JOYSTICK: The Untold Story Of Ottawa’s coke-fueled 1980’s Video Game Industry

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Thirty-five years ago Ottawa was something right out of a Hollywood movie, a rise and fall epic, with a plot involving millions of hi-tech dollars, mounds of cocaine and the resulting production of Canada’s first video game.

Most teenagers of the 80s became indirectly involved in this glamourous period of local computer innovation through their infatuation with early video games housed in colourful wooden cabinets in the many smoke filled arcades that sprung up across the city, and throughout North America. 

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The now vanished Imperial Arcade on Bank Street beneath Barrymore’s (Photo:Author)

Kids would bike their BMXs down to one of the local Ottawa arcades, “The Wizard”, “Imperial Arcade”, “Rideau Arcade”, “King Arthur’s Court”, or one of the many others that collected the hard earned quarters of Ottawa’s youth.

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Instead of quarter coins, Ottawa arcades would sometimes distribute “tokens” to use in their arcade machines. (photo: Mark Leahy)

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Kids of 1980s Ottawa likely visited “The Wizard” arcade at Carling and Broadview. (photo:ottawapinballarcade.ca)

We would plug our allowance quarters, or “tokens”, into Defender, Battlezone, Asteroids, Tempest or anything else that glowed in those dark arcades.

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The growing arcade scene rippled across the continent, with Atari leading the charge in developing the most sought after games. Silicon Valley was bursting with cocaine fueled programmers, earning tons of cash, buying Corvettes and having massive hot tub parties in the once nerd laden confines of hi-tech computer software companies. 

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The video game scene soon arrived in Ottawa when our hi-tech sector raked in the fresh dollars headed their way via the Federal government and a generous financial grant program for emerging computer technologies.

ENTER CASH AND COCAINE

One such development was Canada’s Department of Communications in Ottawa, which would create a videotex system called TELIDON, the best in the world due to the superior resolution of its graphics and because of its use of full-scale colour applications. Operational a full FIFTEEN years before the WorldWide Web, Telidon was designed to be used over installed cable TV systems because of the wider bandwidth requirements.

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This technology evolved into the first cable-based micro-computer-operated home computer network, financed in part by Ottawa’s real estate kingpin, the Campeau Corporation. It was called NABU (Natural Access to Bidirectional Utilities). The name NABU was inspired by the Babylonian god of wisdom and writing. This new network was entirely a cable operation that was initially located in Westboro at 485 Richmond Road and later on Baxter Road, near the Ottawa Citizen.

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Manufacturing home based computer units in Almonte, NABU sent 6.5 megabytes of software, information content and videogame data to the homes of Ottawa subscribers for about $8 a month after they bought the unit for $90, which was a fraction of the cost of a home computer at the time. The NABU Network launched in October 1983 and was one of the first large-scale applications of a home computer network. This Ottawa invention was promoted by Canadian celebrity magician Doug Henning, who said it was “Computer Magic!”

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Canadian celebrity magician Doug Henning promotes Ottawa’s innovative NABU NETWORK.

All this was a full 10 years before the Internet, with services that included tele-banking, tele-shopping, electronic mail (two way emails!), home security, computer games, and a pile of other applications including Canada’s innovative Telidon system for interactive television viewing.  The first NABU programs available, about 100 of them, were mostly video games. The host computer pumped a speedy 6.4 megabytes per second-information, which was instantly accessible. It used the Z80A processor chip, which also powered Radio Shack’s TRS80 and the ColecoVision video game system. 

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What could be the world’s first home internet computer, the Ottawa creation, the NABU Network personal computer system.

And this is where the story of Ottawa’s video game world begins…an era of innovation and intoxication like never before. Enter Michael Bate, writer/musician/entrepreneur/video game junkie. I sat down with Michael at a local diner to record this illustrious moment in Ottawa’s history.

QUEST FOR SUCCESS

Michael was a big fan of twitch games, the fast, hand-eye coordination games like Tempest, Centipede and Crystal Castles.

