Most video games offer an escape from reality. So, what was the deal with Atari’s Paperboy? What kid wanted to spend their hard-earned cash to do what they got paid to do every morning – and usually hating every minute?
But this was no ordinary paper route, and this was no ordinary paperboy.
The game – launched by Atari in 1985 – ought to have been called Paperboy’s Revenge. Rolled-up newspapers made handy projectile weapons, and Paperboy actually rewarded you for misusing them. It was a juvenile delinquent’s dream come true where vandalism was rewarded, and there were no consequences . . .
As our heroic paperboy rode down the street on his finely-tuned bike, he passed the houses of newspaper subscribers and non-subscribers alike.
If he wanted to keep his job, he tossed papers safely onto the doormats or into the mailboxes of subscribers, but everything and everyone else was fair game.
The biggest targets were non-subscriber homes, which were conveniently painted in drab greys and blacks.
The game awarded bonus points for breaking windows in these homes, as well as knocking over their front yard tombstones (don’t ask).
But you had to pick your targets carefully. If you smashed the window of a subscriber’s home, they’d cancel their delivery, and soon, the little paperboy would be out of a job.
There were plenty of other people and objects to throw at: cars, kids on bikes and Big Wheels, brawling men, trash cans, even the Grim Reaper himself – but many of these struck back.
The paperboy’s route also took him across a busy intersection, where danger travelled well above the residential speed limit.
Newspaper supplies were also limited, so Paperboy had to watch for extra bundles sitting at the side of the road.
At the end of the street was a fancy BMX dirt track, where the paperboy could hone his skills by throwing at bull’s eye targets while catching air on handy ramps. The day ended with a tally of Paperboy’s score based on his successful deliveries and breakage bonuses.
In early versions of the game, it was possible to take advantage of a programming glitch that allowed Paperboy to veer off at the end of the dirt track and continue riding through a bizzaro version of the town. If you made it through the town unscathed, you were given an endless number of extra lives. In later years, the glitch was fixed.
The clever concept and eye-catching graphics of Paperboy were enough to keep players coming back for more, but the game’s unique controls were usually what got them to try it out in the first place. Players gripped actual handlebars to control the bike, pushing forward to accelerate and pulling back to brake.
If they tried to go too slowly, however, a swarm of bees chased them down. Atari used a similar gimmick in their 1986 skateboarding game, 720º.