Home TECHNOLOGY VIDEO GAMES The mysterious disappearance of the developer behind the first video game heroine

The mysterious disappearance of the developer behind the first video game heroine

The mysterious disappearance of the developer behind the first video game heroine

Game news The mysterious disappearance of the developer behind the first video game heroine

Disappearance cases that span a few decades rarely lead to a happy conclusion. The Ban Tran case is an exception whose chapters of the story all turn out to be exhilarating.

You may not have read his name anywhere else before, but Ban Tran is a historical figure in video games. She is probably the first developer to feature a heroine in a video game, Wabbit. Some may refute the information by saying that the honor instead goes to an arcade game from developer Exidy called Score. But there is no longer any way to play it or to see any image of it. Its content, described as a “battle of the sexes”, is only told in the columns of old specialized magazines. So let’s stick to Wabbit, an Atari 2600 shooter in which young Billie Sue defends her carrot yard against bunnies who would feast on it. Naturally, the designer is of interest to video game historians; in particular Kevin Bunch and Kate Willært, who try by all means to join her for the good of their documentary, in vain. A few years after Wabbit was developed in a dead and buried box, Ban Tran has simply disappeared into the wild. “She seems to have become a kind of ghost“, Bunch breathes.

The Apollo tragedy

Kevin Bunch is a video game historian passionate about Atari archives. Kate Willaert is working on the production of a 50-episode YouTube series on playable female protagonists. So inevitably, Ban Tran is in a way their Holy Grail, the ultimate achievement to unlock. But at the beginning of their research, we do not know much about her, except that she is Vietnamese and that she worked in the premises of Apollo, a company based in Richardson, Texas. The box is owned by a certain Patrick Roper, a guy who doesn’t know much about video games but who detected all the lucrative potential there after having tested the ground of NFL Football on the Intellivision. Surrounded by a good twenty employees, together they begin to market titles more or less modeled on the great successes of Activision and other fashionable studios. “Activision made 26 million sales in the first year, Apollo will make 27” supposedly blurted out Roper during one of his first internal meetings. And then when the Crash of 1983 comes to an end, Apollo is one of the first companies to go bankrupt.. It is in this quagmire that evolves Ban Tran.

The mysterious disappearance of the developer behind the first video game heroine

The Richardson Company offers positions for experienced assembler programmers with experience in microprocessors. We are a growing firm with unlimited growth potential for a few very special people. Please call Michael Smith at 690-8366 or send your resume to: Games by Apollo, 1300 E Arapaho Rd, Richardson. TX-75081 – Advertisement in the Dallas Morning News, 1982. Source: Video Game History Foundation.

The mysterious disappearance of the developer behind the first video game heroine

Photo provided to VGHF

Ban Tran is first spotted in the club’s parking lot by a few employees. The anecdote is told from a forum page in 2013 by a former employee, Dan Oliver, who was quite hesitant about the accuracy of his memories (Source: Kate Willaert). But everything is good to take; he is one of the few who vaguely remembers his colleague’s name. “Our office overlooked the parking lot and we could see people being interviewed for an interview park and get in. Ban was extremely attractive and when she walked past us, people rushed into Ed’s office begging him to hire her. And we kept walking past his desk trying to crack him up.” And he cracks. “It’s not like we need experience anyway. If you knew how to spell 6502, you were taken”. But it turns out that Ban Tran is a great pickaxe. At Apollo, each small team formed is responsible for its own game. In her group, she is the only one to present a concept with disconcerting speed.

It was an extremely intense concept. Night Trap felt like a children’s story. 20 years ahead of its time and far too intense for the VCS. And she explained it as if it were a picnic at the beach. So pretty quickly the stereotype started to fall – Dan Oliver.

Gone without a trace

The mysterious disappearance of the developer behind the first video game heroine

The sublime cover of Wabbit

Despite these great ambitions, you may have already understood, but Apollo is not really a fan of risk taking and prefers to stick to what he knows how to do: imitation. Ban will do Wabbit instead, which is basically just a variant of Space Invaders. “Ban was given Project Wabbit and his idea I guess was put in a time capsule and pulled years later, toned down and become GTA”, imagines Oliver. The game was released in 1982. The technique is quite impressive for the platform it is based on, the Atari VCS. At first easily tamed, the enemy rabbits gradually move at breakneck speed. And the scoring system is quite ingenious: the game only ends if the mammals score 100 points. On the other hand, if the player scores a multiple of 100, the rabbits’ score goes down and grants the player more time. Finally, the character of Billie Sue also caused a sensation for her beautiful explosive colors. To achieve this result within the confines of a machine accustomed to monochromatic elements, Ban Tran layered two different character sprites to create the little girl, one covering her hair, eyes, dress and shoes, the other illustrating the color of her skin, the soles of her shoes and the white parts of her outfit (source: VGHF). In shopping centers, the game is quickly a victim of its success and easily emancipates from the simple layer. Kevin Bunch thinks it’s probably the finest remnant of Apollo.

