The Billion Dollar Roll: How Tenpin changed the direction of video gaming forever

The rapid advancement of technology is often characterized by a simple theme. The desire to  communicate gave birth to the fax, mobile phones and the Internet. Video gaming has also had a common theme that has unified families, driven innovation in the arcades and ushered in the greatest step change of the current console generation: The widespread adoption of motion control. The unlikely lightning rod for this continual and unabated drive towards innovation has been the desire to replicate (as closely as possible) Ten Pin Bowling.

Video Game bowling is one of the most played video games genres in the history of the industry. This fact alone is astonishing. And also raises the question why? How is this even possible?

Bowling is cited as having its roots in Germany in 300 AD, with the first formalised rules coming into place in New York in 1895. Bowling for the Atari 2600 was released in 1978. A year later Midway released 4 Player Bowling Alley into the Arcades with a table-top cabinet that had two trackballs that looked and felt like bowling balls, the cabinet evoked the feel of the bowling halls with its wood effect veneers. In the years that followed there was a constant stream of Arcade and Home console iterations of the sport.

Ten Pin Deluxe (Bally Midway) hit the arcades in 1984 and was a shuffleboard bowling game integrating a puck and a monitor. It was also one of the greatest cabinets ever conceived with a faux wood lane and again attempted to replicate the motion of bowling in the best way possible at the time. These crude iterations were paving the way for intuitive motion based controls driven by the fact that bowling was hugely popular as a mainstream leisure activity that has an intuitive and familiar mechanic and a robust and enduring appeal. The formula was attempted over and over. The continued migration away from gimmick to video game simulation culminated in Alley Master (Cinematronics) which hit the arcades in 1986, complete with improved graphics but an ill-considered choice of stick input.

A decade later the next major innovation happened in the handheld space when Virtual Bowling made it on to the ill-fated Virtual Boy in 1995. Nester’s Funky Bowling followed it up in 1996. Through the 1990s iterations hit the PC, Playstation, Gameboy, Nintendo 64, SNES and Xbox in the 2000’s Bowling came onto mobile and iOS in the form of Midnight Bowling and PC browser-based oddities like Polar Bowling and Elf Bowling bemused rather than amused. Konami brought Simpsons bowling into the arcades in 2000, and rather than make a bold attempt to deliver the depth of lane found on the Virtual Boy Konami made the interaction more visceral by utilising a trackball.  Michael Jackson was such a fan he owned cabinet number 42145. Silver Strike Bowling revolutionised out of home trackball ten pin in 2004 and 2010 changed the game with a connected LIVE experience throughout the United States. Trackball Ten Pin had reached a high watermark that it looked impossible to surpass.

The definitive moment in the evolution of video game bowling came in 2006, 28 years after the release of bowling on the Atari 2600. Wii Bowling shipped with every Wii outside Japan. Globally the mainstream fell back in love with Video Game bowling. Wii Sports is the best-selling video game of all time which (at time of writing) had shipped around 76 million copies. 85-year-old John Bates is currently the Worlds Greatest Wii Bowling Player having bowled in excess of 2,850 perfect games. He pwns on Wii Bowling.

Kinect perfected the formula further, to a point where the experience delivered by Kinect Sports is rewarding, intuitive and great fun. The Nintendo Touch Generations dream had finally become a reality, sadly not on a Nintendo platform. Pwned. Finally it seems as if the abolition of the prop has defined the genre. This memo was clearly not received by CTA digital who smelt gold in them thar video gaming bowling hills and created peripherals across all three current gen machines.

Microsoft went all in with a marketing budget for Kinect of half a billion dollars. I can’t help but think this is because they knew they had the video game bowling crown in the bag.

Let’s hammer the pocket.

News Just In!

Cory Archangel has an installation called Beat The Champ running at the Barbican, London until 22nd May 2011. I can’t wait to see it. It’s an installation based on the sounds of Video Game Bowling

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