This Too Shall Push – A History of Starting

Last May, Luke Plunkett over at Kotaku had this to say regarding the “forgotten art” of title screens:

Featuring big artwork and even bigger titles, it had to capture everything the game stood for. Everything it was about. Everything it was trying to sell to you, the consumer.

These days, of course, they’re less important. They’re usually just the things you end up on if you leave a controller idle, or are an obstacle you have to mash a button to get past in order to actually start playing.

I wonder, have we lost the meaning of the title screen? Who knew that was even possible…? The title screen, on a deep structural level, represents the threshold between our world and the gameworld. It can’t just simply stop meaning, can it? And if so, what could have caused such a fracture? Boredom? Apathy?

I’ll tell you what I think. I think the title screen is every bit as striking today as it was thirty years ago. We’ve just never really understood it.

Take these two, for instance…

…Star Force and Championship Lode Runner. The first, a celebrated work of overhead shootery. The second, a highly-revered thinking man’s arcade game, and the first game to ship with user-created content. But what do the two games have in common? Well, for one, both were ported to the Nintendo Famicom in 1985. Additionally, both were published by Hudson Soft (an early licensee of the Quality-Crusading Nintendo). Ah but let us not lose the trees in the forest…

…Both games, as it turns out, were the firsts to feature the “Push Start” prompt (it’s worth noting here that I deliberately chose not to include dB-Soft’s Flappy, which actually released in the two months that separated CLR and SF, and which prompted the player to Push Select, a small but significant difference), a “feature” that has today become so ingrained in the substructure of gaming that I was actually taken aback upon realizing that it hadn’t just always been that way. So—as I do—I got to the bottom of it…

…In the era before the steely grip of the home market (which is to mean, pre-NES), the purpose of a title screen was one of a singular purpose: to attract the eyes (and quarters) of would-be players, players with myriad other choices flashing all around them. Developers, realizing the potential for advertising rhetoric, quickly pulled out all the stops: simply passing by a game became a kind of Grand Tour…gamers were treated to flashy title screens, cut-scenes, high scores, demos…One never-released prototype used an on-board camera to capture the faces of high-score winners and display them to all that passed by (for those wondering why this prototype never saw production, I ask you to consider the first thing you think of when you consider logging back onto Chatroulette)…But none of these tactics, in the eyes of the developer at least, were as important as that often-subdued, but always-present prompt: Insert Coin.

If we agree that games are an “experience” (that our playing is more profound than “Hey, I did a thing”), then this prompt luring the player inward, this “Insert Coin,” is no less than an official Contract of Experience: you pay, you play. There were no other stipulations, outside of time and space, at least…just this fundamental agreement. What’s more, this contract was to decide many of the gaming conventions that were to persist far beyond the initial structure of the arcade itself…the life and score counters; the ridiculous difficulty; temporary power-ups; game length. This one prompt came to inform nearly every aspect of a game’s mechanics and presentation. Ever-present in those early years, “Insert Coin” would long define the experience of games.

In much the same way, the arcade game defined, for a while, the home market. Most of the games released on the various systems of the early 1980s were little more than (often vastly inferior) ports of arcade games; consequently, developers who were working exclusively with the home market had few paradigms to choose from. Thus games that were not first in the arcade were still very arcade-y in design (though change was surely coming). The problem of course was that there was one aspect of arcade games that couldn’t be ported over: the need to insert quarters. Suddenly, developers were without their “contract.” The exchange of money now took place outside of playing. Console developers faced a task finding another way to make the actual starting  meaningful. And so “experience” entered into a transitory period: the Options Era…the Game A or B: One Player or Two Player; Level 1/2/3 Era.

The problem was one that home market developers recognized instantly, I’m sure: console games, since they’ve already been bought and paid for, still needed a contract…a waiting space for gamers to sit back and prepare themselves before beginning…a purgatory between powered-on-but-not-yet-playing and actually playing. And while the options screen worked for arcade-y games, what about those that were trying to be something else? For those developers, they would have to just make due with the clumsy-sounding and meaningless “Press A” Experience.

