Retro Review - Code Name Sector By Parker Brothers (1977)
Antony Brown is a games analyst and inventor who writes regularly on board games. His Retro Reviews take a nostalgic look at games of the past. This article looks at Code Name: Sector, a ground-breaking computerized game from 1977.
Rewind to 1975. It's all disco and flares as Jaws breaks all US box office records while in Britain we sit around our TVs to watch a new comedy called Fawlty Towers. No one cares that the Altair 8800 becomes the world's first home computer except for two programmers in Albuquerque who create a BASIC interpreter for it. Outraged as the program becomes widely bootlegged by computer hobbyists, the two programmers relocate to Seattle, form a company and call it Microsoft.
Meanwhile an astronomer, his wife and her brother have a plan: they want to leverage the new technology and make a million dollars on the side by creating electronic games. They land a meeting with Parker Brothers and show them a board game they've invented. It is a bit like the traditional game of battleships with the twist it's a submarine hunt but the star attraction is the prototype electronic unit with its LED display. Two years later Code Name: Sector is in the shopping malls in time for the Christmas rush.
Parker Brothers advertise its new game widely. It's a game with a mind of its own, they claim. "Can You Outsmart Our Computer? Don't be so sure. the computer is capable of making thousands of calculations per second." Well, give me a protractor and a few crayons and let's see.
This is the huge irony with Code Name Sector: the players use crayons, the play equipment of toddlers, to plot the course of a hidden sub that is controlled by a microprocessor. In fact, the single integrated circuit is made specifically for the game by the famous chip makers Texas Instruments (TI). Based on the TI family of TMS-1000 microprocessors, the chip had a 64 byte memory and a 1K ROM. Time-warping stuff compared to the gigabyte world of computers today.
The premise of the game is that each player is the commander of a destroyer. Your mission is to seek and destroy an enemy submarine before any of your opponents. The key concepts to the game is range, the distance of the sub from your ship, expressed in number of squares or points on the plastic board. Each turn you can move your ship, entering the distance and speed into the computer, you press the "Range" button which then flashes up on the display. Each turn, the sub moves one square in the same direction. Players must use the range function each time, with suitable deductions, to narrow down the moving target. Once found, the commander can fire a torpedo - but get it wrong and the sub may fire back, knocking you to a different position. With the "Evasive Sub" option of the game, the sub may also change its direction.
The game is brought to life by the eleven controls on the Combat Information Center and the LED displays. The red digits are tiny yet the display consumes a lot of battery power - so much so that after 30 seconds the display is replaced by two blinking dots to conserve energy. The "Recall" button re-displays the information. Such was the state of leading-edge technology in those days! Most of the buttons are to input your ship's speed and direction - the computer needs to know these to calculate the range each turn. There is also a compass to display directional information.
Players mark their ships positions and the possible locations of the sub using the crayons on the plastic board - a wipe is included to clean it afterwards. After each turn the player should be homing in your quarry. Once you are close enough to the sub and you believe you know its direction from your current position, you set the depth of your torpedo and hit the 'Fire' button. The computer tells you whether you hit the sub (and won the game) or how far out you were. In case you were wondering, the pastic submarine pieces are not used in the game except as trophies - one to be taken each time you win a game. Also, the game lacks player interaction - it's a race moderated by the computer.
The game comes with a teach mode and 14 pages of instructions and geometric diagrams to wade through - this may have dampened the enthusiasm of many boys on Christmas Day many years ago! Code Name Sector is a classic example of a computer board game from the late 70s and early 80s, the only time games like this were made. Commenting on the game's success in 1977, Time Magazine stated: "This is the year of the microprocessor .. What is on the way is not hard to guess: in a couple of years the game player's best friend will be the full-scale home computer."
How prescient. In fact, games like Submarine Hunter would appear for home computers like the ZX81 and the Atari 400 in just a few years. This is why these early electronic games are collectors' pieces - they were the in-thing for such a short period of time. But like all board games, Code Name Sector is tactile and there is something quite engaging about using the information center and plotting your course and rangefinders on the board. This is something computer games cannot replicate.
All this leaves one burning question: Did the astronomer, his wife and her brother succeed in their plan? They surely must have done. The astronomer was Bob Doyle who invented a string of electronic games in the late 70s and early 80s, including the multi-million selling Merlin The Electronic Wizard. It boasted six games in one handheld device that looked remarkably like an early mobile phone, which, coincidentally, was patented for the first time by Motorola in 1975, when it was all disco and flares.
Verdict: Code Name Sector is dated but this is precisely its appeal.