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Tapper (1983)      

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Bally Midway
Arcade (3D view)

Audio cassette

This title also appeared in U.S. Gold's compilations 'Arcade Hall of Fame' and 'The Gold Collection'.
Commodore 64

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Your Reviews

Unknown (Edge)   25th Nov 2010 06:24
The Making of Tapper
Format: Arcade
Release: 1983
Publisher: Bally Midway
Developer: In-house

Not all gamers are teenagers. Nor do they always hang out in arcades. Such was the thinking of Bally Midway, which in the early ’80s decided to sidestep its competition by building games for the untapped market of less competitive ‘street’ locations – any site that wasn’t an arcade, such as a pizza joint or a bar.

Tommy Nieman was Bally Midway’s crown prince of licensing. He loved doing it, and had brokered many deals for the company’s line of pinball machines (his most successful was with the rock band Kiss for Kiss Pinball). With Bally Midway setting its sights on developing a videogame for the bar scene, he thought who better to go after than Budweiser, the ‘King of Beers’? Nieman landed the contract and the pump was primed for success. Bally Midway had a competition-free arena and the king of all licensing deals. Now the only thing left to do was to create a fun game.

In the early ’80s, Marvin Glass and Associates, a toy development think-tank, began pitching videogame ideas to Bally Midway. At the time, the manufacturer didn’t have the full-blown videogame development capabilities to simply accept ideas – it needed finished games. Most of Bally Midway’s energies were being spent re-releasing games imported from Japan. If Marvin Glass wanted to get into the videogame business, the company would have to develop the games itself. With a ‘let’s give it a go’ attitude, the toy developer looked within the family for technical talent. Two of the firm’s partners called their sons, Steve Meyer and Scott Morrison, to begin a videogame development division of the company. The two collaborated as programmer and artist, respectively. Four years in the videogame business, the company ended up creating six games for Bally Midway. Tapper, the company’s third game, was developed for a very specific audience: beer monsters.

Knowing only that the game would appear in a bar, the idea for Tapper began with a simple suggestion from Meyer: “How about a bar game where you’re sliding beers back and forth?” At first, he had no idea what it would look like. Thinking of images he had seen in countless westerns, he said to Morrison: “It would be fun if we had a guy that was actually filling beers and throwing them. Why don’t we start there? Go make a bartender and make a beer mug and a bar and let’s see what happens.”

And this was essentially the basis of Meyer and Morrison’s working relationship – the two sat next to each other collaborating on ideas. When they hit upon an idea they liked, Morrison would draw it, Meyer would program the gameplay and together they prayed it would be fun. “My belief about developing videogames back then was that you started with a couple of elements that were fun on the screen and you grew it from there,” says Meyer.

Over time, all the elements did fall into place. First, the bar patrons inched their way down the bar, towards the bartender, demanding service. Once served, the force of the sliding beer knocked a patron back a notch. This appeasement only lasted for a moment, and demands on the bartender’s time increased. A finished drink produced both an empty glass, that was pushed back towards the bartender, but also an irate drunk demanding more beer. The player had to catch these returned glasses while still serving beers. An empty glass that reached the end of the bar would break, and a drunk who reached the end of the bar became fed up and would slide the bartender back down the bar, smashing all the empty glasses in his path. Both situations resulted in the loss of a life.

After all these elements were in place, Morrison and Meyer knew they had something fun, but it still wasn’t challenging. It wasn’t a game. Tapper only had one bar – it needed another one. By adding that second bar, the ‘something fun’ turned into a ‘game’. “You’ve got a bartender having to decide which bar to be at,” says Meyer. When one patron is drinking, do you have time to jump down to the other bar to pick up glasses and serve the other patrons? Over time, those two bars grew into four and Tapper’s gameplay was complete. The next step was to add colour.
A lover of cartoons, Morrison created expressive characters with personality and definition. He used a live model, co-worker Mike Ferris, as Tapper’s bartender. Morrison describes Ferris as a big jolly guy with a giant moustache who always wore a red T-shirt. If playing Tapper brings a sense of videogame déjà vu, it’s probably because you’ve also played Domino Man, where the Ferris bartender character made his initial appearance.

