Collected Works: Eugene Jarvis
The evil genius of the arcade era reflects on the string of classic games he helped create
The evil genius of arcade games reflects on the string of classics he has helped to create
Developer/publisher Williams Format Pinball Release 1980
Developer/publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1981
Developer Vid Kidz Publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1981
Developer Vid Kidz Publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1982
Developer Vid Kidz Publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1983
Developer/ publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1988
Developer/ publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1990
Developer Midway Games Publisher Midway Games, Nintendo Format Arcade, N64 Release 1994
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
Developer Raw Thrills Publisher Raw Thrills, Taito Format Arcade Release 2004
Developer Raw Thrills Publisher Raw Thrills, Nintendo Format Arcade Release 2016
Developer/ publisher Housemarque Format PS4 Release 2017
Eugene Jarvis is one of the earliest pioneers of the modern videogame industry. He co-created a string of classic arcade games –
including Defender, Robotron
2048, Smash TV and Cruis’n USA – that are still discussed today, introduced the concept of twinstick controls nearly two decades before they became widely accepted, and now heads leading arcade development studio Raw Thrills. His earliest ideas continue to charm generation after generation as new spins on Defender and Robotron are created by studios that were influenced by his early work. However, before all of that, Jarvis began his illustrious game career creating the light and sound effects for pinball machines.
FIREPOWER Manufacturer Williams Format Pinball Release 1980
Pinball was a big influence on me. It instilled that whole man-versus-machine gameplay thing in me. I was a child of the analogue age. I grew up back in the ’50s and ’60s; fun was blowing things up with gunpowder, lighting model airplanes on fire and seeing the burning plastic drip on your foot as you screamed in terror. But I was fascinated by pinball machines. The coolest thing about them was that you didn’t have a lot of coins in your pocket, so it became about how you could get a free game. How could you beat the machine – in any way possible, fair or foul? The one I loved making most was Firepower because it was very easy to play a multiball game; if you wanted you could just play all five balls at once. A lot of the sounds that I developed for that game went on to be used in Defender and Robotron. In the pinball era programmers would have to work with a mechanical designer and a game designer. You’d try to come up with some ideas, but at the end of the day you were just enhancing a game – you were the special effects guy. Videogames created a chance for the programmer to take over; he could do anything. But the curse of videogames is that not only is anything possible, but nothing is taken for granted. Every game starts as a blank screen, which is pretty humbling.
DEFENDER Developer/publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1981
I’d just come off Firepower, which I worked on with Steve Ritchie, and I kind of felt that it was the ultimate pinball game, a legendary machine. But I was super excited about Space Invaders, Asteroids, Space
Wars… there were all these amazing games coming out, and I was like, ‘My god, OK, now it’s not just a ball bouncing off a hockey puck. This is some really cool stuff, I’ve got to get involved.’ I was working at Williams at the time, and we hadn’t done a videogame before, which was kind of a problem! What kind of hardware should we use? How do you make pixels? It was ground up. Back then if you wanted to make something cool you basically had to design your own hardware system. I remember we were like, ‘Should we make it colour or black and white?’ I came up with the name, Defender. I had some moral
“OK, NOW IT’S NOT JUST A BALL BOUNCING OFF A HOCKEY PUCK. I’VE GOT TO GET INVOLVED”
hang-ups about blowing things up. At the end of the day you want to blow up a lot of shit, but you need some moral premise to justify you blowing up a lot of shit! So the idea was that you were defending something. Bad guys are coming so, as you’re defending life and liberty, you’re justified to take extreme measures. We got that straight, so we had the moral high ground there. The graphics were primitive in that era, and we didn’t have a very good pixel rate on our hardware. But one of the cool things we did was make the entire memory, which came to be known as a bitmap, or a memory map, architecture. There was no special-purpose graphics hardware; the microprocessor would just draw these objects in a big electronic easel. We didn’t have any of the limitations of motion objects, or how many colours we could have in our backgrounds, that other machines of that era had.
