This Week in Gaming History: Paperboy delivers creative fun0 Comments
In 1985, the news headlines said that video games were dead. Both the arcade and home console industries in North America had fallen on hard times, and the media was quite the accomplice in making sure people knew that. Many retailers no longer carried video game products, and the mighty coin-op industry had lost the majority of arcade locations, which had peaked in greater numbers than Starbucks has today.
Back at Atari Games, creativity was the goal. A lack of innovation was one of the many things pundits blamed for the industry fall-out, noting that game companies traded in innovation for sequels and clones. Eager to help get the industry back on its feet, Atari Games redoubled their efforts to be creative again, resulting in a number of innovative concepts that did indeed help the coin-op industry. Paperboy, delivered in April 1985, was one of them.
Putting the player into the role of a paperboy, this Atari title brought colorful graphics, voice effects, and a variety of difficulty levels to arcades. The goal of the game was to deliver newspapers to customers on what was perhaps the wackiest street in America. Rolling tires, fighting tough guys, oncoming cars, playful children, construction zones, mad bombers, stray dogs, and breakdancers were just some of the obstacles the player had to avoid just to deliver the news.
Perhaps the most noteworthy addition to Paperboy was the inclusion of a control panel with bicycle handlebars. Previously, most games had used only joysticks and buttons to control the on-screen action, no matter what the plot or characters within the game were doing. Nobody had ever see bicycle handlebars on a video game before, adding a unique interface that simply wasn't going to be found on a home console. This concept could be credited as an early example of today's coin-operated arcade games, most of which attempt to do the exact same thing by creating an experience that can't be easily duplicated on home console. As successful as this unique control scheme was, however, getting it to market came with unique challenges.
The handlebar controller would be worthless to both Atari's sales department and arcade operators if it was easily broken. Fully aware that arcade games take tremendous abuse from both the players and vandals, the trick within Atari was to figure out how to mount the handlebars on the cabinet. Mark Cerny, the competitive video game star-turned all-star video game programmer, pried the entire controller assembly off of one prototype cabinet. Eventually, the Atari staff figured out a way to make Paperboy last in the coin-op jungle and sent it out onto the street.
Paperboy quickly gained the attention of players in both arcades and street locations, almost instantly climbing up the earnings chart ranks in both Play Meter and RePlay magazines. It reportedly earned over $4,100 in the first five weeks it was located in a New York City arcade, averaging around $820 per week during a time where the average coin-op arcade game made $75 per week. The North American arcade industry ceased freefalling in 1985, due in large part to the innovation found in Paperboy and several other coin-op titles from Atari, Sega, and other companies. By 1987, the arcade side of the industry started to see climbing sales and revenue again, and Paperboy was still found among the hits in arcades across the country.
In 1986, Atari dealt with a lawsuit from two teenagers who claimed to have submitted the idea for Paperboy to Atari in 1983. The suit didn't slow down Atari's demand for home versions of the game, however, licensing ports for the Commodore 64, Apple ][, TRS-80, Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo Game Boy, Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, Sega Genesis, Atari Lynx, and several more computer platforms across the world. It also appeared within numerous compilation discs released later for the Sony PlayStation and Xbox, as well as a standalone for the Xbox Live Arcade. A direct-to-console sequel entitled Paperboy 2 was released in 1991 for the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and the other platforms from the era.
In more recent years, the Paperboy character has started to resurface in various other forms of media. The character makes a brief cameo in 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, seen riding about in the main character concourse. In 2015's Pixels, the Paperboy is among the video game characters that attack the earth. In this case, he gets more of a close-up, flying right into the camera shot as the film enters the final battle scene.
Perhaps most interestingly, Paperboy managed to be wildly successful without spawning many clones and copycats. Not only did it impact the video game industry for being original at a time when the industry needed that, it got things so perfectly the first time around that few dared to try and catch the same lighting in a bottle. Even as the modern world is quickly making real-life paperboys a thing of the past, the video game Paperboy will forever ride on as an all-time classic.