The Aliens are Coming. Get your Crop Duster!
Our IT guru considers the retro joys of a 1980s classic
Article by Tammy Orr
Sometime in 1982, I heard fascinating sounds behind my parents’ bedroom door. I wasn’t allowed beyond that door when it was closed, on pain of harsh punishment, but curiosity got the better of me. Silently, I opened it and peeked in.
It was dark in there. My dad, a fearsome and bearded giant at the ripe old age of 27, sat transfixed on the floor, bathed in an eerie silver-blue glow. He was staring into the television set, paying no attention to me. I climbed onto the edge of the bed to watch.
He was playing Night Stalker on his Intellivision. I watched, fascinated, for a few minutes (well, probably seconds) and asked him what was happening. Why were there bats and big spiders? Was this an animal cartoon?
Then a bat got shot. ‘Oh no!’ I cried.
My dad hissed, ‘Shhh!’
Then the aliens came. The threatening sounds were getting scary. ‘Why would bats help the aliens?’ I asked. Bats were my gentle friends that ate bugs. My dad was too busy shooting the aliens to answer.
Then bigger aliens came and were shooting back at my dad, and then they started destroying his bunker, and stuff got real. I was asking questions, and my dad was gritting his teeth and answering them and saying he needed to concentrate–and then the aliens surrounded him and he died!
I screamed a little when that happened, and he picked me up, deposited me in the hallway, and shut the door. This was exciting–I’d just broken the rules, witnessed something amazing in the bedroom, and for once, no one remembered to notice! I was filled with the glee of the unpunished!
Naturally, a short time later, I snuck into the bedroom again and returned to my perch on the bed.
‘Don’t talk,’ my dad growled. This time I obeyed for minutes.
He fended off insane numbers of aliens shooting at him, but soon succumbed again after they broke the entire bunker to rubble. ‘How do you win?’ I asked.
‘You don’t,’ he replied.
All my very young life, I expected I would soon be told what would happen. ‘Is this what will happen? Aliens will come with guns, and break apart our house?’ I asked.
‘Maybe,’ he answered.
I accepted it. He knew a lot about space.
I have sometimes wondered (not too seriously) if the apocalyptic scenes of Night Stalker, and his answer, formed a great deal of my mind. At that moment, I thought of the possibility of aliens coming after my family. Some of them might be hopeless victims. The rest–I figured my grandpa, my dad, and me–would have to get serious and kill the aliens. Even if we had to shoot some poor bats, too.
So I made a plan. I would hide the people. My dad would supervise. And Grandpa, with all his Army sharpshooting medals, would be in charge of shooting the aliens. My dad and I would help shoot if we were getting overwhelmed. Maybe I could recruit the neighbour guy, who was good at scavenging and trading, to help keep up our ammo supply. And maybe I could get the other neighbour guy, too, to drop poison on the aliens with his crop duster.
I told my dad the plan. For some reason he burst out laughing.
‘Maybe leave out the crop duster. It could get shot down by the spaceships,’ I conceded. He just laughed harder. I wondered what my mistake was.
Well, I could see I would need some practice. So when my dad’s character finally died again, I announced, ‘My turn.’
‘No, you’ll be bad at it,’ he said, as if that constituted a reason. He started another game.
I looked at the Intellivision and noticed something. ‘Why are there two controllers?’
‘In case one breaks,’ he said quickly.
Unfortunately, if he wanted me to believe that, it was already too late. My dad was a trained electrician, among other things. Normal conversations between us were about topics like what each part of a TV did, how to fix it when it broke, how circuits worked, and why 8-track players were headed for the dustbin of history.
Well, I paid little attention to most of what he told me, but I could see Controller Two was plugged in very neatly to a port. Plugs were serious things. ‘This is for two players,’ I corrected him.
I waited for several aliens to get him distracted. Fast as lightning, I leapt toward the TV and slid Controller Two out of its perfect port (if you’ve never seen an Intellivision, seriously look at one).
‘Buttons!’ I exclaimed as I held the beautiful object. It had twelve perfect bubble-buttons, and a shiny silver disc for controlling movement. Each game had a card you slid in over the buttons, usually with a nice graphic design. The card showed you which button did what. I immediately fell in love with it.
