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The ultimate guide to gifting STEM toys: tons of ideas for little builders

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The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


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Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13



Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+



Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+



Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts.
Age: 6+


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Inside Atari’s rise and fall

Posted by | Activision, animation, apollo, Atari, Atari Games, cashier, Column, computing, entertainment software association, formula one, Gadgets, gamestop, Gaming, JC Penney, kmart, laser, lasers, mattel, monaco, Namco, Nintendo, pac-man, phoenix, player, Prince, race car, racer, Rogue, rubber, super mario bros, TC, temple run, tomb raider, Toys R Us, Vice President | No Comments
Jamie Lendino
Contributor

Jamie Lendino is the editor-in-chief of Extreme Tech.

By the first few months of 1982, it had become more common to see electronics stores, toy stores, and discount variety stops selling 2600 games. This was before Electronics Boutique, Software Etc., and later, GameStop . Mostly you bought games at stores that sold other electronic products, like Sears or Consumer Distributors. Toys ’R’ Us was a big seller of 2600 games. To buy one, you had to get a piece of paper from the Atari aisle, bring it to the cashier, pay for it, and then wait at a pickup window behind the cash register lanes.

Everyone had a favorite store in their childhood; here’s a story about one of mine. A popular “destination” in south Brooklyn is Kings Plaza, a giant (for Brooklyn) two-story indoor mall with about 100 stores. My mother and grandmother were avid shoppers there. To get to the mall from our house, it was about a 10-minute car service ride. So once a week or thereabouts, we’d all go. The best part for me was when we went inside via its Avenue U entrance instead of on the Flatbush Avenue side. Don’t ask me what went into this decision each time; I assume it depended on the stores my mother wanted to go to. All I knew was the Avenue U side had this circular kiosk maybe 50 feet from the entrance. The name has faded from memory. I remember it was a kind of catch-all for things like magazines, camera film, and other random stuff.

But the most important things were the Atari cartridges. There used to be dozens of colorful Atari game boxes across the wall behind the counter. When we walked up to the cashier’s window, there was often a row of new Atari games across the top as well. Sometimes we left without a new cartridge, and sometimes I received one. But we always stopped and looked, and it was the highlight of my trip to the mall each time.

For whatever reason, I remember the guy behind the counter gave me a hard time one day. I bought one of Atari’s own cartridges—I no longer remember which, but I’m almost sure it was either Defender or Berzerk—that came with an issue of Atari Force, the DC comic book. I said I was excited to get it. The guy shot me a dirty look and said, “You’re buying a new Atari cartridge just for a comic book?” I was way too shy to argue with him, even though he was wrong and I wanted the cartridge. I don’t remember what my mother said, or if she even heard him. Being too shy to protest, I sheepishly took my game and we both walked away.

Mattel Stumbles, While Atari Face-Plants

Mattel began to run into trouble with its Intellivision once the company tried to branch out from sports games. Because Mattel couldn’t license properties from Atari, Nintendo, or Sega, it instead made its own translations of popular arcade games. Many looked better than what you’d find on the 2600, but ultimately played more slowly thanks to the Intellivision’s sluggish CPU. Perhaps the most successful was Astrosmash, a kind of hybrid of Asteroids and Space Invaders, where asteroids, space ships, and other objects fell from the sky and became progressively more difficult. Somewhat less successful were games like Space Armada (a Space Invaders knock off).

Mattel also added voice synthesis—something that was all the rage at the time—to the Intellivision courtesy of an add-on expansion module called Intellivoice. But only a few key games delivered voice capability: Space Spartans, Bomb Squad, B-17 Bomber (all three were launch titles), and later, Tron: Solar Sailer. The Intellivoice’s high cost, lack of a truly irresistible game, and overall poor sound quality meant this was one thing Atari didn’t have to find a way to answer with the 2600.

