GAMSTER OF THE YEAR
NOT SINCE ALI VS. FRAZIER HAS THERE BEEN SUCH ANTICIPATION. NOT SINCE DEWEY VS. TRUMAN HAS THERE BEEN A CLOSER MATCH-UP. NOT SINCE MCENROE VS. CONNORS HAS THERE BEEN SUCH PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE. NOT SINCE KING KONG VS. GODZILLA HAVE TWO SUCH GARGANTUANS SQUARED OFF TO DO BATTLE IN THE DEEPEST REALMS OF VIDEO GAMING ...
BY JOHN J. ANDERSON
In this corner, Ken Uston. Master of blackjack, once barred from the best casinos because he knew how to win, video games expert and tactician extraordinaire, a man who can play Pac-Man until Blinky punches out for the night, Uston has authored several books on choosing and beating video games, as well as winning at blackjack.
He's light, but he's wiry, and what's more, he's wiley. And what's even more, he's a damned good pianist; I can vouch for that fact.
In this corner, David H. Ahl, founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Creative Computing magazine. Dave has been publishing microcomputer periodicals since the dawn of silicon civilization--since before there were micro-computers. The Boston Computer Society has called him "the father of personal computing." His books, which now number over 16, have become classics in the field, and people have enjoyed them indoors, too. And while he sometimes calls himself a "clod" at video games, Dave can really handle a joystick. When challenged by Uston to this behemothic contest for superiority in every form of video games, from coin-op to micro-computer to handheld, Ahl was confronted with an offer he couldn't refuse. He was certainly the person I was rooting for, because, you see, he is the person who pays my salary.
The challenge: a marathon mixed doubles video games match. The 15 that were chosen represented coin-op arcade games, computer games, home video games, and self-contained games. Ken and Dave each picked a game they wanted to play in each category, in addition to agreeing on a "wild card" entry. Each game was played on a "two out of three" wins basis, for a single point toward the final tally. There was also a women's round between Creative Computing Editor, Betsy Staples, and Inga Chamberlain, Uston's fiancˇ.
The prize: dinner for all four participants at the Palace Court, Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, staked by the loser.
The action started on a sunny Thursday morning, at a local mall where the first segment of the competition was played out.
Ken's arcade choice was Pac-Man, a game with which he had something of an advantage, as he has written a book about it. Dave knew he wasn't going to pull an upset on this one. Ken could have made this phase of the competition last until lunchtime, but decided to conserve time and energy. Score: Uston 1, Ahl 0.
Next came the wild card coin-op, Centipede. Dave looked for an opening here, but it was not to be. Uston's flailing style triumphed again, and he was off to an early lead. Score: Uston 2, Ahl 0.
Close associates hinted that Ahl was starting to get psyched out, but he looked forward to mastery in his arcade choice, Lady Bug, back at the offices of Creative Computing.
Controversy arose when Uston showed much greater dexterity at Lady Bug than anyone had given him credit for. It was hinted that he had spent clandestine hours trying to bone up on the game, but he denied this. Ahl, shaken, very nearly lost this round as well, but dug in hard, and came up with scores good enough to end the shut out. Score: Uston 2, Ahl 1.
Next the competition moved to home video games. Cosmic Avenger for the Colecovision was Uston's choice, and he won it handily. Ken calls the game one of his favorites. Dave triumphed at Worm War I for the Atari VCS, written by Creative Computing veteran David Lubar. After a very close match-up in Missile Command for the Atari 5200, Uston again emerged victorious. Score: Uston 4, Ahl 2.
As local bookmakers moved frantically to change the odds, the contest moved to the stand-alone segment. Dave locked into gear in this phase of the competition, and just when he was about to be counted out, managed to sweep all three games in the category. Starhawk, for the Vectrex, stymied Uston completely until he assumed a cross-handed playing style. The "Attackers" mode on the tabletop Coleco Galaxian left him similarly perplexed. But it was "Firing Squad" on the GCE Game Time Watch that really turned the momentum in Dave's favor. The crowd gasped as Dave surged into a narrow lead. Score: Ahl 5, Uston 4.
The final phase of competition consisted of microcomputer games, and by this time (six hours into the contest) strain was beginning to show on the faces of both competitors. Nevertheless, Uston turned in an extremely impressive round of Sea Fox, by Broderbund, on the Atari 800 computer. His winning round lasted over an hour--"I can play a single game indefinitely if I concentrate," he stated. It was tied. Score: Uston 5, Ahl 5.
But Ahl was on home turf when it came to microcomputers. He beat Uston in rounds of Cosmic Fighter, by Big Five for the TRS-80 and Tsunami, late of the now defunct Creative Computing software label, for the Apple computer. Reeling from recurrent joystick elbow and raster pixelation, Ahl celebrated his victory. "Did I do it," he asked? "Let's get out of here and get something to eat." Uston mumbled something about a fix, but finally shook hands with Ahl and congratulated him on the win. "Just wait til next year," Ken threatened. His eyes were glazed from staring.
In the women's competition, Betsy "Swingline" Staples shut out Inga "Tubetop" Chamberlain in straight sets of Ms. Pac Man, Snap Jack, and Atari Galaxian, thus sealing the win for the Ahl Computing team.
The final score: Ahl team 8, Uston team 5.
The match took its toll. The next day, both men complained of aching wrists, sore shoulders, and trigger cramp. But none of these factors kept them away from the games for long. "It's like a daily fix for me," Ahl said. "Got any new games," Ken asked?