STARGATE Developer Vid Kidz Publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1981
Stargate was Defender 2. Larry DeMar and I founded Vid Kidz to make it, but that was a crock, really. We’d been doing this shit at Williams, and we just walked out the door and were doing the same shit, really. We were even using their equipment! There was a certain freedom from bureaucracy and stuff, but we only had one computer. So I worked during the daytime, and Larry worked at night. It was kinda neat – he would work all night and I’d come in in the morning, like, ‘What have you got done?’ We were almost extensions of each other’s brains. We were extremely focused; when you’re in your own business it’s amazing how much is possible. It’s weird how, when you’re working for some big corporation you’re like, ‘These working conditions are impossible. This computer I have is six months old, running Windows 94, I should be running Windows 107! I can’t do any work on this shit! And my chair’s uncomfortable, and the heating’s too hot!’ Then you’re in your own thing and it’s like, ‘You mean I have to buy this 40 million gigabyte machine? Oh, this 20 million gigabyte machine is fine.’ You’re working in a closet in the middle of the night with no heat and it’s fine. In a larger corporation your attitude is why things can’t happen. Then when you’re doing your own thing, suddenly everything’s possible. Your job is to figure out ways to get shit done, rather than figuring out the reason things are impossible.
ROBOTRON: 2084 Developer Vid Kidz Publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1982
The cool thing about Robotron is that it’s the only game I ever worked on that was fun within three or four days of starting development. Most games feel like they take forever to get all the characters, and AI, and all this shit. You have this brilliant design, but it takes forever to implement those cool ideas. Larry DeMar and I had an idea for this game called Conquest. Imagine taking Asteroids or Spacewars and turning it into this huge universe that you’re out fighting in, and maybe mining asteroids and building spaceships. But I was thinking about other ideas, too, and I was really inspired by this robot game called Berzerk that came out about the same time
Defender did. I was super-frustrated about the controls; you only had one joystick and you had to move towards the thing that was trying to shoot you in order to kill it. It was tense and an amazing white-knuckle experience, but at the end of the day you felt really frustrated by the single joystick. It was also around the time that I’d had a car accident and my right hand was broken, so I had limited mobility and was thinking about how to deal with that. And at some point, through thinking about these two things, the idea of having one joystick to move and one to fire hit me. The freedom you had with that was just amazing and you could blow the shit out of everything. Interestingly, later I learned that the best players of Robotron tend to be left-handed – I think because they tend to be more ambidextrous because the world is built for right-handed people. During that era you could tell if people were left or right handed because you could look at the
cigarette burns on either side of the control panel. I noticed that the right side of the panel on Defender machines was just totally charred, but with Robotron it was equally charred on both sides. Which is kind of amazing, because lefthanded people are a small percentage of the population.
The downside is that you create a really good control setup that gives players an awful lot of power and freedom, but that then means you have this arms race where the machine has to step up its game. All of sudden you empower the player, so then you must empower the machine to make it a fair match. So the idea became about how you create these ultimate enemies. In Space Invaders the shit was always coming down on you, and you were stuck on a one-dimensional line. So it was like, let’s make that two dimensions where you can move around on the screen, and now instead of shit coming down on you, let’s have shit coming at you from all sides simultaneously [laughs]. When I was first programming the game I made four or five enemies, and then boom, boom, boom, we kill those guys. ‘Ah, okay, how about ten guys?’ Boom, boom, boom, boom. And then I’m like, ‘How about a hundred guys?’ [laughs]. And it was like, ‘Fuck, I can’t deal with this shit!’ It’s amazing how you just all of sudden focus when you’re forced to. It’s like being in a start-up company with your own freaking money, and the shit is everywhere, on all sides: go! Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
BLASTER Developer Vid Kidz Publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1983
3D was the next big thing, so we wanted to get on the bandwagon. We had to figure out how we were going to do it, and it was challenging because the hardware of that era, in retrospect, wasn’t really capable of much 3D [laughs]. We’d developed this custom graphics chip for Robotron, one of the first graphics co-processors, and we got some primitive stuff going on with that even though it wasn’t really designed for it. For technical reasons we decided it would have to be a space game, because a black background was free in terms of processing overheads! We played around with stars and asteroids and shit, and it ended up being that you’re just going down this tunnel, and in the distance it’s just little points, and it’s hard to relate to a couple of specks out there in the distance. 3D had all this promise, but we realised that you lose a lot too. You’re not a god’s eye looking down on the world anymore. You’re in the world and you have this limited information which, unfortunately, traps you in rather trivial gameplay. Blaster fell into that trap and became just target practice in a tunnel. I guess ultimately it was somewhat disappointing, and 3D turned out not to be the be all and end all – who would have thought that, 35 years later, people would be playing Candy Crush 24/7?