These events made it easier for Atari to further pull away from Mattel in the marketplace, and it did so—but not without a tremendous self-inflicted wound. A slew of new 2600 games arrived in the first part of 1982. Many important releases came in this period and those that followed, and we’ll get to those shortly. But there was one in particular that the entire story arc of the platform balanced on, and then fractured. It was more than a turning point; its repercussions reverberated throughout the then-new game industry, and to this day it sticks out as one of the key events that ultimately did in Atari.

Pac-Man (Atari, March 1982)

The single biggest image-shattering event for the 2600—and Atari itself—was the home release of its Pac-Man cartridge. I can still feel the crushing disappointment even now. So many of my friends and I looked forward to this release. We had talked about it all the time in elementary school. Pac-Man was simply the hottest thing around in the arcades, and we dreamed of playing it at home as much as we wanted. The two-year wait for Atari to release the 2600 cartridge seemed like forever. Retailers bought into the hype as well. Toy stores battled for inventory, JC Penney and Kmart bought in big along with Sears and advertised on TV, and even local drug stores started stocking the game. And yet, what we got…wasn’t right.

Just about everyone knows how Pac-Man is supposed to work, but just in case: You gobble up dots to gain points while avoiding four ghosts. Eat a power pellet, and you can turn the tables on the ghosts, chase them down, and eat them. Each time you do so, the “eyes” of the ghost fly back to the center of the screen and the ghost regenerates. Eat all the dots and power pellets on the screen, and you progress to the next one, which gets harder. Periodically, a piece of fruit appears at the center of the screen. You can eat it for bonus points, and the kind of fruit denotes the level you are on (cherry, strawberry, orange, and so on).

But that’s not the game Atari 2600 owners saw. After securing the rights to the game from Namco, Atari gave programmer Tod Frye just five weeks to complete the conversion. The company had learned from its earlier mistakes and promised Frye a royalty on every cartridge manufactured (not sold), which was an improvement. But this was another mistake. The royalty plus the rushed schedule meant Frye made money even if the game wasn’t up to snuff, and thus Frye had incentive to complete it regardless. Atari also required the game to fit into just 4KB like older 2600 cartridges, rather than the newer 8KB size that was becoming much more common by this point. That profit-driven limitation heavily influenced the way Frye approached the design of the game. To top it all off, Atari set itself up for a colossal failure by producing some 12 million cartridges, even though there were only 10 million 2600 consoles in circulation at the time. The company was confident that not only would every single existing 2600 owner buy the game, but that 2 million new customers would buy the console itself just for this cartridge.

We all know how it turned out. The instruction manual sets the tone for the differences from the arcade early on. The game is now set in “Mazeland.” You eat video wafers instead of dots. Every time you complete a board, you get an extra life. The manual says you also earn points from eating power pills, ghosts, and “vitamins.” Something is definitely amiss.

Pac-Man himself always looks to the right or left, even if he is going up or down. The video wafers are long and rectangular instead of small, square dots. Fruits don’t appear periodically at the center of the screen. Instead, you get the aforementioned vitamin, a clear placeholder for what would have been actual fruit had there been more time to get it right. The vitamin always looks the same and is always worth 100 points, instead of increasing as you clear levels. The rest of the scoring is much lower than it is in the arcade. Gobbling up all four ghosts totals just 300 points, and each video wafer is worth just 1 point.

The ghosts have tremendous amounts of flicker, and they all look and behave identically, instead of having different colors, distinct personalities, and eyes that pointed in the right direction. The flicker was there for a reason. Frye used it to draw the four ghosts in successive frames with a single sprite graphic register, and drew Pac-Man every frame using the other sprite graphic register. The 2600’s TIA chip synchronizes with an NTSC television picture 60 times per second, so you end up seeing a solid Pac-Man, maze, and video wafers (I can still barely type “video wafers” with a straight face), but the ghosts are each lit only one quarter of the time. A picture tube’s phosphorescent glow takes a little bit to fade, and your eye takes a little while to let go of a retained image as well, but the net result is that the flicker is still quite visible.

