Unleashing Innovation: How MIT Mavericks Amplified Arcade Challenges and Racked Up Game-Changing Gains

Estimated read time 3 min read

In a captivating tale that fuses geek genius with gaming gold, Netflix’s docuseries “High Score” delves into the vibrant history of early video games, spotlighting the arcade sensation of the late ’70s and ’80s. In Episode 1, aptly named “Boom & Bust,” the spotlight shines on three visionary MIT students: Doug Macrae, Steve Golson, and Mike Horowitz.

With their ingenious minds, they not only reshaped arcade history but also transformed their own destiny by hacking Atari’s Missile Command and crafting an electrifying saga of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Doug Macrae, an MIT entrant in 1976 who eventually chose his own path over a traditional degree, embarked on an audacious adventure by installing a pinball machine within his dorm’s walls. By the time he reached his junior year, the partnership with Steve Golson led to an underground arcade empire, flourishing clandestinely across multiple dormitories. This coalition wasn’t just about gaming – it was about creating a realm of challenge that would redefine how people engaged with arcade classics.

The crux of their masterplan lay in the simple yet profound notion that difficulty fuels determination. As the games grew harder, players fell quicker, compelled by the allure of another try. This captivating concept led to more coins being dropped, forming a steady stream of revenue that defied traditional norms.

During a pivotal spring break in 1981, the duo crafted software enhancement kits that injected new life into the beloved Missile Command. Super Missile Attack emerged, featuring a symphony of upgrades: an armory of missiles, swifter projectiles, nimble clouds, diverse attack modes, vibrant hues, and enchanting sounds. Most strikingly, the UFO emerged as a novel adversary, raising the stakes and enhancing the thrill.

Their brainchild took flight, leading to the sale of a staggering 1,000 enhancement kits within mere months, each priced at $295 – amassing a remarkable quarter of a million dollars. With their innovation streak ablaze, Macrae and Golson set their sights on an even loftier target: Pac-Man, the reigning champion of 1981 arcades. Enlisting the prowess of Mike Horowitz, they ventured to amplify the iconic game. Fresh mazes, novel sounds, and ghostly randomness breathed new life into Pac-Man, ensuring that predictability was a thing of the past.

Yet, as the trio toiled on, their blaze of ingenuity caught the attention of Atari. Accused of copyright infringement, trademark dilution, and misrepresentation of origin, Macrae and Golson found themselves entangled in a legal web. Atari’s shadow loomed, casting uncertainty over their journey. In a twist of fate, a settlement was reached, bringing both challenges and opportunities. They vowed to seek permission before tampering with future games and accepted an intriguing proposition – to create for Atari.

The narrative of Macrae and Golson’s daring escapade might seem a distant echo in today’s world, where dorm-room arcades no longer bear the weight of tuition. Nevertheless, their legacy endures as a testament to the fusion of innovation and entrepreneurship. As you immerse yourself in the captivating episodes of “High Score,” streaming on Netflix, remember that beneath the pixelated screens lie the audacious dreams and triumphant exploits of visionaries who reshaped the realm of gaming forever.

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