And then came Nintendo.

Debuting in 1983, the Famicom controller, which for many years and through many iterations would come to define the norm, happened to include a button more conducive to “a beginning” than “Press A”…the Start button. Though first appearing on the Atari 5200 in 1982, Nintendo’s Start button wasn’t just one more button among twelve. It was an aesthetic choice, one that struck a brilliant balance between the single-button console systems and the multitude of “buttons” (keys) that PC keyboards offered. Even the name of their console implied a fusion of these two ideals: the FAMICOM, or FAMIly COMputer, attempted to find a middle-ground in which to both re-invigorate the home console market and to challenge the PC game market. These two previously exclusionary conceptions of “experience” (the arcade-informed and the PC game) gradually begin to intertwine: arcade developers began to make broader, more exploration based games; PC developers began to simplify their (often) convoluted control choices. Without a doubt, the majority of games today are informed by this same conceit.

And let us not lose track of history here: Push Start very likely evolved directly from PC games. The Press Any Key prompt, appearing both in and out of games since the 1970s, had been a staple of experience beginning long before 1985. And I can’t imagine that this wasn’t an influence on console games; those in a prove it mood might notice that the very first Push Start prompt (Championship Lode Runner) came from a PC developer (Brøderbund). And yet, I am not arguing that the PC invented the Push Start prompt…not alone, at least. Press Any Key, while objectively performing the same function of Push Start, is subjectively a different animal. For one, we are missing that all important word, Start, a word that implies beginning and promises experience. For two, Press Any Key didn’t evolve in gaming…the prompt had already been firmly established in the PC world, and thus any experience it (as a prompt) connoted was the same experience that a word processor or calculator connoted. Finally, PC gaming, especially during the era of DOS prompts, was a long, often-complicated thread of startings…even before a game could be booted there were other commands to be entered, on top of powering on the computer and inserting the disk…By the time PC gamers began they’d been beginning for several minutes already.

Which is all to say the obvious: PC gaming is just different (we’ll say was different, but only because is different would take us astray from the point). Different expectations; different experience. Despite its distant origins in PC gaming, the future of Press Start rested in the hands of arcade developers transitioning into a new era; developers who were, at the same time, treading carefully between the Arcade and the PC game.

…In late 1985, Namco published three games that’s title screens seemed to epitomize this transition. First up is Druaga No Tou (The Tower of Druaga), which presented players with the option to either Start or Continue. Like Star Force before it, Druaga No Tou was an arcade port; unlike Star Force, players choosing to play Druaga No Tou at home were given the additional benefit of Continuing. The game itself wasn’t longer or noticeably more difficult…and I can’t imagine that the use of Continue here made the game all that different to play. But viewing this title screen is to see adaptation in action…to see developers testing the landscape that the home experience had to offer, looking for footholds.

That November, Pac-Land added a bit of a cinematic flair to the whole proceeding, scrolling its Push Start prompt into view. Though this flair came at a cost: despite the fact that Pac-Land was, like Star Force and Druaga No Tau before it, a port of an arcade game, the experimental step of Continuing taken by Namco just a few months previous is completely missing here.




And rounding out the year was Star Luster, Namco’s first-person shooter/space combat simulator, a game which bucked the trend and appeared on home consoles first,then in arcades. And in what way did it appear? As a part of Nintendo’s Vs. Arcade—a platform designed specifically to begin bringing console games to the arcade. Versus arcade? If we were looking for the breaking point, this would be it.

To Start Push? Eh, close enough.



* * *

From the lover’s goodbye to the stranger’s bedroom; from the rush of the subway platform to the stifling city street; to be human is to be always, all the time, coming from somewhere. Yet are our lives but chronology, but individual points along linear time? Or might there be a deeper substructure to our experience of the world; threaded through moments, crossing and circling back, entangling and distorting any objective conception of Time?

