Living: Those Beeping, Thinking Toys

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The visual qualities of the games will improve quickly. Bambino has a two-color display system in the works that would allow one football team to wear blue uniforms and one to wear red, for instance. TV games, overshadowed this year, should attract more interest when Mattel Electronics introduces Intellivision, a game system with realistic, multicolored graphic displays. Learning capability can be built into small computers. The costs will be higher, but if customers will pay $40 this year, they may pay $75 next year.

What is not likely to change is that the games that succeed will work because they use their memory chips and lighted readouts to create melodrama. The best example now in production is a brilliant quarter-arcade game called Space Invaders. It is a reaction-time contest: shoot down the massed, marching aliens shown on the big TV screen before they shoot you. The refinements are satanic. The player has four blockhouses behind which to hide his man, but as the blockhouses catch fire under attack, they crumble. As the sound effects become more ominous, the aliens begin to shoot faster and more accurately. Blast them all —whew!—and another phalanx appears, nearer and more menacing. The action is jitteringly fast, and the tension is worsened by a sense of foreboding: as in life itself, there can be only one end to the struggle. At last the heroic player dies, overwhelmed. He is limp, drained, defeated, and his only satisfaction is the knowledge that he has offed a lot of aliens. Current hard-to-believe heroic high scores: by a Chicago player, 187,520, and a 257,000 claimed by a Pennsylvania college student. Midway Mfg. Co. of Illinois has sold 40,000 of the machines in a year, and, yes, you can buy one for your rec room for $2,000 to $2,500.

The powerful element of fantasy in Space Invaders is the focus at which the computer technicians, the toy manufacturers and the games theorists seem likeliest to meet. Computer boffins at Manhattan's Rockefeller University play a game called Hunt the Wumpus, in which the Ph.D. devouring Wumpus is hunted through the perils of a 20-room cave. Computer language is flat and unresonant, and Hunt the Wumpus lacks a certain dash. But a toymaker may say, "Give me a way to display a Wumpus! Make him buzz and light up!" and next Christmas everyone may be going into debt to buy an expensive, electronic Wumpus Wars. By then, civilization as we have already started to forget it will have disappeared beneath a pile of spent alkaline cells.

— John Skow

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