Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Games 92-95: Early Exidy

Now a relatively unknown brand known only to vintage arcade enthusiasts, Exidy was once among the biggest names in video game manufacturers, until about 1986.

Like Atari, their earliest games predate the widespread use of integrated circuits, and aren’t well suited to conventional emulation. These games, with one big exception, are obscure, in part to their rarity and the difficulty in emulation.

Nearly all of their games from 1977 onward, however, are well supported by emulation, and quite a few have been released as freeware by Exidy’s founder Pete Kauffman, and are distributed on the MAME website. Regardless, none of these games are nearly as well-known as their contemporaries by the likes of Atari, Williams, Nintendo, et al. Only one managed to attain whale status, and then just barely.

Their first developed game, according to The Golden Age Arcade Historian, was a limited release Pong clone that might have been called Thumper Bumper or Hockey/Tennis. The same source claims their second game was called Sting, but KLOV claims this was a prototype for TV Pinball, their first widely-distributed game.

Unplayed: TV Pinball

Photo by System16

Sources are conflicted about TV Pinball’s release date, but some say it was demoed as early as November 1974. It is unemulated, but the best record I could find of its gameplay is the official poster.

Scan by FlyerFever

This game is Breakout! And yet, it predates Breakout by at least six months. You move a flat paddle, bouncing a ball around on the screen, and hit targets arranged in a grid and given color by an overlay.

It doesn’t specifically say that the ball rebounds when it hits a “bumper,” but that’s kind of implied by the name. If it doesn’t rebound, then this would be more akin to Ramtek’s Clean Sweep.

It’s also worth noting that the targets are distributed throughout the entire screen, as in Clean Sweep, rather than concentrated at the top of it, as in Breakout.

Unplayed: Destruction Derby

Scan by Flyerfever

I speculate that they were inspired by Atari’s Crash N’ Score, an earlier demolition derby-themed arcade game. As with TV Pinball, Destruction Derby is rare and unemulated. Golden Age Arcade Historian describes it as a demolition derby game where players compete to smash each others’ cars into scrap heaps until only one still drives, but I believe this is an inaccurate description of the gameplay. A deal with Chicago Coin produced a re-release called Demolition Derby, and the poster describes the gameplay as such:

…2 target drones are on the screen at all times. In constant erratic motion, they seem to be taking evasive action as if they had minds of their own! When player’s pursuit car hits a drone, the drone is demolished and player scores a point. Drone debris remains on the screen and another drone moves into action. As drones pile up, player must maneuver with increasing skill and speed to build up his score before time runs out!

I’ve played a game, by Exidy, with this exact gameplay description. Only it wasn’t Destruction Derby, and it wasn’t exactly “drones” that I was crashing my car into.

Death Race

Scan by FlyerFever

Exidy’s best-known TTL-based game, and one that I’ve played on real hardware, at American Classic Arcade Museum in New Hampshire, earlier this year.

The cabinet and controls look exactly the same as Destruction Derby’s, just with new artwork, and the gameplay works exactly the same way as the Demolition Derby’s poster’s description. I believe that this game was simply a ghoulish re-skin of Destruction Derby with different sprites and a screaming effect added when you hit people.

At ACAM, I took some video footage of gameplay, holding the camera while my friend and Data Driven Gamer collaborator “R” played, which I had posted and written about earlier.

Scoring more kills becomes more difficult over time as the playfield is dotted with gravestone obstacles which impede you, but not your victims. “R” showed an uncharacteristically sadistic glee, cooing “you can’t escape death!” as he ran the stick figures over in his motored hearse.

There is a fan remake of Death Race, but it’s really not the same thing. The real game looks, sounds, and handles quite differently.

Game 92: Robot Bowl

This was the first game by Exidy to use a CPU, and is the earliest that can be played by emulation.

