Bits From my Personal Collection – WallWar & Mr. Cool, Peter Oliphant, from handhelds to the personal computer

In 1976, a year prior to Atari releasing its Video Computer System (VCS), American toy manufacturer Mattel, mostly known for its Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels, debuted with its first all-electronic handheld game, Auto Race, released in the company’s newly-established Mattel Electronics Line. While the market for personal electronic entertainment was untried territory, Auto Race, despite its simplicity with red LED’s making up the visuals and simple bleeps for sounds, exceeded expectations and not only spawned similar handhelds, that sold in the millions but also gave Mattel confidence to move into the fledgling videogame console market in 1978. The venture resulted in the Intellivision (intelligent television) video game console, introduced in January of 1979.

Following the success of Auto Race, Mattel needed skilled workers to develop further handheld titles to keep up with the demands of the market. Peter Oliphant was at the time working for the military on the Sperry UNIVAC mainframe system for Bunker-Ramo, a manufacturer of military electronics devices and digital computers. Oliphant, unaware that Mattel was actively seeking employees for its Electronics line, applied for a job and got hired to complete a new game in the company’s already established line of Gravity handhelds. He was given six weeks to come up with new prototypes, where one if approved, would be put into production. Oliphant managed to complete the giving task and was quickly recognised as an ambitious and skilled programmer by his co-workers and superiors.
The prototypes were all programmed using MOS Technology’s 6502 8-bit microprocessor, a processor used in the majority of home computers and videogame consoles from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s. When a prototype game had been approved it was sent to a different group within Mattel, which would turn it into a final product, reprogramming it as efficiently as possible to make it run on the 4-bit processor the handheld was equipped with.
Mattel impressed with Oliphant’s skills and dedication launched him from programmer trainee to manager of the home computer software area within three years.

By 1982, the personal computer market had exploded and while Mattel was focused on its Intellivision console, Oliphant wanted to expand into personal computers. During a one-week vacation, he programmed a small Atari 8-bit prototype arcade game called Force Fields. He presented the game to Mattel but the company had absolutely no interest in supporting the competition’s hardware. Oliphant continued to refine the game during evenings and nights and by early autumn of 1982, the game was in a state where it could be presented to potential publishers. He took a day off and went up to Oakhurst, to showcase it to Ken Williams of Sierra On-Line.
With the promise he would quit Mattel and go independent if Williams bought the game, there was much a stake. Oliphant had been a child actor, by going independent in the hottest market around, he had the opportunity to join the ranks of a new world of superstars.

Williams and Sierra On-Line had, after the reconstruction of the company in 1982, invested huge sums in the arcade computer and cartridge game market and was continually on the lookout for new refreshing titles to add to the ever-growing portfolio of games.
Oliphant showcased his game to Williams who liked it and saw potential but seemed more interested in when he could have a finished product. While Oliphant believed he only needed a month if he quit his job at Mattel, Williams, knowing how programmers often miscalculated the work required gave him two months and offered him $16.000, three times the amount he had hoped for and more than enough to convenience him to take the plunge and go independent.
With a generous contract in hand, Oliphant returned to Mattel to turn in his resignation. While the company had flatly rejected the game he had been developing on his own time they nevertheless perceived it as their property and wanted him to relinquish the code. At Oliphant’s go-away party he was subpoenaed by Mattel to give up the game. With help from a lawyer, Oliphant managed to resolve the situation and make it clear that this was not how it worked.

Oliphant completed the game, added a splash-screen by Williams request, and Force field, now WallWar was released in 1983 for the Atari 8-bit under the short-lived SierraVision label.

The game Peter Oliphant had been working on, on his own time, while at Mattel was picked up by Sierra On-Line and released as WallWar in 1983.
The Atari 8-bit version was the only release of the game

WallWar was visually impressive with a lot of things going on at once. While quite unique it did borrow elements from different games, like the kinetic brick wall in the middle.
The players had to breakthrough the center wall and destroy the opponent’s force field

With now an established connection with Sierra On-Line, Oliphant went to work on his own unique take on Gottlieb’s very successful Q*Bert. At the time Oliphant was an avid Q*Bert player, so much that he even thought of attempting to break the world record, that was until he realized for that to happen he needed to play the game for over 48 hours straight.
While he loved the game his many hours with it had shown a certain repetitiveness. Within three weeks, Oliphant had brought his vision to life with Mr. Cool, an ice cube with the goal of cooling off all of the hot platforms while avoiding fireballs and hot springs.
In addition to the original Atari 8-bit version, Oliphant also ported the game to the Commodore 64. Both versions were released by Sierra under the SierraVision label in 1983, alongside an Apple II and IBM/PC version done by John Redekopp.

Mr. Cool, Peter Oliphant’s take on Q*Bert, was released by Sierra On-Line under the SierraVision label in 1983.
Oliphant also did the Commodore 64 version with John Redekopp doing the Apple II and IBM/PC versions

Mr. Cool was inspired by Q*Bert but without the isometric playfield.
Like WallWar the game featured some surprisingly good visual effects, like the melting when hit by fireballs or hot springs.
By jumping on platforms you could cool them off and change their color, when all platforms had turned into a designated color the level was completed.
The only defense against the hot stuff was the Super Cool Time, a limited ability that allowed for a number of seconds with harmless enemies – something I completely missed when I played it

Neither WallWar nor Mr. Cool became commercial success stories, notably, WallWar sold only a very limited number of copies. With the North American Video Game crash in late 1983 everybody moved on, including Oliphant who in 1984 after he had helped port a few games for Sierra On-Line joined Cinemaware.
In 1991, Oliphant sat out on his most ambitious project, spending the next four years developing the role-playing game Stonekeep, released in 1995 by Interplay.

Sources: Matt Chat interview with Peter Oliphant, Wikipedia, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy

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