In Smash TV did Mark Turmell
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where silver, sacred quarters ran
Through coin slots, measureless, oh and
An ending you can’t see.
Apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but now that we’ve gotten Poetry 101 out of the way, let’s get to the meat of the matter: Smash TV. Developed jointly by Eugene Jarvis, John Tobias, and Mark Turmell, Smash TV was a retread of Jarvis’s earlier hit Robotron: 2084 with nicer graphics, but the same two-stick control scheme. One joystick moved the player around the arena, the other fired your weapon. This instantly-intuitive setup combined with a difficulty level you’d associate with simultaneously bathing a dozen cats, and low-brow humor borrowed from Robocop’s Bixby “I’d Buy That For A Dollar!” Snyder turned Smash TV into a runaway hit quarter-muncher.
Today’s hardcore gaming masochists look for developers like From Software to deliver the challenge of their gaming lives with the likes of King’s Field and Dark Souls. If borderline-impossible arcade games were your thing thirty years ago, the name you trusted above all others was Williams Entertainment’s own Eugene Jarvis. Jarvis made his impact on the arcade world with Defender, a game which was originally going to ship with only five levels because nobody at Williams could finish the third board, and adding more seemed an exercise in moral depravity. Despite a learning curve which made the LSAT look tame, a control layout designed for Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Sheena Easton destroying one in a music video, Defender became a best-seller for Williams, moving in excess of fifty thousand units. Jarvis’s take-away from this was, “The harder I beat my players, the more they will love me.”
The rest of his resume is likewise packed with perversely-challenging software: the afore-mentioned Robotron 2084; Stargate, the sequel to Defender; Blaster, the bizarre 3D space shooter ‘sequel’ to Robotron; and 1989’s Narc, which played up the War on Drugs to Paul Verhoeven-esque levels of absurdity as drug dealers shot players up with oversize metaphors.
Then came Smash TV, providing further evidence that gamers love nothing more than impaling their egos on the spikes of something designed to humiliate the ever-loving hell out of them.
As with most sadistic video games, Smash TV dangled a carrot in front of players willing to spend enough time (and money) to earn their reward. Anyone managing to brute-force his way through Smash TV was greeted by a screen telling him that while he’d done a great job kicking everyone’s ass, he’d failed to collect enough keys to become a Grand Champion, and only Grand Champions could enter the Pleasure Dome. “Entering the Pleasure Dome” sounds suspiciously enough like a euphemism for “getting laid” that no red-blooded American male could decline such an opportunity. Unsurprisingly, players pumped even more money into the machine on the hunt for Grand Champion status.
As Mark Turmell related in a 2013 interview with Polygon, the Pleasure Dome was nothing more than a joke he and his co-designers put in to taunt players who slogged through the arcade equivalent of Green Beret training. The team wasn’t sure anyone would beat Smash TV; doing so would require the average player to spend roughly the GDP of Ghana in quarters just to beat Mutoid Man, the game’s first boss. Life, of course, proved otherwise and it didn’t take long for skilled players to start asking arcade operators why it was impossible to be crowned Grand Champion and get into the Pleasure Dome no matter how many keys they picked up.
The Smash TV operator’s manual is fifty-seven pages long, and while it explains how a coin door tilt sensor eliminates ‘pounding for free games’ and shows operators how to get a good laugh by viewing the average player game time in minutes, it says nothing about the Pleasure Dome. Owners just as vexed as their customers contacted Williams and asked what was up.
Williams responded with a series of increasingly obnoxious dick moves. First they played coy with these inquiries, telling people they were just too good at the game and were beating rooms so quickly the keys never got a chance to appear. An explanation amounting to, “You play this game too well to actually beat it,” tripped everybody’s bullshit detector, so rather than coming clean, Williams doubled down and…shipped a new version of the game instead.
This revision changed exactly one thing: it removed the paragraph of text from the ending that mentioned the Pleasure Dome. Think about that a minute–rather than admit the joke, Williams paid the programmers to remove something from the code, paid more money to purchase and burn the new chips, then paid even more money to ship the upgrade boards out to arcades all across the country…all that to get rid of 72 words that one out of maybe every thousand players would ever see. All this did was prove how fundamentally Williams underestimated the lengths to which gamers would go for the opportunity to visit something called “the Pleasure Dome”.
The gaming press started hammering on Williams for an explanation, and they finally confessed: there was no Pleasure Dome. The design team saw no need to include something they assumed no one would ever play long enough to find–lots of laughs, right guys? When this explanation satisfied exactly no one, Williams issued an apology in the form of a new set of boards a few months later. This update set the number of keys required to enter the Pleasure Dome at ten, and added the bonus area itself, a seizure-inducing, rainbow-shifting room where the contestants race to pick up dozens of bikini-clad women, each of whom added 1,250 points to the player’s score. All that to atone for what became the most expensive paragraph of text in arcade gaming history…yeah, it must be a Wacky Wednesday.