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Michael Bate

He got his start on games like Asteroids and Space Invaders. But then Pac-Man came along in 1981 and Bate soon became unofficial Ottawa champion.

“I was between engagements,” he recalled, “And I should have been out looking for a job. But I had this Pac-Man addiction. I figured out the rhythm, the beats to the program and I’d rack up the top score on the game at my neighbourhood laundromat. Then I’d go down the street to the Rideau Arcade and do the same on their Pac-Man.”

Using the high score acronym of “MDB”, Bate become somewhat of a local arcade celebrity and was interviewed by CBC-TV in 1982 as the city’s top video game maverick. 

The CBC piece on Bate’s game prowess was seen by Ken Leese, one of NABU’s founding partners. Leese thought Bate could help develop video games for the Ottawa start-up. The NABU brain trust realized that video games were the way to introduce users to their revolutionary system.

So Bate, despite having zero game programming experience, became head of the NABU games division. 

These were heady days. NABU was awash in money thanks to the federal government’s new Science Research Tax Credit program (SRTC), which encouraged investors and banks to pour money into start-up tech companies.

With the money, came the sex, drugs and rock and roll, although this being Ottawa, there wasn’t much sex or rock and roll. But the drugs…

One of the first moves by NABU management was to hire American marketing gurus from Silicon Valley to help break the NABU system into the lucrative US market.

The American team commuted weekly between San Francisco and Ottawa and brought with them briefcases packed with coke.

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For a brief moment, NABU—at least the games division—was Atari North.

“I remember a party with NABU execs and the American marketing team,” Bate said. “One of the guys was taking a new job in Paris, so at his going-away, they pulled out a large mirror and constructed a mini Eiffel Tower out of coke.

“They always had quality stuff. Not the Hartz Mountain Budgie Seed we normally saw around Ottawa.” says Bate.

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Bate realized that one of the big challenges for NABU was to explain itself. The concept was so futuristic, it needed a marketing hook the average person could understand.

“The BC comic strip characters struck me as the perfect vehicle.” said Bate. “The paradox of the cartoon caveman with his stone wheel, and on his rock desk, a NABU computer. I got in touch with Johnny Hart, who created the B.C. strip and invited him to come to Ottawa to see the NABU operation, meet our team and discuss a deal licensing his comic characters.”

Hart’s studio was nearby, in Endicott, NY and he agreed to charter a small plane and fly up with his drawing partner, Jack Caprio.”

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Johnny Hart’s “BC” comic strip that Bate thought would make a great video game.

“We wanted to impress them, so we put them up in the Chateau Laurier Hotel, in the same suite the Queen and Prince Phillip had stayed in on the royal tour a couple of years previous.”

Bate recalls the evening began innocently enough, but then things got a little crazy when the cartoonist got thirsty.

“Johnny said, ‘Yes, that’s all very nice, but what we really need is booze.’
“But when I tried to order a bottle of Scotch from room service, the hotel said no go. Ontario liquor laws. No bottles sold on Sunday.”
“They were, however, allowed to buy individual shots. So John ordered up a tray of 26 shots—which soon disappeared. Crisis averted.”

The party at the Chateau Laurier carried on into the next day and Bate thought a deal would be made. “I thought we had a deal nailed, but the next night at Café Henri Burger, things started going south. Johnny arrives hung over and he gets more morose as the evening wears on. By the time dinner arrives, he’s slumped in his chair, with a Joe Btfsplk cloud over his head and we’re all thinking we’re dead in the water.”

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The restaurant, Cafe Henri Burger, where Canada’s first video game cartridge was born. (photo: Civilization.ca)

Attempting to eat his meal with the NABU gang, Bate recalled Hart needed some prodding into making a deal.

“He (Hart) then tries to eat his Caesar salad and a chunk of Romaine lettuce slips off his fork and plops on the sleeve of his jacket. There’s an embarrassed silence around the table, at which point, my friend David McDonald, who was sitting beside Johnny, looks down at his arm and says: ‘That’s the worst case of photosynthesis I’ve ever seen!’
Hart bursts out laughing and that was it. We had our deal. NABU paid Johnny $25,000 a year for the cable rights to BC and Wizard of Id and we got busy developing a whole series of games based on his characters.”