NARC Developer/publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1988
I’ve personally known a number of people who have either died from, or gotten into deep trouble with, drugs. And so in some ways, even though it’s tongue in cheek,
Narc was inspired by the idea of wanting to say, ‘This shit really is dangerous’. The idea was that you were rewarded if you busted the dealers rather than killed them. It was this risk/reward thing because you had to go right up to them to do it. I was super excited about doing digitised people. It was a new technology, but part of it was a lack of resources. At that time the Japanese were doing some amazing character games like Super Mario Bros with incredible animations and beautiful hand-drawn artwork. But the whole videogame division at Williams had evaporated in the videogame crash, and we were trying to re-establish things and had a small team of three or four people. We were trying to figure out how to make a videogame when we didn’t have an art department of 30 people to create all these amazing animations. Rather than getting an animator to spend a month trying to make a character kick a ball, all of sudden it was just, get a guy in a suit and say, ‘OK, dude, kick a ball!’ You could
“YOU EMPOWER THE PLAYER, SO THEN YOU MUST EMPOWER THE MACHINE TO MAKE IT A FAIR MATCH”
riff off 50 animations in a day, and have all these cool costumes. We had dogs in the game, too. I remember we had all these pitbulls in the studio and at one point one of them got loose. I was standing behind the camera and this pitbull starts walking towards me. And I’m like, ‘Holy shit…’ Luckily nothing happened. I remember one of the board of directors of Williams came down and was pretty shocked by the whole game and the level of violence. He said the whole thing was a surrealistic nightmare, which we adopted. It was like, ‘Yes! I guess we succeeded!’
SMASH TV Developer/publisher Williams Electronics Format Arcade Release 1990
After we came out with Robotron, I thought the dual-joystick thing was going to be standard throughout the universe, but it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later with the PlayStation that it became a standard control setup. So we thought, ‘If nobody else is going to make a dualjoystick game, then we’ll just make another one!’ I was working with this kid called Mark Turmell who went on to do
NBA Jam and a lot of cool stuff. He works at Zynga these days. He was a Robotron freak, but I was a little sceptical about doing a twin-stick shooter. Over the years players have become more and more casual, at least in the arcade space. You can’t really destroy them like you used to. But I went with it. Robocop and Running
Man had come out, and we were all inspired by those. So the idea of a futuristic gameshow where you’re killing people for toasters came about. We had some brilliant character designs from John Tobias, who ended up being the artist behind Mortal Kombat. So we had kind of an all-star team. To get the basic characters we actually got onto a step ladder and filmed people from that same angle that the camera in the game was at. John took that framework and created beautiful characters, and he actually got so good at it that after that first character he created characters pixel by pixel and constructed all the different views from his mind. It’s still one of my favourite games to this day.
CRUIS’N USA Developer Midway Games Publisher Midway Games, Nintendo Format Arcade, N64 Release 1994
Cruis’n USA was a really fun project. I loved playing Outrun and Pole Position and all that stuff, so I’d always wanted to try making a driving game. A big issue was hardware; getting a graphics system that could throw out enough pixels and do all the 3D crap and everything. The idea was to utilise 3D texture mapping, which I don’t think anyone had actually done in games at that point. We realised we could put in real scenery and real buildings and have the Eiffel Tower, and mountains and the Golden Gate bridge, and have a realworld driving game, where you can actually drive to real places, kind of like adventure tourism. The hardware guy we had was Mark Loffredo, who did the hardware for Narc and a lot of our stuff, and he was gung-ho when it came to 3D texture mapping. We worked a few years and actually came up with a pretty damn good 3D texture-mapping system. I think
our system was better than the Sony PlayStation, and we designed it with, like, three hardware guys, three software guys and a couple of artists. It was around half-a-dozen guys and we basically designed the Sony PlayStation, and did a really cool driving game to boot [laughs]. I thought it was a pretty good project.
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS Developer Raw Thrills Publisher Raw Thrills, Taito Format Arcade Release 2004
This was actually a very painful project in the early going. Sadly Midway got out of the arcade business as it was a tough competitive time. This was the early 2000s and Xbox and PlayStation were getting a few iterations into their builds, and all of a sudden we weren’t really any better than home consoles, or PCs. Maybe even worse than PCs at the time. So we were out on the street, and I was done with the industry at that point. But these guys from Midway got in touch and said, ‘Let’s do videogames.’ And, somehow, I got sucked into starting this new videogame company called Raw Thrills. I remember waking up one morning a couple of months after that and going, ‘What the fuck am I doing? What insanity is this, trying to get back into the dying arcade business?’ All we really knew how to do was driving games at that point, so we started work on what was going to be this open-world, GTA kind of thing. You could drive anywhere you wanted and the car would deform when you hit things. We messed around for a year or two and by that point we were running out of money. We didn’t know what we were going to make out of this bullshit, so we turned it into a regular old racing game.
