The young guy in the trucker cap, skinny jeans and Air Jordans squeezed the trigger on the toy shotgun and his umpteenth round of “Big Buck Hunter” blasted to life. The guy was maybe 25 and so focused on bagging digital deer, the butt of the gun pressed hard into his shoulder, that he never noticed the tall, smiling man behind him, watching.
The man was Eugene Jarvis, president of Raw Thrills, a Skokie video game company. In 2006, Raw Thrills bought Glen Ellyn-based Play Mechanix, the company that created “Big Buck Hunter.” Initially Jarvis wasn't convinced “Big Buck Hunter” was relevant; the arcade-game business, once ubiquitous, had contracted back to a novelty, and “Big Buck Hunter” seemed like old news.
Since then, Jarvis has overseen a number of successful iterations — each louder, brighter and more aggressively grabby than the last. In fact, you might argue “Big Buck Hunter” has become the last great arcade game.
You could argue this. But Jarvis would argue you're wrong.
Jarvis still believes in the future of the old-school coin-operated arcade game.
He's never not believed.
The young guy's girlfriend held two beers and nodded to the boyish Jarvis, who smiled, turned and walked through a throng of other gamers. This was a year ago, when I first met Jarvis, at the Big Buck Hunter World Championship Tournament at the Cubby Bear bar near Wrigley Field. He went unrecognized, as he would most places. Still, I was surprised that even here, surrounded by the culture he had a big hand in creating, no one stopped him. For a time in the '80s, he was something of a famous game designer, the subject of several magazine pieces and media attention. Indeed, he was, and is, one of the few famous game designers. As a kid I knew about him. I knew who he was before I knew who Bob Dylan was.
When I told him this, he said: “Many of us then had an illusion that designers would become like rock stars, that people would recognize the signature of a designer the way they saw the signature of a film director. But that was frustrating, to be honest. Much to my disappointment, people relate to games, not creators.”
George Petro, president of Play Mechanix, stood beside Jarvis and listened. He is 47 and was mentored by Jarvis, who is 57. Both of these guys, however, look about 40. Petro waited for Jarvis to finish, then said:
“When I came to Chicago I had heard of Eugene. I had just gotten out of high school and worked in an arcade in Indiana, and Eugene was the man — he was profiled in Playboy magazine! How many game designers were being written about by real journalists? I loved ‘Defender'! I loved ‘Stargate'! I loved ‘Robotron'! His games, they played differently than other games. They were faster, harder, edgier. Everything blew up in Eugene's games. I remember wondering who the guy was who made ‘Defender' before I knew who he was. For a while I thought video games came from game heaven, not from geniuses named Eugene.”
Jarvis giggled. He giggles a lot.
Jarvis was born and raised in Silicon Valley. Which is a bit like writing: “Oprah Winfrey was born and raised in a Chicago TV studio.” The person matches the birthplace with eerie perfection. Then again, Jarvis, who is responsible for a remarkable number of gaming innovations and an absurdly long list of successful titles stretching four decades, is something of a video game Zelig, a game developer with a Forrest Gump-like ability to have witnessed (or had a hand in) a number of pivotal moments in the history of the medium.
Scrolling games, for instance. Jarvis pioneered scrolling. (Which is like being the first guy to say, “Hey, what would happen if we added pages to this stone tablet?”) Also, dual joysticks — he created dual joysticks.
As a teenager he attended the meetings of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, which included Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. After college, he was hired by Atari, where founder Nolan Bushnell was pushing innovations (and Jobs was designing a new “Pong” game named “Breakout”). During the pinball era, Jarvis' successes included Atari's “Superman” and Williams Electronics' “Firepower” and “High Speed.” During the early '80s he designed “Defender,” “Stargate,” and “Robotron”; during the late '80s and '90s, he made “Narc,” “Smash TV,” and the “Cruis'n USA” franchise. More recently, he's the guy behind the “Fast and Furious” driving games, the publisher of “Big Buck Hunter” and the developer who recognized, as Hollywood did decades earlier when faced with the threat of television, the physical size of the medium would be key to its survival: Raw Thrills' machines, the industry standard, are loud and gigantic.
“This business is so technology-driven you're lucky to have one big game in one era,” said Larry DeMar, Jarvis' former designing partner. “But Eugene? Hits era after era, genre after genre. Only he has done that.”
Oh, Jarvis also mentored Ed Boon, co-creator of “Mortal Kombat,” and game developer Mark Trammell of Zynga. A decade earlier, he mentored the programmers who went on to create Commodore's Amiga computer. He also created the graphics-rendering hardware that Nintendo bought and used to develop the Nintendo 64.
“Gene is more important to popular culture than you probably have space to talk about in a newspaper story,” said George Gomez, vice president of game development for Melrose Park-based Stern Pinball, the last major pinball machine maker. Gomez, a contemporary of Jarvis' who designed “Tron” and “Spy Hunter” for Bally Midway, added: “Lightning strikes once and people go, ‘Oh. Lightning.' When it strikes as often as it does for Eugene, it's no accident. We laugh in this business about him because there's gold under every rock he turns over. Everyone gets out of the business, he jumps back in and sets new industry standards.”
In his Skokie office recently, when I asked Jarvis why, considering all the success, he never left the business for the less risky shores of home gaming, he said: “You know, 30 years ago, that's what designers talked about: ‘Seriously, dude, when you getting a real job?'”
He thought of something. He went to a framed picture on his office wall and pulled it down: It was a picture of a video-game stamp issued as part of a series of stamps commemorating the 1980s. The good news is, the stamp designer chose “Defender” as the game to put on it; the bad news is that the designer chose the Atari 2600 console version.
In the Atari version, the graceful design of Jarvis' arcade “Defender” — minimalist landscapes of neon incandescence, fluid spaceships, explosions of bright colors — was replaced by a blobby 8-bit blockiness. “I know games look better now, but I never warmed to (home gaming) afterward,” he said. “It's like, movies are for the big screen and books are meant for print, and to me the natural state of the video game is the arcade machine. Arcade games became my unique mission.”