It would be Bate’s friend, David McDonald, who would come up with the title “Quest for Tires”, a play on the title of the 1981 Academy nominated film “Quest For Fire”.

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Meanwhile, the home console market was thriving in 1982 and Bate figured NABU was missing an opportunity to cash in by selling cartridge versions of the games his team was creating. But NABU was struggling to find its way and President John Kelly wasn’t interested in the game cartridge business. Not only would it be a distraction, but game consoles were at odds with the NABU business plan of using home computer systems. Kelly and Bate agreed that the game division would go independent, yet still provide product for the NABU system

The result was Artech Digital Entertainment. Bate, along with NABU’s top game designers, Rick Banks, John Allen and Steve Armstrong, set up Artech in a converted row house on Fourth Ave. in The Glebe and began work on a cartridge version of BC’s Quest for Tires that was already being played on the NABU Network. NABU itself will last only until 1985, its innovative network streaming model far too advanced for consumers to grasp at the time.

The finished game created by Artech featured a player who takes the role of caveman character from Hart’s comic strip, Thor, who has to save his girlfriend dubbed “Cute Chick” (this is the 1980s remember), who has been kidnapped by a dinosaur. Traveling on his side scrolling unicycle of stone through several levels, Thor moves from the left to the right, avoiding various obstacles, like jumping over potholes or ducking under tree branches. Later levels become more complex, with water features and more villains. Most of the gameplay resembles the action of another successful video game cartridge for the Atari system, “Pitfall!” by Activision, which had a similar gameplay but for inferior graphics.

 

 

I personally remember first seeing “BCs Quest For Tires” when it was first released in 1983, then displayed on a TV screen in the electronics department of The Bay at the Cataraqui Town Centre shopping mall back in Kingston, Ontario. I could not believe my eyes. After years of playing Atari games with its blocky graphics, here was a game that had detailed characters and an addictive game play, light years ahead of anything I had ever seen before. I was mesmerized by its cartoony graphics, sound effects and interesting storyline. It was definitely a ground breaking game when released in 1983. 

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Screenshot of the Commodore64 version of the game.

“What made Quest for Tires special,” Bate recalled, was the horizontal scrolling. “It had never been done before on a system using the Z80 processor, which was the CPU at the heart of the ColecoVision.

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The 1982 ColecoVision home video game system.

“John Allen, one of the Artech founders, had a lot of experience with the Z80 on Radio Shack’s TRS80 aka ‘The Trash-80″.  John had already programmed a nifty pinball game on the TRS80, so he knew how to get the most out of the processor.”

The 1983 release of Quest for Tires was gruelling for Artech, which was trying to fill the product pipeline for Coleco Canada. The toy manufacturer was rolling in cash from the success of their “Cabbage Patch” dolls, which were fetching insane prices on the black market and causing frenzies in stores across the continent. 

With their bankroll from the Cabbage Patch craze, Coleco jumped into the home computer market with a souped up version of the ColecoVision called the Adam. At $600, the Adam came with a letter-quality printer, high-speed storage and 64K of RAM. State of the art in its day.

Bate recalls a visit to the Coleco factory in Montreal’s St. Henri district, where both Adam computers and ColecoVisions were being assembled in an enormous old warehouse next to the train tracks. “When the train pulled in, the whole building began shaking and dust from the ceiling would fall on the assembly line.”

“To the Coleco suits, the Adam and the Cabbage Patch doll were the same thing. Just sausage.” says Bate.

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Coleco’s extremely successful Cabbage Patch Doll craze funded their ventures into the video game industry.

The competition in home video game market was fierce in the early 1980s, and Bate recalls an incident at a convention in Las Vegas. “At the CES show in Vegas in the summer of ’83, Coleco had one of those three-story pavilion booths. They were pushing the Adam as the most sophisticated home computer ever created and their spokesman made that point by climbing up on the podium and taking each of the competitors units, an Atari 2600 or a Sega, and he’d stick it in a toilet with a flushing sound effect. (By 1985, Coleco stopped shipping the Adam. By 1988, the company filed for bankruptcy.)

