17 February 2010
Ladies and gentlemen, may I call your attention to the young man holding the mysterious rectangular device! Draw closer and notice that it is unlike anything you have seen before. Such exotic technology can only be called a wonder.
But wait, does the room begin to fall away? Do you begin to question your senses? My friends, you are no longer the drab urbanites that you imagined yourselves to be, clad in corduroy and stiff, plaid shirts from Sears. You, my friends, are the elite! Cash overflows from your pockets! Your top hats cast shadows on those rabble in the cheap seats. You, my friends, are high-stakes gamblers in the sport of kings, and tonight the rumble of hooves around the track promises glory to the luckiest few — or to those who have a discerning eye for a winning thoroughbred.
It was 1979, and I was 7 years old. With its 12 buttons on the front, two buttons on each side and a magical, silver wheel at the thumb, I held the most astonishing gaming controller ever made – the Intellivision controller. It put the Atari’s single joystick and red button to shame. And I, in my thick nerd glasses and aqua corduroys, was using this magical device to draw a crowd of actual grownups – probably half in the bag from several hours of partying – to play a game with me.
A game. With a child. In the midst of a grownup party. This had never happened before. And it was all through the magic of one of the least-sexy games ever created: Intellivision Horse Racing.
The game itself was simple even by Intellivision standards. Four horses started out of the gate. Two of them could be controlled by players, who raced them against each other and the computer-controlled steeds. The controls consisted of the dial to move up or down, one button for “coax” and another for “whip.” The horses would get tired quickly; you could usually get away with two coaxes and one whip. Any more shenanigans from the jockey would cause your horse to rupture something or other, leaving you to slog mournfully around the track while everyone else was watering their horses and tipping mint juleps.
As a mano-a-mano affair, Horse Racing was a miserable failure. But the real magic of the game came in the betting. You see, while only two players could actually control horses, up to six players could participate in the betting. Before each of the 10 consecutive races, the game was a round-robin affair where each person in the room weighed the odds, sized up the ponies based on past races and decided whether to choose an easy favorite to win or pick the exacta for big money. The green horse looks like the clear favorite, but his last win was a six-furlong race with a dry track. Can he go the distance for 12 furlongs in the mud? How sharp are these gamblers I’m betting against? Should I play it safe with the easy odds that pay low, or go for broke with the longshot? I don’t know, they've been drinking Stroh's all night – they don't seem to be very focused.
And of course, they weren't. At least not as much as I was. But this was the chemistry that brought a crowd of grownups into the living room to play a game with a 7-year-old. As the whiz kid running the show with this rare, new "family entertainment system," I felt like a million bucks. It’s a scene I wouldn’t witness again until the invention of Wii bowling. But corduroy doesn't come in that color anymore, and now I’m one of the grownups.
By Shane Hoffman