Gentlemen, start your joysticks

An X-rated tour through the early days of porn video games.

Published December 6, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The concept of the X-rated Atari cartridge was embedded in my brain as a seventh-grader by a few scandalized reviews in gaming magazines, the pertinent literature of the day. Experience has taught me that such shady relics are not the type of artifact to surface in a neighborhood yard sale; they vanish quietly in the night along with grandpa's 8mm nudie films.

At least, that's what I thought until about a year ago, when I got lucky at a couple of strip-mall clearance sales. Soon after, a full package of vintage "over-18" games appeared on, and I scooped them up. Taken together, they show that as the continuum of technology evolved over the years toward tawdry "you control the action" CD-ROMs, it has remained a sturdy super-outlet for sex.

A bawdy breed of video games created for the Atari 2600 system between 1980 and 1983 holds a special place in this pantheon by virtue of its unrivaled disparity between seduction and execution. At the time, kids were spellbound by the novelty of controlling something on a television set. They were happy to fill in the blanks with imagination. Blocky Atari aliens came from unreality, and were perfectly fine; but when the same technology was applied to love and procreation, the results were amateurish and weird.

X-Man is the only known cartridge produced by a company called Universal Gamex. In this nervous-making game, a naked male protagonist heads toward a blinking bedroom door through a maze filled with treacherous gnashing teeth, snipping scissors and something sinister that looks medical and sharp.

Once this tiny Lothario reaches his point of entry with manhood intact, the game shifts to a full-screen shot of two copulating adults; the player is then supposed to wiggle his computer joystick rhythmically to take the sex act to completion. There are three levels of this, covering the first three pages of the "Kama Sutra." Once the X-Man reaches his climax, it's back to the beginning for another go-round.

As regular pornographic movies lack plot, so does X-Man the game suffer from poor gameplay. It looks horrid, too. Rendered in utterly crappy Atari block maps rather than studied 9th century Asian watercolor, this hardly recognizable hardcore looks something like a tan E.T. dancing with a pink Yar. It is, literally, two-bit copulation.

The most prodigious producer of low-res luridness in those days was Mystique. During its prurient three-year tenure, this imprint developed perhaps a half-dozen games designed to "create a fantasy situation that offers a challenge." The packaging of these cartridges was lavish -- they came in leatherette cases inside glossy cardboard volumes. Mystique also licensed the popular Swedish Erotica brand name for the box art, thus buying an association with porn pioneers Seka and John Holmes.

Rendered at a zillionth the resolution of a Sega Dreamcast, Pac-Man himself was hardly recognizable in Atari form, but video-game magazines knew even indecipherable pornography when they were playing it, and derided the sex games as tasteless and smutty. Editors of game magazines turned up their nerdy noses at the nudity, though they could have stuck with complaining about the shortcomings of the gameplay. Bachelor Party, for instance, brazenly plagiarizes the primitive paddle game Breakout. It merely replaced the ball with a grinning, blocky, naked man, who scores with two rows of naked women instead of a wall of bricks.

Made to be stashed by the nightstand, the adults-only wares were no more dangerous than dopey novelty sex key rings -- with one exception. Mystique's worst and most offensive game was Custer's Revenge. While assuming the role of cavalry Col. George Armstrong Custer, the player is instructed to tie Pocahontas to a stake and force intercourse on her in order to win one simple point. Unlike Atari's own Missile Command (which merely depicted global annihilation by nuclear holocaust), the game sparked public outcry and was withdrawn from the market.

Forces of decency scored high during the Reagan years. The group Women Against Pornography loudly protested Mystique at a 1982 electronics convention in New York. Though this sort of publicity is generally nothing but helpful to the porn purveyors, this time it brought Mystique to the attention of a powerful new antagonist: Atari itself. Having ushered the video-game industry from America's barrooms into the family living room and the entertainment mainstream, Atari was not about to see its empire sink into the sleaze of locker rooms and adult bookstores. Never mind that Atari had donated a full 2600 setup to ill-fated "Playmate of the Decade" Dorothy Stratton in 1980. The freewheeling 1970s were officially over.

Mystique switched off in 1983, but others persisted in the ongoing attempt to marry joystick and pixel in search of the ultimate pulse-quickening simulation of fleshy love. The rights to every Mystique game but the odious Custer were quickly snatched up by the Playaround company -- which then tempered the unabashed sexism of its newfound "intellectual" property, hoping to recruit female veterans of the sexual revolution to fight the digital revolution. First, the upstart company invented novelty double-ended cartridges, which could be inserted into the console two different ways. Then they revamped each game by cutting and pasting the character sets to put women on top of the screen: Bachelor Party was joined by Bachelorette Party, under the unsound assumption that female players would want to take their turns bouncing digital stand-ins off the genitalia of the opposite sex. Similarly, the masturbation game Beat 'Em & Eat 'Em begat Philly Flasher, and a digital group-grope called Gigolo spawned Cathouse Blues.

Then came the gleeful Knight on the Town, and its "feminized" variant, Lady in Wading. In this bawdy medieval romp, a "Sir Lancelot," who has somehow lost his pants, avoids castrating monsters while he lays bricks to bridge a moat. When our pants-less knight reaches his maiden fair, the player wiggles the joystick up and down three times for a quick romp in the turret. This premise is a favorite sexual subtext of mainstream video games today. Rescuing a princess from her prison is a time-honored myth symbolizing the surrender of virginity; it also happens to be the plot of scores of Mario, Zelda, Sonic and Crash Bandicoot games.

In the pioneer era, the erotic overtures are blatant and crude, but they presumably serviced 1981's bumper crop of divorced dads and proto-yuppies well by providing some psychological companionship and the accompanying status of technology. A generation later, we have alt.binaries.adinfinitum and eBay auctions of original Custer's Revenge cartridges for a sexy $50.

It doesn't matter. While we await the shabby first attempts at true virtual sex, we may contemplate two truths from the past: Video games can indeed be an effective form of contraceptive; and, whatever our media -- magnetic, mimeographed or multi- -- the marketplace will find a way to draw a pair of tits on it.

By Ian Christe

Ian Christe is writing "Whiplash!," a history of heavy metal, due from Avon/HarperCollins in March 2001.

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