Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Small Piece of Gaming History: CHASE-N-COUNTER

While sorting through some boxes I had stored on a shelf in the basement, I came across a box labeled "small games". Inside I found many familiar items I had put away, but I also encountered one I had completely forgotten.

For many years my mother-in-law worked for the game company, Milton Bradley. She knew I liked games and puzzles and so she often gave me the latest games as Christmas and birthday presents. At one point Milton Bradley bought the small electronics firm GCE in an effort to get a foothold in the burgeoning video game market. GCE was developing a gaming machine called the Vectrex. Vectrex was unique in many ways: it used vector graphics rather than a raster display, it was black and white, it was an all-in-one design including a tiny 9" screen, etc.

Within a year, Milton Bradley decided to get out of the video game market and sold off its inventory of Vectrex to its employees at a steep discount. (I still have a complete working Vectrex system, which we bring out every couple of years.)

In addition to Vectrex, GCE created a series of handheld games. I had forgotten that she gave me one of these systems as well and that is what I rediscovered.

The GCE handhelds, such as CHASE-N-COUNTER, were also unique. Not because they used vector graphics (they use very crude LED displays instead), but because they doubled as a calculator. ("N-COUNTER", get it?) A sliding plastic cover switched the handheld from game machine to calculator instantly, hiding its other function. The ultimate "boss screen" in a way.

When I found it, the batteries were dead. But after replacing the batteries it works like new. Well... new, 15 years ago. No one would mistake CHASE-N-COUNTER for a modern video game. The rudimentary shapes (a single dot for your "character" if you could call it that) and the sparse plink-plink of the sound effects, and lurching movement take you back to — let's be truthful — a much more difficult time.

These games are not easy. Timing is everything. It is really you against the computer as you try to time your moves to the precise moment your dot jumps to the next LED and before the crushing "game over" sound indicates you missed it.

So, although the games are simpler, the play is much harder. It takes a lot of practice just to get the basics of the game down. But once you have them down, then it is simply a matter of increasing difficulty, with the same mechanics over and over.

This was true of arcade games at the time as well. Pac-Man is a good example. On your first try you lasted about 30 seconds. But if you kept at it, you could manage to clear several screens without losing a life.

That said, I don't know that I'm going to be playing CHASE-N-COUNTER again any time soon. It was a fun experience at the time, but it is hard to resurrect the interest (or the free time) that kept me at it originally.

But it is nice to see it still works. And just hearing those tinny sounds reminds me of the simple pleasures of concentrating on something entirely meaningless, but mesmerizing.

P.S. After finding CHASE-N-COUNTER, I also found an article written by the game's programmer. A great read if you are interested in the story of how such a game was developed.

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