Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Strange Case of the First (and Only) Jewish Video Game

In 2007, a man going by the name of nagn2 joined AtariAge, an online forum obsessed with all things Atari—particularly collecting old, rare Atari games.

Nagn2 posted that he had gone to a garage sale and purchased 2 Atari games. One was called Music Machine, an extremely rare Christian-themed game. In and of itself, this was a heck of a find—the Atari collector equivalent of pirate gold buried in your backyard. Music Machine sells for hundreds of dollars online.

The other game nagn2 purchased, a cartridge labeled Red Sea Crossing, was a complete and utter mystery. Nagn2 was not an Atari expert. His research turned up nothing on Red Sea Crossing. So he asked the experts at AtariAge. And the preeminent experts on all things Atari had never heard of Red Sea Crossing, either. In fact, no one had.

But nagn2 had bought the thing. Had pictures of it. So what did he have?

This required an amazing amount of research—an almost Indiana Jones-style adventure—most of which can be followed from the original post on down right here. In the end (after much hither and thither and people screaming 'fake' and others screaming 'not fake'), it became quite clear that nagn2  had done something quite extraordinary:

He had purchased a previously unheard of, but absolutely 100% real Atari game. One lost to the particularly blustery winds of video game history. In its simplest terms, if you owned a collection of every Atari game ever made, the day nagn2 bought Red Sea Crossing, your complete collection was officially 1 short.

The game was created in 1983 by Steve Stack with the intention of selling to the Christian (*ahem*) gaming market. In it, players guide the intrepid Moses across the Red Sea (title = content, never a good sign as "Mob Doctor" can attest), avoiding ravenous fish and other waterlogged dangers. This is a remarkably Jew-y plot line. In fact, we're pretty sure it's the only Jew-y plot line ever conceived for a video game. At least until the folks over at Activision make that Call of Duty: Shabbas game we've been pitching for the last 6 years.

But how is this a "lost" Atari game rather than some random game some dude made for his Atari 30 (THIRTY?!) years ago? The nature of the game's distribution. For instance, there are plenty of people right now who make games for consoles (called homebrews) which can be downloaded (or installed with a cartridge or disk) that are fully playable. However these are after-the-fact creations, not officially sanctioned by the console company or marketed/sold for the console.

Red Sea Crossing had a much lower bar than what you'd have to go through these days to make your own game for, say the Nintendo Wii (though with Virtual Consoles, XBox Live, et al it's actually also much easier than it was 5 years ago), but it can be considered an "official" Atari game as it was both produced and marketed for the console.

Stack ran one ad in Christianity Today:

And, according to interviews with him after Red Sea Crossing was rediscovered, had several hundred versions of his game printed for sale. Though obviously, it did not sell well.

(Wonder why? Beyond the whole Q-Bert vs. Moses game character argument which Moses loses big time, look at the price. $34.95 sounds cheap now, but in 1983!? That's an $80 game in 2012 dollars. You couldn't sell Halo IV for $80 right now in a mature gaming market with an established blockbuster brand. People would throw their own feces at Gamestop employees. Which, come to think of it... Let's just move on.)

Where did these hundreds of copies go? The garbage probably. The same year Stack sent Moses out to Sea, the North American video game market hit an iceberg and sank down down down, only bobbing back up in 1985 when Super Mario came to the rescue (though in some ways it didn't really recover till the XBox arrived in the early aughties, bringing console production back to the States).

In 1983, Red Sea Crossing, a game with—let's be honest—limited appeal in the first place, would have simply been tossed after sitting on a shelf for about a month or two.

But one cartridge clearly avoided the malodorous heap off exit 13 (that's a Jersey joke for the uninitiated) because nagn2 bought it, revealing the one and only Jewish video game to the public. Unfortunately, however, we'll never get to play it since the creator is adamant that the game not be copied off the cartridge.

The game itself recently sold at auction to a private collector (on a site called GameGavel) for over $10,000 (from a starting bid of around $200). Not bad for a flyer at a garage sale.

And that's where the story ends, probably...

Except guess what a local used game store here in Philly posted just last month?

Guess this is as close to a sequel as we can hope to get, huh?

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