I never saw the appeal of professional bowling. There’s no interaction with other players, and unlike golf, no variety (to my knowledge) in play venue. An optimal game will be exactly the same every single time – just bowl a perfectly executed strike 12 times in a row. I’m sure it’s really difficult to do that in practice, but that doesn’t make it interesting, as far as I’m concerned. Strategy may play a factor if you execute a flawed strike and need to figure out the geometry to bowl a spare, but it’s hardly a glowing endorsement to point out that the game gets more interesting when you perform LESS well.

Bowling video games seem even less appealing. With only so much control afforded to the player, executing a perfect strike each time just seems to be a matter of figuring out the precise position and timing of inputs, and then doing it every single time.

This game didn’t change my mind. You can move your bowler – allegedly a robot but I don’t see much resemblance, and throw the ball, with two “hook” buttons for angling it left or right. One slightly wiggy aspect is that you can angle it *after* you’ve thrown it, even giving the ball a zig-zag motion by rapidly altering the buttons, but this wasn’t necessary.

I figured out the optimal play in a few minutes. By positioning the robot so that the center of his head is exactly one pixel to the left of the left dotted gutter line, holding the “hook right” button, then throwing and releasing the “hook right” button, I’d strike almost every time. The only thing tricky about it is that you have three seconds to do this before the robot bowls automatically. I tried a full game with this technique and got 11 out of 12 strikes. I tried a second time and bowled 300.

Trivial gameplay aside, the graphics look amateurish even by 1977 standards, and there’s no sound at all. That part may just be an emulation issue, but I’ve played the real thing at ACAM, and I don’t remember any sound there. Or maybe I just couldn’t hear it.

Game 93: Circus

An obvious Breakout-inspired title, and even if we take it for granted that it was Exidy, not Atari, who first invented the broader concept with TV Pinball, Circus is still using the distinctly Breakout-like design of placing its targets at the top of the screen.

The premise is that a recklessly irresponsible circus performs a physics-defying act involving two clowns, a diving board, a see-saw, and a whole lot of balloons. Your job is to move the see-saw back and forth and help the clowns pop as many balloons as possible until you’re all out of spare clowns.

I used my Atari paddles to play, and they worked reasonably well, if slightly jittery. My best score was over 8,000 points.

Compared to Breakout, Circus has a much wonkier physics model, which is both good and bad. Breakout is a static game; the ball travels in a fixed and linear trajectory once you hit it with your paddle, travelling up until it hits something, and when there are few bricks left, you can go for long periods of time without hitting any of them. Your bouncing clowns are affected by gravity, their heights and trajectories when launched into the air are unpredictable, and the balloons are always moving, ensuring you won’t go for too long without some action. Getting a clown high up into the air and bouncing on several balloons before falling to earth is this game’s Breakout moment, and it can happen before bouncing clowns on the see-saw even once. The chaotic physics can make catching the clowns quite hard, but at least the see-saw hitbox seems to be generous, and unlike Breakout, does not shrink. On the other hand, the see-saw sprite doesn’t clearly indicate which parts of it are safe for the clowns to land on. Several times it looked like I was going to catch one, only for him splatter on the ground instead.

One emulation note, MAME uses samples in lieu of emulating the sound hardware, but it doesn’t sound very much like videos of actual hardware on Youtube. The “dead clown” sound effect in particular sounds really odd on MAME.

Game 94: Targ

The monitor bezel displays this game’s epic sci-fi plot:

Targ’s gameplay has more than a passing resemblance to Sega’s Head On from the previous year, and to Atari’s Slot Racers from the year before, and yet not such a strong resemblance to either that I can say for sure there was an influence. The Wummel cruises down alleys and corners, turns instantly, and can shoot missiles at the Targs, who can’t shoot back or slow down, but will kill you by crashing into you, especially as you turn corners.

Despite the blurb on the bezel, your goal here is to kill all of the Targs. Take too long, and only then do the even deadlier Spectars start showing up, though they are worth more points.