It gets worse. The janky, gritty sound effects are bizarre, and the theme song is reduced to four dissonant chords. (Oddly, these sounds resurfaced in some movies over the next 20 years and were a default “go-to” for sound designers working in post-production.) The horizontally stretched maze is nothing like the arcade, either, and the escape routes are at the top and bottom instead of the sides. The maze walls aren’t even blue; they’re orange, with a blue background, because it’s been reported Atari had a policy that only space games could have black backgrounds (!). At this point, don’t even ask about the lack of intermissions.

One of Frye’s own mistakes is that he made Pac-Man a two-player game. “Tod used a great deal of memory just tracking where each player had left off with eaten dots, power pellets, and score,” wrote Goldberg and Vendel in Atari Inc.: Business is Fun. Years later, when Frye looked at the code for the much more arcade-faithful 2600 Ms. Pac-Man, he saw the programmers were “able to use much more memory for graphics because it’s only a one player game.”

Interestingly, the game itself is still playable. Once you get past the initial huge letdown and just play it on its own merits, Pac-Man puts up a decent experience. It’s still “Pac-Man,” sort of, even if it delivers a rough approximation of the real thing as if it were seen and played through a straw. It’s worth playing today for nostalgia—after all, many of us played this cartridge to death anyway, because it was the one we had—and certainly as a historical curiosity for those who weren’t around for the golden age of arcades.

Many an Atari 2600 fan turned on the platform—and Atari in general—after the release of Pac-Man. Although the company still had plenty of excellent games and some of the best were yet to come, the betrayal was immediate and real and forever colored what much of the gaming public thought of Atari. The release of the Pac-Man cartridge didn’t curtail the 2600’s influence on the game industry by any means; we’ll visit many more innovations and developments as we go from here on out. But the 2600 conversion of Pac-Man gave the fledgling game industry its first template for how to botch a major title. It was the biggest release the Atari 2600 had and would ever see, and the company flubbed it about as hard as it could. It was New Coke before there was New Coke.

Grand Prix (Activision, March 1982)

The next few games we’ll discuss further illustrate the quality improvements upstart third-party developers delivered, in comparison with Atari, which had clearly become too comfortable in its lead position. First up is Activision’s Grand Prix, which in hindsight was a bit of an odd way to design a racer . It’s a side-scroller on rails that runs from left to right, and is what racing enthusiasts call a time trial. Although other computer-controlled cars are on the track, you’re racing against the clock, not them, and you don’t earn any points or increase your position on track for passing them.

Gameplay oddities aside, the oversized Formula One cars are wonderfully detailed, with brilliant use of color and animated spinning tires. The shaded color objects were the centerpiece of the design, as programmer David Crane said in a 1984 interview. “When I developed the capability for doing a large multicolored object on the [2600’s] screen, the capability fitted the pattern of the top view of a Grand Prix race car, so I made a racing game out of it.” Getting the opposing cars to appear and disappear properly as they entered and exited the screen also presented a problem, as the 2600’s lack of a frame buffer came into play again. The way TIA works, the 2600 would normally just make the car sprite begin to reappear on the opposite side of the screen as it disappeared from one side. To solve this issue, Crane ended up storing small “slices” of the car in ROM, and in real time the game drew whatever portions of the car were required to reach the edge of the screen. The effect is smooth and impossible to detect while playing.

The car accelerates over a fairly long period of time, and steps through simulated gears. Eventually it reaches a maximum speed and engine note, and you just travel along at that until you brake, crash into another car, or reach the finish line. As the manual points out, you don’t have to worry about cars coming back and passing you again, even if you crash. Once you pass them, they’re gone from the race.

