endless runner became ubiquitous with mobile gaming in the 2010s. Games like Canabalt and Temple Run heralded the platform subgenre into the mainstream and to massive commercial success. While none of the mobile titles invented the endless concept, they definitely popularized it for a modern audience. For the origin of the genre, we have to rewind to the early ’80s, to a game that initially wasn’t released for home computers or even home video consoles but as part of the marketing of an obscure futuristic network in Ottawa, Canada.
Between his musical gigs as a pedal-steel guitar player and hosting his own late-night music show with CBC Radio, Michael Bate was an avid video arcade player. So much in fact, his engagement had earned him local fame when CBC-TV, in 1982 interviewed him as Ottawa’s top video game ace. The interview was seen by Ken Leese, one of the founding partners of Ottawa startup Natural Access to Bidirectional Utilities, NABU, the first cable-based micro-computer-operated home computer network. Essentially a closed network operating over analog cable, allowing users with the Z80-based NABU Personal Computer to download applications, games, and information from the network to display and interact with. The smart-TV concept was so futuristic that it needed a way to introduce and draw in users to its revolutionary innovative network streaming model. Leese thought Bate, being the city’s top video game ace could help develop video games as a part of the NABU network experience and as an attractor for a wider audience.
Print advertising for The NABU Network
Bate, despite having no prior game development experience, soon found himself as the head of the NABU Games Division. While looking for inspiration for a game that would fit within the model and have the recognition of the wider public, he came upon cartoonist Johnny Hart‘s daily prehistoric comic strip B.C. The strip had been running ever since 1958 and throughout the years had won numerous awards. In 1973 and 1981 NBC and HBO respectively aired animated television specials featuring Hart’s B.C. characters, some of which also appeared in animated commercials during that time. Using the prehistoric setting and humouristic characters along with the fame of the strip would be a perfect fit for not only a game but also as a marketing stunt for the fledgling network. Bate got in touch with Hart and invited him to come to Ottawa to see the NABU operation and discuss a potential deal for licensing his characters. NABU and Hart agreed on a deal for $25,000 a year for the rights to his B.C. and Wizard of Id comic strips characters and Bate and his team went to work, developing the first game to be based on the franchise with gameplay inspiration from Activision‘s Pitfall and Irem‘s Moon Patrol.
The game became B.C.’s Quest for Tires, a play on the title of the contemporary prehistoric fantasy film Quest for Fire, and featured challenging and engaging gameplay accompanied by great cartoony graphics, animations, sounds, and impressive smooth horizontal scrolling, a skillful masterstroke from team member John Allen who had much experience with the Zilog Z80 processor from his time programming on the Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer. While B.C.’s Quest for Tires quickly became a beloved part of the NABU experience, the network was still in its infancy and still toiling to establish itself with a wider audience. The widespread recognition needed for the streaming model to be a commercially sustainable success remained absent.
By 1982 the home console market had exploded, now, in today’s money, worth $10 billion, four times more than the previous year and Bate figured NABU was missing out on the opportunity to cash in by selling cartridge versions of the games he and his team were creating. NABU President John Kelly had no interest in the game business and agreed for Bate and the game division to go independent but to continue to develop and provide products for the NABU network. Bate, along with NABU game designers, Banks, Allen, and Steve Armstrong, set up Artech Studios and began work on a cartridge version of B.C.’s Quest for Tires for toy-manufacturer Coleco and its newly released ColecoVision home video console. The conversion was fairly straightforward as the NABU computer and the ColecoVision shared much of the same internals, including the 3.58Mhz Z80 processor.
While B.C.’s Quest for Tires was developed by the team at Artech Studios it was done through Canadian mainframe and microcomputer software developer Sydney Development Corporation with the publishing rights for the North American market acquired by Sierra On-Line which at the time was heavily investing in action and cartridge-based games.
The NABU game design team, now Artech Studios, through Canadian mainframe and microcomputer software developer Sydney Development Corporation, adapted their NABU version of B.C.’s Quest for Tires for Coleco’s ColecoVision console in 1983. Publishing rights for the North American market were acquired by Sierra On-Line under license from Coleco Industries Inc.
The ColecoVision version looked and sounded great with impressive smooth horizontal scrolling, a skillful masterstroke from team member John Allen who had prior experience with the Zilog Z80 processor.
The player takes the role of the caveman character, Thor, trying to save his girlfriend, Cute Chick, who has been kidnapped by a dinosaur. Thor, travels on his unicycle of stone through several consecutive and more and more complex, levels, avoiding various obstacles and villains
B.C.’s Quest for Tires earned the ColecoVision Game of the Year award and was praised for its cartoonish graphics and animation. The success led Sierra On-Line to port it for the $600 Coleco Adam home computer, the Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit, and IBM/PC in 1983 and 1984.
The Apple II version was created by Sierra On-Line contractor Justin Gray in 1983.
Gray had his own game, Aquatron released by the company the same year
The Apple II received a quite faithful conversion, given the system now was six years old and employed a processor three times slower than that of the ColecoVision
The Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit version was created by Sierra On-line freelancer Chuck Benton of Softporn fame in 1983
B.C.’s Quest for Tires was re-released in 1984 for the ColecoVision, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit in the bigger Sierra-branded box
B.C.’s Quest for Tires was released in 1984 for the Tandy 1000 computer.
The game was programmed by Micro Technology Development Corp, which at the time did hundreds of titles in games, education, and business software
B.C.’s Quest for Tires became the first video game cartridge to be designed and produced in Canada and became an instant hit. It won Game Of The Year from Video Game Update magazine and was awarded Critic’s Choice Award, Best Game For Youngsters by Family Computing. Billboard Magazine awarded it the Best use of Graphics and Best Sound in a Video Game. Combined the title would go on to sell more than a million copies. The commercial success spawned the 1984 sequel B.C. II: Grog’s Revenge, a title that didn’t reach the same popularity as the first title.
Bates and his team also adapted Hart’s Wizard of Id characters into two educational home computer games released in 1984, The Wizard of Id’s WizMath and The Wizard of Id’s WizType, both released by Sierra On-Line. I’ll probably write a Quick-Bits article on them sometime in the future.
Despite being vastly successful at the time, the B.C.’s games never managed to solidify the endless runner concept. It wasn’t until the advent of the smartphone that the concept started to be widely copied and really earned its mainstream recognition.
While the NABU project was heavily subsidized by the Canadian government, and at its peak employed nearly a thousand people, in 1985 it was all over. The innovative network streaming model, essentially, a forerunner of the modern internet, showed to be far too advanced for consumers to grasp at the time.
Bate would continue to design games, including the two popular Accolade-published titles The Dam Busters and Ace of Aces. After three years, Bate decided to leave Artech and get back to writing. Banks and 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 in 2011.
Now nearly 40 years after the first Canadian-made video cartridge game hit the market, Canada has become home to one of the most thriving video game industries in the world, employing around 10.000 people in nearly 300 firms, with total annual revenues of over $2 billion.
Sources: Computer Gaming World, Video Games Around the World, Ottawa Rewind, The New Yorker, CBC Canada, Wikipedia, MobyGames