Happy Tax Day everyone! Did you get your refund yet? I did. Ten big ones. Ten United States dollars, deposited directly into my bank account by Uncle Sam himself. And what better to spend my newfound wealth on than the game inspired by the IRS, conceived by a licensed tax consultant and developed by an independent investment advisor? A game that distills the entirety of the American tax system to two screens made of graphics recycled from another game and packages it up nicely in a repurposed Sega cartridge shell. The game I speak of is, of course, Tax Avoiders.
Tax Avoiders is the first and only game released by American Videogame, a division of H&L Schwartz Inc., which sounds more like an accounting firm or law office than a maker of video games. Whatever it was, it doesn’t appear to be around any more. The closest thing ninety seconds of rigorous googling turned up was the case of Milton H.L. Schwartz, found guilty of concealing property from the Internal Revenue Service in 1954.
The game’s packaging credits Darrell Wagner, a licensed tax consultant and former IRS agent with conception, Todd Clark Holm, an independent investment advisor registered with the SEC with development and John Simonds with design. What these credits mean and what any of these three men did is a bit cloudy. Credit for actually programming the game goes to Dunhill Electronics, a development firm responsible for one other Atari 2600 game: Porky’s. The two games share much of the same animation, sound and gameplay mechanics, leaving very little left to do as far as conceiving, developing and designing are concerned.
If I had to guess, and I do because there’s very little information about this game out there that isn’t printed on the box, I’d guess a couple of accountants were talking about how much they spend on video games for their kids and how if they could get a piece of that they’d never have to do whatever it is accountants do all day ever again. Armed with the dream of spending their remaining days lazily doing whatever it is accountants would do all day if they didn’t have to do whatever accountants do all day, they approached a development company which (and this is not just idle speculation on my part, it was admitted by one of the Porky’s programmers) was in the business of creating video games that could be sold at a loss and used as tax write-offs. The fact that no one seems to be able to remember seeing Tax Avoiders anywhere other than in clearance bins after The Crash suggests that American Videogame, who or whatever that was, either actually did intend to use Tax Avoiders as a write-off from the start or were simply way too late in the game to cash in on the Atari 2600 craze.
The player takes the role of John Q., a typical 1980’s American trying to earn a million dollars and avoid paying taxes on it. The first step is raising capital, done on the income screen. Here John Q. navigates four platforms collecting dollars signs worth $2000 each while avoiding government red tape, which causes him to lose $2000. There are no enemies on this screen, just a time limit. When the date at the bottom of the screen reaches February 10, the action abruptly switches to the investment screen. Now the goal is to collect icons representing investments and add them to the portfolio in the bottom left corner of the screen. Some investments earn money every “day” they’re in your possession, others lose money, but all provide at least some capital gains income when added to the portfolio. Once in the portfolio they can also act as tax shelters, allowing John Q. to keep more of his money at the end of the quarter.
The investment screen is the home of Eggie the IRS agent, Waggie the CPA and Toodles the investment advisor, three characters who inhabit the same body. The Eggie/Waggie/Toodles sprite cycles between three colors, each representing one personality. Black is the IRS agent. If he catches John Q. he will audit him, take half his money and send him back to the income screen. Pink is the CPA. If John Q. catches him he takes $1000 and makes a new investment icon appear on the screen.Green is the investment advisor. Catching him while an investment icon is on screen replaces it with the video game investment, which acts as a 100% tax shelter if it’s in John Q.’s portfolio at the end of the quarter. When the quarter ends, it’s back to the income screen and the cycle repeats until the calendar hits December 31.
The internet is largely of the opinion that Tax Avoiders is a hilariously awful game. But the internet is written almost entirely by and for 17-year-olds who think all Atari 2600 games besides Pitfall and Yars’ Revenge are hilariously awful by virtue of being Atari 2600 games that aren’t Pitfall or Yars’ Revenge. Yes, it’s an odd little game with a “greed is good” theme that is comically out of date in the post-99% world that has neither enough platforming action to be a good platform game nor enough actual investment strategy to be a good investment strategy game. But it has just enough of each to make it a unique and entertaining game once you understand what’s going on. So find a copy, take a couple of minutes to read the manual (worth it for the cheesy anti-government jabs) and see if you’ve got what it takes to be a millionaire.