After nearly 40 years away from the games industry, Van Mai, the pioneering woman who wrote on Atari 2600’s Wabbit and helped create the first console game to star a human girl, has been found.
As reported by the Video Game History Foundation, Polygon began searching for this developer that went by the name “Ban Tran” – a Vietnamese woman who worked at Apollo to develop Wabbit before the company declared bankruptcy in 1982.
Tran would leave the company and work on an unreleased Solar Fox conversion for the Atari 5200 at MicroGraphic Image, but then she seemingly disappeared from the industry. There were many who attempted to find her, but she was not found until recently thanks to the help of collaborators at the Video Game History Foundation.
A Discord member named SoH, who is part of a channel dedicated to finding Ban Tran in the Video Game History Foundation’s Discord, suggested that someone should contact the National Archives in Texas to try to find the bankruptcy records for Apollo.
This proved to be the golden ticket as Tran was one of several Apollo employees who went through the court to get their final royalty checks for the games they worked on. Once this information was obtained, the Video Game History Foundation was able to reach out to her and she agreed to talk to the company about her story.
Tran, who now goes by her married name, Van Mai, was born in Vietnam and entered the US as a refugee following the Vietnam war. She lived in Dallas with her family and would drop out of high school due to the language barrier. While she would eventually get a GED, before that she started taking programming classes.
After working for the Dallas Independent School District, Mai applied to a help wanted ad at Apollo and got the job, in part, by pitching a game in her interview. Despite Mai not being the type of “nerd” Apollo was used to hiring, she quickly made an impression.
“It was an extremely-intense concept and made Night Trap look like a bedtime story for kids, but it was 20 years ahead of its time and way too intense for the VCS,” Mai’s one-time co-worker Dan Oliver remembered. “She was explaining it like it was a picnic at the beach, so pretty quickly the stereotype started to fall.”
Mai herself doesn’t fully remember what the game was, but she does remember pitching a game for little girls that would eventually become Wabbit – a game starring a girl named Billie Sue who has to keep rabbits away from her vegetables.
“I don’t think my teammates or my boss said anything about [the theme],” Mai said. “Everything was up to me, I designed it – all the animation and all that. They seemed to like it a lot.”
Wabbit was developed in about 4-6 months, but Mai doesn’t recall if the game was successful or not. She does know, however, that her mom was proud of her and that one of her nieces tried to buy a copy at a local mall but it was sold out.
As previously mentioned, Mai would leave Apollo after it filed for bankruptcy and would work at Micrographic for a while before leaving to earn a degree in computer science. She would work as an Oracle developer for a French telecommunications company before settling in in the banking industry, a field she still works in today.
Over the years, Mai had thought of returning to games, but understands it would be tough to jump back in. Despite that, she has fond memories of her time in the industry.
“It was wonderful,” Mai said. “Writing games is the most — I don’t know, I can never find a job like that. You just go in there and play games for a while to get ideas, and then sit around and talk to your teammates, just giving each other opinions. It was fun.”
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