Recently my wife and I heard Michael Feinstein in concert. Feinstein has earned fame not only as a pianist and singer of popular songs from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood, but also as a dedicated researcher into the history of popular song in America. His knowledge was on full display during the concert, when he would often pause between songs and recount the back story of the next number. He explained, for example, why the movie Casablanca featured the song “As Time Goes By.” The song had debuted in a forgotten, and largely forgettable, 1931 musical, Everybody’s Welcome, and Warner Brothers held the copyright to the song. When Warner Brothers needed a song for their new movie they could use “As Time Goes By” for free. The result? The song gained new life, indeed immortality, when Ilsa asked Sam to play it again. Well, what she really said was, “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake,” but that’s not how we remember it today.
Not too long after the concert, I played Mr. AahH!, a game I recently downloaded on my iPhone. As I played, I was reminded of Feinstein’s observation. Like film, video games reuse old material. Mr. AahH! features a bulbous-headed stick figure who swings and jumps from block to block. It’s a simple target game, jazzed up with a techno beat, that requires you to use the iPhone’s accelerometer to guide the character through the air. Like other target games, you have to compensate for factors such as the wind and, for some reason in this game, inexplicable changes in gravitational pull. It’s fun, but there’s nothing original about the basic game play.
Indeed, Mr. AahH! reminded me of an old Atari arcade game, Skydiver, that we have in the NCHEG collection. Created by Owen Rubin in 1978, the game requires you to jump from an airplane toward a target on the ground. You get points for accuracy and how close you get to the ground before needing to pull your chute, and as with Mr. AahH! you have to compensate for the wind. The games look and sound different, but the game play is basically the same: aim, jump, land.
There are plenty of other examples of parallel play in video games. For example, one of my favorite games as a kid was Tron (1982), especially the light cycles section. What I didn’t know as a kid was that an earlier arcade game, Dominos (1977), which NCHEG also owns, features almost the exact same game play. If you’ve played Tron, you know how similar the game play is.
Sometimes the game play is practically an exact copy. For example, the computer game Scooby Doo: The Phantom Knight (2001) features a minigame copy of the 1984 arcade favorite Root Beer Tapper (which itself is a variation on the original 1983 Tapper game).
So, as in the case of Warner Brothers’ famous movie song, is the best inspiration for a video game something that already exists? I’m not suggesting it’s that simple. Mr. AahH! and Skydiver use the same basic game play motif, but I doubt that the developers of Mr. AahH! were even aware of Skydiver. After all, jumping games predate video games, as every kid who has played hopscotch or tried to leap from rock to rock without falling knows. Tron’s likeness to Dominos seems much more obvious to me—I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators of Tron had played a snake-style game like Dominos before designing their own game. As for the case of Scooby Doo and Tapper, that looks a lot like a straight-out copy.
What other examples come to mind quickly of new games that repackage old game play?
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits