Wall Games: Gaming's Forgotten Pre-Video Casual Boom
January 24, 2019 9:05 PM   Subscribe

During the window in the late sixties and early seventies in which TTL and microcontroller technologies allowed more complex game logic but before the industry would standardize on the video displays for which it would come to be known, a public, social, and casual genre briefly rose to prominence: the wall game.

As the name implies, wall games were wall mounted electronic amusements. Their often split displays comprised of cleverly interwoven static segments much like later VFD and LCD based games but driven by incandescent bulbs. These large "scoreboard" like displays would be hung prominently in venues such as pizza parlors, pubs, or ice cream shops often interspersed with menus and other signage. Inherently social in design, they were meant to be seen being played. Towards this end they were almost invariably two player contest based on classic existing games or sports (such as darts or baseball) and featured simple one-button controls via wireless(!) units that patrons could pass around their tables. These games are so largely forgotten today that many do not trust their memories of their existence. Despite playing a prominent role in the rise and profitability of Gremlin whose intertwined history with SEGA shaped modern gaming, documentation is sparse even amongst vintage gaming enthusiast. The genre lacks a Wikipedia entry and the best online source of information, wallgames.com is sadly only now available through the wayback machine. Video (SLYT) evidence of some of the amazing animated effects these games achieved does exist, including: Midway's "Table Tennis", Gremlin's "Play Ball", and Gremlin's "Trap Shoot". The latter along with "Country Club Classic" golf was remade in the late 90's as "Trap Shoot Classic"in a doomed bid at a renaissance.
posted by always_implicated (25 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nice post! The Golden Age Arcade Historian has more deets on Gremlin. They're overlooked in video game history, but their 1976 Blockade was one of the first CPU-driven arcade games, and was the "inspiration" for Tron's light cycles.

Wish I knew where I could play some of those wall games.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:17 PM on January 24


I agree that Gremlin is tragically overlooked. In my mind, you really need to appreciate Gremlin to appreciate Atari and vice versa. Gremlin shows what old masters will do with new tools and Atari shows how different "natives" to new technology think.
posted by always_implicated at 9:26 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


As someone born in 1978, these things are fascinating: I have no memory of ever seeing a game like this, but the style and the tech are so familiar from my early youth. It feels like a bowling alley, or the county fair.
posted by traveler_ at 9:35 PM on January 24 [6 favorites]


This article made me think of a similar overlooked type of game from that era.

As a 9-10 year old child I remember going to arcades in London, circa 1977-1978, that had games that were film projectors onto big 8-foot square screens, and you would fire a cowboy pistol or a 50-caliber machine gun at the filmed images. I presume the pistol or machine gun prop had some sort of primitive light gun in them, because you could definitely "miss" the evil cowboy or the Japanese Zero and "lose" game. If you "hit", then the projector played a different video where the opponent was shot, or the airplane exploded. It was exciting because they were recognizable villains from actual movies of the era. I was shooting the same evildoers as Clint Eastwood!

These were the most expensive games in the arcades-- I seem to recall they were 50p, but I may be wrong in that memory. Anyway, something similar that has also been almost entirely forgotten, I think.
posted by seasparrow at 9:43 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


iirc there was an incandescent-bulb *art* instantiation of this at SeaTac airport in the 1970s, something like a version of The Game of Life where the two-player input stations (with little black button input devices) were intended to allow the 'players' to change or direct the growth activity of the bulbs. I don't think I ever saw it operating when the control stations were enabled, they were just dead totems for toddlers to bash at over my journey from toddler to teen.

I also remember it was THE BEST place to take a nap, it was dark, the floor was carpeted, and nobody would jack you for sleeping.
posted by mwhybark at 9:46 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


After looking at the source site, what I am describing is well older and much weirder. I have not ever found documentation of it. I am pretty sure it was in place at the airport through at least 1990.
posted by mwhybark at 9:48 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


@seasparrow What you are most likely remembering is Nintendo's "Wild Gunman" by the brilliant Gunpei Yokoi. It was later remade as a NES game adapting Yokoi's light gun technology to the home, but originally it was a stand up "full motion" arcade game utilizing 16mm film.
posted by always_implicated at 9:52 PM on January 24 [9 favorites]


Oh yes, that was definitely it, although the ones I played in the UK didn't have the shadow box and were out in the open so other people could watch you play them. And I remember a WW2 air defense version as well-- shooting down Kamikaze aircraft before they hit your ship. That would have been super strange (thematically and culturally) if it came from Nintendo as well. I wonder if it was made by a competitor?
posted by seasparrow at 10:22 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


@seasparrow What you're describing sounds to me like the early laserdisc games like Mad Dog McCree. I used to love these as well. They appeared in the early nineties, so it almost checks out with your memories.
posted by Captain Fetid at 10:40 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


I don't think I ever saw it operating when the control stations were enabled, they were just dead totems for toddlers to bash at over my journey from toddler to teen.

I remember catching it fully functional, at least once. That room existed up until the big Seatac remodel in the early 2000s, though in later years i rarely saw it working at all.
posted by D.C. at 11:48 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


Holy shit. This triggered a near-Proustian flood of memory. There was an arcade in my home town back in the 70s that had been made out of an old movie theatre for some reason. (It didn't last long.) I remember that they had a Bull's Eye from Midway up on the wall. I don't remember if I tried to play it, though.

NB: That's not an original machine--it's one that's been modified. The glass is the same, though.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:54 AM on January 25


I'm old enough to remember lots of electromechanical arcade games in local arcades well into the 1980s, but these never made it to my part of Europe it seems.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 4:26 AM on January 25


iirc there was an incandescent-bulb *art* instantiation of this at SeaTac airport in the 1970s, something like a version of The Game of Life where the two-player input stations (with little black button input devices) were intended to allow the 'players' to change or direct the growth activity of the bulbs. I don't think I ever saw it operating when the control stations were enabled, they were just dead totems for toddlers to bash at over my journey from toddler to teen.