The four game variations in Grand Prix are named after famous courses that resonate with racing fans (Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch, Le Mans, and Monaco). The courses bear no resemblance to the real ones; each game variation is simply longer and harder than the last. The tree-lined courses are just patterns of vehicles that appear on screen. Whenever you play a particular game variation, you see the same cars at the same times (unless you crash, which disrupts the pattern momentarily). The higher three variations include bridges, which you have to quickly steer onto or risk crashing. During gameplay, you get a warning in the form of a series of oil slicks that a bridge is coming up soon.

Although Atari’s Indy 500 set the bar early for home racing games on the 2600, Grand Prix demonstrated you could do one with a scrolling course and much better graphics. This game set the stage for more ambitious offerings the following year. And several decades later, people play games like this on their phones. We just call titles like Super Mario Run (a side-scroller) and Temple Run (3D-perspective) “endless runners,” as they have running characters instead of cars.

Activision soon became the template for other competing third-party 2600 developers. In 1981, Atari’s marketing vice president and a group of developers, including the programmers for Asteroids and Space Invaders on the console, started a company called Imagic. The company had a total of nine employees at the outset. Its name was derived from the words “imagination” and “magic”—two key components of every cartridge the company planned to release. Imagic games were known for their high quality, distinctive chrome boxes and labels, and trapezoidal cartridge edges. As with Activision, most Imagic games were solid efforts with an incredible amount of polish and were well worth purchasing.

Although Imagic technically became the second third-party developer for the 2600, the company’s first game didn’t arrive until March 1982. Another company, Games by Apollo, beat it to the punch by starting up in October 1981 and delivering its first (mediocre) game, Skeet Shoot, before the end of the year.

But when that first Imagic game did arrive, everyone noticed.

Demon Attack

At first glance, the visually striking Demon Attack looks kind of like a copy of the arcade game Phoenix, at least without the mothership screen (something it does gain in the Intellivision port). But the game comes into its own the more you play it. You’re stuck on the planet Krybor. Birdlike demons dart around and shoot clusters of lasers down toward you at the bottom of the screen. Your goal is to shoot the demons all out of the sky, wave after wave.

The playfield is mostly black, with a graded blue surface of the planet along the bottom of the screen. A pulsing, beating sound plays in the background. It increases in pitch the further you get into each level, only to pause and then start over with the next wave. The demons themselves are drawn beautifully, with finely detailed, colorful designs that are well animated and change from wave to wave. Every time you complete a wave, you get an extra life, to a maximum of six.

On later waves, the demons divide in two when shot, and are worth double the points. You can shoot the smaller demons, or just wait—eventually each one swoops down toward your laser cannon, back and forth until it reaches the bottom of the screen, at which point it disappears from the playfield. Shoot it while it’s diving and you get quadruple points. In the later stages, demons also shoot longer, faster clusters of lasers at your cannon.

The game is for one or two players, though there’s a cooperative mode that lets you take turns against the same waves of demons. There are also variations of the game that let you shoot faster lasers, as well as tracer shots that you can steer into the demons. After 84 waves, the game ends with a blank screen, though reportedly a later run of this cartridge eliminates that and lets you play indefinitely. If I were still nine years old, I could probably take a couple of days out of summer and see if this is true. I am no longer nine years old.

Demon Attack was one of Imagic’s first three games, along with Trick Shot and Star Voyager. Rob Fulop, originally of Atari fame and one of Imagic’s four founders, programmed Demon Attack. In November 1982, Atari sued Imagic because of Demon Attack’s similarity to Phoenix, the home rights of which Atari had purchased from Centuri. The case was eventually settled. Billboard magazine listed Demon Attack as one of the 10 best-selling games of 1982. It was also Imagic’s best-selling title, and Electronic Games magazine awarded it Game of the Year.

