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Article 38—THE PIGSKIN PLAYER’S HANDBOOK (1990)

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The first time I saw Bally/Midway’s Pigskin 621 A.D. (at a coin-op trade show in 1990), I immediately recognized that the game’s graphics had been drawn by the same person who contributed art to some of my favorite arcade games. Thor Akenbak, Klaus Shave
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and the rest of the Pigskin characters had the same expressive, googly-eyed charm as Mr. M. Brace from Xenophobe, George the giant ape from Rampage and Blade from Arch Rivals. I should have already known that the artist’s name was Brian Colin, because he was credited in the “attract mode” demo screens of several of those games.

Colin and co-designer/programmer Jeff Nauman came up with some unusual ways to promote Pigskin, one of which is available for perusal at the link above. To the best of my knowledge, The Pigskin Player’s Handbook is the world’s first and only consumer instruction manual made for a coin-operated video game. Arcade games have always been accompanied by
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operations manuals, but players rarely get to see them. They usually don’t have a great deal of gameplay information, anyway; their primary purpose is to explain the games’ functionality and testing features to arcade owners and operators. Unlike the designers of home video games, arcade game designers only had two choices if they wanted to tell their customers how a game was played: They could either explain it on the screen with in-game text and graphics, or they could include that information on the monitor bezel and control panel of the arcade cabinet itself.

Pigskin did a little bit of both of those things, but ultimately, it was Colin’s idea to communicate with players via a 16-page handbook. “The whole concept of controlling an entire squad was so different from anything that had ever been done before,” he explained in a recent e-mail. “I felt that players might be intrigued about the wide variety of new strategies and play opportunities. Remember, controlling groups in real-time combat was not a common video-game practice...this was several years before General Chaos [Colin and Nauman’s real-time strategy game for the Sega Genesis], and ‘Blizzard’ was still just [a word used to describe] a normal Chicago winter’s day. Besides, I had generated quite a bit of pen-and-ink art for the cabinet, and I thought we could put it to good use.”

But how to get it into players’ hands? With Bally/Midway’s permission, Colin created the guidebook, rented a local P.O. box and included a simple screen in the game’s
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“attract mode,” explaining that players could get the guidebook by sending in a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Besides doling out gameplay tips and hints from the designers, the handbook also includes an order form that fans could use to obtain official Pigskin 621 A.D. mail-order merchandise. The available items included football jerseys in four different sizes, a Pigskin logo cap and—most interesting of all—a tabletop game called Pigskin Pro-Brawl. I happen to own a complete copy of Pigskin Pro-Brawl, and I’ve uploaded a photo of its contents at this link. Note that the character tokens in the lower left corner of that photo are shown in their original, uncut state (you’re supposed to separate them and insert them into the red and blue plastic holders). I’m a little embarrassed about this, because their condition makes it clear that I have never actually played the game!

Considering what I know about the often crazed development of latter-day video games, I’m frankly amazed that Colin and Nauman had the time and the inclination to do all of
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this extra creative work while simultaneously producing a complete arcade game. Not only did they publish the first user manual of its kind, create a Pigskin clothing line and design a completely separate tabletop game, but they coordinated all of these efforts so that the arcade game pointed players in the direction of the guidebook, and the guidebook redirected them to the merchandise. And guess who handled the fulfillment? “I opened all the mail,” Colin admits, “and mailed out all the stuff. Dealing with fans is always fun....”

While I’m still on the subject of my admiration for Brian Colin, I’d like to get back to something I brought up in the first paragraph of this article. How many video-game sprite artists have such a distinctive style that you can instantly recognize their work from one game to the next, even in different gameplay genres? I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I can only remember one other epiphany that was similar to the
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one I had when I saw Pigskin. When I first played Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator coin-op, I noticed that the in-game characters were obviously designed by the same person who created some of the sprite art for Super Street Fighter II (and many other notable Capcom games, as I later discovered). I still don’t even know that guy’s name; I just know that he is usually credited as “Bengus” or possibly another pseudonym.

And that’s it. Of all the hundreds—perhaps thousands—of video games I’ve played, particularly in the era when 2-D sprite-based games were the norm, Brian Colin is the only artist whose character designs and sprite artwork were so easily identifiable, at least in my eyes. Even more remarkable is the fact that he achieved that level of distinction way back in the 1980s, when video-game graphics were far more primitive than they are today. Granted, he had the luxury of what was considered to be pretty advanced hardware at the time. With his early work on games like Discs of Tron and the original Spy Hunter, he was one of the first people to create art for games with a screen resolution higher than 224 x 288 or whatever the standard was in the Pac-Man/Donkey Kong era. But the capabilities of today’s game systems are far beyond those of Pigskin’s MCR-68k hardware, and sprite artists with
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Colin’s degree of individuality are still few and far between. (Shantae’s Matt Bozon and Scott Pilgrim’s Paul Robertson have come close, but it could be argued that they are both better known for the quality of their animation than for their character designs.)

Starting with Rampage: World Tour, Game Refuge (the company that Colin and Nauman founded after leaving Williams/Bally/Midway) shifted its focus from 2-D sprite-based games to 3-D polygon-based graphics. Because of this, Colin has created very little sprite art in the years since the release of General Chaos. His 3-D character designs are just as distinctive as his 2-D sprite work and his pen-and-ink art, but—generally speaking—polygonal characters just don’t have the same grit and appeal as sprite artwork, where the color and placement of every single pixel is worth agonizing over. I mentioned this to Colin the last time I saw him (this was in 2008), and he told me that Game Refuge had recently started work on a casino game that would feature some art in the laborious 2-D style for which he was known in the ’80s and ’90s. He said that he was creating bitmapped imagery for the first time in years, and that he was enjoying the work. I don’t know what became of that particular project, but I hoped that the experience would inspire him to consider getting back into sprite art on a regular basis. I’d love to see what Colin and Nauman could do with sprites on systems like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, with their widescreen HD graphics, expansive color palettes and comparatively enormous memory capacity.

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© 2011 Chris Bieniek. Certain video game images, characters and logos on this Web site are copyrighted or trademarked by their respective publishers.