And I only ask because we’ve come to that point now…we’re looking for the big one; the Push Start prompt; the one we’ll point at, say, Right there, that’s where it started…

Right here, for instance. At seven, this legendary title screen was the first time I’d ever seen a Push Start prompt. I imagine this is probably true of many from my generation, that generation who grew up alongside the rise of console games. In terms of the transition of experience, there was no console game previous that offered what this offered, and it did so with Push Start in place. The Legend of Zelda represents not only one of the first great achievements of the home market, but a monumental moment in experience itself. For me, there are few more palpable symbols of mid-eighties, pre-globalization, Self-Esteem Movement-infused America: a becoming-of tale…a hero, divined by his very bloodline, by his True claim to the world, setting out to repair a world unable of repairing itself.

"Insert Side B" (Thanks Stefan!)

Ah but here come the nay-sayers:

…You’ve misread History, old bean! For you Americans the first major ‘Push Start’ was the Legend of Zelda…ah but that was 1987! The original Japanese release of the game in 1986 had been on the Famicom Disk System, and unlike your American counterpart, had been sans ‘Push Start!’ You arrogant fool, we wouldn’t get a ‘Push Start’-ed Zelda until 1991! So what say you now, now that your Great Beginning of Experience has been exposed as a fraud?



ここに。 それはここに始まった。




* * *

We live a history uncapturable by timelines. Try as we might to adhere to objective reality, our experience of the world is more akin to those pesky wiggle-worms in the eye: not only a matter of perspective but a matter of constant, fluid change.

In interrogating the title screen—our search for its purpose and meaning—we must ask ourselves, what does Push Start actually mean? For that matter, what does starting even mean? Where exactly in the life-long flush of experience do we say, Here. Here’s where it happened, where one thing ended and another thing began? If our subjective experience is ever-tangled in and around and through itself, what marks change?

Consider this Narrative of Thumbs we call gaming. When did I begin Mass Effect, for instance? Was it in my cracking open the case to inspect its manual ? Or was it my handing over of cold hard cash? And what about next year’s Mass Effect 3? Won’t Push Start have a dual meaning there, as I won’t be beginning my journey so much as concluding it? I’ll be concluding the story of the character I have shaped over the course of the previous two games. And yet, I am starting something…I’m starting the conclusion. So how might I classify the experience of Mass Effect 3 then? Did the game begin the first time I watched a preview, knowing beforehand that I would—as I always do—play the straight-laced hero? And what will inform my experience, my preferred style of play throughout the previous two games, or my memory of a few poor choices in Mass Effect 2? The first would be a continuity of self, the second a continuity of circumstance. Which Shepard are you, Shepard? Which me am I?

Let’s take it further back, to a place applicable to less interconnected games: Who’s to say that Mass Effect 3, though it was nearly twenty-five years away, didn’t begin with my first time reading Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series, my first foray into science fiction? Though the game would eventually exist despite my reading or not reading the only science fiction series that has really, truly interested me, I wouldn’t have really noticed it, just as I hardly noticed Jade Empire—a game which, until this moment, more or less in my mind did not exist.

So perhaps it was Asimov. But let’s not forget that it was my father’s interest in Asimov that fostered my own, my father whose image was my model for manhood. Does the beginning of Mass Effect really stretch that far back? If so, can it go further?

If you enjoy title screens, head on over to Please Press Start and have a look see!




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  2. Paul

    After years of videogame playing the word ‘start’ has taken on for me paradoxical resonances, associating itself not only with the moment I enter the game world but also, through the pause function, the moment I temporarily take my leave of it.

    • Good point, Paul. Though I have found that I like games to stay un-paused even when I myself go to do something else. I like the idea of Gordon Freeman just around the corner from a military team ready to gun him down, just hanging out.

      But then again, there are also those pause screens which are a pleasure/experience in and of themselves: In Ms. Splosion’ Man, for instance, the pause screen (somewhat incongruently, especially for those who didn’t play the first game) switches from whatever brass-and-spy-tune song has been playing to “Everybody Loves Doughnuts.”

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