“The trick to the Demon Attack graphics was it was the first game to use my Scotch-taped/rubber-banded dedicated 2600 sprite animation authoring tool that ran on the Atari 800,” Fulop said in 1993. “The first time Michael Becker made a little test animation and we ran Bob Smith’s utility that successfully squirted his saved sprite data straight into the Demon Attack assembly code and it looked the same on the [2600] as it did on the 800 was HUGE! Before that day, all 2600 graphics ever seen were made using a #2 pencil, a sheet of graph paper, a lot of erasing, and a list of hex codes that were then retyped into the source assembly code, typically introducing a minimum of two pixel errors per eight-by-eight graphic stamp.”

Although you can draw a line from Space Invaders to just about any game like this, Demon Attack combines that with elements of Galaga and Phoenix, with a beautiful look and superb gameplay all its own.

Pitfall! (Activision, April 1982)

A watershed moment in video game history, David Crane’s Pitfall! was one of the best games released for the 2600. As Pitfall Harry, your goal is to race through the jungle and collect 32 treasures—money bags, silver bars, gold bars, and diamond rings, worth from 2,000 to 5,000 points each. Jump and grab vines, and you soar over lakes, quicksand, and alligators, complete with a Tarzan-style “yell.” You can stumble on a rolling log or fall into a hole, both of which just dock you some points. Each time you fall into quicksand or a tar pit, drown in a lake, burn in a fire, or get eaten by an alligator or scorpion, you lose a life. When that happens, you start the next one by dropping from the trees on the left side of the screen to keep playing.

Pushing the joystick left or right makes Pitfall Harry run. He picks up treasure automatically. Holding the stick in either direction while pressing the button makes him jump, either over an obstacle or onto a swinging vine (running into the vine without jumping also works). Push down while swinging to let go of the vine. You also can push up or down to climb ladders.

In an incredible feat of programming, the game contains 255 screens, with the 32 treasures scattered throughout them. The world loops around once you reach the last screen. Although Adventure pioneered the multiroom map on the 2600, Pitfall! was a considerably larger design. Crane fit the game into the same 4KB ROM as Adventure. But rather than storing all 255 screens as part of the ROM—which wouldn’t have fit—Crane’s solution was not to store the world in ROM at all. Instead, the world is generated by code, the same way each time. This is similar to games like Rogue, but even in that case, the game generates the world and then stores it during play. Pitfall! generates each screen via an algorithm, using a counter that increments in a pseudorandom sequence that is nonetheless consistent and can be run forwards or backwards. The 8 bits of each number in the counter sequence define the way the board looks. Bits 0 through 2 are object patterns, bits 3 through 5 are ground patterns, bits 6 and 7 cover the trees, and bit 7 also affects the underground pattern. This way, the world is generated the same way each and every single time. When you leave one screen, you always end up on the same next screen.

“The game was a jewel, a perfect world incised in a mere [4KB] of code,” Nick Montfort wrote in 2001 in Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971-1984.

You get a total of three lives, and Crane points out in the manual that you need to use some of the underground passages (which skip three screens ahead instead of one) to complete the game on time. The inclusion of two on-screen levels—above ground and below ground, with ladders connecting them—makes the game an official platformer. And the game even gives you some say in where to go and what path you take to get there. Pitfall Harry is smoothly animated, and the vines deliver a genuine sensation of swinging even though the game is in 2D.

The game’s 20-minute timer, which approximates the 22-minute length of a standard half-hour television show, marked a milestone for console play. It was much longer than most arcade games and even cartridges like Adventure, which you could complete in a few minutes. The extra length allows for more in-depth play.

“Games in the early ’80s primarily used inanimate objects as main characters,” Crane said in a 2011 interview. “Rarely there would be a person, but even those weren’t fully articulated. I wanted to make a game character that could run, jump, climb, and otherwise interact with an on-screen world.” Crane spent the next couple of years tinkering with the idea before finally coming up with Pitfall!. “[After] only about 10 minutes I had a sketch of a man running on a path through the jungle collecting treasures. Then, after ‘only’ 1,000 hours of pixel drawing and programming, Pitfall Harry came to life.”