The whole street-racing thing was happening, kind of the The Fast And The
Furious thing, and so the idea was to have this racing game in which you customised your car. We reached a point where we were like, ‘OK, let’s get this thing out – we’ve gotta make payroll at some point.’ I remember we were going to call it Hot
Cars [laughs]. For some reason I thought that was a good name, but I forget why. We went around and got some beautiful imagery, and technology had made some progress – it’d been a few years since
Cruis’n and we were using PCs and graphics cards and we could have all kinds of shaders going on. It was beautifullooking stuff, and then we described the game and people would say, ‘Oh, you mean like The Fast And The Furious?’ And it was like, ‘Oh yeah…’ I think we tried to enquire about getting a licence, and it wasn’t available, so we kept working on the game and then out of the blue this friend of mine calls me up and goes, ‘Hey, I can get you the licence for Fast And Furious, do you want it?’ And it was like, ‘Uh, yes?’ So that was it, that game became what everyone thought it was! We had almost reached the end of our credit line, so when we got the thing out it really helped the company survive and it put Raw Thrills on the map.
CRUIS’N BLAST Developer Raw Thrills, Nintendo Publisher Raw Thrills Format Arcade Release 2016
We did The Fast And Furious I don’t know how many times, and you get a certain fatigue and you want to try something new. Plus I was having nostalgic feelings about the whole Cruis’n thing, so we decided to bring it back. We talked to people and some were like, ‘Ahh, that’s dead man, that thing’s 20 years old, nobody gives a shit about that, you gotta bring something new to the table.’ And other people go, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant!’ Ideas are forming, you get all these different opinions and there’s all this doubt, you know what I mean? Is it ever going to be anything? Is it a bad idea? Somehow you have to bullshit yourself into thinking there’s something there, and not only that but you have to bullshit a team into believing that this is actually worth their life’s work, too. It’s kind of this leap of faith where you just have to believe it’s going to be amazing. There were a lot of fans of Cruis’n over the years. I think there are 75,000 Cruis’n arcade games out there, and if you think each game was played, I dunno, maybe, 100,000 times a year, it’s like millions and millions of plays. Probably billions. So it became about how we could do something that was fitting for this great series and not be an insult to it. How do we take this adventure driving to the next level? So the idea was to just have everything: amazing graphics, a Lamborghini licence, incredibly dynamic environments where there’s just all kinds of shit going on and you can drive into almost anything – a lot of fruit stands, obviously, and tunnels, and huge air, and lots of flaming garbage cans to launch, and some super-crazy exotic locations. I think we succeeded on some level with Cruis’n
Blast: it has a certain nostalgia element, but we bring it into this new technology, apply the latest graphics and all the effects, and try to get that same, cool driving experience.
NEX MACHINA Developer/publisher Housemarque Format PS4 Release 2017
I think every 20 years it’s time for a
Robotron game, you know? Every generation wants to give the twin-stick shooter a whirl, and it’s cool. It’s like poker – it’s never going to get old. Housemarque has a bunch of cool ideas, and these kids are super excited, so I was like, ‘What the hell, I’ll see if I can throw my two cents in.’ I’ve got a bunch of ideas, and stuff about where the Robotron story might have gone. When it’s time to hang up your stirrups, it’s like that Japanese sword thing – you just do the right thing and let the future generations take over. But I’m not ready for that just yet.
“An amazing thing happens when you lose yourself in a game,” Jarvis muses. “You start dreaming that reaity. When you come home at night, you’re still flying around in your spaceship. Defender was about tapping into that deep sense of purpose”
Designed by Steve Ritchie, Firepower was the first solidstate table to feature electronic multiball
“Stargate was an opportunity to revisit Defender and fix things we should have fixed,” Jarvis says. “I loved it, but Defender captures a more pure essence of the game”
Robotron’s innovative twin-stick design proved problematic for a lot of players who struggled to master the dual controls
Narc’s violence caused a small amount of controversy, but the lack of a home version meant that it mostly avoided the ire of parents
Blaster uses sprite scaling to give the impression of three dimensions. Only three sit-down cabinets were produced
“There the was no 3D design software, so our artists had to actually type in the coordinates of the polygons in Cruis’n USA,” Jarvis reveals. “A fair amount of the game was designed by typing, you know, -107, 76, 29. It was so fucking painful”
SmashTV’s mythical pleasure domes, supposedly reached by hoovering up keys during play, never actually existed
TheFastAndTheFurious used a tweaked version of the Cruis’n engine that could achieve a solid 60fps
NexMachina reimagines Robotron’s franctic twin-stick gameplay. Cruis’n Blast (above) is an unapologetically over-the-top arcade racing game set across the world