If you want to thank somebody, the guy most responsible for ensuring you learn how many people all over the world have apparently banged your mom while playing Call of Duty is Ralph Baer. From Baer’s work at Magnavox as a designer of television sets, the world wound up with the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home console. Like every other engineer and tinker/inventor, Baer had more ideas–some of these bore fruit, others were relegated to the bin of forgotten tech. Only one is hilarious enough for another RGM Wacky Wednesday column. Read on for the story of how one of these failed ideas led to Ralph Baer’s role in creating Journey, one of the weirdest arcade games of the 1980’s.
A trip to the arcade in the 1980s was a chance at video game superstardom. Score enough points and you too could put your initials on the high score screen. There it would remain: a challenge to other would-be joystick jockeys and a tribute to your gaming prowess…at least until the owner turned off the machine for the night, thus clearing the RAM and wiping out all your hard work.
The three-letter limit on the high score table had nothing to do with memory issues and everything to do with how much offense human beings can generate when provided with one extra character. Give people a canvas upon which to immortalize either their name or a slang term for their favorite body part, and society has proven they will choose the latter 100% of the time. Arcade machines were frequently found in bars, pool halls, and other areas where the creme de la creme of society was not known to gather, and their operators were instrumental in communicating to developers why the three letter limit was a wise choice. Arcade publishers likewise were under no illusions as to the behavior of the average arcade-dweller, with Midway changing the name of Namco’s Puck Man to Pac-Man for its North American distribution, proving at least one executive had a basic understanding of how easy it is to vandalize a capital ‘P’ into a capital ‘F’.
Ralph Baer enters the story with his idea to enhance the high score tables in arcade games. With only three characters to input, and nothing else to show for it, how could a gamer truly prove those were his initials up on that screen, and not those of some other yahoo with a similar handle? Baer’s solution was simple: mount a camera to take a low resolution digital picture and attach a gamer’s face to the high score table along with his or her initials. Now it would be clear to everyone who the dreaded ‘ASS’ was and no one else could claim his achievements for their own.
In Baer’s mind, players would be driving around, hitting up every arcade they could find, in order to get their faces on the high score tables of as many machines as possible. Before you dismiss this idea, consider the innumerable individuals who’ve agreed to public humiliation for the purpose of creating reality TV or appearing on game shows. Whether you want to admit it or not, Baer was on to something. His idea eventually wound up in the laps of Bally/Midway, who thought it had merit and could increase profits, and they agreed to a test-run. Using a prototype camera built by Baer, they modified one machine in a Chicago arcade to see what would happen, not realizing this was essentially giving a WMD to the best approximation of 4chan one could find in 1981.
Within forty-eight hours, Bally/Midway delivered their answer: ‘Are you out of your goddamned mind?!’ They told Baer not only were they canning the idea, but he better not pitch the concept to anybody else if he knew what was good for him. Understandably confused–after all it was only two days ago when Bally/Midway jumped at the idea–Baer pressed for an explanation. After what we can only imagine was a long, awkward silence punctuated by occasional stammers and throat clearings, the Bally/Midway people explained what you’d already worked out in your head by the end of the previous paragraph.
The first day of testing went smoothly, with players going nuts over immortalizing not just their initials and score but also their own face on the record screen. Unfortunately by day two, some asshole with a toxic combination of too much alcohol and not enough shame ruined it for everyone when he earned a spot on the top score charts, climbed on a chair, dropped trou, and took a shot of his NSFW head. Bally/Midway dismantled the camera, threw everyone out, and hopefully burned down the arcade just to be on the safe side. Just like that, Ralph Baer’s great high score head shot test came to an end with Humanity, to the surprise of literally no one at all except Baer, earning a failing grade.
Strangely this wasn’t the end of the line for Baer’s camera. While it obviously could not be entrusted to the masses, Bally/Midway went back to the father of video games a couple years later and asked to use his camera for a new project. Tasked with creating a video game based around the best-selling band Journey, Bally/Midway thought the best way to capture the likenesses of the band members would be photograph and insert them into the game digitally. Baer was only too happy to help so in 1983 the black-and-white grinning visages of Steve Perry, Neal Schon, Steve Smith, Jonathan Cain and Ross Valory made their digital debut in Journey. Erm…the less said about that, the better.
Ralph Baer passed away in 2014 at the age of 92, and in our minds he will always be the father of video games. Unfortunately thanks to his invention of the digital camera in the early 1980s, he (along with one anonymous, chair-standing ass hat) will also forever be known as the father of the unsolicited dick pic, a staple of the 21st century internet. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about humanity in the last fifty years of digital entertainment, it will always jump at the opportunity to Rule 34 everything, no matter what obstacles are placed in its way. Sociologists may cry and bemoan this. We, on the other hand, just chalk it up to another Wacky Wednesday on this journey through gaming history, and thank you for reading!