The lights are on
Before the age of online stat-tracking and virtual bragging rights, you either had to hope that your friends didn’t think (or find out) you were lying about your video game accolades, or iron a few Activision patches to your jacket. These video game merit badges are the original, tangible equivalent of today’s digital Achievements and Trophies; physical items sent to players who achieved video game glory directly from the people who made the games.
From the very first games Activision published for the Atari 2600, and until around 1983, almost every Activision game gave players the option of taking a photograph of their high scores and sending them to the publisher to receive a patch commemorating their accomplishment. Every game had certain score requirements, with some games offering different patches for different tiers of scores. These paatches were available for all of Activision’s games, including those that released for Intellivision. Toy Bizarre, an Activision-published game available only on Commodore 64, also offered a patch. The only games that didn’t provide patches were the obvious multiplayer exceptions that did not have high-score tracking, like Checkers or Bridge.
This is only a small sampling of the patches available to players of Activision games. More than 40 were available to talented players across multiple gaming platforms.
In order to get your hands on a patch, first you had to achieve the requirement as outlined by Activision. Every game came with a listing of what scores were necessary to receive a patch and where to send your photographic evidence in the game’s booklet. For example, you had to achieve 20,000 points in Pitfall!, snap a photo of your television as proof of your accomplishment, get the photo developed, and then mail it to Activision. After a few weeks, your Explorers’ Club patch would arrive in the mail and you could live the rest of your life proud.
Letter of RecognitionAlong with the patch in the mail, players also received a letter from Jan Marsella, an Activision employee from the customer relations department whose job title changed depending on the letter you received. The only exception was the letter received if you obtained the appropriate score in Pitfall! In that situation, Pitfall Harry would send players a personalized letter congratulating them on their accomplishment. While still in character, Harry would also warn new patch owners to be cautious when ironing the patch, reminding them that sewing the patch is a valid alternative.
Some games granted multiple patches for different score tiers. Laser Blast offered one patch for obtaining 100,000 points, and a separate patch for 1,000,000 points. Strangely, achieving the highest score didn’t necessarily merit all of the patches. Robot Tank, for example, had three patches for destroying 48, 60, and 72 tanks. Destroying 72 tanks did not automatically award you the lower tier patches, as many Achievements and Trophies do today. If you wanted all three patches, you had to send in three -different -photographs.
Every patch had a unique design and earned you a spot in an honorary club. If you gained 3,800 points in the first level of Starmaster, you became a memeber of the Order of the Supreme Starmaster. Receiving any patch was accompanied by a letter of congratulations and subscribed you to Activision’s newsletter. The newsletter had the expected advertisements for upcoming games, but also contained high-score tips for Activision titles, as well as profiles of the company’s -game -developers.
Activision no longer offers patches to motivated players, but collectors are selling them on eBay and other online venues. Most patches go for anywhere from $15 to $40, but there are a few rare exceptions that fetch upwards of $100. One of the most difficult patches to obtain was the gold medal patch in Decathlon, and there is also a hard-to-find Beamrider patch that is worth more than the -average -patch.
As we move further away from the era of tangible media, these patches are a reminder of a time when you could physically hold your games – as well as your high scores. These patches will exist as long as collectors hoard them or until the seams fall apart, but our Achievements and Trophies will last only as long as the online servers are maintained.
In the letter written to fans able to achieve Pitfall’s patch-worthy score, Mr. Pitfall Harry himself wrote, “In permanent recognition of your special ability to find treasure despite snapping crocodiles and deadly scorpions, I've enclosed my official emblem.” No digital Achievement or Trophy can offer the same “permanent” accolade.
Check out the video below to see Tim Turi and myself attempt to obtain some of the high scores necessary to receive a coveted Activision patch.
Image credits and thanks to Joe Santulli, director of the Videogame History Museum and dpvideogames.com.
Editor's note: This feature originally appeared in issue #246
Email the author Kyle Hilliard, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.