Quest for Tires would become the first cartridge video game produced in Canada, and was a hit, winning “Game Of The Year” from Video Game Update magazine who said “B.C.’s Quest for Tires isn’t so much a computer game as it is an interactive cartoon”. Hailed as a game that is not another “‘shoot the aliens and save the world scenario”, and had “first rate” animation. It would also rake in awards such as: Critic’s Choice Award: Best Game For Youngsters (awarded by Family Computing), an Arkie Award: Most Humorous Video/Computer Game (awarded by Electronic Games) and Best use of Graphics and Best Sound in a Video Game (awarded by Billboard Magazine).

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The accolades for the Ottawa company’s game and what would go down in history as the first video game cartridge designed in Canada did not come without a price. Those working on the projects became weary of the pressure cooker atmosphere 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Bate designed other games, including the popular “Dam Busters” and “Ace of Aces”. But after three years, he decided to leave Artech and get back to writing.

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Bate’s other game “Dam Busters” of which he says, “I always felt that was my best design”

The video game market suffered what was called  “The video game crash of 1983”. This was a large-scale downturn in the video game industry that occurred from 1983 to 1985 in North America. The crash was attributed to several factors, including a market saturation in the number of game consoles and available games that lacked any quality, and a consumer shift towards personal computers. Video game console revenues peaked at around $3.2 billion in 1983, then abruptly fell to around $100 million in 1985, a collapse of 97 percent. The crash spelled the end of Atari, ColecoVision, Intellivision and other game console companies. It would not be until 1985 with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System that video games would once again surface in popularity.

Rick Banks and his partner, Paul Butler, took over Artech and went on to develop games for the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Xbox, PlayStation and PCs before they retired, very comfortably, in 2011.

In 1989, three years after he left Artech, Bate teamed up with David Bentley of Halifax to launch the satirical “Frank” magazine in Ottawa. Bate oversaw the Ottawa edition and Frank became notorious for mocking the powerful and elite of Canada.

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Sitting with a glass of wine in the diner, Bate looks back at his time during the early 1980s, and holds a copy of BC’s Quest For Tires, something I recently purchased on Ebay, still in its original box with the instruction booklet. “Those were crazy days. We won’t see that again.”

With current video games reaching new levels of play each day, I asked Michael if he has any favorites he’s currently playing. The once reigning champion of Ottawa’s arcades, “MDB” pulls out his phone and shows me Woody Puzzle.

Staring at the small screen of his phone, Bate fires up the game and explains, “It’s a game for geezers. A slow motion Tetris. I like to keep my hand in, even if there’s not much twitch left.”

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35 years later, the twitchy game hands of Michael Bate hold the instruction booklet for his award winning 1983 game, Quest For Tires. (photo:author)

So, from his time playing video games in a hazy arcade, to working on Canada’s first video game cartridge, to producing Canada’s leading (only) satire magazine, Bate has navigated through a myriad of obstacles, his life sometimes mirroring the characters of his games. As I slipped into the night after our chat I couldn’t help but reminiscence myself about the days and nights I spent playing video games in the 80s, never once thinking that one day I’d be eating fries across from the man that made them.

Andrew King, December 2018

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. I remember Quest For Tires and I remember Michael Bate. I didn’t know he was involved with the game. I remember his involvement with Frank, which was both popular and UNpopular at the Ottawa Citizen where I worked. But I mainly remember Micheal Bate as the host of THE WORLD’S WORST FILM FESTIVAL on CBC late on Friday nights, which introduced me to some of my favourite cult films. He’s obviously had a very varied career!

  2. Very interesting story.I am confused about one thing in this article.You mention a dinner at Café Henry Burger , however the photo shown is of Chez Henri at 179 Prom. du Portage.Was the dinner held at the Chez Henri or Café Henry Burger at 69 Laurier Street?My husband was a waiter at CHB for 21 yrs. beginning in 1983.

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