The game is pretty brutal. Targs can’t slow down, which you can sometimes use against them, but they can instantly reverse direction, and will almost certainly do this to ram right into you should you get too close while attempting to ambush them. And if you aren’t that close, then they’re pretty good at avoiding your fire. For the first three levels, luck seems to play a big part, as all you can do is keep your distance, maneuver so that multiple Targs are in front of you but not too close, and fire and hope you take out some of them. By level four, they move faster than you, so you have to constantly turn corners just to stay ahead of the pack, which makes you vulnerable to being side-swiped. I can’t beat this level.

Game 95: Venture

Before even playing, the monitor bezel gives some instructions and gameplay tips in ballad form.

Each level is a macro-sized dungeon displayed with a zoomed-out view, reducing your character sprite size to a speck. Monsters patrol the halls, and must be absolutely enormous considering they appear normal-sized in this view.

Entering a room blows it up to fill the screen.

Your goal is to enter each room, survive the monsters and traps inside, collect the treasures, and leave, but if you take too long, the Hallmonsters will intrude (and bizarrely shrink down almost to your size, though this makes them no less deadly). Hallmonsters are fast, walk through walls, and are invulnerable.

Aside from the Hallmonsters, your bow can kill any monster, but they’re adept at dodging your arrows, some more adept than others. Sometimes it’s better to force them to move out of your way than to kill them. Their corpses will remain on screen for some time, blocking other monsters, and still deadly for you to touch. Interestingly, every monster appears to have a unique AI movement pattern.

Venture, like most arcade games of the time, goes on forever. You’ll keep descending dungeon levels until you run out of lives. The sets of rooms repeat every three levels, so I’d consider completing three levels to be a victory.

I got tantalizingly close to this victory, but I just couldn’t figure out how to pass one room on the third floor. Dubbed the Genie Room, it’s filled with genies that move fast, dodge my arrows, and one of them blocks a narrow corridor containing the treasure. Killing him means that his deadly corpse will block that passage for a few seconds, giving the other two plenty of time to flank me.

After recording this attempt and giving up, I decided to allow myself the use of save states. I was able to eventually clear the genie room, and then decided to see if I could beat nine levels and complete the treasure collection.

The dungeons do loop after the third level, but it gets much, much harder. The enemies become faster, to the point where you have to kill enemies in rooms where you could previously outrun them. Then, in levels 7 through 9, the hallmonsters, who previously were mostly just there to ensure you don't dawdle, suddenly become the biggest threat.

At level nine, they all move as fast as you, and some move much faster. The only way you’ll reach a room is if they happen to spawn in a manner that leaves a clear path to the door. It’s a matter of luck, and the odds aren’t in your favor. The last room on level nine took me dozens of tries.

After beating level nine, it simply repeats, and the treasures are now orange.

Venture is an interesting, unusual, and initially satisfying arcade game. The dungeon exploration aspect reminds me of Zelda. But the utterly relentless difficulty, a property prevalent to coin ops, makes it not fun for very long. So much of the difficulty stems from Winky’s sluggish handling. Adjusting your aim, for instance, never seems to resolve quite as fast as it seems like it should, and hitting “fire” too quickly guarantees a miss, which can be deadly as the enemies erratically bounce all around the dungeon corridors like a bunch of toddlers on a sugary breakfast cereal high. It had to be hard to turn a profit, but it’s not an enjoyable kind of hard like, say, Defender. I’m a little bit curious to see if the ColecoVision port, divorced from the need to munch quarters, is any easier and becomes enjoyable again, but not that curious, and I’ve already spent more time on this game than I really want to.

Venture was the only Exidy game to retain enough fame in the Internet era to attain whale status, and it just barely met the threshold, quite possibly thanks to its ColecoVision port which is considered to be one of the best games on the platform. Because of this, expect this to be my last post concerning the company.