I also remember it was THE BEST place to take a nap, it was dark, the floor was carpeted, and nobody would jack you for sleeping.




After looking at the source site, what I am describing is well older and much weirder. I have not ever found documentation of it. I am pretty sure it was in place at the airport through at least 1990.


This has to be James Seawright and Peter Phillips' Network IV, as mentioned in this 1991 NYTimes article: Stuck at the Airport? Then Look at the Art.
Near the security checkpoint to Concourse B at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, "Network IV," by James Seawright and Peter Phillips, features a large wall of sound-and-light displays manipulated by passers-by from a computer console: to change the pattern, you press any four adjacent buttons.
There's very little about it on the web, but most of it is linked from this Reddit thread: Something I remember from SeaTac in the 80’s…was this just a fever dream?

This 2004 Internet Archive of the SeaTac amenities page lists it as temporarily removed for construction, while subsequent versions of that page don't mention it at all. According to the Reddit thread, quoting from a now defunct Columbia Music mailing list:
Apparently, the work had a consistent problem with vandalism (people would damage the bulbs), and, after the new construction, there was no longer a suitable wall-space for it that was both large enough and safe enough to prevent more vandalism
posted by zamboni at 6:08 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


AWESOME post. I love everything and anything about this pre-video era of arcade games. It's amazing what got done with electromechanical systems near the end of their run. And on some of those later wall games like Gremlin's Trapshoot (1975), the controls were wireless!

1: I agree that Gremlin is tragically overlooked. In my mind, you really need to appreciate Gremlin to appreciate Atari and vice versa.

100% agree. Keith Smith did a great set of blog articles about Gremlin. Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3.

The whole website is a great rabbit hole so beware but, hey, it's Friday. He's been offline for a while and I hope he's still working on his book.


2: I remember that they had a Bull's Eye from Midway up on the wall.

Here's your most obscure trivia of the day. "Hank" and "Iggy" on the Bull's Eye artwork refer to Henry "Hank" Ross and Marcine "Iggy" Wolverton, the co-founders of Midway Manufacturing. Their history is another wonderful rabbit hole of arcade lore and cross-pollenation. Some ex-Midway people I know have tons of stories about these colorful guys.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:40 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


oh duh I see RobotVoodooPower already posted the Golden Age links. Sorry
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:46 AM on January 25


Argh! Reading this post was like getting an itch I couldn't scratch since it made me recall a game like Trap Shoot I used to play at a small town restaurant/bar my family always stopped at on our trips to our cabin the name of which I couldn't remember. It was sorta like Trap Shoot but a hunting game, so I had to find it.

Unsurprisingly, the search terms "hunting" "game" and "wall" in whatever order returns mostly taxidermy, but eventually I found a link at the arcade museum to a video of it. Fowl Play by Sunbird That's great, glad to have found it, but damn it, now I want to find the shuffle bowling game they have which was even more fun and it isn't among those which keep coming up in the searches. This post is killing me!

Now I'm gonna have to try extra hard not to remember those other 70s arcade style games I used to play so I can actually get something done today.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:52 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


THANK YOU, zamboni. Wow, it was up until 2004? Far out. It was *soooo* 1970s futuretastic.
posted by mwhybark at 8:49 AM on January 25


Commenting on your notes, I am unsure how people could damage the bulbs, as they were behind a set of heavy glass or plexiglas transparent panels. I seem to recall the biggest issue initially was that there were always a ton of burned out bulbs. The bulbs themselves were transparent glass low-watt bulbs that had an orange-red glow which I take now to be referential of both nixie tubes and vaccuum tubes.

Looking forward to perusing that Reddit thread.
posted by mwhybark at 8:53 AM on January 25


mwhybark: "The bulbs themselves were transparent glass low-watt bulbs that had an orange-red glow which I take now to be referential of both nixie tubes and vaccuum tubes."

A orange-red colour is also indicative of an underdriven (voltage-wise) bulb. EG: using a 130V bulb at 110V supply. This extends bulb life with the tradeoff of lower efficacy.
posted by Mitheral at 9:29 AM on January 25


As someone born in 1978, these things are fascinating: I have no memory of ever seeing a game like this, but the style and the tech are so familiar from my early youth. It feels like a bowling alley, or the county fair.

I'm a lot older than that and feel the same. I feel like these tickle a memory, but aren't quite it, none of them seem familiar. I used to hang out in arcades a bit as a kid, but looking at the dates it looks like I was still too young and they might have been more in places that skewed older.
posted by bongo_x at 10:51 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


I'm a 70s kid and the only place I ever saw them were in bars (to eat in the back of course, not drink up front), or maybe Ground Round.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:29 PM on January 25


So, if I'm understanding the technology correctly, it's all back-lit with lightbulbs, and everything has to be displayed by turning on certain bulbs. Kind of like a giant version of those portable LCD games.

I thought for a moment I played something like Trap Shoot but the one I played projected a beam of light on the wall so it's different tech.
posted by RobotHero at 1:07 PM on January 25


Those of a certain age are hereby warned that if you watch the Trapshoot video, the sounds alone are seriously evocative. They had one in our local pizza joint — Straw Hat Pizza in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I didn't get to play it very often, but Mom let us play at least once. So seeing and hearing it brought back lots of memories.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:58 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


For mwhybark, zamboni, and anyone else who might be interested: there's actually some footage of James Seawright's Network IV uploaded to vimeo.
posted by adecusatis at 1:21 PM on January 28 [4 favorites]


YES! Thank you.
posted by mwhybark at 5:07 PM on January 28


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