Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Cinematronics/Vectorbeam - Pt. 9

            Dragon's Lair had been a huge hit in 1983 - in many ways one of the biggest the industry had ever seen. Many saw laserdisc games as the savior of a dying industry. In the end, however, this proved not to be the case when the games faded almost as quickly as they rose. There were a number of reasons. For one, the hardware was error prone and buggy. In the January 1985 issue of Electronic Games, Ron Gelatin, CEO of Just Games, who managed arcades in the northeast, put it as follows:
[Ron Gelatin] "…the original Dragon's Lair was made with a three-year-old, discontinued Pioneer player. The company did in all the operators by doing that, because Pioneer had no parts, no back up, and it was a piece of garbage player."

In addition to being unreliable, the hardware was also expensive. Jim Pierce speculates that, despite their success, Cinematronics probably lost money overall on Dragon's Lair and Space Ace combined. As with the industry in general, a glut of poor titles also spelled doom for laserdisc games. After the runaway success of Dragon's Lair it seemed that many companies just wanted to get a laserdisc game - any laserdisc game - in arcades as quickly as possible with little concern for quality. Ultimately, however, the biggest factor in the laserdisc games' rapid fall may have been that the games, even the best of them,  just weren't that good. Once the novelty of the technology wore off, players were generally left with little more than a memory test with little skill involved and once you finished a game, there was little reason to play it again.

Scion and Freeze

            When the laserdisc bubble burst, Cinematronics found itself in a familiar position treading the waters of bankruptcy. Even worse was that the vector game market the company had ridden to success was dead and buried. If the company was to survive, they needed to find a new hit - and fast. Eventually they began to develop a new raster-graphics-based hardware development system. In the meantime they released a pair of games on older systems.

Scion  was a Xevious-like game licensed from Seibu Denshi while Freeze was an original concept game designed by Bob Skinner. The concept sounded like a can't-miss proposal (at least to management) - a game that combine play elements of two Williams classics.

[Bob Skinner] I sewed the Joust mechanic of “pumping” the thrust mechanism with the Defender mechanic of flipping left and right, with a flamethrower from somewhere, and an economy of fuel for the jetpack and flamethrower

The game featured a character named Manfred (because Skinner's favorite song was "Blinded By the Light" by Manfred Mann's Earth Band) who flew about a frozen multi-platform playfield with a jetpack using a flamethrower to melt stalagmites and ice-frozen doors while collecting refueling crystals and avoiding cave bats. One original aspect of the game was if the player stood still, they slowly froze to death, making Freeze one of the rare games in which you could die just by standing still.

            Despite its innovative elements, the final game wasn't nearly as exciting as it had sounded during the sales pitch. With a little more work, things might have been different.

[Bob Skinner] Dan Viescas was the art director, and I messed up a good deal of his art. I practically coined the derogatory term "programmer art".…Better art, a richer design with more interesting levels, more tuning of the mechanics, and that’s a great game.

Another issue may have been the game's hardware.

[Bob Skinner] The hardware was the recycled Naughty Boy boards from one of the earlier marketing debacles! Thinking green! So the run was limited from the start due to the supply of boards. I think there were 2000. I basically took the challenge to invent a game and do my first raster game on two-year-old hardware described in horrendous Japlish, and complete it in a few months. I worked basically breaking only for sleep and food, and not often. My addiction to the work would have been a serious problem if I didn’t live alone.

Released in late 1984, both Scion and Freeze fared poorly and the situation at Cinematronics looked worse than ever. A new hardware system, however, was in the works - a raster-based system dubbed Cinemat. Designed around dual Z-80 microprocessors (along with dual sound chips), the Cinemat system was designed to allow operators to replace software and control panels while keeping the existing hardware when upgrading to a new game. Leading the Cinemat design effort was Alex McKay one of a number of former Gremlin/Sega employees who came to Cinematronics after Sega closed down the San Diego-based Gremlin operations. Others included artist Dan Viescas, and programmers Helene Gomez, Steve Hostetler, and Medo Moreno. While McKay did an admirable job with the hardware, he had to make due with a limited timeline and even more limited funding. While McKay developed the hardware, Dan Viescas and Medo Moreno were working on a 8-bit graphics development system based on the one they'd used as Sega/Gremlin (in later years, Cinematronics/Leland would use Amigas then IBM PCs for graphics development).

Cerberus and Express Delivery


            The first game developed on the new system was Cerberus, a top-down free-scrolling game in which the player collected pods and placed them on the arms of a floating space station while fighting off enemy escorts, tugs, and destroyers. The game ended when all the pods were stolen. The game was programmed by Steve Hostetler and Phil Sorger.

[Phil Sorger] I coded it with Steve Hostetler. I also did all the sounds…what I remember most was Steve worked on the Player ship and scoring [while] I programmed the enemy ships and planetary ring. It was cool building weapons and counters to weapons, me vs Steve. It wasn't much of a game, but considering we built a brand new game from scratch on new hardware and faced down a "colored pixel" patent lawsuit…it was quite an accomplishment.