Exidy’s later games, though successful in the arcades, met with diminishing returns, and they eventually bowed out of the video game market to focus on ticket redemption games. Their ports to second-generation consoles largely coincided with the North American video game crash, they virtually ignored consoles of the third generation, and I believe that because of this, their games have fallen out of the arcade golden age canon in favor of games by Atari, Namco, Williams, and others, who kept theirs alive in the public eye through frequent ports and compilations.

Some of their more notable later games include:
  • Mouse Trap, a Pac-Man-inspired maze game about collecting bits of cheese while being chased by cats and falcons, featuring uncannily realistic sound effects and gameplay perhaps a bit too complex for its own good.
  • Crossbow, a shooting gallery type game where you use a crossbow-like controller to shoot at targets on the screen to protect a party of adventurers in a pulp fantasy setting.
  • The Max-a-Flex system, an Atari computer in an arcade cabinet, which played games such as Boulder Dash and others by First Star.
  • Chiller, their most infamous shooting gallery game, and perhaps the first plausibly graphic “gorn” game, featuring stages such as a torture chamber filled with helpless victims for you to blast for points.


  1. Rather than Zelda, I'd say Venture feels more like "Berzerk with a sense of purpose".

    Surprised to hear Mouse Trap didn't make it to whale status, it's generally always featured on "best Colecovision games" lists and seems to be held in higher regard than Venture.

    1. Berzerk felt like the point of the game was fighting robots, and it had simple but elegant controls and mechanics that suited this vision pretty well. With Venture, the combat was fidgity and complex in spite of appearances, but also felt like combat was peripheral to the experience rather than the point of it.

      Whales are determined entirely by how many votes the games received on Mobygames at the time that I started this blog. Venture meets the 25 vote requirement exactly. Mouse Trap falls pretty short with only 14.

    2. Yeah, I know how you determine whales, I meant I was surprised Venture made it but Mouse Trap didn't, since I always thought of Mouse Trap as the more popular of the two.

    3. As far as games that defined the Colecovission, I'd personally say Venture, Mouse Trap, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, Mr. Do, Lady Bug, Turbo, Zaxxon, Cabbage Patch Kids, Pepper II, Wargames and Super Action Baseball. How many of those made whale status in some form?

    4. Five. You'll see which pretty soon, since they're all 1981-1982 titles. There's also one not in your list, also a 1982 title.

    5. Well, I know Venture is on there, and DK and DK Jr. definitely are, so I'll guess Zaxxon and Mr. Do as the two others.

    6. As for the last one, it's definitely Smurfs, which I was pretty close to putting on the list in the first place (Though you've already played several other games that got Colecovision ports, like Defender and Super Cobra, and multiple other definitely-whale games like Pitfall and River Raid got ported to the system even though they're not the one they're primarily associated with).

    7. Correct, on all counts. And there are other, later multi-platform titles with Coleco versions, though I don't know which ones I'll play on the system. Do you know if any of these games were primarily intended for ColecoVision? BC's Quest for Tires, Frogger II: ThreeDeep, Tournament Tennis.

    8. Games that were released for both computers and consoles around the same time tended to be primarily intended for computers, so my guess would be none of them. Imagic primarily made console games, but the Colecovision version of Tournament Tennis looks so ugly compared to the computer versions I seriously can't imagine that being the "core" version.

    9. I looked into BC's Quest for Tires a bit and it seems the Colecovision port was the original there - - the game was created by Sydney Development and initially released for the Colecovision, Apple II and Atari 8-bit by Sierra, but the Atari version credits Sierra employee Chuck Benson as its programmer, meaning it has to be a conversion, and the Apple II version is very clearly a colossal downgrade of the full game. Most later ports then appear to use either the CV or the Atariversions as their blueprint.

    10. That's surprising, but makes sense.

  2. The lack of interaction with other players is a FEATURE of bowling, not a drawback. You and only you are responsible for your performance. Players feel a satisfying amount of control over themselves and their game. Plus there's the social aspect of bowling leagues and good times. Not everyone thinks that having to think through picking up complex spares is a fun experience. Ya ever think that maybe some people out there play games for different reasons than you?


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