A few years ago, Sprout Games published Feeding Frenzy. In 2006, a sequel was released by PopCap Games (the company behind games like Plants Vs. Zombies and Peggle). In the game, you played as a fish feeding on other fish. The more you ate, the larger you got. Of course, other fish were trying to eat you too. The Circle of Life and all that. It was a simple game, but no less charming for its simplicity. However, it was not an entirely original creation.
In 1982, Intellivision released Shark! Shark! The game’s catalog description could have been re-used by Feeding Frenzy and no one would have known the difference: “It’s survival of the fittest in the deep, dark waters of the ocean. And you’re just a little fish! You must eat smaller fish to stay alive and grow. But you’re not the only one struggling for survival. Bigger fish are out to eat you.”
For a title that would later be regarded as one of Intellivision’s best, Shark! Shark! had an inauspicious beginning. Skeptical of the game’s appeal, only 5600 copies of the game were shipped on release. In contrast, Star Strike (released the same year) shipped 800,000 copies.
The lack of early promotion and hype did not harm the game. Rave reviews flowed in after release. Videogaming Illustrated wrote, “”Shark! Shark! is an original. A must cartridge for Intellivision owners…positively delightful…certainly one of the finest cartridges for this system.” Nearly four decades later, and the game still stands up. It regularly appears on lists of the best titles created for the Intellivision and is listed as one of the titles that will be revived for the new Intellivision Amico. In 2009, it was selected for permanent inclusion in the United States Library of Congress National Game Registry by the National Game Preservation Board.
The game is also notable for the woman who programmed it. Though the game was designed by Don Daglow (a member of the legendary Blue Sky Rangers), it was programmed by Ji-Wen Tsao.
The popular perception of the video game industry is that its earliest years were a sort of boys only club, but women have been helping shape the world of gaming from the very beginning. Carol Shaw created a 3D version of Tic-Tac-Toe in 1978, and Dona Bailey designed the classic Atari game Centipede two years later. Along with her husband Ken, Roberta Williams founded Sierra On-Line. Jin-Wen Tsao was another one of those early pioneers, though she is not as well known as others. Don Daglow lamented this in a 2009 interview while simultaneously celebrating the diversity of Intellivision’s team when he stated, “Ji-Wen doesn’t get credit as being one of the first video game programmers…we had a number of women who were involved in the team as programmers, and because there were no traditions set up yet, the fact that we had a team that had a really diverse background… we didn’t realize how lucky we were to have as diverse a team as we did at the time.” Other women involved in Intellivision’s programming and design included Julie Hoshizaki, Connie Goldman, Monique Lujan-Bakerink, Minchau Tran, and Peggi Decarli.
Tsao later became part of the Mattel Electronics team adapting M Network games for personal computers. She worked on the IBM PC team, and programmed the 1983 adaptation of the Intellivision classic Night Stalker.
Some games are remembered for their brilliant and addictive gameplay, others for the historical circumstances surrounding their creation. In a rare case like Shark! Shark!, the two converge to create something truly special.