Crane said he had already gone beyond that 4KB ROM limit and back within it many times over hundreds of hours. Right before release, he was asked to add additional lives. “Now I had to add a display to show your number of lives remaining, and I had to bring in a new character when a new life was used.” The latter was easy, Crane said, because Pitfall Harry already knew how to fall and stop when he hit the ground. Crane just dropped him from behind the tree cover. “For the ‘Lives’ indicator I added vertical tally marks to the timer display. That probably only cost 24 bytes, and with another 20 hours of ‘scrunching’ the code I could fit that in.”

Pitfall! couldn’t have been timed more perfectly, as Raiders of the Lost Ark was the prior year’s biggest movie. The cartridge delivered the goods; it became the best-selling home video game of 1982 and it’s often credited as the game that kickstarted the platformer genre. Pitfall! held the top spot on Billboard’s chart for 64 consecutive weeks. “The fine graphic sense of the Activision design team greatly enriches the Pitfall! experience,” Electronic Games magazine wrote in January 1983, on bestowing the cartridge Best Adventure Videogame. “This is as richly complex a video game as you’ll find anywhere…Watching Harry swing across a quicksand pit on a slender vine while crocodiles snap their jaws frantically in a futile effort to tear off a little leg-of-hero snack is what video game adventures are all about.” Pitfall!’s influence is impossible to overstate. From Super Mario Bros. to Prince of Persia to Tomb Raider, it was the start of something huge.

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Barbie becomes a hologram version of herself

Posted by | 3D modeling, artificial intelligence, barbie, behavior, Entertainment, fiction, Gadgets, hardware, holography, mattel, TC | No Comments

UNITED STATES - Jan 15: Check In Barbie greets visitors to the Senate Gallery Check In in the Capitol Visitors Center of the U.S. Capitol on January 15, 2014.  (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call) Yes, after pulling herself out of her 1950’s rut as a swimsuit model to become everything from a doctor, lawyer, computer scientist, astronaut and even the president of the United States, Barbie has now become a 3D-animated hologram that can serve up the weather on command. As first reported in Wired, The Hello Barbie Hologram debuted at the New York Toy Fair this week. And like… Read More

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Index-backed Hutch puts $5.5M in the tank to rev up its mobile gaming engines

Posted by | Apps, backed vc, Europe, formula one, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, Hutch, Index Ventures, mattel, mobile gaming, racing games, TC | No Comments

hotwheelsraceoffmainimage UK-based indie free-to-play mobile games developer studio, Hutch, is gearing up to step on the gas and strap a bunch more players into its clutch of racing themed titles, fueled by a $5.5M expansion round of seed funding… The cash injection is co-led by Index Ventures and early stage London-based fund Backed VC. Read More

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Osmo raises $24 million from Sesame, Mattel and other big names in toys and education

Posted by | Battlefield, Collab+Sesame, edtech, Education, educational toys, Gadgets, hardware, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, mattel, Media, osmo, Startups, tangible play, TC, Venture Capital, venture funding | No Comments

osmo2 Hardware kits, internet-connected toys and robots that teach kids to code are now commonplace. But Osmo, an early entrant in IoT toys, is pulling ahead of the pack with funding and partnerships with top names in the field. Specifically, Osmo has raised $24 million in new venture funding from Mattel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Collab+Sesame, the venture fund run in partnership by New… Read More

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Even Barbie Has A Smart Home And Hoverboard Now

Posted by | barbie, children, Gadgets, kids, mattel, smart home, TC, toys, toytalk | No Comments

dreamhouse Consumers may have been slow to adopt smart home technology, but that’s not the case for Barbie. At the recent New York Toy Fair, Mattel unveiled a newly upgraded – and now tech-enabled – Dreamhouse for its iconic doll. The house lets kids control its various elements – from the lights to the elevator to other appliances – and even the music! – using… Read More

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