Pinball and the Wizard of Wor have a little bit in common.
Back in the 70s, pinball machines were still electromechanical (EM) machines with electrically driven relays and switches. It was also in 1971 that the first commercial microprocessor was released by Intel — the 4-bit Intel 4004 — and Bally was interested in seeing what the technology could do for their stable of pinball machines.
An engineer by the name of David Nutting had his own consultancy, Dave Nutting Associates, and Bally contracted them to work on the project. According to an article in Gameroom written in 1999 by Alexis Tzannes who discovered the prototype of their work and subsequently tracked down Nutting and Frederiksen for the real scoop after beginning his research, the game was called Flicker and Bally gave them two of these machines to work on. One machine was to be converted, the other was to remain as-is to demonstrate the differences.
Nutting hired an engineer named Jeff Frederiksen to design a “microprocessor-based pinball machine” and although Bally ultimately didn’t adopt their design which integrated Intel’s first microprocessor, the 4-bit 4004, the concept spearheaded the company’s own work heading in the same direction and seeded their eventual success in the pinball market. The story is much more complicated than that, but it wasn’t the end of Bally’s relationship with the engineers. Bally eventually bought the firm and as arcades began sprouting up in the wake of games like 1978’s Space Invaders, they intended to take a bite out of that market as well especially as the shiny quarters from the pinball machines didn’t pile up quite as quickly as they did from the new arcade machines.
That’s where Dave Nutting and his crew come back into the picture. Released in 1981 to the arcade, Wizard of Wor was an unusual game in a scene dominated by action-heavy solo excursions from Space Invaders to Pac-Man. At the same time, it also featured co-op play, or solo play with the second player controlled by its own AI, both of you fighting monsters spawned by the nefarious Wizard of Wor.
Gameplay was really simple — you were a player that fought inside a “maze” against monsters. As time passed, the monsters would move faster and faster. The first batch of beasts were visible on screen. Then there were the ones that blinked in and out of visibility, and were indestructible when they were invisible, so you had to time your shots correctly. After that, there was a creature called Worluk that would try to escape to one of the exits on the left or right side of the dungeon. The Wizard himself may also pop in after all the other beasts are dead, starting at the eighth dungeon according to the flyer.
A radar tracked where the monsters — invisible or visible — were (sans walls) and scoring was listed beneath your spawn points. The game was also built on top of the work Nutting and his engineers explored with microprocessors enhancing the experience with a few neat tricks such as a synthesized voice that would mock you (a feature that would also appear in Gorf, also designed by David Nutting Associates and which was also released in 1981) thanks to a Voltrax speech chip. Unfortunately, the voice synthesis was pretty raw back then making it hard to understand exactly was was being said, but it was a neat gimmick for the arcade.
The game featured a number of things that were groundbreaking at the time such as allowing players to purchase extra lives (an extra quarter raised you from starting with three lives to a total of seven) prior to starting the game with more quarters (a feature that would also re-appear in games like Gorf and be re-purposed in Gauntlet as additional health).
Both players could also shoot each other for extra points or cooperate together to blaze their way to higher challenges. Against another player, it added a tantalizing layer of trust — is your partner going to cooperate with you or knock you off the machine? Despite all of which it did well, the game was apparently not overwhelmingly popular.
Part of the reason may have to do with the pacing — as sophisticated as it was for the time, this wasn’t as tough on the reflexes as a few of its popular peers. Although two players could just hide in a corner and each cover a corridor to survive, roaming into the maze and knowing when to take pot shots at beasties, planning your moves to trap invisible critters, and gunning after the Worluk and the Wizard, required a degree of tactical planning that the game’s particular approach gladly accommodated. Arcades were also experiencing Pac-Man fever. Like Wizard of Wor, it was also a maze game, only with faster action blended with exciting mechanics that gobbled up quarters as if they were real-world dots.
At the same time, it was still popular enough to be brought out of the arcade and onto the Atari VCS, Atari 5200, Atari’s 8-bit computer, the Commodore 64, and Bally Astrocade (where it was renamed The Incredible Wizard). As was typical depending on the power of the targeted hardware, corners were cut to squeeze it down into the machines that could run it. The voice synthesis was obviously out along with some of the fancy sound effects, and there was no second player controlled by AI. Still, the ports managed to hit close enough to the co-op and the mechanics to be an exciting home port. It also appeared in 2004 as a part of the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 compilation and in 2012 as Midway Arcade Origins. Even today, fans have remade the game such as this web friendly version of the C64 port.
Wizard of Wor broke ground on features that are considered standard staples in many of today’s multiplayer titles such as its friendly-fire flavored co-op, but in the world of fast-paced arcades with Pac-Man gobbling up audiences, it had a tough fight ahead of it to stand out. Yet it’s also a classic that managed to escape the confines of the past to find its way to later generations, tempting them to go toe-to-toe with the nefarious Wizard in a bid of cooperative or solo conquest…or point-greedy betrayal.