But a few years after the fall of the company, traces of Ban Tran disappear. And getting your hands on it feels even harder than a game of Where’s Wally in nightmare mode. His name is massively spread across the planet. In Texas alone, the white pages list over 100 namesakes. Bunch remembers writing a dozen letters in 2019, each addressed to Ban Tran, all of which ended in failure.

As for Roper, the founder of Apollo, he lost his life in a car accident in the 1990s. Anyway, who could really hold the answers to Bunch and Willært’s questions? Let us recall the feverish context of IT in the 80s, the poor keeping of its registers, its bankrupt start-ups. The industry was in a mad mess. Most Apollo employees were only able to get their last payslip by going through the court box. A boon, because it is finally through this that the helping souls of the Video Game History Foundation (non-profit organization) get their hands on Tran: by researching the legal cases related to the bankruptcy of Apollo . We discover that in reality, a letter of the alphabet has sown chaos in the research of Kevin Bunch and Kate Willært. Ban Tran was actually called Van Tran, before becoming Van Mai following a marriage. His colleague Dan Oliver rightly doubted his memory.

One of the hardest parts of writing about women in gaming history is when they take on a new name after posting a piece of work, and suddenly their work gets split in half, or it is entirely obliterated – Kate Willaert.

Mystery solved

In the columns of Video Game History Foundation, it is now Van Mai who tells his own story. A refugee from the Vietnam War, she moved to Dallas with her family, who enrolled her in a local high school. But the language barrier pushes her to give up and she opts instead for evening classes on the advice of a friend. There she learns programming on the IMB 360. The language of computers seems to her much more comforting. Once certified, she landed a position as a programmer in the education sector of the Dallas Independent School District. Then by chance she finally came across an ad from the Dallas Morning News published by Apollo. Their premises are just a few steps from her home. The rest, we knew it in broad outline; Van Mai manages to run Wabbit with only 4 kilobytes of memory. I’m a pretty good coder thanks to that, because in the beginning there wasn’t much room to write your logic, and you have to write good logic because of the space“. The development occupies only 4 to 6 months after which, the game is presented at the Fair of the State of Texas before being quickly marketed. “My mother was proud of me“. Full of ambitions, Mai then worked on the design of a new game, before bankruptcy forced her to pack her boxes. She says that during the last months of work, Apollo employees obtained of the company that it pays them royalties on copies of their games sold, and his last check took almost seven years to arrive.

A year after the disappearance of the box, Van Mai is working on a new version of Solar Fox for the Atari 5200 at MicroGraphic Image. In the premises of this company whose walls still smell of fresh paint, she finds former colleagues from Apollo: Tim Martin, Cash Foley and Robert Barber. But the atmosphere is not so good. Mai remembers that the disputes regularly animated the exchanges of the founders. Solar Fox was proudly exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show in the summer of 1983 but never saw the light of day. The reasons will not really be laid out. But you get the idea: Van Mai is certainly full of talent, but clearly unlucky. Resigned, she joined the benches of the University of California, then moved to Texas to work as an Oracle developer in a French telecommunications company. Today, she evolves in the banking sector. Some would argue that mysteries are always better intact, but bringing it to light has helped restore a whole chunk of history. The history of video games is overflowing with talents which, by force of circumstance and an unfortunate context, have never been able to fully blossom there. This was also the case with Jim Sachs, pioneer of pixel art on the Amiga, whose story we told you a few weeks ago. The video game is far behind Van Mai, but his imprint remains indelible.

It was wonderful. Writing games is the best part – I don’t know, I could never find a job like that. You just dive in there, play games for a while to get ideas, and then sit down and talk to your teammates, giving opinions to each other. It was fun – Van Mai.

Source: Video Game History Foundation, Polygon, Gamespot