Atari Porn Games

BeatEmCover.jpgControversies like the hidden sex in Hot Coffee or the alien lesbianism in Mass Effect remind us how scarce and touchy sex in games is. Fear of sex in the ratings process and the marketplace makes legitimate eroticism difficult in traditional commercial games. But the lack of a viable "unrated" commercial games market - whether for explicit sex or other types of content - makes it easy to forget that there was once a place for sexually off-colour games.

Al Lowe's Leisure Suit Larry series of adult adventure games, starting in 1987, is one precedent, but another game five years earlier, on my favourite console, the Atari 2600.

Before we take a peep, a warning. While I wouldn't characterise this post as NSFW, you might still not want your boss walking by while you're looking at the turgid member of a naked, 8-bit wide sprite. The main adult game developer for Atari was Mystique, a spinoff of an American film pornographer. Mystique released a number of porn games for the system in 1982. The games were all labelled as "Swedish Erotica" but this was just marketing - they were home grown here in the USA. The games were sold as adult entertainment, not as games, and would only have been available at adult specialty shops, video stores, and the like. Each box sported an all-caps warning: "NOT FOR SALE TO MINORS."

The best known title is certainly Custer's Revenge, because it was also the most offensive. In the game, the player pilots a naked "Custer" with cowboy hat and enormous, erect penis across a field of flying arrows in order to rape a Native American woman tied to a post. There's not much more to say about this one.

custer_screenshot.jpgAnother Mystique game was Beat 'Em & Eat 'Em. It was a clone of Larry Kaplan and David Crane's popular 1981 game Kaboom!. The player controls a pair of naked women who move along a street. The computer controlled naked man on the top of a building ejaculates copiously from the roof. The player must steer the women to catch the falling ejaculate in their open, upturned mouths. "Should you miss," explains the game manual, "shame on you. After all, it could have been a famous doctor or lawyer." I'm not sure how one impregnates a women orally, but I suppose accuracy isn't much of an issue here. The game also awards an extra life every time your score reaches 69.

beatem_screenshot.jpgIf you'll indulge me, I'd like to point out a technical detail in this game. The Atari 2600 is capable of displaying two sprites at a time - that is, its graphics hardware allows the programmer to store two, one-byte sprite values at once. More sprites can appear to be on the screen by reusing these registers at different vertical locations on the screen. In Beat 'Em & Eat 'Em, the women are doubled (or tripled, depending on the game mode) by flipping a bit on another register to stretch or multiply the sprites. But there is no concept of colour bitmapped graphics on the VCS. Instead, colours for each of the two sprites must be set manually. Because of timing constraints, colour changes typically happen on a line-by-line, not a pixel-by-pixel basis (in fact, there is no concept of a pixel on the VCS either).

If you look closely at the screenshot, you'll notice that the women have very carefully detailed nipples and pubic hair, as well as blonde locks that wrap around their faces. This is not something the Atari can do without some coaxing. The body is one sprite, running the whole length of the character without colour changes. The hair is the second sprite, horizontally positioned atop the first. To render the nipples, the second sprite is also used, but its colour is changed in the lines after the end of the hair. Then it's changed back to yellow on the following scanline. You can confirm this if you want by zooming in on the image. Notice that it is exactly 8 "pixels" wide, just enough to fit in the byte-sized register used for sprite graphics. The Mystique games have been accused, usually from the vantage point of history, of being low-quality titles with poor production values. But details like this suggest the opposite; a lot of love went into these titles.

Yet another Mystique game was Bachelor Party. this one was pretty simple and somewhat abstract. It's a Breakout clone, but buxom women replace the blocks and the player fires a man (the bachelor) instead of a ball to bounce off the walls collecting all the girls.

bachelor_screenshot.jpgAfter the crash of 1983, Mystique went out of business, along with most other independent developers. The rights to their games were transferred to Playaround, which re-released these games and a few more on "double-ender" cartridges (two games attached back-to-back). I'm sure I don't need to belabor the double entendre.

Playaround added new versions of the Mystique the games that swap the roles. These included Bachelorette Party (self-explanatory, and then a version of Beat 'Em & Eat 'Em called Philly Flasher, in which the roles are reversed (men must catch a woman's lactation). They also produced new versions of Custer's Revenge for the European market, again one with each role, called General Retreat and Westward Ho. These were never sold stateside, because of the controversy over Custer's Revenge.

Playaround also created some new adult games, each offering play as both the male and female role. One was Knight on the Town/Lady in Wading, in which a knight/Amazon must build a bridge across a moat to rescue a princess/prince. Another was Burning Desire/Jungle Fever, in which a naked man/woman flying a helicopter must ejaculate/lactate out a fire that risks devouring a man/woman tied to a stake. And in Cathouse Blues/Gigolo the player help a man/woman score with 7 partners in a neighbourhood while avoiding alarm-rigged houses and police.

The main problem with the Mystique/Playaround games is that they don't engage adult sexual fantasies very effectively. They sometimes amuse, but they mostly offend. I suppose arousal is relative, to some extent, but the games don't live up to the truly adult expectations Mystique sets in the manuals. Some of these expectations are clearly written in jest, like this one about how to start the game.

With the power shut off, gently insert your Mystique video game cartridge into your Atari 2600 Video Computer System in the same manner as you would with any compatible game cartridge. Turning the switch "on" will activate the "foreplay" mode. This is very similar to the "attract" mode seen on many arcade games.

But others seem to suggest that Mystique thought they were offering legitimate adult content rather than just teenage titillation. Again from the Mystique manuals:

We at Mystique feel that it's time for video games and their adult players to come out of the closet, away from the kids, and deal with ADULT fantasies. After all, grown-ups have been known to be imaginative and competitive, as well as have fantasies.

These games may not be particularly noteworthy as culture, as games, or even as porn. But they do have historical interest, and they show us how, well, flexible the commercial game environment of the early 1980s really was. And perhaps most startling, they represent a very large percentage of the commercial marketplace for sex games in all eras.

Atari 2600 Adult Games by Mystique [Atari Age] Atari 2600 Adult Games by Playaround [Atari Age]


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