew in his gut that games would soon become part of our collective consciousness. His game machine didn’t become an overnight hit. But the ideas he put forth when he first proposed TV Games are still the basis of games today. The sports games he outlined and prototyped would become billion- dollar industries in themselves—when made by others a decade or so later. His brainstorm for multiplayer online games also became a billion- dollar industry—three decades later. His idea to incorporate cable TV as a distribution medium would become reality thirty years later, when broadband cable allowed games to be downloaded onto the newest consoles. And that light gun that shot at the screen was not so terribly different from the wireless controllers and guns of today. So back in the seventies, Ralph Baer was the Seer, a quiet Nostradamus. Every idea he laid out on paper came to fruition in the future.

Yet in the very near future, one of Baer’s visions would be imitated and reproduced in disturbingly familiar, and spectacularly successful, form. Someone on the West Coast wanted to beat the Seer at his own game by popularizing his own version of Baer’s Ping- Pong game. This small company honcho with an expansive need for success was a savvy, calculating giant of a man who Baer felt was the ultimate bloviator. “He’s a plain old shit. A real son of a bitch,” Baer would say.

Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg. Copyright © 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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