The games graphics were created by art director Dan Viescas and newcomer Dana Christianson (part of a new policy of assigning two programmers and two artists to each game). Christianson had attended the Kansas City Art Institute. He came to San Diego where he found few opportunities for an art school graduate (artists generally worked as fine artists or magazine illustrators). After working in a print shop, Christianson began taking computer programming classes at a community college, eventually earning an associates degree. Not finding programming to his liking, he turned instead to computer graphics. In December of 1983 he had decided to head to New York when he got a note from Dan Viescas that Cinematronics was hiring artists. In addition to creating the graphics for the explosions in Cerberus, he also created the game's logo plex (marquee) and cabinet art. While the new graphics system was being created, programmers sometimes resorted to somewhat low-tech methods to add the graphics to the game.

[Phil Sorger] Cerberus was done with colored markers and graph paper, and I hand-transferred the values (I had a key: red=1, dark red=2, etc) using a line editor, and later emacs.

 The second game developed on the Cinemat hardware was Express Delivery, a game in which the player tried to "…maneuver his car around traffic jams, police cars, fire trucks, and other obstacles while scoring large bonuses for arriving at the destination before the time limit is up."  Neither game caught fire in the arcades

Mayhem 2002 and Power Play

       The next two Cinemat games would feature slightly more original game play. Mayhem 2002 was a video game version of the 1975 sci-fi film Rollerball, starring James Caan as an aging athlete in the titular game, a bloody, futuristic version of roller derby involving motorcycles in which a team of armor-clad skaters scored points by stuffing a steel ball into a goal. Programming was by David Dentt, Phil Sorger, and Bob Skinner (Sorger and Skinner became fast friends and worked together on a number of games) with graphics from Tom Carroll and Dana Christianson.

[David Dentt] At that time in particular, we were having some sort of contest where two teams were trying to develop a game each. I actually started on the other team, but liked the Mayhem game idea better, and ended up going to it.

After considering a number of names (such as "Shattersport") the team settled on Mayhem 2002. Creating art for the game proved troublesome, in part because the limitations of the hardware system only allowed for a limited number of sprites on the screen at one time. At one point, Cinematronics was on the verge of cancelling the game when Dana Christianson worked 72 hours straight over a weekend and the game was released. Once again, however, it proved not to be the hit Cinematronics desperately needed. Part of the reason was likely the aforementioned hardware limitations, which allowed for only one player per "team" on the screen at a time and left little room for additional graphical elements other than the players and the ball (it was also easy to defeat the enemy A.I. once you figured out the trick).

            Power Play was a top-down soccer game with similar graphics to Mayhem 2002. Like Mayhem 2002, Power Play only featured a single user-controlled player per team (though each team also featured a computer-controlled goalie). Phil Sorger and Bob Skinner handled the programming (reusing much of the code from Mayhem 2002). To create the game's graphics Dana Christianson filmed Sorger kicking a soccer ball against the side of the Cinematronics building. While Bob Skinner remembers that Mayhem 2002 was designed before Power Play, Phil Sorger recalls that it was the other way around.
[Phil Sorger] …in PowerPlay, if we didn't get the animation working along with the motion properly, the avatar appeared to "skate" instead of "run". Moving without animating, sliding around the screen, but still steering around. We used this as the genesis for Mayhem, added shoulder pads, cool sound effects, and some tricky ricochets and strategy to make a fun game.

While it may or may not have been developed first, PowerPlay was released in September 1985, four months after Mayhem 202 It didn't do much better than its predecessor (though it was reportedly popular on college campuses).


Oddly enough, given its lack of success, PowerPlay led to another game that many at Cinematronics recall as one of the best they ever played - a four-player cocktail version of the game called Striker.

[Phil Sorger]  Striker was a total bastard of a project. We took two cabinets and stood them side by side. We had the same game graphics running on both monitors, except one was upside down. The gameplay was similar to PowerPlay, but with 4 player control, much, much better ball handling, more interesting wall collisions and funner characters.... We re-colored the sprites on the fly (which we thought was really slick back then) and allowed the players to punch and kick each other without consequence. This naughty ultra-violence was later copied in Quarterback, and continued all the way through NFL Blitz. We used simple geometry and simultaneous equation solving to extrapolate pass directions and speeds. This gave teams a lot of control over the action. The goalies were the only NPCs and were fun to mess with. They would start off poor and learn over time, so the first few goals were scored quickly, but after the score became 5-5 or so, it took a well-designed play to beat the keeper. It was also fun but difficult to push the goalie back into his own goal, or countering by smashing the other team if they hassled your goalie. Later, we converted it into a cocktail table game, that players would sit on both sides of. As fun as it was, this game never shipped.

While neither Mayhem 2002 nor PowerPlay had been a hit, Cinematronics wasn't done with the sports theme yet. Almost the entire development staff had been at work on another sports-themed game that Jim Pierce hoped would finally pull the company out of the doldrums and save them from bankruptcy. A baseball game called World Series: the Season.

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