Circus (1977): Casino-style Gaming

The simplicity of the Breakout concept was such that it was easy to create new games that offered slight variations on the formula without seeming like straight clones.  In the late '70s, the most notable of the Breakout variants was probably Exidy's Circus (1977).  In place of the Breakout paddle, the game features a pair of clowns taking turns catapulting each other off of a seesaw and in place of the bricks is three rows of balloons in constant horizontal motion.  The objective of the game is to break as many balloons as possible without letting the clowns hit the ground.

At first, I found Circus to be an interesting spin on the Breakout formula.  These early arcade games generally had a high initial difficulty, so playing them feels like constantly teetering on the edge of a cliff.  This feeling is amplified by the paddle controller, which is sensitive enough that even the smallest uncontrolled motions can lead to a missed bounce.  Circus takes that teetering feeling and brings it to life with the clowns, whose aerial acrobatics appear chaotic and constantly on the brink of disaster.  Adding further to the feeling of disorientation is the bounce speed, which increases so quickly that you'll need lightning-fast reflexes to keep up.

But after playing for a while, I began to feel like I was being had.  My turns always lasted about the same amount of time and there seemed to be very little correlation between my final score and how well I played.  As it turned out, my highest score came from this playthrough:

After three easy bounces I launch a clown deep enough into the balloons that he manages to pop most of them.  When he finally makes his way out of the balloons, he goes into hyper-speed and I barely manage to hold on long enough to pop a few more balloons before he falls into an unreachable spot at the corner of the screen.  The hardest part of this play-through, by far, was the last few high-speed bounces, but the vast majority of my points were piled up in the beginning when the clown got stuck in the balloons.

When the outcome of a game is mostly a function of random factors, it becomes a game of chance and is therefore only superficially interactive.  That is, the player may be controlling particular elements of the game, but the outcomes we care about are mostly random or dependent on factors beyond the control of the player.  In the case of Circus, I have full control of the see-saw that's bouncing the clowns into the balloons, but their trajectory after they bounce off of the see-saw is largely out of my control.  And since the number of balloons I hit depends very sensitively on the clowns' trajectory, my final score is mostly random.  There may be players out there who are skilled enough that they can consistently achieve high scores, but your average player is mostly just rolling the dice, hoping the clown gets into that perfect position among the balloons.

Superficially interactive games are not necessarily the product of poor game design; in fact, the gambling industry is entirely dependent on them.  Whether it's a slot machine, where the player might do nothing more than pull a lever, or a game of blackjack, where the player's decisions are mostly self-evident, casinos rely on designs that take the outcome out of the hands of player.  If players actively perceived these games as what they are -- random number generators weighted in the casino's favor -- many of them wouldn't play, so the games are designed to obscure their true mechanics.

Circus is not quite as bad as the games you find at a casino, but there are a disturbing number of similarities.  Aside from the randomized outcomes, the colorful, moving balloons bear a striking resemblance to the spinners on a slot machine.  And when the clown gets stuck in the balloons, racking up points as in the clip above, it resembles a big payout, providing the gamer with that big burst of adrenaline that keeps them tied to the machine.

Despite it's success in the late '70s, Circus and its many clones are by now a footnote in gaming history.  As such, my purpose in this review is less to call out a particular game than to put a spotlight on how old the relationship between the video game and the gambling industries really is.  With the growing debate about loot boxes and how they might be priming kids for gambling, I think it's always worth asking yourself why you're playing.


  1. I've never played the arcade version. It didn't have a button to allow you to flip your see-saw like the Atari 2600 version?

    1. Not that I can see. I read in some sources that there locations that were impossible to get to in the arcade version, so the example shown in the video is probably one of those. I think Circus is one of those rare cases where I prefer the 2600 version.


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