As time went by, my dad grudgingly allowed me to look through his game collection (if I re-boxed everything very neatly and exactly how I found it, on pain of death, of course). And sometimes he even let me play. He mercilessly mocked me for being terrible at the popular games like Pac Man, Tron, and Skiing. I made up for it by becoming almost a pro at Night Stalker and Astrosmash. (In Astrosmash, huge meteors rain from the sky toward the planet, more and more, faster and faster, and you have to fire your single laser cannon to break them up or else it’s rocks-fall-everyone-dies. No pressure!)
‘I can’t understand why you’re so bad at Pac Man, but you’re good at Night Stalker and Astrosmash,’ my dad said to me. He had the fastest reflexes of anyone I ever knew, and was great at all of the games.
Well, the answer to his question was easy, to a child anyway! It goes like this. Our house was badly haunted by ghosts. This was probably because it was built on Indian grounds–you couldn’t go outside without finding their stuff. I didn’t know where the Indians were now, and nobody would tell me. So I was 99% sure they met a terrible end.
‘Our ghosts are much meaner than the Pac Man ones, but they don’t actually kill anyone. And Pac Man is a jerk. He’s trying to steal the ghosts’ candy. What kind of person would want to steal poor Pinky’s candy? Not me!’ I exclaimed. This earned a lecture about not letting one’s feelings get in the way of one’s success. ‘In Night Stalker,’ I explained, ‘I’m practicing hiding mom and Grandma in the bunker basement. I have to kill the aliens or they’ll get them. If I die, could you imagine mom or Grandma using this gun?’ I asked as I shot down another alien.
I probably wasn’t giving mom and Grandma enough credit, but, well, that’s how I saw it.
My dad glared a bit about the ‘ghosts’ thing. But then he doubled over laughing, slapping the floor, about the idea of Grandma–his mother–fighting aliens with a gun. ‘We have…to tell…Grandma…that…!’ he choked out between laughs. (Indeed, Grandma liked it.) In any case, my game of Night Stalker was getting tense, so my dad pointed somewhere on the screen he thought I should go. ‘No, I’ll get caught there!’ I said, and went somewhere else, and when he was mostly done laughing he said, ‘You’re getting pretty good at this.’
My dad never praised anything unless it was truly great. I was so delighted, I got flustered and died within the next minute, earning another lecture.
What is perhaps not evident from the insane amount of fun we were having with that Intellivision and especially Night Stalker, is that I was pestering my dad a lot about who made the games and how. Grown-ups? Kids? How did they choose the beautiful colours? Did they consider what would happen when the entire bunker was gone? Why were there bats, of all things? Most importantly, how did they make it so you could move your man, and how did the sounds happen?
My dad explained the games were made with computers. Probably not by kids. I was astonished. ‘Why would a grown-up create that?’ I asked. My dad said it was serious and hard work. We took a field trip to the basement, and he played the sounds from the games on one of his electronic keyboards. ‘We could make our own game!’ I said. ‘Yeah,’ he replied. ‘But you would have to learn to do the programming. I’m no good at it. And that’s most of the work.’
So now you know what I spent the next few years doing. He taught me the math I needed. And I taught myself BASIC.
But we never made a game together. A few years later, the Intellivision was the first item my dad placed in a box when he left us. Unbeknownst to me for many years, it spent the rest of its life in a relative’s closet, the games all neatly boxed and looking new, as if it were still 1982–even though it was 1999 when I found it there.
‘Oh!’ I gasped, astonished, when I saw it, high and deep in the closet. I stared at the old friend for a long time, flooded with memories. I wondered why it was there, of all places, and why now, of all times. I found what I needed from the closet, then closed myself in, rested my hand on the Intellivision, and let myself fantasise for a few seconds about the bank-robbery levels of planning and resources that would be needed to liberate it.
But I knew I was wrong. I knew it was his and only his, never mine, and it had always been that way. I cried hopelessly and silently in the dark, among the clothes, for as long as I dared, for all the things that were never to be. Then I tidied myself up, went back downstairs, and used the hurt only to fuel my silence and my smile. Because as I had stood there, transported back to the eighties for that brief moment, I finally understood what he had told me. I couldn’t let my feelings get in the way of my success.