To help Morrison create the characters he needed, programmer Elaine Hodgson improved upon the art tool available. “[It] was an Atari joystick mounted on top of a Gorf handle with a series of phone buttons on top of the handle,” explains Morrison. He used the joystick brush to create the background and characters for Tapper’s four themed bars – western, sports, punk and alien. He left a little bit of himself in the punk bar, by introducing a patron with a safety pin through his head. Safety pins have always been of interest to Morrison, but he wears one on his belt today, rather than in his head.

One of the biggest challenges with Tapper was to work around the restrictions of the NCR sprite manipulation format. This system had limits on how many could be moved on the screen simultaneously. “You had to be very clever about utilising your memory and your space to make it look like the screen was very active,” says Morrison. Two sprites were needed to create a full-body character; a half-body character obviously used just one. With Tapper’s first design, the bartender was behind the bar and the patrons were in front. This configuration required Morrison to animate lots and lots of legs. That was simply too many sprites. By moving the patrons behind the bar and the barman in front, the ratio of full bodies to half bodies was reversed, lowering the sprite count by some margin.

But Tapper’s difficulty curve wasn’t working because it was too linear. The game progressed until it reached a point where it became impossible to play. Bar tests at The Snuggery in Chicago showed players getting aggravated. Responding to frustrations, Meyer made the game easier… but only for a moment. “Once you were working, there would be a window that would all of a sudden get a little bit easier. And you would have to recognise when that window was,” he explains. “If you were able, while in that window, to work very hard and get all the customers out the door, then they wouldn’t come back in as quickly and you could win the game. However, if you weren’t able to take advantage of that window the game would begin getting progressively more difficult again.”

Sometimes good ideas turn bad when you actually hear them. Such was the case with the burps in Tapper. Wanting to take advantage of a brand-new digitising chip from Texas Instruments, Meyer and Morrison thought it would be a good idea to add a burp every time a character finished a drink. So, to create the source audio, a group from the Tapper team went into a conference room with a bunch of soft drinks, beers and microphones, and just started burping. Looking back on the misguided notion, Morrison says: “We put it in, and it was disgusting.” The game was so fast and the drinks were being finished so quickly that you heard constant belching. In the end, the duo didn’t bother installing the burps or the TI chip, although Morrison admits that passing by their office during that phase of development was a treat for all within earshot.

While manufacturers often shunned excessive cabinet design due to the high production costs involved, Bally Midway went all out for Tapper with brass-coloured foot rails and cup holders, and thanks to Nieman’s licensing deal, Budweiser got in-game graphics as well as a billboard on the beer tap’s handle controller. With 3,300 units of Tapper manufactured, the game’s success began to move from ‘the street’ and into arcades. This wasn’t the exposure Bally Midway wanted, as advertising alcohol to minors was, and still is, illegal. Sorry, Budweiser, Bally Midway needed a family-friendly version, and quick. In less than two weeks, Meyer and Morrison developed graphics for a new version: Root Beer Tapper.

Today, Morrison is the vice president of marketing for Incredible Technologies, producer of Golden Tee Golf, one of the most successful videogames found in pubs. He stopped programming games when the field went 3D, and admits: “The 3D stuff started to blow my mind.” Meyer went on to create more videogames, and then left to start his own toy development company, Meyer Glass. He misses the days of two-man collaboration: “You can have a vision for a game and, like we did with Tapper, you can really begin with something that you think is fun and play with it.”

Today, major game releases require high-level engineering planning. As a result, the fun elements of collaboration get thrown on the back burner. This is a mistake, believes Meyer, who stands by the adage that “the breakthroughs in gaming come from that kind of development.”

“Once you were working, there would be a window that would all of a sudden get a little bit easier. And you would have to recognise when that window was. If you were able, while in that window, to work very hard and get all the customers out the door, then they wouldn’t come back in as quickly and you could win the game. However, if you weren’t able to take advantage of that window the game would begin getting progressively more difficult again.” Steve Meyer

jimfish (Unknown)   24th Mar 2013 07:57

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This title was first added on 6th November 2008
This title was most recently updated on 24th March 2013

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